Velazquez at the National Gallery.

I bought a ticket for the Velazquez exhibition.  This was timed entry; I have no idea why, since they didn’t chuck you out – so selling tickets with timed entry didn’t stop it getting too crowded.  But it did mean I had forty minutes to spend before I could go in.  So I went to look at some of my favourite pictures.  I walked through the old part of the gallery to the new bit – the Sainsbury Wing.  I wanted to see the Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci; but for some reason it wasn’t there – perhaps it was on holiday, visiting friends in another city.  But I did see Botticelli, and the glorious Annunciation – peacocks and bolts of light and all – by Crivelli.  The whole of the National Gallery is connected by tall, wide archways which create long vistas; in a couple of places, the paintings have been hung to continue the perspective – the Incredulity of St Thomas.  (Healthy scepticism, I would say; though I do find it interesting how so much wonderful art has been produced in the name of religion.)

Back in the main building, I wandered through the galleries; there was a long, long view with Holbein’s Ambassadors at one end and Franz Hals’ Man Holding A Skull at the other; this must also be deliberately designed – both pictures feature skulls.  From the Hals I walked through to the Rembrandt room – such a beautiful play of light; amazing.

The Velazquez exhibition was glorious: full of beautiful paintings.  The exhibition gave an insight into the way the Spanish court worked, and how European royalty were so cut off: various portraits were of princesses and princes, who didn’t live beyond infancy (the implication being that their families were so inbred – uncles marrying their nieces, and first-cousins routinely marrying.

The exhibition was arranged chronologically, so one could see the development of the painter; though early on, Velazquez seemed to have found his style.  The early pictures – of ordinary people (street musicians; drinkers in a tavern; kitchen scenes) – use the same models repeatedly.  They are very evocative, quite simple pictures.  Velazquez captured the light stunningly: there is one painting of a woman working in a kitchen; she is wearing a turban to keep her hair out of the food, and the turban just catches the sun: it is very cleverly worked, just to highlight the turban.  This is actually a religious scene: although the main subject was the woman in the kitchen, Christ is in the background.

Religious scenes played an important role in Velazquez’s early career.  There is a beautiful painting of the Immaculate Conception, by moonlight; the portrayal of the moonlit clouds was beautiful.  Two paintings – one of St John the Evangelist, the other of St Thomas (cue Sonny) – seem to be of the same model; canonised twice?

The painting got bigger, the subjects rather more brutal: Christ after the Flagellation (suffering for the sins of the world in front of a small child – mmm), Jacob’s Bloody Coat.

There were scenes from mythology, too – large muscular men, telling tales.

I didn’t find the large court portraits so appealing – they were very studied.  One of the portraits showed Don Gaspar de Guzman (who features a few times) with a tiny head – the emphasise his stature, apparently – though to me it looked rather comical.  Over twenty five years, King Philip IV seemed not to change at all; I wondered whether this was true, or whether Velazquez was painting what the king wanted to see.

The highlight of the exhibition was definitely the Rokeby Venus: just stunningly beautiful.  Her gaze captured my eyes; I had to stare.  It is very sensual – sharing something quite intimate.  I sat and looked at it for a long time – feeling your gaze in the back of my eyes.

The exhibition was busy – crowded: I had to weave my way through the people peering in front of the pictures.  I took advantage of my height, and looked at the pictures from a distance.  I people-watched, too.  There was a tourist asking one of the museum attendants why everyone was wearing poppies (this was a couple of days before Remembrance Sunday); he gently explained.  There was a woman wearing boots that looked like they were made of tapestry, sown-through with threads of metal – her boots glinted and sparkled as she walked through the galleries.  A middle aged man wore a blue bow-tie, rather stylishly, I thought.

I walked across Trafalgar Sq – the first time I had been there since it was pedestrianised – and looked at the lions at the foot of Nelson’s Column, before walking once more across the river to the South Bank.  I went to see what was going on at the Queen Elisabeth Hall – and then went for a coffee; I sat and read, nearing the end of my book, and I suddenly realised that I was reaching the last few pages.  I felt desolate – the idea of not having anything to read after reading that book so intensely was horrifying.  I went to Foyles, desperate to find a new book – something lighter, not so intense or harrowing.  It was hard work, looking for a book: I couldn’t find anything I wanted to read.  I wandered the aisles, desperate for inspiration.  What I thought would take five minutes took half an hour – I bought a very entertaining memoir of Italy by Tim Park. 

Outside, it was dark; I walked beside the Thames a little and went onto Waterloo Bridge, taking some pictures of London at night.  St Paul’s looked spectacular – although it was a particularly cold light that illuminated the cathedral.

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