Dublinesque

Dublin is often a confusing mixture of styles; the Georgian brick buildings look like parts of Bloomsbury while the bright wall paintings make it resemble Copenhagen and the number of bridges along the course of the Liffey makes it resemble Amsterdam. Upon arrival I walk down to the banks of the Liffey where the dome of the Georgian Custom House is reflected in the water. I then cross over the river and walk down towards College Green and visit Trinity College. Trinity seems very familiar; with its lodge looking out onto a quadrangle with a Henry Moore sculpture, it obviously resembles Oxford and Cambridge. Details like the campanile differ though and I visit the Old Library, looking first at the Book of Kells exhibition and then the Long Room. I then walk down to Merrion Square, with its slightly bizarre Oscar Wilde statue. I notice the green post boxes, some of them still bearing the emblem of the last British King. The relics of British imperialism recur throughout my visit, with plaques, posters and memorials of the Rising visible throughout. There’s also the awareness of British symbols that have been erased as thoroughly as Marx statues in Eastern Europe, like a statue of King George in Dublin Castle or the demolished Nelson Pillar near the General Post Office. I spend sometime in the Natural History Museum, with its Victorian collection of skeletons (an Irish elk and a whale) and taxidermy (amongst many others; a panda, a walrus, a rhino, a hippo, an elephant a giraffe and a polar bear still bearing a visible gunshot wound to its head).

In the afternoon, I visit the castle and walk around the State Apartments, decorated in a range of Regency Gothick and Victorian styles.  I then visit Christchurch; both it and St Patrick feel very familiar, with extensive Victorian design work on their interior from stained glass through to floor ceramics. Both feel a lot more like the cathedrals in Newcastle and Edinburgh more than York or Lincoln.  The crypt of Christ Church is very distinctive though, with its collection of old monuments and statues; the last Stuart Kings share the space with a cat mummified inside the cathedral organ while chasing a rat. There’s also an Armenian Khachkar outside in commemoration of the genocide. From here I pass onto St Parick’s Cathedral; sets of Tudor monuments are balanced with the flags of Victorian regiments and monuments to Victorian imperial campaigns in Burma and China. Lastly that day, I spend sometime walking around St Stephen’s Green with it statues to Joyce, Tagore and Yeats. There’s a heron on an island in the lake that doesn’t seem to get on with the crowd of rather aggressive gulls. I’m amused by some of the details about the park during the rising; a cease fire had to be declared between English and Irish forces so that the park keeper could feed the ducks.

The next day I visit the National Gallery of Ireland. The collection of European art is extensive; a set of medieval Russian icons, paintings by Perugino, Titian, Moroni, Velasquez, Poussin, Zubaran, Ruysdael, Panini, Bellotto, Goya, Monet, Sisley, Feininger, Caillebotte, Reynolds, Lawrence, Hogarth and Fra Angelico. Much of the Irish art is new to me, like the work of John and Jack Yeats. It also includes works by Douglas Hamilton,  Danby, Hone, Leech (Leech’s Breton paintings seem especially memorable) & Lavery and stained glass by Harry Clarke. Lastly, there’s an exhibition of Kathe Kollwitz engravings. In the afternoon, I visit the National Museum of Ireland. Although it does have a small Egyptian section (more mummified cats), it mostly focuses on Ireland from the neolithic period through to the Viking and Medieval periods. That includes a log boat, bog bodies, gold torcs & lunulas, medieval relquaries and crosses as well as a psalter retrieved from a bog. There’s also a small collection of objects gathered by Roger Casement in his travels in South America and Africa.

On my final day, I go for a walk along the Liffey past the Ha’penny bridge down to Four Courts. I then backtrack and walk north of the Liffey, past the General Post Office and the Parnell and O’Donnell monuments to the City Gallery. The collection of Impressionist paintings is very good, with works by Pissarro, Renoir, Manet and a Rodin sculpture. There’s also more stained glass by Harry Clarke and the contents of Francis Bacon’s studio, transplanted here from London. Some paintings that catch by eye are Robert Ballagh’s pop-art Third of May – After Goya,  Brian Duggan’s Wall of Death Rider, Paul Seawright’s Invisible Cities: Mist and some of Elizath Magill’s landscapes.

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Bristolian Open Doors

Having comprehensively photographed Oxford out in previous years, I decide to visit Bristol instead for this year’s Heritage Open Days. When I arrive a visit a few of the churches first, starting with St Thomas the Martyr and Christ Church with St Ewen. I’d wanted to see the latter for a long time; the beautiful Georgian interior glows with light as painted cherubs look down. The original Quarter Jacks that used to stand outside on the church clock are on display inside. I then walk to St John on the Wall, with its long & thin interior and medieval monuments. I then go to St James’ Priory, with its Romanesque interior and Tudor monuments.

After these, I walk to the Red Lodge. Originally built in the Elizabethen period, as evidenced by the knot garden, while the interior is a mix of Tudor and Georgian; the chimney and some of the carved wooden cabinets are especially impressive. Next to it is the Bristol Wigwam, home of the Savages artistic society, filled with odd paraphernalia and generally not very good paintings. The weather becomes a bit unpredictable at this point and my umbrella makes an appearance. I walk to visit the small Colston Almshouse Chapel and the Emmanuel Meeting House before visiting the interior of the church of St Stephen, which has a particularly elaborate set of monuments.

Walking back towards the town centre, I notice that the statue of Edward Colston has had its face spray-painted white; presumably a protest against a statue of a slave owner given the recent removal of Confederate statues in the United States. While I’m walking around someone asks me if I’m going on the march; I have no idea what they’re talking about but I notice later that there’s an anti-austerity demonstration outside City Hall. I wryly note placards attacking Bristol’s Mayor for cutting the city budget and calling him to pass an illegal budget instead; Bristol’s Mayor is of course from the Labour Party.

I then visit the Georgian House Museum; the house of a slave owner who made his wealth in the sugar trade. The museum does a good job in explaining the background. My visit is drawing to a close at this point; I visit the Cathedral and the church of St Mary Redcliffe before going round the Redcliffe caves. The caves are unlit and I find myself stumbling around somewhat, but there’s enough light from phones and torches to show details like the roots of trees intruding through the save ceiling.

Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon

There are certain classes of city for whom their geography is an intrinsic part of their aesthetic; thinking of the Venetian archipelago with its canals and bridges, Prague with its castle on the hill and the lower town separated from it by the river or Manhattan island. Lisbon, with its self-conscious series of miradours as new views unfold between differing combinations of hills overlooking the Tagus, certainly also fits into this class.

The first day on my arrival is spent in the Gulbenkian. It’s a rather odd building building; a Barbican style brutalist conceit surrounded by pleasant gardens occupied by swimming ducklings and sunbathing terrapins. It looks like stumbling across an illustration of Speer’s theory of ruin value in the jungle. Some of the things that leap out to me; the Lalique jewellery, the Islamic tiles and ceramics, a Rembrandt painting of an old man, Greek coins depicting Alexander, Chinese porcelain, Majolica and Della Robbia roundels, paintings by Hubert Robert, Guardi views of Venice, a Monet winter landscape, and some unexpected Burne Jones paintings. Afterwards, we got to the modern art museum; less interesting but I like some of the paintings by Amadeo de Souza Cardoso and, a Sonia Delaunay painting and the tapestries by José de Almada Negreiros. Afterwards we go for a walk in Parque Eduardo VII to the Aqueduto das Aguas Livres.

