Tuesday, June 15, 2010

On the road (Europe 2010): London

Spent a hectic day in London today visiting museums. One day is hardly enough to see even one of London's great museums but I have been to the British Museum and the National Gallery before and mostly knew what I wanted to see.

Saw the British Museum in the morning, looking mostly at the low reliefs of King Ashurbanipal's lion hunt, from Ninevah. I'm not sure exactly why I like these so much. The carving is fabulous and it's hard not to feel for the poor lions. I suppose that's enough. I find the arrow-pierced lioness dragging her paralyzed rear legs particularly beautiful. I was very pleased to be able to see her again--still in her death agony.

By chance, there was a traveling exhibit of Ife sculptures on view. These are another great favorite of mine, but I'd seen them only in photographs until today. The bronze heads are wonderfully life-like yet abstract at the same time because of the use of striations on the faces and because of the series of holes in nearly all of them. The holes are usually at the hairline or around the mouth or both. It's not clear exactly what they were used for, apparently, but the most logical explanation seems to be that textiles of some sort were once attached at these points. The diversion to London was worth it just to have been able to see the Ife heads for the first time.

At the National Gallery, I got to see a few more old favorites--notably Holbein's "The Ambassadors," his portrait of Christina of Denmark, Jan van Eyck's "Arnolfini Portrait," "The Rokeby Venus," and others. The National Gallery allows no photography at all, anywhere--which is annoying. At the very least I like to take shots of the information tags of unfamiliar paintings by unfamiliar artists. It makes it so much easier to remember things. I guess they do it to promote sales of post cards and catalogs--so I didn't buy either.

Later in the day, it was the Natural History Museum. I had never seen this one before--or had I? When I lived briefly in England as a child, my parents may have taken me and my brother here (I’ll have to check with my mother on that one--Mom?). Since childhood I have had a vivid image in my head of a great hall of fabulous rock and mineral specimens in cabinets very much like the second-floor hall of specimens here.

I had always thought it was the Smithsonian, which we also visited as children, or the American Museum of Natural History, in New York. When I last visited the American Museum, however, I found nothing there that matched my mental image the way the rock and mineral hall here did. The moment I walked into the room, I felt like I was in a place I had been before. I haven’t been back to the Smithsonian since my childhood visit. The space I remember may well be the one in Washington, but there was something deeply familiar about this place. Memory is a funny thing. In any case, I enjoyed seeing the specimens of many colors and textures all labeled and ordered according to their chemical compositions.

On the first floor are many excellent fossils, including some of those collected at Lyme Regis and Charmouth by Mary Anning. There is a collection of bird specimens and skeletons of extinct species including a giant sloth and a dodo. There is a whole preserved coelacanth specimen and a fossilized one to compare it with--and much, much more.

The building is as interesting as the collections it houses. It's covered inside and out with low reliefs and full sculptures of all kinds of animals, living and extinct. Almost every surface is covered with sculpture or abstract decoration. According to the information desk, the building was built over seven years and opened in 1881. It's a metal structure, but the metal supporting framework is visible only under the stairways and in some of the exposed arches in the main hall. Otherwise, the metal is entirely clad in the terra cotta of the decorations. The firm that did the original work is still in operation and is occasionally called upon to reproduce a damaged tile or sculpture. In the main hall near the entrance there is a series of terra cotta monkeys at intervals from waist height up to the ceiling clinging to a strip of vertical molding made to resemble a plant. Apparently schoolchildren are tempted to try to climb this by grabbing on to the first of the monkeys and a head gets lost. My photo doesn’t do the place justice.

If all that weren’t enough, we also spent about an hour walking around the Food Halls at Harrod’s--an attraction in itself. These rooms, too, are wonderfully decorated in tiles themed appropriately to the different departments--one for fish and seafood, one for meats, one for candies and confections, among others. They all have counters and bars to eat at, most with beautiful brass and marble stools. I was sorely tempted by the Champagne and caviar. Other parts of the store are Egyptian themed. Are there any department stores like this left in the US? By that I mean old-fashioned department stores that still have specialty departments like cameras or musical instruments, etc. staffed with people that are not only attentive but know the goods they sell and appear genuinely interested in helping. There were stores like this in the US as late as the 1970s even in a modest regional city like Dayton, Ohio, but I haven’t seen one in years. It was like going back in time.

It was fun to ride the tube again for the first time in many years, too. Finally, we took a late night walk down to Westminster Abbey and the area around Westminster Bridge to get a good look at the Houses of Parliament and the tower that houses Big Ben. Got to bed much too late considering the early hour of the flight to Paris the next morning.


  1. I really want to go to that Natural History Museum! I love the one in New York, but didn't catch the one in London when I lived in the UK.

  2. It was a lot of fun. As I say, you could have fun there just looking at the building.

  3. I sometimes like to discover new posts on blogs. It's nice that I found such a good article on the blog.
    london rickshaws


Related Posts with Thumbnails