TEN DAYS IN LONDON
Cornelius F. Murphy, Jr.
In early March, a friend called to invite me to join her the following month in London. She was going over on the first of April to stay with an American couple at an apartment near Regent’s Park that had ample room for separate guests. The plan was that she would leave on the first of April; I would start out the following day so that she could meet me when I arrived.
For many years I had traveled to visit a son in the Foreign Service, and during a recent journey to South America I had gone over to Buenos Aires where I enjoyed the luxury of a very favorable exchange rate. Now I had to accept the unpleasant fact that the American dollar had lost half its value in relation to the British pound. On balance though, I thought that the upcoming adventure seemed worthwhile, since the airfare was reasonable and there would be no housing expense. As it turned out, I actually spent considerably more than I had expected, yet the trip was so enjoyable in every other respect that I was left with no regrets. Indeed, I highly recommend a visit to this great and venerable city.
My last visit to London had been during the Thatcher years, when private initiative took precedence over public service. I remember the terrible condition of transport: dark and dirty subways, dilapidated trains, and surly, unhelpful employees. Since the Blair years (and the city’s election of its own mayor), the transformation has been costly, but profound. From the airport to the rail line and then on to the Underground, the changes were extraordinary. There was a palpable sense of order, cleanliness, and efficiency and the employees were unfailingly courteous and helpful. Fellow passengers were both reserved and friendly. I felt welcomed by the civilized behavior of all whom I encountered and I knew instinctively that I would be able to experience all the cultural aspects of the city with untroubled pleasure.
Upon my arrival I took advantage of one of the free dollies to move my bags to the point where I would board a fast express train that would take me from Heathrow to Paddington Station. There I was met as planned. Using the automatic so-called ‘oyster’ cards to enter and exit the subway system, we made our way to the Jubilee line and then on to our destination of St. John’s Wood. The apartment was directly across the street and I was soon settled in. After a brief nap, I joined my companion and, reentering the Underground, we made our way to Westminster.
As you exit the tube at Westminster you immediately confront the great tower clock “Big Ben” as well as the Houses of Parliament. We strolled along the streets and parks of the borough, delighting in the views of the Thames as well as the historical quality of the area as a whole. A brief conversation with an attendant at the entrance to the House of Commons led to an invitation to visit the building and go to the public galleries. As you enter, you are immediately impressed by the venerable traditions of the Parliamentary system.
The building that the two houses occupy is known as the Palace of Westminster and it is still designated as a royal residence. The years have witnessed significant changes. A nineteenth-century fire gutted much of the original, and bombing during the Second World War destroyed the House chamber. Yet the whole has regained much of its magnificence.
Historical murals line the entrance walls, including one featuring Thomas More arguing in the Parliament against abuses of power of the King, Henry VIII, long before his fatal refusal to acknowledge Henry’s claim to religious supremacy. Before beginning to climb to the public gallery, you pass through an octagonal structure that has full-length portraits of the four saints of Great Britain: St. George, St. Andrew, St. David and St. Patrick. After climbing many stairs, when we reached the gallery, there were few members of the House in the chamber below. But we did hear a spirited debate about the expenditure of funds for housing for new arrivals to the country.
Satisfied with our brief sojourn into the political heart of the country, we returned by the Underground to St John’s Wood and enjoyed a quiet evening with our host and hostess. Next morning, we repeated the subway journey, but this time in order to visit Westminster Abbey.
The Abbey dates from 960, when Benedictine monks settled in the area. The building was dedicated as the Abbey of Edward the Confessor in 1065. Neither a Cathedral nor a parish church, it is now the property of the royal family. We entered by the North Gate, and with the help of the red-robed staff quickly became oriented. We arrived shortly before ten, and on the hour one of the staff led a brief prayer service. Significant parts of the Abbey were inaccessible, but many important sites, such as the coronation chairs and the Lady Chapel of Henry VII, were opened for viewing.
