Saturday, February 18th 2012
Today we had arranged to meet friends for a visit to the Whitechapel Art Gallery where there are always special exhibitions being held. We would be joining our friends at around 11:30 am in Polo Bar in Bishopsgate, so we started with breakfast at the Camden Food Co in Liverpool Street station.
Afterwards, we still had time to spare so, as we usually do, we went on a little ramble.
Across the road from Liverpool Street station stands the Sir Robert Peel, a late Victorian pub honouring the founder of the Police in Britain. Today, it is no longer a pub, its last pints having been pulled half a century ago. The neat façade with its portrait of Sir Robert has been preserved though the building is not listed as far as I know.
Bishopsgate is today characterized by tall modern buildings, each successive generation of which reaches further towards the sky. But historic buildings and traces remain. Beside the Sir Robert Peel we find the narrow Rose Alley and a little further along, the picturesquely named Catherine Wheel Alley. The Huguenots, who set up their workshops in the area in the 17th and 18th centuries, would have known these narrow thoroughfares.
Nearby is the Bishopsgate Institute, an educational foundation that has been here since the 1890s. It is a rather fine building, designed by Charles Harrison Townsend (who also designed the Whitechapel Art Gallery and the Horniman Museum) and we went in to ask whether we could take photographs. They kindly granted permission.
Most sources, including pamphlets issued by the Institute itself, say that it was opened in 1895 by Lord Rosebery who was then Prime Minister. The dedication plaque in the hall, however, states that the Institute was opened in November 1894, when Lord Rosebery was First Lord of the Treasury. What is the solution to this discrepancy? Was the building perhaps opened officially in 1894 but only as a functioning institute in 1895? Or has someone simply got the dates wrong?
The Institute has a beautiful library where we were also allowed to take photos. The dark wood and the subdued lighting (note the wrought iron lamp holders) make this an old-style academic library in the best tradition, a haven of quiet and learning.
Natural light is admitted through a beautiful glass dome. The dizzying geometrical patterning is complex enough to be interesting while keeping a mood of late Victorian elegance.
This door seemed to beckon to us, inviting us to pass through and examine what lay beyond. Stopping only to admire the clock, we accepted the invitation…
What lay beyond was a rather fine galleried reading room. It was currently hosting an exhibition, News International Wapping –25 Years on. This was of course very interesting and, despite the quarter of a century that has passed since the events that it retells, it has an obvious relevance to current happenings in the world of newspapers.
Even so, I regretted not getting a clear view of the room itself, as I feel there is a special charm to these galleried reading rooms. Access to the upper level was by a fine spiral staircase made of iron, a period piece in its own right.
I will have to try to make a return visit and see the room in its uncluttered state.
We went to Polo Bar (where I photographed this mirror frame) to meet our friends…
…then waited for a bus in the shadow of the Heron Tower…
…and arrived at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. Photography is allowed in the building but not in the art collections. Therefore, I would not be able to give you any idea of the exhibitions, even if I wanted to.
Would I have wanted to? Well, actually, no. I did see approximately two photos and one painting that I liked but the rest was wasted on me. I find much modern art to be self-indulgent rubbish. Or is it the case that good artworks are always only a tiny fraction of the total production and that we have to sift through steaming piles of horse dung to find the few gems? A bucket and shovel would not have come amiss here, despite the importance attached to some of the artists’ names.
There are traces here and there of what the building might once have been like but it has been refurbished and this has largely removed all interior character, turning the whole into a box divided into compartments, all plain, the better to show of the art works, presumably.
When we emerged from the art gallery, we found that it was raining. The question was what we should do now. It was too early to go for a meal and we needed an indoor activity out of the rain.
Tigger reminded us that we had wanted to visit the Clock Museum. This museum belongs to the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers and is housed within the Guildhall. Its exhibits cover the history of clocks and watches, and other time measuring devices such as sundials, from the beginnings to modern times. Though small, as museums go, it is chock full of timepieces of every sort and is reckoned to be one of the best clock museums in the world.
Unfortunately, as you probably guessed, photography is not permitted inside the museum, so I cannot show you anything of it, much as I would have liked to do so. In any case, a few photos could not do it justice, nor could a single visit: to get to grips with the history of timekeeping and the brilliant advances made by genius clockmakers along the way, one would need several visits and to study the exhibition stage by stage.
Afterwards we looked around for a meal. Was it a late lunch or an early dinner? I’m not sure. Maybe both. We found ourselves in One New Change, one of those new “developments” that are springing up all over the city, all containing the same shops and eateries in a boring looky-likey layout that makes it hard to remember which one you are in.
It was dark by the time we left and caught our respective buses home. As always, St Paul’s, illuminated against a black sky was an impressive sight. It’s a pity that Sir Christopher Wren could never have seen it displayed in all its dramatic glory.