The following day I get off the Metro at the Praca dos Restauradores and visit the Igreja de São Domingos, with its ruined interior. I then wonder down to the steampunk Elevador de Santa Justa before visiting the Convento do Carmo, the bleached bones of a church ruined in the 1755 earthquake combined with a museum in its surviving buildings, that spans medieval tombs, Peruvian mummies, English Alabaster, Incan sculptures and an Egyptian mummy. After that, I go to the Igreja de São Roque. Like a lot of Portuguese churches, it’s an especially elaborate exercise in gilded baroque, in this case with a large collection of Saint’s head reliquaries. The accompanying museum features a range of medieval painted sculptures. I then walk down past the Pessoa sculpture at the Cafe Brasileira towards the city’s riverfront at the Praça do Comércio.  It’s an especially beautiful square with the open vista of the Tagus on one side and the yellow of the Arco da Rua Augusta buildings on the other side. I then walk eastwards in the direction of the Alfama, past the Manueline remains of the Church of Nossa Senhora da Conceição, and the Casa dos Bicos up to the Sé. The cathedral is a dark Romanesque building with  a later gothic cloister in contrast to the rather colourful architecture surrounding it. After that, I head further up the hill to the Castelo de São Jorge. Little remains of the Moorish castle beyond an extensive series of walls that seem to meander endlessly. It’s hot in the late afternoon sun and I finally sit down to watch a rehearsal for a Tango concert.  A somewhat territorial part-albino peacock occasionally cries out.

The following day I travel out on a rather crowded tram to Belém and the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. I’m a little surprised at how busy this is relative to anything else in Lisbon and have to queue for a rather longtime. Once inside, the detailing on the Manueline gothic is incredible, while the church of Santa Maria is rather more impressive than the cathedral in Lisbon, complete with Vasco da Gama’s tomb. Afterwards, I walk around some of the nearby park, looking at a Thai temple and the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, before visiting the Torre de Belém. The queues are again rather long here, but once inside it really does feel like looking out on the edge of the world as one stares off into the infinity of the Atlantic ocean.  I spend a bit of time in the Archaeological Museum; some impressive gold torcs, Lusitanian warrior statues, Egyptian cartonnage masks, Roman mosaics, and a beautiful plate depicting Perseus and Medusa. Lastly, I go for a walk along the Tagus to get a view the Golden Gate style Ponte de 25 April.

The next day sees me to take a train out to Sintra. I make the mistake of walking to the Palácio da Pena, which proves a rather uncertain path, but it’s certainly worth it on arrival. The Palace is a blazing riot of colour and fantastical architectural styles. Elaborate gargoyles compete with ceramics to detail the exterior walls. I begin by walking round its outer walls; the view off into the distance is surprisingly hazy. I walk inside the chapel with is strikingly colourful stained glass before entering the palace; I especially like a lot of the detailed stained glass and Turkish sculptures. I then walk around the park; it’s effectively a botanical garden with valleys filled with ferns, giant Redwood trees, lily filled ponds,  all dotted with follies of Islamic domes, Swiss style chalets and Greek temples, before ending in a series of lakes. Dragon flies flit across the lake. I then walk up to the  Castelo dos Mouros. Butterflies flit about and rest in the sun on the walls.

The following day, I decide to return to Sintra, having not had enough time for everything I’d wanted to do the previous day. This time I stay closer to the centre of the town and visit the Palacio Nacional. There’s a series of centrepiece rooms revolving around their ceiling designs; the Swan room, the Magpie room, the Galley room and the Mermaid room. The Mudejar style chapel and Coat of Arms room are probably the most impressive, along with a pagoda model given to the Portuguese Queen by the Senate of Macau. The kitchens are actually also rather striking, given the massively over-sized chimneys that resemble kilns more than anything else. Finally, I walk to Quinta da Regaleira. The house here is rather small, albeit with much of the interior covered in elaborate plasterwork, frescoes and mosaics. The grounds by contrast are extensive and filled with follies, from crenellated towers through to spiralling wells and underground tunnels. As I pause for a break a small vole scurries across the path.

The next day is back in Libson and I visit the Pantheon. Loosely modelled on its Parisian equivalent, most of the building was originally an uncompleted church until the Salazar government had the dome added to complete it for this purpose. The monuments are eclectic, ranging from cenotaphs to Vasco da Gama and Henry the Navigator, Fado singers and football players. You can walk up to the dome gallery and from there out onto the roof of the church. After that, I go to the church of São Vicente de Fora, with its elaborate series of cloisters whose walls are lined with Azulejo tiles, many of them based on Fontaine’s fables. The monastery also contains a series of Royal tombs and you can go up onto the roof here as well. Lastly, I visit the rather steampunk Water Museum at Barbadinhos.

The next day I take the tram out to Alcantara and the Museu do Oriente. It’s rather out of the way and seems somewhat sparsely visited but it’s a really excellent museum. It covers Portugal’s colonial history, dwelling on Macau and Goa in particular, with exhibits ranging from Namban screens, porcelain, Bodhisattva sculptures, Netsuke and carved ivory; there’s a good set of paintings of early Macau and a small area dedicated to east Timor, including carvings of Westerners. The upper floor in the museum is dedicated to Chinese opera; from Mao-era glove puppets through to series of strange masks and costumes. I then walk eastwards back to the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga. There’s a range of paintings by Memling, Metsys, Cranach, Tiepolo, Bosch (a painting I’d seen last year in the Prado) as well as Nuno Gonçalves. There’s also a complete Della Robbia statue, something I’d not seen before. The crafts section spans Islamic tiles, Brussels tapestries, an ornate monstrance, a Benin saltcellar, Mughal cabinets and medieval Portuguese sculptures made of wood. The museum has a pleasant garden filled with statues and I pause for a bit for the view out to the Ponte de 25 April.

The next day I take the train up to Porto. The train station itself is particularly impressive, its walls covered in Azulejo depictions of scenes from Portuguese history. The first thing I do is visit the nearby cathedral; like Lisbon, it’s a dark Romanesque affair but here the gothic cloisters have been covered in Azulejo tiles. I then walk downhill to the Rraca da Ribeira and the Dom Luís I Bridge; it’s a rather more impressive waterfront than in Lisbon due to sharp incline down to the river on both sides. From where I stand, I can see over to the monastery and port cellars on the others. I then visit the Igreja de Sao Francisco, a beautifully gilded baroque church filled with elaborate painted wooden statues showing scenes from the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian to a Tree of Jesse.  The church has an extraordinary series of catacombs, filled with named niches for dead priests until it ceased to be used as an ossuary in the mid 19th century. I then visit the Lello bookshop with its Escheresque staircase.  I then visit the Clerigos tower, with its rather labyrinthine series of stairwells sitting between the outer and inner walls before visiting some of the churches and returning to the train station.

