Tuesday, 14 October 2008

In The Vicinity Of Trafalgar Square

I went up to London today to meet a friend for lunch. I set out early as I intended to visit the British Museum before meeting my friend, but as is so often the case with intentions, I had a sudden change of mind and decided to visit the National Portrait Gallery instead.

I love history, and I love to see the faces of people who played a part in the making of this country. There are kings and queens, dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, barons, baronets and knights. Some wielded great power and were good; for some it would require an extremely charitable view to allow them to be described as good, yet they still played their part. Richard III, the last Plantagenet king hangs alongside his deposer, Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty. There are three portraits of Henry's granddaughter, Elizabeth, the virgin queen and last of the Tudors, and a magnificent portrait of Charles I, which almost certainly shows him larger than life, for he was a short man.

There are politicians of every political hue, scientists who were so great that their fame was acclaimed even in their own time outside of this country. Doctors, surgeons, judges, magistrates, explorers, soldiers, artists, architects, actors, writers, musicians and sportsmen. All are represented on the walls of the gallery in paintings, sculptures, drawings, photographs, film, and in one case, by their DNA.

After viewing the great and the good, I walked to Trafalgar Square. I needed some fresh air and a moment or two to rest my feet. The sky was laden with low cloud, low enough for the aircraft on the flight path to Heathrow to disappear at times before reappearing somewhere further up the Mall. Trafalgar Square was busy, but not crowded. Visitors to London were keen to photograph the fountains, Nelson atop his column, and the iconic red double-decker buses. And to the north of the square, in front of the National Gallery, workmen were busy building the staging ready for Thursday's celebrations for Team GB's Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

I had a little more time to spare before meeting my friend, and it was quite chill outside, so I walked to the National Gallery and sought out the Sackler Room. In this room are paintings by some of Britain's greatest painters of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Joseph Wright of Derby's magnificently atmospheric painting of an experiment involving a bird in a vacuum jar hangs alongside one of Thomas Gainsborough's superb portraits.

But my particular favourites are by two other great British artists. John Constable, the master of painting the British landscape is well represented in the room including his Hay Wain, but my favourite is his view of Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows with its towering storm clouds and rainbow over the cathedral. The other artist is Joseph Mallord William Turner, whose Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway 1844, and the Fighting Temeraire tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up, 1838, are amongst the most magnificent paintings of their time and are a real contrast in style to his earlier works and those of his contemporaries. To say that I can contemplate these paintings for hours is no understatement, and yet I understand little about the technicalities of the paintings, I just know that they strike a chord with me and are a joy to behold.

Having spent half an hour with my favourite paintings I went back out to a grey day in London and a rendezvous for lunch. I met my friend, we ate, we drank a glass of wine, and we talked of many things. Eventually it was time for us to go our separate ways. I enjoyed my day around Trafalgar Square.


Caroline said...

I am so JEALOUS! I haven't been to London for years and that sounds like a perfect day - must say though, I have lost many a day in the British Museum too - I love the countryside but sometimes I miss civilisation - glad you had a good day, wish I had been there but thanks for giving me the vicarious pleasure with those magical descriptions

cb said...

Gosh, that is so something that I do when I have some alone time. I used to spend days at the National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery and more recently have taken to the British Museum. So I can massively relate to you!
I have spent many hours standing in front of the Turners. I can't remember the name of the particular picture but it's in the same room as the Fighting Temeraire - and I think it's my favourite.
I just love the dreaminess of the painting and it looks so gentle but so frightening and grand at the same time.
I also am a bit of a history buff and for that reason I like the National Portrait. What I love most of all is that they are free and I can wander in and out at will. It saved me many times in the past when I had a lot less money and a lot more time and still has an enormous power to bring some kind of peace of mind that is difficult to replicate.

madsadgirl said...


I've now added links to some of the paintings that I refer to. I believe the Turner you may be referring to is Rain, Steam and Speed.