My wife is a person of few words; very few words. She rarely asks for anything and whenever she does, it becomes a commandment for the family. On a Saturday morning, during our usual morning walks she asked me “Ram, how many days did we spend in London last time, on the way to Geneva?” . I said four. “Was it adequate to see a bit of The U.K.?” I knew something was coming. She told me to plan for a longish vacation for the island and thus, started the gambit of planning for the visit.
The Air India flight to London, reached half an hour in advance on the morning of August 4. My friends, Amrik and Bachiter Bans received us at the Heathrow Airport and on a bright Thursday morning, we were at their home in twenty minutes.
We visited Christchurch, Bournemouth and Isle of Wight sea fronts, the Oxford University and Eaton College, Glasgow and Edinburgh in Scotland, about which I will write in the ensuing posts, but first please allow me to write about the place which touched me the most – The National Gallery in London.
The National Gallery
The National Gallery is an Art Museum, located in Trafalgar Square in the City of Westminster, in Central London. It was founded in 1824 during the reign of King George IV. The museum was originally set up in the house of a Russian Banker and upon his demise; the authorities acquired his house and his art collection. There were 34 paintings which formed the core of the collection in the new museum. The collection grew over the period to massive 2300 paintings which are now housed in a grand neo-classical building in Trafalgar Square. The building had several renovations and extensions, like the East Wing which was added in 1876 and the Sainsbury Wing which was adjoined in the 80s. At this museum, the country’s collection of 13th to 20th century Western European paintings can be seen.
At this Gallery, the collection is arranged roughly in chronological order. It starts with oldest works by the renowned artists like Giotto and Jan Van Eyck, and the masterpieces by Michelangelo and Titian represent the Renaissance artists. The collection also includes works by Rubens, Caravaggio, Van Gough, Da Vinci, Monet, Botticelli, Rafael, etc.
From the title of the Gallery, it would appear that it exhibits mainly works by British Artists. But to the surprise of some of the visitors from abroad, The National Gallery houses the collections of Western European paintings of schools, from the 13th century to the early 20th century.
The Gallery is broadly divided into four sections, corresponding to the chronological display of the paintings on the main floor of the Gallery:
“Paintings 1250– 1500” in the Sainsbury Wing,
“Paintings 1500-1600” in the West Wing,
“Paintings 1600-1700” in the North Wing and
“Paintings 1700-1900” in the East Wing.
Each section gives in brief the major artists, the main types of paintings, their original functions and locations, their subject and style.
The Sainsbury Wing
The Sainsbury wing was opened in July 1991 and was designed to house the earliest paintings in the National Gallery. Most of the paintings in wing are devotional. These are either Christian altarpieces or altarpiece fragments from the churches and chapels. Some of the paintings are images intended to serve as the hub of pious meditation or prayer. Of the non-religious pictures are portraits. It wouldn’t be out of place to mention that all Western European rulers recognized the spiritual authority of the Roman Catholic Church for which the greatest number of important works of architecture, painting and sculpture were created. So, a large number of the paintings in the Gallery bear the impression of the devotional side of the art.
As mentioned above, there are around 2300 paintings in the gallery. So, it is practical only to elucidate on few of the paintings from each section.
This painting by Dieric Bouts, one of the leading artists of Netherlands of his time, was probably done in 1450s. The Entombment is one of the most moving works in the Sainsbury wing. This painting depicts lowering of body of Jesus into the tomb. The figures in the painting are carefully arranged their expressions of grief shown vividly. While the male figures look directly at the body of Christ, the women’s eyes seem to be downcast. Mary holds on to the arm of Christ, in a gesture of tender leave-taking.
This is a great Venetian Altarpiece from the first decade of the sixteenth century by Cima, a painter from Conegliano, a small town close to Venice. The altarpiece was commissioned in 1497 and depicts the most significant moment in the life of Thomas. It is believed that on the day of the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples gathered in a closed room. Thomas was not with them at that time and didn’t believe in the miracle without any substantial evidence of his appearance. Eight days later Jesus appeared again. He showed Thomas the print of nails in his hands and asked him to touch the wound in his side. The most striking feature of the painting is that the artist has focused our attention by making Jesus taller than others. Carefully see the use of brilliant color contrasts.
This painting by Gerard David, Dutch painter was done probably in 1510 and is located in Room 5 of the Gallery. In this painting Mary is enthroned in a walled garden, a probable metaphor for her virginity. On the right Saint Barbara is shown reading a book. To the left Saint Catherine receives a ring from the infant Christ. Saint Mary Magdalene holding the pot of ointment can be seen on the right.
There are two paintings of this great masterpiece by Leaonardo Da Vinci (my favorite artist from the renaissance period. The legendary genius was trained in Florence as an Artist/ engineer), one of which exhibited in The Louvre was done probably in 1483. The other was done in probably 1508 and was acquired by The London Gallery in 1880. This painting shows Madonna and Child Jesus with the infant John the Baptist and an angel. The painting depicts a rocky setting which gives the painting this name.
The West Wing
The Adoration, one of the most sumptuous paintings was done probably between 1510-1515. In this painting, the kings of the earth with their retinues, awestruck shepherds and the angels are shown to adore the child sitting on his mother’s lap. In the centre of the painting, the Madonna and the child are shown sitting in the ruins of a building, receiving offering from the kneeling king. Another king stands to the left with his gift and three attendants. Few shepherds and a cow watch from the behind.
