The British Museum, Housing the World’s Treasures for Us All

  LONDONERS LOVE THEIR INFREQUENT SUNSHINE, as I learned the other day on the way to the British Museum. From my top-deck bus seat, I saw them out in force, basking in any available square of green, like Gray’s Inn Field, above.  

I had been to the British Museum only once before, decades ago, always daunted by its reputation and enormity. In practice, I found it much more manageable than New York’s Metropolitan Museum, which it even bests for a world-class collection of ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman material.

But since a thoroughgoing renovation around 2000, which produced the spectacular skylit entrance court by Britain’s chief starchitect, Sir Norman Foster, and re-organized the interior spaces, it’s actually far less chaotic and more manageable than the Met.

With the aid of an audio guide, customizable and comprehensive, I was able not to aimlessly wander, but to zero in on the things that most interested me, and spend a pleasant 2–3 hours without feeling overwhelmed or harried.

My first thought on entering the museum was: Wow. My second was, look at all this plunder! Here the former might of the British Empire is on display, the spoils of centuries of imperialism arrayed in central London for the world to see and appreciate. 

The argument has always been: we saved all this for you. Otherwise it might have been destroyed by barbarians – and indeed the recent demolition by Isis of ancient sites in the Middle East gives a tad more credence to the view.

It’s still evident in the 19th c. photograph, above, of the removal of a millennia- old Assyrian stone lion, now greeting visitors in the museum’s entrance hall, by a team of British engineers, and in the defensive labels and explanation in the audio guide of how the sculptures that once graced the pediment of Athens’ Parthenon, known as the Elgin Marbles, came to repose for the past 200 years in Bloomsbury — to this day, an ongoing controversy with the Greeks.

Still, it would be churlish to complain about this glorious institution, filled with visitors from around the world and their children, taking in whatever it is possible to take in of the planet’s history and culture in a single gulp.

I am in Edinburgh, Scotland, as I write this, so it’s fitting to end this post with the above image of two whimsical 800-year-old Lewis chessmen, borrowed from the National Museum of Scotland (discovered there but carved of walrus tusk 1000 years ago by Vikings, most likely), part of a complete medieval chess set on display and another example of how the all-powerful British Museum secures “permanent loans” of that which it cannot outright own.

This is the first time I’ve ever written a casaCARA post on my iPhone, a tricky business, and I have no idea how it will look in other formats. And it’s the last time I will ever travel without my laptop. When I get back to London tonight, or soon thereafter, I’ll be posting about my one-day visit to York, which satisfied my interest in architecture much older than that we have in the United States, followed by two fascinating days in Edinburgh, dramatically sited and historically unspoiled. 

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London: Victorian Holland Park, Preserved in Amber

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ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER NEIGHBORHOOD, another historic house museum…in yesterday’s drizzle I took the Tube to Holland Park, en route to 18 Stafford Terrace, the perfectly preserved upper-middle class home of Punch cartoonist Edward Linley Sambourne and his family.

The Sambournes moved to the newly built five-story row house in 1876 and spent the next ten years furnishing it in then-fashionable Aesthetic style, with William Morris wallpapers even on the ceiling and bric-a-brac everywhere. No surface, vertical or horizontal, was left uncovered, by framed drawings and photographs (Sambourne was an avid amateur photographer, especially of female nudes), bronze statuettes, Japanese screens, blue-and-white china and so on.

The family lived in the house for 36 years. After the deaths of Linley and Marion Sambourne, their children, Ray and Maud, kept the furnishings intact. In 1989, the Sambourne’s granddaughter, Anne deeded it to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and it was opened to the public.

On my way to 18 Stafford Terrace, I got a bit hung up in Holland Park itself, larger and more photogenic than expected.

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They don’t stint on daffodils in the wilder sections of the park…

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Other areas of the park are more formal, above. There’s even a small Japanese garden inspired by Kyoto’s temple gardens, below, along with playgrounds and cricket fields.

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The Linley Sambourne house is on a block lined with uniform rows of same.

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Then I walked the surrounding streets, enjoying the glossy painted doorways and signs of spring.

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I had lunch at The Ivy Kensington Brasserie on nearby Kensington High Street. My chicken and quinoa salad, below, came with a lime-yogurt dressing.

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In the evening, I met a friend at Shakespeare’s Globe for a Jacobean tragedy, The White Devil, in a production lit only by candlelight. We made it to the intermission.

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London: Sunday Sail to Greenwich

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MUCH IS NEW in London since I was last here a decade ago, development spurred largely by the 2012 London Olympics.

