Western Old Master works of art are a large art historical category enveloping painting, sculpture, drawing, etc. from the late Mediaeval ages to the end of the nineteenth century, although I do believe in a looser definition that would stretch the category to embrace nineteenth-century Academicians broadly following the classical tradition. On a side note, I wholeheartedly champion a geographically and culturally more inclusive definition of the ‘Old Masters’ that would include artworks produced in cultures where some form of aesthetic valuation or artistic connoisseurship exists; perhaps some of the most notable examples are classical Chinese and Sinic painting as well as calligraphy.
Western Old Master art is sometimes perceived by the general public as intimidating or at least ‘standoffish.’ Such a misconception, already existing (naturally) without the West and built up largely after WWII within the West, has gradually formed an unfair barrier between the people and their art. Fortunately, in recent times, more and more people are again finding serene pleasure and tranquil peace in Old Master works of art. Indeed, as today’s world descends into restless agitation and frantic impetuosity, the Old Masters, both temporally and aesthetically removed from the maddening world, emerge as a soothing oasis.
A second barrier between the art lovers and the Old Masters is yet another widespread misconception. Oftentimes simply unable to find the opportunity to see more Old Master art apart from the more well-known pieces, people tend to assume that only very few public institutions have the Old Masters on view. They are right in a way: the vast majority of masterpieces can, indeed, only be found in major public collections. However, there are, in fact, a lot more venues and occasions to access more Old Master artworks for leisurely enjoyment. Beyond such grandpublic collections as the National Gallery and Tate Britain, this article will introduce many more under-explored opportunities for enjoying the Old Masters — in and around London!
I. Permanent Collections
i. Overlooked Public Collections
The Courtauld Gallery is much more famous for its impressive collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works — perfectly emblematised by such household names as Édouard Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergère (1882) and Vincent van Gogh’s Self-Portraits with Bandaged Ear (1889). With such a powerful presence of Impressionist and Modernist art, many casual visitors rarely realise that the Courtauld also offers a fantastic selection of Old Master paintings and drawings.
One remarkable example is Sir Peter Paul Rubens’s modello (oil study) for his iconic Descent from the Cross (1611-3). The oil study, albeit not the finished painting itself, offers chiefly the same iconic image as the painting that has implanted the idea of a quintessential ‘Baroque’ picture into people’s collective subconsciousness. As a result, the oil study at the Courtauld is just as striking to the beholders as the finished work in the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp. Personally I would even prefer this oil study at the Courtauld to the actual altarpiece. Closer than the painting to the ‘hot’ stages of inspiration, this oil study by Rubens is apt to reveal more clearly to the beholders his creative thoughts and processes. As Edgar Wind poetically puts it, through drawings and sketches, the audience are able to admire better the ‘inspired stammer’ and the ‘bold notations in which the master’s hand vibrates and flickers.’ Moreover, since Rubens is a Flemish Baroque master already known for his dynamism, an oil study would further enhance the dynamic power of his brushstrokes of ingenuity.
On this note, the Courtauld Gallery’s exhibition room for drawings has a particularly engaging design. Equipped with a number of magnifying glasses, the room offers a luring opportunity for you to closely look at the Old Master drawings on display. Framed carefully under glass as precious objects, a collecting practice dating back to at least the end of the sixteenth century, the drawings on view are hung on walls just like paintings. These drawings are perhaps given similar, if not even higher, status than paintings, since the magnifying glasses ready for use obviously encourage a prolonged, connoisseurial rather than a hurried, casual type of looking. Additionally, you can make appointments in advance to completely indulge themselves in drawings (as well as different types of prints like woodcuts, engravings, and etchings) in the Courtauld Gallery’s Prints & Drawings Study Room. Seemingly intimidating (but I can assure you that it is completely the opposite), these appointments, particularly suited for the enjoyment of works on paper, can actually provide a wondrously in-depth viewing experience when you have ample leisure time.
One crucial point I would love for you to take away from this meandering little prose of mine is: don’t be afraid of appointment-based viewing! Appointments are not meant to intimate and exclude people; appointments are thus designed simply to ensure the safety of the usually fragile objects (e.g. works on paper) and the optimal viewing experience for each and every individual who visits.
ii. Print Rooms
Now, what are these ‘print rooms?’ Print rooms are places, normally part of an art gallery or museum, where Old Master works on paper are handled and viewed. Most print rooms require appointment booking in advance, but the process is usually straightforward. In fact, at least in the United Kingdom, print rooms in national institutions, with streamlined and simplified booking process, encourage the general public to engage with them. If you are keenly interested in Old Master works on paper-like drawings, then print rooms are essentially paradise for you. Even if you are not, temporarily retreating from the alienating hustling and bustling of modern urban life, you can still find your own artistic and spiritual oasis in print rooms, surrounded by some beautiful works on paper.
