Mass at Brompton Oratory, Museum-Hopping and Drink with Colleague

Sunday, August 28, 2016


Unbelievable that tomorrow will make a month since I arrived in this city! But then I think of how much I have covered, how much has been accomplished and I feel as if I have been here forever. Awaking at 6.30 am, I had the time to write a blog post before having a full English brekkie, making myself a blue cheese sandwich and heading out the door.

Off to the Brompton Oratory for Mass:

Having checked the website last night, I found out that Mass at the Catholic Brompton Oratory in Kensington was at 10.00 am. So at 9.15 am, I stepped out. Bethnal Green had stirred by this time and there were a few people going about their business on the road. I hopped into a District Line train (which has to be the slowest line on the entire Tube system as the train makes its way sluggishly through the tunnels no matter the time of day on this line as opposed to hurtling through as it does on the others). At 9. 50, I arrived at South Kensington Station and a few minutes later, after a brisk five minute walk towards Cromwell Road, I arrived at the church.

Mass at the Brompton Oratory:

The Brompton Oratory is Catholic London’s response to the Anglican St. Paul’s Cathedral.  I love this church. It is a grand affair, both inside and out. Multi-domed, it has commanding Neo-Classical pillars that draw you inside to a wide, high porch and then into a gorgeous church built in the grand Italian high Baroque style with more cupolas, domes and gilded pillars, a wealth of sculptural saints, numerous side chapels and a High Altar that remains in the pre-Vatican II position, i.e. up against a wall so that a priest turns his back to the congregation as he celebrates Mass. One Easter, a few years ago, Llew and I had attended the 11.00 am service which is still in High Latin with a full choir, incense, the whole shebang! This time, there were about 200 people in the church many of whom were French Catholics  (as I could tell from their conversation at the end of Mass)–which is understandable as ‘South Ken’ is Little Paris (for some reason, French expatriates in London have congregated in this vicinity). Hence, their patronage of this church.

The priest was rather uptight, I thought, for being so young. But then it is probably the solemnity of his surroundings that affect his demeanor. His sermon was very good though, I have to say. You kneel at the rails to receive Communion, so it is all very old-fashioned. Sadly, there was no music as the full choir makes an appearance at the following Mass.

When I emerged from the church about an hour later, it was drizzling–typical English weather–fair one minute, foul the other. Luckily, the porch provided wide shelter and encouraged socializing–which was when I heard all the French around me. But in five minutes, the shower passed and I pushed on ahead with my plan for the day–which was to attend the special exhibition entitled ‘Curtains Up’ that will be closing shortly, at the next-door Victoria and Albert Museum–so five minutes later, in I was.

‘Curtains Up’ at the V&A:

As its name suggests, ‘Curtains Up’ is a special exhibition on show biz created to celebrate the entertainment traditions of London’s West End and New York’s Broadway. It is on the second floor of the museum, past one of my favorite sections in the museum–the Jewelry collection. Inside, the space is transformed into a dark theater–you are supposed to imagine that you are inside it throughout the exhibition. And it was wonderful! Through costumes, playbills, real awards (Oscar, Emmy, Tony and BAFTA), posters, photographs, letters and recordings, we were taken through the glitz and glitter of that dramatic world. I saw original costumes worn by the likes of Michael Crawford (in the original Phantom of the Opera both at the West End and on Broadway), by Elton John, by Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Laurence Olivier. There were video snippets from some plays that you could watch, recordings to which you could listen with accompanying ear-phones, a whole cubical section reproducing the set of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, loads of props from varied shows, operas, musicals– including The Lion King. For any aficionado of the stage or screen, this is heaven.

I spent about an hour and a half at this special exhibit, then at 12. 30 pm, I made my way back downstairs to the lobby to await the guide for the Introductory Tour. There, since I was a few minutes early, I began chatting with an Indian couple from Northampton–he, Sachin, turned out to be a museum aficionado with memberships at many London museums, and she, Rukmini, turned out to have had Plantar Fasciitis when she was visiting New York, a few years ago. She fully understood my need to find a stool that would accompany me on the tour.

