Tag Archives: London

London – City of Glass

Tate Modern Extension

Tate Modern Extension

Thankfully the weather forecaster had got it right and the day was bright and sunny as my cousin and I walked towards Blackfriars  Bridge. It was early afternoon and the breeze blowing down the Thames was warm and steady. London in early summer, especially along the river, can be very pleasant and I knew that I had timed my visit just right.
I was in London for a few days and one of the things that I wanted to do was visit the recently opened Tate Modern Extension on the South Bank. There had been much in the news about it and, after a look around some of the exhibitions on the lower floors, we took the lift to the top of the building from where the views were fantastic. The outdoor gallery that surrounds the top floor offers unique views across the city, with those looking at the City and the Thames favourites with snappers. I took a few photographs, stepped back and panned from the London Eye, the Palace of Westminster to St Paul’s Cathedral and the sparkling skyscrapers to the east. They were enticing and we agreed it was time to get walking again.

The London Eye

The London Eye

St Paul's Cathedral

St Paul’s Cathedral

The Millennium Bridge that looks directly across the river to St Paul’s Cathedral was once known as the ‘bouncy bridge’. On the day of its opening the bridge started to move about as people crossed it, and it had to be, rather embarrassingly, closed. After much head scratching and technical work giant dampers were added, and now the bridge is steady and a great place to view the river from.
St Paul’s is impressive, and I wondered how magnificent it must have appeared when it was completed in 1697, a little over thirty years since its predecessor had been consumed in the Great Fire of London. It is Sir Christopher Wren’s greatest achievement, and now more than three centuries later and surrounded by taller buildings it still casts a shadow of classic permanence.
We headed east along the wonderfully named Cheapside, onto Poultry, where the buildings really began to climb into the clouds. This was The City, the driver of so much of the British economy, where skyscrapers owned by international corporations sparkled in the afternoon sunshine. ‘That’s the Cheesegrater,’ my cousin said ‘and that, of course, is the Gherkin,’ he added pointing at the magically shaped, green-glassed tower. I clicked off a few shots, straining my neck as I tried to frame the uniquely shaped building that made me smile.

The Gherkin

The Gherkin

The Walkie-Talkie

The Walkie-Talkie

‘And this is the Walkie-Talkie,’ he commented as we stood below the curving, five-hundred foot tall wall of glass. My neck was hurting now, but gazing up at what looked like a gigantic, frozen wave I wondered what Wren would have thought. No doubt he would have been impressed with the design and construction, but as to whether the glass on view will be in place in three hundred years is, I suspect, unlikely. This does not take from the beauty of the building that is appreciated from both close-up and the other side of the river where the tallest of all the skyscrapers, the Shard, looks down. The ninety-five storey giant climbs to 1,016 feet making it the tallest building in the UK and the fourth tallest in Europe. There is a 360 degree viewing gallery on Level 69 where, on a clear day, the viewer can see up to 40 miles. That is definitely on my ‘To do’ list.

The Shard

The Shard

The skyscrapers are a barometer of economic activity of London, and their humorous nicknames (soon they will be joined by the Scalpel and the Stanley Knife!) makes them engaging and less threatening than tall buildings are often viewed. All in all, these peaks in the veritable range of glass mountains, gave the place a fantasy feel as they sparkled and shimmered in the sunshine.

The City & Thames from Tate Modern Extension

The City & Thames from Tate Modern Extension

 

 

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The Lady in Blue – a very brief encounter!

Lady in Blue

Lady in Blue

A visit to my dentist does not always leave me with a happy memory, but thinking back to a cold and chilly January morning certainly brings a smile. Like all the best stories its beauty lay in its surprise and, unfortunately for me, its brevity. I was living in London at the time and was heading to my office having earlier been for my annual dental check-up. After a filling and polishing, and the inevitable admonishment from the dentist, I boarded the Tube and headed for central London.

As I had missed the main morning traffic I was able to get a seat and relaxed as we rolled towards town. I flicked my tongue across clean teeth, unfolded the newspaper and started the crossword. I quickly filled in a few clues and then paused and looked up. Across from me one passenger was reading the sports section of a tabloid paper while a girl sitting beside him was engrossed in a glossy magazine. The cover had an image of none other than the most photographed woman on the planet, Diana, Princess of Wales. She was on the cover of so many magazines and was the subject of countless articles about her style and love life, and to a lesser degree, her good works. She was beautiful, no doubt, and when the train jerked to a stop I returned to my crossword.

A cold, sharp breeze met me as I exited from Green Park station and turned onto Berkeley Street. I kept my head down, chin stuck firmly into my chest, and headed along the empty pavement to my office that was about a two-minute walk away. Papers and other bits and pieces flew aimlessly about the street as the chilly wind whistled around.

It was mid-morning and the pavement was almost completely empty. It was a slightly strange feeling and I looked about and saw only my reflection in shop windows as I walked. The wind continued to whip at my ears as I crossed the street and felt the numbness in my jaw slowly disappearing. Dentists, I thought, while down the street a large, black car slowed quietly before stopping at the kerb and a door opened.

