In this two-part series, we’re fortunate to have Andrea Kirkby (who previously contributed the Paris versus London showdown) reveal her personal top 10 highlights of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square.
Although it houses one of the richest collections of Western European art in the world, many tourists miss it. Don’t leave it out of your itinerary!
In this article we list 5 absolute beauties to guide your visit, with a further 5 uncovered in part two. We’ll also recommend a nearby gem of a hotel at the end of each piece. You can view online images of some of the paintings below from the paintings page on the National Gallery’s official website.
1. ‘Surprised!’ by Henri Rousseau is not on display at the moment – but I’m still going to include it, as it should be back soon and is an amazing work. Don’t look for anatomical correctness – the tiger is very naively painted – but instead focus on the way the patterns of leaves, light and shade as well as the lightning in the background, all create a dramatic atmosphere. I’m not sure who is meant to be ‘Surprised!’ – us, or the tiger – and that little joke makes the painting one of my favourites.
2. Wilton Diptych (Room 53) is the most elegant of all medieval paintings with its gilded background, delicate detail, and rich but refined colour. It was made for Richard II – his personal badge, the white hart, is stamped all over it – and it’s a truly royal piece of work. But perhaps the sweetest detail is the field of roses and daisies under the angels’ feet.
3. Durer – St Jerome (Room 65) is not actually one of my favourites. That is, the painting on the front isn’t. But go round the back and you’ll see a really alarming, fiery vision of a comet, abstract as a Rothko.
4. Gainsborough – Mr and Mrs Andrews (Room 35). This is on one level a portrait of two very ordinary eighteenth-century English gentry. On another level, it’s a marvellous landscape; we see the Andrews on their lands, the cornfields behind them, the sheaves already neatly stacked. But the sky is gloomy; there’s a storm coming. The Andrews are part of the landscape, but they’re also apart from it, the colours of their clothes very different from the colours of nature. It’s quite an ambiguous painting in many ways and it’s that poise that makes it appeal to me.
5. Canaletto – A Regatta on the Grand Canal (Room 38). The thing I love about Canaletto is that there’s so much going on in his paintings. A little dog in the left hand bottom corner is having a good sniff – you can see the two gondoliers in the middle leaning their gondolas over on one side for speed, and the wakes they’re cutting in the water – people are hanging out of the windows. And Canaletto always paints with such brio – get really close and you’ll see how confident and curving his brushstrokes are. Really get up close, and you’ll find so much more in this picture.
Want to stay in a good and fairly-priced hotel near the National Gallery?
The Grand is currently in the top 100 hotels on TripAdvisor and perfectly-placed for a short stroll to the National Gallery.
You may now wish to continue with part 2 of our National Gallery guide.
Photo credits: The Grand at Trafalgar Square, Marcio Cabral de Moura’s photostream.