When the bells of St Martin-in-the-Fields peal each morning at 10am, the doors promptly open on one of the world’s greatest artistic fireworks shows—each famous picture follows an equally famous picture. Few museums can compete with the strongest, widest collection of paintings in the world—one of every important style is on display, and it’s almost always the best in that genre. There are 2,300 Western European works, which is plenty to divert you for as long as you can manage, and 6 million visitors are drawn here every year, although most of them just wander around without getting properly close to the brushwork. Be different.
One of the world’s most stupendous museums is unfortunately marred by lazy stewardship; it’s very difficult to find the works you want to see. The map (£1) is a poor value since it omits major works. Directional signs lack room numbers, and the staff cares mostly about controlling their 5.9 million annual visitors, not edifying them. It’s almost like they want you to wander confused and unenriched. (To find a specific painting, track down a staffer wearing a lime green shirt—there’s usually one in the Trafalgar Square lobby.) Mostly, they tell you to use your smartphone to look things up on the museum’s website, using the museum’s Wi-Fi, which may not work. (You can recharge your phone in the downstairs Espresso Bar if you have an adapter.)
Posted signs are awfully straight-laced. Comprehensive audio tours covering 1,200 of the 2,000-odd works are £4 and leaflets guide you to a subset of them in themed varieties (impressionists, technique, etc.). A $2 app catalogs more than 1,500 paintings—if there’s a symbol by the work, you can learn about it—and a free version supplies 183 highlights. The website has some touring trail suggestions, but your visit would be best illuminated by some expert input. Check the info desk for events, such as the 10-Minute Talks about a single work (Mon–Fri at 4pm); 45-minute, 1pm Lunchtime Talks about a specific work or artist; storytelling for kids; or the few hour-long tours (check the schedule online). Permanent displays are supplemented by temporary exhibitions, one free and one paid (£8–£18). The Gallery schedules most family activities for Sundays. The two restaurants are top-quality but overpriced, and besides, the view from the restaurant at the National Portrait Gallery next door (see below) is better. But don’t miss the superlative gift shops, which will print you a color-matched custom copy of any of the 1,200 works or even mail a framed version home.
Galleries imperceptibly surge through time in a clockwise arrangement. The best course is to start in the Sainsbury Wing (through room 9 or from the Pall Mall East entrance), which will order viewings more or less chronologically. We suggest you start with these, and let’s hope they don’t shuffle their locations:
* Piero della Francesca, one of the most sought-after Renaissance painters, is represented by The Baptism of Christ (1450s, room 66 in the Sainsbury Wing). With its then-advanced use of light and foreshortening, its faces verge on bemusement, and the dove, representing the Holy Spirit, seems to fly straight at viewers.
* Sandro Botticelli fell under the spell of the hardline reformer Savonarola. He burned many of his finest paintings in the Bonfire of the Vanities and changed to an inferior style, so his best works are rare; Venus and Mars (1485, room 58 in the Sainsbury Wing), depicting the lovers reclining, is one of them.
* Michelangelo’s The Entombment (ca. 1500, room 8) is unfinished but powerful. The feminine figure in the red gown is now thought to be St John, but it’s hard to know for sure, since the artist favored strong masculine traits.
* Kids love Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533, room 4), full of symbolic riddles that refer to the guy on the left, and famous for a stretched image of a skull that can only be viewed in proper perspective from the side. Get close; the fine brushwork extends even to the feathers on the shoes. Nearby is Hans Holbein The Younger’s oil-on-oak portrait of Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan (1538), painted for King Henry VIII when he was wife-shopping. She declined to marry him, and as a happy consequence, survived to 1590.
* Kids also love Quinten Massys’ grotesque, porcine An Old Woman (“The Ugly Duchess”; 1513, room 5), thought to be a satire on ladies who try to look younger than they are, but possibly a woman suffering from a disease.
* Among other works, Rembrandt shows two self-portraits. One at age 34 (room 24, by the painting of a dragon eating a man’s face off) is pridefully detailed to declare ego and prosperity; by age 63 (room 23), he’s in simple clothes and broadly dolloping paint with a palette knife. The pair makes for a universal story of preening youth giving way to confident old age.
* Edouard Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian (1867–68, room 41) was sliced into five sections after the artist’s death, but Edgar Degas reassembled what he could find; the missing patches lend the firing-squad scene further tension.
* George Stubbs’ stark, life-size portrait of rearing stallion Whistlejacket (room 34) stops everyone in their tracks; it was painted in 1762 for its proud owner.
* The Gallery is rich in Peter Paul Rubens, with some 25 works attributed to him. His Samson and Delilah (1609–10, room 29) is known for Samson’s muscular back and Delilah’s crimson robe.
There’s much more: George Seurat’s almost-pointillist Bathers at Asnieres (1884, room 41); Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (room 45); Jan van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait (Sainsbury Wing, room 56), a mysterious but fabulously skillful depiction of light that dates to 1434, years ahead of its time. Brueghels. Cézannes. Uccellos. There’s so much art here that you may want to go twice during your visit, and the Gallery is centrally located, so you can.