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I can’t fight the big fights without a fix of beauty

I can’t get used to the idea that refreshing my mind, which involves going to art galleries, has been stymied by the pandemic
A brush with greatness. The allure of John Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows provides an inspirational backdrop. Image: Steve Vidler / Alamy Stock Photo

Going to free museums has got even more difficult because of Covid, unless you are internet-savvy, and unless the museum has used logic on its internet site. Two museums, Tate Britain and the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, do not use logic but a kind of circuitous and to me tortuous labyrinth as, at the same time, they ask you a number of questions.

You may ponder and wonder why I am even bothering with this kind of problem when, as of yet, the government has still not alerted us to how they are going to keep hundreds of thousands of people in their homes due to job losses created by the pandemic.

I might be accused of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, something I’ve accused many others of, going on about my inability to weather the internet; and get a ticket into a free art gallery museum.

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I do agree with this sentiment. We are often guilty of getting caught up in small causes when big causes have more cause for thought. Yet I can’t get used to the idea that refreshing my mind, which involves going to art galleries, has been stymied by the pandemic, and I’m feeling empty.

That I need topping up through culture has been one of my coping mechanisms. Many’s the time I went in my young manhood to deliver a printing job – my trade at the time – and couldn’t resist disappearing into the free museum of the Wallace Collection. And coming out topped up in art a few hours later. And then having to explain my disappearance to straightforward and logical people who wanted to know where the ‘F’ I had ‘f’d off’ to.

The ending of the ban on evictions due to losing one’s livelihood in lockdowns has now lined up thousands of people for the big moment when they will be brought before the courts. And the pressure on individuals and families who await the chop is not being eased by initiatives the government are providing that don’t cover the whole of the problem. They might help some people but not all.

Constable demonstrates how beautiful is the world of the countryside about us

Last week though, on Saturday, I went to the Fitzwilliam because I could not disentangle their website and find a way of entering the museum. You can’t enter the museum without a ticket, and you can’t get a ticket unless you are good at disentangling, something that defeated me and my son. I did manage to get in but only by pleading my case.

On Tuesday last, though, I did manage to get someone else to get me a ticket to Tate Britain so that I could have a look at one particular painting by an artist whom I have loved since – aged 16 – I fell in love with painting. Alas it had been moved to Scotland and I had missed it.

I did get to look around the gallery and appreciate the idea of ‘free art’, or art freely available. For they are our collections. Belonging to us. But still in order to get to the free art you have to pass through the barrage of offers that entice you to become a member of the support team. ‘Friends’ as they call the support team. That’s probably where I get snagged up because so desperate are museums and galleries for support that they throw up this fusillade of deeply felt demands for your support.

Art humanised me. I’m that needy of art: if I don’t get top-ups then it’s more difficult for me face up to the fight to save people from mass homelessness.

And that is what is coming down the line if the government doesn’t get the Treasury to realise that they would save a whole pile of money now if they keep people in their homes. Rather than let people slip into eviction and then present themselves as homeless at the local authority. That can be twice the cost.

The painting I wanted to see was called Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows. It is to me the greatest painting of the 19th century and is by John Constable. But there is some peculiar arrangement that it is part owned by three different galleries, and it moves about among them. Up until recently it’s been in the middle of the Turner Collection at the Tate Britain. An insult to me because Constable and Turner are like chalk and cheese. And I have been a Constable man for ever, and see Turner as an overblown, clever user of other people’s achievements (that’s a whole new story though). 

So now I have to hop off to another gallery to see the painting. I saw it first at the Scottish National Gallery a few years back and was overwhelmed by its great beauty. Its wetness, its dampness, its naturalness. It knocks the spots off Turner, who is a great user of the brush but to me lacks sincerity. Turner displays the might of painting and the British Empire and the might of the Victorian and pre-Victorian world. Well done mate! But Constable demonstrates how beautiful is the world of the countryside about us.

There I am, off again on a little side road when I should be devoting all my time to stopping a poor piece of governmental thinking that will not support people in their homes until they get out of the emergency.

Forgive me. I am human and I err. I get carried away when vital big issues are pressing down upon us. Let’s stop mass homelessness. And sort out museum websites. How human I am!

John Bird is the founder of The Big Issue