The American Ambassador came and spoke at the Royal Academy tonight. I suppose there comes a time when it is not just the policemen, but the Ambassadors who are younger than one. Suffice it to say that Matthew Barzun is extremely nice, intelligent and highly articulate, the son of Jacques Barzun who pioneered cultural history in the US and was an expert on baseball as well as the history of ideas. Matthew conducted a very simple and effective exercise which was to ask each of us to draw what we least liked about the US. Several of us, including me, tried to think of an easy way of drawing its immigration policies, those cold, inhospitable halls by which one is required to enter the US. As many people drew guns which is easier. I hadn’t realised that there are as many guns as there are American citizens, whereas in the UK only 6% of the population owns guns. The non-resident Americans all tried to draw the IRS. The other thing expressed was a view that Americans are arrogant which I thought was a touch discourteous to someone who was so courtly and unarrogant.
I have been asked to select my ten favourite paintings from the collections of the Royal Academy as a way of advertising the benefits of online browsing of the collection on the BBC website Your Paintings (http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/). I initially thought that I would just choose the ten most famous paintings, partly inspired by seeing so many of them displayed in the exhibition, Genius and Ambition, in the grand Victorian galleries at Bendigo in Australia. But you don’t necessarily need the website to find out about Constable’s Leaping Horse. What I like about the website is that it is easier to find out about paintings that even I did not know existed because they are kept in store (once we have our new building open in Burlington Gardens I very much hope that more of them will be shown).
I thought that I would start with a painting which I found myself looking at during a long meeting earlier this week. It’s attributed to Zoffany, but not entirely convincingly (1781 was the year he exhibited his great group portrait of the The Sharp Family) and shows The Antique Room of the Royal Academy at New Somerset House (03/846).
It shows a group of students drawing from the already extensive collection of classical casts – the so-called Plaster Academy – not long after the Royal Academy’s new building was opened in Somerset House. The now ageing Keeper, George Michael Moser, is said to be overseeing the class, but it doesn’t resemble the caricature of him by Rowlandson. The picture has an earnestness to it which gives a sense of the appeal of the Academy in its early days, the opportunity to learn to draw by candlelight under the supervision of established artists and with their guidance, and their passionate interest in copying from the antique.
Today I’ve got an all-day meeting in King’s Cross. The journey was not half so easy. I decided to walk through the early morning mist along the canal. The rest of London had decided to do the journey by bicycle. It was like being in the middle of a bicycle marathon, children on bicycles, dispatch riders, racing bicyclists, Boris bicyclists, all ringing their bells as they rushed past en route to Canary Wharf. Suddenly the sun shone.
There are benefits in living on the District Line when it comes to strike days. I remember reading in John Lanchester’s admirable short book book about it that the older drivers graduate to the District Line in order to enjoy the long journeys above ground between Bromley-by-Bow and the green fields of Upminster at one end and out to Wimbledon at the other instead of having to endure the deep bore tunnels of the Northern Line. This means that, when everyone else has to endure long traffic jams and queues for the buses, the citizens of Stepney can travel as normal from Stepney Green undergound station, purling through Cannon Street and Embankment to Charles Holden’s stately headquarters at St. James’s Park.
Last night we were invited to the end-of-the-run show for Miss. Hope Springs, the resident drag queen, who has presided at Crazy Coqs, the cabaret bar which has been preserved beneath what used to be the Atlantic Hotel and is now Whole Foods. As the last show in what has been a two-year run, it was a nicely over-the-top combination of songs which were coarse, boisterous and sometimes sentimental.
My attention was caught whilst out walking this morning by an inscription on the side of the Victorian almshouses to the south of Stepney parish church which revealed that they were the gift of Dame Jane Mico in 1691. LADY MICO’S ALMSHOUSES FOUNDED AND ENDOWED UNDER THE WILL OF DAME JANE MICO RELICT OF SAMUEL MICO CITIZEN AND MERCER.
Who she ? Her husband, Sir Samuel Mico, grew rich on the profits of the Levant Company and East India Company, importing silks. He also (surprisingly since he was a pure Londoner) owned the George Inn in Weymouth. When he died in 1665, he split his estate between his widow Jane, his nephew Samuel, the Mercer’s Company, and the town of Weymouth, which celebrates his memory every year with lemonade and hot cross buns. She in turn drew up her will in 1670, leaving money to multitudes of relations, for ‘the redemption of Christian slaves in Barbary’, as well as for 10 poor widows of the city of London who were to be housed in her Almshouses. They remained there until 1976 when they were moved to new accommodation in Whitehorse Lane. She left funds to her nephew which he could not claim because he failed to marry one of his cousins as specified. The funds accrued until they enabled the establishment of a teacher training college in Jamaica. Continue reading
I have been prompted by the correspondence with my hitherto unknown cousin Ben Heywood (see comments) to take an interest in the life of my grandfather Hubert. I realise how little I know about him. He died in 1950 before I was born. My mother used to say he was a saintly character and there was always an implied contrast to his wife Muriel, who used to wear a hat for dinner. He spent nearly his entire adult life as the vicar of All Saints, Waldershare, a church in rural east Kent which was declared redundant in 1980. As far as I understand it, his only parishioner was the Earl of Guilford. An enthusiastic freemason, he sent my father to Winchester, but educated my aunt Margaret at home. She got a first class degree in English so the education must have been good.
On our last day in Piedmont, we finally made it to the Castello Di Rivoli, the Savoy palace just north of Turin which was converted into a museum of contemporary art in 1984. I had been once before, but only for a cocktail party. I didn’t see the point of it. This time I did: a grand, half derelict Royal palace, emptied of its contents and only half restored, used as a setting for installation art. Richard Long, Joseph Kosuth, Rebecca Horn, Tony Cragg, Mona Hatoum, as well as artists of the Arte Povera. Each was given a room to adapt. Each room is an installation in its own right, establishing a satisfying tension between the art and its setting, vastly more successful as an experience than the nearby Castello Di Venaria, likewise stripped of all original contents, but now filled with fake touristic gizmos, trying to fill the void.
In the heat of the afternoon, we went to a Cistercian monastery in the middle of the plain north of Saluzzo. It was overrun by a party of elderly bicyclists. We sat in the cloister, had coca-cola in the bar, and enjoyed the agricultural calm, with gateposts reminiscent of Vanbrugh and a linenfold pulpit:
I had forgotten how grand the Savoy Palace at Racconigi is, much of it nineteenth-century on an earlier core, with a picture gallery of the Savoyards established in the 1920s (the Kings of Savoy lived in it till the 1940s when they were exiled to Portugal) and grand plasterwork decoration in the Sala d’Ercole and Sala di Diana by Gianni Battista Borra, after he had gone on the expedition with Robert Wood to Asia Minor. But no photography was allowed and it was too far to walk across the park to the nineteenth-century brick Orangery (last time we were allowed to drive). We retreated for lunch to La Posta in Cavour, which has a pair of weighing scales outside so you can weigh yourself before lunch and after.