Magnetic North

Arriving in Stockholm, I start off by walking around the Vasastan area a bit, starting with the Gustav Vasa Kyrke and then to the Stadsbibliotheket. This is perhaps one of the most striking buildings in the city; a cylindrical drum painted in bright orange, where books ring the interior. Heading down to the waterfront, I walk across a bridge to Gamla Stan, noting that someone seems to have waders on and is fishing the waters of Lake Mälaren below. Stockholm is often compared to Venice for reasons that are obvious enough but it lacks the dense crowded aspect to that city; everything here is spaced out with entire islands in the lake given up to woodland. The crossing point from Norrmalm to Gamla Stan is an odd one, representing a division between a mostly modern city and a medieval old town. The old town looks similar to Germany or the Netherlands, give or take the occasional Runestone embedded in the walls. I start here by looking at the Riddarholmenskyrkan, which effectively serves the same purpose as Roskilde Cathedral in its Royal entombments. The walls are lined with heraldic emblems of the Order of the Seraphim, which is only offered to foreign recipients (hence odd contortions to represent Mexico and Korea in terms of traditional European emblems).

The dominating feature of Gamla Stan is the Royal Palace. An exhibition inside shows models of the previous Three Crowns Palace, which burned down. It’s hard not to regret this, given that its turrets would have fitted in with the rest of the island’s spires rather better than the current dull box resting atop it. The interior is rather more impressive though; I especially like King Gustav’s Antiquities Museum with its collection of Roman statues, with a statue of Endymion standing out. Inside the Palace the most striking things are the Hall of Mirrors with its mimetic replication of Versailles and the silver throne. As I leave the Palace, it’s time for the changing of the guard; which I can now claim to have seen in Sweden but never in Britain. On the rest of the island, I visit the Cathedral, a rather lovely brick gothic affair with a large statue of St George and the Dragon at its centre.

If Gamla Stan rather reminds me of a Swedish Île de la Cité, then neighbouring Sodermalm actually reminds me of Lisbon. It’s the only Island in central Stockholm to rise sharply above the others with large jutting cliffs with viewing platforms sticking out of them. The views from it across the rest of the city rather remind me of Lisbon’s miradors. I visit a church near the summit of this cliff-face. There’s a rather pleasant small park where the fountains rather look like plesiosaurs. The small islands of Skeppsholmen and Kastellholmen are former navalyards and still feature watchtowers and wooden cranes for offloading equipment. The main thing there now is the Modern Museet. The main exhibit therein is Rauschenberg’s Monogram, along with works by Pollock, Matisse, Gauguin and Klein. I find myself especially drawn to the photography exhibits, like Nadar’s aerial photos of Paris along with works by Bresson and Arbus. The only Swedish artist I recognise are some works by Hilma Af Klint. Walking back to the mainland, I rather like the Dramatic Theatre, with its statue of Margaretha Krook standing outside.

The island of Kungsholmen contains the striking brick Town Hall, a rather more impressive building with its tower than either the Parliament or the Royal Palace. The exterior has a large open courtyard, which leads out to a colonnaded terrace looking out over the lake to Gamla Stan. I go on a tour of the interior, from where Nobel banquets are held to the debating chamber. The most striking aspect is the Golden Hall, which is rather like walking into a modernist version of a Byzantine church.

With the weather expected to take a turn for the worst later in the week, I decide to visit Drottningholm earlier than I had originally planned. Much of the design of the palace here is deliberately intended to recall a French chateau but the lakeside setting is rather more beautiful than Versailles. Geese wonder around with goslings in tow. The grounds are less extensive but have some interesting follies; a brick gothic tower on a hill, a Chinese folly (whose interior features a set of opium pipes) and a faked guard tent that is actually made out of wood. There’s also a village originally built for silk production. The interior of the palace has some interesting features; a marble grand staircase and a pair of halls frescoed with images of Swedish wars against Poland. The most extraordinary feature is the court theatre, a wooden building that has been preserved with its original set designs intact.

The next day I visit the open air Skansen museum on Djurgarden. Much of this is given up to traditional architecture transplanted to the island from across Sweden; farmer’s houses, windmills, churches and belfries. Some of the architecture comes from the period when Sweden and Norway were one state; the Finnish huts are filled with a great deal of smoke in the absence of a chimney and are filled with examples of household items made out of bark. There are also examples of Saami architecture, which remind me of Tepees as well as a house built on inverted tree trunks that puts me in mind of Baba Yaga’s hut. A lot of these buildings come with traditional breeds of farmyard animals; pigs, chickens, cows, ponies and sheep (albeit these are a British breed). There’s also a zoo with wild Scandinavian animals; wolves, owls, bison, boar, elk, reindeer, otters, seals and bears. A lot of them are asleep in the heat, although the otters seem especially occupied with fighting with each other so that little is visible other than a sea of froth. There are quite a lot of young animals and some wolf cubs are doing much the same thing. I do find myself a little disturbed by one of the bears, which is walking up and down its enclosure and seems to be deliberately trying to keep out of the way of the crowds. Oddly enough, the thing that most astounds me is the number of red squirrels on the island, which seem pretty indifferent to all the visitors. Leaving the museum, I sit down for a bit at the waterfront, where I discover a statue of Jenny Lind.

The day after, I take a train up to Uppsala. On arrival, I start by visiting the cathedral. The redbrick exterior belies a medieval interior, with rose windows and decorated gothic vaults. The Vasa tomb inside is perhaps the most impressive thing, with an alabaster monument surrounded by frescoed walls. The surrounding grounds have various runestones dotted around them. The small Holy Trinity church nearby is in some ways more striking; a brick gothic affair, whose plastered walls are covered in medieval frescoes of angels. From, there I walk to the Linnaeus garden and house. The house is a rather small affair, with the oddity of wallpaper that could be removed. The gardens are divided into different sections according to either habitat (river or marsh, for example) or type (perennial or annual). The main oddities are a set of boxes on posts where Linnaeus apparently kept his chained monkeys. He also had a pet raccoon with a habit of biting the servant’s legs. Lastly, I visit the University, where you can visit the original Augsburg wunderkammer that formed the basis of its collection (I like the taxidermied albino squirrel), the old anatomical theatre, an exhibition of scientists like Celsius and Berzelius that worked there and an Egyptology section with a series of sarcophagi.

Back in Stockholm and I return to Djurgarden. It’s a rainy day and I spend the morning in the Vasa Museum. I rather expect something similar to the Mary Rose and am astonished by what I find; a ship that is essentially intact and rather larger. It was also raised from the seabed much earlier than the Mary Rose and the exhibition covers a lot of details on how this was done. The afternoon is spent in the neighbouring Nordiska Museet. This is a wonderfully impressive building but the exhibitions are perhaps rather more anodyne. The main hall is dominated by a massive painted statue of Gustav Vasa, which rather has the effect of looking like a shrine to a deity. The upper floors contain exhibitions of Swedish folk art, Strindberg’s rather impressionist paintings and the history of the Saami people, but exhibitions on the lower floors of traditional dress and dollshouses are perhaps of less interest. Lastly, I visit Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde, the house of a Prince and the art he painted. I rather like a lot of his landscapes although he seems to have been better at photography than painting. An exhibition covers the work of Swedish painters at the Grez-sur-Loing colony, including works by Carl Larsson. The gardens and grounds are also rather pleasant; the reeds by the lake have notices on them warning of nesting swans and there’s an old windmill used for grinding lindseed. Back in central Stockholm later, I’m sat down beside an old church waiting for the time of my restaurant reservation where a hare runs out of the shrubbery, pauses in front of me, runs off and then comes back for a repeat performance ten minutes later.

