There'll always be a London

On a stay in London, Douglas Cruickshank ponders the passions of collectors and cabbies.


Douglas Cruickshank
May 13, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

John Soane's problem was that he couldn't stop collecting fantastic things and cramming them into his house on Lincoln's Inn Fields in London. Soane is long gone, but the house (actually three adjoining houses that he ingeniously remodeled and strung together to accommodate his ever-expanding collection) is now -- as it has been for 160-some years -- the eclectic Sir John Soane's Museum, and it is still chock-full of fascinating, often bizarre stuff. In deference to his wishes, the look of the house and the way the objects are arranged has been left virtually unchanged since Soane gave it to his nation (instead of his disappointing, "flint-hearted" sons) in 1833.

Soane was one of the late 18th and early 19th centuries' most prominent, prolific architects -- he designed the Bank of England, among numerous other public and private buildings -- and walking through his rambling home is much like wandering through his quirky, acquisitive brain, or the world's largest Joseph Cornell box, or a multistory wunderkammern. He was one of those splendid and productive wackos who make life worth living for the rest of us by leaving behind something astonishing to remind us that the secret to being interesting is being interested.

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The compulsion to collect seems almost genetic in the English, and there is no city in the world that houses more collections -- great and small, scholarly and fanciful -- than London. Collecting is a way of pointing, of selecting something, holding it up, mounting it, encasing it, of calling special attention to it with the hope that your interest will be contagious, and that others will see the same importance in the thing that you see. In the case of Sir John Soane's collection, his still very much alive enthusiasm is hard to resist, as is the architectural exuberance with which he transformed his house.

Working with narrow hallways and mostly small rooms, Soane employed mirrors (many of them round and convex), skylights, mezzanines, glass, brick floors, curling staircases, alcoves, walls made of giant doors and various other architectural sleights of hand to give the crowded quarters a feeling of spaciousness and grand scale that is entirely illusory. (The only wide-open spaces on view are Canaletto's panoramic portrait of Venice and the marmalade skies in several paintings by England's romantic god of the sable hairbrush, J.M.W. Turner, who was Soane's fishing buddy.)

The point of Soane's collection was, so he said, to educate aspiring young architects, but it's really a monument to the state of wonder and a celebration of glorious relics and beautiful fragments, especially, though not exclusively, architectural ones ("Cast from the cornice of the temple of Castor in the Roman Forum, AD6," states the hand-printed label on one plaster confection). The selections, of course, were filtered through his singular sensibility, which was sometimes peculiar, but never dull.

Soane's vast cabinet of curiosities, which you enter through a heavy green door (admission is free; you ring a buzzer to be let in, then sign your name in a book while a man in a mold-colored lab coat supervises), is packed with more than 3,000 objects. These include plaster casts, bronzes, gems, jewelry, medals, Greek, Roman and Egyptian antiquities, an 8,000-volume library, silver, clocks, barometers, Peruvian pottery, Chinese ceramics, all manner of sculpture, paintings and drawings (including Hogarth's picaresque eight-canvas series, "The Rake's Progress," and another series, "The Election," drawings by Piranesi and a winning red crayon sketch of a dog done by Rubens), roughly 150 architectural models, the head of a mummy, mummified cats, the sarcophagus of Seti I (which was let in through a hole Soane knocked in the back wall) and a mummified rat. Oh, and the tomb of Mrs. Soane's lap dog is outside in what's known as the Monk's Yard. "Alas, Poor Fanny" reads the inscription.

The tidy chaos of Soane's Museum is what makes it so enchanting -- unlike other museums, the collection is not organized according to any perceivable linear or thematic thread. He arranged his exquisite hodgepodge the way he wished, juxtaposing objects for his own aesthetic satisfaction. Great cooks don't bother with recipes. Chronology, style, country of origin and similar concerns were of little interest to Soane as organizing principles. It is a welcome contrast to, say, the British Museum, which bludgeons the visitor with its daunting volume of antiquities.

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After walking through Soane's great house three times, I'm finally sated. Across the street I sit on a bench in Lincoln's Inn Fields, a large rectangular park, and watch a young man and woman standing in the middle of the sunlit walkway necking while an older woman takes pictures of them. Sitting on the bench next to mine are two men in suits talking on cell phones, though not to each other. A teenage girl walks by wearing a daffodil behind her ear. She's followed by a rakish Great Dane decked out in a red neckerchief.

Spring has come early to London this year and either the "Cool Britannia" marketing campaign is jamming my radar or there is indeed a new climate of optimism in the city. And why not? Hyde Park is in blossom, New Labour is on the job, the pub flower boxes are overspilling, the Spice Girls (say what you will, they seem harmless) are coptering off to Highgrove for tea with the young princes, traditional British irony has a new polish on it (Nick Hornby is producing one shining novel after another) and there may be a real peace in Ireland. Credit for every bit of the above, many seem to think, should go to the supernaturally buoyant prime minister, Tony Blair. "The sense of well-being he generates is as undeniable as it is infuriatingly undeniable," grumped the Sunday Telegraph newspaper, one of the few outposts of the Fourth Estate that still supports the Conservative Party. And the Telegraph's former editor, the right-wing and stupendously named Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, concedes, "I am disposed to like him, but I don't quite know what I am liking."

