The Guildhall Art Gallery in the City could be regarded as something of an oxymoron: a well-known well-kept secret. Everyone should go and see its extraordinary collection of pictures of London, but few do.
I’m tempted to describe it as charmingly old-fashioned, but this may convey the wrong impression. It knows exactly what it is best at, and therefore does it very well, with a quiet efficiency.
The current exhibition “London Paintings from the City’s Permanent Collection” nestles comfortably in four rooms at the heart of the gallery, surrounded by paintings and sculpture from the 17th century to the present day. It is not especially highbrow – despite the rarity of some of the works on show – but it does have bundles of charm. Visitors are free to wander around close to the pictures, which are hung in an uncluttered way, as if on a wall at home, and take in the exhibits at their own pace. A surprisingly wide variety of periods and styles of painting are represented, although the exhibition never feels disjointed. It also blends comfortably into the galleries where the permanent collection is housed, blurring the distinction between exhibition and collection, and so providing both a point of reference, and a pleasing sense of context.
The exhibition offers more than just ‘oil paintings of rivers and bridges’, although they do form a significant component. Delicate Edwardian watercolours, boisterous Victorian street scenes, brooding cityscapes, and a monumental canvas by William Logsdail of the Lord Mayor’s Show in 1888 will all compete for your attention.
Possibly the most fascinating painting (illustrated left) is “George Dance’s design for London Bridge, 1802” painted by the great topographical artist William Daniell, showing Dance’s ambitious and unrealised scheme for a pair of London Bridges, each with a central drawbridge, linking the Monument (left) to a proposed Naval memorial on the south bank of the Thames (right), and new buildings and warehouses extending towards the Pool of London.
My favourite exhibit “Hungerford Pier and Footbridge, c1850” (at the head of this article) is a view from what is now Embankment station, looking over the Thames to the Lambeth waterworks and Old Lion brewery, now occupied by the South Bank complex and Royal Festival Hall. If, like me, you have often wondered why Hungerford Bridge has disused doors and gates in the side of the piers, you find the answer here: Before the Embankment was built, steamers could only moor mid-stream in the Thames and passengers disembarked through the piers of the bridge. Have a look for yourself next time you walk over the Jubilee Bridges from Charing Cross.
The Ethical-Hedonist’s verdict: Worth every penny of the £2.50 admission fee, offering something to delight, educate and inform whether you are a casual tourist or addicted to London.
“London Paintings from the City’s Permanent Collection” until Sunday 11th April 2010.
Monday-Saturday: 10.00am-5.00pm (last admission 4.30pm)
Sunday: 12.00noon-4.00pm (last admission 3.45pm)
Guildhall Art Gallery & Roman London’s Amphitheatre, Guildhall Yard, London, EC2P 2JE