Friday, October 10, 2014

Seeing Britain Through Art

The only way to end my two week holiday in Britain is with a truly British institution. I started the London portion of the holiday with the British Museum and am ending it with Tate Britain.

The Tate Britain sits on the Thames in the Pimlico neighborhood and looks like a smaller British Museum, with a ground round dome under which is a rotunda court in gleaming white marble. It however is nowhere near as overwhelming in terms of its collection and can easily be done Ina few hours. It's also the perfect pairing to go with the National Portrait Gallery.

The Tate is named after Sir Henry Tate, an industrialist who had made his fortune as a sugar refiner, offered his collection of British art to the National Gallery in 1889. However, the  National Gallery did not have space for Tate's collection. So to remedy this problem, Tate created a new gallery dedicated to British art, opening to the public in 1897. This gallery grew to hold more than just Tate's collection but the works for British artists from various other collections. The original name of the gallery was the National Gallery of British Art.

The result is a fine collection dating from the 16th century to the present with most of Britain's leading artists represented, such as Gainsborough, Reynolds, Constable, Hogarth, Blake, and of course JMW Turner. The Tate has the largest collection of Turner's works spread over seven rooms. Turner willed most of his paintings and watercolors to the British nation, and he intended that a special gallery would be built to house them.

It also has an impressive number of the Pre-Raphaelites, which is a wholly British movement in 19th century art. Founded in 1848 by by William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was a group of English painters, poets, critics. The groups purpose was to reform art and return it to the colorful and complex compositions of Italian art before the adoption of Classical ideals of Raphael  and Michelangelo.  The Pre-Raphaelites' paintings on display correspond with the Romantic period of poetry. One of the most stunning pieces is John Williams Waterhouse's "The Lady of Shalott,"which colorfully and mournfully illustrates lines from Tennyson's poem.

There couldn't have been a better way to end a truly British holiday, excursions that spanned time and country, then to walk through 500 years of British art.  To see the scope and depth of the change in British art across time was the perfect compliment to bookend the heritage contributions to British history.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Artful Surprises

Sir John Soane's Museum is small but full of curiosities and surprises. The Museum is in the house and library of Soane, who was an architecture and therefore knowledgable and skilled to combine three houses (Numbers 12, 13, and 14) in Lincoln's Inn Fields. Beginning in 1792 and proceeding in phases that ended in 1824, Soane created his ideal gallery for the display of his collection of curios. 

And what a collection it is! An avid collector, Soane amassed items ranging from Greek marbles and bronzes, Roman jewelry, medieval sculptures, and Renaissance paintings. On display (but I won't say where so as not to ruin the surprise for those who haven't visited) are two series by William Hogarth - "The Rake's Progress" and "The Election." There is even the sarcophagi of Seti I. Soane hosted a party that lasted three days just to showcase this acquisition. Soane had an entire room devoted to architectural models, even his own, which include the Bank of England and models of ancient Roman and Greek buildings. And as any bibliophile will appreciate, there are walls of bookshelves. Soane even turned the pillars of the drawing room into bookshelves. 

Upon his appointment at the Royal Academy as Professor of Architecture in 1806, Soane arranged his books, casts, drawings, and models for the students. He proposed that he open his house for the use of the students before and after his lectures, starting Soane down the path of converting his home into a museum for others to view and learn. 

In 1833, Soane negotiated an Act of Parliament to settle and preserve the house and collection for the benefit of ‘amateurs and students’ in architecture, painting and sculpture. The Act went in to effect on his death in 1837, vesting the Museum in a board of Trustees who were to continue to uphold Soane’s own aims and objectives. A crucial part of their brief was to maintain the fabric of the Museum, keeping it ‘as nearly as circumstances will admit in the state’ in which it was left at the time of Soane’s death in 1837 and to allow free access for students and the public to ‘consult, inspect and benefit’ from the collections. Since 1837, each successive Curator has sought to preserve and maintain Soane’s arrangements as he wished. 

Soane clearly believed that there wasn't any point in acquiring anything that he couldn't display, so every surface, wall, and ceiling is adorned with artifacts and artworks. The wonderfully stylish clutter takes you through centuries and cultures, each turn revealing a new surprise. 

To Collect and To Remember

Although I've been fortunate to visit London many times, I've somehow never found the opportunity to go to the British Museum (much to the chagrin of a few friends.) But today I've remedied that great slight with a visit to one of the most remarkable museums.  The British Museum, founded in 1753, is the epitome of the Age of Enlightenment and Empire and the first national public museum in the world. The Museum's early collection was mainly books, manuscripts, and natural specimens with some coins, medals, prints, and drawings collected by the physician, naturalist, and collector, Sir Hans Sloane.

