Deriving Modern London

London’s history is vast, and over these past nine weeks–despite incredibly full days–I have only experienced a tiny slice of its reach. But for my last entry, I wanted to explore some of what it means to be a part of London’s contemporary history. It is just such a cosmopolitan, bustling, industrious, culturally invaluable, and dynamic urban environment. The following reflection came from just wandering by myself along the Thames from Embankment to the Tate Modern and back, on a sunny, warm day.

“Prince of Teck Pub, drinking a cider:

Had a wonderful evening. And day. Wrote blog posts in the Italian Gardens Café, in Hyde Park, went to the National Portrait Gallery for several hours, walked to the Tate Modern along the South Bank, had dinner…journaled. Very recharging and productive day.

I was struck by the profound variety & multiculturalism of people along the South Bank today. I heard dozens of languages, saw expressions of different races, creeds, religions, age, national origin, all mingling along the river bank. It was breathtaking, honestly. Each face an entire life, with struggles, joys, etc. This is not a profoundly original thing to notice, but I felt viscerally reminded of it.

I want to note down a particular anecdote. As I left the Tate Modern, a jogger in blue running gear appeared 20 ft. (ish) in front of me, sprinting along the Thames. His black skin shone when he stopped in a sunny spot and began to dance, for himself, facing out to the river. I sat down to read in a comfy lounge chair in front of the Tate and for at least 15-20 min., this beautiful man danced and danced, hips whirling, legs kicking out, arms gracefully moving through the air. I couldn’t turn away. I saw no headphones, no buskers playing music were nearby, but on and on he danced, the sun streaming on his smiling face. People didn’t even seem to notice him, or they just ignored him. I don’t know. But his magnetism and joy was so honest and unfiltered, it started to rub off on me. As the sun dipped behind the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral he spread his arms wide, while concurrently audience members lined up to enter a show at Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, the brown water of the Thames was disturbed by boats (and I thought back to the prehistoric and Roman sights at Vauxhall and Tower Bridge), people filtered out of the air-conditioned Tate…the grandest contemporary art museum I have ever seen, pitchers of Pimms being poured to my left at the Founder’s Arms pub, a surreally large morass of people flowing across the Millennium Bridge and to the Blackfriars station, a singer struck up the opening chords to some Ed Sheeran pop song on his guitar, and it was a delirious and colored frenzy of humanity–human folly, human history, human successes, human beauty–layered on top of each other and I thought ‘This is London.’ And just as suddenly as the dancing jogger started, he stopped, and continued on his way towards the National Theatre, and out of sight.

I hope that memory and the image of that blinding sun, warm and yellow, etching the London skyline as I walked home, remains seared in my memory.”

Well, that’s it, I guess. I wish I could have gone through and recounted every single activity I did every single week for every single period, but my posts would have run far too long. I might keep adding to this blog as I continue to travel this summer (and work on a theatre piece in Portugal this July), so if you are interested feel free to check in occasionally. Thank you London for everything you’ve taught me.

Bye for now.


Me and Meg Final View


Victorian Flowers: Kew Gardens and the Bathurst Mews

I discovered my favorite flowered street in London early in the program (the weekend of April 10th I believe) and returned there often, every time I went to Hyde Park. The Bathurst Mews are reached by, after leaving the Paddington tube station, turning right and then right again on London Street. After a block, a little alleyway opens up:

Bathurst Mews Alleyway.JPG

Follow it onto the cobblestoned mews, and lines of stately homes converted from stables make a charming Victorian backdrop (these mews first appeared in the Post Office registry in 1845) for an endless line of colorful flower boxes, blooming shrubs, and lively green trees. This is a very tony street (the last horse stable in central London still in existence is at the end of the Bathurst Mews) but there is such a clear love for the public display of flowers. The surrounding streets are bare of most nature, perhaps since it is so close to Hyde Park, and give off an air of overly sanitized and disconnected wealth.

The Bathurst Mews, in contrast, smell of earthy horse manure and exhibit bunches of pastel tulips in hues I have never even seen. Do the neighbors have gardening meetings where they all decide to plant certain flowers in rotation? Is that a requirement when trying to purchase property on the street? Do they all source from the same nursery? At first I assumed that the house owners most likely hired professional services to do most of the gardening, but was pleasantly surprised when I struck up a conversation with a very posh woman after admiring the brilliant lilac bush she was digging in. Turns out pretty much everyone on the street has a green thumb. Also, care to know how to make your lilacs grow fuller and more vibrant in color? According to the fine lady of the garden, make sure it is planted in soil composted with vegetable scraps and egg shells and plant it in the fullest sun you can find on your property. Good to know!

Bathurst Mews Close Up.JPG

The Bathurst Mews are an excellent example of the idealized, cozy, romantic, very Victorian cottage garden. It is such a place of joy. I have been to Hyde Park many times, and invariably, despite not being totally on the way, I would make a detour to walk down the mews, delighted in how the annual tulips and bulb flowers changed to late spring perennials and trimmed, more formal shrubbery. In this case, money affords leisure time, but that shouldn’t take away from the passion of these anonymous gardeners and their effort to beautify a public space. …There are also lots of adorable dogs that sun themselves out on the stones.

