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Monday, July 16, 2018

London Museums

About three months ago my wife and I spent a week in London, England. London was the last major European capital which I had not visited. Some people when they visit London go "bar-hopping" (or pub-hopping), which requires, of course, no great effort--the pubs are everywhere...everywhere! However, I have never been one to imbibe. Instead, in visiting, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, St. Petersburg, and other major art centers, I go museum hopping. Having taught about art for almost thirty years, I think I should check to see if I knew what I was talking about. Like Paris, London has so many art museums even in narrowing down the most important ones to five was quite a challenge for a six-day schedule. I shot lots of pictures just for the purpose of sharing them here, only to find that a number of videos which cover these revered art venues far better than my best efforts with my beloved pocket digital. I'm using both here, and in covering the art of a city like London, you can expect more in images than words. My choices began with the venerable British Museum in Bloomsbury area of London, followed by the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Britain (the original), and the Tate Modern a mile or two down the Thames. My museum hopping concluding with a look at the Crown Jewels Museum within the walls of the Tower of London (see map below).
The London museum trail. Our hotel is marked with an "H". I neglected to mark the Tower of London, but it sits at the far right overlooking the Thames.
The British Museum is the oldest existing museum in the world, dating from 1753, which makes it older than the Louvre. It's also where some of the oldest art in the world is displayed, dating back to prehistoric Egypt. In fact, the British Museum is second only to the Cairo Museum in the quantity and depth of its holdings. However, the star of their eight-million-piece collection is the Rosetta Stone, discovered in 1799 and dating from 196 BC. Under the same roof can be found the Elgin Marbles, a sculptural grouping which once crowned the tympanum of the Parthenon in Athens. (Greece just called. They want their rocks back.)

The Elgin Marbles, kidnapped in 1801 by Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin.
In the middle of the British Museum is the modern-day (2001) Great Court, the central focus of the museum, which encompasses the space once occupied by the British Library. Today, only the circular reading room of the library is preserved (below). This domed area covers about two acres of cafes, souvenir shops, monumental sculpture, and classical, facades. It serves as a hub for accessing the various historic periods. Admission to the museum is free but everywhere can be found receptacles for a donation (usually five pounds).

The British Library Reading Room was "home" to such important literary figures as Sun Yat-sen, Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Mahatma Gandhi, Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Vladimir Lenin, Virginia Woolf, Arthur Rimbaud, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, H. G. Wells, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

The National Portrait Gallery is directly south of the British Museum bordering the theater district. Theoretically, it displays works (mostly portraits) from the 18th to early 20th-century, though the British frequently find it convenient to blur such lines. It's here you would find works by Canaletto (mostly his London cityscapes), Goya, Turner, Constable, Ingres, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, Van Gogh, and other pioneers in painted art. Located on famed Trafalgar Square, in the shadow of a giant column topped by the larger-than-life statue of Admiral Horatio Nelson, it's one of the most congested areas of London.

Copyright, 2018, Jim Lane
Trafalgar Square on a rainy afternoon. The dome of the National Gallery can be seen at far left.
The National Gallery, founded in 1824, houses a collection of over 2,300 paintings dating from the mid-13th-Century to 1900 (give or take a few years). Like the British Museum, admission is free. The National Portrait Gallery, right next door is free too, unlike such Museums in other European cities. It differs too from comparable museums in continental Europe, in that the National Gallery was not formed by nationalizing an existing royal collection. It came into being around 1824 when the British government bought 38 paintings from the heirs of John Julius Angerstein, an insurance broker and patron of the arts.

Regatta on the Grand Canal, 1740, Canaletto.
The Gallery was shaped mainly by its early directors, notably Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, and by private donations, which comprise two-thirds of the collection. As a result, the collection is small in size, compared with many European national galleries, but encyclopedic in scope. Most major developments in Western painting from Giotto to Cézanne are represented by important works. The gallery at one time claimed that it was one of the few national galleries having all its works on permanent exhibition. Today, this is no longer the case.

Copyright, 2018, Jim Lane
Eve, 1900, Thomas Brock
The Tate Museum is located a little ways south of Westminster Cathedral, overlooking the Thames between the Lambeth and Vauxhall bridges. The museum is also admission-free and boasts the works of British painters such as Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Sir John Everett Millais, Andre Breton, Richard Anuszkiewicz, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Roy Lichtenstein, Pablo Picasso, Francis Bacon, J.M.W. Turner, and the photographer, Nan Goldin. The Tate Gallery is one of the largest museums in the U.K and part of the Tate network of galleries which includes the Tate Modern, the Tate Liverpool, and the Tate St Ives. It is the oldest gallery in the network, yet the youngest of the five major London galleries, having opened in 1897. It houses a sub-stantial collection of the art of the United Kingdom since Tudor times, and in part-icular has large holdings of the works of J.M.W. Turner, who bequeathed all his own collection to the nation.

