21 March 2011

Sisters on the loose (day 7)

I'll be relying on the internet for all of today's photos. Cheri and I really got around, but we had to leave camera and cellphones at home because of our first destination.

Stop #1. The Old Bailey, or Central Criminal Court

For an excellent (and short) run-through of Old Bailey history, written for the 100th anniversary of the present building, see http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2007/feb/27/ukcrime.topstories3. Includes details like jurors in 1910 peering at a soup-plate filled with bits of skin from Dr Crippen's wife and the plaintive inscription on the prisoner's side of one of the courtroom doors: "A boy's best friend is his mother."

The Old Bailey is named after the street it was built on, running along the original fortified wall, or bailey, of the City (with a capital "C," in other words what is also known as the Square Mile, the financial heart of London, as opposed to Westminster, the political center). Once upon a Dickensian (and medieval) time, the court was right next to the infamous Newgate Prison, so Cheri and I were hunting for a public entryway to the court right where crowds once gathered to watch the hangman in action. Charles Darnay is put on trial at the Old Bailey in A Tale of Two Cities; Oliver Twist's Fagin is hanged at Newgate.

I suppose we could be considered bloodthirsty, too, because we were keen to sit in on a murder trial, not a case of corporate venality. And we got lucky. Once we found the rather obscure entrance and went through security, we kept climbing stairs past gangs of other rubberneckers waiting to get into courts on the lower floors. Persevering, we reached the top floor where no one was waiting and figured we'd be watching the trial of some bookkeeper who had creamed off a share of the profits for him- or herself.

Not at all. A female defense barrister was rebutting the prosecution's case against her client, a window cleaner and drug addict, who was accused of brutally stabbing an 88-year-old widow. He sat impassively on the back bench, surrounded by guards. While it seemed to us that on the whole his attorney was doing a convincing job, the one thing she really couldn't explain away was the fact that a jacket was discovered at his house with prescription drugs in the victim's name. It's possible that, as was claimed, he did meet another lowlife (okay, I'm guilty as charged: the more I read about this guy later, the less I was inclined to think he was innocent) in a train station who handed these on, but given that he knew Mrs Barrett and she was worried that he had already been stealing money from her . . . hmmm. No clothes were found with blood spatters: point in his favor. He sold her jewellery for £40 (not brought up while we were watching): not good for the defense.

You can make up your own mind, for what little our opinions are worth:



One of the most entertaining aspects of sitting in a British court, for Americans anyway, is seeing the wigs worn by the judge and lawyers. Despite the court recorder typing away on a laptop rather than writing rapidly with a quill pen, this one anachronism just doesn't die. The black silk robes I get: distinguished, authoritative. The wigs — again, you can make up your own mind:

After our courtroom experience (and having both enjoyed an episode of the new legal TV show, "Silk") , I wanted to show Cheri an Inn of Court. We didn't pass the famous ones, Lincoln's, Gray's, Inner and Middle Temple, but we were able to nip into the courtyard behind Staple Inn, the last building remaining of the now defunct minor Inns of Chancery. It survived both the Great Fire of London and damage from Luftwaffe bombs. Here are photos of the Inn itself and one of the legal chambers in the courtyard.

Stop #2. Sir John Soane's Museum (http://www.soane.org/)

Back when Iain was at Camberwell, he had visited this astounding repository for a lifetime's collecting and said that Michael and I had to see it for ourselves. Well, at last one of us made good on what always was our intention. We're fairly diligent about getting to temporary exhibitions, but when it comes to exploring what is always on our doorstep . . . the Indonesian word "besok," an extended form of "mañana," comes right to mind.

The son of a bricklayer, Soane rose to become a celebrated and wealthy architect. He knocked together two elegant Georgian townhouses (and later a third) to create the home he shared with his wife and two sons that is now the museum. We admired some charming family portraits but, as so often, there's a darker tale behind the bright paint.

It didn't occur to me to wonder why Soane had left his home and its contents to the state rather than to his family. According to a BBC webpage, both boys were disappointments to their parents, marrying "unsuitable women" and declining to become architects. John Junior died young, but George aged, it seems to me, into a living version of the first few pictures in Hogarth's "The Rake's Progress" (original oils in Soane's collection). He was even in debtors' prison for a while. The worst blow, though, was when he denounced his father in print as "a cheat, a charlatan and a copyist." His mother is said to have died of a broken heart in 1815 when she realized her son was the author of this calumny. Soane made sure his son inherited nothing on his death in 1837 by leaving his estate to the country via an Act of Parliament (he had influential friends) rather than a contestable will.

Back to the museum. Soane clearly believed that nature abhors a vacuum. When he went on the Grand Tour as a young man, it was as a companion to richer young men; he didn't have the means to bring back any goodies himself. With fame and fortune, he clearly made up for that early lost opportunity. These are just two of many fabulously crowded vistas.
A teacher as well as a practitioner, Soane invited aspiring architects to study and copy the antiquities he had zealously assembled. In the 1820s he then hired some of these students to produce watercolors of the interiors — hence the accuracy of the room reconstructions below. Like Gaudi and Wright (needless to say, all with hugely divergent results), he had a hand in everything: the drapes, the paint colors, the wainscoting, the carpets.

An elegant touch: a dried thistle was placed on every chair as a gentle reminder that you shouldn't sit down. So much less intrusive than a sign.

These rooms, and the house as a whole, are lovely, but when Cheri noticed among the architectural drawings Soane's entry in the design competition for Westminster Palace (Houses of Parliament), we both agreed that we were glad he hadn't won. I can't find an image online, so can only say that his submission had none of the Gothic exuberance of Sir Charles Barry's winning design.

