Friday, June 29, 2007

Day Five In London

Tuesday, September 4

Tate Britain
The Church Of Saint James The Less, Westminster
Westminster Cathedral
Evensong Service At Westminster Abbey
The Victoria Embankment
The Victoria Embankment Gardens
York Watergate
Cleopatra’s Needle
Covent Garden
Seven Dials
Neal’s Yard

We will start our explorations a little later this day. We want to make sure that we have had an opportunity to enjoy plenty of rest, given how much we accomplished the previous day.

We will not leave our hotel until 9:30 a.m. We will first have breakfast at our hotel, after which we will take the subway to Pimlico Station.

We will begin our day at Tate Britain. This will be the first of three visits to Tate Britain on this trip, and we intend to explore the entire collection.

Tate Britain is interesting, to me, not because of the quality of the art on display, which is not particularly high, but because of what that art reveals about the British character and the British people, and because of how that art comments, unintentionally, on so many aspects of British history and British society. For me, Tate Britain is more of a history museum than an art museum--and my brother holds precisely the same view about Tate Britain. The museum utterly fascinates him.

I have never been an admirer of British art. Britain’s greatest period of painting, I believe, coincided perfectly with the Hanoverian Period, which began with the reign of George I in 1714 and ended with the reign of William IV in 1837.

This period witnessed the lives and works, in order, of Allan Ramsay (1713-1784), Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), George Stubbs (1724-1806), Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), George Romney (1734-1802), Henry Raeburn (1756-1823), Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), John Constable (1776-1837) and David Wilkie (1785-1841), all but two of whom were born and died during this period (Ramsay was born one year before the Hanoverian Period began; Wilkie outlived the Hanoverian Period by four years).

This group of painters was as good as any in the world at the time, even though it operated entirely outside the prevailing artistic movements of the time.

On the continent, during this period, three movements were in force: Rococo art, which held sway in France and Italy; Neo-Classical art, which swept aside Rococo art in France from 1790 onward; and Neo-Romantic art, which dominated German art from 1800.

During the Hanoverian Period, British art held itself separate and apart from these continental trends. This turned out to be a good thing, because Britain enjoyed its greatest flowering in the field of painting during this century-and-a-quarter Hanoverian Period--but never before, and never since, has British art been anything other than of provincial quality and of local interest.

Prior to this group of Hanoverian painters, Britain had no important painters at all, relying entirely upon foreign artists to provide the monarchy and the ruling classes with the portraits and landscapes and “conversation pieces” they so loved. Subsequent to this group of Hanoverian painters, Britain suffered through the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and the Victorian painters working in a realist style, and a pallid group of 20th-Century painters offering watered-down versions of French and German and American art.

As a result, apart from the Hanoverian-Period paintings, much of the art on display at Tate Britain is simply meretricious—and yet this meretricious art is fascinating for historical reasons. In fact, Tate Britain is one of the most rewarding art museums in the entire world to visit, if one examines the artworks purely from an historical perspective and if one is not looking for purely artistic rewards.

In 2005, my brother and I went through the entire Tate Britain collection, and we were completely captivated by this museum. It took us four three-hour visits to get through everything, but our visits in 2005 were lengthened due to the fact that we began each visit with a one-hour guided tour of the particular section of the collection we planned to visit that day.

We will not repeat that mistake this trip.

First, the Tate Britain guided tours were not particularly good.

Second, on one of our four guided tours, I narrowly escaped being murdered.

The particular guided tour that nearly cost me my life covered British art between 1800 and 1900, and this period included, of course, the group of Pre-Raphaelite painters, whose work I abhor (and whose most prominent current collector, fittingly, is Andrew Lloyd Webber).

In 2005, while the Tate Britain guide was discussing John Everett Millais’ “Ophelia”, considered to be one of the key works of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, I turned to my brother and I involuntarily uttered the word “kitsch”. The guide heard me, and I thought that she was going to execute me for my offense.

She was livid, with a frightening look of hatred on her face, and she stopped her presentation and glared at me. I am 6’1”, and my brother is 6’2”, but she was much taller and much heavier than either one of us, and she could have dealt both of us lethal blows any time she wanted. I was truly frightened--and the guide’s unflattering lime-green pants suit only added to her aura of maliciousness.

