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.