Not least of the improvements are the new Overground train service, which makes access to central London from some outlying neighborhoods, including Dalston, near where I’m staying, much more convenient, and the Thames Clipper, a large-capacity ferry service with a score of stops at newly built wharves on both sides of the river.

This past Sunday, my friend and I joined the throngs of tourists speaking a babel of languages on an eastward sail to Greenwich, a pretty riverside town with a long maritime history, where Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were born.

It’s the site of another masterpiece of classical architecture, Christopher Wren’s Royal Naval Hospital, now a university campus, as well as the red-brick Victorian Royal Observatory, now a family-friendly planetarium — a steep climb gladly undertaken for the view — and the Meridian line that establishes Greenwich Mean Time (just a line).

Beyond that, Greenwich is a vast swath of hilly parkland, with rewarding vistas of the city skyline five miles to the west, and a long-established village with several lively outdoor antiques markets and crowded pubs.

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A view of the new building called the ‘Walkie Talkie’ from our embarkation point near London Bridge. Heading east under Tower Bridge…

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Past modern residential developments and re-purposed old warehouses…

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Glimpsing of the historic pub The Prospect of Whitby tucked between more massive newer structures…

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Christopher Wren’s and his assistant Nicholas Hawksmoor’s classical set piece dates from 1694. Until 1998, it was The Royal Naval Hospital

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Enjoyed my Ploughman’s lunch (bread, cheese, pickled vegs) at the Trafalgar Tavern 

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The classical complex at Greenwich is now a university campus, with a chapel, an art museum and some rooms open to the public

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London: A Dickensian Day with Pubs Aplenty

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IT WAS MORE THE HOUSE — a late Regency row house in Holborn that I knew would have similarities with the two mid-19th c. houses I own in Brooklyn — than any particular connection with Charles Dickens that brought me to 48 Doughty Street. After all, I had read only one of Dickens’ novels, Great Expectations, and that was because we had to in high school.

But I ended up learning a great deal about the author’s biography and the world he inhabited from the virtually untouched Charles Dickens House, below, a museum since 1924, furnished to accurately convey how the young Dickens and his wife Catherine lived as renters there in the late 1830s. The upwardly mobile couple stayed only two-and-a-half years before moving on to larger quarters, while Dickens wrote Nicholas Nickelby and Oliver Twist, became father to two more of an eventual ten children, entertained in grand style, and was every bit the gentleman scholar.

The surrounding streets, in Holborn and neighboring Clerkenwell, hold intriguing pubs and lunch spots, duly noted for future reference. We had a beer in the Jerusalem Tavern, an artful re-creation of a vintage 18th century public house that totally fooled me, and peeked into two more: the impressively ancient Cittie of Yorke, which Dickens frequented, opposite a half-timbered medieval survivor on High Holborn, and the over-the-top Princess Louise, a Victorian fantasia of etched glass.

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All five stories of the Dickens house are open to view, from the kitchen and scullery in the basement to the curved-wall dining room and ‘morning room’ on the ground floor, the formal parlor and Dickens’ study on the floor above, and bedrooms on the two top levels. Some furnishings come from his estate. 

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The Lady Ottoline, half a block from the Dickens house, is appealingly serene.

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London seems to cherish its Deco, rather than renovate it out of existence. 

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There was an old shop on the site of the Jerusalem Tavern until 1990, when a clever renovation based on historic research created the current pub.

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From an inscription inside an archway at the base of this extraordinary building: “Original building erected 1545-1589 by Vincent Enghame and Another. The front after various alterations was restored to its original design in 1886.”

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There was a pub on the site of the Cittie of Yorke from 1430, says a posted sign. It was rebuilt in 1695, and in the 1890s, the building “which had been showing regrettable signs of decay was partially demolished and reconstructed in its present form. Much of the old material was carefully preserved and incorporated in the present building.”

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How about that Princess Louise? (She was one of Queen Victoria’s daughters.) Here we ran into a Yorkshire couple from the Jerusalem Tavern, also on a self-guided historic pub tour. 

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In Dalston, another neighborhood entirely, late in the evening, I passed this Art Deco beauty, now an art cinema.

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A Sunny, Art-full Day in London Town

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SUNNY AND IN THE 60s…I can’t complain about yesterday’s weather in London. And there’s something about the sky. When it’s not gray (as it so often is, and is again today, Friday), it’s particularly, poignantly beautiful.

I visited two of the city’s outstanding art museums, the 250-year-old Royal Academy of Arts, where one of the current blockbusters is American Painting After the Fall (meaning after the stock market crash of 1929 — I had wondered which fall they were talking about), full of rarely-seen, dystopian works by Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, Edward Hopper and other social realists. Most were borrowed from museums other than New York’s and were wholly new to me.