On my most recent visit I noticed one house differed from the rest, with windowsills bedecked by succulents and orchids…which immediately reminded me of The Princess of Wales Conservatory and the great Victorian-era Palm House at Kew Gardens. There are few things I love more than orchids, lilies, succulents, and tropical plants, of which The Princess of Wales Conservatory and the Palm House are dedicated too.

In the Palm House I loved pushing through the thick, humid, hot air, heavy like molasses, moisture dripping from the leaves onto my neck, low hanging and colorful blossoms brushing my face and hair. How is the temperature in green houses like the Palm House controlled, I wonder? Does it still run on Victorian (and older) technology, the strengthening of the sun’s rays through layers of thick glass? Is there more modern technology that allows for careful calibration of micro-climates? Oy vey but it is so very hot in there. I didn’t last long. I couldn’t even make it to the upper-gallery, the heat was too overwhelming. But that heat and that humidity makes for the most massive and triumphant of plants; huge banana leaf trees, green stems laden with colorful fruit (almost obscenely plump with moisture), and the smell of dark soil. It must have been an incredible treat and have had quite the effect on amateur gardeners to walk an exotic jungle while staying in London back in the Victorian period, and the fact that I got to feel that same sense of wonder in 2017 was incredible.

The Princess of Wales Conservatory, in contrast, had a different climate in every room, ranging from dry and hot to cool and wet, and everything in between. The orchid room was nearly empty, and I couldn’t help thinking about how different it would have been trying to see these delicate blossoms at the height of Orchidelirium–a Victorian-era flower madness that reached extraordinarily high levels. At its height, explorers and botanists were commissioned by wealthy patrons to go to the far reaches of the earth to find ever more new and rare varieties of orchids. There were even orchid heists, where particularly valuable examples where spirited away in the night. It is quite similar to Dutch tulip mania–what a fun combination of words, Orchidelirium and Dutch tulip mania. 🙂 But, seeing the deep variety in color and delicacy and beauty of these orchids, their stems emerging from decaying trees, and with an awareness of how difficult it is to pollinate orchids and get them to blossom…well I understood where Orchidelirium was coming from.

What’s up, buttercup? Not much, I guess. Bye for now.


P.S. If you ever have the chance you MUST go to Hampstead Heath. The wild rolling hills, endless green, winding paths, and that VIEW! Just spectacular.

HH View


Brick As Red as Arterial Blood: The John Keats Walk and Georgian Architecture

Anita Miller led a wonderful walk. These were the main stops:

Begin at Keats House

Church Row: Street of fine early Georgian houses with original features

St John’s Church, Church Row: Bust of Keats inside church

Keats Bust

Holly Bush Tavern: 200 year old inn leading to viewpoint over London with view of The Shard (next to Guys Hospital)

Vale of Health: Site of Leigh Hunt’s cottage, where Keats stayed overnight many times

Wells Tavern, Wells Walk: Site of 1, Well Walk, where Keats lodged with his brothers before moving to Wentworth Place

Keats Seat: Corner of Well Walk

Boundary path: ancient track through Hampstead Heath, favorite walk of Keats and Fanny

Six Facts:

  • John Keats was inspired to write some of his greatest works over the course of two months (April-May) in the backyard of Wentworth Place (now the Keats House).
  • “Ode to a Nightingale” was written under a plum tree that still stands.
  • Keats’s fell in love and eventually became engaged to Fanny Brawne. She was his neighbor, who moved into the other half of Wentworth Place after it was vacated by Charles Armitage Brown. She is buried in Brompton Cemetery, just around the corner from my residence.
  • Tom Keats, John’s brother, died of consumption in the same room as John first displayed symptoms of tuberculosis.
  • “The Eve of St. Agnes” and “The Eve of St Mark,” along with the first version of “Bright Star” were inspired by his lover–before Fanny–Isabella Jones, who was one of the first people notified in London of Keats’s death.
  • John Keats, in attempting to save money, decided to ride on the outside of a coach back to Wentworth Place in Hampstead. He was caught in a torrential rain storm and came down with the bout of a “cold” that would eventually kill him. When his friend Charles Brown helped him to bed, Keats coughed blood and said “That is blood from my mouth…I know the colour of that blood; – it is arterial blood…that drop of blood is my death-warrant; – I must die.” He succumbed within a year.

Four Questions:

  • Did Fanny Brawne know about Isabella Jones and vice versa?
  • Keats was in contact with Wordsworth and Coleridge, but what did they think of his poetry?
  • How would have Keats’s poetry changed if he had been received favorably by critics? Would he have gained financial security and lived longer?
  • What inspired him to write “Ode to a Grecian Urn?” An object, an old poem, somewhere in London or somewhere in Hampstead?


Finally, a little tragic irony:

Image-1 (12)

Farewell, for now!


Restoration and Reformation: Power Dynamics in the Tate Britain’s Gallery Design

Over the course of several days, for the Restoration and Reformation period, I spent progressively more time in the Tate Britain’s “1540” room. This gallery, unlike the galleries at the National Portrait Gallery, drew me in because of paintings from both the Tudor-into-Elizabethan era and from the Jacobean/Restoration/Reformation era are shown side-by-side. This made for an interesting examination of power dynamics within the gallery’s layout and its depiction of the transitions between periods. So I’ll be crisscrossing the timeline a little bit with this blog post.

After looking at the splendid portrait of Elizabeth I from my previous post once again, I moved down the wall of paintings and was immediately drawn to the post-Reformation An Allegory of Man, a 570 x 514 mm painting squeezed into a corner next to a portrait of a young woman.


