Letter from London
By Bill Triplett
Not that you ever need an excuse to pop over to London, but in case you’re looking for one – and happen to like art, photography, and Sherlock Holmes – well, you’re in luck. Museums are kicking off the fall season with some pretty impressive exhibitions; even the Regent Street shopping area and at least one toney tea salon are featuring new artworks; and the world’s most popular fictional detective is getting his very own exhibit.
I recently had the opportunity to spend some time in one of my favorite cities in the world. Warm or cold, rain or shine – or maybe I should say rain or less rain – I don’t care. I love it. Moody weather is just part of London’s personality, which almost dares you to dislike it.
The Victoria & Albert Museum had just opened an extensive exhibit featuring the fashion photography of Horst P. Horst – or just Horst, as his contemporaries knew him. Considered one of the best in the business in the middle part of the 20th century, Horst worked regularly for Vogue, shooting upward of 90 covers and countless more prints for inside the magazine. Those covers are carefully displayed, and they give you a sense of not just fashion in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, but also of what the upper echelons of society were like in those days. The models’ poses and expressions say as much about the era as the clothes they’re modeling.
Not surprisingly, Horst was a lifelong pal of Coco Chanel, and he counted Noel Coward, Marlene Dietrich, and Salvador Dali among his friends. Thanks to Dali, in fact, Horst had a brief flirtation with surrealism, and those photographs are included in the exhibit. You’ll likely recognize many a famous face he photographed, particularly among his black-and-white portraits, which include a haunting shot of an elegantly dressed, recently married, 17-year-old Gloria Vanderbilt – looking like she wouldn’t be out of place at a funeral. (Horst: Photographer of Style, now through January 4.)
If Old Masters are more to your taste, the V&A should still be on your itinerary since it also just opened an exhibit reassessing the work of and influences on Britain’s own much-beloved John Constable. Curators I spoke with said they want to demonstrate the influence of great classical painters who preceded him (Raphael, Rubens and Claude Lorrain, among others) by showcasing some of their most acclaimed work alongside his.It’s a marvelous collection of classical landscape masters. (Constable: The Making of a Master, now through January 11, 2015.)
And come the middle of October, the National Gallery will turn a light on the later works of Rembrandt. The intent is to show how the 17th century master still possessed extraordinary technical prowess and intense passion as he aged. The exhibition will feature both well-known paintings as well as rare drawings and prints. I managed to get a quick preview: Spectacular pieces. (Rembrandt: The Late Works, October 15 through January 18, 2015).
Art is everywhere in this town, it seems. The Regent Street shopping district is now home to 13 original artworks (mostly sculptures and installations) specifically commissioned for the area. This has been going on for several years now, but I happened to be in town not long after the addition of one of the latest pieces – “An Age, An Instant,” a pair of bronze gates evoking images of pocket-watch gears, an homage to the area’s long association with fine watch-making. The artist, Rona Smith, is young, clearly talented, and, as I found out when I met her, modest and charming. The experience of making a piece for display in one of the city’s most popular districts was “nerve-wracking,” she said, but energizing as well. The piece is at the entrance of New Burlington Mews, just off Regent Street. Well worth stopping by.
Nearby, the uber-hip restaurant Sketch has turned to designer India Mahdhavi and artist David Shrigley to transform one of its dining areas into an all-pink salon with more than 200 framed drawings on the walls. It’s the largest collection of Shrigley’s work ever exhibited, and each one tends to be a simple image with droll commentary. It ain’t cheap: Afternoon tea will set you back $50 or more. But it’s a lavish affair complete with caviar and quail egg along with your cucumber and salmon sandwiches — champagne, too, for a few extra quid — and the atmosphere is unique. If you’re looking for delicious indulgence with an exquisite cuppa, this is the place.
The highlight of my four-day visit was stopping by the Museum of London, which is about to open a massive exhibit – the first of its kind in more than 60 years – on the character of Sherlock Holmes. I was able to get a sneak-peak at things, plus a few minutes with the two curators, and I’m fairly certain even the hardest-core Holmesians will be intrigued.
By displaying authentic period items mentioned in the stories – a particular type of shoe, or dress fabric – the exhibit is a way to “tour” late-Victorian London. For instance, in one of the stories Holmes concludes from ink stains on a woman’s sleeve that she is a typist. “We looked at chemisettes and bodices that typists wore at the time and actually found one with ink stains on it,” said Timothy Long, the museum’s fashion curator.
But a main focus of the exhibit will be on where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got his inspiration for the character. Thus, several hand-written pages from Edgar Allan Poe’s original manuscript of “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” which is known to have been an influence on Conan Doyle, will be on display for the first time in Europe. Another focus is on Holmes’s famed ability for scientific deduction, which principal curator Alex Werner said will be exemplified by displaying clues mentioned in stories, such as feathers with a particular residue. Holmes’s clothing will also be part of the exhibit, and also the kinds of disguises he so often employed: Be on the lookout for authentic wigs and fake mustaches from the era.
The exhibit will be different and separate from the Sherlock Holmes Museum, which is located on Baker Street, and which “uses actors and props to convey the idea that Sherlock Holmes is a real person and genuinely lived,” said Andrew Scott, media officer for the Museum of London. “We are quite explicit that Sherlock is a fictional character [and] our objects are all authentic… and the majority date from the time when Conan Doyle was writing.”
Might have to come back for this one. (Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die, October 17 – April 12, 2015).
You can easily overdose on museums in London, but each one really is different – as are the respective gift shops. (Yet another thing I love about museum-hopping here.) Of course, there’s so much else to do and see in London. I’ve found the city’s official tourism website, visitlondon.com, is extremely helpful, especially the homepage with its info on free sites/attractions and cheap eats and digs. And with airfares starting to come down for the fall and winter, well, it’s just one more excuse – reason, I mean – to go.