Great Art Cities: Visit the Fascinating, Lesser-Known Museums of London & Paris

Gal­lerists James Payne and Joanne Shurvell under­stand that insti­tu­tion­al big goril­las like the Lou­vrethe Musee d’Or­sayTate Britain, and London’s Nation­al Gallery require no intro­duc­tion. Their new art and trav­el series, Great Art Cities Explained, con­cen­trates instead on the won­der­ful, small­er muse­ums the big­gies often over­shad­ow.

First time vis­i­tors to Lon­don and Paris may be left scram­bling to rearrange their itin­er­aries.

The first two episodes have us per­suad­ed that Sir John Soane’s Muse­umKen­wood Housethe Wal­lace Col­lec­tion, Le Musée Nation­al Eugène DelacroixLe Musée de Mont­martre à Paris, and Ate­lier Bran­cusi are the true “don’t miss” attrac­tions if time is tight.

Cred­it Payne, whose flair for dishy, far rang­ing, high­ly acces­si­ble nar­ra­tion made his oth­er web series, Great Art Explained in Fif­teen Min­utes, an instant hit.

The three British insti­tu­tions fea­tured above were once grand pri­vate homes, whose own­ers decid­ed to donate them and the mag­nif­i­cent art col­lec­tions they con­tained to the pub­lic good.

What­ev­er moti­vat­ed these wealthy men’s gen­eros­i­ty — van­i­ty, the quest for immor­tal­i­ty, or, in one case, the desire to cut off a churl­ish and moral­ly lax son whom Payne com­pares to the cen­tral fig­ure in William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress, a Sir John Soane’s Muse­um favorite — Payne holds them in high­er regard than today’s invest­ment-obsessed art col­lec­tors:

The world needs more men like (William) Mur­ray(Sir John) Soane, and (Sir Richard) Wal­lace, men who saw that art can tran­scend social class. They under­stood that art should enrich the soul, not the bank bal­ance.

His peeks into their cir­cum­stances are every bit as fas­ci­nat­ing as the tid­bits he drops about the artists whose work he includes.

Rather than giv­ing a sweep­ing overview of each col­lec­tion, he focus­es on a few key works, shar­ing his cura­to­r­i­al per­spec­tive on their his­to­ry, acqui­si­tion, sub­ject mat­ter, cre­ation, and recep­tion:

Rembrandt’s Self Por­trait with Two Cir­cles (1669)

Vermeer’s The Gui­tar Play­er (1672)

Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1732)

Canalet­to’s Venice: the Baci­no di San Mar­co from San Gior­gio Mag­giore and Venice: the Baci­no di San Mar­co from the Canale del­la Giudec­ca (c. 1735 — 1744)

Fragonard’s The Swing (1767)

Frans Hal’s Laugh­ing Cav­a­lier (1624)

Payne’s rol­lick­ing approach means each episode is crammed with plen­ty of art­work resid­ing out­side of the fea­tured muse­ums, too, as he com­pares, con­trasts, and con­tex­tu­al­izes.

One of his most inter­est­ing tales in the Lon­don episode con­cerns an 18th-cen­tu­ry por­trait of William Murray’s great-nieces, Dido Belle and Eliz­a­beth Mur­ray, raised by their abo­li­tion­ist great-uncle at Ken­wood House:

Dido Belle was the ille­git­i­mate daugh­ter of a Black slave and William Murray’s nephew and was raised by Mur­ray as part of the aris­toc­ra­cy. By all accounts, Dido and her cousin were raised as equals and this por­trait of the two was seen as an image of sis­ter­hood, reflect­ing their equal sta­tus. But look­ing at it with mod­ern eyes, we can see it more in the vein of tra­di­tion­al ser­vant and mas­ter por­traits of the time. Belle’s exot­ic cloth­ing is designed to dif­fer­en­ti­ate her from her cousin and the paint­ing reflects the con­ser­v­a­tive views of the time.

Artist David Mar­tin places the cousins on a bench out­side the Hamp­stead Heath man­sion, with St. Paul’s Cathe­dral in the back­ground. For years, it was the only known por­trait of Belle.

It hangs, not in Ken­wood House, but in Scone Palace’s Ambas­sador’s Room.

Mean­while, one of Ken­wood House­’s lat­est acqui­si­tions is a 2021 por­trait of Belle by young Jamaican artist Mikéla Hen­ry-Lowe, on dis­play in the library.

Next up on Great Art Cities Explained: New York. Look for it on this playlist on Great Art Explained’s YouTube chan­nel.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Intro­duc­tions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picas­so & More

What Makes Basquiat’s Unti­tled Great Art: One Paint­ing Says Every­thing Basquiat Want­ed to Say About Amer­i­ca, Art & Being Black in Both Worlds

Mark Rothko’s Sea­gram Murals: What Makes Them Great Art

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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  • Luke says:

    I live in Lon­don and I do agree that Sir John Soane’s Muse­um, Ken­wood House and the Wal­lace Col­lec­tion are absolute­ly great litte muse­ums, prob­a­bly my favourite ones in Lon­don. Sir John Soane’s Muse­um is a tiny place filled with art­work and an impres­sive vari­ety of col­lectibles — Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress dis­played on a series of mov­ing pan­els is the high­light. Ken­wood house is beau­ti­ful­ly set in Hamp­stead Heath, emerg­ing all of the sud­den from the woods — it does not feel like you are in Lon­don. The Wal­lace Col­lec­tion also show­cas­es an impres­sive range of art­works (from paint­ings to sculp­tures, from wood­work to ancient armouries.

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