Anyone who follows my other blog, the book reviewing Fell From Fiction, will know that I am a sucker for anything Agatha Christie wrote. It came to my attention this week that, in honour of the 125th anniversary celebrations of her life, there was an exhibition called “Agatha Christie: Unfinished Portrait” on in London so I naturally dropped everything and had to go see it.
As soon as I arrived at London Bridge though, someone thought it amusing to begin pouring the entire contents of the Pacific over the city and with only a small umbrella as shelter, I became steadily more and more sodden as I walked along Southbank in the direction of Bankside Gallery. Eventually, with only fifty or so metres to go, I succumbed to temptation and disappeared into the Tate Modern for a drink on their top floor bar. Alright, it might have been unnecessary, but the wine was good, it had stopped raining by the time I’d finished, and I got this lovely picture up there.
Bankside Gallery is a small, one-room gallery with a gift shop off to one side stocked with books about art and artists, as well as the usual tourist trappings. I wasn’t allowed to take photographs inside, but instead whipped out my Moleskine and took notes on what was inside.
The exhibition has been set up with the help of Agatha Christie’s grandson Mathew Prichard, her only living relative, who has delved deep into the family’s personal effects to draw up previously unseen photographs of the Queen of Crime. Displayed all around the walls along with a timeline of her life and works, and quotes from her autobiography, private letters and notebooks, they form a version of the writer that few people ever knew.
Most people, from what I can gather, seem to think of her as an old woman hunched over her typewriter churning out mystery after mystery, but the reality seems very different indeed and the gallery goes a long way to showing that she had a fascinating and varied life, a joyful childhood, a good sense of humour and never actually had any ambitions of being a writer.
In the gallery, I discover that she actually wanted to be a pianist or a singer, but wasn’t good enough at either. She became a nurse during the First World War, and that is what made her so knowledgeable about poisons and why so many of her characters were killed by them. It details what everyone knows about her, that she once went missing for eleven days, and gives an insight into the breakdown of her first marriage and the beginnings of the second, one that was certainly a lot happier.
It transpires that she didn’t smoke or drink, but not because she didn’t want to. She looked on enviously at those who enjoyed those vices, but was unable to appreciate them herself. It is testament to her success that she is the only female playwright to ever have three shows on in the West End at the same time (The Mousetrap, Spider’s Web and Witness for the Prosecution), and when she died, every theatre in the West End dimmed their lights for an hour. At 85 when she died, she didn’t fear death, but was merely interested in finding out more about it.
At the centre of the gallery sit three things that, for me, were the most incredible items here. First is a painting of Christie by Oskar Kokoschka that normally never leaves Prichard’s house. The second is a rare recording of her voice – Christie never did a television interview and didn’t care for speeches – in which she discusses that she, like every other writer, suffered from writer’s block, and knew the pain of the right words coming when you were miles from anywhere to write them down. And thirdly, next to some first editions of her early books, sits her Remington typewriter, the very machine that produced so many wonderful works of literature.
Christie isn’t for everyone, but if you go to the gallery, your opinion is likely to change regarding her anyway. She enjoyed life, hugely. She liked roller-skating, tennis and is believed to have been the first English person to ever surf standing up, something she brought back from a holiday in Honolulu. The exhibition is only on in Bankside until September 6th, so I urge you to go along this week if you get a chance.
I’m aware that this entry has been more of a potted history of the life of Agatha Christie rather than about London itself, but the point of this blog is to explore all aspects of London and what is London without its people? Agatha Christie may have been born in Torquay and died in Oxfordshire, but in the interim she spent a lot of time in London, lived in Chelsea, produced numerous plays for the West End and set a lot of her books here. I’ll cover these on another day.
Once more, I suggest you hurry along to the Bankside Gallery and explore the life of this amazing woman. And if you can’t make this one, I am sure that another exhibition will be open soon enough that will entice you to one of the most charming galleries in the city.
Knowing where to begin my journey through London was perhaps one of the more difficult questions in setting up this blog. Do I go somewhere world famous and obvious, like Buckingham Palace, or to one of my favourite locations like the Natural History Museum, or to somewhere completely obscure and off the beaten track like … well, it’s so obscure I don’t know it. But then one location seemed to make more sense than any other. If you’re going to start something, you have to start at the beginning, and that can only mean Greenwich, the place where time itself begins.
