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Giovanni Battista Moroni

Moretto da Brescia: Count Martinengo (c. 1545–50)

At the Royal Academy, London until 25th January.

 

For anyone who loves Lombardy, Giovanni Battista Moroni (1520/4–1579/80) will be a familiar name. He is one of the finest portraitists of 16th-century Italy. This small and beautifully curated show at the Royal Academy attempts to demonstrate that he can stand with the finest portraitists of any time or place.

 

Moroni’s reputation outside his native Lombardy suffered from the fact that he never left it, except for visits to Trento at the time of the famous ecumenical council. The city of Bergamo, in whose district he was born, was a part of the Republic of Venice. But Moroni never went there, as others did, to become a star in its serene firmament. He stayed at home and painted portraits of local nobles and tradesmen, altarpieces for local churches, and panels for the personal devotion of local patrons. He was famous and much appreciated in his lifetime, but faded from view thereafter—at least, outside his homeland. The blame for this is traditionally laid at the door Vasari, whose Lives of the Artists does not mention him. And yet Moroni was only producing his best work around the time that the expanded edition of the Lives was published, in 1568. And when Vasari travelled to northern Italy in search of material in 1566, he did not visit Bergamo, or Albino, the little town to its northeast where Moroni was born and to which he returned to work in his later years.

 

Vasari does however mention Moroni’s master, Moretto da Brescia. He was “a delicate colourist and of great diligence,” we are told, “fond of imitating cloths of gold and silver, velvet, damask and other kinds.” The exhibition opens with a selection of his works: some portraits and an altarpiece. His portrait of the haughty young Count Martinengo (from the Museo Lechi in Montechari) shows the technique that his pupil Moroni would adopt with such success: a three-quarters tilt to the head, eyes fixing the viewer, the sitter’s face the focus of the artist’s efforts, background elements at a minimum (though you will start to recognise some studio props: the gloves, the chair, the leather-bound book). The best portraits are not showpieces of wealth and consequence. They are likenesses—psychological studies—of ordinary human beings. That, to our modern eye at least, is what is most absorbing.

And indeed, they keep the viewer riveted. The show was crowded when I went, and visitors were stuck fast in front of the portraits, audioguides clamped to their heads, whispering to each other in rapt admiration. The altarpieces commanded far less attention. This is not necessarily fair, because if Moroni’s sacred subjects fail, they fail for a reason. The Council of Trent, which abjured the Protestant Reformation, called for a return to the precepts of the past, an establishment of rules and method, a forsaking of invention and novel interpretation. Later it was to shake itself free and find its own Counter-Reformation style, the sensual, ecstatic, exuberant Baroque, charged with a direct emotional appeal. But this had not happened yet. Painters of religious subjects in Moroni’s day were rigidly stuck with old themes and old poses, not wanting to be archaic but unsure how to be modern. This predicament is brilliantly illustrated by two large-scale altarpieces of the Trinity, the first by Lorenzo Lotto (1519/21; Museo Bernareggi, Bergamo) and the other by Moroni (c. 1552; church of S. Giuliano, Albino). Both show pale clouds parting to reveal the primrose-yellow dazzle of Heaven. Christ appears in the centre, upon a rainbow, with the dove of the Holy Spirit above his head. Behind him, in looming shadow, is God the Father. But in Lotto’s version God appears in shadow only, as a suggestion of immanent power, hands upraised. In Moroni’s Trinity, God has been humanized. He has a face, a blue robe. His arms encircle Christ in a gesture of protection. But the overall effect is stilted, bizarre. The rolled up sleeves make him look like a strongman about to perform a feat of heavy lifting. “Is that supposed to be God?” someone asked incredulously, “You don’t normally see pictures of God, do you?” “Of course you do,” his wife testily reproved him, “Michelangelo did one.” Yes, Michelangelo did, in sophisticated, neo-pagan Rome on the Sistine ceiling. A God looking like an ancient Zeus touching fingers with Adam in the guise of a body-perfect ephebe. But that was Rome and that was then. This is Lombardy. One cannot do portraits of God.

