In the heart of picturesque Dulwich Village, the oldest purpose-built gallery in the world, designed by architect Sir John Soane, stands stout and firm, self-confident in the world-class collection of paintings that can be found hanging on its walls. It is, of course, the Dulwich Picture Gallery.
As dog walkers cross the DPG’s garden to reach either Belair park or Dulwich Park, it is hard to imagine that only metres away there is a room of paintings given over exclusively to the works of Nicholas Poussin. In another, Rembrandt’s ‘A Girl At The Window’ is waiting to literally arrest the viewers gaze, transporting them to another mental place and time.
In the main hall, works by Canaletto and Gainsborough are more among many of the finest masterpieces you may ever care to remember. Every time I visit the DPG the urge to remain creeps over me as I fall in love with a picture that previously I only glanced at. This is a small space compared to somewhere like the National Gallery. It has a personal touch with oodles of charm.
With all this going on, why then were we lured to our favourite gallery on a Friday night to be informed, gently oiled (with cocktails first) and then put to work? Even established landmark galleries like the DPG need to keep an eye on the contemporary scene, and then when necessary, pounce on the local talent in an acquisitive manner.
Several talks were given focusing on masterpieces within the gallery by young well-informed people. Giving us backstory and hidden insights into the depths of the pictures, they then set us free to have our portraits painted by artists set up in the central gallery (I expect this was in case any of us make anything of our lives, the DPG can claim to have commissioned an early portrait!).
As we were leaving, we were diverted into a makeshift printmaking studio. What was going on? We were handed drawing boards and sent back to the gallery to sketch inspirations that would evolve into a fully etched print! I immediately ordered a glass of chardonnay from the pop-up Gimlet Bar to steady my nerves. It tasted fine with round buttery texture and a slight touch of citrus and caramel. I felt restored.
If the only way out was through art then art it must be! A portion of a face from Pietro di Cosimo’s portrait of 'A Young Man’ and the foot of Saint John The Baptist painted by Guido Reni, came together before me. A foot-in-mouth gesture that I am not myself unfamiliar with. Natalia, having spent the entire evening with me, expressed herself by capturing the suffering of Saint Sebastian, taken from another of Guido Reni’s striking painting masterpieces. A little piece of barbed foliage over his right nipple appearing particularly sinister.
We stepped back into the studio and started to etch. By now the room was full of us, herded in from the main gallery to pay our creative dues to the DPG stores. The prints have been given to us on an unspoken semi-permanent loan, however, we expect that when the DPG comes knocking, they will be recalled to hang among their peers across the annals of art history.
The Dulwich Picture Gallery is one of London’s finest treasure troves of art and a joy to visit. If you haven’t already, or not for a while, then you really should consider dropping in for a dose of pleasure. It can’t be regretted.