London’s Great Small Museums
London has some of the world’s most famous museums-the British Museum,
(Pictured above: The Wallace Collections’ newly enclosed indoor courtyard.)
the Victoria & Albert Museum (which we visited in our last column), the National Gallery and – joining the big three in the 21st century – the Tate Modern. There’s one thing you get to see in all those museums-big lines- even if you buy your “Skip the Line” tickets online. Even then there are still special lines (albeit shorter) for “Skip the Line” admissions lines, as well as lines for security, for cloak rooms (check in and pickup), for bathrooms, for restaurants (for bathrooms in the restaurants), for special exhibits, etc.
Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) in that classic movie, Sunset Boulevard was dead wrong when she said “It’s the pictures that got smaller.” Norma – it’s the museums that got smaller. And yet, even smaller museums are filled with equally famous “Old Masters” to “Younger Masters” to”Contemporary Masters.” Introducing London’s great small museums – museums that should be on everyone’s bucket list. And who knows, you may actually see a “Bucket” – a painting in the Zhang Enli’s collection of “Bucket Paintings” in the Tate. (No kidding.)
My favorite small museum in New York is the Frick. I’ve already taken you to the “The Fricks of Rome,” and “The Fricks of Paris.” Let’s visit London’s “fricking” museums – great London art museums that should be visited by everyone – especially London lovers looking for something new on their many returns to Europe’s largest city.
In addition to liking what you’re seeing, in London you’ll get to know what you’re seeing. London’s great, numerous, seldom-visited small museums have an advantage you don’t find in most small, unknown museums around the world. All the explanations are in English.
Besides the fact that all of London’s small museums are accessible by public transportation, many of the smaller great museums are on streets or squares you’re already walking past. And those that aren’t – such as the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the Guildhall Art Gallery and the Saatchi Contemporary Art Museum (rechristened the Contemporary Art Museum of London) are in convenient locations packed with many other fantastic “Been There, HAVEN’T Done That” sites worth visiting. In fact, for a few – the journey in itself is a fun experience, such as commuting by museum boat linking the over-crowded riverside Tate Modern with the Tate Britain. (Hey, Metropolitan Museum of Art, how’s about a museum bus linking the main Met Museum with the Cloisters?)
The Wallace Collection — When writing January’s column on Decorative Arts Museums I was in a quandary. Should I include a museum that has an exquisite collection of French furniture – one of the greatest in the world (on par with MAD – Paris’ Museum of Arts Decoratifs)? I decided to wait until this column – since that museum is in London. And while it has a stupendous collection of French Decorative Arts – it has another collection that makes it my favorite small museum in London – the Wallace Collection of Old Masters –considered by many to have the best paintings collections in the UK after London’s National Gallery. And it’s in the center of London – in beautiful Portman Square. It’s the Wallace Collection.
Like New York’s Frick and Paris’ magnificent Jacquemart Andre Museum – it was once the private home of Sir Richard and Lady Wallace who lived in Paris and loved France so much they even endowed Paris with its ubiquitous green-drinking fountains. (And, yes, their London museum even has that drinking fountain in front.) And unlike the Jacquemart Andre Museum – the Wallace Collection has the room to expand and seems to be always renovating. Its 21st renovation skylines so you can see landscapes in the light in which they were painted. And like the British Museum – the Wallace Collection turned a courtyard into a bright indoor space — which is now a fountain in an indoor sculpture garden — with another addition to the arts – the culinary arts — a very fine restaurant.
And now, what an art museum is all about – its art . . . The Wallace Collection has many old friends you’ll recognize immediately. And unlike your old friends whom you haven’t seen in ages – their faces never age.
While I’ve seen many paintings by the world’s greatest artists: Velazquez, Poussin, Hals, Rubens, Fragonard, Velazquez and Greuze in museums around the world — the Wallace Collections has my favorite paintings by those artists such as Velazquez’s “Woman with a Fan” and Greuze’s “Broken Mirror.”
My favorite painting in the Wallace Collection defies the notion that 17th century Dutch paintings are somber. And the perfect antidote to that stereotype is Frans Hals’ painting – especially beloved by the comedy professor in me – “The Laughing Cavalier.” (Okay, he’s actually “smiling” — so, Louvre – please change the title of the Mona Lisa to “The Laughing Mona Lisa.”)
