I see, looking back, that I have been tending to denigrate Trafalgar Square, as though one would be unwise to visit it. I certainly would not advise a first visit on a day of uniform grcyness, or of wet greyness; then Trafalgar Square is dour, and depressive, a vast roundabout for cars. But go on a fine day, or a day of broken lights in a wind that flings the fountain spray. Come to it bet from Pall Mall, and thence you catch one of the prettiest views in London looking along the columns of the old College of Physicians entrance on your right, and those of the National Gallery on your left farther on, up to the facade of St Martin; a rippling yet serene passage for the eye to that spire that lifts its pearly white out of the grey London haze. Catch the Square after spring rain, in a hiss and slither of car tyres; the pavements flash steel and then in patches pure azure as the clouds avoid, and the column of Nelson, the granite of which can seem, while undoubtedly confident, somewhat coarse, will stand against a pure sky all in a black of astonishing soft luxury, though edged razor sharp (may they never wash Nelson’s column; the counterplay between its darkness and St Martin’s spire in its Portland pallor is essential). Or come at Christmas dusk, when the giant fir tree that Norway has given London every year since the war is all lit up; come at noon, when the pigeons on the Square arc sucking up to the tourists and pretending that they are nice, decent birds, tame to sit on your hand or your head (but go after to, say, the front of Whitehall Court, and see the full squalor of buildings befouled by the action decoration of their droppings). Clap your hands or backfire your car, and see the pigeons explode like shot in flight. Comeand perhaps this is best of allat five to ten in the morning of a fine May day that promises heat later, and sit on the edge of the basin of one of the two big fountains. Though the morning traffic will be going round and round, there won’t be many people on the Square itself yet; the morning mist is lifting, tinged with the sun as if with gold dust and the young leaves of the plane trees, still tender, can be nearer gold than green. The air is cool and fresh, with a zest of petrol; above the traffic’s hum, the pigeons croon their uvular platitudes, and then, up Whitehall, throbs the long boom of Big Ben striking ten faint, yet full bodied in a ghostly way, like a foghorn. And you’ll have to move, because the fountains, that have been quiet, begin now to swell, to fill, to overflow; to spray, and thenthe main jetsto heave themselves in jerking stages to their full height. It’s a splendid ceremony, and opens the day. Fountains there arc in London, but relatively few, and very few of calibre, jets, plumes of dazzling clarity, water works better than fireworks in dark London for catching rainbows.
But Trafalgar Square is more than roundabout or a stage for fountains, In the presence of the cock hatted figure with Its empty .leeve so far above. Trafalgar Square is a rallying point and a rally in cry, the great London theatre of the open air meeting. Revivalists of all kindsReligious, Trades Union. Pol.t.cal, Communist. Labour and Neo Fascist; hot air blasts upwards but tails to rock Nelson. Such meetings on a Sunday afternoon, when wet as if usually seems to be, can look like a rite of some nomadic sect tented in black umbrellas.
Meetings In Trafalgar Square generally happen however only on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, and the main draw in Trafalgar Square is of course the National Galleryover the road to the north, past the assiduous display of the pavement artists or “scrccvers” (whose work probably has a bigger audience than any living artists’ in the world), up the steps past the sublimely indifferent gaze of the art students generally to be found taking the air on the porch, and into the big entrance hall.
The National began, as such national collections go, very late 1834, and unlike some it had no expropriated royal collection to serve as foundation. It had however, instead, as possible sources of enrichment, a remarkable number of private collections within the country, brought together by English aristocrats shopping on the Continent during and after the grand tour. These indeed, supplemented by some inspired buying abroad, particularly by a great director of the mid nineteenth century, Sir Charles East lake, proved rich enough to permit the formation of a collection of a quality which has few rivals in the world, and in some respects, none.
The Italian paintings of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are of a quality and representativeness unparalleled outside Italy; its holdings of early Netherlandish, of seventeenth century Dutch and Flemish, of seventeenth century French, are especially rich. The English school is left mainly to the Tate Gallery, but the cream of the English eighteenth century, and of Constable and Turner is shown here. It is relatively weak on the German school (though the Spanish are magnificent) and on certain schools and painters, such as Georges de la Tour and the French Impressionists, which came into their own after the awakening of the great American millionaires with bottomless purses in the late nineteenth century. Its scope is from the thirteenth century to the early twentieth; from Giotto to C&annetwentieth century painting, British and foreign, is the province of the Tate Gallery.
The paintings are exhibited in a more or lem chronological sequence, into which you can engage by turning left up the stain from the entrance hall. There seems to be no alternative between describing the Gallery at length, involving a brief outline of European art and at least a chapter, and amply giving the visitor a push into the Gallery in a paragraphand space forbids the former alternative.
For Londoners, the National Gallery even though as L. P. Smith remarked, while we may go there constantly in the spirit, how rarely do wc go in the fleshis an oasis of refresh ment, a haven for contemplation, in the business of the city It is also one of the classic traditional trysting points for lovers, perhaps partly bctausr, in front of such painters as Piero della Francesca Raphael, Vermeer, or Seurat, there may seem a real possibility of stopping time in the enchanted moment. But the overall quality of the paintings is such as to inhibit suggesting what can be no more than a personal choice you must make your own, any time between 10 and 6 on weekdays, 2 and 6 on Sundays (the National is also experimenting with evening opening on some days).
The National is due for expansion; the probable solution seems to be that it will take over the National Portrait Gallery’s site immediately to its rear, and that the latter institution will re build on the vacant site to the west of the National on Trafalgar Square. But that may take some years, and meanwhile you can find the National Portrait Gallery just off Trafalgar Square at the bottom of Charing Gross Road, a rather thin building in an Italian Renaissance late Victorian vernacular, wrapped round the back of the National, and open 10 5 weekdays, 10 6 Saturdays and 2 6 Sundays. Again, I cannot attempt a guide, but a brief note on its character is neccssary, at the word “Gallery” can be misleading.
The National Portrait Gallery has in (act to do with history rather than with art, and that it poaesses some absolutely stunning pictures is almost incidental to its purposes; it has equally gladly some absolutely appalling ones, as far as artistic quality is concerned. Seek out for example the watcr colour of Jane Austen by her sister Cassandra, a daub, but the only authentic portrait of Jane from the life and one of the Gallery’s dearest treasures.
But contrast on the other hand Holbein’s tremendous cartoon of Ilenry VIII, wherein art and history fuse in inextricable magic. The primary interest however is always in the subject of the picture this is history seen through the people who made historya shrine of national piety peculiar to Anglo Saxons (you hardly find institutions of this kind on the Continent). If you are touring London in earnest, you will find here contemporary portraits of most of the great Londoners of the past mentioned in these pagesPepys, Wren; Hogarth, Newton, Nell Gwynn; Nelson and Wellington; Lamb and Hazlitt, Lamb painted by Hazlitt. You will find, to choose just one example, Johnson set in the midst of the members of The Club, Boswell alongside, and most of them painted by Reynolds.