The Print Room at Windsor Castle (Windsor, Berkshire) is a perfect example of an appointment-based viewing experience as well as print rooms. The Print Room at Windsor, part of the Royal Collection Trust, boasts one of the world’s most important collections of Western works on paper. The most salient part of the collection is Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings which might have been brought to England by Rubens. Beyond Leonardo’s drawings, the Print Room also has a significant collection of works by Hans Holbein the Younger, Albrecht Dürer, the Carracci family, Nicolas Poussin, etc.. On site, you will be received by the friendliest curators, you will be briefed regarding the handling of works on paper, and you will be given everything relevant to your visit and/or research, including relevant catalogues, a pair of white gloves, and a magnifying glass. What is particularly considerate is that you can stay for as long as you wish during the opening hours of the Print Room. The one particularity that differentiates the Print Room at Windsor from others is perhaps its formal dress code, as Windsor Castle is, after all, a royal residence. The dress code will not negatively affect your visit or research; instead, it might add some sense of ceremony to your visit.
To enhance your viewing experience at such major public institutions, I would suggest you take full advantage of similar print rooms, including those at the British Museum, Tate Britain (British drawings and prints; most famous for its copious collection of J. M. W. Turner’s watercolours and other works on paper), the Victoria and Albert Museum (encompassing works of applied art such as posters as well as ephemera), and the Ashmolean (Oxford, Oxon; known for its large collection of drawings by Raphael). Within these rather obvious ‘touristic’ destinations, you can treat their print rooms as your own little gems. Book an appointment and spend as much time as you prefer with your favourite works on paper — be it a Rembrandt etching or a Leonardo drawing.
iii. Aristocratic Homes
Petworth House (Petworth, Sussex), located in a vast deer park in the South Downs, West Sussex, is an easily ignored hidden gem for Old Master paintings. Relatively difficult to get to from London, I would recommend at least a weekend spent in the picturesque parish of Petworth and visit the impressive country house as part of your country retreat. The impressive collection is a surprisingly delightful treat for anyone who enjoys an Old Master portrait painting. Scattered throughout Petworth House’s galleries are a portrait by Titian, several group portraits by Anthony van Dyck, and the only portrait, albeit unfinished, ever painted by Turner. Again, I would like to stress that unfinishedness is nothing to shun. Unfinishedness in paintings, not unlike drawings, reveal a part of the artist’s creative working process. Unfinishedness is an opportunity, a window revealing to beholders the private signs of the subjective and emotive creative artist. Beyond Old Master portraits, Petworth House’s smooth undulating parkland, designed by Capability Brown, is highly representative of English country houses’s landscape garden designs, which is definitely worth visiting.
When you try to think of similar aristocratic stately homes with significant Old Master art, Chatsworth House (Bakewell, Derbyshire) springs to mind with its stunning collection of Old Master paintings and drawings, including a tronie (a type of work focussing on exaggerated or characteristic facial features) by Rembrandt and a drawing of Leda and the Swan (c. 1505) by Leonardo, and a faithful copy of Rubens’s now lost ‘Theoretical Notebook.’
While Chatsworth House is probably beyond the remit of my prose (it is too far!), similar collections can also be found in central London, with the Wallace Collection and Apsley House as two exemplars. The Wallace Collection is the more well-known of the two, with French Rococo paintings being the focus of the collection; The Swing (1767) by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, arguably the most iconic Rococo picture, is probably the jewel in the crown. Apsley House is more of a historical museum than an art collection, but it boasts a highly appealing collection of Old Master paintings and sculptures, amongst which is a remarkably masterful early Diego Velázquez, The Waterseller of Seville (1618-22); the Velázquez alone can constitute the motivation for a visit.
