Tag Archives: Two Temple Place

On Strong Women, the Banquet of Life and Two Temple Place…80/100

cofSeveral days ago I went along to my friend Alice’s house to watch a bio pic of Peggy Guggenheim. I was very much looking forward to seeing what I thought might be a peek into my fantasy future….world famous art collector of the avant garde filling her stunning Venetian palace with treasures on the artistic and human variety. Parties, laughter, love. An enviable force for cultural advancement. Yikes was I wrong. Her life was horrible. Her family, her friends, herself….horrible, horrible, horrible. And so so very sad. I think I am still reeling. (Her sister Hazel throwing her babies off the roof….) With this still fresh in my mind, I met my marvelous friend Samuel at Two Temple Place. An incredible home on the Victoria Embankment built by William Waldorf Astor, in the 1890s. A rare case of limitless money and taste coming together perfectly. It is one of my favourite buildings in London. I  fantasize that someday I am going to buy it and live in it with artistic and literary splendor. Astor only used it for twenty five years. It is currently owned by the Bulldog Trust charity, but I could make it my own very quickly. The oak-paneled staircase alone sets my heart racing. Astor was a newspaper man who loved digliterature, The Three Musketeers most of all. Characters from Dumas’ novel stand proudly on the newel posts, joined by other favourites like Hester Prynne (another strong woman), the last Mohican, Uncas and scout Hawkeye.  The Great Room on the 1st floor offers reliefs and statuettes of more famous women, some real, some not, including Anne Boleyn, the Lady of Shalott and Maid Marion. The main door is covered in reliefs of the women of the Arthurian tales. There is no particular agenda to the choices, rather a collection of fictional and historical characters who appealed to Astor. Voltaire is there as are greats of the Renaissance, including Dante, Michelangelo and Raphael, the scientist Galileo and the explorers Columbus, Marco Polo and Captain Cook. Eclectic taste, yes, but excellent, eclectic taste. The ceiling is a jaw IMG_20160421_160402dropping open timber hammer-beam mahogany roof and at either end of the Hall are stunning stained glass windows, Sunset and Sunrise. Rich in colour, they are enormous, idealized landscapes. It is the kind of room that takes your breath away at first glance.  And then you start to look and the more you look, the more you see. It is pure pleasure.

Two Temple Place is closed much of the year, available as an event and location venue, but annually they put on an exhibition and invite the public in. I have gone to many over the years and, while I have enjoyed them, consider them to be more an excuse to see the house, the gorgeous, glorious house, my gorgeous, glorious house, than whatever the display cases hold at the time.  I wanted Samuel to see this house. We are on a Beautiful Homes in London mission and I knew he IMG_20160421_155512would immediately join me under the spell. I arrived early and popped up  to the gift shop to buy a ticket for a talk later in the week, but before I did I told the lovely volunteer that I was waiting for a friend. “Tell him I will be right down. His name is Samuel and he is fabulous. He will be wearing a cape.” She smiled appreciatively. And when I returned, there they were together. “I recognized fabulous Samuel straight away,” she told me. See, we belong here. And he loved the house, I knew he would. It is the kind of house that Mame would have loved too. We are both Auntie Mame devotees. We both understand completely when she despairs “life is a banquet, but most poor bastards are starving to death.” But not us. Samuel and I are greedy gluttons for life. And here, at Two Temple Place, we overindulge, yet again, in beauty. And some bleakness too. Because the current exhibition isn’t some worthy Egyptian pots, but a retrospective of Sussex Modernism.  People who, over decades, lived together in Sussex, not as a single group, but as distinct collections of artists and writers and emigres and free-lovers and political thinkers, who found a degree of freedom in the English countryside. Freedom from war and oppression and institutionalized mindsets and society and prying eyes. On the surface, these looked like little Edens and the names attached are known the world over.  But they weren’t. With all this creative energy came great sadness and pain. Eric Gill was criminally repulsive. Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and walked into the river Ouse. Relationships and children were abandoned carelessly. And Lee Miller, suffering from what we would now call PTSD from her experiences as a WWII combat photographer (she was one of the first to the camps,)  tried to drink herself to death at her Sussex home, Farley Farm.  Oh what a woman Lee Miller was. Like Peggy Guggenheim, on the surface everything a powerful, fabulous woman could be. But her life, like that of Peggy, was filled with terrible family secrets and tremendous unhappiness. The Imperial War Museum had a terrific exhibition of her work, a few years ago. What an eye for the beautiful, the simple and the evil. She went from photographing movie stars and fashionably dressed women in wartime to corpses in concentration camps, corpses she treated with the same individual respect she had the socialites, making the pictures all the more horrifying. Like the parties at Peggy’s palace, those at Farley Farm, where Roland Penrose, the great English surrealist and founder of the ICA and American Vogue model turned photographer, Lee Miller lived, hosted Picasso and Max Ernest and other great game changers. Oh if only walls could talk. Or maybe not.

