The Palace Under the Alps

I foolishly sold my first edition copy of Bill Bryson’s The Palace Under the Alps (Congdon & Weed, 1985) a few years ago. So, I was dead chuffed to stumble across this blog with the same handle that posts excerpts from the book. If you are not familiar with Bryson’s later books, you may want to check out Neither Here nor There, A Walk in the Woods, I’m a Stranger Here Myself, or A Really Short History of Nearly Everything. Anyway, here’s a piece from the book and the blog titled The Most Hapless Art Museum in the World :

“Stealing Rembrandt’s Portrait of Jacob Van Gheyn from the Dulwich College Picture Gallery has become something of a sport in south London in recent years. Since 1966, the painting has been spirited off four times, an undisputed record in the art world. Although the museum has clearly been unfortunate to be so assiduously singled out by art thieves, it’s difficult to rule out suspicions of incompetence entirely. In 1973, a visitor to the gallery simply took the painting off the wall and walked off with it. The police stopped him a few blocks away, on a bicycle, and found the painting in a paper bag on his bike rack. Eight years later, another visitor tucked the painting under his raincoat and again sauntered out. But he bungled his ransom demand and the work was quickly recovered. the most recent, and serious, robbery was in May 1983 when thieves broke in through a skylight, ignored all the other paintings in the gallery, and took the one magnetic Rembrandt. At the time of writing, it was still missing.

In between the outbursts of publicity that attend these periodic thefts the gallery slides back into a curious and no doubt welcome obscurity. In 1983, despite making the headlines yet again, it attracted barely 26,000 visitors. yet even without the Portrait of Jacob Van Gheyn, the Dulwich College Picture Gallery is one of the most outstanding in Europe – “more important,” in the words of the British newspaper The Guardian, “than the national collections of some European countries.” Its possessions include other works by Rembrandt, as well as a stunningly diverse collection of paintings and drawings by Van Dyck, Canaletto, Hogarth, Rubens, Raphael, Murillo, Gainsborough, and Reynolds, among many, many others. Several works represent the artists’ best of most famous paintings, as with Reynolds’ portraint of Mrs. Siddons or Watteau’s Les Plaisirs du Bal.

The gallery is also one of Europe’s oldest public museums. It dates from 1626 when a Shakespearean actor named Edward Alleyn donated his paintings and the funds to found Dulwich College, one of Britain’s leading public schools. But the bulk of the collection was given by an expatriate Frenchman named Desenfans, who insisted that he, his wide, and best friend be interred on the site, so the gallery also incorporates, a bit bizarrely, an elaborate mausoleum. The building was designed by Sir John Soane – he of Soane Museum fame (see page 85) – and was considered one of his finest achievements. it was more or less destroyed by a bomb in World War II, but was faithfully rebuilt.

Even if you’re not wildly enthusiastic about Old Masters, Dulwich rewards a morning’s visit. An easy train ride from Victoria Station, it is one of the few parts of London to have retained a village-like atmosphere. Old almshouses stand beside an ancient park, famous for its azaleas and rhododendrons, and the only remaining toll road in London. the whole is a surprising – and refreshing – intrusion of green in one of the world’s busiest cities.”

This entry was posted in Books, Europe, Museums, Tourism, Travel Writing, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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