Sloane collected more than 71,000 objects throughout  his life. He wanted his collection to be preserved intact after his death so he bequeathed the entire collection to King George II. Accepting the gift, an Act of Parliament established the British Museum on June 7,1753. Opening to the public on January 15,1759, the British Museum was first in Montagu House in Bloomsbury on the site of today's building.

The British Museum's collection grew as the British upper classes traveled the globe in the 18th and 19th centuries, uncovering antiquities and artifacts of distant civilizations and shipping them back to Britain for investigation and display. These acquisitions formed the basis of the museum's collection and has been built to be one of the largest and finest. A number of high profile pieces were discovered in the 19th century - the Rosetta Stone in 1802, the Townley collection of classical sculpture in 1805, and the Parthenon sculptures (Elgin Marbles) in 1816. And the 7th century Saxon burial ship and treasures was discovered in 1938 in Sutton Hoo, Suffolk.

It is a testament to the breadth of the Empire at one time to have been able to collect artifacts from such different civilizations around the world. And in some way, the British Museum is a remembrance to all  of these past cultures and societies.

Remembrances to the past are all over London, from Christopher Wren's Monument  that commemorates the Great Fire of 1666 to the current installation at the Tower of London. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. To remember the British citizens lost in the war, 888,246 ceramic poppies will progressively fill the Tower's moat.  Each poppy is created by hand and installed by hand, creating an undulating wave of red across the greenery of the grassy moat. Singular poppies rise from the tide reminding you that each poppy represents an individual person. The installation is equally breathtaking and heart-wrenching to realize the destruction of the war, truly an event to pause and a remember and a collection I will be hard-pressed to forget.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Westward to Wales

The next stop on our journey was Llandudno in Northern Wales, the once fashionable seaside resort during the Victorian era. The town was mostly built beginning around 1850 by the Mostyn family, who still own much of the town. It is due to the Mostyns that Llandudno still retains the Victorian aesthetic of its origins. The family still owns most of the town and actively work to preserve and conserve the town. The Promenade is one of Britain's handsomest walkways with coastal views around the crescent bay and a pier jutting 2,295 feet into the bay at the base of the Great Orme. As well as being on a crescent shaped bay, Llandudno is between giant headlands of the Great  Orme and Little Orme, named by the Vikings who thought they resembled sea serpents when shrouded in mist.

To get to the top of the Great Orme, a cable car tramway still runs up to the summit. The tramway operates by a funicular system controlled by a team of winchman and attendants. Each car balances the other as one goes up and the other is on its way down. The first paying passengers rode the tram on July 31, 1902. The top of the Great Orme affords the most spectacular views of Wales, the sea, and surrounding towns, as well as the most prominent resident - sheep.  There are farms and houses on the Orme, and a 12th century little church. St. Tudno's church was built on the site of a 6th century Christian site and dedicated to the memory of St. Tudno, who was one of seven sons of King Seithenyn whose legendary kingdom in Cardigan Bay was submerged.

Nearby to Llandudno is Conwy, which is a world heritage UNESCO site because of its castle and almost intact city walls. The castle, town walls and enclosed street plan of Conwy was planned and built by Edward I in the 1200s as a crucial garrison town for the king's campaigns against Welsh rebels. Revived in the Victorian era by the expansion of the railways and roadways connecting North Wales to England's industrial heartland, British tourists followed to appreciate the stunning beauty of this tiny town and it's massive castle.

Conwy Castle was built between 1283 and 1287 for King Edward I after he conquered the last native Prince of Wales, Llwelyn ap Gruffudd. The castle was never taken by any kind of assault, as it was nearly impossible to do so because it was protected by a massive ditch, one entrance thought two gates, and protection of outer and inner wards. Kept ready for the King with rooms designated for him, only three kings ever visited and no king ever lived there.

Within Conwy were two houses worth a visit:

Aberconwy House is the town's only medieval house still standing and was completed during the 14th century in the half-timbered English style. The house saw many owners, from the Tudor merchant  to the 18th century sea captain to the temperance hotel owner at the end of the 19th century.

Plas Mawr (Great Hall) is probably the best preserved Elizabethan town house in Britain. A wealth trader Robert Wynn built it between 1576 and 1585 and showcased his wealth with ornate plasterwork in most of the rooms, two indoor closets and a walk-in closet. He even constructed his own tower!

Despite forbidding weather forecasts, we were intrepid travelers full of American optimism. We captured the periods of sun and blue sky and fell in love with Wales.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Walking Another Wall

Westward we traveled to our first stop in Chester, the county town of mainly rural Chesire. Chester has bits of different ages splattered around; full Roman remnants, half-timbered Tudor houses and shops, medieval churches, Georgian circles and rows of houses, and Victorian architecture of the Town Hall. 

Chester was founded by a Roman legion on the River Dee in 1st century C.E. as it was a good  position to see both northward and westward. The city reached its pinnacle as a port in the 13th and 14th centuries. The River Dee was deep enough at one-time that seafaring ships were able to sail from the sea up the river to dock in the city. Though its purpose as a main port declined as the river gradually silted up, the railways brought activity back to the area. 