This is one of the earliest works of Rafael dated 1503. The Virgin and St. John the Evangelist stand on the either side of the cross. St. Jerome and Mary Magdalene kneeling before it are depicted. On a closure, the Angels are shown catching the blood in chalices. The letters INRI (INRI stems from “lesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum” meaning ‘Jesus of Nezareth, King of the Jews) are shown prominently in the painting.
This painting by the ‘divine; Raphael, the Italian High Renaissance was painted while he was in Florence. It was done probably in 1505 for the Ansedei family The painting shows the Virgin Mary sitting on a wooden throne, with child Christ in her lap and Saint John the Baptist on the left and Saint Nicholas of Bari to the right. On a careful observation, one can see that the throne has no arms and the steps are little too steep. This was assumingly done to reflect the humble approach to the throne.
This huge canvas was done by Paolo Veronese in or around about 1575. As explained in the above picture, “following the defeat of the Persian emperor Darius by Alexander, Darius’s mother appealed to their conqueror for mercy. However, she mistook Alexander for his friend Hephaestion. Alexander in his red armour, graciously turned this mistake into a compliment for Hephaestion, as ‘another Alexander’ and an assurance that he would the Darius’s family”
I purposely quoted this from the accompanying picture to the painting, just to apprise the readers that each and every artifact in the Gallery carries an explanatory plate for ease of understanding the painting.
However, coming back to this great work of art, the episode principally illustrates the magnanimity of Alexander. Veronese used bright red color for Alexander courteously pointing at his dearest friend and general, Hephaestion and reassuring the Queen Mother of the safety of the family. Also look at the mixture of contemporary dresses and fancy costumes in the background of palace.
Feel like having coffee and snacks? No problem. There is a large cafeteria in the Gallery itself with excellent seating, where you can compile your notes, sipping your coffee. Alternatively, there are over a dozen of restaurants, bars and cafeteria (including McDonalds and Pizza Hut) around the Gallery, where you can satiate your thirst or have a decent lunch. Since there is no entry fee to the Gallery, going out is not a bad option. Just for your information, The Gallery is open every day of the year except December 24-26 from 10.00 in the morning till 18.00 and to 21.00 on Thursdays and Fridays. The opening times for the Restaurant, café, Archive and Library can found on line. There is a richly stocked shop too, where you can find Art Books, mementos and order prints of some of the paintings.
The North Wing paintings 1600-1700
This painting by Juan de Valdes Leal was done probably in 1661 and was acquired by the Gallery in 1889. According to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception it is believed that Mary was conceived without sin. In this artifact, “She is shown standing on the moon and surrounded by cherubs who bear her emblems’, including olive, palm, rose, iris, a mirror and lilies.
This painting by the Italian painter from Tuscany, Orazio Gentileschi was commissioned in early 1630s. According to the Old Testament story, Pharaoh ordered the execution of all the Israelite boys. To save the life of infant Moses, his mother placed the child in a basket by the River Nile. The child was found by Pharaoh’s daughter and her attendants. The painting describes the moment of discovery by Pharaoh’s daughter, the central figure pointing to the child. The two attendants gesture towards the spot where Moses was found. Moses’s sister, shown in the green watching from nearby, suggests that her mother standing on the far left, might nurse him.
The East Wing paintings 1700-1900
This painting by Tiepolo was done probably in 1754. This was probably carried out as a decoration for a ceiling in a palace of Contarini, one of the oldest families in Venice. This artifact illustrates the consignment by Venus ‘of her new born son, probably Aenaes to Time, who is represented by wings, an hourglass and a scythe. Above Venus’s chariot, Three graces scatter flowers on to figures below’. Below, winged Cupid hovers with his quiver full of arrows.
The painting with a similar title seems to have been done by many artists including Da Vinci. The painting shown here was created by Francesco Francia in about 1447-1517. The details are shown in the adjoining picture.
This painting was made by Canaletto in about 1754 during his visit to England between 1746-1756. I had passed through this private boarding school for boys in Eton, Berkshire, near Windsor on the way to Slough. The college now is a vast structure with play grounds, auditorium, etc. I couldn’t take pictures as was nearing dusk and there was hardly any camera friendly light. However, this is how the college looks now.
This attractive painting was made by Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun in 1782 and was acquired in 1897. This work seems to have been inspired by Ruben’s ‘Chapeau de Paille’, which Vigee Le Brun had seen in Antwerp. It is located in Room 33.
This painting by Canaletto (1697-1768) was done probably in 1740. It seemed to be popular with the visitors.
This painting by an unknown Neapolitan artist was done probably in 1630s depicts The Virgin holding the Christ while the shepherds pay homage. The painting was acquired by the Gallery in 1853.
Another painting which attracted attention was:
This painting was created in about 1519. It depicts Christ raising his right hand in gesture of blessing.In this emotionally touching artifact, Christ’s frontal pose and direct gaze seem to encourage a personal engagement from the viewer. Christ blesses us with two fingers of his right hand. Carefully see the shadow of the raised hand falling on his chest. Christ is also shown with a crystal Orb which is surmounted by a cross. This work work by Previtali, perhaps was done later than his other version of ‘Christ Blessing’, which also forms a part of the collection in the gallery.
There is so much more to be said and shown about the Gallery, which I will endeavor to do in one of my ensuing posts, though I must admit that I am not a Christian and have a very little knowledge of the European History and there could be a few mismatches, which I pray may please be ignored.
Thank you for being with me on this memorable visit to The Gallery.