Dulwich Picture Gallery: Traditional but not Dull

Above: Dulwich Picture Gallery main entrance. Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Poliphilo

Fifteen minutes by commuter train from the center of London and you find yourself in another world. Greener, fresher, slower. The short walk from the station to Dulwich Picture Gallery takes you through quiet, leafy, well-to-do suburbia, but it is also a travel back in time. You pass the restrained white Georgian elegance of Belair House, built in 1785 when Dulwich was just a village, now a fancy restaurant. When John Soane’s Picture Gallery with its distinctive, brick architecture comes into sight it seems surprisingly modern. 

The pleasure of visiting Dulwich Picture Gallery begins before you even get inside. The building is a small-scale masterpiece by one of Britain’s greatest, but surprisingly little known, architects. Soane’s minimalist Neoclassicism has almost Art Deco streamlining with an emphasis on pure, clean lines and unadorned arches. The choice of London stock brick was functional, to keep costs down, but it serves to keep the building grounded and makes it more welcoming. And Soane did not skimp on the things which mattered to him: notice the subtle geometric detailing on the Portland stone frieze and the pilasters and blind arches which create a ripple of shadows on the walls. Look up, and the roofline is anything but plain, with raised lanterns of varied height and shape to maximize natural light inside, pavilions and antique urns atop the Mausoleum – Soane’s one piece of significant decoration.

The gallery sits at one end of a well-used three acre, soon to be home to a sculpture meadow and new exhibition space, and already dotted with contemporary artworks. On most days there’s a buzz of children, people reading and lunching on benches, dog walkers: this is a locals’ spot rather than a tourist trap and feels all the better for it. Expanding beyond its original walls, the museum now includes a modernist pavilion, home to a suitably upmarket café which does a good range of light lunches and a very decent lemon drizzle cake. It’s the perfect spot from which to admire Soane’s style. You have to be thankful that after the building was severely damaged during the Second World War, they opted for authentic reconstruction rather than a rebuild. Dulwich was, in fact, the UK’s first public gallery, founded in 1811 with a bequest from Sir Francis Bourgeois, and opened to the public six years later. Sir Francis had been commissioned by the King of Poland to source works for his royal collection, only for the King to abdicate before they were delivered. Unable to off-load the paintings to either the Russian Tsar or the British government, Sir Francis left £2000 for the establishment of a gallery to house them.

Dulwich Picture Gallery, Interior View Down Main Gallery
PHOTOGRAPH BY https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Doyle_of_London

The interior design is simple: a long central gallery, with three display rooms and shop, off through open-archways, beautifully lit by those glass roof lights. If it looks familiar it is, because it became a much-copied model and Dulwich doesn’t try to be different, sticking to largely red walls and a traditional, often double-row hang. This means inevitably there are some paintings which you struggle to see because of height and reflected light, but the viewing experience is generally good. The galleries have an airy feel, which makes you forget their smaller scale, and they take their cue from the external architecture with no fussy moldings or skirting. Arguably the benches could be a little less streamlined and more comfortable, but this is not the sort of place where you need to rest weary legs during an art marathon. The labelling is basic and understated with occasional stimulus interventions, and there’s the option of a Bloomberg Connects guide (and free WIFI if you want to look anything up). Again, you could call it conservative: certainly, the gallery is not trying to follow the current trend towards didactic labelling such as you might encounter at the new Tate Britain hang.

Nicholas Poussin, The Triumph of David, c.1628-31
PHOTOGRAPH BY https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:DcoetzeeBot

The style suits the collection which is heavy on Baroque and eighteenth century British. This is not the venue if you’re an Early Renaissance enthusiast or if your idea of good art starts with the Impressionists, but what is there is top-notch: Rubens, Rembrandt, Poussin, Reynolds, Gainsborough. The hang is roughly chronological, with British art generally separated from European examples, but the main entrance is in the center of the building so there is no obvious route to take. Go where your eye takes you. There are some show-stoppers, notably Peter-Paul Rubens’ Venus, Mars and Cupid which is unmissable across Gallery 4 in terms of sheer scale and the buttery fleshiness of the central figure. Joshua Reynolds’ Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse (a good studio copy) and Thomas Gainsborough’s Mrs. Elizabeth Moody and her Sons duke it out amongst the cream of British portraiture in Gallery 10. The Triumph of David is the most striking of Dulwich’s collection of Nicholas Poussin’s works (Gallery 11), Goliath’s huge head gruesome on a spike in the center.

Personal favorites include Guido Reni’s St Sebastian (Gallery 2) all deathly-pale skin, eerily dark shadows and agonizingly contorted body; Thomas Lawrence’s understated portrait of William Linley (Gallery 10) his Romantic flowing locks and pensive look perfectly captured by the artist’s dashingly loose brushwork and Canaletto’s View of Walton Bridge (Gallery 11), one of the artist’s views of Britain which doesn’t just look like Venice, and which contains a cheeky self-portrait as well. There is a fine selection of Dutch landscapes, as well John Constable pretending to be Dutch with a copy of Jacob van Ruisdael’s Landscape with Windmills near Haarlem, which Dulwich also own (they are both on show in Gallery 5). There you can also see Rembrandt’s range from the crisp, near-monochrome early portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III to the later Girl at a Window, smoky with shadow and impasto.

Canaletto, A View of Walton Bridge, 1754
PHOTOGRAPH BY https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:DcoetzeeBot

If all that seems a tad dull and Old Master-ish, Dulwich has an innovative program of temporary exhibitions in a sequence of galleries which run parallel to those of the permanent display – at the moment (until June 2 2024) there is a contemporary landscape show, later in the summer Japanese prints. The exhibitions I’ve been to, which have recently included Rubens, Berthe Morisot and Helen Frankenthaler, have always been well-curated, thoughtfully displayed, and just a bit above average in terms of what they want to achieve. Dulwich is very good at working with other collections and guest curators. You get a real sense that this is a gallery which knows its strengths and its limitations (mainly of scale) and manages both constructively.

Dulwich Picture Gallery is just far enough from central London to get over-looked, despite a collection which can rival those of the major national institutions. It is also part of a local community which is proud and supportive of it. Everything about the place feels cared for and appreciated; it doesn’t seem to get too busy but there’s always a gentle hum of visitors; it is well-kept, staffed by genuine (largely volunteer) enthusiasts and full of properly good art. Most importantly, it’s not overwhelming: you can take your time, enjoy the works, remember familiar faces and appreciate the occasional surprise. In short, it’s a joy.

The gallery is open 10-5 daily, except Mondays.

There are regular trains from Victoria Station as well as buses from central London.

Entry fee (which includes temporary exhibitions) is £17.50, but plenty of concessions are available. It makes sense to visit when there is an exhibition on which interests you.

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Catriona Miller

Catriona Miller is an independent art historian and writer on art based in the UK. She has taught and lectured on all aspects of art history and is currently researching women artists in British collections and issues of nationalism and identity in nineteenth-century landscape painting.