An Introductory Tour of the V&A:

I have taken this tour so often over the years that I am now pretty sure I can give it myself! Still, there are always new things to see because new objects are always added to the collection–so I hoped to be introduced to something quite spectacular on this tour. About twenty people had gathered for it and we made a jolly lot as we took off. During the course of her tour, the guide Marilyn Larsen, took us to the following objects:

  1. The Raphael Cartoon Room: Every HL Tour covers this room as it is truly a treasure. Seven full-length paintings or ‘cartoons’ (two of which are done entirely by Raphael and five by his assistants) cover the walls of a large dimly-lit gallery. They were meant to be the models from which tapestry-weavers would create tapestries of the same size–based on the lives of St. Peter and St. Paul.  Six tapestries  are in the Vatican Museum (Llew and I had seen them when we were there, a few years ago), one is actually on the wall in this gallery, exactly opposite its mirror image in the painting. Marilyn informed us that a few years ago when Pope John Paul II had visited the Museum, the tapestries were moved from the Vatican to the V&A temporarily–it was the only time the entire set of cartoons  and tapestries were ever united and she is sure it will never happen again.
  2. Chinese Vase: This is neither old nor perfect–so visitors are encouraged to touch it to feel the imperfections.
  3. Porcelain Tea Cups by Philip Lin: I am not sure I got his name right but this is a modern Chinese-British ceramist whose tea cups feature tiny hands creating a mudra or gesture that stands for good luck. The work is so fine and so delicate that Queen Elizabeth is reputed to have given entire tea sets as diplomatic gifts to visiting dignitaries.
  4. Bodhisatva Guanyin: A massive wooden seated figure from China, once fully gilded.
  5. The Garden: She took us out into the garden at precisely the point where it started drizzling again–so in we came! There is a large sculptural pavilion in the garden right now–an installation from engineers in Stuttgart in Germany. Called the Elythra Pavillion Installation, it is reminiscent of beetles and is made entirely by robots. However, we merely looked at it and had to leave as a result of the rain–which was gone five minutes later. Like I said, typical English weather today!
  6. ‘Scandal’ Sculpture by Charles Sargent Jagger:  Commissioned by Henry Mond for his London home . It is meant to be placed above a fireplace in Art Nouveau style. It features a nude man and woman and supposedly caused a  scandal when it was revealed. It is accompanied by a fire basket–all made of pewter.
  7. Sculptures by Rodin and Painting of the Sculptor: We walked through the Sculpture Gallery where she pointed out two pieces by Rodin–John the Baptist Preaching and One of the male characters on the Gates of Hell. Accompanying  that section is a painting of Rodin by the English portraitist, John Lavery. Since Rodin gave many of this works to the museum, this painting represents Anglo-French artistic collaboration.
  8. Central Chandelier by Dale Chihuly: The tour ended in the main lobby with an examination of the lovely chameuse and lemon chandelier by Chihuly, my favorite glass artist of all time and a fellow-American based in Takoma, Washington, outside of Seattle. What she didn’t tell us is that Chihuly chose the colors based on the Victorian window panes that were made in the same pastel colors (I had learned this from another guide on another tour). She did tell us that the dome is inspected regularly to make sure it can still bear the weight, that it is cleaned once a year when the entire lobby is kept out of bounds for a couple of days and that it is on long-term loan from Chihuly. She also said that his work is so valuable that if one of the prongs should ever fall off, the museum will manually break it to pieces to ensure that no one person can make a lot of money from it!
  9. Victorian Wedding Dress: In the Costume section (which I really do want to go back to see in detail), Marilyn took us to see a Victorian wedding dress. I learned that it was not until the wedding of Queen Victoria that brides wore white. She, being short, decided to wear a white dress at her wedding to Prince Albert–and ever since then she set the trend for bridal white. So it has nothing to do with purity or chastity or virginity. White dresses are worn just because Victoria was too small-made and thought that she would stand out better in a white dress when surrounded by all those male courtiers. Because she also worn an orange blossom wreath, brides have worn wreaths and veils since then!
  10. Tipu’s Tiger: No HL tour at the V&A is ever complete without this item. It is a wooden music box in the form of a tiger leaning over a British soldier and mauling him to death. When the handle on the box is turned (now much too fragile to be used), the tiger roars and the soldier shrieks. It was said to be made for Mysore’s Tipu Sultan in the last years of the 1700s just before Tipu was vanquished by the British in the Battle of Seringapatnam.  It is the most popular item in the museum–for obvious reasons.