For centuries, monarchs, aristocrats and other celebrities have been buried in the Abbey, and many other notables memorialized. In some places the extent of recognition mars the overall harmony of the building. I took notes on some of the more interesting inscriptions. The Duke of Newcastle and his duchess are remembered for being the founders of a family that deserved to be called noble because “all of the brothers were valiant and all the sisters virtuous.” The wife of a nineteenth-century Dean of the Abbey was recognized as being a spouse whose life was inseparable from her husband’s labors and who joined him in striving to “…unite many hearts from many lands and drawing all things to above.”
The Poets’ Corner was a delight. Chaucer is buried there, and other giants such as Shakespeare and Dickens remembered. I was particularly pleased to see the recognition of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Gerald Manley Hopkins, and also John Clare, who is one of my favorites even though many dismiss him as a minor poet. But more than literary figures are recognized as having made a significant contribution to British life and culture. Scientists such as Newton, Faraday and Darwin are recalled, as are politicians, musicians, and warriors. Near the exit at the Great West Door, twentieth century figures, including Franklin Roosevelt, are acknowledged.
After leaving the Abbey we walked down Victoria Street to the Westminster Cathedral, which is the principal Catholic Church in England and Wales. Completed in 1903, the building, with its multiple domes, porches, and towers, reflects more of the Byzantine style than that of the Gothic. Its wide nave and high altar give the visitor an unobstructed view of liturgical celebrations. The mosaics and decorations, created over a millennium, are extremely attractive. Much of the work was done by members of the famous arts and crafts movement and includes stark but emotionally moving Stations of the Cross by Eric Gill.
In the afternoon we walked from the Cathedral to the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms near St. James Park. The compressed quarters of the War Rooms, with small chambers for working, eating, and sleeping, were fascinating. Their preservation is undoubtedly a work of great historical importance. However, the Churchill Museum itself was somewhat of a disappointment. Filled with detailed documents and sound and film records of his long and distinguished life, the whole is put together in a manner that must be described as incoherent. The exhibits develop chronologically, but, given space limits, their separate parts move in a confusing, zigzag manner that makes it difficult to determine when one period of the Churchill saga ends and another begins. Technological innovation controls the manner of conveying information, and the text forms and typefaces, while interesting, are as much confusing as enlightening. The darkness of the rooms, and the lack of assistance, merely worsened the experience.
Friday evening we had our first dining-out experience in the St John’s Wood area at a Greek restaurant called Sophra’s, where I had a delicious leg of lamb at a reasonable price. The next morning being Saturday, our hostess was able to join us on our visit to the British Museum. This huge edifice displays antiquities from all the ancient civilizations. The initial Great Court is enormous and is considered to be the highest public square in Europe. We were unable to see China’s terracotta army exhibit, but we did view the famous Rosetta stone. As typical Americans, we thought we could see everything in one visit, while in fact it would take months to become acquainted with any of the significant parts of the whole. To do the best with limited time, we split into separate areas of concentration, and I was happy to look as comprehensively as possible at the artifacts from ancient Iran since now, through marriage, our family is connected with that country.
We awoke on Sunday morning to a brief snowstorm. After attending Mass at the beautiful Jesuit Farm Street church in Mayfair, near Berkeley Square, we joined others for the fellowship of coffee and conversation, but soon left in order to participate in a rally protesting the Chinese display of the Olympic torch. My companion, a retired physician, had done medical missionary work with Tibetan refugees in India, and some of that community was now in London. Representatives came to invite us to join the protest, giving us appropriate flags and scarves. So armed, we arrived shortly after noon at the appointed place across from Downing Street. Except for some shouting and shoving there was no violence; indeed, by that point those accompanying the parade of the torch had retreated from the street into a van.
Later we went to hear speeches on the Tibet issue at a rally in a small park near Kings Cross. After listening awhile, we set out for a walk along Euston Road. Here we came upon one of the great examples of Victorian architecture: St Pancras. The sight reminded me of Wordsworth’s poem about the city and I thought that I would be truly dull of soul if I should hurry past such magnificence.
The original building had opened in 1876 as St Pancras Chambers. Later, as the Midland Grand, it became one of London’s most luxurious hotels. Deemed unsafe in the 1960s, its exterior was later restored to its original condition through an expenditure of nearly ten million pounds. It is really a feast for the eyes: long brick walls supported with red and white arches, granite columns, and a massive roof with huge chimneys. The interior is now being redone in a joint British-American project. It will eventually reopen as a five-star hotel. The railroad station has also been revived and is now an important link in the European rail system.
