On arrival at the National Gallery in London, an incredible building in itself with its famous columns and steps, I was offered the opportunity to hire an audio guide for the duration of my visit. The audio guide, incidentally, is well worth getting. For just £3.50 (£2.50 for concessions) you are given commentary on most of the sights that the National Gallery has to offer. This was, for me, well worth the money since the admission is free in the first place. The guide came with a leaflet taking you through a 60-minute quick tour of the highlights of the gallery’s exhibits. This leaflet, however, I would ignore entirely.
Well perhaps ‘entirely’ is unfair. It certainly tells you where to find the works of the biggest names and the paintings which we have all seen in countless reproductions. If these famous ‘masterpieces’ are what interest you then the leaflet gives you a great route through the gallery.
The Caravaggio on display, The Supper at Emmaus, is as technically brilliant as all of his works, but as the daughter of a seasoned Caravaggio enthusiast I have seen his works exhibited all over the world, and I think it is safe to say that the National Gallery does not possess one of his greatest.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: 'The Supper at Emmaus'
It is of course amazing to see such iconic works as Van Gogh’s Sunflowers in their original form; they almost always surpass expectations. I am not personally a huge fan of Van Gogh in general and it certainly wasn’t his sunflowers which caught my gaze. Instead I was much more attracted to his still life of Two Crabs whose orange shells set against a brilliant blue-green background really appealed to me. It seemed to display much more technical skilled than his other works.
Vincent van Gogh: 'Two Crabs'
Of all the ‘big names’ on display though, it was Rousseau’s Surprised! which really blew me away. The famous tiger in the jungle is so much bigger than I have ever imagined and therefore much more impressive. The lashing rain and the tropical storm in the background are much more obvious in the original and really add an extra dimension to the painting.
Henri Rousseau: 'Surprised!'
For me though, part of the beauty of wandering around an art gallery is the waiting for something to catch your eye and to surprise you. It was the pictures I’ve never seen before, by artists I’ve never heard of which I found the most exciting. If you let yourself wander out of the main network of rooms and inter the smaller corners of the gallery you will find the small closet-like spaces in which hang just 4 or 5 paintings. Tucked away in these corners you’ll find some real treasures and the peace and quiet to really enjoy them.
Shown below are just a few of my personal highlights of the National Gallery and are in my opinion well worth a visit. Most of them also have an audio guide entry which will explain the painting and the artists in more detail than the paper plaques next to the pieces themselves.
Théo van Rysselberghe: 'Coastal Scene'
Francisco de Zurbarán: 'Saint Margaret of Antioch'
John Constable: 'Cenotaph to the Memory of Sir Joshua Reynolds'
Camille Pissarro: 'The Louvre under Snow'