Having recently strayed from one of the purposes of this blog, which is to flag up things of interest to those in London on a limited budget, I return to the theme with two excellent exhibitions at RIBA and Ordovas Gallery. But with slight misgivings.
As someone who occasionally works in the tourism/hospitality industry one of my key bugbears as a cultural consumer in London is the shabbiness with which many venues (often but not exclusively at the high end) treat potential punters. I got a right-left combination of snottiness on these recent visits.
First up, RIBA. I’d gone there for lunch with a friend and with the idea of dropping into the Palladio exhibition that had been mentioned in the FT over the weekend. For a London guide a refresher course on Palladio is always welcome as his revival of the classical underpins so much of London’s great architecture, not least Inigo Jones’s Queen’s House at Greenwich and Banqueting Hall in Whitehall.
So we ducked in to RIBA’s HQ on Portland Place and strolled into the gallery. It seemed a bit quiet but I didn’t really think much of it and we started to browse the (excellent) drawings, photographs, books and captions while swapping a bit of idle chit-chat. We had about 15 minutes of this before a seated lady, who I’d assumed was writing up some notes, boomed out, ‘ARE YOU MEMBERS?!’
Neither of us sporting the standard issue black turtleneck and round tortoiseshell glasses it was clear that she’d rumbled us as not being Pro-Architects. John might have slipped under the wire – he can adopt a hieratic mien when required – but we were both blind-sided by the sheer novelty of such a bewilderingly belated verbal assault in the hushed corridors of the Temple of Hestia. We retired Molesworth-like, chuntering.
By chance I had to do some research in the library at RIBA this week but wasn’t tempted to go back and finish my visit to Palladio (it’s open to the public now), the shame was still too fresh! But the exhibition is free and on the basis of seeing about a quarter of it it’s definitely worth the detour.
Froideur from the galleries of Mayfair is pretty much standard so I was less surprised by the second outburst of curmudge a few days later. It was one of those days when despite the morning sun you just know it’s going to piss down at some point of the day. Yet, being a Londoner, you look at the umbrella on your way out of the house and think, ‘Naaah, I’ll be alright.’ How wrong could I be.
It was spitting when I ducked out of the library, having checked the exhibition opening hours (see, I’d learned from my RIBA experience) and it’s only 5 minutes to Savile Row so I thought I’d be okay. It was a downpour before I’d crossed Piccadilly and I was pretty wet by the time I arrived across the road from my destination. A quick stop in a dry spot under an entrance to wipe my glasses and check that I was in the right place (I’d only walked past Ordovas before so just had a vague idea of which end of Savile Row it was on) and I strolled confidently across the road.
As someone was standing behind the closed glass door my pace got more hesitant as I reached my destination and then stalled as it was clear that it wasn’t going to be opened up. I was standing in the rain like a confused, wet muppet. I smiled at the lady through the glass door and pointed at the art through the window. She opened the door about 6 inches and with all the scrubbed clean charm of a Club Class Shitter told me the gallery was closed but would be open again tomorrow. Now I was a fuming wet muppet chuntering back down Savile Row.
But joy! Look at these sheep
The street had been lined with real grass and these beasts were in town to promote the use of British wool by the fashion industry. Such random interventions in the city are what make it worth living in and cut through bad weather, poor hospitality and unevenness of temper.
With a sunnier disposition and under a sunnier sky I did return the next day, giving myself and la gardienne another chance. It was worth it. Their exhibition, The Big Blue, is one of the best things in London right now and it’s free. Curated by Damien Hirst the obvious star of the show is one of
his sharks, whose tank greets you as you enter the space.
This and the other works (all of them high quality) share a connection to the sea. I was mesmerised by a large seascape by Francis Bacon. A seascape. I never even knew Bacon did seascapes! But of course being Bacon it’s much more than a seascape. At first glance it seemed quite abstract, the sense of the sea certainly comes through but then there are some characteristic geometrical figures at the bottom of the canvas that break the sense of reality. I discerned a ship at the centre, a sailing ship. But then what at first seemed spars started to transform themselves into the constituents of a gallows, a figure top right seemed an ironic Arc de Triomphe and the whole painting turned into a vanitas – something much more in line with Bacon’s usual bleak depiction of existence.
Thankfully it wasn’t all bleakness. A sunny Picasso, all rhythmic arabesques, dispelled the gloom, and each work was a gem in its own way. Unlike the FT I found the whole thing very thoughtfully arranged and Damien Hirst went up a notch in my esteem. Despite the false start I felt very happy that Ordovas, and other galleries like them, open up their doors to the non-1%-ers. I just wish they’d be a bit more hospitable about it.
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).