Glorious London

Image result for perronneau a girl with a kitten

A life –  This is the eleventh instalment of an autobiographical series before I revert to my normal blogs

When I was eleven I went to spend several weeks of the summer holidays with my step-grandmother. I travelled down from Yorkshire on the Flying Scotsman, ate my egg sandwiches for lunch, taking them out of their grease-proof paper wrapping and brown paper bag, and felt thirsty with no drink.

I sat and worried the whole journey about how I was going to get my suitcase down from the luggage rack when we arrived at King’s Cross. There, the thundering, hissing steam engines and the noise of all the milling crowds of people were overwhelming, and then it was out into the heat and traffic. London seemed like hell at first, but I grew to love it.

I loved waking in the morning and seeing the shafts of sunlight stabbing through the heavy, floor -length, apple- green velvet curtains. Outside, veiling the view of the street, was the thick screen of plane trees, pollarded every year, but now in high summer, green and leafy. I listened to the clop of the horse’s hooves as the milk man jingled down the road at 6.30 in the morning, and felt a great sense of well- being.

As long as I was polite and well-mannered and helped with the chores, no-one ever got cross here, and it was so easy to be good. My stepmother’s parents were in this sense, perfect grandparents – uncritical.

Every morning at about eleven, my step-grandfather arrived to take me for an expedition. They were glorious. London in 1949 was a still a blackened, blitzed city… black from the coal fires of the industrial revolution, blitzed from the bombs of the Luftwaffe… so among the blackened sooty edifices of the city, there were still deep bomb craters filled with rubble and pink rose bay willow growing on these derelict monuments to World War Two – Wren’s precious, now ruined churches,  elegant, destroyed townhouses, fashionable shops, and humble homes…

Uncle Bill walked me all over this London, telling me the names of the streets, and the history of all the places, and the names and stories of the heroes and soldiers, statesmen and artists commemorated in all the statues. We strode down Constitution Hill, past the Palace, No I, London, also known as Apsley House – the Iron Duke’s London home- through the parks, Admiralty Arch, Whitehall, where King Charles I was executed, Westminster, along the Embankment, into the City.

Other days he took me to the Abbey, the Tower, Kew Gardens, Hampton Court, and on the river bus to Greenwich, or the other way to Kew. He opened my eyes to the layers of history and beauty of this ancient city, centuries of life and death, trade and plague, culture and violence  …we walked up streets with fascinating medieval names like Threadneedle Street, home of the Bank of England, where a detachment of Guards, he told me, have marched to guard it nearly every day since the Gordon Riots in 1780; we discovered the corner of Cock Lane, once known as Pie Corner, where the Great Fire of London ended, having started in Pudding Lane… we marvelled at St Paul’s, which Sir Christopher Wren had  built to replace the old Gothic Cathedral destroyed by the Great Fire…

We meandered through Georgian London with its elegant Nash facades and lingered outside Rules famous restaurant opened by Thomas Rule in 1798, round the corner from Covent Garden, and favourite meeting place for artistic life from Dickens and Thackeray, to Laurence Olivier and Clark Gable;  Edwardian London we  acknowledged at Admiralty Arch, built by Edward the Seventh to honour his mother, Queen Victoria… Victorian London, and the statue of the Queen outside Buckingham Palace… Elizabethan London, where Good Queen Bess had ridden as a girl beneath the ancient oaks in Greenwich Park, and where Charles II’s wonderful Hospital for Seamen, Wren’s glorious masterpiece, still stands as a monument to public charity and architectural beauty. When we saw it, it had become the Naval College where we admired the famous Painted Hall and I gazed with ghoulish interest at the brown blood- stains on the cotton vest worn by Nelson when he died on the decks of the Victory.

Norman London meant Westminster Hall, William the Conqueror’s masterpiece, with its unique 240 feet hammer – beam ceiling, as well as his menacing Tower of London, where I listened to the story of the death of the Little Princes in the White Tower several hundred years later, as told by a Beefeater guide, and recalled the cruel executions of sad seventeen -year- old Lady Jane Grey, and tragic Anne Boleyn before her, as well as Sir Walter Raleigh.

