Wednesday, January 28, 2009

National Portrait Gallery.

I've written extensively here about my family's trip to London last summer. And I find I have more stories to tell. Digging out my scribbled notes, the ink running because somehow in my pocket, the notes got wet, I find the words, "Socialite. Debutante. Adventuress. Advocate. Journalist." Immediately my mind goes to the portrait of Lady Colin Campbell that I saw in the National Portrait Gallery. These were the words after her name and I was struck by first the simplicity then the varied nature of the words and the image they created when shoved together like that.

It made me want to be described in that way. To have a painting hanging somewhere of me after I died with those words plastered beneath it like an epitaph. It made me envious. It made me want to be more like the lady in the picture wearing a flowing black dress, looking all the world like something Whistler had painted - all grays and shadows. Who was this person? What was she like?

The National Portrait Gallery was visited by Hubby and me purely by accident. It was on an afternoon towards the end of our trip. We had just stuffed ourselves with dim sum in Chinatown with most of the family and were by turns feeling satiated and weary. Satiated from the food, weary from the company. When you've spent the past few hours fielding complaints about first being lost, then being hungry then finally getting all 12 people to a table and fed, you tend to feel a sense of relief, then weariness. What had been intended to be a brunch for just Hubby and me had turned into a goat rodeo of trying to gather young and elderly first onto the Tube, then off. People shouting, "It's this way, no it's THIS way," made my head spin, then hurt.

But I digress. Short version we were tired from the meal, went our separate ways, and were looking for a short
diversion to take our mind off things before heading back to the flat for an afternoon nap (there would be more family fun at dinner you see). We were wandering, meandering, wondering what to do. That's when we saw the sign for the National Portrait Gallery, followed by "FREE". Sounds good. We wandered in.

What had looked from the outside like a smallish gallery was actually quite large - 3 or 4 floors of nothing but portraits. Kings, ladies, painters, authors, society types, and statesmen. Everyone from Charles Dickens to Prince Charles. Also interesting were the amount of rare portraits located in this gallery. The only known portrait of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters in existence, for example. It was incredible. What I enjoyed the most is the chronological arrangement. So first you encountered fragile tatters of medieval portraits, some of them so old you could barely
regard the image. Later on you enter a room to find modern interpretations bordering on Picasso bizarre.

Early on we entered a room to find ourselves completely surrounded by Tudors. Here were King Henry the VIII when he was young, then old. Here was Anne Boleyn, Catherine of Aragon, Bloody Mary. The entire crew. I think I actually said, "Look! It's the entire cast of The Tudors!" (a favorite show, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is yummy). But of course, these weren't actors. This was the real deal. The people who lived it. They seemed so much smaller than on telly, with their foreshortened limbs and flat appearance indicative of the painting of that period. All the elaborate finery and lace. It was fascinating to have them all in one place surrounding you like that.

I loved the painter self-portraits as well. Sir Joshua Reynolds (pictured) painted himself with his hand raised before his eyes like he was either blocking out the sun, or searching for something precious in himself.
Rembrandt painted himself at different ages and with different facial expressions. All were so different and yet all had that same quality - as if the painter were looking in a mirror, searching for something within his eyes.

I stared at one portrait so long at one point I felt I had known him. So transfixed I forgot to scribble down the name or the artist. But I do remember searching for a postcard of this painting in the gift shop in vain. Why is it they NEVER have postcards of the paintings you love? Just the famous ones. This gentleman was an early 19th century dandy, dressed in a flouncy puffy shirt with a jacket. Like something straight out of Jane Austen. He looked like a right rogue, one eyebrow raised, his hair curling on his forehead like he was up to no good. The eyes were so real I felt he was watching me. They followed me no matter where I walked. Not sure why this particular portrait got to me, but it did. Stared and stared and then didn't want to walk away. Felt like he was trying to tell me something. Or that he was going to climb down from the wall any minute and take my hand - lead me somewhere. Very strange.

After finally making our way through the museum, I was thrilled to stumble upon a major new exhibition - The Best New Portrait of 2008. Galleries here were filled with current artists who had rendered their friends and loved ones in oils, charcoal, what have you. Visitors could vote on which one they liked best and from those votes a winner would be selected. I'm still kicking myself for not buying the companion book because these paintings were spectacular. Some were abstract, but most were photo realist depictions done in extreme closeup. From the point of view of a fly sitting on the end of the sitter's nose (except a fly has like 64 gazillion eyes or something like that).

But seriously, these were extreme closeups. Just incredible work. In one painting, the artist's daughter was wearing geisha makeup - the composition an extreme closeup of her face. At first I shrugged, what's the big deal? It's just a photograph of his daughter's face. Then I realized, no, this was a PAINTING. It was so real, every pore was depicted. Her eyelashes were perfect. The red on her lips stunning. And you couldn't see ANY brush strokes no matter how close you got up to the painting. Not even with a spy glass. In another painting a woman was scrubbing her face with soap. Every soap bubble was rendered perfectly, nary a brush stroke in sight. I marveled at the talent. I was completely floored that what I had taken to be photographs were in fact paintings.

After much deliberation, I voted for the soap bubble painting simply because I had never seen a painting of soap bubbles. And because I remembered my mother, who painted a lot before a car accident took that away from her, saying that soap bubbles and glass were the hardest objects to depict realistically in oils. She used to compose her paintings in an "up close" way as well. I remember looking at one, thinking it was a lovely purple abstract. But it was in fact a close up of a perfume bottle. She gave me the bottle, I put it to the end of my nose, looked at it, and there was her painting. Standing here looking at these winning portraits I felt wistful - she would have loved to have seen this.

I left the museum feeling as if we had discovered a London treasure. Hidden away just outside of Chinatown. Unassuming, on a quiet corner. But inside are treasures to behold. Portraits of people long gone, all staring at you. Trying to tell you something. Something important if only you'll listen.


Gypsy at heart said...

I happened on your blog and so enjoyed your story. You have quite a talent. Have visited London / England several times, I always avoided the National Portrait Gallery because it sounded stuffy and boring. How sad I am now. Hopefully, I will have another opportunity.

Libby said...

Gypsy, this is the NICEST thing anyone has said about my writing. It made me well up with tears - thank you. If you enjoyed my story, and you go to the gallery someday because of it, then my goal is accomplished. Well worth the trip. And, it's free! :0) Thanks for reading!

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