The joy of art

Visual Art - Our critic Richard Cork explains how he became turned on by paintings

I will never forget the momentous encounter that made me capitulate to the full power of art. At the age of 13, I travelled to London from Bath with my mother. Although both the National Gallery and the Tate were in my sights, nothing could have prepared me for the discovery of the Wallace Collection. Hushed, mysterious and filled with an eccentric assortment of unpredictable objects, it made me feel curiously at ease. It lacked the oppressive uniformity of systematic institutional display, and the virtual absence of other visitors nurtured the sense of exploration.

Having made my way past the armoured knight on horseback, the soaring Boucher allegories on the staircase and the row of limpid Bonington seascapes, I entered the grand first-floor room where most of the finest paintings preside. I gazed in awe at Van Dyck's flamboyant yet oddly apprehensive Philippe Le Roy, at Rubens's exuberant Rainbow Landscape, at Watteau's woodland gatherings and the stoical choreography of Poussin's autumnal Dance to the Music of Time. Moving from one hypnotic canvas to the next, I realised that these disparate yet nourishing images somehow meant an inordinate amount to me.

By the time I had singled out my two favourite pictures in the room - Rembrandt's vibrant Titus and the poised sensuality of Velazquez's Lady with a Fan - my capitulation was complete. I lavished the best part of my savings on a five-shilling illustrated catalogue. Looking through the monochrome plates still reawakens the overwhelming delight they gave me that decisive day. Although I did not understand how or why, I knew quite firmly that art would be of paramount importance in my teenage life.

The urge to write about art took dramatic hold during my years at Cambridge, where I studied art history and spent two consecutive summers travelling around Italy devouring Renaissance art. The first year, an old school friend accompanied me; the next time, my future wife Vena came along for the ride.

From Padua to Arezzo, I spent hours drawing in ink, charcoal or pencil. I drew Cosimo Tura's frenzied head of St George in Ferrara cathedral, several figures from Mantegna's hieratic Painted Room at the ducal palace in Mantua and Donatello's agonised bronze statue of St John in Siena cathedral, where in my excitement I upset a bottle of Indian ink all over an inlaid marble font.

The challenge of making these studies forced me to look in a far more searching way than I would otherwise have done. In those days, there were no debilitating queues or viewing restrictions in places such as the Brancacci chapel. I was able to sit down in front of Masaccio's frescoes and draw their gravely monumental figures for hours. Such paintings deserve to be communed with, interrogated and contemplated without any time limits.

In the evenings, I tried writing about the works that had been scrutinised during the day. The activity soon took on a life of its own, as I acknowledged an over- riding urge to put my response to particular images into words. The impulse had nothing to do with art-historical research. Rather, it arose from a very private need, growing directly out of my earliest attempts to make sense of the immense inner satisfaction I had derived from those encounters with paintings in the Wallace Collection. Each of the works that engaged me most keenly in Italy now seemed to demand writing about at length, and my sketchbook began to be filled with verbal exposition and analysis.

The task sometimes proved frustrating and I would abandon it in utter exas- peration. But when I persisted, and managed to sort out precisely how I felt about Masaccio, Mantegna or Martini, the act of writing gave me enormous gratification and a sense of release. I arrived, eventually, at a precise and ordered judgement of the image. Writing became synonymous with discovering the artworks and the truth about my own passionate yet complicated relationship with them.

AnaIs Nin once wrote: "I do not become fully conscious of events and places and people until I have 'phrased' them." I still retain a graphic recollection of my heightened state when confronting Piero's Flagellation at Urbino. Instead of attempting to draw it, I decided to sit on the floor and write about my struggle to understand it. The enterprise must have lasted for hours, yet I lost all notion of time as the words ran on. Eventually, I was brought down from this strange elation by the guards, who asked me to leave at closing time. But I had been able to approach the heart of why Piero's painting had exerted such a mesmeric hold over me.

I recognise now that those summer pilgrimages were of decisive significance in my life. They had made me appreciate the irrepressible urge to write about art, and the profound feeling of delight I received in Italy sustains me still.

On 25 October, Richard Cork will give a fully illustrated Art Fund lecture on his early discovery of art. Tickets can be booked from the Art Fund, London SW7 on 020 7225 4875 or e-mail events@artfund.org