On Monday morning we made our way to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. The Gallery rightly boasts of having one of the great collections of European art. Even though it does not match the scope of some of the national galleries on the Continent, it does have a high concentration of major works from the mid-thirteenth century until 1900. The sweeping staircase that leads to the galleries immediately attracts attention, but something equally impressive lies beneath one’s feet.
The marble floors at the entrance and landing are made up of mosaics created and installed by a Russian artist, Boris Anrep, between 1926 and 1952. Anrep – who also did some pieces for the Westminster Cathedral – worked on the visual principle that it is more natural for us to look down than look up at any decoration. And he had a cultural bias.
Like many artists of his time, Anrep despised Victorian sentimentality and the high moral tone that accompanied such a sensibility. Anrep’s mosaics for the National Gallery combine a Byzantine method with modern subject matter in a manner that is both comical and satirical in its effects. Initially, the mosaics were divided into three broad categories: The Labours of Life, the Pleasures of Life, and the Awakening of the Muses. Within the first, he included conventional themes associated with work, such as farming and commerce, but he expanded the idea to include some of the more vigorous arts. One of the mosaics in this genre was dedicated to family life – an ironic gesture that probably reflected his marital difficulties. Profane love and conversation are included among the Pleasures as well as more expected subjects such as cricket, football (Rugby) and hunting. The third mosaic, The Awakening of the Muses, linked the themes of work and pleasure. It includes Bacchus, patron of the pleasures, and Apollo, who inspired the creative labors.
It was not until the end of the Second World War that Anrep added a fourth mosaic floor and the one that is the most interesting: The Modern Virtues.
After the ordeal of war, Anrep was anxious to create a floor that represented the best qualities of the English character. This mosaic, like the third, includes portraits of the famous, especially those eminent in public life. At the center is Winston Churchill, appropriately representing the virtue of Defiance. Lord Rutherford, the atomic scientist, symbolizes Curiosity; Bertrand Russell, Lucidity. T. S. Eliot appears in the mosaic devoted to Leisure. The American film actress, Loretta Young, a favorite of Anrep’s, is used to portray the British virtue of Compromise.
From the entrance flooring we moved to the permanent collection. This includes representative works of the great past masters, such as Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Velasquez, and eventually goes on to the impressionists. It also has a good collection of the British painters of distinction such as Gainsborough, Constable and Turner. I spent considerable time admiring these English works. Then, as I moved through the salons representing the paintings of the eighteenth century, I made a surprising discovery.
Many years ago a friend of French descent now deceased had told me about the life of a distinguished ancestor named Jacques Cazotte. Cazotte was an important writer in his time. Because of his royalist sympathies, he was guillotined, in his old age, during the Terror of the French Revolution. Unexpectedly, I came upon his portrait, painted by one Perronneau some thirty years before his execution. The discovery was exciting, but it also brought back some sad memories of what had been a fond friendship with his descendant.
After leaving the National Gallery, we had only to walk a short distance to have a delightful musical experience. We attended the lunchtime organ concert at St. Martins-in-the-Field. The program was devoted to the works of Handel and some of his contemporaries. We stayed for lunch in the Crypt Café directly under the church. The Café specialized in “home-made food with a British theme.” A large bowl of squash soup, supplemented by substantial grain-rich bread, made a very satisfying noonday meal.
Monday evening was a night out. Our hostess had obtained tickets for Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. Since the performance was to begin at 7:30, we had an early light supper at an Italian restaurant nearby. Our seats were in the balcony, so situated that we were directly across from the Royal Box. Although we could see that it was occupied, in the darkened theater we had no way of knowing who was there. The opera was a revival of a production done two years earlier by Steven Pimlott, who unfortunately died of cancer shortly after the original performance. The whole evening was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Although I have attended opera in Pittsburgh for many years, the London performance gave me a new appreciation of the meaning of world-class singing.
