Thursday, 21 April 2016

Not Going to the Shakespeare Metamorphosis

London is always the oddest mix of empty and busy at the weekends. Clusters and crowds by the river or at Covent Garden, but empty streets all around.

The plan on Sunday was to go to the Botticelli exhibition at the Courtauld, then on to the Shakepeare Metamorphosis exhibition at Senate House, so I started from the station across Waterloo Bridge, and turned right up the Strand. The Courtauld is in the right hand side of the gate of Somerset House (the left side is the shop) and is one of the smaller galleries of London, a series of rooms most of which are on the scale of a house rather than a gallery, ideal for showing prints and drawings and engravings at close range.

I've never been in any of the rest of the building. It used to be the place to go to see wills and marriage licences (much referenced in Agatha Christie) and there are fountains in the courtyard and a temporary ice rink erected in the same spot in the winter, but the other three wings of the building are a mystery to me. Another place to go back to.

Because the galleries in the Courtauld all radiate from the same spiral staircase I had to go through a very small exhibition - just one medium sized room - of Bruegel engravings, including one I particularly liked of  the adulteress who Christ saved from being stoned to death by suggesting that he who was without sin should cast the first stone.

A later colour painting had also been made but the engraving was much more immediate - without that jewel-box prettiness which distracted from the story.

The Botticelli exhibition I didn't enjoy so much. The pictures he did for Dante's Divine Comedy are beautiful, the subject matter less so. It began of course with Hell and Purgatory, all that emphasis on punishment only made more unpleasant by being worked out and drawn in exquisite detail, and at last moved on to Heaven, where Dante seemed quite happy to ascend with his childhood sweetheart, not sparing a moment's thought for the poor suffering souls he'd left behind.

There is a point where this aspect of religion feels to me to be less about the fear of God and more about the smug pleasure of seeing others suffer 'appropriate' punishment, and here I felt that point was passed. I was particularly uncomfortable to see soothsayers with their heads put on backwards and artists bent double under rocks for daring to take pride in being the best of their time.

I don't remember what the people being speared in a pit of flame had done wrong, or the ones buried upside down in a hole with their feet on fire, but there isn't really any sin you could commit in your mere 60 or 70 years on Earth that would warrant that for eternity, and it felt so out of kilter with Christ's treatment of the adulteress you couldn't help wondering how these beliefs could have arisen from that teaching.

There was also a small tome - an early astronomical text - with the note that the writer had been burned at the stake for heresy. Perhaps the juxtaposition of this with Botticelli's beautiful and inaccurate drawing of an Earth-centric universe was intended to make the reader intensely uncomfortable. It certainly did me.

Afterwards I walked up Drury Lane to Bedford Square, then along Gower St to Senate House, all very quiet, where I found that the Metamorphosis was closed on Sundays. You can walk through under Senate House though, which I did, and then across Russell Square and down through Kingsway in a straight line back to Aldwych.

Not being quite ready to go home I then went into St Clement Danes, where I don't think I've been since I was a child. It's a place of immense quiet, with books of remembrance lining the walls in glass cases, listing the names of those who have been killed in the line of duty.

Things that stood out for me were that an entire double page could be filled with men with just one surname, which really brought home the scale of loss, and the few 'foreign' names, including one woman in the WAAF included in a memorial to the right of the altar whose name I wish I had thought to write down.

After that I explored the crypt and the photographs and tapestry on the stairs - I wondered if I was really meant to be up there at first - and was lucky enough to be there on the hour when the carillon rang.

I wandered into St Bride's as well (past the Royal Courts of Justice and some Johnsonite public houses) but found it under renovation and a string quartet practicing in the central aisle, which was lovely, but did make me feel I shouldn't disturb them.

Continuing up Fleet Street, which has lost a lot of character since the newspapers left, to St Pauls,  I rejoined the crowds of tourists, then walked across the Millennium Bridge to the South Bank (which was even busier) and past the Globe, the Clink, Southwark Cathedral, Tooley Street where the London Dungeon used to be (and there is now something that looks just as creepy and tourist trappish, and where that disturbing nursery rhyme London Bridge was being played), and into London Bridge Station and home.

And this is actually a picture from a completely different walk earlier in the week after work -
 Camden to Great Portland Street via Albany Street.

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