There are many reasons why folks visit London. It is a world class city. But for me
London is primarily a city of Museums. Major institutions include the National Galleries, the Tate, the Wallace
Collection, the Museum of Natural History, and the British Museum, and then there is all the smaller
collections including more the Dulwich, Fritz, and others.
London's place as a touchstone for world culture grows from Britian's
central position as the chief colonial power in the world for nearly 300 years.
Its empire grew from The Renaissance and Elizabethan England, until the heroic defense
of Democracy in World War II. And then it released all of it's colonies under the new
internation order after the war.
Britian's cultural development in the arts really picked up when
the Dutch Monarchy, the House of Orange, settled into London
after decades of religious and civil chaos. Following Henry
VIII's break with the Catholic Church, through the 17th Century
the Protestants and Catholics presented a multifaceted political
power struggle for the political and religious heart and soul
of the nation. While this put the British on a distinct path,
different from the Catholic Monarchies on the continent, it
also lead to civil discontent and civil war. Strangely enough,
much of this conflict was largely settled with the friendly
conquest of the Dutch Monarchy which was solidly Protestant
and was invited to the country by protestant forces within the
countries political order. Chaffing under the limitations
of the Dutch Republicanism in the Netherlands, the House of
Orange found safe harbor on the shores of the British Isles.
And while the House of Orange defeated their Republican foes at
home, effectively taking control of the Netherland, at the time
perhaps the most powerful nation in Europe, the movement to the
British crown satisfied many people on both sides of the North
Sea. The takeover was the tempered experience and the expections
of future English Monachs worked within the experience of stife
that the house of Orange had learned from its experience of ruling
within the context of the Dutch Republican government. Over time,
this might have best served the new Monarchy and preserved it.``
By 1689, the Glorious Revolution was all but over and William and Mary were well
established as Monarchs. They brought with them from Amsterdam many advisors, soldiers
and artists, a broad swath of Dutch Culture. The merger of the two cultures
transformed much of English society and fattened its museums. London rivals Amsterdam as
a source for Dutch Art and the Dutch influence kicked off British creativity with the likes of
Richard Wilson, Richard Wright, Joshua Reynolds, George Stubbs, Thomas Gainsborough, and
J. M. W. Turner all were heavily influenced by Dutch Art.
Meanwhile, in the 18th Century, the British had begun to stack Dutch Art, not to mention many artifacts from antiquity.
British were acquiring items from whereever their colonial armies roamed over the protests of natives. In London one
can see in short time works from Leonardo to the Parthenon Freeze, to the fossils of Archaeopteryx, in just a few days.
It is my Belief that London houses the worlds greatest collections of painting. The Wallace alone is a world class gem.
Western Art from before the 16th Century is a major
strength of the National Gallery in London. High quality
works of this period is rare in North America, and there
is poor selection of artists such as Campin, van Eyck,
van der Weyden, Veneziano, Dirk Bouts, Bartolomé Bermejo,
Gentile Bellini, Sandro Botticelli, Hans Memling, Leonardo
da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, Raphael, Lucas Cranach the
Elder, Quinten Massys, Titan, Bronzino, Jan Brueghel
the Elder, and El Greco even at the Metropolitian in New York.
Works which I thought would have limited, aesthetic appeal, at least to me,
end up being quite impressive in person. Although I
had seen collections of works from this period before,
to me it blurs into an endless amount of Christian
iconography which holds no interest by me at all.
The works in London, however, stand on their own as art
pieces, and there are far less altarpieces than what I
had seen elsewhere.
While much of these works are tempera with lots of gold leaf, and often frescos. oil painting
was slowing developing through out this period. Some of the best known and earliest oil paintings
are in this gallery. In America, any work of art from the 16th century or before is surprisingly
old. In the National Gallery, they are common.
One of the draws that made me come to London was the large number of famous Dutch works I wanted to see.
In the end, the museum viewing exhausted me, and there were still places
I had wanted to see, which I couldn't get to. Of particular interest to me was to see the only example of a
Dutch Peep Show, a three dimension illusion painted in a box which was a Dutch specialty as the artists
showed off their expertise in the manipulation of perspective. They are amazingly modern inventions for the
1600's and very few survive. The London Gallery has one of the few intact examples, if not the only one, with
the work created by Samuel van Hoogstraten. I saw it. It was amazing. It is impossible to photograph. It
is fairly documented on the museum's website.
These peep shows first came to my attention when researching the surviving works of Carel Fabritius.
Carel is a painter from Delft who was killed young by a massive explosion that leveled the entire city.
Although accepted as an artist second only to Rembrandt (maybe), his most famous surviving work is in
the Mauritshuis, the Gold Finch..
It might be that only 13 words survive today, as most were destroyed in the explosion. Two are in the
Nation Gallery including a self portrait, which was frustratingly not on display, and a work called
"A View of Delft" which seems to have been intended for a peep show.
In addition to that, the museum has perhaps the best collection of Rembrandt's in the world,
depending on your individual tastes. It is a near textbook of great works of Rembrandt, with more
than a could of Vemeer's, and other masters. This collection would be enough to form a quality
museum, and yet it is a small part of the Nation gallery.
