What a wretch I am or possibly the better term might be scoundrel. Here I sit all warm and snug in the drawing room of my club whilst my fellow "culture seekers" group are sloshing about in wellies under brollies following the path of the execution of their dead kind, Charles I.
I thought I was made of tougher stuff, but the lure for me was that our meet up was in Green Park only steps away from my warm dry club where my coat is handed off and kind people bring me tea and buns. It surely could have been helped, but by stronger and dryer constitutions than I obviously posses.
London continues to amuse and amaze. Yesterday afternoon I was privy to the aforementioned "culture seekers" group and their excursion to the Charterhouse. It was apparently built upon a plot of land that in the 1350's was used as a burial ground for the victims of the Black Death. It was at one point a Carthusian Monastery. It even had the gall to stand up to Henry VIII and his naming himself head of the church. One gentleman and myself could not make out what it is the current occupants do or are. Yet, who am I to question and judge for what do I do, prey and who am I? I wondered, then, if I could dress up as an 80 year old man and happily slip in and out making it my comfy London base.
Our guide was the sort of Englishman one likes straight away. I am lucky in my club and library for such Englishmen of this sort are often found. They are a sort of mix of over-educated dry wit wrapped in a bit of old tweed and they wear subtlety like a mantle or badge of honour. Such men as these can be found in America, but they are few and far between and most of them congregate in my dear old Boston in Harvard Halls (not the new monied economy wings) and faltering brownstones in the Hill or the Back Bay. They also litter my Summer shores with g&t's in old pink troussers and far too many sailing stories.
I sometimes fret at the loss of such men and surely popular culture and media never gives us their example. One can catch a glimmer now and again of a younger man possibly headed to their ranks, but one never knows. I suppose a sheltered dilettante such as myself takes the image of men from her Grandfather and carries it about like a sort key to the map of men. But, I digress.
The building was lovely and full of history. It is a marvel to lay one's hands upon stones that have been set in the 1300's and to learn that the "new bit" of brick was placed in the 1600s. Wonderful carved woods, rather good portraits, and the right bit of monkish mystery in a walled room. This once monkish shelter consisted of three openings in a wall. The center and largest being a gothic arched carved stone door. On either side two smaller openings, one with a slanted curve to keep the monks interactions with others at a minimum. The third opening, much lower but still carved in stone, was set to take it all back out again in its "used form". One couldn't help be a bit jealous of the solitude of its old occupants. But, I am meant to be learning to be more social.
This takes me to afterwards at a fine little public house. As it should be, the exterior was done up in odd bits and bobs of history with a good bit of Ars Noveau tile at its top. We were lucky in our odd assembled group to have got a sort of private booth in the back. And as we were so awfully assembled, our motley crew, we had as good a time as can be had by a group of strangers whose politeness will often exceed their social graces.
I rather found myself leading the conversation. The thing I am often loathe to do and the trick learned from my mother of trying to keep the conversation going without any uncomfortable silence. If I was somehow meant to be the lady at the head of this sort of ragtag dinner party the subtleties of the dining room etiquette seemed only to have been observed by myself. Sometimes turning to the person to my left I expected, from some trained recess in me, that all would follow suit and that with my turning to my right the same would come about. No such luck. However, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
We are an odd group so thrust together expecting to make niceties. And yet again I forgot to exchange contact information with people. It might be that I never see any of them again, as this gathering of "culture seekers" seems to change each time I join one of their meet ups. C'est la vie, as the French rightly say.
Now, back to my tea and watching wet pedestrians scurry about Green Park. The entertainment of the idle.
Today an American friend studying in Kent came for a visit. Meeting at St. Pancras made me realize how easily I could hop on a train in be in Paris, my second favorite city. The thought was tempting and even a friend whom has a house in the South of France has beckoned me only yesterday to come for a month or two.
Alas, I cannot leave London now. My time here is so precious already that the thought actually tears at me a bit. And showing my friend My London made me love the city all the more. The library's quirky metal stairs and endless books, the rain on the umbrellas as we sip coffee outside St. James's Piccadilly, even the odd damp Londoner's huddled on the Tube. To me it is great treat, a living art piece that one is allowed to jump into like Mary Poppins into a chalk drawing.
