This arty stocking-filler will put you in the picture

About Britain

Like art, but don't know where to start?

A new guide published jointly by London's National Gallery and Moleskine could transform you into a veritable art buff. Get a copy of The London Painting Trail (£12.99, Moleskine) and you become the tour guide, exploring the permanent collections of seven of the capital's most important galleries from an informed point of view. With this handy-sized expert in your pocket, you can set off at your own pace with an itinerary that might include Apsley House, the Courtauld Gallery, National Gallery, National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Collection, the Wallace Collection, and the Sir John Soane's Museum.

The Courtauld Gallery and National Gallery are the perfect pairing if time is tight – and not just because they're a short trot apart. Uncover the connections between the collections: textile magnate Samuel Courtauld helped to create the unique group of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings that now hangs in the Courtauld, then in 1924 he donated £50,000 to buy more of the same for the National.

I headed for Sir John Soane's Museum. The noted architect's house in Lincoln's Inn Fields retains a suitably atmospheric gloom. Visit during late-night opening, on Tuesdays, and you can even explore by candlelight.

Descend to the basement to see the spooky 1200BC Egyptian sarcophagus and Soane's version of the Roman catacombs. The grand rooms upstairs, and a warren of stone-floored spaces downstairs, burst with art and architectural artefacts. The Picture Room holds more than 100 important paintings, including names such as Hogarth, some of which are concealed behind walls that are, in fact, hinged screens.

And the trail helps you to learn as you go along. Instead of floundering for the meaning in masterpieces, turn to the "three to see" at each location for easily digestible expert knowledge that will help you to understand works such as Van Gogh's Sunflowers and Velazquez's The Toilet of Venus (in the National Gallery) or Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère (in the Courtauld). There are even blank pages for jotting down your own thoughts.

This little black book also contains maps of the London Underground and plans of relevant streets. And, for when you've had your fill of fine art, there are recommendations for nearby places to eat and drink and sections where you can note your own discoveries.

It's a great stocking filler. (Pick it up at any of the seven galleries or go to nationalgallery.co.uk.) Or treat yourself and use some seasonal downtime to swot up on your art history.

simone.freelance@mac.com

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