Springtime debuts in Dulwich
Waking up on Saturday to the sun streaming into my room and what looked like the faint glimmer of blue sky seen through a crack in my blinds was an odd sensation. Not having to rush up to turn the heater on before swiftly re-burying myself back into the warmth of my duvet was another. For this kind of good weather just doesn’t happen here in the UK, where winter appears to have reigned for so long that most of us had given up any hope of ever having a summer, the assumption being that the White Witch of Narnia was obviously back in power again. Indeed after the coldest March for over 40 years, and an equally chilled start to April, the final debut of Spring this weekend, right at the end of April, was not an event that could be allowed to pass unmarked.
Better late than never I say, and how better to celebrate this sunny saturday than by behaving as a tourist in my own city? Yes, it was to the London suburb of Dulwich, in the south east of the city, and more specifically to the village thereof that we headed to mark the arrival of Spring, a village which, despite some 10 years as fully fledged resident of London, I have never visited. The reason for this? Generally speaking the fact that there is no tube there – but as we found out today, the village is well connected by both bus and train. We took the no. 37 from Clapham Common, which got us to Dulwich, via Brixton and Herne Hill in around 20 minutes.
Dulwich Village is, as my photos will demonstrate, a secluded and rather affluent little enclave, full of picket fences, young families of well-oiled business men and plenty of “ladies that lunch”, yummy mummies and the like. Best of all, what with all the wealth and the family living, together with the rather large expenses houses and spacious gardens, the area of Dulwich is particularly green, full of blossoming trees and robust lawns as well as large open spaces such as Dulwich Park which has its very own boating lake, tennis courts and well-manicured gardens. All very civilised. And of course perfect surroundings for a day which felt ripe with the first inklings of Spring.
The main purpose of our visit was to visit the Dulwich Picture Gallery, a gallery which is so well-established (and is in fact the oldest public gallery in the UK, opening in 1811 at the bequest of Sir Francis Bourgeois RA) that again I wonder why on earth I haven’t visited before. The gallery, which boasts in its permanent collection a singularly impressive selection of notable artists from Velazquez and Gainsborough, to Rembrandt and Canaletto, is quite small but perfectly formed. This first visit to the gallery had been moreover prompted by a temporary exhibition, Murillo & Justino de Neve: The Art of Friendship, which, as the name suggests, explores the work of a master of the Spanish golden age, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618-1682), and in particular the particularly prolific body of work he created under the patronage of collector Justino de Neve.
De Neve was a man with some not insignificant sway in 17th century Seville, the city of Murillo’s birth, and managed to secure for Murillo a number of high profile commissions, including works for Seville Cathedral like The Baptism of Christ whose exhibition in this show marks the first time the painting has been removed from Seville Cathedral since it was put there in the 1600s. There are various others of those commissioned religious set pieces in the show which has been curated to represent something of a gloomy baroque atmosphere, with darkened walls, and a central “nave” to the exhibition, lined with large lunette canvases and culminating with the star of the show, the Inmaculada Concepcion de los Venerables, a stupendously ephemeral, light infused portrait of the immaculate conception, boasting all of the trademarks for which Morillo became famous, such as the vaporescent light, idealised figures and soft melting forms. The painting, exhibited for the first time back in the sumptuously carved frame for which it was originally intended, is an incredibly well executed work, with its cascade of angels fading gradually into the distance, and its radiant golden light off-set against the blue of Mary’s robes. Yes, it’s a little saccharine for some tastes, but when seen in the right light, it’s an undeniably impressive almost awe-inspiring piece. Sadly, correct lighting was not something that this gallery did particularly well, with so many of the darker paintings being almost eclipsed by reflective light with the result that one could only see the painting by standing at a very specific and distant angle – it’s luckily the gallery was not busier or I fear everyone would have been vying for the same spot.
After a stroll around the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s fine accompanying gardens, complete with a winding path suitable for a contemplative perambulation, and various sculptures to tempt the eye, we headed back into Dulwich Village, where the bustling restaurant Rocca seemed a batter choice than the chain fodder of Pizza Express and Cafe Rouge across the way. As the name suggests, the restaurant presents italian fair, but its menu is depressingly anglicised. Pasta with peas and cream, spaghetti bolognese and tagliatelli carbonara – it doesn’t get much more cliché – and the pizzas, which came in a range of ingredient combination, also lacked the innovation (and the requisite crispy thin base) that comes to be expected of modern Italian cuisine. Nonetheless, we started the meal with a delicious octopus carpaccio (pictured) which was well seasoned and marinaded in chilli and oil, while a lemon and orange tart for dessert, in a rich buttery pastry went down particularly well.
We ended our day by strolling around Dulwich Park, another of the vast green areas of which London so can proudly boast to be one of the greenest cities in Europe. Here the sense of familial civility reached its height, with young families and loved-up couples enjoying the warmth and serenity of a first day of Spring, bobbing around in the peddle-boats of the boating lake as they did so; a scene of such unabashed idealism that I thought for one moment that I could see the golden glow of Murillo’s paintings emanating into the ephemeral space above.
Murillo & Justino de Neve: The Art of Friendship is on at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until 19 May.
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- Murillo at Dulwich Picture Gallery, review (telegraph.co.uk)