I was able to share the frustrations we American's have coming to live here: the Motherland. It is not made easy for us and she, at university, pays more than three times what our UK and EU brethren pay. Yet we come, we odd American's, and wonder at our silly ancestors for their ill-fated need to escape in the first place.
On a warm grey rainy day, such as today, watching pigeons over rooftops, I cannot imagine a place I would rather be. Oh you wretched Puritans, what could you have been thinking.
I live a rather odd sort of life. Small and quiet, in some respects, and certainly not one in which to draw attention. In fact I rather find myself far too often with myself. My hermitage is often by the sea, dear Toad Hall. Yet, when one is a hermit, and I see this best describes my habits, my hermitage follows me about.
Today, for example, I am again perched upon my little desk in the hidden reaches of the London Library. A vast city is at my feet, but like a rabbit I burrow into my little warren and here I sit, happy and content. I may alight frequently, like the said lapin, to sniff the breeze or, in my case, to have a coffee in the shadow of St, James Piccadilly, or a sniff round Hatchards, but am quick as a flash into my hidey-hole.
This revelation of my own solitude is not a new realization by any means. I have rather worn it, for no one to see of course, like a badge of honour. Yet, deciding as I have, to make a change in this manner of life, for at least half the year, has made it more apparent to me; or rather, it has put it into a new light.
In part my split year, as it were, is meant to balance the solitude and quiet of Toad Hall, with the peopled populace of London. For this to work and make sense I must then, it seems, talk and interact with the people. A logical conclusion but one hard won by a self-inflicted hermit. It is quite easy to be as quiet and self reflective in the bustle of the city as it is on the isolated sea side. Perhaps that is why I abhor the suburbs with its middle-class meddling.
My December and early January has found me reveling in quiet moments of watching people go by, a book to read here, a few lines drawn there and then out into the city with a coffee and a fag and view the world. It is as a play upon a stage or even more a film in the cinema, this people watching. For to me it seems as if those characters, those frenzied varied players, cannot see nor touch nor communicate with me.
I have been attempting to remedy this. I have found that London is rather a good place to find clubs and organizations to join. Of course I have my Library and my club, but there one is apt to sit in the drawing room sipping tea quietly reading magazines or the paper whilst your compatriots do the same, with an apology for a cough or sneeze. I will soon have bridge club and there is my book club, but rather a quiet lot when all is said and done.
This new set of people I am endeavoring to meet are meant to interact with you. At least that is what one assumes. They collect up, this new group, like so many wayward birds having lost their flock, to find themselves a rather odd collection of city pigeons with some flamingos, gulls, and a rooster in the mix. It is in this new endeavour, to meet and connect with people, that I have begun to see my life differently. It is through their eyes that shines the light upon my odd little existence.
If one thinks oneself a normal sort of person just going along, living one's life, to then have your self questioned about what you do or what you like to do, you soon sound to yourself as mad as a box of frogs. I might start telling people I am a plumber or a work in the City, but then they might ask me to fix their pipes or their finances and I should muck it up and show myself out.
My life, as I seem to live it, has no real plan nor pattern. That appears the goal of the modern person: The Plan. We are to set goals and reach aims and chase dreams and decipher the colour of one's parachute, whatever that might mean. And this is probably what sets me most apart from the normal person. One is always encountering people who are doing, just about to do, working towards doing, or having just done this or that. And it is all sensible things like having jobs and children and deadlines and meetings and schedules. And if one talks about what they have done, like sailing a large vessel alone with the main rigged and a plethora of lines in the cockpit so as not to be bothered by others in a boat with them, they are looked at as mad. I shan't even mention how I felt this past Sunday when chatting with a lovely vicar who was on the brink of heading to India to do all sorts of good works what it was I was to be up to the coming week. What indeed. Reading, rambling, drinking far too much coffee and contemplating one's self far too much. You can see how such realizations can make one feel a complete wretch.
I am an artist, that is I do artwork and sometimes people buy it. Sometimes I am coerced into having a show, but more often than not, I simply do art for my own amusement. I rather live like the ancestors in my works. The ladies in my past that happily spent their days alone or with small groups, moving about to suit the needs of family or fashion, reading, needlework, and occasional chats and meetings at their clubs. This sort of life, however, is odd to a modern person. We are meant to always be doing something and for me, much of what I do is, by modern terms, nothing.
