Leonardo da Vinci: 2 hours queuing and 5 1/2 hours waiting – worth it?

UPDATE: For advice on when to arrive to queue for tickets as well as other helpful information don’t forget to scroll to the comments and check the most recent! Justine’s is particularly detailed and the experiences of others may prove invaluable.

UPDATE: Strike action will be taking place at the National Gallery on Thursday, 19 Jan (1-3pm) and Saturday, 28 Jan (4-6pm). It is likely that a number of rooms will be closed but the gallery states that it will “Prioritise keeping the Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan exhibition open”. Obviously that’s no guarantee so if you are planning on visiting on those dates do bear that in mind.

Lady with an Ermine (Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani)

Lady with an Ermine (Portrait of Cecilia Gallerani)

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan is the biggest of this year’s blockbuster exhibitions, both in terms of content and in terms of anticipation. Words like sublime and masterpiece are being hurled around with uncharacteristic abandon and the result is a complete sell out in terms of advance ticket sales and queues round the building for on-the-day admissions.

And so it was that I found myself spending two hours chilled to the bone in line at the National Gallery in order to nab one place for the last entrance of a Friday (8.30pm). I was amongst the final thirty to get tickets with the on-the-day tickets selling out at around 3pm. I would assume that on days without the benefit of late opening everything is long gone by 1pm.

The gallery attendant tasked with manning the queue told me that although the gallery only opens at 10am hopeful visitors start queuing at 8am. The National Gallery website concurs, stating: “Please allow for up to three hours queuing time, and expect to wait for a further period of time between ticket purchase and entry to the exhibition.” It’s not for nothing that the National Gallery has stationed a mobile coffee and soup cart in the vicinity.

Queuing for Leonardo da Vinci

Queuing for Leonardo da Vinci. Photo: Philippa Warr

After killing five and a half hours in central london I was allowed in to view the work. Here are some thoughts from a visitor’s rather than a critic’s perspective:

1. The exhibition itself is stunning. Properly stunning. The work that is by Leonardo is intricate, masterful, confident and fascinating. Work by other artists (a selection of pupils, contemporaries and followers) tends to suffer by comparison but does offer a neat counterpoint to the master’s hand as well as providing context and points of influence.

2. The volume of work, the fact the exhibition spreads across two parts – the first in the basement of the Sainsbury wing and the second in the Sunley Room– and the number of works with audioguide accompaniment means that if you do get the last slot of the day like I did there simply won’t be time to see everything. A time warning was given at around 9.25pm that visitors still working through the content in the basement would be advised to head up to the Sunley section for the Last Supper. It was a shame to see quite how many visitors clearly hadn’t finished and ended up giving a cursory glance to whole rooms of drawings and paintings before running off upstairs.

3. If you’re short in stature you will struggle to see the fine detail in many of the sketches. Usually the fact that galleries hang work about half a foot above my eye level is manageable but when it’s a case of small sketches with huge amounts of fine detail it’s next to impossible to make some of it out. I found myself at one point with a knee on the gallery attendant’s chair, on tiptoes, hand against the wall for balance and squinting to make out the top corner detail the wall text was advising I look for. Given children and short people are likely to turn up at these things would it really be beyond imagination to vary the hanging heights?

4. The Louvre’s Madonna of the Rocks is better than the National Gallery’s later version even though the latter has been recently restored.

The Madonna of the Rocks (L - Louvre version, R - National Gallery)

So if you are planning on going here’s my advice:

For the tickets themselves you’ll need to arrive as early as possible and expect to wait for around two or three hours in line. You’d be advised to take something to occupy you during the wait – a friend, a book, perhaps even some work to catch up on… If there’s more than one person in your group you could probably alternate your queueing so one person waits while another does a spot of sightseeing.

There will then likely be another wait until your allotted entry time. If it’s short you can head to the rest of the gallery’s collection or round the corner to the National Portrait Gallery. There’s also the beautiful church of St Martin in the Fields over the road and Covent Garden is about 5 minutes walk away. If the wait is long like mine was you might prefer to head off to Oxford Street for some Christmas shopping, catch a film or even nip home for a few hours.

I would also suggest using this time between getting the tickets and seeing the work to examine the print exhibition guide – that way you can prioritise particular work and get a feel for the show in advance.

When you come to attend the exhibition itself be aware that it splits across two sites – the temporary exhibition space in the Sainsbury wing basement and the Sunley Rooms. You don’t want to head home just to realise that you missed a significant portion of the work!

If you land the last entry of the day keep in mind you probably won’t get to see everything, particularly if you also bought the audioguide. Keep an eye on the time and have a flick through the print guidebook so you can make sure you haven’t missed anything that was particularly of interest to you.

As a point of interest, the guide reveals that 34 out of the 93 exhibits are on loan from the Royal Collection – that’s over a third of the total work and over half the show’s Da Vincis. The Queen’s Gallery, which curates exhibitions based around the Royal Collection, is going to be staging its own Da Vinci exhibition this summer focusing on the artist’s anatomical drawings. The Queen’s gallery exhibitions usually come in at under half the price of a blockbuster show at the National Gallery and when I’ve visited previously you get the audio guide free of charge. If you’re unable or unwilling to wait several hours for this show that could be a great way to get your Da Vinci fix.

Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, until 5 February 2012 at the National Gallery.