One of the Things You Do while in London is go to a musical (although I’ve extracted a semi-promise from Tony that next time it will be a Shakespeare play). We picked Wicked. And Tony has been crushing on the Dutch actress who played Elphaba ever since. I liked it even more than I thought I would, and it’s been so highly recommended to me by so many people that I was expecting to like it a lot. It was a spectacular piece of theatre. I loved the opulent costumes and the steampunk feel of the sets.
The plot is clever, and there’s some great character development. Elphaba is a fabulous, flawed, feminist heroine. And the political themes nearly fifteen years after the show first premiered are more timely an ever. For instance:
“So you lied to them.”
“Only verbally. But they were the lies they wanted to hear.”
If you get the chance to see it, I highly recommend Wicked. And it was a very entertaining counterpoint to all the high culture on which I spent the majority of my time in London.
The next morning was art gallery day. I set off, Oyster Card in hand, and managed to take the Tube to Trafalgar Square with only a couple of wrong turns and mis-directions. I was starving, and wanted a full English breakfast before my day of museums. Weirdly enough, I kept passing Italian places offering English breakfast, and nothing else. So eventually I sat down in an atmospheric Italian restaurant right next to the brick oven, and they did indeed produce a plate of beans, toast, mushrooms, egg, sausage, bacon, tomato, hash browns . . . and arugula. I’m not positive on the authenticity of that last item, but it was tasty.
After breakfast I turned the corner into Trafalgar Square and took the steps of the National Gallery two at a time. It’s an imposing building with mosaic floors and a labyrinthine series of rooms hung with art from the Middle Ages to the early 20th century.
It’s arranged more or less in chronological order, so since my theme for this trip was doing exactly as I liked, I went ahead and started at the end, with the early 20th century. There were a couple of galleries closed in that wing, but still plenty to see.
For example, Henri Rousseau’s Surprised! or Tiger in a Tropical Storm, the perfect place to sit down your tour group of little kids in cute British school uniforms with their notebooks.
I sighed for a long time over this perfect Van Gogh. “A flash of black in a sunny landscape,” he described the cypresses, and then painted them like the aching dark counterpoint to a life of visions filled with light.
I spent at least as long in front of this spectacular Monet. Waterlilies, yes, of course, but in cool turquoise with the light of a painted sunset reflected in the water and off of everything else within view. Ah, to see a sunset like an impressionist.
There were also paintings by some artists I hadn’t met before, like this magical image of Lake Keitele in Finland, which to my untutored eye in no way evokes the mythical Finnish hero Väinämöinen (mostly because I’d never heard of him), but apparently does to those more in the know. The artist, Akseli Gallen-Kallela, signed the painting in Swedish, which was significant enough to be mentioned on the placard next to the painting.
I went through the rest of the gallery in a rather piecemeal fashion, following the advice of my Londoner friend Anwar, who advised me to check off the rooms on my map as I visited them so I would know where I’d already been in the maze that is the National Gallery. So here, in no particular order, are a few more of my favourites. Here, for example, is a hilariously serious self-portrait of the 17th century Italian painter Salvator Rosa holding a sign admonishing the viewer to “remain silent unless your speaking is better than silence.” I’m pretty sure there’s a deliciously self-aware sense of irony hidden behind that furrowed borw, marking the artist as one of the early proto-hipsters.
I can never resist a royal lapdog, and here’s a darling little black one belonging to Madame de Pompadour.
The painting was finished a few months after her untimely death, so the portraitist was forced to copy the head from a different painting of her to complete the portrait.
And this is a medieval tray especially designed to present sweetmeats to a mother who has just given birth. What a lovely tradition, no?
After I finished at the National Gallery I went down into the underground tunnels nearest Trafalgar Square, which are decorated with these fun line drawings from British history.
I was on my way to the Tate Modern for something more, well, modern. The place is cool. Sophisticated, and yet accessible. The building itself is a spectacular work of art built out of an old power station. The place fairly hums with artistic energy, and there’s a massive indoor atrium perfect for giant exhibitions. I soaked up the atmosphere, visited a good portion of the collection, and had lunch looking out over the Thames.
After the Tate, I crossed the Millennium footbridge, which affords wonderful views from every angle, on my way to evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral.
The view you get of the cathedral coming off the bridge is amazing.
Evensong was lovely, with a choir that sang like angels. I was there early with some friends, and we got to sit up by the choir in carved, straight-backed wooden seats. Although I enjoy sightseeing in cathedrals, my favourite thing to do in them is hear beautiful music. It was a perfect ending to my second day in London.