Tuesday, March 30, 2010

First full day... and it was full

So, you may ask... what did you do on your first full day in England?

I'll show you.

We got on the Tube and rode it to the Russell Square station. As we stepped out into the street we were accosted by an older man chanting "Have you TWEN-tee PEE?" at everyone in the crowd, over and over again, like a mantra. Oddly enough, the phrase had the same cadence as Harold Zidler's "Because we can can-can!" in Moulin Rouge, though not anywhere near as high-energy. (The query "Have you 20p?" then became a running gag between Captain Midnight and me. Because, yes, we're easily amused. In retrospect, we should have given him 20p in exchange for taking his picture.)

The grand pile that is the Hotel Russell faces the square.

I especially liked the green turrets...

...and the fine ladies over the door.

A bit of green space in the middle of Bloomsbury. It occurs to me that the Darling family was said to have lived in this neighborhood. Hmm.

There's a graceful fountain plashing in a pool right in the middle of the square.

The effect was totally ruined by some random fat lady standing in front of it. Honestly, lady.

But enough of that, here's our first (and major) destination for the day: the British Museum!

The atrium at the center of the Museum. The air here smells of old marble, new glass, and wet coats.

Captain Midnight knew what he was after, so he made his way there immediately:

Behold the Rosetta Stone!

Behold the crowds beholding the Rosetta Stone!

It's odd and wonderful to think how a relatively small inscription made all the difference in deciphering ancient Egyptian writings. The hieroglyphs on Egyptian antiquities went from being pure artifacts to understandable human expressions of thought and emotion.

But more about the Egyptians later. First, a brief visit to Assyria:

(Wait, is that guy wearing a wristwatch?)

Every one of these Assyrian bas-reliefs (and there were many) had a waist-high, foot-wide ribbon of cuneiform text that went on and on about the super-cool grooviness of the Assyrian king.

It's somehow comforting to know there were self-obsessed people in antiquity, just as there are now.

It's also amusing to see that throughout history, writers have had trouble staying within the margins.

Then on to Greece.

You know, it's unrealistic to complain about crowds staring at your nakedness when you choose to take your bath in a public gallery. I'm just sayin'.

I found something oddly compelling in the face of this little lady. She looks as though she'd like to close her stone eyelids and shut out some of the things she's seen since her sculptor first chipped the stone away and let in the light. I would hope she's seen a few good things as well.

We continued into a warm, slightly humid gallery, where I realized with a shock of recognition that I was looking at the Elgin marbles. We discussed these at length in my humanities classes in college. I never once thought I'd get to see them in person.

Detail from one of the marbles. They were actually painted to take the shine of newness off the stone.

A somewhat insipid attempt to justify the theft um, "removal" of these marbles from Athens. Yes, I was quite happy to be able to see them in person, but these days don't you think the Greeks are fully capable of caring for their own antiquities properly?

(I sense I'm going to get emails about this.)

Moving on. A Greek amphora by Andokides...

...with black-figure work by Psiax. Nice work there, Psiax.

An oil or perfume bottle decorated with a figure thought to be the god of the wind.

There was also a whole series of Greek silver coins. I especially liked the little owl.

A boar vase...

...and just for you, Tim: LITTLE NAKED SATYR RUNNING FAST!

OK, this is amazing. It's called The Triumphal Arch, it was created by Albrecht Dürer and a number of his pupils, and it is one of the largest woodcut prints ever produced.

Detail from the print. It took 192 blocks, cut with astonishing precision and beauty, to print the whole thing.

The year the print was finished. It was commissioned by Maximilian I, the Holy Roman Emperor (who, incidentally, died only a few years later... probably overwhelmed by its awesomeness).

As an amateur calligrapher, stuff like this makes me swoon.

I have flown hundreds of miles from the American Pacific Northwest to England to behold strange and exotic art treasures, and what do I find but a Pacific Northwest totem pole. Why yes, I do appreciate the irony.

Time for some Asian antiquities. Shiva Nataraja, Lord of the Dance. I wasn't aware of this before, but Indian symbolism regarding hands -- both their placement and the objects placed in them -- is so profoundly important to the identification of human figures in art that in cases where the hands have been obliterated, it's difficult or impossible to determine who the subject is meant to be.

It's Fishnu! No, really, this is meant to be the fish incarnation of Vishnu. Cool, no?

The Indian art wing of the gallery was filled with peculiar and startling visages.

Ravanna, the ten-headed and multi-limbed demon. (Did you know that multiple arms on a figure usually indicate the varying embodied qualities of the figure's different incarnations? It sounds like an attempt to create time-lapse photography in stone.)

Sri Lankan antiquities. This little guy, who seems to be wearing a throw pillow on his head, is known as "The King of Kandy," which is just irresistible.

Furthermore, a nearby plaque informed us that Kandy contains "The Temple of the Tooth," the resting place of a relic believed to be the tooth of Buddha. Thus, appropriately enough, the King of Kandy has a sweet tooth.

A kinnari statue from Java. These were semi-divine beings, half-woman, half-bird, known for their beautiful singing. I wonder if this is where the concept of the harpy originated, although the kinnari seem to be benevolent and lovely rather than violent and shrewish.

Detail of a Chinese vase. I'm afraid we took very few pictures of the extensive collection of Chinese porcelain, because by this time we were beginning to suffer from museum fatigue.

