Visit an art gallery – The National Gallery

On pages 46-48 of the course notes there is a task to visit a gallery. The results of the visit will supply the material needed for the first assignment (on how the human figure is represented in portraits, self portraits, nudes and religious paintings) but additionally there was a course task to write up about the visit in the learning log, the building, the gallery space, the handouts etc.

National Gallery Main entrance with reflection of Nelsons Column in the Glass
National Gallery Main entrance with reflection of Nelsons Column in the Glass

I chose to visit the National Gallery because, well, when you think about religious pantings, portraits, self portraits and nudes in one place this is the place that springs to mind. Not only that, they have an excellent website which will allow me to re-examine the pantings by zooming right into them in case I missed anything on my visit or to aid my research. Additionally they have a very tolerant policy on taking photographs so its nice and easy to snap a photo of the caption rather than having to hand write everything down carefully in a notebook to record that useful information during the visit.

National Gallery (Outside)
National Gallery (Outside)

I’m not sure why but every time I visit Trafalgar square it seems to be raining so the photos of the outside of the gallery are quite dreary. The National Gallery dominates one full side of the square. On the day I visited there seemed to be some sort of winter fun run being organised. Actually, I think that the run had already finished, otherwise the place would have been more packed with people. It did mean though that I couldn’t get far enough back into the square to get a full picture of the front of the gallery (because there was a giant tent in the way). I think I got most of it in though.

View from National Gallery, what a mess.
View from National Gallery, what a mess.

The gallery opened in 1838 after a national collection of 38 paintings were displayed elsewhere and the size of the exhibition space was ‘ridiculed in the press’ when compared to other countries national galleries (the Louvre for example). There’s a history section on their website all about it.

National Gallery (Outside)
National Gallery (Outside)

They originally tried to reuse some of the columns of the previous building inside, the kings mews. The history section doesn’t cover the architects choice of design with huge and impressive greek-looking columns in front but it does say that the site was chosen because its location could be reached easily by both rich and poor people alike. I’m pretty sure I’m going to learn all about greek architecture and its appropriation in part two of the course.

Tops of National Gallery Columns (Outside)
Tops of National Gallery Columns (Outside)
National Gallery (Outside, above the doorway)
National Gallery (Outside, above the doorway)

There are some impressive little details about the building that you don’t normally notice. The various statues and reliefs in the upper parts of the walls and the various mosaics that hundreds of tourists walk over daily, both inside and out.

Relief detail inside National Gallery main entrance
Relief detail inside National Gallery main entrance
National Gallery inside main entrance, (slightly blurry) phone panorama
National Gallery inside main entrance, (slightly blurry) phone panorama

The gallery is committed to free entry (and always has been), so theres not a lot in terms of free handouts and printed materials. They do provide a whats on guide but thats it. In many places throughout the galleries  there was donate boxes to keep the gallery afloat. You could hire an audio guide, for only £4 which looks like it might be really interesting if you have a couple of hours to kill there when not on a particular mission.

The floor plan provided at the gallery was £1 to buy but I just used the free floor plan on the website on my phone. The paintings that I went to see were all on level 2 (the main level).

Level 2 floor plan

The layout is quite easy but not all the galleries had the room number on them so although they are all nicely interconnected it wasn’t always immediately obvious which room you were in.

“Look at the galleries themselves. How do they complement the experience of seeing the works? Are there too many or too few works in each room? Is the lighting good? Can you get close enough to the works of art to study them properly? Can you sit down? Can you easily get back to revisit earlier parts of the gallery or exhibition or do you feel propelled along from beginning to end? ” (Course Notes p47)

National Gallery room 32
National Gallery room 32
National Gallery Titian Caption with painting light sensor
National Gallery Titan Caption with painting light sensor

Inside the individual gallery rooms the light is mostly natural, coming through the huge windows in the ceilings however this is supplemented sometimes by electric lights. Some paintings have light censors on the captions so the light levels can be monitored and adjusted to protect the delicate pictures. See the sensor at the bottom of this Titan caption (see right). Some of the rooms were very dimly lit while I was there, for example while I was in room 5 (to see the painting ‘An Old Woman (‘The Ugly Duchess’)’ by Quinten Massys) a darker cloud must have passed over and it was very gloomy but none of the electric lights came on. I did notice that this painting did not have a sensor though. The captions themselves are quite detailed but slightly different from the information on the corresponding webpage for example see the Titian page here.

Some areas of the gallery are so beautiful, with high domes and gilded columns.

National Gallery room 36 (view from room 40)
National Gallery room 36 (view from room 40)

The ceilings are very high, probably because some of the paintings are absolutely massive. This one of Charles I you can see two or three galleries away.

National Gallery - Equestrian Portrait of Charles I by Anthony van Dyck from two rooms away.
National Gallery – Equestrian Portrait of Charles I by Anthony van Dyck from two rooms away.
National Gallery - 'Equestrian Portrait of Charles I', Anthony van Dyck, about 1637-8
National Gallery – ‘Equestrian Portrait of Charles I’, Anthony van Dyck, about 1637-8

The gallery is huge and full of so many great paintings that its tricky to just stick to the ones you went to see. I ended up walking around most of it (mainly because the paintings I wanted to see where in such disparate rooms).

National Gallery Room 6
National Gallery Room 6

To answer a few of the other questions, yes, you can stand quite close to the paintings, there is a little rope section on the floor but you could still reach out and touch (not that you would), but a child probably could not. And yes, you can sit down in most of the galleries but not always in front of the painting you want to study. Most of the galleries had bench seats (see above in room 6) but I did spy a few of the old comfy sofas still in some of the bigger rooms. A couple of the people I saw who were sketching the works brought little folding chairs (I think supplied by the gallery somehow), which I thought was a little selfish actually because I felt guilty about getting into their way but I really wanted to stand in front of the painting to see it. I ended up not staying as long as I would have at those paintings. I compared my little phone drawn version to the original and was off.

National Gallery - 'Self Portrait at the Age of 34', Rembrandt, 1640
National Gallery – ‘Self Portrait at the Age of 34’, Rembrandt, 1640

This post is already getting quite long so I’ll split out the reflection on the actual paintings that I went to see into other posts.

Another of the tasks was to reflect on how my chosen gallery reflects the notion of a western canon. This is on my todo list to come back and edit.

References (retrospective list):

National Gallery. (2016a) Rembrandt, Self Portrait at the Age of 34 At: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/rembrandt-self-portrait-at-the-age-of-34
(Accessed on 16 January 16)

National Gallery. (2016b) About the building At: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/history/about-the-building/
(Accessed on 1 February 16)

National Gallery. (2016c) Titian – The Tribute Money At: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/titian-the-tribute-money
(Accessed on 10 February 16)

 

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