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.

Flatland

The abbey at St Albans strikes me as rather odd, both for its rather distended, squat and narrow, proportions and for its placements. English cathedrals generally tend to nestle in pleasant greens in the middle of town, with the river nearby. St Albans is placed high up on a hill and looks rather more like St Vitus than Winchester or Tewskesbury. As a building, it’s an odd hotch-potch of styles, from the romanesque to the gothic, with an equally odd mixture of medieval paintings and Victorian sculptures. It’s especially strange seeing a shrine to a martyred saint in an English cathedral, complete with praying nuns. Afterwards, I have a walk around the remains of Verulamium, especially a Roman ampitheatre and a mosaic floor from a town house. It’s all rather reminiscent of Calleva, even down to the prominence of flint in the walls, although the mosaic is better preserved than anything there.

From Hertfordshire onwards to Cambridgeshire. In a lot of ways, Cambridgeshire reminds me of the Midlands. The Trent valley shares the flatness of the fens, although the landscape there is more shaped by industry and agriculture on an industrial scale. Inevitably, Cambridgeshire is rather more picturesque. I start off by visiting Ely. Easily the most unusual cathedral in England, the romanesque exterior is matched by an interior with Victorian ceiling frescos, George Gilbert Scott reredos and organ cases, and a gothic dome. Tudor tombs jostle for space with replica Rublev icons.

Within Cambridge itself, I have to admit that in many respects I prefer it to Oxford. Although many of the classical and baroque buildings, like Downing and Emmanuel, have a golden sandstone that would fit perfectly in Oxford, there’s also the redbrick Tudor and medieval gatehouses. I visit Jesus, with its gothic chapel and Paolozzi sculptures, the darkened ‘gloomth’ of Bodley’s All Saints with its Morris and Company window, St John’s with its turreted gatehouse and Eric Gill sculptures, Giles Gilbert Scott’s library with Gray’s new sculptures (easily the tallest building in Cambridge), Trinity with its Roubiliac and Thornycroft sculptures, Clare with its beautiful gardens and Hepworth sculptures. Walking into one of Giles Gilbert Scott’s new buildings with a Moore sculpture, I notice a rather large bracket fungus growing on the trunk of an especially large tree. After eating on the backs as dandelion snow drifted through air, I visit with Kings. It’s easily one of the most impressive buildings in England, although I’m left wondering if the splendour of the ceiling isn’t somewhat offset by the emptiness of the interior. Perhaps I prefer the clutter at places like Ely. Finally, I pass briefly into Selywn, where I’m in time to disturb the college cat from eviscerating a mouse.

The Flat Earth

When visiting Cambridge it’s difficult not to see it as an alternate Oxford; rather smaller and greener, damp waters that resemble Venetian canals more than the Isis, a library with a tower rather than an underground railway, more redbrick than stone compensated for with more ornate college decorations, gothic rather than baroque; above all, even more lacking in the sense of being a ‘real’ place. I begin by visiting the round church. Rather smaller and homelier than its London counterpart, the combination of Minton tiles and Victorian stained glass with Romanesque arches rather leaves me rather more reminded, inevitably, of Iffley. The Saxon church of St Benet’s is Saxon on the exterior with a mostly Victorian interior (save one round arch with beasts on either pillar). As in Oxford, many of the city churches were subject to the attentions of George Gilbert Scott, like Great St Mary’s with its beautiful tracery. One thing that is rather different is the Corpus Christi clock; the Chronophage.

The principal object of my interest is the Fitzwilliam Museum. I begin by heading downstairs, past Assyrian wall reliefs, into the antiquities section; an excellent set of Fayum masks, Mummy caskets, an enormous statue of Ramses the Third, marble sarcophagi, a Romano-Egyptian zodiac (Roman mythology decorated with Horus figures), Palmyran statuary and Roman mosaics. From there I walk on to a gallery filled with pottery; Cizhou, Korean, Kakiemon, Imari, Delft, Mina’i, Maiolica, Meissen, Wedgewood all present concurrently, showing Iznik next to Victorian and Spanish lustreware. Upstairs, I’m able to see the final day of an exhibition of Vani funerary, from the golden graves of Colchis. Much of this is jewellery and decoration, but I’m most struck by a small copper statue of a satyr. Inevitably, I find the paintings most gripping; the Dutch and Flemish section boasts a Brueghel village scene, Ruisdael and Goyen landscapes, de Heem still lifes and an especially odd seascape of a ship broken in Arctic ice. I like Canaletto and Panini’s architectural capriccios for much the same reasons I like the Berckheyde cityscapes or Neeff’s church interiors, but I still seem immune to Italian renaissance art, a lurid Salvator Rosa Memento Mori, Titian’s Tarquin and Lucrecia. In spite of the religious subject matter, it’s difficult not to prefer the medieval paintings. The later sections are often rather mediocre until I come across a set of sunsets by Vernet; they almost seem like a combination of Dahl and Claude. In the twentieth century this is followed by a number of Renoir, Cezanne, Sisley, Pissarro and Monet landscapes and then by Lautrec and Degas portraits. I’m especially happy to come across The Bridesmaid by Millais, a painting that has always struck me as prefiguring the likes of Klimt. The British twentieth century is represented mostly by Singer Sergeant and Sickert. There’s also an exhibition of Whistlet etchings, showing drawings of East London by the Thames, Venice and a rather more land locked Brussels.

The Byzantine exhibition at the Royal Academy left me rather underwhelmed; it seemed to reflect a theocratic civilisation, as much by omission (marble statues of Justinian or the other emperors, for example) as by the inclusion of countless icons. It seems odd that Byzantine art was disdained by the christian world in favour of the pagan art of Greece and Rome, whose comparative asceticism was presumably more appealing. Byzantine art was dismissed to the same barbarous past as gothic. Much of the exhibition is heavily weighted towards metalwork; silver censors, gold necklaces, chalices and so on. I find myself most impressed by an icon of Sergius and Bacchus, marble friezes from church interiors with peacock designs.
The British Museum’s exhibition on Babylon features many of the things I recall seeing years ago in Berlin, especially the wonderful blue glazed bricks and rliefs of lions and dragons from the Ishtar gate. Nonetheless, it quickly makes the point that we know more about the earlier Assyrian civilisation than we do of Baylon, with much of our knowledge of the latter coming from foreign sources; Herodotus, Strabo or the Bible. In many cases, these sources are hardly accurate; there is no evidence of any Hanging Gardens, the Tower of Babel was simply a large ziggurat, Bablyon did not fall during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar and continued as a major city until Alexander the Great. Nonetheless, the exhibition is rather good at tracing the reception of Babylon into Western culture; Rembrandt and John Martin’s paintings of its fall, Blake and Durer’s etching of Nebuchadnezzar, Brueghel and Kircher’s drawings of the Tower of Babel, Evelyn de Morgan’s pictures of the expelled Jews. Afterwards, I walk through the Asian galleries and particularly the wall reliefs of the Amaravati stupa. I’m struck especially the rather gruesome character of the Tibetan images; Chitipati skeletons or goddesses bearing skulls filled with blood. Some of the Chinese exhibits prove equally odd; Chu funerary busts of figures with antlers and snake like tongues.