And so on to the mummies. I'm always of two minds regarding mummies... yes, the method of preserving them is truly beautiful and Egyptian culture is endlessly fascinating, but is it morally right to put human remains on display? What would the original owners of these bodies have to say about their earthly remains being gawked at by scholars, tourists, and hordes of school children?

Detail from inner sarcophagus painting (original paint!).

Most to all of this writing can now be interpreted, thanks to the Rosetta Stone. It's like a big granodiorite answer key. Thanks for the decree, Ptolemy!

The Egyptians even mummified their cats.

Not all mummy sarcophagi looked typically "Egyptian" in style and artwork.

Some depictions, particularly on the later mummies, were obviously influenced by Greek artwork of the period.

And now, Sooz reveals her preoccupation with ancient coins:

To me it's not even that interesting to note what metals were used in their manufacture; I just love the images that were stamped on them. They are miniature works of art and I find them endlessly fascinating.

But just in case I get a little too obsessed... a medieval illumination on the dangers of Avarice.

Then there were other forms of money...

...some significantly more modern. Stock certificates can have interesting engravings, but I'm still too close to the use of plastic cards to consider them aesthetically pleasing.

Unsurprisingly, this section of the British Museum was sponsored by... a large bank.

Bits from the Staffordshire hoard.

It was incredibly difficult to take a good picture of this tiny cloisonne piece (only about an inch in length), but I was amazed that jewelers of that time and place even knew how to make cloisonne work.

The Lewis Chessmen. Some reproduction chess sets have been made from these pieces.

Santa Claus Goes to War!

Early Germanic glassware. What surprised me was the level of technical skill and artistry evident in the work at such an early date. Some of these pieces could have been made yesterday.

The Mildenhall Great Dish, the most famous object of the Mildenhall Treasure.

Featuring Oceanus as the Face in the Middle.

A pile of coinage from the Alton Hoard.

This may not look like much, but in reality it is awesome. It's a lead "curse tablet" from the mid-2nd-to-3rd-century A.D. Here's what it says, in an old Roman cursive script: "Honoratus to the holy god Mercury. I complain to your divinity that I have lost two wheels and four cows and many small belongings from my house. I would ask the genius of your divinity that you do not allow health to the person who has done me wrong, nor allow him to lie or sit or drink or eat, whether he is man or woman, whether boy or girl, whether slave or free, unless he brings my property to me and is reconciled with me. With renewed prayers I ask your divinity that my petition may immediately make me vindicated by your majesty." That'll show 'em.

Some masks. A happy fellow...

...and the ancient world's version of The Scream.

Roman busts... the first of Antinous. If this is an accurate depiction of his features, there's little wonder he was briefly worshiped as a god.

Although there are several recognizable depictions of this particular woman in connection with noble Romans, nobody now remembers what her name was.

I love this girl's sardonic expression. I would have loved to see how the sculptor depicted her hands, what sort of gestures originally went with that face.

Hercules fights a battle against the shape-shifting Acheloos for the favors of a fair maiden. And WINS, of course.

Who put the glad in "gladiator?" This guy.

Give me your tired, your poor... your personal pan pizza with extra cheese...

Yes, I think I already mentioned by this time we were suffering from museum fatigue.

Some 19th century pretties, in ruby, garnet, and other red stones.

These, displayed in the same case as the precious stones above , are made of faceted blue glass -- but they're just as beautiful.

Only a few relatively modern pieces caught my eye. This "Nox" tile designed by Walter Crane was one of them.

Art Deco-style "pancake and corn set." Yep, that early-to-mid-20th-century passion for creating specialty serving sets for every possible gustatory eventuality under the sun is here displayed in its full glory. Salt and pepper shakers and a watering-can-inspired butter vessel, all the better to lubricate your corn on the cob.

Peacock-inspired detail of a Tiffany vase...

...and the Authorized Soviet Flatware Pattern! Porcelain for the greater glory of the Motherland!

Da, comrade, come the revolution we will all eat stroganoff in style! Workers of the world, you have nothing to lose but your Chinet!

As you might be able to tell, by this time we'd been in the British Museum for many hours, and our hunger had climbed to a crisis point. So we departed thence and wandered around the vicinity until we found a pub called The Plough, ordered some fish & chips, a sausage plate, and a couple of orange Fantas, and devoured them all with much om nom noming. (Sorry, no photos were taken of the ensuing carnage.)

Eventually we found another Tube station and got off near the British Library.

The no-nonsense brick exterior of the British Library conceals some amazing items housed within.

It also makes for a nice juxtaposition with the rooftop of St Pancras peeking out above it.

Captain Midnight says, "Halt! All you guys are busted!" Everyone's a comedian.

I would love to show you some of the treasures they had on display, which ranged from a Shakespeare First Folio to the Lindisfarne Gospels to Jane Austen's writing-desk to Beatles lyrics written on various spare bits of paper to (you'll like this, Miss V) several very rare copies of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Alas, we were not allowed to take pictures of the collections, though I can understand why; these texts were priceless, irreplaceable and in many cases sensitive to light.

We also took a look at the Library's extensive philatelic collection... and being Americans, we had to look at their collection of penny stamps from the Stamp Act that started the whole American revolution in the first place.

Next to the library was a happily-located Kings Cross St Pancras Tube station (CM kept calling it "St Pancreas"), which we happily hopped to get back to our homestay.

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