To the Abbey, all the poets in their corner, and the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, memorial to the dead of what my other grandmother called The Great War…and where it is said the ghost of John Bradshaw who signed Charles 1’s death warrant, is sometimes seen – then across the way, to magnificent Boadicea in her chariot by the river, Queen of the Iceni before the Romans settled the city as Londinium… many believe that she’s buried at Kings Cross under Platform 10!   I had learned about this legendary woman from my history teacher when I was eight, and she fascinated me…

Writer Anna Quindlen wrote: ‘London… is divided into chapters, the chapters into scenes, the scenes into sentences; it opens to you like a series of rooms, door, passage, door. Mayfair to Piccadilly to Soho to the Strand.’ And that was how it felt. At Trafalgar Square I was moved by beautiful Nurse Edith Cavell’s memorial from the First World War,  while in Piccadilly, Uncle Bill told me of stepping over fire hoses from the previous night’s bombing in World War Two, then in Downing Street he pointed out the window from which Chamberlain had waved to the crowds after bringing back ‘peace in our time’ from Munich.

And the best days of all, were when he took me to the National Gallery and the Tate. I had already read, re-read and read again, umpteen times, a book belonging to my parents called ‘The Outline of Art’ by Sir William Orpen. It was probably printed during the war because the only colour illustration was a picture of his own, a particularly hideous painting of a butcher’s shop in all its bloody detail. For the rest, every glorious picture was in black and white, so I imagined what the colours were. It was a dreadful disappointment when I first saw Rossetti’s ‘The Beloved’ in colour, and discovered the Beloved was wearing emerald green, instead of the madonna blue I had visualised her in.

And so it was too with Christina Rossetti in ‘The Annunciation’. The pictures and the painters I learned to love in this black and grey world, have remained my favourites ever since, which is a chastening thought that having formed my taste at eleven it has never developed since.

But I still love the dignity and gentleness of Fra Angelica, and the sheer beauty of Fra Filippo Lippi and Botticelli. I still dislike Mona Lisa and love Beatrice d’Este. Da Vinci’s ‘Virgin on The Rocks ‘ still takes my breathe away, and his angels and cartoons ravished me then and now. I loved, and still love, Holbein and Van Eyck, and the wonderful line and delicacy of Durer. Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch still feed some pool of serenity deep inside me. Rembrandt, alas, didn’t re-produce well in black and white, but I took Orpen’s word for him, and he was right.

And, oh, the glory of Gainsborough, from Mr and Mrs Robert Andrews sitting beneath the tree in their ripe cornfield, to the society beauties and ravishing children he painted later. Constable didn’t show up very well in black and white either, so I came to love him later.

The Pre-Raphaelites are all the rage now, but I loved them back in ’49, especially Rossetti, Burne-Jones, and Lord Leighton, and also Picasso in his blue period. And Hoppner and Romney. Sir Joshua Reynolds ‘Samuel’, I loved because my grandmother had told me his story… “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth”… Samuel Palmer didn’t seem to be in ‘The Outline of Art’ – perhaps he didn’t reproduce well in black and white either. But I fell in love with him on our return from Malaya.

At the first opportunity I had hot-footed it down to the Tate, passing through the Turners, which never appealed to me (p’raps the black and white had killed him for me!) and found in a corner by the door, an exquisite little painting of people coming from church, and a golden moon shining down on them. Samuel Palmer. That picture, and he, caught my heart, and I still have the postcard I bought then, in its battered little gold  frame, and I still love his golden cornfields and fat sheep and the mystical light of his other paintings

So I was ripe for my first visit to the National Gallery. At the end of a long exciting afternoon, Uncle Bill asked which picture had been my favourite. I panicked. I was still mortified from the mockery of the reading I had done before I met my parents – and I didn’t know him well enough, or trust him enough not to laugh at me for being religious. So I lied, and said Perroneau’s ‘Girl with a Kitten’, and van Gogh’s ‘ Chair ‘. And so I was punished for my lie, because he bought me copies of them both, instead of my favourite picture, da Vinci’s sublime ‘Virgin on the Rocks’.

The picture is, of course, Perroneau’s  ‘A girl with a kitten’

To be continued… The Edwardians

Food for threadbare gourmets

Courgettes/zucchini are one of my favourite vegetables, sliced in long thin ribbons or sliced across in penny shaped pieces, and cooked I olive oil and garlic, they are delectable…  grated and stirred into a risotto, with lemon zest added, they’re delicious; courgette and feta fritters and courgette slice, using either chopped bacon or a tin of salmon, make a lovely lunch, and I use them in ratatouille, instead of aubergines – which are anathema to me  (though  I do buy them just to enjoy their purple beauty in a bowl of fruit and vegetables).This courgette loaf is a fragrant way to enjoy courgettes with a cup of coffee in the morning, or with a cup of tea in the afternoon.