While the Wallace Collection has many famous paintings – its incomparable collection includes paintings, which counters the subjects and depictions for which those famous artists are well known. For example the great French 17th century Classical Baroque painter, Nicholas Poussin, is renowned for action-packed (and frequently violent) paintings such as “The Rape of the Sabine Women” in the Louvre. The Wallace Collection’s Poussin — “A Dance to the Music of Time” — is more akin to the French Rococo paintings of the 18th century with their subjects having fun – dancing and playing games – such as the museum’s famous Fragonard painting of a woman on a swing –“The Swing.” – with her mule (shoe) flying off. (Speaking of shoes – the Wallace Collection hosted a wonderful Manolo Blahnik exhibition last year – proving that the Wallace Collection is anything but “stuffy.”)
Whether it rains or not in London – I’ll always find a rainbow. And usually in the most unexpected places – inside the Wallace Collection — by a painter not really known for his landscapes, Peter Paul Rubens – a painter better known for his zaftig nudes. And, for a change, the rainbow in Rubens’ “The Rainbow” – while it isn’t too thin — it’s not too thick either. https://www.wallacecollection.org
The Dulwich Picture Gallery – Too many people write off South London as a cultural wasteland. The Dulwich Picture Gallery rectifies that misconception. In fact, it’s Britain’s first art gallery. The Dulwich’s magnificent building was purposely designed as a museum – another first – by the iconic architect John Soane. Again it’s filled with enough Old Masters to be considered the country’s best collection – if it were in another country.
The Dulwich’s most unusual painting is Hogarth’s “Portrait of Man” – a portrait that almost occupies an entire frame – a Hogarth rarity. A Hogarth painting usually has small figures set in an oversized room. To see a typical Hogarth, I suggest you visit the one-of-a-kind house museum of Dulwich’s architect — Sir John Soane – The John Soane Museum – a fascinating glimpse into the mind of this great thinker and collector. https://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk
And The John Soane Museum – https://www.soane.org/your-visit
Back in central London — just around the corner from the crowded National Gallery is a museum that’s too often overlooked also overlooking Trafalgar Square – The National Portrait Gallery. The National Portrait Gallery is to history what graphic novels are to literature – instead of reading about Britain’s rich and famous – you get to see what Britain’s rich (and royal) and famous (and infamous) actually looked like – going back to as early as the 16th century’s portrait of Henry VII — who unlike his son – has just one wife (who actually died of natural causes.)
Even those who love the National Portrait Gallery tend to overlook one category of paintings that’s its specialty. The NPG has one of the largest collections of the world’s first “Selfies” – self portraits of the artists themselves – the ultimate in artistic narcissism. So you’ll finally get to see the view that the rich and famous in history stared at while they were being painted. (The only museum that I recall has more self-portraits is the Uffizi in Florence – lining the Vasari Passage connecting the Uffizi with the Pitti — but it’s not always open – a pity.)
While the National Portrait Gallery is famous for its portraits – it has one landscape that can’t be viewed anywhere else. It’s the sprawling view of Trafalgar Square from its theatrical upper floor restaurant. Speaking of “theatrical’ – since the NPG is located in the middle of London’s theater district — it even offers a pre-theater dinner. https://www.npg.org.uk
Just a few blocks away from the NPG almost hidden on the Strand – traversed every day by hundreds of thousands of tourists and Londoners is Somerset House, which I call the “Eighteenth Century Pentagon” — Somerset House was the world’s largest until St. Petersburg’s General Staff Building came along in the 19th century.
London is always beautifying its public spaces. When I was a child – Somerset House’s gigantic courtyard was filled with parked cars. Today it’s the “Fountains of Trevi of London” with 55 fountains spouting water through its elegant stone paving during the summer – with frozen water doubling as a winter skating ring.
While Somerset House’s Strand facades almost blends in too well with its neighboring facades – its Thames River facades opens an expansive view of London and St. Paul’s depicted in paintings by many famous paintings since the 18th century.
