A wistful wander among treasures

The Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern. Picture: William Yeoman
Photo of William Yeoman

William Yeoman traverses London pondering museum collections from older times.

To visit London’s Wallace Collection is to find yourself in one of those theatres of the imagination manifested in a stately home of the utmost opulence. 

It’s a kind of giant cabinet of curiosities, brimming over with first-rate examples of paintings, arms and armoury, coins and medallions, paintings and sculpture, furniture and textiles.

But I am drawn to the delicate, evanescent yet timeless 18th-century fetes galantes of Watteau, Lancret and Pater — far more intimate theatres of the imagination, silent chamber works that speak directly to those disposed towards solitude and melancholy. 

Then I am travelling, by a combination of underground and overground, to Hoxton, East London, for a different kind of experience: The Geffrye Museum of the Home. 

Once there, I examine the displays: rooms furnished in the styles and tastes of the day which move from the 1630s to the late 1990s. 

They are as impressive as the building itself, which comprises almshouses built for the elderly poor in 1714 with the help of a bequest from wealthy merchant and lord mayor of the City of London, Sir Robert Geffrye. 

The coffee and porridge with maple syrup in the elegant cafe which looks out over the immaculate period gardens provide much-needed sustenance before a Docklands light rail brings me to Greenwich in the south-east.

Here are the Royal Observatory, the National Maritime Museum, the Old Royal Naval College with its splendid chapel and Inigo Jones’ famous Queen’s House.

Apart from the superb spiral staircase known as the Tulip Stairs, the Queen’s House offers more than 20 rooms filled with exquisite oil paintings, drawings and other art, much of it featuring naval themes and royal portraiture, from across the centuries. 

Night is falling. So it’s back up the Thames on the ferry, sitting right near the front with a steaming cup of tea, watching London’s architectural glories drift by, lit up like Christmas trees.

In the morning, I leave my hotel to discover they’re dismantling the fairground in nearby Hyde Park. 

When I arrived in London over a month ago the Winter Wonderland was in full swing, the Ferris wheel slowly turning like a mechanical sun, orbited by fun rides spinning faster, eccentrically. 

Now, rows of trucks pull up at the main gates. Workmen load metal components on to trays before the vehicles remove them for storage until next year. A solitary crow croaks outside the main gate as vapour trails score the sky.

How strange that I should return to this image as I stand in that most beautiful of art galleries, the Courtauld in Somerset House, and look into the eyes of the barmaid in Manet’s final great work, The Bar at the Folies-Bergere. 

It is her splendid isolation I envy. The restaurant’s patrons are insubstantial, remote, in the large mirror behind her. The pyramid of oranges to her left is the only thing to draw my attention from her sad, knowing face.

How strange that I should later return to both images as I wander through the cavernous concrete tanks below the Tate Modern’s Switch House, video installations fitfully illuminating a gloom punctuated by sounds abstract and not quite human, other patrons drifting from work to work or seeming to writhe on the bare floors like purgatorial shades.

A lift brings me to the Switch House’s viewing level on the tenth floor and I gaze out over vastness of London, the dome of St Paul’s rising up majestically just beyond Millennium Bridge. 

And I feel like Manet’s barmaid, staring out past her frame at the anonymous masses with a mixture of wistfulness and disgust. 

And I feel like something is being dismantled.


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