Magic, art and science in London

You know I always raised an eyebrow at the geography in Game of Thrones, what with the north being covered in snow while the south still grew grapes, in a land only 2500 miles long (King’s Landing to Winterfell, not even the full length of the isle). I know, fantasy, but still. My recent visit to London from my home in Edinburgh kinda sorta made it more realistic.

When I left Edinburgh at 6 am in the morning it was about 2 °C. When I arrived in London, 650 km south and five hours later, it was 17 °C. Sure sure, one was in the morning and the other afternoon, but it was still a radical change, and in a lot shorter distance than that of Westeros. I was dressed for Scotland, so I was sweating my way around London for the first few days, until it blessedly cooled down. Climatization to Scotland – status complete. I’m so proud!


I spent most of the five days in London with my family, or struggling with the appallingly bad wifi at the hostel I was staying, but I did make it to two places on my list of things to do. First, I spent most of one day at the British Library. Despite having lived just north of London for two years and having visited London many many times before that, this was my first visit. I must admit I had expected something out of Hogwarts, with dusty tomes on never ending shelves in gloomy vaguely medieval rooms haunted by robed scholars (or indeed, wizards) than people in wind breakers and sneakers. But I guess that’s the Bodleian in Oxford.

The British Library used to be part of the British Museum but became a separate entity in 1973 and got a purpose built building to house an ever increasing collection of books. The largest in the world, in fact. The Bodleian is the second largest. Anyway, the reference above to Hogwarts is more apt than you may think as I was there to see the Harry Potter A History of Magic exhibition, a fantastic exhibition about the origins not only of the books themselves but the real world historical counterparts of alchemy, astronomy, fantastic beasts and magic. You needed a timed entry ticket bought in advance and there was nary a youngster in sight. At a guess the average age was around 40. I fitted right in. As you know, I’m something of a fan.

Alas, there was again no photography at the exhibition, but it was fantastic. The exhibition made links between what Rowling wrote and what exists in the real world. While the items shown were not perhaps direct influence on Rowling (they may have been), the wizarding world feels a logical, if magical, extension of humanity’s mostly medieveal pursuits. What left the strongest impression on me, a novice writer, was the original manuscript pages from the early draft of the books. When you read the books now, you can imagine that they emerged as they are from the imagination of

Details of the butt ends of muskets

JK Rowling, perfect, making the passage to final edit unscathed. But no, editors always find something to improve upon. Oh, there was also a genuine invisibility cloak of “unknown origin” in a display case, lovingly lit. It was totally invisible.

After the Harry exhibition, I spent the rest of the afternoon at the Treasures of the British Library, which showcases the jewels of their collections. A Gutenberg Bible! The Magna Carta! Jane Austen’s Notebook! A massive collection of religious texts from all over the world. And so much more. My feet were sore from the slow shuffle at the Harry exhibition already, but I soldered on. Well worth a visit!

Another day I spent almost entirely with the Wallace Collection in the 18th century Hertford House. I wanted to see not only the art collection but also the building itself, one of the finest town houses of the period open to public in London.

There, I could and did take photos of everything. The ceiling roses, the magnificent chandeliers, the vast collection of paintings, the elegant furniture, the mainly pink walls of the rooms and galleries. Entrance was free and I went there on my way somewhere else, expecting to spend an hour there, but there was just so much to see! There were intricately decorated medieval weapons and armoury, a fine collection of Canaletto’s paintings of Venice, a surprise pair of portraits, one of Mary Queen of Scots and the other Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. Having just finished bingeing the TV show Reign about Mary, they were fun to see. Also fun was a pair of portraits by Rembrandt. One his self portrait, the other his son’s, which showed the nose didn’t fall far from the tree (see on Flickr).

Detail from a Canaletto painting of Venice

On my last day I also had a bonus visit to the British Museum, where you could spend days if you were so inclined. My time was limited this time so I focused on a smashing exhibition on the Enlightenment. This was a fascinating look at the early days of the museum and where and how the collections got started. The 91 meter long gallery was designed in 1827 to house king George III’s personal collection of 70.000 manuscripts, medals and coins, and the exhibition now had six sections, on religion, archeology, discovery, art, natural world, ancient scripts and the art of classifying the finds.

I found the early collectors, known as antiquaries, most interesting. These were usually wealthy men (like George there) who just collected interesting and weird stuff about different historical era and places. And thus historians and archeologists were born. The collections include massive flint axe heads that were gorgeous and deadly, massive Greek vases, delicate shells and fossils, ancient texts and manuscripts, early crackdown on interpreting the hieroglyphs and even a copy of the Rosetta stone that you could fondle. It presented a fascinating slice of the discovery of the world and the birth of many branches of sciences. Photography was free but most objects were in glass cases so they were hard to get good photos of. But again, it’s a free collection, so help yourself if you’re around.

Having lived in Edinburgh for some months now which is gorgeous in its own special, grey stone way, so it was almost a shock to my eyes to see all the lovely red brick buildings in London. I think I need a lengthy stroll in Edinburgh to find the variety here as well. I didn’t have time to visit the Christmas markets in London, but happily Edinburgh sports their own, which I have yet to explore.

As always, there are lots more photos on Flickr!


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