She stared at me for the longest time, and then she grandly proclaimed “Not everyone appreciates the Pre-Raphaelites” and returned to her presentation, at which point my brother whispered into my ear “Try not to get us killed, OK? You be a good boy, now. If you’re a good boy, I’ll get you some ice cream.”

This made me laugh, of course, which only made the Tate Britain guide even more infuriated. She halted her presentation again and she glared at me, for at least a full minute. Finally, she asked me “Is there anything more you would like to say before I continue?”

A question deserves a response, quite naturally, or so I have always believed. So I asked her, very innocently, and very sweetly, “What did Charles Dickens have to say about the Pre-Raphaelites?”

Of course, I already knew the answer to that question. And so did she—and she was enraged.

She looked at me like a maddened bull preparing to charge, with blind hatred in her eyes. She would happily have killed me, I believe, if she thought she could have got away with it. Finally, she gritted her teeth and she snarled at me “He didn’t like them. Is that enough for you?”

“Yes, and thank you” I politely answered, and she continued, once again, with her presentation, while my brother, from behind, put his arms around my waist and very slowly pulled me to the very outer edge of the group participating in the guided tour.

From that point, members of the tour group started to wander away, one by one. It was in a room devoted exclusively to the paintings of G. F. Watts—“the Rothko of the 19th Century”, according to the Tate Britain guide—that most of the members of the group abandoned the tour. (The Watts room is no longer on view--it was installed only for a few months in 2005. It recreated an installation from the World War I years, when Watts reached the zenith of his popularity.) Despite the fact that I despise Watts, I behaved myself perfectly in the Watts room, primarily because my brother kept his hand over my mouth much of the time.

My brother wanted to leave the tour, too, but I firmly believed, under the circumstances, that it would have been pointedly impolite, if not outright unforgivable, for us to have walked away while the guide was still in the midst of her presentation. Accordingly, I stuck it out, and so did my brother, to the very end. By the time the group had reached the final room of paintings on the tour, there were only four members of the original group remaining: a married couple from Texas, and my brother and I.

The final room was filled with maudlin Victorian paintings, some of the most sentimental claptrap to be seen anywhere, and the final painting the guide discussed was Luke Fildes’ 1891 “The Doctor”, one of the most famous and emblematic of all Victorian paintings.

I swear that I was not making faces, but the guide stopped her presentation, and she said to me “I see that you do not like this one, either”.

Actually, that was not true, because that painting is very good—of its kind—and I said “I am happy to see this painting. Our grandfather had an old print of this painting, and I am pleased to see the original at last.”

This was not enough for the guide, however. She wanted to know whether I LIKED the painting, and she pressed me on this issue.

“It’s a fine example of late-Victorian realist narrative painting” was the best I could get out, to which she retorted “Aha! I knew you didn’t like it!”

Shortly after, she completed her presentation to the group, after which the two Texas visitors departed, leaving the guide and my brother and me together, uncomfortably, in the middle of the room.

The guide looked at us for a while, with contempt plastered all over her face, and then she said, acidly, “I am always so happy to explain art to you Americans”, after which she swiveled and started to walk out of the room. When she was a few steps away, I said to my brother, loud enough for her to hear, “Well, the 19th Century was not a TOTAL loss for British art—at least Whistler and Sargent were working here some of that time.”

The guide stopped in her tracks for a moment, clearly trying to decide whether or not to turn around and blast me, but she thought better of it, and she resumed walking from the room.

I think we will skip the Tate Britain guided tours on this visit.

For our first Tate Britain visit, we will explore the rooms that address British art from 1500 to 1800. Many of the greatest paintings from this period are not at Tate Britain—they are at the nearby National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery—but these rooms are nonetheless of great interest. Portraits, landscapes, cityscapes, “conversation pieces” and historical paintings line the pertinent rooms, and almost all of these paintings are fascinating for their historical content.

Furthermore, Tate Britain owns so many works that its paintings are changed every few months, so there should be lots and lots of paintings from this period that my brother and I have not already examined.

