Wednesday, 29 February 2012

In which I immerse myself in art; or, a visit to my imaginary friend

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Today, I went to the National Gallery, to look at the women.

I love the National Gallery with a fierce love. I love the building. I love the swanky marble entrance hall. I love the parquet floors and the jokey guards (they joke with each other, not one) and the gangs of schoolchildren. There were at least four gaggles this morning, and they were having a ball.

There was one group which particularly took my interest. I was making a rather laborious set of notes about a schoolmistress by Chardin, which happened to be right next to that vulgar, blowsy portrait of Madame de Pompadour by Drouais, when they all came and sat down beside me, so I was able to observe them for a while.

They were a very eager, mixed group, all colours and creeds, I should guess; perhaps about seven or eight years old. Their excellent and serious guide was asking them all kinds of questions about what they saw when they looked up at the Drouais. She did not tell them who the picture depicted.

‘What can you tell about this lady, just from looking at her?’ she asked.

Many hands shot excitedly up.

‘She is a posh lady, because of her smart clothes,’ said one.

‘Yes,’ said the guide, pleased and loud, so the whole group could hear. ‘She was a posh lady.’

Hmm, I thought, sceptically. Not quite as posh as she would have liked. Those naughty French aristos at court were very sniffy about her, with her brand spanking new marquisate, given to her by the king.

More suggestions were now flooding in. ‘She likes reading,’ called out one child.

‘She knows how to play music,’ cried another.

‘She is very fashionable,’ said another, in rather awed tones.

I thought that was fascinating, because the dress in the picture is a horror; busy with patterns, guyed up with lace. It had nothing to do with modern fashion at all. Yet, somehow, the child had drawn the absolutely correct conclusion that it would have been the last word in smart ladies’ outfitting in the 18th century.

I had work to do, and so I could not linger any longer. I did not have time to stay and see their reaction when the guide told them that she was the famous mistress of a French king. I wondered how she would explain to a bunch of small children what a mistress was, or even how she would phrase it. The King’s special friend?

What was interesting though, and in some ways rather enchanting, was that they were all so enthralled by this dead, white Frenchwoman. The children were almost all what is rather horribly described as from minority backgrounds; their parents were probably first or second generation immigrants. Their grandparents or great-grandparents would possibly have lived in Pakistan, or India, or Africa, or the West Indies. Yet there they were, in the marbled hallows of the British National Gallery, looking up at a French court favourite, their eyes wide with wonder and interest.

Perhaps I am romanticising this too much, (and assuming and extrapolating) but I liked the idea of the ease of the cultural cross-over. Maybe it is because there is something in very young children that does not court difference; they see humans as humans, and find the aspects of common fascination. It is only later that barriers get erected, and everyone must be divided into groups, and otherness becomes a thing.

Whatever it is, I loved watching those small, upturned faces, learning, observing, longing to answer the question.

It was interesting too to go to that gallery for a discrete, working purpose. Normally, when I am in the south, I run in there, every trip, and look at my three favourite pictures. I almost always do not have enough time (there is never enough time). So I go always to my most beloved Titian, the portrait of the unknown young man, painted in 1515, as fresh and vivid and filled with clarity as if it were painted yesterday.

Then I run to the other end of the building and have a quick look at Van Gogh’s Cornfield with Cypresses. I am not keen on the much more famous sunflowers, which sit two pictures along. They are too blatant and yellow for me. I like the gentler, bluer Van Goghs.

Then, then, for my final big treat, I walk a couple of rooms along and find the mighty Stubbs portrait of Whistlejacket. I am ashamed to say I don’t know much about this picture, or this horse. I have no context. I just love it because it is so marvellously vast, running from floor to ceiling, and that it is so boldly about the horse.

There is no background, no jockey, no stud groom, no charming turf or architecturally pleasing buildings on the horizon. It is all equine, unabashed.

The horse is in his pomp, half rearing, looking boldly out from the frame. Even though he is clearly a horse that was bred and trained for domestic purposes, as far as racing can ever be described as domestic, there is a wonderful flight of wildness in his gaze and in his physicality, as if he is harking back to his ancestral past, when his predecessors were untamed things that ran across some nameless plain.

I took a quick look at all those pictures today, but I was there for my book, and so it was to the ladies I went. I looked at the nymphs, the goddesses, the society wives, the calm mothers, the saints, the tired Toulouse-Lautrec women of the street, the muscular Degas acrobats, the elegant Gainsborough aristocrats, the widowed queens, the serving girls, the calm, contained Dutch matrons.

I concentrated, I thought, I took notes. After three hours, I suddenly knew I could not look at one more thing of beauty. I get aesthetic overload quite quickly. I once went round the whole Uffizi in forty-five minutes. I was twenty years old, but even so. I do wonder if there is something about the brain: there is only so much high beauty it can take in. Or perhaps that is just my odd brain.

There was one last thing I had to do. It has become my absolute pilgrimage, every time I am back in the dirty old town that is London. I took the side way out, down the staircase, through the café (rather elegant, and filled with happy, genteel women having lunch), and out into the Charing Cross Road. Another sharp left, and I was in the National Portrait Gallery, my favourite of all the favourites.

