My unplanned tour of the Wallace Collection at its end, I set out south at a brisk pace with purpose. The first order of business was naturally to find a place for the midday meal; the second would bring me to the destination which was to occupy the remaining hours of my London stay. After a quick lunch, the contents of which I can no longer recall, my day came to a close in the National Gallery. I had not been able to complete my tour thereof the summer prior due to the ongoing strike by employees for a living wage. The lack of staff had led to numerous though temporary room and gallery closures, set off by heavy wooden doors and movable screens. Undaunted, I had peered about either side or, to little avail, resorted to pressing forehead to inset panes in an effort to glimpse something of the works beyond.
Since that day, the museum staff had ended their strike, presumably after having secured their terms, and the full array of rooms again opened themselves to the waiting public. I found myself at a loss, for it was unclear how I should best proceed through such a wealth of museum material. Just as seeing everything, following a minute’s guesswork, seemed out of the question, so did seeing too little. In the end, as best I can work out from photographs and notes, I opted for a mixed strategy: ascertain where I had already ventured the summer before; focus on the 17th century Flemish galleries; before closing, make quick work of what rooms remained.
If it involved a fair amount of stalking about like a madman, my gamble did not prove unsuccessful as I was able, in due order, to reconstruct from memory and maps that which the museum had closed to the public during the strike and, consequently, set out new paths for exploration. Of my time spent with the 17th century Flemish works housed in the National Gallery, I have retained both photographs and memories of architectural follies, from the hand of Van Steenwyck the Younger, and church interiors, worked over by van Bassen. The legend to one such interior, that of St. Cunerakerk in Rhenen, told of how the church served as court chapel to the exiled Elizabeth Stuart and Friedrich V, later successor of Otto Heinrich as Count Palatinate. I was surprised to find in London both the prelude to and the continuation of a story that I had only come to know in Heidelberg some months before.
Naturally, I could not have passed the Gallery through a second time without having seen its twinned Vermeer works: ladies both standing and sitting before virginals in the airy interiors so characteristic of the painter. Yet delight over my good fortune soon gave way to renewed curiosity in an adjoining room. At its center loomed a sturdy, wooden box, painted on three side and open on the remaining. On either end I could make out a pair of holes which the creator had presumably bored. At a loss for words, I sought out the corresponding legend.
Indeed, the legend made it known that the strange construction was known as a peepshow or perspective box and that the example before me was the work of one Samuel van Hoogstraten. The text went on to add that this particular specimen stood out both as one of the few survivors of the 17th century, only six in number, and as the finest of the lot. Van Hoogstraten’s peepshow had found its way into the Gallery’s collection precisely for the reason that it neatly encapsulated then-contemporary Flemish artists’ fascination with perspective and optical devices, as well attested by the other works mentioned, and the lengths to which those artists gave themselves over to illusion.
When examined from the peephole at either end, the inside of the box confronted the viewer with the illusion of a three-dimensional Flemish interior, sparsely furnished and little adorned, with passages into the surrounding rooms. My photographs thereof, as taken through the open side, were unable to reproduce the optical effect and so present only a skewed perspective of a yellow-walled bedchamber and its sloping floor, a plush red chair erupting from a tiled floor, and a window, ever so slightly tilted, though still giving onto a period Flemish street. All the same, I took no few minutes to glance through the holes provided and enjoy the spectacle offered by a two-dimensional interior occupying a three-dimensional space and preserved through time.
In what remained of my time in the National Gallery, I did my best to imagine what form later works of art might have taken on in the current day, had the van Hoogstraten perspective box supplanted the traditional two-dimensional canvas as the medium of choice in the painting canon. It seemed likely that galleries would no longer have organized themselves from the room’s inward reaches to the outward but, instead, as a series of discrete works arrayed in the columns and rows in which we find display cases in old natural history museums. Nor would the work of art have attained its current public status where many might look on it at once, albeit from different angles. Rather, it would have returned to its origins in the cult and the private, for no more than two eyes at any given time. Therein would the visitor have been confronted with the condensation and slow return of an aura which Walter Benjamin elsewhere eulogized.