The address of Sir John Soane's Museum is 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields. If we hadn't been running late for our final goal, we could have investigated one of the grand Inns of Court. We did get to see the Fields themselves, the largest public square in London (original landscape design by Inigo Jones), but sights like these had to be saved for next time:

Library and "benchers' rooms"
(benchers are "Masters of the Bench," senior members of an Inn of Court)

Stop #3. Tate Britain

A hasty snack in the cafeteria, fuel for rushing around two excellent concurrent exhibitions before closing time.

The exhibition modestly titled "Watercolour" is, according to the website, "the most ambitious [on this medium] . . . ever to be staged," a "boundary-breaking survey." I'm not sure about the hyperbole, but we certainly enjoyed it. Diversity abounded, with Elizabethan miniatures, illuminated manuscripts, maps, botanical & geological drawings, landscapes, portraits, abstracts, pigments in mussel shells, oysters as palettes, paintboxes, brushes. The definition of watercolour was broadened to encompass ink, gouache and acrylic. There were the usual suspects, including William Blake, Samuel Palmer, JMW Turner, JS Cotman, Paul Nash, John Piper and, with boring inevitability these days, Tracey Emin. Some of our favorite paintings, however, were by artists we had never heard of.

I'm going to try to find as many of the paintings we liked as possible online and paste them below. In no particular order:

Joseph Mallord William Turner, The Blue Rigi, c.1841-2
John Dunstall, A Pollard Oak near West Hampnett Place, Chichester, c.1660
Paul Nash, Wire, 1918-19
Francis Towne, The Source of the Arveyron, 1781
Edward Burra, Valley and River, Northumberland, 1972
Rachel Pedder-Smith, Bean Painting: Specimens from the Leguminosae family, 2004

Samuel Palmer, A Hilly Scene, c.1828

Thomas Girtin, Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland, 1797-9
Lion-haired macaque, 1820s. John Reeves collection, Natural History Museum

Edward Burra, Mexican Church, 1938
This 1983 Patrick Heron I've included for its intensity of color.
Arthur Melville, The Blue Night, Venice, 1897
(probably my absolute favorite)
John Piper, Glaciated Rocks, Nant Ffrancon, 1944

Queen Victoria's watercolor kit

Last item in show
I'm not quite sure what to make of this. Paint on cellophane, it is somehow delicate and rather haunting. The reproduction may be more interesting than the reality.
Karla Black, Opportunities for Girls, 2006

Proving ourselves once again, as Cheri puts it, clueless, we wasted several minutes trying to follow directions to the Susan Hiller exhibition. The clock was ticking toward closing and we had no intention of being the last ones out as we were at Hampton Court, so once we got there even my dedicated sister was forced to take a pass on reading some of the explanatory notes. Our poor fellow American is going to get short shrift here, too, because I'm running out of time before dinner, my self-imposed blog-writing deadline for day 7. This really isn't fair, because even though I thought the first vintage picture postcard section of the show was too scrapbook-like (its title,however "Dedicated to the Unknown Artists," gives one pause for thought), the rest was really very compelling.

Hiller has a PhD in anthropology, and her painstakingly rigorous, academic approach to her subjects seems to reflect this background. She is a collector, of ideas as well as objects, and I've found her boxes at Tate Modern can be studied time and time again. For an overview of this retrospective, see http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2011/feb/06/susan-hiller-tate-britain-review.

Just as Cheri and I knew Michael would have enjoyed the tumbled rocks that appeared in so many of the watercolours, we would have liked Hans-Jörg with us in the Witness installation: first displayed in 2000, this is a space bathed in blue light, filled with speakers suspended from slender wires, all transmitting accounts of UFO experiences.

I couldn't find an image of one piece that really struck our fancy: Work in Progress, which is an unpicked canvas, threads hanging loose. Like so much in the show, this was surprisingly resonant. Below are two results of a quick scouring of Google images:

From the Freud Museum, 1991-6

Monument, 1980-1
The installation above consists of enlarged photographs of tiles from the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice in Postman's Park; on the bench are headphones through which someone with more time than we had could listen to Hiller "[speak] movingly of how these terse inscriptions can be experienced as channels through which the dead live on in our imaginations. Here, for the first time, Hiller states the great theme that underlies all her mature work: the deep human need to be held in the memories of others." Source of quotation here.

Cheri had never visited Postman's Park, but I assured her that it was worth getting to EC4 the next time H-J and she find themselves in London. Here is the original monument and three plaques. The modern one was the first tile to be added in over 70 years. Sentimentally Victorian/Edwardian? Definitely. Memorable? No question.

Too late for the final departure of the Tate-to-Tate boat, we walked back to the South Bank via Westminster Bridge, confirming again how much we like Barry's Houses of Parliament, even though my far more critical son thinks they're an eyesore. Or thought. He was at art college when he said over ten years ago that they should be torn down.

Cheri, here's the statue we were trying to make out in the evening shadows. It's of Richard Lionheart and, whether one considers him a good or bad king, the key feature for the British public is the sword he's holding. The statue was lifted from its pedestal during Luftwaffe bombing and the sword bent. The bend wasn't corrected, but instead became a symbol of defiance in the face of adversity.


Our final dinner together was an Indian takeaway, delivered to our door, from the Mango Tree near Borough Market, always a reliable supplier of delectable dinners. Lamb, chicken, and shrimp curries, every sauce distinctly and deliciously different; poppadoms; garlic naan; lemon rice; raitha; an assortment of chutneys. A very British end to a very British day.

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