Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Ambling in Albertopolis

Monday, July 29, 2013
Battersea, London

            Waking up to the sound of trains is a novel experience but a nice romantic one. There is a railroad line that runs just outside my window here in Battersea and planes on the Heathrow Path, not to mention helicopters ascending and descending over the helipad poised over the Thames where river boats ply all day long—all these journeys, these to-ings and fro-ings are deeply romantic to me.
            I worked for three steady hours after a muesli brekkie. Waking early provides me with the opportunity to do focussed editing work and to redraft my proposal to the publishers. I also had a request letter for a transcript to draft and sundry other email correspondence items to complete. Before I knew it, it was 11.30 am—where does the time go? It was great to have Alexander, Roz’s son, for company as he pottered around on the lower level having come in after 2.00 am last night. He leaves for Oxford (where he lives) later today. As I worked on my laptop, I watched birds—a variety and a great multitude of them in Roz’s garden—Alexander informed me that the small yellow ones are probably blue tits—go figure! There were also large strange ones I’d never seen before—wood pigeons, he said. Llew would have loved it.
            At 11. 30 am, I was at the bus stop intending to get to Vauxhall to take the Tube to start my ambles around Albertopolis as the area around the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum is called. But I have become strangely proficient in the use of the red buses and when one came along proclaiming “South Kensington” as its destination, I was on it like a bonnet! It was a lovely ride—through Chelsea (I love the King’s Road and Fulham Road and could dally on them forever) and the Bluebird Cafe where I have been intending to eat for ages and into “South Ken” which is Little Paris, really, what with the plethora of French shops that have cluttered the area.
Revisiting the V&A:    
           It wasn’t long before I entered the V&A that looked very different from what I remembered. It didn’t take me long to realize that a whole new wing had been added to it on the right—a wing that was under renovation while I had lived in London—it turned out to be the new Medieval and Renaissance Wing that was opened soon in late 2009, soon after I left. Naturally, I had to take a tour of it and to my good luck, there was one beginning in just two minutes: a special tour of the Medieval and Renaissance Wing. It wound around the Museum’s treasures—from the court on the ground floor where the guide pointed out the Italian medieval stone wells, the stema (signature stone) of Pope Leo X and Giamdebologna’s Samson Wrestling the Philistine—which is one of the museum’s treasures. (Indeed, it did not take me long to discover a wonderful leaflet entitled ”Twenty Treasures of the V&A” that points visitors in the direction of its most notable items in a collections whose number is staggering. And naturally, I resolved that I would return tomorrow to do a self-guided tour of them as instructions and directions are very clearly marked on the leaflet. However, one does now have to pay one pound for the Floor Plan (as also in the National Gallery)—so it is now worth holding on to these after one’s visit instead of consigning them to the trash bins.  
            Upstairs, our tour took us to a stone Gothic Altar, to the Gloucester Candlestick (made of gilded base metal using the lost wax technique), to the stained glass window panels from La Chapelle in Paris (not clear how they got to the V&A), to completely different stained glass panels from the Church of the Stained Blood in Bruges in Belgium (also not clear how they got to the V&A), to the massive tapestry entitled The Boar Hunt—one of a series of four that details all kinds of medieval hunting (bear, boar, deer) among lords and ladies dressed to kill (pun intended), a most unusual marble bas relief of the Ascension of Christ by Donatello in a space devoted exclusively to his work (as the V&A has the most works by him outside of Italy) and finally a studiola with very interesting ceramic ceiling rondels by Lucca della Robbia that portrays the 12 months of the agricultural year.
            By then, it was nearly 12. 30 pm and I rushed downstairs to the Information Desk to join the Introductory Tour which is what the Museum’s Highlights Tour is called. This docent, named Deborah, was simply amazing—passionate and energetic and so knowledgeable. She started with the Ardabil Carpet which is dimly lit for just 10 minutes on the hour and the half hour—it is indeed the largest carpet of its quality in the world and arrived in the V&A via Persia and Los Angeles (having fallen temporarily in the possession of J. Paul Getty). Upstairs, we paused at the terracotta Bust of Henry Tudor that remained in the possession of his son Henry VIII and stopped at the Hereford Altar Panel—a confection of Victorian design in multi-media: metal, studded semi-precious stones, marble, gilded wood, terracotta (figures of Christ and the angels) meant for the church and designed by the great Sir George Gilbert Scott but never installed there. This vantage point gave us an opportunity to gaze upon one of my favorite works in the Museum—the softly colored Chandelier by Dale Chihuly that cascades over the Main Information Desk echoing the soft colors on the Victorian stained glass window panes from where Chihuly took his inspiration when commissioned the work.
            In the Renaissance and Medieval Galleries (constructed in imitation of the Millennium Dome installed in the British Museum), she pointed out the New Court (with its fountains and its sculpture), we skimmed past the Casts Court that was temporarily closed (the casts are taken from the world’s greatest sculpture so that the V&A has plaster casts of Rome’s Trajan Column and Florence’s David, both by Michaelangelo and by Donatello and loads of Gothic altars from French cathedrals including the famous entrance to Chartres Cathedral. We saw the side of a timber building from Bishop’s Gate in London that was left untouched by the Great Fire of 1666 and then went on to the Back courtyard where we saw a new bronze sculptural installation named The Three Graces by a contemporary sculptor Georg Baeslitz—a truly ugly installation that the guide said was “like Marmite—you either love it or hate it”. And I hated it!