Even the old gray Times has acquired an
ingenuous, rose-tinted outlook: Its report on the Parole Board's
refusal to free murderer Reggie Kray, half of the monstrous Kray
Twins -- the psychopathic, sword-wielding '60s gang lords of the East
End -- is almost weepy when it tells how Kray's hopes have been
"dashed" and he won't be able to "settle with his new wife in East
Anglia ...where he planned to run a recording studio." (Boo-hoo!)
Reggie Kray's disappointment notwithstanding, life seems good in
London nowadays, or at least the possibility that it can be is under
serious consideration by the city's inhabitants. That's why I'm a
little shocked when some thug shoves me aside one morning on the
steps of my hotel, the Royal Garden next to Kensington Palace.

"You want to move now," he whispers gruffly.

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"Yeah, you bloody
wanker," I'm about to say, "and you want to stop using that goat
cheese toothpaste." But I don't because suddenly there's a flurry of
activity and a whole flock of edgy security types -- blue-suited
sleeve-talkers with cryptic-looking lapel pins -- comes pouring out of
the Royal Garden's revolving door. Cameras click, walkie-talkies
squawk and police escorts in fluorescent chartreuse jackets rev
their motorcycles meaningfully. In the middle of the mob is Japanese
Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto. He looks tired and worried, and who
wouldn't in his position? The Japanese economy is in a power dive
headed for hell and threatening to take the rest of the world with it
(he must lie awake nights wishing he were Tony Blair). What's worse,
a grumpy, tousled Jacques Chirac, the president of France, is now
standing next to me on the steps waiting impatiently for Hashimoto's
dark blue Rover Sterling sedan to move on so his dark blue Rover
Sterling sedan can pull up, and they can all go through the same
choreography again only in reverse 10 blocks away, where the Asia-Europe
meeting is being held.

Once we get the world leaders on their
way, a black cab pulls up and I climb in. My time's short in London
so I take cabs everywhere, even though it gets expensive. As I ride,
I keep a running list of pub names -- the whole reads like a guest
register for a mate-swapping mixer on Noah's Ark: The Dog and Duck,
The Elusive Camel, The Essex Serpent, The Falcon, The Greyhound, The
Griffin, The Grouse and Claret, The Intrepid Fox, The Magpie, The
Jugged Hare, The Old Red Lion, The Peacock, The Polar Bear (not to be
confused with The White Bear), The Porcupine, The Rat and Parrot, The
Stag, The Hogshead, The Nag's Head, Queens Head and Artichoke (winner
in the surrealism category), The Antelope, The Cat and Canary, the
always comforting Friend at Hand (somewhere near Russell Square, I
think) and overall winner for the most lyrical moniker of the bunch:
The Moon Under Water.

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As we drive past the Prince Albert Memorial
(now undergoing restoration and sheathed in scaffolding, it resembles
nothing so much as a Nebraska grain silo), the cabby and I exchange a
few pleasantries before he asks, "California, isn't it? Your accent?"

"You got it," I say. "Good ear." And off we go on the subject of
accents.

"They're all trying to change them now, you know, it's
the fashion," he says. "We have a new one here in London. They call
it the Estuary accent. You hear it in people like Emma Thompson
-- middle- or upper-class folks trying to sound lower class. Even the
queen has changed her accent. If you ever listened to her early radio
addresses, she sounded all high-pitched and like she had grapes in
her mouth and now, you know, she doesn't at all. It's quite the
fashion, you see."

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London must have some of the world's most
erudite cabbies. "This is Westminster Bridge we're crossing," he
says. "Have you heard of Wordsworth?" Have I heard of Wordsworth? How
charming. Should I take that as a compliment, or simply
acknowledgment of the fact that I'm a Californian and therefore a
feather-headed, illidurat twit? I let it hang, knowing that I've got
a bloke at the wheel who can fill silence quickly and without my
assistance. "Wordsworth wrote a poem about this bridge in 1802, about
the view from it," he continues, not waiting for me to answer his
question. "Do you know it? Lovely really." And he proceeds to quote
the entire poem (flawlessly, I later discover) while a cloudburst
makes it impossible to see what Wordsworth got so fired up about. In
any case, it starts like this:

Earth has not anything to show more fair:

Dull would he be of soul who could pass by

A sight so touching in its majesty;

This City now doth, like a garment, wear

The beauty of the morning; silent bare ...

"It's a monstrosity," the cabby
tells me. He's talking about South Bank Centre, the massive
architectural calamity perched next to the Thames at the end of
Hungerford Bridge. We've just pulled up in front. The Centre is a
giant concrete arts and theater complex built in the 1960s. The cabby
is right. It's magnificently ugly. One building is the Hayward
Gallery, where I'm about to catch the last day of "Francis Bacon: The
Human Body," a major retrospective of paintings by the artist -- he
died in 1992 -- whose emotionally ferocious oils make the work of
Hieronymus Bosch look like Muzak for the eyes in comparison. The show
has attracted over 120,000 people in its two-month run. As I walk in,
there are about 400 waiting in the ticket line, all of whom glare at
me bitterly as I skip up to the will-call table, collect my
previously purchased ticket and leisurely saunter into the gallery,
glancing back just once with a
guess we've learned a little something about planning ahead haven't we now smile. They all look back at me with a consolidated
interstellar death beam, but it's too late, I'm already inside.

