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Contrasts

17 November 2013
Ben Pentreath
22 Comments

I think the blog is divided between people who like weekends in London and weekends in the country. Which are you?

I love both. Part of me would have loved to be waking up on a clear, frosty Saturday morning in Dorset, but I think looking at my diary I’ve got 3 weeks in a row coming up down West (for Dorset lovers, please note: normal services resume next week); and I’ve got to say I’m loving autumn weekends in London just as much… perhaps more? Is it possible to love multiple experiences equally? I think it is. Each enriches the others.

This was a London weekend, at the end of a very busy London week. Today I went with my friends Chris and Maggie to the Paul Smith exhibition at the Design Museum: HELLO my name is Paul Smith.  I couldn’t recommend it enough, although I wish I could have learned a little more about the facts behind the journey from Sir Paul’s first tiny Nottingham shop, which you walk through to enter the exhibition, and the final Paris fashion show. How did it all happen? Perhaps that’s another question altogether, but it certainly wasn’t examined by the Design Museum.

For now, it was enough to enjoy a brief step in to Paul-land. And how to make Maggie really happy? Have her photo taken with Paul, who happened to be milling about in the corner, being generally cool, and so nice to everyone.

Anyway. I realised I’d like to have a good wander with my camera around the beautiful old streets of Shad Thames, but that is a blog for another day.

Yesterday started with shoelaces. For a few years I’ve bought my shoes in a small shoe shop on Jermyn Street, and I needed some shoe laces. It was a beautiful morning and I decided on those grounds alone to grab my camera, jump on a 38 bus and have a walk around Piccadilly (collecting shoelaces en route).

I was in the middle of buying shoelaces when a nice guy (called Juan) came up and said “excuse me you’re Ben Pentreath, aren’t you?”. Sir Paul, move over. Juan is a collector of old Worlds of Interiors (who isn’t?), which is how he knows the shop and the blog.

Well, there you go. Please come and say hi anytime, any place!

Piccadilly circus was looking surreal.

A giant bubble was surrounding the famous statue of Eros (or in fact Anteros, Eros’s brother, as I now learn). What on earth was going on? It turns out it’s rather like a giant inflated protective, um, condom, to protect Anteros from vandals over the Christmas/New Year period. At that particular time of year there is apparently nothing more that a drunk visitor to London likes to do than try and climb up Eros, or whatever he’s called. You can read about it here. The bubble goes up in November and comes down in January, after the New Year festivities are over. Who knew? Well, I liked it.

Piccadilly has some of my favourite facades in London. The old Simpsons (now Waterstones flagship bookstore):

Lutyens’s sublime Midland Bank (now Hauser & Wirth):

The (former) Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours (now the home of BAFTA):

The grandest bookshop in Britain, Hatchards (still Hatchards):

And Albany (explanatory link here for American readers). (Um, If you live at Albany, please would you give me a call and ask me over for dinner. Thank you):

I decided to pop into the Royal Academy to check out the new Keepers House. I’d missed the party to open it up, which I suspect was fun, but I was knackered.

I love a well-placed phone box (which could be a blog all of its own).

…and I love the rather Victorian gloom of the courtyard of Burlington House, still home to various dusty Royal Societies.

The door to the Keeper’s House is tucked in the corner of the courtyard, complete with Tracy Emin neon (of course).

It’s cool. I loved the grey brick garden by Tom Stuart Smith.

The bar, designed by Chipperfield:

which looks like a fun place for a Friday evening in January…

The restaurant, with its dark green walls and casts from the Academy schools:

And the staircase lined with photographs of Academicians.

A good excuse to renew your sub as a Friend of the Royal Academy? About the nicest place I’ve been in the centre of London for a long time.

There’s a rather grander staircase in Burlington House itself.

But leaving the courtyard:

I was struck how much more I enjoy the facade of French Railways House on the other side of Piccadilly (which you can just glimpse through the distant arch above):

that gold mosaic lettering: bliss.

 

A walk down Jermyn Street is a glimpse of two things: old signs, and how old money never quite goes out of fashion.

I swung left into St James’s Piccadilly, Wren’s sublime, light-filled church:

Where the contrasts of life in London are never more apparent. Look at this scene;

and please look more closely:

Many of the pews are occupied by homeless people, welcomed to this wonderful place by the St. James’s Winter Night Shelter.  If you live in London, would you consider volunteering?  The remaining training is happening this week.  If not, perhaps you could consider a gift to the Church, providing clothing and other things that they request on their site, or a donation to a charity that I’ve got a lot of respect for, St. Mungo’s?  I would be grateful. Sorry for the discordant images. I’ve got to admit, I was quietly upset.  London, like all great cities, is a place of contrasts that are sometimes beautiful, sometimes deeply unsettling. I’m not happy about the homeless problem in London right now, which despite the blatherings of various politicians, is definitely on the increase.

If it’s not too confusing to talk about it, St. James’s is itself a particularly beautiful building; spacious, quiet, serene. The altar carvings, by Grinling Gibbons, are remarkable.

As I was leaving, the clouds parted and a stream of low sunlight flooded through the south windows.

I decided to walk across to one of my favourite groups of buildings in London, the Economist Plaza, by Peter & Alison Smithson.

They’re not really my bag, and I don’t know why, but for me it just works. Probably because of the context; surrounded as they are by some of the finest buildings of 18th and 19th century St. James’s.

I suppose it’s all about the views in and out.

Whatever the reason, I like. These buildings would be on my list of 50 places to visit in London.

Across the road, I speculated whether this was a Diplomatic bicycle?

A good place to park your vespa (in front of the brick niches on the corner of Henry Holland’s Brooks’s Club. Those niches are also on my list of things to visit, I would say).

