A February 2005 trip
to London by Owen Lipsett
Quote: London's is one of the world's greatest cities - and many things there are priced accordingly! As I, regrettably, won't be able to attend this year's IgoUgo Get-Together in the British capital, I hope this introduction to some of its best free sights will assist those who can.
The collection spans the years 1250-1900 (later works are in the Tate Modern across the river in Southwark), and is unusual for a National Gallery in that it primarily contains foreign works. This is due to the creation of the Tate Britain (in Milbank) for the specific purpose of displaying the bulk of the British works in the collection; but unless you're particularly interested in the work of J.M.W. Turner (whose works comprise a wing of the Tate), you're better off here as the average quality of British works on display is much higher, with John Constable, Thomas Gainsborough, Sir Joshua Reynolds, and Turner all represented by much of their best work.
The Gallery's Continental collections, much (but not all) of which are arranged by country as well as era, are the source of its reputation and breathtakingly comprehensive. From anonymous medieval Italian devotional paintings to Vincent van Gogh's "Sunflowers", they're an art-history book brought to life. Indeed, handily for the majority of the visitors who prefer to hit the highlights, the complimentary Gallery map features pictures of the most famous paintings matched to the rooms in which they're displayed. Although this approach is better than nothing, it prevents you from appreciating the depth of the Gallery's collection (all of which is permanently on display) particularly with respect to individual artists and time-periods, as well as its many diamonds in the rough.
You can sample the collection in a long morning or afternoon, or spend a day combining it with the next-door (and frankly disappointing) National Portrait Gallery but really the more time you spend here, the greater the reward. It was only on my last visit that I came to appreciate the extent and variety of its collection of Raphaels, which are housed along with the other pre-1500 works in the Sainsbury Wing. While there, you shouldn't miss Leonardo da Vinci's "Virgin of the Rocks",Jan van Eyck's "Arnolfini Portrait," or Michelangelo's wonderful unfinished "Entombment." The options in the North Wing are even better; you could happily spend an hour basking in a room or two alone, particularly the extensive collections of Rembrandt and Constable. Personally, my favorite painting here is Caravaggio's early "Supper at Emmaus."
Don't just follow my recommendations (or any others); the National Gallery is best explored on your own! The temporary exhibitions tend to be excellent – and expensive.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on August 21, 2005
London, England WC2N 5DN
+44 (207) 747 2885
Attraction | "Victoria & Albert Museum"
A large museum more in the mold of a spacious art gallery than the British Museum (its closest intellectual counterpart), it's somewhere you can rush through in a couple of hours, or take a day to appreciate in depth. Alternatively, you can focus on particular exhibitions of interest to you, although whatever you do, don't miss the impressive collection of South Asian art, authoritative British Galleries, or the unique collection of casts of famous sculptures that deserves to be a museum unto itself. (Actually, since it has two viewing levels so that you can see them from the ground and above, it practically is!)
The ground floor South Asian galleries are an absolute delight, not only because of the beauty of their contents but also because of the careful manner in which they're displayed and explained. Most European museums don't make as much of an effort to distinguish between non-Western regional styles, but the V & A's doing so allowed me to come away with a far better understanding of this area's venerable and diverse artistic traditions. The British Galleries, which span Levels 2 (1500-1760) and 4 (1760-1900) are concerned more with presenting the evolution of a single cohesive design tradition and do so admirably, if you have the slightest interest in history or art they're an essential sight in London. On the subject of the latter, the V&A has a respectable collection of paintings, but the third floor Sculpture Galleries, which present detailed information on the artistic process as well as works themselves, are more memorable. These sculpture galleries are adjacent to an overlook for the incomparable ground-floor collection of casts – surely the best collection of its kind in existence!
Impressive as the permanent collections are (although an unusually high number suffer from temporary closures), you shouldn't neglect to look into what temporary exhibitions are on display, particularly since these are often free – and the variety is breathtaking. In addition there are quite frequently various site specific contemporary art installations in the building itself. Even if you enter through the tunnel linking the V&A with the South Kensington tube station, be sure to stroll outside to Exhibition Road in order to both appreciate its context (the Science Museum, Imperial College, and Natural History Museum are across the street) and to note the damage its exterior suffered during the Blitz.
Victoria and Albert Museum
London, England SW7 2RL
+44 (20) 7942 2000
Attraction | "Royal Observatory, Greenwich"
Somewhat lacking childish energy on a suitably maritime and British (which is to say "windy" and "rainy") day, I took the free half-hourly tourist train through the Park from the front of the National Maritime Museum to the Observatory itself. Enough of my immature vigor remained to convince another tourist to take the obligatory picture of me astride the Prime Meridian – where time literally begins. Less than keen to walk or await the return train in what was rapidly becoming a hailstorm, I ducked inside what turned out to be one of London's most fascinating museums – covering time (and space) itself. The museum enjoyably demonstrates through exhibitions combining historic chronometers and contemporary special effects, how the former in a sense proved the answer to the latter in solving the notorious "Longitude Problem."
Although the French had solved the problem of accurately calculating longitude on land, a means of doing so at sea eluded astronomers, leading to the Observatory's construction by Sir Christopher Wren in 1675 near London's naval center. The inability of captains to accurately determine their location at sea was literally disastrous on several occasions for the navy and merchant marine on which Britain's political and economic well-being depended. Consequently, Parliament passed the Longitude Act in 1715, offering a £20,000 reward to anyone who could solve the problem.
