In June I spent an evening in the National Gallery with my drawing class sitting sketching in the room displaying three Vermeer paintings of women with musical instruments. A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal and A Young Woman Seated at a Virginal are part of the gallery’s permanent collection, while The Guitar Player is on temporary loan from Kenwood House while that building is under repair.
On that evening, we sat on our folding stools and focussed on the composition of the painting we had chosen to study, and in the process focussed very much on the shapes and the geometry of each work. In the couple of hours we were there other visitors peered over our shoulders and spent time looking at the paintings, but there was no overwhelming crush; when there are so many other things to look at too, the general visitor scans the walls and pauses rarely.
For this special exhibition, Vermeer and Music, the curators have moved these three paintings to the basement rooms of the Sainsbury Wing and have built a small show around them. It includes musical instruments as well as paintings of musical subjects by Dutch painters working at the same time as Vermeer in the ‘Golden Age’.
At first I was pleasantly surprised at the low cost of the ticket, only £3.50 with my Art Fund Pass, but when I realised that the paintings, with only a couple of exceptions, are already in the National Gallery Collection, or owned by the Queen, and the instruments have come from one of the London colleges of music, it dawned on me that although not always together in one building, most of the pieces on display are usually available to see free of charge somewhere in London.
I usually don’t pay the additional money for an audio guide to exhibitions, but as we weren’t able to go on one of the days when there are live recitals of contemporary music on ancient instruments, on this occasion I did pay the extra. And it was worth it because it meant I could hear what the instruments would have sounded like.
I have read newspaper reviews in which the art critics have been less than complimentary about the ‘art’ element of the exhibition, because of the focus more on the social and musical components of the works on display. But for me, having spent that evening looking so intently at the geometry of the paintings, it was fascinating to hear about the fashions of the dresses and the importance of the displays of wealth, of the carpet on the tables and the paintings on the walls, and that not all of the young woman were as demure as we might think think them. A musician also spoke about the way the models’ hands were positioned on the instruments; that this person was clearly an accomplished player for the angle of her hand, and she was about to play this or that type of note. But then again, it’s always the story of a thing that attracts me.
There are instruments from the period on display; ornately carved and painted harpsichords and virginals, as well as lutes and guitars. Other than the very fact of their survival, it was interesting to see inside the harpsichords, at their construction and the angles of the strings, and to learn that the reason we can see them at such different heights in the various paintings is that they didn’t have legs, but were instead placed on tables or stands to suit the owner.
I enjoyed it, and would recommend it for the insight into social history of the time, but I do think we should be alert to this apparent sleight of hand to get us to pay for things which are usually free of charge.