The opening of Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron's spectacular Tate Modern in London last year set off the biggest art-world publicity frenzy since the debut of Frank O. Gehry's Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in 1997. But the British capital's imposing new contemporary-art center on the south bank of the Thames effectively eclipsed the city's other big museum story at the turn of the millennium: the revitalization of four of its most venerable art institutions and the creation of an important new one. The British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and The Wallace Collection, long among Britain's greatest cultural treasures, have all been restored or expanded, and Somerset House has been converted into the new home of three exquisite collections.
In a period when the so-called Bilbao Effect has placed unprecedented emphasis on show-stopping architecture rather than on the quality of a museum's contents, it's not surprising that this quintet largely slipped beneath the radar of the sensation-seeking media. Visitors to London can now spend the better part of a week reacquainting themselves with these reawakened Sleeping Beauties, each of which stresses the virtues of intimacy and excellence rather than the extravagance and spectacle that have swamped the international museum scene.
The British Museum
Not since I.M. Pei's iconic glass pyramid transformed the somnolent Louvre in 1989 has an architect carried off a similar masterstroke as effectively as Norman, Lord Foster in his brilliant reclamation of the neglected central atrium of The British Museum. When the British Library moved out of the museum and into its new premises in north London in 1998, the administrators of the national collection of antiquities (which range from Assyrian to Roman and include the controversial Elgin Marbles) embarked on a $150 million program to restore the two-acre heart of Sir Robert Smirke's 1823-47 building. Now reborn as the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court (with funds provided largely by the Canadian food tycoons, the Weston family), the result is so effective that it's hard to imagine why this wasn't done decades earlier. Covering over that space with an airy lattice of stainless steel and glass, Lord Foster has given London a magnificent new indoor square that has already become a popular attraction in its own right.
If it was never quite true that "The British Museum had lost its charm" (in the words of George and Ira Gershwin's "A Foggy Day [in London Town]"), then at the very least it could be a daunting place for the public to navigate. Instead of the jumble of entry spaces that used to confuse visitors, one is now drawn toward the monolithic cylinder of the old domed Reading Room in the center of the Great Court. The Foster office has restored and embraced that structure (now used as a reference library) with a pair of curving staircases that carry visitors up to a new exhibition gallery inserted above and behind it. The stunning opening show in that space, of works depicting the human body from all periods and cultures represented in the museum's vast collections, bodes well for its future use. There's also a handsome new restaurant on that curving upper level, with lower-priced snack bars on the ground-level floor below.
The main problem with the courtyard is its new stone facing, especially the masonry used for a reproduction neoclassical portico intended to harmonize with Smirke's building. Instead of matching the British-quarried Portland stone of the original, as Lord Foster specified, an unscrupulous supplier switched to a cheaper French substitute. It looks glaringly different from the old material (which in any case was burnished from a century and a half of exposure to the elements) and calls out for a skilled decorative painter to make it blend in better. But such architectural quibbles aside, there can be no doubt that this new public gathering space is a major gain for London (the same goes for the less-than-perfect Tate Modern). And the museum's methodical renovation of its permanent galleries—the Sainsbury African Galleries opened in February—makes return visits mandatory even for old hands.
10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Thurs. and Fri. until 8:30. The Queen Elizabeth II Great Court opens at 9 a.m. Great Russell Street; 44-207-323-8000; www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk.
The National Portrait Gallery
Tucked behind The National Gallery just north of Trafalgar Square, the rather dull classical exterior of this fascinating collection makes it indistinguishable from the more famous museum it adjoins. Built to the designs of architect Ewan Christian and designer J.K. Colling between 1890 and 1895, this pantheon of British worthies is also a temple to portraiture itself, one of the genres of art (along with landscapes and sporting scenes) at which the nation has always excelled. In a period when the painted likeness has fallen on hard times globally—don't even think about the official White House portraits of recent presidents—this vibrant institution convincingly proves that there is still much life left in the venerable medium. There are pictures of Britain's good and great from the Tudor era to the present, and the gallery's photographic holdings, which date to the inception of the medium, are equally excellent.
