In London: art beyond the Tate

Galleries with ambience and intimacy beckon visitors after they've hit the popular museum of modern art

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Like eager sardines, my sister and I spilled out of the elevator at the hugely popular Tate Modern, joined by schools of fellow modern-art lovers. Rather than face daunting lines at the cafe, we had to split a bag of chocolate-covered raisins for lunch.

Our battle through the throngs at the Tate had left us famished – both for a sandwich and a more relaxed way to experience the city's art. Fortunately, we discovered a collection of smaller, intimate museums whose ambience inspires, rather than overwhelms. Each, in its own way, is a quiet triumph. Their buildings are rich in history. Several offer stylish new restaurants where one can refuel during lengthy picture-gazing sessions. Here are our favorites:

The Wallace Collection

In 1797, when the second Marquess of Hertford acquired Hertford House, the property looked upon the woodsy outskirts of London, an area prized for duck hunting. Today, bargains have replaced ducks along now-busy Oxford Street. From Selfridges department store, it's a five-minute walk to the elegant brick Hertford House, home to the Wallace Collection, which is considered one of the greatest private art collections ever assembled.

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The collection comes as a result of passionate collecting by five generations of one of England's wealthiest families, descendants of Edward Seymour, Lord Protector of England from 1547 to 1549.

At the request of Richard Wallace, the fourth marquess's illegitimate son, knighted by Queen Victoria, his widow bequeathed Hertford House to the nation a century ago, with the stipulation that nothing in the mansion would be added or removed.

The Lords Hertford were Francophiles. Stepping inside Hertford House is like stepping inside a chateau, replete with 17th- and 18th-century French paintings, gold boxes, Sèvres porcelain vases, and Boulle marquetry furniture of engraved brass on tortoiseshell. Visitors will recognize several of the most famous paintings: Rembrandt's "The Artist's Son Titus," Frans Hals's "The Laughing Cavalier," and Jean-Honoré Fragonard's "The Swing."

Alongside its famous paintings, the Wallace Collection also includes stunning medieval and renaissance objets d'art and one of the world's great collections of European and Oriental armory. This year, a selection of the museum's finest "princely" armor will be showcased in a special exhibition, "Gold, Silver and Steel: The Fine Art of Renaissance Armour Masterpieces" (June 20 to Sept. 22).

The Wallace Collection reopened in summer 2000 after a major renovation that increased exhibits by a third. The new Café Bagatelle is located in Rick Mather's courtyard sculpture garden, where a dramatic glass roof provides an airy setting for morning coffee, lunch, or afternoon tea. Fittingly, bronze fountains from Sir Richard's Chateau de Bagatelle in Paris have been reinstalled.

Dulwich Picture Gallery

On a summer afternoon two years ago, an elderly gentleman walked into the Dulwich Picture Gallery, handed a security guard a small brown paper parcel, and vanished. After an initial bomb scare, gallery curators were thrilled to discover a trio of 17th-century portrait miniatures nestled within a silk-lined box. After a visit here, it's easy to see why the anonymous donor chose Dulwich as the beneficiary of his treasures.

Called "the most beautiful small art gallery in the world" by the Daily Telegraph, the Dulwich Picture Gallery is an easy 12-minute train ride from Victoria Station. Its 17th- and 18th-century old masters were originally intended for the king of Poland. Like the Marquesses of Hertford, art dealers Noel Desenfans and Sir Francis Bourgeois acquired paintings from aristocrats liquidating art during the French Revolution. But before the works could get to Poland, the country was partitioned by Russia, leaving the dealers with a homeless royal collection.

Bourgeois commissioned Sir John Soane, architect of the Bank of England, to build England's first public art gallery, a building worthy of his art. Soane's design included a dramatic mausoleum for the museum founders located in the center of the gallery. His use of natural daylight and simple arched spaces later inspired contemporary museum architects, including Richard Meier of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

Curators like to describe the gallery's organization in gastronomic terms. Paintings from the beer-drinking or hard-cheese countries – Holland, Germany, and England – are hung in the south; works from the wine-drinking or soft-cheese countries – Italy, Spain, and France – are hung in the north. Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Murillo, Poussin, Rubens, Watteau, and Gainsborough are all represented.