Speaking of paintings – Somerset House is also home to one of London’s great small art museums –The Courtauld Institute of Art. The Courtauld Gallery displays many instantly recognizable great works of art from the 15th century through the 20th century — including King Charles I’s two favorite painters Rubens and Van Dyke. (In Whitehall, not far from Parliament and Westminster Abbey, is Ruben’s great Baroque Ceiling in the last remaining building from Whitehall Palace – Inigo Jones’ Palladian Banqueting House.) You’ll soon get the impression that the Courtauld Gallery is particularly strong on Impressionists, Expressionists and the Italian Renaissance. Its two most famous paintings are the Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear. Even lawyers linger when they pass “The Bar at the Follies Bergere” – Manet’s famous painting. (Especially since Van Gogh’s ear was not injured in an accident.) The reopening date of London’s Courtauld Institute of Art is Spring 2021 with the rest of it reopening within the next three years.
Somerset House’s loss is Burlington House’s gain – the home of the Royal Academy of Art. Somerset originally had two magnificent 18th-century frescoes by the great American painter, Benjamin West, and one of the earliest renowned female painters, Angelica Kaufmann. They were moved to Burlington House. The Royal Academy of Art, whose founder was the 18th-century great portraitist, Sir Joshua Reynolds (hence his statue in the courtyard) Burlington House – on Piccadilly – which frequently has great exhibits without lines. http://burlingtonhouse.org
The Saatchi Museum – Speaking of exhibitions – until May third is one of the world’s greatest blockbusters – “Tutankhamun – Treasures of the Golden Pharaoh” – which I saw in Paris’ Parc de la Villette last Fall. Now let’s go from the most ancient art to the newest – Contemporary Art. It’s in Chelsea on Fashionable Kings Road – once again a museum housed in an early 19-century historic building — the Duke of York’s House which bears an uncanny resemblance to Sir Christopher Wren’s “Royal Army Hospital” nearby. And if you like the Hockney’s you saw in the National Portrait Gallery and want to see more – you’ve come to the right place.
The Tate Britain — First a note to David Hockney – while you’re my favorite living British Artist – I am not stalking you – just your art. And if you like Hockney as much as I do – head to the Tate Britain, which has paintings by British artists from 1500 to today. And it’s just a short walk from walk from Westminster Abbey.
Of course the Tate Britain is strong on “Pre-Raphaelites” – (the nostalgic style imitating the great Rennaissance painter, Raphael) the British answer to the contemporary French Impressionists as portrayed in the museum’s paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and Edward Burne-Jones.
The Tate Britain also has many incomparable French Impressionists and Expressionists including Monet’s paintings of the nearby British Parliament. You’ll also get to see Monet’s favorite French cathedral – Rouen Cathedral – this time painted by the great 19th century British landscape painter, John Turner. https://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-britain
Here are a few art museums unknown to most Londoners:
The Guildhall Art Gallery – While you may not find too many Londoners there – Americans, who visit like our own John Singleton Copley’s gigantic canvas of “The Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar” — even bigger in person than its title. In the basement there’s a discovery that was discovered after the London Blitz wrecked havoc on the building. It’s the remains of the Ancient Roman Amphitheater – now open to the public. https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/visit-the-city/attractions/guildhall-galleries/guildhall-art-gallery/Pages/default.aspx
The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art — And if you want to see more Italian Art — visit London’s Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art — which includes work by great Italian artists such as de Chirico, Modigliani and Boccioni. https://www.estorickcollection.com
The Ben Uri Gallery & Museum — While the Tate Britain contains the paintings of British Artists – the Ben Uri Museum contains the work of immigrant British Artists – primarily Jewish artists who settled in Britain including Marc Chagall, Max Liebermann and Chaim Soutine.
And If you can’t get an invitation by Queen Elizabeth to personally view her private paintings collection – or you just moved to Canada — try the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace not far from her home – Buckingham Palace. It always has a compelling compilation of the Queen’s great art treasures on view in temporary exhibits.
And there’s a museum in which the hanging art will fascinate children. No it’s not the ropes on display in the Clink Prison Museum – it’s the Posters in the London Transport Museum. And if that’s not enough to amaze children – there are all types of vehicles actually on display – some almost 200 years old. https://www.ltmuseum.co.uk
We just did something that you can’t do in any museum –– scratch the surface of London’s Great Small Museums — except maybe the hands-on London Children’s Museum. https://www.londonchildrensmuseum.ca
And there are so many London museums – small and large – that Americans should visit from the Imperial War Museum, London to the Museum of London —London’s great city museum.
To paraphrase the great Samuel Johnson – “When a man is tired of London’s Museums – it’s time to check into your London hotel for a good night’s sleep.”