At the Helm of the World-Class Dulwich Picture Gallery

by | a Day in the Life

Ian Dejardin takes us on a tour of his typical day as director of a great British cultural institution – Dulwich Picture Gallery – the world’s first purpose-built public art gallery. Ingeniously designed by Sir John Soane, the gallery houses one of the country’s finest collections of Old Masters, and is committed to an exciting programme of exhibiting the works of lesser known masters.

logo Dulwich Picture Gallery

My day starts with the Guardian, on my iPad, at 7am over breakfast. My partner, Eric, and I read it together, despite the fact that I read much faster than he does – this is a daily character-building exercise in patience, as I wait, swiping finger twitching, for the nod to ‘turn’ the page.
Getting dressed is always a creative endeavour for me. I’m not what you’d call a fashion victim; can’t afford it. But I like clothes. As I’ve got older, I’ve felt less and less inclined to succumb to pressure to wear what a friend once described as ‘Director drag’, i.e. sober grey suits, crisp white business shirts, ‘smart’ ties etc etc. I do wear suits, but they are usually vintage (the materials are better – wonderful tweeds, for instance, although pockets are inevitably full of holes), or made for me by a small design business in Soho that I like. Basically, I tell myself: you’re not a bank manager; people expect you to look artistic. Two words that will be banned #undermygloriousrule ‘smart’ and ‘dapper’. Don’t ever call me one of them.

I also wear ties – but not just any old ties. My collection of ties is my pride and joy. I’ve been collecting them for forty years or more, and I have very few dating from later than the 1970s; they’re mostly narrow and parallel (I don’t like broad, flashy, ‘kipper’ ties). It’s one of the few areas of men’s clothing that have inspired any creativity over the last hundred years, I reckon. The old hippy in me also finds extreme satisfaction in wearing things that I’ve made myself – all my pairs of socks, these days, are handknitted (toe-up, two at a time, on circular needles) by me; ditto my gloves, scarves and – in winter – hats. It’s handknitting these days; I find it relaxing. But back in the 70s and early 80s I ran a small business designing and making machine knitwear. I usually do a couple of rows before setting out in the morning. I’m working on a Norwegian-style patterned tie at the moment, for reasons which will become obvious.

On this particular day, as on nearly every other day, I walk to work. In London, that’s a rare privilege, made all the more valuable by its being probably one of the most beautiful walks in London. On the rare occasions that I have to brave the morning rush hour on the tube, I thank heaven fasting that I don’t have to do it every day. I live just up the hill from the Dulwich Picture Gallery, half way towards Crystal Palace, in a leafy enclave near Charles Barry’s St Stephen’s Church. One of the other great benefits of where we live (apart from that walk to work) is that I am literally 1 minute away from a train station platform – and with modern apps on one’s phone allowing one to time one’s departure exactly, I can be in Victoria station within 15 minutes of leaving the house. And since I turned 60 last year, I have a 60+ Oyster card that lets me travel free after 9.30; it’s a wonderful thing.

(the Gallery) has beautiful grounds and is – of course – a masterpiece of architecture in its own right, designed by the Regency genius Sir John Soane in 1811

Image: Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

But the walk to work never palls: Dulwich woods (a surviving remnant of the great ‘north wood’ where Stuart kings hunted) on the right; then past Dulwich College playing fields, still marked by the great boundary oaks from when this land was still farmed; past Barry’s great College building itself on the left; past Pond Cottages on the right, the remnant, with the adjacent pond, of an old tile-making industry; across the busy South Circular; then the last stretch, past a field containing bee hives, down College Road with its beautiful houses and tree-lined paths, unpaved on one side, to the Gallery itself. It has beautiful grounds and is – of course – a masterpiece of architecture in its own right, designed by the Regency genius Sir John Soane in 1811. My office, overlooking the North Front, is in the Old College adjacent to the Gallery. This is, at its core, a Jacobean building, much altered in Victorian times and again after a bomb fell just yards away in 1944, causing extensive damage. But I like to think that there are Jacobean bricks still, just beneath the surface.

