Visiting the National Gallery

Visiting the National Gallery during this pandemic is, somewhat perversely, something I’ve been wanting to do ever since I saw a tweet from someone I follow who was one of the earliest visitors after the doors reopened and the new system was in place.

The system for limiting numbers and following a one way system is necessary to enable galleries like this one to reopen. Although they are large spaces, they can be tricky to navigate and – possibly even by design – allow the visitor to get lost in a reverie and wander the halls for hours. This sort of flaneuring is incompatible with the Covid world, and one way systems are now found everywhere from supermarkets to art galleries.

The National Gallery is still free to visit, and access is still reasonably easy, albeit via an online ticketing system. Those wishing to remain anonymous might wish to utilise a burner email account, and I’m not sure if there is a satisfactory offline system for those who find the online world daunting or unusable.

Entry is simple enough – I ran there, actually, and was a few minutes late. There was a small holding queue around the corner from the entrance and I assume this was for the next batch of visitors; when I told the guard my time slot and apologised for being a few minutes late, he happily waved me through and I walked straight in. Just inside, I scanned my QR code for the NHS app, and I was waved inside by another bank of security guards who had no desire to see inside my running backpack, thankyouverymuch.

Inside the main (Salisbury wing) entrance, a lady asked if I was here to see “the exhibition”, which threw me a little, but she probably meant the paid-for/ticketed one. No, I said, I was planning to follow route B. Hearing this, she gave me some slightly convoluted directions.

For a gallery with a tricky layout like the National, they have devised three lettered routes for visitors to follow, which means deciding between a greatest hits of artists. There’s no bad route to follow, in fairness – though I must admit I was a bit daunted by the choices and  a bit like a kid choosing between different Now! compilations, I didn’t know if I wanted the one with Michelangelo and Raphael, the one with Van Gogh, Rubens and Pissarro, or the one with Holbein and Canaletto.

(It turns out that routes B and C actually overlap, so you get some Monet and Seurat and co whichever you choose.)

I went with route B, and wasn’t disappointed. I can’t remember if the gallery is deliberately laid out in chronological order, but this route certainly is. (There is a chuckle-worthy sign near the loos on the way in which riffs on this, kindly informing you that the next toilets are 700 years away, e.g. at the other end of the gallery by the exit.)

The gallery did, indeed, feel quite empty. I don’t tend to make a bee-line for institutions like this at times when they are normally busy – a sunny Saturday afternoon in Trafalgar Square and you’ll find me far, far away. But a rainy Monday afternoon in a pandemic with enforced restrictions on visitor numbers? Bliss.

I found that some of the curators seemed quite keen to give impromptu explanations of this painting or that. I’m not sure if they’re normally this chatty, but it caught me off-guard and I somewhat ashamedly found myself mentally rehearsing what I’d do if one of them sidled up to me and asked me if I wanted to know more about this Rubens painting. What am I going to say, “no”? Such are the trials of the introverted gallery-goer.

Most people were doing as they were told. Arrow signage on the floor was subtle but useful. The curators that weren’t spouting off wisdom were doing the other thing they not-so-secretly love: quietly telling visitors what to do. In this case, it was almost always asking them to put their damn masks on properly. Too right. Most people I see in London are doing this fairly well, but I’m regularly left frustrated by the amount I see who have gone to the effort of putting a mask on, only for it to hang below one or more of the few holes in their head it’s designed to cover.

Art-wise, I found myself gravitating towards the landscapes, and paintings featuring architecture. I can only take so many religious allegories or portraits of dead rich people. Show me a photo-realistic streetscape with sunlight glancing off stonework, or a sea of roofs punctuated by smoking chimneys and I am away, floating off into a daydream as close to time travel as I can get.

I recently updated the screensaver images on my Fire stick so that it shows a slideshow of photographs we’ve taken over the years. I also added about fifteen artworks from a little list I keep when visiting galleries. It was nice visiting the National Gallery today, knowing that a few of the images that now grace my TV screen while it’s idling are on show here. But of course most of the time they are much larger in real-life than on a 40″ screen.

And that’s part of the joy of coming to an art gallery. Not just the sheer variety and quantity of what’s on show, but the physicality of each individual, unique object. These are not prints or facsimiles: each one is the final, painted, physical, three-dimensional object. This is, of course, obvious. But it’s worth reminding oneself of this simple fact. The way the light plays off the brush-strokes set hard all those years ago. The vastness of some of the canvasses and the logistics involved in not just framing it or moving it from one building to another but even painting the damn thing. It’s amazing.

And of course the final piece of the art gallery package is the space itself, particularly one as large as the National Gallery. Huge long halls create vistas and focal points in and of themselves; the art hanging on their walls suddenly playing second fiddle. The high ceilings and the inimitable ambience of hushed voices and shuffling footsteps, occasionally interrupted by a clipping heel or a voice suddenly coming out louder than one expects which reminds everyone how quiet it has been up to that point. That subtle atmosphere that can only be conjured by a congregation of bodies in a space has become a rare sensation in 2020.

My visit to the National Gallery today was much-needed, partly to top myself up on some art and a visit to a London institution (to remind myself they’re there). But also to show me with my own eyes how the world works now. I’m glad places like this have made it work so well. Not everywhere can.