Saturday, June 19, 2010

On the road (Europe 2010): Paris (Sennelier)

A short walk along the Seine down the Quai Voltaire from the Musée d'Orsay is Sennelier, one of Paris's oldest and best art supply stores. They make some of the best printmaking inks in the world. I have always used them. It was a great pleasure to set foot in this shop again for the first time in many years. I bought a sketch pad, a beautiful handmade watercolor brush and some ink. The racks of pastels were art in themselves. More found art.

On the road (Europe 2010): Paris (Versailles)

Versailles was a disappointment--nearly everything that was once in the place was carted away during the Revolution, so it seems sparsely furnished relative to the sumptuous shell that’s left. It was, of course, interesting to see, although once again rather poorly labeled given that it’s a World Heritage Site. There are extensive galleries of paintings, mostly portraits, for example, but it’s very difficult to tell who is who, because the labels are small, hard to read, and obscured by the crowds.  I noticed that most of the visitors walked through these galleries fairly quickly and with a bewildered look. The very large paintings by David in the room devoted to Napoleon, however, are easy to see and quite impressive.

I don’t suppose anyone needs me to point out that Versailles is gilded and grandiose. It’s easy to see why even kings and queens tired of it and spent much of their time in the simpler (although still grand) complexes a short walk from the main palace—the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon. Given a choice, I’d prefer living in the Hameau, Marie Antoinette’s purpose-built farming hamlet just beyond the Petit Trianon. She had this village constructed on a whim to get a taste of the country life, which was a fashionable thing to do among the super-wealthy of the day. I suppose history might have been different if her little concoction had allowed her to understand what the life of the common people was like, although surely these houses were bigger, better equipped, and cleaner than real country houses. I found the hamlet interesting, though. It had twelve large country-style houses. There was a pigeon house, an apiary, a full dairy, and much else around the buildings, including hay fields, extensive vegetable gardens and flower gardens—all with a stream running through it. There must have been “farmers” that lived there to make the whole thing run. The royal families and their guests could come and milk a cow or do other chores for the novelty of it, but they didn’t really have to get themselves dirty if they didn’t want to. I think a good argument could be made for calling this the first theme park (are there earlier developments of this type? It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the Chinese or the Romans had something akin to theme parks).

The gardens in the hamlet were prettier than the austerely formal plantings around the main palace. I can’t say I cared much for the carefully clipped hedges, vast lawns (on which you're forbidden to walk), and rows of pollarded trees that make up most of the main gardens. They are impressive mostly for their scale; the gardens seem to go on forever. The area called “The King’s Garden” was perhaps the most appealing. Nearly all the walkways are simply made of crushed stone. Considering the wealth of the royal families that built Versailles and lived in it over the years, it seems odd that they never thought to pave any of it with stone. Stonework might have added some to the visual interest of the place. Taken as a whole, Versailles was worth the visit, though. I even got to see a few birds, although none well enough to identify except for those I’ve already figured out. There were mostly a few very vocal Chaffinches, blackbirds, and some crows, but there were also swallow-like birds (the one new bird I did figure out--the Common House Martin), a tit of some sort, a warbler I couldn’t identify, Moorhens on the water at the hamlet, and a rosy bird that looked like it may have been a Linnet. I hope to do the first real birding of the trip soon in the south of France or Spain.

Friday, June 18, 2010

On the road (Europe 2010): Paris

Arrived in Paris on the 16th in the early afternoon. We are now settled into the apartment we are borrowing here, which is in the 16th Arrondissement, near Trocadero, just across the river from the Eiffel Tower (the top of which is visible from the windows). From just a brief walk around the neighborhood I can see this is a rather well heeled section of the city with many upscale shops. Had a leisurely breakfast yesterday morning from walnut bread, peaches, apricots, strawberries, and yogurt picked up at some of the little specialty food shops nearby.