A normal day for me as a gallery director will inevitably involve pre-arranged meetings. Today there is a general staff meeting first thing. These are held in the Gallery itself, and everyone is invited. These meetings have an informal feel to them. We all sit in a circle, and I encourage each department to share what they are focussing on at that moment – partly because it is a really good way for me to keep track of what is going on across the institution, but also because I think it is incredibly important for us all to meet up and learn what everyone else is up to. We’ve grown so much as a workforce since I arrived in 1998, that there is a danger that departments become isolated from each other, and inward-looking; I want us all to keep the bigger picture in focus. Today is slightly different – our Retail Manager has put on a display of the new product lines and talks us through what will be in the shop during the Norwegian-themed exhibition. As always, I immediately want to buy everything, but in particular there is a very beautiful silk scarf based on one of my favourite images from the show.

Later on there is another meeting, this time of the Senior Management Team. This one is particularly important, since the end of the financial year is looming into view – the forecast, this year, is good, thanks to the outstanding performance of two of our exhibitions (Ravilious and The Amazing World of M C Escher) in a row; a great relief. Dulwich Picture Gallery is a charitable trust, with no regular government funding. Everything we do, we have to fund-raise for, and it is often a fine line we have to walk to avoid a deficit; sometimes we fail. But not this year, thank goodness. There is a discussion about the coming programme of exhibitions for 2016. They are all exciting and beautiful shows – but not familiar names (Nikolai Astrup, Winifred Knights and Adriaen van de Velde). This makes it more difficult to predict how they will perform; hence the discussion – but I’m very proud that Dulwich does shows like this. Who else would take the risk, I wonder? However, I think the audience we’ve built up over the years knows to expect revelatory shows; they enjoy discovering great art that they were unaware of before, and I love making the introduction.

But not this year, thank goodness. There is a discussion about the coming programme of exhibitions for 2016. They are all exciting and beautiful shows – but not familiar names (Nikolai Astrup, Winifred Knights and Adriaen van de Velde). This makes it more difficult to predict how they will perform; hence the discussion – but I’m very proud that Dulwich does shows like this. Who else would take the risk, I wonder? However, I think the audience we’ve built up over the years knows to expect revelatory shows; they enjoy discovering great art that they were unaware of before, and I love making the introduction.

Today, as on many days, I have a lunch scheduled with a potential supporter – a prosperous lender to a previous exhibition, whom I am going to try to cultivate as a possible member of our patrons’ group, the Desenfans Circle. This is one of the most important ways we have of engaging support – this lunch will give me the opportunity to talk about the breadth of activity going on at the Gallery these days, with some interesting anecdotal detail provided by this morning’s staff meeting. Like seemingly every other art gallery in the world, we run educational programmes, public programmes, we have a busy shop, a busy café, we mount special displays within the old master collection, and we mount major international exhibitions – and at the same time we have to maintain the site and the buildings, pay the staff, care for the collection, ensure that visitors know what we’re doing and enjoy their experience when they do come.

My task this lunchtime is to convey what makes Dulwich Picture Gallery special; and why it, rather than other galleries, deserves support. All that activity costs an absolute fortune, and although the Gallery is fortunate in having an endowment, the income from that covers only a fraction of our annual need. Endowments are something of a rarity in the sector, and one of the commonest misconceptions I encounter is that, if Dulwich has an endowment, it must ipso facto be rich, and therefore not in need of support. Sadly that is emphatically not the case: fund-raising is always on my agenda.

the Midsummer Eve Bonfire, an annual jamboree of dancing, drinking and courtship, clearly a pagan festival at heart

Image: Nikolai Astrup, Midsummer Eve Bonfire, c1915

More unusually, I am also wearing my ‘curator hat’ today, because we are currently installing the next exhibition, with which I have been personally involved as co-curator (with MaryAnne Stevens and Frances Carey). I studied art history, and trained as a curator. In fact, when I joined Dulwich Picture Gallery in 1998, it was as the Gallery’s Curator; I was appointed Director in 2005. My first love, however, has always been exhibitions; and so the exhibition programme here at the Gallery is a primary concern of mine – and I like to keep my hand in by co-curating exhibitions from time to time.

