If you’ve heard of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, it’s probably in the context of it being “the world’s first purpose-built public art gallery.” I mean, that’s their tagline when you google it and everything, and it pops up in a little “did you know?” header on their website. It was indeed designed and built as an art gallery, by the famous Sir John Soane (of the John Soane Museum. I haven’t blogged about it (yet), but it’s worth a visit) in the early 19th century, opening in 1817. And yes, the interior is very attractive, complete with a mausoleum, as you might expect from the delightful Soane. But this was still my first time visiting it, because I find it hard to justify spending £5 on a small art museum when the big ol’ National Gallery and the Tates are free (plus it’s not like I even go to those very often. I’m just not that arty). And Dulwich can be kind of a pain to get to (though I’ve discovered it’s not that bad from where I live if I manage to time it right; the trains are pretty quick (if you live in South London), but they only come every half an hour). However, I mentioned some weeks ago that we joined the National Art Fund this year, and the only time I’d yet managed to take advantage of the card was at the Jewish Museum, so why not start putting it to more use? Hence the Dulwich Picture Gallery, to which Art Fund members get free access to the permanent exhibits, though we still have to pay for the temporary ones.
The temporary exhibit at the time of my visit was on Nikolai Astrup, apparently some Norwegian artist, but I had no idea who he was, so I wasn’t real motivated to pay £7 to see his stuff, though the painting on the exhibition poster did look pretty cool. I reckoned just seeing the permanent collections would be enough on my first visit, especially as we were planning on heading to the Horniman that afternoon (post coming up next week). They did have a painting on loan from the National Gallery when we were there, which I’d never seen before, because, like I said, I barely ever go to the National Gallery. It was Van Dyck’s last self-portrait, and they also had a self-portrait by Mark Wallinger (who I’d never heard of) so you could compare the difference in style between an early modern master and a contemporary artist. I have to say, I much preferred Van Dyck’s effort; though there was a revolving painting of one of the Renaissance popes by Wallinger which was pretty cool, Wallinger’s self portrait was just a big sculpture of the letter “I,” which was way too modern-arty for my tastes. It almost felt like a Sesame Street joke or something.
The rest of the collection seemed to be heavy on Renaissance and early modern art, especially of an Italian and religious persuasion, which is not so much my cup of tea, though I did think it was kind of funny that one of the highlights of their collection is a painting of the Bucintoro and the whole “marriage of the sea” ceremony in Venice. (Warning: long, pointless Jessica-digression ahead.) When I was an undergrad, I took an Italian history class, and we had an essay question on one of our exams about the “marriage of the sea.” Well, I’ve always had a really short attention span where lectures are concerned, so basically if something wasn’t in the reading, I wouldn’t know it, because I instantly started daydreaming the second the professor opened their mouth. So I scrabbled together some answer about how the “marriage of the sea” was that famous painting by Botticelli with a woman emerging from a seashell. I may have gotten that question horribly, horribly wrong, but I will always now remember what the Birth of Venus, and the “marriage of the sea” are as a result, and I have to laugh at myself any time I see either of those things referenced.
There are meant to be about 600 pieces in the collection, though I have to say it didn’t feel like anywhere near that many, with the permanent galleries only consisting of about five small rooms, plus gift shop. Perhaps they rotate the paintings? I suppose there could have been 600; I didn’t actually count them or anything, it just seemed like fewer. Mainly, I was annoyed that a ticket to the permanent collections apparently didn’t contain access to the mausoleum. It was roped off from the main galleries, although I saw people in there because you had to cut through that way to get from one side of the temporary exhibit to the other. It didn’t seem fair that only people seeing the temporary exhibit got to look inside (although you could peek at the entrance if you stood right by the rope and risked dirty looks from the staff), and I think they should have mentioned that somewhere by the admissions desk (I’m sure I still wouldn’t have paid to see Astrup’s paintings, but it would have been nice to know so I wasn’t disappointed when I got inside).
Although the collection was fairly small, and most of the pieces were too religious for my tastes, there were a few paintings I really enjoyed. There were quite a few paintings of farm animals, including a delightful characterful ox that we didn’t manage to get a picture of as some guy was standing right in front of it. There was also the sort of memento mori thing pictured above, which I totally dug, and the young man on the right, who at first glance probably doesn’t seem like anything special, but there was a quote from George III included in the painting description, which cracked me right up. Someone showed it to him in an attempt to demonstrate the talent of Thomas Lawrence, but upon viewing it, he could only cry, “Ah! Ah! Why doesn’t the blockhead have his hair cut?!” Despite being American, I find it very hard to dislike George III, and this is one of the reasons why.
It didn’t take us very long to look around the museum at all, which made me glad it was free; although it was a very attractive gallery space, I think I definitely would have been ticked off if I’d spent a fiver, considering how very little I care about most art (that’s not painted by James Ensor, Van Gogh, or Henri Rousseau (the latter’s tiger at the Cleveland Museum of Art was always one of my favourites)). They also had some paintings of English kings and such hidden in the gift shop, which was weirdly actually in the middle of the museum, rather than by the entrance, so you can’t just pop in and buy something without buying a ticket (though the cafe and toilets are in a separate building, so I guess anyone can use those). I’d feel better about it if I’d had the chance to go inside the mausoleum, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed the Norwegian art exhibit enough to justify it, at least judging from what I could see of it when the door opened (I think they used the best painting for the posters). I appreciate the history of the building, and it’s a very nice space, but most of the art inside was just not for me, and even if it had been, there wasn’t enough content to quite justify the price of admission, had I not had a National Art Pass. 2.5/5.
Oh, and speaking of art, I recently went to look at that painting of a nude Donald Trump, and some guy from VICE interviewed me, which you can find here (probably NSFW, since we’re all discussing micropenises) if you would just please ignore the picture of me, which is the worst picture of me ever taken ever. I look like some kind of bumpkin, and they cut everything I said about being American (I guess to make room for more penis-talk). They interviewed my boyfriend too (his picture looks fine though)!