In a bowl, beat three medium sized courgettes, 150 gm of sugar, one egg andn125ml of light olive oil. In a separate bowl, sift together 200 gm of SR flour, half a teasp of salt, quarter teasp of baking soda, a teasp of cinnamon and two teasp lemon zest. Stir the flour mixture into the courgette mixture just until blended. Pour the batter into a greased loaf tin and bake for forty- five minutes, at 160C or gas mark 3. When cool I like a layer of lemon icing spread over it.

Food for thought

We manufacture everything ( in our manufacturing cities) except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages.

John Ruskin. Victorian write, art critic, philosopher

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30 Comments

Filed under beauty, cookery/recipes, culture, history, life/style, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized

30 responses to “Glorious London

  1. There is a wealth of information of the city of London as you experienced it in 1949. My mind is not retentive enough to absorb all the wonderful places you visited and all the paintings you admired or detested in the National Gallery. A visual tour in colour would be the only remedy to help me see all the wonders that London has to offer. Thank you for sharing your more pleasant childhood memories with us, Valerie!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Haven’t been to London in years, Valerie, but your lovely recollections made me go there again in my mind. I wasn’t there nearly as long as you, of course, but the history was so wonderful. I never really think that I was born not long after WWII ended, but naturally I wouldn’t have realized it nearly as much living in Nebraska in the middle of the US anyway. I always did have a love of history, however, and WWII history was one of those periods I enjoyed learning about. Your story also made me think of one of our favorite TV series, “Foyle’s War.” It may have been the best series ever made as far as we’re concerned. May need to start watching it all over again.

    Much love to you both,

    janet

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hello Janet,
      So good to hear from you… and I’m so glad you enjoyed the London experiences, – yours and mine !
      Foyle’s War – YES !!! We’ve watched all the episodes twice in the last two years – We just love it… at the moment we’re on our second voyage round every episode of the West Wing, which seems especially relevant in these turbulent times…
      And love from us both to you…Valerie

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What a marvellous tour of London 1949. Thanks to you, Valerie, I felt I was there.

    Cheers!
    Eric

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Wonderful memories of beauty in a ravaged place. I do envy you the comprehensive grounding in the arts you took every opportunity to acquire. Constable is the only one to fill me with real reverence. I also like Renoir.
    Otherwise my knowledge extends to South African artists personally known to the family such as WG Wiles and Errol Boyley. The latter was being fed by my aunt, to keep alive, as a young man, but when I met up with him not long before he died he told me with glee that he was now selling his paintings for seven figures.
    Wiles I regard as the complete master of seascapes.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good to hear from you Leslie – needless to say I beettled over to the internet to look up the painters you mention, and I can see why you so admire Wiles’s seascapes, though I also loved his landscapes… have you come across the seascapes of Winslow Homer? Ad what do you think of Turner, who I have grown to appreciate ???
      I agree with you about Constable… It’s a two day journey there and back to Wellington from here,, but I made it some years ago in order to see an exhibition of his water colours and sketches, with a few of his great oils thrown in…memorably beautiful…

      Liked by 1 person

      • What a wonderful experience that Constable exhibition must have been.
        Thanks for introducing me to Homer. I find his ‘Northeaster’ particularly striking.
        Our modest cottage boasts two Wiles artworks, one a seascape and the other a forest scene. The latter was a gift to my late father by Wiles in recognition of going with him to Rhodesia and taking photos of the Royal Family for a portrait Wiles had been commissioned to do.
        I know Turner for his ‘Rain, Steam and Speed’ and haven’t really studied his seascapes.

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  5. I grew up in Northwest London myself, but I never had an ‘Uncle Bill’ to show me around. Thank you for this account of your experiences!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I loved reading this, Valerie. For me it was Uncle Ted who took me on some walks in the City, where he walked, and had a wealth of information about the history of every little park and garden and alley, it seemed. Unlike you, I haven’t retained any of it. I know North London much better, Kentish Town (where my mother was born), Camden Town, Hampstead (where I was born). The year 1949 was a special one for my family, because it was when my father arrived by ship from India and eventually met Mum. He was an architect and soon to become a city planner as well, so he must have walked around London as you did, perhaps many of the same places at about the same time, drinking in everything, and probably taking note of it all with a much more educated eye than mine. Thank you for writing this! Now I’m inspired to go back to the beginning and read all the installments of your autobiography to date!
    And my mouth was watering as you described the way you cooked the courgettes. x J

