London never ceases to thrill and impress. Not only is there always so much on, there are also friends to see, new experiences to enjoy, and any number of new places to explore.
I arrived on a sunny Saturday afternoon and took the Heathrow Express to Paddington. My Uber app was annoyingly not functioning, so I had to pay a conventional black cab to my Air b’nb room, located between the Pimlico and Victoria Stations, almost £20. (Five days later I relocated to my friends’ flat in Bloomsbury, used the now-functioning Uber app, and paid half the price for a similar distance.) I don’t recommend the Pimlico room as it wasn’t clean, in spite of a “cleaning fee” being deducted from my credit card a few days before. My Mongolian hostess, a fellow musician (of the lighter variety), was friendly and considerate, so it was a pity that her flat wasn’t up to scratch inside. The building outside, along with its neighbours, is in the elegant Georgian style, and I liked being able to self-cater, albeit in an unclean kitchen. I don’t mind simple accommodation, but it must be spotless.
On my first evening the weather was fine and not too cold, so I decided to stroll along the south bank of the River to the Royal Festival Hall for a pre-booked concert (£25).
Mitsuko Uchida performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.27 in B flat major, K595, and this was followed by Mahler’s magnificent “symphony”, Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth). To quote the South Bank Centre website: The six impassioned songs which comprise this Symphony distill life’s sorrow and sweetness. Some say it is the greatest symphony he never wrote.
This gargantuan work, which includes tenor and soprano soloists pitted against a massive orchestra – the London Philharmonic conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, should have come as no surprise to me in its modernity. Composed in 1908-1909 at the dawn of the “Modern” Age, Mahler and his contemporary Richard Strauss are dubbed “Post Romantics”. Both are well-known for their challenging of the conventional tried-and-trusted tonal system. But surprise me it did, with its piquant harmonies and unusual combinations of singer and instruments. I enjoyed Dame Sarah Connolly’s pure soprano voice and interpretation. I’m not so sure I liked the Symphony as a whole, although I do love the first song. I did not enjoy the strident tone of tenor Stuart Skelton, however celebrated he may be, or favourable his reviews. To each his/her own.
I had mixed feelings about Dame Uchida’s interpretation of Mozart’s final piano concerto, with its “mixture of sunshine and shadow.” While capturing the sad nostalgia and pain of Mozart’s last months, a period fraught with ill health and financial difficulties, I found her playing sometimes too soft, too febrile, and excessively sensitive. She certainly captured the attention of the audience, among whom you could have heard a pin drop. But the date of this work, 1791, places it on the cusp of the Romantic Era. Indeed, a substantial amount of Mozart’s mature work – harbinger of the torrid era of Romanticism – reveals the rebellious spirit of the French Revolution with which much art towards the end of the 18th century is imbued. As such I would have welcomed a “meatier”, more robust interpretation, in keeping with the spirit of Romanticism, rather than the delicate, Rococo sensibilities of the Classical aesthetic. Dame Uchida’s reviews were most praiseworthy, however, and I would not question her profound knowledge of her oeuvre, or her exquisite taste.
The next day was spent making my way to and enjoying Chiswick House and Gardens, a free guided tour of which is available on Sundays at 14:30. Beware of payment for entry into this little gem, however: £7 ordinaire, less for students and pensioners.I had long intended visiting this 18th Century masterpiece, one of the first examples of Neo-Classical design in England, and birthplace of the English Landscape movement.
Richard Boyle, the third Earl of Burlington, designed and built this petite villa between 1725 and 1729. It was inspired by the architecture and gardens of ancient Rome, the remains of which he had seen as a young man during his “grand tour” of the Continent, particularly of Italy. The highly ornate interiors were designed by William Kent, and include a fine collection of paintings by Old Masters. Downstairs there are a Media Room and a Shop, and a Library connected by a Link Room to a Summer Parlour. Upstairs there are a Domed Saloon at the centre, and the Red, Green and Blue Velvet Rooms, a Gallery and a Bedchamber. (No photos allowed.)
I arrived early for the guided tour of the interior, so explored the grounds following a suggested path in the brochure. This led me along an extended pond, from the Cascade to the Ionic Temple, to the Classical Bridge and the Amphitheatre and Obelisk.
From the Doric Column and Rosary the route continues through the Inigo Jones Gateway to the Conservatory, the Walled Kitchen Garden and the Italian Garden.
The 65 acres have been well tended and loved for centuries, with their “combination of grand vistas, architectural delights, water features and wilderness areas”. During the 18th and 19th centuries, successive owners, most notably the Dukes of Devonshire, extended and changed the gardens. Among them was the celebrated beauty, Georgina Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (née Spencer, 1757-1806), an ancestor of Princess Diana. In 1929 the property was bought for the nation and became a public park to be enjoyed by all.