On the final day, I walk to the nearby bullring before visiting the Decorative Arts Museum and the Casa Museu Dr A Gonçalves.

While out in Lisbon, I was reading Multatulis Max Havelaar. It’s an interesting book; I can’t think of any English account of its colonial practices that was so critical, although the author does veer between a number of positions; criticism of the colonial principle as intrinsically wrong, criticism of specific aspects of colonial administration and criticism of the corrupt rule of the native aristocracy; for all of the criticisms of colonialism there is little here to advocate self-rule. Part of the reason for this diffraction lies in the Matryoshka like structure of the book. It is ostensibly the product of the editing of a set of documents written by Droogstoppel’s former’s classmate Sjaalman, with the distance in views between them being satirically foregrounded. Then within the novel itself, Havelaar’s narrative is counterpointed by the tale Saidjah and Adinda, the one point in the novel where the Javanese are allowed to speak for themselves.

I also read Interzone, a set of stores and drafts that preceded Naked Lunch, albeit mostly written in the still realistic style of Junky. Much of the content is familiar; Burroughs makes clear that he was in Tangier due to its lax attitude to gay sex, but the narratives are filled with internalised homophobia; he writes of a “silly fairy… under (whose) vacuous camping, I see pure evil… a loathsome insect.” Elsewhere he writes of “embattled queens… histrionic guestures and pathetic screams.” It also shows a lot of the fear of the feminine, as when he writes of “her cunt clicks open like a snap-knife.”As ever Burroughs’ homosexuality is partly a revulsion against femininity but which manifests itself further in fear of male effeminacy.  One of the ways this manifests itself is in the creation of the William Lee character, a version of Burroughs distanced from such things; “I include the author, Lee, in the novel and by doing so separate myself from him so that he becomes another character.” Everything in the narrative is fractured; “Tangier seems to exist on several dimensions…. fact merges into dream and dreams erupt into the real world… nobody in Tangier is what they seem to be.”

 

 

 

 

Cottonopolis

Manchester reminds me of London rather more than anywhere else in England. Some of this is attributable to some of its rather warren like streets, but its more to do with the nest of cranes covering much of the skyline. Whereas coming into Birmingham on the train still passes an empty waste ground near the former Euston station, the train into Manchester passes through a series of construction sites. The only substantial skyscrapers outside of London are to be found here, although there’s nothing comparable to the Shard or the Gherkin; the Beetham tower deserves more comparison with the Heron Tower. Equally, there’s nothing really to match some of the public sector projects in other English cities, like Birmingham and Liverpool’s new libraries or the Sage in Gateshead. With that said, it’s impossible not to notice that beneath all the new towers the number of rough sleepers in Manchester seems a lot higher than in London.

Arriving at Piccadilly, I walk into the centre of town. Most of the city’s architecture is unsurprisingly Victorian, but the walk passes through a range of periods; the central Library built in the thirties by Vincent Harris with its beautiful stained glass panels based on Shakespearean characters, the gothic revival town hall built by Waterhouse with its corresponding statues of Cobden, Gladstone and Prince Albert, the church of St Ann with its enamelled stained glass built just before the Georgian period and the medieval Cathedral. Damaged during the blitz, the interior is in itself a conflation of styles with medieval choir stalls sitting near contemporary stained glass.

I spend sometime in Barry’s art gallery. I recall most of the pieces from a previous visit years ago; it’s nice to re-acquaint myself with paintings like Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, Mengin’s Sappho, Valette’s Windsor Bridge on the Irwell, Prinsep’s At the Golden Gate and works by Sickert, Augustus John, Lowry and Gewn John. There’s also a rare Giacometti painting. Annoyingly a lot of the galleries are shut, but there is an exhibition on work by Wynford Dewhurst, an early English advocate of impressionism, whose work is heavily influenced by Monet.  There’s also a small Dutch painting exhibition, including some landscapes by Ruisdael. Afterwards I visit the John Rylands Library. Built to a design by Basil Champneys, the interior is essentially based on a gothic revival church, with reading desks substituted for pews and statues of the founders substituted for the altar. Lacking Victorian high-church decoration, the gloom of the interior is only counterpointed by the lights. Lastly, I visit the Manchester Museum, through its collections of Egyptian sculpture and sarcophagi, coral, body casts from Pompeii, Palymran sculpture, Scrimshaws, Samurai armour, a stuffed Tigon, Benin ivories, a terrarium inhabited by rare frog species, an Elephant skeleton, gold Buddha statues, mounted Butterfly specimens, an Archaeopteryx fossil, Moche & Nazca sculptures, a Whale skeleton and a stuffed Dodo.

Liverpool is a more eclectic prospect. The area outside Lime Street Station is filled with Victorian building and monuments, from St George’s Hall to the Walker Gallery, but as you walk down towards the Mersey the area is filled with Edwardian designs that seem rather more reminiscent of New York than most English cities. The Portland stone recalls London more than Manchester or Birmingham. Liverpool’s most impressive buildings cluster around the waterfront here, facing outward to Ireland and the United States; combined with immigration from Ireland it’s little wonder that the city seems atypical for England.  Unlike Manchester, the skyline is not dotted with cranes and the contemporary buildings resembling black shards house the public sector bodies like the Museum of Liverpool. The redbrick warehouses around Albert Dock revert to Victoriana, while the two twentieth century cathedrals sit alongside Georgian houses. Statues of Queen Victoria compete with the Beatles and Cilla Black.

I start by visiting the Walker Gallery with its large collection of casts and Victorian sculptures; a painted Venus by Gibson mirrors a plain version I’d seen at the Fitzwilliam a few months earlier. There’s also an arts and crafts section showing Victorian ceramics from local potteries alongside stained glass and tiles by Burne Jones, a Minton peacock and Fornasetti plates. Upstairs houses the huge painting collection, featuring works by Holbein, Cranach, Rembrandt, a fake Mona Lisa, Titian, Veronese, Poussin, Hogarth, Wright, Freud, Doig, Minton and Knight. I’m especially struck by a set of Bosch like paintings by Albert Reynolds, a local artist who died in the First World War. As another local artist there’s also rather more of Stubbs than I would really have liked. The Victorian collection is quite large already but there’s an additional exhibition featuring works by Sandys, Rossetti, Millais, Maclise, Holman Hunt and Burne Jones. There’s also an unusual example of a Daguerre painting. Some of the artists are less familiar as they’d stayed with the Pre Raphaelite style well into the twentieth century, like John Struthwick or because of their gender, as with Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale. A lot of the paintings like Dante’s Dream by Rossetti or Stanhope’s Expulsion from Eden are new to me in any case.

Down at the Pierhead, I visit both the Tate and the Maritime Museum. The former has a small Ellsworth Kelly exhibition as well as a smattering of works by Rothko and Lowry; particularly memorable works include an abstract painting by Gabriel Orozco, Perlin’s painting of Two Orthodox Boys and above all Grosz’s Suicide. The Maritime Museum includes a set of paintings showing how the Liverpool seafront changed over time but the main exhibitions dwell on the sinkings of the Lusitania and the Titanic.

