London tour with the Founders Society, November 10-15, 2012

November 28, 2012 at 10:48 am Leave a comment

Leighton House Museum

Flying direct from a conference at the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC, I met the Museum’s Founders Society members in London (at the Four Seasons Park Lane, which was a lot cozier than my hurricane-smitten house in New Jersey).  The premise of this six-day adventure was to let people see aspects of this very familiar city that they would not normally see.

Blain Southern Gallery in London.

London is the center of Britain’s modern and contemporary art scene, and our London coordinator, John Huntingford, expertly guided our group to sales galleries, shows at the RoyalAcademy, and even a cocktail reception at Sotheby’s to give us all insight into the workings of the London art world.  A personal favorite of mine was the Whitechapel gallery in the city’s East End – London’s answer to the Lower East Side in Manhattan.  The gallery was founded in the very early 1900s to bring modern art to the working-class district.  During our visit, a great retrospective of American artist Mel Bochner was on view.

Four Seasons Park Lane. The room made me feel like James Bond.

But, in my role as curator of decorative arts, I had my own agenda for the group, and John Huntingford was more than amenable.  I persuaded my colleague at the massive Victoria & AlbertMuseum in South Kensington to give us a personal tour of the spectacular new jewelry galleries.  Clare Philips was incredibly sweet to us and proudly showed off what are without question the finest exhibition galleries of jewelry in any museum in the world.  The V&A’s collection is legendary, and the new installation is both opulent and user-friendly.  Very hard to choke down the curatorial envy.

Parallel to that, the group visited two commercial galleries more linked to my department than to modern art.  The celebrated Wartski’s on Grafton Street, prime dealer in jewelry and objects by Russian imperial jeweler Carl Fabergé, welcomed us in and let us handle treasures.  We also visited art and antiques dealer Adrian Sassoon in his splendid house, where his gallery of contemporary craft is managed by another friend, Clare Beck.  Adrian and Clare offered us coffee and tea on a chilly London afternoon, and gave the group special insight into contemporary work in ceramics, silver, gold and glass.

I was particularly happy that our last day involved two very different houses tied to art collecting

Whitechapel gallery Bochner exhibit

and creation.  Leighton House, in London’s Chelsea district, was the home of Victorian England’s celebrity artist, Lord Leighton.  With its eye-popping Arab Hall, Leighton House offers a sly peek into the more bohemian side of English art history – all that wonderful repressed emotion seething on the surface of the canvas!

Waddesdon Manor. Head of Collections Pippa Shirley led us through.

This was followed up by a drive to the country to see a different kind of Lordly place: Lionel Rothschild’s massive French fantasy, Waddesdon Manor, completed in the 1880s for one of Britain’s legendary collectors.  Rothschild was a connoisseur and collector of a type distinct to his era – snapping up Gainsborough portraits (really fabulous Gainsborough portraits) and French royal furniture and porcelains in the same way that American millionaires would a generation later. I’d last seen Waddeson in 1970, when I was fifteen, and my father indulged my whim to spend two weeks touring English stately homes.  Surely that was the year I became a curator, although the idea didn’t ripen until I was in college.

When I returned to New Jersey, my house still had holes in the roof, but the heat was on and the internet reinstated.  It wasn’t too hard to give up the Four Seasons and settle back into my domestic routine.

Ulysses Dietz, Chief Curator/Curator of Decorative Arts


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