cofIt was with these two very strong women in mind that I went to see the Lady Emma Hamilton exhibition at the Maritime Museum. Again, a tremendous life. From abject poverty of the coal-mining variety to the most famous woman of her time. She is, of course, best known for being the mistress of Lord Nelson. But she was so much more. A superb performer, a consummate hostess and, when war broke out with France, a skilled diplomat. A great beauty, yes. But a powerful and ever inquisitive brain, as well. And a really sad life. Is there a theme here? Oh, I  hope not. And in the case of these three, one could easily argue that the sadness came first and their success was, if not a solution to at least a catalyst for their success. So not wax wings melting so much as the necessary supports missing, or in the case of Emma, the cruel fickleness of societal norms. In the funny twist of history, we might love them, adore them, honour them far more now than they were in their own lifetimes. Their sadness doesn’t diminish their accomplishments, quite the opposite actually. And anyway, who wants an unlived life?

The bright lights can burn hot, yes, but the alternative isn’t worth considering. Fortunately, I am reminded of this on a regular basis, so no temptation for that path. Just recently, someone I knew vaguely decades ago told  me I was “an inspiration.” This was not meant as a compliment, rather a mocking indictment of my life, because his choice of a small-minded, joyless, curiosity-free existence makes him a better person, so he claims, and (this is my favourite part), he and the people he lives with are “genuine.” Genuine what?? one is tempted to ask, lots of descriptive nouns at the ready!  What does that make me and mine? Zombies, vampires, aliens, Animagi, if you prick us, do we not bleed?  Fine. Go ahead. Stand before Auntie Mame’s laden banquet table with your mouth defiantly sewn shut. There is enough unavoidable misery in this world as is, I will never understand the conscious pursuit of. But then misery does love company, perhaps that is the lure, just not my company!

sdrSo that is the great trick isn’t it, to find the right level between skin scorching brilliance and obscure pointlessness. Maybe to acknowledge both, but stay a generous distance from the bottom and at least a sensible distance from the top end…a gentle warm glow without the flames. Be discreetly wealthy enough to own Two Temple Place and fill it with art and books,  and Edward James’ Mae West Lips couch (designed with Salvador Dali), trust me, it looks perfect here, and of course interesting, way outside the box kinds of people, but never, ever, ever trend on Twitter. Yes, that seems a good plan.  A very good plan indeed.

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On A Perfect Day…..the Southbank Poet 42/100

poemWhen the sun is shining there is no more beautiful place in the entire world than London. Perhaps it is because sunny days are not to be taken for granted on this northern isle, especially this spring. The weather has been fickle, to say the least. So, on Friday, when my frequent partner in adventure, Sara and I exited the Tube at Embankment, with the intention of visiting the Botticelli drawings at the Courtauld Gallery, we couldn’t bear to go inside “Let’s just stay outside a bit longer,” said Sara. So we walked through to the Somerset House terrace. The Thames was sparkling in the sunshine. The Eye was visible through the buds on the trees, framed by endless blue sky. London was aglow, as only London can be. Magic.

