Room A at the National Gallery in London : a Hidden Treasure

1. Room A at the National Gallery in London
Dutch paintings of the XVIIth century
Photo : Didier Rykner

Wednesday afternoons, from 2 to 5:30 only, room A at the National Gallery in London (ill. 1 and 2) is open to the public. There are not many visitors and, yet this gallery in fact represents a major portion of the museum’s works in storage holding about 700 paintings hanging close together on well-worn walls [1]. But what a find ! These are not secondary works as the names of the artists are among the most important to be found in European painting, to quote only a few in no specific order, Edouard Manet (ill. 3), Giambattista and Giandomenico Tiepolo, Frans Hals, Anton Van Dyck, Jacob Jordaens, Guido Reni, Jean-François Millet, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Pinturicchio, Luca Signorelli… Only a few are in poor condition (some, alas, due to recent restorations…) or are mediocre. Although most have equivalent works in the galleries which open daily to the public, thus explaining their place here, this is not always the case.

2. Room A at the National Gallery in London
Photo : Didier Rykner

3. Edouard Manet (1832-1883)
Woman with a Cat, c. 1880/1882
Oil on canvas - 92.1 x 73 cm
London, National Gallery
(in deposit by the Tate Gallery)
Photo : Didier Rykner

For example, we saw a landscape by Jan Lievens, whereas the galleries only display two portraits by the artist. While Luca Giordano is represented by the large Homage to Velázquez, the fifteen modelli, most on loan by Denis Mahon, can only be seen in room A (ill. 4) ; two studies by Jean-François de Troy are permanently available but his large Time Unveiling Truth only on Wednesday afternoons here.

4. Luca Giordano (1634-1705)
The Cave of Eternity
Oil on canvas - 73.5 x 88 cm
Collection of Sir Denis Mahon
On loan at the National Gallery in London
Photo : Didier Rykner

5. Follower of Giorgione, early 16th century
Homage to a Poet
Oil on wood - 59.7 x 48.9 cm
London, National Gallery
Photo : Didier Rykner

Visitors to room A will also enjoy a Raphael, the Mackintosh Madonna, but we can understand that it is difficult to hang due to its very poor condition. In the same way, Titian’s Venus and Adonis is just a good workshop version of a canvas at the Prado and does not need to be shown in the permanent galleries since this artist already has so many others there. However, we find it harder to grasp why the Virgin Adoring the Child and the Virgin with Child by Lorenzo di Credi have been relegated here since this major artist is represented only by the Virgin with Child and Two Angels by Verrochio, with whom he collaborated as a member of his workshop. Also surprising is the presence of the three Bartholomeus van der Helst works, all here, as well as three portraits by Pompeo Batoni (only one allegorical painting is on permanent display), not to mention the only Giacomo Ceruti owned by the National Gallery, and the magnificent Astronomer by Ferdinand Bol (another portrait hangs in the galleries). As for the Homage to a Poet, formerly attributed to Giorgione’s workshop (ill. 5), it has been demoted to the rank of “follower of the painter”. Some specialists, however, think it may be authentic, and its quality is in any case quite remarkable.

6. Follower of Rembrandt (1606-1669)
A Seated Man with a Stick
Oil on canvas - 137.5 x 104.8 cm
London, National Gallery
Photo : Didier Rykner

7. Jan van Goyen (1596-1656)
Fishermen Laying a Net, 1640-1645
Oil on panel - 37 x 33 cm
London, National Gallery
Photo : Didier Rykner

8. Cima da Conegliano (1459/60-1517/18)
Saint Mark (?) and Saint Sebastian, c. 1500
Oil on wood - 103.2 x 40.6 cm
London, National Gallery
Photo : Didier Rykner

Blessed be the museum who can afford the luxury of preserving such prestigious works, almost hidden from view, without detracting from the general quality of its permanent hang. These include two Rembrandts (this oneand that one) as well as some which were formerly attributed to him, often quite famous before and which remain just as beautiful despite their change in attribution (ill. 6) ; about seven Jacob van Ruisdaels, five Jan van Goyens (ill. 7), two large and beautiful Backhuyzens, three Meindert Hobbemas, quite a few Philipp Wouwermans, two Jan Boths, three Nicolas Maes, two Van Dycks, ten Corots, three Domenico Beccafumis, a magnificent Sodoma… The Venetian school of 1500 is certainly superbly represented in the other galleries but visitors can see here three Cima da Coneglianos [2] (ill. 8), a Gentile Bellini, a Giovanni Bellini, and a Carpaccio. Also, the Leonardo da Vinci school here includes two Boltraffios, one Giampietrino, the only Marco d’Oggiono in the collection (even if it is merely “attributed to”)… Finally, we would like to point out the magnificent Nicolo dell’Abbate (ill. 9), formerly on permanent display, and for 18th century French (and Swiss) art, pastels by Perronneau(the attribution seems indisputable) and Quentin de La Tour, a Gentleman’s Portrait by Greuze (ill. 10) as well as an important Liotard.

9. Niccolò dell’Abate (1509 ou 1512-1571 ?)
The Death of Eurydice
Oil on canvas - 189.2 x 237.5 cm
London, National Gallery
Photo : Didier Rykner

10. Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805)
Portrait of A Man, 1763
Oil on canvas - 64.7 x 54.8 cm
London, National Gallery
Photo : Didier Rykner

Our list ends here. The idea of visiting the works in storage should be adopted by all museums and we are well aware of the importance of the fact that the National Gallery provides us the opportunity to view most of its collection. It is unfortunate, however, that it does so only for a half-day a week. Still, let us remember that English museums are now limited by budget restrictions…

French version

Didier Rykner, mardi 1er mars 2011


[1] There is another storage room, closed to the public.

[2] Including a Virgin with Child, which has undergone a much too zealous cleaning, alas.

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