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An extraordinary tour of the National Gallery with Dr Avery-Quash

An extraordinary tour of the National Gallery with Dr Avery-Quash

Imagine a gallery of Old Masters devoid of visitors apart from you, a glass ceiling letting the forbidden sun flood in, and all is quiet apart from the voice of the narrator. Wander through Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’, unexpectedly exhibited alongside Auerbach’s ‘Mornington Crescent, Summer Morning II’, through to Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ paired with ‘Scenes from the Life of Saint Martin of Tours’ by Knights.

This is the intriguing experience to be had courtesy of the National Gallery and partner organisations from across the UK in a pioneering tour round a virtual art gallery full of some of the country’s finest and priceless exhibits. It was also the topic of a unique and fascinating talk by Dr Susanna Avery-Quash, Senior Research Curator (History of Collecting) at the National Gallery, at St Mary’s School.

Susanna Avery-Quash, co-curator of the exhibition, ‘Fruits of the Spirit: Art from the Heart’ introduced the talk by explaining that the project sought to shed fresh light and new appeal on the paintings in the National Gallery's collection, through a very collaborative and technologically innovative way.

The exhibition takes nine works of art (virtually, not literally) and sets them against nine other works of art from partner institutions to compare and contrast themes which are relevant to people’s everyday lives – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

These same attributes, or ‘fruits’, are listed by St Paul in his 2,000-year-old letter to the Galatians, where he discusses how to build and maintain a sense of community in the face of disagreement. Although the list comes from the Christian Bible, the nine attributes are positive and helpful for individuals and modern-day communities within both religious and secular contexts.

The nine partners, in keeping with the ethos of the nine fruits, worked intentionally to demonstrate generosity, kindness and faithfulness in bringing the project together over the course of a year.

The partners who worked closely with the National Gallery to create such a remarkable experience were: The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, Canterbury Cathedral, The McManus, Dundee, Leicester Museum & Art Gallery, Ben Uri Gallery & Museum, London, The Foundling Museum, London, The Box, Plymouth and Southampton City Art Gallery.

Dr Avery-Quash describes the exhibition as a different type of product, not just something second best to the physical, real experience of being at the National Gallery.

The virtual exhibition does have clear advantages. It’s ecologically friendly, and most definitely cheaper, with no transport costs and no insurance involved in building a real exhibition.

"We chose a bespoke space, as far away from the constraints of an Old Master gallery as possible, with ‘natural daylight’ streaming through a glass ceiling, coloured walls, and even carefully placed benches for the tired virtual visitor. The keen-eyed will spot another major difference – the artworks are all hung at  knee-height so that there is no distortion of the paintings as viewers navigate through the exhibition."

The Fruits of the Spirit exhibition does not close after the usual three-month run; it’s open to visitors 24/7 and, wherever you are in the world, it’s accessible, and its free! The digital catalogue is, unusually, also free to download.

Enjoy the tranquility of  "Fruits of the Spirit, Art from the Heart" to appreciate the vividness of the paintings, achieved by a layering of multiple high-resolution images, and the bespoke narration about each pairing of paintings.

This is the National Gallery’s third make-believe space, with others being created during the Covid pandemic and for the Platinum Jubilee.