Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Wrapping Up Our 2017 Travels in London

When we left the Netherlands at the end of August we stopped for 2 nights in London.  The owner of the Airbnb place we stayed at let us store the suitcases containing our tandem bike and some bike clothes for 19 days while we explored the north of England.  We returned to the same flat for 5 more nights before heading home to Seattle, and that stay is our topic for today's blog, our last for 2017.

Our first destination was the Tate Britain, one of the finest art museums in the UK and one we ran out of time to see a year earlier, when we spent a week in London.  The museum building dates to 1897, but the collection was part of the National Gallery (which has its own building in Trafalgar Square) until the mid-1950s, when the Tate became independent and turned its sole focus to British art.  In the 1980s and '90s it spun off two smaller museum branches, the Tate Liverpool and the Tate St. Ives.  In 1994 the Tate decided to move its post-1900 collection to a new museum to be built across the Thames, the "Tate Modern."  It took six years to convert the abandoned Bankside Power Station into that museum, and it is now a big tourist draw both for its dramatic renovation and for the collection itself.

But our own love in fine art is mainly pre-1900 art, and we certainly found a trove of it at the Tate Britain, in its fine old building.  The museum contains the largest collection on the planet of the work of J.M.W. Turner, so let us start by turning to a few of his paintings: The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, painted in 1817 right after the decline and fall of the Napoleonic Empire; and The Shipwreck, done in 1805 during the height of the Napoleonic Wars when naval events, including catastrophes such as this, were on the minds of all Britons.  While some art is or may seem timeless, the curation at the Tate Britain repeatedly reminded us that art is always created at a particular time, and subject to the fashions, feelings and concerns of that moment.

These two paintings capture well two things Turner is famed for -- his ability to depict light in a way that presaged the Impressionists who came along a few decades later, and his mastery of images of the sea.

In 1842, when Napoleon's body was brought from St. Helena to Paris for reburial, Turner executed two complementary paintings he entitled War and Peace.  The former depicts Napoleon in exile on St. Helena, the latter a burial at sea near Gibraltar for a painter friend of Turner's.  In his later years Turner became increasingly abstract.  It's hard to believe he painted these when Monet, often thought of as the first "modern" painter, was only 2 years old!

But the Tate Britain has works from much earlier, as well as later.  This portrait of Queen Elizabeth I was done in 1563, when she was still considering the possibility of marrying.  As the curator's notes pointed out, there is considerable symbolism relating to love and fruitfulness in the work, not merely a depiction of the young queen and her elegant dress.

Another early painting that drew our attention is the view of York in 1639, showing the walls we had walked around only two weeks earlier.  If we could find the spot today where the painter stood, then, there would be nothing but streets and buildings blocking the view.

One of the things we do in the winter in Seattle is to audit classes at the University of Washington.  One memorable English Literature class we both took a few years ago was about the very earliest English novels.  We read and came to admire Pamela by Samuel Richardson, written in 1740.  It is the first lengthy novel in the English language.  We were pleased to see both a portrait of Mr. Richardson and his family by Francis Hayman, and a collection of paintings depicting scenes from the novel by Joseph Highmore.  The novel is about a maidservant who repeatedly rebuffs the sexual advances of her widowed employer, and ends up reforming and marrying him.  The painting we've included depicts the scene where his haughty uncle mistakes Pamela for the daughter of an earl, and realizes his prejudices against Pamela have been foolish.  He blesses his nephew's marriage and the novel can now wrap up with a wedding, as so many later novels by Jane Austen, Anthony Trollope and numerous others have done as well.

Quite the fun work is this 1775 portrait by Joshua Reynolds of 3-year-old John Crewe as Henry VIII.  The curator's notes informed us that the influential art critic Horace Walpole praised it for the way in which Reynolds had reduced "the swaggering and colossal haughtiness" of the king to the "boyish jollity of Master Crewe."

No museum collection of British paintings could ignore John Constable, for he almost single-handedly raised landscape painting to prominence in British art.  On our first trip to England in 2013 we visited both East Bergholt, where he grew up, and Flatford Mill, where his father worked and where he painted some of his most famous works.  So these next two works, of those two respective locations, resonated strongly with us.  We can attest that the area does look much the same today, even though the mill is no longer operating and the canal boats are gone.