According to the London website, a visit to the city is incomplete without a trip to the Tate Modern. The claim is at least in part true, because this museum demonstrates how much the community is serious about modern as well as traditional art. Thus on Tuesday we took the Underground past Westminster across the river to the Southwark Station; after exiting, a short walk brought us to the Museum. This version of the Tate (there are three others) is housed in a former power station that had closed in the 1980s. In the conversion it was decided to leave the building substantially intact and to enhance the energy of the original. The old turbine hall provides a large exhibition space as well as an entrance. As you go inside you pass down a long ramp that leads to the escalators that will carry you to the various gallery levels.
Rather than attempting a chronological survey of modern art, the Tate focuses upon important themes and tries to connect the various art objects to broader developments of twentieth-century culture. Modern European masters such as Picasso, Miró, and Giacometti are represented in paintings and sculpture, as are Americans such as Roy Lichtenstein and Ellsworth Kelly. Explanatory panels at each gathering draw the mind as well as the eye. For example, using works by Mondrian and Kandinsky, the museum probes the deeper desire of abstract artists to promote a more perfect world by refining the balance between horizontal and vertical lines. The topic of Poetry and Dreams was used to promote a better understanding of Surrealism. Some critics find this approach unsatisfying on an emotional level, but for a fuller comprehension of the nature and purposes of modern art, the combining of stark exhibition with philosophical explanation has its advantages.
The views of the Thames from the upper windows of the Tate are marvelous, but the overall ambience was somewhat below standard. One had a sense of hustle and crowding and there was a tone of darkness throughout. The Café/Restaurant has received some glowing reviews, but we did not find it exceptional. Having expended our curiosity there, we then moved to the nearby Globe Theater.
Like the Tate, the Globe is located in the Bankside area of London on the south shore of the Thames. It is tranquil now, but in Shakespeare’s time it was an entertainment center that specialized in gambling, brothels, and bear baiting. Destroyed by fire, plague, and censorship, the theater has gone through several reincarnations, but the recently opened new Globe owes its existence to the generosity of an American benefactor, Sam Wanamaker.
The Globe has an ample exhibition area that is the largest devoted to the dramatic history of Shakespeare’s art and gives ample evidence of the manner in which the great dramatist presented his plays to the general public. The exhibit was well worth the expense. Through its displays and demonstrations it draws the visitor back into the world of Elizabethan England. In addition to providing considerable information on how the plays were designed and produced, it also shows how traditional crafts were used in the rebuilding of the Globe. After passing through the exhibition space, we joined a tour that took us up to the theater itself and seated us in the gallery facing the stage for a lecture on the history of the theater and its present operations. After a visit to the gift shop, we made our way over to the Millennium Bridge.
The Millennium, completed at the beginning of the new century, is the only bridge built over the Thames since the late nineteenth, and the first one designed solely for pedestrians. The idea was to create a ‘ribbon of steel’ across the river, keeping structural elements and cables as much as possible below the level deck so as not to impede the views of the Thames and the city. Accessible to all, and freed from the impediments of other traffic, it is a celebration of human movement in a simple but striking design.
As you cross the bridge, St Paul’s is constantly in view, and when we reached the far bank we went directly to the venerable Cathedral. We both went inside. My companion decided upon an extensive interior tour, but being by then tired, I declined. After viewing much of the exterior building and plaza, I made a short visit to a neighboring coffee shop. Soon we reconnected outside the church and headed back to our residence.
The following morning would be our last together, as my friend was about to begin an independent trip to northern England. We made a good choice for our final venture: a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington. Here is one of the world’s great collections of the decorative arts. In addition to paintings and sculpture, the museum has extensive collections of ceramics, glass, textiles, metal work, and furniture. This emphasis upon the practical arts distinguishes the Victoria and Albert from both the ‘high art’ collections of the National Gallery and the scholarship of the British Museum. Yet like them, it ranges through the centuries and displays the works of various cultures.
The original venue was at Malborough House, where the repository began as a Museum of Manufactures. It then gathered objects of applied art from the Great Exhibition of 1851 and also acquired a collection from the Government School of Design. The present building was constructed near the end of that century and given its present name by Queen Victoria.
