The National Gallery Explained: An Essential Guide

Billie Manning

The National Gallery is one of the most famous museums in the world, filled with incredible artwork from the medieval period, to French Impressionists by way of the Italian Renaissance. It could seem overwhelming – if you didn’t have this helpful guide…
 

Need To Know Basis
£££? The gallery does not cost anything to enter. Though special exhibitions are paid, you can have plenty of fun looking round the permanent collection for free.
Where is it again? Ever wondered what that big old building with all the columns at the edge of Trafalgar Square is? Yep, that’s the National Gallery. Trafalgar Square doesn’t have a tube stop though, so you’ll need to get off the Bakerloo or Northern line at Charing Cross. Leicester Square (Piccadilly line) is also just a few minutes away.
When can I go? The gallery is open literally every day – except at Christmas – from 10-6, plus a special late opening on Fridays ‘til 9.
How long should I spend there? You could probably spend all day in here, but three hours will leave you with a pretty comprehensive overview. Of course, since it’s free, you can always just pop in quickly to gaze at a favourite painting.
How do I find everything? You can find an interactive map here, or pick up a paper one on your way in.
 
A Bit More Detail
Unmissable bits
A jaw-dropping number of celebrated artists inhabit the walls of the National Gallery. Some of the most well-known amongst them include Leonardo da Vinci, Vincent van Gogh, Sandro Botticelli, Claude Monet, Rembrandt and more. The part of the building known as the Wohl Galleries is full of impressive impressionist pieces, from Georges Seurat’s vivid Bathers at Asnières to the infamous Sunflowers by van Gogh. Room 34 in particular is one you won’t want to just visit for its artwork (though there are many important 18-19thcentury British pieces inside it). The wing is one of the oldest parts of the gallery and has wonderful wood-panelled walls and comfy cushioned benches to sit on while you ponder the meaning of life, art and the universe.
 

Hidden gems
The paintings in the National are present in many other works of art. Francesco del Cossa’s portrait of St. Vincent Ferrer in Room 54 is the binding element of Ali Smith’s 2014 book How To Be Both, and the character often goes and sits in the National Gallery to take it in. Do the same, or, while everyone’s crowding around Sunflowers, slip off into the small Room 42, where you’ll find one of Degas’ famous ballerina paintings among other secret gems. If all of this is making the gallery sound a bit male-heavy, that’s because, well, it is: there are only 21 paintings by women in the gallery’s 2,300-strong collection. Hmm. Check out the work of Artemisia Gentileschi, Rachel Ruysch, Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun, and Rosa Bonheur if you want to bring a little balance to your visit.
 
Events ‘n’ extras
On weekdays, there’s a daily, free guided tour of the gallery from experts, between 2 and 3pm, plus a quick ten-minute insight into one painting in the gallery at 4pm. There are also often performances, such as dance or poetry, that you can catch in the main collection, and even longer courses which you can sign up for – some totally free! Basically, there’s a lot going on, so keep an eye on the gallery’s website. If you’re a big fan, you can become a member for a year for £50, which gets you free entry into the gallery’s exhibitions as well as events exclusively for members. Oo-er.
 
Current exhibition
Nicolaes Maes: Dutch Master of the Golden Age
What can I expect? Paintings giving a cheeky peek behind the scenes of Dutch domestic life in the 17th century, whether that be portraits of posh totties or scenes among the servants downstairs.
How long have I got? Until 31 May 2020

Coming soon!
Titian: Love, Desire, Death

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