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A Straight Line Walk Across London
by Paul K Lyons
46 - El Greco lates, THE Raphael, Titian's ultramarine and a very grey St Martin
The National Gallery takes up the whole north side of Trafalgar Square, its raised entrance terrace providing excellent views across the square, along Whitehall and down to Big Ben. It was built by William Wilkins in the 1830s, and has never been much admired as a building; nor has the Sainsbury Wing extension added in the 1980s. However, Prince Charles rather likes the original: he called one proposed design for the Sainsbury Wing 'a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend'. But who cares about the building when it houses one of the most important collections of paintings anywhere in the world. Today, as I pass, there are posters promoting a major El Greco exhibition (admission £10) and 'El Greco lates' where live music and a bar are offered every Wednesday and Saturday until 9pm. Other posters advertise 'The Raphael' and carry a white diagonal banner saying 'Saved'. This refers to a 500 year old painting called 'The Madonna of the Pinks'. After thirteen years on loan by the Duke of Northumberland, the Gallery has now bought the picture for £22 million (inclusive of tax deductions and a 'douceur'). The Heritage Lottery Fund (which paid over half the total) requires that the painting tour the country extensively.
The east wing of the National Gallery's front, around which I must walk (for there is no way through the museum itself), is boarded up with large brilliant blue hoardings. These are in place to protect refurbishment works taking place inside. Thanks to Hewlett Packard, the hoardings have been employed for a giant display entitled 'The Biography of Blue'. The most beautiful blue in the world, I read, was made from Afghani lapis lazuli. It travelled the Silk Road and sailed - hence its name ultramarine - to Venice. Titian bought his colours wholesale, but even so he still had to pay ten times more for ultramarine than for azurite, a less intense blue.
Across St Martin's Place, St Martin-in-the-Fields looks very grey, especially in comparison to the green fields conjured up by its name and/or Hewlett Packard's ultramarine. This church building dates from 1726 and was built by James Gibb, a follower of Sir Christopher Wren. George I served as its first churchwarden, and Nell Gwynn, Charles II's mistress, was buried here. The grand portico, though, gives the church a portentous look, not altogether assuaged by its efforts to straddle - like Trafalgar Square itself - both the royal and the common. Inside are boxes reserved for the royal family and for the admiralty; but there are also memorials, one to victims of South Africa's apartheid regime and another to World War Two prisoners in the far east. Down the stairs in the vaulted crypt, once kept open all night to house the homeless, are a cafe, a bookshop and a brass rubbing centre. And, under the shelter of the high portico ceiling, stands a smooth, nearly cubic piece of white stone about 5 ft tall. The top face, though, is roughly hewn and angled slightly, with a carved new born baby lying on its back - as though the stone had been cracked open and the child found there. An inscription around its side says: 'In the beginning was the word and the word became flesh and lived among us. John 1. 14.'
Turning north along St Martin's Place for a few yards, I pass a monument
to Edith Cavell on my right and the National Portrait Gallery on my left.
The Cavell memorial, by Sir George Frampton, dates to 1920. Cavell was a
popular hero of World War One. She worked as a nurse, travelling several
times to Brussels where, eventually, she stayed and became matron of a clinic.
During the war, the clinic was used as a Red Cross Hospital, and, by Cavell,
as a shelter for allied soldiers trying to get to neutral Holland. She and
others were executed by firing squad in 1915. The allies then used her death
as propaganda against the Germans. The monument bears an inscription - 'Patriotism
is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone' - based on
what she said to a priest on the night before her execution. Higher up,
the words 'Fortitude, Devotion, Sacrifice, Humanity' are carved in the stone.
A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting
by Paul K Lyons
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