Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The Guildhall Art Gallery and Roman Amphitheatre

Guild Hall (centre) & Art Gallery (right); line shows extent of amphitheatre.
Executive Summary
Ambling along Gresham Street, taking a detour into Guildhall Yard transports you into a microcosm of London history and architecture. Lining the tranquil square, you’ll find the guild church St Lawrence Jewry (rebuilt by Wren after the Great Fire of 1666), the late twentieth century Guildhall Art Gallery (rebuilt after being destroyed in the Blitz) and the medieval Guildhall, the ceremonial and administrative centre of the City of London and its Corporation. Guildhall Yard encompasses even more history than these three remarkable buildings suggest: during building work for the new gallery it was revealed that they sit atop the site of an ancient Roman amphitheatre. Head for the Guildhall Art Gallery to see a selection of the City of London Corporation’s impressive (and free!) art collection, and the evocative remains of the Roman amphitheatre.

The Great Fire of London, 1666, after Waggoner
Recruiting in the Guildhall, Charles Wakefield, 1920
Go There...
... For surprisingly vivid eyewitness accounts - in oil paint - of London's triumphs, tribulations and proto-celebrities, and a chance to enter a Roman amphitheatre accompanied by rampant applause.

Must-Know Info
Opening Hours: Monday – Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday 12pm-4pm   Admission: free (small charges for temporary exhibitions)    Nearest tube: St Paul’s or Bank

Sir Matthew Hale - Fire Judge, 1670, John Michael Wright
The Corporation’s art collection was ignited at a pivotal moment in London’s history: the Great Fire of 1666. In the wake of the devastating fire, which destroyed five sixths of the walled area of the medieval city and rendered at least 65 000 people homeless, a panel of judges was appointed to assess property claims. They worked three to four days a week without pay, listening and deciding on cases quickly and efficiently: without them, legal wrangling and contradictory interests would likely have fatally undermined London’s rebuilding and recovery. Instead, the City effected a Phoenix-like rise from the ashes: in less than ten years the entire area had been rebuilt (save for a few parish churches). In gratitude to the judges, the Court of Aldermen commissioned portraits of them to hang in the newly restored Guildhall. It was from this nucleus that the Guildhall collection grew over the centuries through commission, bequest and acquisition. While twenty of the twenty-two original portraits were damaged during the Blitz, two survive alongside a diverse collection that now numbers over 4500 works reflecting the city’s social, political, aesthetic and physical landscapes.  

The first Guildhall Art Gallery opened in 1885, with the aim of making the City of London Corporation’s accessible to public view. This educational and philanthropic gesture was a leitmotif of Victorian society, simultaneously responding to a widespread perception of an ‘increased Taste in Art’. The building was destroyed during an air raid in 1941 – luckily much of the collection had been safely stowed underground in Wiltshire – but it was only in 1988 that work began on a new permanent Gallery. While digging the foundations, the Museum of London Archaeological Service discovered the remains of a Roman amphitheatre, the existence and location of which had long been the subject of popular speculation. Immediately declared an Ancient Monument, the ruins precipitated a redesign of the building, which eventually opened in 1999 (with the Amphitheatre open to the public since 2002).

Interior, first floor: you can see the top of the Copley painting on the right.
Curation & Interpretation
Copley's massive painting spans two storeys
Of the vast collection, only about 250 works are on display at any one time. Currently, the main section of the gallery has a strong nineteenth century focus and curatorial approach: paintings by Millais, Leighton, Constable and Landseer amongst others jostle salon-style against walls of rich Pompeian red, reflecting the influence of the Royal Academy in the Victorian era. 

Spanning the height of two floors, pride of place is reserved for John Singleton Copley’s The Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar, September 1782, one of the nation’s largest oil paintings (543 x 754cm). Commemorating a dramatic British victory over Spanish forces for possession of Gibraltar (where the British had long been besieged), the painting was commissioned to honour the officers who had bravely withstood the siege, though it also included the relief fleet that arrived a month after the battle. Copley’s ability to coherently integrate multiple narratives, dramatic points of view, and named individuals was what won him the commission, but – with so many stories, personalities and interests to represent – it was also what led to the painting taking eight years to complete rather than the estimated two. Today, the monumental work acts as a connecting device between the upper level and the ground floor, which houses more of the expansive collection as well as temporary exhibitions.

