Saturday, 26th April 2008 – National Portrait Gallery, National Dining Rooms, Royal Academy, London
After a great deal of promising ourselves trips to various exhibitions, and then never getting round to them, I decided that Lynne and I had done enough talking about going to the National Portrait Gallery and the Vanity Fair photo exhibition and I knew if we didn’t make concrete plans – including booking tickets in advance – we’d never do more than just talk about it. It also meant I’d a chance of getting to the Cranach exhibition at the Royal Academy. Bookings duly made for both, we caught the train from Bicester North to Marylebone (clutching a latte from the station cafe) and arrived in good time to collect the Cranach tickets (we were booked in for 3pm) and then walk back to the NPG via the always splended Fortnum & Mason, where we drooled a lot over the fabulous displays, snorted derisively over some of the prices for everyday foods while simultaneously being stunned by how a fruit and vegetable display could be quite such a thing of beauty, and managed not to buy anything… How, exactly, I’m still not sure. Probably because we both kept telling each other we couldn’t afford anything!
From there we sidled round the quiet way to Trafalgar Square only to get caught in a rain shower as we were almost at the door. It was damn cold out suddenly, and neither of us were wearing heavy coats (the last thing you need when you’re getting on the underground, or going into overheated museums and galleries). Chilled right through, we grabbed our tickets for the other exhibition and retreated, shivering, to the cafe in search of coffee and tea. Duly thawed out by the time our 11.15 time-slot, we meandered our way through the exhibition, which is very interesting both in terms of some of the subject matter and – more so to my way of thinking – in illustrating portrait techniques in photography. What was particularly interesting was the way in which some of the oldest photographs looked incredibly modern in both composition and colour/sharpness of image. It was very impressive, and it was really easy to spend a couple of hours in there – though the two idiotic women standing having a meaningless conversation right in front of one of the photos didn’t improve anyone’s enjoyment, especially as they showed no inclination to move out of the way even when I pushed behind one of them to try and get a look at the photo they were obscuring. Some people are just dense and seriously lacking in social skills I suppose.
Shortly after that, clutching the exhibition catalogue, we made our way next door to the National Gallery for lunch in the National Dining Rooms. Again, I’d booked in advance, and we got one of the best tables in the place, right in the corner of the windows overlooking Trafalgar Square, so we could watch whatever weird goings on were going on out there right then – there’s always something after all. Lynne reckoned she saw a couple of Roman soldiers so we assume that was some sort of money for charity stunt. I didn’t see them – I was too busy studying the lunch menu – and by the time I’d turned around, they’d vanished into the underground. Anyway, the charming waiter next distracted us with bread (very good, nice crunchy crust, lovely fresh butter), and took out orders for lunch. Starting with a kir each, we then moved on to the starters. Lynne had the goats’ cheese and I opted for the wild mushroom tart, both more than acceptable. There was a decent pause before the main courses arrived, during which time the waiter accidentally took my bread roll before I’d finished it – thus saving me from myself, frankly. He offered to get me another one, but I turned the offer down – I wanted to save myself for the main course, a wise idea as it turned out. I don’t often eat pork – it’s usually too dry to be pleasant, and I tend to have difficulties digesting it – but this time I let myself be talked into it and I’m very glad I did. Very tender, very tasty, and the crackling was crisp and wonderful. Lynne’s lamb looked pretty good too and the one bite I was allowed suggested it was… For pudding I succumbed to a treacle tart and Lynne had cheese with walnut bread.
And from there to the Cranach exhibition. Now Lynne’s not a great one for medieval painting, taking exception to the lack of proper perspective, the fact that most of the painters appear never to have seen a baby, or for that matter a naked woman, but persist in painting them, and also the fact that the faces are often more or less identical regardless of the age or sex of the subject. Now that’s a charge that can be laid squarely at the door of the workshop Cranach had churning out paintings for rich patrons, but I would argue that a lot of those paintings were clearly done in a hurry to maintain a steady income from those prepared to buy inferior quality work churned out from a pattern. However, they do not look at all like the work of the same hand (or eye for that matter) that produced works like the portraits of Martin Luther, which to me is an all-too-human face, the face of someone you’d see in the street even today. And it’s works like that and like this that more than make up for the very strange looking people in the almost slipshod “popular” works of the day, like this frankly worrying looking water nymph or some of the crowd scenes where what I assume to be the patron and his/her family members seem to appear as real-looking people on one side, while a batch of gurning identikit faces appear on the other (and I wish I could find an online example to show you). Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and was more than happy to spend a couple of hours staring closely at the works on show. I’d have been even happier if they’d been Dürers, rather than Cranachs, but I’ll take what I can get! Another catalogue later, and museum back had kicked in, and it was time to go home…