We came into the Museum through a side entrance that was connected to the subway by an underground passage. Once inside, we realized how different was the ambiance here from that at the Tate Modern: this was quieter, uncrowded, and better lighted. You are immediately in a gallery of sculpture that, while it includes works by great masters, is primarily devoted to the creations of British artists. A right turn takes one into a spacious gift shop with helpful clerks who soon directed us to a guided tour.
The first stop was a collection of Islamic art within a space dedicated by Prince Charles in 2006. There were beautiful inlayed tables, ceramics, and earthenware under colored glass. The display also included some porcelain from the court of Suleyman the Magnificent. An adjoining chamber was dedicated to developments in the decorative arts since the first beginnings of the Museum. After a few more stops our guide took us around the Rotunda above the main entrance and from there we had a fine view of a delightful modern chandelier that brightens the center space with its ice-blue blown glass.
As we moved on, we became more conscious of the immense variety of practical art forms that are embraced by the Victoria and Albert and the historical range of the collection. We saw a cast of Trajan’s Column from second-century Rome as well as the sixteenth-century British Great Bed of Ware, with its gorgeous canopy and covering. The Hereford Screen represents the Gothic revival in ironworks, and the Metal Work Gallery has a wonderful collection of wrought-iron window grills. The Medieval and Renaissance Galleries are now being renovated, but many important pieces, such as a High Altar from Italy, can still be seen.
When the tour ended, we lingered in some of these galleries, marveling at the rich and immense variety of the collections. We then descended to view the gardens before going into the cafeteria for a light lunch. From there we returned to St John’s Wood, so that my companion could prepare for her train ride to another part of the country. I accompanied her to Kings Cross to get her train for Hull. From there I went out to Euston Road, paused to look again at the wonderful St. Pancras, and continued a short distance to the British Library.
The British Library is quite new, having been established by Act of Parliament in 1973. It acquired many institutions already in existence, including the famous library of the British Museum. The new library has more than 150 million items in all known languages and media. Its manuscripts and other historical items date back to 300 B.C. The present locale was opened in 1998. It is a large redbrick building, fronted by a piazza with impressive sculptures, including a bronze statue based upon William Blake’s study of Newton.
My primary intention was to get to the Reading Rooms, and I was dismayed to find that they were already full. This seemed strange, until I discovered the probable reason. Later in April the London Times reported that the Library has adopted a liberalized admissions policy that has become controversial. The change meant that many more college undergraduates were now using the facilities. Young people do have a tendency to turn a library into a lounge, and their tendency to talk and, Heaven forbid, to flirt, brought many complaints from older patrons, especially those used to the more sacred status of the older library in the British Museum. That the young were gathering “…in clumps of chattering hormonal aimlessness” was simply too much for the traditionalists. It will be interesting to see if any rule adjustments will be made.
On a particularly crowed day, Lady Antonia Fraser had suffered the affront of having to wait outside the library building for twenty minutes in freezing weather; as for me, I had no trouble entering and, when turned away from my primary objective, I could simply go to the Treasure Room and enjoy its abundance. What riches there were! A papyrus of Aristotle, a Gutenberg Bible, a copy of Beowulf, journals of Samuel Johnson, Jane Austen memorabilia, audio recordings of famous poets – and much more. But again my time was limited, and I soon moved to the Magna Charta exhibit.
At Runnymede in 1215, King John, pressured by his nobles, signed a document recognizing the rights and liberties of all freemen. The Library has the revised version of 1225. This famous expression of grievances and demands for freedom has become one of the central political documents of Western civilization, even though Innocent III, in a papal bull that is also displayed, condemned it as being “as unlawful and unjust as it is base and shameful.” The modern problem is that it has been forgotten rather than denounced. A recent poll by the Library concluded that nearly half the population of the United Kingdom did not know what it was. The older segment of the British public did better, since 37 percent correctly observed that it restricted the powers of the monarch.
As a visitor, I was now on my own. The next morning I took the Tube to the Tate Britain at Millbank. This is the first of the Tates, having been established in 1897 as the National Gallery of British Art and then renamed at the beginning of this century. While its contents include British Art since 1500, there is some coordination between its acquisitions and those of the National Gallery, which uses 1900 as an end point of its collection Consequently, Tate Britain has a substantial number of contemporary art works, including those of well-known modern British painters such David Hockney and Francis Bacon.