Walking away from the waterfront I arrive at the Anglican cathedral. Despite the gothic detailing it’s hardly less imposing than his power station designs; the vast interior is incredibly dark with floodlights doing little to illuminate the cavernous interior. More than anything, it reminds me of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Brussels (and to a lesser extent Sacre Coeur in Paris), which also towers over the city. As I leave on the train, the only thing visible from a distance is the cathedral tower rising up above the sea of terraced roofs. Close-up, walking around the building takes you down a cliff edge to a Victorian graveyard (including Huskisson’s tomb) and then leads back up a to quiet wood at the back of the building. Not too far is its Catholic counterpart; an unusual circular building designed by Gibberd which already seems to be falling apart if the bad state of the interior is enough to judge by. The main interest is the Lutyens crypt which extends well beyond the area of the building. Plans showing the full Lutyens design for a building which would have dwarfed everything else in the city do rather remind me (almost certainly unfairly) of Speer’s Germania plans.

The last place I visit in the North West is Chester. I walk in from the train station, noticing the redevelopment of the derelict shot tower and steam mills by the canal before heading into the centre with its half-timbered buildings. The main thing I’m interested in is the cathedral; a red sandstone affair like Lichfield whose exterior is covered in grotesques and gargoyles. The first thing you see are the cloisters, whose windows are filled with Victorian stained glass and whose interior garden pond seems popular with the local ducks.  The cathedral proper has a wonderful set of medieval misericords, an Austrian cobweb painting, Minton tiling and some unusual Victorian wall mosaics.  Afterwards, I go for a walk along the Roman walls, stopping at the amphitheatre and baths.

Lenin’s Finger

The Design Museum’s Imaginary Moscow exhibition recalls a lot of points from the Royal Academy’s Revolutionary Art exhibition that I’d attended the week before; suprematist inkwells, ‘Those who do not work do not eat’ porcelain or the film of the destruction of Moscow’s cathedral to build the Palace of the Soviets (although the film of the freezing cold swimming pool Brezhnvev converted the aborted construction project into is new). A suprematist children’s book featuring the adventures of two squares is also something of a novelty.

This exhibition dwells on unbuilt aspects of Moscow; the Palace itself (including a fullsize model of the finger from the Lenin statue),  designs for Lenin’s mausoleum, the Lenin institute, communal housing and government buildings. Architectural blueprints from Lissitzky and Melnikov are punctuated by suprematist drawings from Popova and propaganda posters. Leonidov’s Lenin Institute and Lissitzy’s Cloud Iron designs are utopian gravity-defying designs that would be challenging now, while Vesnin’s Commissariat of Heavy Industry and Iofan’s Palace are much more similar to buildings that were actually constructed at the time (in concept if not in scale). The designs for Lenin’s Mausoleum are rather more fantastical given that many of those submitting designs worked in professions like carpentry; in one such concept Lenin is precariously balanced on top of a large globe surmounting the building. A film showing all of the planned construction in Moscow sits alongside Aelita Queen of Mars, and much of it does indeed look like a set of model for a science fiction film.

Afterwards, I walk round Holland Park, looking at the lovely Kyoto and Dutch gardens; the waters in the pond are perfectly clear and carp can be seen swimmingly lazily about below. I also run into a squirrel and encounter a peacock before walking down the Thames to Albert Bridge and then back to Victoria.

The following week I go to the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition. As one might surmise the interest is as much in a social history than in art; items include the fatal calling card from the Marquess of Queensbury (unsurprisingly his handwriting was as terrible as his spelling), physique magazines, Wilde’s cell door, stills from Victim, Noel Coward’s dressing gown, a copy of the Wolfenden report and (most entertainingly) a set of over two hundred buttons collected as trophies from guardsman a gay couple had slept with. Much of the exhibition dwells on theatreland and music hall; there are probably few exhibitions where photos of historical drag acts sit alongside the Bloomsbury Group.

The exhibition begins in the Victorian period with Simeon Solomon, Edward Leighton and Henry Scott Tuke; I’d previously been unaware that Evelyn de Morgan’s relationship with Jane Hales is often interpreted as like that of Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal, with Jane’s face recurring on paintings like that of Aurora, shown here. Interpretation plays greatly here; if Meteyard’s painting of Love in Bondage was not intended as an allegory of forbidden love, it gains that interpretation by the association of its context here. Equally, figures like Semele and Endymion take on a same-sex aspect purely due to Solomon’s androgynous rendering (which is not intrinsically all that different to someone like Burne Jones) rather than by the specific subject matter. Even so, it’s often a rather mournful section; a Solomon drawing shows a male bridegroom holding the hand of his melancholy lover behind his back as he embraces his bride. A cup is dedicated ‘on the mournful occasion of his transition into matrimony.’

In a lot of cases, the gay element is the subject rather than the artist; the next room features paintings of Edward Carpenter and Havelock Ellis along with a series of beautifully elaborate miniatures designed for a lesbian couple (one of the many reminders that while figures like Solomon and Wilde loom large so many people quietly lived, loved and passed away unremarked). Two portraits of Radclyffe Hall and Oscar Wilde stand near one another. Both are dressed similarly but where the Wilde portrait is a full length depiction of a confident and successful man (auctioned after his disgrace), Hall’s is more emphatic. She looks away from the viewer and her expression is somber. Much of the exhibits are much defiantly pagan; Beardsley’s Yellow Book illustrations, Cecil Beaton’s glittering photos of figures like Stephen Tennant through to Duncan Grant’s paintings of bathers.  A painting of Laura Knight painting a female nude is another example of the layers of meaning being accrued to a work rather than something inherent in it, in contrast to the more explicit intention behind a similar nude by Dora Carrington.

I’m surprised to see examples of Halliwell and Orton’s legendary defaced library books and equally surprised by how funny they are; there’s also one of Halliwell’s paintings. For all his reputation as an artistic failure, it’s rather good. Finally, the later sections are taken by with Hockney and Bacon alongside less well known artists like Keith Vaughan, John Minton and John Craxton. The Minton paintings particularly interest me; I also like some of John Deakin’s photographs of London’s gay scene, from Francis Bacon to a woman dressed as a drag queen, Afterwards, I go to the David Gwinnutt photos at the National Portrait Gallery, extending the same theme into the eighties. I also note one of Grayson’s Perry’s drawings; Map of Days. It uses a medieval town map as a model for mental states, including pastiches of a range of architectural styles. Not sure I’ve liked all of Perry’s work, but I like this.

