Anne Gardom visits the Dulwich Picture Gallery
The Dulwich Picture Gallery is one of London’s real treasures. It is rather off-the-beaten-track and not very easy to get to, so many people have never been there, but it’s certainly well worth the effort. It was London’s first public Picture Gallery and is housed in its original elegant single-storey building designed by the famous architect John Soane. It must be the only picture gallery with a mausoleum at its centre. Here the three benefactors of the gallery are interred, among the pictures they loved and collected.
The collection, which was originally intended as the basis of an unrealised national gallery for Poland, is not a large one when compared with other national and municipal collections, and this enables it to be hung in small intimate galleries with beautiful pieces of furniture on display and comfortable seats for the weary.
It is rich in Italian and French paintings, Dutch and Flemish works, and especially English portraits. There are two lovely paintings by the French artist Watteau, whose misty enigmatic scenes of court life show elegant women just turning away from the viewer, on the point of some dreamlike unrealised activity. Constable was enchanted and wrote of Plaisirs du Bal ‘it seems to have been painted in honey, so mellow, so tender, so soft, so delicious’. Under it stands a magnificent English bombé commode made about 1750 with elaborate marquetry of musical instruments and trophies. Equally happy arrangements of pictures and furniture may be seen in other parts of the galleries.
A number of paintings are very small. They used to be called ‘cabinet gems’, and were collected for private pleasure and enjoyment. There is a tiny painting attributed to Chardin, which shows a travelling entertainer, a young woman with a magic lantern on her back, carrying a barrel organ. It is full of human interest, typical of Chardin, who painted teachers, servants, children with great warmth and insight. At the other end of this gallery a splendid French commode, marble-topped and with elaborate geometric inlay, stands beneath two paintings by Canaletto. One is of Venice showing the Grand Canal full of boats, gondolas, flags and people, all glittering with little white highlights under a blue Italian sky. The other, painted during his time in England, of Old Walton Bridge, is quite different and rather more interesting, with the geometric wooden construction of the white-painted bridge dramatic against a stormy grey English sky.
The gallery is particularly rich in portraits, one of which is a delightful small painting of the five-year-old Princess Victoria, painted by Denning. She stands four-square and determined, wearing an immense black hat and a fur tippet crossed over her chest. This has always been one of the gallery’s most popular pictures.
Hogarth is represented by a fine portrait of a young man, and in the central gallery there is an interesting collection of portraits by Gainsborough of the talented and handsome Linley family. Thomas Linley, an outstanding musician and a friend of Mozart, who died tragically young, is painted elegant and eager in a brilliant red coat. The painting of William Linley, a long-haired and extremely beautiful young man was one of Gainsborough’s most admired portraits. The two Linley sisters, lovely in dresses of blue and bronze silk, seem to be about to give an impromptu concert in a woodland glade. Elizabeth, an acclaimed soprano in her day, eloped with Sheridan. Ghostly Mrs Moody floats through a pastoral landscape; she died young and her two children were painted in after her death, giving the picture a strange poignancy.
There are splendid portraits by Van Dyck. One of Philibert of Savoy shows him wearing a suit of magnificent damascened armour (which can be still seen in the Royal Armouries in Madrid), with fine lace on his ruff and sleeves. Another piece of power painting – a swagger portrait – is his painting of George Digby. Swathed in a brilliantly painted red cloak he faces the world with complete confidence. Van Dyck also painted the lovely and sad picture of Venetia Digby on her deathbed. She lies, aged 33, pale in her lace nightcap and nightgown, with a dying rose shedding its petals on the sheet.
Van Dyck, as a highly talented young artist, worked in the studio of Rubens, and his Samson and Delilah dates from this period, painted when he was in his twenties. It is a large picture, full of dramatic textural contrasts – Delilah’s creamy skin, Sampson’s worn calloused bare feet, the coarse fur he wears, the silvery-grey of Delilah’s satin gown, the rich black and gold drapery with a heavy pearl-trimmed border – here you see a young man revelling in his artistic skill and ability.
Other English portraits include a huge state portrait of James the First, mournful in white silk, padded and embroidered. He wears a large hat decorated with one of the legendary Royal Jewels – The Feathers – an enormous cockade of square cut diamonds.
Reynolds painted Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse, dramatic in brown and bathed in golden light. Many of his portraits including those here, have not survived well due to his experimental use of paints and techniques.
There are three portraits by Rembrandt, very different from each other. The famous Girl at a Window is a lovely painting of a very young girl, rosy-cheeked and dark eyed, absorbed in her own thoughts. Rembrandt captures this dreamy gentleness with soft shadows and creamy white drapery. His painting of Jacob de Gheyn is quite small. It shows a man of character and determination and is painted in a much more detailed style. In contrast again, his portrait of a young man, possibly his son Titus, freely painted in bold strokes, shows a young man with a thin face and huge dark eyes, which seem to express doubt, anxiety, perhaps even the thought of death.
Dutch and Flemish 17th century are well represented, with seascapes by Van de Velde, full of light and movement, wide skies and scudding clouds. Van Huysum was the most famous (and most expensive) flower painter of his time. There are wonderful examples of his work, exquisite arrangements of exotic blooms with water drops and minute insects painted with breathtaking skill. Cuyp painted landscapes illuminated with a peaceful light. Cows and horses stand quietly in timeless evening radiance.
Dulwich Picture Gallery was designed by one of the foremost architects of his time and the charm and intimacy of the Gallery owes much to the skilful use of space. This, and the very high quality of the pictures makes it a gallery full of serendipital surprises
£7 entrance £3 concessions
Extra for the special exhibitions (currently Quentin Blake).
Anne Gardom is Art Critic for New Directions