There is an excellent Café in the grounds, where, among more wholesome fare made from produce grown in the Kitchen Garden (soups, salads and sandwiches), ingenious cakes can be enjoyed with coffee or tea: courgette and lime, beetroot and chocolate, chocolate fudge, or wildflower honey and lavender cake.
The English culinary imagination knows no bounds these days, as this was not the first time I had encountered cakes and other confectionery with exotic ingredients gleaned from nature. During a previous trip to London I had savoured delicious “Hummingbird cake”, made with crushed pineapple, banana and pecan nuts, at the old Foyle’s bookshop café. Sadly, after extensive but necessary renovations, this cosy little café and their delectable cakes no longer exist. Today there is a large airy cafeteria with an impressive menu and space for many more customers. On a bus trip to Barnes I spotted Gail’s Bakery, a coffee shop displaying small honey cakes in the window, (one of which I enjoyed with a cappuccino), along with sea salt caramel, banana and pecan, berry and polenta, and pistachio lemon and rose cakes. No trip to London is complete without a little retail therapy in Oxford Street, especially Marks & Spencer and Selfridges – the latter with its artistic displays of wares.
I love strolling down this world-famous avenue, window shopping and enjoying the vibrant atmosphere.
This trip lacked one thing to make it perfect: a sojourn into the countryside. There was simply insufficient time. But the autumn weather was exceptionally lovely, and instead I took several extended walks across parts of the city back to my lodgings, taking photos and stopping to explore, or resting in a tranquil space such as Green Park. During these walks I passed some well-known favourites, such as Piccadilly Circus, Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace.
My walks also yielded surprises I might otherwise have missed had I used public transport. One such was the Westminster Cathedral, located at the back of a square on Francis Street.
The story of this impressive building as told in the brochure is fascinating:
The area of London where the Cathedral now stands was originally known as Bulinga Fen, and formed part of the marsh around Westminster. It was reclaimed by the Benedictine monks who were the builders and owners of Westminster Abbey. It was subsequently known as Tothill Fields, and used as a market and fairground. After the Reformation the land was used for the burial of plague victims, as a maze, as a pleasure garden, for military exercise, and for bear- and bull-baiting, but it remained largely as waste ground.
In the 17th century part of the land was sold by the Abbey for the construction of a prison, which was in turn demolished and replaced in 1834 by a larger prison complex. The site was acquired by the Catholic Church in 1884.
The current Cathedral, dedicated to the Most Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, was designed in the Early Christian Byzantine style by the Victorian architect John Francis Bentley. The foundation stone was laid in 1895, and the bulk of the building completed eight years later.
The magnificent interior contains fine marble-work, made from over 120 different varieties of marble, and mosaics, as well as the 14 Stations of the Cross, sculpted by Eric Gill.
I particularly loved the peacock mosaic; in Christian art the peacock is a symbol of immortality, the hundred eyes of its tail-fan symbolising the omniscient God to whom all desires are known, and from whom no secrets are hidden: One evening I attended a lecture at the Regents Park branch of The Arts Society (formerly NADFAS): Dr. Kathy McLauchlan talked about James Tissot and his Images of Women, an excellent presentation accompanied by a slide show.
To quote the blurb: This lecture considers the development of Tissot’s work and his importance as an artist who recorded the lifestyle of the people around him, especially women. Based in London from 1871, he depicted the lifestyle of his wealthy English subjects with the same lavish attention to costume and surroundings which had marked his Parisian work. Returning to France in 1882 his seriousness of purpose culminated in 15 works devoted to ‘La Femme à Paris’.
Dr. Kathy McLauchlan is a lecturer specialising in nineteenth century art. She organises courses and study days for the Victoria and Albert Museum. She is a graduate of Oxford University and the Courtauld Institute.
Covent Garden is always an enjoyable space to explore, both the open-air craft stalls and the covered boutiques. (Not to mention the sublime hot chocolate at Ladurée, to restore flagging blood sugar levels.) The area near St. Paul’s church is always abuzz with entertainers and eager tourist audiences.
As usual there was an opera singer entertaining the lunch-goers down in the central courtyard . This time it was French soprano Fabienne Borget singing such popular items such as Puccini’s O mio babbino caro, and a soprano version of Nessun dorma, accompanied by her own sound system. Her companion went around with a velvet cap, collecting contributions from the assembled onlookers gathered around the upper balcony. This after capturing their attention by asking from whence they came. I made him guess from my accent, and, as an ardent fan of Hermanus in the Western Cape, he identified my South African origins at once. Within the covered Central Avenue was a lovely “Frieze” (display) of mannequins, each decked out in luxurious floral finery. This spectacular arrangement of “floral couture” was a lavish week-long installation hosted by Fleurs de Villes. They work with celebrated local florists, designers, cultivators and nurseries to showcase a city’s world-class talent, and to create stunning displays of art in each city in which they pop-up around the world.
