Thursday, January 19, 2006

National treasures

I had a Board meeting down in London on Wednesday and found myself with some spare time before the meeting. This wasn’t bad planning on my part- if I arrived at Wakefield station any later than 8am then the car park there is full and alternative parking elsewhere is more risky as well as requiring a pocket full of coins. As it was, there were only a handful of spaces left when I arrived well in time for the first cheap(er) train.

The meeting was at somewhere called the Royal Academy of Engineering, which is off Milbank down in the “Parliamentary Village”, i.e. within Division Bell walking distance from the Houses of parliament.

Fancying a pleasant stroll, I de-tubed at Covent Garden, intending to wander down to Trafalgar Square and down Whitehall.

To me, Covent Garden is very much Theatre Land, with the Opera House and my two favourite theatres, Drury Lane and the much less well known (and lamented) Strand Electric demonstration Theatre at 29 King Street. I can recall visiting Covent Garden in the late 60’s when it was still very much a working wholesale fruit & veg market, an interesting juxtaposition of ballerina and barrow boy. Covent Garden tube was a bit of an oddity then because instead of strip lighting and shiny escalators, it had a pair of very large lifts with picket gates (running up and down a vast caisson-like tube) and the platform was still lit by tungsten light fittings with rather quaint opal glass shades. The platforms are much the same as other lines now but the lifts remain, although there are now four of them and they have automatic doors as it is now a much more popular destination.

What caught me by surprise when I got to the surface was the weather- it was precipitating it down. However, I braved the elements as the route was somewhat more interesting overground than underground. The area was visually totally devoid of buskers and street entertainers, although the people paid to stand holding placards advertising where to get Doc Martin Boots were in-situ, if somewhat bedraggled.

On the walk there, I decided to spend some time in the National Gallery (after an unintended quick trip round the National Portrait Gallery- I though they were interconnected but if they are it isn’t obvious). I haven’t been in since the Sainsbury Wing opened and I had recollections of the new wing being elegantly restrained, the main building being rather brash by comparison. The reality is somewhere in-between, the main building has a patterned/embossed paper that if flocked would look at home in an Indian restaurant. The same theme recurs in maroon, orange, pink, green and blue as well as grey and it is in keeping with the style of municipal art galleries although the lighting is generally much more sophisticated. By contrast, now that it is no longer spanking, the Sainsbury Wing galleries look positively dull in their mid grey with grey skirting, dado and cornices, although it makes the particularly vivid works of art stand out as vibrant.

I whizzed round most of the galleries, taking stock of what I recognised and what looked particularly interesting. Even without a catalogue, the display signage is informative although you do have to get up to the velvet ropes to read them.

I particularly enjoyed appraising 'The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up, 1838' by Turner which was voted the greatest painting in Britain on Radio 4 recently.

The gallery of Venetian scenes were interesting and there were even some peep shows, although not of the Soho kind! Reviewing their website, I totally missed Constable’s Haywain in my somewhat rapid perambulation and lost interest in the vast number of religious icons somewhat rapidly.

I would have liked to have lingered in the Tom Hunter temporary exhibition which had some very intriguing huge photos of the seedier side of life with small juxtrapositions of renaissance paintings that inspired the style of them. The themes were based on goings-on in Hackney and certainly weren’t suitable for the numerous parties of school children being shown around. It was interesting to linger for a moment, listen to the spiel and see whether the guides were catching the imagination of the kids- some were, some were not…

Leaving the National gallery, I walked past Canada House which has the famous empty plinth opposite that is currently used for temporary sculpture. At the moment has the controversial larger than life figure of someone very disabled and also very pregnant. I do recall reading about it but ddn’t remember her name or who she was. It was covered in pigeons and it occurred to me that whilst there was not a bird in the hand (there being no arms) there were certainly two in the bush!

Moving on down Whitehall, I noticed a new edition to the statuary- a tall black plinth capped with a low pyramid and bedecked with what looked like coats. From a distance it made me think of Luke Skywalker as Jabba the Hut’s wall sculpture but up closer they were recognisable as long coats, dungarees, hats, gas masks and the like, arranged in an imaginary cloakroom. This is the new celebration of Women in World War II sculpture and I thought it was fine from a brief look but felt too damp to cross the road and see it from the other side.

When I reached Parliament Square, I had a quick look round the Parliamentary Bookshop and bought a booklet about Big Ben for David. (Had I noticed it in the Westminster Hall bookshop in the Summer I would have bought it then).

I did pause to read some of the displays of Brian Haw, the long-term peace protester opposite parliament. I was curious to talk to him about how he copes but he seemed to be ernestly engaged in conversation with someone else. One of my questions was answered when a motor bike pulled up and chucked him what looked like a packed lunch. I'm not actually certain whether it was Brian, or a stand-in. Many of his displays were not terribly coherent and were worse the wear from the elements and it is actually quite difficult to negotiate your way across to his side of the square. By the way, his website has a Streetmap link of where to find him, but the arrow is actually pointing at the Red Lion/Scotland Yard.

On reaching the Royal academy of Engineering, the meeting was in a fairly plain modern room although it was livened up by two large photos. Not being the National gallery, they weren’t labelled but told their own story. The first appeared to be the top table at a meeting and whilst I didn’t recognise the speaker, it might possibly have been the Duke of Kent there. The other photo was much more familiar- I immediately recognised Isambard Kingdom Brunel complete with trademark Stovepipe Hat and Cigar. The background was a wall of massive iron chain links but I don’t recall if they were for a ship or a suspension bridge (I've now checked- the former). I did read that this photo has been the victim of political correctness in school text books- it is now sans cigar as it would obviously corrupt young minds if they were to find out that smoking used to be socially acceptable.

It seems the original is in the National portrait gallery but I hadbn't seen a great deal in there for my brief visit. There is a good excuse to look more closely next time.

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