Saturday, 11 October 2008

The National Gallery, London

When I set out to create this blog, creating a guide for the National Gallery in London was one of my main goals.  This museum is so utterly fantastic and I wanted to prove to myself that it was possible to conquer this museum, see a lot of it, and not lose your sanity in the process.

One of the things I love most about the NG is that it knows what it is.  It has the most fantastic collection of western art from 1250-1900, but it doesn't have much else.  This is a museum with a real sense of its own identity, and you can see an unparalleled collection of art here.  But it's not the British Museum or the Met in New York, so you don't have to chose between fine art and antiquities.  It's just the art here.  

The NG also breaks all of my museum rules, which I simultaneously love and hate.  For instance, I like to complain loudly and obnoxiously about poor labelling, stupid arrangements of pictures, having too many pictures in one room, having them hung too high on the wall or in a bad location with glare.  And mostly, I like to tell people to visit museums in whatever order they want and to say "screw you" to the guide that tells you to do things in a certain order.  So it took me a long time to admit that I actually think the NG has great labels, wonderfully arranged galleries, the perfect number of paintings in a room, and good lighting with minimal glare.  Oh, and also, I shamefully admit that here, it is best to do what they say and visit the galleries in chronological order.  Seriously. 

The NG has 4 main wings where paintings are grouped chronologically:  1250-1500, 1500-1600, 1600-1700, and 1700-1900.  On Wednesday, I "started" in 1250-1500, with great hopes of conquering the entire museum in 2-3 hours and leaving with a clear idea of how I would guide people through.  I failed miserably.  I could blame the huge number of school groups that were there on Wednesday, or the fact that some of my favorite paintings were not on display because they were in a special exhibit, or I could even blame the fact that my brain wasn't fully functional because I had finished my PhD rougly 72 hours beforehand.  But the truth is, I actually failed because the NG is too great to compress into 3 hours.  

I'm sorry to come to this realisation so early on in this venture.  After discussing this with some family and friends, we've all agreed that perhaps a "choose your own adventure" of sorts is the best bet for the NG.  Namely, I set you off in the right direction, and depending on what you are liking, you chose your route.  I am anticipating I will need several more trips to the NG, and several posts to sort this out.  So in the next series of posts, I'm going to try to pick "highlights" from each of the 4 wings.  Subsequently, I'm hoping to string these together into some sort of coherent guide.  If I fail, it's mostly because everytime I walk into the NG I get distracted and can't stay focused on one task.  Apologies in advance.

In the meantime, here are some fast facts for the National Gallery:
  • Closest tube station: Leicester Square (Picadilly Line).  The museum faces onto Trafalgar Square.
  • Entrance fee: FREE.  (In fact, most museums in London are free.  This is, quite possibly, the greatest thing about this city.)  
  • Collections:  Western European art from about 1250-1900. Mostly paintings, very little in the way of sculpture or decorative arts.  
  • Opening hours: Daily 10am-6pm.  Open late on Wednesdays.

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