News of Pelicans and Parmigiana with an Art Chaser
After my family left on Thursday, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with myself. A calm descended and the urge to go back to bed was strong but the urge to make the most of my solitude and the sunshine was stronger. I decided I needed two things that generally help to calm my mind, a walk and some art.
As I was leaving the marina, I was introduced to a couple who have lived here for twenty years. I walked up into Canary Wharf with them to catch the tube. They retired ten years ago and take full advantage of everything London has to offer. Every day they head off and find something new to do. As I left them, they were on their way to St. James’ Park to watch the pelican population being fed. I added it to my list and felt inspired by the fact that they haven’t run out of things to do yet.
Since we moved to the boat I have been avoiding central London. There’s lots of things there that I love to do, but I do not love crowds or tourists, so summer is not my favourite or my best. Some days I am lured back, despite knowing what I will have to endure. As I fought my way from Tottenham Court Road besieged on every side I did question my life choices somewhat, but by the time I got to the National Portrait Gallery, I knew I had made the right decision.
It’s been closed for months, undergoing a huge refit and I had been by so many times wishing it would hurry up and open, and now it is. It’s one of my favourite art galleries, and for my money, beats the National Gallery into a cocked hat. I always think you get double bubble at the Portrait Gallery because you can be excited by the subject of the portrait and by the artist. If you don’t like the sitter you might like the artist and vice versa. There are very few artworks where I don’t like either.
On a purely practical level it’s absolutely brilliant that they have moved the front door to a much more logical and accessible place. It used to be round the corner, on a narrow stretch of pavement by a busy road, which was just asking for trouble. Now it’s much less dangerous and far more stylish. I was excited by the newly commissioned bronze doors by Tracey Emin before I even set foot in the place.
The best thing for me was that they addressed the perennial problem of a portrait gallery, which is that for the longest time ever, portraits were only ever painted of and for wealthy people. This usually translates as a lot of portraits of fat, white men in wigs. Occasionally you get portraits of their wives, children, dogs and horses with their houses in the background, which is a bit like looking at an Ikea catalogue of a man’s goods and chattels. The more frivolous portraits tend to be a fat, white man’s mistress. I’m thinking Fragonard’s Swing here. Although that’s not in the Portrait Gallery. That’s at The Wallace Collection which is at the back of Marylebone High Street. You get my drift.
Now there are significantly less of these kind of portraits on display. Instead there are some well curated, exciting works across all kinds of media that depict all kinds of people. I didn’t visit the early galleries because fat, white men in ruffs are my least favourite kind of portrait. I started with the Victorians and worked forwards. Where there are clearly not going to be paintings or sculptures of key figures who aren’t men in the displays, the curators have chosen some great photographs to fill in the gaps. I particularly enjoyed the display of Victorian Cartes de Visites, which are charming and lots of fun.
Rooms are arranged in rough chronological order with intersecting displays about particular times or events. There was a great gallery of life and death masks through time. My favourite piece in the whole museum is a bronze life mask of Tracey Emin which is a gloriously vulnerable and beautiful thing. I also really enjoyed the modern galleries where they have kept the best of what used to be there and mixed things up a bit. There was a particularly touching photograph of Derek Jarman, taken a few months before he died, where the photographer, Richard Hamilton, deliberately blurred the image to show the viewer how Jarman saw the world. As an artist, Jarman continued to find ways to make art despite the AIDS that ravaged his sight and eventually took his life. I found it incredibly poignant that Hamilton found a way to share that.
There’s a terrific exhibition of women photographers taking photographs of prominent women. It was also wonderful to see a fantastically lit photograph of Henry Moore sketching Londoners sheltering in the tube tunnels during the Blitz taken by Lee Miller. Another highlight for me was a self portrait by pop artist, Pauline Boty in stained glass. Boty was all but forgotten thanks to a combination of an art world indifferent to women artists, her untimely death at 28 and her work being consigned to a garden shed. The rediscovery and celebration of her work is wonderful and she is featured in Ali Smith’s Autumn, which is where I first heard of her, and discussed in some of the episodes of The Great Women Artists podcast.
After I’d had my fill of portraits I decided to make it a double yolker kind of day. I snuck through St. James’ to avoid the crowds and emerged onto Piccadilly outside Fortnum and Mason’s, triumphant and with my eyes on the prize of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. My timing was perfect. The gallery was open for another two hours, but most people were drifting out by the time I got there. I spent the entire two hours blissfully wandering from gallery to gallery with hardly anyone else there.
I love the Summer Exhibition because it’s just such a smorgasbord. Every year there is a different theme. There is also a different curator, who allocates rooms to different academicians so there is always something to get excited about. You see work by celebrities, work by academicians and work by the public all in together. It’s random in its democracy and that’s what I enjoy.
This year everything seemed a little subdued. It felt like there were less artworks. I have no idea if it’s true or just the way things were hung. I appreciated a lot. I didn’t love much. The things I did love tended to be either out of my price range or already sold, which is good because I am still working on being fiscally responsible, plus I live on a small boat, so it’s no good dragging home a twelve foot high sculpture made of fur and lard. We’d be evicted from the marina.
I left feeling culturally replete and calm in mind and body. I drifted home via the deli and the cat and I sat in the gloaming, watching the evening descend and the lights winking on as we fought over the cheesiest bits of my parmigiana.