Continuing my project to try out new and, where possible, inexpensive or free, things in London, to challenge that assumption that everything here is expensive, I spent a day this week in the City. Were it not for the rather nice lunch I had(!), I could say that the day cost me nothing other than the public transport fares.
I started out at the Museum in the Bank of England. Until I visited the Sir John Soane Museum last year, I hadn’t known that there even was a museum at the Bank, but then subsequently on walks along Threadneedle St towards the Tube station, I’d noticed a sign on a wooden stand by one of the grand doors indicating that the entrance to the Museum was around the corner (in Bartholomew St), and each time I would remind myself that I’d like to visit.
Inside, a chronological history of the Bank leads you through the evolution of the building, from small beginnings on Threadneedle Street, through the building of the Soane edifice, to its subsequent remodelling in the 20th century. I was entranced by some drawings of the construction work in the 1930s, such detail and precision in pen and ink drawings, showing the huge hole in the centre of the exterior walls which seem to be the only remaining sections of the Soane design. Digging big holes in the City is clearly not a new phenomenon.
The Royal charters signed by King William and Mary are there too; huge scrolls filled with elaborate and densely packed writing, which at first was impossible to decipher, both for its arcane language and ancient script. We debated for a few minutes whether it was in Latin, until some of the words came into focus as English.
I had a go at lifting up a gold bar (secured within a perspex box and observed by no less than four security cameras), and examining all the security features of a £50 note under a brightly lit magnifier. And in between, absorbed the history and evolution of the bank from a purely commercial enterprise with an initial capital of £1.2m to its current role as effectively one of the organs of State. There was also a fair amount of pointing at old bank notes, with exclamations of ’I remember them’ together with the realisation that there was a £20 note in circulation in the 1970s and very early 80s that we had never seen, such a large amount of money was it at the time.
There were interactive displays explaining inflation to children, and a booklet to explain Quantitative Easing to everyone else. I took one, because, if I’m completely honest I don’t really understand it, and, after reading the booklet, I’m still not sure I do….
From the Bank, via the aforementioned lunch, we made our way to the Guildhall Art Gallery, to discover that in fact it is called ‘The Guildhall Art Gallery and Roman Amphitheatre’. If I’d spent any time thinking about it I suppose should have known that there would be art in the City; after all where there is wealth, art usually follows, but my assumption would have been that it was all kept behind closed doors in private collections.
The Guildhall apparently has a very large collection dating back to the 15th century, only a small part of which can be displayed at any one time. As a collection it must truly reflect changing tastes and fashions of the wealthy burghers of London over the intervening centuries. In amongst the pieces currently on display there were things from both the Victorian and mid twentieth century which were not at all to my taste by artists the curators must clearly be hoping will come back into fashion soon.
A temporary exhibition highlighted the depth in the collection of Portraiture, which was fascinating, including Tudor ladies in the finest of laces, each strand and twist of which was painstakingly replicated on canvas, as well as a Holbein of Henry VIII. And there was a nice synchronicity in that the lady custodian pointed us in the direction of two full length portraits of our old friends William and Mary, grantors of the Charter to the Bank of England, which have been in the Guildhall collection since they were painted at the end of the 17th century.
And I mustn’t forget the Roman Amphitheatre; in truth, a few remains of stone walls and two glass cases of artefacts, but displayed very effectively in a darkened basement of the Gallery, atmospherically lit to give the opportunity to appreciate some of the scale it might have been.
The day began with me feeling rather ignorant that I’d not known it was possible to visit these places, and I finished it feeling a little better educated; and you can’t say fairer than that.