From Renoir to Warhol: Art of London calling

Travel Weekly executive editor Donna Tunney traveled to London to join the British Tourist Authority's annual press fam, which highlights new attractions in the city and gives reporters a heads-up on the coming year's BTA promotions. Her report follows:

LONDON -- Straighten the road map of London's major arts venues and its length would probably run clear to the English Channel.

Our group packed as much as possible into three days, and still missed plenty. Accommodated at London's Athenaeum Hotel, our group got the gist of what's new and what's really good.

Here's a recap of some art and cultural venues that will take sightseers from the Elizabethan to the Modern, with the Impressionist and the Enlightenment eras thrown in for good measure:

  • The International Shakespeare Globe Center, home of the Globe Theater on the South Bank of the Thames, opened its long-planned Shakespeare's Globe Exhibition last summer. Located in the basement level of the theater, it is known as the Underglobe.
  • Renoir's There's a big central space with rooms around the perimeter, and each room contains a different piece of the exhibit, which is meant to shed light on how the playwright and his actors lived and worked.

    Some of the rooms are connected to each other. They house, among other things, displays that show a room in which Shakespeare's wardrobe crew might have worked and with what sorts of cloth and equipment; how the playbills might have been printed on a recreated 17th century printing press, and how the cast and crew devised special effects and sounds.

    Another area of the exhibit shows the kinds of musical instruments that the minstrels of Shakespeare's time would have played, such as mandolins.

    A life-size tree cast from a 450-year-old Norfolk oak dominates the central area, which, with a bright green carpet is supposed to provide an outdoor ambience. But the area is too dimly lit, I thought, and the ceiling too low to provide that effect.

    Beautiful Elizabethan-era tapestries grace the walls and, thankfully, they are well lighted enabling visitors to see the detailed embroidery.

    The museum is open everyday and guided tours run every 15 minutes. A tour is included in the ticket price of about $12 per adult. The Underglobe can be rented for special events at night.

    For a cost of about $6,000, plus 17.5% VAT, catering and entertainment, groups can book the space, which accommodates up to 250 for dinner and up to 400 for receptions. The London firm Langston Scott Limited handles event bookings.

    Its e-mail is [email protected].

  • Visitors who exit the Globe and turn left at the river will walk about two minutes before reaching another of London's new arts venues: the Tate Modern.
  • This is the much-talked-about facility -- the one that was built inside a former power station, also on the South Bank.

    The original Tate Gallery still exists; museum officials simply took all of the Tate's modern collection and moved it into this new space, which is vast and still looks like a power station.

    Walk through the entrance and its vastness truly hits home. It's enormous. A central bank of escalators takes visitors up five levels, with each level containing works from different years, genres or artists of the modern era. Alongside the escalators stands a huge platform on which a giant, and I mean giant, sculpture of a spider welcomes visitors.

    Exhibitions on display this winter include "The 1960s and New Realism," "Nature Into Action," Landscape Encoded" and "Andy Warhol: Celebrity and Death."

    Upcoming exhibitions include "Century City: Art and Culture in the Modern Metropolis," starting April 29; "Zero to Infinity: Arte Povera 1962-1972," opening Aug. 19, and "Giorgio Morandi: Silent Spaces," opening Aug. 12.

    Admission to this museum is free. About 1 million have visited since it opened last May. It has a caf} and bookshop.

  • Stand at the back of Tate Modern and gaze across the river to find Somerset House, said to be one of London's most impressive 18th century buildings, designed during George III's reign -- the so-called Age of Enlightenment.
  • Visitors enter under the Great Arch, on Victoria Embankment. Somerset House recently opened the Hermitage Rooms. In a cultural exchange with the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, Somerset House inaugurated its new rooms with the exhibition "Treasures of Catharine the Great."

    On view until Sept. 23, the exhibit presents a mix of her extravagant jewels plus antiquities and paintings -- 500 items in all.

    The rooms had not opened in time for our visit, but we saw lots of crates containing display items, which were under guard, and work crews putting the finishing touches on the rooms, which were to open to the public two weeks later. Admission is about $10 per adult.

  • Somerset House also is home to the Gilbert Collection. Sir Arthur Gilbert is an American, born in 1913, who spent many years in Britain and now lives in California.
  • The collection includes some 800 works of art obtained by Gilbert over the last 35 years. His penchant is for European silver, gold snuff boxes and Italian mosaics. The collection is open daily and it costs about $7 to enter. It's impressive and makes a good companion visit to the Hermitage Rooms.

  • Walk across the Fountain Court at Somerset House and head toward the Strand. On the right is Courtauld Gallery, a small museum on the Somerset House grounds that contains what is arguably one of the finest private collections of Impressionist art in the world.
  • It contains masterpieces by Manet, Renoir, Monet, Degas, Cezanne, van Gogh and Gauguin.

    It has van Gogh's "Self Portrait With Bandaged Ear" and Renoir's "The Theater Box," for example, and several other works that rival those installed in the great public museums of Europe. Earlier works on view, from the Renaissance to the 18th century, are by Botticelli, Rubens and Goya.

    Open daily, the gallery's admission fee is about $7, but is free to visitors between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Mondays.

  • Hop on the underground and head toward Bloomsbury and the British Museum, where the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court has opened.
  • This is a handsome addition to the British Museum. It's a two-acre courtyard that has been transformed, at a cost of about $160 million, into what the British are calling "Europe's largest covered square."

    Used as a sort of glass-roofed piazza, it features an education center, two African galleries and shops and cafes. Patrons of this museum might recall that visitors previously walked through a long hallway to enter the historic round Reading Room.

    No more. The Reading Room is the centerpiece of the Great Hall, with the piazza built around it. Visitors now walk halfway across the open piazza to enter the Reading Room, which contains books and information about the museum's vast collection.

    Two sculptures grace the hall: the Lion of Cnidos, which was found in southwest Turkey and is said to date from 300 B.C., and an Easter Island statue, Hoa Hakananaia.

    The Great Hall was opened with considerable pomp and circumstance by Queen Elizabeth II in early December.

    Agents can check out the BTA's Web site at www.travelbritain.org for more information on cultural venues throughout Britain.

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