A dozen top local London florists, including Bloomsbury Flowers, Amie Bone and Wild Things were paired with the likes of Mariage Frères, Floral Street, Bentley, Taittinger, Olivia Burton, Kate Spade, Rituals, Jardin Blanc, Brides Magazine,and even Covent Garden’s very own installation designed by their Head Gardener.
The approach atrium of the opera house has recently undergone extensive redesign, the intention of which was to bring this exclusive and esoteric art closer to the people. And so the old ticket office, with its patronising sales staff, is now a vast coffee-shop and restaurant serving expensive fare and cakes, which I thought just as inaccessible as opera is to the uninitiated. The entire concept would have to be a lot more humble if the intention of accessibility is to succeed, with a more affordable menu and less fancy confectionery. But it is now possible to wander through these once hallowed, off-limits portals, and admire the imaginative art inside.
This autumn there were several interesting exhibitions taking place at the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square.
These included Mantenga & Bellini – A tale of two artists and brothers-in-law,…a story of art, family, rivalry, and personality. This small but beautifully curated exhibition in the Sainsbury Wing was predictably crowded, and again I found the excellent audio-guide well worth the cost of a couple of Pounds to help me focus on the paintings and their provenance.
Andrea Mantegna’s brilliant compositional innovation and Giovanni Bellini’s atmospheric, natural landscapes were ground-breaking – no one had seen anything like it before.
Following their respective careers in Padua and Venice, and Mantegna’s fame as court painter to the powerful Gonzaga family in nearby Mantua, ‘Mantegna and Bellini’ is the first-ever exhibition to explore the creative links between these artists.
It is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see in London rare loans of paintings and drawings from around the world by two of the most influential artists of the Renaissance.
The exhibition was organised by the National Gallery and the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, in collaboration with the British Museum.
The other exhibition was Thomas Cole: Eden to Empire – Watch empires rise and fall, and lose yourself in the vast American wilderness.
A self-taught artist from Bolton in England, Thomas Cole (1801–1848) was the greatest American landscape artist of his generation. This is a rare chance to see Cole’s epic works – mostly travelling from America – including his masterpiece the ‘Oxbow’, and his awe-inspiring portrayals of Eden showing the force of nature. Cole’s paintings are shown alongside the sublime masterpieces by Turner and Constable that inspired him.
I’m not sure I liked Cole’s vast intriguing canvases, but the subject was thought-provoking, and worthy of further research.
I briefly reacquainted myself with “old friends” on my way back to the Trafalgar Square exit, and savoured their timeless beauty.
Another equally provocative exhibition was taking place at the British Museum: Ian Hyslop’s Search for Dissent. The object of this exhibition was to explore not the “winners” and their successes in life, but the views and possessions of “the downtrodden, the forgotten, the protesters.” An assembly of about a hundred curious objects created by such “losers”, mostly handpicked from the Museum’s vast collections by Ian Hyslop, each expressing dissent, subversion or satire, were on display. It was up to the viewer to “see what tales these objects tell – sometimes deadly serious, often humorous, always with conviction. Unlock the messages and symbols these people used, and get closer to understanding them. These objects show that people have always challenged orthodox views to enable change. Ultimately, questioning authority, registering protest, and generally objecting, are an integral part of what makes us human.
And so I saw fashion and art items, useful objects, and examples of textiles from worldwide cultures, all used to communicate dissent, subversion or political allegiance: graffiti on a Babylonian brick, a banknote with hidden obscenities, satirical Turkish shadow puppets, a pink woolen Pussyhat with pointy ears worn on a Women’s March in January last year, a portrait of King Louis XVI on whose head a red revolutionary cap had been placed, an obscene ancient Egyptian image, and a late 18th-century coin defaced with an image of the pope being hanged, possibly demonstrating support for Napoleon. There was also a beautiful 14th-century Chinese painting, The Fascination of Nature, whose creator, Xie Chufang, was possibly commenting on the destruction of China’s culture by the Mongol invaders in his richly observed depiction of insects and amphibians preying on vegetation. There were a couple of excellent cartoons by James Gillray, including a monstrously surreal picture of a man’s huge feet lying on top of dainty female ones. The meaning of this 1790’s satire on the private life of the Duke of York may now be obscure, but its mad energy and monstrous imagination is still very much alive and kicking today, as are the writings of Jonathan Swift. (Jonathon Jones: The Guardian). I also attended a play with friends, The Humans by Stephen Karam, the winner of four 2016 Tony awards including Best Play and Best Featured Actor in a Play. The entire award-winning New York cast of this Broadway hit were performing at the Hampstead Theatre: Three generations of the Blake family have assembled for Thanksgiving in Brigid and Richard’s ramshackle pre-war apartment in Lower Manhattan. Whilst the event may have a slightly improvised air, the family is determined to make the best of its time together. As they attempt to focus on the traditional festivities, fears of the past and pressures of the future seep into the reunion and the precariousness of their position becomes increasingly evident. Stephen Karam’s blisteringly funny and deeply chilling drama is a stunning portrayal of the human condition; a family at its best and worst navigating the challenges of everyday life.