Then we noticed some activity to our right. Tents, chairs, tables….oooh what is this? And so I said, in my loud American voice, “Ooooh what is this…” As if by command, Richard, head chef of soon to open Tom’s Kitchen at Somerset House appeared. For the summer, outdoor drinking and dining, ideal place to meet up with friends…We made enthusiastic responses. Soft opening Tuesday night, press night Thursday, want to come??? Well yes, we do. But can’t do Thursday, maybe Tuesday? Weather permitting….Oh, Sara and I do like to be the first at things….

Still reluctant to go inside we continued along the Embankment. To Two Temple Place. A little jewel of a building happily unknown to most. I intend to dedicate a whole piece to its worship so don’t want to say too much now, except that it is only open to the public for occasional exhibitions, and I knew the recent one was over, having visited on the penultimate day, previous week. But the movers were still carrying things out. And the doors were wide open. “Oh, please can I just show my friend the staircase. Two minutes, I promise.” I begged the foreman. He broke into a wide smile. “Two minutes.” Sara admired it as I knew she would. Greatly. And then I told her it was available for private parties. We are forever planning our fantasy party at dream locations all over London. Add this one to the list.

Where next? Southbank of course. Over Hungerford Bridge….and, suddenly, nothing. Or no one, actually. After the madness of the recent Shakespeare extravaganza and the all too familiar jostling with clueless tourists in my favourite part of London, it was almost eerie to have it to ourselves. Nice, but eerie. Where was everyone? At work (as Sara was supposed to be, but I am a bad influence) or perhaps scared away by the dire forecast. What a pleasure to stroll along, admiring the city from Bankside without having to navigate selfie sticks and packs of bored school children. As we approached the Tate, discussing whether we pop in for coffee  there or continue down to Borough Market, I saw him. The Southbank Poet. I have been looking for him forever. IMG_2210And there he was. Between the man blowing enormous bubbles and the musician. At his little table with his adorable green Olivetti typewriter sat writer and poet, Lewis Parker. I had heard rumour of him for years, but had yet to find him myself. His sign offered poems, stories and suicide notes (certainly not!), & more. We later found out later that the “more” tends to be resignation letters.

IMG_2206“There he is, there he is,” I shouted at Sara, grabbing her arm excitedly, like a crazed pop fan or royal family devotee. If she was surprised that the object of my enthusiasm was a young, serious man with typewriter, she didn’t let on. She knows me well, after all.

We rushed over. Oh please, please write me a poem. He nodded and asked if I could provide either a subject or a title. Something cheerful, because I am the happiest person you will ever meet and it is a glorious day!!! He nodded calmly, unfazed by my exuberance. “Give me ten minutes,” he said

So we wandered a bit further along. Then watched as another man approach Lewis and demanded a poem , “I am in a rush.” A rush for poetry. How extraordinary.  He seemed desperate, unhinged almost. So I graciously nodded to indicate it was fine to take him first. And so we stood, Sara and I, gazing up over Millennium Bridge toward St Paul’s. IMG_2216With the trees rustling and bending in the increasingly strong wind. Daydreaming. Nowhere else on earth I would have rather been at that moment.

I wrote recently about my desire to learn to read poetry properly. (On Good Friday and Poetry, 38/100) The mastery of verse remains a mystery to me, but one I very much want to crack. I fantasize of spending my advancing years sitting somewhere lovely, with a small tome in hand, relishing the beauty of the words. It must be considered progress that on this gorgeous day I was having a poem written for me, on the Southbank.  By the Southbank poet.

And here it is:

A Windy Day
The weathervane pointed at suicide
until you came by and it swung to coffee.
Then as you chased a bobble hat down the street
it switched again to sunbathing-by-contemplation.
As we swirled in all directions like propellers
shedding scarves and hat and sunglasses,
we decided to just stand still and listen
to the whirlwinds and hope somebody was
taking notes.

We read it out loud. Loved it. I was delighted. More than delighted. I may have it framed. We thanked him verbally and monetarily, profusely and vowed to stay in touch. Then, as I clutched my poem and began to walk away, it started to hail. And snow. Because London is magic. Pure magic.

Instagram: @mylondonpassion