Of course to me this sort of life isn't "nothing". It is a great many things to me: spending the day reading, or contemplating the sea bed of a morning snorkel, a casual coffee and flip through a book, an hour or three drawing or painting and then a drink as the sun sets. To me this is Life. This is living. To consider a trip to fly fish, or contemplate an afternoon riding. These are the loftiest of my goals. My ancestors would have not thought it odd, such a life, but if I am meant to get on with modern people than I had better find more things to do, I suppose. Even my need to be in the city for this portion of the year seems to need to have a reason. It is that I had better come up with one. "I want to be here in the city part of the year" just seems to meet with blank stares. I can see the question behind their far too polite eyes: "But what, silly mad woman, are you going to do? What is your plan?"
This is most likely why I fit in so well at my club. Sitting in an afternoon lecture in a sea of grey hair and walking sticks, no one is apt to give me a stare of "is that it?" when I say I might just get some tea and read the rest of the day away in the drawing room littered with other aged folk.
I always recall, since very young, finding more affinity with the very old. To me they had the pattern of life set. Their days were spent in contemplation and enjoyment. I've always felt an 80 year old since I was young. Though I just suspect it is simply the times have changed and what is meant to be fun and what one is meant to be getting on with has vastly changed to what I consider living. Perhaps it comes from being raised by very old parents and losing myself in the history of times long since lived out before even my conception.
It is an odd sort of life, this, but it is mine. I have never felt it ugly or misused, but seeing it through others well meaning eyes seems to make me see it differently. Like an ugly doll you love dearly and are only aware of its ugliness when you compare it to others Parisian Perfections in bone china.
Now somehow, as an artist ( as I suppose I am meant to "be" something) how can I go about putting this in my new work? My new digital realm that I see really only provides me my next hermitage: The Virtual World. Old habits do die hard.
London with all its normal distractions likes to throw a few more at one's feet. The day to day beauty and fascination of this city is enough to keep me amused, like a child with a new toy, for years on end. The city, though, is always providing more and more joy in which to partake. Like a shiny pair of keys jangled before the infant, I am drawn magpie like, to the shiny and new.
Case in point was this weekend. From Thursday through Sunday London saw fit to provide a living lighted art installation throughout the city to keep those post Christmas blues at bay. I could never do justice to its entirety so here is a link to it: http://www.visitlondon.com/lumiere/programme
My friend and I decided to brave the crowds this past Friday. Not wishing to fight these impending crowds, we saw fit to come into the city a bit early and have a poke around the National Gallery. Yes, world class museums strewn about like so many jewels before swine, means one can make such easy and commonplace decisions as, "Let's have a look see at the Tudors and the Victorians and then pop down to the cafe for some tea and cakes before venturing out into the city wide like sculpture of which we will, as viewers, become a part". Such grand decisions can become far too easy to make and therefore one struggles to not take them far too much for granted.
Of the various exhibits the one which most struck me was that displayed in my lovely St. James Square. The place I visit daily and walk about and see as my 'landing spot'. It received the floating figures.
One was struck as if waking in a dream. For the square seemed it's normal self, save the crowds of people all still and looking upwards. Then one caught a glimpse of light and then, as the eye focused, was it true, could it be? Yes, a floating figure hovering over the trees and grass. And there, up on that parapet, another figure lit and poised as if to jump.
The second amazing bit was on Piccadilly, Where the beauty and line of the normal classical architecture became the canvas for a changing view of painted light. Figures grew and were formed, then morphed into shapes, colour, and again a new figure. Accompanying this was music which filled the street and played above the din of the crowds. And my oh my were there crowds.
Roads were closed so one felt quite brave brashly strolling down the center of Piccadilly with nary a worry of traffic. Yet, the traffic of the human animal, stomping, staring, pointing and the cacophony of their united voices were bizarre enough but add to that the great squeal of an elephant. Yes, that's right, I said an elephant. For there was a display of an elephant in the Piccadilly Arcade and its' trumpeting was raised above all other sounds. When first approaching the street it sounded more like the scream of a Japanese monster or an Hollywood dinosaur. It all combined to make a rather surreal experience but one I was quite glad to have had.
London, you clever lady, you continue to entice and allure me. What, prey, is next? | shall try to share whatever it might be.
