Wednesday, January 28, 2009

National Portrait Gallery.

I've written extensively here about my family's trip to London last summer. And I find I have more stories to tell. Digging out my scribbled notes, the ink running because somehow in my pocket, the notes got wet, I find the words, "Socialite. Debutante. Adventuress. Advocate. Journalist." Immediately my mind goes to the portrait of Lady Colin Campbell that I saw in the National Portrait Gallery. These were the words after her name and I was struck by first the simplicity then the varied nature of the words and the image they created when shoved together like that.

It made me want to be described in that way. To have a painting hanging somewhere of me after I died with those words plastered beneath it like an epitaph. It made me envious. It made me want to be more like the lady in the picture wearing a flowing black dress, looking all the world like something Whistler had painted - all grays and shadows. Who was this person? What was she like?

The National Portrait Gallery was visited by Hubby and me purely by accident. It was on an afternoon towards the end of our trip. We had just stuffed ourselves with dim sum in Chinatown with most of the family and were by turns feeling satiated and weary. Satiated from the food, weary from the company. When you've spent the past few hours fielding complaints about first being lost, then being hungry then finally getting all 12 people to a table and fed, you tend to feel a sense of relief, then weariness. What had been intended to be a brunch for just Hubby and me had turned into a goat rodeo of trying to gather young and elderly first onto the Tube, then off. People shouting, "It's this way, no it's THIS way," made my head spin, then hurt.

But I digress. Short version we were tired from the meal, went our separate ways, and were looking for a short
diversion to take our mind off things before heading back to the flat for an afternoon nap (there would be more family fun at dinner you see). We were wandering, meandering, wondering what to do. That's when we saw the sign for the National Portrait Gallery, followed by "FREE". Sounds good. We wandered in.

What had looked from the outside like a smallish gallery was actually quite large - 3 or 4 floors of nothing but portraits. Kings, ladies, painters, authors, society types, and statesmen. Everyone from Charles Dickens to Prince Charles. Also interesting were the amount of rare portraits located in this gallery. The only known portrait of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters in existence, for example. It was incredible. What I enjoyed the most is the chronological arrangement. So first you encountered fragile tatters of medieval portraits, some of them so old you could barely
regard the image. Later on you enter a room to find modern interpretations bordering on Picasso bizarre.

Early on we entered a room to find ourselves completely surrounded by Tudors. Here were King Henry the VIII when he was young, then old. Here was Anne Boleyn, Catherine of Aragon, Bloody Mary. The entire crew. I think I actually said, "Look! It's the entire cast of The Tudors!" (a favorite show, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers is yummy). But of course, these weren't actors. This was the real deal. The people who lived it. They seemed so much smaller than on telly, with their foreshortened limbs and flat appearance indicative of the painting of that period. All the elaborate finery and lace. It was fascinating to have them all in one place surrounding you like that.

I loved the painter self-portraits as well. Sir Joshua Reynolds (pictured) painted himself with his hand raised before his eyes like he was either blocking out the sun, or searching for something precious in himself.
Rembrandt painted himself at different ages and with different facial expressions. All were so different and yet all had that same quality - as if the painter were looking in a mirror, searching for something within his eyes.

I stared at one portrait so long at one point I felt I had known him. So transfixed I forgot to scribble down the name or the artist. But I do remember searching for a postcard of this painting in the gift shop in vain. Why is it they NEVER have postcards of the paintings you love? Just the famous ones. This gentleman was an early 19th century dandy, dressed in a flouncy puffy shirt with a jacket. Like something straight out of Jane Austen. He looked like a right rogue, one eyebrow raised, his hair curling on his forehead like he was up to no good. The eyes were so real I felt he was watching me. They followed me no matter where I walked. Not sure why this particular portrait got to me, but it did. Stared and stared and then didn't want to walk away. Felt like he was trying to tell me something. Or that he was going to climb down from the wall any minute and take my hand - lead me somewhere. Very strange.

