I THOUGHT A BELLINI WAS A COCKTAIL UNTIL I VISITED THE NATIONAL GALLERY
It’s amazing what you can learn in an hour at a building in Trafalgar Square –
everything from sex to what barrel makers wore.
Before I start, I should point out that David Metcalfe, or rather, John Sherfield, inspired my headline. Back in 1974, when it might be argued that Collett, Dickenson, Pearce was the best advertising agency in the world, David Metcalf , who was a copywriter, was dead keen to leave. He was an enthusiast of American advertising. So, more than anything, he wanted to land a job in New York, an ambition he later achieved. In the meantime, he bored any of us who would listen at great length with stories about his Madison Avenue heroes. This led one of CDP’s art directors, John Sherfield, to letter out the following line on a sheet of A3 layout pad and pin it to David Metcalfe’s door: ‘I thought Carl Ally was a street in New York until I met Dave Metcalfe’. See, nothing’s original.
Anyway, back to my story. I found myself a year or so ago with a couple of out-of -towners to entertain. I discovered that every day, at 2.30 in the afternoon, the National Gallery gives guided tours. On these tours, one of the gallery’s experts takes a party (anyone who cares to turn up) and tells them about four or five of the Gallery’s paintings. The tour takes about an hour, so thought it might be a good idea to try it with my guests.
On the dot of half past two, an attractive woman of a certain age pitched up and whisked us upstairs to the first painting, a portrait. I recognized it right away, but had no idea who the subject was, or who painted it. It showed a man whose face wore a benign expression with a silly-looking hat on his head, wearing a silk tunic. He turned out to be Leonardo Loredan, the Doge of Venice. (A Doge is a kind of glorified lord mayor with immense power. Think Boris Johnson crossed with Mussolini.) The painter was Giovanni Bellini, who when we wasn’t inventing eponymous cocktails, was busy with his brushes. Only kidding, of course, the Bellini cocktail was invented in Harry’s Bar in Venice in the early 20th century, and named after the painter, who lived in the 16th century. I knew about the cocktail, naturally, but not the painter. That’s the trouble with being a philistine.
Talking of which the next painting we saw was Peter Paul Rubens’s Sampson and Delilah. This shows a post-coital Sampson fast asleep on Delilah’s lap, as a Philistine barber cuts Sampson’s hair, to rob him of his strength. Now I have a problem with this painting. I know Sampson has just had a world-class shag, but nobody – not even somebody who’s had their brains fucked out – could fall asleep in the position he’s in, and certainly not long enough for a drastic haircut to take place. I timed a haircut I had recently at 45 minutes, but I guess Sampson’s didn’t include a wash and blow dry – nor did he ask for his eyebrows to be trimmed, as I did. But at least he didn’t have to give the barber a tip.
As we studied the painting, somebody brought up the subject of Delilah’s breasts. Considering how beautiful this part of a woman’s body can be, Rubens has given Delilah a pair of very dodgy knockers. The gallery expert explained that it might have been because Delilah was a Philistine, and Rubens wished to express his disapproval of her betrayal of Sampson. Or it could be, in the opinion of a doctor that the gallery had consulted, because Rubens’s model was in the early stages of breast cancer. If that was the case, surely Rubens could have used artistic licence, and given us all something prettier to look at. Mind you, Delilah’s titties didn’t seem to have put Sampson off, so maybe Rubens was right to paint her warts and all.
By now a pattern was emerging. Bellini was Italian, Rubens was Flemish, and the next painting we were taken to – which goes under the snappy name of ‘Four officers of the Amsterdam Coopers and Wine-Rackers Guild’ – was Dutch. We were obviously on a whistle stop tour of the different schools of European painting. I had never heard of the artist, Gerbrand van den Eekhout, but then, as I pointed out earlier, I am a philistine.
This painting shows four men seated behind a table. That’s about it, except for a small dog, which sits at the feet of one of the four officers. Our guide was able to read much more into this picture than me. To some extent, that may have been due to the fact that I found my attention drawn to her ballerina-like grace, rather than the merits of the picture. Elegantly poised on one foot with the other tucked behind it, she explained that the manner in which the men dressed – soberly, in black and white – indicated that they were Protestants, not Catholics. Three of the men wear white collars, while the fourth – a dead ringer for Guy Fawkes, complete with black hat – wears a white ruff. All this white apparently suggests cleanliness. These four geezers have desk jobs, not ones on the factory floor. And, sure enough, laid out in front of them on the table, is what looks like a set of accounts. If all this sounds a tad dull – a set of accounts, a dog, and four blokes dressed in black and white, the next picture more than made up for it: ‘The toilet of Venus’ by Diego Velasquez.
Yes, we were now in Spain, a deeply religious and Catholic Spain, where tit and bum paintings were frowned upon. This meant that poor old Velasquez couldn’t just go and hire a model, get her kit off, and paint her to his heart’s content. That wouldn’t have gone down at all well. No, he had to concoct some reason to paint her. His solution was to introduce a touch of class, by calling his page three girl Venus, and giving her a cherub, to hold her mirror. Suddenly, instead of smut, the Church could view his painting as something classical and educational. Interestingly, for many years, ‘The toilet of Venus’ or ‘Rokeby Venus’, as it’s often known, was displayed high up on a wall so that passing ladies need not see it.But where it hangs now, in pride of place in one of the gallery’s larger rooms, the charms of Velasquez’s model are there for all to admire.
After the excitement of Velasquez, it was something of a relief to be led to an imposing full-length portrait of an English country gentleman, who had more than a passing resemblance to somebody I once worked with, Charles Barker, now chairman of the Mary Rose Trust. It turned out that Charlie wasn’t Charlie, but Lord Ribblesdale, painted by an American painter who worked in England, John Singer Sargent. Our guide talked a bit about this painting, but was really more interested in comparing the two greats of English portraiture, Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. Reynolds apparently produced portraits on an industrial scale, turning out more than a hundred every year. He was able to do this because he ran a workshop; in other words, he employed assistants to do most of the work. On the other hand, Gainsborough believed that every painting he put his name to should be his work, and his alone. Thus, he was far less prolific.
The allotted hour for the tour had passed. I’d learnt much that I didn’t know, but what to do next with my two out-of-towners? Only one thing sprang to mind – go for a drink. We headed for a local bar. The barman asked what I’d like to drink. Suddenly, I found myself fancying a certain cocktail. It arrived within minutes and I settled down to appreciate my second Bellini of the day.
Copyright: Michael Everett 2012