London Trip: Part 1

- - Art, From The Field

by Jonathan Blaustein

Disposable income. Has there ever been a more ridiculous term? It’s been five years now since the Global Economic Meltdown, and I laugh with derision every time I think of those two words mashed together. Most folks these days are happy just to pay all the bills on time. The idea that there would ever be money to burn? Blasphemous.

I bring this up, as I’m just beginning to get my head together after returning from Europe the week before last. Like many an American, I’m a verified Eurpohile. The ancient architecture, narrow streets, museums on every corner, functioning public transportation, smell of history in the air…it’s intoxicating. Stop me now, or I’ll go off on a rant like Rick Steves, and someone will put me on a PBS pledge drive. (Operators are standing by now.)

I’m lucky-and-old enough to have been able to afford the now-anachronistic American post-college-Eurail-backpacking adventure. While I certainly had fun, I imagine I’d have appreciated it more if I realized the subsequent alphabetical generation (Y to my X) would be more likely to live in their parents’ basement than to galavant around the Continent.

Nowadays, when we get a chance to travel somewhere special, I’m sure we all suck the last bit of juice from the experience. I certainly do. I’d love to punch my younger self in the face, and insist I show more respect for my privileges, but that’s not possible, as far as I know. Instead, I just try to live by the words I spout off in this forum each week.

My most recent bit of proselytizing involved trying new things, exploring new territory, and breaking away from established patterns. Right? Right.

So when I found myself in front of the Man Ray exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London recently, (brain fried and exhausted, having slept on the plane,) I decided it was time to shake things up. There is an entrance fee of $22 for the show, in an otherwise free museum. I was fairly certain my friend had a pass to let me in gratis the next day, and I’d already visited one photography exhibition to review earlier that afternoon. (About which I’ll write in the coming weeks.)

In other words, I just wasn’t feeling it. Sure, I knew the show would be interesting. (And it was, but that will have to wait as well.) But in the moment, the desire to experience new things, and not do the expected, was foremost in my mind. So I pivoted on the spot, spinning like a plastic foosball man, and headed in the other direction.

We photographers love to wander, and have honed our instincts for what might be ’round the next bend. But it’s so often in service of the next cool photograph. We search to click the shutter. I’ll advocate here that you keep the process, but flip the desired outcome. Put the camera down, and see what else is there.

In this case, I headed upstairs to the Tudor gallery, to see the centuries old portraits of English royals. The gallery opens with a painting of the recently re-discovered King Richard III, who sits next to Henry VII, who deposed him. They’re followed by Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. (Reunited at last.) The 16th Century portraits were flat and stylized, not far from their Renaissance forebears. And while the Europeans out there might say, “so what,” to those of us in the New World, seeing history in its proper environment is mesmerizing.

The following room had a few killer paintings of Queen Elizabeth I, and many of the royal courtiers, hustlers, and power players that were all the rage in her day. Intrigue, insurrection, spying, and all manner of bad behavior in service of Queen and country were discussed in the wall text. The men, rendered on canvas, looked dignified and serious, like they wouldn’t know how to laugh if they were tickled by Chris Farley himself. Fascinating, and totally worth the time.

I left the NPG shortly thereafter, and took ten steps towards the tube to return to my friend Hugo’s flat. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a beautiful Church across the street, in the opposite direction. Normally, I would have kept going towards a warm bed and a glass of wine. I’d been on the move for more than a day. The easy route was in front of me.

But I learned a valuable lesson in my more lazy, hedonistic days, and that is one never knows what is behind the door in an old European Church. So I mustered the energy to turn around, dodged a few black cabs as they whizzed by, and crossed to the street to see what was up. Thankfully.

I pushed open the heavy door, and found myself in a typical alcove. Having come that far, I pushed through the next door as well, hoping I wouldn’t interfere with anything important. If the Pope’s security force lay ahead, ready to intercept wandering Jews, that would have been no more surprising than what I found.

As soon as the door cracked a few inches, glorious music washed over my senses. The ceiling rose before me, supported by solid columns. Ahead, a string orchestra played for a piddling audience, wedged in the back, like me. They were rehearsing, so the music would stop every few minutes. I wanted to scream out, “More, more,” but it seemed uncouth.

It’s hard to describe how liberated and exhilarated I felt. As you know, I live in a horse pasture, and my local music is restricted to raven squawks and barking dogs. This, however, was a bit of magic. My emotions started to ping around my body like a five year old hopped up on too much birthday cake. I sat down on the stone floor to contemplate, in bliss.

Where was I? It’s called St Martin in the Fields, and it’s just off of Trafalgar Square. The catacombs below house a cafe and a gallery, tucked beneath a brick vaulted ceiling. There are a number of musical programs, from what I could gather, and the next night there was a candle-light concert scheduled. This place is a must visit for all of you Brits, and anyone planning a trip to London as well.

I left after a while, feeling like I could hop over a red double-decker bus without too much trouble. (Fortunately, I wasn’t so delirious as to try.) From there, I’d surely earned the right to descend into the underground. One can only handle so much exhilaration. As I walked towards the Covent Garden station, I couldn’t believe all the boutiques that lined the way.

Seriously, wherever I went in Central London, someone was trying to sell designer goods to Russian tourists. Everyone’s on the hustle these days, and when you know who’s got the cash, it’s your job to try to get it. Or something like that.

