London Culture


I love a good cultural outing, and I’ve been up to a fair bit lately in London, which has a range of fantastic plays and exhibitions on offer at the moment. Popping to see a collection of beautiful paintings or an engrossing play is the perfect antidote to the monochrome February skies that weigh so heavily on the spirit.

In half term I took full advantage of my lovely week of holiday to catch up on some of the things I had been meaning to get to for a while. Firstly, I took my nephews to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, so that we could all learn about space; this was not massively successful in that three boys under 8 are always liable to cause some kind of disaster wherever they go, and before we’d barely walked into the building I was having to rush us past the damage they’d inflicted on a meteorite that had managed to survive for several billion years before these little cherubs had bulldozed their way into it, but they did love the Planetarium, where we watched a fascinating show on Dark Space and the Quantum Universe. Even the littlest of my babies, who is 3, was transfixed by the stars above his head and I was very impressed by the clear yet still cerebrally challenging voiceover that explained a lot of the theory I had seen displayed via the medium of peas and carrots in the excellent The Theory of Everything. If you’ve got any passing interest in space, whether you’ve got kids in tow or not, a day out at the Royal Observatory and Planetarium is highly recommended. It makes a nice change from an art museum, plus, it’s right in the heart of Greenwich Park, which offers glorious sweeping views across the London skyline as well as acres of greenery to explore. Greenwich itself is also well worth a visit; you can have fun hopping over the line where time begins, have a look around its other major museum, the National Maritime Museum, wander around the famous indoor market (if you’re there on the weekend), climb aboard the historic ship Cutty Sark, get the best ice-cream in London at Phillies (almost next to the enormous 18th century church, St Alfege), walk under the Thames via the Edwardian foot tunnel between Greenwich and Poplar, and take a boat back down the river to Westminster, which will offer you glorious views of the city.


My next museum visit was to the much anticipated Sargent exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. Singer Sargent is probably my favourite artist (though sometimes I decide I prefer Boldini – his portraits have such energy, such as this one) and I couldn’t wait to see a good amount of his remarkable portraits together in one place. I am lucky in that I have been spoiled through having lived and travelled widely in the US; Boston’s Fine Art museum and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum have exquisite collections of his work, and I will never forget seeing The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit alongside those massive vases in the enormous room they are in (were in? I haven’t been back for a few years…can anyone enlighten me?) at the Museum of Fine Arts. There are also several very good Sargents in New York, and my absolute favourite Sargent (Lady Agnew) is in Edinburgh, which I saw a couple of years ago and was utterly mesmerised by.

The Portrait Gallery showcases, in my opinion, two particularly outstanding pieces; Dr Pozzi at Home, and Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron, which are truly breathtaking, but the others were not particularly exciting and nor were they particularly representative of Sargent at his best, in my opinion. I was disappointed that more works had not been borrowed from foreign collections, and, as I often find at British exhibitions these days, many of the paintings were from the Tate, where they would have been free to view at any time prior to the exhibition anyway. I know all of the reviews have been glowing, but for me, the exhibition was a big disappointment. It was housed in too small a space, too many people had been allowed in at the same time, making it very difficult to see the works, and the price, at £16, was extortionate for what was on offer. When I think of all the portraits of artists and friends of Sargent I have seen around the world, this exhibition was utterly lacklustre. I felt very short changed indeed. Where I did not feel short changed, however, was next door, at the National Gallery, where there is a fantastic free exhibition of the Norwegian artist Peder Balke’s beautiful landscapes of 19th century Scandinavia. I was utterly mesmerised by his amazing depictions of the sea and sky and, as I am going on a whistlestop tour of Denmark, Sweden and Norway over Easter, it made me very excited for the beauty I am sure I will see when I am there.