It is a dark and surprisingly richly filled image. The display caption confirmed my surprise, asserting that “Extremely few British paintings of religious subjects have survived from the 16th century. After the Reformation, Protestant unease about images meant it would have been highly controversial to display either religious paintings or alabasters.”

The imagery begs to be interpreted, and I love the different figures stabbing at “Man” with hunting weapons labeled with Christian sins. The female archer and the male wielding the crossbow are both dressed in primarily black and red, with fine livery and decoration. Do they represent Protestants/Puritans or Catholics? I assume Protestants, but then is the unknown artist condemning them since they wield the arrows of sin or celebrating their keeping of “Man” in check? Certainly it seems to have been made for Catholic worshippers considering the inclusion of Jesus Christ in a Reformation era painting. Probably not for public display then? Perhaps a secret Catholic painting? The male figure’s crossbow says “COVETVSNES” and is surrounded by piles of coins, open books (ledgers?), and purses. Perhaps he represents greed and miserly qualities.

The overall feel of the painting is martial, with the central figure in military boots and tunic resting on a Christian shield, the grand clouds opening up to reveal Jesus Christ. The text on the trompe l’oeil was a bit difficult to decipher, but the full text is posted on the Tate’s website:


On the left side of An Allegory of Man stands a full body portrait of James Hamilton, Earl of Arran and 1st Duke of Hamilton, a Royalist loyal to Charles I. Both were interested in art and admirers of a young Velasquez. During the Civil War, he was beheaded shortly after Charles himself. On the right side is a small private portrait of Lady Anne Pope. Both paintings highlight black or dark green and blood red (favored colors during the Jacobean era).


However, on my second visit to the room, I was particularly struck by the portrait directly opposite from An Allegory of Man, at first glance vastly different, but after more careful observation, it echoes the former.


The subject is William Style of Langley, painted in 1636. He was a prominent lawyer and Catholic active in the Counter-Reformation.

Again, blood red, black, but this time some white, dominate the painting, with use of lighter color in the background. It is also full of symbolism (Catholics love that) which recall the symbolism of An Allegory of Man. The globe emblem his stick points to on the floor proclaims that “the human heart cannot be satisfied by worldly matters, but burns for the spiritual life.” He turns away from the relics of his earthly existence, the heraldic symbol in the window, the books and quills and ink and violin on his desk. The wide open archway gestures towards a locked garden (probably the Church). I am no curator, but I think there is a subtle attempt to have these portraits speak to one another with their placement.

Two more quick fun portraits. I particularly like the one of Sir John Drake, who although he fought for the Parliamentarians during the Civil War (the armor is likely an allusion to this ) was made a baronet under the restoration of Charles II to the throne.


One final note. I was struck by how much the 1540 Gallery is dominated by the portrait of Elizabeth I (and a large portrait of a mythical woman thought to be modeled on the Queen).


These are the largest portraits in the gallery and the one’s with the most color. Figures who were friendly with her also receive prime placement near the center of walls and feature longer display captions. Finally, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that there was a “dip” as you went around the room during the Reformation which elevated as you got closer to the Restoration. I can’t point to something specific that caused this feeling, but I felt buoyant looking at the Tudor and Elizabethan paintings, then darker and heavier when looking at the portraits from the post-Jacobean into Reformation era, and then felt myself raised back up near the end of the gallery.

Also, if you visit this gallery, take a look at the very black bust of Charles I decorated with gold jewelry smack dab in the middle of the floor. It’s an interesting effect.


Bye for now.


Tudor Portraits: Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth 1st

At the National Portrait Gallery:

The following is lifted straight from the free-writing I did while looking at the above portrait, with no changes or proofreading.

Sir Wally

  • 15 min. sitting in front
  • Listening to Monteverdi, a composer (Italian) of the same era
  • Painted in 1588, at his prime

He wears a white doublet painted with a delicate almost feather-like brush stroke, giving it a translucent and textured quality. There is a subtle blush of pink, pronounced on the collar. The sleeve billows, and the soft crystalline texture is even more pronounced. Big buttons made of a large central pearl surrounded by rings of smaller pearls line the front. The cuff is tight around a dainty wrist, also made of two rings of pears. The color of the shirt shimmers silver, like an iridescent pearl. His pants are a rich black, almost velvet, and decorated with swirling pearls. A black belt with pearls criss-crosses the bottom of the tunic. His endlessly rich cape (black) is thrown intentionally carelessly over his left shoulder. It has a color of deep brown, made of fur, the lines delicate and detailed, pointing in every direction, as if just tousled by a sea wind. The cape is striped with thinning lines of pearls that go across the fabric in waves.

A high forehead, a slightly receding hairline, pale-skinned but with red lips and a wind-burned deep pink to the cheeks. A pointy beard extending just past the Adam’s apple/high collar of lace or silk. Deep brown eyes, painted with a challenging aspect to them, slightly arched left eyebrow–the hairs smooth & fine–and dangling from the visible left ear, a heavy bauble of a double-pear earring.

He rest his hand on the edge of a green table. The background is a dark brown/olive green, like the patina on a painted ship after months at sea. “Amor et Vertutti” is inscribed directly left to his head. (Love and Virtue? To Elizabeth?)

His expression is serious, but slightly bemused. The painter has added a slight twinkle to the eye. His nose is prominent, but well shaped, as if etched from wood.