Yesterday afternoon it rained, so it seemed sensible to do something indoors, such as see the military museum at Les Invalides, which has a fabulous collection of arms and armor from all over the world, from medieval times through the modern period. Some of the armor made for the kings is spectacular. There is a complete collection of the uniforms of the French army, mostly on life-sized mannequins, some mounted on horses, also fully decked out as they would have been. Napoleon’s white horse Vizir is here, stuffed. Every sort of dagger, sword, spear and bludgeon you can imagine is on display, along with bows, arrows, quivers, and shields—not to mention pistols, muskets, rifles, and cannons of every kind. It’s well worth a visit even if you have no interest in military history per se. The time and resources that went into making such beautiful objects of death and destruction is remarkable. Seems strange to devote so much energy—love, almost—to the production of such exquisite objects meant only to kill and destroy.

Napoleon’s tomb is also here—a giant red stone sarcophagus on a high pedestal with a circular gallery around it on two levels. On the upper level are the tombs of various other military notables, among them Marechal Foch, who I remember chiefly because there is a grape variety named after him. It was fun to see the famous Ingres portrait of the Emperor Napoleon again. The displays have been updated since I was last here, but there is still little explanation in anything but French. Interesting nevertheless. This is another place you could devote several days to if you wanted to. There is a whole floor of models of forts that I didn’t even look at this time, and a section on the two world wars that there was no time for either.

Later picked up food for dinner at Lafayette and looked briefly at Printemps--two of the fancy department stores in Paris--French versions of Harrod’s. Lafayette had a pretty amazing wine collection, including such things as Mouton Rothschild back to 1918 and similar offerings of all the first growth Bordeaux wines, along with d’Yquem. There were bottles costing as much as $6,000. I remember a time when many of these wines were affordable, or within my reach anyway. I’m grateful to have had the chance to taste so many of them when I did. Today the plan is to go to Versailles. 

Thursday, June 17, 2010

On the road (Europe 2010): English House Names

The English certainly do like to name their buildings. Rather than street names and numbers, the buildings very often have names--even the most modest of buildings. I came across this one in St. Ives earlier in the week. I'm sure there's a story here, but I'm not so sure this is the greatest name for a house.

Found Art: St. Ives Wall Markings (June 17, 2010)

Throughout England I kept seeing these metal plates on the walls with an H and numbers. Sometimes they are brand new, sometimes apparently old, like this one in St. Ives. I don't know what they're for. I'll have to ask Jonathan. This one was particularly interesting against its brightly painted backdrop. Found art.

[Update: My English sources tell me the H stands for hydrant, the upper number for the diameter of the pipe in inches and the lower number for the distance, in meters, from the location of the plaque. This is necessary because the hydrants are buried and hidden behind a cover, unlike ours, which stick up from the ground, making them obvious without an indicator of any sort.]

Found Art: London Tube Poster (June 17, 2010)

Walking through London's Waterloo Station the other day, I noticed this poster hiding behind layers of other posters added and removed. Not intended as art, but beautiful in its own way.

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.

Monday, June 14, 2010

On the road (Europe 2010): Lyndhurst, HMS Victory, London

Slept last night in Lyndhurst, in the New Forest, at a nice little hotel called Whitemoor House. Having learned that the grave of Alice Liddell was in the nearby church of St. Michael & All Saints, we went to have a look. Apparently Alice got tired later in life of being known as Alice of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. She was cremated when she died and asked that her grave be marked with her married name--Mrs. Reginald Hargreaves, but the spot today is marked with what looks like a recent stone that points out that she was the famous Alice. I hope she doesn't mind.

The grave itself is not much to see. Besides the marker, there is just a low stone enclosure overgrown with white roses. The church is rather more interesting. The pathway leading up to the building is paved with old headstones, which seemed a bit unfair to the people whose graves they once marked. I found it hard to walk on them, so I walked up the lawn beside the path. The Church of St. Michael & All Saints is Victorian, so not very old as English churches go, but I've never seen one quite like it. It has fine brickwork inside and out, excellent wooden carvings of angels in the interior, some good stained glass windows, and a beautiful vaulted ceiling of wood that looks like the hull of a boat. I know that wood from the New Forest was used in boat building. I wonder if the carpenters that worked on this church were influenced by that tradition? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is also buried nearby, but the village where his grave is supposed to be is so poorly marked that we failed to find it.

