Man, is it hard to keep up with these missives while actually trying to experience the events you are wanting to write about! Thursday was an extraordinarily busy day, commencing with the distressing phone call about our hacked bank account, the news of which really didn’t sink in until many hours later. But we had such an eventful day that it was impossible to stew about it. We first walked to Selfridge’s, where G. finally bought a mobile phone and SIM card (which will only work for incoming calls and outgoing locally; we’ll have to buy a new SIM card in Europe, apparently). From there we took the Tube to Holborn and walked to the Sir John Soane’s Museum, about which I had already heard so much. I must admit that the image I had gotten of the place from reports was of an eccentric 19th-century hoarder’s pile of weird objects with little rhyme or reason. But this place turned out to be much more than a frivolous collection of objets. First of all, Soane was a self-made, ambitious and extremely innovative architect whose rooms here reflect his intriguing notions about space and light. Soane was also extremely successful, having built the Bank of England (1818) and many other prominent buildings of the early 19th century. He was friends with many of his era’s cognoscenti, and his tremendous library contained over 7,000 volumes (all of which are still in their original room in the house). He WAS an eccentric collector, but what a collection! Along with a gillion plaster casts of ancient sculptures (which he did use for teaching purposes) plunked around the house, he also acquired through auction some magnificent paintings, most amazingly the original oil paintings of Hogarth’s famous print series The Rake’s Progress: http://www.soane.org/collections_legacy/the_soane_hogarths/rakes_progress/. Soane also devised ingenious methods of displaying all his varied objects and treasures, including an Egyptian sarcophagus in the lower levels of the houses, and came up with clever ways of joining three row houses into one. As you can see, I was immensely impressed with the place! And the staff were knowledgeable and enthusiastic.
After this uplifting experience, we walked to the British Museum. What a shock!! While I knew that the old, venerable, incredibly significant Reading Room of the British Museum–where every major and minor writer and scholar of the English-speaking world sat and wrote the major and minor literary achievements of the last two centuries–was closed, I did not quite realize what an atrocious alteration had occurred to this nearly sacred space.
In Tony Blair’s millenium moment, Norman Foster was allowed to create this useless surround of the Reading Room that doesn’t even allow for a view into the old space! One can walk up the sides of this rotunda to go to a cafe–that’s it! When I asked the information desk what was happening to the space, it was obvious I was not the first person to express indignation about this. At the moment, the Reading Room’s fate is “undecided”. Incomprehensible!
Still, the Museum does house the world’s great pilfered treasures, gleaned by the Empire throughout its conquered lands. The Elgin Marbles , the great sculptures of Greece and Rome and Egypt and everywhere else that the British went–they are all here. Of course, I do know that at the time, these intrepid explorers honestly believed that they were saving these monuments of Western culture from heathens who could not appreciate their own patrimony, and it probably is true that the Elgin Marbles would have been blown up a la ISIS by Turks if they hadn’t made it to England, but it still is important to remember that most of this extraordinary collection is the result of outright thievery, albeit for the best of intentions. So that’s my politically correct, post-colonialist rant!
After this brief run through the Museum, we prepared for our evening event: the finals of the 2015 International Song Competition at the lovely Wigmore Hall.The Hall, which our friend Henry recommended to us, was built 1899-1902 by the German Bechstein Piano Company, as a venue to promote the playing of its instruments. The building, with its wonderfully Art Nouveau-ish murals, was confiscated as alien property during World War I and rechristened Wigmore Hall.
We knew nothing about this song competition until we saw that it was on during our week in London, so we bought the very reasonably priced tickets. The competition had been going on all week, so by the time we got there, the regular attendees had been following the winners and losers and had distinct opinions about the performances. The place was packed as the 5 finalists began their 30-minute sets, during which they were required to sing songs with piano accompaniment in several languages and from memory. (We’re talking Lieder singing here, not popular songs a la Eurovision!)
The performers and their accompanists were amazing. Three baritones, one soprano, and one tenor. The judges included major figures such as Angelika Kirchschlager and Thomas Quasthoff. We couldn’t believe how exciting it was. After all of the performances, we had a lovely late meal in the Hall’s restaurant while the judges made their decisions. (So another chance for a photo of George eating, this time with excellent drawings of famous musicians on the walls.)
You can see in this photo all of the finalists on stage along with the judges (that’s the extraordinary Quasthoff sitting–he’s the unbelievably great baritone who was a thalidomide victim).
We had such fun!!! We would strongly recommend a visit to Wigmore Hall if you are ever in London