Lorenzo Lotto: Trinity
Giovanni Battista Moroni: Trinity

Portraits of men and women, on the other hand, are another matter. Nowhere is this dichotomy better revealed than in Moroni’s sensational Last Supper (1566–9), painted for the Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament in Romano di Lombardia, where the faces of Christ and his disciples are stock character heads, in sharp contrast to the man standing at the back. An intruder into the scene, he plays the role of host or servitor at the supper party, holding a flagon of wine in his hand and looking us straight in the eye. This is a portrait of a real person; perhaps, it is thought, the parish priest of the little town. The dimension he inhabits is perceptibly different from that of the staged actors in the famous dinner drama, who are all playing prescribed parts and have no existence beyond them.

 

Moroni, like his master before him, was fond of painting fabrics. What Vasari does not tell us is that Moretto painted the first ever Italian full-length portrait, in 1526 (London’s National Gallery has it). His pupil borrowed both the full-length and the three-quarter-length style and took them to new heights. There are some superb portraits in this exhibition, shown to dazzling effect in the third room, where nine works have carefully been chosen to complement each other to perfection. Two seated ladies (opposite each other), three full-length men (opposite each other and opposite the door) and four three-quarter-length men are hung with careful attention paid to which direction their gazes face. Yet the hang is both complementary and antagonistic. The two women, both poetesses, were from opposing factions in the Bergamo of the day, the bloodily feuding Albani and Brembati families. The Brembati belonged to the imperial, pro-Spanish faction: the striking Man in Pink, Gian Gerolamo Grumelli (from Palazzo Moroni in Bergamo, the home of the artist’s descendants), was the husband of Isotta Brembati (the second of the poetesses). It is signed and dated “Jo. Bap. Moronus p. MDLX” and features a Spanish motto: “Mas el çaguero que el primero” (Better to hang back than to rush to the front; an admonition to prudence?). Behind the sitter is a ruined wall. Damaged masonry over which ivy creeps and into which weeds intrude—and beyond which blue sky and cirrus clouds can be seen—is a favourite Moroni backdrop. It occurs in five of the nine portraits in this room and again in the final room. The architectural background with blue sky behind was used by Moretto in his first full-length. Again, Moroni adopts, adapts and carries forward: the warning of ruin and decay, it seems, was his idea.

Moretto: Portrait of a Man (1526)
Moroni: Man in Pink (1560)

In the final room we come face to face with Moroni’s famous Tailor (c. 1570; National Gallery, London), and other mature works which show, in the curators’ judgement, his role as a foreshadower of Manet and Ingres. The Tailor shows a finely-dressed young man in fashionable slashed pantaloons, looking up from his worktable where he was about to cut a length of black cloth. Black, the exhibition catalogue notes, became the favoured colour for men’s costumes, replacing the sumptuously coloured stuffs of earlier years. The tailor himself is obviously a successful artisan. Tailors, according to the wall caption, often dressed well—perhaps as a way of making themselves walking advertisements for their trade. But it was not the tailor’s eyes that stayed with me, as I walked out onto a rain-washed Piccadilly. It was those of the Lady in Black, whose portrait (c. 1570; Palazzo Moroni, Bergamo) is a model of minimalism and a seeming effortless skill at capturing not just a likeness but a personality.

Go and see this show if you can. The ticket price is not cheap (£12) but I think you will feel it was worth it.

Moroni: Lady in Black

Reviewed by Annabel Barber. The Royal Academy, its history, role and exhibitions, as well as the architecture of its home, Burlington House, are all described in detail in Blue Guide London.