The Roman amphitheatre with its flourescent gladiators and spectators.
Downstairs are urban and river scenes of the city, from "eyewitness views" of the Great Fire to grandeloquent ceremonial processions: a kind of pre-photographic scrapbook of the city’s life and times. Further down, a sub-basement contains the scant remains of Roman Londinium’s 6000-seater amphitheatre. Integrating this feature into the gallery must have been no mean feat, and, as a result, entering into its sparse and sepulchral darkness after the warm collusion of the galleries above is slightly jarring. Only the remnants of the eastern entrance’s stone walls remain, with some suggestions of draining flues and animal pens, so it must have been quite a challenge to make a coherent exhibition from the space. Joining the rest of the dots for your imagination are black and fluorescent green projections of the seating area and computer-meshed outlines of gladiators and spectators that make you feel like you’ve stepped into an early online role-playing environment. Curiously-stencilled light filters dapple the basement with spectral patterns and the cranky whirr of dusty technology, while, as you reach the end of the original entrance and enter the arena, the roaring applause of the crowd is cued. Plans are apparently afoot to reopen the amphitheatre as an entertainment venue, enlivening the echoing space once again with living applause (although spoken word poetry and stand-up comedy events are scheduled to replace public executions and fights-to-the-death).

Millais's popular companion paintings: First Sermon and Second Sermon
Best in Show
Don’t miss John Everett Millais’s charming pair of paintings First Sermon (1863) and Second Sermon (1864), featuring his five-year-old daughter Effie. In the first painting, sitting bright-eyed and upright in the old high-backed pews of All Saints Church, Kingston-on-Thames, Effie’s little face holds a look of concentrated decorum. The work was such a hit at the Royal Academy exhibition that Millais went on to paint a companion piece depicting the little girl’s second visit to church, in which the novelty has worn off: in his speech at the next Royal Academy Banquet, the Archbishop of Canterbury apparently framed it as a warning against “the evil of lengthy sermons and drowsy discourses”.

Anecdotal Aside
Much of the City of London Corporation’s collection consists of portraits of royals and other influential political and civic figures, including a visually arresting 8ft, £150 000 marble statue of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher which stopped me in my tracks. In 2002, the recently unveiled sculpture was decapitated with a cricket bat (and a metal bar, when the bat couldn’t hack it) by a man who had kept the weapon of assault tucked in his trousers to avoid security. At the subsequent trial, he claimed the act was a satirical vehicle to highlight such issues as “globalisation, the environment, religion, capitalism, the third world war, greed, the music industry, terrorism, Tony Blair, America and Afghanistan”. The work was restored and returned to display (behind bullet-proof glass) at the Guildhall Art Gallery: Perhaps if the statue had been in keeping with Thatcher’s moniker of the “Iron Lady”, the damage would not have been quite so costly…

Postman's Park: you can see the memorial panels under the roofed area.
Parting Shots
After a visit to the Guildhall Art Gallery and Roman Amphitheatre, carry on along Gresham Street, turning right into Aldersgate. At the London City Presbyterian Church, step into Postman’s Park (near the site of the former headquarters of the General Post Office) where many postal employees would spend their breaks. Today it is better known for G.F. Watts’s Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, which commemorates individuals who died to save others. Begun in 1900, the memorial represents each through a hand-painted panel of several tiles with a description of the incident. Though short, they are often unexpectedly literary (William Donald of Bayswater… “drowned in the Lea trying to save a lad from a dangerous entanglement of weed”), intimate (Herbert Maconoghy, schoolboy from Wimbledon… “his parents absent in India, lost his life in vainly trying to rescue two schoolfellows…”) or bizarre (Sarah Smith, pantomime artist “who died of terrible injuries received when attempting in her inflammable dress to extinguish the flames which had enveloped her companion”). 

When the memorial opened, only four of the planned 120 plaques were in place: Watts added another nine during his lifetime, and his wife Mary oversaw the installation of another thirty-four. It was said that Watts had hoped that such extraordinary acts of heroism by ordinary people – what makes a nation truly great – would continue, and that society would continue to commemorate them rather than its material possessions, but it wasn’t until 2009 that a new tablet was added to the memorial. Leigh Pitt, a print technician from Surrey, died on 7 June 2007 rescuing a nine-year-old boy who was drowning in a canal. His colleague approached the Diocese of London to suggest adding him to the memorial and, since then, the Diocese has decided to continue considering suitable names to be added to the memorial in the future.

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