The Guildhall Art Gallery is a newish building, opened in 1999 to exhibit selections of the 4,500 or so art works owned by the Corporation of London. It replaced the original Guildhall Art Gallery which was destroyed by fire during the Second World War.
At any one time the gallery has room to exhibit about 250 artworks in its five or so spaces (the main, balcony, ground floor, corridor and undercroft galleries), as well as special exhibitions in the exhibition rooms. But the overwhelming reason to visit the Guildhall Art Gallery is to see its fabulous collection of Victorian paintings.
The gallery is FREE and there are chatty and engaging tours of the pictures every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday at 12.15, 1.15, 2.15 and 3.15.
Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901) saw the fruition of the Industrial Revolution and the growth and consolidation of the British Empire, but neither of these subjects is much in evidence in the paintings here. Instead the wall labels emphasise the way Victorian artists widened the scope of painting from traditional Grand History paintings or mythological subjects or portraits of the rich, to include a new and wider variety of subjects, especially of domestic or common life treated with a new dignity or compassion, and with a growing interest, as the century progressed, in depictions of beauty for its own sake, in the work of the later pre-Raphaelites and then the Aesthetic Movement.
Go through the main entrance and there is a wide staircase leading up to the Main Gallery, a big, relaxing open space lined with sumptuous Victorian paintings. They’ve been hung in true Victorian style, clustered one above the other and against a dark green background. It looks like this:
Although the paintings have labels displaying names and dates, they have no description or explanation text whatsoever, which is a change and a relief. Instead, the paintings are arranged in themes each of which is introduced by a few paragraphs setting the Victorian context.
- The Toiler’s Return (1877) by Albert Goodwin
- Mowing Bracken (1903) by Henry Herbert La Thangue. Note the impressionistic use of broad blocks of colour. You have to stand some way back from it to get the full evocative sense of autumn light.
- The Politician by Jonathan Pratt (1871). A jocular anecdote, a character from early George Eliot or Hardy.
- The First London Board School (1873) by John Whitehead Walton
- The Net Mender (1901) by Marianne Stokes. The more you look, the more proto-modernist this looks.
- Laying monster tubes from the New River (1855) by James Baker Pyne
- Quarrymen of Purbeck (1885) by Henry Tamworth Wells. Bigger than this reproduction suggests and with much more subtle or effective use of lighting.
- Barmouth Sands (1835) by William Collins
- The Last Evening (1873) by James Tissot. He likes his ropes and rigging.
- Too young to be married (1869) by Thomas Faed
- The Woodman’s Daughter (1851) by John Everett Millais. Early Millais reminiscent of the awkwardness of Christ in the House of His Parents (1850) or the unreal colouring and strangely stylised pose (and medieval white stockings) of Ferdinand lured by Ariel (1850).
- On the way to spring (1862) by Frederick Richard Pickersgill. Yuk.
- Listed (1885) by William Henry Gore. My favourite painting here.
- The Garden of Eden (1901) by Hugh Goldwin Riviere. The tour guide pointed out the irony of the title which is actually about a mismatch between a wealthy woman who has fallen for a man much below her station: note his clumpy shoes and his trousers rolled up. Also the way he’s carrying not one but two umbrellas, intertwined like the two lovers and, if you look closely, the tiny raindrops hanging from the black branches.
- Sea Urchins (1861) by James Clarke Hook. Horrible kitsch.
- Landscape with pines (1894) by Frederick Edwin Bodkin. Reminiscent of The Devil’s Punchbowl in Surrey or Black Down in Sussex.
- A Peep at the metropolis from Hampstead Heath (1841) by James Baker Pyne
- Try this pair (1864) by Frederick Daniel Hardy. Kitsch anecdotage.
- Two children at a drawing lesson by Daniel Pasmore. Yuk.
- Remembering joys that have passed away (1873) by Augustus Edwin Mulready
- The first leap (1829) by Edwin Henry Landseer
- Ruby, Gold and Malachite (1902) by Henry Scott Tuke. Wonderful atmospheric study of idealised, muscular young men.
- An October morning (1885) by Walter Frederick Osborne
The main gallery on the first floor has an opening allowing you to look down into the gallery space below and hanging on the end wall and two stories high is the vast Defeat of the floating batteries at Gibraltar, 1782 by the American artist John Singleton Copley. Grand history painting like this is about the genre of art furthest from contemporary taste and culture, but there’s lots to admire apart from the sheer scale. Rather like opera, you have to accept that the genre demands stylised and stereotyped gestures of heroism and despair, before you can really enter the spirit.
- The raising of Jairus’ daughter (1895) by George Percy Jacomb-Hood. The dead woman has the pallor I associate with very late Victorian hyper-realism of the Olympians.
- The youth of our Lord (1847) by John Rogers Herbert. Maybe this is the kind of thing the fierce critics of Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents (1850) wish he’d done.
- Early morning in the wilderness of Shur (1860) by Frederick Goodall. A big impressive composition. The flow of the figures across the canvas is very natural but also cleverly harmonious.
- The reading of the Bible by the rabbis (1882) by Jean Jules Antoine de Noüy
- The temptation in the wilderness (1898) by Briton Riviere. Genuinely haunting.
