During a brief two-week interlude between pandemic lockdowns in 2021, Dan and I donned our best comfy shoes and ventured out to soak up a bit of quintessential City of London. The day was less than desirable- typically windy and cloudy, and Trafalgar Square (despite its monumental magnificence) left us feeling rather cold. There was scarcely a person to be seen, and the achromatic landscape seemed to disappear seamlessly into the ominous grey sky above. Rather than linger amongst the immense bronze lions, marveling at their formidable beauty, we made haste for the nearest pub, where we enjoyed a cosy lunch by the warmth of an old brick Victorian fireplace – the only reasonable choice for true Londoners.
This year, in late March, we enjoyed glorious spring weather here in London. The warmth of the sun on our vitamin D deprived faces invigorated us with renewed energy and vitality. Fool’s Spring, they called it, a mischievous false start. A cruel joke enacted by Mother Nature to remind us not to be so hasty when dismissing winter prematurely. Because what follows a False Spring is a throwback to mid-winter when the temperatures plummet below zero and a pair of rather unflattering woollen tights are once again regaled as undergarments. Foolhardy optimistic people begin to fold away their winter coats only to begrudgingly drag them out again. My inherent need to be constantly surrounded by nature had been squashed, for now. Fortunately, there are many locations to visit in London which provide a cosy respite from the inclement weather outside.
With a plethora of major galleries and lesser known, yet equally inspiring art venues, London is a cornucopia of culture and international art, and fortunately, there are a myriad of excellent activities to be enjoyed indoors. So much so that it can often be difficult to choose where to visit first. With their imposing elegance and artistic heritage, the larger, more prominent museums and galleries in the city are sites of architectural legacy. Who amongst us cannot be overawed by the façade of The Museum of Natural History, which was designed and built solely for the accumulation and exhibition of the specimens displayed within, creating a continuous homage to nature and science?
The National Gallery, another purpose-built construction, is situated in the monumental space of Trafalgar Square and houses an extraordinary collection of all the major traditions of Western European painting. From the artists of late medieval and Renaissance Italy, to the French Impressionists. It is indeed an impressively dramatic sight as you approach the neo-classical portico. Four imposing bronze lions preside majestically over two elegant fountains, and a wide vertiginous staircase draws the eye upward toward the columned entrance to the Gallery where it holds commanding position over the square below.
Despite our doubts, the sun managed an encore to the preceding week’s sold-out performance and shone a magnificent light over the entire space. By comparison, our previous winter’s visit here seemed eerie in its solitary atmosphere. The hordes of visiting crowds were now beginning to return, and it was obvious that this public square was designed to accommodate people, and without them the space seemed rather lifeless and dull. Bathing in the warm glow of the reflected sunlight reminded me of one of my favourite paintings inside the Gallery. Vincent van Gogh’s famous sun-drenched golden sunflowers, one of the galleries most prized artworks beckons me onwards. His deft hand generously saturated his canvas in the golden warmth of the French countryside, just as the early morning sunshine casts a life affirming light upon the square.
As with every substantial visit to a museum or gallery we begin with a bite to eat. We need a moment to reflect on our itinerary and how we plan to navigate the exhibits in order to prioritise and avoid disappointment. We found the resident café known as Muriel’s Kitchen and shared a delicious, crunchy pecan tart.
If, like us, you are drawn to the vivacity and modernism of Impressionism, I suggest beginning your exploration with what Dan referred to as the light section. Our plan of attack was immediately thwarted the second we left the café. Imposing, ostentatious gilt frames adorning extensive renaissance oil paintings depicting naturalistic scenes in dramatic chiaroscuro loomed over us from damask wallpapered walls, luring us into a state of mesmeric stupor. From then on it was a matter of simply following the hypnotic swirls of colour from one room to the next. Public interiors in England can be a little stuffy and overly warm, especially in colder weather, and the oppressive atmosphere was obscuring my sense of direction. As much as I admire the complexity and detail of the Renaissance, I needed to head towards the light.
In the heart of the gallery, leading the viewer away from the shadows of early renaissance and medieval art, rest two huge paintings by Joseph Mallord William Turner, one of England’s greatest artists of the 18th Century. Turner’s expressive colourisations depicting turbulent, almost violent marine landscapes were unmatched in their range and sublimity. Balancing between the chiaroscuro style of extreme light and dark, and the impressionist favour of light and colour, Turner’s ‘Dido building Carthage’ and ‘Sun Rising through Vapour’ become the gateway into the Impressionist rooms where sun drenched colour and bold, decisive brushstrokes transform the moodiness of the previous rooms into a light filled treasure trove.
Almost suddenly my weariness is lifted, and I feel reenergised. Then Cezanne’s meticulously arranged brushwork in ‘Hillside in Provence’ catapults me into the saturated terraced landscape of southern France, while Gauguin’s striking complimentary shades of electric blue and golden amber in ‘Vase of Flowers’ deceives the senses evoking an almost realistically intoxicating perfume. These dazzling paintings of the Impressionists transport me to familiar places of sundrenched lands and warm summer breezes; so much so that I am content to complete my visit for now on a high note. Another visit for another day!
Laden with centuries of artistic masterpieces the National Gallery is a destination that reiterates the truth behind the saying ‘Save the best until last’, whichever that may be for you.