The National Portrait Gallery not only buys historically significant works and receives them from those who wish to see their family members publicly immortalized, but it also commissions portraits of political and cultural figures. Among the most compelling acquisitions of the past decade have been Lucian Freud's introspective, Rembrandtesque painting of his friend the financier and arts patron Jacob, Baron Rothschild, and the late Patrick Heron's exuberantly colored, semi-abstract portraits of the novelist and critic A.S. Byatt. The current Royal Family has fared much less well artistically, though their images remain the gallery's most popular.
The pity had always been how poorly the many splendid images were displayed. The old lighting was so dreary that it could drain the life from even the most vibrant pictures, and the galleries were as drab as the corridors of a second-rate provincial college. Now, thanks to the sparklingly modern, $20 million addition to the Victorian building by architects Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones, Britain's national family album is at last able to shine as it should.
10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Thurs. and Fri. until 9. St. Martin's Place; 44-207-306-0055; www.npg.org.uk.
Dulwich Picture Gallery
Little known beyond a devoted coterie of art and architectural historians, this small museum in a green and pleasant suburb south of London proper is of seminal historical importance, as it is one of the first buildings made expressly for the public display of art. Designed by Sir John Soane, England's greatest architect of the Georgian Age, Dulwich has been widely copied in our own time by architects who regard its coffered, top-lighted galleries as the best ever devised. A number of recent schemes, from Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown's Sainsbury Wing at The National Gallery in London to Richard Meier's J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, pay homage to Soane's luminous interiors at Dulwich.
Completed in 1814 (a decade before The National Gallery), the Dulwich Picture Gallery houses a choice collection of old masters (including paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Poussin, Murillo, and Watteau) that its two eccentric assemblers, Sir Francis Bourgeois and Nöel Desenfans, tried in vain to sell, first to the King of Poland and then to the British nation. When Sir Francis died in 1811, he bequeathed the collection to Dulwich College, a private boys' school in what was then a village outside the capital.
The American-born, London-based architect Rick Mather, winner of the $9.5 million commission to refurbish and add support facilities to the gallery, has carried out a meticulous restoration of the Soane building, which has surely never looked better in the past century. Mather subtly modulated the natural skylighting with computer-controlled sensors, and replaced the hideous old fluorescent fixtures with gentle artificial illumination more in keeping with current conservation practices. The softly radiant quality that Soane achieved has been happily preserved here.
Less successful is Mather's low-slung glass, steel, patinated bronze, and brick addition, which contains a café, an education center, and a multipurpose space for lectures and exhibitions. This flat-roofed modern structure sets itself apart from the Soane building stylistically as well as physically, a wiser move than trying to ape the master or join onto his work, as a postmodern architect might have been tempted to do. Mather's creation of a cloister to set off the landmark building was a good idea, but his use of red-brick facing looks jarring against the typical London yellow brick of the original. The unprepossessing extension, with its covered breezeways, cheap detailing, and haphazard execution, looks more like a day-care center than an appropriate adornment to one of Britain's cultural gems.
10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat. and Sun. 11-5; closed Mon. Gallery Road, Dulwich Village; 44-208-693-5254; www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk.
The Wallace Collection
Rick Mather's second London museum restoration is for the city's equivalent of New York's Frick Collection. This grandly decorated town palace preserves the timeless atmosphere of an aristocratic collection formed during those long lost days before viewing art became a mass spectator sport. The mansion housing The Wallace Collection, just north of Oxford Street, was originally built by the fourth Duke of Manchester and taken over by the second Marquess of Hertford in 1797, who renamed it Hertford House. The fourth marquess' illegitimate son, Sir Richard Wallace, inherited the collection in 1870 and enlarged the building into an imposing Victorian pile. It opened as a public museum in 1900, and its centennial spurred the recent improvements. The prospect of tampering with such an extraordinary time capsule of taste caused considerable alarm among The Wallace Collection's devotees, who cherish its nicely faded splendor, but never fear: The $15.9 million effort has kept the old atmosphere blissfully intact.
