MUSEUM PIECES

IMG_0526MUSEUM PIECES

It was a great pleasure recently to visit the British Museum, National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery on our visit to London (not, I hasten to add, all on the same day!)   Our national museums are part of our culture and education and well known to us, but it is interesting to compare one’s own reactions on visits spanning years, if not decades.

When I visit the British Museum I head first (and always have) to the Japanese collections.   This time, a beautiful flat large plate, sparsely decorated with magnolias, caught my eye.    Also an elegant kimono/jacket, for  a  man going in to battle I think, with a geometric decoration of black on beige.    Then, (oh, covet, covet) a dressing-table type of compartmentalised box, black with silver decorations, and a whole series of lidded containers and other objects that would fit inside the box.    And one of those small scrolls of a scene in winter, all white and beige, like a painting by Utrillo but more delicate.   We looked at Korean, Chinese and other Asian artefacts which were lovely too, but none are as understated and elegant as t he Japanese.

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John always likes to have a look at the ancient British objects – the Lewis chessmen;  the Sutton Hoo helmet, the Roman artefacts.   I love the Roman glass funerary jars with their lovely patina of age, and their somewhat inappropriate casserole dish shape!

When it comes to the Egyptian and Greek departments though, I’m alot less comfortable.   Why are Egyptian mummies and funerary treasures in London?    I’m pleased to see we at least now refer to the Greek carvings as  ‘the Parthenon marbles’, but the museum should have the courage to put a book for comments in that room.     I’d write, Send them home’ every time I went there.    These are Greek or Egyptian treasures.   We have plenty of our own.

However, I do enjoy a display of statues of Roman gods and emperors.   Every time you come across a sensible face, sure enough it’s some emperor of comparatively good reputation, such as Hadrian or Trajan.    I love how you can recognise from the statue who the god is that is being depicted, and that there is a subtle difference that I can’t quite define that renders a face god-like and not human.    It is interesting that though the arrogant Roman leaders declared themselves to be gods (the folly of it..) the sculptor chose to show otherwise.    I bow my head as we pass the goddess Athene (Minerva in the Roman system.)

In the Portrait Gallery I am rather disappointed by the paucity of modern portraits.   You wander among our history as if among old acquaintances.    Wasn’t James VI and I an ugly, ill-favoured man?     Here’s Charles I, instantly recognisable by his trademark arrogance.   Charles II had an arresting face, but one which it would probably be best not to ponder for too long.   There are galleries of Victorian worthies.   Would anyone have ever looked twice at the fat Victoria had she not been queen?     There’s a rather poignant portrait of the present Prince of Wales, seated, with the Union Flag beyond his reach behind an insurmountable blank fence.   Why ever did he agree to such  a composition?    Mrs Thatcher as a pretty woman.   Well, certainly she was one, but also much more, not visible here.   The pride of the Gallery is in my view a wall of the unsurpassable John Singer Sargent, whose skill was so great that as you look at the painting you think about the artist and not the subject.

Over the years your taste changes.    I have always loved the wild yet delicate Turners.     But I am surprised that The Fighting Temeraire has been voted the best painting ever.  (How can you say anything is ‘the best ever’?)   If I had to choose a favourite from among Turner’s paintings (almost as impossible as finding ‘the best ever’) – I’d choose The Burial of Sir David Wilkie at Sea (a Peace allegory).

But I am surprised at my reaction to the Constables.   I find them over-done, over-pretty, clichés.   I’ve never thought this before.   Only fit for chocolate boxes, I think, and then guiltily hope I haven’t said this out loud, lest I be cast out in the street for disrespect and sacrilege!

The photographs of a copy of the king’s helmet at Sutton Hoo, and the Japanese dressing table set are courtesy of John.

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LIFE WITHOUT LIBERTY(s)

LIFE WITHOUT LIBERTY’s.

There were many things that we enjoyed on our recent visit to London, but our visit to Liberty’s (at my request) was not one of them.   Twenty years ago a visit to Liberty’s was a complete delight and I would travel to London just for that purpose.

For those who are not familiar with it, Liberty’s was (is) a rambling, confusing Emporium, fronting on to Regent Street, with a long front of windows, and behind this was a  most beautiful Arts and Crafts building with dark wooden stairs (complete with goblins and small animals carved into the wood where least expected), great galleries that overlooked a spacious void on the ground floor and over whose balustrades were often hung works of textile art.    In the basement was a vast floor devoted to ceramics and somewhere- never  easy to find – was a mysterious department devoted to The Orient.

Liberty’s was famous for the styling of its window display, especially at Christmas.   The windows were dressed with drama but restraint, and were works of arts in themselves, as well as displaying lovely objects.   Liberty’s was never cheap, but its contents were so tasteful and wonderful that one wandered its floors in a dream of delight.

I last visited it, many years ago, with my friend Elizabeth of Oxford.   I was primarily interested in sewing artefacts, she in knitting, but there were treasures galore for both of us.   On that last day with her I bought in the Oriental department a small cup and ceramic spoon, which stands on my desk down to this day.

I think the top floor then held furniture (never much of an interest of mine), but Elizabeth has some very fine inherited pieces and we would start with a leisurely perusal of beautifully constructed furniture.  Over the railing meanwhile would hang wool rugs, or silk wall hangings, or tapestries, or quilts.  I remember a display of Amish quilts with their bold colours.

