I went this afternoon to the Royal Academy to see the Ensor exhibition. I wouldn't necessarily have gone so hot on the heels of the Cambridge visit, especially when it is on until the end of January, but I was seeing an old university friend for lunch first and that's the way the dates ended up working for everybody.
I was pleased to see my friend, since we hadn't managed to catch up with each other since May. She runs a one woman consultancy advising small and techie companies on fund raising, EU grant applications and investor relations, as far as I can follow, having started off as a stockbrokers analyst covering the automotive sector. This year has been busy, which pays the bills, besides which she likes industry. She finds my ability to amuse myself for hours fiddling around with mud faintly baffling, but we are fond of each other and have known each other for a very long time.
We had lunch at what seems to be one of the most useful and best kept secrets in the West End, the cafe of the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street. I have been to a couple of lectures there, but the last time we tried to meet at the cafe it was shut that day due to a private function. We ended up in Fenwick instead and I made a mental note to avoid arranging to meet anybody at the RI cafe in future, since somewhere that can't be relied upon to be open is no use at all. But my friend seemed to think it would be OK, and I thought that since Fenwick was still round the corner we'd be fine one way or another.
The food at the RI cafe is not very exciting though perfectly edible and the decor is utterly unremarkable. BUT the tables are generously spaced apart, and only about three of them were occupied apart from ours, with the result that the room was astonishingly quiet. My friend is fairly deaf and I am naturally soft spoken unless in performance mode for a lecture, so to go somewhere that we didn't have to repeat ourselves endlessly or sit smiling and nodding when we'd given up trying to work out what the other one was actually saying was a huge plus. The till was broken so that they could not print itemised bills, but if there is anywhere else within a stone's throw of Piccadilly where you can get a pulled pork brioche bun with chips, a perfectly adequate chocolate brownie and three goes of tea and occupy a table in a quiet and practically empty room for an hour and a half for fifteen quid I'd like to know where it is.
Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans was not as empty as the RI cafe but was not heaving. I have been aware of Ensor for about twenty years since calling at Ostend on a sailing holiday and finding every lamp post on the sea front had a banner for an Ensor exhibition fluttering from it in the stiff breeze there always seems to be at Ostend. Ensor was a native of the city, indeed he rarely left. We did not go to the exhibition, and I was curious two decades on to find out what we'd missed, and add to my collection of Famous Belgians (Tintin does not count. He was a fictional character, but you may have Georges Simenon who was not French despite Maigret being a commissaire of the Paris Brigade Criminelle).
Ensor was of his time, Impressionistic interiors painted in thick oils, Surrealistic masks and skulls, a fascination with death and grotesquerie. He had his own voice and did not paint exactly like anybody else that I can think of. The exhibition has quite a lot of drawings and lithographs as well as paintings and I must admit I glossed over some of the smaller and darker ones because after the illuminated manuscripts yesterday I was tired of trying to look at small, dark things that I could barely see. One of the larger drawings, a tongue in cheek scene of a beach and sea crowded with bathers did remind me of print of holiday makers on a busy pier Anthony Gross made for the Lyons Corner Houses a generation later (which I coveted unutterably when we saw it at Eastbourne during another sailing holiday) and looking up Gross's biography just now on Wikipedia I see that there was a Continental influence in that he studied in Paris and worked with Jean Cocteau. Ensor's self portrait in a ladies' hat complete with dangling feather has to be a tongue in cheek homage to Rembrandt and the Dutch school. On the whole I rather liked Ensor. If you lived with his stuff it would grow on you, I think. If you want to see for yourself it is on until 29 January.