In mid-19th century a group of British painters came together and called themselves the "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood."  They believed painting had become too governed by classical poses and formulas, and sought to bring more complexity of composition, color and detail into British art.  One gallery in particular at the Tate Britain was stunning with its collection of some of their most famous work, such as Ophelia, depicting her floating down a river, singing, "her clothes spread wide/ And, mermaid-like, awhile they bore her up."  Soon after, Shakespeare tells us, though Ophelia seemed unaware of the danger, "her garments, heavy with their drink, / Pull'd the poor wretch from her melodious lay / To muddy death."  The flowers that painter John Everett Millais incorporated into this unusual painting were not randomly chosen, but rather were ones specifically mentioned in Shakespeare's plays, and selected for their symbolism, reflecting the interest of his Victorian public in "the language of flowers."

The Pre-Raphaelites later became increasingly drawn to medieval themes, and John William Waterhouse's Lady of Shalott, based on a Tennyson poem about a contemporary of the legendary King Arthur, is one of their best-known paintings in this vein.

Genre painting, or scenes of everyday life, is always interesting for the way it gives insight into the time period when it was painted.  Here are two examples, the mid-Victorian (1856) Broken Vows by Philip Hermogenes Calderon, and the late-Victorian (1891) The Doctor by Luke Fildes.  The latter was painted shortly after the painter's own son had died, but here the depiction instead is of that first glimmer of hope after a night of fretful watching.  The curator let us know that the painter created the scene in his studio, and he and his models got up before dawn for days in order for him to capture the light of breaking day.

We'll close our visit to the Tate Britain with two more works.  The Quay at Liverpool was painted in 1887 by Atkinson Grimshaw, a name we did not recognize, but we would love to see more of his works if they are of this quality.  And for an ironic close, there is Nocturne: Blue and Gold - Old Battersea Bridge by James Abbott McNeil Whistler, an American who spent the last half of his life in London, long enough it seems to qualify for admission into the collection of the Tate Britain.

The next day our focus was on the Tower of London.  It is a truly impressive fort, and the scene of an enormous amount of English history, but it is today a place being loved to death by hordes of tourists.  It's hard to feel the past in such a place.  That said, it was still worth the look about, even if it wasn't the blockbuster event the guidebooks and puff pieces in your Sunday newspaper Travel Section make it out to be.

The "Tower" is actually a group of buildings containing 22 towers in all.  At the heart is the White Tower, once whitewashed and the name stuck.  It is surrounded by other buildings, which are themselves surrounded by a moat.  The small footbridges in the model are modern -- the only entrances in olden times were by land across the well-protected drawbridge at the bottom left of the model, and by boat through the ominously-named "Traitors' Gate," bottom center in the model plus the following photo. This is where Anne Bolyn entered, among others.

Though it's hardly cozy, the Tower has been used as a royal lodging, mainly early on.  One area has been reconstructed as it might have appeared when King Edward I lived there in the late 1200s.  He even had his own private chapel right off the bedroom.  Why he needed a chapel so close nearby we will leave to others to puzzle out.

The Tower of course is famous for a number of folks who were imprisoned and/or executed there, such as Anne Bolyn, who was both.  A small exhibit gave one a taste of what it meant to be tortured there, by the manacles or by the rack.  Torture was never used as punishment, only to extract information, and only during the 16th and 17th centuries.  It's said that the rack did not have to be used very often, just shown to prisoners, to accomplish its task.  One person who was not intimidated was the Jesuit priest Henry Walpole, who left his name to posterity on the walls of his cell, one of many who did so.

By the 20th century the Tower was also pretty much out of the imprisonment and execution businesses, but two Nazis made it into the record books in 1941: a spy who was shot by firing squad, the last person to be put to death at the tower, and Rudof Hess, who was briefly held there after his capture.  He has the "honor" of being the last state prisoner in the Tower.

There are two collections many people flock to at the Tower of London, the Crown Jewels and the hall of armor.  The former is a photography-free zone, so you'll have to find photos elsewhere on the web or go there in person.  As for the latter, if you've seen one suit of armor you've come close to seeing them all, but we'll make an exception for an exceptional set, the armor made for King Henry VIII.  Check out the codpiece!

The Thames is a major attraction in London.  We admired the Tower Bridge from the Tower of London.  It was built in the late 1800s in Gothic style to look good in the company of the Tower of London.

To see much more, we took a boat from Westminster to Greenwich.  Westminster is of course where the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben are to be found.  A four-year renovation began just a month before we arrived, and Big Ben was silent.

