London Through Russian Eyes
By Olga Slobodkina-von Bromssen
I take a step. Just one. Because I don’t know what my next step is going to be. Because I’m in England – Grantchester near Cambridge, and in London. Because I don’t belong to this country, and while I’m here I don’t belong even to myself. I’m here at the invitation of lady N., the Royal Family’s public relations person. She has done P.R. for such events as the opening night of “The Phantom of the Opera” by Andrew Lloyd Webber in the presence of the Queen, and a festive tennis tournament in the presence of Princess Diana. Is that all? No. Her family is one of the ten richest families in England. Their Victorian house in Grantchester (with a huge garden, tennis court, swimming pool and canvases of Dutch masters in the sitting room) is in the vicinity of the historical house of the celebrated poet, Rupert Brook. At one of her parties I also met an Indian Prince – His Highness Arvind Singh Mewar, owner of the Udaipur Palace complex and the President of the Maharana Mewar Cultural Foundation.
How did I get to know her? I was her translator in Moscow working for the Theater Union and she invited me to stay with her in Grantchester, where I now go for week-ends to see aspects of the high life. During the week, I stay in London with another colleague of mine, Mr. Michael I. I’m working for his theater business, Almeida Theater Agency in North London. I’m sorting out and describing the Russian plays he picked up in Moscow for possible productions. I don’t work all day, just a couple of hours in the evening, which makes my income so small that sometimes I feel I’m on the verge of a hunger collapse. But I have a good opportunity to see London. And there is so much to see! It makes me culturally dizzy. I won’t be able to see all I want in a year and I’m here for only two months!
My exploration of London started with a walk as I could not afford the sightseeing tour bus. Right away, I discovered lots of amazing things for myself, starting with a mail-box in the middle of the pavement. It was red in color, and in a form which reminded me of nothing so much as a firealarm pillar in miniature. When Lady N. asked me to drop off her letters and I failed to do it, because I was looking for a blue square box somewhere on the side of a building – the way they used to be in Russia – she got really furious.
I was equally astonished when, after an evening in her office helping her, she said to me, “Go and take a bath. You deserve it.” It would never have occurred to me that one has to deserve a bath. This happened on one of my first days in England when I had no idea that one has to pay for every drop of water and every second of a telephone call. Small wonder that “Alice in Wonderland” was written in England. It is a land of wonders.
Another thing that amazed me was the language in the high life of the aristocracy. Although when I later re-read Hemingway’s “Fiesta” I discovered that their silly exclamations are common knowledge: “It’s marvelous!” “It’s mind-boggling!” “It’s divine!” And if you say something else – God forbid! – everybody looks at you in terror. How did she dare to say “B” when one has to say “A” in such a case?
But the most amazing and the most extraordinary thing was London itself: its streets, squares, roundabouts called carousels, parks and, of course, museums. After the gigantomania of Moscow, Oxford Street looked almost chicken-size, and Trafalgar Square, which I imagined would be huge, turned out to be only a fraction of Red Square. But such is Europe; small and economical; and England: a small island, with its insularity.
Every minute of my stay is filled with astonishment, learning and extraordinary impressions. Every step is a step into the cultural heritage, which could take a lifetime to study. But I’m here for only two months. However, even this short period of time is enough to see something. Apart from 'the musts' such as Trafalgar Square, the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, the Palace of Westminster, Hyde Park, St Paul’s Cathedral and Greenwich, there are the museums; the National Gallery, the Tate, the British Museum, and the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace and of course, Madame Tussaud’s just for fun.
Apart from other great museums, there are over 300 private galleries in London. I was 'mind-boggled' by such extraordinary museums such as Sir John Soane’s. I’d especially like to describe it, since so many people have never heard of it. Sir John Soane was an architect, and after his death his unusual house was turned into a museum. His whole life was about mystification, which can be observed in the recessed, angled mirrors and the wedge-shaped spiral staircases, the narrow passageways, the skylights and the windows looking onto an inner courtyard. The ceilings are slightly arched and decorated uniquely, as in the breakfast room which is painted to resemble an arbor. All this reflects the whims of his weird but creative mind. He mystified his life to such an extent that the grave of his wife (on the territory of the house) turned out to be the grave of his dog.
The walls are covered with works by Piranesi, Hogarth, Canaletto, Reynolds and Turner. Fragments, casts and models are displayed high and low throughout the galleries. While below ground are the Crypt, the Gothic Monk’s Parlor and the Sepulchral Chamber containing the intricately incised sarcophagus of Seti I (c.1,392 B.C.) celebrated at its acquisition in 1824 by Soane with a three day reception.
William Hogarth’s picture, An Election Entertainment (1754) hands in
the Sir John Soane Museum in Coram Fields.
Hogarth depicts the way in which men who were standing for Parliament tried to buy votes with drink. One wonders how many of the people in this picture “deserve” a bath, and how many simply need one.
The ground floor with its dining table and chairs, leather chairs and desk, the domed breakfast room, and the portrait of Soane at age 75 by Sir John Lawrence, are highly evocative. On the first floor, past the Shakespeare alcove on the stairs, in the drawing rooms and former offices, are models, prints, rare books and a glorious 16th century illuminated manuscript by the Italian Giulio Clovio.
In 1833 Soane obtained a private Act of Parliament to ensure the perpetuation of the Museum after his death. A stipulation was that nothing should be altered in any way and now the house and collections are of interest not only in their own right, but as a window into his mind and those of other collectors of the period.
The London museums amazed me by the methodology of the exhibits. The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, though grand, produces the impression of a mismatched collection site of masterpieces. By contrast, the National Gallery, as well as most of the other museums in London, are organized in such a way as to display each work to its best advantage They are lighted, exhibited and commented upon in a rational way.
I was lucky to see some of the Rubenses in the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace. The impression of the master’s 'Lady of the Fan' will stay with me until the end of my life. For the first time I saw a work of art surpass reality. The lady’s skin is breathing, the lace of her velvet dress stands out three-dimensionally, her hair is as in nature, all of which makes you forget she is only painted and not alive – this precious life, which will go on into Eternity forever, is in the here and now for you to admire, and to help lift your spirit.