There seems to be also a difference of orientation between this museum and the National Gallery. The Tate Britain, like the Tate Modern, gives considerable contextual explanation to the various classifications of art works. At the Tate Britain the emphasis is upon the historical significance. The growth of both London and the British Empire create frameworks within which one can view considerable portions of the pre-modern collection. One room illustrates the “Grand Manner” of the late eighteenth century, by featuring the paintings of Sir Joshua Reynolds; another, devoted to nineteenth-century Nature and Landscape, includes works by Stubbs, Gainsborough and Constable. There is also a substantial collection of the Pre-Raphaelites. William Hogarth (1697 1764) is celebrated as England’s first important native -born painter.
A major exhibition, “The Return of the Gods,” is a large display of British neo-classical sculpture created during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many of the pieces have classical themes, but a good number of them are portrait busts of eminent personages of the age. They are all well-lighted, and many are very beautiful forms of idealized white marble. One in particular caught my attention. It was a bust of a Dr. Cocchi by Joseph Wilton. Cocchi was a respected Italian doctor, scholar, and patron of the arts, whose motto, inscribed on the sculpture, reflected the view of Cicero: he welcomed old age since it would bring him increased knowledge.
A special collection of the paintings of the so-called “Camden Town Group” was also interesting. This was an informal association of early twentieth- century London artists – the most notable being Walter Sickert. The context of their work was urban, lower-class life in London, some pleasant domestic scenes, but also its darker side of sexual perversion and crime.
I was then attracted to something beyond the Tate Britain. Having seen the figure of Thomas More in one of the House of Commons murals, I wanted to find his statue. I knew its location was Chelsea and that the neighborhood was not far from Millbank. The walk south along the Thames was longer than I had imagined, but I finally came upon the statute on Cheyne Walk.
More, a man of letters and a diplomat, was the first layperson to be Chancellor of England. He was executed by order of Henry VIII in 1536 for refusing to give his allegiance to the Parliamentary Act of Succession that denied the ultimate authority of the Pope in matters of religion. Four hundred years later, he was canonized and named Patron of Politicians and Statesmen. He also provides a spiritual model for all who have suffered the effects of arbitrary power.
Samuel Johnson described Thomas More as “…the person of greatest virtue these islands have ever produced.” For a long time he has attracted attention because of his humanism, and the film about him, “A Man for all Seasons,” starring the late Paul Scofield, brought him to the attention of a wider modern public. In 2002 the BBC conducted a vote to determine the 100 greatest Britons of all time. More was given the thirty-seventh position, slightly ahead of his nemesis. The statue, which features a seated serious More in a dark blue, gold-lined figure, gives certain permanence to the witness of this remarkable man. Before leaving London, I would have a further reminder of the ending of his earthly life.
After wandering a while through Chelsea, I took a cab back to the Museum for lunch, more viewing, and the buying of some items in the gift shop. However, I could not linger long, since I was going out to dinner that evening at the home of the Archdeacon of the Southwark Anglican diocese. I had met Michael Ipgrave, his wife Julia, and his children in the United States the previous summer, when he was a scholar in residence at the eighteenth-century farmhouse of the philosopher George Berkeley just outside of Newport, R. I. On arriving in London this spring, I contacted them and they graciously invited me to visit. Their home was not far from the Southwark Station. It was a very friendly and relaxed evening, with excellent food and conversation. It was a great pleasure for me to share with them my impressions of London and its people.
On Friday morning I visited the Tower of London. There are several towers there, including the famous White Tower that dates from the eleventh century, but the place is really a whole complex of buildings within concentric defensive walls. The formal name is Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress. Located on the north bank of the Thames at the eastern end of the city, it is the most visited historical site in the whole of the United Kingdom.
Over the centuries the Tower area has been the locale of many administrative functions. Until the opening of the London Zoo in the nineteenth century, it had a menagerie, and it still boasts of resident ravens. But it is most famous as a place of imprisonment, torture, and death. Over the centuries it has had many famous prisoners, including royal personages and notables ranging from Thomas More to Roger Casement and, in 1941, Rudolf Hess.
