Monday, July 11, 2005

London Shopping Plus A Great Small Museum

The sales are on in London and one of my favourite places to go to hunt for bargains is Kensington High Street. Sure, it has neither the posh of Bond Street, the cutting edge of Notting Hill nor the sheer volume of Oxford Street but I always do well there. Between H&M, Zara, Marks & Spencer and Habitat and others, I have no problem finding those bargains that make the London sales fun and really affordable. After a morning of shopping and a quick lunch at Wagamama , I try to leave time for one of my favourite small museums, Leighton House, which can be found minutes away from the busy Kensington High Street.

On a recent visit to Leighton House, the former home and studio of Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830 - 1896), a leading painter of the day, I had the museum to myself. This is a wonderful place to go if you are looking for a sophisticated take on the Victorian experience and a particularly good place to visit if you like to imagine what it would have been like to live as an artist or intellectual of the day.

As an eminent artist and former President of the Royal Academy, Leighton surrounded himself with sumptuous decoration. The centrepiece of this private world, the Arab Hall shown in the photo, was originally built to display Leighton's priceless collection of Islamic tiles, most from Damascus. The sound of water in a fountain set surprisingly in the centre of the floor, emphasizes the oriental mood. There is even a full wooden harem screen and balcony set into the ceiling and accessible from the floor above.

Along with the ancient tiles, there are also wonderful Victorian tiles created by the leading ceramicist of the time, William De Morgan as well as ceramics from China and Turkey.

In the dining room, which backs onto the extensive garden, you can feel what it would have been like to sit down to properly prepared meals served on china, linen and crystal in the company of other intellectuals and artists of the day such as Burne-Jones and Millais.

A short walk up the impressive staircase and you come to the artist’s studio. Even though it was a wet and dreary day for my visit, the enormous north facing window flooded the room with light. Again, you immediately sense that this was the place where the work was done, where intellectuals met and Leighton's renowned musical evenings took place.

The next time you are tired of shopping, beat a fast retreat to Leighton House in Kensington and commune with the Victorians in peace and pleasure. I highly recommend it.

Leighton House is open daily from 11:00 to 5:30 except Tuesdays, Christmas, Boxing Day and New Years.

12 Holland Park Road
020 7602 3316

Friday, July 08, 2005

Brompton Cemetery - Not Just for Joggers or Bloggers

As I ran through west London this morning, following yesterday’s terrorist explosions which killed at least 37 and wounded hundreds more, I saw people going about their business in a purposeful way, in that way that is so familiar to me now, of a population that takes the business of “getting on with it” very seriously. I don’t know why exactly, but I decided to visit the Brompton Cemetery on my morning jog today. Probably it had something to do with the terrible bombings. It starts you thinking.

Once inside the Brompton Cemetery, my scene changed from scores of resolute commuters to dog walkers, fellow joggers, bicyclists, an alcoholic well into his daily quota and according to the sign at the front, roughly 210,000 permanent residents. Part wildlife preserve, part Hollywood set, here is the perfect line-up of romance, theatre and history. As birds sang and squirrels scampered, I stopped and read story after story of beloved wives and mothers, Generals, scientists and musicians and so many lost babies. After the chaos and destruction of the day before, the Brompton Cemetery was a strangely serene and peaceful place.

All cemeteries tell stories and that is what I like about them, stories about families, fashion, disease, love, war, immigration and death. The great London Victorian public cemeteries, such as Brompton and Highgate, established to handle the explosion of London’s population following the Napoleonic Wars tell remarkably vivid stories about the city, its inhabitants and their pre-occupations. And needless to say, cemeteries are not crowded or touristy.

You can visit the Brompton Cemetery daily from 8:00 AM to dusk. The closest tube is West Brompton on the District Line. The cemetery is managed by the Royal Parks and more information can be found at

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Toilet-Themed Taiwan Restaurant

Ever so often, we see something that is so amazing that it is worth fighting the crowds. This is one of those times. They're packing them in at the toilet-themed restaurant in the southern Taiwan city of Kaohsiung where the manager described the food as "tasty".

In the photo, a family is enjoying a meal together. Now I really want to go to Taiwan. (Reuters via Yahoo)

Monday, July 04, 2005

London Silver Vaults

My grandmother was one of the world’s great shoppers. It was not beyond her to purchase things which she would leave at the store because she just didn’t have any more room in her house. But even an enthusiast like my grandmother would find today’s homogenised shopping experience greatly diminished. Whether you are in Selfridges in London, Galleries Lafayette in Paris or Bloomingdales in New York, it’s all the same stuff. You could be anywhere and what you bring home says little about where you have been. It was probably made in China anyway.

That is why I jumped at the chance to visit the London Silver Vaults in pursuit of an important gift which all the givers, spread across two continents, agreed should be silver. Finally, I had a reason to shop for something unique and authentically English, recognised throughout the world for the highest standards of quality and craftsmanship. I was anticipating a great “No Crowds” shopping experience.

The Silver Vaults opened in 1876 to rent storage vaults to London’s elite for the safekeeping of their silver, jewellery and documents. Over the years, silver dealers have taken over, until today there are approximately 37 dealers offering the world’s largest collection of fine antique silver.

Entering the Silver Vaults by a side street off Chancery Lane, you know these guys mean business. Very serious, rather polite guards at the front desk search your bags and direct you down the stairs. After passing through the thick vault doors and wandering down several corridors, I arrive at the first dealer, in a somewhat intimidating overly crowded small room. Thinking it is too obvious and probably not a good tactic to start with the first door on the right, I progress down several more corridors and around several corners until I come to a shop that has a welcoming air.

John Binks of Stephen Kalms was unpacking boxes of silver having just returned from a large exhibition of art and antiques. I explained my mission and received my first of many short and interesting classes in the history of silver. Mr Binks showed me several wonderful pieces, explained the background, translated the hallmarks, and seemed genuinely interested in helping me find the piece I was looking for. With this good experience under my belt, I went on to explore the other shops, finally finding and purchasing a beautiful silver tray back at Stephen Kalms, this time directly from Stephen.

This was a first class shopping experience. I learned a tremendous amount about the history of English silver from knowledgeable and agreeable instructors. No one rushed me. The shops were never crowded with people although occasionally crowded with silver. It was a hot summer day but cool underground. Most importantly, I had acquired a unique and lovely object where the place of origin, the company and the year could be identified. I knew that the lucky recipient of the gift would not find anything like it in Selfridges, Galleries Lafayette or Bloomingdales and that made me very happy.

I think a visit to the London Silver Vaults is a great idea even if you are not a silver collector. For as little as £50, you can find small objects such as napkin rings which are beautifully made and steeped in history. I found the dealers to be a nice group of people and happy to share their considerable knowledge whether you buy or not. Combining a shopping excursion to the Silver Vaults with a visit to the Sir John Soanes Museum and a stroll through the Inns of Court, strikes me as a perfect way to spend the better part of a day in London.

Emerging into the 90 degree heat of street level with my purchase complete, I was almost tempted to turn right back around to re-enter that wonderful, uniquely English treasure trove of some of the most beautiful objects you can find anywhere in London. And oh how my grandmother would have loved it.