Our First Expedition

Published: 13 August 2020
Room 32 has been refurbished. And no more peering round the back of people’s heads.

More than anything, in lockdown we’ve missed travel. We don’t have a car and we’re wary of public transport. So, for five months we’d not been south of the Euston Road except on Sunday mornings to visit the farmers’ market. Then, last week, for a medical appointment, we walked down through Hyde Park and across the Cromwell Road. Eight miles, round trip, with vistas of imposing villas in Kensington streets I’d never seen before. Today, we took the 139 bus into central London on our first cultural excursion since lockdown, to the Titian exhibition at the National Gallery. There were only a handful of people on the bus, all wearing masks. Oxford Street was almost empty, like a Saturday afternoon in the ’60s when the shops closed at noon. So was Regent Street. Likewise, Trafalgar Square.

It was like taking a private tour. We had an appointment. There were more minders than visitors; everyone wore masks. The lifts weren’t working, but the staff were keen to guide us about, upstairs and down, winding our way through the galleries and corridors of this vast, almost empty, treasure house.

“One of my most enjoyable visits to any art gallery anywhere”

It was a delight to view the paintings without the crowds. No squinting round backs of heads. Plenty of room, plenty of time, plenty of tempting leather sofas to plump down on to rest the legs. Room 32 has been refurbished in the original decorative scheme of its architect. The dark red wall cloth, ornate painted frieze and lunettes, whose designs alternate winged lions with dolphins, have all been reinstated according to the original colour scheme.

Nearby, displayed in one room for the first time ever were half a dozen huge Titians, the soft porn ‘poesies’ illustrating classical themes which he or his workshop created for Phillip II of Spain (plus an afterthought he never took delivery of). One was on loan from the Prado, another normally resides in Boston, while the rest are usually displayed in London galleries. So the original paintings, as well as reproductions, are familiar. They are impressive in scale and detail, but sometimes clumsy, too.

Diana and Acteon illustrates the hunter’s inadvertent glimpse of the naked goddess. That solecism inspired feminine vengeance the ‘me-too’ movement can only dream of: he was transformed into a stag and eaten by his own hounds. (You can see that episode on the next wall.) The last time I saw this painting was in 2009, when it was on view as part of a public appeal to raise £50 million to save it for the nation. I was struck by the depiction of Diana’s head, cowering on the right of the picture. It’s absurdly small, carelessly photo-shopped at an odd angle atop that titanic torso. I thought, personally, it was not worth saving for the nation. Must try harder, Titian. So I kept my fiver in my pocket. Why is it that fine art critics never mention such obvious misdemeanours?

Afterwards. we were able to roam almost at will. Without the intervening throngs, old favourites leapt into view in every room. But I was plagued by the same question. Because, without viewers’ backs blocking the view, one had the leisure now to notice what one had missed before.

Have a good look at the sumptuous portrayal of Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus. The discomfitingly unbearded Christ thrusts a hand into our vision, and so does the chap on the right. Masterful foreshortening. But note the chap’s right hand, stretching five feet back into the scene. It is the same size as his forward hand. And as large as Christ’s forward hand, which must be well in front of it. Not a peep about that from the art experts.

This is my recollection of Manet’s historic painting of The Execution of Maximilian, though I thought I remembered it set against a blue sky. So I was astonished to see that this monumental painting displayed at the National Gallery is actually in bits.

It seems that at the time of Manet’s death in 1883 it had already been damaged in poor storage conditions. His heirs divided the remaining the remaining canvas into four fragments.

Sold separately, theywere reunited by Edgar Degas and acquired by the National Gallery in the posthumous Degas sale in 1918.

Another discovery was Rosa Bonheur and The Horse Fair from 1855. The powerful images of bucking steeds and their handlers pull you right into this turbulent scene. You hear the trampling hooves, taste the rising dust, hear the neighs of protest and rough cries of the grooms and smell the horseflesh.

Bonheur was a famous 19th Century French painter of animals, previously totally unknown to me.

I’m a great admirer of Cézanne, particularly his edible pears and apples, and I’m familiar with his many views of Mont Sainte-Victoire. But Forest Path (Fontainebleau?) was a complete surprise. The alluring autumnal colours invite you to tramp into this welcoming wood, but you’ve got to see the original, the reproduction can’t do justice to the subtle warm hues along the leaf-strewn path.

A 1903 London exhibition proclaimed Joaquín Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923) as the world’s greatest living painter. Ever heard of him? He was a highly fashionable Spanish artist of international repute, but soon after his death his memory submerged under the wave of the non-representational avant-garde. Until this time last year, when the National Gallery hosted a superb exhibition of this neglected artist.

He was truly one of the giants of his epoch. This typical 1910 painting, The Drunkard, is a recent acquisition.

This was one of my most enjoyable visits to any art gallery anywhere. We felt highly privileged, long may the crowds somehow be kept outside the doors. When we stepped outside into the surreal steaming heat of a Bangkok summer in Trafalgar Square, we were confronted by this grotesquerie:

What we’ve missed by not visiting central London! Installed two weeks ago, it‘s the 13th commission to grace the fourth plinth of Trafalgar Square since that whimsical habit commenced in 1998. It represents a giant swirl of whipped cream topped by a cherry and a drone that transmits a live feed of CCTV to a digital device near you.

The artist who conceived it calls it The End, and surely this should be the end of this indulgent series of nonsensical conceits occupying this prominent vacancy in the heart of London. To be replaced by . . . what? A statue of BoJo eyeing Diana, anyone?

Next week we’re going to risk a train journey to deepest Dorset.