Corbet’s Childhood of a Leader is something of an oddity; an attempt at depicting the childhood of a future fascist leader during the drafting of the Versailles treaty. Some of the incidents used echo actual events (Mussolini would throw stones at a church in his childhood just like his proxy here) but the comfortably bourgeois background as the son of an establishment diplomat looks little like those of Hitler, Stalin or Mussolini, who all came from rather more lower class milieu. The abstraction is something of a problem; it doesn’t really tell us much about the likes of Franco or Mosley and doesn’t really seem to apply well to contemporary demagogues either; it would work as well as a frame for a serial killer film as for the purposes devised for it here. The film intends to show how power changes depending on the social status involved, with this being paralleled to the peace conference; the sacking of an elderly servant forming one of the key events.  Nonetheless, the film mostly stresses the personality traits that go into the development of such a mentality and decentres social or economic elements (perhaps this is rather welcome given the contemporary tendency to stress the former above all else). The film is loosely based on a Sartre story showing such a scenario in Freudian terms; The boy’s infatuation with his tutor turns to anger when he discovers her alone with his father; the plot does deviate from the straightforward Freudian line when  his conspiracy against both of them to end in an act of violence against his mother whose absence had previously given him nightmares.  The child’s feminine appearance is often commented on (with the boy’s long hair he looks a lot like Bjorn Anderson in the film of Death in Venice). The use of the same actor to depict both a family friend and the adult dictator (this time with his hair entirely cropped) further suggests the issue of paternity is complicated.

I get taken to a couple of plays as well; firstly, The Miser at The Garrick. Played as a straightforward farce with plenty of topical references (trickle down economics, boom and bust) and audience interaction (mostly to an unnamed banker in the front row), it works very well. A pointed reference to the Guardian’s three star review (on the grounds that all the characters were played as grotesques, not just the Miser) doesn’t really diminish this. By contrast, Salome at the National Theatre is plain dire; the staging is often very imaginative (as a character walks along a ladder into the light or as a curtain of sand falls in the background) but even the incessant wailing in the background and the turning of the circular stage are just plain annoying but its turned from an exercise in eroticism into rather trite political agitprop.

Ascending and Descending

I’ve wanted to visit University College for sometime now, mostly because of the Shelley Memorial. Set in a railed off part of the college the memorial is a beautiful piece with the white marble of the naked figure set against spare purple walls. The college chapel is also rather wonderful with a series of stained glass panels showing Genesis and Jonah & the whale. Next, I visit the Blavatnik building. The circular exterior has an amphitheatre as its lecture hall as the base, with concentric ramps up to the upper floors. There’s a series of spiral staircases that lead upwards to a terrace looking out over the city. Later, I go to Pembroke where the chapel has a Bach organ concert.

The following weekend is the open doors days for London. I visit the baroque church of St John Smith Square (an orchestra here is giving a  rendition of the Van der Valk theme tune) before visiting Cutler’s Hall in the city. As one might expect the hall features elephant designs everywhere; in the stained glass, the banisters, cushions and rafters. There’s some rather beautiful stained glass showing a series of industrial scenes; rather unusual for the Victorian period. I then visit some of the Victorian dock warehouses at Wapping before visiting the Royal Society. Exhibits like Newton’s death mask and some of Priestley’s electrical equipment are on display. Lastly, I visit the William Morris gallery in Hammersmith, where a printing press demonstration is being held. The next day, I visit the Sandys Row synagogue. Tucked away in a warren of lanes, the interior is rather expansive, although the combination of an old Bimah with a set of what look like thirties pews is rather odd.

A few weeks later, and I head to Reading for the open day at Reading Gaol.  A tour leads us throughout the original debtor’s prison, through rooms that look like they were only abandoned a few weeks ago.  The highlight of the main prison wings is obviously Oscar Wilde’s cell and the prison chapel, along with photo and video installations by Nan Goldin and Wolfgang Tillmans. Alongside the modern installations are various photographs of the prisoners and of the prison as it originally stood.

A few weeks later and I visit the Royal Academy’s Abstract Expressionism exhibition. The most impressive room is dedicated to Clyfford Still’s work; where Pollock’s work aims to emulate the entropic element of nature, Still’s work does often rather resemble natural patterns; the bark peeling off a silver birch, rust on old machinery or paint peeling off a wooden door. The sense of depth is a lot greater than on Pollock’s accreted layers of dripped paints. The other highlight is the room dedicated to Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt. Reinhardt’s work composites layers of similar paint combinations on top of one another; the black paintings in particular require quite a lot of time for the eye to adjust to see the colour variations. It’s like the visual equivalent of  a Philip Glass painting. The Newman works remind me rather more of Mondrian, with their flat planes of bold primary colour intersected by vertical ‘zips.’ Other things that strike me; Barbara Morgan’s black and white light paintings, Lee Krasner’s The Eye if the First Circle, Kline’s Vawdavitch, De Kooning’s Villa Borghese and a small collection of Rothkos. There’s also a small John Gibson exhibition, showing a range of scuptures and funerary monuments.  A few weeks later and I go to the National Gallery’s Caravaggio exhibition.  Works by Caravaggio are interspersed alongside pieces by his followers.  Some of the earliest works, like those by Francesco Buoneri mirror his master closely. Later works by Gentilleschi, Reni and Ribera, Regnier and Tournier diverge more in their greater use of colour. Later sections record the irony that while Caravaggio never painted a candlelit scene this was arguably  his greatest influence, shown here in works by Honthorst and de la Tour.

Lastly, I find myself spending an afternoon in Cambridge. I visit the chapel at Robinson college, with its wonderful stained glass landscape window by John Piper, before spending a few hours in the Fitzwilliam. Things that catch my attention; a bust of Antinous, Greek dramatic masks, a Roman mosaic, a Gibson Venus, the collection of Egyptian sarcophagi, the spectre of Braze Alonzo, a Burges cupboard and a trillion Dollar Zimbabwean note.

Tombland

Arriving in Norwich, I walk over the Wensum river and through a park with a Hepworth sculpture in it, through to the church of St George Colegate. The exterior of the church looks a lot like other buildings in the city, the exterior is of beautiful flint but the interior is Georgian, with plain white walls and wooden furnishings. Walking into the centre, I visit the main square, which is a slightly bewildering concoction of architectural styles. The Guildhall’s wall are filled with white and black diamond patterns while opposite is the City Hall, a sort of brutalist art deco building with an entrance flanked by two rather elegant lions. I then visit the church of St Peter Mancroft, with its ornate wooden flèche.  The interior includes a medieval wooden font canopy, Flemish tapestries, medieval stained glass and a Comper designed reredo. The architectural gallimaufry is further compounded by the nearby presence of a beautiful art nouveau shopping arcade. I then wonder around some of the other nearby churches in Norwich, many of them shut like St Giles, or others that have been turned into shops like St Michael-at-Plea or indoor markets like St Gregory Pottergate.

The next day begins with a rare burst of sunlight and I visit rather dark and gloomy Catholic Cathedral before visiting its Anglican counterpart. It seems somewhat odd to have to walk in through a modern visitor centre, although I do like (admittedly rather incongruous) Zen gravel garden. This leads out into the cloisters and I spend some time looking at the ceiling bosses; Green men, Hellmouths, Demons and the Many Headed Beast from Revelations. Inside the cathedral I look at medieval frescos, Burne Jones stained glass, medieval stained glass, a former toffee vat re-purposed as a font and the famous Gooding monument. I also visit some of the now open churches nearby; St George Tombland with its papier mache civic dragon, Flemish reliefs of St George and the dragon and Kempe stained glass. I also visit St Peter Hungate, which is mostly empty and home to a photo exhibition of Norfolk churches. There are some old wooden pews with carvings of muzzled bears, medieval stained glass and brass monuments left though.

