Friday, June 29, 2007

Day Nine In London

Saturday, September 8

Saint James’s Park
The Wellington Barracks Guards Museum
The Wellington Barracks Guards Chapel
The Cabinet War Rooms And The Churchill Museum
The National Portrait Gallery
“The Woman In Black”

On this day, after breakfast at our hotel, we will set out at 9:30 a.m., a bit later than usual.

We will take the subway to Saint James’s Park Station, and walk around Saint James’s Park again. This park is a lovely place, and well worth a second stroll.

Adjacent to the park is The Wellington Barracks Guards Museum, a small museum that traces the history of The Queen’s Guard from the reign of Charles II to the present.

We will visit the museum, and examine the displays. This is the one item on our London itinerary that I fear may be of no interest whatsoever to my mother, but she will not mind spending an hour or so there, I believe.

Afterward, we will visit The Wellington Barracks Guards Chapel, a post-war structure whose predecessor was destroyed by a V-2 rocket during the war. Tragically, the rocket struck the chapel during chapel service, killing all 144 worshipers.

The primary attraction of our day will be a visit to The Cabinet War Rooms And The Churchill Museum, the underground headquarters of the British government during World War II.

The Cabinet War Rooms have been continuously expanded since Margaret Thatcher caused them to be restored and opened to the public in the 1980’s. When my brother and I visited The Cabinet War Rooms in 2004, nine new rooms had just been opened. Since 2004, The Churchill Museum has been added.

The Cabinet War Rooms are fascinating. The portion of the complex open to the public is enormous—there are dozens of rooms, and my brother and I spent almost four hours going through them in 2004, and nevertheless we felt rushed at the end of our visit, because closing time was approaching.

The Cabinet War Rooms are of the greatest possible interest to those concerned with the history of that period. The restoration is excellent, the exhibits are excellent, and the audio guide is excellent (although the commentary cannot always be heard over the roar of almost continual sound effects, mimicking the sounds of air raid sirens and bomber engines and bombs exploding above ground).

Halfway through our visit, we will stop at the museum café and sit down and have a light lunch. The cafe is strategically placed precisely where visitors need a place to sit and rest before continuing through the maze of hallways and rooms. We will have coffee and a light lunch before we continue exploring the remainder of the complex.

When we are done visiting The Cabinet War Rooms, we are going to proceed to Trafalgar Square and visit The National Portrait Gallery.

The National Portrait Gallery is a magnificent museum. My brother and I, both great lovers of British history, slowly and meticulously went through the entire museum in 2005. It required nine three-hour visits for us to complete our traversal of the entire collection, and we loved every single minute of our many visits.

For this late-afternoon visit, we are going to concentrate only on a handful of key works from the collection: Hans Holbein’s “The Whitehall Mural”, a portrait of Henry VIII taken from life; Holbein’s miniature portrait of Thomas Cromwell, The Earl Of Essex; Lucas Horenbout’s miniature portrait of Catherine Of Aragon; Anthony Van Dyck’s “Venetia, Lady Digby”; John Singleton Copley’s grand history painting, “The Collapse Of The Earl Of Chatham In The House Of Lords 7 April 1778”, a portrayal of the heart attack and collapse of Chatham (a former Prime Minister, better known as William Pitt, or Pitt The Elder) during the House Of Lords’ single most important debate on the subject of The American Revolution (Chatham died a month later); Copley’s portrait of Lord Mansfield, the founder of commercial law; Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of the actress Sarah Siddons as well as his portraits of fellow American painters Benjamin West and John Singleton Copley; Thomas Lawrence’s great portrait of George IV; and three paintings by John Singer Sargent: his portrait of Henry James (once attacked by a madwoman), his portrait of Lord Balfour, and his grand history painting, “The General Officers Of The Great War”, once termed “Still Life With Boots” by a former director of The National Portrait Gallery who intensely disliked the painting.

When we are done seeing these works, we will go upstairs, to the top floor of The National Portrait Gallery, and have dinner in the restaurant, which is very, very fine, and which affords glorious views across Trafalgar Square down Whitehall to Parliament.

After dinner, we will walk to The Fortune Theatre and attend a performance of “The Woman In Black”, a mystery play that has been running, continuously, since 1989. My brother and I thought about seeing this play several times over the last several years, but we always identified what we believed to be superior alternatives to attend, so we never bothered to see this play.

We have no idea whether this play will be any good or not—it may be too “English”—but London’s September theater offerings are pretty slim, so we thought that we might as well give this play a try on this trip. We shall all probably either like it a lot or hate it a lot.

After the play, we will go to Covent Garden Station and take the subway back to our hotel.

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