The Tate Modern, just down the river and on the opposite side, (and directly across from St. Paul's Cathedral) is about as opposite as its parental counterpart as one could imagine. It is housed in a former power station, in the Bankside area of the London Borough of Southwark. The Tate Modern holds the national collection of British art from (approximately) 1900 to the present day along side international modern and contemporary art. I found it quite comparable to the Pompidou Center in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York (except for the fact that, once again, admission is free).

Copyright, 2018, Jim Lane
The Tate Modern is said to be the largest all brick structure in the world.
As with the other museums of modern art mentioned above, the visitor must come to the Tate Modern with an open mind. And even at that, there will be many works you don't like...or even detest. Valiant creativity and experimentation abound, but then too, so does conceptual art. Here the modern and the post-modern have drawn up a fragile ceasefire. Here you'll find work by John William Waterhouse, David Hockney, John Singer Sargent, Salvador Dalí, and Henri Matisse, next to Tracey Emin's unmade bed. As for myself, I visited as much to see the building as its contents. Ever since Wright's New York Guggenheim, most such new museums fall into that category, often overwhelming visually the art within. But, what the hell, it's free.

Copyright, 2018, Jim Lane
At the Tate Modern, one can literally descend into a Modern Art abstraction.
The Bankside Power Station, was originally designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, and built in two stages between 1947 and 1963. The power station closed in 1981. The brick-clad structure was roughly divided into three main areas each running east-west--the huge main Turbine Hall in the center, with the boiler house to the north and the switch house to the south. For many years after closure Bankside Power Station risked being demolished by developers. However, a grassroots campaign to save the building came up with suggestions for possible new uses. In April 1994 the Tate Gallery announced that Bankside would be the home for the new Tate Modern. In July of the same year, an international competition was launched to select an architect for the new gallery. Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron of Herzog & de Meuron won the competition. The £134-million conversion to the Tate Modern started in June 1995 and was completed in January 2000. The Tate Modern attracted more visitors than originally expected so in 2004, plans were drawn up to expand the museum. These plans focused on the southwest of the building in order to provide 5,000m2 of new display space, nearly doubled the original amount.

In visiting London, if one gets "burned-out" tromping through endless art museums (each of which deserve a full day of art appreciation), there's one museum unlike any other in the world--the Imperial Crown Jewels Museum located behind the ancient, historic walls of the Tower of London. The infamous tower is among the oldest buildings in London, dating back to the 11th-Century. It is located on the north banks of the Thames roughly across the river from the Tate Modern. Just over its stone ramparts can be seen the iconic Tower Bridge (below).

The monarch and her exquisite headgear. The coronation crown weighs some two-and-a-half pounds.
In visiting the site, I was torn between touring the original White Tower, absorbing all its tragic history of British political and religious intrigue, and ogling the crown jewels. This museum, by the way, is NOT free. (Guarding the royal trinkets costs a lot of pounds.) The tower's endless stairways to the top quickly led us to bail. The crown jewels are all on one dimly lit level, the displays sparkling with theatrical lighting and centuries of extravagant luster. Pity the queen having to decide which diamond-encrusted, solid-gold, endlessly-polished crown to wear. Actually, only one (pictured above) is worn regularly, and then only once or twice a year.

I had long wanted to visit London, its museums, and historic venues. My patient, loving wife...not so much. As I wore myself out ingesting all the museum art I could see, she remained at the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge Hotel during the day, relaxing, looking forward to a night on the town, including dinner at a British pub or fine dining at a posh restaurant capped off with a West-End musical--School of Rock, Kinky Boots, and her favorite, Momma Mia. Getting around London is easy if you don't mind the cab fare. Forget about renting a car. London streets are a horrendous maze of narrow, confusing, driving-on-the-"wrong"-side-of-the-street madness. By the same token, the London Underground is world renown, but the map looks like a diagram for my desktop's motherboard.

Copyright, 2018, Jim Lane
This gallery in the Tate gives some idea as to
what it was like to go "gallery hopping" in the
past--floor to ceiling, wall-to-wall art.

Master Crewe as Henry VIII,
1775, Sir Joshua Reynolds. Can
you imagine a parent doing this


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