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One of My Sacred Sites: Britain’s National Gallery

January 9, 2011

On our first visit to London in 1974 Helena and I stuck our noses in the entrance on the grand portico…once. The corridors of religious canvasses and the routine impressionist masterpieces were overwhelming. It was too much and, shame-faced, we backed out. After all, where would you begin? Our first time in London was dominated by three things : the theatre, question time in the House of Commons and curry restaurants. We were young.

Now I think I’m on my way to memorizing every canvas . As with all art ( see the case I make for Hamlet below ) it’s familiarity that deepens the attachment of spectator to object. Yes, as with Shakespeare’s words and characters, with time they become old friends. “Let’s go and look at pictures,” Edmund Capon would declare and it was off to see the Giovanni Bellinis or Titians or Raphaels. There are half a dozen of the former in the early Renaissance rooms including the portrait of the Doge Lorenzo Loredan and, in the Wohl room ( or room nine ) the commissioned portrayal of the Vendramin family at devotions and a Titian trail that leads you on, in a dizzying display of Venetian virtuosity and blazing reds.

Room eight, high Renaissance and Mannerist, is one of my favorites with the two Michaelangelos, both unfinished, and the Bronzinos especially the defiantly pagan and erotic, Allegory with Venus and Cupid. One face in particular looks out at us, Andrea del Sarto’s Portrait of a Young Man, as if to say I’m dead but immortalized on this canvas…what about you ? It, too, is a favorite and a familiar.

But then you could linger in rooms devoted to the Renaissance and baroque for a very long time . You have two Leonards, Lucas Cranachs and – of course – with Renaissance painting arriving in England, the Holbeins, especially The Ambassadors, with its savage, half-hidden memento mori.

But apart from Bellini, I’ve skipped the early and Florentine Renaissance, back in the Salisbury wing where in one room devoted to the Netherlandish you come face to face with the husband and wife in van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage.

You could almost call this collection one of royal and religious patronage – I mean, the bulk of the gallery’s paintings. Inspect the magnificent Rubens and van Dycks and on your ( indispensable) audio guide listen to the story of how the former’s allegory, War and Peace, came to be painted or the story of the young nephews to Charles 1 captured for all time by the latter, making his name painting the luminaries at the Stuart court.

The cramped canal houses and their people,created by the of the Dutch school, are a relief from this flamboyant royal and religious propaganda and one of the gallery’s two Vermeers is set between two Pieter de Hoochs. The grey-white walls, the Delft tiles, the checkered floor and, above all, the light streaming from cobble-stoned street besides a canal…here is a secular, bourgeoisie universe that lives in the minds of all, thanks to these painters.

File:Whistlejacket by George Stubbs.jpg

George Stubb's Whistlejacket

There are some breath-taking perspectives from one gallery to another, like the long view to George Stubb’s 1762 Whistlejacket, a portrait of a leaping racehorse anchored in the long English gallery with its companions – Gainsborough, Turner, Constable and Reynolds. And you are panting as you enter the Impressionist rooms….

The tradition of Western painting is one of the several things that makes life very worthwhile.

Thank God for all these dead white males and the creative urge to catch fleeting existence with paint on canvas or wood and become famous and rich at the same time. It’s mad and glorious, often insincere and utterly commercial, and infinitely absorbing.

Art is one of the best things about the damned human species and the tradition is thrillingly captured in the loot that fills these revered corridors.

I will go a step further, and call the National Gallery a sacred site for Western culture.

  1. Martin McAvenna permalink
    January 9, 2011 7:19 am


    Am very much enjoying your European peregrinations, for the quality and joy of the writing and the thoughtlines expressed.

    From a pedant’s corner:

    Interested to observe the Dutch heritage of Van Gough, and wondering about Gauguin.

  2. January 11, 2011 6:52 pm

    Bronzino’s Allegory is the subject of my historical novel “Cupid and the Silent Goddess”, which imagines how the painting might have been created in Florence in 1544-5.


    • Bob Carr permalink
      January 11, 2011 8:37 pm

      Can’t wait to read it. If it brings late Renaissance Florence alive it will answer lots of questions history books probably fail at.

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