It’s been forty-five years since I rode in a London taxi. Summer ’68 I worked in Hoxton, the East End, while boyfriend Dave counted checks for Barclays Bank. Fast forward to June 2012 and we’re leaving Paris’ Gare du Nord boarding the Chunnel train for London’s Paddington Station. Like many Americans, we have an overly romantic notion of England. True, my Irish relatives and the ones who fought in the American Revolution wouldn’t be amused. But how can you not like “Upstairs Downstairs” or “Midsomer Murders” or even the Queen with her wide-brimmed hats?
London seemed more crowded than we remembered as we taxi’d to a Club Quarters Hotel near Trafalgar Square, now a noisy courtyard for hanging out. With McDonald’s and Starbucks everywhere, London felt more like another Manhattan borough. We found dinner, beef and potatoes smothered in gravy, at the Sherlock Holmes public house near Jubilee Bridge, one of several river walkways that allow tourists and after-hour workers to enjoy the Thames embankments, theater, rental bikes, and sidewalk eateries.
We avoided “Tower of London Tourism.” Here’s an aesthetic contrast: one side of the Thames has the Tate Modern where Damien Hirst’s exhibition included live flies eating a dead cow, and on the other side at the National Portrait Gallery you can see Marcus Gheeraerts The Younger’s portrait of Elizabeth I (1592), decked out in brocade and a bejeweled wig–more to come on the Tate Galleries.
We ate at Garfunkel’s, a chain serving great fish and chips. Walking through the Portrait Gallery is like having a chat with British Kings and entertainers. The old portraits are stacked on paneled walls while the twentieth century imagery resides on glass panels. Charlotte Bronte and Richard Burton—they’re all present.
The Gallery was featuring the Queen, she’s the most portrayed person in British history. The show began with a photograph of Elizabeth in 1948 by Cecil Beaton who captured the then princess sitting on an overly large throne, suggesting she was not quite ready to fill destiny’s shoes. Annie Liebowitz’s 2007 sepia portrait places the Queen alone in a forest. She resembles a stalwart oak, the kind used to build the ships that once ruled the waves—maybe she is the only one of stature in her family?
Photographer Patrick Lichfield’s 1971 candid shot of a suntanned and laughing Liz on her yacht Britannia which has just crossed the Equator is unique. From fitted shirtwaists of the fifties to the sleeveless shifts of the sixties, the Queen has endured decades of fashion and political change.
She is satirized by a “Spitting Image” puppet and grimaces during a posing session with artist Lucian Freud whose thick impasto finishes at the size of a yellow legal pad. (“The Queen Art and Image” available on Amazon). We caught a late-Friday at the Portrait Gallery where the public was sipping wine as they passed portraits of Trollope and Constable. Others were catching a diva by a piano or attending a charcoal drawing session. This large scale festive atmosphere, not found in American museums, said “ let’s enjoy art!”
Next door, Britain’s National Gallery houses masterpieces in less crowded galleries than the Louvre. Often the public overlooks gems. Jan Van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Portrait” (1434), which depicts a wealthy merchant and his wife, employs optical tricks using light from a window that bounces off a concave mirror — no one was looking!
Hans Holbein The Younger’s “The Ambassadors” (1543) is an early full length double portrait demonstrating the artist’s foreshortening skills. This one had tourists gawking as the skull in the foreground needs to be viewed acutely in order to appreciate the image and its angling. We ate “Eton Mess” at the National Gallery restaurant—whipped cream and strawberries with bits of meringue.
Great! The London rain was lessening so we boarded a water taxi and headed down river for Greenwich, famous for setting everyone’s clock. Greenwich has the Old Royal Naval College, originally built as a hospital, mostly by Christopher Wren. The odd split in this neoclassical structure was to maintain Queen Mary II’s river view. Lord Nelson’s body lay in state here, awaiting his funeral up river at St. Paul’s. And his torn coat, evidence that he was mortally wounded, hangs at the lackluster Maritime Museum down the street.
We found much of Greenwich surrounded by chain link as bleachers were being erected and dirt raked for the equestrian portion of the Olympics. When in doubt have a cheeseburger, we ate at the Trafalgar Tavern which Charles Dickens frequented. The round trip river excursion, waterfront lunch and stroll on the most charming grounds in the United Kingdom and where “The Kings Speech,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” were filmed, is a great half day adventure.
Next day we tackled a day trip to Blenheim, home of the Dukes of Marlborough. The palace was built by Sarah Churchill with monies awarded to her husband John by Queen Anne — a thank you for all the battles he’d won. The ’70s mini series “The First Churchills” has been re-released, and watching it before visiting Blenheim helps to understand the family’s beginnings.
We left Paddington station the day Oxford University had invited prospective students, so we trained the hour ride sitting on the baggage shelf –government deregulation means no more red velvet railway compartments. Oxford resembles many college towns only with a hodge-podge of Gothic and Georgian architecture. We found the city bus to Blenheim, a Cotswold limestone palace now covered with a mustardy substance. The invitation to Princess Diana’s wedding and a few of Winston Churchill’s watercolors were in the parlor and could have been easily pilfered. In upstairs bedrooms hokey robots resembling former Churchills and even an animatronic prostitute recall the family’s history—note: robotic Churchills might be scary for children.
Portions of the house are decaying but visitors can dine beside sculpted hedges and spouting fountains overlooking acres of mowed lawns. Sir Joshua Reynolds’ family portrait of the 4th Duke, circa 1780, and John Singer Sargent’s 9th Duke and clan (1905) document the evolution of the family.
A visit to the two Tate Museums is an art adventure without leaving London. Henry Tate was a sugar refiner much like the Havermeyers who endowed the Metropolitan and the Spreckels who donated to San Francisco’s Legion of Honor. The Tate Britain houses the most comprehensive collection of Turner landscapes. Hold up on lunch as it’s more fun to get a water taxi and navigate to the Tate Modern, the former Bankside power station now twenty first century art space. Their rooftop café has one of the best panoramas in London–Parliament and Big Ben on one side and large cranes upscaling the East End. We drank a Tate special, iced tea with a splash of apple cider and honey, while watching the Goodyear blimp circle the tennis tournament at Wimbledon.
I returned to Hoxton Hall where I had worked forty-five years ago as a summer volunteer painting and sewing with neighborhood kids and pensioners. I also worked in their kitchen, mainstays were canned mackerel, cheddar cheese and powdered pudding. The East End that sustained heavy bombing is now a tony art community. Hoxton Hall has returned to its Vaudeville days as a theater. The adjacent building where I slept on an old World War II army cot is now an apartment house.
Nearby, famed Whitechapel Gallery, which introduced Pop Art to a post war commercial age, is a must-see. This hundred year old institution was showing Mel Brimfield’s piece “4’33” (prepared Pianolo for Roger Bannister).” This graffiti’d instrument pays homage to John Cage’s 1952 work, “4’33” (4 minutes 33 seconds of silence)”. Cage staged a piano recital and never played a note. Bannister was the first athlete to break the four minute mile and a possible contender to light the 2012 Olympic flame in late July.