I took a guided tour under the direction of a woman yeoman warder, who is the first female ‘beefeater.’ The yeomen are a long-time feature of the Tower, having been first appointed in the fifteenth century. To qualify a man – or woman – must first have had a lengthy career as a non-commissioned officer in one of the armed forces. They all wear a common but attractive blue uniform with red trim as well as an enormous hat.
There are several places within to remind the visitor of such unpleasant history as the Traitor’s Gate and the Bloody Tower. It was there that the young nephews of the Duke of Gloucester were imprisoned and probably murdered. Their deaths allowed the Duke to become King Richard III, and these dastardly actions became the grist for one of Shakespeare’s best known plays.
The Tower Chapel, which dates from 1520, is best known as the burial place for some of the prisoners, and a visit there was a part of the tour. The somber interior is of Tudor design and is primarily illuminated by the weak light coming through the windows. Buried within are the bodies of two of Henry’s wives as well as the Catholic martyrs, Thomas More and John Fischer.
On the grounds there are some of the oldest half-timbered Tudor houses left in London. While within sight, they are not open to the public. Anne Boleyn spent her last days in the north wing of the main house, and from its windows Jane Grey watched her husband be led out to his execution and his body returned for burial.
The Crown Jewels are the main attraction. They have been kept there since the twelfth century, after they were stolen from Westminster Abbey. Seeing the diverse and brilliant displays of crowns, swords, and other jewel-studded regalia, you find it hard to imagine how anyone could desire their destruction. Yet that was the intention of Oliver Cromwell when, upon the establishment of the Commonwealth in 1649, he had many of the items melted down. Luckily for posterity much was replaced during the Restoration of Charles II, and the whole collection has of course grown since that time.
Upon leaving the Tower complex I took a cab to Westminster Cathedral for noon-time mass and a quick lunch. After spending some time in the Cathedral shop, I walked up to Victoria Station. From there I took a train to a London suburb.
At dinner the previous evening, my hosts had recommended an exhibit of American art they had recently seen at West Dulwich, a community a few miles southwest of the city. The train ride was short and inexpensive, and the Gallery was accessible from the station. Titled “Coming of Age: 1850-1950,” the exhibit, on loan from the gallery at Phillips Academy, was a fairly comprehensive record of developments that created not only a distinctive national art but one of universal scope.
The first part was devoted to one of my favorite subjects – that of landscape. By mid-century, American artists were praising the ‘virgin charms of our native land.’ This expressed an aesthetic sensibility that moved from a serene contemplation of the natural world to one that reflected the dangers implicit in such encounters. It was while following this development that I again came upon an unexpected relationship between a painting and myself.
I already knew the history of one picture in this exhibit titled “A Home by the Sea,” painted by Worthington Whittredge in 1872. It was the representation of a coastal scene somewhere near where I spend my summers in Rhode Island. The pleasure of recognition was enhanced when I was able to point out the connection to a surprised curator.
In the early stages of the exhibit, prominence is given to the Hudson River School of American artists. Works of painters such as Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer represent greater sophistication. As the urban setting begins to prevail, European Modernism becomes influential, but it gradually gives way to a distinctive form of American Abstractionism. In the works of painters such as Jackson Pollock and David Smith, American Art not only comes to maturity but it begins to have a universal importance.
The Dulwich Gallery is in a small residential park. It was raining when I arrived, but by the time I finished the viewing the sun had reappeared. The place had a large café with windows opening out into the park. I sat there for a while enjoying the English experience of afternoon tea and looking at the lovely lawns and gardens beyond.
Upon returning to the City I went back to the area around Westminster Abbey to take some final pictures and then a tube ride to Baker Street, where I wanted to visit the museum devoted to my favorite detective, Sherlock Holmes. 221b was a bit of a disappointment, as it was cramped and not well stocked, and I decided not to explore its remaining exhibits. I then walked up to Marylebone Road to admire the shops and to look for a gift for my hostess, after which I went on to Regent Park.
