Titian: Love Desire Death, The National Gallery

Galleries, London, National Gallery

It was always going to be tricky to keep posting when literally every museum and gallery in the country was closed for a few months, but after a strange and frustrating lockdown we finally have started to see some of our favourite places reopen!

I must admit that the millions of pounds being spent on digitising collections has been completely wasted on me. Notwithstanding the obvious and eternal benefits of photographing, scanning, uploading and indexing the entirety of human civilisation, it just didn’t feel anywhere near as interesting or exciting to stare at an eye-wateringly high definition Lewis Chessman or Jan Van Eyck on a screen as you are now able to do, for instance, at the British Museum Collection Online or the National Gallery Collection Online.

After all, these online collections are not the actual collection, they are just a collection of reproductions of the actual collection. You can’t get the feel for the art or objects in the same way: the texture of the paint or material, the way light reacts and works with the surfaces, the polite little congregations you join or avoid, the peaceful rustle of a lot of people trying to make not a lot of noise. I won’t go into the smells, but for the most part I rank them somewhere up there with ‘old book’.

So, when we got tickets to go and see The National Gallery’s new Titian exhibition, I was very excited.

Titian is one of those artist who I know I should know a lot more about than I actually do know, if I ever want to be taken seriously by arty types. Luckily, I gave up being taken seriously by almost anyone a while ago and I’ll keep it to this: Titian was one of the first Western painters in history to really make their art, above all else, a (successful) pursuit of beauty. He considered his paintings the visual equivalent of poetry.

It’s open until 17th January 2021, alongside many other exhibitions in galleries across the country that have now (thankfully) started to reopen. Enjoy.

Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

All, Amsterdam, Galleries, Museums, Rijksmuseum, Rijksmuseum

I better start by confessing that I have a humongous soft spot for Golden Age still-lifes and portraiture, otherwise you’ll wonder why I’m being so enthusiastic about depictions of half-cut blokes and messy dining tables.

So before I go on: the Rijksmuseum is a gallery of objects and art tracing the history of the Netherlands from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century in a gorgeous redbrick palace designed by Pierre Cuypers, who also designed Amsterdam Central Station.

I think the thing that excites me so much about ‘The Golden Age’ is that it’s the furthest point back in history that we get quasi-photographic glimpses into the lives and spaces of ordinary (or non-aristocratic) people. Painters such as Joachim Beuckelaer, Willem Claesz Heda, Floris Claesz van Dijk, Abraham Diepraam and Adriaen van Utrecht (pictured above) had the skill to capture light, shape, texture and colour to a degree that makes subjects appear three-dimensional and simultaneously layer in symbolism and social commentary.

What makes this period of time in the Netherlands even more astonishing is that this level of skill in the artistic community was commonplace – or at least accurately replicated in workshops – and the region’s general prosperity meant ordinary people could afford to buy art like this for their own home. You can see a whole new class of proud, intelligent, curious, commercial citizens emerge on the walls around you: their staring eyes, their revealing expressions, their carefully curated clothing and surroundings, the things that they celebrated and denigrated.

The café in the vast, bright Atrium of the museum looked fine, but the queue was apparently 45 minutes long due to the torrential rain outside when we visited so I can’t make the usual comments on cake. However, I’m sure it’ll be a perfectly good half-time pit stop (if you can get a seat) as the Rijksmuseum is too big to do in one go.

My favourite bits:

  • Jacob Conelisz van Oostsanen’s self-portrait (1533). The earliest known north Netherlandish self-portrait.
  • The Well-stocked Kitchen by Joachim Beuckelaer (1566). A cornucopia of colours and textures that gives you an idea of what was on the menu back then with a moralising scene in the background for good measure (yep – that’s Jesus.)
  • Abraham Diepraam’s The Tavern (1665) looks like the smell of ale, body odour and bad breath and an uncertainly good time.
  • The Merry Fiddler (1660-1680) looks like he’s been found in another corner of The Tavern, and 350 years on his ruddy nose, sallow skin and rough chin make him a familiar figure to anyone who’s ever seen a local pub band stop for a drink halfway through their set.

The scores:

Exhibits: 10/10. An entire national history told through art. I haven’t even mentioned Rembrandt’s The Night Watch!

Environment: 10/10. What you’d expect from the Dutch state museum. Impeccable design and excellently maintained.

Refreshments: N/A. They take coffee seriously there though, so I’m sure it’ll be good.

Cost and Location: 5/10. The one sticking point. It’s a hefty €17.50 for over 18s. However, right in the heart of the Museum District which has other major galleries nearby.

Overall Score: 7/10. The collection is worth every penny if you can spare them, but I will never understand why national collections are put behind a ticket barrier.

The links:

Main website: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en

Explore the exhibits online: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/rijksstudio

Leeds Art Gallery & The Henry Moore Institute, Leeds

All, Galleries, Henry Moore Institute, Leeds Art Gallery, Location, West Yorkshire

Right in the heart of Leeds, these conjoined galleries offer a heady mixture of elegant modern art and challenging contemporary sculpture. This is complimented by the café, library and older sections of the building, making it a must-visit if you’re in the city.