I tried to tune it all out and drift into a daydream, when up ahead, I noticed a grand, imposing and beautiful building, towering above the surrounding architecture. It was just so intense and powerful. What could it be? It was less than half a mile beyond the tube stop, and my curiosity would not leave me alone. To whom did it belong? What went on behind those thick stone walls? I had to find out.

As I approached, I felt as if I were a marlin being reeled in by a hungry fisherman. I couldn’t stop the process, and struggle seemed futile. When finally it stood before me, I noticed a small sign advertising a public museum inside the Freemasons’ Hall. Ah, the Freemasons. The famed secret society.

I opened some stained glass doors, marked with a Star of David, and was quickly met by a surprised looking security guard. Clearly, those doors were not often utilized. He directed me to another, more suitable entrance, and told me I’d need to ask for a pass to enter. So I did.

I’m not sure about you, but when I hear the term Freemasons, I think of Homer Simpson and Fred Flintstone, bumbling along in meetings with funny hats. Or maybe the Skull and Bones type stuff they have at Yale. (Any secret society that allows George W. Bush to enter is probably not as exclusive as it seems.) But this building reeked of money and power, and I was curious to see what lay inside.

The Library and Museum of Freemasonry sits at the back of the building, up some stairs and down a long set of halls. I felt not the slightest urge to deviate from the path, as I was sure there were secret security cameras everywhere. At least that’s what my imagination told me. So I did as I was told.

The place is free and open to the public, and you have to go check it out for yourself. There was an exhibit called “Encounters- Artists and Freemasonry over 300 years,” which is up until Sept 20th, 2013. I endeavored to figure out what the organization was all about, but unfortunately, I can’t say I was able to get very far.

It might be because I was tired, but really, all the text seemed to be written in a foreign language. The best I could surmise, it’s a guild or club-type-organization that supports networking among wealthy and powerful people. But as there are branches all over the world, I would imagine there is a range of membership, so really, I don’t know what I’m talking about.

There were sculptures on display, and silver chalices, porcelain plates, odd costumes, paintings, murals and textiles. Strange symbols popped up here and there, but not in patterns I could recognize. I tried to make sense of it, and failed. Fortunately, there was a fantastic photograph on display, thereby making this a photography review after all.

Sitting in an innocuous display case near the entrance, I looked down into the confident eyes of Theodore Roosevelt, the former President of these United States. He had a confidence born of wealth and breeding, and a mustache that screamed math professor. (Or as they say in England, maths.) I looked into his eyes, and heard him speak into my head: “Yeah, bitches, I’m a tough motherf-cker. I eat bears for breakfast. With my spectacles, I can see through your wimpy, plebeian soul.” (The portrait was shot by a fellow Freemason, Alvin Langon Coburn.)

I’m guessing these Freemasons roll at a level I can’t really fathom. But they were very nice to me, and how cool is it that you can visit another world like that, for free? Just make sure not to mess with anything, or you’ll probably end up in the dungeons below, never to be heard from again.

I said my thanks and retrieved my man bag at the front desk, and headed back out into the misty London streets. What a day. Henceforth, the subsequent articles will deal with photography to a greater extent than what you’ve just read. As it should be. But let the lesson here be explicit: when you put the camera down, occasionally, and explore just for the sake of it, wondrous things might be waiting just out of view.

There Are 7 Comments On This Article.

  1. Thanks for that. Lest we forget that photography is about seeing, sometimes it pays to just look around freely, and temporarily take off the photographic blinders of light, composition, and moment.

  2. Fantastically written. Enjoyed the word pictures as much as any photographs and loved the camera down lesson. I don’t think I’ve seen much of anything for the first time apart from my viewfinder. If I hadn’t taken pictures, its doubtful I’d remember the experience. A good read.

  3. Great read, thanks for sharing that. I had a very similar experience to yours while on a layover in London. I visited some of the same places you did and I think the idea of looking around that next corner is one that can’t be overstated. Sure made the exploration that much more remarkable/enjoyable.
    Makes me think it’s time to brush some of this rust off and get my traveling shoes on.

  4. This is one of life’s weird coincidences but I sat down to lunch reading this article having just got back from a magazine shoot that I did this morning, at the Freemasons hall on the subject of that exhibition! Reading this blew my mind. Anyway on a side note, the curator was telling me how much of a fascinating chap and ground-breaking photographer Alvin Langon Coburn was. As an American and a Freemason who moved to the UK he apparently pioneered many photograph techniques of the time.

  5. I hope it isn’t churlish to point out that the church of St Martin in the Fields is very well known in the UK, and I’m glad the blogger stumbled upon it. Its very important as a music venue for early music and music performed on original instruments, and many great performances have been held and recorded there. It’s also important in its charitable roles, particularly with regard to the homeless.

    Stumble a half mile to a mile further to the east and you can spend all day dropping into Wren churches rebuilt after the great fire of 1666. A favourite of mine is St Brides’, in a curious little corner just off Fleet Street. It is the journalists and photographers church. Many famous journalists and some photographers, such as Bert Hardy are memorialised there. It was also the site of an important speech by Oliver Cromwell and the speech can be read in the museum in the ‘crypt’. Opposite the Church is a Sam Smiths pub with some of the cheapest beer in London. Don’t blame me…