If you think that’s a lot to cram into one day, you are right, especially as we always find distractions along the way. Curiosity may have killed the cat but it sometimes leads to fascinating discoveries, not to mention photographs.
The plan, insofar as there was a plan, was to visit St Paul’s Cathedral because the admission fee has been suspended for today. However, the first distraction occurred as we reached Holborn, in the shape of Staples Inn. The history of the Inns of Chancery and of Staple Inn in particular is long and complex, so is that of the present building. The best thing, I think, is to refer you to a site where this is set out concisely under the title The History of Staple Inn.
We saw that the gate was open so, of course, we went into the courtyard for a look. First built in 1545-89, the structure has been refurbished or rebuilt several times, latterly as a result of wartime damage. Today it is a mixture of old and new but the frontage survives in its original form.
Walking through the city during the weekend always gives me an eerie feeling because the offices are locked up tight, the cafes and even the pubs are closed, and the streets are deserted, so that it feels like a film set between shoots.
Deserted too is nearby Gough Square where once there lived a famous 18th century scholar who bequeathed us his legendary dictionary of the English language.
Dr Samuel Johnson’s house (identifiable in the picture by the circular plaque between the windows) can be visited though it seemed quiet enough today. Johnson’s cat, seated upon the famous dictionary, waits for his master to replenish his supply of his favourite food – oysters. What he thought of the dictionary, no one knows, though he was “a very fine cat, indeed”, according to Johnson.
When we returned to Fleet Street, we were within sight of St Paul’s but the pavements were crowded with people waiting to see the Lord Mayor’s procession go by, though perhaps not so many people as I would have expected. The crowds were thicker on Ludgate Hill and we sat it out for a while in a cafe.
We then continued on our way, keeping to the back streets as far as possible in order to avoid parts of town blocked by the crowds. Along the way we passed in front of Stationers’ Hall, built in 1873. The Stationers are one of London’s livery companies, many of which have long and colourful histories. Today, the halls are for hire as venues and the companies do valuable work raising money for charity.
We reached St Paul’s and made for the cathedral steps. There were already a lot of people here, as well as crowds lining the the road below. The steps provided a grandstand view of the Lord Mayor’s procession.
Down one side of the Cathedral is the notorious “tent city” put up by the anti-capitalist protesters. The picture shows just one end of the “city” which is quite extensive. It didn’t seem to be causing too much of an obstruction but it was clear that despite the large numbers of people gathered here, hardly anyone was showing any interest in the protesters and their displays.
I also get the impression that many of the inhabitants are less than fervent activists and are just there as somewhere to stay and hang out with friends. If the activists’ intent is to stir up public interest, then they seem to be failing in their aim. There is resentment in the public at this taking over of public spaces.
For a while we watched the procession filing past. It is very long and takes quite some time to pass a fixed point, though I am not sure how long. We caught a glimpse of the Lord Mayor, leaning from his gilded coach and waving good-naturedly to the crowd. It was just a glimpse as our view was obstructed by distance, the crowds and temporary structures put up by the protesters for no very obvious reason.
The dome of St Paul’s is such a well known sight and image that its Dome, rendered in thousands of photos and paintings, seems a very icon of London, as in the famous wartime photo by Herbert Mason. It is easy to forget how huge and intricate the structure is inside. So much so that you cannot hope to absorb it all in one short visit.
The simply elegance of that dome does not prepare us for the complexity of design and richness of decoration of the interior. Multiplied by the vast scale of the building, it is a staggering achievement, a building and an artwork all in one but of gigantic size. The height, supported by soaring arches takes your breath away.
The great Dome seems to float over all without any support, hanging like a cloud. Light pours in through the windows so that you hardly notice the gallery running all around its base, crowded with tiny human figures.
This small section of the gallery seen closer up will help, in comparison with the previous photo, to give some idea of the scale of the dome in human terms.
The ceilings are high, almost beyond comfortable viewing but they are so opulent in design and coloration that you cannot do less than crane your neck to look up at them.
If the exterior of St Paul’s follows lines and proportions of Classical simplicity and elegance, the interior seems to have drawn its inspiration from oriental temples in its vivid colours and complexity of line.
There is gilding everywhere. It shines or sparkles according to position and the lighting, but there are great quantities of it, adding richness to the gilded objects themselves and contributing a glow to the surroundings.
The Great and Good are represented here, of course, sometimes in solitary dignity, as in the case of Sir Joshua Reynolds, but sometimes in scenes on unabashed allegory.
For example this monument, raised by Parliament, in honour of Captain Robert Faulknor, killed in 1795 aboard the frigate Blanche while engaging the French. Here we have a naval officer, dressed in a Classical tunic and carrying a shield, no less, attended by mythical beings.
I have no idea what St Paul’s seems like to a believer. As one exempted from that useless baggage, I can say that I found St Paul’s a magnificent and remarkable building, one that can be admired for the ingenuity of its design, the skill of the craftsmen who made it and the sheer aesthetic magnificence.
Much of the iconography in St Paul’s has to do with war, conquest and, directly or indirectly, British imperial pride. The lion is the symbol of Britain in its pugnacious imperial mode so we expect to find lions in St Paul’s. It is quite interesting to compare their different expressions and attitudes.
I was a little surprised to find two banks of lighted candles near the doors of St Paul’s as I associate this igneous activity with Catholicism rather than with the Church of England. The image of Christ looks rather like a Greek Orthodox icon too… All part of the rich texture of the St Paul’s experience, I suppose.
Leaving St Paul’s, we set out for our next destination, the Guildhall. When we arrived, though, we found that others were using it as a rendezvous as well.
We had to wait until the police gave permission for us to cross the road and the hold-up, it turned out, was because they were waiting for the Mayor’s coach to arrive. I got this photo but the Mayor was not aboard any longer.
The courtyard of the Guildhall had been designated as the place where horses drawing the Mayor’s coach and other vehicles would be unhitched and put in their vans for return to their various stables. The ground had been covered with a thick layer of sand, no doubt to provide some protection to the paving and make cleaning easier.
When we later emerged from our visit, we found the clean-up in progress with street-sweeper lorries going round and round, directed by men in luminous jackets, sweeping up the sand and any dirt collected in it. It was an amazing sight. You can see the decorative paving reappearing, albeit under a thin covering of water and sand.
We had come to the Guildhall Art Gallery to see an exhibition called Atkinson Grimshaw, Painter of Moonlight. I am used to having my bag searched when I go into public places but was surprised by the use here of an X-ray machine similar to those at airports.
The Guildhall Art Gallery has both permanent exhibitions and visiting exhibitions. You are allowed to take photos in the permanent exhibitions but not in the others. I therefore cannot show you anything of the Grimshaw exhibition though you can get an idea of the man and his work from John Atkinson Grimshaw – The Complete Works.
As well as paintings, there are also sculptures such as this pair.
A more modern piece gained a certain notoriety when it became the victim of a violent gesture of political dissent.
This statue was attacked and decapitated in 2002. It has been repaired and is now kept behind glass to forestall any possibilities of further attack.
I enjoyed looking at the paintings by Grimshaw, especially as I had not knowingly seen any before. In fact, if I am to be honest, Grimshaw was new to me, so my education has been extended by this exhibition. The paintings will no doubt seem old fashioned to some, at least in the context of modern and abstract art, but they should be judged on their merits and I found some of them very striking indeed.