This week more reviews from Edinburgh and London will appear, as well as from Annandale-on-Hudson, including a symposium on Anglophilia, no less. There was a fine evening of Mendelssohn with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Frans Brüggen with the distinguished young violinist Viviane Hagner, Wagner’s Siegfried, from the Royal Opera’s new Ring Cycle, which is receiving its first full performances this year, and—most British of all—the final weekend of the Elgar Festival at Bard. Reviews of several important exhibitions will follow in coming weeks: Richard Long and the Queen’s Flemish pictures in Edinburgh, and in London, the wonderful Millais exhibition at Tate Britain, al well as the major exhibition of the Queen’s Italian art, a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to see great paintings, drawings, and decorative arts rarely shown in public, including the recently “discovered” Caravaggio, which has been so much in the news.
I owe my readers and myself an apology for not attending the entire cycle, but the purpose of this trip was not the Ring. When tickets went on sale—and sold out—last year, I had no idea I’d be in London at the time. I consider myself lucky enough to have seen Siegfried, as it was. My purpose was to visit my son Lucas in Edinburgh, where he is in his final year at Edinburgh Academy, as recipient of the Robert Louis Stevenson Scholarship. There he boards with a group of students from China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Malawi, mingling with the day students, who are of course local. We walked miles each day, and at the end we spent a weekend in London, where I showed him around.
There little more enjoyable in this life than introducing a mature teen-age son to the pleasures of London, however briefly and however modestly. As in Edinburgh, we walked almost everywhere, emerging from our Bloomsbury hotel and beginning with the British Museum close by. Lucas plans to read archaeology at University, and a visit to British finds, Celtic, Roman, and Anglo-Saxon, was de rigueur. However, it was the Elgin Marbles which resonated most deeply in both of us. Years ago, I spent many hours in the Duveen Gallery with my father, who loved the Parthenon Sculptures above pretty much anything else in art. He went to London twice a year usually, and the first thing he always did was to visit the Marbles. Later, when I was pursuing post-doctoral research in the Prints and Drawings Study, I would drop in almost every visit, either before or after my sessions with Michelangelo, Raphael and the Emilians upstairs. And yes, all three generations of us, living and dead, believe most obstinately that they belong right where they are, in the British Museum, where ordinary people can see them and enjoy them without elaborate touristical campaigns. Actually, most of the people in the gallery were tourists, and they were not looking at the Marbles, but photographing them.
We walked through various familiar haunts and the sort of places any first-time visitor has to see—Piccadilly, Savile Row, and St. James, Buckingham Palace—as we made our way for the Queen’s Gallery. For dinner, we decided on another nostalgic visit, The Gay Hussar, one of the few restaurants left from the mid-twentieth century that aren’t major tourist destinations. When I was a student back in the seventies it was frequented primarily by Hungarian intellectuals and journalists in exile, including the humorist George Mikes. Today its Hungarian owner is dead, and it is managed by a spleenish and exceedingly witty Pole. The Hungarian literary memorabilia are long gone, replaced by a wall of drawings by Martin Rowson, the Guardian editorial cartoonist, who is, I presume, also a denizen of the establishment. Upstairs by the toilet, my eye caught a Head of Bush by Rowson’s colleague, Steve Bell, who has an unmatched eye for that wretched figure. The restaurant was full of diners, mostly under 35 and dressed in black, all very trim, unlike the portly gentlemen, mostly from Eastern Europe, who used to dine there in well-exercised three-piece suits. The menu has changed in design, but little in content. The cherry soup is still there, and so is the smoked goose and scholet as well as the various kinds of goulash. Next morning Millais, my second visit and Lucas’ first. He found the multi-dimensional vision of the once adulated and long-despised Victorian master as absorbing as I did, as well as the many other visitors who crowded the galleries, mostly Londoners, it seemed. This is an important show, not only because of the quality of Millais’ work, but because, looking around the galleries, one can see Englishmen coming to terms again with a painter—in his time as much as a national hero as Elgar, who has been a figure of the past for many generations. After a quick run-through the Turner Prize Retrospective, we went back to the Italians for an hour. Then I went off to Siegfried at the Royal Opera, and Lucas back to the British Museum and on to Westminster Abbey.
We met up afterwards to enjoy an excellent Indian dinner at a new restaurant next the the Opera House, Masala Zone, part of a five-restaurant chain which embraces Islington, Camden Town, and Earl’s Court. It seems that after years of climbing up the economic ladder, Indian restaurants are seeking out a more modest price point. Capacious and informal, the ceiling teeming with brightly-colored puppets, the restaurant specializes in thali, one course of which is the choice of the patron, the rest what’s going on the day. Dinner was first-rate and affordable, and, as at the Gay Hussar, it was a pleasure to chat with its Polish manager, in this case a purposeful young woman. Highly recommended.
After that I had only to see Lucas off on the overnight conveyance to Edinburgh, and to prepare for the ordeal at Gatwick the next morning. It seems much easier to get out of the United States than to get back in again.