Need somewhere to take shelter from summer showers? KEN TOWL has been on his travels again, this time all the way by bus to Dulwich Village
This summer, until September 22, a very modern pavilion is standing in front of the oldest purpose-built art gallery in the world.
The modern marvel at the regency institution that is the Dulwich Picture Gallery are just a bus ride away. Get off the 197 at Dulwich Library and head west until you see the entrance to Dulwich Park, the south-eastern frontier of Dulwich Village and south London’s yummy mummy hub.
Here, at the Dulwich Clock Café, ladies and gentlemen who lunch can peck at a salad for a tenner, or munch a pizza for just a little more.
As I nursed a £2 cup of tea (which was, of course, fairly traded) I noticed that some of the mummies wre not merely yummy but astute, too, if the proliferation of Tupperware boxes of fruit, sandwiches and rolls on the café’s picnic tables was anything to go by.
“Try doing that in Croydon,” I thought.
I had my own money-saving ploy, anyway. Having just acquired a National Art Pass, I can get in free or at a discounted rate to galleries all over the country. The nearest to Croydon is the Dulwich Picture Gallery, so it seemed as good a place as any to try out the card.
After pausing at the café, you leave the park by the College Gate and the entrance to the gallery is just across the road.
The first thing you see is the pavilion, the biennial installation in the garden.
This year the structure is called The Colour Palace and it was built by the architects Dingle Price and Alex Gore (who design under the name “Pricegore”) with artist Yinka Ilori.
It references the 18th century Grand Tour of Europe undertaken by Dulwich Picture Gallery architect Sir John Soane, and imagines the result if it had extended to West Africa.
It evokes a grain store, African fabrics, a gateway, and, at least today, a very useful shelter from the torrential rain that is sporadically falling across south London.
Having explored the noisy, popular, kaleidoscopic charm of The Colour Palace, I made my way into the relative tranquility of the Picture Gallery itself, my National Art Pass serving as a substitute for the £7 they usually charge visitors to the permanent collection.
The gallery opened to the public in 1817 displaying old masters from Britain, Holland, Spain, Italy and France, all ingeniously lit from above, and it became the go-to place for art students to make sketches. It is also a mausoleum that houses the remains of Francis Bourgeois and Noel and Margaret Desenfrans, the founders of the collection and financiers of the building. This dual role seems to impose an air of solemnity on the gallery and those who guard the art collection.
And what a collection it is.
I was particularly struck by a trio of appealing images of street urchins by the 17th Century Spanish baroque painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. They are painted with such palpable warmth that it is no surprise to learn that the models were “probably the artist’s own children”.
Alongside the Rubens and the Gainsboroughs, there is a quite stunningly beautiful Saint Sebastian by Guido Reni. It is almost monochrome and vaguely erotic (but then, aren’t they all?)
Moving from the vaguely erotic to the literally intriguing, we find a pair of related images by Van Dyck, those of Venetia Stanley, Lady Digby, and her brother-in-law George Digby, Earl of Bristol.
While the portrait of George, a smirking cavalier, is described as having “swagger”, that of Venetia depicts her, perhaps already expired, on her deathbed.
In rather coy, archaic fashion we are told both that Venetia “one of the great beauties and wits of her day,” had, in parentheses, “a rather racy reputation”, and that George, a politician and playwright, wrote a posthumous poem in praise of her beauty. We are, I think, invited to infer the rest.
There is a whole room dedicated to Nicolas Poussin, a 17th Century Norman French artist with whom I confess to being wholly unfamiliar. Particularly memorable is The Triumph of David, a piece depicting the victorious giant-killer marching into Jerusalem with Goliath’s massive head on a pole.
Wearying of such mementi mori, I exited the mausoleum and took a last look at the colourful, life-affirming pavilion outside where I reflected that, had I spent £7, it would have been £7 well spent, and that the colour palace was a nice bonus, a welcome splash of light to contrast with the baroque darkness inside.
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