Fabulous Faces; Dulwich Gallery Has Scored a Coup with Its New Show of Artists' Self Portraits from the Uffizi's Sublime Collection

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DULWICH. And the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Oh that dreaded journey from almost anywhere in London, the river crossing and the jumbled stews that lie to the south of it, the drab purlieus of Peckham, Camberwell and Walworth, the arcane mysteries of a South Circular Road that was designated so by an idiot with neither a bump of direction nor the slightest knowledge of geometry & Take to the train and one's nearest, but still distant, contact with the Gallery is the most exposed station in London, eroded by the fierce forces of driving wind and rain; thence

on going home no man departs without a wait of half an hour, by then shrivelled by the shadeless sun in summer, frozen to the bone in winter, and in both seasons deafened by the passage of trains far faster than the antediluvian contraption in which he must ride to Waterloo.

More and more in recent years Dulwich Picture Gallery has compelled us to gird our loins and make the trek to it (who can forget the exhibitions devoted to Elsheimer, Canaletto, Guercino, Rembrandt and Murillo?) and is now about to do so again with one that is, to put it bluntly, a hell of a coup. The Uffizi, the greatest gallery in Italy housing the world's pre-eminent collection of early Renaissance art, has sent to Dulwich

not to the National Gallery, its puny equivalent in Britain a selection of artists' portraits of themselves that it has been collecting for longer than three centuries. There are and have been other collections of self portraits, but none so encyclopaedic as this, an invaluable scholarly resource now reportedly numbering 600 (clearly an error), 1,000 or 2,300 (both figures given in the same catalogue of the Uffizi), or 1,600 (if the Dulwich curators are correct), and still growing by invitation, gift and purchase. How many, I wonder, are there really?

To form the collection was the idea of Cardinal Leopoldo de' Medici in 1664.

His brother, the Grand Duke Ferdinand II, was not the least interested in the already very substantial Medici holdings of Florentine art and it was Leopoldo, one of the greatest connoisseurs of the 17th century, who added fine Bolognese and Venetian paintings to it, who took an interest in then recent Roman and Netherlandish painting influenced by Caravaggio and the new vogue for realism, and who, in his private apartment in the Pitti Palace, established the collection of self portraits.

Friends, relatives and other agents were urged to find portraits of painters already dead, living Italian painters were approached direct to give their portraits, and through diplomatic channels those of artists of other nationalities were acquired. At his death in 1675, that is within a decade, Leopoldo had 80 self portraits in his rooms, a number doubled by 1682 when they were first installed as a publicly accessible rather than private collection.

Its growth since has been erratic, but perhaps never stronger than in the last three decades or so. It is very much alive.

To have so many has always made it a nightmare to display; frame to frame and floor to ceiling, those in the fifth and sixth rows have been difficult to discern, let alone to see in detail, and in the current lower hang in the Vasari Corridor the casual visitor is soon overwhelmed by repetition, concluding within minutes that one self portrait is too much like any other.

The corridor of small exhibition rooms in the Dulwich Gallery is kinder, offering interval and occasion to pause, and in covering six full centuries of self portraiture with only 49 examples, we are far less aware of how few variations there are on the narcissistic theme

this man and that at work with brush and palette, these with canvas and mirror, some advertising their special skills with animals, still life, antiquities, and most confronting the viewer with a gaze that ranges from earnest communication to impenetrable withdrawal..

The portrait of the painter by the painter himself occupies an uncomfortable place in the history of portraiture, for the painter is both subject and inquisitor. …