    Liked by 2 people

    • What a fascinating comment, Josna, so good to hear from you again…
      You must have learned so much from your father… I love Hampstead, and only recently discovered that apparently there’s a statue of a cat at the top of Hampstead Hill to mark Dick Whittington’s journey and where he would have stood to survey the town where the streets were paved with gold…
      So many stories..so much history – all over the world… and it’s the patch of earth that we know, and the stories of its past that sing to each one of us …

      Liked by 1 person

  7. WOW! That was delightful, breath-taking, exciting, just wonderful. I am a huge fan of England and it’s history —so getting to read just a little bit more about London is a perk in my rather extremely busy day! Thank you so much!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I truly envy (lovingly) your early reading and experience of great art. I had no idea about those great masterpieces you described until I studied art history and art at University. I wonder how it might have changed my life if I had known earlier. My mum used to make courgette/zucchini bread/cake in late summer due to the plethora of zucchini flooding the kitchen from various friends and relatives who grew them. I will dig out her recipe and see if I can make it with my grain free flour mix. Thank you for the reminder, it is very similar to yours. I think she sometimes iced it with cream cheese frosting but I like your idea of the lemon icing.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Dear Ardys,
    How I (lovingly) envy you your experience of art history and art at university !!… I would have loved to go to university, though I’d have had a hard job choosing between English or history or art… but it was not to be…
    Hope your gluten free alternative to the courgette loaf works for you… yes, I prefer the sharp sweetness of the lemon icing to the cream cheese option…

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  10. I love coming with you on your strolls. Ah Valerie, your glance at the past has enlivened my pursuit of a personal narrative. Much love coming your way…

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    • Dear Rebecca, I laughed when I read your words ‘strolls’ – is that how it seems – it’s more like a dig for me !!!
      Do your words mean you are also writing your memoirs/autobiography?
      I shall look forward to seeing your gift to the world… I love reading autobiographies and remininsces…( think I’ve spelt that wrong!)
      Much love, Valerie

      Liked by 1 person

      • It is a privilege to look back. Yes, I am trying to understand how best to preserve memories considering how technology is changing. I admire people who keep a diary for it means that there must live and write at the same time – not an easy task.

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  11. Dearest Valerie,

    Thank you for the tour of London. I hope one day to see it through my own eyes. Of course you had me running to Google to find Virgin on the Rocks. So much detail and drama in that painting. It’s also nice to know that I’m not the only one who is NOT enamored with the Mona Lisa. I’ve never understood all the hoopla over that one.
    As always, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed your installments. Lovely lovely.

    My affection to the both of you.

    Shalom and hugs,

    Rochelle

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Rochelle, I take it you are planning a trip to see the new grand baby, and taking in nearby London at the same time !… Actually Rochester is full of history – like everywhere else in a country that;s been occupied for 2,500 years !!!
      Aha, so you’ve just discovered the Virgin on the Rocks – glorious, isn’t it… Da Vinci painted an identical one which is in the Louvre… the London one has recently been carefully restored, and it’s made a huge difference… especially in comparison with the Paris one… I saw a film contrasting the two… fascinating…
      So good to hear from you . as ever, love Valerie

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  12. These trips must have been a wonderful break from everyday life for you Valerie and have given you such an appreciation both for art and for those layers of history. It must have been fascinating, if sad, to see London in those days, with the damage from the war.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hello Andrea, yes, it was a wonderful two weeks both of stimulation and emotional calm for someone who whenever she dissolved into tears was castigated for being a drama queen !
      Damaged London just seemed like more of the same after bombed Germany and air raids during the war to try to damage Portland Bill naval base, a few miles away…
      The art and the history also always seemed a part of my life, with my grandmother’s beautiful art nouveau illustrated books, her china, and the wonderful history teacher at school…
      and all the books that saved my life !!!
      After reading your beautiful blogs I would love to read about your life… it’s the way people write that makes a life interesting, and I think your life story would be sensitive, layered and inspiring…

      Liked by 1 person

  13. I wonder if he knew how your mind and soul were lapping it all up!

    Liked by 1 person

  14. What an early introduction you had to art, Valerie! Quite wonderful. I love the old masters and apart from Picasso (not an old master as such) my tastes are along very similar lines to your own. I saw the Virgin on the Rocks in the Louvre, gazing at that for a long time, while ignoring the queue for the Mona Lisa! Wonderful highlights from your walks around London. How I wish I’d been there listening to yout step grandfather and looking around. Just magic!

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