In 1795, when the Russians deposed the last King of Poland, they also inadvertently helped create one of the great little museums of the world -- in the sleepy London suburb of Dulwich.
In 1790, with an eye to starting a national gallery in Warsaw, King Stanislas Augustus had asked London art dealer Noel Desenfans to assemble a collection of Old Master paintings. Then Poland was partitioned.
Desenfans tried to recoup by selling the 200-some works -- by Rembrandt, Rubens, Poussin, Murillo and other favorites of the king -- to the Russians, and then to the British government for the formation of a National Gallery in London. Failing, he bequeathed his collection to his friend and colleague, Sir Francis Bourgeois, leaving to him the task of finding a place that would both house and exhibit it. A bad fall from a horse prompted Bourgeois to swift action: he gave the paintings to Dulwich College -- then an almshouse and school for poor boys (and now an almshouse and upscale prep school) -- just two weeks before he died.
Thus was built, in 1814, the Dulwich Picture Gallery, the first public picture gallery in England. It predated the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square by a decade.
Since then, the Dulwich Picture Gallery has been at least as important for its architecture as for its collection -- which is, largely by an accident of location, one of England's best-kept secrets. One of the few surviving buildings designed by Bank of England architect Sir John Soane, Dulwich's gracefully proportioned neoclassical galleries and innovative skylit roof -- not to mention its mausoleum-like exterior -- have since become prototypes for museums from Munich to Maine, and from London's National Gallery to the National Gallery in Washington.
Appropriately, "Collection for a King: Old Master Paintings from the Dulwich Picture Gallery" goes on view today in the National Gallery West Building -- one of the many museums it helped inspire.
The show is a delight for reasons that go beyond the sheer quality of paintings like Poussin's large and grand "Triumph of David," one of his first masterpieces (and one of two of the Dulwich Poussins included here). For one thing, the works here have a very human scale -- there are 36 small or medium-sized pictures. And, though most are by famous 17th- and 18th-century artists -- including Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Canaletto and Gainsborough -- they are largely unfamiliar to all but scholars and can thus be approached without the eye-glazing awe often inspired by world-famous icons.
In fact, if there is a thread that unites the Dulwich paintings that have made the trip, it is the personal, intimate nature of so many of the works, especially the portraits -- of which there are many -- often rendered with direct eye contact. Rembrandt's captivating "Girl Leaning on a Stone Pedestal," for example -- a rosy-cheeked, red-headed teen-ager (probably a household servant) gazing pensively at the viewer -- shows the artist at his most informal and relaxed. And Sir Anthony Van Dyck, though represented by a typically grand portrait, of Emmanuel Philibert of Savoy in full regalia, is also caught in a rare and intimate moment as he paints the haunting image of Lady Venetia Digby with a symbolic wilted rose, on her deathbed.
Even the Spanish painter of levitating saints, Bartolome' Este'ban Murillo, is, mercifully, represented by earthbound children and a flower girl. And a wonderfully sketchy portrait by Thomas Gainsborough of the young Samuel Linley -- one of the 12 talented children of musician/composer Thomas Linley -- shows both his extraordinary virtuosity and an intense involvement with his subject. This portrait of Linley, incidentally, is one of several paintings that came to Dulwich in the Linley bequest, given by William Linley, represented here in a far more romantic portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence. If there are strange noises after hours in the National Gallery these days, it may well be the Linley boys having a grand reunion with their well-known singer-sister Elizabeth, who married playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan, and whose splendid portrait hangs upstairs, part of the National Gallery's own collection.
There are so many other wonderful Dutch, Flemish, French and English landscape and genre paintings to be savored here (the Italian paintings being the most unsatisfying): the wonderfully detailed flora in the serene, late "Landscape With Jacob, Laban and His Daughters" by Claude Lorrain; the delicious "Winter Scene With a Man About to Kill a Pig" by David Teniers the Younger; the gripping, wind-whipped "Boats in a Storm" by Ludolf Bakhuizen; the riveting view of "Old Walton Bridge Over the Thames" painted in England by Venetianpainter Canaletto and bound to lure anyone from across the room, despite its tiny size.
This is a show to be looked at, not read, though curiosity is quickly rewarded by the remarkably concise labels that are stenciled on the wall alongside each work. Each painting here hangs on its own as art, not as a fragment of art history. Those who wish to know more can find it easily -- and with great pleasure -- in the superb catalogue written by the Dulwich Picture Gallery's able and amiable director, Giles Waterfield. Don't miss it.
The National Gallery has not captured the ambiance of Dulwich itself -- a Regency period environment, with natural illumination from skylights atop tall galleries. The paintings there are double, sometimes triple hung in their elaborate frames, which have accompanied them to Washington. The walls in Dulwich are painted an authentic 19th-century gallery red, from an original recipe, rather than the odd brown background used here. Also missing are the furniture and clocks belonging to Mrs. Desenfans that add a homey touch to Dulwich.
Like many people of his time, Soane, architect of the museum at Dulwich, was fascinated with death, and the building actually houses, at its center, a mausoleum that contains the remains of the donors. Soane also included a sarcophagus for himself, but it was never used. The outside of the yellow brick building reflects the look of a mausoleum -- as do many museums that followed, including the National Gallery of Art and the Freer.
All of this is lost at the National Gallery -- along with the natural light. But the dramatic artificial spotlights here not only permit but invite closer scrutiny, a fact enhanced by the removal of glass from several works and the cleaning of several others. They've probably never looked better.
A few other paintings -- important ones by Rubens and Watteau -- also did not make the trip because some are painted on wood panels, which are particularly vulnerable to changes in temperature and humidity. The Watteau, however, titled "Les Plaisirs du Bal," was a highlight of the Watteau exhibition at the National Gallery last year.
Also among the missing: a small and very fine Rembrandt stolen twice during the past five years and still sadly missing.
During a press viewing earlier this week, two visitors happened upon the exhibition, took a long look, marveled and said "Dulwich? I was just in England for the umpteenth time last week. Why didn't somebody tell me about this place?"
Somebody's telling them now. And it is hoped that the effort will raise enough attention and financial support to insure the future of this little gem in the countryside outside London.
Dulwich is more than a fine collection and a building with an important architectural pedigree. It is a monument to the collecting eye of the time, which turns out to have been very impressive, despite several clinkers misattributed to Leonardo, Titian and the like, now relegated to the Dulwich basement. It is also a time capsule of taste, and a freeze frame of late 18th- and early 19th-century attitudes toward art. Pictures were hung -- and people went to see them in those days -- for the pure pleasure of it all. Dulwich is an endangered species, a last pocket of resistance against the notion of paintings as mere art history, as artifacts of culture worship.
Conceived and organized by National Gallery Curator Arthur Wheelock, the show will continue at the National Gallery West Building through Sept. 2. It will travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in October.