The afternoon was spent visiting HMS Victory, Nelson's flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar, lanched in 1765 and still technically an active military vessel (the oldest in the world). I found it rather moving to stand on the spot where he was shot on the deck and, below, to walk on the original timbers of his famous ship (the timber of the upper decks has been replaced). The Victory is in many ways primitive, but it remains impressive for its sheer firepower (something like 110 guns) and the many devices and adaptations on the ship designed to make it a highly effective fighting machine. Visiting the HMS Warrior (of 1860) nearby made it doubly impressive as, 100 years later, the gun decks of the Warrior were essentially the same design as those of Victory.

By Evening, we were in London for a very brief stay. Had a simple but tasty Italian dinner at Ciao Bella, not far from the hotel, which is a short walk from Bloomsbury Square. Tomorrow, if time permits, I hope to see some of the British Museum and the National Gallery.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

On the road (Europe 2010): Lyme Regis

I spent nearly the whole day today on the beach at Lyme Regis looking for fossils. After some friendly pointers from the very helpful people at the Tourist Information Office, we set out. At first it wasn't entirely clear where the best spots were, but it quickly became apparent that the best rocks are higher up the beach rather than down by the water. The veteran beachcomber in me was stuck far too long at the water's edge. Under the lead-colored cliffs is a jumble of worn stone of two or three sorts. Some of it is chalk/flint similar to what I've seen elsewhere along the coast. Some looks like mudstone or very worn limestone. Some is a harder, bluish-grey rock (although still quite soft) that seems to yield the fossils. There were rocks with ammonites as big as two feet across, but most were palm-of-the hand size or smaller. They are abundant and free for the taking, but most are in large rocks too big to carry away. They actually encourage you to take what you find, but ask that you register anything rare or unusual (I wonder how the casual visitor knows what's worth registering?). There are fossil hunting beaches also at the next town along the coast, Charmouth.

I love the lampposts in the town. They are adorned with ammonites in ironwork, which is a very nice touch. Besides the fossils, the town is (and has long been) known as a beach resort, but it also has a very active fishing harbor surrounded mostly by the old stone pier known as The Cobb. Lyme Regis is the setting for John Fowles's novel The French Lieutenant's Woman. It's at the end of this pier that the title character stands looking out to sea awaiting the return of the Lieutenant. This is also the scene of Louisa Musgrove's accident in Jane Austen's Persuasion. Austen visited here. Whistler apparently visited as well. The town retains its old-fashioned charm without being stuffy. I rather liked Lyme Regis.

On the road (Europe 2010): St. Ives, The Lizard, Cornwall

Spent most of yesterday in St. Ives. Visited the Barbara Hepworth Museum and the Leach Pottery, as well as many good galleries in the museum areas (as opposed to the tourist galleries down by the water). The Hepworth studio and home has been left almost exactly as it was when she died there in a fire (photo at left)--although there are no signs of fire anywhere. Had excellent ice cream at Willy Waller's Ice Cream, the best I've tasted so far in Cornwall.

Later in the day went to Kynance Cove--which is a beautiful inlet carved by the waves out of green and purple serpentine. I was hoping to see a chough--Cornwall's near-extinct cliff-dwelling bird--black with a distinctive red bill and red feet, but there were none to be seen. I had been told that this area (the whole peninsula is known as The Lizard for reasons I've yet to ascertain) was the one place in Cornwall that it might be possible. It was mostly jackdaws in the air and the ever-present herring gulls. The water was turquoise, the hills around the cove dotted with white and orange lichen-encrusted rocks.

Now in Lyme Regis for a day of fossil hunting.
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