Everyone knows London’s top galleries – the National Gallery, Tate Modern, Tate Britain. But there’s a world-class gallery hiding in the black-cab no-go zone, deep in South London – the Dulwich Picture Gallery.
The gallery came into existence completely by accident. Two London art dealers had been engaged to put together an art collection for king Stanislaus Augustus of Poland; but when he was forced to abdicate in 1795, they had the artwork left on their hands. Poland’s loss was London’s gain; having failed to sell the collection to a single buyer they decided that it should be kept on public display.
Dulwich doesn’t have the medieval and early renaissance collections of the National Gallery, nor the wealth of nineteenth and twentieth century art that Tate Britain and Tate Modern possess. What is does have is old masters’ works from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, from across Europe.
There’s a good collection of Flemish baroque work including Rubens’s Venus and Mars and a large collection of French work including paintings by Poussin and Claude. Italian painters such as Raphael, Veronese, Guido Reni, and the later work of Tiepolo and Canaletto are well-represented with still lifes, landscapes, and portraits. There are four Rembrandts, including one (the portrait of Jacob de Gheyn) which is said to be the world’s single most stolen artwork representing the Dutch painting of the time. The eighteenth century in Britain is well represented by Reynolds and Gainsborough, and Watteau’s delightful, delicate visions represent the later French school.
As in any gallery, I’ve got my favourite pieces of art, and some of them are not what you might expect. For instance, many people might pick Reynolds’ portrait of Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse as the best example of his work, but I don’t particularly like its rather air-brushed style and slight touch of posturing. Instead, I’d pick his self-portrait. Unlike Rembrandt, who enjoyed play-acting and dressing-up in his self-portraits, Reynolds here presents an arresting image of a painter taken by surprise – he’s wearing his specs, his mouth seems slightly open in a wry smile, he even seems to have a little five o’clock shadow.
It’s a startlingly intimate picture, but it also throws down a challenge – dare you meet his eyes? Do you dare to let him see you, perhaps paint you?
Here a few other favourites:
A Ruisdael Landscape with Windmills, which is a typical Dutch theme, but here transformed by the louring grey sky and the sense of a storm coming; it’s a drama of suspense, the light strange and white as it often is on stormy days, the windmills dark and threatening.
Watteau’s Le Plaisir du Bal shows the evening’s festivities in a vaulted summer-house. The architectural frame dominates the picture, but it’s the misty light, the shadow of the trees in the background, the gleam of silk and satin dresses, that really hold the stage; it’s a dream of delight, a world of flirtation and teasing in which the heat and glare of the bright afternoon sun has gone, but night never quite comes.
Rubens’s Romulus Setting up a Trophy is not his most recognized work, and most visitors will head directly for his Venus, Mars and Cupid or one of the other big mythological pictures. But I like this one – a dark and brooding piece, all black and red, with glittering dark armour and ruddy flesh; a vision of violence, a thin, narrow painting. It may not be great draughtsmanship but it’s got real character.
Gainsborough’s The Linley Sisters is a lovely double portrait. The sisters’ different characters are brought out in their poses, their faces, the different colours of their blue and yellowy-brown dresses; one daydreams distantly, one looks directly at us. They are, perhaps, an image of the active and the contemplative life – though both in fact had the same profession as singers on the London stage; and they are set not in a drawing room or against a classical background, but in front of a woody bank, their dresses echoing the colours of the landscape, daughters of nature rather than mistresses of art.
But the last work of art and perhaps the most unusual is the gallery itself – the first purpose-built art gallery in England.
It was designed by Sir John Soane in 1811, with a heavy, austere exterior – almost plain but for the single row of arches set in the walls, and the towers at the corners. His stroke of genius was to create skylights and glass domes to light all the rooms from the top, bathing each painting in evenly diffused light. Soane’s own house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields also included light but used for dramatic rather than practical effect; his house is a piece of theatre, but this is a calming, self-effacing background for the pictures.
If you’re planning to have easy access by car to Dulwich Art Gallery while staying in a pretty market town on your next trip to the UK, you may want to search for Guildford hotels and sample the area’s exciting culinary scene by visiting some of the best restaurants in Guildford.
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