Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Something Old, Something New!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Something Old, Something New!    

One thing’s for sure: Five years after I lived in London, I have returned to discover that I do not have the same energy levels I used to or the ability to go on sans sleep the way I once did. I awoke at 5 .15 am and spent the first two hours of the day working on editing my essay. By 7. 30 am, I got out of bed, washed, dressed and left for 8.00 am Mass at St. Paul’s where I met my friends Cynthia and Michael briefly. Although Cynthia insisted I return to their place for breakfast, I declined as my muesli was soaking in milk and yogurt and I was keen to return home to consume it—indeed I have grown to enjoy this breakfast so much that I actually look forward to it. Simple pleasures! I ate it while watching BBC’s Breakfast Show and a bit of Lorraine and then I was getting ready to leave the house—which I did at 10. 30 am—for my long bus ride to the Horniman Museum

Finally Hitting the Horniman Museum:

There is a reason I had never been to the Horniman Museum—and I discovered that reason today! It is located in the midst of nowhere, somewhere between London and Lewisham! This meant a long ride on the Number 63 bus from Gray’s Inn heading towards Honor Oak. Thanks to Journey Planner, I figured that I needed to get off at Peckham Rye station to change to the 197 bus to Lewisham. By the time I reached, it was almost 12 noon and the place was packed solid with school kids on field trips from various schools as far away as Surrey! I was under the mistaken impression that this museum had a whole section on Tea and its accoutrements—and having become a huge tea afficionado, I figured it would be up my alley. Well, I was sadly mistaken. The Tea connection is limited to the fact that Mr. Horniman was a Victorian tea merchant who marketed a product known as Horniman Tea (still sold in the gift shop). The tea museum used to be the Bramah Tea and Coffee Museum in Southwark (which closed a few months before I got there, a year ago, to check it out). So, no, there was no tea stuff to be found at the Horniman. It is, in fact, a Natural History Museum--and not a very impressive one at that. The London Natural History Museum at Kensington is miles better. Its layout might be the Horniman’s most interesting feature—there is a vast gallery that runs the length of the museum which provides a sort of bird’s-eye view of the glass cases below. I mean its centerpiece is a stuffed giraffe--as in stuffed toy, not taxidermied! No further comment necessary. There is also an aquarium and an Amazon section (but these require a payment of 3 pounds—the rest of the museum is free). I browsed about a bit but was not very taken by anything.
            What really struck my fancy were the gardens—apparently recently refurbished in 2012 and a grand sight they are too. There is a splendid conservatory (glass house, reminiscent of the one at Syon House on the Thames) and a nice bandstand with lovely faraway views of London—you can easily distinguish the Gherkin and the Shard, the newest addition to London’s skyline. There is also a nice Musical Garden with giant installations of musical instruments such as xylophones which kids and adults can try their hands at playing. Beautiful beds of marigold in vivid shades of orange brightened up a central reflecting pool. There are perennial flower beds and a medicinal/herb garden. There is a berry patch—I feasted on delicious strawberries picked straight from the vines—what a treat!—small, sweet, red, juicy, flavorful. I don’t believe I could ever eat a genetically-engineered giant American strawberry again. When I had taken a few pictures, I left, and hopped on the bus again; but I did not return home as intended. Instead, as often happens spontaneously when I am in London, I made a detour because I realized that I was not far from the Dulwich Picture Gallery—and so that was my next port of call!

Dallying in Dulwich Picture Gallery:

            Dulwich Picture Gallery is one of London’s art gems: unfortunately, not too many people make the long hike into Dulwich, one of the pretty ‘villages’ of London to go out and see it. Because I have visited it on previous occasions and because the building is the handiwork of Sir John Soane, one of my great Victorian heroes, and because its small collection is so striking and significant, I decided to visit it again. And what a great decision that turned out to be!
            Dulwich Picture Gallery (don’t you even just love the name?) was founded in the strangest of circumstances. Here is an explanation on how the collection came to be: “Stanislaus Augustus, the last King of Poland, commissioned Noël Desenfans and Sir Francis Bourgeois RA, two successful London art dealers, to build a Royal Collection for Poland. In 1795, before they could complete the deal, Poland was partitioned by its powerful neighbour, Catherine the Great of Russia, his ex-lover. The King was forced into exile, and the dealers were left with a Royal Collection on their hands. Unable to sell it, they left the collection to Dulwich College in 1811 under the terms of Bourgeois’ will, stating that it should be available for the ‘inspection of the public’. Bourgeois left another condition in his will: that the architect for the new gallery should be his friend, Sir John Soane (1754-1837). The brief was not just to build a gallery for the pictures, but also almshouses for six old ladies (now exhibition rooms) and a mausoleum for its founders. The challenge was irresistible. Soane turned up at Dulwich the very day after Bourgeois' death. The building has influenced the design of art galleries ever since”.

