Friday, June 29, 2007

Day Eight In London

Friday, September 7

Saint Margaret’s Church
Jewel Tower
The Houses Of Parliament
Saint John’s, Smith Square
Tate Britain
Boston Symphony Orchestra

This day marks the mid-point of our time in London.

We will have breakfast at our hotel, and start out at 9:00 a.m., taking the subway to Westminster Station.

Our first visit of the day will be to Saint Margaret’s Church, the small church adjacent to Westminster Abbey. The church is filled with historic monuments, many of the greatest interest.

The finest feature of the church is its stained glass. One set of windows commemorates Walter Raleigh, who was executed nearby and who is buried in the church. Another set of windows was commissioned to mark the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine Of Aragon. This latter set of windows is one of the finest examples of Pre-Reformation Flemish glass in the world.

Outside the church, in a niche, is a bust of Charles I, looking toward The Houses Of Parliament and seemingly staring at the statue of Oliver Cromwell, the man who ordered his execution.

From Saint Margaret’s, we will walk over to Jewel Tower, erected in the 14th Century to house the jewels and treasures of the sovereign. Along with Westminster Hall, Jewel Tower is all that remains of the original Palace Of Westminster, destroyed by fire in 1834.

Jewel Tower is surrounded by the remains of a medieval moat and quay, and it is interesting primarily because of its stonework and its old, narrow stairways. The tower houses an unremarkable exhibit about the history of Parliament.

Hardly any tourists visit Jewel Tower. When my brother and I visited Jewel Tower in 2005, we the only visitors. After we had made our way up to the topmost level, we were approached by the ticket clerk, who had climbed up to the top to ask us whether we minded if he locked us in and departed for fifteen minutes in order to get some lunch. We told him that it was fine with us, as long as he promised to return—it would take us a while, we told him, to dig through the six-foot stone walls if we had to get out on our own.

The main event of our day will be a tour of The Houses Of Parliament, compliments of my sister-in-law’s father, who works in The Palace Of Westminster and at whose home we will have dined the previous evening. He will start at the Victoria Tower end, and take us through the entire building—in turn, The Queen’s Robing Room, The Royal Gallery, The Prince’s Chamber, The House Of Lords Chamber, The Peers’ Lobby, The Peers’ Corridor, The Central Lobby, The Commons Corridor, The “No” Lobby, The House Of Commons Chamber, Saint Stephen’s Hall, Westminster Hall, New Palace Yard—until we reach the other side. This is one of the greatest experiences in London, and Josh and my father will be in heaven. At the conclusion of our tour, we plan to have coffee in the Parliament café.

From Parliament, we will walk over to Saint John’s, Smith Square, London’s greatest example of English Baroque architecture, an absolute masterpiece of the style. This large church features four towers, one at each corner, and it is said to resemble an upturned footstool. We will examine the exterior, but the only way to view the interior--quite magnificent indeed--is to attend an evening concert (the church has been de-consecrated, and it is now home to one of London’s finest concert venues).

We will go into the church crypt at Saint John’s, Smith Square, however, and have a late lunch in the excellent restaurant. It is named, fittingly, “Footstool”.

After lunch, we will walk over to Tate Britain for our second visit. During this visit, we will view the rooms displaying 19th-Century art.

Despite my dislike for so much 19th-Century British art, I find this art to be utterly fascinating—and, in addition to the piles and piles of junk that will be on display at Tate Britain, there will be many, many fine works from this period on view.

John Constable’s last major painting, “The Valley Farm” from 1835, is almost always on display at Tate Britain, as is J.M.W. Turner’s “The Shipwreck” from 1805, the only Turner painting I have ever seen that I greatly like. Minor masterpieces like David Wilkie’s “The Blind Fiddler” and William Mulready’s “The Last In” are also generally kept on display.

Tate Britain also owns many essential James Abbott McNeill Whistler and John Singer Sargent canvases, including Whistler’s “Harmony In Grey And Green: Miss Cicely Alexander”, one of his very greatest masterworks, and Sargent’s “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose”, his enchanting painting of two young girls hanging Japanese lanterns in a flower garden at twilight. In the latter painting, Sargent captures, perfectly, the mixture and blending of natural and artificial light, just as Renoir did in his great “Dance At Le Moulin De La Galette”.

Tate Britain owns several paintings from Sargent’s series of Wertheimer family portraits, and I have always greatly liked the Wertheimer portraits.

“Ena And Betty—The Daughters Of Asher and Mrs. Wertheimer” is my single favorite Sargent painting. In his painting, Sargent identifies, precisely, the contrasting personalities of these two beautiful young women—Elizabeth, reticent and shy and retiring and bookish, dressed in an elegant and beautiful deep-red velvet gown; Helena, lively and outgoing and vivacious, dressed in a brilliant and equally-beautiful white damask gown—and he places them alongside an enormous Chinese vase, whose colors perfectly complement the colors of the gowns. This painting always overwhelms all other paintings in any room in which it hangs.

Sargent obviously was enamored with Helena Wertheimer—and who would not be? Helena was known to be a delightful and captivating young woman—and he painted her more than once. Sargent painted her again in another Tate Britain work, “Portrait Of Ena Wertheimer: A Vele Gonfie”, a portrait in which Helena, in mock dramatic pose, playfully models a judge’s robes left behind by another sitter, while wearing a ridiculously impractical hat decorated with what must be the largest and most preposterous feathers ever seen. It is an enchanting portrait of an enchanting woman.

I hope that all of these Sargent works will be on display, so that my mother may see them. She will love them, I know.

We will remain at Tate Britain until very late afternoon, when we will take a cab to The Royal Albert Hall for our fourth and final Proms concert. Before the concert, we will probably get something light to eat at one the Hall’s dining venues.

This evening’s concert will feature the Boston Symphony Orchestra under James Levine. The concert will consist of Elliott Carter’s Three Occasions For Orchestra, Bartok’s Concerto For Orchestra, and Brahms’ Symphony No. 1.

After the concert, we will walk back to our hotel, stopping along the way for a light supper.

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