The first of its kind in England

THE ARCHITECT JOHN Soane (1753-1837) was skilled in designing buildings with features to permit natural light to reach parts of them that were far away from their exteriors. Good examples of this were the two homes he designed for himself, one in Lincolns Inn Fields, now the Soane Museum, and the other in Ealing, the recently restored Pitzhanger Manor. Another superb example, which we visited recently (December 2021) is the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London. Completed and opened in 1817, it became the first picture gallery in England that was open to the public.

Light enters Soane’s galleries at Dulwich from above via overhead sky lights. These were placed in such a way that they illuminate the hanging spaces without allowing direct sunlight to hit the paintings on the walls. This system has since been adopted in many other art galleries. Newer rooms, lit entirely by artificial lighting, are used for temporary exhibitions including that of the woodcuts of the American artist Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011), which we saw on our latest visit. Compared with Soane’s galleries, these newer ones are far less impressive, and despite the modern lighting they feel claustrophobic and rather gloomy.

The permanent collection of old masters, which is hung in Soane’s original galleries, is fabulous. Some of the paintings were parts of collections made before the 19th century. Others were supplied by the artist Sir Francis Bourgeois (1753–1811) and his business partner, the art dealer and collector, Noël Desenfans (1744–1807). Together they ran an art dealership in London and were commissioned in 1790 to purchase a collection of paintings for the then King of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, Stanisław August Poniatowski (1732-1798). It took them five years to do this but by 1795, the Commonwealth had been dissolved. The collection remained in England. After Desenfans died, Bourgeois inherited the collection and then commissioned Soane to design a gallery to house it. The superb gallery at Dulwich came into existence. Soane included within it a small circular mausoleum in which the remains of both Desenfans and Bourgeois have been placed. Rather irreverently, I felt, it was being used to screen a video about the artist Helen Frankenthaler.

In 1944, during WW2, the western façade of Soane’s gallery was badly damaged by bombing (a German V1 flying bomb) but it has been well-restored. Later, in 1999, a new café and other facilities in a modern style were built to the designs of the architect Rick Mather (1937-2013).

As for the exhibition of works by Frankenthaler, this was a delightful surprise. It is a collection of colourful abstract woodcuts that are the result of years of the artist’s complex and imaginative experimentation. Many of the works reminded me of, but were not identical to, the subtleties of Japanese ceramic glazes. Despite being displayed in galleries far less satisfactory than those designed by Soane, this as an art show well worth visiting before it ends on the 18th of April 2022.

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