Our boat took us under numerous bridges.  It's hard to imagine today, but from Roman times until 1729 there was only one bridge across the Thames in or anywhere near London.  As our boat passed under the most recent span entitled "London Bridge" we could see four more bridges immediately upstream.

The photogenic Tower Bridge of course needed its picture taken, both approaching it behind a sailing ship with its sails down, and again looking back from downstream. 

The building on the left in the photo above, and in the photo below that was taken a few minutes earlier when we were closer, is known as "The Shard."  It is the tallest building in the UK, at just over 1000 feet (300 m) to the highest piece of pointy glass.  As we moved further downstream we began to see many apartments in a combination of renovated warehouses and new construction.  Since some of the new buildings have been built to blend in, we were not always certain what was new and what was not.

Our destination was Greenwich, once the site of a royal residence and later famous for its royal observatory.  The Welcome Center had a small exhibition that included a wonderful carving of a thoroughly British chap with his pot of ale.  It's also where we started a walking tour of the former naval college.  The buildings were designed by Christopher Wren, and are now used by the University of Greenwich and by Trinity College of Music.  The Queen's House nearby has been converted into an art museum with work relating to Greenwich and the navy, and it contained two paintings of this area.  The first is by Canaletto looking the exact opposite way, toward us from the opposite bank across the Thames.  The second is by an artist whose name we forgot to capture.  Which is too bad, as it is such a marvelously atmospheric image.

Those buildings by Christopher Wren that later served as the Royal Naval College had actually been constructed as a home for disabled or aged sailors.  Yet another painting in the Queen's House captures them in 1835 celebrating the 30th anniversary of the great naval victory at Trafalgar, a battle many of the sailors in the painting had fought in.

Close by is the Royal Observatory, which was built in 1675 by Charles II specifically to help solve the riddle of longitude.  The Prime Meridian was designated as a line passing through the observatory.  One could see it for free from a few yards away, but to straddle the line where it is clearly marked on the pavement, well that required a fee.  So we watched instead as two of the paying customers, a mother and her child, had an inter-hemispheric discussion.

And then we climbed the hill.  It was a hefty haul up, but worth it for the view of the former naval college below us and the metropolis of London spread out far beyond.  The closest building, with colonnades to each side, is the Queen's House.  It was begun 400 years ago for Queen Anne of Denmark, wife of King James I, but worked stopped when she died before it was completed.  It was finished years later for Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of James' successor, Charles I.  It is actually a major landmark in British architecture, the first building done in Classical style, as popularized a few decades earlier in Italy by the architect Palladio.  As for being a queen's house, it was only used sporadically by Henrietta Maria over a period of seven years.  Then came the English Civil War.  The building was never used as a royal residence again.  Given the many other options they have -- Windsor, Buckingham Palace, Balmoral and more, that's probably not very surprising.

To return to our lodgings in the center of London we walked two miles to something called the Emirates Air Line Cable Car, which lifted us up high above the Thames to where we could catch the Underground back to our flat.  This time there was no effort on our part other than forking over a few pounds sterling.  It was well worth it.

And then it was all over but the trip home.  We had chosen to fly from Gatwick, which meant getting almost 3 miles from our flat to Victoria Station to catch the Gatwick Express that would take us to the airport.  We had tickets for a 9:15 train.  We did a dry run two days earlier from the flat to Victoria Station using the Underground, and found that it took almost an hour and required almost a mile of walking, getting on a subway train with luggage during rush hour, and taking six different elevators.  We considered a taxi, but worried we would miss our train and then our flight if the taxi were late picking us up, or got stuck struggling through London traffic. 

Since predictability was what each of those scenarios lacked, we ended up going with a highly predictable method: walking.  In 65 minutes we walked across downtown London, a third of the way either through or alongside parks.  Jeff pulled three suitcases and a duffel, plus the backpack on his back, while Louise had her own backpack and the bicycle rack trunk slung over her shoulder.  It proved remarkably easy, since the suitcases balanced so perfectly and rolled so easily that Jeff at times pulled them with a single finger.  It went so well that we even had time to stand in a queue for coffee at the train station.

We thank you for following our travels across Europe and England this past summer.  We look forward to entertaining you as we entertain ourselves with our next trip in the summer of 2018.  Nothing is yet decided other than that we're headed again to Europe.  Holland and Germany are fairly certain to be on the itinerary, and possibly a new destination, Denmark.  Check back next June to find out where in the world Jeff and Louise have gone off to!

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