The Libation Bearers

I start Open Doors Oxford by visiting Campion Hall. The chapel here with its frescos rather reminds me of Spencer’s memorial chapel at Sandford, with its angels and Biblical scenes set in the English countryside. The design of the building overall is by Lutyens and much of it accordingly feels like a country house more than a theological college. Next, I visit the church of St Philip and St James (I’ve been here before but it’s now possible to visit the upper gallery to see the Kempe stained glass in more detail) and St Anthony’s College, where there’s a new library designed by Zaha Hadid. The exterior is quite striking for Oxford, a thin snaking metallic line, but the interior is rather bland. I prefer the old gothic chapel, which now houses another library. I then briefly have a look around the chapels at Exeter and Lincoln before visiting the baroque library at Lincoln. I then go for a walk around the riverside gardens at St Hilda’s before looking at their art deco library. Lastly that day, I visit Mansfield and look at its rather ark chapel and library; this is a rather impressive surprise, designed in a gothic revival style with arts & crafts style decoration. The next day, I start off by visiting Worcester College. I walk around the lake and gardens before visiting the chapel. Next is a visit to the chapel at Oriel and the Town Hall.

The next weekend is the turn of Open House in London. I start off by visiting Wilton’s Music Hall. Although restored, this simply means stabilising the structure which remains bare with peeling paint and cracked walls. The interior is dark and labyrinthine, with spotlights gleaming onto Victorian frescos of Indian musicians and dancers. Next I head out to Hampstead Garden Suburb and Lutyens church of St Jude. The interior combines redbrick with elaborate frescoes in varying symbolist and quasi art nouveau styles. By contrast, the interior of the adjacent free church is incredibly austere. I then go on a tour of the Senate House in Bloomsbury. The interior here is a little more ornate than Holden’s other skyscraper at 55 Broadway; I particularly like the wall covered with a map of London, showing all of the University’s then halls and institutions. Next, I visit the Fitzrovia Chapel, with its wonderful gilded interior, combining Byzantine sensibilities with a gothic revival structure. Lastly that day, I visit Burlington House and visit the Royal Society of Chemistry with its Lee windows and the Linnean society with its library.

The next day, I visit the French Institute in Kensington, with its Rodin sculpture and Delaunay tapestries and visit its art deco library. Most of this day is taken up with walking out to the church of St Mary in Battersea. Most of the interior is Georgian with some enamelled glass surrounded by modern glass depicting figures like Blake and Turner. The surrounding area is quite odd, with a strange combination of industrial decay and gleaming new blocks of flats. I walk back along the river via Battersea Park, where I stop to look at the Pagoda.

A few weeks later I visit Avebury. It’s an unusually sunny day in October. The trees are turning to gold and the Virgina Creeper has turned red but the Dahlias in manor gardens are still in flower alongside elaborate topiary. The manor has been subject to a rather fanciful restoration by the BBC, which leaves it with a rather hyperreal character; Oriental wallpapers recently made in China cover several walls, fake marbling gleams in a virulent shade of orange, Tudor plaster ceilings in the bedrooms have been brightly painted, art deco detail of racing cars covers the carpets in the sitting room.

Lastly, I’m back in London for a performance of the Oresteia at the Globe. While the layout of the theatre is well matched to how Greek tragedy would originally have been performed, the historical specificity of the venue seems a little odd for such a performance. Some of this shows; Agamemnon is dressed as a Greek hoplite, Apollo is unimaginatively dressed in a toga but the chorus are dressed like Londoners during the Blitz, Orestes is wearing contemporary clothes and Klytemnestra’s dress with its geometrical patterns recalls the seventies – finally, the Furies seem to owe a great deal to Japanese horror films.

The following weekend I visit Dulwich Picture Gallery for its Escher exhibition. Much of the ground covered here is familiar but much of it is new, like his studies of tessellating tile patterns in the Alhambra, self-portraits or studies of naturally vertiginous landscapes in Italy, like Castrovalva, Bonifacio or San Gimignano. I also go to visit the yellowbluepink installation at the Wellcome collection. It’s an odd sensation; the coloured mist is indeed so thick as to leave you divested of any sense of direction. I only realise I’m walking towards a wall a few seconds before I’m directly in front of it.  On the other hand, I don’t stumble into it or anyone else. Lastly, I visit the exhibition at Somerset House comparing one of Seurat’s paintings with a Bridget Riley copy as well as some of pointillist works inspire by his work. It seems an odd combination; most of Riley’s work is concerned with abstract pattern and shape, whereas for all of the proto-impressionist stylisation Seurat is largely a realist.

The next weekend I visit the Science Museum. A few things stand out; the difference engine, a copy of the Shukov radio tower, Stephenson’s rocket, the watchmaker’s museum, a fake merman, porcelain jars for storing leeches and phrenological heads. I’m mostly there for an exhibition on Soviet Russia’s cosmonaut programme, which includes spacesuits, copies of Sputnik, some of the original capsules as well as statues of Gagarin and posters from that era. That evening, I go to a play about Thomas Tallis at the Globe. Some aspects of it work, especially where the playhouse is entirely plunged into darkness or only lit by solitary candle. On the whole though, the dramatic aspects seem rather tacked on and it’s mostly enjoyable for performances of his music by The Sixteen.

Back in Reading, I visit the town museum for an exhibition of landscape paintings. Only a few of the names are known to me; Charles Ginner, Paul Nash and David Bomberg. The main item of interest are a pair of John Piper tapestries; one of them is particularly beautiful with its depictions of Fritillaries, Butterflies and Oak leaves. It’s been a while since I’ve looked at the rest of the museum so I linger a while. A few things grab me; a Francis Danby painting of a windmill at sunset, a Roman head of Serapis, Samian ware, floor mosaics from Silchester, Delft tiles showing the flight from Sodom and Gomorrah, the Roman eagle and medieval alabaster carvings. I spend most time looking at the Victorian replica of the Bayeux tapestry; it’s easy to be snide about something created as a hobby but in truth it’s an impressive achievement.

A few weeks later and I go to the British Museum’s Celts exhibition.  As exhibitions go, it’s something of an oddity being dedicated to a subject who existence it denies. Instead it essentially showcases artworks from a number of disparate peoples;  the Gundestrup cauldron from Denmark, Gold torcs from Germany, the Battersea shield, a Carnyx from France, the Snettisham treasure, the Chad gospels, Pictish symbol stones and a Janus faced stone totem from Germany (which rather reminds me of the four faced god Swietowit in Krakow). The exhibition also covers the historical revision of the Celts into a single people, with banners from the Welsh Eisteddfod, Victorian celtic revival painting, painting based on images from Ossian through to mock-celtic jewellery.

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