Monday, 24 September 2012

London Guildhall Art Gallery and Amphitheatre

The London Guildhall is in the middle of London City proper, and I took the Waterloo and City line to get to it, which was mildly exciting because I think that's the only tube line I'd never used. I went mostly to see a temporary exhibition, but there is an Art Gallery with a permanent display, and underneath you can see the ruins of London's Roman Amphitheatre.

The exhibition was called "Butcher, Baker, Candlestick Maker: 850 Years of London Livery Company Treasures". I've come across the Skinners and Girdlers at Corpus feasts, wearing their skins or girdles as appropriate, and exuding the confidence of members of a very very old Rotary club. There are surviving gild documents from Anglo-Saxon England, mostly involving clubbing together to brew beer and bury their dead, and perhaps with extras like an agreed donation to anyone who set out on a pilgrimage to Rome. The surviving guilds are later, but they are mostly very rich by dint of sheer long-term existence.

The exhibition was very likeable and interesting. The oldest thing was a charter of Henry II from 1155 to the Weavers, and there were lots of excellent fifteenth- and sixteenth-century illuminated manuscripts of guild membership and such-like. But there was also a general mixture of old and new objects that reminded me of Corpus's collections of silver. There's something amiable about having a seventeenth-century coffee pot with pineapples on it next to an early twenty-first ewer incorporating the structure of DNA. There were lots of small likeable things -- the Innholders have a "Sweete Salt", given by Anne Sweete in 1614, and the gloves from the coronation of Elizabeth I and Elizabeth II were shown side by side. A Holbein of Henry VIII giving a charter to the Barber--Surgeons is still owned by the Royal College of Physicians. Guilds are still being set up today -- the list of 108 full guilds starts with the Mercers, the Grocers, the Drapers, and the Fishmongers, and ends with the Management Consultants, the International Bankers, the Tax Advisors, and the Security Professionals.

The Art Gallery and Amphitheatre were interesting to see, but I'm not sure they would have supported a special trip very well. The Art collections are mostly nineteenth-century society or sentimental paintings, inoffensive but unsubstantial. There are some interesting pictures of London through the last few hundred years, and a lot of paintings of pageants. The Amphitheatre is down in the basement. Some of the wooden drainage system survives, and parts of the gateway at the entrance. Obviously you need a bit of an imagination to make much of it, but all the stairs you go down make a dramatic point about how London has risen, and outside a large oval set into the paving traces its extent. I've seen lots of bigger amphitheatres abroad -- a reminder that London was only the capital of a very far province.

As a visitor attraction I would recommend going either when there's an interesting exhibition on or when you're in the area already. Or, you could take a youth on an educational visit to the amphitheatre. When I was young people were constantly dragging me to see hypocausts, so it might at least make a change from that.

No comments:

Post a Comment