Once more I buried my chin and cursed under my breath at the biting wind. It seemed as though it was going through me and I couldn’t wait to get into the warmth of my office, now only a few hundred yards away, and get a cup of coffee.

Looking up I saw the black car drive past me and its passenger was now standing on the pavement. She wore a coat that was the colour of the bluest of blue skies and it reached below her knees. It was very smart and I could not help smiling at the sheer exuberance of the woman’s style. She looked wonderful and her casual, elegant stride, as we approached, made her all the more interesting. I noticed her blonde hair was cut short but as she, too, had her face down against the wind I could not see her face. But as the distance between us closed I had the odd and pleasant feeling that I knew her, but couldn’t remember from where.

Lady Diana

Lady Diana

I was not able to take my eyes from her as I tried to remember who she might be. Was she an old girlfriend who I had not seen in years; or a former work colleague maybe? These thoughts ran around my head until we were about ten feet apart and her bag suddenly fell to the ground. Without hesitation I stopped, bent down and picked it up. The woman stopped, smiled and thanked me as I handed the bag to her. For the briefest moment the most photographed woman on the planet smiled at me, a smile so natural and warm that I was lost for words. The surprise of the situation was tingling and I heard myself utter, dry-throated, ‘Mam.’  Then, moments later, she gave me a friendly nod of thanks, turned and walked towards Piccadilly. And so, in the blink of a slightly watery eye the vision in blue, Diana, Princess of Wales, was lost in the breezy London morning.        

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The Eyes Have It – A short story

The Guitar Player

The Guitar Player

The gentle creaking of the old floorboards made me realise that I had crossed the threshold and entered the calm of the house. It was a bright morning in early May and tiny motes of dust floated in the shafts of sunlight that crossed the hall of Kenwood House in North London. The ticking of a tall grandfather clock was the only sound I heard as I looked around, taking in the paintings and beautiful quiet.

I went to the reception desk and enquired about the painting that I had come to see. The attendant directed me to a room at the back of the house, and I happily made my way along corridors filled with wonderful works of art. There were many paintings and pieces of sculpture, both big and small, and some fine furniture. No doubt all these pieces could tell a tale, but that would have to wait as I rounded a corner and stepped into the room that I had been directed to.

A few weeks earlier I had found out that a painting by one of my favourite artists, Johannes Vermeer, was on permanent display in the magnificent house on grounds that border Hampstead Heath. I had seen some of Vermeer’s work when I was in Amsterdam the previous winter, and was looking forward to seeing The Guitar Player.

And so I slowly looked about and found the beautiful painting only a few feet away, hanging near a tall window. The room was empty, save for me, the paintings and the gentle hum of a discreetly placed humidifier.

Although Vermeer produced less than forty attributed works, they are all prized and admired in equal measure for their clarity and brilliant capturing of a ‘moment in time’. It has been suggested, somewhat snootily, by some experts that he may have used a camera obscura to assist in the accurate rendering of his subjects and brilliant use of shadow. Whether this was true or not was far from my mind when I gazed upon the red-cheeked, young girl dressed in her gold and white dress, smiling as she plucked the strings of her guitar. It was a magical moment as I studied the colours, shadow and engaging smile that forced a grinning response. I was captivated and marvelled once again at Vermeer’s work. It was magnificent and I was delighted to have seen it.

I was aware of the silence in the room when I turned and looked at the other wonderful paintings. There was a delightful portrait by Franz Hals, and others by Gainsborough and Reynolds brought my eye to something that took my breath away. For there in front of me was a painting by another famous Dutch master that seemed to breathe and pulse, so intense and brilliant was the work. I was taken aback by the power of the sitter’s gaze, and it’s a moment that I have always treasured.

After the gentle, light work of Vermeer, I was completely unprepared for one of Rembrandt’s greatest works – Portrait of the Artist – that speaks with deep understanding over three hundred years after it was created. The artist is dressed for work and holds an easel and paintbrushes and has a bright, white hat to protect his long, silver hair. The painting is lit from the left and casts his left cheek and shoulder into shadow, a device that draws your attention to his face.

And his eyes – the windows to the soul.

They are the eyes of an old man, who was almost sixty years of age, and all too familiar with the ups and downs of life. For Rembrandt, who early on was successful, happy and rich, life dealt him some cruel blows. His wife, Saskia, who he loved madly, died young as did his son Titus. And, like other artists before and since, he made bad financial decisions and was eventually declared bankrupt. Such a fall from grace and the attendant pain are all captured in the painting that hung before me.

Then I realised something for the first time, and stepped closer. I could clearly see the brushstrokes and the dabs of paint that the master had applied all those years ago. And here I was in exactly the same position that Rembrandt must have stood, maybe on a morning in a far-off May, considering his next move. I felt that I was being let in on a secret and it was those deep, world-weary but captivating eyes that were my gateway to appreciating the master’s work. I have visited Kenwood House many times since, and always enjoyed Rembrandt’s gnarled, engaging face and the silent eyes that say so much.

