Saturday, February 13, 2010

Mastering Truth and Illusion in London's National Gallery

So what’s the best 55 British pounds I never spent on travel?

A small group tour of the National Gallery in London with Context Travel. I think it is important to say right up front that I was invited by Context to join this tour as part of a relationship building exercise. It is also important to say that of all the museum tours I have ever taken (and trust me, I’ve taken plenty) this tour was the best.

I wasn’t expecting to be bedazzled by another trip to the National Gallery. After all, I’ve been there countless times ( 5 times a year X the last 15 years = at least 75 visits) but that was the tour on offer and I was keen to see if Context could deliver on their big brand promise of offering "scholar-led experiences for the intellectually curious traveler". I should also say that I don't much like to be led. Maybe it's just because I am a child of the 60s but when I travel, I really like to do my own thing.

Despite the caveats, I was bedazzled. For three solid hours, my small group of four (including two intrepid gentlemen who had just flown in from Dallas for the weekend) experienced something special – a history of art Master Class for art loving amateurs. As you can imagine, that's not an easy thing to deliver. Our Context docent, Scott Nethersole, wove an incredible narrative out of one of the world’s greatest art collections that included scholarship, anecdotes, humour and a love of subject so infectious that it made me want to go back to University and study art.

Be forewarned, if what you want is a quick introduction and some highlights then I don't think Context is for you. These are tours and itineraries for travelers who want to dig deep into a topic and it would be a waste of your time and the docent’s talent to sign up with Context if that’s not what you are about.

Context offers an impressive range of experiences in many major cities. They have small groups you can join, as I did, which keeps cost down or they can arrange for private groups and custom itineraries including private tours of the Vatican and special programs for families with children. They have a good website and you can check it all out here.

As for me, I plan to use Context again, even when I’m paying my own way. I was expecting a "tour' of the National Gallery. Instead I attended an amazing three hour Master Class in the history of western art. I can't think of a better way to experience a great museum.

Photo of the Toilet of Venue ("Rokeby Venus") by Velazques - one of the many paintings we saw with a fabulous story attached.

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