diamond geezer

 Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Random borough (26): Westminster (part 3)

Somewhere pretty: The Wallace Collection
Even in the heart of central London, some tourist gems lie just far enough off the beaten track that they remain unnoticed by the majority. So it is with the Wallace Collection, a gallery-cum-museum of fine and decorative arts on the edge of Manchester Square. See, you don't even know where Manchester Square is, do you, probably? Its a couple of roads behind Selfridges, beyond Wigmore Street, in an elegant under-trafficked locale. From the front it looks like a typically Georgian grand mansion, as indeed it once was as home to the Marquess of Hertford. But look further and the building stretches back, and back, in more utilitarian brick, having been greatly extended as a place of exhibition and display. Whoever lived in a house like this really (really) liked their art.

Sir Richard Wallace is officially to thank for this magnificent free-to-enter collection, although it was his predecessors who collected most of it and his widow who bequeathed the lot to the nation. A pre-condition that no piece ever be transferred elsewhere has protected the integrity of the collection for future generations, and preserved the wow factor for anyone visiting for the first time. Wow. Within the 25 galleries are many different kinds of creative treasure, not just paintings but more especially intricately-crafted objects. The porcelain is gorgeous, especially the Sèvres in characteristic light blue, plus some irreplaceable German Meissen. There's fine French furniture in many of the rooms, giving the house the air of a lived-in art gallery. Boulle cabinets, gilded mantleclocks and rather a lot of flowery vases, merely for starters. The Wallace is so image-conscious that even the security cameras have a fake gold surround rather than the more usual plastic.

Every time you think you must have visited all the rooms by now, another passageway or wing opens up revealing more. For the effortlessly cultured, an Oval Drawing Room. For the modern barbarian or dagger-obsessive, four entire galleries of European and Oriental Armour. For the creatively awe-struck, a small temporary exhibition of classical bronze statues in the basement (which was far more interesting than I expected). For Marylebone residents who fancy somewhere damned impressive to go fine dining, an extensive courtyard brasserie de luxe beneath a sealed-in glass roof. And right at the back of the house, far huger than any visitor has reason to expect, is Wallace's Great Gallery. Wow again. And because I wasn't quite sure what to expect, I was very pleasantly surprised by a familiar smile on the wall halfway down. That's, you know, the actual Laughing Cavalier isn't it? Also available on postcards or notelets in the shop, but better seen in the painted flesh, on a Marylebone wall, in perpetuity.
by tube: Bond Street

Somewhere retail: Church Street Market
Westminster has some of the best known retail centres in the London. Oxford Street, Carnaby Street, Regent Street, Bond Street, Marylebone High Street, Whiteleys, Fortnum and Mason, Covent Garden, the list is overwhelming. So I ignored all of that lot and went somewhere far more local, far more real. To Church Street Market. It's well known only to those in the immediate vicinity, which is just off the Edgware Road near the Paddington Green mega-police-station. A typical hybrid London market, where salt of the earth types mix with ethnic traders to serve a cost-conscious clientèle [photo]. The Burlington Arcade this is not. But what I really wanted, on my half-hour visit, was an in-depth socio-cultural investigation into the market's history and future development. And, what do you know, that's exactly what I got.

Part of the London Festival of Architecture (though a woefully under-advertised part) was an installation entitled Anatomy of a Street. Inspired by a similar thoroughfare in Budapest, the organisers took Church Street and aimed to use it as an outdoor gallery. Seven locations up and down the market, each building with an associated slice of audio, and the invitation to wander through the market and view it in another dimension. Which is how I ended up handing over a £10 note as deposit, collecting an authentic 80s Aiwa Walkman from a stack of blue plastic trays, and setting off down the street plugged into a pair of headphones. A very simple idea, both portable and adaptable to a wide range of alternative locations should the project continue.

I stood between the library and the side of a bustling fruit stall and pressed play. After the summative introduction (which you can listen to here), the first of seven interviewees spooled through. One covered Hungary, and then all the voices were local to Church Street. Across to the Neighbourhood Management Centre to hear from a community worker how difficult it is to gentrify a location without wrecking it. Further up-market to understand the importance of the 50p stalls that provide the market's everyday lifeblood. Another track relating the lives of the antiques traders who helps to bring in more well-heeled consumers, not least to the day-glo-topped arcades of Alfie's Antiques Market [photo]. And a quiet rant demanding that the nearby Bakerloo line station (and local bus stops) be renamed after the market to raise its public profile. A cabbie, an immigrant and a renowned developer who lives round the corner, each had their say, providing a different angle on proceedings as I wandered through the Saturday trading action. Throw in some Turkish music for background atmosphere, and my 25 retro-Walkman minutes simply sped by.

The tape helped me to linger and understand the market far better than a simple stroll through the cloth, coconuts and china. I was told by the organisers that they'd be uploading the entire audio presentation to their website sometime early this week, maybe even today, should you be interested in listening to the real stories behind a historic everyday street market. Church Street's no tourist draw, but for many it's a way of life.
by tube: Church Street Market Edgware Road

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