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London art galleries and a bit of Cornwall & Wales

Michael Kluckner

A very incomplete trip, at least as far as my own artwork was concerned, as its primary purpose was to see some of the big gardens of the west country and Wales in the full glory of springtime, a season we had missed on our previous three trips to Britain, and take in London's incomparable art museums.

Because of this timetable, I took some snapshots with the phone along the way, rather than try to capture the very challenging, complex National Trust houses and their landscaping in paints. (The link opens as a pop-up on a computer and as a separate page on a tablet or phone.)

As I recalled from past trips, Britain is a difficult place to paint unless you have the leisure to get out on the public footpaths in the countryside with all the appropriate gear, including a brolly. The classic view of much of southern England, from the point of view of a motorist, is a narrow tunnel with tall hedgerows on both sides and the occasional peek through onto glorious patchworks of sheep-dotted meadow. Once you've found one spot to paint, others you come across begin to look the same, which is not a criticism exactly. It is a beautiful landscape.

Drawing in London

London was way too busy, too crowded, exciting and complex for any kind of regular painting, but I found myself, as I often do, wanting to draw people in pubs and also in the art museums where we spent so much time. After a few rooms of paintings, a temporary art fatigue would set in (along with back fatigue), and I would sit on a bench in a room near a favorite painting and watch the people stream by.

There ought to be a time-and-motion study of people looking at art: the slow pace past "Old Masters" as people examine brushwork and detail, the crowding around favorites like the Impressionists', most of which are quite small, then the faster pace as people begin to stride (en route to the café and gift shop) past the abstract and conceptual 20th-century works that they can't make head or tail of.

The size of paintings from different eras also has an effect: some large Renaissance and Baroque ones, especially with arcane religious themes, are utterly remote from current sensibilities, leaving people at a bit of a loss as they shuffle by. However, the late-19th century works, especially by Van Gogh, Manet and Monet, have crowds in front of them revelling in the painted sunshine and their own romantic notions of the fin de siècle. Some 20th-century works such as Picasso's are surprisingly small, whereas mid-20th-century works might be gargantuan, with only four or six in a big room – in my experience, in London and elsewhere, it's only the Rothkos and the Pollocks that have the magic to stop people and cause them to linger the way they do around earlier, more pictorial art. Perhaps another reason why people pick up speed and whip through the recent and contemporary work is the layout of most art museums – chronological. Exhaustion can set in just as the footsore connoisseur reaches the contemporary rooms.

London is teeming with tourists as well as having 8 or 10 million of its own citizens. The crowds are stupendous, especially because the big public galleries have no formal admission fee and appear to be treated as free by many people (although a £4 donation is requested). Thus, the Courtauld Gallery was comparatively empty behind its paywall, even though it only cost about £6 to get in, leaving us free to contemplate one of Manet's masterpieces, Bar at the Folies-Bergère, in an almost empty room.

Below: some drawings in the Moleskine sketchbook done during a hectic 5 days in late April in London.

At the Friend in Hand pub near Russell Square, a man couldn't help watching the soccer on the big screen...

The Tap on the Line is a pub next to the Kew Underground Station. Like nowhere else in the world, well-dressed English businessmen stand at
the bar of their favorite pub with a pint late in the afternoon on their way home from the office.

What used to be common in European museums and is now rare – an art student drawing in the Tate Britain.
A generation ago, galleries like the Louvre often had students, some with easels and oils, trying to unravel the mysteries of old styles and techniques.

A John Constable masterpiece in the National Gallery; an early-19th century painter with a rather gloomy palate, Constable doesn't attract the crowds
who gather round the brightly coloured Impressionists and Post-Impressionists.

There was always a crowd in front of Van Gogh's Yellow Chair at the National Gallery, usually including somebody tweeting.
From the bench, it was often difficult to see more than the top of the frame; the public appetite for those (mainly) French painters appears insatiable.

Serenity behind the paywall at the Courtauld Gallery with one of the most famous paintings in art history (& a patient husband).

A woman flaunting her erudition, explaining Picasso's "Three Dancers" in a loud voice to her companions at the Tate Modern....

We walked one night to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and sat in the nosebleed section with the rest of the jeans-and-sneakers crowd to watch
an excellent ballet.

The Countryside...

The "green and pleasant land" of sheep-dotted patches and hedgerows seems to extend forever and belies the statistics of 63 million people inhabiting an area smaller than British Columbia (population about 4.5 million). Sheep have it good; people are crammed into sprawling cities and picture-perfect towns with narrow streets, all good for idealists of compact communities and sustainability, but ... there is always the sense in Britain of competing for space.

We were able to get off the narrow roadway with its 10-foot tall hedges (above) at a gate on a field near Fowey in Cornwall and balance the sketchbook on the top rail, to record the inevitable English pastoral.

(Left) a spring rainshower crossing Cardigan on the Welsh coast.

St. Michael's Mount is a National Trust property on the edge of the Cornish bay where Penzance is the main town; Mousehole (below) is on the distant headland behind the island. A classic landscape tableau with a spot (illegal) to pull off the road to paint quickly in the sunshine.

(Above) Penzance is quite a big, busy town, so we continued along the coast a few miles to Mousehole (pronounced 'Mowzle') and sat in the sun on the edge of its little harbour with coffee and flapjacks (a Cornish oatcake) from a local bakery. It was a nice place to sit and I decided to make it my Cornish coastal town for the sketchbook, as it had all the elements: the breakwater on the left with its narrow opening to the sea; boats chained to rings set in the harbour's wall, many of them sitting in the mud at low tide; a cluster of grey-stone, hipped roof Georgian-era buildings crowded along narrow streets with a steep hill behind.

(Below) No crowding at Port Quin, an infinitesimal dot on the map near Rumps Point and Wadebridge, on a day of wind-blown drizzle.

(Above) The wind continued for several days, blowing so hard that the 15 hours we spent in Weston-Super-Mare, a somewhat faded resort near Bristol, was entirely indoors. Our hotel room window looked out at the flat beach and its huge pleasure pier; only the occasional dogwalker braved the gale.

(Left) Some days later, after much exploring and meandering, I got the watercolours out again in the wild Cambrian mountains of Snowdonia in northwest Wales. What was a green and pleasant land in the southern part of Wales and in England was here a stark heath, with sheep (of course) dotting every green patch and dry stone walls dividing the patches into paddocks.

What a grim, dramatic landscape! Most of the travellers were day-hikers, setting off to climb the boulder-strewn slopes for purposes of ... uh ... taking a selfie?

This spot was a pull-off on the A5 in the area of Carnedd Dafydd between Betws-y-Coed and Bangor.

Pastoral Oxford, punting on the canal, last day before the bus to Heathrow ...

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Artwork & text © Michael Kluckner, 2014