The day after also has rather poor weather, so I visit the Historiska Museet. The entrance has a rather good collection of runestones but the Viking section is unfortunately shut. I start by visiting the prehistoric section and then the medieval, which has an extensive collection of items like gilded church sculptures and gold reliquaries. Some of the more unexpected exhibits include the crown of Elizabeth of Hungary and both Buddhist and Islamic finds from Viking settlements. Nearby is the huge National Museum, with its huge entrance hall filled with replicas of famous sculptures like the Laocoon and the Discobulus. A lot of the collection isn’t all that famous but it’s still rather enjoyable. Some of the artists that are quite well known are Rembrandt, Cranach, Arcimboldo, Hilliard, El Greco, Bellini, Cezanne, Delacroix, Fuseli, de la Tour, Bronzino and Hals. Some of the paintings by Swedish artists like Zorn, Osslund and Liljefors are also rather striking.

The following day I visit the island of Vaxholm in the archipelago. It’s a rather attractive place, where a local history society keeps a traditional cottage open as a local museum with exhibitions on herring fishing and shoe making on the island. I take a cable ferry from the main island out to its accompanying castle, which once defended Stockholm from Russian invasion after the rest of the archipelago had fallen. One of the more interesting exhibits is a small submarine. The weather is rather grey when I arrive but by the time I’ve left the museum in the castle everything has changed and the sky is blue.

On my final day in Stockholm, I go for a walk to the Rosendal Palace and Botanical Garden on Djurgarden, before visiting the Museum of Mediterranean History. Sweden did a lot of archaeological work on Cyprus and Egtptian consuls helped it build a large collection. The things that most strike me are a the huge stone sarcophagus of Taperet, Fayum paintings, fake doored mausoleum sculptures, an Anubis sculpture and some Greek gold diadems in the shape of a wreath of leaves. The very last thing I do is visit the Strindberg museum. In one of the upper floors in an attractive art nouveau set of apartments, it was where he lived for the last years of his life and from where he appeared on the balcony as crowds protested at him not winning the Nobel prize.

Some final observations on the country – a lot of what I saw conformed to the set of Swedish stereotypes I had in my mind; rather pretty buildings with good transport, for example. But homelessness did seem more of a problem than I had expected, if nowhere near as bad as in the UK. The presence of lots of stalls selling falafel in some places testified to the reception of Syrian refugees some years ago.


The Transit of Venus

The King’s Observatory in Richmond is something of an oddity. Surrounded by the likes of Kew Gardens and Ham House, it remains in private ownership and sits in the middle of a golf club. To reach it, I have to walk down a long path with signs on either side advising that the club accepts no liability if I am killed by a stray golf ball. The fact that this golfing landscape was originally designed by Capability Brown speaks to everything that is wrong with his work.

Thankfully, I arrive without injury and realise that the observatory itself is equally strange. Built by William Chambers to allow King George to observe the transit of Venus, its astronomical function was quickly usurped by Greenwich and much of its subsequent existence was as a meteorological office. It is now in use as a private home, with tours taking place when the owner is absent. The opulence of the interior, with Chinese figurines, silk wall hangings and Reynolds paintings is rather striking, and sits oddly with a cupola where a replica telescope is in place. The final part of the tour takes us up to the roof, from where the Gillette tower and the Kew pagoda (also built by Chambers) can be seen.

The following weekend I visit the Sorolla exhibition at the National Gallery. I’d visited his house in Madrid so I recall some of the paintings but it also features a lot of his paintings of rural Spain that he did for the Hispanic Society of New York. There’s a lot of his portraits as well, using a similarly restricted palette to Goya and some of the same illusions with mirrors as Velasquez. His wife Clotilde seems to have been his favourite model, as in his version of the Rokeby Venus. Other paintings with muted palettes remind me of Whistler and Alma-Tadema. Other paintings show more of a social dimension and use a much more naturalistic style, featuring a woman who had murdered her child or villagers stitching a boat’s sails. The ones I like most are his views of architectural scenes, especially Granada, and his seaside views where the play of light on water seems to have been a source of endless fascination for him. There’s also a small exhibition of Boilly’s Parisian street scenes; he emerges as a sort of French Gilray or Hogarth. Lastly, I have a look at the Bridget Riley mural in the Anenberg court.

Open House

Open house in London starts for me this year with standing in the rain in a queue outside a hotel at Liverpool Street. When I’m finally allowed in, it’s to wait in the lobby to wait for the previous group to leave and for a marketing manager to subject me to a toe-curlingly awful brand statement about their new cocktail bar. Finally, the tour begins and I enter the Masonic Temple I’ve been waiting for. Bricked up sometime in the nineteen forties, it had been forgotten about until it had been rediscovered. A chequered floor expands out beneath a gold ceiling depicting the constellations, while red lighting illuminates the sculptures. At one point I find myself wondering about the music being played in the background, until I realise it’s one of Murray Gold’s Doctor who soundtracks.

Next up is 1 Finsbury Circus. I have to wait even longer here until being ushered through security checks into the rather opulent lobby designed for BP by Edwin Lutyens. The rest of the interior is rather more modern and somewhat anodyne; the original listed board room now rests in the basement, inverting what happened at the Lloyds building with its Robert Adam boardroom now sitting on the top floor of a skyscraper. After that, I visit the churches of St Andrew Undershaft and St Olave, before visiting the Lloyds Shipping Register. This renovated building includes a series of archaeological exhibits from its reconstruction, including a Roman Sphinx. The original interiors are especially impressive, including frescoed ceilings, Morris wallpaper, De Morgan tiling and Brangwyn paintings. Next is Clothworker’s Hall, which rather bizarrely veers from heraldic stained glass and tapestries to golden sheep, before Clothworker’s Hall, a modern reconstruction after damage in the second world war. There are some rather impressive carvings in the style of Grinling Gibbons.  Lastly, I leave the City and arrive at Soho to see Aston Webb’s French Protestant Church. There’s a small library near the door and my attention gets drawn to one of the books, a Bible with versions in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Syriac and Aramaic.

I also go on a late visit to the Soane Museum. I’d forgotten how labyrinthine the interior is, with spiral staircases, internal courtyards and balconies. I finally get to see the sarcophagus of Seti in the basement as statues of Apollo and Soane look down form above. I also like the visit to the art gallery, with its collections of paintings by Hogarth, Gandy, Fuseli and Canaletto, mounted on wooden doors that can be opened to expose a view down to the lower floors.

