It was akin to foraying into the unknown. My first trip to the city after almost four to five months. I wasn’t even sure if the underground was back to normal and running on time. I checked the website for timings but didn’t feel reassured till I got to the station and saw the train times. My booking is for one o’clock and I should be fine, but I wasn’t sure about the formalities once I got to the National Gallery and if I had to get there earlier for this. My next train is in ten minutes. I have plenty of time. There is only one other woman on the platform. Despite the messages coming through the tannoy regarding the use of facial coverings and the threat of fines, she has her mask dangling over her chin. The station is usually pretty deserted at this time on a weekday and so I cannot make any presumptions as to how busy my commute is going to be. I sit and read my paper. The train arrives and is pretty much empty. I need to get off at Woodford to get the connecting train. My next train is busier. Alternate seats are left empty to provide enough space between the commuters and everyone has a face mask on. Most of them wearing the bog standard same mask as me. I took an extra mask from the hospital for my journey today. Some are wearing pretty snazzy ones. I quite like the pastel patterned one that a girl opposite me is wearing.
The walk from the station to Trafalgar Square is quite lacklustre. The usually buzzing Theatre land is empty. There is only a handful of people on the roads. It is a worrying sight. As I reach the Square, I notice that the church facing it is open and next to it a few people have pitched up tents. On the Square the fourth plinth stands empty. The Assyrian replica monument made of recycling material has been taken down and the next commissioned artwork hasn’t taken its place yet. I read that the new one was meant to be unveiled in March this year and was ominously titled ‘The End’ and was meant to be the thirteenth temporary sculptural installation since 1999. So if you believe in superstitions this one is for you.
I am a little early at the Gallery and the guard asks me to come back nearer my time. I go for a walk. There is one busker belting out country tunes and one lone giant Pikachu trying to entice the gathering to part with their money. The usual street artists and artistes are missing. People occupying the benches are giving each other a wide berth. I sit on a shaded bench for a short period and go back to join the queue. The time arrives and we are let in one by one. The security guard tries to scan my ticket but cannot. He lets me go through anyway. I am asked to use the hand sanitiser and as I push the doors open a deserted reception area greets me. The usually bustling foyer is empty and has an eerie feel. The cloak room is closed and I follow the signs and climb the stairs. At the top, guides direct me to Titian’s ‘Love, Desire, Death’ exhibition. Once again the guide at the entrance asks for my ticket. I show him my phone, he has difficulty seeing the small print. I wait my turn to go in. The six ‘poesies’ as Titian described them, painted during the mid 16th century for the future King of Spain has been brought together for the first time since they were separated over four centuries ago. Each canvas describes a poem from Ovid’s Metamorphosis.
It was meant to be an awe inducing moment. The critics have been raving and lamenting about this show which was closed just a few days after opening in March. Now here I was in the room ready to be enthralled. Some of the paintings already belong to the Gallery and I have seen them before. Others have been loaned from around the world. I have watched the documentary behind the show and now try to understand the paintings. The awe somehow didn’t materialise. The colours have faded and changed over the passing centuries and for me there was something lacking. I move to the next room where paintings from other great artists during the renaissance period who took inspiration from Titian or was it the other way round, I forgot to pay attention, hung. Michelangelo, Sebastiano del Piombo etc, and some of them unfinished. The guide at the exit asks me if I have had a good day and enjoyed the exhibition. Their job is to guard these exquisite treasures and I wonder if they ever marvel at the paintings like we do or get bored once they’ve been on the job for a little while.
The layout of the Gallery now is such that you have two choices as you make your way out. It is a one way system and so you cannot just make a beeline for the exit as I usually do thinking that I will come back another day to see the regular paintings that adorn the grand halls. I walk past the Rembrandts, Renoirs, Monets and Cezannes. The new addition to the Gainsborough collection catches my eye. A painting of the artist’s young daughters trying to catch a butterfly. Such a wonderful piece, something I can sit and watch for ages. Another new acquisition, Sorolla’s ‘The Dunkard’, is also on my exit route. I read about it in today’s paper. I don’t think it is one of his best pictures but a Sorolla nonetheless.
It was time to make my way to my usual Dim sum haunt in Chinatown and see if they can accommodate me. On my way I pass Leicester Square. Someone is cutting the bright green lustrous grass which covers the small park in the centre of the Square. On the benches a bronze Paddington is eating his marmalade sandwich, Mr Bean is relaxing and waiting for someone to talk to him. Mary Poppins has just landed near them and is looking for the children. I take the turning to the Chinese quarter from here. The New Year lanterns are still hanging along the lanes. A reminder that this year time stood still as the Chinese shops and restaurants bore the first brunt of the boycotts way before the lockdown happened. My regular restaurant is open and they have space for me. I sit down and get ready to savour my long awaited treat. The melt in the mouth, steamed and baked, filled buns was worth the wait. The best dim sum in the whole wide world. That will do for me. I still have some more shopping to do before catching my evening train home.