Madame Butterfly and Delacroix in London
Back from London where we had a delightful couple of days of opera, art galleries and fine dining.
We stayed once again at the Melia White House with its lovely Spanish staff and terrific food. The head waitress, who has become a friend, becomes quite upset if there is pudding left at the buffet … (that’s our excuse).
We met up on Wednesday afternoon for tea and a talk from Chris about Madame Butterfly’s perennial appeal and the influence of Japan on the nineteenth century art world. We then had a pre-show dinner at the Cote Brasserie before strolling over to the Coliseum. The production lived up to expectations with Anthony Minghella’s pared-down setting concentrating the mind on the central drama and wringing the maximum heartache from poor Butterfly’s delusions of eternal love. The staging was at times simply breath-taking. Her child was played here by a skilfully-handled puppet which some people found rather unnerving but I thought was profoundly moving – and I loved the way he stayed in character right through the curtain call. What lovely music it is.
On Thursday morning we made our way to the National Gallery to see the Delacroix exhibition. We started with a lecture by Gayna Pelham, one of the National’s curators, which was for me, and I think for lots of other people, one of the highlights of the trip. She was passionate, knowledgeable and enthusiastic and, for me, shed new light on the artist and his importance not only to his contemporaries and the artists that came after them, but in turn to the development of modern art as we know it. The extent of this revolutionary influence was demonstrated in the exhibition in works by Renoir, Cezanne, Redon, Van Gogh, Monet and a host of other artists who all revered him. Gayna quoted his old friend, Théophile Silvestre who said of him;
‘…he had a sun in his head and a thunderstorm in his heart … his suave and terrible brush went from saints to warriors, from warriors to lovers, from lovers to tigers and from tigers to flowers.’
In his fascinating book, ‘Keeping an Eye Open’, Julian Barnes says that French art in the 19th century was, in broadest terms, a struggle between colour and line. ‘In a Delacroix’, he says, ‘colour leads; it directs the eye and the heart before the mind addresses questions of line and subject matter.’
The best quote about Delacroix, though, has to come from Picasso, who became fixated on Delacroix’s Women of Algiers in their Apartment, which he interpreted himself at least fifteen times. ‘That bastard,’ he said, ‘He’s really good.’
We had an exception lunch at the National Gallery restaurant, (highly recommended! Especially for the treacle tart) before making our way to the Courtauld Institute where we were given a guided tour of some of its highlights, which tied in neatly with what we had been discovering at the National Gallery that morning.
Then on to dinner at the Savoy Grill. What an amazing place! I was trying to look cool but was overcome by the sheer acreage of marble in the ladies loos. The meal was amazing too, obviously; course after delicious course, from the lobster and crab bisque, through the seared scallops with a stunning pea velouté, beef Wellington, omelette Arnold Bennett and lemon posset to the final dramatic flambéing of crêpes Suzette at the table. It was truly memorable.
David and Miriam Lewis at the Savoy
On Friday morning, we went to explore the Wallace Collection. We were lucky enough to have a tour with one of their young curators, Adam, who turned out to be extremely knowledgeable and a fount of wonderful stories. He made us look twice at objects I would have walked past without really seeing. There a rococo chest of drawers from Louis XIV’s boudoir which, Adam told us, had terrified the dying king on his final night when he thought that the firelight reflected on the gilt was the flames of hell awaiting him … Or the enormous Sevre porcelain vase that once belonged to Catherine the Great, acquired by an aristocrat who had rescued it from the flames of her burning palace and somehow forgotten to give it back.
The fact that Louis’ French craftsmen didn’t know how to do marquetry so they bulk bought delicate Chinese pieces and bashed them up so they could use the broken shards in their own pieces. And then there were the treasures that were more familiar, such as Fragonard’s lovely ‘Swing’ whose secrets Adam couldn’t go too far in revealing as there were children present … Not to mention the stunning armour collection. All that, and an excellent café too. What more could you ask?
We returned to the White House for a final, leisurely lunch before returning home, dreaming of harems and dragons.