London: Canaletto and Sir John Soane’s Museum

January 30, 2018 at 10:48 pm (Art, London, London 2017)

Canaletto: View in Venice, on the Grand Canal (Riva degli Schiavoni). Date: c. 1734-1735.

Click twice to enlarge; then sit back and take in this marvel.

Many are the views of Venice painted by Giovanni Antonio Canal, called ‘Canaletto’ to distinguish him from his father Bernardo Canal, also a painter. Along with other works by this master, Riva degli Schiavoni is housed in London in Sir John Soane’s Museum. This is without doubt one of the strangest  places I have ever visited.

Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was a brilliant architect and a compulsive collector. Crowded into his house – which is actually  three town houses knocked together to form one domicile – are numerous objects from antiquity, beautiful furnishings, and priceless works of art.

Sir John Soane’s Museum – exterior


The Picture Room – a very unique arrangement


Dining room


On the bottom floor of the Soane Museum is the three thousand year old sarcophagus of Pharoah Seti I. It is carved from a single block of translucent alabaster. To celebrate  the two hundredth anniversary of this object’s discovery, a special viewing was arranged. (This description is from an article in The Guardian last November):

Over three days and nights [when it was first displayed], almost 900 people trooped through his [Soane’s] rooms and into the basement renamed “the Sepulchral Chamber”, where the sarcophagus glowed eerily, lit by candles placed inside. The museum recently recreated the experiment, and deputy director Helen Dorey recalled the extraordinary effect when the whole block lit up like a lantern, and the thousands of tiny human figure hieroglyphics carved into every inch of stone seemed to flicker and move. “It was a truly shiver down the spine moment,” she said.

Below is an illustration of the ‘sepulchral chamber:’

Remember – this was at one time a family home!

Sir John Soane, by Thomas Lawrence

It’s hard not to become incoherent on the subject of Sir John Soane and his fabulous if eccentric house of treasures. Last month, my sister-in-law Donna and I had a wonderful time there. But the Canaletto works are what stayed with me, and most especially the painting at the top of this post:

By his precision of touch, the subtleties of his use of light and shade, by his skillful blending of the qualities of sky and water with every variety of timber, stone and other building materials, Canaletto has surely created a work of art of total harmony and order.

J.G. Links, in The Soane Canalettos





Permalink 1 Comment

A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846, by Alethea Hayter

January 14, 2018 at 1:51 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, France, London 2017)

While in London, I had the good fortune to find myself in the vicinity of the London Review Bookshop. (Sister-in-law Donna figured this out courtesy of the mapping function she employed with admirable dexterity on her iPhone.) Naturally that meant that I soon found myself inside the shop.   The cash register was at the back; there, I found issues of the venerable London Review of Books. I informed one of the young people staffing the desk that I subscribe to the review ‘back home in Maryland, USA.’ He immediately exclaimed, with booming gusto: “Cracking good mag, innit?!” Yet another wonderful British moment….

As it happened, I had a new issue waiting for me when I got back home. In it was a review of One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli ad the Great Stink of 1858, by Rosemary Ashton.

Reviewer Rosemary Hill observes that aside from the choking stench emanating from the Thames River, nothing else of great moment happened in London in the year 1858. It is therefore, she concludes, “the perfect subject for a microhistory.”

Hill continues:

Great events cast shadows over details which in an undramatic year, or season, can be more clearly seen. Alethea Hayter’s A Sultry Month, published in 1965, was one of the earliest and best examples  of what has become a popular  genre. Set in another heat wave, in 1846, Hayter’s account weaves together the famous, the obscure and the forgotten.

Hill enumerates just a few of the writers and artists who are featured in Hayter’s slender volume – Samuel Rogers, Jane Carlyle, Thomas Carlyle, Benjamin Robert Haydon, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett,  and Gräfin Hahn-Hahn (that’s her name alright – no mistake!). Hayter documents their lives and interactions so closely that “…from day to day and street to street, the sublime and the ridiculous appear in the proximity they occupy in life.”

Hill then goes on to make further observations on the microhistory subgenre:

This is surely one reason for the rise of microhistory, that it brings the texture of the past closer. It illustrates the ‘human position’, the way the momentous occurs ‘while someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.’…When it is done well, microhistory opens out from its immediate subject matter and  the result is like looking through a keyhole and seeing a whole landscape.

Meanwhile, I had developed a strong need to get my hands on A Sultry Month. There is no e-book available; the physical book is out of print. I bought a used copy from Amazon.

I’m now about two thirds of the way through it. I am deliberately reading as slowly as possible, as I do not want it to end. I love it.

While Haydon was walking out of the northern fringe of London, Browning was sitting on the grass in the garden at New Cross, and was conscious of the immensity of the whole round earth under him, and saw it as an image of  the love that now supported all his life. At the same time Elizabeth Barrett was sitting on the drawing-room window seat in Wimpole Street, writing to him while he was thinking of her.