That afternoon the weather worsens and I visit the Museum and Art gallery in the castle. Sections like the Norwich school of painters with their bucolic scenes of the local countryside do little for me, although I do like one night scene set in Amsterdam.  There aren’t many works I recognise; a version of the Anunciation by Burne Jones and a portrait by Zoffany. There’s also the painting of the Paston treasure, accompanied by some of the objects in it. Things I like; the original Snap the Civic Dragon from St George Tombland, medieval stained glass showing the seasons, Roman metal bowls showing mythological scenes, the original Romanesque entry door, the Spong man ceramic lid, the Worthing helmet, the Snettisham torcs and medieval alabaster carvings. I’m also rather struck of the country’s largest collection of teapots; stoneware through to Wedgewood, teapots cast as tanks and as camels, as well as the world’s largest teapot, a chinoiserie affair from the Great Exhibition. The design section has a large collection of medieval stained glass, de Morgan tiles, while the Natural History section has a large collection of taxidermy animals; lions, a boxing Kangaroo and a Cassowary. I also like Scrimshaw Whale teeth and Nautilus shells. As in Exeter Museum, there’s a small room showcasing the displays of a Victorian collector, ranging from mounted butterflies through to custard pots. I’m especially taken by the Egyptian room, including a Mummy sarcophagus and Rider Haggard’s faked sherd from She. Lastly, there’s a rather macabre basement dwelling on the castle’s time as a prison and featuring casts of the heads of various murderers and criminals.

On my last day in Norfolk, I take a train out to Wymondham. It’s a rather dark and gloomy day and the old ruins look suitably gothic against a blackened sky. The interior is actually rather colourful, with another vivid set of Comper reredos in the midst of a series of Romanesque arches.

 

 

Leaving the Atocha Station

It’s a searingly hot afternoon when I arrive in Madrid, so I decide to spend my first afternoon in the Retiro Park. The Retiro is one of the most beautiful parks I’ve seen, filled with sculptures and monuments; stone Sphinxes look on as metal Iguanas spout water into pools where terrapins swim. I walk down a boulevard to the Alfonso Monument, with its colonnades surrounding a central sculpture; giant fish spout water into a boating lake. I walk on to the monument to Lucifer and the Crystal Palace. The Palace has a small art exhibition; at the centre a pendulum gradually creates sand patterns on the floor as it swings to and fro. I walk onward to a rose garden and a set of Japanese gardens; a raft of ducks become competitive as bread is offered.

The next day I take the Metro to the  Teatro Real and walk to the Plaze de Oriente. In contrast to the fantastical Retiro, the Plaze is a geometrically precise formal garden, lined on either side with statues of Spanish Kings and Queens and with an equestrian statue of Philip the Second at its centre. Facing it is the Palacio Real; I walk past it and visit the Catedral de la Almudena. It’s an odd building; the exterior is defined by austere neo-classicism while the interior is a form of cold gothic, but the ceilings are decorated with garish primary colours as are the stained glass in the windows. The crypt is perhaps more striking, with its illuminated arcades silhouetted against the darkness. After that, I walk down past the old Moorish city walls to the Campo Del Moro. With the Palacio Real towering above its fountains and trees, the Campo is a rather more conventional park than the Retiro, with the exception of the odd inclusion of  a Swiss cottage. In one of the rose gardens, I encounter a peacock family with two chicks.

In one of the other parks nearby, I visit the Temple of Debod. This Egyptian temple rests at summit of a hill in the middle of an ornamental pond. After this, I walk back into central Madrid and the Plaza de España; the monument to Cervantes here is only rivalled by the Scott Monument in Edinburgh for a country creating a grand memorial to its writers. The presence of the nearby wedding cake style skyscraper, the Edificio España, makes for an odd counterpoint.  I then travel onto the Plaza Mayor, a grand square surrounded by uniform buildings in a  bright scarlet on all sides with an equestrian statue of Philip the Third by Giambologna in the centre, the Plaza del Sol with its Bear and Strawberry Tree statue and down the Gran Via. The Gran Via is probably best described as a more ornate version of Oxford Street; I’m especially impressed by the Edificio Telefonica, a skyscraper that would not have looked out of place in Manhattan. Lastly, I find myself at the Plaza de Cibeles, where Madrid’s City Hall is located.

The following day, I visit the Palacio Real. I initially walk through the armoury with its collection of Moorish and Medieval weaponry. In the palace itself, a lot of the rooms have ceilings with frescoes drawn by Tiepolo and Bourbon era paintings by Goya; I especially like the porcelain and chinoiserie rooms. The golden lions in the throne room rather remind me of the Rosenborg slot in Copenhagen. As this is the centenary of the death of Cervantes, a number of tapestries showing scenes from Don Quixote are on display. At the end there’s an exhibition which includes a Bernini sculpture of the crucifixion, paintings by Caravaggio, Guido Reni and Ribera. That afternoon, I visit the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. Some of the things I’m most struck by; Bernini’s sculpture of Saint Sebastian, The Virgin of the Dry Tree by Christus, Weyden’s Virgin and Child, Carpaccio’s Knight in a Landscape, Angelico’s Virgin, Titian’s Doge, Brueghel’s Garden of Eden,  Saenredam’s Mariakerk, Rembrandt’s Self-Portrait,  Ter Borch’s Portrait of a Man, Holbein’s Portrait of Henry the Eighth, Ruebens’ Portrait of a Young Woman with a Rosary, Friedrich’s Easter Morning, Cole’s Expulsion, Manet’s Horsewoman, Monet’s Charing Cross Bridge, Renoir’s Wheatfield, Van Gogh’s Les Vessenots, Grosz’s Metropolis, Ernst’s Solitary and Conjugal Trees, Macke’s Circus, Dali’s Dream Caused by The Flight of a Bee and O’Keeffe’s New York Street. There’s also a small exhibition of photographs taken in Wyeth’s native city of Chadd’s Ford. For the rest of the afternoon, I take a stroll to Plaza Santa Ana and the  Mercado de San Miguel.