He looks like a sailor and adventure (which if I remember correctly, he was) rich, a little wild, strong but also light and delicate, loyal, and dangerously uncomfortable in his clothing.

The hilt of a sword (pearl again, Elizabeth did love those pearls) barely peaks out from under the cape. On closer inspection, I would describe the doublet as quilted, with some lace ruffle at the collar. What would Raleigh say to me?

“A little ridiculous to expect me to just talking to you Alex, what with all these people around. Stories are best shared over rum, if you ask me. That lady in the polka-dot dress is eyeing my jawline I think. Not that I’m surprised. What can I tell you? Really not much. I serve the Queen and am sworn to secrecy on most subjects. But I can say the best whitebait is on my friend’s galleon, the Golden Hinde. Crispy food I live for. Actually I live for attacking the Spanish Armada.”

Ugh time’s up what even is that monologue. Nothing happens.

You notice the performative aspects of life in art museums. This portrait of Raleigh is performative, meant to serve a purpose. Political, to show his allegiance to the Queen, also to glorify and commemorate. I’m playing the role of studious bohemian, with my glasses and notebook, writing in art museums. I wish I knew what people around me were thinking, reacting to the portraits. I’m immediately thinking narratively. Raleigh looks like a pirate, cool, adventurous, Makes me want to see a play about him. What are other looking at?”

At the Tate Modern. Note, I didn’t free-write to this portrait of Elizabeth until several weeks later, but did go to compare the placement of art in the Tate Britain (which will be in an upcoming post about the Restoration and Reformation period).

“Painted in 1563 (she is 30 yrs. old). It is just a luminous painting. Clearly emphasizing her beauty, power, eligibility to be married. The gold heraldic tapestry behind her is shining so bright, the red carpet rich rich rich! Her face stern. Her dress complex. I do wonder why more productions aren’t done in the fully authentic Elizabethan dress style. Only The White Devil, which is Jacobean, kinda tried, but it was infused with so many steampunk elements. I guess it’d be hard to get the full richness of the era to translate to the stage without a huge budget. I may be understanding a bit more why the debate, that is so fierce, around Emma Rice’s direction at Shakespeare’s Glove. Looking now at this portrait, D Kramer’s Romeo and Juliet seemed forced, coarse. I still think there is a place for their version of Shakespeare. But oh how I would love to see a group of actors at the Globe dressed like this; sumptuous, regal, resplendent in fine detail. I mean the velvet folds of Elizabeth’s dress are fascinating enough in stillness of portraiture. Imagine what’d it look like in motion under the heavens, with an actress delivering lines of pure beauty. I think , if I saw that, a small part of me would fall in love.

The arguments over the direction of the Globe struck me at first as slightly regressive. But as I sit here and see the high esteem the British have, the respect they have, for tradition…I’m getting it. That is such an American view, “Out with the old, in with the new,” (hey that rhymes) but Europe is different. And rightly so. There has to be a place where the old is respected and explored and kept alive. You can’t add dynamism @ the Globe by trampling the Elizabethan to death. You elevate it and bring it too life on its own merits.

I like the thought that this Queen in this portrait loved the theatre and was a patron of Shakespeare. She made it happen, in some ways. What must their interactions have been like? Did he make her laugh? Did he make her smile? Did he make her cry? Could a Queen show emotion like that in public? Maybe not. But in private? All the paintings of Elizabeth show her so stern and regal. That’s a weakness of portraiture, I think. You only get a slice of the person. Or maybe only the propaganda surrounding the person. You have to look hard to find the person behind the facade. That’s also a strength of portraits. You learn about the period from what it does and doesn’t show.

Theatre lets you do that, maybe. Like in “Nell Gwynn,” and seeing Charles II. But are those true representations? Not really. I mean, true emotions yes but there is always something imagined, ambiguous. Still though, you can inject them with life.

I sometimes wonder if there is still a time and a place for theatre. I mean, we have maybe another 100 years before the environment gets really bad? We destroy the earth, we destroy each other over differences in class, race, or nationality. “I’m not gonna pay money to be told the word is shit.” (From “The Treatment”) But there has been a sense of impending doom in art and humanity forever! And yet this feels different. I don’t know if its true but supposedly the earth is supposed to get so hot that it will be unlivable within the next 50-60 years. If that’s true, like what the fuck? I don’t want to die from my body being cooked when I’m in my 70s. Arts are cut, services are cut, the rich keep getting richer.

And yet here I am in London in a pristine govt. funded gallery, looking at a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, seeing the most interesting theatre of my life, having my faith in the power of theatre to enact change renewed!!!!!

Taking fascinating acting classes every week. Learning so much about relating to people in this world.

I keep thinking of Heidegger who said (I think), to paraphrase, basically life has no meaning but find the thing you love and pursue it passionately and you will give your life meaning. Notwithstanding he was a Nazi, not bad advice for your times.

Well a lot brought to mind by this portrait that’s for sure.”

Here are some more fun Tudor portraits I liked, before I go.



Gothic Architecture and Illuminated Manuscripts: Westminster Abbey and The British Museum

My first stop during the Medieval Week was, of course, Westminster Abbey. After a delightful lunch/tea and journalling session in the Cellarium Café, it was time to track down Gothic architectural elements. Since you are not allowed to take photos inside Westminster Abbey, I decided to contain my search to the cloister. And what was I searching for? I knew I wanted this week’s theme to be manifestations of Gothic architecture in medieval illustrated manuscripts (what a great reason to go to the British Library!). Where would the design similarities between the great public temples to medieval Christianity and the private, beautifully illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages intersect?

