Small really is beautiful: London's curators promote the virtues of intimate galleries

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The Independent Culture

For anyone tired of blockbuster art shows, a group of London's smaller galleries have set out to show why their collections have just as much to offer to art fans.

The Courtauld Institute, the Dulwich Picture Gallery and the Wallace Collection yesterday unveiled a 2008 season guaranteed to highlight the hidden gems in their collections and to rival institutions such as the National Gallery, the Tate and the Royal Academy.

Visitor figures at all three museums are up, with the Courtauld, currently celebrating its 75th anniversary expected to pass 125,000 visitors this year, up from 111,039 last year. Attendances at Dulwich have risen from about 100,000 annually to 142,000 last year and the Wallace Collection has surpassed its 2025 target 18 years early with 330,000 visitors a year.

Ian Dejardin, director of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, said: "I'm very happy for the great galleries to slug it out in terms of exhibitions. There are only a handful of names that can bring in 400,000 people. We can have great successes on our own terms with the rest of art history. Once you've taken away the big names – Velázquez, Van Gogh, Monet, Rembrandt – you're left with 99.9 per cent of art history. Art history is packed with names that are getting trampled under foot in the obsession with blockbusters."

Next year, Dulwich will highlight one of the principal paintings in its collection, Guido Reni's Saint Sebastian, by bringing it together with five other versions of the painting.

Dulwich is also staging an exhibition of work by Jan de Bray, his father Salomon and his two brothers, Dutch painters from the second half of the 17th century.

Barnaby Wright, curator of paintings at the Courtauld, said: "What we offer is an antidote to the blockbuster exhibitions, where you feel as though you're herded round and don't get to spend much time with the paintings on display."

The Courtauld's new programme includes an exploration of how the theatre box was depicted in 19th-century France, inspired by Renoir's La Loge (The Theatre Box), part of its permanent collection, as well as a show based on its collection of Cézannes, the biggest in Britain.

Rosalind Savill, director of the Wallace Collection, said: "Once upon a time, the Wallace was seen as somewhere that never changed and now it changes frequently. It's the manageability of the smaller museum, the human scale that appeals to people."

In 2008, the Wallace Collection will bring together two of the greatest paintings of 18th-century France, Jean-Siméon Chardin's Lady Taking Tea and François Boucher's A Lady On Her Daybed, and will show masterpieces left to the Louvre by the Parisian doctor Louis La Caze in 1869.

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