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:
Degas, After the Bath:
Van Gogh, Cornfield with Cypresses:
Mrs Siddons, by Gainsborough:
My imaginary friend, 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: