Up close and personal with the best art ever.
Golden Man – one of London’s famous gravity-defying living statues – and a couple of pavement artists are just setting up in Trafalgar Square as Drovers’ art appreciation group arrives at the National Gallery. Such distractions are not going to sidetrack this group from choosing to spend time with just one painting. Since the summer the group have made close acquaintance with a number of old masters housed in the National Gallery collection, such as the Wilton Diptych, Rubens’ View of Het Steen, Pintoricchio’s Penelope with the Suitors, Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors and Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne. Everyone is abuzz that today’s choice is Mr and Mrs Andrews by Gainsborough. “Satin dresses” says someone with relish; for others there’s relief because “I like Gainsborough”, for another it’s bringing back student days “I studied Gainsborough when I was 18”. Plenty are just looking forward to getting up close and personal with a new painting.
Age UK Islington are part of the National Gallery’s Access to Art programme, a collaboration which has enabled training and support for independent visits to the gallery, making trips like these possible.
In the gallery volunteers Diane Armstrong and Yve Newbold expertly lead us to the right Gainsborough, bypassing the National Gallery’s other 2,300 masterpieces. Soon the group gathers around an oil painting, completed in 1750 when Thomas Gainsborough was just 23.
“It’s a wedding portrait of two people; an arranged marriage. The bride was 18 and Mr Andrews was about 24,” begins Diane confidently, “but it’s a double painting because it is also a landscape. Mr Andrews owns all you can see and the bride’s parents owned the land beside it. This is the English countryside, it’s Suffolk. Gainsborough was a Suffolk man but most people didn’t want pictures of fields, so he had to make a living as a portrait artist.” Yve then follows this up by explaining that Gainsborough made his name as a painter after he left Suffolk. First he moved to Bath – the happening city of the time – and then set up a studio near where we are now, in Pall Mall, London.
After these introductions everyone is given a card to write down thoughts and feelings about the painting. Looking closer it’s clear that Mrs Andrews is in a beautiful dress and shoes, the storm clouds are coming and sheep are enclosed in a paddock in an immaculate landscape. Soon a lively conversation has begun. There is a lot of interest in what sort of gun Mr Andrews is holding and his role in Britain’s agrarian revolution. The sharpest eyes have noticed that the painting is unfinished as there’s a gap on Mrs Andrews’ lap, perhaps left so that a baby could be added. Diane reckons it would be for a wedding posy. Someone else suggests a quill or book.
Yve explains that this unfinished element of this 18th century “selfie” is still “a mystery” to art critics. “Gainsborough was not a ‘people person’,” she says, but “Mr Andrews was his school friend so handing over an unfinished painting suggests a falling out.” The mystery seems unlikely to be solved because the painting was kept in the family for 200 years before being sold to the nation, in 1960.
The Drovers’ group is loving this mix of culture, history and gossip. Yusuf says: “This is interesting. My sister is into art so I’ll tell her about it.”
Cathy calls the trip, “Interesting. Very few of the paintings are new to me, but I’ve not looked at this painting for such a long time before. It’s a real opportunity.”
Ines on her first trip inside the National Gallery is impressed. “I’m often a tour guide for my American relations. Normally I never go into the galleries, I just go to the café, but Andrea said I should come. Mr and Mrs Andrews are rich – look at all their land.”
Hilda, on her third gallery tour, accompanying her friend Valerie, says: “I love the way these talks make you think about other things. I used to look at the brushwork, because painting is my hobby. Now I look at paintings completely differently, looking for textures and thinking about what life was like when it was painted.”
Yvonne, who only recently organised a retrospective for her husband Lee Travis’ work at Highgate, is feeling nostalgic. “I’ve not looked at this painting for years, but I think this must be Mr and Mrs Andrews’ favourite place.”
Karen is tickled by Mr Andrews’ “Poldark hat” while Florine, with a long career in textiles, wants to know more about the dress which she describes as “light sky blue, as if the dawn is rising, with a gold border”.
Ted defends Mr and Mrs Andrews’ aristocratic sneer, pointing out that: “it’s extremely difficult to paint someone smiling.” Arthur, who paints a lot, agrees, but is clearly fascinated by the doubling up of portrait and landscape. Perhaps something he can try?
After the talk there is time for coffee, green tea and biscuits. As everyone is still taking about art it’s clear that this visit has been hugely enjoyed by all who’ve come along. “If someone had told me six months ago that I’d be looking at the paintings the way I am now, I’d have been so surprised,” says Diane. “I’ve discovered that I enjoy paintings as much as music now that I have an idea about what to look for – it’s a real accolade for what Age UK Islington is doing for older people.”
Art Appreciation trips are monthly on Thursdays (see listings for details).
Join our next trip to meet a National Gallery painting on Thursday 18 January at 11am.