I’ve just finished reading Iris Murdoch’s A Fairly Honourable Defeat. As with a lot of her novels, it dwells on the muddled nature of morality. One of the aspects that does stand out particularly here is the implicit defence of gay rights in the novel. The relationship between Axel and Simon proves far more enduring than that of Rupert and Hilda when faced with attempts to undermine it. It also has what must count as one of the earliest discussions of the ethics of coming out, when Axel is forced to consider his hypocrisy in keeping his relationship separated from other aspects of his life. Oddly enough, something similar applies to The Hunger Angel by Herta Muller. Muller’s novel exists in a far more deterministic universe than Murdoch’s, one that is dominated by the objects of the Labour camp and the protagonist’s own drives and instincts, especially the hunger referenced in the title. Leo’s homosexuality is only obliquely referenced throughout until in the end it proves an instinct as powerful as the hunger in the camp, as it drives him out of communist Romania to Austria.


As it was a nice day I decided to visit the Freud Museum in Finchley today. Bearing blue plaques to both Freud and his daughter Anna, he only lived here for a year after his flight from the flat he had occupied for 40 years in Vienna. The contents include drawings of Freud by Dali, woodblock prints of Mount Fuji by a Japanese psychoanalyst, drawings by the Wolfman, traditional Austrian furniture bought from their country cottage and, of course, the couch (in this case, covered with a Persian rug, with a description supplied by the Iranian embassy). The study is the most interesting area; Freud worked surrounded by archaeological exhibits (i.e. things unearthed from the ground, as he has excavated the unconscious), ranging from Egypt, Rome, Greece and Peru. The shelves are filled with books; Poe, Shaw, Wilder but not much obviously in the way of medical treatises. Afterwards, I visit St Augustine’s church in Kilburn, a cathedral like affair built by JL Pearson.

I went to the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition of Victorian photography a few weeks later. Covering work by Julia Margaret Cameron, Clementina Hawarden, Lewis Carroll and Oscar Rejlander, a lot of them cover mythological scenes, either showing scenes from drama  (as with Rejlander’s portrait of Iphigenia or Cameron’s countless Shakespearean scenes) or recasting famous painting (as with Rejlander’s portrait of the Virgin in Prayer  or Reni paintings). Rejlander’s Two Paths of Life, a vast canvas with multiple exposures to deposit a series of figures into it reminds me of the large scale of Victorian history painting, but it equally attracted criticism as its depiction of nude bodies could never match the idealisation they received in art.

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 Time of the Skeleton Lords

Towards the end of the year, I visit two exhibitions in London; one at the Royal Geographical Society about Shackleton’s Antarctic Exhibition and Frank Hurley’s photographs in particular, the other at the Wellcome Collection, ostensibly about the Lukhang Temple in Lhasa but more generally about Tibetan Buddhism.  I walk across Hyde Park to the first of these and come across a flock of parrots nesting in a tree. One of them comes down to eat out of my hand while a nearby group of Tufted Ducks looks rather unimpressed.  The Lukhang temple is most notable for a series of Tantri murals on its walls, part of the dedication of the temple to placate a set of angry spirits (in the more animistic parts of Tibetan Buddhism, such spirits are both objects of veneration and fear). Tantric buddhism sought to overcome a divide between the physical and spiritual, with many of the exhibits being essentially anatomical diagrams. On the other hand, many exhibits are also intended to illustrate the transience of things, a form of Tibetan memento mori, like the Chitipati masks or tapestries of the underworld showing flayed bodies.

In the Midlands for Christmas, I visit some churches, starting with Kinwarton in Warwickshire, which has a pair of impressive Gibbs stained glass windows and a celtic cross outside. I revisit nearby Wootton Wawen with its medieval monuments and Norman font. Further up North I visit Youlgrave in Derbyshire, with its medieval sculptures, Burne Jones glass and rather odd pews with carved dogs. I also visit nearby Bakewell  with its collection of grave slabs, Saxon pillar,  Henry Holiday stained glass, medieval font  & monuments and Comper altars. One of the medieval monuments has had a rose left on it. On Christmas Eve, I go for a walk at the National Memorial Arboretum; some Wolemi Pines have been planted along with some new memorials. The following day we visit the church at Armitage (a Victorian building designed to mimic the Romanesque) and Wightwick Manor. Finally, travelling back down South, I visit Preston on Stour, with its wonderful Georgian stained glass depicting Jonah and the whale and the apocalypse.

I’ve recently Boredom  and The Conformist by Alberto Moravia. The latter establishes a premise early on that its protagonist is a nascent sociopath who simply enjoys inflicting pain. His flight from this into conformity takes him towards fascism, combining bourgeois respectability with a career as an assassin. Any suggestion of the heterodox drives him further towards conformism, often in a manner that makes it difficult to equate his childhood love of inflicting pain with the clinical death of his former professor.  Boredom also establishes a premise it later aborts; the protagonist here exists in a state of ennui, as bored by bourgeois respectability as he is by his bohemian career as a painter. Nonetheless, most of the narrative from the point he re-enacts a relationship a deceased painter had had with a model, the narrative morphs from one being concerned with boredom towards one concerned with jealousy and obsession.

I also finally got round to reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. It seems to me to be composed of two overlapping but not entirely conjoined aspects. Firstly, the author seeks to unite Freud and Einstein, attempting to create a novelistic form that encapsulates the relativity hypothesis; the four books are respectively narrated by different characters offering different perspectives on the same events, and with some of the narratives emerging as a commentary on the others. If characters appear in a different light in each of these it is as much due to Durrell’s depiction of character as mutable as the difference in perspective. As Durell put it; “You see, Justine is written by Darley. It’s his autobiography. The second volume, Balthazar, is Darley’s autobiography corrected or revised by Balthazar. In Mountolive, written by me, Darley is an object in the outside world. Clea would be the new autobiography of Darley some years later, in Alexandria once again.”  The narrative is to a large extent a palimpsest that works by the accretion of detail rather than a conventional narrative, creating a stance of irony towards the realistic depiction of events; “It seemed to me then to be somehow symbolic of the very reality we had shared – a palimpsest upon which each of us had left his or individual traces, layer by layer… Not unlike Pursewarden’s idea of a series of novels with “sliding panels” as he called them.  Or else, perhaps, like some medieval palimpsest where different sorts of truth are thrown down one upon the other,” Pursewarden refers to Jesus as a great ironist and sees civilisations dying in the extent to which they become aware of themselves.  Events like the death of the transvestite Scobie see him ironically transfigured to sainthood, while the feverish devotion of Narouz leads only to his death. But equally, the second aspect of the novel, with its interest in Gnosticism and Kabbalism fits awkwardly here; the overall narrative arch is a form of metempsychosis towards a spiritual rebirth, typified by Clea’s underwater death and resurrection. The demise of subjectivity effectively becomes a replacement metaphysic rather than a mechanism for treating it with irony.

Food cooked: Azeri chicken with prunes and walnut, Lahmacun, Ossetian lamb with coriander, Romanian duck with apricots, Chicken Yiouvetsi, Beer Can Chicken, Merluza en salsa verde, Sardines and spaghetti, Garlicky Poussin with Beetroot and Gherkin salad, Crab with Almonds and Hazelnuts, Chicken Puttanesca, Chicken buried in vermicelli, Picadilo, Cuban Chicken Stew, Fiduea, Chicken and preserved lemon pie, Beef with Lemon and Pappardelle, Azeri lamb with fruit and rice, Macau Chicken, Chicken Ramen, Umbrian style Chicken alla Cacciatora, Lamb shanks with lemon, Chicken with chestnut, pancetta and pear, Czech beef in cream sauce with dumplings, Ramen with fish.


