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our trip to london and oxford (england)

updated sat 23 aug 03


Maurice Weitman on fri 22 aug 03

Greets, Claybuds,

Some of you may recall my asking for clay-related ideas for our trip
this summer. We had a great time, saw lots of beautiful pots, and
came back richer for the experience. Of course, the pots were all
behind glass often with horrible lighting that badly obscures the
object, and the glare from the windows or lighting adds the final
insult. Still, it's better than just seeing them in a book.

My favorites were the Chinese pots housed at the University of London
in a building provided for the Percival David Foundation's amazing
collection of Chinese ceramics from the 8th through 18th centuries.
I can't believe this as I write, but I think I read somewhere that
there were 2,000 pieces on display. Whether it was 200 or 2,000, it
was still too many to behold in any meaningful way. Some of the
pieces from the Song dynasty were timelessly beautiful; several
nearly 1,000 years old could pass as contemporary. I visited the
collection three times, once without my camera, and came away
speechless each time.

At the Victoria & Albert Museum, London's so-called craft museum, we
saw some wonderful Islamic and Asian art, loads of (similarly poorly
lit and displayed) ceramics, including some 20th century British pots
made by legends (including Lucie Rie, Hans Coper, Bernard and David
Leach, and Michael Cardew, to name a few) whose pots I'd only read
about and seen in photos. Malheureusement, we missed by one day an
Art Deco exhibit which looked way juicy. The V&A has a most
impressive collection of objects to which I cannot do justice in a
couple of paragraphs. I also visited there three times over the two
weeks, and could have enjoyed many more hours there.

Then there was the British Museum, which (like NY's Met and Paris's
Louvre) has more than can be seen in a month, including some
incredible Egyptian artifacts. Their centerpiece is the Rosetta
Stone. Pretty amazing to be so close to such a famous, functional
hunk o' stone. While in London, we read about Egypt's new Cultural
Minister who is demanding the return of many of the BM's collection,
including the Rosetta Stone which has been there for 150 years.

And then there was the stunning Parthenon sculpture, now known as the
Elgin Marbles, after the Scott who removed them from their home in
Athens and brought them to London nearly 200 years ago. You may
recall twenty years ago when Melina Mercouri, then Greece's minister
of culcha, launched a highly visible, charisma-laden campaign for the
return of a substantial chunk of Greek heritage. Greece's new
campaign for their return is more subtle and diplomatic. My favorite
headline on this comes from a February, 2000 Salon article "Will
Britain lose its Marbles? If the British Museum returned Lord Elgin's
treasures to Greece, how safe would any loot be?" by Elkan Allan.

(And I thought plunder was forever! Or maybe that was pillage?)

I also very much enjoyed my three visits to the Craft Potters'
Association gallery on Marshall Street in London; there were about 25
potters works on display for sale there. Just about all of the
several hundred pieces were delightful and desirable. Not to mention
pricey! They also had an impressive variety of books and magazines
(and a handful of tools) for sale. I picked up a copy of their
directory of members, "Potters." At the Crafts Council on
Pentonville Road, there were a few nice pots on display, but their
library was the most extensive collection of pottery and ceramics
books and magazines I've every seen.

In Oxford, we went to the stunning Ashmolean (a few pots and more
Egyptian pieces) and the Pitt Rivers museums. At this point, I can't
remember much except that I was overwhelmed by them. My sis-in-law,
who recently moved to Abingdon, just outside of Oxford, found several
Oxford-area potteries in the phone book and we went around to check
them out one Saturday. Of the four we found, one was closed for the
day, another due to retirement, one was a "paint-it-yourself" place,
and the last was filled with uhhh... rather boring slipware. TheTh
most interesting thing there was seeing a nearby shed with hundreds
of plaster teapot and bowl molds (er... moulds) scattered about. Had
I secured "Potters" before going to Oxford, I would have had better
luck. Their Botanical Gardens were quite delightful, and I enjoyed
tripping around the numerous bookstores.

Back in London, we also visited the Tate Modern in their interesting,
cavernous space (a former power generating plant), the influential
architect Sir John Soane's quirky collection
of architectural and other antiquities that is not for the
claustrophobic or neatnik, the sublime (if overpriced) Kew Gardens.
The Science Museum and Natural History Museum are across the street
from the V&A, and although there were a few interesting exhibits
there, we were not nearly as impressed as by the others.

In London, we stayed in a couple of bed and breakfast homes. Aside
from the need to take the tube (which I loved) to the most
interesting parts of London, we much preferred them to hotels. We
did none of the more typical touristy things (Buckingham Palace, the
London Eye, etc.), although we did walk along the Thames quite a bit
and around Big Ben. Next time we visit the UK, I want to be sure to
visit St. Ives, Devon, Stoke-on-Trent, Wales, and Scotland (did I
tell you that I was Scottish for twelve years?). But at this point,
I can't imagine when that would be.

Driving around for our five days in Oxford was fun; only twice did I
feel that I was on the wrong side. Although despite the fact that
I'm a lefty, shifting with my left hand never got to be comfortable.
British drivers were, for the most part, very courteous. Returning
the car to Hertz in London was a bit of a challenge. Road signage is
not necessarily the most helpful, and I almost unintentionally
wandered into the "Congestion Zone" where I would have had to pay
some pricey tariff for the privilege of being stuck in
bumper-to-bumper traffic.

Even though I'm a fan of privacy, I welcomed the presence of all
those closed-circuit TV cameras around town. I'd read about them in
the NY Times a year or so ago, and about the reduction in street
crime since their installation. It was also reassuring to see all
the police with no guns. Compared to Paris, where I never got used
to police (and soldiers) brandishing sub-machine guns in Metro
stations and on the streets, and most American cities where police
are always armed, it was very calming.

We enjoyed reading the British press and watching and listening to
the BBC. It was reassuring to read how the policies and actions of
Bush and Blair were reviled and ridiculed so uniformly. My sample
was too small to be convincing, but it seemed that the press there
was much less cowed by the White House and Downing Street than ours.

Celia and I are vegetarians, so our sampling of restaurants was quite
limited, but I must say that, aside from a couple of Thai restaurants
and the cafeteria at the V&A, food was not a highlight of the trip.
As I experienced in my visits to the UK in the '70s, the English
people were polite and accommodating, if not outright friendly. I
was crushed, though, that those ubiquitous diesel cabs (whose drivers
posses "The Knowledge") are now mostly garishly festooned with
enormous advertisements.

Thanks to all those who helped us prepare our itinerary and supplied
many of the suggestions that made the trip so enjoyable.