I have a general–but really only very general–idea of the typical motifs in illuminated manuscripts from my Dad’s background in Medieval music. So, while I was at the Abbey I took photos of many different design elements that I thought might be congruous with manuscripts. Eventually, I narrowed it down to two primary elements of design: vaulted archways (either ogival archways or rib vaulting) and the intense decorative colors of stained glass.

Satisfied with the photos, and with a slightly aching neck from touring around the Abbey itself, I headed home. The next day, off I went to the British Library.

Side note: it is extremely easy to get a library card for the British Library, and I would highly recommend it. As a student, I needed a valid I.D., proof of address, and a proof of signature (Student I.D., Driver’s License, Credit Card) filled out a form, got my card issued within 10 minutes, and was sent on my way.

I made a beeline for the Manuscripts and Rare Books Reading Room. An incredibly helpful librarian recommended several books.  The one I ended up using the most was Essays on Gothic architecture, by the Rev. T. Warton, Rev. J. Bentham, Captain Grose, and the Rev. J. Milner: Illustrated by twelve plates of ornaments, & selected from ancient buildings, first published in 1802.

Vaulted archways in Gothic architecture are used in a wide array of circumstances, ranging from doorways, to windows, to cloisters, to ceilings, and to galleries. In fact, the pointed arch is one of the defining characteristics of Gothic architecture. It is used both for decoration and for structural support.

Structurally, vaulted archways allowed Medieval masons to maintain symmetry even in an irregular plan and to install windows high up in the building. Also, it gives strength to the ceiling without requiring a central pillar, bringing the stress and weight down and into the flying buttresses. In other words, vaulted archways channel weight to a supporting column with less outward thrust than semi-circular Romanesque vaults, leaving more room and weight allowance for windows. Most modern academics recognize that this design already existed in Sassanian Near East and Islamic Middle Eastern architecture. However, for many years, the majority view of scholars was that the pointed arch was a simultaneous and natural evolution in Western Europe. Or as Rev. J Milner put it,

“It is much to be wished that the word Gothic should not be used in speaking of the architecture of England…the term tends to give false ideas on the subject, and originates with the Italian writers of the 14th and 15th centuries…There is very little doubt that the light and elegant style of building, whose principal and characteristic feature is the high-pointed arch struck from two centres, was invented in this country; it is certain that it was here brought to its highest state of perfection…the term ENGLISH [is] now proposed to be substituted for the word Gothic.” (pg. 19)

[I think this is a fascinating example of bias and religious agenda affecting the way in which academic language and architectural analysis is conducted.]

Decoratively, as already mentioned, vaulted archways and ribbed ceilings provide symmetry. More importantly, however, they provide height, both as an absolute standard and in relation to their width (clearly, since it is an arch). Striking fear and awe into worshippers’ minds was one of the most important goals of Gothic cathedrals, its verticality alluding to Heaven. Certainly I got that feeling from standing in Westminster Abbey, and interestingly, that same height is emphasized when looking at illuminated manuscripts. The pages seem so very tall. But I’m still getting to that. First, stained glass…

Really, it was only because of the use of vaulted archways and flying buttresses that windows transformed from simple openings to massive, complex, and rich sculptural designs. Filled with stained glass, these windows became a new art form and emphasized and magnified “divine light,” in accordance with clerical belief at the time that highly valued the divinity of light and required its use during services and other holy acts.

I had now spent three hours reading about Gothic architecture. It was time to head out and come back the next day.

Which is exactly what I did! Except for today, I was looking at manuscripts. I’m not sure you are even able to see them regularly, but the librarian working the reading room was willing to show me a few pages in a separate viewing room (climate controlled, low light, gloves–I was not allowed to touch obviously–all that jazz). I was also not allowed to take pictures, but the British Library’s online medieval manuscript database contains many of their holdings, from which I downloaded the images of what I saw. It was a pretty exceptional moment when the librarian opened these old old pages and revealed the first illustration.

It is no wonder they are called illuminated manuscripts. Even today, these colors that are hundreds of years old glow and come alive in such glittering hues. It is almost as if stained glass, backlight by a bright spring Sun, was transferred to the page. I found myself with my jaw slightly agape and chuckling at how many illuminated pages referenced what I had seen at Westminster. Below are my four favorite selections.

Medieval Manuscript Archway

Medieval Manuscript Close Up of a LetterMedieval Manuscript Floral and Bright ColorsAdd. 15282, f.75v

Archways, mini-Cathedrals, bright colors, heigh and majesty, Gothic architecture brought almost to a florid level and drawn onto parchment. There honestly is not too much more for me to say. I think the pictures juxtaposed with the research into Gothic architecture speak for themselves.


P.S. Essays on Gothic architecture, by the Rev. T. Warton, Rev. J. Bentham, Captain Grose, and the Rev. J. Milner: Illustrated by twelve plates of ornaments, & selected from ancient buildings contains some wonderful illustrations of Gothic architecture, photos of which I took and have posted below (along with further examples of archways and stained glass from the Bath Abbey).

