Looking Back at London

If you have ever moved to another city, another country, or another continent for any extended period of time, gentle reader, then you know that the first few days you spend there are some of the most vivid memories you will take away from that place.  You may of course forget some of the later things that happened once you settled in, and began to see the place as your home.  However this is why I want to encourage those of my readers who are going to be living somewhere far from home for awhile, to make an effort to write down their experiences and observations now, in order to be able to draw upon them later.

Reading my updates on Facebook this morning I had a bit of a shock, realizing how quickly time seems to pass.  A good friend from here in the States had just arrived in London to begin a year of graduate school there, and I saw the news that he had safely arrived at Heathrow posted in my timeline.  It suddenly dawned on me that it was 15 years ago, in September of 1997, that I moved to London for the first time.  I could not help but sigh a little, as I thought about what my friend would be experiencing, as this was his first time ever in London.

To give you some context about what Britain was like at the time when I first went to live there, I arrived exactly one week after Princess Diana’s funeral on September 7, 1997.  The Labour MP Tony Blair had only been Prime Minister for four months, after decades of Tory government under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and the most popular British musical act at the time was The Spice Girls, who had only released their debut album in the U.S. earlier that year.  The Queen Mother was still going strong, mobile phones were seemingly all made by Nokia and about the size of a television remote control, and internet was exclusively of the dial-up variety (and very, very slow.)

As weird as it may sound, I can remember my entire first day in London on September 13, 1997, as if it were yesterday.  If you recall the expression of “having your wits about you,” I would say not only did I have all of mine about me, but they were firing on all cylinders.  Everything was new and interesting, and there was this strange sense of having landed on another planet.  For although the language was the same, many details of everyday life were handled completely differently.

For example, once my cab had dropped me off at my halls of residence on Regent’s Park – no Heathrow Express to Paddington in those days – I decided to see how long the walk was from there to where I would be studying, close to Piccadilly.  I remember looking at the words painted on the asphalt at intersections as I made my way through the car park and around the side of the building, which read, “Look Right” or “Look Left”.  I did not quite understand what they were for, until I started walking down Portland Place, and crossed an intersection without looking in the direction indicated.  As I did so a car came whizzing past honking its horn at me, and I had a near-miss with getting flattened within minutes of arriving in London.  From then on, I was quite careful to read what was on the ground before I stepped onto it.

Feeling a bit shaken and deciding I had better calm myself and call home, after a couple of blocks I spotted the BBC and All Souls Langham Place, both of which I knew from a lifetime of watching British television shows.  Across the street were three red telephone boxes in a row, standing at the side of a rather grandiose Victorian building, which I later came to learn was the Langham Hotel.  I chose one and made a telephone call to my parents, waking them up at about 5:00 a.m. Eastern to let them know that I was there and safe.

They were happy to hear from me, particularly my Father who is more the Anglophile of the two, and as I looked about from inside the phone box describing what I saw, I spotted a cafe across the road and down a little ways.  I told them I would head there to get some caffeine and try to call them again later, after I had done some exploring.  I could not have known it at the time, but later I ended up spending many, many hours in that Italian cafe/deli, using it as a place to study and write, and to meet up with friends, since it was centrally located but not a major tourist draw.

However rather than ordering their – excellent, as it later turned out – coffee, I must admit I bought a bottle of Snapple Iced Tea imported from the U.S.  It was warm, and the thought that I would be able to have American iced tea despite being far from home was rather encouraging.  As I continued down Regent Street sipping my beverage, I passed a news agent’s – which again, as time went on I would come to patronize regularly for magazines and for postcards – and noticed that they had that day’s New York Times for sale.  I realized that although I was in a different country and a different culture, there would still be plenty of things from home to keep me connected to the other side of the pond.

That was the beginning of a wonderful day, which included visiting my school and running into some of my classmates who were also figuring out the lay of the land; visiting what would come to be my parish in Mayfair for the first time; having my first gin and tonic in London at The Marlborough Head just north of Grosvenor Square; and coming back to my residence to find that a friend from high school was in town from Cambridge, and would be returning later that evening to meet up and go to dinner.  This is not a testament to any particularly astounding powers of memory on my part, mind you, but just an inkling of how much of an impact that first day in London had on my memory.  It is something I still treasure.

And if for some reason I should forget all of this, thank goodness I had the sense to keep a journal during both of my stints living in London.  It runs to many volumes, and though I must confess I have not sat down and cracked open these books in years, I do know they are there if I ever want to do so.  Perhaps with the realization of this anniversary, it might be a good time to revisit them, and recall some of the things I experienced, but have forgotten with the passage of time.

In the end that was the one piece advice I emailed to my friend today: that he makes sure to keep a journal for the year he will be living in Blighty.  No one knows what the future holds, and whether his experience will be as rewarding as mine, but having these memories to draw upon undoubtedly makes your life, and your understanding of the world in which you live, much richer.  Whether the city is London, Vienna, or Poughkeepsie, take the time now to write about what your impressions and thoughts are, so that you can relive those experiences later.

