Art on The Line: completed installation
Art on The Line: completed installation

Art on The Line not only proved to be a hugely enjoyable experience, for its organisers and visitors alike but it also taught us more than we had ever expected about the making and viewing of British art during its late Hanoverian 'Golden Age’. Even before all of the pictures had found their places on the walls of the Great Room, we began to appreciate the skill with which many artists had 'worked’ this space — how in their mind’s eye they had broadly anticipated the relative positions of image and spectator, and calculated their effects accordingly (though even the most careful calculations could be overturned on the whim of the hanging committee!). Many of our paintings — and not only the very largest ones — had clearly been designed to be seen from below, and from quite a considerable distance, and they looked immeasurably better hanging above the Line than when seen under 'normal’ circumstances; Lawrence’s Kemble as Coriolanus and Constable’s Leaping Horse, to name just two of the more famous examples, seemed absolutely reborn.

A painting is lifted into position
A painting is lifted into position


The exhibition also made it possible to grasp the enormous advantages enjoyed by portraits, on walls crowded with pictures of various sorts. In a setting where space was at a premium, portraits made room for their subjects, by the simple expedient of isolating them in the centre of compositions otherwise lacking in visual incident; full-lengths were particularly well suited to play a dominant role, largely on account of the sheer scale of their figures, and the directness of their address to the audience. From Art on the Line we learned, too, how certain basic conventions of portrait design had been adapted for use by history painters seeking the attention of the crowds (the juxtaposition of John Opie’s Scene from Gil Blas with Lawrence’s Lady Leicester as Hope made this particularly clear). But one was also struck by the means that artists devised to try and keep viewers engaged for longer than an initial glance. Here a landscape painter’s ability to draw us into a convincing illusion of space could prove decisive, while painters of genre scenes tended to rely instead on providing a multiplicity of details. David Wilkie deployed both these tactics, and nowhere to greater effect than in his Chelsea Pensioners.

The greatest surprise of all, however, came from the Great Room itself. Draped according to precedent in green, with dozens of paintings on each wall, hung (more or less) frame to frame and floor to ceiling; and with those above the Line tilting out over the floor — for the first time in living memory the Great Room came into its own as a gallery space of absolutely riveting beauty, supremely well designed for the spectacular display of historic British art. One can only hope that Somerset House won’t have to wait another century and a half before the jewel in its crown shines again with such lustre.


DR DAVID H SOLKIN
Curator, Art on The Line