- Herod’s birthday feast (1868) by Edward Armitage. Not a good picture – Salome’s body has the absurd contrivance of a Poussin figure – but from across the room, the light is used very effectively to focus the eye onto her.
- Saint Cecila by John Pettie
- Naomi (1914) by Luke Fildes. I like the way the shimmeringly sensuous face merges from folds of fabric which are treated much more roughly.
- Faith (1864) by John Philip
- My First Sermon (1863) and My Second Sermon (1864) by John Everett Millais. Apparently, people queued round the block to see them. In 14 years Millais had come a long way from the awkward poses and strange over-colouring of The Woodman’s Daughter or Christ in the House of His Parents to this chocolate-box kitsch, for which he was heartily criticised even at the time.
As the century progressed an interest grew in Beauty for its own sake: one strand of this was Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings of voluptuous, red-haired ‘stunners’ as he called them. Strands like this fed into the movement which became known as Art for Art’s sake or Aestheticism, which sought a kind of transcendent harmony of composition and colour.
- The violinist (1886) by George Adolphus Storey
- La Ghirlandata (1873) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
- On a fine day (1873) by Elizabeth Adela Stanhope Forbes. Although the detail is patchy, from a distance this is staggeringly effective at conveying that very English effect of sunshine on hills while the foreground is clouded over.
- The blessed damozel (1895) by John Byam Liston Shaw
- The rose-coloured gown (Miss Giles) (1896) by Charles Henry Malcolm Kerr. The face is a little unflattering but the rose-coloured gown is wonderfully done, lighter and airier than this reproduction suggests. There are several histories of ‘the nude’; someone ought to do a history of ‘the dress’, describing and explaining the way different fabrics have been depicted in art over the centuries.
- A girl with fruit (1882) by John Gilbert. Crude orientalism.
- spring, summer, autumn and winter (1876) by Alfred Emile Leopold Joseph Victor Stevens
- Sir Thomas V. Bowater, Lord Mayor of London, Speaking at the Royal Drawing Society’s Annual General Meeting at the Guildhall Art Gallery, 16 January 1914 (1914) by George Harcourt
- The Guildhall from the west side (1905) by William II Luker
During the 19th century home and work became increasingly separated and distinct. Home became a place to be decorated, shown off, furnished in the latest fashions purveyed by a growing number of decoration books and magazines. There is a massive move from the bare interiors often described in Dickens’s novels of the 1840s and 50s, to the fully furnished interiors and incipient consumer revolution of 1900.
- Sweethearts (1892) by Walter Dendy Sadler. Late for such an anecdotal painting.
- The music lesson (1877) by Frederick Leighton. Characteristically smooth and sumptuous.
- A sonata of Beethoven (1912) by Alfred Edward Emslie. Is that the great man himself, blurrily depicted in the window seat?
- Sun and moon flowers (1889) by George Dunlop Leslie. Note the fashionable blue and white china vases.
A staggering, monumental work, down to the tricklets of blood leaking from the axe over the stone step.
- A Pythagorean school invaded by Sybarites (1887) by Michele Tedesco
- Lancelot du Lac (1866) John Gilbert
- The Wine shop (1874), The Pyrrhic dance (1869), Pleading (1876) by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema
- The Eve of St Agnes (1848) by William Holman Hunt
- Claudio, deceived by Don John, accuses Hero (1861) by Marcus Stone
- The wounded cavalier (1855) by William Shakespeare Burton
- The combat by William James Grant
- The execution of Lady Jane Grey (1834) by Paul Delaroche. This is a much smaller preparatory study for the final version, now in the National Gallery. It’s an amazingly finished work in its own right, and breath-taking that he was able to pull off the identical effects twice.or so
- Portrait of Emperor Charles V and Jeanne Vandergeynst at the cradle of their daughter, Marguerite (1870) by William Geets
The ground floor gallery
This actually consists of two tiny rooms next to the lifts, to the left of the main stairs, showing nine City of London-related works.
The tour guide pointed out the face of the boy about to pinch an orange from the basket at the far left of the crowd; the black and white minstrel complete with banjo, next to him; and to the right of the white-faced soldier at the foot of the main streetlamp, is a man in brown bowler hat, a portrait of fellow artist John William Waterhouse, of Lady of Shalott fame.
- The Stock Exchange (1969) by Ken Howard
- Portrait group (Sir Thodore Janssen) (1720) by a follower of Hogarth
- Broadgate reflections (1989) by Brendan Neiland
- The heart of Empire (1904) by Neils Moller Lund. Note, he thinks the City of London is the heart of Empire, not the follies of Westminster, far away on the horizon. I love the pigeons rising in front of the Royal Exchange.
- The Stock Exchange (1966) by Roderick Jordan
- Laying of the foundation stone of the Royal Exchange (1842) by an unknown artist
- Cheapside 10.10 a.m., 10 February 1970 by Ken Howard
- Plenty and Progress (2012) by Mark Titchner. Modern sculpture.