Today I am in the London Library. It is one of my main working points whilst in London. Being a members only Library, one is given access to floors of books from ancient to present. Mingled in the old multi-storied manse on St. James Square are little corners with desks to be nabbed and claimed for the day.
The interior is like a rabbit warren and one can easily spend a bit of time following an alley way of books to come upon a small staircase not before discovered, climb it and you will see a wondrous surprise: more books and possibly, if lucky, another hidey hole to claim. The very top floor being the members lounge where one can speak out loud, if needed, and have a coffee or tea and lounge about.
I rather think of this place as the fictitious Diogenes club of the Sherlock Holmes tales. For other than the strangers room (or in our case the members room in the attics) talking is frowned upon. In the magnificent reading room which takes up the entire floor on one level is rather like a private library in a country house, with multi-storied hope ramparts reached by wrought iron stairs and lined with periodicals and more books. Not only is talking frowned in this room, but NO electronic devices of any kind are allowed. It is in this room where I sit and most imagine myself in Edwardian England with nary a mobile or tablet to distract the fantasy.
One is also lucky in the location, as St. James Square is a convenient location to many things I love in London. A quick walk to the National Portrait Gallery, endless private galleries and wonderful shops and restaurants. And of course St. James, Piccadilly, is a wonderful old church that not only offers lovely free concerts in the afternoon, but has a cafe attached with outdoor seating in a lovely courtyard. I have just returned from there where I was privileged to hear the Academy Cello Ensemble. It was breath-taking and a wonderful break. Here is the program they did:
Schubert arr. Richard Birchall - Three Songs from Schwanengesang
Wagner arr. Richard Birchall - Prelude: Tristan und Isolde
Villa-Lobos - Bachianas Brasileiras, No.1
Eicca Toppinen - Romance
I am also lucky in the closeness of the library to my club, which is but a few blocks over on Park Place. I now have structured my working day to be split betwixt the two places. Thank goodness for the technology that now allows much of my work to be done digitally.
I shall close today with a few random shots from where I am today in my beloved Library. Hopefully, work shall follow. I have a February deadline for at least one piece, but how is one meant to work when one is so surrounded by lovely lazy distraction. Perhaps I should become a performance artist and my one piece shall be the lifetime I shall live reading in comfortable drawing rooms, listening to enthralling concerts, having coffees with friends in cold London streets, and Summers lolling on beaches and grimy from the garden. Now, to find a benefactor to purchase this piece. Until next time, dear friends.
It has been awhile since posting. Having had a rather busy summer and getting lured by the beauty of the garden and beaches at Toad Hall, I spent far too much time contemplating my work than being in the actual act of creation. Having settled nicely in Toad Hall for the Summer, finally our generation getting their place in it, kept me rather busy.
However the pull of ole Blighty has been strong over the past few years and having set a course to return to its shores, have now managed to do so. A comfortable little set of rooms in the upper reaches of a friends house is where I lay my head, but the city is where I spend my day. Having become a member of the London Library and the Royal Overseas League has done wonders for my sense of place. I am able to find my comfy little corner in rows of old books or in the finely appointed drawing room here at the club and this gives me my work space. It is a rather fine place to sip tea, watch the park, and dream, I might add.
With the fruition of my plan for half the year in the UK and the other in the US, I find my work taking more of a turn towards digital. Lucky chance has placed both the circumstances of such a plan and the advancement of the technology in happy companionship thus the drawing, painting, and various layers in my print making can now happily reside in my computer and digital drawing tablets. This has allowed me the luxury of poo pooing the idea of a traditional studio with pots of paint and the mess and bother of extra trains and flights of questionable stairs and neighbourhoods and replace it with the luxury of the club and library to be my studio. And I can't explain how much nicer it is to simply travel with suitcases full of one's clothing and not paints and rags and the like. And a pot of tea and toasted cakes brought by a simple call isn't half bad either.
I shall endevour, now that I am settled, to post more and to begin to share the stages and phases of my next body of work. I will happily be sunk in comfy chairs and hard leathered desks researching and dreaming of our past so as best to put it down into my next pieces.
I will close here with some pics of the lovely drawing room where I am lucky to while away some of the hours here in London.
I lived as a 1950s housewife for three years. Click below to see that project.
Donna Davis is a painter and printmaker living by the sea. Her work deals with women, history, the seashore, and moments in time. Follow along to see the process behind the product.