Studio International

Published 17/08/2021

National Gallery Outdoor Exhibition

An al fresco pop-up, showing 20 life-size reproductions of ‘the nation’s favourite paintings’, alongside free art activities, is bringing some of the National Gallery’s most famous pictures to a wider audience

Trafalgar Square, London
10 August – 2 September 2021


Beneath the grand neoclassical facade of the National Gallery, the North Terrace of Trafalgar Square is teeming. As part of Westminster’s Inside Out Festival, designed to attract people back to central London, 30 artist’s easels stand in rows looking out towards Nelson’s Column. Seated at each is a man, woman or child (in about equal measure) – all members of the public – making art. The easels are flanked by large, solid display boards exhibiting 20 of the National Gallery’s most famous paintings – not originals, of course, but life-size digital photographs. Passersby are stopping to observe, admire, examine and discuss the works, which range from Van Gogh’s Sunflowers to Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne, JMW Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire to Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait at the Age of 34.  


“We were just going by,” says a mother with two children, “and the kids insisted we stop and do this.” They are now ensconced behind an easel with a little selection of high-quality Cass Art materials. “It’s inspiring,” she adds. “It really does bring the inside out. We would have just walked past.”

A couple of young women have come down from Manchester for a week in London. “We’re not artists,” they say, “but we found the event online.” They are now sitting happily drawing beneath Vermeer’s A Young Woman Standing at a Virginal and Caravaggio’s Salome Receives the Head of John the Baptist. “Is that a Constable?” asks a young man, halting his bike in front of The Hay Wain. Four kids and two adults have just finished sketching here, on the drawing boards provided when the easels run out. One of the adults tells me she really appreciates this all happening outside – she feels safer from Covid. Did she know any of the paintings before this, I wonder. No, she admits.


“We are definitely getting people looking at the pictures out here who would not have gone into the gallery,” says Anne Fay, the National Gallery’s public programmes manager. “That’s the first step to getting them in to see the originals – which are just a few metres away, free to see, and [the National Gallery being a public collection] belong to them!”

Christine Riding, head of the gallery’s curatorial department and curator of British art, is delighted to have people looking at the nation’s paintings again. After such a disrupted year, with the gallery closed and even Trafalgar Square “sad and empty,” she says, “it is so sweet to see so many people gathering at the mini National Gallery outside”.


“We’ve placed art outdoors before,” she adds. “I remember once bumping into Whistlejacket [George Stubbs’s life-sized portrait of a horse] in Clerkenwell, and I think it’s wonderful coming across art in different contexts – but this exhibition was definitely born of the Covid crisis.” It is, she says, one of a number of positive developments to come out of the traumatic pandemic experience.

“When we had to close, we really ramped up our digital talks and tours. We had to learn fast how to record and film ourselves. We had a focus on mental health and wellbeing, and on slow looking [really spending time with one or a very few artworks]. We’ve had hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people signed up online. I recently did a panel discussion about The Hay Wain and we had 1,400 people. We could never do that in person; our auditorium only fits 300. And we’ve had people from across the world – Brazil to Australia – and from all over the UK.”


There have been plenty of independent visits to the gallery’s website too, adds Riding. “It has been interesting to see which pictures people have been engaging with,” she says. “Pictures about nature and love have been particularly popular, and paintings that show people touching – like the Arnolfini marriage [Jan van Eyck], where they are holding hands, and Venus and Cupid [Bronzino], which is essentially about sex – things denied to people in lockdown that they found to be precious.”

The 20 pictures for the outdoor exhibition were chosen by looking at which paintings had garnered most hits since the start of the pandemic. “So, they have been chosen by the public,” says Riding, who now wants to encourage people to reconnect, or connect for the first time, with the collections for real.


One man is doing just that out on the North Terrace where he is looking closely at the reproduction of Rousseau’s Surprised! “He really should have used a slightly bigger canvas,” the man observes, “so he could fit the whole of the tiger’s tail into the picture … And have you noticed that if you stand back, it looks as if there is a snake winding its way down there?” He has seen the original pre-pandemic, he says, so I ask if he thinks he looks more intently out here, where there are no limits on how close you can get to the painting and more space between images. “Yes, I think so,” he says, “There are so many pictures inside, and so many people waiting to see them, that you feel you have to move on.” 


Not at the moment, says Fay. “On a normal summer day, we’d have about 20,000 visitors. Now entry is capped due to the pandemic and it’s about 5,000. So, this is a very good time to visit – you really have time and space to get to know the paintings.” It isn’t difficult. You can book online or scan a QR code by the door and, if it isn’t fully booked (which is unusual on weekdays at least), you will get a confirmatory email in minutes and can go straight in.

“Pre-Covid, a lot of our visitors were from abroad,” says Riding, “Now, we really want to encourage the local London and UK audience to come in. Some of them have got used to walking past, and some don’t know that we – that’s we the British public – own some of the most famous paintings in the world.” 


Right at the start of the pop-up, “I had one visitor tell me she had seen Van Gogh’s Sunflowers out on the square and didn’t realise it was in the National Gallery, so she had come in to see it.” That is exactly what the curators are hoping will happen, but even if the outdoor exhibition’s visitors stay outside, there is still much for them to gain from looking at the life-size reproductions, reading and downloading the information about them, and joining in Sketch on the Square at an easel or on a drawing board.


Gallery staff have been surprised by just how popular the art activities have proved – and how engaged people have been (“there’s been no messing about, they are really concentrating”).  Booked sessions are running at full capacity and there have been queues for the drop-ins (usually short enough not to be offputting). Fay says she loves to watch people “channelling their inner artist” – drawing the square’s iconic architecture and the fourth plinth sculpture (Heather Phillipson’s cherry-topped The End) or taking inspiration from the paintings. “They are sketching en plein air just as Van Gogh and Monet did,” she says.

“I think people are coming out of Covid more in tune with their skills and hobbies,” says Riding, “and with the idea of getting creative … We want them to look at great art but also to make art – to look and to do.” And that seems to be exactly what is happening.