I breezed through the permanent collection of The National Portrait Gallery just to get the idea, lingering over a few Tudors and Stuarts whose faces or costumes particularly arrested me. Then I enjoyed a ‘modern British’ vegetarian lunch in the third-floor restaurant, where the view rivaled (and resembled) that of Florence, with an unexpected number of domes and spires.

Both art institutions are housed in venerable buildings whose interiors have been cleverly revamped to suit current purposes, with (in the National Portrait Gallery, especially) dramatically long escalators and glass elevators that allow the building’s original ornate detail to still be seen.

Late in the day, I walked through some of the city’s poshest precincts, including St. James Square, top, and Westminster, wearing out more shoe leather over the Millennium Bridge. Destination: the National Theatre for Twelfth Night, a brilliantly staged production of Shakespeare’s original, in modern, outrageous costume and with hilarious physical comedy. I hope they don’t bring it to Broadway, where they’re sure to ruin it.

Come see what I saw.

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Above, The Royal Academy of Arts on busy Piccadilly

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While just around the corner, on the narrow side streets, the feel is of a smaller, even older town

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High-priced shopping in the Burlington Arcade, off Piccadilly, includes several hatters and other old-fashioned businesses. Above, Fortnum & Mason’s glittering displays

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I peeked into Zedel’s, a fabulous and festive Art Deco-era brasserie, a dead ringer for Paris’s, and found it hopping at lunchtime

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Outside the National Portrait Gallery, above. Sadly, there’s a fair amount of homelessness on display in London

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Samuel Pepys, 17th century diarist, bon vivant and Secretary of the Navy, without whom we would know much less of London’s Plague and Great Fire

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The brooding young poet, later priest, John Donne

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The view from my table at Portrait, the National Portrait Gallery’s top floor restaurant. Nelson’s column at Trafalgar Square is prominent

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Above, the view from my plate: a goat cheese starter and herbed quinoa and cauliflower main, artfully composed

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Trafalgar Square from street level in late afternoon, now pedestrianized. I remember it as a terrifyingly traffic-choked roundabout in the late 1960s

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Skirting St. James Park at sunset

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Same time of day but looking east, a host of golden daffodils

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Japanese musicians on the Embankment, astonishingly good

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Irresistible Thames evening views, again. You can be sure I wasn’t the only one taking iPhone photos

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London: St. Paul’s to Fleet Street to Waterloo Sunset

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YESTERDAY I LET MYSELF BE LED THROUGH the multifarious heart of London by two lifelong Londoners. First by bus, where I appreciated the classic proportions of St. Paul’s Cathedral, above, from the top deck of the swaying red leviathan on wheels. There’s no bad angle on St. Paul’s.

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We were headed for Two Temple Place, a heavily paneled Neo-Gothic palazzo where there’s a show ongoing through April called Sussex Modernism. On display are 1930s works by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Henry Moore and others, who wrought surprisingly subversive art, anti-war and gender-fluid, in the quaint villages of southern England.

Later, as we walked along Fleet Street, a main thoroughfare since Roman times, I was fascinated by the few surviving medieval houses, below, that pre-date London’s Great Fire of 1666 — heavily restored, of course, but still functioning. They’re a curious counterpoint to the stately Victorian headquarters of some of England’s earliest banks and the limestone Art Deco blocks in which news organizations were housed when Fleet Street was the epicenter of the newspaper trade.

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We had tea in one of several cafés in Somerset House, below, a massive 18th century palace now used as a cultural complex. It’s now the home of the Courtauld Gallery, known for its impressive collection of Impressionism, among other art institutions, and definitely bears further exploration.

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Then we trekked across Waterloo Bridge toward the Royal National Theatre, below, its 1960s Brutalist concrete architecture jollied up with colored lights, and bought tickets for a future production of an apparently uproarious modern Twelfth Night.

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The view from the bridge toward the London Eye ferris wheel and the Houses of Parliament caused us all to start softly singing the Kinks’ “Waterloo Sunset.”

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I set off solo as darkness fell, enjoying the gaudily lit theatres on Aldwych, the bowler-hatted doorman at the Waldorf Hotel, and what is reputedly London’s oldest shop, all in the same area.

