Our second day of this preamble had a very simple agenda. Our only previous visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum was in 2007 (predating this sort of blogging so we have no link to an old post, sorry) has always sat in our memories . . . not as a failure exactly but definitely as an unsatisfying experience. Back then, our first ever international trip, we made All The Mistakes. The main one was that we were seeing things in the morning and then seeing something else after lunch. That day we did a multi-hour garden tour and we were tired when we arrived. With one exception (foreshadowing! and you thought we’d stopped doing that) we did not take very much in of the museums robust collection. This trip we gave it a whole day. The only other things on the calendar are our meal plans which really, if you’ve been following along, should not surprise you. As Lisa is fond of saying, she starts by figuring out where our meals will come from and then goes from there. (This is probably because of some food horror stories from our early days that we’ll get around to telling some day.) Happily, all three items on our agenda turned out to be big hits.
The Victoria and Albert (or “V&A” going forward) was going to be consumed in two waves. First, we bought tickets for the exhibition “Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear“. It turned out to be an incredibly well-curated show that demonstrated how society’s idea of what a man is would influence the fashion world, but also how innovations in fashion would shift society’s notions of masculinity. It went back several hundred years, with demonstration pieces showing how medieval battlefield gear made its way into the state rooms, as well as examples of incredibly ornate armor that was clearly mimicking embroidery and lace. There was a portion at the entrance that was just men’s underwear through the years. I don’t know about you, but I had no idea that the staple button-down shirt was exclusively an undergarment back in the day; I never knew I was so lewd back in my office worker days!
After this, we broke for lunch. Lisa is a sucker for a dumpling from any culture – gyoza, gnocchi, dim sum, any variety, any place of origin. When we looked at a map of the V&A and realized it was just up the street from Ognisko Polskie, “The Polish Hearth”, a Polish social club dating back to 1940 and host of birthday celebrations for luminaries like the Duke of Kent. The club has a restaurant and bar, with a menu featuring (dun dun DUUUUN!) pierogi, placki, and blinis in numerous configurations. Oh, and vodka. Lots of vodka. No, seriously. I’ve never seen a menu before that said “please see our vodka list for selection” for ordering a carafe of vodka. It’s not a stereotype when they print it on their menus. Anyway, we dined like fat rats and had an excellent time; Lisa may be the one who hunts down the dumplings but her husband gleefully shares the kill.
Our plan for the afternoon was to go back into the V&A and explore their general collection. As Sun Tzu tells us, however, “no plan survives first contact with a museum”. We had not known when we set out that there was a Beatrix Potter exhibition going on at the same time, and that drew us in. While there certainly was attention paid to Peter Rabbit, it was a retrospective of the woman’s fascinating life. She came to her animal stories from her interest in nature rather than a desire to tell cute children’s stories, and her entire life shows her interest in education and conservation. She purchased a farm in the Lake District, and subsequently collected a number of farms in the region to preserve their character rather than allow any kind of industrial development. Eventually her holdings migrated to the National Trust. Anyway, not to turn this into a book report, but there was a lot more to her than cottontail fluffiness and the exhibition seemed to do justice to all of her life.
We were starting to peter out (herp derp) but there was one last thing we had to see. We often tell this story, of being in the V&A in 2007 and being completely tuckered out. We decided to just find the nearest exit (not always easy in the big museums) and not look at anything we had to. Our route took us through a doorway labeled “Raphael Cartoons.” Now if you know the punchline good for you, but if you are like we were then: “cartoon” does not mean “little doodles” or any such thing. A cartoon is a kind of rough draft in various contexts. In this particular context, it meant the rough drafts for 15 foot long tapestries that were to hang in the Vatican. And do you know what the rough draft for 15 foot long tapestries are? That’s right, also 15 foot long paintings. We were stunned. We had to sit on the benches and just stare for awhile; we were completely unprepared (which, in retrospect, might be the best way to see monumental art like this). And so, this time at least knowing what we were in for, back we went. They’re just gorgeous. Apparently, they have held up better than the tapestries they were designed for; then again, they used so much gold and silver thread in the tapestries that several of them were melted down during the 1527 sack of Rome.
Our final stop of the day was a pub called The Hemingway. Nestled into a residential neighborhood, it’s clearly mostly a joint for the locals. So what brought a couple of tourists to their doorstep? Beef Wellington. We’d wanted to find a good one (which has been trickier to come by than you might think) but we also didn’t want to pay Gordon Ramsey 200 pounds for the pleasure, so sleuthing was required. In the end, signs pointed us here, and dear Lord it did not disappoint. It was so good that I think the dish goes back onto the “don’t bother ordering anywhere else” list for awhile; regret seems inevitable so long as we can remember this meal. The pub is charming overall and the appetizers and drinks were all tasty, so even if you don’t fancy puff pastry filled with perfectly cooked rare beef (what’s wrong with you?!) I’d still tell you to pop in if you’re anywhere near.
Brains and bellies well stuffed for the day, we packed it in. We had one last touristy day in London before hitting the tracks, and the National Gallery beckoned.