United Kingdom

Playing Hooky at the National Gallery in London

The National Gallery: One Of London's Best Free Art Museums

Last week, Lexie’s school had this day set aside for something called three-way conferences. Basically, just a day for Lexie, myself, and each of her teachers to meet and discuss her progress so far in the term. For the record, I totally would have been on board for this if we hadn’t done almost the exact same thing a few months earlier, but on this relatively sunny Friday, I just couldn’t bring myself to go to the school where we’d wait for half an hour to speak to one teacher for five minutes and then waste the day away doing the same thing five or six more times, so I made a decision fully within my parental rights (I think) – we were going to play hooky instead! With the day now completely open, we decided to head into London and visit somewhere we’d never been before – the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square.

I get a little sentimental about this part of the city, actually. We had been living in London only a week when we decided to meet some friends for lunch in the city. During that first week, we had only spent time in the areas of London we thought we might be living in, so central London was all new at that point. We had designated Trafalgar Square as our meeting point, so we exited the tube station and were waiting in the square for our friends to arrive when I turned around and spotted something. That’s not…no…can’t be. Wait…maybe it is. Yeah, I think it is. That’s Big Ben! That was my first time getting a glimpse of London’s most famous monument. I can’t even count how many times I’ve walked past that beautiful clock tower now, but nothing beats what it felt like to see it the first time…by accident.

The National Gallery: One Of London's Best Free Art Museums

The National Gallery: One Of London's Best Free Art Museums The National Gallery: One Of London's Best Free Art Museums

The National Gallery: One Of London's Best Free Art Museums

The other reason I used to get a little sentimental walking through Trafalgar Square was because of its (recently removed) resident, Hahn/Cock, the giant blue rooster standing proud on the Fourth Plinth. Earlier this month he was succeeded by Gift Horse, a skeletal horse with a bow tied around his leg featuring the live ticker of the London Stock Exchange. He’s unusual and pretty cool to see at night, but he’s no Hahn/Cock, not in my opinion. You see, before we moved to London, we raised chickens (and one rooster) on our mini-farm, and saying goodbye to them was probably the hardest part about moving abroad for me. London is about as different from Rockvale, Tennessee as any two places can be, but Hahn/Cock was my link to home. My little piece of Tennessee in London. As much as I’m for new art and artists getting exposure, I wouldn’t have complained if they’d decided to make that pretty blue rooster a permanent fixture in the square. But what do you think – which looks better?

The National Gallery: One Of London's Best Free Art Museums

The National Gallery: One Of London's Best Free Art Museums

The National Gallery: One Of London's Best Free Art Museums The National Gallery: One Of London's Best Free Art Museums

As often as I’ve walked through Trafalgar Square, until our recent ditch day, I’d never done more than glance at the beautiful, old building that dominates it. I didn’t even know what was inside until I’d lived here for over a year. (That’s when you know you live in a city with too many museums.) The National Gallery is home to over 2,000 paintings from familiar names like Monet, Van Gogh, Michaelangelo and plenty more my art-ignorant self has never heard of.

Entrance to the National Gallery is free, and the art show begins before you even enter the galleries, because the floor in the entrance hall is a collection of art itself. Dozens of colorful, mosaic scenes depicting the Labors of Life, the Pleasures of Life, and the Modern Virtues decorate the landings of the main hall. Good luck getting a good look at them on a busy day, though! I had people streaming around me on each side, and probably cursing me in their heads for stopping in the middle of the stairs, while I tried to get a few shots. Amateur photographers have got to be some of the most annoying people on the planet. Sorry about that.

The National Gallery: One Of London's Best Free Art Museums

The National Gallery: One Of London's Best Free Art Museums

The National Gallery: One Of London's Best Free Art Museums

The National Gallery: One Of London's Best Free Art Museums

The National Gallery: One Of London's Best Free Art Museums

The National Gallery: One Of London's Best Free Art Museums The National Gallery: One Of London's Best Free Art Museums

I’ve been to art museums in Europe where the design of the museum is pretty understated so as to keep the main focus on the art. Not so in the National Gallery. As we were walking through we’d move from large galleries with high ceilings and natural light flooding in through glass-topped domes to small, intimate, darkened spaces where it felt more like we were viewing a private collection in someone’s home than one of the world’s most visited art galleries, and all of them were so beautifully designed and laid out that sometimes I found the gallery rooms more attractive than the art itself.

This kind of art, all predating the 1900’s, just isn’t really my cup of tea. To be fair, we didn’t have time to make it to the section of the museum where the Van Goghs and the Monets are, which I believe I’d probably enjoy more. Instead, most of what we saw was religious-themed art and sometimes downright creepy art (like the painting of Venus being seduced by her son, Cupid, above). I liked the special exhibition featuring work by Peder Balke better, because at least his paintings didn’t feature gruesome beheadings or close-to-death Jesus’, but I was still not seeing anything I could really connect with. Maybe I’m just not enough of an art person to appreciate the really old stuff.

The National Gallery: One Of London's Best Free Art Museums

The National Gallery: One Of London's Best Free Art Museums

What I can appreciate are the people who have this artistic talent thing down. All my life I’ve wished for the ability to draw or paint or do anything that transforms a blank canvas into something beautiful, but that particular skill just skipped right over me. A lack of natural talent and a short attention span ensure I’ll probably never learn, but I do so love watching other people do what I can’t.

There were many artists in the National Gallery sketching and painting the famous works, and I am so proud of myself for being brave enough to ask a few of them if I could take their photos while they work. That’s big for me. I love people pictures, but I have this irrational fear of asking people if I can photograph them. Even as I took these, with permission, my heart was still beating out of my chest. (I suppose irrational fears are called so for a reason.)