After finally making our way through the museum, I was thrilled to stumble upon a major new exhibition - The Best New Portrait of 2008. Galleries here were filled with current artists who had rendered their friends and loved ones in oils, charcoal, what have you. Visitors could vote on which one they liked best and from those votes a winner would be selected. I'm still kicking myself for not buying the companion book because these paintings were spectacular. Some were abstract, but most were photo realist depictions done in extreme closeup. From the point of view of a fly sitting on the end of the sitter's nose (except a fly has like 64 gazillion eyes or something like that).

But seriously, these were extreme closeups. Just incredible work. In one painting, the artist's daughter was wearing geisha makeup - the composition an extreme closeup of her face. At first I shrugged, what's the big deal? It's just a photograph of his daughter's face. Then I realized, no, this was a PAINTING. It was so real, every pore was depicted. Her eyelashes were perfect. The red on her lips stunning. And you couldn't see ANY brush strokes no matter how close you got up to the painting. Not even with a spy glass. In another painting a woman was scrubbing her face with soap. Every soap bubble was rendered perfectly, nary a brush stroke in sight. I marveled at the talent. I was completely floored that what I had taken to be photographs were in fact paintings.

After much deliberation, I voted for the soap bubble painting simply because I had never seen a painting of soap bubbles. And because I remembered my mother, who painted a lot before a car accident took that away from her, saying that soap bubbles and glass were the hardest objects to depict realistically in oils. She used to compose her paintings in an "up close" way as well. I remember looking at one, thinking it was a lovely purple abstract. But it was in fact a close up of a perfume bottle. She gave me the bottle, I put it to the end of my nose, looked at it, and there was her painting. Standing here looking at these winning portraits I felt wistful - she would have loved to have seen this.

I left the museum feeling as if we had discovered a London treasure. Hidden away just outside of Chinatown. Unassuming, on a quiet corner. But inside are treasures to behold. Portraits of people long gone, all staring at you. Trying to tell you something. Something important if only you'll listen.

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Shiny Shiny Harrods.

I love this picture. LOVE it. Not only does it remind me of my favorite store in the whole world, Harrods, it reminds me of the woman who showed it to me. My girl Shiny (her Ya-Ya nickname). I could see her doin' that very thing. Vacuuming the sand in some fierce high heels from Harrods. That's just the kind of broad she is. Frikkin' awesome. Nothing but brass, sass, and class.

Hubby and I had many adventures in London this past June, most of them I've spent months writing about in this very space. But the most memorable was the weekend we spent tooling about town with Shiny and her husband. In a brand new Jag rented for the weekend (Shiny's husband has a VERY cool hobby wouldn't you say?) Talk about feeling like a rock star. This is one way to do the town and do it right. You should have seen the men and boys getting whiplash as we zoomed past.

I had been to London once before long ago on a 4-day spree. I had literally run past Harrods on my way to the Victoria Albert, but had promised myself I would visit this mecca of shopping someday. Someday soon. Little did I know it would take me 12 years before I'd make it back there. But now I think maybe I was supposed to see Harrods for the first time in this way. With an English tour guide who specializes in high-end shopping. Or at least high-end window shopping slash gawking. That's definitely what you do at Harrods - GAWK.

Let me back up a bit. My friend Shiny is from Manchester and as I said, she drove down with her hubby for the weekend, specifically so she could finally meet her stateside friend. We've always emailed or left voice messages, texts, or sent Facebook wine as part of our Ya-Ya group, but up until this point we'd never actually met. None of the Ya-Ya's had met Shiny. So, this trip was a litmus test of sorts to prove Shiny was for real, and not some horny 15-year-old boy typing away in a basement. No, she's for real all right. A true Ya-Ya spitfire.

My husband and I met up with both of them at a pub near our flat - where we proceeded to go directly to Snockerville via the way of Guinness. Not a bad place by the way. Particularly when you're meeting a new friend that you KNOW you already like, and has exceeded all your expectations immediately. Shiny was awesome - I was howling with laughter the minute we arrived. My hubby on the other hand was gawking with wonder because not only is she vivacious, she's gorgeous. He took a sudden interest in all our Ya-Ya gatherings that somehow hadn't been present before. It was pretty funny to watch him fall all over himself to say the least (he looked like a Tex Avery cartoon, lol!)