            From there, we moved on to the Indian Wing where she led us to Tipu’s Tiger (of course!)—maybe the museum’s best-known object: a music box that when wound plays the sounds of a tiger’s roars and the screams of the Englishman who he is mauling to death--really gruesome but a good indication of the hatred with which the English were held in Mysore where Tipu Sultan fought hard to keep them at bay. The large wooden music box is entirely Indian made and very impressive indeed. She also pointed out Shah Jehan’s nephrite Jade drinking cup exquisitely carved with a lotus base and the detailed head of a ram on the handle. And finally our tour ended at the Raphael Cartoons on long-term loan from the Queen to whom they belong. Commissioned by the same Leo X who built the Sistine Chapel, they are colored drawings in tempura by Raphael for the tapestry weavers who ultimately wove the masterpieces that hang in the Vatican. The V&A has one of the tapestries and it is hung right opposite its Cartoon illustrating the manner in which the finished tapestry was a mirror image of its cartoon.
            I cannot leave the V&A without visiting its splendid cafeteria which is probably the best in the world. It is composed of what is known as the Morris, Poynter and Gamble Rooms, each of which has been designed and decorated by one of the great Arts and Crafts practitioners of the day. I particularly loved the ceramic walls and the stained glass windows and I settled down with a cheddar, celery and apple scone served with butter and a lovely pot of Darjeeling—which served as my lunch, to enable me to take in the grandeur of my surroundings. How much I love the V&A, I realized, and what a treat it is to return to this place, time after time.
Off to Pick up my Suitcase:
            Leaving the museum unwillingly behind me, I arrived at South Ken Tube station (using the useful underground passage way that links the V&A with the station) in order to get to Abbey Road to pick up my suitcase from Raquel’s place. I was there in 20 minutes and was disappointed not to find anyone at home. I cleared out my case and the fridge that had a few of my food items in it and was on my way walking towards the Tube station in order to get my case to my new digs in Battersea when along Grove End Road came Raquel with son Jonas and a huge shopping trolley in tow—she had just gone to the supermarket. We had a long and affectionate reunion on the street but because my case was heavy, I did not return to her place. Instead, I carried on to Battersea and was amazed to reach there in about half an hour.
            A rest and a nap was called for after hauling my 20 kg case across London (although I have to say, given the lifts and escalator everywhere, I did not have a hard time of it at all) and curled up on my bed on the top level of the house for my 20 minutes shut-eye.
A Walking Tour of  Alberotopolis:
At 5. 15pm, I left the house with camera, map and Oyster card in my pocket and on the bus I went back to South Ken to start my Walking Tour of Albertopolis—as the area is known. It was the brain child of Prince Albert (Victoria’s beloved husband), a German who brought with him all the culture and polish of the German court to an England that was in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. Marrying England’s manufacturing genius with Europe’s artistry seemed like a no-brainer for Albert who came up with the idea of the Great Exhibition (of 1851) to showcase the amazing wonders that man was capable of creating. He was also a dedicated lover of architecture and in founding the Royal Academies of Music and Art and Geography and Organists and Science, what he created was a miniature town—full of wondrous red brick buildings with elaborate black wrought-iron balconies (slightly imitating the French windows of neighbors across the Channel), fancy stucco embellishments and often exuberant carvings. And that is Albertopolis. I thought so much of Chriselle, because on her last trip to London when she had visited the area with me, she had simply fallen in love with it and with its architecture and couldn’t get enough of it.  
Everyone knows the story of how heart-broken Victoria was when she lost Albert to typhoid when he was merely 41 and how determined she was to create a memorial to him that would stun the viewer. Well, my walk wound me around the spherical Royal Albert Hall where there was a serpentine queue waiting for Standing Room to see the BBC Prom concerts that occur throughout the month of July and into August. I was sorely tempted to stand in it myself because for a mere five pounds, I could have listened to a world-class orchestra—but I had told my friend Roz I would be home with her for dinner.
So instead I took pictures of the wonderful sculpture of Albert at the back of the Hall and made my way to Kensington Gore—the road in front which is dominated by George Gilbert Scott’s brilliant Albert Memorial designed to look like a medieval market cross—but lavishly gilded. Albert who has recentlty been re-gilded sits there in larger-than-life mode with the catalogue of the great Exhibition on his knee (brilliant idea!) on a dais surrounded by at least 200 personages from the past that represent art and science and learning and flanked on four sides by marble sculpture that represents Asia (elephant), Africa (camel), Europe (bull) and America (bison). It is a truly an extraordinary piece of work and I felt the same kind of awe that I feel at the Taj Mahal as I circumnavigated its splendor. Many many pictures later, I was finally ready to leave and take the bus back to Battersea where I reached at almost 7.00 pm.
Roz helped me throw in a load of laundry and then I was ready to go on a long walk again, at her suggestion, along the Thames Path. What a great suggestion it was! We strolled, on a perfect summer’s evening with only the slightest hint of rain in the air, to the waterfront, past the helipad to arrive at the lovely Georgian church of St. Mary where William Blake had married and on to her ‘local’, The Woodman of Battersea, where I had “a swift half” pint of Guinness and she sipped a Sauvignon Blanc and we gabbed non-stop as we tried to catch up on all that has happened in our respective lives since the last time we chatted. It was a simply fabulous evening with a dear friend of whom I am really fond.
          Back home, where Oscar, Roz's beautiful Burmese cat is making himself very much at home on my lap, at nearly 10.00 pm, we had a very light but very delicious dinner: smoked salmon with buttered bread and salad with ice-cream for dessert. What a great day! At close to midnight, I reviewed and responded to email and fell asleep.             

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