The entirety of the following day is occupied with a rather more extensive visit to the Prado. There’s an exhibition on for the Bosch centenary; in addition to the gallery’s own collection it’s also brought together Bosh works from across Europe, many of which I’ve seen before, but the highlights are The Garden of Earthly Delights, the Haywain Triptych and the Temptations of Saint Anthony.  Items like The Table of the Seven Deadly Sins are also entirely new to me. The Prado collections proper begin with Romanesque painting, often from preserved church interiors, rather reminding me of similar frescoes I’d seen in Barcelona.  The linkages between Hispanic and Flemish art of the medieval period are new to me, if unsurprising, in paintings of still lives and Boscheque scenes of the fall. Extensive collections of renaissance art follow; El Greco, Ribera, Zurbaran, Velasquez and Murillo representing Spain. The Goya collections are especially extensive, divided between the black paintings, court portraiture and interior frescoes. I’m also new to a Spanish school of neo-classical painting similar to David and Ingres and to the 19th Spanish history paintings; Queen Isabella dictating her will and Joanna the Mad at her husband’s funeral. I’m struck by a painting of Nary Tudor I had never realised was by a Spanish artist. The international collections commence with Angelico’s Annunciation and Boticelli’s Story of Nastagio. Other things that catch my eye; a copy of the Mona Lisa, Parmigianino portraits, a series of Hapsburg portraits by Titian, a Bassano painting of God Reprimanding Adam, Weyden’s Virgin and Child, Durer’s self-portrait, a Massys portrait of Christ, Brueghel’s Triumph of Death, Durer’s Adam and Eve, a Rembrandt painting of Judith, Poussin, Robert and Lorrain paintings and a David Roberts paintings of Rome and Seville. There’s also a small set of classical sculptures, of Antinous, Orestes and Pylades and the Apotheosis of Claudius. Lastly there’s a small exhibition of Talbotype illustrations, made of them made around Reading.

The following day and I take the train out to Segovia. It arrives at a very modern station in the middle of nowhere and I have to take a bus out to the centre of the town. Much of that area consists of wasteland and empty office developments; it looks like an aborted project begun before the financial crisis. As the bus arrives, the first thing I see is the aqueduct; almost entirely intact, easily the equal of anything in Rome. I walk up through the town to the cathedral. It has a beautiful gothic interior with a pleasant set of cloisters. I then walk onto the Alcazar. Heavily restored and recreated after a fire in the 19th century, it rather reminds me of Neuschwanstein with its elegant spires balanced at the edge of a cliff face. I enter through the armoury, which then gives way to a series of gothic and mudejar rooms and climb to the top of the tower, from where I can see Storks nesting on top of the nearby pine trees.  A series of formal gardens cling onto the cliff face nearby.  I walk back through the town, loooking at a series of churches with Romanesque capitals and arches.

The next day and I instead travel out to Toledo. The 19th century train station I arrive at is an exotic 19th century confection, designed in a faux-Moorish style. I walk into the town pass over a bridge and walk through a horseshoe arch into the town. The first thing I visit is the Hospital of Santa Cruz. The museum here has a display of Roman mosaics and medieval Spanish ceramics. The gardens and cloisters are beautiful. Walking further into town I visit the cathedral; not unlike Segovia, but the interior is even darker and more cavernous; a treasury contains a large gold monstrance, the cloister walls are painted with frescoes, the transparente which illuminates parts of the nave at different points of the day through two windows, chapels with sets of medieval tombs, a giant fresco of St Christopher covering an entire wall and a Sacristy lined with El Greco and Caravaggio paintings. I then go onto visit the El Greco museum, a pleasant house filled with Moorish ceramics and a beautiful garden. The museum itself contains El Greco paintings of the apostles. I also visit some of the town’s former synagogues and look at a set of Roman baths jutting out the hillside on the edge of the city. Journeying back to Madrid, I arrive at Atocha station and walk around the old nineteenth century station whose interior is now filled with Palms and Ferns growing above ponds where Terrapins lazily swim.

The following day I visit the Museum of the Americas. Exiting a Metro station opposite Franco’s Air Ministry (designed effectively as a replica for a medieval Spanish castle) the museum is housed inside Madrid university, near a rather bizarre viewing platform (not unlike the Space Needle in Seattle).  The museum is extraordinary; enconchando panels showing the Conquest of Mexico, an Incan mummy, Mayan urns, Tlingit helmets, feather hats and Quimbaya gold figurines. The afternoon is spent in the Archaeological Museum. Starting with Stone Age Idols before proceeding to the Iberian period, with extraordinary sculptures like the Lady of Elche. The collection of Roman mosaics is especially extensive along with Roman tombs and sculptures; I’m also struck by a working Roman pump. Later exhibits include the Reccesvinth’s crown from the Guarrazar tomb, Visigothic jewellery, wooden carvings and ceilings from Al-Andalus, medieval capitals and tomb monuments. There’s also an extensive Greek and Egyptian section, filled with statues of Apollo, Canopic Jars, sarcophagi and a statue of Nectanebo.  Finally on that day, I take advantage of late opening to see Guernicaat the Reina Sofia Gallery, along with various works by Dali, Miro, Man Ray, Brassai, Cocteau, mobiles by Calder and a portrait of Tristan Tzara by Delaunay.

The next day and I travel away from Madrid once more out to the Escorial. It’s a rather convoluted route to get there by train, bus and walking but I do finally arrive. The first thing I visit there is the Basilica, which seems most notable for its dark and austere nature; the gold tomb monuments of the Hampsburgs in prayer are probably the most striking. The I walk through a set of frescoed cloisters into the palace, including Philip’s study, the Hall of Battles and the Kaisergruft style crypts. There’s a small art exhibition, including tapestry versions of Bosch paintings, the custmary El Grecos and  a striking Weyden painting of the Crucifixion. The Bourbon apartments are considerably more lively, filled with bright and colourful tapestries showing scenes of Spanish life, many of them designed by Goya. Finally, I walk around the gardens and look out across the Castilian plain to the four Madrid skyscrapers near the train station that can still be seen in the distance, before getting into yet another bus to visit the Valley of the Fallen. The bus heads off deep into the mountains and leaves me at the Valley for two hours. The grandiloquent scale of the architecture contrasts markedly with the quiet and peace of the location; a Hummingbird Moth is fluttering around some flowers while bees drone near a set of bushes. The concrete plateau in front of the Basilica is filled with weeds and inevitably reminds me of Speer’s theory of ruin value. The interior of the Basilica is in many ways nothing more than a drearily conventional Catholic church filled with ceiling mosaics and a somewhat outre choice of tapestries depicting scenes from the Book of Revelations, but the scale and darkness equally give it the atmosphere of a warehouse or tube station.

The last day in Madrid begins with a visit to the Botanical Gardens. There’s a lovely set of displays, from sunflowers and palms to Bonsai trees and Dahlias. At one point I’m distracted by a noise and initially assume it to be the customarily noisy Parrots before I realise that it’s a set of frog mating calls coming from a pond. A series of (presumably employed) cats prowl around, stalking pigeons. Lastly, I visit the Sorolla museum. Not a name I’d previously heard of, the museum reminds me of the Leighton House in Kensington or Moreau’s studio in Montmartre, with rooms filled with his own paintings, Majolica ceramics and medieval sculptures. The paintings themselves I’m less impressed by; an exhibition shows impressionist views of Spanish cities, including a beautiful Burgos snow scene.

The Heart of Midlothian

Edinburgh is a disorienting place for the English traveller.  The neat Georgian buildings of the New Town recall Bath, but the symmetrical grid plan they are laid out on recalls Barcelona. The castle on the rock relates to Edinburgh’s history in the same way the Tower relates to London’s, but the vertiginous geography recalls Prague or Budapest rather than a customarily flat English city.  The Prince’s Street Gardens recall Hyde Park, whereas the crowded kirkyards seem like a relic of London before the Magnificent Seven.  Where London is a conflicting agglomeration of style, the use of similar stones (and decades of blackening air pollution) weld Edinburgh into a cohesive whole irrespective of whether the design is medieval, Georgian or Victorian.

