My weekend was once again spent in London, but this time we were lucky enough to enjoy a rare cloudless day. The wind still raged stubbornly, cutting through the thin layers I wore in anticipation of fine weather. I have learned not to complain too much when the sun decides to make an appearance over head, though.
We started our day at Buckingham Palace. We were lucky to arrive early enough to see the changing of the guard, which only takes place every other day during the off-season. It was very similar to a parade, with a full marching band playing God Save the Queen (I still start the lyrics as, “my country ’tis of thee…” every time), and the guards following behind. The changing of the guard ceremony was not what I expected, as the only one I’ve seen before was at Arlington National Cemetery for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. There was a lot more pomp and circumstance at Buckingham Palace, but I wouldn’t expect anything less from the Windsor monarchy.
After the ceremony was over, our tour of the palace began. The center of power for the British monarchy did not disappoint. It was spectacularly beautiful, even to someone who has lived among the mansions of Newport for two years. It was truly surreal to be walking in such an iconic piece of British history, and I often found myself holding back tears at the sheer emotion of seeing it all for the first time. It is a feeling I’ve grown familiar with over the past few weeks, and I hope to never lose it. As the 60th anniversary of Her Majesty’s coronation occurred this year, much of the tour was focused around the events of June 2, 1953. A special exhibit was open displaying the coronation robes, the jewels she wore on the day, and documents pertaining to the coronation. The highlight of the day for me, however, was a discovery I made in the Royal Art Collection. As we walked through the long hall displaying some of the finest art in the world, I noticed one of my personal favorite works; Artemisia Gentileschi’s Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting. We discussed it extensively in my Art History class last semester. Gentileschi was one of the only female artists of her time, and faced great difficulties as a result. As a teenager, she was raped by a man who worked in her father’s art studio. He was put on trial for his crime, because Artemisia was a virgin at the time of the rape. If she had not been a virgin, her family would have been unable to press charges. This trauma greatly influenced the subjects she decided to paint in the future. She generally chose to portray strong women, like Judith killing Holofernes. Her self-portrait was her greatest achievement in proving her place within the art world. The allegory of painting was a popular subject for many artists, who enjoyed depicting a voluptuous woman as the muse who inspired their work. But none could depict themselves as that muse, except Artemisia Gentileschi. She is remembered as one of the most innovative artists of her time. I admire her work as important and moving, and I admire her as a daring person who braved opposition to pursue her passion. It was a special surprise that made a great day even better.
After having a cup of tea at Buckingham Palace (it is completely worth the four quid I paid for the tea just to be able to say that), we decided to explore part of the National Gallery, Britain’s massive art museum. Spanning multiple centuries, countries, and artists, it would be quite an undertaking to try and experience it all in one visit. Multiple visits suits me just fine, as I value the chance to savor the art (it also helps that admission is free- if I had to pay, I would forget about savoring and just gulp the art down in one sitting). We decided to look at art from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, one of my favorite eras. I was already running on a high from seeing Artemisia Gentileschi, so I couldn’t wait to see what I would encounter here. I wasn’t disappointed. One of the first paintings I found was Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna of the Rocks. Obviously, Leonardo’s works are known all the world over, and we studied him extensively in Art History. I was concerned that over-exposure to the works prior to seeing them in person would dampen the experience of seeing them firsthand. I was delighted to realize how wrong I was. I never quite understood my art professor when he talked about how different Leonardo’s style and technique was to his contemporaries. I saw his evident skill, but it was difficult to grasp from a photograph the actual paint strokes. Upon seeing his work in person, I finally understood. In contrast to the sharp accuracy of other artists, Leonardo’s work conveyed a softness of line and luminescent quality. It is difficult to put into words what can only be seen, but suffice it to say, I was moved to tears by the emotion the painting evoked. I could go on to describe others I saw, but it would be fruitless to try and describe an indescribable experience.
After I was dragged from the National Gallery, we made our way to the London Eye to get a birdseye view of the city (although birds don’t have to pay twenty pounds for their view). Several of our British friends had suggested going on the London Eye at dusk, to see the city illuminated. We took their advice, and got in line at 7:30. Getting on the glorified Ferris wheel was quite an ordeal. Like a ski lift, it doesn’t stop to allow passengers on, just zooms on by as we leap into the pod, barely avoiding the Thames flowing beneath us. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t quite that dramatic, but it was disconcerting stepping from a stationary platform to a pod in motion. I forgot all about the trauma once we gained height and city lay out beneath us. We saw Big Ben and Parliament (a sight that never gets old), St. Paul’s Cathedral, the London Bridge, and a host of other notable sights. The true impact came from the cityscape as a whole, lit up like Christmas, and as great a gift as could ever be found under the tree on Christmas morning. For the third time that day, I felt the tears well up and fall. I still can’t fully comprehend that I am here, but I am enjoying every moment. And I’ve only seen England! This weekend will take me to Germany (another motherland!) with all new places to explore and experience. Until next week, auf wiedersehn!