Thursday, September 15, 2005

How Far is Dulwich?

What an idiot I am. Yesterday, after ten years of living in London, I finally made it to the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It was one of those places I had every intention of visiting and never did. It seemed so far away. Sometimes distance is all in your head. In fact, Dulwich is a mere 4 miles from central London and only an 11 minute train ride from Victoria Station. After a 10 minute scenic walk from the station to the gallery, I found myself in one of the most perfect small museums I have ever visited.

To begin with, the gallery’s setting is an excellent antidote to congested central London. Take the National Gallery, improve the building, shrink it down and then place it in a prosperous, leafy Georgian village, and you about have the feel of the place. Unlike staff at most heavily trafficked museums, this staff, including the guards, seemed so pleased that I had come to see their pictures. And what magnificent pictures they are, representing a virtual greatest hits list of the 16th and 17th century with Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, Canalleto and Gainsborough to name a few.

Sir John Soane designed the Gallery in 1811 as the first purpose built public gallery in England to house the collection of two Georgian art dealers. These founders, Sir Francis Bourgeois and Noel Desenfans, can still be found in the Gallery, buried in the Mausoleum in the centre. It has been said that the iconic building became the basis for all galleries that came after, so if you want to see the “mother of all public museums”, head for Dulwich.

I arrived at the Gallery during the late morning of a lovely autumn day. At that time the place was full of school groups and ordinarily this is not good news. But there was something different about these children. Instead of the usual bored and noisy groups, some of the magic of the place seemed to have rubbed off and the children were actually interested in what they were seeing. In fact, watching the education staff at work gave a big boost to my belief in the benefits of arts education and by listening in, I learned something too.

After about an hour, I decided to visit the Picture Gallery CafĂ© for some lunch. This is a busy place, frequented by both visitors and locals, probably because the setting is so attractive. As the wait for tables can be long, if possible, call ahead on 020 8299 8711 to reserve. The food was OK, not great, but good by museum standards. Service was friendly and attentive and the price was correct. I paid £12 for a large piece of poached salmon, salad and beverage including service. Although I’ve never eaten there, right down the road, is Belair House, a serious restaurant in an imposing Georgian house romantically positioned overlooking a park which is another good, if much more expensive, option.

After lunch I went back to the Gallery for a second look. This time, the school children
had departed and I relished the pleasure of having masterpieces such as Rembrandt’s “A Girl at the Window” pictured above all to myself. After another hour, it was time to walk to Dulwich College for the start of my son’s rugby match against the venerable public school. Standing on the rugby pitch of the school founded in 1619 by the actor Edward Alleyn, I thought about what a brilliant “No Crowds” day it had been. All would have been completely perfect had my son not lost his match, but never mind, I will be forever grateful to him for finally getting me to Dulwich.

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