I start my visit by exiting the tram at Princes Street. The first thing I notice is the Walter Scott monument.  Where London lacks monuments to most of its major writers (even Shakespeare only gets a small sculpture in the city) this dominates the entire view of the New Town from the castle. It’s a lovely day with the castle rock still covered in Daffodils. I walk straight down to Calton Hill, where I am somewhat surprised by the rather bright and warm being unreasonably interrupted by snow and hail. Gratefully fishing my umbrella out of my rucksack, I walk around the hill and am taken aback by how far one can see from the Forth Railway Bridge in the far distance  across the Firth of Forth to Arthur’s Seat. I walk back to the old town and visit the cathedral. The interior contrasts between the dark stone and the brightness of the painted blue gothic ceiling. The sun is back out while I’m here and rainbows stream into the church through the stained glass windows. Windows by Burne Jones remind me of England, others showing scenes from Scottish history remind me rather more of Amsterdam and Brussels. I step inside the Chapel of the Thistle before heading out and walking to the castle, looking out at the snow-capped hills and then ending the day at Greyfriar’s Kirkyard.  The late afternoon sunlight casts long shadows around the blackened and weathered gravestones.

The following day I walk a little down from where I’m staying to the Canongate Kirk and its statue of Robert Fergusson, before walking back into the city and visiting the castle.  It’s a rather more dark and forbidding day but the view from the castle is still extraordinary. The first thing I visit is St Margaret’s Chapel, with its Romanesque arch before visiting the National War Memorial. I’m rather taken aback at the scale and beauty of it, quite unlike the unassuming cenotaph in London.  I then look round the castle chambers and the Great Hall (including the Honours, namely Scotland’s Crown Jewels) before visiting the various military museums, particularly exhibits like Napoleon’s eagle.  Lastly, I visit an exhibition of planned designs for the castle; I especially like one modelled on a French chateau. Next, I visit Gladstone’s land, a tenement building and one of Edinburgh’s last 16th century skyscrapers from the time prior to the fall of the city walls. The renaissance painted chamber is easily the most striking thing here, with its ceiling painted with flowers and fruits. Lastly, I visit St Cuthbert’s Kirkyard and the nearby church of St John the Evangelist, with its plaster fan vaulting.

The next day I go for a walk in Princes Street Gardens – I notice a statue of Wotjek, the Polish soldier bear that I particularly like – before arriving at the National Gallery. I start with the renaissance section, with its paintings by Titian, El Greco, Botticelli, Bordone, Veronese, Bassano, Tiepolo and Canaletto. An entire room is filled with depictions of the sacraments by Poussin with paintings by Claude, Fabre and Gauffier outside. The next room concentrates on Spain; Velasquez, Murillo, Goya and Zurbaran. After that is the Netherlands; Massys, Ruisdael, Rembrandt, Saenredam, Dou and Vermeer. The upper floors dwell on modern art; Gauguin, Van Gogh, Seurat, Monet, Singer Sergeant, Sisley, Courbet, Pissarro.The Scottish sections contains names that are often to me; Gavin Hamilton, Nasmyth, Paton, Traquair and Ramsay; there are a few English works thrown in by Reynolds, Gainsborough. Martin and Turner. The basement has an exhibit of Schinkel’s drawings for a planned palace in the Crimea (somewhere between neo-classical and Babylonian) and for a redesign of the Acropolis.  There’s also a small exhibition on romantic landscapes by Peder Balke, Dahl, Thomas Fearnley and Joseph Wright. The gallery architecture is often quite dramatic, with staircases filled with plaster busts in a manner similar to the Ashmolean. Afterwards, I visit the National Portrait Gallery; the building here is equally dramatic with a gothic revival entrance hall filled with sculptures of Burns and Stevenson. Much of the earlier sections are effectively a history of the Stuart dynasty and ultimate Italian exile before dwelling on Scotland’s role in the Empire. Lastly, I manage to cram in a visit to a National Trust Georgian House on Charlotte Square; I’m rather left struck by the combination of Chloroform and Rhubarb powder in one medicine cabinet.

The next day the sun is out again, so I go for a walk in the New Town, visiting the church of St Andrew and St George and St Andrew’s Square before walking back up Calton Hill and visiting the cemetery. I then visit Holyrood Palace. I walk around the grounds to begin with, looking at the ornate Renaissance fountain and the ruins of Holyrood Abbey. The palace facade is distinctly Scottish with its turrets but the interior courtyards remind me of a rather austere version of Hampton Court. Some of the striking aspects are the stairwell, with its swirling plaster ceiling, the long gallery with its reconstructed paintings of historical and mythical Scottish kings (Macbeth being the most prominent), orientalist tapestries with images of camels and the sepulchre-like Mary Queen of Scots chambers, with their collection of Stuart memorabilia through to the Winter King and Bonnie Price Charlie. My ticket also offers entrance to the Queen’s Gallery, so I get a chance to see the Dutch paintings I’d missed in London. The exhibition includes works by Gerrit Dou, Gabriel Metsu, Jan Steen and Pieter de Hooch, and Johannes Vermeer’s ‘A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman.’ Lastly, there’s still several hours left in the day so I set myself the task of climbing Arthur’s Seat. The gorse is in bright flower as I walk up past St Anthony’s chapel to the summit before returning past one a lake filled with swans.

My penultimate day is given up to the National Museum of Scotland.  The Grand Gallery is extraordinarily impressive, featuring exhibits from a Nubian sculpture, a Giant Deer fossil, a lighthouse lens, a Gandharan Buddha, an ironcast fountain, a whale skull and an atom smasher. The Museum ranges from geology (a large amethyst geode and haematite rocks), natural history (a Tyrannosaurus Rex, Ammonites, a Stegosaur, a whale jaw with a scrimshaw of the whaing ship engraved on it, stuffed Pandas, Blaschka models, Elephants and Polar Bears) to the history of science (a Newcomen engine, a working model locomotive). I especially like the ethnography galleries, with their Benin bronzes, Columbian Thunderbird costumes, Ainu inaw sticks, Tibetan prayer wheels, Chinese headdresses made from Kingfisher feathers, Coconut fibre armour, Persian ceramics, a Ghanaian coffin in the shape of a car and Cham dance masks. The rest of the museum of dedicated to Scottish history, starting with the Picts, Romans and Celts. The main things that strike me; the Lewis chessmen, a copy of the tomb of Mary Queen of Scots, Renaissance wood carvings and painted ceilings, leather Covenanter masks, through to Mackintosh and Traquair art nouveau.

There’s not much time left on my last day, so I spend the morning at the Surgeon’s Hall museum. This ranges between a historical account of the achievements of medicine in Edinburgh (Lister, Simpson, Bell) through to a collection of shrunken heads, Hare’s death mask  and a book made from his skin. Difficult not also to be struck by a pickle fish that had lodged in the throat of a fisherman and suffocated him. There’s also an exhibition on the fate of the voyage to find the Northwest passage.

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.