Then, on the next floor down, came the real business.    Fabrics – a cornucopia of delight.   Wools, fine jersey wools , silks in vivid colours, cottons, Liberty prints, fine Tana lawns.   An endless selection of books of mouth-watering projects of every kind you ‘d ever dreamt of plus a few more besides.  Haberdashery of every description – including some that you’d no idea what it might be used for.    Buttons.   Lace.  Embroidery silks.   Tapestries.   Beautifully worked examples of kits to encourage you.     As Carter said as he looked into Tutankhamun’s tomb, ‘wonderful things’.

I bought my mother a very expensive kit of blue flowers to be worked in needlepoint, which she duly made up and gave me as a cushion.

The lower floor had luxurious clothes.    Delicious children’s clothes, luscious scarves, marvellous stationery and fabulous delicate jewellery.   There were places to have tea and cakes, more shopping, delightful English fragrances.   My friend Nan once gave me a bluebell bath oil of theirs (or of a make which they stocked) which could lift a headache before it settled.   And then the to-die-for ceramics, the one-off  pieces, the heirloom dinner services, and still to explore the random, exotic and lovely Oriental department.

Alas, how are the mighty fallen.   Liberty’s has lost all its window frontage to Regent’s Street and is now restricted to the smaller building behind.   As a result they seem to have  restricted themselves to their most popular ranges and to be catering for overseas visitors with much money and little taste.   There was a very limited selction of f abric – largely for curtains.   They still had Tana lawn in blouses and in fabrics but these looked like something Miss Marple might have worn.    The jewellery looked as if it might have appealed to the temporary female companion of a Russian oligarch.    It was my birthday and I could easily have indulged myself but in truth everything was unreasonably pricy and I saw nothing at all that I actually wanted to carry off.

The pity of it all.   Like losing an old and beloved friend.    I am unlikely to go back there.

I know that when Gibbon said of the ‘barbarian Northern tribes’ who were never friends of Rome – of which I am proud to count myself a member – that they ‘despised life without Liberty’, this wasn’t exactly what he meant.   And I don’t  of course despise life without Liberty’s.   But we are still the poorer.

TOO LATE TO FALL IN LOVE?

Last week was the week of my birthday.   No-one would choose, certainly not in the UK, to have their birthday celebration in winter (though I rejoice in being a Sagittarian).   I have spent my birthday in places as far apart as Sydney, Australia and Dumfries, Scotland (that was an accident), with Stockholm and Hamburg thrown in for good measure.   This year I was happy to spend it in London where Elisabeth and Robert had kindly lent us their lovely flat.

Perhaps because it’s the UK’s own capital city, I’ve never really rated London as one of the beautiful cities of the world.   In the UK, I’d rank the lovely cities as Edinburgh, Bath and York, in that order.    There are cities also which possess vitality and charm – Glasgow, Liverpool, Newcastle.   But London – well, it was just there.

But this time, driving from Rory’s in the South to Elisabeth’s in the North, right through the city centre at just that time of day when the setting sun illuminates the buildings in a golden light, I was struck by the iconic and lovely scenes that just unfold before you, one after the other.   Pugin’s parliamentary building, shining by the dark river, with Big Ben, so symbolic of the city’s pulsing heart, were quite catch-your-breath  beautiful seen from the nothing-more-fair Westminster Bridge.   Then on to the lovely Trafalgar Square,  vast open space, water from the fountains sparkling in the dying light, the great shadowy lions on guard, Nelson on his high column with the backdrop of splendid museum buildings and the graceful James Gibbs church of St Martins in the Field.

We had discussed our journeys across the city.   I was unwilling for John to have the stress of driving to the city centre, but was decidedly nervous of descending into the dark crowded bowels of London’s underground where my lifelong mild claustrophobia and dislike of crowds combine with my present illness to make me liable to panic  and freeze.   We decided to take the wheelchair with us to give me confidence, and attempt the buses.

The No 13 (would it be lucky?) was the one most suitable.   I actually found the whole business enjoyable.   We never waited more than 5 minutes for a  bus.   The driver, when he noticed us, would generally make a fair attempt to park right beside me.   Passengers, even in a crowd, would become anxious for me if I failed to board the bus (I always walked on) within the first two or three people.    Our Sussex tickets took us everywhere just by showing them.    John would fold the wheelchair and carry it on to the designated place.   People vacated seats for me without any request on our part.

Passengers were also helpful to women with prams and people often fell into conversations both with us and with other people.   We enjoyed the drives through London.

When we got to our destinations, if I did not require the wheelchair at that point, everyone was very helpful about leaving it f or a time in a safe and suitable place.

The bus service in London is effective, helpful and efficient.   London is a lovely city, and its multicultured people are courteous, patient  with those who have difficulties, and kind.

I’m sorry I haven’t previously rated London.   For sixty or so years I’ve visited it and never really seen it.

Top Ten Cities of the World (Annie’s List.)

St Petersburg (for its extreme beauty)

Syndey (for its stunning location)

Rome (for its beauty and its history)

New York (for its stunning iconic style)

Tokyo (for its beauty and its unfamiliarity)

Copenhagen (for its elegance)

Antwerp (for its stylish comfort and charm)

Edinburgh (for its beauty)

Glasgow (for its wit, style and joie de vivre, and because it’s ours)

London (just because.)

It’s never too late to fall in love.