They hadn't actually seen many paintings yet, but the night was young. "We're totally spun out by all the people here," said the 25-year-old woman who, by day, is a drugs and alcohol counsellor. "I want to walk around, but he's suffering loss of vision. Luckily we've got hours."
Another tripping couple were scrutinising one of the paintings' captions. "Lent by the Gobelins Tapestry Studio, Paris" - on the face of it a pretty uninteresting fact. "Where does the tapestry come into it then?" asked the girl. "Gobelins. Jobelins. Gobelins. Jobelins."
But despite those rather notable exceptions, most of the 8,689 visitors to the special "Monet after Midnight" event - covering the last hours of the Monet in the 20th Century show - appeared to be taking the task extremely seriously.
Organisers of the exhibition, which ended yesterday, said it had become the most popularever held in the UK with more than 813,000 visitors since it opened on 23 January. An average of 8,552 people flocked to the Royal Academy every day giving the show the highest daily attendance figure; pounds 3.9m was taken in ticket-office receipts, more than recouping the pounds 1.8m cost of mounting the display.
Such was the show's success that the Royal Academy decided to open round- the-clock for one day only, becoming the first British gallery to open for 24 hours non-stop. Many who visited in the small hours came because they were unable to get a ticket for the day-time slots.
One woman, Ingrid Op Den Camp, 31, had flown into London from the Netherlands for 24 hours, especially to see exhibition. "The purple waterlilies. That's what's brought me," she said, explaining that she couldn't get a ticket for any other time. "I didn't book a hotel. I'm staying here all night."
Outside the Royal Academy, on Piccadilly, a fluorescent-jacketed steward was urging the crowd to go home to bed: "There is absolutely no point in standing here ... It's sold out all night," he said. But these people seemed happy to stand there till dawn, kissing, cuddling, and sharing chocolate cake. It was, after all, their last chance. Last night the 79 paintings were packed up, ready to be returned to their homes around the world.
By 4am yesterday 150 people were still waiting. A pair of students had been there several hours. "We're just very last-minute," said one.
Josh Whaley, a 29-year-old artist from Islington, was less amused. "It's open 24 hours a day and we still can't get in," he said, heading for home.
Inside, the occasional snippet of art critique reverberated around a room - "Abstraction worked but only when it was in a dynamic configuration...". But the consensus was that viewing art in the middle of the night was less than ideal. "It's warm as well which adds to the tiredness factor," said a bleary-eyed Andrew Tennent, 24. "I just keep thinking: Where's the exit?"
Teri McQueen, 20, a student from California, said: "I feel I could appreciate the paintings more in the day, but appreciating them a bit is better than nothing at all."
But for Ray Peck, 36, a salesman from Indianapolis, the experience was special. "We've found this little cache of time while everyone else is sleeping ... Just the fact that it's the middle of the night adds a little artsiness to the art."
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