Due to its Roman founding as a fortified city, Chester is almost entirely encircled by Roman walls, which are walkable (like York's.) One of the entries to the wall is under the Eastgate Clock, which stands on the site of the original entrance to the Roman fortress Deva Victrix. The Clock was erected and dedicated to Queen Victoria for her Diamond Jubilee in 1896.  At the wall's southwestern corner is a fragment of the Norman Castle William the Conqueror built to launch his campaigns on Wales.

Walking the walls affords spectacular views of 18th century buildings, the Welsh mountains, medieval fragments of Chester Castle, various Roman ruins, and the Cathedral. Chester Cathedral was founded in 1092 a a Benedictine abbey and made an Anglican cathedral church in 1541, Chester's cathedral has a range of monastic buildings - cloisters, refectory, chapterhouse, and medieval woodcarving in the choir stall. The sweetest part of the entire Cathedral was the small Chapel of St. Anselm, the abbott's private chapel, a floor about the nave and a peaceful retreat from the bustle below. A plaster ceiling and stonework from the 17th century accentuates the 12th century chapel. 

An especially medieval aspect of Chester are the Rows, which are tiered shops, one level at street level and the others stacked on top along galleried balconies, a multi-level out-door mall  along cobblestone streets. Modern stores have now taken up residence in the Rows, continuing the shopping tradition. Many of the buildings are half-timbered, some dating to the 13th century up to the 17th century. The first reference to these shops as "The Rows" in writing was in 1357. One of the shops in the Rows called "Three Old Arches" is probably the earliest identified shop front in England. 

One of the most unique things about Chester, besides the practically intact Roman walls is that it also has Britain's largest Roman amphitheater. The 20th Legion used it for military training and entertainment like classical boxing, gladiatorial combat, and bull-baiting. It was discovered in 1929 and further excavated 2007 to 2009.

Chester has integrated the identities of its history into its modern day. It doesn't take much to find the charm of Chester. After all, it is still a destination after it was settled 2,000 years ago. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Journey Northward

York was a priority on this year's trip because I had been told how amazing a city it is. However, I didn't realize until I got there why I would find York so amazing: there's a cathedral (and I have it in my head for some reason to try and visit as many English Cathedrals as possible. Last year's tally - three; this year's tally - two, plus Westminster, not a Cathedral, I know.); a train ride is required; and there are both Roman and Viking and medieval sites to see. 

York is such an old and complex city with many different identities:
  • Roman - called Eboracum and founded by the Romans in 71 CE, Hadrian visited, Constantine was emperor of Rome while in Eboraum, reorganized Britain into four provinces, and then died here. capital of Kingdom of Northumbria.
  • Saxon and Danish - after the Roman army had withdrawn, Eboracum became Eoforwic under the Saxons. Eoforwic was a Viking center from 867 and one of Europe's chief trading bases. 
  • Norman - William the conqueror "visited" and quelled a rebellion. The Normans also built the first minster
  • Medieval - The building of York Minster as it is and the 2.5 miles of walls and four gates that still circle the city. Between 1100 and 1500, it was England's second largest city. 
  • Victorian - Because of its strategic location, York became the center of a flourishing rail empire, resulting in wealth and a building boom in the grand Victorian style. 
Past identities are evident all over, from the foundations of St. Mary's Abbey in the York Museum Gardens to the most obvious remanent of the Romans - the Wall, which is intact in three long sections. The Norman to medieval period is evident in the Minster and the cobble-lined streets. The Shambles is lined by wooden-framed buildings that lean so far across the narrow alley that some of their roofs almost touch, truly medieval experience, thankfully without the slop, smell, and muck that would have been more appropriate for the area. The Danish heritage is evident in the street names that end in "gate,"like Stonegate, Coppergate, Castlegate, Petergate. "Gate" comes from the Danish word 'gata' meaning street or way. 

York Minster itself has a complex identity. It was built on Roman foundations, where Emperor Constantine lived. There have been 5 minsters built on this site, the first likely a wooden chapel where King Edwin of Northumbria was baptized in 627. Eventually the Normans built a structure in the 11th century, onto which the foundation for the current York Minster was built beginning in 1220 and finished 252 years later in 1472. The current York minster is the largest Gothic church north of the Alps. It also has the largest collection of medieval stained glass in Britain, some dating from  the late 12th century, which  means that the stained glass windows have sustained weather, the Reformation, Civil War, and World War II. The Great East Window is the largest area of medieval painted glass in the world, the size of a tennis court. 

The best way to see all the identities of York is by walking the Walls - Roman intersects with Victorian, medieval with Georgian. All of these identities have coalesced to make York, and England, so unique. Why not take the time to walk around and appreciate it when there are three hours before a train on the Great Railway?