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COURTLY LOVE - Column March 30th 2001



London is so brimful of great art right now that it is hard to know what NOT to write about.  Indeed it’s tempting not to write at all but get out and see more.  For the returning native the biggest news is an architectural feat.  I’m actually jotting this column in the truly celestial splendor of the old Round Reading Room of the British Library.  Well, it would be a little more celestial if through the hi-tech glass and steel canopy there was a glimpse of blue.  (Ena Swansea – subject of last week’s column – is needed to make gray sky heavenly.)  Anyway, I’m typing away at one of the leather-bound desks that form a spoke in a wheel of such desks under Sydney Smirke’s magnificent 1857 dome.  The drum is only a couple of feet short in diameter of the Pantheon of Rome.  This space has now been transformed into an oasis of calm at the heart of Norman Foster’s Queen Elizabeth II Great Court, the millennial project – named for the country’s sovereign and largely paid for by its lottery losers - that has miraculously reconfigured the British Museum.  I already suspected that Norman Foster was a pretty talented fellow on the evidence of Stansted Airport (there aren’t many airports in the world one would visit just to admire the design) and the exquisite Sackler Galleries at the Royal Academy (not to mention even grander projects like the Reichstag read about in books) but this grand scheme really confirms his genius. 


If I can be nostalgic for a moment: the British Museum is the place where I learnt to look at art.  True, I’d had my first taste of pictures at Kenwood House, the stately home on my doorstep where I grew up, which happens to have a Rembrandt self-portrait and a Vermeer on its walls, but as a boy of fifteen I used to come here every Saturday morning, often with an Iranian school friend who would earnestly lecture me about his Aryan forebears in front of grim little objects tucked away in some corner, but I remember, too, the joy of discovering Egyptian art, of buying Sir E. A. Wallis-Budge’s grammar of hieroglyphics in the labyrinth of Bloomsbury booksellers huddled around the museum and thinking I’d become an Egyptologist.  Years later, prints became a big thing in my life, and many hours of marvelous education happened for me up on the fourth floor surrounded by stacks of the world’s second largest collection (the Biblioteque Nationale tops them by a few hundred thousand I think).  And although my name isn’t listed alongside those of Karl Marx, W.B. Yeats, and subsequent holders of a British Library card, I spent not a few hours under what was then the blue and is now the pink and gold dome of the Round Reading Room. 


The Library has since divorced from the Museum, and has a gorgeous home of its own, designed by the unjustly vilified Sir Colin St John Wilson.  It is a gentle, humane, Aalto-esque modernist masterpiece.  The liberation has been great for the museum too, but a divorce is always sad.  In the old days one would often wait hours (if not indeed days) for books, and how delectable it was to console oneself in the company of Ming vases, Benin bronzes, or Hellenic torsos as chaps in overalls scurried through the vaults for one’s order.  But anyway, enough nostalgia.  The reader needs to know that the Museum has been utterly transformed for the better by this reconfiguration.


In the old days, visitors, who annually number millions, would herd into the entrance hall only to be confronted, head on, by a closed door with a custodian checking library tickets.  One would be siphoned off in the direction of the Magna Carta and other manuscripts, illuminated or otherwise, in one direction, the artefacts of sundry civilizations in various others.  The din and cramped confusion of that entrance lobby is now, mercifully, a fading memory.  Instead one wafts into a glorious courtyard whose interior elevations are as graceful and inspiring as the Museum’s legendary ionic temple frontage on Bloomsbury’s Great Russell Street, the work of the older Smirke brother, Robert.  Before, the courtyard was utterly lost in the inverted Haghia Sophia created by the in-fill storage areas hemming in the Reading Room.  Now one has the sensation of being inside one of those Renaissance architectural caprices, with a round temple set within a classical court, only here it is heavily accented in modernist-purist detail- Raphael meets Léger.  The criss-crossing of the canopy is a-symmetrically parabolic to contrast with the Smirkes’ severe geometric forms.  Exquisite soft white marbles offset the peculiarly English voluptuousness of Robert Smirke’s Portland stone Georgian facades.  The Reading Room is weirdly almost book free, although they are building up a low-key collection of art and archaeology reference works for casual perusal, and there are terminals for virtual exploring.  Mostly, the space exists for itself, for resting the mind and recouping energies.  The surrounding courtyard is proving a popular meeting place, and boasts cafés and a dining room, as well as various educational facilities and trading posts, but it is for the rest of the museum, really, that this courtyard is the real miracle.  Foster has a genius for diffusing crowds and simplifying the ergonomics of complex spaces.  In the bad old days it was such a trek to get almost anywhere in the museum.  Furthermore, in department store terms, it was much more Bloomingdale’s than Barney’s, in that each gallery seemed to follow its own design logic (or illogic), with an alienating diversity.  Now the galleries are held together by a polite, clarifying authority.  There has been much sandblasting, floor polishing, and many new vitrines, which in their clean classy way seem to be inspired by the Foster aesthetic.  But maybe it comes down to something as obvious as Foster’s distinctive light-gray type font.  The whole experience of circumnavigating this humungous collection is now lightened.  All strength can be devoted to its contents.  Thanks to liberated space, these now include the ethnographic collections, which used to be housed separately as the Museum of Mankind.  And of course, there are still those prints.  Right now there is a stupendous exhibition, Rembrandt the Printmaker, which if I wasn’t jetlagged and in the thrall of Lord Foster I’d be writing about today.  Perhaps next time, though there’s the Genius of Rome and Botticelli’s Dante Drawings, too, both at the RA, something odd about cities at Tate Modern, Stanley Spencer at Tate Britain, and no shortage of living art all around town.


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