Wednesday 6/26: National Gallery & (a bit of) Tate Gallery

So today was amazing. Our first stop was the National Gallery, where I wanted to take pictures, simply because the architecture is, arguably, just as incredible an achievement as the artwork. I found myself drawn particularly to the floors, which were adorned with huge, intricate mosaic images inlaid by tiles that couldn’t have measured more than a square centimeter each… although I suppose that unit of measurement is moot here. Anyway, we were split into three groups of five and six, and presented, in separate sessions, with a bit of background on several paintings, including “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey,” seen below. The picture really does not do the original painting any justice. Standing in front of it is a totally unreal experience. Take a close look at some of the smaller details: the strings of pearls, the fingernails. Insane.

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The painting depicts Lady Jane Grey, a 16-year-old young woman who reigned as Queen of England for only 9 days, in a flimsy attempt to maintain support for the Protestant faith, before being replaced by Edward VI’s Catholic half sister Mary and beheaded at the Tower of London the following year. Behind her are her ladies in waiting, Sir John Brydges, the Lieutenant of the Tower, who is directing her to the execution block and likely hearing out her last will, and the foreboding executioner, his axe gleaming and gaze hauntingly apathetic. The straw beneath the execution block, a point of interest to many viewers, was meant to soak up the blood. In fact, the beheading took place outside, as was custom at the time, but Paul Delaroche, the artist, chose instead to render the scene inside the Tower, successfully concocting a far more ominous tone than would be wrought by a landscape of grass and trees, and also allowing Lady Jane Grey’s dress and blindfold to serve as standouts against the bleakness of the dusky stone. Delaroche even visited the Tower during his lifetime in order to study it firsthand. This painting is so popular that the adjacent floor actually has to be varnished more than any other in the room, let alone the museum, due to shoe scuffing.

We also received a bit of background regarding William Hogarth’s “Wedding A-la-Mode” series, below.

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I’ve always been “keen” on these linear collections that can be read as if as comics. This one in particular was a satirical take on aristocratic society–in particular, the marriages within that society. Hogarth takes an impersonal narrative perspective, guiding the viewer through an 18th century soap opera-esque tale of adultery and corruption.

In the first painting, the Earl Squanderer settles on an exchange with a wealthy merchant. The deal? His own daughter’s matrimony to the merchant’s son for a sum of money. As the two discuss the exchange, Silvertongue–the family lawyer–whispers to the daughter, as the Earl’s son–the Viscount–admires his reflection in the mirror. A hideous growth is seen protruding from his neck, a common symptom, at the time, of treatment via mercurial pills for venereal disease. The dogs chained together in the foreground are often interpreted as a symbolic device, intended to foreshadow the marriage.

In the second painting, the two have been wed, and their dog sniffs curiously–perhaps suspiciously–at the Viscount’s pocket, where a woman’s cap has been carelessly stowed after a night spent in a brothel. The merchant’s daughter is seen stretching and yawning after hosting a card party the precious evening. The couple’s butler is seen striding out of the room, towing stacks of bills and throwing up his hands as if in frustration. The house is clearly in utter disrepair.

The third painting depicts the Viscount with his young mistress, consulting a French doctor regarding alternative treatment for his disease. The mistress, in addition, has presumably contracted the disease herself, as the woman assumed to be her mother stands to the left of the Viscount, wielding a clasp knife, her face twisted in anger.

The fourth painting follows up with an image of the merchant’s daughter, now a Countess due to the death of the Earl; she is surrounded by posh new company–an assortment of party-goers at left. Silvertongue points to a sort of diagram of a masquerade to which he is inviting her. The scene implicitly suggests an affair between the two.

In the fifth painting, Silvertongue is seen making a hasty escape from the window of the bagnio (sort of like a motel of the era) to which he and the Countess have retired after the masquerade. The Earl has been stabbed by Silvertongue after following them, and the Countess begs on her knees for forgiveness just as the Watch and master burst in to investigate the commotion.

