I decided I should spend longer in the National Gallery on my visit to London this weekend. I make a point of going in whenever I am in the Trafalgar Square area, even though I always spend much longer in the National Portrait Gallery next door.
On most visits, though, I get no further than the main vestibule as here, on the wall over the stairs, is Frederic, Lord Leighton’s painting, ‘Cimabue’s Celebrated Madonna’. This is a work of art I would love to own. Unfortunately, Queen Victoria beat me to it. Apparently, she saw it at the Academy in 1855 and bought it. It is currently owned by the present Queen but on permanent loan to the gallery. It is quite easy to miss as you enter, as it is above and behind you when you climb the stairs. If you know it is there, though, you need go no further into the gallery to be impressed.
This is the painting I will make time for, even if I am rushing by and don’t plan to venture into the gallery itself. However, if there is time, I have two other paintings I head for as these, too, are in my hinterland. ‘Young Spartans Exercising’ by Degas and ‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey’ by Delaroche are both paintings to make you stop and reflect.
I am always impressed by the Delaroche painting but remember the effect it had on me as a schoolboy when I saw it for the first time. I should say, ‘when I saw it in real life’ as it was an image I knew well from history books. My school organised a trip to the Gallery and, as was the custom in the 70s, left us to explore. I did what I always did: wandered around; stopped occasionally but mostly just wandered. When I came across ‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey’ I was stunned. The image is very powerful, especially the expression on her half hidden face, but the size is something else. I was used to seeing it small (post card sized!). When you come across the real thing, it takes your breath away.
‘Young Spartans Exercising’ by Degas is intriguing because there is so much debate about what is going on; a debate fuelled by the artist’s reluctance to provide background information himself. The painting could show a courtship ritual. It could be a challenge to sporting competition. The young women on one side with the boys on the other with fully clothed women in between pose many questions. For me, I was curious about why the young men were completely exposed but the women not. I was also intrigued by the sense of pride shown by the boys in their pose. At their age, I would have died to be in that position. But then, I am British and it was the 70s. These days, it is of more interest to me for what it once meant.
The two paintings currently hang in the same room in the gallery.
The National Gallery is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?