London The Information Capital

London: The Information Capital: 100 maps and graphics that will change how you view the city

by James Cheshire & Oliver Uberti, Particular Books 2014

More than any other city, London does seem to have an intimate connection with maps. In fact it’s hard to hold an image of the capital in your mind’s eye without Harry Beck’s iconic Tube map creeping into view. Or perhaps without recalling the spiralling aerial photograph from the opening credits of Eastenders. It’s also a city that generates a huge amount of data. Both from traditional sources, such as the census, to more recent sources made possible through smartphones and other modern technology. Using cutting-edge techniques in design and information processing, Geographer James Cheshire and designer Oliver Uberti set out to combine the city’s inherent mapability with this wealth of data to produce a visual spectacle that’s equal parts surprising, informative and beautiful.

The book’s one hundred graphics are divided into five broad themes; where we are, who we are, where we go, how we’re doing and what we like. Each section strikes a perfect balance between conventional subject matter (common commuter routes, ethnic diversity) and much more unlikely topics such as London’s most haunted boroughs, or a detailed breakdown of the cornucopia of curiosities that make up TfL’s yearly lost property haul. In every case the authors have found ever more ingenious ways of presenting the data in visually stimulating ways. Sometimes a graphic will take you to the far flung corners of the earth in order to demonstrate the global reach of Heathrow or to highlight London’s diverse sources of immigration. But it’s never too long before you return to the familiar, awkward ink blot shape of the Greater London boundary, with the reassuring presence of the Thames offing a rare constant in the wildly varying portraits of the city.

For me it was fascinating to learn about the authors’ heroes. Pioneers in the field of cartography such as Phyllis Pearsall, who allegedly walked all 23,000 streets that appear in her first London A-Z (1936). Or trailblazers like John Snow who, in 1854, employed a visual depiction of cholera cases in West London to prove that they were concentrated around the infamous Broad Street water pump. This ultimately led to the discovery that cholera was a waterborne disease. While these historic cases are interesting, the aim of the book is chiefly to deal with information that is as up to date as is feasible. Some of the most striking graphics have only been made possible in the last few years, such as depictions of London’s Tweeting and photography hotspots.

At times the visceral response incited by the beauty of the visuals seems at odds with the unpleasant nature of the data being represented. The graphics showing deprivation, soaring house prices and instances of violent crime are all examples of this. With all the eye-catching pictures it might be easy to overlook the words in this book, but in these cases the text has an important role to play. Again, I feel the authors strike a good balance here by keeping it insightful and thought provoking for these more serious topics, whilst being witty and light-hearted in more trivial cases.

Without a doubt, the book is most at home sitting on my living-room table, where it is a constant source of intrigue for guests and residents alike. It’s a book for sharing and discussing. As the authors are well aware, it might be tempting to think that all of this information would be better presented in some kind of digital, interactive format. The decision of medium was, without a doubt, the right one. So much more can be taken in with a glance across a printed page than can be gleaned within the awkward confines of a tablet screen. Above all else, the book is a lovely, tangible object which captures that particular tactile appeal that you might find in an old OS map or a worn-out desk globe. Whilst technology has been absolutely instrumental in the gathering, sorting and visualising of all of the data that made this book possible. It’s heartening to see that the best format for presenting it remains the traditional print book.

Reviewed by Stephen Startup (Blue Guides staff). Stephen worked on the production of the new Blue Guide London.

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

Comments on Blue Guide London

 

Indispensable guide to the capital, now out in its 18th edition.  The first, London and its Environs, launched the series in 1918.

View the book’s contents, index and some sample pages, and buy securely from blueguides.com here»

 

08.09.2014
12:06

Dull London? Surely a mistake

Dull? London? Says who? What happened to the spirit of Dr Johnson, to the tired-of-London-tired-of-life, almost jingoistic belief that home was best?

Anyone who has read Paul Fussell’s brilliant Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars, will know the answer. Nineteenth-century escapees, such as Browning, enthused in torrents over Italy or France but that did not mean they also felt the need to express a pitying scorn for home. The Victorians were positive like that. It was in the 20th century, self-loathing set in. With the likes of D.H. Lawrence.