(Those of my generation may recall watching the play The Barretts of Wimpole Street on television in 1956. I was twelve years old at the time, and that production made an indelible impression on my  nascent romantic imagination.

Katharine Cornell as Elizabeth Barrett)

I had never heard of Alethea Hayter before this. Her obituary in The Guardian – she died in 2006 at the age of 94 –  says this of her works:

In all these books, she manages to unite the narrative sweep and urgency of a novel with impeccable historical and social research and a uniquely elegant style.

I will certainly be reading more books by Alethea Hayter. I’ve  already downloaded this one: 

I can recommend yet another microhistory: The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis. This book came out shortly after the release of a terrific film Le Retour de Martin Guerre starring Gerard Depardieu. (And while you’re  at it, seek out Janet Lewis’s novelized version of this true story, The Wife of Martin Guerre.)



Permalink 1 Comment

Escape with me to the Twelfth Century….

January 9, 2018 at 2:14 am (Anglophilia, archaeology, Film and television, London 2017)

So this small fellow came to us a few days ago, courtesy of the British Museum Gift Shop:

He is a replica, fashioned in clay, of one of the Lewis Chessmen; specifically, the King piece. Below is a three quarter view of the King:

And here is the back, courtesy of the British Museum’s image gallery:

He is about four inches tall.

In her 2015 book Ivory Vikings, Nancy Marie Brown advances the theory that the famous chess pieces were in fact the work of a woman, specifically an Icelandic carver named Margret the Adroit.   Well, adroit she must have been, to have created these little marvels made from walrus ivory. (For more on this intriguing story, see The Economist article, “Bones of Contention.”)

Here’s the picture I took of the Chessmen at the British Museum:

Why did I feel the need to own a replica? Author Nancy Marie Brown, who got to handle the eleven Chessmen currently housed in Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland, expressed their allure nicely:

Out of their glass display case, they are impossible to resist, warm and bright, seeming not old at all, but strangely alive. They nestle in the palm, smooth and weighty, ready to play. Set on a desktop, in lieu of the thirty-two-inch-square chessboard they’d require, they make a satisfying click.

The British Museum puts out a myriad of publications. Among them is a series of booklets entitled Objects in Focus. I bought and read this one:

It’s beautifully illustrated and tells not only the story of the discovery of the Chessmen but also the history of the game of chess (a game, I should add, that I’ve never learned to play).

It turns out that there exist several versions of the story of the finding of the Chessmen. I particularly like one that originated in  book entitled The Archaeology and Prehistoric Annals of Scotland, written by Daniel Wilson and published in 1851. Wilson describes the way in which the action of the sea demolished a portion of a sandbank, thereby “exposing a small stone chamber.”

A local peasant investigated the structure and was alarmed to discover ‘an assemblage of elves or gnomes upon whose mysteries he had unconsciously intruded.’ Shaken and fearing for his safety, the peasant described what he had discovered to his fierce wife, who made him return to the spot and gather up the ‘singular little ivory figures which ad not unnaturally appeared to him the pygmy sprites of Celtic folklore.’

(Naturally I addressed our new acquisition thus: “What about it? Are you a pygmy sprite of Celtic folklore?’ He remained judiciously mute.)

Nancy Marie Brown notes that the Chessmen are clearly identifiable in the first Harry Potter film. Now I’m one of the few humans on the planet who have not seen this movie, but I was able to verify her statement with this YouTube clip:

All of the above has put me in mind of Ingmar Bergman’s film The Seventh Seal. In this film, made in 1957 and set in the Middle Ages, a disillusioned Crusader Knight challenges Death to a game of chess. The stakes could not be  higher.

Ingmar Bergman’s father was a Lutheran minister, and Bergman recalled visits they had made when he was a boy to various historic churches. Many of these contained distinctive wall and ceiling paintings; this was particularly true of Taby Church  in Taby, Sweden:

Brown says that the chess pieces used in the film were modeled on the Lewis Chessmen.

Here is the opening sequence of The Seventh Seal.



Permalink 2 Comments

London, Day Three: Beauty and riches beyond belief

January 5, 2018 at 2:45 pm (Art, London 2017)

That is what I encountered at London’s National Gallery.

Somehow in the course of my lifelong Anglophilia, I’d never been to this museum. This past May, my friend Jean and I attended a Smithsonian lecture entitled “A Day at the National Gallery and the Tate Britain.” Ron and I then watched “Museum Masterpieces: The National Gallery, London,” a set of DVDs accompanied by a book length insert with, among other things, a terrific bibliography. The professor, Catherine Scallen, is outstanding. (This set of Great Courses is produced by The Teaching Company.)