The British Museum’s latest exhibition is dedicated to the Ming dynasty. It begins by showing aspects of court life; life size paintings of the emperors, carriage models from their tombs (which seem much like Egyptian tombs in their use of grave goods), cloisonné jars, gold & porcelain vases (showing brass Islamic models for them) through to lacquerware. The next section focusses on aspects of social life, with a sculpture of the perfected warrior Zhenwu, calligraphic handscrolls, decorated suras, temple tiled decorations of elephants and winged goats, a beautiful calligraphic scroll showing a giraffe, gold sculptures of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas, grave rubbings and spirit way statues.

I’ve been reading Zola’s Money, a novel that I’m surprised hasn’t been adapted for television in recent years given that it revolves around a banking crash. The novel shows a rather ambivalent attitude towards capitalism; obviously much of it depicts an economy characterised by unprincipled gambling that leaves its victims destitute, showing both a bankrupt aristocracy and a poor working class at the mercy of loan sharks. However, it also repeatedly describes capitalism as a force for progress, precisely through this process of destruction. One of the voices most critical of capitalism is the Marxist Sigismund, who suggests the concentration of assets in bodies like the Universal bank presages the way to collectivisation; but the collapse of the bank essentially invalidates that argument, as is illustrated by Sigismund’s death alongside the victims of the bank crash. The collapse of the bank is ultimately attributable to excessive idealism and enthusiasm rather than the sort of ruthlessness shown by Buch or the calculation of Gundermann.  The novel also shows a typically undecided stance on race and heredity. It repeatedly opposes the Catholic Universal Bank to a set of Jewish dominated rivals, with the character of Buch in particular being very much a Faginesque stereotype. Conversely, the character of Gundermann is very much humanised, as with Caroline’s observation that she finds Jews to be much as other people. Equally, heredity appears attributable to Victor’s rape of Alice, just as his father had treated his mother. But whereas affluence civilises Saccard, poverty leaves Victor as little more than an animal.

Norman and Saxon

The gothic surroundings of Lichfield’s chapterhouse perhaps make for an odd setting for an exhibition dedicated to the Staffordshire Hoard, but it is one of the few places where the Hoard can be supplemented with other Saxon exhibits from the region, like the Lichfield Angel and the Gospels. The exhibition also contains a number of reconstructions of helmets, swords and seaxes, based on fragments of cheekpiece and sword pyramids. A lot of the exhibits show a very similar style to the pieces I’d previously seen in Stoke on Trent, with garnets set into intricate filigree gold spirals on fragments of crosses, weapons and jewellery. Nonetheless, some seen quite striking, like a stylised seahorse design. Elsewhere in the cathedral, the medieval stained glass is away for restoration, creating a somewhat disconcerting brightness inside the formerly gloomy interior.

After visiting the cathedral, I pass onwards to Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire. It’s a somewhat odd structure, a newer version of the Carolean Sudbury Hall, down to the elaborate wood carvings and plaster work decorating the ceiling, but the interior almost groans under its attempts at splendour. The main hall features a staircase decorated with frescos by Thornhill, the sort of things normally reserved for a much larger structure like Chatsworth or Greenwich Palace. Some of the more unusual features are the ‘Gothick’ corridor, lined with wallpaper replicating tracery designs, the neo-Moorish gazebos and the long gallery being detached from the house and standing apart in the garden. Afterwards, I visit the nearby church, perched high up on a hill. Storm clouds are gathering in the sky by this point and the church takes on a rather sinister aspect, particularly as the churchyard proves to be full of rather ancient and large tombstones and one rather bizarre tomb depicting a railway accident. The church interior was renovated by Street and is accordingly rather dark, with monuments by Chantrey and Roubillac clustered in the shadows.

The following day is taken up with a visit to All Saints at Claverley. The church interior is a mishmash of Gothic and Romanesque, as well as being lined with allegorical frescos of battling knights, consecration marks, lions and dragons as well as Early English carvings of faces being eaten by strange beasts that rather remind me of Kilpeck. The interior also contains a fine alabaster tomb, medieval tiles and a dual set of Norman and Saxon fonts. On my way back, I call in at St Mary in Adderbury, with its extraordinarily well preserved misericords.

A few weeks later, I go to a Temenid dynasty exhibition at the Ashmolean. The gold retrieved from the burial mounds at Aegae proves the most interesting items; oak and myrtle leaf wreathes, an image of Medusa from a cuirass, as well as a silver jug carved with an image of Silenus. Other items include ceramic clay heads and red figure ceramics. There are a couple of newly opened galleries in the Ashmolean; Maoist propaganda posters (suspiciously looking like advertisements for musicals) and Indian paintings.

Tarr by Wyndham Lewis offers a refreshing counterpoint to some of the author’s later works and the didacticism of novels like Lawrence’s Women in Love, instead suggesting a plurality of views that rejects both bourgeois conformism and romantic individualism alike. Instead, Lewis sees the self as a set of masks; "The closest friend of my Dr Jekyll would not recognise my Mr Hyde and vice versa; this rudimentary self I am giving you." Conversely, at the same time, it has an essentialist view of character; "humour may be exactly described as the most feminine attribute of man – and it is the only one of which women show hardly a trace." At other points, these two are opposed; "in the interests of his animalism he was about to betray the artist in him." In Tarr, the two sets of masks represent philosophical opposites, just as the opening declaration of Blast contains the same set of opposed concepts that it both blasts and blesses. For Lewis at this point, dichotomies are never something stable but rather something that tends to collapse in on themselves, hence many of Tarr’s orations seem an attempt to formulate a somewhat convoluted via media between Kreisler and himself; "an attempt to get out of art and back into life again… the sex instinct of the average sensual man had become perverted into a false channel." Much of this can be attributed to the anxiety of influence Lewis seems to have felt towards figures like Stirner, Nietzsche and Marinetti. In the case of the latter, much of Blast‘s stance is derived from Marinetti and the text describes itself as futurist at various points. However, it also condemns Marinetti for his romantic ‘automobilism’ and goes out of its way to praise Da Vinci as a Futurist, taking a diametrically opposed view of the art of the past out of what looks like contrarianism. Picasso and Kandinsky receive far more praise in Blast than Marinetti but it is the latter’s language that it is used to codify the attack on him; not an unusual scenario, as many manifestos of that period aped Marinetti’s tropes whilst articulating Kandinsky’s thoughts. By the same token, in Blast‘s self contained monodrama Enemy of the Stars (in many ways a parallel rendition of Tarr stripped of the novel’s realist veneer but retaining its carnivalesque parody of the Promethean hero), a copy of Stirner is thrown out of the window but the opposition of Hanp’s bourgeois predilections (Tarr) and Arghol’s romantic individualism (Kreisler) again proves far from stable; "He had wished to clean up.. accumulations of self… this man has been masquerading as me… Arghol has preached a certain life, and now insolently set an example of the opposite." To Lewis, romantic individualism is essentially a risible product of the bourgeoisie. Later on, Lewis further knocks down the opposition he has set up "in the old style, two distinct, heroic figures were confronted and one ninepin tried to knock the other ninepin over. We all today… are in each other’s vitals – overlap and intersect and are Siamese."

