How did we misunderstand the notice about photography last time and come away with no image? It meant only no flash, which I wouldn’t use on such treasures anyway.
This time there was no mistake, except that we could have waited until 2 pm for free entry on Sunday. Even so the reduction for seniors was generous, especially as it included the modern collection at the other end of the garden.
According to the “Rough Guide” Calouste Gulbenkian felt himself unwelcome in wartime Britain because of his nationality so offered his person and his collection to wherever both would be welcome: a rich man’s slave auction. Portugal, a neutral state despite Salazar’s right wing sympathies, afforded both asylum and accommodation so that was where he lived the last years of his life, in a palace “voluntarily” vacated by its owner. The museum was not built until after his death, however.
It is a characteristic 1960s building in concrete that is beginning to show its age on the outside, although the interior is fine and could be of any age. Its timber clad walls make an excellent backing for some magnificent paintings, sculptures and fabrics. Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge is its diminutive and less well-furnished if not poor relation. A few of the art works in both are related on equal terms.
The Gulbenkian collection is very roughly chronological, in that it begins with ancient Egyptian artefacts and proceeds through medieval to Impressionism with diversions to Iran and China for geographic interest.
Which of the many to choose in illustration is the problem. Two small Egyptian cats or one larger quean with kittens, for example. The maternal gaze is decisive.
A much greater range of choice occurs in fabrics, glass and ceramics. From the lands and civilisations mentioned all are demanding of attention. A general view is partly in compromise and partly illustrative. Individual dishes and glass vessels reveal their origins by calligraphic design or animal imagery.
Europe, from medieval times to the late nineteenth century, does not necessarily hold the largest body of work but certainly has some of the largest individual pieces, apart from the Oriental carpets. A wonderful Bible is open at the Apocalypse, deserving its place in any review. Further discrimination is needed in paintings, with Moroni, Van Dyck and Rembrandt vying for attention with Rubens, Gainsborough and Turner before the French make an appearance. Two for one is perhaps arguable with Mme. Monet in a portrait by Renoir, then paintings by Monet himself leading to Manet and one of the Burghers of Calais by Rodin.
Fin-de-ciecle allows an indulgence in Lalique glassware and jewellery as well as a fine cheval glass that cannot fail to catch the image of any passer by and would betray the photographer who was careless enough to stand in front of it.
To view the whole collection takes hours but there is relief with seats in various parts. It is a splendid experience, with time for a good meal at any of three different sites around the extensive garden (its perimeter measures approximately one mile) before a visit to the almost as rewarding modern art collection.