Just as my longing to visit this storied institution was reaching its peak, the opportunity arose for me to spend a week in London. I naturally took it.

The British Museum was about a half a block from my hotel. I was there once, many decades ago. It was the first place we went to – “we” being my sister-in-law Donna and myself. We spent an unforgettable day attending to its enchantments.

And speaking of enchantment….

Coronation of the Virgin, by Jacopo di Cione 1370-1


The Wilton Diptych 1395-99


Saints Jerome and John the Baptist 1428, by Masaccio (1401-1428).

Look at those dates! What a tragedy, the early loss of one so greatly gifted. His real name was Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone; Masaccio was a nickname bestowed upon him Giorgio Vasari. In his ground-breaking work Lives of the Most Excellent (sometimes translated as ‘Eminent’) Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Vasari describes the architect Filippo Brunelleschi‘s reaction to the news of Masaccio’s death:

It is said that when he heard the news Filippo Brunelleschi, who had been at great pains to teach Masaccio many of the finer points of perspective and architecture, was plunged into grief and cried: ‘We have suffered a terrible loss in the death of Masaccio.’

Vasari also says the following:

Although Masaccio’s works have always had a high reputation, there are those who believe, or rather there are many who insist, that he would have produced even more impressive results if his life had not ended prematurely when he was twenty-six. However, because of the envy of fortune, or because good things rarely last for long, he was cut off in the flower of his youth, his death being so sudden that there were some who even suspected that he had been poisoned.

Two Watermills and an Open Sluice, by Jacob van Ruisdael at Singraven  1560-2

Really brilliant landscapes like this one put me in transports. I want to be in that very place, or at least to powerfully imagine that I am.

A Man and a Woman, by Robert Campin ca. 1435


A Scene on the Ice near a Town, by Hendrick Avercamp ca. 1615


The Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo da Vinci, 1483-86

Two versions of this painting exist: the one above, and one in the Louvre in Paris:

Virgin of the Rocks, Louvre 1483-86


Virgin of the Rocks, National Gallery, London 1495-1508

I read somewhere that the National Gallery version features ‘John’s traditional cruciform reed staff’ in order to differentiate between the two infants, as to which was John the Baptist and which, the Christ Child. (For more on this subject, see the Wikipedia entry.)

For whatever reason, I’ve never heretofore been able to respond to Leonardo’s art. Perhaps because of its iconic status and media overexposure, the Mona Lisa has never moved me. Of course I acknowledge its greatness, but for me this has always been an intellectual response rather than an emotional one. The same is true of Ginevra de’ Benci, though I well remember the excitement caused by the acquisition of this work by our own National Gallery in 1967.

(Demand, not to mention price, for Leonardo’s paintings remains stratospheric. Salvator Mundi, in recently restored condition, was just sold to a Saudi prince for $450.3 million dollars.)

Virgin of the Rocks affected me profoundly: the atmosphere created by the rocky seascape, the aura of holiness and stillness, the infants exchanging blessings, and above all, the beauty and serenity of the face of the Virgin – I found this painting incomparably beautiful. And deeply haunting as well.




Permalink Leave a Comment

London, Day Three: Trafalgar Square

December 30, 2017 at 6:17 pm (London 2017)

I was amazed and gratified to be in Trafalgar Square. It’s been decades since I was last there. I feel like a completely different person now. Gazing up at Nelson’s Column – all 169 feet and 3 inches of it – with the statue of England’s great Naval hero honored at its summit – I wished I could preserve the moment forever.

Wikipedia has an excellent entry about the Column, and terrific visuals to go with it.

Trafalgar Square was a festive hive of activity – some of it rather bizarre – on the Tuesday that Donna and I were there.

A violinist; he was quite good.

The National Gallery, our ultimate destination, faces directly onto the Square. So does this beautiful church.

I later found out that it was the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, familiar to me from The Academy of St Martin in the Fields, the distinguished ensemble founded and led for many years by the great Neville Marriner.

Sir Neville Marriner April 15, 1924 – October2, 2016




Permalink Leave a Comment

London, Day Two: The British Museum, first post

December 16, 2017 at 2:28 pm (London 2017)

So I’ve  been cudgeling my brain for the right adjectives to describe this singular house of treasures….But in the end, I’ve decided to let this mighty institution, repository of riches going back millennia and stretching all the way to the present day, speak for itself. (Oh well, I’m drowning in superlatives after all – inevitably!)

First, a brief but meaningful prelude: several months prior to my making this trip, Ron and I watched a set of Great Courses DVD’s entitled 30 Masterpieces of the Ancient World. Our lecturer was Professor Diana K. McDonald, Ph.D, of Boston College. We both thought she was excellent; she brought a rather arcane subject to vivid and colorful life.