Reading Pullman’s The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is somewhat odd experience; in his afterword, Pullman notes that he normally supports plurality in interpretation but that in this instance he feels more obliged to offer a context for the novel. Certainly, the title leaves little room for plurality in interpretation but the novel still seems more more ambiguous than the title or afterword might suggest. For example, the novel assigns naturalistic explanations to many of its events but many still retain a certain degree of unexplained supernaturalism; even if the mysterious puppet master is stripped of being angel or demon by the end of the novel, his ability to foresee and manipulate events remains as unexplained as Christ’s miracles at the start of the novel. Equally, the moral dichotomy established between Christ and Jesus gets routinely undermined by some of Christ’s criticisms of the nascent theology; "if it were true that only children could be admitted to the kingdom, what was the value of such adult qualities as responsibility, forethought and wisdom… God surely created the Gentiles too and there are surely good men and women among them." Equally, Christ’s complaint that the stories Jesus tells manipulate the emotions while unfairly introducing extra-legal elements into his replies, has some force to it. When Christ observes that "to him, the kingdom of God is coming very soon and it makes no sense to be cautious and prudent" it reminds me of AC Grayling’s observation that New Testament Christianity was a millenarian cult that made no concessions to practicality in its belief in the apocalypse; in reality, the meek will not inherit the earth and turning the other cheek is not necessarily a sensible thing to do.

I’ve always been inclined to regard Plato as a great historical villain, turning Western culture away from empiricism and towards the transcendental. Reading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics goes a long way towards reinforcing that prejudice; lacking any real interest in the mind body problem or the moral dilemmas of later philosophers, Aristotle’s notion of virtue is situational, grounded in social practice; "it is not easy to see how knowing that ideal good will help a weaver or a carpenter in the practice of their own craft… it does not appear that the physician studies even health in the abstract." At times, Aristotle sounds like Rorty in his dismissal of metaphysical preoccupations; "the virtues we acquire by first having practised them, just as we do the arts."

Going to the Proms this year, I’ve listened to Britten, Rachmaninov, Ravel, Debussy, De Falla (which came out rather better than either Debussy or Ravel who perhaps lack the necessary force needed for a venue like the Royal Albert Hall), Tchaikovsky, Verdi (a wonderful performance of the Requiem) and Handel. In the case of Rinaldo, the performance wisely decides to resist a historical Crusaders versus Saracens interpretation that would impart considerably more weight to the libretto than it could reasonably be expected to bear. Nonetheless, their camp St Trinians versus Monty Python and the Holy Grail interpretation goes to the other extreme, seeming to mock a text that gives a female character a remarkable degree of prominence and sway.


New York might be perhaps better known by its original name of New Amsterdam. Both cities are ports, formed from marshland at the ocean’s edge. During my visits, both cities were submerged in fog, although the appearance of damp and cold prove deceiving to a North European, as the weather actually proves to be hot and humid; Bellow may have had a point about New York resembling Bangkok. In the case of Amsterdam, the fog winds round corners and lingers in the distance. New York has no distance and it instead occludes the spires and summits of the skyscrapers. Neither city has any enormous number of outstanding buildings and where Amsterdam is an exercise in miniaturism, New York is typically an exercise in maximalism, with few buildings notable outside of their scale. In other respects, the city perhaps resembles London rather more, with its myriads of street stalls. New York’s grid system seems at times like a rational and sensible way of navigating the city, at others like something the city chafes against as each taxi driver attempts to force others out of the way. Freeways in New York alternately feel like an exercise in social Darwinism and at others like poorly designed car parks.

On my first day in the city, I go for a walk around the surrounding area. I turn out to be staying near to Times Square, which I later note for the way its lights continue to colour the sky long after the sun has set. I also rather doubt that Trafalgar Square is ever likely to be the setting for a military recruitment centre. The first thing I really want to look at is the Rockefeller Center. For all its grandiloquence, it feels like a very European building, planned in a similar way to the Barbican centre in London, with sculpture and art integrated into the structure of the building. Viewed that way, the idea of Diego Rivera contributing a frieze to the building seems somewhat less ridiculous. The nearby St Patrick’s Cathedral stands out an anomaly; something that would tower over the nearby buildings in most European cities but which simply recedes here. The gothic revival interior seems to take its tone from England, while the stained glass rather resembles that of Flanders. Traditional religious buildings in opposition to modernism proves a theme, as with the pairing of the Seagram building and St Barts, a study in Byzantine revivalism. At the time I visit, a rehearsal for Britten’s Noye’s Fludde is underway. I press onwards to the Empire State Building, whose summit is hidden in the fog, and the Flatiron and Metropolitan Life Buildings. The last place I look at is near the UN Building (where the Hepworth sculpture is much larger than the copy in London), the Chanin building with its art deco motifs and the Chrysler Building. Easily the best building in New York, it effortlessly combines art deco with the modernist ethos behind skyscraper design.

An early walk the following day is interrupted with a thunderstorm, as my clothes are drenched and the streets turn into rivers. I take refuge in the cavernous space of Grand Union Central. After the storm passes, I go for a walk in Central Park. Where London’s parks are essentially manicured expanses of lawn interspersed with trees, Central Park has rather more pretensions towards naturalism, with jutting rock outcrops giving it a slightly more romantic aspect. Black squirrels and American robins show little concern at the passers by. I then spend the rest of the day in the Metropolitan Museum. I begin in the Greek and Roman section. I’m particularly impressed with the Roman frescos and mosaics. The Egyptian section follows, with the entire Temple of Dendur transplanted from Aswan, Fayum mummy portraits and several statues of Hatshepshut. The last thing I see that morning is the Oceanian section, with its Papua New Guinean split gongs and Peruvian gold masks. In the afternoon, I come to the American arts section, with its Tiffany stained glass and mosaics. The medieval section is rather ecclectic, with Armenian khachkars, Limoges enamel, Coptic textiles and Byzantine jewellery. The paintings section is especially comprehensive, with a range of Titian’s showing mythological scenes (rather better than the religious scenes I’d seen in Venice), a few Caravaggio’s, Canaletto, Tiepolo’s and a view of Toledo by El Greco that looks like it should have been painted in the nineteen twenties. Velasquez and Goya contrast to Bosch, Brueghel, Van Eyck, Memling, Weyden, Hals, Ruisdael, Vermeer, Holbein and Rembrandt. Predictably, the modern section is dominated by Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, Gauguin and Seurat.

In contrast to New York’s boldly assertive identity, the part of north Washington I’m staying in looks is more chaotic. Parts look like how I assume drab midwestern cities like Minnesota must look, with mediocre modern buildings. Other parts look like smalltown America and create the impression of a large village (even down to fireflies outside on evening) and both of these are interspersed with grandiose statues that wouldn’t look out of place in London. Tramps are sleeping in park benches while a queue forms at a soup canteen. An aggressive altercation over a slice of bread ensues between some ducks. The apparently endemic squirrels scamper about endlessly. As I walk downwards to Lafayette Park with its multitudes of statues the city begins to shift away from being a place of residence and commerce into something more monumental, a hyperreal emulation of ancient Rome. I was repeatedly told that the White House was rather small but in comparison to Downing Street it seems rather grandiose; I’m not entirely sure this degree of bombast is especially wise. Conversely, I had imagined the Washington Monument to be rather smaller than it is. In practice, it towers over the city just as St Paul’s used to tower over London. I then walk rightwards towards the World War Two Memorial, a somewhat sterile circle of iron wreathes enlivened by some small reliefs. The Vietnam memorial is even more drab, although the decision to include three disturbingly realistic statues of soldiers that use copper verdigris to depict the fatigues against their bronze skin redeems it. The presence of the human and scallscale on the National Mall gives it a rather considerable impact. The statuary at the Korean War Memorial is comparatively amateurish, although the photography of various soldiers shown on the granite wall is what makes that particular monument.