I wheeled past the shifting, swelling crowds desperately trying to get in to see the Lucien Freud exhibition, tripped up the shallow flights of stone staircases to the second floor, ran through the Carolean gallery, where poor old doomed Charles I looked slightly finished, on his great big horse, and into the very last room at the back.

I sometimes wonder if anyone ever goes there. It is the farthest point of the gallery, leading nowhere; you have to know where you are going and why you want to go there. It is the 19th century political room, filled with dark-suited men who did things like pass the First Reform Act. It is a shivering, turquoise green, with a vaulted silver ceiling. I think a silver ceiling is the last word in chic, but that really is just me.

There, on the south wall, is the fellow I have come to see. He is my favourite man in London. I love him so much I cannot count the ways.

‘Hello, Lord Brougham,’ I say, in my head. ‘You are a handsome devil.’

He is nothing to do with my work, or my life, or anything at all. I could justify all this by telling you of all the important historical things he did, of his high ideals, of his extraordinary parliamentary work. I could also tell you of the artistic merit of his tremendous portrait. All this would be true. But sometimes I am wholly superficial. I come to gaze on him because he is absurdly beautiful.

He stares down from his green wall, a half smile on his 19th century face. I think, as I always do, how deliciously well dressed he is, how elegant is his hair, how fine his features. I think, without any sense of dissonant oddity, that he looks rather pleased to see me.

I sometimes do wonder why I tell you all this. Horses, dogs, hills, American politics, psephology in general, the human condition, Lord Brougham: here are all my nutty little obsessions laid bare. I hope you think, as I do: each to each is what we teach. Otherwise, I am really in trouble.


No photographs of the day today. I did actually take my camera with me on the train, so I could give you a lovely vista of Trafalgar Square, but it turns out I forgot the memory card, so that was no good. I am going to do something I rarely do, and give you other people's pictures. Here is some of the beauty on which my tired eyes rested today:

Chardin's schoolmistress:

29th Feb Chardin schoolmistress

Degas, After the Bath:

29th Feb Degas after the bath

Van Gogh, Cornfield with Cypresses:

29th Feb Van Gogh cypresses

Stubbs, Whistlejacket:

Mrs Siddons, by Gainsborough:

29th February Gainsborough Mrs Siddons

My imaginary friend, Lord Brougham:

29th Feb Lord Brougham

It's quite shaming, having an imaginary friend, especially when you are forty-five. I never had one as a child. I think I rather looked down my nose on those people who did. Still, he's better than a seven foot pink rabbit.

And I know it is a bit of a crazy juxtaposition, but of course there must be the Pigeon, on whose beauty my eyes never tire of gazing:



  1. Ohh galleries - how I miss galleries. This is one issue of living in a provincial town. In fact there is a gallery here, which when inside does feel a bit like a London gallery, but it's not quite the same. I have always made my husband go to galleries whenever we are on a 'city break'; he has dutifully traipsed around galleries in Copenhagen, Boston, New York, San Francisco, Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, London, the list goes on and on. To me, a gallery is the epitome of city. It means importance. My Mum used to take me to London when I was little; to see the paintings and the underground, both of which I found fascinating. Still, even now, I consider seeing paintings as one of the most vital things to do in life. I am so pleased you feel the same. I have extrapolated that from what you've written! Lou x

    1. Lou - what a wonderful list. I love lists. And thank you for such a gorgeous comment. Hurrah for the extrapolation. You were spot on. :)

  2. He really is seeing you. Even from that small photo I can tell that. It might be a little undoing to stand in front of him in the flesh. What lovely hands he has. Swoon!

    1. Lucille - I am slightly beside myself with delight that you so see the point of my lovely old lord. :)

  3. I was thinking, as I read a post a bit ago, you can never go back. And I opened yours and am delighted to find we can always go back to what we love and value.

    1. Joanne - that is such a lovely, pithy, almost haiku-like comment. Thank you.

  4. I am interested by the idea of race not being a barrier until you're told it is one. I do think that children perceive "otherness" quite acutely: I think the difference may be that they do not judge it. I remember as a child not being quite sure about men who did not have beards, as my father had-- I found them worrisome and very "other" indeed. As a child I had several black friends (I am white)-- most American, and one Ethiopian-- and I remember the first time I was ever a racial minority in a room, at a birthday party when we were seven. The point being, I felt the otherness keenly, as they did mine, but we largely compared notes: how do you do that with your hair, etc. Later, as a teenager, I was the only white girl in a gym class. I remember one day when I sat on the bleachers with the other 3 girls, all black, and we had quite a frank discussion on race-- by that point the barriers had come way, way up, but we talked about it anyway, for some reason (my high school was known as "the slave ship"-- mostly white and Asian kids in the gifted program on the top floor, while the local kids, mostly black, got the burnt-out teachers and the insulting curriculum below us). This is, of course, America, where race is incredibly complicated. I do wonder though if the children in the gallery reacted to Mme. Pompadour as they did because they have grown up in a culture that tends to offer whiteness as "normal"-- so they do not read her as other, necessarily? It is a fascinating question.