the hard problem

More success was had at the theatre; I very much enjoyed Di and Viv and Rose, which was funny and moving and so very true about female friendships, and hilarious about the experience of being at university. It’s definitely worth seeing if you’re in town. I also saw Tom Stoppard’s new play at the National, The Hard Problem, which I found thought provoking, though somewhat formulaic and simplistic, which I was surprised by, as Tom Stoppard has been harping on about theatre audiences not being as clever as they used to be and not ‘getting’ his cultural and scientific references, which made me worried that I was going to be the Dunce in the back of the theatre. In actuality, I don’t think I missed anything (probably because I’ve been reading up on Quantum Physics as my latest intellectual sideline – before you think I’m a genius, I’m essentially poring over Quantum Physics for Dummies), and I actually found the science and philosophy behind the action very basic and rather cliched. The play was also utterly lacking in heart, which I do tend to think is rather a theme of Tom Stoppard’s plays; I remember seeing Arcadia in New York and thinking it was the most intellectually engaging play I’d ever seen, but it didn’t move me in the slightest. I’m all for thinking and and being challenged to consider the deeper meanings beneath our existence, but I do wish that Stoppard would inject a little more passion and personality into his characters. The actors did their best with what were essentially just types, and though the action sped by and I was absorbed in the plot, I left not really feeling anything, and personally, that’s what I go to the theatre for. I like my throat to tighten and my hand to flutter nervously to my chest; I don’t want to be a dispassionate observer of events. But the rest of the audience seemed to think it was marvellous, so you can take from that what you will. Sometimes I wonder whether it’s all a bit Emperor’s New Clothes with people like Stoppard. The theatrical equivalent of Damien Hirst, perhaps?

Looking forward to the next few weeks, I’m excited to go to the new exhibition at Two Temple Place, which is just as interesting to visit for the building as for what it houses. I also can’t wait for the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A, which will be especially interesting as I saw its original incarnation at the Met back in 2011, and I’m intrigued by the Tate’s exhibition of early photography, Salt and Silver. I’ve got tickets booked for Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! at the Young Vic, and for Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman at the National, so I shall be quite the culture vulture as I wait for the weather to warm up and the skies to brighten!


  1. Paperback Reader says:

    I saw the Cotton to Gold exhibition one lunchtime and it’s good but the highlight was Two Temple Place itself. However, I did like the Japanese art section of the exhibition although I saw The Great Wave off Kanagawa at The Met.
    Incredibly excited about Savage Beauty.
    Also, follow up to the other night (how bizarre): A View from the Bridge was superb, with the tightening of throat and the fluttering of hand to chest that you aptly describe above.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Yes I’ve gathered from what people have been saying that the exhibition is less than inspiring but I always like to go in just to look at the building anyway. Last time a guard told me all about the staircase and what all the figures symbolised, which was an eye opener! I know, what were the chances?! I love random London encounters! I’m so glad you thought it was amazing – I would happily go and see it again every night of its current run – it’s the best play I’ve ever seen!

  2. Louise Cumberpatch says:

    Dear Rachel,

    I always thoroughly enjoy your posts, especially your book reviews.

    Judging from your bookshelf and your reviews, I too have read and enjoyed many of the same books, although it has taken me a great many more years to discover them. However, on the basis of that, I should like to recommend a book to you, a scruffy old tome, unearthed at a local village fete, called ‘Sunset House’ by The Honourable Lady Fortescue – Winifred Fortescue, born February 1988 – April 1951. It as a delightful account about this ‘Lady’s’ life in France. I immediately thought it would appeal to you, forgive me if I am wrong. This is the second of seven books. I googled her and printed five pages detailing her life. One of lifes numerous heros of whom so few have probably heard, yet undoubtedly, inspirational.

    By the way, what have you been reading recently?

    Yours sincerely, Louise Cumberpatch.

    Book Snob wrote: > a:hover { color: red; } a { text-decoration: none; color: #0088cc; } a.primaryactionlink:link, a.primaryactionlink:visited { background-color: #2585B2; color: #fff; } a.primaryactionlink:hover, a.primaryactionlink:active { background-color: #11729E !important; color: #fff !important; } /* @media only screen and (max-device-width: 480px) { .post { min-width: 700px !important; } } */ bookssnob posted: ” I love a good cultural outing, and I’ve been up to a fair bit lately in London, which has a range of fantastic plays and exhibitions on offer at the moment. Popping to see a collection of beautiful paintings or an engrossing play is the perfect antidote”

    1. bookssnob says:

      Hi Louise – love your name! I’m a Cabbagepatch myself! 🙂

      Thank you so much for your lovely comment – I’m so pleased you’ve been enjoying the blog. I absolutely love the sound of that book – I’m a bit of a Francophile so it will certainly appeal. I shall look out for it!