Phone boxes at the side of The Langham Hotel
Langham Place, London W1


New Art Discovery Shows Why Practice Makes Perfect

As regular readers of these pages know, just about any time there is a press report regarding the discovery of a previously unknown work by a master painter, I get somewhat more excited about the news than perhaps the average person would. I hope the reader will indulge my interest in a story from the Spanish press about the recent identification of a painting by one of that country’s most important artists, for it is a lovely work in and of itself. The story affords us the chance to explain a bit about what the academic tradition means in art, and why on the whole it produced far better painting than, on the whole, we see today in much of contemporary art.

Although today he is probably less well-known than he ought to be, the Valencian painter Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923) was the most popular artist in Spain at the turn of the previous century, and was celebrated across Europe and the United States as well.  A painter of great skill in capturing light, movement, and the elegance of the human form, his work hangs in many public and private collections, including at the White House here in Washington.  Stylistically and thematically, his work is comparable in some respects to American painters John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) and Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), among others, and like them he received many commissions for society portraits and paintings with historical themes.  Arguably Sorolla’s greatest facility, and the work of his which is the most highly sought-after by collectors, was found in his portrayal of beach scenes. Using the glowing light of the Mediterranean, he captured elegant ladies in billowing dresses and veiled hats promenading or resting languidly at the seaside, or groups of naked, suntanned children laughing and frolicking about in the surf.

Before he developed his signature style, Sorolla was educated in much the same fashion as all other aspiring painters of his day. The academic tradition insisted that an artist learn how to draw and to paint by looking at art history and tradition, as well as observing nature and what he saw around him. Sorolla dutifully studied and copied the works of the Old Masters, traveled to see the work of other artists, and completed countless drawings and studies, so that he could become a better artist.

The “Study of Christ”, which was identified this week by experts at the University of Lleida in Catalonia as being from the hand of Sorolla, is an example of the type of training Sorolla engaged in to understand how to paint. The existence of an early work by him depicting Jesus was known to the compiler of the artist’s “catalogue raisonné”, which in art history means a comprehensive listing of works known or believed to be by a particular artist. It was also known that Sorolla had inscribed it, along with the date and his signature, “To Mrs. Clotilde García”, but its whereabouts were unknown until now.

Before this investigation took place, the painting had been identified for many years as the work of an unknown 19th century Spanish academic painter. It was put up for auction in 2006, when it entered a private collection in Madrid. The new owner subsequently had the piece examined by experts, and after a thorough cleaning the signature, date, and inscription to his patroness appeared in the lower right-hand corner. This in combination with the use of modern investigative methods such as x-rays, infrared light, and microscopic analysis, allowed the researchers to determine that this was indeed the lost work of the Valencian master.

Because interest in Sorolla has long focused on his large-scale society and seaside pictures, his work as an art student is not as well-known or documented. At the time he painted this “Study of Christ”, Sorolla was only 20 years old and was living in Madrid.  Two years later, he would travel to Rome for the first time, on a four-year academic scholarship to study painting at the Spanish Academy there, which was followed by a lengthy stay in Paris. Thus, this work represents the young artist absorbing all he can from his native environment, before going out into the wider world to see what his contemporaries were doing.

While in the end this is not a painting that screams “Sorolla” when you look at it, its real importance lies in documenting Sorolla’s training. He did not simply sit down one day and decide to splatter some paint across a surface and call himself an artist. Rather, he studied his craft and practiced it, taking the time to educate himself so that his work could improve as he did more of it.

Today it seems that we too often indulge those who are little more than untalented publicity hounds when it comes to contemporary art, which is an area of human creativity that has increasingly lent itself to such behavior in ways we would not tolerate elsewhere. For example, imagine you went to a supposed three-star restaurant where the alleged master chef held no training or standards other than what he “felt” like cooking.  And then, said master chef throws various, random ingredients together at will, cooks them (or not) for a few seconds, and puts the concoction on a plate before you, expecting not only that you will eat it, but that you will be positively enraptured by it, and honor his supposed genius in breaking conventions. You might get lucky, of course, and find something unusual but tasty, but on the whole it is far more likely that you would simply get food poisoning.

This is not to say that all contemporary painting is bad, of course: merely because something is non-representational or unusual does not make it a bad piece of art. You can still be a great artist and not work in a realistic or traditional style. However the idea that one must have the humility to learn from the masters before one attempts to hold oneself out as a professional artist has been lost. The celebration of mediocrity as achievement is perhaps the inevitable result of a society where all is relative, and there is no good or bad, simply opinion.

Looking at this newly identified work of a then-twenty-year-old painter, we can see that Sorolla took the time to become a craftsman, and worked hard at his craft, in order to become good at what he produced. The rediscovery of this piece represents what we used to believe was the way in which great artists were made. An accomplished athlete, musician, writer, or painter is not someone who is great solely because of any natural talent they may have, but rather someone who takes that talent and achieves something with it, by following the mantra of practice, practice, practice.

“Study of Christ” by Joaquín Sorolla (1883)
Private Collection, Madrid