The Wallace Collection | L: The Laughing Cavalier by Frans Hals (1624) | R: The Swing, by Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1767) (Image by Christina Cao)
II. Temporary Exhibitions
i. Auction Houses
Auction houses offer unexpectedly great opportunities to find Old Master art. At major auction houses, with Sotheby’s as an example, there is a long preview period (fully open to the general public) for every auction, which gives you ample time to look at auction lots just like visiting an exhibition. Each year, there are several auctions specifically dedicated to Old Master works of art, auctions of antiquities, as well as auctions that substantially feature Old Master art, for example the auctions of those erudite, single-owner collections. International auction houses, like Sotheby’s, will also host previews in their London venues for auctions happening in their oversea branches. As such, there are quite a few occasions every year to enjoy the Old Masters at auction houses. Other major auction houses in London adopts similar auction schedules, so you can also gain a rather good look at Old Master works of art regularly at Christie’s and Bonhams.
ii. Commercial Galleries
Normally, commercial galleries are immediately associated with modernist and perhaps particularly contemporary art. However, in fact, there are a surprising number of commercial galleries and art dealerships specialising not only in Old Master art but also in classical antiquities. Like auction houses, these galleries and dealerships offer great opportunities to see the Old Masters. Most of these galleries in London are completely open to the public — without any obstacle.
One prime example is the reputable Colnaghi, one of the world’s oldest art dealerships that are still active in the art world. Founded in 1760, Colnaghi, straddling the disparate worlds of scholarship, connoisseurship, and commerce, specialises in Old Master paintings, drawings, and even antiquities. Colnaghi, just as other commercial galleries, puts on regular selling exhibitions throughout the year in its gallery space. It might seem daunting at first to enter a commercial gallery, but visiting a commercial gallery simply to enjoy the artworks (without actually taking them home) is something perfectly alright to do.
Commercial galleries and their exhibitions tend to be small in size, so ideally you can visit Colnaghi as part of a ‘gallery hop.’ Fortunately, Colnaghi’s London gallery is nestled in St James’s together with other galleries and dealerships. Also in St James’s are Agnews, CesareLampronti, Moretti Fine Art, Rafael Valls which specialise mainly in European Old Master paintings. Not far away in Mayfair is Richard Green as well as dealerships primarily dealing in Old Master drawings, such as Didier Aaron and Stephen Ongpin Fine Art.
ii. Art Fairs
There is currently no art fair fully dedicated to Old Master art; however, few do feature the Old Masters extensively alongside Modernist and Postmodernist works. These art fairs, exemplified by Frieze Masters and, until 2022, Masterpiece (shut down from 2023 onwards), offer invaluable opportunities for art lovers to enjoy the Old Masters. Looking at Old Master works at art fairs is essentially not so different from visiting lots of commercial galleries in a row, but the effect of agglomeration really helps optimise the efficiency and quality of your visit. Additionally, international art fairs, like Frieze Masters, bring together almost all of the major galleries specialising in the Old Masters from around the world.
Haomin at Frieze Masters 2022 with View of Lake Altaussee and the Dachstein by Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller (1834)
To Conclude: Why Commercial Venues/Occasions?
Understandably, these galleries, dealerships, auction houses, and art fairs are not obvious destinations to go and simply enjoy looking at art, in no small part due to their commercial nature, but it is in these places that you find Old Master artworks that you have never seen before. What’s more, when these venues host temporary ‘exhibitions,’ it is more than likely that the exhibition is the only ephemeral chance perhaps in your entire lifetime to see those paintings on (semi-)public display. These temporary ‘exhibitions’ — be they selling exhibitions at galleries, previews at auction houses, or art fair displays — also serve as perfect occasions where you can practice the lost art of connoisseurship. Naturally, in general, the quality of the pieces on view in these commercial venues and/or occasions is not guaranteed to be nearly as high as that of public collection pieces. It is nevertheless important to look at the ‘lesser’ artworks in order to understand the reasons why great art is great and to reconstruct a fairer picture of what art production really looked like in the past centuries. It is crucial to constantly remind yourselves that not everything on display is necessarily a ‘masterpiece.’ In some cases that are relatively rare but by no means negligible, the quality of paintings in private hands might rival or even surpass that of those in public museums and galleries. Keeping this in mind while looking at the Old Masters in commercial venues, you may train and develop your sense of aesthetic judgment through time by looking at a multitude of artworks — good as well as bad — so that you are able to tell the masterpieces from the rest. Keep looking at art. Maintain a discerning eye.
Haomin Li (he/him) is based in London. Having finished his undergraduate studies in Art History at the University of St Andrews, he is now pursuing a master’s degree in Renaissance Art History and Curatorship at the Warburg Institute. He enjoys early modern Italian, Flemish, and French paintings and drawings as well as classicist architecture.