The four of us ended up stumbling out the pub and stumbling into a local Italian place where we stuffed our faces, drank wine, and stayed until the owner threw us out. Seriously, they were putting the chairs on the tables and looking at their watches with a tsk-tsk motion. She was like another sister, a kindred spirit. We talked and talked and talked. About shoes, clothes, Britpop, Manchester, her three children, everything. It made me happy yet sad because I wished all the other Ya-Ya's could be there. We create so much good energy at our gatherings - can you imagine if Shiny was there too? Remember that song with the lyric, "The roof, the roof, the roof is on fire...." (you know the rest ;) yeah, it would probably be like that.

After being thrown out, it was back to the pub where we sang Radiohead at the top of our lungs (I'll never listen to "Creep" the same way again) until they threw us out of THAT place too. Then talk of plans to meet the next day. It went down like this - Shiny, in her ever-so-elegant, lilting Manchester accent says, "So, would you fancy a drive about town in the new Jag tomorrow?" Uh, yeah. Twist my arm. Damn! I wish I could say things like that! It was so cool, like a Bond film or something.

We squired about Knightsbridge in the swanky new car that day - Shiny pointing out the Royal Albert Hall, Hyde Park, the Savoy. We were *so* the gawking tourists let me tell you. Shiny fussed and cussed at her son on the phone and I sighed, wishing I could talk like that. Never has tearing your son a new asshole sounded so elegant, so proper. Think about it. You could be saying something like, "Dang! Y'all sho is country!" but when you say it with a British accent, you sound like an aristocrat.

Eventually we stopped squiring and headed toward Harrods. Shiny's husband pulled up to the parking garage and I was thinking, "Oh yeah, we're bad. We're bad. We're SUPERbad!" It was sooooooo cool. I suddenly wished I had worn a fancier outfit. No worries, because that car made an entrance for us. We exited and all heads turned (or I imagined them turning). What VIP is valeting his new Jag over there? Why, that'd be US!

Immediately upon entering Harrods you feel as if you've entered another world. A world of wealth. Dripping oozing wealth. Some rich place I've never been and will probably ever live in, but it sure is funner than hell to visit. The bags! All the bags you've ever seen in magazines, on the arms of celebrities, and then some. These were not the knockoffs I search for in vain at street markets. These were the real deal - all lit up in glass cases like rare jewels. It made me sigh. The leather, the shiny buckles. Purdy please can't I have just one?

I wanted to just look at bags all day long, but Shiny insisted we see the shoes. The husbands were dragged along under protest, but Shiny didn't care. Her new girlfriend must see the place where the priceless shoes reside. The heaven of shoes. The shoe mecca. Shoe dreams. And she was right. Harrods shoe department makes Nordstrom look like Payless after a Bogo sale. Hey, Payless is cool. I love Bogo. But these were shoes that GODDESSES wore. I actually gasped. I had only imagined a place like this. So beautiful. I wanted to fall down and thank the lord. Pray a la Carrie Bradshaw. This one slinky black number was so dainty and beautiful. Manolo Blahnik of course. I handled it so carefully, like it would break in my hands. It was weird - I felt like these shoes were too good for me to actually try on. I could only look at them and sigh. Hold them like something precious. They weren't actually for wearing.

We all turned when there was commotion from the other end of the shoe department - a short bald man was walking quickly toward us, surrounded by HUGE bodyguards, all wearing earpieces. Some sort of VIP. This was that kind of place. No hillbillies in this joint. Just dignitaries and a lot of women wearing burkas and fingering Dior bags. So very surreal, unlike any world I'd seen. I wanted to live in it for just a week. Not forever - I don't think I'd like it. Just a week to experience it for myself. It seemed so luxurious. So exotic. And I loved Shiny even more for showing it to me.

