The Friends of Hereford Cathedral organise a variety of events and trips throughout the year for members and guests. One of the most recent trips to Paris was a huge success. Here Richard Wilmott shares his experience of the visit with photographs from Andrew Talbot-Ponsoby.

"It is only right to start this report with heart-felt thanks to Joy Roderick and Sandy Elliott for devising and meticulously organising such a very enjoyable visit.

All started well, with everyone on time and the sun shining as we drove past Herefordshire hop fields on our way to St Pancras. There is no need to linger over the delights of St Pancras when the previous train is an hour late and every seat in the waiting area already taken by impatient travellers, but to our pleasant surprise our own train was not significantly delayed and soon we were on our way. It took us a little while to find our waiting coach at the Gare du Nord (indeed one member of the party disappeared in a taxi and reached the hotel some time ahead of the rest of us). Our hotel was ideally placed, not too far from the centre of Paris, and the staff were unfailingly polite and helpful (even to the monoglots amongst us!), albeit a little overwhelmed by an unaccustomed pressure on the bar and an absence – quelle horreur! – of tonic to go with the gin. By comparison with small London hotels it was remarkably good value for money. After dinner that evening, we received the first of Sandy’s carefully prepared briefings on what we would see the next day.

Our first day started with an orientation tour with a charming and well-informed guide, Ivan, who to our surprise turned out to be Brazilian. Then we visited Le Petit Palais, Girault’s elegant building constructed for the World Fair of 1900, with its lovely semi-circular garden at the rear. Here, after lunch, we began to benefit from Sandy Elliott’s knowledge and her insights into the composition of artworks such as Clairin’s luxurious painting of Sarah Bernhardt and Barrias’s powerfully emotional group sculpture of Adam and Eve cradling the murdered body of Abel. The variety of work on display was remarkable, from plaster sculptures to Greek vases, and all in a beautiful setting. And so to the hotel for dinner and another helpful briefing.

Wednesday offered the biggest challenge: finding our way within the vast rooms and huge crowds of the Louvre. Here we focused on the Italian Renaissance and in particular on some of Leonardo da Vinci’s great works (but not the Mona Lisa – most of us had seen her before and few had an appetite for the surrounding scrum). Here Sandy’s analysis of the composition of his Virgin and Child with St Anne was particularly illuminating, as was her account of how the painting had developed from the original cartoon (in the National Gallery), not only changing in form, but also growing in meaning, as the Virgin stretches out to hold back Christ as he reaches towards the sacrificial lamb on the brink of the precipice, rather than raising his hand to bless the infant John the Baptist (who has disappeared from the finished painting). Another picture to hold our attention was Caravaggio’s monumental painting of the Death of the Virgin. (Don’t tell Sandy, but some of us had a sneaking sympathy for the church authorities who, disliking its convincing realism, turned it down!) We also saw some great sculpture, the Venus de Milo being overshadowed for me both by the brilliantly carved Winged Victory of Samothrace and by Michelangelo’s struggling Rebellious Slave and reposeful Dying Slave.

Looking forward to seeing some of the great Impressionist paintings, and yet again well-briefed the night before by Sandy, we arrived on the Thursday morning at the Musée d’Orsay, originally the railway station built for visitors to the World Fair of 1900. It is a fine building and makes a superb museum. Split into two groups, my half benefited from Ivan’s brilliant exposition of the context in which Impressionism began, illustrated by moving rapidly between contrasting paintings on one side of the central hall and the other. I think I may finally have sorted out my Manet from my Monet! One later highlight was to compare an early Monet waterlily painting with a later one, which was in some ways very similar, but noticeably moving towards the abstract.

Each day was a little hotter than the one before, and on the Friday many of us were delighted to take shelter in the shady garden at the Hôtel Biron, the former home of Rodin and now the Musée Rodin. Here Sandy introduced us to the Burghers of Calais, a deeply expressive work, and the Dante-inspired Gate of Hell, on which Rodin worked for much of his life, before we went inside to see more of Rodin’s sculpted heads and learn something of his life in Paris and his way of working. Later we paid tribute to The Thinker sitting in fierce sunshine before taking shelter at the shady café.

One of the pleasing features of the week was the free half days when we were able to spend more time in the museum where we were, or to wander further afield. Some chose to stroll in the Tuileries Gardens and a few went on the Ferris Wheel for panoramic views of the city. Others visited the soaring Gothic of the Sainte Chapelle with its jewel-coloured windows, climbed the hill to Sacré Coeur (never mind the wedding-cake architecture, admire the view!) and one couple went out into the suburbs to the Abbaye de St Denis, noted as the starting point of the Gothic style in Northern Europe.

There was a brief hiccup on Saturday, when our return Eurostar broke down, but it was not long before we were back at the Gare du Nord and being escorted to a new train with more leg room and working air conditioning. Thereafter the return journey ran smoothly leaving us to mull over a host of happy memories of friendship and great art.

How lucky we were! And so reiterated thanks are due to Sandy Elliott for her marvellous insights and remarkable stamina (making herself available all day and every day), and to Joy for sorting out problems and keeping tabs on us all (and not panicking when anyone went unexpectedly absent). Thanks are due also to Norman Allen Travel, who efficiently booked tickets, coaches and hotel for us."

To find out more about the Friends of Hereford Cathedral please click here.