The Old and the New: A Travelogue of Roman London Part 1

One of the first things I did with my school group, pretty much as soon as we arrived in the United Kingdom, was to go to the Museum of London. A large portion of what is left of London’s Roman Wall can be seen here, as well as many exhibits on the history of London from ancient times until the present. I was particularly fascinated by the Roman relics; the hordes of coins, the statues, the coffins, and jewelry.

Nevertheless, and I think it has something to do with being in a new place, but for the first couple of days I really did not want to be stuck in a museum (what a wonderful problem to have, honestly). So, as a continuation of my exploration of pre-historic London with M.M., I decided to invite her along on a nighttime walking search for the major Roman sights. Before departing, I did some research on where to go, but I also wanted to see if I could stumble across any locations spontaneously.

We left the pre-historic timbers at Vauxhall and crossed the bridge, following the Thames all the way to Westminster as the sun set. Here, we hopped on the Tube. Roman London was primarily contained to the present day Square Mile, although it did not extend as far west. However, only one part of this original wall still follows the modern boundary of Square Mile, and it is found immediately outside of the Tower Hill tube stop, where we alighted–and which can be reached on the District or Circle lines. It was dark by the time we arrived, and as we emerged from the harsh glare of the fluorescent lit station, BAM, there it was, a surprisingly large wall of red and yellow stone, right in front of us, guarded by a statue of Emperor Trajan–interestingly enough, pulled from a salvage yard in the 1920s and installed with a mismatched head and body!

My first reaction was surprise. I was shocked by how much of the wall remained, particularly its height, stretching at least 20 feet above my head. But I learned from a handy-dandy plaque that the wall is a combination of the Roman ruin and what is leftover from Medieval-era additions; the yellow/grey stone is Medieval, the lower level of red and grey stone, more rounded, is the Roman foundation that was built upon.

Similarly to at Vauxhall Bridge, I was struck by the layers of history visible to the naked eye. Just standing in one place, I could observe ancient Roman stonework lying below Medieval fortifications, a concrete retaining wall surrounding it. A tube station that opened in 1967 behind me, the Tower of London down a passageway to my right, modern skyscrapers all around, and people walking through a gap between an ancient boundary and a contemporary mural directly ahead of me.

I knew that the Roman wall continued north from Tower Hill, so after a bit of wandering down side streets and consulting the compass app on my iPhone, we decided on walking up Cooper’s Row away from the River Thames. Imagine my (delighted) surprise to glimpse, within one block of leaving the tube station, on my right a huge ancient stone structure looming up in the courtyard of the Grange City Hotel.

If the layers of London’s history weren’t clear enough yet, this location really brought it home. Crossing underneath a smoked-glass ceilinged driveway with cool-blue LED lights shining on the pavement, the hotel lobby on your left, guest rooms stretching high above you, a Japanese restaurant and brasserie enclosing you, and a perfect cut-away of the Roman and Medieval stonework.

It was now almost 9 P.M., and still being somewhat jet-lagged, time to head home and continue the adventure the next day. But before I talk about that, here is a little map of a route if you want to do your own Roman Wall walk:

Map of Roman Wall Route

I would recommend seeing Roman structures in three more places; a portion of a walled Roman fort in the gardens of the Barbican Center, a timber from the Roman London Bridge at the Church of St. Magnus the Martyr, and one of my favorite locations…in a car park next to the Museum of London.

If you find the portion of the Roman Wall at the Museum of London that is aboveground, you should be able to see a sign pointing towards a staircase (right next to the public restrooms) that brings you to their underground car park. Here, tell one of the security personnel where you want to go, and they will point you in the right direction. You’ll spot it from a ways off, and it is magnificently weird to see a Roman/Medieval wall in the middle of an underground parking garage surrounded by vehicles. I wasn’t able to get a satisfactory picture on my phone, so I am linking to the article that brought me to this fragment of the wall and has an excellent guide on how to get there:

The fragment of London’s Roman Wall hidden in a car park

That’s it for now! I close with a poem I wrote at the height of a particularly hungry and tired moment walking around near the Museum of London.




À la fin tu es las de ce monde ancien…

Ici même les automobiles ont l’air d’être anciennes



Standing by 140 London Wall

watching London grow walls

on walls on walls


Hanging over hungry trees

where gardens guard

a sunken fort


From the highwalk

the flank of Lloyds soars like a prayer

with a lone woman inside

picking her way down four floors


Speak to me, London

tell me the stories

of this street corner


hoarding nine cigarettes

two empty packets of Wrigley’s Extra

one plastic knife

and one plastic fork


Tell me the story of this building

sloughing off its architect’s name

in flakes of rot


In tiny black letters

someone has stencilled on it

“Keira Winstanley is my god.” 


P.S. OH MY GOD I ALMOST FORGOT I WANTED TO TALK ABOUT THE LAW OF THE FIRST ESTABLISHED SETTLEMENT. It would take too long to fully delve into, but basically the Law of the First Established Settlement is an idea in urban architectural history that states that, pretty much no matter what, once a building or a grid pattern or a structure is built, it will consequently end up in the same place/similar position no matter the intentions of any re-building. You can see this with the London Bridge. Archeological evidence shows that where today’s modern London Bridge stands is in the same place as a natural crossing area used during the Neolithic, the same place as the Roman Bridge, the same place as the “old” London Bridge (1209-1831), and the same place as the “new” London Bridge (1831-1967). Pretty freaking cool.



