Dulwich Picture Gallery is, apparently, the oldest public art gallery in England and was purpose built. It well not exactly nestles, it is a little to large and imposing for that, shall we say resides, in the semi rural London suburb of Dulwich. I have been meaning to go for ages and did recently, for the first time, to see the Winifred Knights Exhibition.
Previously I have been put off by its distance from the centre of the metropolis but it is in fact, very easy to get to, a short hop by train from Victoria (or Brixton) gets you there in about 10 minutes and then a leafy walk of about 5 (follow the steady stream of satchel bearing old buffers) takes you to the Gallery. Dulwich itself is very picturesque itself by the way.
It is a winged pavilion like structure best seen from the road but the entrance path winds round the back, passed some rather fine etched stones (below right) to the almost prison like entrance at the back. There is by the way quite a fine cafe there.
Two of the galleries are usually set over two paying exhibitions. It also costs to enter the main exhibition unless, like me, you possess an art pass, in which case it's free. You are greeted, immediately on entrance , glowering at you as your haggle fruitlessly with the staff at the counter, by dutch old master style painters and it is this style that predominates the collection. There is a large well lit central hall with ante-chambers radiating off it.
The collection is a little to large for the space its in and there is a little bit of a stuff it all in attitude. This means some of the paintings are quite high up and difficulty to see. In one antechamber, I think the smallest and softly lit by orange light percolating from small highlights was what looked like an abandoned drum kit but was in fact part of a sound exhibition called In Harmony by Liam someone (my note of his surname is illegible).
As I've said above the collection is mostly dutch style old master paintings. While I can see they are excellent paintings I find them somewhat dull. There are only so many elderly smug men in black and hats that I can take. The great thing about going to galleries though is discovering new paintings and artists that appeal. I do like galleries with walls that are a colour other than white which can be far to sterile where as these soothing pastel red and blue I find make for a soothing experience. This allowed me to take the time and discover a few gems.
Some paintings are lifted from the dull by an unexpected element. In this case the blue flowers setting off the blue jacket in Adam Pynacker's Landscape with Sportsmen and Game. It gives a focus and dynamism to the picture.
I also like this very amusing bull by the amazingly named Balthazar Paul Ommeganck. It is a solid creature from a man with a solid name. It has fine musculature.
The gallery is lousy with Rubens. The three graces is here in sort of monochrome form but I particularly liked this trio of works with the ill looking terrifying priests and the ethereal spectral form. Reminds a bit of El-Greco (who I prefer but don't tell anyone). There is allot going on in these with their theme of the spiritual made manifest. He is very good a cloth texture also
There are plenty of reclining people in states of semi undress. I was quite impressed by the nymphs bottom in the left hand side painting, Peter Lely nymphs by the fountain. Classical nymphs always provide a good excuse for nudity in art. It is though a very impressive rendering of skin and flesh tone and leaps out of you from the dull (occasionally strategically placed) foliage behind it.
They painting on the right is Anthony van Dyke who I really like when he is not painting dull dutch men. It is Sampson and Delilah. Strange that here Delilah is robbed of her agency by getting presumably a servent to do the hair cutting for her. That rich black and blue cloth in the fore right hand side is seriously impressive.
I have just this year rediscovered floral still lives. I like them now and the above left by Jan van Huysum is a good example. Apologies for the poor photograph. The Dulwich website has in fact an excellent search facility under the collection tab with high quality images of their collection. They should be praised for these feature. Back to the painting the form and the colour contrast and particularly the birds nest in the bottom right hand corner with its dainty eggs setting off the feathers (or feather like leaves) appealed to me. Also I couldn't help wondering to what extent ornate and magnificent gold frames augment a picture. Maybe I should frame some of mine like this.
The mysterious floaty angel thing is by Arent de Gelder and is called Jacob's Dream. Jacob presumably being the chap slumbering in the bottom left. I like the blurry light effects that put in mind of Turner and the contrast of that between the dead looking trees in the bottom of the painting. I could look at this for a long time. It was one of my favourites in the whole place. Never come across de Gelder before and I am glad I have.
Raging torrents of water against ominous landscapes when done well always make good art and this piece called A Waterfall by Jacob van Ruisdael is an image to conjour with. The water effect is very good standing out against the much more indistinct background. I appreciate the naming as well. It allow imagination full reign. Where is this waterfall? Who is lying dead just out of shot etc?
Thomas Gainsborough is another artist who is excellent but whose work I mostly find dull. This is the problem with portrait painters, many of your subjects are just not going to be that interesting. This lady is different though. It is an excellent picture. Her slightly sad left looking expression. The melancholy background. It is called Mrs Elizabeth Moody and her sons. The figures are boys so if you come across one of those crushing sexist bores who insist that girls wear pink and boys blue because of some natural urge then after you have spat in their face you can refer them to this picture to show them how wrong they are. It has a good history this picture too. Mrs Moody died in her early 20s and the children where added to the painting later. Full length pictures are often more interesting then simple bust portraits.
A Couple of canelletos. I like Canelleto and the top left picture is a typical example of his well rendered chaotic venetian scenes. The top right though is also by him and is very interesting to me anyway as it is very different from anything like his I've seen before. The style is recognisably Canelleto but the odd skeletal bridge and the stormy sky and the whole thing revolves about the two figures in the. Apparently he lived and worked in England for a bit and this is one such painting from the time. I really like it. I like that bridge and of course water. Canelleto water is always worth an ponder.
I mentioned the Rubens three graces earlier on and here they are. Nice voluptious forms and so much energy and flowing movement. I in fact prefer this to his larger full colour works. It is interesting to compare it to Poussin's The Marriage on the right. The gallery has a whole ante-chamber full of Poussin but this is my favourite. It is so calm and stately with that dove hanging over everything and the Delacroix like block of colour segmenting other colours. Well and classically composed, a very calming work.
There are many other works and artists in the gallery, some of them very good, some of them a little dull. I shall leave you though with my two favourite paintings and new discovery, an artist I think I really like. He is called Murillo. I like the setting, I like the ways the figures are portrayed and their facial expressions and the way they interact. In the one on the left, Invitation to a Game of Argolla, I particularly like the sheen on the vase and the little dog. The blurb claims that this is two boys but I don't think so, the cheeky figure on the right is obviously a girl. Look at the face! What do you think?
The one on the right has the same dynamism. It also has the strikingly rare aspect of depicting a black person in western art. From his clothes as well you can see he is a higher status that the two urchins (who seem to be the same models as other two). The sens of movement is good and it all flows around that excellent shiny metal jug in the centre.
So Murillo and de Gleder (but Murillo more so) are my discoveries from Dulwich.
William John Mackenzie
I am an artist with a specialism in landscapes and still life. My contact details are here.