A Door In The Wall Moment

One day in about 1973 I drifted into the Tate Gallery in London, and wandered around the rooms.

By J M W Turner
By J M W Turner

In one room there were two men standing in front of a large canvass. One man was dressed as a museum guard and he was talking softly, and the other man was listening with close attention. As I approached I began to hear what was being said. It was a commentary and an examination of the painting.

I came closer. The guard was focussed on the civilian who was rapt. I stood still and began to listen too. By degrees the guard included me in the monologue (he was the only one who spoke), and the group morphed from a duo to a trio. The speaker was knowledgable, and took pleasure in sharing his data with a wiling audience.

After some time, and it could have been two or three minutes or it could have been twenty or thirty or it could have been a span of a different measure, the first listener began, slowly, to disengage. Organically, the guard began a transfer of his entire attention by degrees, onto me. And then, with invisible seams, the first man quit the gallery and the trio became a new duo.

The guard spoke with enthusiasm, with passion and admiration. I was rapt. And lucky. To have been wakeful enough to recognize a source of bright insight. The guard (if that’s what he was) spoke effortlessly on all aspects of the painting, connecting the medium, the subject, form, color, and all the rest of it. And I was a dry sponge, delighting in the sensation of quickened synapses as unguessed at magnitudes, hinted at in unexpected ideas, poured over me.

A new man approached in the gallery and the morph which had occurred when I joined, was repeated, as, by degrees, I disengaged. I stepped quietly away full of new respect for this expertise. As I left I turned and saw the first image of two men standing in front of a large canvass repeated with new casting.

Another Turner
Another Turner

I was a schoolboy then, attending Pimlico Comprehensive on Lupus Street (an extensive experiment in concrete and glass, now demolished), one excellent feature of that institution was its proximity to the Tate Gallery, a five minute walk. I went back there — many times — but I never again found the guard who knew so much about art.

6 replies on “A Door In The Wall Moment”

My Dear Brother, We are, it is becoming clearer to me, connected in another life, or something (you know I am not given to the metaphysical)…My Austin friend sent me two ten pound books for my birthday on the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, her hometown…and a little note which Amazon enclosed with the books, which reads, “Until we can explore it together, in person…Enjoy! Happy Birthday!” She called me on the land line the night of my birthday and got a bit cross when I doubted she would take me to explore The Hermitage…”You want me to send you the tickets? You over-think our relationship, Josef, we love each other and we should just enjoy that.” I assured her of my complete agreement, reminding her that my Viking forebears plied the rivers of her hometown and I longed to do the same…with her.

Now comes your museum blog, that awakened a like moment for me–upon my mother’s grave this is the best I remember. My mother and father met in 1926 singing in the choir at the ( then unfinished) National Cathedral and I was born in Walter Reed Hospital in Washington in 1927–back to my mother’s home country here in western North Carolina,…my father lost his job here in 1934, Depths of The Depression, hitch-hiked to DC, got a job, got us up there in 1936–first thing he showed me was a used book store where you could buy a book for a dime, read it, and sell it back for a nickle…I got a paper route, bought a very used bicycle and for the next three years explored the Mall and its institiutions—A guard at the Smithsonian Institution let me stash my bike in his little office, while I explored.

Then, in 1937, when the National Museum of Art (people on the street called it the Mellon Art Gallery…and until I hit Wickipedia a few moments ago, I thought that was its name…so, in 1937, ’38 and ’39, I visited the National Gallery, having magic moments like the one you described in today’s blog.

Ready for this? The nucleus of the new national gallery was a stunning collection of art Andrew Mellon bought from the Hermitage in St Petersburg from a cash-strapped Soviet…so, I made the same bike storage deal with a guard at “The Mellon,” and roamed the rooms full of the art, having moments like yours, from the museum where 32 year old Yuliya Genin will take me next year (she will come “shoot the stones” for the book in the Spring–I’m meant to have the book written…which I should be doing now…but your magic museum moment blog sent me around “Robin Hood’s Barn.”)

My son, Leyshon, is correct, “Dad, the gods are not constrained by OUR ideas of statistics and probabilities.” Love, Josef (Viking spelling)

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