Art History Trip: National Gallery and Tower of London | MPW

Art History trip: National Gallery and Tower of London

Just before Christmas, History of Art students went on a combined study day to the Tower of London and the National Gallery. It was a chance to engage with the patronage of King Richard II, using a well-known work in the National Gallery – the Wilton Diptych – and a less well-known wall painting in what used to be the Royal Mint, now called the Byward Tower. This was a fantastic opportunity to see not only Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress (as The Tower is formally known) but also one of its secret treasures. Passing through Traitor’s Gate, we arrived at our destination just beyond the White Tower. The day began with a lecture about the history of the Tower, as well as the symbolism and patronage of its hidden wall painting. Then it was off to what used to be the Royal Mint to explore the wall painting itself, whose purpose was to warn people from stealing as well as to remind them of the King’s authority. Much of the work was destroyed by the Tudors in order to build a fireplace, but enough remained to provide us all with a fascinating glimpse of the past. We all felt highly privileged to be given access to this beautiful and historically significant artefact, as it is not open to the public. Eventually we had to let the scientists get back to work with their PRISMS system, or Portable Remote Imaging System for Multispectral Scanning, which allows them to view areas of the painting using different wavelengths of light. In doing so, they can reveal the composition and make-up of the paints that were used, as well as hidden details that might not be immediately visible on the surface. Returning to the Waterloo Barracks, our party of students were then given the opportunity to mix rare pigments for themselves, and to cut gold leaf.

After a quick lunch, it was then off to Trafalgar Square. In the afternoon the main focus of our visit to the National Gallery was the beautiful and exquisite Wilton Diptych. The word masterpiece is a cliché but here it is most appropriate. However, first we went to a lecture on the Diptych followed by a bit of practical fun! The students were given the chance to not only learn about materials but have a go themselves at fresco and tempera painting. Very quickly they began to realise why it is more accurately called egg tempera painting, with hilarious results, as each in turn attempted to pass the egg on to their neighbour. Then it was off to see the private altarpiece of King Richard II, encased in protective glass and positioned in the round in order to be visible in its entirety. It was wonderful to see it close up, analyse its details and marvel at how beautifully preserved it is. In particular, since it was cleaned we can now see a tiny detail on an orb held by an angel: a green island with a turreted white castle, floating on a sea which was originally made from silver leaf. Perhaps Shakespeare had heard of this, or even seen it, as in his play ‘Richard II’ the character of John of Gaunt describes

England as “this little world, / This precious stone set in a silver sea”. We then had a chance to explore some of the other works in the gallery, with each student having the chance to make a short presentation in front of their chosen paintings. However, the day belonged to the Wilton Diptych, whose beauty is given added poignancy by the fate of its owner: starved to death in Pontefract Castle, abandoned by a Heaven that did not save him.

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