  5. Ellie - you always leave such fascinating comments. Thank you. I wish it were not so late and I were not so tired, so I could give a more thoughtful reply. I think you are probably right, in your ending; those children are growing up in a majority white culture, although London is much more mixed than other parts of Britain. What was fascinating to me about that little group is that they were all clearly descended from very different ethnic groups, and I suppose I thought that La Pompadour, being clearly old, dead, French, pale, and, as they said, posh, might have seemed very remote to them, and yet, clearly, was not, in their interested eyes. But then, out on the streets, even in various London, the Anglo-Saxon colouring probably is the most commonly seen, even now.

    1. I think you are quite right about her clothes being far, far from what we're used to and yet clearly "posh" to them-- why should that be? Culturally, I was thinking more of the media that they probably see daily, rather than the people on the street-- covers of magazines, TV shows, movies, even to some extent music videos. Quite apart from whatever culture their parents may consume at home, which may not be British at all. But this does not answer the clothing and hair and age question, as you say. I wonder if it is that the marker of "posh" is simply lavishness, and humans, being social and hierarchical creatures, have an eye for picking out what is lavish-- which of course has the effect of making the very highest echelons of society go for a simplicity that only those who truly know can pick out: I have read so many books, from so many cultures and times, that mark out the nouveau riche and the not-quite-one-of-us through their overstated dress (even Naipaul mentions re: India that he can tell the expensive saris because they are the plainest: it's the aspirational classes that go for decoration). At this point I do not even know what I'm trying to say, other than Isn't it interesting that people can sense "posh" from a divide of centuries and cultures, I wonder what the markers of poshness are... which is exactly what you said. I have no excuse for time of day; simply muddled thought. Forgive me for taking up so much blog-comment real estate!

  6. Oh! I wish you had gone yesterday, my 5 year old went to both galleries with her class,, how I would have loved to read your description of the twelve of them in their navy uniforms with their little hats!
    She came back and told me 'you can tell if people were rich, because they wore lots of jewellery.!'
    And I'd shown her a postcard of Whistlejacket, telling her it is my favourite painting, but she didn't see it. So that's a trip for summer half term, as she loves the little pony she rides in Richmond Park with a passion, I know she'll adore Whistlejacket.

  7. I discovered, even at a relatively young age, that my "capacity" for art galleries and museums was quite limited. I very quickly get sensory overload and then can't process (or enjoy) anything. And so I go to specific exhibitions (still reeling, in the best possible sense, from the Gerhard Richter retrospective at the Tate Modern last November; would LOVE to see the Hockney and Freud currently on -- on different days, of course!) and then, depending on gallery/ museum, pay a quick visit to a special artist or favorite art work (anywhere I can see anything by Michelangelo, for example).
    I particularly like retrospectives because I like to try and figure out what the artist was thinking, why s/he went in this direction or that...
    I feel really lucky living in Belgium. It means I can easily go north to Amsterdam and the Van Gogh Museum or south to Paris and the Musee d'Orsay (Impressionists). Brussels, Antwerp & Gent get some pretty interesting exhibits too.

  8. Your imaginary friend is definitely a lot better than a seven foot pink rabbit!
    I don't think the overload applies only to beauty or beautiful art, but is equally applicable to art of any kind. Or maybe not even art - just sensory overload. I know that when I visit a city I have not been to before, (or even one I have) I find the experience exhausting, because I am constantly looking about me, taking in new images of buildings, rivers, shops, cafes, restaurants etc.(Paris is in my head here) and of course the people! I think going to large art exhibitions has the same effect - taking in and processing so many images takes its toll on the brain. I know when I go the annual Arts Festival in Fife, there are about 100 venues to visit, each with lots of different artwork to be admired (or otherwise). The first time I went, I tried to see as many as possible over two days. Result was I hardly remembered anything I had seen. Last year I was more selective, enjoyed it a lot more and ... still don't really remember much of what I saw! Perhaps, as for many other things, looking at art should be done "in moderation".

  9. Your nutty obsessions make good reading.

    Absolutely love the Portrait Gallery. Perhaps the most true connection to history comes in the faces of the people who lived it.

    Beautifully written---the children are so touching in their simple interest and enjoyment. What a lovely way to spend a day.


  10. I love that story from the gallery - I used to do project with children from similar backgrounds and of similar ages and I just think that children are brilliantly insightful at that age. Such a great story - thank you for sharing it.

  11. Tania,
    A massive thank you for the introduction to Lord B. I work near the NPG and took a very short lunch break on a hideous day last week to go and see him. Weak knees weren't in it... Let's just say it turned my day around! I can't quite believe I hadn't seen him before as I love the NPG, but he is now fixed as one of my talismans against Bad Days.

    Also, unrelated, but I loved your posts on being an introvert and on the excessive talk of dogs. Both made complete sense to me emotionally as well as logically, despite being a (quietish) extrovert and a cat lover. I hope that I'll now be a bit more understanding of my introvert friends, rather than feeling hurt when they seem to disappear. Thank you from them as well as me.


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