I then walk into the Lincoln Memorial. There’s something rather odd about the way that Lincoln is seated on something that resembles a throne, given that this is rather more ornate than anything any British Prime Minister ever received (and actually rather more ornate than anything most Kings ever got) but it’s undeniably rather powerful. I then walk along the Potomac Tidal Basin towards the Roosevelt Memorial. I rather prefer this; the sculptures form part of a narrative in which the President is only a part alongside representations of the great depression. I then walk onwards to the Jefferson Monument, another neo-classical structure created in the twentieth century. From here, you can see how broad the Potomac is and how quickly the city gives way to woodland, furthering the impression of Washington as an unreal place set aside from the rest of America.

I walk back towards the National Mall. The redbrick gothic of the Smithsonian Castle wouldn’t look at all amiss in Manchester or Birmingham but it looks very odd amidst the surrounding fake classicism. There’s something about the Capital Building or the various museums that looks too immaculate, a certain absence of weathering in their patina. I have a look in the sculpture garden with its sculptures by Lichtenstein, Calder, Miro, Hepworth, Moore, Pomodoro as well as the occasional Paris Metro station before heading into the National Gallery. I begin with the Italian section and the only Michaelangelo in North America. The gallery also has assorted works by Botticelli, Lippi, Raphael, Titian, Bellotto, Tiepolo, Panini, Canaletto and Bellini, but not for the first time, it’s the El Greco’s I’m most impressed by, given how they look as if they could have been painted hundred of years later in the twentieth century. The Spanish section is much as might be expected, but I’m impressed by a Murillo painting of two women at a window, if only for the absence of religious subject matter. As usual, the German and Dutch paintings form the highlight of the visit and especially Van Eyck’s Annunciation and Bosch’s Death and the Miser, as well as various works by Weyden, Van Gogh, Hals, Rembrandt, Cranach, Saenredam, Vermeer, Ruisdael, Memling, Gossaert, David and Bocklin. The British section is decidedly frightful with only Turner to redeem it. Georges de la Tour’s Repentent Magdalene is the clear highlight of the French section, with its Caravaggioesque use of chiaroscuro, as well as more familiar names like David, Manet, Daumier, Cezanne, Renoir, Sisley, Degas, Tissot, Monet and Seurat. Conversely, in the American section most of the names like Winslow Homer and George Bellows are new to me. The East wing houses the modern works, which translates into Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian, Miro, Brancusi, O’Keefe (a new experience for me), Gorky, Pollock, Giacometti, Newman (another new experience) and Rothko. Finally, the gallery also turns out to have an exhibition on dedicated to John Taylor Arms, a latterday Ruskinite who engraved drawings of Stockholm, Paris, Seville, Burgos, Venice and some New York scenes. His work seems reassuringly familiar to European eyes for all of its oddity in Washington.

The last place I visit is Seattle. What Seattle lacks in terms of scale it compensates for with its setting, with the snowcap of Mount Rainier floating above the clouds in one direction and the wide expanse of Puget Sound on the other. My first view of the city is one of the cranes by the water and then the skyscrapers emerge from behind the trees. The city itself feels rather perversely like Brighton, both cities having the same counter-cultural stance, the same types of craft stall. I have a meal of crab followed by cherries in a waterfront park next to a totem pole. The difference is that where Brighton is full of dilapidated grandeur, Seattle simply feels rather more banal, with only more prosaic architecture in evidence for the most part. The main exception is the Space Needle, Seattle’s rival to the Atomium. Both represent a dated vision of the space age, but one that seems rather appealing than the future that actually happened. I first see the Needle early morning through the mist, where it looms like a Wellsian tripod. The other building in Seattle that is particularly striking is the Smith Tower, an elegant tiled skyscraper, whose interior is a vision of creamy marble and gleaming bronze. The upper floor is filled with gifts from Empress Xixi, giving an odd air of chinoiserie to the place.

Mloda Polska

During a tour of the Collegium Maius in Kraków, our guide periodically observes that it all went wrong for Poland after the partition of 1791 following a disastrous experiment in democracy during which no-one could agree on anything. Whilst this is doubtless not without a hefty degree of justification, the rather laconic fatalism is somewhat unnerving for a Westerner whose country has always cherished delusions of being in control of its own destiny. From a state that controlled much of Central Europe, Poland went to being divided between Russia, Poland and Austria; even now historical Polish territories like the city of Lvov lie within countries like Ukraine. As a city, Kraków retains the sense of being a mausoleum to better times, with little modern architecture being evident. Weathered plaster crumbles off the walls of buildings, leaving the brickwork beneath exposed. All of which, of course, endear the place to me.

I arrive at the main train station, where the rather grim underground subway connecting the platforms contrasts with the Hapsburg era white and yellow plaster of the main building aboveground. I walk down a covered iron walkway that leads into the city and am somewhat surprised to see a small square being patrolled by a robot. A small thing with treads and a CCTV camera, it resembles the sort of vision of the future last seen sometime circa the nineteen seventies or eighties. It turns out to be owned by one of the private security firms that are legion within the city. I can only assume that a rightwing politician probably decided that state police forces were inefficient when compared to the bracing vigour of the free market. There seems to be a similar approach to public transport, with most trains and trams running late and cars choking up roads and motorways. The latter state looks unpleasantly reminiscent of Britain rather than the usual European efficiency. Much of the city looks like a large market, although most of the larger names in evidence come from other European countries.

The city is heavily reminiscent of Prague and Budapest, with all three being dominated by a castle on a hill by the side of a river with a new town beneath where medieval churches and synagogues. One interesting difference is the Planty, a set of gardens ringing the city on the location of the former city walls. I begin by simply walking around the centre of the city, beginning with the market square. The largest medieval square in Europe, it’s dominated by the opposing figures of St Mary’s Church and the Town Hall tower. The church is a redbrick exercise in asymmetrical gothic with an exterior covered with monuments, it rather looks like a cross between the Tyn Church in Prague and the Frauenkirche in Munich. The dark interior is quite exceptional though, with the ceiling a dark blue burnished with gold stars and the ceiling covered in patterned red and friezes by Jan Matejko; the heavens above and hell below, I presume. Athough the Veit Stoss altar reflects the Mariolatry implicit in the name of the building, much of the interior decoration tends towards the grisly; tombs decorated with skulls and a painting of Saint Sebastian. Behind it lies the church of Saint Barbara, whose medieval facade is contradicted by a baroque interior. Across the square lies the cloth hall, the Sukiennice. The current use for this building is mostly selling tourist merchandise, with exterior arcades given up to cafes. The opposing side of the square sees Igor Mitoraj’s Eros Bendato sculpture placed at the foot of the town hall tower, making a rather odd contrast with the sleepy lion sculptures at the base of its steps. The other thing on the square is the rather squat church of St Adalbert, a small domed building, with a blue and gold art nouveau interior.