And that, as I can remember the tour, was it. Did I see anything new? Yes, the tea cups and the wedding dress. But it is always fun to take a guided tour in a museum as I like to see if I can get any tips on how to make my tours at the Metropolitan Museum of Art any better. And, of course, there is always something new to learn and appreciate on a tour with a new guide.

When the tour was done, I took my stool with me and went off to the Gamble Dining Room to eat my sandwich and have a cup of coffee.  While there, I was joined at my table by another single female museum visitor called Suzanne which whom I had a lovely chat. We talked about our fondness for museums, for visiting them alone (so that we can see what we like and stay as long or as little as we want) and about some venues that I can explore (and of which I have never heard) such as the William Morris Gallery on the East Side where I live.

While I was chatting with Suzanne, I received a call from my NYU colleague Brendan wondering if we could meet for a drink. He was headed to the National Gallery to see the Painter’s Paintings exhibition and I wanted to continue my tour of the National Portrait Gallery. I told him we could meet for a drink at 6.00 pm. which would work perfectly for me as I could run one more errand in Hammersmith.

On the Bus to Hammersmith for Bus Route Maps:

So, ten minutes later, I was on a bus to Hammersmith Bus Depot because I needed to pick up bus maps for Central, East and West London. The ones I have are so well used that they are breaking apart and I need to keep some for my London file. After I obtained them from the Information Kiosk, I sat on a return bus only hopping off for half an hour at Kensington High Street to browse through the thrift stores there. And I found the DVDs of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, both Parts 1 and 2 in an Octavia shop! I was thrilled. Now my Harry Potter series of DVDs is complete and I am learning that if it is British films I want to add to my collection at home, London’s thrift stores is what I should be scouring. Across the street was Geranium, a place with wonderful vintage jewelry in the window…but as it was near closing time, I did not have much of a chance to browse.

On the Bus again to the National Portrait Gallery, I got off at Trafalgar Square and walked along. I got myself a stool and returned to Gallery 18 and for the next hour, I completed my tour of the second floor. When next I get there, I shall start the Twentieth Century. I believe it will take me roughly two sessions to go over that museum and then turn to the Tates–London and Modern.

 A Drink with an NYU Colleague:

Meanwhile, as the hands on the clock at St. Martin’s In the Field Church crept to 6.00 pm, I made my way to the entrance of the National Gallery to meet Brendan.  It was so great to see him again. He will be spending this coming academic year teaching at London–a position I once held a few years ago. We decided to go and get a beer and as we walked towards Leicester Square on an evening that was teeming with tourists enjoying the lovely coolness of a summer’s evening after intermittent spells of rain, we found a pub called The Porcupine on Shaftesbury Road. In no time at all, I was nursing my Guinness and exchanging news and views with m’coll–and about 7. 30 pm, we thought it was time to depart. We walked to the Tube station together and made plans to meet next week during Orientation at NYU.

Dinner and TV and Bed:

I reached home at 8.00 pm, had a shower, put my dinner together and sat down to watch Making a Murderer–next episode.  Thankfully, I still have some entertainment at my finger tips, due to my laptop computer. And by 10.30 pm, with a very brief conversation with Llew (as I was both sleepy and tired), I fell asleep.

Until tomorrow, cheerio…