The undercroft galleries
As the name suggests these are downstairs from the ground floor entrance lobby. You walk along the ‘long gallery’ (see below), through a modern glass door on the right and down some steel and glass steps into a set of small very underground-feeling rooms. The paintings are again grouped in ‘themes’, although now applying across a broader chronological range than just the Victorians, stretching back to the eighteenth century and coming right up to date with a Peter Blake work from 2015.
- A London study (1968) by Mark Boyle. This was a diagonal slice of London pavement with a few autumn leaves stuck to it. Simple and one of the best things here.
- Leadenhall market (1968) and Smithfield market (1968) by Jacqueline Stanley
- Billingsgate market (1960) by Ken Howard
- Market arcade (1986) by Ben Johnson. Big. Impressive.
- Exmouth market (1997) by Geoffrey Fletcher
- Blackberries in August (1980) by John Pearce. Impressive realism.
- Walk (1995) by Oliver Bevan. Very big and somehow empty.
- Chaos on London Bridge by Harold Workman. London as Trumpton.
- Landscape 715 (2003) by John Virtue. More powerful than this reproduction suggests.
- The Thames by moonlight with Southwark bridge (1884) by John Atkinson Grimshaw. Mr Moonlight.
- The Lord Mayor’s Procession by Water to Westminster, London, 9 November 1789 (1792) by Richard Paton
- The Lord Mayor’s show (1905) by Sir Frank William Brangwyn
- The Lord Mayor’s show (2015) by Peter Blake. Bang up to date and looks like a school art project.
- A Civic Procession Descending Ludgate Hill, London (1879) by James Jacques Joseph Tissot
- Covent Garden market (1737) by Balthasar Nebot
- The Ceremony of Administering the Mayoralty Oath to Nathaniel Newnham, 8 November 1782 (1782) William Miller
- The Monument from Gracechurch Street (17??) by Canaletto
- The Great Fire (1666) by Waggoner
- Sir Hugh Wyndham (1670) by John Michael Wright
Seems clear to me that the paintings from the 1700s are of documentary interest only. Maybe there are elements of composition and technique to analyse, but they aren’t doing anything as mature, challenging and psychological as paintings like Clytemnestra, On a fine day or Listed.
- Field Marshal Haig (1920) and Admiral of the Fleet Beatty (1920) by Albert Chevallier Tayler
- Recruiting in the Guildhall (1920) by Fred Roe
- A British tank by Sir Muirhead Bone. a) what a great name b) what a brilliant boys’ own adventure line drawing.
- Three portraits of officers and three portraits of prisoners of war by Sir Matthew Smith
The corridor gallery
Matthew Smith (1879-1959) was born into a family of Yorkshire industrialists. Like a lot of rich men’s sons he decided he wanted to be an artist and went to study with post-impressionist French painters in Pont Aven in 1908, then under Matisse in Paris. He served in the Great War, after which he suffered a nervous breakdown. The City of London Corporation was gifted a collection of some 1,000 of his paintings, watercolours, pastels, drawings and sketches in 1974.
The short corridor between the steps down from the lobby and the door into the undercroft displays some dozen of his works. Because they all have similar titles it’s almost impossible to track them down online.
- Self portrait (1909)
- French landscape (1912)
- French port Dieppe (1926)
- Landscape at Villeneuve (1956)
- French landscape (1913)
- Village landscape (1914)
- Landscape (1956)
- Unfinished landscape (1930s)
- Cornish landscape (1920)
These works struggle to compete with the masterpieces in the main gallery. In Matthews’ work, after the modern art revolution, the paint is laid on thick and draws attention to itself and to the canvas, to the surface and solidity, to the process of painting itself. They are about the interplay of oils, the composition of tones and colours in regard to each other, as juxtapositions of colours and shapes, of bands and shapes and lines and swirls. One result of this is that, having abandoned the realistic depiction of the outside world – using it now merely as inspiration for exercises in colour – there is an absence of the light effects which make so many of the Victorian paintings upstairs so powerful and feel so liberating.
Victorian painting is a game of two halves: as a general rule everything before about 1870 (except for the PRBs) was badly executed or village idiot kitsch; after the 1870s almost all the paintings have a new maturity of execution and subject matter. The change is comparable to the growth of the novel which, up to the 1860s was mostly a comic vehicle with only episodic attempts at seriousness; after around 1860 an increasingly mature, deep and moving medium for the exploration of human consciousness.
Seeing this many oil paintings together makes you realise the ability to oil to brilliantly capture the effect of sunlight – to dramatise a mythic subject and pose as in Clytemnestra – or to evoke a sense of shadow and light which is so characteristic of the English countryside, as in On a fine day – and then, in later Victorian experiments, to convey the hushed, muted shades of light at dawn and dusk – as in my favourite painting from the collection, Listed.
Oil painting can do this better than photography, in which it is very difficult to capture the difference between light and shade without glare or over-exposure. I hadn’t quite appreciated the wonderful ability of oil painting to convey the impression of sunlight in all its different effects.
- Every room in the British Museum
- Every room in the National Gallery
- Every room in Tate Britain (part one)
- Every room in Tate Britain (part two)
- Every room in Tate Modern