One of the first objects that Professor McDonald introduced us to was the Standard of Ur. I recalled Ur from my Sunday School days – Ur of the Chaldees, birthplace of the patriarch Abraham – but neither of us had ever heard of this particular object. At once it exerted a strong fascination for both of us.

Possibly in the course of her talk on this subject, Professor McDonald informed us that the Standard of Ur resided in the British Museum. At any rate, I had no recollection of her having done so. As luck would have it, upon entering the first of many rooms containing untold treasures of the ancient world, the Standard was one of the first things I came upon.

Few experiences can equal that of seeing with your own eyes something that has mesmerized you in a more remote medium. You can well believe it – I pretty much jumped out of my skin! “Oh, my God – It’s the Standard of Ur!” I exclaimed, probably too loudly for the sake of decorum. (My dear sister-in-law Donna kindly indulged me in this moment.)

Herewith the description of this object from the British Museum website:

“The Standard of Ur”, decorated on four sides with inlaid mosaic scenes made from shell, red limestone and lapis lazuli, set in bitumen. One side shows a war scene; a Sumerian army with wheeled waggons and infantry charges the enemy; prisoners are brought before a larger individual, who is accompanied by guards and has his own waggon waiting behind him. The reverse shows scenes of men are bringing animals, fish etc, possibly as booty or tribute; at the top the same large individual banquets with other men; they are entertained at the right by a singer and a man playing a lyre. The triangular end panels show other scenes; the object was found crushed but has since been restored, and samples retained.

The Standard is approximately 8.5 inches high, 20 inches long, 4.5 wide at its base, and slightly over 2 inches at the top. (The sides slope inward as it reaches upward; Wikipedia likens the shape to that of a Toblerone candy bar.) It was found in the course of an excavation of royal tombs in the city of Ur, in what was once lower Mesopotamia.

The excavation was undertaken jointly by the British Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. It was led by British archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley. The time period stretched from 1922 to 1934. (For more information, and some striking photos, click here.) On the Pennsylvania Museum website, there’s a lengthy and illuminating appreciation of Woolley written by M.E.L. Mallowan. (‘Max’ Mallowan, himself a distinguished archaeologist, was the husband of Agatha Christie.)

Here, in Leonard Woolley’s own words, is what happened at the dig in January of 1928:

The whole tomb had  been cleared except for this corner, where  there seemed small probability of anything being found, for the south corner and the south-east generally had produced nothing at all. The discovery of the bead “head-dress” put the workmen on their guard  and involved special care; then amongst the heads appeared a few minute squares and triangles of shell and lapis lazuli mosaic, after them two or three figures silhouetted in shell.

They had uncovered the first fragments of the Standard of Ur.

Much work of careful excavation and reconstruction lay ahead. When they had finished this labor, their meticulous efforts were rewarded thus:

(The quotation above is taken from The Standard of Ur by Sarah Collins. This booklet, about sixty pages in length, is part of a series published by the British Museum Press entitled Objects in Focus.)

Donna can be faintly discerned behind the display case above. Below, you see her more clearly, enraptured by this object:

In the lengthwise picture below, you may catch a glimpse of yet another ancient masterpiece: the Ram Caught in the Thicket.

When Dr. McDonald presented this object in her lecture, I got chills. I’d never seen it before yet I knew  – or felt that I knew –  exactly  what it was: The entangled ram whose sudden appearance saved the life of Isaac, who was about to be sacrificed by his father Abraham.   (Genesis 22)

Once again, seeing the actual piece was a tremendous thrill.



Permalink Leave a Comment

London, Day One: Christmas crowds and Christmas lights

December 11, 2017 at 4:50 pm (Christmas 2017, London 2017, Travel)

As I was adjusting to jet lag and a general sense of dislocation, my brother, sister-in-law, and I explored the neighborhood. This was Bloomsbury.

We were staying at the Bloomsbury and the Radisson Blu Edwardian Bloomsbury Street Hotels respectively – barely a block from the imposing edifice of the British Museum on Great Russell Street.

The British Museum in London


That night, we walked to the storied Seven Dials  intersection,    then along Oxford Street to Regent Street. This is the intersection known as Oxford Circus. I was not always sure where I was at each point in our stroll, but I know the streets were thronged with holiday shoppers and the lights were dazzling.

In the course of our peregrinations, we ended up at London’s new flagship Apple store on Regent Street (see map above). This was not entirely unplanned; my brother Richard works for the company at its headquarters in Cupertino, California.

Unlike this depiction, the store was packed that night. a week ago last Sunday.


It’s an impressively designed store, spacious, beautifully detailed, and very green.

Now, back to the streets and the lights. These pictures (plus one video) were taken under less than optimal conditions, but I still think they convey a sense of the festive and beautiful ambience that was very much in evidence  that night:



Permalink 1 Comment