Finally, in the sixth painting, the Countess is dead, having swallowed a poison upon hearing of the Viscount’s execution on the grounds of accusations that he killed the Earl. The Countess’s daughter hugs her, the mark of venereal disease on her neck. The merchant is seen removing the Countess’s ring for his own financial gain–a notable reflection of the first painting which brings the entire series full circle.

After walking around the gallery a little more on our own (I spent a substantial amount of time admiring “Psyche Showing Her Sisters Her Gifts From Cupid,” a 1753 work by Jean Honore-Fragonard that looks something like this…

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…only in person the colors are far more vibrant.)

We ate the lunches we packed outside in Trafalgar Square, people-watching and trying our hardest not to feed the pigeons. I had a turkey and cheese sandwich, enhanced with a sweet pickle spread. The taste was unusual for me, but it wasn’t bad! Soon after, a small group of us took a loop around Chinatown, passing the Odeon and–whaddya know!–a bust of William Hogarth in Leicester Square, as some students went to exchange money and boost the credit on their cell phone plans.

Afterwards, it was back on the bus and over to Tate Gallery, where we split off for a short while, then congregated once more in our smaller groups to receive some insight into “No Woman No Cry,” a painting by Chris Ofili, which is propped up, in the room dedicated solely to 90’s pieces (this was my favorite section), by two cubes of elephant dung, symbolic of Ofili’s African heritage. (One thing I really appreciated, in addition to the exclusive exhibition of works by British artists, was the division and organization of pieces into separate rooms based on the decade of completion. It was interesting to cross through a threshold and see an evident shift in style and/or subject. Even just over a century ago, tons of artists still aimed to emulate those of the Renaissance era. Crazy to see how far we’ve come in so little time, right?) Here’s Ofili’s painting.

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This is one that I really had to cozy up to to enjoy. Once you get up close and personal, you notice a lot of little details that get lost at a distance: for instance, all those little dots making up the woman’s skin? Those aren’t just painted, they’re three-dimensional. There is sheet upon sheet of pattern layered behind her too, some in acrylic paint, some in oil, paper collage, pins, resin. There are even splashes of glitter and pieces of elephant dung mixed in. And it almost escapes you, if you’re not being especially probing, but there are faces in the woman’s tears.

The story behind this piece is actually kind of a tragedy. It’s a nod to Stephen Lawrence, a teenager who died in a racially-instigated murder. (The woman depicted is his mother, and the man in the tears is Lawrence.) Only recently did the police’s investigation methods emerge, along with the truth about their own institutional racism. Our guide described this as a shock to the British public, as the modern police force has always been seen as, well, anything but a force. I hadn’t been aware if this previously, but they don’t even carry guns. A member of law enforcement could very well be one’s friend or neighbor. It was difficult for Britons to grasp the idea that something insidiously oppressive could be stirring within that system.

After we left the Tate, we again boarded the bus and I contemplated how great it is that neither gallery we visited charged an entry fee. I can’t name a single museum in Charlotte that’s free. Soon after this thought arose, just about everyone fell asleep, including me, while I attempted to engage my attentions in this week’s “Economist.” This made me 10,000x more tired than I’d been before, so that was a mistake. (Fun fact: the most effective power nap length is 20 minutes.) I woke up as we pulled into the campus parking lot, and everyone went their separate ways.

At about 6:30, we had dinner, and then we had an hour and a half-long discussion with Mr. Worthington about the plan for tomorrow (visiting the Museum of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Monument, and the Tower), and to give us some context for the experience, we also heard a little bit about British history, from the Tudor period to Britain’s joining the European Union, and all the royalty in between. I’ll post that chronology in just a minute, plus some photos taken today.

It’s somewhat later than would be ideal for me to get everything done that I’d like to, but I’m hoping to tack on four more miles to my two from this morning, and also read some of The Fault In Our Stars, since I didn’t get the chance to last night.

Well then, prepare for lots of pictures!

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