Thursday, 31 May 2012

Pastries and Portraits

Today I ventured into London in order to meet a fellow theatre reviewer and Shakespeare enthusiast.

We have worked on the same Shakespeare webzine for several years, but had never actually met before, due to living in different countries. But over on a trip to see some Shakespeare (what else!) she had a free afternoon, and so we met for lunch.

She had suggested Maison Bertaux, a little patisserie near Leicester Square. Upon arriving I was greeted warmly by the proprietor and told that my friend was upstairs waiting for me! We ordered thick, freshly baked broccoli quiche, and tea served in a large pot that came with a jug of hot water to make a second brew. The sweet pastries looked rich and very fresh, all baked on the premises.

Founded in 1871, Maison Bertaux has the air of a shop adrift in time, with the downstairs patisserie looking as though it stepped straight out of the 1940s, and the upstairs tea room and art gallery firmly placed in the modern day. It is, I have since learnt, known as the headquarters of artist Martin Firrell, and showcases work by comedian Noel Fielding. It also, apparently, acts as a tiny performance space for a theatre group. Quite remarkable.

My friend and I had a lovely lunch together and parted reluctantly, with promises to keep in touch.

I decided to spend the rest of the afternoon in the cool of the National Portrait Gallery, wandering mapless, and enjoying the mid-week lull that allowed me whole rooms to myself.

I left with three new favourites. Private View of the Old Masters, Royal Academy, 1888 by Henry Jamyn Brooks is a large canvas, and needs to be seen up close in order to appreciate the rich colours and textures, as well as the attention to detail in the faces: the lady looking intently at her programme; Millais somewhat aloof; the man in glasses, at the back of the room, the only one staring towards the viewer as at a surreptitious photographer. I also like the idea of looking at a painting full of people looking at paintings. It pleases me somehow.

Sir Edwin Landseer by John Ballantyne shows the sculptor carving one of the lions that sit at the bottom of Nelson's Column. Landseer sits between the front legs of the great beast, chipping away at his almost complete creation, with his dog curled up between the lion's paws. There is something awful about this painting, that just cannot be conveyed in a digital representation.

Emmeline Pankhurst by Georgina Brackenbury is a warm portrait of the suffragette, painted a year before her death in 1928. What the digital version doesn't convey is the twinkle in her eyes or the full extent of that knowing and perhaps slightly mischievous smile. I was hoping to buy a postcard of this one, but it wasn't in the range on offer.

Intending to head home I instead ended up meeting P and a colleague at Pera, a Turkish restaurant in Shoreditch. It offers a good range of vegetarian food, and the staff were lovely, serving us complimentary starters of flatbread with yoghurt and fiery red dips, as well as tiny bowls of chilled rice pudding with cinnamon for dessert.

I would recommend both Maison Bertaux and Pera as excellent places to eat in London. And whilst there, perhaps you could pop into the NPG and see some lovely paintings and photographs, all for free. It really is worth the trip.

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