A London Sunday

Sunday, January 24, 2016

I've got lots of things to say about being on the boat, full time, in January, when winter finally seems to have arrived in the UK (this after a Christmas when, apparently, afternoon walks were had in short sleeves).

This is what greeted me one morning last week.  Winter!

Yep, lots to report, but not today.  I'll just say this about boat life - now that I'm living on the boat full time, it's the first time since I arrived in London that I'm living alone.  In many ways this is lovely.  All the usual things apply - no one to leave dirty dishes in the sink, no one monopolising the washing machine, no one's incompatible taste in music filling my ears.  But the downside is that if there's no one else around it's very easy to turn into a complete hermit, especially when the days are short and the skies are grey and one's motivation to leave the tiny cozy cocoon that is the boat and make the lengthy trek from a far-flung mooring to somewhere more like civilisation ebbs away with every minute.  I even moored for ten days about 50 steps from a quite credible canal-side pub and I never darkened their door.  So after spending the better part of a week doing nothing but boat-related things, I decided last Sunday that I needed to force myself to get back out into the world.

Spoiled for choice, I eventually decided it was time to visit one of London's biggies - the Victoria and Albert Museum.  Billing itself as "the world’s leading museum of art and design", the V&A (as it is universally known) is a sort of cross between a museum and a gallery. Founded in 1851, it’s located in the charmingly named “Albertopolis” area of London more mundanely known as South Kensington.  The “Albertopolis” moniker comes from Prince Albert of course, and is an area jammed with the sort of cultural institutions that Albert was associated with.  The heavy hitters in the area are the V&A, Natural History Museum, Science Museum, Royal Albert Hall and the Albert Memorial, along with a laundry list of slightly more obscure but still impressive spots like Imperial College, the Royal College of Art, the Royal College of Music, and the Royal Geographical Society.  For a chilly Sunday afternoon it was perfect, especially because the South Kensington tube station decants directly into a tunnel that leads right into the lower level of the V&A.  Very friendly.

And as with any of these mega-attractions in London - especially ones with free admission - my strategy is usually to pick one or two rooms to concentrate on, rather than trying to cover the whole place.  After all, what's the point of going to the effort of living in the city if I can't treat its wold-class attractions as a sort of come-and-go tea of fabulousness?

Here’s the inner courtyard of the V&A, for a bit o’ the ambience.

I donated £1 for a map of the premises and scanned it quickly to decide on where I’d concentrate my efforts.  Well actually that’s a lie.  First I scanned it quickly to decide on how to get the the café, because the other thing that happens when you’re a boat hermit is the amount of time you spend sitting in nice cafés with free wifi drops dramatically.  So first things first, I hit the café and took advantage of the free wifi and had a nice cup of coffee.  Then I ventured forth and decided to concentrate first on the Japan Room.

As I said, the V&A is a museum of art and design, which means it hits a nice sweet spot for me.  It's got beautiful things to look at, but it's more than just a gallery.  It's got more than just paintings and sculpture - it also celebrates the design and manufacture of everyday items as art.  So for someone who might like to look at things that are both beautiful AND useful, and even learn a bit about how they're made in the bargain, it was perfect.

For example, these items in the Japan Room.  That jewellery box in the back is inlaid with little bits of mother-of-pearl in a way that makes it look like a city skyline at night.  And the one on the right is a traditional lacquer box but the modern maker has covered it with those flowing shapes made out of polished acrylic.  Love it.

I also took a turn through the Jewellery Room, which was small but utterly crammed with beautiful things and where I took the opportunity to pick my "Museum Game" piece.  Astute Go Stay Work Play readers who migrated here from Go See Run Eat Drink might recall that I like to make things interesting when visiting a gallery by imagining which single piece from the collection I'd take home with me.  Or as I so eloquently put it back in Paris in September of 2009:
I like to wander around and think about what piece I would take home with me if the management of the Musée were to approach and say something like, “Madame, you are clearly not an average tourist, as evidenced by the fact that you have lingered for more than 4.2 seconds in front of this painting. Thank you also for not simply approaching, reading the tag, taking a digital photo of yourself with the painting, and then moving on to repeat this process with each piece in the room. Please, it would give us great pleasure to present you with a small memento of your visit. Perhaps this Monet? Mais non, we insist.”
So I picked out a lovely diamond, sapphire and emerald bracelet from the 1920s collection which was hopelessly hard to photograph but trust me, it was nice.  And I waited around for someone to approach me to check how I'd like to have the piece wrapped and where I could pick it up as I was leaving, but they must have been on lunch (slackers), so I moved on through the section on decorative ironwork.  It was satisfyingly full of real practical things like gates and fences and benches, and also clarified for anyone who wanted to read, the difference between wrought iron and cast iron.  (Obviously, cast iron is, err, cast.  Wrought iron is heated and worked by hand with hammers and anvils and sweaty people slaving over hot forges.)

And that led past the gigantic and gorgeously restored Hereford Screen, and thence on to a few cases of utterly charming novelty biscuit tins.

Because it was Sunday, and chilly, much of the building was quite crowded.  So imagine my delight when, en route to the Theatre Room, I was directed through the almost completely empty, dim and quiet Room 94 - Tapestries.  It's dim in order to preserve the hangings, and it's empty and quiet because people are stupid and don't go there.  Their loss.

Most of the room was dominated by giant original medieval tapestries, but I liked this one best - "The Forest" designed by William Morris and Philip Webb and woven in 1887.

And then it was the Theatre Room, which I thought it would be nice to visit to make me feel a bit smug and superior (in fairness, never a stretch for me).  I was rewarded with some sketches ad renderings by designers whose names I recognised and with a lovely model of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, where I did a few days of work back in 2010, which made me feel very much like I was in a secret club.

The Drury Lane model, complete with tiny little men working on the fly floor.

By this time the museum was starting to close up and I'd spent much more time than anticipated.  I left feeling quite content with the world and not quite ready to return to my little floating tin can, so I decided to make a dash for Grosvenor Square to take in the last night of Lumiere London, the first ever outdoor festival of lights in the city.  There were displays all over the city, but I was intent on visiting the closest one, a Grosvenor Square.

Which involved a walk down Brompton Road, still all lit up for the season.  My route even led through Hyde Park which is still, gratifyingly, lit with gaslight.  Honestly, how great is this city?

Grosvenor Square is a lovely Georgian spot probably best known as the home to the architecturally jarring 1960s bunker that is the American embassy.  I imagine the Americans may have got a bit twitchy having a few thousand people parade around on what amounts to their front lawn, in the dark, but they managed to keep their gun emplacements suitably camouflaged.  There were four displays in the area, three of which were blogworthy.

"Brothers and Sisters"by Ron Haselden.
A collection of LED ropelight faces based on children's sketches

"Lightbench" byBernd Spiecker
A series of internally lit park benches that slowly changed colour.

And this - best of all!  "Aquarium" by Benedetto Bufalino and Benoit Deseille.  It's an actual red phone box full of real fish!  Fish in a phonebooth!  Fantastic.

And then, just because I could, I decided to walk a little bit further and make my way to Westminster Abbey for one last Lumiere display.  The facade of the abbey was turned into an amazing multi-coloured feast by a couple of high-power projectors.  The whole thing was done so skilfully it really looked like someone had got out their paint brushes and given the place a facelift.

"The Light of The Spirit" by Patrice Warrener

By this time it was respectably late and I was chilly and ready for my supper so I wandered over to Westminster tube station and home to the boat, feeling pleased to have reconnected with my city and also very very very pleased that the coal stove was still warm when I got there.

1 Comment:

Heather Moore said...

The lights on Westminster Abbey look amazing!

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