Hold on to your hat here. It’s crazy and you won’t know where to look first!
Elegantly sandwiched between the sombre, legal, august Inner Temple and the renowned University of London, number two Temple Place is a triumph of architecture and Gothic Disney.
An unsettling, architectural gem of a building, it is a clutter of wood paneling, pictures and paranoia. So visually overpowering that if it weren’t for the immediate mugging by fabulous Mediterranean and Cornish aromas, you could easily miss lunch, altogether.
William Waldorf Astor, the dizzyingly wealthy creator of New York City’s Waldorf Astoria, built this Thames side, neo-Gothic, late Victorian mansion, (its that and more), in 1895, for £250,000; probably £25million at today’s prices. It’s rumoured he believed his children would be safer here, from the threat of kidnapping. With the touch of a button, it’s said, Astor could bar and lock all windows and doors.
And there are plenty of doors. The first one prepares you for what London’s evening newspaper called an “entertaining, camp, joyful and funny” building.
Two romantic cherubs, each holding a telephone, celebrate the then new age of telecommunication. There are carvings of characters from The Three Musketeers, 54 others from history and fiction, Pocahontas, Bismarck, and, probably for some good reason, Marie Antoinette. The Last of the Mohicans is there too, Rip Van Winkle with his dog, and 82 characters from Shakespeare. To top out the restored, fake Elizabethan stonework there’s a Golden weather vane representing the Santa Maria in which Columbus discovered America. The Astor’s symbolic connection across the ‘pond’ is relentless.
All that and you still haven’t seen the pictures.
But not quite yet… pause here, follow your nose and sample the stupendous salads, good bread or a Cornish pasty. For me though their ‘take’ on a prosaic Egg and Watercress on Poilane rye was second to none. Mint tea with real mint made me want to hug somebody.
Ok, now you can see the pictures. They’ve only recently started to stage exhibitions and this one is the most significant grouping of Cornish art, outside Cornwall, in recent times.
‘Amongst Heroes: the artist in working Cornwall’, is a cornucopia of fish, fishermen, their boats and the sea.
Mostly not great art, and very much late Victorian to early Edwardian taste, these works are seldom seen, much of it tucked away in private collections or in museum storage.
There’s a massive Stanhope Forbes, ‘A Fish Sale on a Cornish Beach’ which was done, we’re told, ‘as it happened’. There’s the chaotic but triumphant ‘trawling of pilchards’, painted actually on the sea from a neighboring boat. Everywhere are ruddy-faced seafarers in dozens of painterly works and drawings. There’s even, rather oddly, a fragile Cornish oyster-fishing boat. There must have been many drownings. But for me the most thrilling picture is a small, 1930’s Christopher Wood fishing boat; clear and clean, a lovingly painted work from arguably the finest, certainly the most tragic, of the Cornish school.
Two Temple Place is worthy of half an hour of your life, even stripped of the paintings. And, because this is not a ‘great’ collection, if you haven’t had enough of the very best, all is not lost. A short walk away is London’s greatest gallery, The Courtauld, home of some of the world’s most perfect art treasures. It’s currently staging a small, but perfectly formed two-room exhibit of Picasso works, all produced in 1901.
There’s been much talk about the disappointing, rambling Manet exhibit at the Royal Academy stuffed with lots of filler and few captivating pictures. This one’s a no-brainer, save a few quid, and get a two-fer, combining the Courtauld with Two Temple Place. Or, after such a splendid battering of art, you could just retreat to the patio behind the University and sit and watch the Thames.