Keeper of the Keys

Today is my last day in London.

I took this yesterday.

And it decided to rain. And rain. And rain.

But I didn’t care. I set off to see a few more things, and got very very wet in the process.

First up was the American Embassy, which turned out to be a big disappointment. Not only is the building indescribably ugly, they wouldn’t let me in without an appointment. America!

Eww. In a city as beautiful as London they couldn’t find a nicer building? 

They are going to move though, in a couple years.,_London

Here’s the eagle.

After that, I walked from the Embassy in Grosvenor Square to Tate Britain, which is west of Westminster Abbey, which took a really long time. But I got to see things I wouldn’t have seen if I had taken the Tube, like the swanky shopping area (I didn’t go into the stores . . . there were bouncers so I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have been let in anyway), Piccadilly Circus, and Green Park, and I got to walk past Big Ben, Parliament, and Westminster Abbey.

Then it was the Tate Britain (anyone who has been paying attention will know there will be no review of the Tate Modern here), which was as unexpectedly great as the Embassy was terrible.

The Tate was built as a gallery in 1897 with money from Henry Tate, the guy who invented the sugar cube. It’s host to British art from the 1500’s through the present day. Pictures are rehung every year or so, with a decent selection of works by Hogarth, Gainsborough, and Reynolds, as well as prominent foreign-born artists who spent a fair amount of time in Britain.

One such artist is Mr. James Tissot, and I almost died seeing (one of) my favorite works of his just hanging on the wall.

Only there was no photography permitted, so we’ll have to go with official pictures. They’re probably better anyway.

The interior was beautiful, save some hideous sculptures that were pretending to be art:

That thing to the right calls itself “Woman,” 

despite obviously being some sort of spindly praying mantis.

The floor plan is pretty straightforward, with rooms divided chronologically by year. In the left-side wing to the main entryway is the 1500’s to 1910, the right, 1940 to 2000. I did not go on the right hand side.

Some of my favorites that I was able to find online:

(For an overview of my taste in paintings, click here.)

A Young Lady Aged 21, Possibly Helena Snakenborg, later Marchioness of  Northampton, 1569

I really loved her dress, with the flowers on the sleeves, the red of her outer dress, and the artistic arrangement of her jewelry.

Sir Joshua Reynolds

Susanna Beckford, 1756

This was probably commissioned as a wedding portrait, when the sole heiress of her father’s estate (worth 20,000 pounds) married Francis Beckford 1755. Her dress was probably painted off of a dummy and by a professional “drapery painter” or by Reynolds’ assistant, Guiseppe Marchi.

Thomas Gainsborough

Giovanna Baccelli, exhibited 1782

Baccelli was an Italian, and a primary dancer in London at the King’s Theater beginning 1774. Here she is painted in the dress, costume, and pose of one of the ballets she appeared in that season, Les Amans Surpris.

George Romney

Mrs. Robert Trotter of Bush, 1788-9

That hat. What more is there to say?

Sir Joshua Reynolds

Colonel Acland and Lord Sydney: The Archers, 1769

This painting is supposed to symbolize aristocracy and chivalry of times past.

It’s really theatrical too, which is always fun.

John William Waterhouse

The Lady of Shalott, 1888

All you Anne of Green Gables fans will know the reference here, that movie was my first introduction to the poem and to Tennyson. In the poem, the Lady is cursed for looking at Sir Lancelot. She gets in a boat to float down the river to her death.

I’m familiar with the painting now and it was great to see it in person.

This too is very dramatic, though it’s nothing to Ophelia . . . .

Sir John Everett Millais

Ophelia, 1851-2

From Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when Ophelia, driven mad after Hamlet murders her father, drowns herself in a stream.

Millais painted the background first, then added Ophelia after. Elizabeth Siddal, a favorite model of the Pre-Raphelites, had to pose for four months in a bath full of water heated by lamps positioned underneath. Occasionally the lamps would go out, and she caught a severe cold. Her father threatened Millais with a lawsuit until he paid for her doctor’s bills.

And last but not least, my favorite of them all:

James Tissot

The Ball on Shipboard, c. 1874

I love, love, love this painting.

(Fun Fact: I’ve never been able to figure out what that black mass is, between the lady in the left corner in the green striped dress and the chair, no matter how closely I looked at the photographs.

It’s a fan. She’s holding a very large fan. It only took me going to London to figure this out.)

Tissot was the son of a successful drapery merchant, providing him with an intricate knowledge of fabric and clothing, as is illustrated in his many paintings of Victorian society.

These paintings were popular with the people and gained him a solid reputation and financial success. At the time, critics didn’t like his work as they represented “vulgar society” (the little trio in the center here are social climbers – note the man’s unbuttoned coat and the ladies’ identical dresses – most likely bought ready-made). However, today they are celebrated as offering insight into Victorian society and relations between men and women and between the social classes, as well as the incredible detail put into the clothing worn.

Also they’re just darn pretty.

I had a lot of fun at the Tate Britain, it was almost like hide-and-seek, going from room to room and finding paintings I’ve poured over online and in books, just hanging on the walls like the paintings they are. It’s easy to view them as just academic works, flat illustrations residing within the pages of books or a click away on the internet.

Seeing them in person serves as a reminder that they are real, visceral creations, touched by the artist, worked on, and can be picked up and carried around, moved from space to space. They have mass, they can be handled. Not by me, of course, but they could be. Someday . . . .

And that is why museums are important. They provide the real. They hold the source. The keys, if you will.

All throughout these three weeks, I’ve been learning about what they do, how they work, and the jobs of the people who run them. But in the end, it’s all about the objects and the stories they tell, about people, about a particular moment in time and space.

The museum holds the keys to all that wealth, to all that knowledge.

What is a Museum? A Museum is the Keeper of the Keys. The door is open. Go on in.

I used information from the Pocket Rough Guides: London. Rough Guides Ltd., London, 2015. page 44.


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