      I’m not reading enough at the moment, though I’ve finally finished my A Level texts with my classes which will give me more time to read what I want to! I’ve just finished Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson, which I liked but didn’t love – certainly not as much as her later novels – and I’m yet to decide what I’ll read next!

  3. Glad to see you are enjoying being busy with life rather than work!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you – yes, it’s the calm before the exam storm at the moment!!

  4. M-A.G. says:

    Sad of not living in London…

    1. bookssnob says:

      I’m sorry you can’t be here to enjoy all this culture!

  5. Wow, you’ve been busy! Sounds like you are making the most of every spare moment and seeing some fascinating things. I’m more than a little envious about the upcoming Shaw play – enjoy!

    1. bookssnob says:

      I have indeed! Oh I am so excited for it, Claire – I hope I enjoy it!

  6. Therese says:

    I agree with you about Boldini , he also painted a portrait of a very handsome Singer Sargent .

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh really? I don’t think I knew that…off to google! Thank you!

  7. I always admire how you hop to it, Rachel, and gather in as many moments and memories you can. This was wonderful to read.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks Penny! I’m glad you enjoyed it 🙂

  8. Elke says:

    I love your London posts. I will be in London this weekend, and these are just the tips I have been looking for. I will definitely go to the National Gallery. A few years ago, I discovered the fantastic Geffrye Museum via your blog. So many thanks for that and for any future posts about this lovely city.

    1. Elke says:

      Just a follow-up comment : I’ve been to the Peder Balke exhibit, and you were so right. His paintings are absolutely stunning. I can’t believe this painter isn’t better known.

      1. bookssnob says:

        I’m so glad you had a lovely time and enjoyed the paintings. I know – they are absolutely stunning, and I don’t know why he is not more famous. I’d want those paintings there all the time!

  9. Glad you are enjoying your spare time. Greenwich is fantastic. I went last Easter after a gap of I don’t know how many years, and was so impressed with the Park, and the Maritime Museum, and the Observatory, which was staging a fantastic Steampunk exhibition. On a return trip later in the year my younger daughter (who lives in London) took me to the market and through the foot tunnel, but I haven’t visited the Planetarium yet.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you, Christine! Greenwich is wonderful and it doesn’t tend to get too touristy, which makes a nice change from other parts of London. Next time you must go to the Planetarium – it’s fascinating!

  10. Marianne says:

    I love how you don`t love everything! Hopefully your visit to Norway will be great! Where are you going? Let me know if you want tips:) Marianne in Oslo

    1. bookssnob says:

      Ha! I am going to Oslo, actually – just for a day and a half – so any tips of the things we MUST see would be much appreciated, thank you!

  11. Oh, gosh, I have to stand up for Tom Stoppard, at least a bit. I think you’re right that his plays can be too cerebral and too in love with their own cleverness. But I loved his plays before I knew he was famous (so I promise it’s not an Emperor’s New Clothes thing with me!), and I totally cried when I saw Arcadia. And I cry every time I read The Invention of Love. Not to say that The Hard Problem won’t be a lame play (you are not the only person who has been less than impressed with it!), but some of Stoppard’s stuff are among my most favorite plays.

    1. bookssnob says:

      I know you are a huge Stoppard fan and I am so glad you took me to Arcadia, because that was amazing. But The Hard Problem is definitely not up there with the best. If it comes to New York you should see it and then tell me what you think!

      1. I will! I actually moved back to Louisiana BUT luckily the National Theatre does that lovely thing where they broadcast their plays to local cinemas. So I’m planning to see it that way, later this year!

  12. BookerTalk says:

    Ive lost count of the number of times I’ve taken a boat down to Greenwich and walked past the observatory but never thought of going in. Ok, next trip to London will see my rectify that omission

    1. bookssnob says:

      I hope you will! It’s well worth it!

  13. Lucinda Sans says:

    I love reading about the things you can access in London. And am faintly jealous. I have only just returned from three weeks. It was the best. We wondered by Two Temple Place by chance and found it one of the best exhibitions we saw because of the obvious careful curating and diversity of objects.

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