Behind the scenes at Dulwich Picture Gallery
Helen Hillyard speaks to Poppy Benner about her role as curator at Dulwich Picture Gallery and reveals her favourite piece in the collection.
What is your role at Dulwich Picture Gallery?
I have been working at Dulwich Picture Gallery for over six years; I started as Assistant Curator and was appointed as Curator of the gallery in November 2021. Previously, I worked at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery and The National Gallery, where I was selected onto their highly competitive curatorial training scheme.
I am a specialist in 17th-century Dutch and Flemish painting, but the breadth of the Dulwich collection means I can stick my nose into other areas too, which I think helps to satisfy my natural curiosity. As the world’s first purpose-built public art museum, Dulwich Picture Gallery is a truly special place, combining inspiring architecture and incredible Old Masters, all within the idyllic surrounds of Dulwich Village. I love the gallery so much, I even got married here!
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There is no such thing as a ‘typical’ day here; this week, I’ve been writing an academic article about the conservation of one of our paintings but, around that, I’ve also met with a contemporary artist who I’m working with on an exciting project, discussed the shape of our future exhibition programme at a meeting with colleagues, and given a tour to a generous supporter of the gallery.
The gallery does not receive any regular government funding, so fundraising forms a big part of what I do; it’s what keeps our paintings healthy and our doors open. We simply couldn’t exist without it.
What can be found at Dulwich Picture Gallery?
The exhibitions at Dulwich are temporary – they change all the time – whereas our collection is permanent. This shouldn’t be an excuse for the collection to feel static or stuffy, however, and it’s one of the challenges I’m tackling head on. We constantly rotate our works, bringing out different paintings from our stores. We also bring in exciting loans from private collections to complement our hang, and organise displays that highlight new research and offer fresh perspectives on familiar works.
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Visitors are often drawn to Rembrandt’s Girl at a Window – our very own Mona Lisa of south London. The painting is something of an enigma. We do not know who the girl is, but she gazes out at us in such a direct and provocative way. As a painting, it’s utterly captivating. According to one of Rembrandt’s biographers, when he finished painting it, the artist put her in the window of his house and, after a few hours, passers-by started to talk to her, thinking that she was real.
What is your favourite item at Dulwich Picture Gallery?
One of my personal favourites in the collection is The Judde Memorial. Painted by an unknown artist in the middle of the 16th century, it’s actually a marriage portrait; albeit an unconventional one, since the couple is depicted alongside a dead body.
Even though this picture was made centuries ago, I feel it can still offer us some important lessons for today. Firstly, that a white wedding dress is overrated, but also that light and darkness, life and death, are always with us. This was a concept that our Elizabethan ancestors would have been wholly comfortable with, although it does make me laugh how literal they were about it!
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