In addition to its permanent collection, the Dulwich sponsors major exhibitions. "Inspired by Italy: Dutch Landscape Painters 1600-1700" (May 22 to Aug. 26) will feature 80 paintings by the so-called Dutch Italianate masters. Domestic scenes by David Wilkie, considered one of Britain's finest Romantic artists, will be showcased later in the year (Sept. 18 to Dec. 1). At year-end, original works and sketches by Arthur Rackham, creator of classic illustrations for "Peter Pan," "Alice in Wonderland," and "The Wind in the Willows," will be on view (Dec. 18 through spring 2003).

To mark the millennium, Queen Elizabeth dedicated the gallery's bronze and glass extension by Rick Mather (designer of the Wallace Collection's new sculpture garden). Along with soups and salads, the cafe serves up lovely views of the five-acre garden.

Somerset House

Considered one of Britain's great Georgian buildings, Somerset House, located along the Thames River by Waterloo Bridge, has undergone a major transformation and now houses three unique art collections. Built on the former site of a 16th-century royal palace, the vast complex was reengineered in 1776 by Sir William Chambers, architecture tutor and adviser to King George III. With nearly 1,000 rooms, it was originally built to house government agencies as well as the Royal Academy of Arts.

A vaulted ceiling provides a dramatic setting for the Gilbert Collection's fine European silver, gold snuffboxes, portrait miniatures, and Italian mosaics. Next door in the South building, the Hermitage Rooms display highlights from the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Through Aug. 18, a dozen masterpieces by German Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich will be on exhibit, along with works by his contemporaries.

More treasures await at the Courtauld Institute Gallery in the Strand block, former home of the Royal Academy. Samuel Courtauld was chairman of the famous textile company founded by his family in the 19th century. His collection of world- famous Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings by notables like Monet, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, and Seurat, are located on the second floor. On the first floor are Botticelli's "The Trinity," sketches by Tiepolo, Van Dyck portraits, and the Rubens room. A special drawing exhibition featuring such artists as Cezanne, Rembrandt, and Rubens runs through June 9.

Formerly a parking lot, the central courtyard has been converted to a handsome public space. After dark, 55 water fountains change height and color. Dining at Somerset House, amid history and art, is also a treat. At the Courtauld, the cozy Gallery Café serves light meals and dessert. The Admiralty and the River Terrace summer cafe provide splendid views of the Thames. Another treat on the River Terrace through May: four large-scale sculptures in resin, bronze, and stone by British artist Tony Cragg.

Royal Academy of Arts

In 1868, a century after its founding, the Royal Academy of Arts moved to its current home, the Palladian-style Burlington House on Piccadilly in London's West End. Thanks to a donation by former US Ambassador Walter H. Annenberg, the courtyard recently reopened as a piazza for contemporary sculpture.

While best known for its annual summer exhibition featuring new works by established and unknown artists (June 11–Aug. 19), the Royal Academy of Arts also hosts exhibitions from around the world. "The Return of the Buddha: the Qingzhou Discoveries" (now through July 14) presents 35 recently discovered Buddhist limestone figures.

"Masters of Colour: Derain to Kandinsky" (July 27 to Nov. 17) celebrates the uses of color during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The exhibit includes some 70 paintings and sculptures by many of the modern masters from the collection of Werner and Gabrielle Merzbacher.

In two centuries, the Aztecs created one of the world's most impressive civilizations. "The Aztecs" (Nov. 16 to April 11, 2003) brings together 350 objects, many not previously shown outside Mexico, including stone sculptures and works of turquoise, gold, and jade.

Dining at the Royal Academy is also a visual treat. At the restaurant – designed in 1885, refurbished in 1990 – visitors can savor a three-course meal surrounded by Fred Appleyard murals and Alfred Turner sculpture.

• For more information about these museums as well as London restaurants, hotels, and maps, see the Internet site www.londontown.com.

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