On Thursday evening, I found myself in the National Gallery, in London, after the National Gallery had closed at 6pm. Not only was I being led through the bowels of the gallery, and through doors that could only be opened with an electronic dongle-style pass, I was there to be given a private, one-on-one, guided tour of some the most significant works in the Sainsbury Wing’s Renaissance collection by my own academic – Professor David Ekserdjian, Professor of History of Art and Film at the University of Leicester (and also a Trustee of the National Gallery) – accompanied at all times by our own security guard. This is not how I normally spend a Thursday evening. But I am in the midst of making a documentary for Radio 4, and when you are doing that, you find yourself in unusual places at unusual times doing unusual things. (Actually, a lot of the time when making Radio 4 documentaries you find youself in tiny studios, but it’s nice to get out.)
The documentary, which I won’t go into too much detail about for fear of undermining its impact when it’s broadcast in December, is about 3D. But not just about modern 3D – Avatar, Sky Sports etc. – it goes back to the very roots of man’s obsession with creating the illusion of 3D. And guess what, a good place to start is the Renaissance, where artists and architects like Lorenzo Monaco, Piero della Francesca and Filippo Brunelleschi were changing the face of art by introducing perspective to what were still essentially religious works that came with their own rules. The Coronation Of The Virgin, a 1414 altarpiece which Professor Ekserdjian talked me though on our private view, is a clear early example of a sort of primitive attempt at “realism” (check out the sloping floor tiles) after centuries of “flat” depictions. You can view the picture on the National Gallery website, which I know they’re very proud of. Anyway, it was a privilege to be talked through such beautiful and important pieces by a man who knows more about the subject than anyone I’ve ever met, and the posh fun wasn’t over yet.
Yesterday, I found myself on the train to Exeter, there to visit the Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture, housed at the University of Exter. It is also open to the public, and full of lovely artifacts relating to the earliest days of what became cinema, but, thanks to the magic of Doing A Radio 4 Documentary, we were allowed to go backstage, where a treasure trove of Victoriana – optical toys, mainly – was laid out on a table for us to play with, while Senior Lecturer in Victorian Literature and Culture at the University of Exeter, Dr John Plunkett, guided us through them. Once again, a privilege. I got to play with an actual Victorian stereoscope circa 1850! It really was amazing, and one of the earliest forms of what we know today as 3D – the illusion of 3D, naturally, but so is Avatar, of course.
After spending much of this year talking bollocks with Richard, or being locked away behind my laptop trying to form sentences, or failing auditions for TV, it’s so bracing to be out and about, doing things I might not ordinarily get to do for people who might appreciate them, and above all, to be talking intelligently to intelligent people who know loads more than me about the subjects they know the most about. There’s less money in making radio programmes than there is in playing at telly, but it’s all so immediate and intimate, and I love trying to describe what in this case is a totally visual subject for the radio. (By the way, I realise Richard Herring is a super intelligent man, but we don’t get to be intelligent together in public, we only get to be idiots, which is fun in its own way, and we’ll be doing it in Bristol on Wednesday, which I am looking forward to immeasurably.)
Anyway, visit the National Gallery duing its opening hours; it’s free. And if you’re in Exeter, drop in at the Bill Douglas Centre – which is indeed named after the great British filmmaker, upon whose own collection it was founded. It’s also free. We should make the most of such places. The Tories may be cutting Arts funding with their big, indiscriminate axe, but museums and galleries can avoid the bigger cuts by remaining free. Do not let these places go. Use them.
And I’ll keep you posted on when this documentary goes out.