The Henry Moore Institute (named after the sculptor of the bulbous semi-abstract bronze pieces) is a clean, sharp black block attached to the Victorian municipal architecture of the Gallery. It contains a handful of often multi-sensory, large footprint installations. Across the short skyway, you enter the Leeds Art Gallery and things become a little more… familiar. The emphasis is very much on the modern art, and I struggled to find anything that pre-dates the 1800s.

The Tiled Cafe is absolutely magnificent and quite vast, which perhaps made my baked potato appear even more diddy than it actually was. The vegetarian chilli topping was very tasty though and the chesterfield sofas make it a very inviting spot for an hour or so with a book.

My favourite bits:

  • A Corner of the Baron’s Larder (1849 – 1888) by Henry Weekes is, at a distance, a bog standard still life until you spot the dead swan, upturned pitcher and complete and utter lack of order reflecting the societal upheaval of the time.
  • The Lives of Others: Sites of Memory is a grim but beautiful mosaic of epitaphs dedicated to the memory of those who sacrificed their own lives to save others’ in dozens of every day disasters.
  • A quintet of bronze figures cast by various artists and creating a striking silhouetted line up of characters, like some sort of artistic superhero squad!
  • Anthony Gormley’s Maquette for the Leeds Brick Man is a scaled prototype of an aborted civic project, made up of miniscule clay bricks. The project would have been 120ft tall with balconies out of the ears to look out over the city.
  • It was fun to play with Rashid Johnson’s interactive and moisturising shea butter blocks as part of Shea Butter Three Ways. Perhaps I missed the finer points of the message…
  • Keir Smith’s Stencils for:… is a really cool example of the process becoming the art and the rusted metal, agricultural tools and rectangular layout have a satisfying toughness.
  • The ghostly, geometric worshippers in The Day of Atonement by Jacob Kramer.

The scores:

Exhibits: 8/10. A really engaging collection that covers a lot of ground.

Environment: 8/10. Beautifully tiled interior and bright spaces but frayed round the edges.

Refreshments: 9/10. The tiled café is a really unique and stunning place. Pricey for Leeds.

Cost and Location: 10/10. In the heart of Leeds and free of charge so perfect!

Overall Score: 9/10. Great collection, character and cost to make Leeds very proud.

The links:

Leeds City Museum, Leeds

All, Leeds City Museum, Museums, West Yorkshire

Leeds City Museum provides an interesting hour or two exploring a varied (if slightly disjointed) collection of exhibits, staying true to the multiculturalism of modern day Leeds. The museum is well set up for kids with plenty of activities, low-level exhibits and a recreation area so there are plenty of young families which gives the place a nice (but noisy!) buzz.

The museum follows a roughly chronological order starting on the top floor with a whistle-stop tour through ancient and medieval Leeds and Yorkshire. The bulk of the exhibits are naturally from the industrial revolution onwards, when production and prosperity exploded in Leeds. There’s also a colourful collection of modern exhibits documenting the stories of immigrants and particularly the Asian populations of the city.

The café on the ground floor offered very affordable stodge at under a fiver and an even cheaper kids menu. Decent cup of coffee too.

My favourite bits:

  • The Wolf and Twins mosaic, which depicted the tale of Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome in someone’s villa in Aldborough in the 4th century.
  • An 2,500 year old pipe (looks a recorder for beginners) found in Malham, carved from a sheep’s leg bone with visible teeth marks!
  • A glittering boiler from the 1880s, the same decade Taylor’s of Harrogate were starting out on their journey to take over the British tea business.
  • A gorgeous Syrian wall tile from the mid-1800s, the inscription reads: All that is on the face of the earth will perish, but the Face of your Lord, the Glorious, the Gracious, will forever remain.
  • A delicate palm-sized globe from 1825 – 1835 which was advertised as “a correct globe with the new discoveries” including Australia and the South Pacific Islands.
  • The mummified remains and facial reconstruction of Nesyamun, who lived and died in Thebes around 3,000 years ago. He was a priest in the Temple of Amun who looked after the sacrificial bulls.
  • A beautifully arranged bureau of butterflies, moths, fossils, Victorian stationery and a microscope in the Collectors Cabinet section of the museum.

The scores:

Exhibits: 5/10. A very wide range, a little piecemeal and very few showstoppers.

Environment: 5/10. Décor tired and functional with the odd child’s tantrum in earshot.

Refreshments: 6/10. Cheap, filling, unexciting.

Cost & Location: 9/10. At the top of town in the city’s cultural quarter and free.

Overall Score: 6/10. A great local museum, but in need of a refresh.

The links:

Wellcome Collection’s ‘Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic’, London

All, London, Museums, Wellcome Collection

The curators of ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ have pulled together a well-balanced mix of cheerily innocent and deeply sinister objects to explore the phenomenon of magic.