      A walk through the galleries brings one to the mausoleum where the remains of the  museum’s founders are enshrined in stone tombs—a most unusual addition in an art gallery. But once you get past this oddity, you will be dumb-struck by the canvases, each one of which is more mesmerizing than the next. Old Masters will be coming out of your ears—as you feast your eyes on Rembrandt’s Girl at the Window (so realistic you will want to reach out and touch her); Murillo’s Madonna of the Rosary and a wealth of other large portraiture, several Gainsborough portraits (including one of Mrs. Elizabeth Moody and her sons Thomas and Samuel both of whom are in dresses). I was told that pre-potty trained kids in the 18th century often wore dresses as it made it easier to take care of their toilet needs! There are amazing Guido Renis and Claude Lorraines, several Poussins, loads of Annibal Carraci and Canaletto’s famed views of the canals of Venice. This collection would make an excellent miniature introduction to the history of western art as it can easily be seen in a single morning—and, I repeat, what a breathtaking collection it is! 
     At any given time, a stroll through the permanent collection is rewarding but what makes a visit to Dulwich Picture Gallery really worthwhile are the special exhibitions that are held regularly and I was particularly fortunate to catch one today on the Bloomsbury artists who had belonged to the Slade School of Art—among whom were names that went on to fashion British Art in the early 20th century and greatly influence it: names like Dora Carrington, CRW Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler and David Bomberg. Their work was wonderful and showed the impact of the Great War and the tragedy of the Somme on their vision, the manner in which they became influenced eventually by Abstract Art especially Cubism and the ways in which their friendship led to intense personal relationships. I was enthralled as were so many of the viewers who could not tear themselves away from the display. 
     It was another sizzling afternoon; so I was grateful to sit in the shade of the café umbrellas to eat my ham and Stilton cheese sandwich as the mercury climbed ever higher. Then just before I left, I spotted the Alleyn Chapel that was open and I could not resist a quick visit inside. It is a gem of a place—a bequest to the Gallery by Edward Alleyn (pronounced “al-ayn”) who was a gigantic Shakespearean actor in his time (16th century) and who left a chapel and enough money to cover the care of 12 widows whose homes are converted to galleries today. He lies buried in the chapel—a tombstone indicates the spot in front of the altar whose altarpiece is the work of a 19th century sculptor named Carew. The chapel is particularly known for the fine craftsmanship of the wooden pew carvings that feature animals, birds and people in gestures of prayer. It was worth going inside to peruse the kind of artistry that one rarely sees in contemporary places of worship.
            I hopped on the bus to get back home but by the late afternoon the heat sapped my strength and made me long for a break. I needed to get away from the humidity which was stifling. Buses and Tube trains do not have air conditioning here in London and they can get unbearable when the temperatures get this high. It was gratefully that I returned to my air conditioned Holborn apartment and sank into bed expecting to take my habitual 20 minute cat nap—and amazed to find that I did not wake up for 45 minutes! As I said, I do not have the same energy of five years previously! At 5. 15 pm, I jumped up to have a cup of tea and some cake and to take a shower and get ready for my next appointment.

Off to Alexander’s Art Opening:

     By 5. 30 pm, I was out of the house and on the Tube again, heading to Westbourne Park Tube station to meet my friend Rosemary (Roz) whose son Alexander (Alex) had the opening of his first major solo art show at a gallery known as The Tabernacle. Roz was at the station waiting for me when I got there, ten minutes behind schedule as the Tube ride took longer than I expected. Ten minutes later, we were at the venue and I was shaking the hands of the handsome young artist, Roz’s son, whom I have known for several years. He has recently completed his Ph.D. after having done his B.A. and M.A. from Cambridge University with a double major in Law and Art History! All those brains and great looks too! Alex received the good wishes of a large bunch of his friends who turned out to support his work and a bevy of relatives—aunts, uncles—and family friends. Roz introduced me to a number of folks—some of whom were American. I enjoyed perusing Alex’s work in mixed media: oils, water colors, engravings. His work shows confidence and an originality of vision that I found very refreshing and very impressive. I know that he will get better and better with time and experience and I have little doubt that these works which are still very affordable will one day be worth much more than their current value.
        I said goodbye to Roz and her family members and jumped on a bus to Queensway from where I took the Tube home to Chancery Lane, happy at the thought of a fairly early night. I cobbled together a halfway decent dinner (quiche, soup, salad, cherries) and ate it while watching a new TV series called Family Tree with the comedian Chris O’Dowd whom I rather like. At 10. 30 pm with my eyes fairly closing, I hammered out this blog and fell asleep.
     It was an arty-farty day. It involved something old (Dulwich Picture Gallery) and something new (Horniman Museum). But mainly it was enervating as the heat in public transport is no laughing matter! Tomorrow, if it gets this torrid, I shall spent it in an air-conditioned space. 

       Until tomorrow, cheerio!               

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