Friday, 25 November 2011

Another gallery visit

What could be more heavenly than bowling along in a number 11 London bus on a sunny day in the direction of Trafalgar Square? We sped along Victoria St and the two great churches - cathedral and abbey - , past the gaggle of tourists outside the Foreign Office, the Treasury and number 10 Downing St, then more tourists at the entrance to Horse Guards, standing boldly to be photographed beside the mounted guardsman on his patient big black horse, past other offices of state, round in front of Nelson's column and his brace of lions, to alight at the stop opposite Charing Cross and the short walk up to the National Portrait Gallery. I was a quarter of an hour early for my appointment, so browsed in the shop, toyed with some lime and orange silk-covered bangles and bought my Christmas cards. My friend Joan is a portrait painter who used to live just up the King's Rd from me. She and her late husband, architectural correspondent of the Observer Stephen Gardner, had a bolthole in Tunbridge Wells, a pretty cottage where she now lives and paints. That's three of my friends - four including me - who have 'downsized'. We exchanged plans for Christmas: she will be beside the seaside in Deal, reading Claire Tomalin's new book about Dickens; we will be in Centre Parcs, Penrith - nearest literary landmark, Greystoke, home of Tarzan, the boy lost in Africa and brought up by apes. The view from the restaurant atop the Nat Portrait Gallery must be one of the finest in London: a vast panorama of ice blue sky streaked with white clouds above rooftops, across Trafalgar Square from St Martin's in the east, south down Whitehall to Westminster, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, then swinging west to Admiralty Arch and clubland, St James's. After lunch, we lingered for ten minutes to look at some portraits: Andy Warhol's exquisite Joan Collins and an unusual black and white Mick Jagger (another image - a colour photograph in mildly ethnic getup - also adorns the foyer: didn't he do well for a Dartford boy); Ruskin Spear's enigmatic Harold Wilson wreathed in pipe smoke; Patrick Heron's T S Eliot (unrecognisable, both the artist and the sitter); a rather alarming Ted Hughes - conveyed in windblown streaks of paint, anchored by two unnerving pale blue eyes; Lord Clarke of Civilization, in brutal profile like one of his Renaissance Italian dukes; Bryan Organ's iconic Diana and Charles hung next to each other, portrayed - now it can be seen - as lonely, separate and isolated as they were in life. Joan was going to have a go at getting into the Leonardo so we walked together across the front of the National Gallery where some mysterious scaffolding was either going up or being taken down, she headed in to the Sainsbury wing entrance and I walked on, along a very familiar route past the Institute of Directors where I was once a member, and just across from the Athenaeum, my ex-husband's club, scene of many a meal for some visiting celeb; then round into Lower Regent Street up and left into Piccadilly to jump on a bus to take me home. Fortnum's window this year is themed on variety and spangled showgirls; the arcades are garlanded in blue and silver, red and gold. I think of the words from the Tempest with which Bruce Wall ended his London Shakespeare Workout (part of Play's The Thing) on Tuesday:

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

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