I took a day off from spreading gravel and went art gallery visiting in London, starting at the Serpentine Galleries where they are showing The Most Popular Art Exhibition Ever! That is what Grayson Perry called it, and it is his exhibition. The friend I went with is another diehard Grayson Perry fan, and we were not disappointed. He is a great cultural commentator. He is funny. He makes stuff himself. He is skilled across a range of media. He combines a sharp intellect with a kind heart, a much more useful combination than possessing an abundance of one in the absence of the other. He is well on track to become a National Treasure if he is not one already. He is a transvestite potter and thoroughly good bloke. Really, what's not to like? My personal highlight of today's show was the large (computer woven) tapestry showing an English landscape of considerable bleakness, except for the rainbow mysteriously arcing across it. The bronze skull of The Fallen Giant looked at first and second glance like a scaled up model of the sort of thing they sell in Whitby Goth souvenir shops, until I looked a third time and began to see that it was studded with images of England, telephone boxes, acorns, Nelson's column, a double decker bus.
The Serpentine Gallery does not open on Mondays. We found this out last year when we tried to go on a Monday, and had to make do with the summer pavilion. This year's is the first by an African architect, four curving walls of blue painted blocks partially enclosing the space under a circular roof sloping down to a central open air circle. According to the review in the Guardian it was inspired by a tree in the architect's home village in Burkina Faso which acts as a meeting place. Rereading Oliver Wainwright's article I see the phrase for the roof I was groping for was funnel shaped roof. Today it was not funneling quite perfectly as there was one drip, and enough of a wind to blow the Caution Wet Floor sign over, but it is a delightful pavilion, and although it has a coffee stand nobody told us we couldn't eat our Pret sandwiches in there. It is a good place to sit, half inside, half outside, with views of the trees but protected from the rain, as long as you avoid the drip.
The rain was followed by brilliant sun and so I began to fret slightly about the greenhouse as we set off across the park for Kensington, and to wish I had worn a better sunhat instead of the one I was wearing, which was too small and had earlier blown off into a puddle. We found ourselves passing near the Albert Memorial so took a small detour to look at it. I had never actually been up close to it before, only seen it from across the road outside the Albert Hall. It is very large, when you get right under it, and much brighter and shinier than it used to be when I used to go to the Albert Hall. I think it has been refurbished. Guided tours are available on Sundays and I thought that if I were ever in Hyde Park on a Sunday, which I'm not, they would be quite interesting and one might find out who all the great number of people sculpted around the base of the memorial were. As it was they had pigeons sitting on their heads, hastening the day when the memorial will need cleaning again. We departed back across the park towards Kensington High Street, having learned merely that Albert was greatly beloved and dead. It is an extraordinary monument, amazingly ugly in the way that St Pancras is ugly, so ornate that it is fun to look at, and you certainly wouldn't want it torn down, but ugly all the same.
Our target in Kensington was the Leighton House Museum, the home and studio of Frederick, Lord Leighton, former President of the Royal Academy. His house had been on my cultural radar since first reading about it several years ago, and at the moment it is hosting an exhibition of the paintings of Laurence Alma-Tadema, one of those Victorian painters I had vaguely heard about without knowing much about. The house, I had read, was an opulent confection of Moorish influences, with only one bedroom because Lord Leighton hated having people to stay. Or at least that is what I remembered. I still can't say about the bedrooms, because we never saw any, but the hall and staircase were fabulous, hung with decorated Islamic tiles which I guessed Lord Leighton had imported, surrounded by shinier deep blue tiles which I guessed were England's finest. I am still guessing, because there was remarkably little visitor interpretation on offer, or room guides, so now I have seen the interior I shall have to read up on it. At any rate the tiles were beautiful, and by the time you'd added the perforated screens, the gold mosaics, the stained glass, and the fountain the effect was quite overwhelming. There was a lot of Iznik pottery scattered through the house as well, on loan from a private collector. I said, How nice of them to lend it, and my friend suggested it was probably one of those arrangements where to save tax you have to make art works available to the public. Whichever way, I am extremely fond of Iznik pottery.
Alma-Tadema is somebody else I will read more about now I've seen the paintings. They are very Victorian, mostly of middle class Victorian manners playing out in Greek or Roman costume against a backdrop of classical architecture. They are delightful fluff, and beautifully done. He was really good at fabric, and his second wife and daughter were pretty decent painters as well. His major artistic legacy appears to lie not in the world of painting but in film, as one room was running a series of clips from Cecil B de Mille through to Gladiator, next to the Alma-Tadema painting each most closely resembled, and you realised it was all there in the films, costumes, buildings, pools, columns, furniture, the lot.