I then walk down the main street, towards the church of Saint Peter and Paul, modelled on the Gesu church in Rome and consequently in a somewhat austere Baroque style that contrasts with the rather more florid legions of gold angels in the neighbouring church of St Andrew. The crypt has a rather bizarre tomb with a number of carved griffin sculptures at its base. Opposed churches for the Dominicans and Franciscans occupy nearby streets. The former is a relatively simple affair, with a white interior and blue ceiling, accompanied by a set of cloisters. The latter is quite dowdy from the outside, but the gloomy interior is decorated in brilliant art nouveau by Mehoffer and Wyspianski, with the windows and walls decorated with iris patterns. Further along, the Bernardine church is a dark affair with extensive decay inside, although I’m quite taken with an elaborate dance of death painting cycle. The Collegium Maius is also located in the old town; rather resembling certain Cambridge colleges, the interior courtyard is flanked on each side with a set of cloisters. Ammonites have been built into redbrick walls and a grotesque serves as a fountain alongside various medieval crests. The exhibits include the old Jagiellonian University library, a medieval globe (which puts North America in the wrong place) and a set of paintings where depictions of clock towers had real clocks inserted.

The following day is given up the Polish equivalent of the Hrad, the Wawel. The castle straddles the medieval and renaissance periods, with redbrick towers contrasting with colonnaded courtyards. Many of the rooms have elaborate wooden ceilings decorated with gold flowers, Cordovan leather and friezes by Hans Durer. Many of the ceiling frescos were completed in the early twentieth century; a model shows Wyspianski’s earlier scheme for restoring the Wawel, with the inclusion of a large dome at the opposite end to the palace and cathedral. Some of Augustus the Strong’s porcelain collection is included, as well as a Bosch painting. The Cathedral is a bizarre jumble of architectural styles; a medieval gothic building with several domed classical structures and renaissance accoutrements. The interior is much the same, red marble monuments in side chapels sit alongside gothic tombs to saints and kings alike in the nave. Some of the painted chapels show a Byzantine influence in their wall decoration (at one point Poland did share a border with Turkey after all). The crypts remind me of the Hapsburg tombs in Vienna, with iron and stone coffins. The poet Mickiewicz and the patriot Kosciuszko are interned here, although the Polish pantheon is located in the nearby St Catherine’s church, where the crypt contains the tombs of Czeslaw Milosz, Szymanowski and Stanislaw Wyspianski. The base of the castle contains a small cave, named after the dragon that features in the city’s founding legend. A metal dragon sculpture has been erected, which breathes fire every five minutes or so. Kitsch but not unamusing. Finally, the Wawel has an oriental exhibition, centered around the Ottoman booty gained after the battle of Vienna; Persian and Turkish carpets, Iznik plates, Chinese & Japanese porcelain and Chinese bronzes.

The following day is taken with visiting Kazimierz, formerly a separate city and site of the Jewish ghetto. I begin at the Remuh synagogue and cemetery. The cemetery stones are some of the oldest in Poland and are decorated with images of lions and stags; broken stones are assembled to form a ‘wailing wall.’ Nearby, the new cemetery also contains sets of monuments to Nazi victims made from fragments of smashed gravestones; those still standing vary in terms of resembling older Yiddish gravestones or a style more in keeping with that found in the Polish cemeteries. Many of the headstones have stones placed on them, although much of the cemetery si rather overgrown with long grass and ferns burying many of the graves. Of the other synagogues, the Progressive Synagogue strongly reminds me of the Spanish Synagogue in Prague, with Moorish designs throughout, while the Izaaka synagogue tends towards the baroque, with Yiddish script still visible on the walls in spite of whitewashing. The High synagogue is perhaps rather more nondescript but is notable for an exhibition showing collections of old photos of Jewish life in Poland. Most of the people shown in them would have ended up in the concentration camps. Finally, the Stara Synagogue is a beautiful gothic structure with a wrought iron Bimah at its centre. The annual Jewish cultural festival was in progress during my visit, so the streets were full of school parties, rather resembling Israeli versions of St Trinians. I also visit the Botanical gardens in Krakow; Acanthus, Ferns and Astilbes are clearly much favoured by the staff, although it also has large, if oddly shaped, conservatories. Finally, I visit one of the conventional cemeteries, the Racławice cemetery. I’m struck by the number of both lit candles and metal crosses, neither being common features in Britain. Some of the symbolism is also somewhat unusual; a butterfly for instance, but the grid layout and combination of gothic and classical designs does make the place look like Highgate. There’s even a large Sphinx on one tomb.

Kraków’s museums and galleries are centred on a building that looks as if it was built during the Stalin era but wasn’t. It contains a set of Młoda Polska paintings from the nineteenth century to the present day. Some of the highlights include Wojciech Weiss’s Melancholik, Leon Chwistek’s futurist City and Lodz, Szancenbach’s Lake – Sunset, Zbigniew Pronaszko’s nudes, Czajkowski’s Orchard in Winter, Stanisław Kamocki, Henryk Szczygli ński and Jan Stanisławski’s landscapes and Jacek Malczewski’s strange symbolist paintings. I couldn’t make up my mind whether I liked Tadeusz Makowski’s odd toy scenes or not. There was also an exhibition of Weegee photos, ranging from New York’s architecture to drag queens, murder victims and carbonised bodies burnt in fires. The Stanislaw Wsypianski house also houses a number of interesting collections; several paintings of the Kosciuszko mound, modernist-gothic furniture for his theatrical sets and stained glass designs and views of St Mary’s and the Wawel. There’s also a collection of Ignacy Krieger’s photographs, showing black and white photographs of Kraków. On a similar note, the Mehoffer house showcases his art nouveau stained glass designs, paintings of his wife and garden, paintings of the market square and of the Vistula, as well as a bizarre drawing of a lady encountering a skeletal death in the form of a gardener. One rooms includes a Japanese collection of Hiroshige woodcuts. In the garden, a black and white cat sits amidst the roses, secure in the knowledge of its perfect camouflage. The Manggha collection expands on the Japanese theme, containing Felix Jasienski’s collection of oriental art. At the time of visiting it was showcasing a set of Noh masks and showing Japanese influences on Julian Falat’s paintings, mostly landscapes. The next most prominent museum is the Czartoryski museum; this is next to last remaining section of the city wall and the Barbican, adjoined to it via a sighing bridge; a bronze cast of Hermes by Thorvaldsen stands outside. The interior houses a set of enamel and porcelain designs from Limoges, Italian majolica, Meissen, paintings by Da Vinci (Lady with an Ermine) and a Rembrandt landscape. The antiquities collection contains a number of Etruscan funerary statues, mummified cats (plus a fake mummified mongoose) and a set of Fayum portraits. Finally, there is the archaeological museum; containing a number of mummy cases and Peruvian artefacts (some of them erotic) but especially a stone totem pole showing a slavic pagan deity, Swiatowit. Each side has a face, making it look like a four-face god with the peculiarity that it also seems to be wearing a top-hat.