The eventually solution of the problem came not but from an astronomer but John Harrison (1693-1776), a clockmaker who spent 25 years fine-tuning the instrument that became known as the marine chronometer. Perhaps more famously, he took a further decade to actually recoup the prize through a series of events surpassing any of the period's picaresque novels that were finally resolved by King George III, rather than the craven scientists who composed the Board of Longitude, who hoped to collect the prize themselves! The museum (in which photography is prohibited) contains a delightful array of instruments, portraits, and other paraphernalia relating to the saga. The old building itself is quite pleasant, and, appropriately allows you to make a few observations of your own, albeit only with the naked eye, of London below.
The views from the Observatory are wonderful. I found it singularly appropriate to gaze from this enduring symbol of British sea power, made the world's center of time and space in 1884, at the buildings of the City of London, whose financial preeminence is its direct result.
Top Of The Hill, Greenwich Park
Plan! The British Museum is immense, and even a cursory stroll through the galleries takes a day. Consequently, decide beforehand what you absolutely must see – perhaps choosing its highlights or deciding to focus on a particular collection. Remember that it's not so much one museum as many all organized according to the same principles of completeness and curation by specialist scholars. Be sure to pick up a free map and note that while the "classical tour" is expensive, the volunteer-run Eye-opener Tours covering individual sections of the museum are free.
Visit the most popular sections on a weekday afternoon or weekend morning: School groups tend to visit during the morning on weekdays, while weekend afternoons tend to be busier than the mornings and most people head for the highlights – the Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Near Eastern collections are the most popular. In general, the large tours avoid the side galleries, so if you're stuck in a crowd, these rooms (which tend to also have the more informative labeling) are the best respites within these collections. The new Sainsbury Africa Galleries and Asian Collections are only slightly less impressive (and heavily visited.)
At peak times, head for less famous collections: Although they can't match Mediterranean treasures, such as the Elgin Marbles and Rosetta Stone (nothing can really!), the museum's little-visited Islamic collection is one of the best of their kind in the west, and its soaring displays of Native American life quite interestingly fuse modern and pre-Columbian artifacts. The museum's most underrated permanent exhibition is the new Enlightenment Gallery housed in the King's Library, which provides a sense of the intellectual undercurrents behind the museum's creation (its collections also spawned what are now the British Library and Natural History Museum) and how it originally looked.
Don't forget to appreciate where you are. Without its collections, the British Museum's buildings, in the historic intellectual quarter of Bloomsbury, would be intriguing in their own right as paragons of 19th-century architecture. The present quadrangular outer building, designed by Sir Robert Smirke, was completed in 1852 and has been significantly expanded since. The round Reading Room in its central courtyard, by his brother Sidney, was completed in 1857. After the British Library was established in 1998, the courtyard was covered over by Lord Norman Foster to form Europe's largest public square. It's perhaps the most attractive juxtaposition of historical and contemporary architecture in a city full of such combinations.
Great Russell Street
London, England WC1B 3DG
+44 (207) 7323 8299
For all this breadth, however, you can get a reasonable sense of London's past, from pre-history to 1914, when the museum's collections terminate, in a couple of hours, either with the recorded tour (for which there is a charge) or by taking advantage of the extensive labeling that accompanies each item on display. Indeed, more than any individual exhibition, this straightforwardness is probably the museum's best attribute since London's history has been extremely complex. It commendably covers the experiences not only of the nobility and merchant class, but also examines the plight of women, the poor, and immigrants, who usually get short shrift in this kind of museum elsewhere.
Unusual for a civic museum, the first gallery "London Before London" deals with pre-history, providing a wealth of information on the early inhabitants of the Thames Valley in neon-lit display cases that wouldn't be out of a place in a modern art museum! Personally, I prefer the Roman Gallery, which harks back to the city's foundation as Londinium and contains a pair of very impressive reconstructed rooms featuring actual Roman mosaics. I enjoyed the recordings featuring spoken Latin and the cookbook of foods consumed by Roman patricians – including milk-fed snails and stuffed dormice! By contrast, the Tudor and Early Stuart section is little more than some ostentatious furnishings accompanied by a careworn display on the Great Fire of 1666.
This seminal event in London's history is your cue to walk to the airy downstairs galleries. "Late Stuart London" covers the rebuilding of the city, largely under the auspices of Sir Christopher Wren, best known for designing St. Paul's Cathedral. "Eighteenth Century London" examines the development of both bourgeois and plebeian culture in the reborn city – as well as displaying a cell from the notorious Newgate Prison. The museum's largest and most interesting exhibition covers London's rise as the world's preeminent economic and cultural center between 1789 and 1914. If you're pressed for time, you should come directly here, as it goes further in explaining how London came to be the city it is today than any other exhibition.
The museum's exhibitions compose an essential introduction to London. It also plays host to quite a few events (many geared to families and most free) every day, many of which offer the opportunity to add an interactive element to your visit. Inquire at the Information Desk when you enter, where you can also pick up a free museum map and find out about temporary exhibitions (for which there is often an admission charge.)
Museum of London
150 London Wall
London, England EC2Y 5HN
+44 (207) 814 5613
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