Curios and Curiosities of the British Museum – Pre-History

After a delightful, but admittedly intangible, encounter with British pre-history on the banks of the Thames, it seemed appropriate to find physical relics of the time, something concrete to fasten onto. Thus, off I went to the British Museum with C.F. He went to look at the Medieval Rooms, and I lost myself in the Ancient England Rooms.

“Like most of the plundered riches of the British Museum, they are scrupulously ignored…I’ll just plunder them back.” –Ferdinand Lyle on ancient relics, Penny Dreadful.

Although I did not have a heist of the British Museum planned for my trip, I was interested in finding the odds and ends of the exhibitions, the displays with no one standing in front of them–a surprisingly easy task, in the end, considering how full the museum always is. I’m always drawn to those parts of a museum. That is not to say I don’t enjoy seeing the real Rosetta Stone, or the Mona Lisa, or any other famous piece of work. I seek those out too, in order to feel their historical, artistic, or stylistic power.

Yet, there are always artifacts in a museum that few take the time study, and I wanted to find some that jumped out at me.

A line of jade axes high up in a display case immediately caught my eye.

Jade Axes

Striated and polished stone glittering in the display, a common tool converted to precious ornament. Imagine my surprise to discover that the dark emerald example in the upper-left hand corner was 6,000 years old and discovered in the “River Thames at Vauxhall Bridge, England” (Emphasis mine).

That axe, forged in remote Alpine mines and already ancient when it arrived on English shores in 4,000 BC, was found in the same place as the wooden poles I had visited earlier.

Next to it, a smaller axe tinged with corral, from the same period but mounted in silver 200 years ago by a Scottish army officer. In the lower right hand corner, an oblong axe with a bottle cap top, imported from Sélédin, Brittany in around 3,300 BC and found in Pulborough, Sussex. All of them traditional symbols of social standing and power, preciously held and imbued with meaning. Interestingly, the silver mounted ax was used by the army officer as a charm against kidney disease, a fascinating example of how artifacts’ meaning can change through time and space, reworked into the myths and origin stories of communities and individuals.

I was also struck by representations of animals and anthropomorphic figures in pre-historic artifacts. I assume motifs of animals and flowers–as well as personification–will continue to appear as I move through period styles. It is fascinating to think that we have been crafting our tools to reflect the world around us for so long, to transcend pure functionality…part figurative art, part utensil or weapon.

Fleshhook Full

The above is a photo of the Dunaverney Fleshhook, dated to 1090-900 BC (jumping forward in time a bit!), found in Antrim, Ireland. It is considered one of the most sophisticated fleshhooks of the Late Bronze Age, believed to have been used to remove large pieces of meat from a stew during ceremonial feasting and as a symbol of authority. But it is the presence of the seven birds along the top that really drew me in.

Fleshhook CenterFleshhook Left

The pair of two birds look like ravens, while the “family unit” of five look aquatic. With their curving, S-shaped necks I immediately thought of swans. According to Dr. Flemming Kaul–a noted expert on Bronze Age iconography and curator at the National Museum of Denmark–in his essay The Not So Ugly Duckling–An Essay on Meaning, water fowl are generally indicative of the sun and its “eternal voyage.” These two sets of birds on either side of an oak shaft fragment invoke potential opposites; water vs air, dark vs light, life vs, death. Imagine then an important Irish pre-historic figure at a feast, dishing out valuable pieces of meat to honored guests, recounting a fable based on the golden avian figures on the shaft.

The bird theme continues!

Bird Dagger

This, despite its delicate and diminutive nature, is a cast bronze knife, dated to 300-150 BC and discovered in Hertfordshire. I just really liked how my first impression was to notice how adorable the beak and face looked. Also, although I’m not speaking from a place of expertise, I must say it doesn’t look like it would be a particularly useful weapon. But it is utterly charming. Its design also reminds me a lot of the La Tène style present in the Wandsworth Shield Boss and Battersea Shield (which is pictured below for comparison).


One final cute pre-historic animal tool:


Long Snouted Animal

I had been hoping to find a true anthropomorphic weapon at some point, and as I entered the final Celtic room I finally saw HUMAN SWORD HILTS:

Human Sword

These swords came from Italy (L) and France (R), technically, but are nevertheless indicative of anthropomorphic development in Celtic art common in England during the same period (400-100 BC). Interestingly, it was around this point that Celtic art in Britain began to decline, arguably reaching its height in the third or second century BC. Objects found during the decline tend to lack originality and feature a limited range of patterns, consisting primarily of repeated motifs to create symmetrical patterns. This was partly due to Roman occupation. However, despite several centuries of Roman occupation, some elements of Celtic art survived (such as the inlaying of colored glass, a spectacular example of which is the Kirkburn Sword, buried between 300-200 BC) and even achieved a revival during the sixth century AD.

Speaking of the Kirkburn Sword, behold it and all its Iron Age glory:

It is incredible to me that this sword, made of 37 complexly interlocking pieces of iron, bronze, and animal horn survived in such incredible condition. Crafting iron blades took skill, and it was clearly a highly valued weapon; the owner repaired the scabbard and even decorated it with red glass.

At this point, I was feeling pretty satisfied with my visit to the British Museum. I have posted more photos below of some of my other favorite relics, but it would take many full-length scholarly articles to cover these topics in further depth.

So that’s it for now! My exploration of Roman London is coming up next.


