Queuing for Leonardo at the National Gallery

The best way to approach the queue for the day tickets to the Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery is as part of the cultural experience, as on average, according to the visitor information, you’ll be in the line for somewhere between 2 and 3 hours.

All the tickets bookable in advance are sold out, so if you want to see the exhibition you’ll need to queue for one of the 500 day tickets (more on days when the Gallery has extended opening hours), sold on a first come first serve basis from 10am.

As I walked across Trafalgar Square just before 7:50 am on Monday morning, I suspected that I was on the point of being rather ridiculous, and would be standing outside a closed up museum all by myself, watching workers head towards their offices, paper coffee cups and briefcases in hand.  Imagine my surprise then, when I saw that a significant crowd of people was already snaking its way around the side of the building.

My friend C and I joined the line beneath the bridge that links the Sainsbury Wing to the main Gallery.  I’d worn comfortable shoes in anticipation of a long wait, but my preparations were nothing in comparison to those of C, who, to my delight, had brought two collapsible stools with her.  Seated, leaning against the wall we looked the part of the professional experienced queuers; so much so that, later in the morning, we were asked by passers-by, what time we had arrived to secure our place.

At about 9 am a gallery employee in a high visibility jacket came along the line counting numbers with a handy clicker; closely followed by another one handing out exhibition guides, which raised our spirits, giving us the belief that we would be successful and get tickets.  By then, they were able to tell the tail end charlies initially, that they were in the ‘grey zone’, and then, for those arriving near 10am, that there was no chance they would be successful that day.

We bought our tickets at 10:30.  I couldn’t resist doing the arithmetic.  According to the man controlling the revolving door, it takes about 2 hours for the day tickets to be sold; that means that on average they sell just over 4 tickets per minute, so we were about 125th in line.  We could have bought tickets for 11am entry, but as we were so cold and in need of the loo and a coffee, we opted for 11:30.  By the time we returned to join the line for entry they were selling tickets for 14:00.

Inside, the gallery is clearly operating at capacity, and all the rooms are full of people, slowly progressing around the walls, each person executing their own little dance, trying to get their own few minutes with an unimpeded view of the works; shrugging shoulders, sidestepping and sashaying to avoid collisions with other visitors; circling around strangers and then seeing the same people again: in my case one older lady who was having particular trouble operating her audio guide.

Patience was of the essence, and was occasionally surprisingly rewarded by finding oneself entirely alone in front of one of the works.

Focussed on the work produced in the period of time Leonardo worked in Milan, there are a couple of pictures on display the real authorship of which is disputed amongst the experts.  What I enjoyed about these was imagining the arguments behind the scenes.  Attribution it seems is argued by reference to comparison of sketches to final paintings, and mixed in with the spice of the knowledge that some of the details might have been painted by his students.

Seeing Leonardo’s works alongside those of his contemporaries allowed me to appreciate how much more life he achieved in the eyes and faces of his subjects, and how good he was at hands.  It was also extraordinary to be able to stand in the middle of a room look one way and see The Madonna of the Rocks owned by the Louvre one way, and the one in the National Gallery collection the other, each surrounded by over the top carved wooden frame arrangements, and play a sort of high culture ‘spot the difference’.

My favourite was a small sketch in red ink of a women’s décolletage, clearly drawn to examine the interconnection of the lines of shoulder, neck and chin; it was so very much a real person and so unbelievably old.

It was all definitely worth the wait.

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3 Comments

  1. This is an exhibition I would dearly love to view…but my old bones prevent me both queuing & viewing. Thank you for this interesting report.

    …Your year of daily writing almost up, I hope you continue, even if it is not daily. Very much enjoyed.
    Evelyn

    Reply
    • Thanks Evelyn. I’ve not really decided what to do with the blog next year. Doing it every day almost makes it easier because no one post has to bear too much of a burden of being good or significant. It certainly won’t stop any time soon as it’s become a bit of a habit.

      Reply
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