Portrait of the Artist

Portrait of the Artist

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Time for Turner – The Vaughan Bequest

JMW Turner

JMW Turner

January is often viewed as a comedown after the excitement of Christmas has finally died away, but not for those who are fans of the watercolours of JMW Turner. The annual display of his work lasts for the month of January, and it is one of the National Gallery of Ireland’s (NGI) most popular attractions.

In 1900 the National Gallery were bequeathed 31 watercolours by Henry Vaughan, and a stipulation that they should only be displayed in January when the light was weak. This was to protect the delicate drawings, and although modern measures can adequately do the job the National Gallery adheres to Vaughan’s request. This adds to the display and allows the viewer to see Turner’s magical work as Vaughan or the artist would have enjoyed them.

Henry Vaughan

Henry Vaughan

Henry Vaughan was born in Southwark, south London, in April 1809 and his father, George, owned a very successful hat making business. And in 1829 when his father died Henry inherited the business and was an extremely wealthy young man. He had been privately educated, and his wealth allowed him to travel widely in Europe and begin his collection. This included many works and sketches by Michelangelo and Rembrandt and paintings by Reynolds, Flaxman and Constable. In fact, he presented Constable’s famous work the Hay Wain to the National Gallery (London) in 1886.

By that time he had become a friend of Turner’s and bought a considerable number of his works that would constitute a large part of the Vaughan Bequest. The works that the NGI acquired have since been added to and now there are 36 watercolours to enjoy. They show Turner’s mastery of light, and his skill in catching the fleeting moment that so impressed generations of aspiring artists. And, two hundred later they still have the power to move the viewer. It’ll be a great way to start the New Year – check it out.

National Gallery of Ireland

National Gallery of Ireland

 

 

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From Kent to Chelsea

Shepherd Neame HQ - Beer Central!

Shepherd Neame HQ – Beer Central!

Although I have often been in a pub, until a few weeks ago I had never visited a brewery. However, while spending a  few days  with my cousin Paschal  in London, we went to Faversham, Kent and spent a few very pleasant hours touring the Shepherd Neame Brewery. It has operated since 1698 and is the country’s oldest brewer – and with beers like Spitfire, Spooks and the wonderfully named Bishop’s Finger (it’s so Carry On!) it would have been rude not to drop in.

We joined  twenty-or-so other visitors and after a short video history of the company we were off. I was elected as ‘Shepherd’ for the visit, making sure that nobody was left behind, or God forbid, fell into a vat (a tonne, actually) of beer. We were taken through the whole process, and it was fascinating to learn how the different roasting procedures (of the barley) could make such unique and distinct flavours. At the end of the tour we were each given six small glasses with a selection of beers and lagers. We sipped, swirled and, of course, swallowed the precious liquid and there was much ‘I like that one,’ comments from those around the tables. And, surprise, surprise I was given a bottle of beer for the ‘demanding work’ (not my words!) as Shepherd. A visit to a brewery and I come away with a free drink – now that’s what I call a result! Cheers.  

Roll out the barrells......

Roll out the barrells…..

Here they come!

Here they come!

 A few days later I was in London and heading towards the Thames, at Albert Bridge, with my friend Don. He had heard about a race Doggett’s Coat & Badge and was keen to see it, and thankfully we had a great day for it.  The sun shone and the breeze was gentle as we leaned over the most attractive bridge on the river  and, like the line of viewers with cameras at the ready, watched the race.

The race dates from 1715, making it the oldest rowing race in the world – the first Cambridge/Oxford Boat Race was not held until 1829! The race begins at London Bridge, passes under 11 bridges, before ending at  Cadogan Pier (a few hundred yards from Albert Bridge). It was conceived and financed by Thomas Doggett (an actor from Dublin) who used to travel along the river between Drury Land Theatre, The City where he worked for many years, and his home in Chelsea. 

Albert Bridge - the prettiest one of all

Albert Bridge – the prettiest one of all

Back then there were only a few bridges across the river and most people had to use the services of a waterman (we would call him a taxi driver) to get across. Legend has it that a waterman rescued Doggett after he fell into the river, but there is, sadly, no definitive proof of this. Anyway, he decided to organise a race (length 4 miles 5 furlongs) and offer the winner a prize of a red  waterman jacket, a large silver badge with the word ‘LIBERTY’ inscribed on it, and some money. Six apprentice watermen were invited to compete, for what has subsequently become a prestigious honour. It has continued to this day with the record winning time of 23 mins and 22 secs set in 1973. The race was usually held on the 1st August in celebration of  the accession of George I in 1714, but is now run on a Friday in July with an incoming tide to help the rowers.

On the day we went there was a big crowd on the river (in three large ‘Gin Palaces’) following the racers and a a few celebrities waited at the finishing line, including Prince Philip. The local Mayor, photographers and TV crews all added to a colourful event that next year will celebrate it’s 300 hundredth anniversary. Well done Thomas.

Winner alright!

Winner alright!

 

 

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