Greenwich isn’t an area I know terribly well, but I like it when I do turn up. My friend Claire accompanied me on this journey and, determined to show me something blog-worthy, announced that she wanted to show me one of her favourite places in London.
It turns out that her favourite place in London is among the hallowed halls of the Old Royal Naval College, sandwiched between the Thames and Greenwich Park, most notably the Painted Hall, which I’ll get onto in a moment, as it’s the main reason I’m writing today.
Where the Old Royal Naval College (ORNC) now stands was once the location of Greenwich Palace, which was built by Henry VII, and later saw the birth of his two granddaughters, Mary I and Elizabeth I. After it was demolished in the 1690s, Mary II saw a hospital was built there for seamen, which was when the famous Chapel and the Painted Hall were introduced. The hospital was closed in the 1800s and was then converted into a training base for the Royal Navy. They abandoned the site in 1998, when it was turned over to the Greenwich Foundation, who restored it and ensured that it would all be opened up for visitors.
If you aren’t sure what building I’m talking about, then I suggest you google it, and you’ll find very quickly that you’ve probably seen its exteriors somewhere before. It makes an appearance in many films including Four Weddings and a Funeral, Tomb Raider, Thor: The Dark World, The King’s Speech, The Golden Compass and Les Miserables.
While the outside is a deeply impressive looking building, it is inside where the truly beautiful sights exist. The Chapel is wonderful, gilded and ornate to within an inch of its life. The ceiling was designed by John Papworth, a master plasterer and uses squares and octagons in a neo-classical design. In keeping with the naval theme, there is an anchor and rope incorporated in the floor design, although there are hints of its naval history throughout.
Despite being non-religious, I’ve always found a certain calmness and delight in chapels, cathedrals and the like. They’re peaceful places, and always have an eerie sort of quiet that you don’t find anywhere else. It still serves its original purpose and a service is held every Sunday with supposedly some of the best acoustics anywhere. The organ is still in use, too, and cost £1000 to install in 1798.
Opposite this, across the courtyard, you have the Painted Hall, one of Claire’s favourite London spots and one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Before you even get to the paintings, as you step into the door you can look right up into the dome, ninety feet above you, and then the famous ceiling, all 5683 square feet of it, comes into view. I realised almost immediately that I’d seen it before in a documentary about the Stuarts, but nothing comes close to seeing it for real.
Seated in the middle of a grand oval are King William III and Queen Mary II, the only monarchs to have co-ruled. They are surrounded by their family, and then beyond that symbols that represent the monarchy as a whole, as well as religion and then all the things that one would expect from a place so intrinsically linked to the navy – signs of our maritime power, navigation and trade.
The walls, too, are covered in intricate paintings showing more people and events than it’s possible to even take in. The painter was one Sir John Thornhill, who worked on it in two major phases between 1708 and 1727. For all his work, he became the first artist to receive a knighthood, and quite rightly so. The Painted Hall is known to some as “the finest dining hall in Europe”, and others still call it “the Sistine Chapel of the UK”. Both are completely fair assessments. Thornhill has included himself in the work; he can be found on the west wall, surrounded by paintbrushes, looking down upon his work.
To save your neck, in the middle of the room there is a mirror on a table, so you can peek up while looking down, making for a very curious experience. The rest of the room feels a little like Hogwarts; long wooden tables lined with candlesticks and awaiting a new class of wizards to come in and enjoy a conjured up feast. Like so many places in London, there is a sense of magic about the place, and very definitely a sense of history. The paintings are currently being restored at great cost to bring back the original vibrancy, but even now they are remarkable things to look at. Claire has since discovered that it’s even possible to get married there, and I do wonder how she’s going to broach that subject with her boyfriend when the time comes.
Finally, just off the main hall is a smaller room dedicated to Lord Nelson. His coffin was stored here prior to his being laid-in-state, and now it holds examples of his coat of arms and a replica statue of the one that stands atop Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square. This one is much smaller, however, being perhaps a couple of metres tall – the real one is five metres tall, although you’d never know it from the foot of the column.
There’s a reason this is a World Heritage Site, and I for one encourage you all to stop by if you’re in the area, and even if you’re not, to gaze upon the incredible artwork in here. Greenwich is great for a day out in general, with the expansive and beautiful park nearby, as well as the Royal Observatory, the Cutty Sark, Greenwich Market and more besides. But let’s not hurry ourselves. We’ve got plenty to time to get around to discussing those.