Anyway, as far as spontaneous days off of school go, I think Lexie thought this was a pretty good one. Having a partner in crime to giggle with at the naked cherubs was fun. I’m so used to being alone during the week that this was a real treat for me, too. Now I’ve just got to get back and check out that last section we missed. I have a feeling I’d be singing a different tune in regards to the art if we’d gone there first instead!

National Gallery: Website
Address: Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN

Did you enjoy this article or find it helpful? Save it for later on Pinterest!

The National Gallery: One Of London's Best Free Art Museums

Share this post:

  • Jennifer @This Off Script Life
    March 30, 2015 at 7:57 AM

    I love the National Gallery and could get lost in there for hours (and I love going for coffee at Notes afterwards). My mom also took me to art museums when I was Lexie’s age, and I owe much of my appreciation for art to her. In playing hookie at the art gallery, you probably did more for Lexie’s education than you know.

  • Katrin
    March 28, 2015 at 4:05 PM

    That’s definitely a great way to spend a day off of school! I love art museums a lot. My best friend Julia worked in art museums and it is always great to visit with her because she can explain everything. :) PS: I like the blue Hahn best!

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 29, 2015 at 4:30 PM

      I’d love to have someone walking around with me who could explain everything! I can appreciate art in its beauty, but I often don’t know the meanings intended by the artists!

      • Katrin
        March 29, 2015 at 5:28 PM

        It’s really nice to go to museums with her or visit cities because she knows so much about art and buildings. She is an art historian. I don’t know that much about art either but I did get a book about art history because I want to learn more about it.

  • topchelseagirl
    March 27, 2015 at 3:58 PM

    It was an educational trip, so that can’t be a bad thing lol. You got some lovely shots of the gallery. I too prefer modern art, the old (especially religious) stuff doesn’t do it for me. As someone else said, have you been to the Portrait Gallery next door? You might enjoy that more.
    I bet those artists were really chuffed you asked to take their photos!

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 28, 2015 at 4:00 PM

      I haven’t been, but I need to! I love portrait photography (the fine art kind, not like family portraits), but I’ve never gotten into portrait paintings. But like Melanie mentioned, the stories that go with the portraits are fascinating and that I would definitely love!

      I hope those artists didn’t think I was annoying. I was so embarrassed to ask, but so happy with how the photos turned out that maybe I’ll have the courage to ask again the next time I see someone I want to photograph!

  • Melanie Fontaine
    March 27, 2015 at 7:51 AM

    I’ve never been to the National Gallery before! So I’m glad that you decided to play annoying amateur photographer – definitely not annoying for me! ;) I do love the National Portrait Gallery, though, which is located just behind the National Gallery – I never thought I’d enjoy a collection of portraits so much, but the stories were pretty fascinating! ;)

  • Dannielle @ Chicadeedee
    March 27, 2015 at 12:02 PM

    I liked the rooster better personally. Not a huge fan of the horse, it’s a little creepy. A pretty nice day to spend being a rebel by the sounds of it.

  • rorybore
    March 27, 2015 at 1:57 AM

    it’s beautiful! just awe-inspiring. and the art itself — yeah, I think I would join you in the Monet room. :)
    and I’ve always admired people who could just sit down and draw. Have you ever watched those painting shows? and the guy is all “so just take a bit of your base white and some of this sky blue and gentle tap your brush to form the fluffy clouds” and I look at my canvas and somehow I just have grey polka dots? but he has… perfect sky blue fluffy clouds. ugh.

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 28, 2015 at 3:54 PM

      I know exactly the shows you’re talking about. My mom used to watch them on PBS when I was young. I didn’t think anything was more boring than that back then, but now…hey, I might actually try it! ;) Although I’m sure my clouds would end up looking an awful lot like yours…

  • Elise Angelopulos
    March 26, 2015 at 8:54 PM

    Your photos are beautiful! And I’m so sad the Hahn/Cock is gone! When I studied abroad and revisited it was my favorite monument in the square and the artist’s meaning behind it even more so. I love the museums and galleries in London… sounds like a perfect day to me!

    • Sarah Shumate
      March 28, 2015 at 3:53 PM

      Do you mind sharing the artist’s intention behind the rooster? The whole time I never knew. I assume it has something to do with power since roosters are often used to symbolize powerful groups or people, but I always just accepted him as a beautiful blue rooster, no more no less. ;)

      • Elise Angelopulos
        March 28, 2015 at 4:57 PM

        Yes! It’s so interesting I learned it from a guide on a walking tour I took last March. Since most of the other statues around the square are of powerful men (looking quite manly) on their horses, in many ways announcing their strength and superiority, the female artist who created the rooster in a bright, somewhat blinding cobalt used the animal, the tougher male bird in a typical hen house, to poke fun at these “manly men.”

        • Sarah Shumate
          March 29, 2015 at 4:32 PM

          Oh, that’s fantastic! It makes me love that old rooster even more! I wonder what they do with the retired art from the Fourth Plinth. Hopefully they get used or shown somewhere else. I hate to think of Hahn/Cock hidden away in some storage area!

  • Emma @ AdventuresofaLondonKiwi
    March 26, 2015 at 8:16 PM

    I adore that your rebelling consists of a visit to a fine art establishment ;)

  • Erin
    March 26, 2015 at 4:31 PM

    Great photos! It’s good you asked to people to take their photos while working because they are my favourite ones. Looked like a fun day playing hookie!

  • Amanda @ Rhyme & Ribbons
    March 26, 2015 at 1:57 PM

    You did such a great job capturing the National Gallery! x