"Room A"

June 2 2014

Image of "Room A"

Picture: National Gallery

Good news from the National Gallery - Room A, the great basement room of wonders where pictures not on display are hung, is now open again [above]. As I reported in July 2012, it was closed for renovation. Previously the room was open only on Wednesday afternoons, and half of it was invariably roped off. It will now be open all day on Wednesday and Sunday. Jonathan Jones has more details in The Guardian, and says:

Unlike other London museums that store hundreds of works off-site, the National Gallery keeps its entire collection in its Trafalgar Square building and tries to offer the maximum possible access. But in practice this had not been working. Only researchers could really get much out of the old, obscure Gallery A. You had to know what you were looking for, or at least have the knowedge to make some sense of the dim aisles.

Now, a two-year refurbishment has transformed a dowdy labyrinth with state-of-the-art lighting, subtle wall colouring and a clever choice of paintings. This new take on the museum's collection is a wonder. The pictures that go on permanent view here this week as part of the free displays will be unfamiliar to most people although they are all in the gallery's permanent collection, and the majority have been since the Victorian age.

Some are considered to be "studio" creations, in which a famous artist let his apprentices do most of the work – such as the beautiful Botticellis that fill a wall. Others are perhaps a bit clumsily restored or were never quite up the master's best, or are painted sketches or copies. Some are by artists who are just not famous any more, such as the intense, chaotic oils of the 19th-century painter Adolphe Monticelli. In his lifetime this artist of nature was acclaimed as a visionary. He was revered by Vincent van Gogh, who thought he was imitating Monticelli when he painted the Sunflowers. Monticelli's strange daubs can now be compared with the Van Goghs upstairs.

Yet again, the papers have felt unable illustrate an art story without the ubiquitous girl-walking-blurrily-in-front-of-the-camera shot. There's a similar one below. Should we call this 'everyday art history sexism'?

Update - a reader who has looked carefully at the collection website writes, cautioning:

Actually not so good news.  Room A, and several other linked subterranean galleies, used to display almost every painting the NG had that was not on display elsewhere.  Now, having done a quick check of some old favorites, it clearly doesn't do that.

In other words, and after all the expense and years in refurbishment - it does look pretty! - the public is worse off than before.  The Gallery now actually DOES have a reserve collection of works not on display.

I would agree that that old gallery was neither an ideal nor a pleasant place to view pictures but at least everything was on display and it was always a fascinating exercise sorting the wheat from the chaff in the cheek-by-jowl hanging.  Over the years I remember peering through darkened varnish at a number of works wondering about their status: why was Reni's Susannah thought to be a copy when it was clearly well painted under the yellow, and the lynx fur on the portrait of Fracastoro continully raised the interesting question that the work might actually be by Titian. And what yet is there to discover: the National's dirtiest painting is not hanging anywhere for people to make their mind up.

I do hope this isn't the case. I'll go tomorrow and report back.

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