Tuesday, January 23, 2007

What to do in London in a Storm

What wild weather we saw last week. Wednesday brought monsoons and Thursday saw 100 mile per hour winds that brought London to a chaotic standstill as trees, tiles, scaffolding and other stuff flew around town. Londoners, who have a flair for stoic suffering during moments of urban meltdown, just try to get on with their routines.

But what about our visitors?

It’s not really fair to invite them to the third most expensive city in the world, after Tokyo and Osaka, and then expect them to write off a day just because the weather is horrendous. So here’s an idea for a full day of culture, dining and shopping in a central London location between the Strand and Embankment, comprising three superb collections, a good restaurant and gift shops, all to be found under the roof of one world class building. A visit to Somerset House is great in any weather but never better than when London becomes too wet, too windy or just too crazy for running around.

Somerset House was built in 1776- 1801 by George III’s architect, William Chambers for administrative offices, and it's safe to say, civil servants never had it so good. Today, this masterpiece of classical architecture is the home of the Courtauld Institute of Art, the Gilbert Collection and the Hermitage Rooms, all of which represent high level NoCrowds experiences.

Take, for example, the Courtauld Institute of Art, which is generally considered to have one of the finest collections of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings in Britain, as well as old masters, sculpture and an extensive print and drawing collection. In fact, the Courtauld is best understood as a “collection of collections”, formed by the gifts and bequests of a group of fascinating private collectors. The icing on the cake is that you can view many of the mega-masterpieces of art history, such as Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies Bergere”, Edgar Degas’ “Two Dancers on a Stage” and Vincent Van Gogh’s “Self Portrait with Bandaged Ear” in blissful serenity. Thankfully saved from being a pit stop on the itinerary of tick-the-box tourism, the gallery offers a world class collection without the world class crowds.

Across the courtyard, housing an ice rink in winter and a lovely fountain (great for children) with eating and drinking options in summer, you will find the Gilbert Collection of decorative arts focussing on gold, silver and mosaics, as well as the Hermitage Rooms with temporary exhibitions of works on loan from the renowned Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

I would start with the Gilbert Collection, paying particular attention to the snuff boxes. I know that doesn’t sound earth shattering, but this is a gobsmacking collection of boxes, including several magnificent jewelled examples from the collection of Frederick the Great and a fabulous diamond encrusted box which was presented by Catherine the Great to the son of the English doctor who inoculated the Empress and her son against smallpox. A pair of enormous silver gates, also from the reign of the Empress, is, as they say in the Michelin guide, worth the detour. After viewing the collection, be sure to visit the special exhibit on the life and times of the collector, Sir Arthur Gilbert which is fun and fascinating, in a weird California kind of way, with loads of pictures of Sir Arthur with celebrities and an even weirder “Madame Tussaudesque” recreation of his office in LA with Gilbert on the phone in tennis whites.

From the Gilbert Collection, follow the signs to the Hermitage Rooms which are a short walk away. The Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House, decorated in the style of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, offer the unusual opportunity to see fabulous examples of work on loan from the Hermitage and other collections. From now until April 8, you can see a fascinating and at times quite naughty exhibition entitled, The Triumph of Eros: Art and Seduction in 18th Century France. The impetus for the show was the recent discovery of a collection of French erotic engravings of Tsar Nicholas for which London marks the collection’s international debut. Highlights also include works by Boucher, Watteau and the scultptor, Falconet.

When it is time for a break from all this culture, head for The Admiralty restaurant in the South Building on the ground floor which, because it is accessed via the Somerset House courtyard, is often overlooked and under-utilised. The setting is stylish and the menu Modern British. Lunch should set you back roughly £35 per person. If you are looking for something faster and cheaper, try the Deli, off the Seamen’s Hall or the Café in the Courtauld and in summer, there is a River Terrace Café offering al fresco dining with lovely views of the Thames. If you still need to pick up something for family and friends back home, the gift shops of all three collections have a good selection of tasteful and unusual gifts.

So if you find yourself in London on a particularly bad day and you can not bear the thought of fighting weather and mass transport meltdown, you can make an excellent day of it in Somerset House, London’s cultural emporium par excellence, and short of dashing across the courtyard, you don't even have to step outside.
Photo courtesy of Associated Press

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