On my final day in Kraków, I travel to the salt-mine at Wieliczka. This is the sort of trip that makes it clear that one is a tourist rather than a traveller due to the industrial system used to process the volume of visitors; it’s also the sort of trip that makes it clear that the difference between Catholic kitsch and Disneyfied schmaltz (via Tolkein’s Balrog) is a slender one. The mines contain rock salt carvings of kings, dwarves and biblical figures, as well as more recent figures like Goethe (who visited due to his interest in geology) and statues that reflect a more socialist realist style. Some of the chambers have been flooded while the wooden struts used to construct some of the larger chambers give them the same sort of feeling as a church. The actual chambers range from long corridors to ballrooms, chapels and a cafe. Much of my interest in the place is as an inverted Magic Mountain; certainly either the dryness of the air or the temperature seem to have a beneficial effect on my asthma. Finally, before leaving I spend some time in a park near Blonia; a promenade walkway has busts of famous Polish figures on either side (Curie, Herbert, Kosciuszko) leading to a hedged circle with other busts (Chopin, Mickiewicz).

Arriving in Wrocław the following day (having managed to avoid being run over by a police truck driving down the train station platform), it occurs to me that this more than most places deserves the title of the Venice of the North. The Oder river is relatively shallow here and the islands cluster in the centre of it, on which many of the city’s churches and cathedrals are built. The main part of the town would originally have been walled off from the mainland by a defensive moat. Looking at a plan of the medieval city it’s clear that it must have essentially been afloat. Its subsequent identity has been equally indeterminate, switching from being Polish to Bohemian to Prussian and back again, its name changing from Breslau to Wroc?aw at the same time that a new population arrived from Lvov. Buildings by Langhans, architect of the Brandenburg gate, sit alongside the medieval structures. Even its religious identity was somewhat indeterminate, with a Protestant majority having previously tolerated a Catholic minority and competed between them to build churches; the presence of a Jewish minority only further complicated matters.

I start my visit with the Cathedral Island, home to the some of the tallest spires in the city. The cathedral, with its twin Baltic spires is the most impressive, and like its counterpart in Kraków, baroque chapels have been added on either side. Behind it, the city’s Botanical gardens have been built. A bust of Linnaeus features at its centre, alongside pools filled with frogs, alpine gardens and an arboretum. The green iron Tumski bridge connects the Cathedral Island to the Sand Island, and the squat and dark church of Saint Mary of the Sand, its interior a combination of striped redbrick, white plaster and red stained glass. The University mathematical tower in yellow & white and the Osslinski library in red and white look out over the river; it’s a scene that rather reminds me of Saint Petersburg. The town hall in the market square is an untidy medieval building, its surface pullulating with gargoyles in addition to an astronomical clock. The town square reminds me of Copenhagen’s Nyhavn as much as Kraków, due to the bright painting of each house, many of which are identified with animal signs (e.g. the house of the golden deer). The square next to the cathedral houses the cathedral of St Mary Magdalene. Destroyed during the war and largely reconstructed, it still lacks the original baroque spires gracing each tower, as well as having gone from Protestant to Catholic. I’m rather taken with the slender bridge that adjoins the two towers. The interior chapels are filled with renaissance and classical tombstones and monuments, as well as dragon sculpture beneath the pulpit. On the opposed side of the main square is the church of Saint Elizabeth, another redbrick gothic structure surmounted by a squat metal cupola on its tower. I’m quite drawn to a renaissance tomb with a depiction of a sea monster on it. Outside, I spot one of the city’s features; a small bronze dwarf sculpture sitting next to an accompanying house. Several of these are dotted round the city; a somewhat amusing, if rather twee, idea.

Much of the heart of the city was destroyed by the Russians, as Breslau only capitulated at the same time as Berlin. Grim ‘blokowisko’ housing proliferates alongside the older structures. Some of the most interest does reside with the newer structures though; for example, the train station combines a long glass and iron barrel roof with a gothic revival exterior. Various modernist department stores are also contained within the city, some of which were the first in Poland to have elevators. Similarly, the Grunwaldzki bridge was one of the largest iron bridges in Germany and is now the largest in Poland (it rather resembles Budapest’s chain bridge). More strikingly, a market hall combines a redbrick facade with a cavernous concrete interior. This culminates in the concrete Centennial Hall, a gigantic concrete dome built as Wrocław’s belated answer to the Eiffel tower or the Crystal Palace. With that said, the use of concrete does bring the slightly more unfortunate example of the Royal Festival Hall to mind; the building is presently in a rather bad state and was undergoing extensive restoration work. Upon arrival one walks though a series of concrete pillars (some currently entirely immersed in ivy) and past a tall metal spike, rather reminiscent of Skylon. A lake is in front of the hall, which is surrounded by a concrete pergola. A semi-derelict kindergarten by Le Corbusier sits rather forgotten in the grounds. Beyond this, a Japanese garden was created to go with the hall; Acers surrounded a pool, spanned by wooden bridges. In the centre of the city, the most modern landmark can be found in one of the parks; the Racławice panorama, a nineteen sixties concrete structure built to house Styka and Kossak’s panoramic representation of the battle where Kosciuszko lead an army of peasants armed with scythes to defeat the Russians. Much of the foreground before the picture has been designed to create the illusion of perspective; trees and landscape designed to patch the picture. It’s a slightly kitsch effect but an undeniably effective one. Behind the panorama building rests an iron statue to the dead of Katyn, featuring a woman weeping for the dead while the figure of death is suspended above. The materials and treatment are quite contemporary but the theme is very classical.

The National Museum in Wrocław has a somewhat odd collection of art that includes a painting of a bearded lady and a clock painting where the eyes tock back and forth. Much of the medieval art is string on portraiture but weak on narrative scenes. It also tends towards the infernal, with paintings showing a rather canine beast from the book of revelations, a hellmouth, a winged devil with a man’s body and a bull’s head, and a set of the damned being menaced by skeletons and some rather catlike demons. Praying figures of the painting patrons often feature in the lower sections of scenes, making the paintings a form of indulgence. A set of wooden votive figures are missing their hands, creating the inadvertent impression of a scene from Titus Andronicus. A temporary sculpture exhibition shows Behrens’ The Kiss of the Sphinx. The collections also includes many of the Piast tombs removed from various city churches. The later sections include several Matejko paintings and a work attributed to Bellotto, showing an entry into Rome, Józef Chełmońsk’s symbolist paintings and Maz Wislicenus’ landscapes. I’m slightly bemused by one painting that shows the same figure replicated several times; I can’t tell whether it was deliberate or not. The building itself is rather Dutch in style covered in icy and facing a Nazi era city council building. A bronze statue of Durer stands outside.

On my final day in Wrocław, I travel outside the city to the Jewish cemetery. Even now, this is far outside the city boundaries, sited near a rather eccentric nineteenth century water tower. Most of the tombs are in a bad state of decay, with ivy overgrowing everything; it certainly qualifies as one of the most decayed cemeteries I’ve seen. This is particularly unfortunate, as the tombs are quite unusual. This is a nineteenth century cemetery and accordingly many of the tombs are Egyptianate or classical, but some of the Sephardic tombs were created in an Arabesque style.