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Published: October 20th 2022
In my late teens and early 20s, I began visiting the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, London. I had long admired the paintings of the old masters and, between 1973 and '74, after graduating from Leeds University, and while living again with my parents in Reading, I travelled to London frequently, always making a point of popping into the National Gallery. 1973-74 was when I studied art with a vengeance, constantly borrowing art books from the Reading Central Library. It was interesting to discover a great painting in a book and then see it on display in the National Gallery.
The National Gallery became, as Prince Charles put it in 1984, “a much loved and elegant friend
”. I was following in the footsteps of my literary hero, Thomas Hardy, who, as a 21-year-old architectural assistant in London, had the time and inclination to educate himself about great art. A significant aspect of his self-education was studying paintings in the National Gallery.
A day out for me in London always included time spent in the National Gallery. I knew what I liked so made straight for my favourite rooms and paintings. Invariably, I ended up in the shop, where I
would buy postcards and large-size prints.
On the wall of our dining-room in Reading were framed prints of Turner’s ‘The Fighting Temeraire
’, ‘The Rokeby Venus
’ by Velazquez (which scandalized the nuns who used to visit us) and Leonardo’s ‘The Virgin of the Rocks
’. Stuck to my bedroom wall were Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers
’, Andrea del Sarto’s ‘Portrait of a Young Man
’, a Rembrandt self-portrait, Titian’s ‘Bacchus and Ariadne
’ and ‘Man With a Blue Sleeve
’ and Salvator Rosa’s ‘Philosophy
If I had to choose a favourite room in the National, it might be the one housing Titian’s ‘Bacchus and Ariadne
’ and ‘The Vendramin Family
’. However, there is such a wealth of great art there that I am not sure. If I had to choose a favourite painting, it might be ‘The Virgin of the Rocks
’ but, again, I am unsure.
I much prefer the National to the Tate, because I am an old fuddy-duddy when it comes to paintings. Give me the old masters! Give me the French impressionists! You can keep all the new-fangled stuff, especially those abstract paintings by Mondrian and Jackson Pollock. And as for Damien Hirst and Tracy Emin – yuck!
I've been to
several European art galleries – the Rijksmuseum and Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the Prado in Madrid, the Louvre in Paris, the Uffizi in Florence, the Brera in Milan. All of them contain incredible art works, but the National is my favourite. For sheer quality and variety of paintings, it is unsurpassed. And then there is the way the paintings are displayed – beautifully positioned and labelled with plenty of breathing space in between. One abiding memory of the Uffizi is the way the paintings were crammed together like sardines in a tin, minimizing the impact of individual canvases.
In 1973, the Conservative government of Edward Heath abolished free entrance to museums and art galleries. This meant I could no longer browse the collection in my local Reading Museum without paying money. As a hard-up student, the 10p charge was prohibitive. Like many people, I voted with my feet by refusing to pay the entrance fee. The Reading Museum was a small loss, though, compared to the London National Gallery.
On March 30th
1974 the entrance fees were abolished, and The Times reported: "Museums rejoice as charges end
." There were balloons flying at flagstaffs and huge signs of
’ outside the Tate, the National Gallery and so on. The total number of visitors to museums and galleries during January and February 1974 had dwindled to 570,855 and 616,710 respectively, whereas the figures for January and February 1973, when admission was free, were 1,036,897 and 1,101,037. Since 1974, admission to the National Gallery has been free. I believe free admission to museums and art galleries is enlightened and should be universal.
Living in Vietnam, how I miss buying a day return train ticket from Reading to Paddington, then taking the tube to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery. How I miss sitting comfortably in Room 10, admiring Titian’s masterpiece ‘The Vendramin Family
’. I can access all the world’s great paintings on the internet, but there is no substitute for the real thing.
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