Hertford House groans with the best 18th-century French furniture outside of Versailles and the Getty Museum, a peerless survey of Sèvres porcelain, and tons of French sculpture. Its iconic paintings range from Hals' celebrated Laughing Cavalier and Fragonard's naughty The Swing to Poussin's enigmatic Dance to the Music of Time, which inspired novelist Anthony Powell's 12-volume masterpiece of the same name. There are also scores of lesser but nonetheless entertaining pictures, including humid Orientalist fantasies and a roomful of canvases of pretty girls rolling their eyes up to heaven. Best of all is the general aura of history stopped dead in its tracks and the uncanny sense that at any moment a tiaraed duchess might float into one of the many magnificent salons.
In addition to providing new subterranean galleries, so the entire collection can be displayed, and facilities for conservation and storage that the building lacked, Mather created a light-flooded restaurant and sculpture court. He did so by glazing over an inner quadrangle much as Lord Foster did, on a far larger scale, at The British Museum. As there can never be too many weatherproof public spaces in London, the new amenity makes a visit to this supremely civilized oasis even more pleasurable than it was before. This self-effacing architect's willingness to let the historic buildings he works on take precedence over his own additions is as rare today as it is worthy of emulation by his more egotistical peers.
10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sun. noon-5. Manchester Square; 44-207-935-0687; www.wallace-collection.org.uk.
One of the mysteries of modern London is how an architectural treasure as noble as Somerset House could have remained so underused for so long. During the 1990s, Jacob, Baron Rothschild—former chairman of The National Gallery and later chief dispenser of Britain's National Lottery funds—took up the cause of converting this Georgian-era Thames-side quadrangle, which housed government offices, into a series of exquisite small museums. This may turn out to be Baron Rothschild's most conspicuous accomplishment in a career crowded with good works on behalf of the arts.
For years the headquarters of Britain's Inland Revenue, Somerset House has been retrofitted to also house three separate collections: the Courtauld Institute of Art, Gilbert Collection, and Hermitage Rooms. The salons once occupied by the Royal Academy, near the entrance off the Strand, are now home to the Courtauld Institute, one of the world's foremost graduate-level art-history institutions. It has a spectacular collection spanning the whole of European painting and is particularly strong in the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, including nine Cézannes, ten Seurats, and Manet's stupendous Bar at the Folies-Bergère. Handsomely mounted in the 18th-century interiors, those works look as though they've been there forever. The imposing top-floor Great Room, long the venue of the Royal Academy's annual exhibitions, will be used for temporary shows, as was originally intended.
The financially strapped State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg has forged money-making alliances with several foreign museums, and Somerset House is among those that has entered into a long-term loan agreement with it. To house displays of the Russian institution's treasures—those associated with Catherine the Great are on view until September 23—another section of Somerset House has been fittingly reconceived. The new chandelier-hung Hermitage Rooms skillfully evoke the grandeur of Russian palaces of the Tsarist era. Walls are painted that particular shade of blue-green you see at Tsarskoe Selo and Pavlovsk, floors are parquetry, and ruched muslin drapes seem to screen the Neva rather than the Thames. It's stagecraft of the highest order, the only disappointment being that this dazzling enfilade of rooms does not stretch on and on as its alter ego does.
Quirkiest of the new London museum installations is the Gilbert Collection, assembled by the 88-year-old Sir Arthur Gilbert, who made a small fortune in the British garment trade before emigrating to California and making an even bigger one in real estate. Sir Arthur is addicted to everything that glitters—antique silver and vermeil, gold snuffboxes, bejeweled bibelots, pietra dura furniture—and his Aladdin-like hoard is shown off here to its most dramatic advantage. Visitors are ushered into a scaled-down simulacrum of Sir Arthur's Beverly Hills office, which includes a creepy wax likeness of the donor, clad in tennis togs, cell phone in hand. According to a friend of Baron Rothschild's, Gilbert told Rothschild he would give the collection to Britain if he received a knighthood. Rothschild, who is himself given to traditional forms of self-memorialization (like having his name inscribed in large letters in the redecorated entry hall of The National Gallery), happily arranged for the honor, and London is the richer, if less fastidious, for having accepted the gift.
10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sun. noon-6. Strand; 44-207-845-4600; www.somerset-house.org.uk.
Martin Filler profiled Lord Snowdon in Departures' last issue.