Thursday, June 9, 2016

London Part 2 -- Checking Out Some of the Museums

In our last blog we mostly stayed outdoors as we wandered about London.  In today's entry we'll go inside four museums, each with a very different focus.

We'll start with the National Gallery, one of two art museums (three if you count the Tate Britain and Tate Modern separately, now that they're in different buildings) that are world-renowned.

We started, as we often do in art museums with wide-ranging collections, with the earliest art that strongly appeals to us, that of the Golden Age of Dutch painting.  There was much to admire.  The museum, for example, owns 5% of the world's Vermeers -- or to put it more simply, 2 of the only 39 works firmly attributed to him.  Here's his Young Woman Standing at a Virginal, a type of harpsichord.  Vermeer always composes his paintings with care, while still making them seem as if they are fleeting moments in time the viewer has been privileged to catch.

Nearby is a painting similar in many ways, Pieter de Hooch's Interior, with Woman Drinking with Two Men, and a Maidservant.  What absolute mastery of both perspective and of light!

The museum strongly encourages artists to set up an easel and to paint away, and this fellow has obviously been at it a while in front of Peter Paul Rubens' An Autumn Landscape with View of Het Steen in the Early Morning.  Not quite sure why the contemporary artist is working in black and white -- perhaps it's to focus his attention on the structure without the distraction of color?  Het Steen, by the way, is Rubens' estate in what is today Belgium.

In the same room was Rubens' The Watering Place.  The English artist Thomas Gainsborough saw Rubens' painting 140 years later and did what the artist in the photo above did -  he painted his own version.  The National Gallery owns that one too, though they have placed it a few rooms away.  Here they are together so you can compare their separate styles.  It's quite obvious, however, that Gainsborough is not simply copying Rubens!

Gainsborough is one of Britain's first great landscape artists (his favorite topic, though he is equally famous for his portraits, which kept the bills paid).  But the titan of British landscape art is John Constable, and the National Gallery has his most famous single painting, The Hay Wain, and several others of note such as Stratford Mill.  The art lovers among our long-time readers might recall that we had the good fortune to visit the site where both these paintings were made during our first bike adventure in East Anglia in 2013, recounted here:

The museum had an entire room devoted to an artist we haven't paid much attention to previously, Canaletto.  To our surprise, he spent many years living in England, and during his time here he rendered this image of Eton College, which we will be visiting soon.  The commentary said that he captured the school chapel quite well, but that the rest of the painting employed, as they say, artistic license.  Of course he is most known for his paintings in his home town of Venice, and we loved the realism of the next canvas, Venice:  The Upper Reaches of the Grand Canal, including the dirt and grime on the buildings in this wet city.

We made our way past groups of kids working on projects for a school outing and past the building's own impressive architecture, and headed to the Impressionists.  It's a very good collection, but we'll let just a few Monets and Georges Seurat's Bathers at Asnieres give you a taste.  The painting of The Thames Below Westminster, by the way, was done while Claude Monet was staying far from Paris during the Franco-Prussian War.

We'll close out with two greats from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Van Gogh and Gustave Klimt.  The second Van Gogh from the right is Long Grass with Butterflies, painted while Van Gogh was in the asylum at St.-Remy, which we also show in full plus a close-up from the lower left, to show his brushstrokes.  The Klimt is A Portrait of Hermine Gallia, and Klimt himself designed the dress she wears.

The Geffrye Museum is very, very different.  It occupies a building put up as a Poor House for the elderly.  When they moved out it became a museum to cabinetry, since there were many woodworking shops in Hoxton, its working class section of London.  As the years went on, it morphed into a museum of lifestyles, organized around 11 period rooms from 1600 to the present, each one the room in which the family and its guests would spend the most time in.  Here's the building and some of the early ones, from the 1600s (humorously, on washing day), the early 1800s, and the late 1800s:

More familiar to us and no doubt our readers are the somewhat more recent ones:  early 20th century, 1930's, 1950s & '60s (note the tv supplanting the fireplace as the center of the focus), and contemporary (a warehouse in London made over into a loft apartment, with a stylish kitchen now flowing into the living space).  Note also the humor again, which we've focused in on with a close-up, showing the aftermath of a party the 3-hours-a-week housekeeper is supposed to clean up when she arrives.

It was a clever and well-done performance which many other museums have tried on a smaller scale, rarely as well.  It was supplemented by excellent commentary that reminded us of the hard work done formerly by servants and now by the inhabitants themselves or by part-time housekeepers.  They also had a small and focused collection of artifacts, such as this tea service imported from China, and of paintings showing us the living spaces being used (here in the 1600s, late 1800's and mid 20th century).  All in all an excellent adventure!

We paid a relatively brief visit to the enormous Victoria and Albert Museum, which is devoted to design.  At times it exhibited a Victorian obsessiveness with collecting, such as a room with every imaginable type of late 19th century ironwork.  There is this enormous room full of plaster casts of famous statures from all over the Continent.  It was actually the smaller things that impressed, such as this exquisite ivory carving from Japan that was bought for £ 300 in 1883 (several years wages for a working person at that time), or this hundred year old savings bank where not pounds but rather pence and the occasional shilling were once collected.

Although the focus was mainly on artifacts, the Victoria and Albert did have a small collection of paintings, with a few very special items:  a painting of Salisbury Cathedral by John Constable, and a full-size study, or rough draft, done by Constable as he prepared to create his masterpiece The Hay Wain, the original of which we showed you a few photos up the page!

Our fourth and final museum is actually an historic site known as the Churchill War Rooms.  It is the basement area of a building near 10 Downing Street where Churchill and his staff and generals met, particularly during the Blitz.  There is a special poignancy in being where so much history was made, so many important decisions that affected the lives of millions.  It was a powerful visit.

Among the larger rooms were the one where Churchill met with his cabinet, a separate one for meetings with his military chiefs, and then the map room, which was never empty for 7 years of the war, and where every convoy was tracked across the Atlantic, among other things.

Two small rooms were of special interest:  the room used by Churchill's wife Clementine, who was down there pretty much anytime Winston was, and a room disguised as a broom closet where Churchill could pick up a phone and get a direct line to Franklin Delano Roosevelt!

There were some surprises in the tour.  The space had been chosen because it was under one of the newest and most solid of the various government buildings in the area called Whitehall, but it was never designed to be bomb-proof and almost certainly wasn't.  It was reinforced in some areas and wooden bracing made it less likely to be a complete collapse had it been hit, but the Germans never knew about it, and no bombs ever came close.  It was also fitted up with living space for folks who needed to be constantly on duty or on call, so they went long periods without seeing daylight.  They actually had mandatory sessions each week with a sun lamp!  The weather was posted in several places throughout the day.  When the Germans were dropping bombs on London, the forecast was changed to "windy."

The area underground grew as the war went on, and became quite extensive.  One large section has now been made over into a museum about Churchill's life, quite well done.  The most visually interesting part was this painting of him as a young boy.  We will soon be cycling to the "house" where he was born, Blenheim Castle.  Can't wait to see it.

As with almost all museums, there was of course a gift shop near the exit.  We were particularly attracted to these reproductions of wartime posters, particularly the one in the upper left looking for folks to "Cycle for the King."  Well it's time for us to cycle, not for the king but for a deeper look at the UK.  After a week in London we begin our journey up the Thames to Oxford and a 3-day stay, then on over hill and dale to Cambridge.  We'll tell you more in our next blog entry.

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