The park is a large green space of approximately four hundred acres that had once been a hunting ground for Henry VIII. Early in the nineteenth century it was transformed by the royal architect, John Nash, into essentially its present form. Formal gardens and a large boating lake supplement the open parkland. To the south, just beyond the park, there are a number of attractive white stucco terraced houses.
From the park it was a short bus ride to my temporary residence. I began to pack and, when the hostess returned from her work at the American Embassy, I took her to dinner. The following morning was my last in London.
The last day was particularly pleasant because of the guided tour that we took of the village of Hampstead, one of the few remaining communities within London that have retained their originality. It was recorded in the eleventh- century Doomsday Book, but its importance begins much later, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially after the rail lines were extended northward from the center of London. It is a place with its own royalty, having more millionaires than any other area of Britain. But its real distinction lies in the fact that it has for some time been the residence of artists and the general intelligentsia.
Equally famous is Hampstead Heath, the large wild parkland that surrounds the village and provides opportunities for wonderful views of the city. Our walking tour arranged by the US Embassy stayed on the streets and lanes that wound their way through the village, although the Heath was at times in view. We saw magnificent Georgian mansions as well as humbler dwellings. One sizeable house had been the home of Keats, and smaller places were marked as having been the residences of notables such as George Orwell and H. G. Wells. The village had also been the domicile of public figures such as the philosopher A. J. Ayer and the twentieth-century man of letters J. B. Priestley. Present residents include the pianist Alfred Brendel and the actors Hugh Grant and Jeremy Irons.
When the tour ended, we ambled through the narrow by-ways of the village until we found an old-fashioned bookstore, where I bought some faded paperback editions of English poetry that would provide good reading on the return flight. We did a little more shopping, had lunch, and then headed back to the apartment. In mid-afternoon, my hostess drove me to Paddington, where I began the return-trip train ride to Heathrow. There were no substantial delays, and by 7:30 I was airborne on the Air Canada evening flight to Toronto.
The day had alternatively been one of rain and sunshine. Settling into my window seat as we departed, I had the opportunity to contemplate a spectacular sunset. It was a luminous sight in spite of the dark and ominous clouds that crowded the evening sky. The scene also put me into a reflective mood. I tried to remember the highlights of my visit and, particularly, the people who had made the trip so memorable.
Without the generosity of our American host and hostess, the venture would have been financially impossible. I was particularly grateful for their hospitality. And I could not forget the innumerable individuals whom I encountered as I made my way around London. As I mentioned at the outset, it was the polite and friendly attitude of the average person that made it possible for me to peacefully enjoy the various museums and institutions that I visited during the ten-day period.
Traveling abroad is not only about seeing new places; it is also about meeting different people. I have been fortunate to have been to many countries around the globe, and on those trips I encountered modes of human identity that were, in varying degrees, quite unlike my own. In traveling to Great Britain however, one meets up with both similarity and divergence. A shared language as well as a history of reciprocal cultural and political experiences lessens the sense that one has come to a strange land; nevertheless, in going as I did to the urban center of the country, some important differences gradually began to emerge.
If one travels to the English countryside one finds genuine differences of language and custom, but they are essentially provincial in nature. In London, the contrasts are deeper and more substantial. For example, Londoners have a strong sense that public space is something important in itself. It is not there just for private advantage. They are more careful to avoid the nuisances of noise and litter than are urban dwellers in our country, and they are more diligent in preservation and restoration. There is also a pervasive sense of order that is tempered by courtesy. And this is the case no matter what the original nationality of a resident.
England is no longer an Imperial power. But it possesses the authority of a civilization. The capital city is the seat of that supremacy. London attracts all who seek to enjoy magnificent expressions of art and culture in a tranquil and historic environment. Samuel Johnson had it right: “The man who is tired of London is tired of living.”
Cornelius F. Murphy, Jr. (The Commodore) is a retired world traveler and law professor and author of numerous books, including “Beyond Feminism: Towards a Dialogue on Differences” (Catholic University Press), which he discusses in detail in a DVD program (see karlaschultz.com).
The Commodore’s article on his trip to Mexico City appeared on this blog from July 1-3, 2010. He has also contributed articles on mass society and friendship, which ran in June and July, 2010.
Cornelius F. Murphy, Jr. © 2008. Used with permission.