22 Dec 2011

The once in a lifetime Leonardo

Was there perhaps a blue moon last night? Somehow I found myself with just three other people alone in the incredible Leonardo da Vinci block-buster exhibition at London’s National Gallery.

No crowds, just complete, peaceful, access to some of the most remarkable paintings and drawings in the world.

I was a Trustee there once and this was a one off chance to go in’‘after hours’ . It was late and most other former Trustees, if they had been, had gone.

Left to a visual conversation with this genius, this man who understood anatomy, science, and beauty, and could represent all three so effortlessly, we found ourselves consumed by his attention to detail, and his vast capacity to represent it with the brush and the pencil.

The braid on the collar of a dress or a jacket; single strands of hair; colour; light; shade; the fall of fabric on the human form; it is ,with just sixteen great paintings and perhaps fifty drawings, the most comprehensive insight into Leonardo’s work that we are ever likely to see in one place in our lifetime.

There are only six places in the world that can boast a Leonardo painting. Krakow in Poland is one of them. This painting, Lady with an Ermine, is probably the best preserved of those hanging today in London. It is an absolute show stopper. Last night I found myself wandering back to it time and time again.

But I also found myself peering at the tiny pencil strokes and shadings of the drawings. One thing I always look for, is where the artwork actually lives.

No fewer than twenty of these incredibly rare pieces have been lent by the Queen. They are normally housed in the Royal Collection at Windsor and are not on public display. Under certain circumstances you can make an application to see them.

There has long been confusion about what belongs to ‘we the people’ and what belongs personally to the monarch.

When are such items a gift to the Monarch as a representative of the British people, and when are they made to the actual individual who happens to be the monarch?

The National Gallery owns a large tract of real estate behind the building in Trafalgar Square that awaits development as additional galleries. The largely inaccessible ‘Royal Collection’ is regarded by a number of experts as ripe for a ‘rearrangement’ to provide ‘we the people’ the opportunity to see such sumptuous pieces as these twenty drawings by Leonardo held by the Queen, any time we want.

I have even heard it suggested that if Prince Charles ever becomes King, his coronation act might be to bring about just such a move.

In the meantime, come February, when the exhibition comes to an end,  these priceless objects will return to the closed privacy of Windsor Castle to reside largely unseen by the vast majority of people who live in, or visit, this country.



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13 reader comments

  1. david white (@davidwhite020) says:

    Good suggestion about the Royal Collection. I’m not sure I approve of the National Gallery opening the exhibition to just 4 former trustees in the evening when so many people are unable to get tickets (without very long queueing).

    1. Mel says:

      Absolutely agree. I qued 3 hours for my ticket and then waited another 2 and a half for my time slot. People behind me were being turned away. Jon you are commenting on how the monarchys privileged position has kept the ‘peoples’ works from us but isn’t that what you have just used and encouraged by being party to the exhibition being open for just 4 trustees? Would you have disagreed with this if you have had still been a trustee? It is not just the monarchy keeping numerous works of art from the people which is a disgrace but the elitism of the the art world as a whole. Lets not forget that the National Gallery has a great ‘national’ power which is orchestrated by the privileged and this can be used not just to keep art away from people but more dangerously to keep people from feeling that they can approach art.
      There is a long standing theory in art that it is deliberately made unapproachable to the ‘common’ person because the art world is one of the few areas that can still be controlled by the privileged giving them security of standing after so much class breakdown in our modern history. Opening the doors for 4 trustees can only be evidence of this.

  2. Liam Mclaughlin says:

    If we accept the present constitutional system, the Monarchy, The Lords and the “Empire” awards! Then we probably deserve not to see that paintings that they “own”.
    If the system is not broken!!!

  3. margaret brandreth-jones says:

    Come on David, we all have perquisites in some form or other and someone who has given service for a period of time should exploit that.

    Yes exquisite artistry , but why do his women look like china dolls? I wouldn’t mind a Leonardo to auction off , but would rather have my own colour for decoration and nature raw and unrepresented. That is the philistine side talking of course. There again I think there is something creepy about collecting old masters works and hoarding them . A camera works just as well for realism and detail.

  4. Philip Edwards says:


    A nice piece, very atmospheric.

    Compliments of the season to you and yours. May New Year bring you all you wish.

    And may you bring us the news with honesty and understanding of the society we live in. May you have the strength to expose the wrongdoings and criminality of the Establishment. May you never give way to propaganda.

  5. adrian clarke says:

    Well i am not a da vinci fan.I much prefer Turner or Constable, but each to their own.I hope you have a great Christmas Jon and a Fabulous New Year.
    I thank you for my finding Snow blog, and even more,through your blog site Twitter

  6. Mudplugger says:

    Good plan to expose unseen art to ‘we the people’, but why always the inaccessible default location of central London ?

    The vast majority of ‘we the people’ don’t live there, never go there and never even want to go there – leave that to the tourists, touts, tarts and tat-vendors.

    There are many parts of Britain crying out for regeneration, both cultural and economic, yet at every opportunity to spread just a little ‘wealth’ their way, the metropolitan elite (yes, that’s you too, Jon) seem to think no further than the M25.

    If ‘we the people’ own the art, put it where ‘we the people’ will benefit from it – and that’s not in the cosy environs of the Greater Islington chattering classes.

  7. Anthony Martin says:

    As soon as I hear the Monarchy mentioned in the context of great paintings, it sours my enthusiasm.
    Pompous aristocracy and Lambs that follow in creating some elitist clique of snobbery in the art world.

    Leonardo’s extraordinary skill of creating breath taking paintings leave highly skilled Artists in awe, even today. He also inspires and sets the standard benchmark of brilliance that most people never attain in a lifetime.
    The appreciation of art has eroded in many places due to the financial snobbery associated with it by the upper class egos.
    Still, it’s only education, inspiration & encouragement of people to delve into the physical process of painting that imbibes a longing to express a persons creativity on the canvas, for many a decade of aesthetic enjoyment.
    I am a Bob Ross CRI (Certified Ross Instructor) of Landscape painting in the ‘wet-in-wet’ technique and, I paint any subject in ‘Artisan Water Mixable Colour’ oils on best W&N quality canvas.
    I love to teach/share and, if anyone wants the best advice I can give, it’s: learn the art of ‘tonal values’ and colour mixing first then Composition, light direction, perspectives, shadows, etc. Then, practice lots & lots!

  8. Saltaire Sam says:

    Happy Christmas to you and the whole C4News team, Jon.

    I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that I have come to rely on C4News to give me an adult news service informed by intelligence and the highest standards of journalism.

    And Snowblog is, of course, therapy for grumpy old geezers like me :-)

  9. Fatima Rosales Naya says:

    The argument is there is so much art around that not everything can be displayed at the same time, so perhaps rotating these masterpieces on a regular basis would mean woks of art in storage would also see the light of day. Art is for the people and public collections ought to be opened to all, even if it requires a small entry fee.

  10. onebirdsong says:

    Having just returned from visiting parents,in their mid eighties,who spent much of the time enthusing on their recent trip to this much anticpated exhibition,and had journeyed some distance to view,would like to make a comment.

    They viewed this exhibition,with the difficulty of too many people at the same time. If Works of Art were to go on ‘tour’ around the country, with the addition of longer viewing slots,they too, could have had an infinately better experience.

  11. Maro Crabtree says:

    Just a short message to thank you for keeping me up to date with the real news.
    Merry Christmas and a happy new year.


  12. Kenneth Gibbons LLC says:

    Not a big da vinci fan, but each to their own.I hope you are having a great Christmas and a Fabulous New Year.

Comments are closed.