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London, October 2014

Big Ben

The British Empire is no longer, but London still retains the aura of the world’s cultural, financial and commercial hub. Its centuries-old monarchy still attracts worldwide attention whenever a baby is born and the country’s dogged leadership and sacrifice in World War II give England a place in history that no country can match. As its capital, London holds all of this history in its buildings, bridges, neighborhoods and marketplaces and all of its future in diversity of faces on the streets.

I went to London in the fall of 2014, and enjoyed mostly sunny or slightly overcast weather, and a couple nights of rain–perfect weather for me. I stayed in a small apartment in Notting Hill, rented by an Airbnb host, in a row of connected buildings, some of which had been converted into apartments. The building I stayed in was the only one that had been bombed to rubble during World War II and then rebuilt. Two nearby Tube stations made it so convenient; I could get anywhere from those two stations, including Heathrow Airport, and never needed a cab.

Palace of Westminster

The best thing about London for an art museum fanatic like me is that all the public museums are free.  With my prepaid Oyster Card getting me on the Tube (a must; you can buy one at Heathrow) and a few pounds for lunch, I could enjoy a whole day rather inexpensively in this reputedly expensive town. I started my journey at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which was within walking distance of my Notting Hill flat–a jaunt through Kensington Gardens, past Kensington Palace to the museum steps. The Victoria and Albert contains largely sculptures, china, furniture, ceramics, jewelry, books and clothing from all over, including some amazing Islamic tiles.

The Victoria and Albert, however, can’t compete with the National Gallery and its neighbor, the National Portrait Gallery.  The National Gallery looks out at Trafalgar Square, which is always full of people–mimes, tourists, workers at lunch.

Trafalgar Square

The National Gallery has an amazing collection of paintings, including the Impressionists. I don’t reprint paintings in my blogs due to copyright concerns, but  the National Gallery contains an amazing collection that goes back centuries, and includes Impressionist works, including some beautiful Monets. When I was at the National Portrait Gallery, there was a special exhibit on Virginia Woolf that included some original handwritten pages of her writing as well as paintings of her and her friends, some by her sister, Vanessa Bell.

Around the corner from the National Portrait Gallery you can find a theatre, maybe two, and I got lucky and was able to walk in and but a ticket for a matinee showing of “Shakespeare in Love.” You can’t go to London without seeing a stage play at one of the new theatres or at the Globe Theatre. I feel like I have been there because the Globe streams some of its performances to movie theatres around the world, and I’ve seen one, even felt as if I was experiencing the rain that falls on part of the audience where the theatre is open to the sky.

Another don’t-miss museum in London is the Tate Britain. One of my favorite paintings there was Sir John Everett Millais’s painting of Ophelia from 1851, which has Impressionist aspects before the Impressionists’ time. The Tate also has a terrific collection of works by David Hockney, not always on display. But when I was there, the painting of the couple, Mr. and Mrs. Clark Percy, was on the wall in the modern area. The Tate Britain is not to be confused with the Tate Modern, a newer museum built in an older power station. When I was there, the exhibits were not as impressive, but the museum has since had some major exhibits, including a Picasso exhibit in 2018.

Last on the art tour is one non-public museum, the Courtauld Gallery, which is part of the Courtauld Institute of Art. The Institute is housed in a classic building with a courtyard where students and tourists eat lunch, study or have coffee. There is a fountain in the center that rises from the ground and delights the children.

Courtyard at the Courtauld Institute
British Girl, Sleeping Boy by the Fountain

The Courtauld was special for me since it houses an original Manet, one of his last major works, entitled A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. A cheap print of the painting has hung in my bedroom for years. This complex and well-executed painting, with a bowl of tangerines offsetting the blues and blacks, contains a mirrored reflection of the girl at the bar that is at odds with reality,  but which allowed Manet to show the rest of the room that the girl looked out on.

Outside of art, there is the British Museum, a behemoth that contains artifacts from all over the world–Grecian pottery, the Elgin marbles, coins, statuary, stelae, etc, that can take an entire day.

Elgin marbles
From the Parthenon, the British Museum

London is also full of amazing architecture. While I missed a good shot of the Gherkin, you ought to get one. I did managed to walk around St. Paul’s and get the shot below.

St. Paul’s Cathedral, London

Lambeth Bridge is only one of more than a dozen bridges in London–that’s where the child’s ditty comes from–most of them across the Thames and each with a story of their own.

Lambeth Bridge

And then there is the monarchy and Buckingham Palace and the famous changing of the guards. I watched the guards prep for their daily ritual in a light drizzle. Of course, they had nice warm hats. The crowd had already lined up along the route that the carriage came, up through St. James’ Park and to the gates gilded in gold.

Preparing for the Changing of the Guard
The Guard on March through the Rain

St. James Park starts near 10 Downing Street, where there is a museum documenting Churchill’s war room. Duck Island Cottage is nearby, a quaint, picturesque place, once the home of the park bird-keeper, that now houses the London Park & Gardens Trust.

Duck Island Cottage, St. James Park
The Pond in St. James Park

But so much of London is in the neighborhoods–in Notting Hill, Soho, Covent Garden, Holborn, Kensington, Chelsea, Brixton, Marlyebone, Battersea and others–where the British people make their lives in this tremendous city.

Bayswater Cafe, Notting Hill area
Corner in Holborn
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