On 10 July at 10.55am there were 20 people in the queue for the National Gallery, which had just reopened after 111 days of Covid-related closure. The Sainsbury Wing entrance bristled with the now-familiar precautions – extended barriers, hand sanitiser, extra staff – and we passed through to a movingly warm welcome.
Somewhat to my surprise, I’d been first in the queue. It was my first day back in central London after four months in lockdown, and I’d arrived 10 minutes early, expecting a scrum of art fans. All I wanted to see – and I really wanted to see it – was the Wilton Diptych, the exquisite personal altar once owned by the boy king Richard II.
The funny thing is, that as a Londoner and a Blue Badge tour guide I see it dozens of times in a normal year, and although I’ve always thought it the most beautiful of all the beautiful things in the National Gallery, I’d barely given it a second thought. Never yearned for it. Now I shot through the door, up the stairs and just stood there, drinking it in.
The young king is shown kneeling, his robe patterned with golden broom-cods (pods), the symbol of the Plantagenets. Behind him stand three saints: Edmund, martyred in London by the Vikings; Edward the Confessor, who founded Westminster Abbey; and John the Baptist, with bad hair and a camel robe. Opposite stand the Virgin and Child backed by 11 angels in deepest ultramarine, with the fair hair and high foreheads fashionable for the period.
Normally, it’s impossible to enjoy a work like this without someone hovering behind you, waiting to step in. It’s one of the many paradoxes of the pandemic that at a brutal time for the National Gallery, there’s never been a better time to visit – something to bear in mind this coming bank holiday (there is still plenty of availability).
“Visits to the National Gallery are currently 90% down on the same week last year” said Bernard Donoghue of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions. “That’s because although they’re getting almost full capacity for the tickets that they have available, the capacity is so reduced compared with normal. It’s the same for most other visitor attractions, particularly in central London.”
The problem is not just that the overseas visitors have disappeared, it’s also that Londoners and Britons generally are showing what Donoghue calls “a caution and a hesitancy”about coming into the city centre and using public transport, even though tube trains are virtually empty for much of the day and London’s infection rate is low.
The irony is that position has always been the National Gallery’s trump card. It was built in the 1830s at the dead centre of London: the site of the old Royal Mews, north of Charing Cross, near the point from which all distances were measured. People could reach it from the East End and the West End: it was to be “a gallery for all”.
Even during the blitz, with all the artworks hidden away in Wales, Londoners came to this building to listen to recitals by Myra Hess and other musicians. And this July it was the first of the top 10 London visitor attractions to open and, unusually, is still open seven days a week.
On that first visit I followed one of three designated one-way art routes, past the Leonardos, the Botticellis and the Van Eycks. Clusters of people stood staring at paintings. It was so, so peaceful, and I noticed so many things I’d never spotted before. I had coffee in the cafe, where most of the seats had been removed and the barista wore a visor. I bought postcards in the shop. I’ve been back with friends since to do the other two routes.
Donoghue compares it to the first week of the London 2012 Olympics, when the city centre became a ghost town. “There was a move then to get people to reclaim their city,” he says, “to come back and enjoy London like they never had before. It’s the same now – you’ll never see it like this again.”
Back in July, I tried, the minute I got home, to book tickets for the Titian exhibition (running until January 2021), assuming it would be empty. It was sold out for the next six weeks. I’m going next Wednesday.
• The National Gallery is open daily 11am-6pm, until 9pm Fridays, general admission free, advance booking essential
LONDON GALLERIES FOR THE AUGUST BANK HOLIDAY WEEKEND
Both Tate Britain and Tate Modern are open all weekend from 10am to 4.30pm; general admission free. Tate Britain has a handful of tickets for the Aubrey Beardsley show , especially on the Monday (adults £16, concessions £15, under 12s free). Tate Modern’s Andy Warhol and Steve McQueen exhibitions are both sold out.
The Hayward Gallery, currently the only bit of the Southbank Centre that is open, has tickets available on Saturday and Sunday for Among the Trees (£13.50 for a ticket including donation, £12 without, concessions £10, students aged 12 to 16 years £6, under 12s free).
The William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow is open Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm, but will open on Bank Holiday Monday. The tea room and shop are both open (admission free, donations welcome).
The Royal Academy of Arts is open from Wednesday to Saturday 11am to 5pm (closed Bank Holiday Monday) and has a handful of tickets for the Gauguin and the Impressionists show available on Sunday afternoon (£17 or £15 without donation, concessions available, under-16s go free with a fee-paying adult).
The Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art in Islington is open from Wednesday to Saturday 11am to 6pm and Sunday 12pm to 5pm (closed Bank Holiday Monday). The current exhibition ‘Tullio Crali: A Futurist Life’ runs until September 13 (adult £7.50, over 60s £5.50).
The Whitechapel Gallery has tickets for Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium available on Saturday and Sunday (closed Monday) with 50% of Sunday afternoon tickets for high-risk visitors. General admission free. Exhibition: adults £10.50 (Gift Aid), concessions £8.50 and under 16s free.
All galleries must be pre-booked.