This is a short trip through the history of bent truths and humanity’s (successful?) attempts to connect, explore and communicate with the supernatural whilst trying to explain why we are so enthralled by the impossible and the dead.

The relatively no-nonsense open plan cafe in the foyer gives you the chance to reflect on the blurry edges of reality over a pot of tea.

My favourite bits:

  • A homemade and very, very creepy 20th century Ouija board covered in scratches. Even creepier: they used to sell these in children’s toy shops(!) in the 1800s…
  • A selection of magic wands from the 1920-50s. Apparently these had a variety of functions but they all look the same to me. I guess that’s the point.
  • The legendary Tommy Cooper’s iconic fez and a hilarious clip of his ‘disappearing egg’ trick.
  • The classic watch-me-saw-a-glamorous-assistant-in-half-but-not-really box, complete with a very nasty looking two-man saw.
  • A smartly presented monochrome frame-by-frame gallery of a classic cigarette trick. I still couldn’t work out how he did it!

The scores:

Exhibits: 6/10. Some nice highlights but ‘magic’ items felt a bit flat when on display.

Environment: 6/10. The Wellcome’s temporary space is, understandably, a blank canvas.

Refreshments: 6/10. Simple canteen with plenty of seats.

Cost & Location: 10/10. Free and very close to Euston and Euston Square stations.

Overall Score: 7/10.

The links:

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

All, Ashmolean Museum, Museums, Oxfordshire

The world’s first public museum maintains a wonderful scope and range of exhibits within its warrens of gorgeous Regency architecture on Oxford’s Beaumont Street. The Ashmolean’s pedigree makes it a must-visit for any museum fan and its roots as a private collection are apparent in its diversity and depth, making for a slightly discombobulating experience.

You can recuperate in the caverns of the redbrick basement cafe which serves outrageously small scones and a lovely selection of local juices and beers, or you can make the ascent to the open air top floor restaurant which has a pricey menu and is disappointingly enclosed which limits views out across the city.

My favourite bits:

  • The iron band used to detain Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, one of Henry VIII’s closest advisors and a Reformation figurehead, when he was imprisoned in Oxford (pictured).
  • A 13th century ‘puzzle jug’ (pictured), a pub game where you had to get your ale by carefully twisting and pouring without it coming out of the hidden orifices.
  • Wucius Wong’s Autumn Feelings, an elegant and abstract piece of calligraphic art.
  • A large 17th century tapestry of unknown European origin, depicting A Musical Party in extraordinary detail (pictured).
  • John Rose’s gorgeously carpentered viol, made in the 17th century, with a delicate woman’s head atop the pegbox (pictured).
  • A 15th century Italian chessboard carved from bone, wood and horn (pictured). The first of MANY chessboards to feature on this blog, I assure you!
  • The porcelain gallery, a kaleidoscopic experience created with the use of glass casing throughout to create a dizzying maze of colourful plates, bowls, jugs and trinkets (pictured).
  • A trio of windows into real life in the Netherlands in the 17th century, David Tenier the Younger’s A Distillery with an Elderly Man Buying Gin and The Foot Doctor and Cornelis Bega’s The Blind Fiddler with the nigh-on photographic detail and use of light that I adore (pictured).

The scores:

Exhibits: 9/10. A true treasure trove which justifies its pedigree.

Environment: 7/10. Beautiful architecture but rooftop’s a bit of a shame.

Refreshments: 7/10. Pricey but nice to have genuinely local produce available.

Cost & Location: 10/10. Free entry and slap-bang in the city centre.

Overall Score: 8/10.

The links:

Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Wakefield

All, Galleries, West Yorkshire, Yorkshire Sculpture Park

Yorkshire Sculpture Park offers a powerful and curious selection of sculptures in a glorious open air countryside setting. It’s an unusual combination of an artistic adventure and a weekend walk, so your dog can come too.

The Weston restaurant has an interesting lunch menu (£8-12) and classic teatime fare. The Lemon and Raspberry Drizzle cake and a cup of Lemon and Ginger tea went down well after completing the 4-mile circuit.

My favourite bits:

  • A hearty stroll up to the site’s centre past Damien Hirst’ s Myth (pictured),a flayed unicorn, and the half-peeled giant The Virgin Mother.
  • David Smith’s story in the Underground Gallery, told through his elegant and economic blacksmithing (pictured) and his weighty anti-war Medals of Dishonour.
  • An intimidating Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads (pictured) staring down like a disapproving council of aldermen, created by internationally renowned artist/political prisoner Ai Weiwei.
  • A pair of ornate medieval chessmen (pictured), King Hezekiah and Moses doing various unpleasant things to unfortunate snakes.

The scores:

Exhibits: 8/10. World famous names from the contemporary scene and generations past.

Environment: 9/10. A beautiful and unique site, loses a point for its remoteness.

Refreshments: 7/10. Tea and cake perfectly fine, I’ll need to try the lunch menu next time.

Cost & Location: 7/10. Free entry, plus £3.50 to £12 parking… and you’ll need a car!

Overall Score: 7/10.

The links: