While the Independent‘s headline was about how America is eating the world, I spent a couple of hours yesterday afternoon (as a break from the next issue of Guanxi and the Cool Planet Guide, which interested a lot of people at Frankfurt and is thus creating panic for the author–yours truly) relishing English heritage, at Westminster Abbey and the National Gallery.
I thought there was a concert at 16.30 at Westminster Abbey and turned up early for that, but as usual I got the time or date wrong. This turned out to be a good time of day to see the Abbey. Quite a few people, but not a mob. It was lovelier than I remembered, perhaps because it has been so remarkably cleaned up in recent years. The stone in many places is truly cream-colored, pristine. All those centuries of grime removed.
The Abbey is a bit like a crazy auntieâ€™s parlor, packed with objects that donâ€™t quite fit into the space, all different styles and periods. After reading about WWI, the Armistice Day memorial to the unknown soldier, a rectangle with the usual words about king and country, surrounded by poppies, was a bit hard to take. There are lots of imperial warriorsâ€™ memorials, funded by their families, one presumes, or by the East India Company.
Then there are the sovereigns. Mary I and Elizabeth were there together, with a plaque saying, in essence, that in spite of their religious differences they both did what they did for the love of Jesus.
At poetsâ€™ corner I took two snaps of the T. S. Eliot stone before being admonishedâ€”I truly didnâ€™t know I wasnâ€™t supposed to. I noted a couple of odd things that I looked up later: Cromwellâ€™s three-year burial in the Abbey, after which he was dug up and posthumously executed, and an American, George Peabody, who was given the honor of temporary internment before being sent home to Danvers, MA.
The most beautiful place, though, apart from the Abbey itself (what an astonishing sight, that long high vaulted ceiling), was the Chapter House, a round room with another high roof (they cared more about God than comfort) that had been neglected for centuries. Wall paintings made soon after the Abbey was built have been restored. Apparently they are of the apocalypse, but I couldnâ€™t work out that detail. Lots of saints, obvious from the gold surrounding their heads. The best work is gone, but there remains, on one side, a group of people, their faces close together, rising from the dark plaster. Clouds of witness, I thought. Those early paintings and the building itself are full of feeling, unlike the Victorian memorials.
From there I went to the National Gallery. The Cezanne exhibit was wonderful because so varied, with lots of sketches and studies as well as the Provencal landscapes that I would have identified with him. Itâ€™s a grand idea to bring together an artistâ€™s whole work. I like to spend just a little while in galleries (and in London they are free so this is feasible!) because they overwhelm me. Dark Spanish paintings by a famous artist whose name escapes me, and lots of Rubens which were, again, more varied than Iâ€™d realized. A painting about war and peace done for an English king when Rubens was helping to negotiate a treaty. Politics and art, another kind of two cultures.
Finally, a beautifully lit round room filled with paintings by Turner. I was undone. How tourists can just walk around looking at things day after day is a mystery; I can take only 20 minutes and then have to go away and walk for a while to recover.