London is a cultural melting pot. According to Greater London Authority the city has 857 galleries and 170 museums, 17,000 music performances and 250 festivals. Not to mention the world renowned Globe Theatre which first performed Shakespeare in 1599 and continues to do so to this very day. With such a variety of cultural activities any out of towner, like myself, can feel slightly daunted when it comes to the problematic decision of which museum to visit on a rainy Saturday afternoon.
I recently underwent such a dilemma, the Art Gallery or the History Museum? Or perhaps the V&A and the Natural History Museum? Also there is the Science Museum right next door so perhaps I should wander over there. The sheer density of Museum and Art Galleries in London’s CBD makes it a daunting task for anyone to narrow down their choice.
On one such rainy Saturday I arrived at the heart of all London activity, Trafalgar Square. Towering regally above is London’s National Art Gallery. It is a beautiful façade and what is more anyone can access the 2,300 paintings located inside. In a few short steps you can find yourself directly opposite Leonardo Di Vinci and his Madonna on the Rocks. Continuing on, you find Raphael and his Madonna of the Pinks. Perhaps post-impressionism is more your forte and you stumble across the pinnacle of Van Gough’s art, the Sunflowers, and dedicate your afternoon to study his somber and earthy tonal pallet. No longer are these monumental works of art a mere chapter in your Art History textbook, they are physically in front of you, and yes, what you are looking at is the canvas that the great Leonardo Da Vinci once took a broad brush stroke to as he embarked on his Madonna and Child…how incredible is that?
It will always amaze me when something is no longer just an episode in a history or art book but manifests itself physically in front of you, sometimes to the point where you can almost touch it. It is what makes these great structural beholders of art and history such a joy to visit. However, every great patron must be tackled one step at a time.
My decision to dedicate my afternoon to the National Art Gallery was suddenly stopped short. I was confronted by not one but four different doors, upon which would lead me to a myriad of other doors and corridors taking me to any of the 2,300 artworks housed in the gallery. Renaissance, Impressionists, and Baroque…what was a girl to choose? My inner conversation went as follows:
I want to find Da Vinci…. where is Da Vinci? Where is his Madonna on the Rocks? Finally! After four (heavy) doors and three corridors later I find it. I make myself comfortable on the conveniently located bench opposite the painting and study.
What a heavy, somber palette he uses. His infant John the Baptist is undoubtedly unique. Now where is his Burlington House Cartoon? Not in the same room…. but where is it?
After ten minutes and an attempt to ask someone (in which I fail miserably, there seems to be a shortage of staff on the late closing Friday night shift. I can’t say I blame them), I am yet to locate the piece. In haste, I decide to visit my most beloved impressionist, Claude Monet. His palette and domestic subjects have always bought a smile to my face, I find real joy in his simplicity. The Gallery houses a large collection of his and I dedicate a half hour to just sitting and watching.
Although initially overwhelmed by the sheer size of the gallery, I find real comfort in sectioning out an artistic movement and dedicating my time to that. Trying to hastily make your way around the gallery’s 2,300 pieces is frankly impossible. Nor is it worth googling the top 30 artworks and tackling those. You will only find yourself missing important pieces, and the gallery is sectioned in a certain way for the viewers to appreciate the historical artistic period as a whole.
My advice for any foreigner who is trying to tackle London’s myriad of museums, galleries, exhibitions is to certainly go, if not start with the pinnacle, the National Art Gallery, dedicate a small corner for one afternoon and every month come back and tackle another segment of the exhibition. Although I did enjoy Da Vinci (be honest, who could not!), I felt I had cheated all the other great artists as I hastily glided my way past them determined on my mission to find Claude Monet.
If you are someone, like me, who has made the ‘big move’ to London, whether that is for one, two or an indefinite amount of years you have the luxury of time to enjoy and savor every exhibition, gallery and museum. Don’t tackle 2,300 pieces in one go, dedicate an hour to the Impressionists and then leave……you can always find time to return and pick up where you left off.
Authors Note: Claude Monet’s charming Water Lilly Pond is a must see in the Impressionist gallery. It has the ability to cheer up even the gloomiest of moods