After being physically pulled away from the shoes by our husbands, we headed to Harrods Food Court. When we walked through the doors, I swear I heard angels singing. As a foodie, you dream of places like this. It ruined me for any kind of schlock you'd ever eat at a mall food court. I can never go near one again because in my head I'll say, "Sigh. It isn't Harrods. I'll save my money and eat when I get home." You can't BELIEVE this place. An oyster bar with champagne. A sushi bar with the greatest toro I'd ever seen. Duck, guinea hen, buffalo, every kind of fish. Iberico ham in the deli. My husband had a sample and swooned. I'm not kidding, he SWOONED. Foie gras by the pound. Salumi from Tuscany. A caviar bar with every variety you could imagine, served with the finest vodka. Full desserts like napoleons and tiramisu - just imagine your favorite dessert and it was there. The liquor store was incredible - none of it was anything I had ever seen. Exotic bitters from Spain and absinthe from France. *Real* absinthe with the wormwood. Prepared meals and sandwiches, and tortas, and other yummies to take home and pop in the oven. It made Ukrop's look like pig slop.

Total. Complete. Food. Sensory. Overload. The place was huge - department store size. And this was just one floor of a 7-story store. Unbelievable. Completely overwhelmed by my foodie dreamland, I bought a water to calm myself down and then saw a sign that said, "Chocolate."

Chocolate? I looked at Shiny. Oh yes, her eyes beamed. Follow me. Again, the angels sang Hallelujah! You've seen Willy Wonka right? This was like that except bigger, more elaborate. Very HIGH-END. Chocolates mixed with rosewater. Chocolates mixed with violet. Belgian chocolate dipped in gold leaf. A tiny replica of Harrods made out of chocolate. Chocolate bars with hazlenut bits, macadamia bits, toffee bits. You name a bit, they wrapped chocolate about it. I didn't know where to start. I might not be able to afford caviar. But chocolate? Hell YES I'd be buying something here. We spent many minutes looking, sampling, swooning before I settled on several Belgian Galler bars of the most exotic varieties with marzipan, hazlenut, pistachio and framboise fillings. Then another box of floral chocolates - violet, rose, jasmine. They tasted heavenly, the chocolate melting in your mouth and then a sudden taste of rose flooding your tastebuds. Yeah, I know, it was weird. This chocolate tasted like a rose smelled. It was a sensory explosion.

We spent hours exploring Harrods - from the pet store where they carried beds that looked like tiny chaise lounges to teeny leather jackets for your Pomeranian on-the-go. From the stylish luggage on the top floor to the designer clothes to the furniture to the EXTREMELY high-end bathroom fixtures. Bathtubs built for Cleopatra. Showers that Caesar might use with steam and spray from every angle. It was gawking at its finest. Window shopping like you've never seen. And always tucked away in some far corner where you least expect it - yet another restaurant. A restaurant serving nothing but variations of chocolate. Another serving high tea complete with scones and clotted cream.

I was in a daze. I felt like I was dreaming. We rode down the golden escalator and I heard music. Was I in a Harrods haze? No, there was an opera singer hanging out a window, testing the acoustics. Was this place for real? Or was the merchandise just sitting there for tourists to gawk at like an animal in a really rich, really exotic zoo? No, I actually saw people shopping. What planet must you be from to afford anything here? Not our planet obviously. But one I'd like to live on for a week.

Shiny and I, husbands in tow, had so much fun that weekend. She told me from the start that her husband and she would sometimes travel to London on the weekend and hit all the hotspots, Harrods included. I felt right then like she had included us in their special weekend trip and it made me grateful I had met them both. What gracious hosts they were. What genuine people. That whole weekend, it didn't feel like a "getting to know you" trip, but more like a "where have you been, we've missed you" one.

I miss Shiny still. I hope when I grow up I can have one TENTH of the style and charisma she possesses. We've gone back to sending each other shout-outs on Facebook, regaling each other with promises about how we'll all meet at a Punta Cana resort one day. I hope so. I hope we stay friends for life. And I know one thing - okay two things. If I ever get back to Harrods, I'm going to buy those shoes. And if I'm ever in the same room as Shiny again, I'm going to wear them. I'll have to. Just to keep up with her Shiny, badass self...

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where i've escaped...

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