I went to London today for the last of their series of lunchtime concerts with Lawrence Power. This time he was playing with the Vertavo String Quartet, which once again I had never heard of if I were being honest about the extent of my musical ignorance. But there are a great many string quartets in the world, and the Vertavo are from Norway, so I have some excuse. Now I've seen them live I shall notice if they crop up on Radio 3. The five of them played something Schubert wrote when he was only fourteen prefaced by something by Mark-Anthony Turnage that wasn't in the programme, followed by a short Beethoven fugue which segued directly into Brahms' clarinet quintet in B minor recalibrated by Brahms for the viola. The last was utterly and sublimely beautiful, and the old work friend I went with pronounced himself highly satisfied with it, especially the first two movements. I like LSO St Lukes very much indeed, and if I worked at Silicon Roundabout I would make sure my colleagues knew not to schedule any meetings for Thursday lunchtimes between 12.30 and 2.30 from October to May. Alas, I have to ration myself as I can't get to London that often, and I haven't booked another one until February.
Then I went to the National Portrait Gallery to see the Picasso Portraits. I hadn't managed to find anybody who wanted to see it with me, and though it's on until early February I thought I'd catch it rather than suddenly find I'd left it to the last minute. The Daily Telegraph review said it was a Must See, the friend who came to today's concert wouldn't come because his wife wanted to see it, and Picasso was one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century. I'll bow out of any discussion about whether he was the greatest before it starts because I dislike rankings tables when it comes to art (or many other things). But when I went to see the British Museum exhibit their recently acquired complete set of the Vollard Suite I found it very, very exciting.
Today's exhibition, not so much. I have only now Googled it and seen that some others were a teeny bit underwhelmed. One criticism is that there isn't as much in it as you might expect from a show that takes up all of the portrait gallery's ground floor rooms where they stage temporary exhibitions. There are great big bits of blank walls between the pictures. Complaining that an exhibition ought to have more in it feels rather vulgar, like eating at a fine restaurant and grumbling about portion sizes. It smacks of buying books by the yard because they do furnish a room. But with tickets costing nineteen pounds without concessions (well done, Art Pass) part of me expected more entertainment. Quality is all very well but actually I do care about the width as well. I'm vulgar that way.
Beauty is an equally dodgy topic. Nowadays we are not supposed to demand beauty from art. I have an unfortunate weakness for it, also colour. Visual beauty does not preclude greatness, look at Turner. Picasso ran through quite a lot of wives, mistresses and lovers in the course of his career, but while he may have appreciated female beauty in the flesh he wasn't concerned about painting it most of the time. Many of the portraits in the exhibition are very indicative of his sitter's inner state, very energetic, very clever, but they are tiring to look at. I looked, I mentally digested, I clocked the similarity of Tove Jansson's Moomin illustrations to Picasso's (by then or shortly to be) estranged wife (number two?) with their children, I spent some extra time with his paintings of his first wife, but I didn't linger.
I thought about calling into the Taylor Wessing photographic prize exhibition which opened today, but decided that after Picasso my capacity to absorb any more portraits was exhausted. It's lucky I went home when I did, as the 16.44 I caught out of Liverpool Street was running half an hour late for most of its journey. The guard made periodic announcements apologising that nobody had told him the reason for the red danger signals and promising to tell us more when he knew it, even appealing that if any passengers knew more via their devices then perhaps they could tell him. But a mere half hour late was a bagatelle (and will just qualify for a Delay Repay claim if they don't try to say it was only 29 minutes) compared to what came later, when the 17.50 Norwich train broke down between Harold Wood and Brentwood, blocking a vital crossing so that no trains could divert around it and services out of Liverpool Street were suspended.
Addendum The cats were not pleased that we had both been out all day and swarmed around the kitchen screaming at each other while I tried to make poached egg on toast. Just as I put down part of a second tin for them the toast set off the burnt toast alarm and the cats scattered in panic and bolted out of the cat flap. I have never understood why the alarm is apparently calibrated to sound at the first whiff of burnt toast, while the ground floor can fill with visible smoke from the wood burning stove blowing back if we try to light it when the wind's in the north and the alarm will not go off. The house is made of wood, after all. Not toast.