Happily, most of the major, major paintings owned by Tate Britain are kept on more-or-less continuous display, and I look forward to seeing again John Singleton Copley’s giant and grand 1783 history painting, “The Death Of Major Peirson 6 January 1781”, as well as Allan Ramsay’s “Thomas, Second Baron Mansel Of Margam, With His Blackwood Half-Brothers And Sister”, Thomas Gainsborough’s “The Baillie Family” and George Stubbs’ “The Haymakers” and “The Reapers”.

After we have completed seeing this day’s rooms at Tate Britain, we will have lunch at the Tate Britain cafĂ©, the museum’s informal eating venue.

After lunch, we will make the short walk to one of London’s very greatest churches, virtually unknown and virtually never visited, and one of the greatest masterpieces of 19th-Century ecclesiastical architecture: The Church Of Saint James The Less, Westminster.

Completed in 1861, Saint James The Less is the most perfect and successful example of Tractarian architecture I have ever seen. The exterior is of red and black patterned brick, in a unique and decorative (but understated) style. Standing apart from the main structure, campanile-style, is a large tower with a short steeple. To the rear and side of the church proper is a large and complex vestry.

It is a magnificent structure.

The interior features red, black and white brickwork, elaborate arches and vaulting, and pillars made from marble, stone and granite. Stone inlays, murals, mosaics and angled brickwork line the church walls. The church has striking stained-glass windows, a painted ceiling, and a G. F. Watts mosaic on the chancel wall. And yet all of this decoration, seemingly overwrought, is incorporated into the church’s structural elements, with the greatest possible taste and restraint and refinement. The result is one of the most beautiful church interiors in the world. This church is an essential destination for any visit to London.

From Saint James The Less we will walk to Westminster Cathedral, the main Roman Catholic Church in England. The giant exterior was completed in 1904. The Cathedral was designed in a fearless Byzantine style, inspired by Saint Sophia in Istanbul and Saint Mark’s in Venice, and its interior and many side chapels are decorated with brilliant mosaics and colored marble (over 100 different marbles were used in the Cathedral’s interior). The Cathedral is a wonderful and inspiring building to visit and explore. Edward Elgar’s “The Dream Of Gerontius” premiered in the Cathedral.

When we are done exploring the Cathedral’s interior, we will take the elevator to the top of the Campanile, and enjoy the breathtaking views over London.

After our visit is complete, we will walk to Victoria Station and take the subway to Westminster Station, and from there walk over to Westminster Abbey for Evensong Service. Evensong Service is a remarkable experience—if the tourists in attendance behave themselves--and it generally features the Westminster Abbey Choir and one of the Abbey organs.

After Evensong, we will take a leisurely stroll along The Victoria Embankment, which lines the Thames, from Parliament to the Adelphi area of London. This is a beautiful and pleasant walk, and it offers excellent views of the South Bank.

At our destination, we will walk through The Victoria Embankment Gardens, and enjoy the flowers and many statues and monuments in the gardens (everyone is honored, from Robert Burns to Arthur Sullivan to “The Imperial Camel Corps” to “The People Of Belgium”).

Inside the gardens, we will examine York Watergate, the triumphal river entrance to the former York House. York Watergate is all that remains of what was once one of London’s most notable and splendid private residences.

Near the gardens, we will examine Cleopatra’s Needle, an Egyptian obelisk carved in 1450 B.C. The obelisk is surrounded by pseudo-Egyptian benches and sphinxes added during the 19th Century. Bombing damage from a World War I zeppelin raid may still be observed on the obelisk’s plinth and on the nearby sphinxes and stonework.

From Cleopatra’s Needle we will walk to the Covent Garden area. We will walk around the opera house, and walk around the plaza, and probably sit down somewhere and have some coffee, and probably enter a shop or two, and explore the area.

From Covent Garden we will walk north to Seven Dials and explore this charming square.

Then we will explore the equally-charming adjacent area, Neal’s Yard, and perhaps enter a shop or two.

When we are done walking around, we will have dinner at a Belgian restaurant near Neal’s Yard. My brother and I discovered this restaurant in 2003, and we have eaten there a few times, and we have always liked it. The food is good, and it will be a nice way to end the day.

After dinner, we shall go to Covent Garden Station and take the subway back to our hotel. We should be able to turn in early on this day, by 10:00 p.m. or so.

No comments:

Post a Comment