Up the road, I was surprised to come across the White Cube gallery, buried in the middle of Masons’s Yard (not having anything whatsoever to do with the strange world of contemporary art, this is not a place I’ve previously visited); can I admit to feeling much happier to find the facade of Briggs, around the corner on Ormond Row?

(read the classic review of Briggs that I’ve found here).

Clet Abraham had been at work in St. James’s Square:

I’m almost wondering these days if it’s cleverer to leave the street signs alone?

 

Scary Edwardian stuff on the way home:

Back past the strange bubble:

Glimpses north to the dirty streets of Old Soho:

And up to our old favourite:

And from the narrow streets of Bloomsbury to one of my favourite views of London, the British Museum:

But those are stories of other places, for another day.

22 comments on this post

Christinesays:

Thank you Ben for your time taking these fabuous photos. Many are of my old haunts when living in London. Feast for sore eyes, I live 100 miles north of London now/Rutland, the smallest county in England. Christine

Suzysays:

Ben, I really enjoyed this blog post, I feel like you are a personal tour guide to those wonderful places in London that I would never think to see. However, I am team Dorset all the way and I can’t wait for this week’s post from the Parsonage.

Bensays:

Thank you Suzy! Coming soon…. 😉

Jo in NZsays:

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your photos – country and city alike. I feel so connected to my homeland. I agree that a book of your walking tours must be made! Your photography is unlike any other – I ooh and aah out loud at every single shot. And thanks for the charity recommendation too. With love from NZ xx

Sooo lovely seeing these photos. Lots of places that I used to go to. I’m now living in San Francisco but lived in London for 13 years. I worked on St. James’s Street and used to walk by Davidoff daily and in my lunch hour I would go to Hatchards and have a nosey around Fortnums.

charliesays:

The green in the Keepers bar is fantastic – I think I have cable knit jumper in the same colour tucked away somewhere. Might be a bit small now though 🙁

Great photos – even though I walk past this every day there’s always something new to see.

Did you catch the small architecture exhibit at the RA last year about the facades of Piccadilly?

Nigelsays:

I ‘Googlewalked’ Jermyn St quite recently from my westcountry armchair – it was my favourite area of London when I was a student 30 years ago. I sometimes used to skip Logic and Epistemology to have tea and crumpets in Fortnums when it was presided over by a lovely bubbly blonde lady who always treated you with solicitude(?). Then I would walk back to our halls via Soho, skirt Bloomsbury, revel in Fitzrovia and creep quietly into St John’s wood.

Ben, thank you for another engaging stroll through London. RE country vs city, why not have the best of both worlds? Unfortunately, there are those who have neither. Homelessness is a problem in every big city. How splendid that St. James is willing to give shelter. Perhaps the calming grace of the building’s beautiful interior brings some peace to those poor souls.

Interesting color on the building next to Briggs. The combination of the classically subdued and the orchidaceous puts me in mind of your country dining room! I enjoyed the juxtaposition of the P.O. Tower and the Groucho Marx flag. There is definitely something cheeky about that tower!

I love your trips around London – love catching a glimpse of some place I know but getting the Ben spin on it. We had such a magical time there this summer but I would love to visit again in the autumn. It just feels right for London!

Rebeccasays:

Both, please!

The bubble is brilliant. And thank you for the Grinling Gibbons carving.

Jagnansays:

Thanks again, Ben. I find your blogs to be soothing. I look forward to each one.

What’s with the either/or business? Both, emphatically.

I love St James too. When I’m back in London I usually stay at the Royal Overseas, which is so beautifully anachronistic and filled with people who don’t seem quite to believe they should be there.

Eros looks a little lonely in his commodious condom.

How strange…your route through the West End, echoes the one the bf and I made a week ago. (The day also included lunch at Simpson’s Travern in the City and the obligatory visit to Messrs Hall and Pentreath’s emporium.) For those into film the opening shots of Michelangelo Antonioni’s ‘Blow-up’ feature the Economist Plaza which comes under ‘assault’ from a jeep full of drama students.

You should produce a series of guidebooks on the neighborhoods of London. Your tours on this blog capture their particular characters and interesting details better than anything else I’ve seen.

thsays:

Have you seen the exhibition on the Great Estates at the building centre? Worth popping in to see new work planned in these properties. Particular note worth seeing the bastardization planned for the Raymond Revie building on the corner of Walker’s Court. Bye-bye Soho character with fully glazed ground floor shop fronts and three extra storeys of height!

i’m learning so much about london thanks to your blog. next time i pop into the royal academy courtyard (which i often do for a bit of calm) i’m going to stop at keepers. because now, i know it’s there. thank you.

deby (in Canada)says:

Agree both- oh but the London stuff recently has been such a treat. Best this time – wonderful Maggie with Paul Smith and Briggs!
cheers
Deby

As one of the American readers, I find both city and country posts interesting. They all make me wonder how you manage to get everything done that you write about in one weekend? And how do you keep your Dorset place looking so good, especially the gardens, when you are only there on occasional weekends? Long weekends? Gardener?

Both, as well. Excellent photos, you’ve really outdone yourself. Wouldn’t mind a drink at Keeper’s House, myself!

Nuffieldsays:

A really good post. I love those buildings too, and I think your photographs are excellent. Very touched by the homeless people in St.James’s.

Lucysays:

Both. And may I just say how completely lovely whoever it was minding your emporium yesterday is. I am now the proud owner of a very fine metal ribbed lampshade in my kitchen which she fetched for me from the depths of your store room with no fuss or flusterment despite lots of other people all wanting something at the same time.

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