The exhibition we’re installing today is called Nikolai Astrup: Painting Norway. This has been an absolutely joyous project to be involved with, and my co-curators and I are today in the process of deciding the hang of the last room of the show, which will be a magnificent explosion of colour against dark midnight-coloured walls. Astrup, who died in 1928, was a marvellous painter and printmaker who recorded the beautiful landscape of his native district, Jølster in western Norway, and was a keen observer of its folklore and traditional customs. The last wall is dedicated to one of them – the Midsummer Eve Bonfire, an annual jamboree of dancing, drinking and courtship, clearly a pagan festival at heart, with a Viking wildness and abandon about it. Astrup painted this subject many times, and we have borrowed several of the best.

There is a keen discussion, not least because the designer of the show has proposed a rather unconventional hang to emphasise the vivid dramatic content and mirror the way the bonfires break out randomly over the mountains in the paintings. It’s a dramatic idea, and I like it; but I think he might be pushing his luck with my curatorial colleagues, who favour something more traditional. We shall see – it will look amazing whatever is decided.

Later on there is another Astrup-related meeting, about the opening ceremonies. This is going to be extraordinary for all sorts of reasons, most importantly because of the presence of Queen Sonja of Norway, who has graciously agreed to attend the opening dinner for the exhibition. We are also having an amazing display of ‘fire sculptures’ in the garden over the opening few days. The necessary logistics of a royal visit, plus the need to ensure that we don’t accidentally celebrate the opening of the exhibition by burning the Gallery to the ground make for an interesting agenda.

Then there are the other details of the public programming, a veritable outbreak of ‘Scandimania’, to discuss – I’m particularly excited by the four concerts that the great Norwegian pianist Lief Ove Andsnes is staging with some of his friends in the Gallery in March. Our acoustics are remarkably good, fortunately. The main problem might be in dealing with controlling ticket sales – I expect there will be huge interest for a classical superstar of Andsnes’s calibre, but the Gallery can only hold so many people. There may be some very disappointed piano enthusiasts who can’t get in. This is known, by callous Gallery directors, as ‘a good problem to have’. I can’t tolerate queuing myself; but I like nothing better than to see a queue down the front path for one of our exhibitions. I feel their pain; but can’t help seeing it as a performance indicator for success.

This is going to be extraordinary for all sorts of reasons, most importantly because of the presence of Queen Sonja of Norway, who has graciously agreed to attend the opening dinner for the exhibition.

Image: Ian Dejardin with HM Queen of Norway at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

My final meeting is with the Gallery’s Deputy Director and the Chairman of Dulwich Picture Gallery’s Friends Committee – always a pleasure. The Friends, of whom there are some 7,000, are a separate charity, and they raise at least £250k for the Gallery every year; and the committee is formed of selfless souls who give their own time to programme special events throughout the year. This meeting is just to run through a few items that will appear on the agenda of the next committee meeting, and to confirm the details of the Friends’ own private views of the exhibition.

And that’s it. I pop over to check progress in the exhibition, now nearing completion; then, because the aforementioned designer of the show also happens to be the very same Eric who slowed up my Guardian reading this morning, we set off for home together. The walk is achieved at a noticeably slower pace than the morning’s downhill stroll. We cook dinner; watch Jessica Jones on Netflix; I play the piano for a bit (I’m currently repeatedly thundering through a particular Chopin prelude in the vain hope that one day I’ll play it without mistakes); then a whisky; and to bed.

Ian A C Dejardin at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

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