Open Season

This year, summer has not so much passed gently away into autumn as violently and convulsively expired. From a searingly hot summer that I remember as a blur of white light and omnipresent heat, it gave way to thunder storms and monsoon rains. Yesterday, as the rain relented the sky was surmounted by two concentric rainbow rings, the inner bright and vivid with sky lighter inside it than outside, the outer fainter in the grey. That night the harvest moon was brilliant in the sky, and its cold light streamed through the windows.

Being autumn, this means the end of the Proms season. The performance of Debussy’s L’Apres Midi d’un Faune and La Mer is perhaps not quite right for the Royal Albert Hall. Debussy seems to require a more intimate setting, whereas the Albert Hall seems to swallow the music. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring has no such difficulties though. The same applies to Monteverdi’s Vespers, which are brilliantly performed; with singers emerging from the wings in mid performance, answering each other from opposite sides of the hall and ghostly echos and children’s voices descending from the gallery.

It also means a few weeks of Open Heritage Days. In Oxford, I begin with Wadham, whose the chapel has a truly bizarre monument, of a skull flanked by two dolphins alongside a plaque to John Wilmot featuring an equally bizarre Yale of Beaufort. Nuffield always seems an odd place; the sandstone and copper are all correct for an Oxford college but the modern design with its sharp edges seems to long to be aged and softened. The chapel is rather small and hidden away, with a matchingly plain interior – except for the John Piper designed stained glass. Pairs of windows appear in different colours, with light streaming brilliantly through a pair of cobat blue windows. The dining hall is rather odd, with a bright red ceiling and a heraldic crest featuring a red bull and a green beaver – both recur in the town hall later, alongside an elephant. Inside the town hall, the council chamber and courtrooms are open (although much of the rest of the building proves to be shut). Two contrasting churches follow. Firstly, the Wesleyan Memorial Church; unsurprisingly rather plain although its rose window is rather beautiful. Secondly, St Barnabas. I’ve wanted to see the inside of this since I saw the model for its design at Torcello. The interior is thick with incense while light streams down from the upper windows, obscuring the gold and blue apse design. The presence of a recent set of orthodox icons in the baptistry makes it look rather more like its Venetian counterpart. The main thing I’d wanted to see was the interior of All Souls. The interior is remarkable in its accretion of different styles into a unity; a medieval building, with a baroque screen by James Thornhill and a set of Victorian reredos by Gilbert Scott. On the other side of the quadrangle, I’m amused that the elaborate sundial’s position renders it completely useless, after its original position was used by the local clockmakers. Behind it, the Codrington Library lacks the ramshackle antiquarianism of some of the libraries I’ve seen, but rather makes up for it in scale, with two large marble statues dominating its length. Finally, I visit the great hall at Exeter, which rather leaves me reminded of the Middle Temple in London.

In London the following week, I walk for a bit around the East End, noting the French window shutters on the old Huguenot houses in Spitalfields, before heading down to the Burnel Museum in Rotherhithe. This area has a beautiful view on a stretch of the Thames sufficiently wide as to make the other shore look as if it belongs to another country. The church of Saint Mary towers over the nearby warehouses while the museum itself is rather innocuous with only a chimney to give it away. What’s striking is below ground; the entrance hall to Brunel’s Thames tunnel. I shin over a wall, crawl through a narrow entrance, climb down some scaffolding and find myself in the remains of the entrance hall with the sound of trains and water pumps throbbing beneath.

Open House proper doesn’t start until the next week though, where I find myself in Tower Hill to visit Trinity House, home to the body charged with operating lighthouses. The building was designed with Samuel Wyatt and has a wonderful domed ceiling above a grand staircase flanked by two mariner statues at the base and caryatids at the summit. Models of ships and lighthouses are to be found on cabinets in all of the rooms, while various naval crests compete with portraits of various royals and politicians on the walls. The next item on the itinerary is St Magnus the Martyr; never having been inside here before, I’m surprised at how cluttered the interior is. Models of god based around the Van Eyck painting I’d failed to see in Ghent compete with models of London Bridge, reliquary shrines, models of St Magnus (compete with horned helmets) and Ethiopian icons of St George. I then walk onto St Mary Abchurch, a building whose drab brick exterior is counterbalanced by the splendour of the frescos on a dome whose existence only becomes visible from inside. The rest of the interior is not nearly as interesting as St Magnus (Grinling Gibbons reredos aside), although I rather like the lion and unicorn carvings. On impulse, I then decide to visit the Lloyd’s buildings. I can’t say I really like liked this building with its lifts and ducting snaking around the exterior before, and although the size of the interior atrium is impressive the overall effect of the interior is to make one conclude that rarely has the future looked so seedy as an expanse of eighties logos and grubby carpets opens up before you. The main highlight is the Adams room on the top floor, although in these surroundings it does looks like as if you’ve walked onto the holodeck. One of the main highlights of my visit on that day turns out to be Marlborough House, the perfect counterpart to my visit to Blenheim earlier in the year. The main hall with its frescos with the Queen’s House in Greenwich matched by Laguerre’s paintings of the Battle of Blenheim is especially spectacular. The final place on that day was 26 Whitehall, the former Admiralty House (presently the Cabinet Office), which is mostly noteworthy for the Grinling Gibbons wood carving and wing dial in its boardroom.

The following day sees me in the city, at Draper’s Hall. Past a set of Tudor paintings in the main hall lies a set of Hogarth engravings tucked in a corner, showing the idle and industrious apprentices.I then ascend a staircase (improbably watched over by four Antinous clones) into an interior marked by a gallimaufry of decorative styles; sculptures by Thorvaldsen and Schadow share rooms with Gobelin tapestries and copies of the company’s charters. I then head out of the city into Islington and the former Finsbury Town Hall, a mixture of baroque and art nouveau. While the Clerkenwell angels, caryatids holding the gilded light fittings, are worth seeing in their own right, the place seems rather desultory, with its current role as a dance academy having left the rooms empty. After this, it’s a while before the other buildings I want to see open, so I head out to look at the Limehouse Accumulator Tower. This turns out to be one of the more impressive buildings of the day; on the outside the fissiparous brick is assaulted by ivy while the green Victorian ironwork inside is pockmarked and rusted. Nonetheless, the ascent of the spiral staircase leads to a cathedral-like interior. I return back to All Souls, Langham Place. Bombed during the war, the interior is rather disappointing, beyond a Victorian altar painting. I do note that the building does seem much larger on the inside than outside, especially with a large underground church hall beneath the building. I then travel downward to St Barnabas in Pimlico. Not a building I’d heard of before, it deserves to be better known, with a richly decorated interior that combines designs from Bodley & Butterfield, Ravenna mosaics and stained glass by Kempe and Comper. The last thing I see before leaving London is the Rudolf Steiner house. Being the solitary example of expressionist architecture in London makes its effect difficult to place; the curved surfaces remind me of art nouveau but the austere absence of surface decoration points in the other direction towards modernism.

Reading Woolf’s biography of Roger Fry, I found myself a bit bemused at the dichotomy it presents. A scientist by training (something that shows in his dismissal of mysticism as a set of crude answers in contrast to the provisional nature of truth offered in science), Fry is depicted as demoralised by the irrationalism that follows the first world war, embodied in movements like surrealism. By contrast, he sees himself as a nomadic classicist. However, he also has a marked streak of Lawrentian paganism, seeing Western civilisation as corrupt.

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