I found the plot rather boring. Why spend an evening observing a day in the life of an ordinary family, of whom not one member had anything novel or interesting to bring to the party, when one can do that at home (or better)? The acting was excellent, however, and I always love an evening of live theatre in London with my generous SA-British hosts.
This trip generated several observations:
There is an incredible number of eateries and coffee shops in London, many within one block. You will find a Starbucks next door to a Pret à manger, or a Pizza Express outlet near an Italian Rossopomodoro restaurant, all clearly thriving, full of jostling customers and doing a roaring trade – with a few exceptions. The crisp autumn air was rich with the sweet scent of vanilla, emanating from waffle stalls and confectioneries. Along with these sweet delights are also numerous new healthy food chains selling wraps, salads, soups, shakes and smoothies, all super-natural and fresh, bursting with goodness derived from hitherto unfamiliar ingredients – chia and flax seeds, sprouts, quinoa and goji berries.
I also noticed – really noticed – the picturesque pubs, this trip. One has always known of their existence, been amused by their quaint names, and taken for granted their presence in all English cities and towns. But this time I was particularly struck by their location, the old juxtaposed beside the new, their unique architecture and external decorations: the Victorian sign-boards and beautifully decorative or stained glass windows, the ornate wooden doors and surrounding carvings or escutcheons, and the hanging baskets of real flowers, especially geraniums and roses.
There are of course dozens of original little boutiques, selling anything from vintage (second-hand) clothing to artisanal chocolates, fancy hats, and bizarre shoes – all of which come and go – or endure, if they’re lucky.
London is a noisy place, as are all big cities. But this trip it was not so much the motor noise as the overhead din that seems to have increased. Sitting in a tranquil park away from road and rail, I was aware of the continual roar of traffic from above: a ceaseless stream of vacation, domestic and business travelers eagerly descending to or departing from this busy place. Money to be gained or money to be spent, how did this small island with its lack of space and inclement climate, abandoned by the Romans and invaded by Norsemen and Frenchmen centuries ago, become host to such vibrant human activity?
Today there are millions of people in London, all trying to further their education, seek their fortune, or eke out a living. Especially noticeable were small businesses based on “apps”. There are apps for absolutely everything, as advertised in tube stations and on billboards: from apps offering blow-drying, make-up and manicures at home, to dry-cleaning and laundry services, coach travel, and pick-up drop-off car-rental. Each entrepreneur’s app had better be absolutely brilliant and incomparable, if it is to succeed.
There are also many Arts Societies (formerly NADFAS) in and around London, all well attended, and with over 300 lecturers waiting to be invited to the various Societies in and around London, and all over the UK.
Sadly I was also told of the ugly consequences resulting from the Brexit issue: many British natives have become overtly racist towards foreigners, such as my Italian friend who moved here with her family 4 years ago for her husband’s work, who has lost several so-called friends, and whose son, tired of being treated as a second-class citizen, has returned to Rome. My hostess, with her SA accent, was also at the receiving end of some highly offensive verbal abuse, from a 9-year-old boy, on account of being a “foreigner”. She and her husband have been in the UK for over 14 years and are now British citizens, have contributed much to the British economy, and are well-educated. Theresa May must know about this, but I suppose can do nothing about it.
In London, as in any international megapolis, there is every race under the sun, each bringing with them their colourful culture, cuisine, religion and language: African, Asian, Slavic, Latin and Germanic, and English accents to confuse and amuse, with unusual syntax and distinctive pronunciation. This serves as a sound reminder that those from the different English-speaking countries may share the same language, albeit with interesting embellishments, but that’s where the similarity ends. The British English are remarkable, with a special brand of humour, imagination, resource and daring that is uniquely theirs, all reflected in the essence that is London, eliciting envy and emulation. Perhaps this is the secret of their success, and the magic that draws one back time and time again. One can simply never become tired of London, and therefore never “tired of life” (Samuel Johnson, 1777.)