Bookending the western stretch of the Strand are two of London’s finest art collections. One is a huge, bustling tourist hub, welcoming over 5m visitors a year; the other is one of London’s better-kept secrets, visited by fewer than 250,000 people a year despite its location in one of the area’s most historic buildings.
Unless you’re an art obsessive, you probably won’t manage to fit in a visit to both – so which is for you, the exhaustive and exhausting National Gallery, or the small-but-perfectly-formed Courtauld Gallery?
Both galleries cover the early renaissance to the early 20th century, but the National Gallery inevitably has the larger collection. That is both a blessing and a curse – even if you did manage to see it all in a day, it would be too much to take in. The trick is to plan ahead. Go to the website beforehand and work out which sections really interest you; many of them are large enough to be treated as small galleries in their own right.
The Courtauld, on the other hand, repays casual visits – you can wander in and do a serious chunk of the collection in a morning or an afternoon. It has particularly strong coverage of French Impressionism and Post-Impressionism; if that’s your passion, you could visit the Courtauld in the morning and devote the afternoon to the relevant parts of the National. Handily, they’re right next to the main entrance in rooms 43 – 46.
Where to start with the National? Hans Holbein’s curious, cryptic masterpiece The Ambassadors hangs in a room near the entrance, and draws crowds thanks to the optical illusion in the foreground: a large warped skull, only recognisable from one side of the canvas. You’ll also find Van Gogh’s famous sunflowers, which must be seen ‘in the flesh’ – reproductions are everywhere, but never capture the passionate brushwork and intense colour of the real thing.
Elsewhere, the fascinating 1250-1500 rooms in the Sainsbury Wing allow you to trace the development of painting from simple medieval altarpieces to increasingly complex and realistic scenes. You’ll notice extraordinary technical leaps – the use of perspective, the depiction of skin tone – as the first stirrings of the renaissance begin to emanate from Florence.
Among the Courtauld’s jewels are Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, a slice of belle époque Paris that contains one of art’s most famous tricks of perspective. From Van Gogh there is Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, a grim counterpart to the National’s Sunflowers – while one expresses Van Gogh’s excitement about working with his hero Paul Gauguin, the other shows his rapid descent into depression after the relationship foundered. On the very top floor is a fine group of paintings, drawings and bronzes by Degas, reflecting his preoccupation with horses and dancers.
Talks and guides
The National offers seven audio tours, including a 60-minute highlights package and a build-your-own option for those who know exactly what they want to see (all £3.50). Free guided tours run twice a day during the week and three times a day at weekends, and there are in-depth 15-minute talks on particular paintings every Thursday lunchtime.
The Courtauld runs 15-minute lunchtime talks every Monday and Friday, and longer curators’ talks on the first Wednesday of every month, starting at 5pm. Tours of special exhibitions run every Sunday from 3-3.45pm.
National Gallery visitors are spoilt for choice. The large, usually rather crowded cafe on the ground floor has a wide range of sandwiches, cakes and light meals. The more formal National Dining Rooms, developed by restauranteur Oliver Peyton, have a full menu of modern British food with the accent on provenance. Suppliers are routinely named on the menu, and many ingredients are made in-house. There’s also a cracking afternoon tea and a kids’ menu for little visitors.
Inevitably, the Courtauld can’t quite compete with all this. It has a small cafe in the basement, which gives onto a pleasant patio for warmer weather. Light, wholesome food is the order of the day – lunch plates might feature smoked salmon or pate and cornichons – as well as cakes and soups. While it isn’t likely to wow you, it’s fine for a coffee and a snack after trotting around the galleries for a few hours.
Prices and walking times
- National: 7 minutes, free
- Courtauld: 3 minutes, £6 (£3 on Mondays)