One of my favourite guides is Visitor’s London, written by Harold F. Hutchinson for London Transport in the 1950s and reprinted many times. My edition is from 1968. The line illustrations include this one of Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill by Gareth Adamson. Hutchinson’s practical prose is elegant enough to be enjoyable for its own sake and although the guide is old, it’s still useful because it covers all of London’s important attractions. When it was written, this little Gothic confection wasn’t open to the public “but permission to see this architectural enterprise is always given to the serious student.” It’s still owned by St Mary’s University (once a Catholic teacher training college) but it was refurbished in 2015 following a very long period of neglect remarkable for such a historically important building. Although not a serious student, I visited the other day.
Its odd arrangement of rooms, many of them impossibly small, is explained by the fact that Walpole intended Strawberry Hill as a place to display the collection to which he devoted his life and which was broken up in 1842. The trustees are attempting to trace and reassemble it, and as he recorded his possessions at length the contents of Strawberry Hill are known and there’s a well-illustrated publication by Silvia Davoli, Lost Treasures of Strawberry Hill.
We climbed to the Castel San Giusto in Trieste to get a view over the town and the seaport. A cruise liner had docked, dwarfing the surrounding buildings. The Cathedral was an afterthought.
Trieste looks like a central European city even a century after being detached from the Austro-Hungarian empire and there are remnants of its former status, from the Orthodox church of St Spyridon and the offices of Generali, the insurance company born in the city, to restaurants serving strudel and sausages with sauerkraut.
The Cathedral of St Justus, a 14th-century basilica on one of the highest points, is from a pre-Habsburg Trieste. It is simple but, on account of its wall paintings and Byzantine mosaics, not austere, and there is a beautiful afternoon light.
In my A-level art class I studied Netherlandish painting and was pleased to be able to visit and visit again The Arnolfini Portait in the National Gallery, and I hoped one day to go to Ghent to see the Van Eycks’ polyptych The Adoration of The Lamb. As luck had it, in my school holidays I was given a lift by someone who had a friend in Ghent, an Englishman married to a Belgian woman, and we stopped with them for lunch. I looked forward to seeing the Van Eyck altarpiece.
We were given a splendid meal and a lot to drink – an aperitif before and plenty of wine throughout the meal. Then I said I’d like to go to the cathedral to see the altarpiece. “Not before you have a brandy,” my host insisted, and I accepted out of politeness. I wasn’t used to drinking.
By the time he drove me to the cathedral I was drunk. After I’d spent ten minutes squinting at The Adoration and trying to focus on it he became impatient and said, “Let’s go for a drink.”
He drove to an anonymous grey building with closed doors. He rang the bell and someone let us in and led us up a dark staircase to a smart, brightly-lit bar on the first floor. Glamorous and expensively dressed women sat around on sofas. My host seemed to know them and kissed them all. He ordered a brandy and offered me one. This time I refused. He wasn’t in a hurry and he had another. Then another. I couldn’t follow the conversation. My head was spinning and I just wanted the jaunt to end. After about forty minutes he kissed all the women again, lurched down to the street and fumbled for his car keys.
At last I asserted myself.
“You’ve had too much, you’re in no condition to drive,” I said, and tried to take the keys away from him.
“Don’t be such a prissy little ass. Give me my fucking keys!”
A taxi came into view and I hailed it.
“We’re getting a taxi,” I said.
“Don’t be so fucking wet. I can drive perfectly well; I’ve done it a thousand times.”
The taxi pulled over.
“What’s your address?” I said.
“I don’t need a taxi.”
I turned to the taxi driver. “I’m trying to find out his address.”
“It’s OK,” he said quietly, “I know him, I know where he lives.”
So we fell in and went home by taxi.
This year the restored altarpiece was put on display and I thought I should see it sober. But then came COVID-19, so I guess I’ll have to wait a few more years.
It will be obvious from my comments about Ruskin that I’m an admirer of David Pye, (above) who was the first person to talk sense about the crafts. Here’s a quotation from The Independent‘s obituary:
In The Nature of Design (1964), Pye exposed functionalism as fantasy. ‘Things simply are not ‘fit for their purpose’. At one time a flake of flint was fit for the purpose of surgery; and stainless steel is not fit for the purpose now. Everything we design and make is an improvisation, a lash-up, something inept and provisional. We live like castaways. But, even at that, we can be debonair and make the best of it. If we cannot have our way in performance, we will have it in appearance.’