Lucy Tittle shares her experiences at The National Gallery
It was with the attitude of an Emperor introducing civilisation to the primitive Celt that I took my friend, a lowly Computer Science student, with me to the National Gallery. Fuelled by the spirit of the Easter weekend and undeterred by the crowds flocking around a staging of the Passion of Christ in Trafalgar Square, I sallied forth to enjoy some more religious imagery in the gallery itself, accompanied by my willing student. I had a vision of myself as the professional Art Historian strolling amongst the painted panels, expounding carefully recollected knowledge from AH1001 to my philistine, as he hung eagerly on my every word. Alas, this picture I had created for myself was far from realised when we at last managed to make our way to the entrance through the throngs of Bank Holiday visitors.
Fondling the trusty camera that never leaves my handbag, we entered the first room of paintings and I remarked that it was a shame not to be able to take photographs for my article due to the gallery’s photography policy. My companion, never short of guts, announced that he would be the photographer of the trip and boldly marched past the slumbering elderly attendant, in front of the orderly line of seated people viewing the painting, and took several noisy photographs with flash. Disgusted at this lack of proper gallery etiquette and blushing copiously, I hurried my friend through several more rooms as he was in turn scolded for reaching out to touching the paintings and then stared at by a solemn looking gentleman for his loud comment about the large number of paintings that seemed to display the buttocks of Cupid or the infant Jesus.
Hungry and flagging, I was laughingly asked by my sidekick why many of the altar pieces featured smaller figures at the bottom of the painted areas. Buoyed up by the chance to start educating the embarrassing heathen I had brought with me, I embarked on a dull explanation about families who had commissioned the works and why they were depicted showing their devotion at the bases. I increasingly found myself struggling, however, and was forced to lean closer to take a peek at some of the placards upon the walls to support my hazy memories of first year facts. Under the barrage of questions that ensued about the story of Saint Sebastian and the other biblical narratives shown in the artworks, I was quickly ruing the day that I decided not to take Religious Studies at GCSE. I was even shown up yet again as my technologically savvy friend gleefully produced his Smart Phone, started scanning the works on display and sharing with me the information he had produced.
I began to wonder, after all, whether I did in fact have the correct attitude to gallery visiting. Whilst my friend, whom I had once considered anything but an expert in this field, was coming up with his own witty responses about the works and enjoying himself, I was constantly shushing him and racking my brain for long-lost facts. It would appear that you do not need a degree in Art History to be observant and knowledgeable about art – in fact it seems to be somewhat of a hindrance! A keen eye and a sense of fun such as those possessed by my comrade will help you to see far more than my own pretensions and preconceptions. I would strongly advise you on your next trip to the National Gallery to acquire some bruises from climbing on the lions outside in Trafalgar Square, to make your own judgements about the 14th Century paintings, and to take a science student with you for a bit of perspective. Trust me, you will get far more out of the experience!
Image credit – Lucy Tittle