London – Monarchs, Prime Ministers & more Galleries & Museums

Sunday, 23 October 2022

It’s certainly been an interesting time to be in London. In one visit I’ve had two monarchs (Queen Elizabeth & King Charles) and soon I’ll be able to tick off three prime ministers (Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and number three is coming soon. Unless – God forbid – it’s Boris Johnson again).

▲ I didn’t even have to queue up for 12 hours to see the Queen’s coffin, it was less than five minutes’ walk to Cromwell Rd to watch the hearse go by, en route from Westminster Abbey to Windsor.

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth
The big exhibit is Alexander the Great at the British Library, London, which is open until 19 February 2023. He was born in Macedonia in 356 BC, had already won his first great battle, against the Persians, in 334 BC when, at the age of 22, he succeeded his father Philip as king of Macedon in 336 BC and set off across Asia to build an empire that stretched as far as India and was dead at the age of 32 in 323 BC.

It all happened so fast if it hadn’t been for the battles and the bouts of destruction, most famously Persepolis in modern Iran in 330 BC, his adventures could almost read like tourism. In fact ‘myth’ is perhaps a little too close to the truth. It’s often difficult to untangle the real Alexander from the mythical one. Certainly The Guardian was much less than impressed as they explained in their Alexander the Great review about cultural treasures reduced to the status of comics. Yes the British Library’s exhibit even includes a Superman comic where the Man of Steel encounters Alexander.

▲ This carving in the Temple of Amun in Luxor was said to be commissioned by Alexander himself and shows him as a pharaoh performing a sacrifice.

I’ve encountered numerous places with connections to Alexander the Great including, of course Persepolis. I was there in 2004, researching my book Bad Lands. In 2006 I visited Taxila in northern Pakistan, a centre of the great Gandharan Buddhist civilization which Alexander is credited with carrying to eastern Afghanistan (think of the Bamiyan Buddhas) and northern Pakistan.

▲ Was this the sarcophagus from Alexander’s tomb in Alexandria in Egypt? Possibly although the tomb was lost long ago.

In 2010 I visited Alexandria in Egypt, mainly because I wanted to see the Alexandria Library, a modern reincarnation of the magnificent library of ancient times. I was surprised how relatively empty the shelves were, how relatively uncrowded the desk space was and how the library users were overwhelmingly (perhaps 80%?) female. The drive along the new Desert Highway freeway between Cairo and Alexandria was a reminder that the roads of Egypt are still up there with Iran and Saudi Arabia as the most terrifying in the world.

If you want a modern view of Alexander head to Skopje in Macedonia, make that North Macedonia, the Greeks are very unhappy about any confusion between Macedonia in Greece and North Macedonia, the independent country to the north. I was there in 2018 and noted the huge statue topping a column in the centre of Macedonia Square, it’s of Macedonian hero Alexander the Great, but Greece is absolutely opposed to the Macedonians making any claim on the conqueror of Asia so officially this is just ‘warrior on a horseback.’ Across the river is an equally anonymous statue of Philip II, Alexander’s dad.

▲ This Disney chair from Estudio Campana appears at the Design Museum’s Surrealism exhibit. I’d encountered stuffed toy furniture from this design house before, at the National Gallery of Victoria’s Triennial exhibit in 2017 in Melbourne, Australia.

Surrealism at the Design Museum
The Design Museum’s surprisingly large Objects of Desire, Surrealism & Design exhibit is on through 19 February 2023. All the usual surrealism heroes – Man Ray, Salvador Dali (his lobster telephone of course, but also the Mae West lips couch) – appear, but also Lee Miller and Leonora Carrington. Visiting the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris in 2013 was a link to Man Ray and the extraordinary Lee Miller. Leonora Carrington was another extraordinary woman who also had a link with Man Ray and I discovered, at a recent National Portrait Gallery talk, went on to become a famous surrealist artist in Mexico where she lived until her death in 2011. I’d only recently been to the Design Museum for their excellent Yinka Ilori exhibit.

▲ The Everett F Wells at Swan Hunters shipyard, Tyneside, 1977 – Graham Smith – the bow of the ship overwhelms the local street, but not many more would be built here.

Industrial Decline Photo Exhibit
Finally my bicycle carried me to South Kensington for the 20/20: Chris Killip/Graham Smith photo exhibit at the Augusta Edwards Gallery. The black & white photographs, 20 each, by Chris Killip and Graham Smith were taken in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s and captured – almost inadvertently – a view of industrial Northern England that in fact was in terminal decline. A Guardian article reports on how they also made themselves very unpopular, with the British Tory press because they were reporting on the downside of Margaret Thatcher’s programmes and with people in Middlesbrough who felt they were being mocked when in fact Graham Smith’s photographs were taken with an entirely sympathetic intent. It was a sad story and Smith simply stopped photographing for many years. Better hurry, the exhibit closes on 6 November 2022.