Tony Grist (poliphilo) wrote,
Tony Grist

Dulwich Picture Gallery

Turn right at the main entrance and there, even before you arrive at the ticket desk, is a wall of portraits of English actors. Nat Field looks the part- gipsy-like, pale, sensitive and sexy- but the chap above him is the one you came to see- and he gives nothing away. It's a stern face- not at all friendly, holding the world at arm's length- but also, though you struggle to see it,  the face of Richard III, Hamlet, Lear, Macbeth. Yes, this is Richard Burbage.

If I could have that one off trip in a time machine, I wouldn't go back and view the crucifixion or look for an opportunity to shoot Hitler, I'd go see Burbage's Hamlet. I suppose that shows what my values are

The portraits of actors formed part of the collection of Edward Alleyn- also an actor (Marlowe's original Tamburlaine, Faustus etc) and came as part of the package when he founded The College of God's Gift- now known as Dulwich College. This spare little collection of Tudor and Jacobean oddities was supplemented- perhaps one might say overwhelmed- at the beginning of the 19th century by a bequest from the art dealer, Francis Bourgeois. He and his partner, Noel Desenfans (the one French, the other Swiss) had put together a collection of mainly 17th century paintings for the King of Poland- who then went and got himself deposed- leaving the partners with art on their hands. They decided to give it to the nation (bloody foreigners, coming over here, imposing their poxy foreign art on us), considered the British Museum as a legatee ( but found its directors too snooty) and finally settled on Dulwich College. The Bourgeois-Desenfans collection is fabulous, containing work by Van Dyck, Rubens, Poussin, Murillo, Guercino- and no fewer than three Rembrandts- one of them- the girl at the window- a masterpiece.  After Bourgeois's death the collection was further enhanced by bequests from the Linley and Fairfax Murray families- consisting, mainly- of  top quality18th century English portraits.

As planning progressed, Bourgeois brought in his friend, the architect Sir John Soane, who suggested- after Bourgeois's death- that the art should be housed in a building of its own and submitted plans to Bourgeois's widow, Margaret,  It was to be the first purpose-built, public art gallery ever constructed. Money was tight, causing the original design to be simplified and then simplified again- with an outcome- plain brickwork and simple geometrical shapes- that is timeless in its austerity.

And then there's the anomaly. At the rear of the building you turn aside from the paintings, go down a step  and enter a space of classical piety, woozily lit by a cupola full of lucozade-coloured glass. The great stone sarcophagus in the alcove to the left contains the body of Noel Desenfans, the one to the right contains that of his wife and the one straight ahead of you that of Francis Bourgeois. Bourgeois and Desefans are further commemorated- Roman style- with busts. Mrs D- who was the last of three to go- chose not to add her own. In the midst of life we are in death- which is not an experience- in spite of the Chapman Brothers- available to be enjoyed at Tate Modern.
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