art galleries contain many world-renowned pieces, and crowds flock year after year to see the Manet at the Courtauld or the Holbein at the National Gallery. However, if you wander off the beaten track, you can uncover some hidden gems in rooms that people often overlook, which also provide you with the added bonus of escaping the tourists.
Room 51, National Gallery
Room 51 contains the gallery’s earliest pieces, showcasing the beauty of gilded altarpieces from the 13th and 14th centuries. Many visitors overlook the darkened enclave that is annexed to Room 51 and further contains The Burlington House Cartoon. Leonardo da Vinci’s preparatory study for an intimate family portrait of the Virgin, Christ, Saint Anne and John the Baptist is a wonderful insight into the artistic practices of the Renaissance. The unfinished nature of the drawing gives the effect of the women emerging from the paper, and the small size of the room makes the viewing experience very intimate. Compared to the crowds that throng around the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, Room 51 offers visitors the opportunity to get up close and personal with a real Leonardo.
National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London, UK, +44 20 7747 2885
Room 9, National Portrait Gallery
The members of the Kit Cat Club gaze down at visitors who scurry through Room 9 on their way to more exciting portraits, like the one of Shakespeare waiting right around the corner. However, the 21 men who wear a delightful array of wigs and alternately amused or disdainful expressions represent an important moment in British history. The club, named for the ‘kit cat’ mutton pies served at the tavern in which they met, was the political heart of the Whig party in the early decades of the 18th century. Its members ranged from active politicians to influential philosophers to literary icons, and the portraits painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller humanise these otherwise obscure historical figures. The portraits include Charles Fitzroy, 2nd Duke of Grafton, illegitimate grandson of Charles II, and Jacob Tonson, a publisher, who paid for his portrait with flattery, venison and wine.
National Portrait Gallery, St. Martin’s Pl, London, UK, +44 20 7306 0055
Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Mausoleum
Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Mausoleum
Despite being the first purpose-built public art gallery in the world, Dulwich Picture Gallery is rather overlooked by those who prefer the inner city galleries. With remarkable architecture by Sir John Soane and a beautifully curated selection of masterpieces by icons such as Rembrandt, Canaletto and Poussin, the gallery has a lot to offer a curious visitor. The golden mausoleum built to honour its founders, Sir Francis Bourgeois and Noel Desenfans, is a peaceful sanctum in which to contemplate. Initially intending to fulfill a commission from the King of Poland, Bourgeois and Desenfans acquired a remarkable collection and stipulated it should forevermore remain accessible for the “inspection of the public.” The mausoleum is a prudent reminder not to overlook the efforts of those who strove to leave an artistic legacy for us today.
Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Rd, Southwark, London, UK, +44 20 8693 5254
The Landing of the Sackler Wing, Royal Academy
Most visitors to the Sackler Wing ascend the modern glass staircase cunningly attached to the original 18th century external wall of the Royal Academy and walk straight into whatever exciting exhibition is being held on the upper floor. Few turn around and walk down a promenade of sculptures to reach a real treasure – the only Michelangelo marble sculpture in Britain. The unfinished Taddei Tondo, begun in 1504, demonstrates the Renaissance sculptor’s supreme skill in manipulating his marble so that the figures emerge from it almost organically. The Virgin and Child with the Infant St John are housed in a glass cabinet that, combined with the glass roof of the wing, lends a heavenly air to the viewing experience.
Sackler Wing, Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, UK, +44 20 7300 8090
Seurat Room, Courtauld Gallery
Nestled amongst the network of rooms on the first floor of the Courtauld Gallery hides a small green room whose walls are lined all around with tiny panels painted by the pointillist Georges Seurat. Visitors usually glide through this chamber, enticed by the large Kandinsky that temptingly beckons beyond, but those who remain within its walls are rewarded with the chance to examine in close detail the remarkable brushstrokes that made Seurat so famous. These small wooden panels are all depictions of coastal or riverside scenes and, rather intriguingly, particles of sand embedded in the paint suggest Seurat painted them outside, ‘en plein air.’
The Courtauld Gallery, Strand, London, UK, +44 20 7872 0220