Food, Days Out and Travel stories from Brighton, London and the Rest of the World


Days Out in London - French Eighteenth Century, Before and After

For a limited time only two exhibitions in central London offer us a chance to contrast a period in French history that saw two very different outcomes for its very privileged class.

Separated by a 30-minute walk across central London a temporary exhibition of prints from the French Revolution at the UCL Art Museum viewed alongside the permanent collection of fine French art at the Wallace Collection offer this unique comparison.

I started with the 'After', the blood curdling, maniacal, subversive, liberating, revolutionary and absolutely terrifying world of the French Revolution.

Located in the South Cloister, you enter via the main complex at UCL, which has at its core the Wilkins building. Its steps tower upwards and rise to a set of Corinthian columns in the style of an ancient Roman temple.

eighteenth century days out, photo by modern bric a brac

I had arrived in late March sunshine and the steps were crowded with students sunning themselves. It looked so appealing I joined them for a moment as I waited for the museum to open at 1 pm.

To the right of this edifice I found the entrance to the South Cloister. I walked in and by mistake walked straight passed the door to the exhibition. Instead I came face to face with a man in a glass cabinet.

Jeremy Bentham

Dressed in eighteenth-century clothing, a sign above the seated gentleman introduced him as Jeremy Bentham. Fascinated I went up close to the glass and realised a camera was recording my expression.

The man himself was one of the founders of the University College London. The clothed model actually contains Bentham's skeleton, his real clothes have been used and the head is said to be a life-like wax model. Not only that but his head is also at the College and its mummified form is still brought out for college council meetings where Bentham is recorded as having attended but not voted.

Called the Panopticam Project the purpose of the webcam is to take a photo every 5 seconds, in order to view the world in a similar way to that enjoyed by Jeremy Bentham.

The photos are then posted on the Panopticam webpages, with a time lapse video using all the images taken that day and posted onto YouTube.

Eighteenth century days out, London photo by modern bric a brac

Revolution under a King: French Prints 1789 - 92

After inspecting this very curious exhibit I found the room that I had been looking for at the entrance to the South Cloister. Free to visit, it's open to the public from Mon - Fri until June 2016. Contained within the one room, commemorative prints and coins are displayed on three sides. Covering the significant events during the years 1789 - 92, there are prints showing the fall of the Bastille, the march on Versailles, the battle outside the Tuileries and the return of the royal family after their attempted escape.

eighteenth century days out, photo by modern bric a brac

Despite my sympathy for the French Revolution I can't help but feel sorry for King Louis XVI when you see him in the picture wearing the red cap. It celebrates the moment when in June 1792 a group of Sans culottes forced him to put the cap on, a further humiliation for the King who would be executed six months later.

eighteenth century days out, photo by modern bric a brac

The other print that stood out for me was another that showed the royal family ridiculed. Returning to Paris after their failed attempt to escape they are depicted as pigs in a cart. To me, the print conveys a sense of the anger that was directed at the royal family for their duplicitous dealings.

eighteenth century days out, photo by modern bric a brac

The Wallace Museum

My next stop was to travel back in time to when the French royal family lived in blissful splendour and did not have to concern themselves with the mob.

The best place to go to immerse in this type of escapism is to visit the Wallace Museum. They have a vast collection of 18th-century paintings, furniture and Sevres porcelain that could not be displayed in a more sympathetic setting.

The walls are covered in silk and gold, with glass cabinets containing some of the finest Sevres porcelain ever made. On the walls are hung paintings by some of the greatest painters that ever lived.

Amazingly the Wallace Museum is also free to visit and so are their daily tours that start at 2:30 pm during the week.

The lady taking the tour that I joined shared fascinating nuggets of information connected to a few of the items on display.

Eighteenth century days out, London photo by modern bric a brac

Francois Boucher

As we climbed the stairs behind us rose two enormous paintings by Boucher, depicting the rising and setting of the sun. From our tour guide we found out that Madame de Pompadour had commissioned them to flatter her lover Louis XV. In one the sun is rising and Apollo lounges surrounded by naked figures as the horses are saddled for sunrise. The implication is that Louis XV was also invested with magnificent powers.

On the tour through the rooms we were introduced to paintings by Gainsborough, Velazquez, Titian, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Reynolds as well as a room full of Canalettos.

Eighteenth century days out, London photo by modern bric a brac

Mrs Robinson

In one of the rooms were three paintings hung alongside each other of the same woman, a well known actress and writer called Mrs Robinson. Painted by three great artists at a similar time, the early 1780s, it is a rare privilege to compare three such paintings of the same subject. In the middle is Gainsborough's large canvas, which give us a delicate and ethereal representation of Mrs Robinson. To the left is Romney's plumper, enquiring sitter wearing superb headwear and to the right is Reynolds' contemplative composition where she is looking over her shoulder at the sea beyond, revealing an elegant white neck.

In each picture she looks quite different, it would be curious to know which was the closest likeness, my own favourite is Romney's Robinson.

Eighteenth century days out, London photo by modern bric a brac

The Swing by Jean-Honore Fragonard

Despite being impressed by the Canaletto's and the other fabulous works of art, my highlight was seeing the lady on the swing. Caught mid-motion as her slipper flies through the air, she is surrounded by summer trees and the lady in pink looks joyful. Beneath her lies her a young gentleman looking up at her as another pushes the swing. The painting is by Fragonard and it's smaller than I thought (some of the larger paintings at the Wallace Museum are double its size).

Twenty years later, idle pursuits such as the scene depicted in The Swing was now only a memory as many aristocrats shared the same fate as their monarch.

Wallace Collection, London photo by modern bric a brac

What I found out was that a day in London that combined two such contrasting realities provided a stark, fascinating and immersive experience.

Click here for more info on Revolution under a King: French Prints 17879 - 92 runs til 10 June 2016 at UCL Art Museum, South Cloister, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT

Eighteenth century days out, London photo by modern bric a brac

Click here for more info on the Wallace Collection Manchester Square, London W1U 3BN

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