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.


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.


About adhocannie
I am a good natured woman with a long memory and a swift tongue. I like loooking at things and thinking about them. Also food, clothes, travel, reading, sewing. I try to see the ridiculous in things, but sobriety of reflection keeps edgting in. I have husband, children, grandchildren, friends... I feel rich in things that matter. I am a happy exile. I like writing. I do not like talking about me (though I do.). You willl be much more interesting.

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