Fortnum and Mason

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R and I went to London today, for one of our occasional marathon treks around the major art galleries of the city. We began the day at the Royal Academy in Piccadilly, with the exhibition Charles I: King and Collector, which I cannot recommend too highly: it is stunning. There are a number of fabulous Van Dyck portraits, including half a dozen which alone would be worth the entrance fee – the Charles I triptych, a profile portrait of the Queen, an utterly gorgeous one of the royal children, a couple of formal equestrian portraits of the King and a less formal one of him standing by his horse on dress-down Friday; and two self-portraits which are my personal favourites – one fabulously camp one with a sunflower, and a very moving portrait, on loan from the NPG, which was painted only about a year before he died at the sadly young age of 42. There’s a lot of other good stuff in the exhibition too, but really – go for the Van Dycks.

On the down side, I continue to be unimpressed with the Royal Academy as an institution. They are issuing timed tickets for this show, which you expect to allow the flow of people through the gallery to be controlled such that you can see the works without having to elbow other people out of the way, but they still somehow managed to allow far too many people in at once, and the first two rooms especially were absolutely jammed. A benefit of being tall is that R and I could see reasonably well over other people’s heads, but it was frustrating for us, and must have been very much more so for the people struggling round the exhibition in wheelchairs.

The staff in the RA cafĂ© were also some of the least helpful I’ve encountered in any gallery anywhere – which is how we came to wind up in the highly civilised atmosphere of Fortnum and Mason, just over the road, where the staff couldn’t have been nicer, the tea and coffee were splendid (my Earl Grey was loose-leaf, and R’s cappuccino arrived with a tiny cornet of chocolate ice cream), the carrot cake was exemplary…. and the bill brought a tear to R’s eye. I was very taken with this staircase, and after our cake it seemed like a good idea to yomp up to the top of it to see if the view downwards was worth a photo – which, I hope you’ll agree, it was.

We then walked down to Buck House, to see Charles II: Art and Power at The Queen’s Gallery. This works very well as a companion exhibition to the one at the Royal Academy (though it suffers rather from a lack of Van Dycks); it centres on the fact that Charles II had to rebuild the royal art collection when he was invited back to the country to take the crown, because most of the works amassed by his father had been sold off by the Protectorate after Charles I was executed, and it contains some works that were returned to him by the people who had bought them, some (such as the famous Exeter Salt) which were presented by former supporters of Cromwell who now thought it expedient to do a little judicious grovelling to the King, and others that he bought himself. One of my favourites is this portrait.

We then walked back into town via St James’ Park and Horse Guards, and still had time before dinner to pop into the NPG to see Victorian Giants: the Birth of Art Photography. This is another really worthwhile exhibition – especially if, like me, you’re a stranger to the work of Oscar Rejlander. I was aware of the work of the other three photographers in the show (Cameron, Hawarden and Dodgson), but I’d never come across Rejlander before, and I was pretty bowled over by his talent, both with the camera and in the creative processing of his images. Because the four photographers knew each other and moved within similar social circles they quite often photographed the same models, which adds an extra layer of interest to the exhibition.

It was quite a tiring day, but an enjoyable one. Those Van Dycks…. wow.