The lovers were more reminiscent of a painting by the surrealist Chagall than one by the two masters whose work they had come to see, but Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse would probably have approved. In silence the couple hugged as the sun came up, shuffling slowly and with appreciation through the rooms of the Tate Modern.
At a little after 5am, with most of the country asleep, the lovers were making history. They had come to take advantage of the vast art gallery's decision to open for 36 consecutive hours in an attempt to accommodate the thousands of people who had tried in vain to see the most successful show in the Tate's 105 years.
The Matisse-Picasso exhibition, a study in the similarities of the work of such different men, had drawn half a million visitors by the time it closed last night. But in the darkness of yesterday morning, most people were not thinking of records as they filed through the gallery on the banks of the Thames at the rate of 500 an hour.
The couples seemed most enchanted, but they were not alone. There were art lovers of all ages and nationalities, spritely elderly people and, by dawn, tired, red-eyed children with their parents. In spite of the hour, after first the pubs, then the clubs had closed, the event was a sober affair reflecting the fact that this was an event for hardcore lovers of art; at 4am there is no passing trade. No one was here by accident.
"It is absolutely fantastic," said Joseph Beattie, a 24-year-old drama student from Essex.
He and his girlfriend, Paola Michelini, 22, from Rome, were in an embrace in front of a vibrant work by Picasso. "We tried to come last Tuesday, but it was sold out, so to get another chance to see this work – at whatever time – is wonderful. Coming here in the middle of the night has a slightly illicit feel about it. It's very atmospheric."
Reena Lalji, a 33-year-old lawyer from Toronto, had stepped from a plane to be greeted by her friend Ashiyana Ali, 32, and whisked straight into central London for a meal and an unexpected viewing of the show. "I had heard about it and wanted to see it, but I never thought I'd be coming here in the middle of the night," said Ms Lalji. "We don't have anything like this in Canada."
Never before had the Tate opened throughout the night, but it was not the first gallery to have done so. That distinction went to the Royal Academy of Arts in 1999, when a Claude Monet exhibition broke all records, attracting 813,000 visitors. Hamka Watt, a 55-year-old artist sitting in a chair sketching the crowds, had been to see that show, and she did not want to miss this.
"You must admit, it's better than going to Tesco's in the middle of the night," she said. "I wondered whether it was risky in terms of security with people coming in after they've had a drink. But everyone seems remarkably sober and well-behaved. Besides, you have to take a risk. This work is wonderful – it would be a shame to hide it away."
Staff at the Tate Modern were in celebratory mood last night. With almost 10 million visitors in just over two years, the success of the former power station is surpassing all expectations.
Jane Burton, a curator at the museum, said: "The show itself was not an easy one for the audience. It demanded a lot, asking visitors to make comparisons between the two artists. Yet the number of people who came demonstrates that there is a real love and appreciation of 20th-century modern art.
"People are much more sophisticated these days and not intimidated by art galleries. They used to be viewed as sacred, hallowed places where only people who understood about art went in hushed tones. Now art is much more accessible and is seen as a source of entertainment and fascination.
"There was a fantastic cross-section of people here, and it was a very well-behaved affair in spite of the hour. It is something we would definitely do again, but probably not for some time. It isn't every day you are able to put on a show featuring two such greats of modern art."
As the taxis queued at dawn to take away the tired but happy crowds, many young students and travellers curled up on sofas or simply lay down in the cavernous turbine hall to sleep and wait for the Underground network to spring into life. There were dozens of them, friends, singles and lovers, crashed out in heaps, but no one seemed to mind. They had come with a common purpose, and they had not been disappointed.
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