On Masterpiece London

This week I was given a ticket, and a strong recommendation, to visit Masterpiece London, a fair of arts, antiquities and design that takes place in the grounds of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea. I was vaguely aware of the event, it being mentioned in the FT but it had never occurred to me to go; Chelsea is not really on my usual beat. But I had an idle afternoon and the ticket was eighteen quid (student rate) so I thought I shouldn’t waste it.

Whiffs of the plutocracy (already pretty strong) became stronger as I strolled down Sloane Street and through the Square.* At the rear entrance of the Hospital there was a free golf buggy shuttle service to the entrance at the riverside (distance perhaps 500 metres); a service that the able-bodied as well as the infirm seemed curiously eager to use. Presumably these were the idle rich.

Getting in was a chore of security (forgivable given the value of what’s inside) and then into the show. Let’s say that the crowd here, apart from the odd smattering of schoolchildren or students, is notable for its ethnic rather than social diversity. Food outlets from brands that trade on exclusivity (Le Caprice, The Ivy), wall-faced security guards at every corner and pretty frosty dealers were further barriers to the averagely-waged punter. It was as if the contents of St. James’s had slid down the map of London and been trapped in a huge air-conditioned marquee by the Thames.

But there’s the thing – the contents make the Fair worth the trip, and even the money.** Sure, a lot of these things you could see for free in the dealers’ rooms, but then they’re spread all over town, Europe and beyond (well, no, that’s an exaggeration, such places are quite tightly packed in a few specific areas of London and in a handful of cities). Also, much of what you see or similar can be found for free in London’s museums. But then again you’d have to spend your time moving around town rather than seeing it under one roof.

That’s the attraction of Masterpiece – it actually keeps its promise and has a vast assortment of masterpieces all within strolling distance of one another. And such a jumble of stuff! From my notes I picked out …

  • a ‘primitive’ art depiction from the 19th Century of a gig race in front of the Ravenbury Arms, Croydon
  • a poster for ‘Cocaine’ by Rene Gaillard, a theatre production in 1920s Montmartre***
  • many, many Ugly Renaissance Babies****
  • Extraordinary Chinese paintings of European factories in 18th Century Canton
  • Giacomo Balla’s ‘Speed of Automobile’
  • A ceiling high Delaunay Eiffel Tower (amazing)

'Cocaine' by René Gaillard
‘Cocaine’ by René Gaillard
And on and on and on and on. And these were just the things in which I was interested … there were extraordinary things in which I wasn’t interested at all (jewellery, cars, speedboats, stamps, rugs) or didn’t have the energy to look at (Roman/Greek/Asian antiquities, books, furniture). The whole bunch of stuff a phantasmagoria of juxtaposed styles, types and periods like the most eclectic auction room you’ve ever seen, reminding me of Anthony Powell’s observation that ‘accumulations of unrelated objects brought together at auction acquire, in their haphazard manner, a certain dignity of their own.’*****

And in this the Fair operated as a microcosm of the artistic experience of London as a topographical space. A reason to love the city in that however much it changes there are still stubborn grits of haphazardness that refuse to go away. Everything jumbled up yet somehow cohering. Such is the Jeremy Bentham pub, which in the midst of the rebuilding of University College Hospital sticks up like one of Shane MacGowan’s blackened teeth in the maw of modernisation.

The Jeremy Bentham. A good pub.
The Jeremy Bentham. A good pub.
Walking back to civilisation past another defiant relic – Battersea Power Station – I stopped to have a rest in St. George’s Square.

It was a hot day, one of the first very hot days of the year. In the Fair the air-conditioning was turned down to -1 (having saved oneself the trouble of walking in the sun one wouldn’t want to perspire in one’s Savile Row suit I guess). So it was with great pleasure that I sat in the Square, listened to the fountain, rested my feet and did the crossword.

Fountain, St. George's Square
Fountain, St. George’s Square
The bench on which I rested is dedicated to my friend Alexandra, who lived around the corner for all of the years that I knew her. It was a good place to think of her because despite her love of the high life (and she lived life to the full) she was determined that the high life should be open to all. She was a broad-minded bulldozer of barriers to entry whose motto was ‘experiment’ and who inspired generations of schoolchildren to a love of art and history. Having walked from Knightsbridge to Chelsea past key gardens, security guarded boutiques and golf-buggy riding wealth I was glad to sit in a democracy of livid London flesh, dog-walking bachelors and elderly strolling couples and feel able to breathe again.

Golf buggies. Really.

* Sloane Square, from which I’ve led walking tours in the past, is surely one of the worst places for pedestrians in central London. For an area of London that is a hub of shopping, eating and theatre-,  church- and gallery-going crossing the Square in any direction is a dispiriting experience. And sitting in it is not much better.

** £25 for a full fee day ticket, £18 for students, free for the under-18s but no discounts for the unwaged.

*** This poster was my favourite thing in the whole show. A thing of weird beauty in its own right it’s also a complex document of life in 1920s Paris. I want it. Sinai and Sons have it.

**** If you haven’t seen the blog you MUST. But be prepared for swearing.

***** A. Powell, ‘A Buyer’s Market’ (London, 1952), p. 1

Art Exhibitions Walking

f1insburyparker View All →

Blue Badge guide to London and academic specialising in early twentieth century history. Blogging on history, academia, and food and culture in the capital (and occasionally elsewhere).

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