Ancient Cults: London’s Oldest Structure

My exploration of British pre-history will cover two blog posts. The first, an impressionistic recollection of my search for the oldest structure in London. The second, a more typical look at the aesthetic and development of ancient British artifacts.

One of the most magnificent parts of being in London is the interplay between the old and the new. The ancient and the modern stand in constant counterpoint to one another, the present refracted through the lens of the past. Look up, and you are walking past one of the remaining wood-framed Tudor buildings remaining after the Great Fire of 1666, light sparkling in the glass of its tiny, fairy-tale looking windows (its called Staple Inn and is above the Chancery Lane tube station). Look down, and a cobblestone alleyway turns into a modern, asphalt thoroughfare.

While there are endless resources in the many wonderful museums here, I wanted to see if I could discover this dichotomy in the city, on foot, for free. Would I be able to go back all the way to London’s pre-history, before even the ancient Romans arrived? What ancient thing could I possibly find still standing in this teeming metropolis?

I first discovered a map of where in London important prehistoric fossils were found ( This was one option. Wander the streets, imagining massive wooly mammoths or thundering ancient rhinos traversing the land where now crowds of people swarm around Trafalgar Square. While I did peruse the map, it wasn’t quite what I was searching for. I was looking for something still standing, and maybe egotistically, something man-made.

And then, buried in the depths of Google, I found a little blog post about the oldest structure in London…dated to 4500 BCE (around 6,500 years old). At very low tide, jutting out of the primordial mud of the Thames River right next to Vauxhall Bridge, there should be visible a group of wooden posts, once the size of telegraph poles, the largest now only 30 cm in diameter. Perfect. (

Built almost one thousand years before Stonehenge, Simon Webb—in his book Unearthing London—claims that the poles may have served as an early ritual site, comparing them to totem poles in North America or a wooden Stonehenge. This is speculative, however, and further research showed that most scientists are unsure as to their purpose.

April 9th, 2017:

So, I hopped on to that most modern of transportation systems, the Tube, along with my adventure partner M.M., and headed towards the Vauxhall tube stop. Emerging from the Underground we rounded Vauxhall Cross (hello, James Bond) and clambered down to the rocky shore of the Thames. Low tide on the river would hit at 7:19 P.M., and with ten minutes to go, we stepped out into the shallows where the posts should emerge…and waited.

The sky a dusty orange blending into pale blue, separated by an atmospheric layer of translucent yellow. A police boat overtakes tourist cruisers chugging along the river. The Thames laps against a constellation of rocks, shells, and detritus. A gentle breeze bounces through my hair and billows M.M.’s slate-grey cardigan out over the water. Surrounded by modern high rises of the 20th and 21st centuries—Westminster just visible downstream—and immediately perpendicular to Vauxhall Bridge, I stood, straining to see into the water.

Did they eventually appear? Well, maybe. There was something that sure looked like the wooden posts in the photos online, but the Thames was not low enough to truly see them. M.M. took photos anyway, just in case those little knobs just breaking the surface were what I had come to find.

I don’t count this day as a failure though. Sure, you can go to museums and see all the artifacts nicely cleaned and presented with neat informational graphics and complimentary lighting. And I did go do that just a few days later (see my next post). But there was a feeling I got, standing with my boots in the Thames, which cannot be so easily recreated. Maybe it was the contrast in the surrounding scenery, maybe it was the good company, maybe it was jet lag…but the weight of history pressed down on me. I felt it deep in my chest, that awareness that everything around me had been preceded by thousands of years of human history—not to mention the millennia of non-human history before that. Where I stood, 6,500 years ago, prehistoric people gathered to build and possibly to worship. I threw rocks into the Thames; they threw flint axes into the Tamesa or Plowinida or whatever other possible prehistoric name it was known by. It was quite the auspicious beginning to my time here in London.

That’s it for now. Part 2 of my exploration of British prehistory will be coming soon.


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Looking under the Bridge
The actual posts
The actual posts.
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That looks like it
Are those it?
That looks like it pt 2
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Captured by M.M.

Jet-Lagged Thoughts

Hello past, present, and future blog readers,

It is currently 22:09 GMT and I am finally settling into my Earl’s Court Residence, where I will be living during most of my study abroad here in London. As the title suggests, I’m quite tired, so I’m going to dash off this post quickly before getting some rest.

Let me introduce myself. I’m Alex, 22 years of age, in my last two years of school at the University of Oregon double majoring in Theatre Arts and German Literature & Culture (and trying to finish up a thesis for the Robert D. Clark Honors College), born in Cologne, Germany but moved to Eugene, OR when I was nine years old, and writing this blog as part of a nine-and-a-half week theatre program in London. I will be seeing a different play almost every night, taking trips to Stratford-upon-Avon as well as Bath, Dover, Canterbury, and the Lake Country, tracking and discussing the evolution of various artistic and architectural movements throughout British history, and finally researching for my thesis (a translation and theatrical adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Der Prozess–The Trial–inspired by the writings of Bertolt Brecht).

If any of those subjects interest you, please feel free to check in with my weekly posts!

All the best,


P.S. I’ve never written anything for public consumption before. Even though this is a casual blog series, feedback and constructive criticism is always appreciated. I look forward to sharing my experiences, thoughts, critiques, photos, memories, and anecdotes of my time traipsing around the United Kingdom.