I'm behind with my arts reviews, because I saw three exhibitions yesterday but was busy writing about Paul Downes who I saw on Monday. I was originally hoping to get up to London for a culture fix at the end of last week, but dropped that idea when there was a Met Office amber rain warning for Essex and London. I don't trust the rail service not to collapse with overhead line failures, signal failures and flooding when there's an amber warning about.
I dithered over what to go and see, since there were no fewer than seven exhibitions I'd made a note of because they sounded interesting that close before the end of January. Should I choose those I wanted to see most, in case I only managed one trip to town by then, or should I see the ones that were due to end most imminently and take a view that I'd probably manage a second excursion? In the end I started at the British Museum, since their celebration of China's Ming dynasty is one of the first to finish, and one I particularly wanted to see. It ends on 5th January, but plenty of tickets seemed to be available despite that, and the fact it has reviewed well. General Chinese art and history obviously doesn't rock the British public's boat in the same way as terracotta warriors (which I missed. By the time I got round to trying to book a ticket it was completely sold out).
Ming is well worth a visit, assuming you are at least vaguely interested in Chinese history and aesthetics. There are some beautiful things, and nothing that is boring even if some are not so beautiful. There's a limit to how long one can spend looking at calligraphy while being completely unable to read Chinese characters, and the second half of a fifty foot long scroll depicting bamboo leaves does look quite like the first half. The British Museum has got itself organised in the new visitor space since my disappointing experience with the Vikings, and there was no queue to get in and very little queuing to see individual exhibits. I'm glad the BM is back on full song, since it is one of my favourite museums.
From there it was a short walk to Tottenham Court road and a few stops down the Northern Line to Embankment, then over the Hungerford Bridge and a brisk walk along the river to the Garden Museum. They have a small exhibition on Gardens and War which finishes very soon, on 19th December. It has a collection of photos I'd never seen before, largely about troops growing vegetables not far behind the front lines once the realisation struck that they might be there for some time, and other curiosities such as the popular floral shrines to war casualties that started in the East End. They bore a remarkable similarity to modern day roadside tributes to traffic accident victims, though the exhibition didn't make that point. The Garden Museum occupies an old church in Lambeth, and is a charming place, though the trouble with their temporary exhibitions is that they are staged in an airless box inside the church, which yesterday was distinctly too warm and smelt unfortunately as though some of the previous visitors had farted. The museum is all set to expand and improve its facilities with the aid of some lottery money, and I hope they can retain its charm while making it slightly more airy.
I wouldn't have minded looking at the Guildhall Art Gallery's free exhibition on images of Tower Bridge, but from their not awfully clear page on the City of London Corporation website it looked as though the entire gallery was now shut for refurbishment. I didn't feel sufficiently strongly about it to enquire further, since I wasn't going to have time to do everything anyway, and instead went to the National Portrait Gallery to see the exhibition on the work and influence of William Morris. The NPG has just revamped their website, so that the saved address I had and the link from the Telegraph review no longer worked. I found the new site, but it seemed to be suffering from teething problems and didn't mention the Morris exhibition at all. On the basis that it was almost certainly still on and that if it wasn't I'd call at the Courtauld on my way back to Liverpool Street, I yomped up Millbank and Whitehall to Trafalgar Square.
Rowan Moore claims in his book Why We Build that when London's planners and officials try to come up with schemes to make Trafalgar Square less boring, what they don't realise is that it was designed to be boring. The large fountains are allegedly to reduce the space for people to congregate in large crowds that might turn ugly. I don't know if he's right that it was done deliberately, but he's right that Trafalgar Square is an anodyne space. There was an extremely good bagpiper playing outside the National Gallery, but it is a dull square.
William Morris was still there, and while the exhibition (as the Telegraph reviewer points out) can't do more than skate over his life and work, it draws some thought provoking links to later artists who were influenced by him. From my point of view it followed on nicely from our mini tour in September of Arts and Crafts houses in Gloucestershire.
After that my brain was full and I did not think it would a good idea to try and cram in Egon Schiele as well, so I schlepped back to Liverpool Street, admiring the Christmas lights en route. Bow Lane always looks especially quaint. The 5.18 Ipswich train was nowhere near full, although I could have done with the man opposite me not picking his nose so ostentatiously, and ran to time, as did the morning train, so all in all it was an extremely successful expedition.