To understand the greatness of Vincent, understand that the National Gallery has nearly every great artists
in history from DaVinci to Picasso, and yet the busiest exhibit remains the few works by Vincent. This was
the only room in the museum that had crowd control.
The Wallace Collection
The Wallace Collection was on the top of my list of Museums to see prior to
going to London. I'd known that a dozen or more works of art from the Wallace
had been listed in my studies on the Dutch Golden Age. What happened to me when
I got there, however, was somewhat unexpected.
First of all, finding the Wallace Collection and Manchester Square was not easy, even
with a map. First of all, finding the Wallace Collection and Manchester Square was
not easy, even with a map. I was standing with a map on Oxford Street,
three blocks from Manchester Square and the museum, and when I asked
local folks where Manchester Square was, nobody heard of it. And when
I asked where the Wallace Collection was, they thought they may have
heard of it, but wasn't sure were it was. That was positively
discouraging and I learned that in London, locals aren't that helpful.
I finally found a barbershop and asked them where Manchester Street or
Manchester Square was. They looked it up on their cellphones and were
delighted to discover that Manchester Square was right behind them, go
to the end of the block and make a left.
Once I found the townhouse that houses the museum, I found that it wasn't open. It is tucked into a square with a
private park, not much different than Gramacy Park in Chelsea,
Manhattan. The park wasn't open but I was able to take a few pictures
of the square, including some interesting tree bark and vegetation.
Once they opened and I finally stepped in, and was somewhat perplexed. I
had known that the Wallace Collection has one of the greatest
collections of Dutch Masterpieces in the world. But they see
themselves as more of a Decorative Arts Museum. In fact, there blurb
on their website says:
The Wallace Collection is a national museum which displays the wonderful works of art collected in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, the son of the 4th Marquess. It was bequeathed to the British nation by Sir Richard's widow, Lady Wallace, in 1897.
Say what? What are they talking about? They probably have the third
largest collection of Dutch Golden Age Art, which is the single largest
burst of art production by a single cultural period. For 70 years the
Dutch were crazy about art, and the rest of Europe was amazed that even
the baker and the fish monger likely had great works of art hanging in
their homes and work places. The Dutch were touched by God. And they think
this collection as being a backdrop to there Rocco and Armour
collections. They are totally lost, and so was I went I entered. I
finally went upstairs to see the masters, and to my dismay, mostly they
have these paintings stacked 3 or 4 high, in straight lines across the
walls. You can see visible dust on much of the works of art. They
were too high to dust, let alone view. But when I got done with my
tour of the museum, I was extremely pleased at seeing so many great
works that I had read about, and then I was surprised to see what is
likely the greatest painting in created.
The artists on display is a who's who of Dutch Art society from the
1600's. They have 6 verifiable Rembrandt's, and maybe more. They
also has some of the finest works of Hals, Jan Steen (five paintings),
Willem van de Velde the Younger (eight paintings), Aelbert Cuyp (Six
paintings), Caspar Netscher (five paintings), Gabriel Metsu (five
paintings), Gerard ter Borch, Ferdinand Bol, Anthony van Dyck (five
paintings),Jan Davidsz. de Heem, Meindert Hobbema (at least two paintings),
Melchior d'Hondecoeter (three paintings), Pieter de Hooch (two
paintings), Karel du Jardin, Jacob Jordaens, Nicolas Maes (three
paintings), Aert van der Neer (three painting), Adriaen van Ostade,
Isack van Ostade, Nicolas Poussin, Jacob van Ruisdael (five paintings),
David Teniers the Younger (two paintings), Adriaen van de Velde, Jan
Weenix, among others. The more you know about Dutch art, the more you
come to love this Museum.
When you go upstairs, you eventually get to this hall, you hit the jackpot.
After walking through some of the museum, this room took me by surprise and the
painting to the immediate right left me mesmerized for more than 2 hours.
We have all seen images of the Laughing Cavalier, so we smugly feel familiar
with it. You might think, hey it's a nice painting, even a fun painting, but
what would make this work the greatest painting ever? Why put it above the
Militia Company of District II under the Command of Captain Frans Banninck
Cocq, or above the Mona Lisa, or rank it higher than Vemeer's Allegory of History
or give it greater praise than Michelangelo's the Sistine Chapel? What puts
this painting ahead of the pack is that is has a sublime mixture of photographic
realism (centuries before the camera), with a hidden surrealism in the
brush strokes, and the formation of the image. No painting has ever been done
quite like this, although it has been attempted. Within this painting exists
the essence of abstract expressionism, such that, when you examine this
painting closely, it is hard to understand that the painting forms a coherent
image when you stand back. If realistic painting is itself an illusion of
three dimensional space on a two dimensional plane, this painting is the
ultimate illusion, because if one looks at the rhythm and structure of the
brush strokes, that brush work seemingly have nothing to do with the use of
color and shape needed to mold a complete image. And yet, there it is.
This is more than an optical illusion.
This is a master craftsman, Franz Hals, who understands the relationship of
every near microscopic brush stoke to a complete image, and who can therefor
play with those brush strokes to produce an work of art within a work of Art.