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Then I hoofed on through London’s nighttime streets to The Viaduct, below, described as “the last surviving Victorian gin palace in London,” all etched glass and mirrors and Art Nouveau maidens, with chandeliers hanging from a red-painted tin ceiling. That’s where I had — no surprise — the best gin and tonic ever, made with Sicilian lemon tonic water, dried raspberries and rosewater. An ideal refresher after a 14,000 step day.

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Around London in 22,000 Steps

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I SET OFF EARLY YESTERDAY from my friend’s house in N.1 with a rough list of goals and my most comfortable shoes. I wound up wandering longer and farther than intended, into areas I’d never been and was curious about.

Eventually I’ll get to the Tate and the British Museum, to Shakespeare’s Globe and more historic houses. But yesterday was one long free-form meander through N.1, E.C.1 and 3, S.E.1, W.C.1 and 3. For those unfamiliar with London’s postal codes, that translates to Shoreditch, the City, the South Bank, Holborn, Clerkenwell and no doubt others.

I wanted to see trendy Shoreditch, which was merely up-and-coming when I was last in London ten years ago. Now you can’t turn around without spotting a modern café or pricey boutique.

I wanted to see the daring new office buildings, with nicknames like the Cheese Grater, the Walkie-Talkie and the Shard, a tall skinny pyramid that inserts itself into every vista, and confirm my preconceived notions that I would hate them. (I did, of course, because I’m a lover of the old, but they’re more interesting than New York’s banal contemporary architecture, so I couldn’t hate them unequivocally.)

And I wanted to see the Thames, to reassure myself I was really in London. Once I got to the river, and walked along it for a bit, I decided to go out on Southwark Bridge for the view. Once I got to the middle of the bridge, I decided to continue over it to the South Bank and check out the replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. I knew there would be no performance in the open-air theatre because it’s off-season; there were no tours, either, because of school groups.

So I wandered down to Borough Market, a sprawling open-air food market that wasn’t there a decade back — kind of like a permanent Smorgasburg, under an old metal shed roof.

A short ride on the Underground took me to Farringdon, where I sought out Ye Old Mitre, an 18th century pub with roots in the 16th, that gives new meaning to the word cozy. It’s in every guidebook, but famously hard to find, down an obscure, easy-to-miss narrow alley. I wanted to see if I could find it, and did, with the help of my iPhone GPS.

I walked on, up Gray’s Inn Road, and toward nightfall, met my friend at the Booking Office Bar at St. Pancras Station, the greatest Victorian pile ever, and had a gin gimlet under soaring Gothic arches.

Today, clear and bright, I traveled by Overground (newly built for the 2012 London Olympics) and Underground all the way out to W.6, to interview an interior designer at her home in Hammersmith for an assignment. Then I had a pot of mussels and a glass of wine at The Dove, a historic waterside relic with Wi-Fi, where the locals were excited to be able to sit outside in the sunshine wrapped in blankets (it was in the 40’s), and I was happy to sit inside, where fires blazed in two hearths, and watch the racing sculls on the river through the windows.

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De Beauvoir Town, N.1

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Over Regent’s Canal and into Shoreditch…

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Inside the 1857 Shoreditch Town Hall

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Forge & Co., one of the ubiquitous modern cafés of Shoreditch

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This beautifully housed shop, Labour and Wait, sells utilitarian items like hot water bottles, enameled bowls and wooden brushes. It was closed, to my disappointment. 

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The new glass structures of The City, London’s financial district, are remarkably unsympathetic to the old, but at least they have curves and aren’t just boxes.

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The Shard seen from Southwark Bridge (and many other places – it’s hard to avoid)

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Shakespeare’s replica Globe, a few blocks from the original site

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The unassuming 16th century house above, housed both architect Christopher Wren while his St. Paul’s Cathedral was being built, and Catherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s first wife, at different times — that’s what it says on the ceramic plaque. 

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Near the Borough Market, which definitely bears a re-visit when hungry

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On Borough High Street, South Bank

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The George Inn, off Borough High Street, owned by the National Trust. The present building dates from 1677. 

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Ye Old Mitre, found with difficulty

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Re St. Pancras Station, the “great Gothic phantasmagoria” of 1868-74, I have to quote David Piper’s excellent Companion Guide to London: “High as a cliff crowned with pinnacled castle in a Grimm’s fairy-story; drawing up with complete confidence into its sky-assaulting rage of turrets.” And to think it was once threatened with demolition. 

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Instead, we have the glorious cocktail bar, part of a new hotel within the station. The line of chairs against the magnificent tile walls is in a back hall leading to the loos (see how I’m picking up the language?)

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Another day, another bridge. This is the 1887 Hammersmith Bridge in west London, a suspension bridge with ornate Victorian detail. 

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