Two exhibitions reveal how artists depicted a golden Britain even as the country sank into turmoil (UK)

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In the early 19th century, the quality of London's air was so bad that acidic carbon fumes ate into the varnishes of oil paintings, scarring great masterpieces for ever. If you had a Rubens or two, it was wise to get them out into the country, away from the effects of the industrial revolution. It was this that made the art dealer Noel Desenfans and his companion Francis Bourgeois choose Dulwich – a sleepy place then, outside the capital – as a permanent home for their collection. Today, the two founders of Dulwich Picture Gallery lie entombed in the building. You pass through the mausoleum in Best of British, a lovely new exhibition with a lousy name that tells how this gallery ended up with such an eccentric, rich and thought-provoking collection of British paintings.

Desenfans and Bourgeois didn't actually collect British art. They founded Dulwich to house their European masterpieces, by Rubens, Rembrandt, Guido Reni. British art was still just beginning to be taken seriously. But somehow (the show's title could refer to something like the best of British luck) this gallery ended up with a very special British collection. The core of it was already at Dulwich College, the school the art gallery was originally attached to. The portrait of the college's founder, actor Edward Alleyn, is one of the first things you see here. Alleyn is a massive, imposing character with red face and big beard (you can see why he was such a success in the role of Christopher Marlowe's world-conquering warrior Tamburlaine). Portraits of other 17th–century actors – one is thought to show Richard Burbage, the first Hamlet – also come from Alleyn's collection.

The exhibition, which ends with a Constable bought in 2006, is full of intriguing oddities and genuine masterpieces. The oddities include an anonymous 16th-century portrait of a couple called the Juddes, who place their hands on a skull while contemplating a corpse. The masterpieces include 18th-century painter George Knapton's portrait of black-eyed Lucy Ebberton, dressed in an expensive shepherdess outfit, and an unusually gentle picture by the satirist William Hogarth, of a woman fishing.

But what struck me – in the tranquil setting of a gallery that, although now within London, is still pastoral or at least suburban in mood – was how these works seemed to unite in a common theme, even though they were assembled over centuries. Once you have passed the earliest works, with their terror of mortality, the art all points in the same direction: towards the countryside. Even the portraits – Lucy Ebberton's garb, Hogarth's fishing party – breathe country air. British art, you start to suspect, has had a long love affair with the idea of pastoral escape.

This is what makes one painting in the show stand out: a haunting 17th-century portrait of a shepherd boy who has lowered his flute and, resting against a rock, stares dreamily into space. From his shady spot, he responds sensitively to the soft wildness of the landscape. Yet something isn't right. His face is golden, his lips are red, his long brown hair is far from straggly, and the robe over his loose white shirt looks more courtly than rustic. In fact, the more you look at Sir Peter Lely's A Young Man as a Shepherd, the more its pastoral setting seems artificial – and its meaning more poetic...

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