Bacon's work is majestic and wrenching -- famously so. But the
dazzling nightmare solemnity of his subject matter -- the screaming
popes that most people know him by, and the anguished figures, some
based on the early sequential photographs of Eadweard Muybridge --
is lightened and made bearable, even beautiful, by Bacon's
eloquent use of color. Standing in the middle of a room surrounded by
his giant gilt-framed canvases makes it possible to imagine what the
woodcuts of Japan's ukiyo-e period might have looked like if they'd
been conjured in the nether world by an Irishman under siege from the
hellhounds.

Still, though Bacon's imagery is often grim, it can
also be funny, bittersweet and bawdy in the street opera sense of
Kabuki. Often the paint is applied so sparingly that there is a
distinct Shroud of Turin effect (if the Shroud could shriek), as if
the faces or figures were photographically blasted onto the canvas
the way silhouettes were imprinted on the walls of Hiroshima by the
flash of the atomic bomb. However, the detonation in this case took
place inside Bacon's ground zero brain. "I would like my pictures to
look as if a human being had passed between them," he once remarked,
"like a snail, leaving a trail of the human presence and memory trace
of the past events as the snail leaves its slime." And they do.

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Ironically, or maybe not, in the cab on the way back I read an
article that might have amused Francis Bacon. An artist named
Anthony-Noel Kelly, a nephew of the Duke of Norfolk, has just been
sentenced to nine months in jail for stealing human body parts from
the Royal College of Surgeons and using them to cast sculptures
covered in silver and gold. According to the Daily Telegraph, Kelly
made off with "three heads, part of a brain, six arms, 10 legs and
feet and sections of three torsos ... One leg, nicknamed Hopalong, was
kept in a tower room at his family's estate in Kent."

I hop out of the cab at the Victoria and
Albert Museum mostly because on the British
Airways flight from San Francisco the lovely
sky-blue Valium I took to lower me into Limboland had no effect
whatsoever. Consequently, I stayed up late sipping luscious claret and
watching "Mrs. Brown." I now feel a certain obligation to the royal
couple to give their collection at least a cursory going-over.

Time's running out, but there is one small object I must see at the
V&A. It resides in a poorly lit glass case in
the Fakes and Forgeries Gallery. For reasons I can't quite
articulate, this specimen sums up what is so fascinating about
fascination and the obsessive acts of those who become fascinated,
and the charlatans who prey on them. The V&A's Fakes and Forgeries
has a variety of counterfeit paintings and ceramics and items of
supposed religious significance that are not what they appear to be.
Some are hundreds of years old, and most have been executed with
nearly as much craft and artistry as the originals. Two-thirds of the
way through the gallery, I find the one I'm looking for. It was the
Wordsworth cabby who told me about it. He was adamant that I see it.
I'd mentioned to him that I was interested in unusual collections.

"Well then," he said, "you'd like my collection."

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"What's it a collection of?" I asked him.

"Spurs. Spurs of historical
significance. I've got over 300 of them. Even have a few from the
U.S. Civil War."

"Really."

"Yes, but this one I'm telling you
about, I'd love to have. I go see it sometimes. You ought to take a
look if you have the time, really ought to."

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And I have and now
here it is in front of me, just beneath the glass -- a tarnished
metal spur embedded in a branch. The spur itself is authentic. It was
found on the battlefield of Agincourt, where, during the Hundred Years
War, the vastly outnumbered English under the command of Henry V
defeated the French in October 1415. Sometime in the 19th century
some idle, imaginative fellow decided to soak a tree root and bend it
around the spur, but why? To imbue it with greater drama perhaps. To
give it a more direct link with the violence and speed and
person-to-person savageness of battle. Or maybe just to heighten its
appeal as a way of upping the price to a collector. Finding the
great centerpieces of history is relatively easy. But it's these
little oddities from the fringes of history, flotsam and jetsam from
the peripheries of human drama, that seem to get hold of certain
people. The cabby, for example.

"How did you come to collect
spurs, of all things?" I'd asked him.

"Well, I started as a lad,
you see. Like my wife said to a friend of ours who asked the same
question, 'I reckon if it wasn't for some of Jimmy's spurs here, a
lot of your big historical battles would never have happened. The
horses would've just stood there looking at each other.' "

The
cabby laughed and I laughed and I think that even Jacques Chirac, who
was just walking in the Royal Garden Hotel as we drove up, was
laughing. However, the reason for Chirac's laughter, it turned out,
was that he'd just spent part of the afternoon drinking pints and
shots at a pub. But Mr. Hashimoto, who I passed in the lobby, was not
laughing.

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Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

MORE FROM Douglas Cruickshank

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