It was Lawrence who wrote the text in the above photograph. Perhaps he had a reason to be contemptuous of England, the country whose Daily News had dismissed his Rainbow as a ‘monotonous wilderness of phallicism’. Perhaps he had been schooled by Byron, whose Venetian poem Beppo dismisses shy and square English girls: ‘The nursery still lisps out in all they utter—Besides, they always smell of bread and butter.’ E.M. Forster trumpeted this sentiment to the echo. England equals repressed. Italy, the continent, equals LIFE, LOVE, PASSION, FREEDOM, SELF-EXPRESSION.

It’s time for the 21st century to assert itself. London is far from dull. To get there, you pass a stony-eyed passport official (certainly not an inoffensive one) who feigns a friendly interest but her questions are pointed and personal. You’re on edge from the start. And the train? From Heathrow? Long and snaking, packed with bags and baggage, a veritable caravan, filled with a rainbow array of people all revealing trivial yet fascinating snippets of multifarious lives on their mobile phones. Coffee was offered by a small man wheeling a trolley. I could only begin to guess what country his ancestors came from. The station, when you get there, is big, madly busy, silently scurrying. Porters are non-existent; taxis are big and black and of a kind unique in the world, an adventure in themselves to travel in. The streets are crowded, yes; familiar but madly exotic, filled with the scents and sounds and accents of all the globe. And if your hotel is poky and dull and you feel your spirit being dulled—well, that is really your own fault.

D.H. Lawrence! thou shouldst be living at this hour. London has something to show thee… He probably wasn’t carrying Blue Guide London, 18th ed. 2014.

14.08.2014
10:34

National Gallery London to allow photography

This picture shows a likeness by the English portraitist Sir Thomas Lawrence of Amelia Angerstein and her son John Julius. There are two things that are significant about it. Firstly, the picture was taken on a telephone, in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva and no one bustled up to try and stop me: photography is allowed. Secondly, the little boy in the painting is the grandson of the Russian-born insurance broker John Julius Angerstein (buried in Greenwich), whose collection of Old Master paintings was purchased by the British government in 1824 to form the core of the new National Gallery in London.

And that same National Gallery has just announced that it is to allow visitors to take photographs of its artworks. Bravo the National Gallery!

The announcement hasn’t been greeted with such delight by everyone. A recent article in the Telegraph deplores the move, arguing that taking photos of paintings is a shallow consumerist response that fails to engage with the works of art in a contemplative, comprehending way. I disagree. Ruskin sketched what delighted him. Poets in the past attempted to translate captivating scenes into words. The human impulse to capture lovely things fleetingly experienced, like butterflies in a net, is extremely strong. The motive may simply be to take them home to enjoy them at leisure. Or perhaps to use them in some way to instruct others, to increase the sum of human knowledge and understanding. Nowadays we don’t use pen and ink or Pindaric periods; we use our smartphones. Being allowed to do so gives huge satisfaction to huge numbers of people. I am one of them.

The Telegraph article objects that if we want an image to take home, there are postcards in the gallery shop. What rot! I can’t use a postcard as my screensaver or tweet it in instant excitement to my followers. And nowadays, that is what people want to do with their images. Why shouldn’t they? Besides, there aren’t always postcards in the shop of the particular artwork that you want. Of if there are, the colour reproduction is so bad that it bears little resemblance to the original. Or it’s a zoomed-out reproduction of the whole thing whereas what you wanted was a zoomed-in shot of a tiny detail. Or all sorts of reasons why postcards aren’t the answer.

Postcards, also, are a commercial product. Before Wikicommons and public photography policies came along, that was the only access we had: postcards from the shop or a digital reproduction from an expensive image agency. Is that really the kind of relationship with art that the great founding fathers of our public collections wanted to foster? When Sir George Beaumont offered his collection to the nation on condition that the government also buy the Angerstein pictures, is that what he had in mind? A relationship between the country and its art that necessarily involves a cash transaction? I don’t think so. Freely available means freely available. So if I want to take a photograph, please don’t sniff as if I were a member of some grunt underclass of great unwashed, unable to respond to art on a cerebral level. If the hoi polloi want to take selfies in front of Sebastiano del Piombo’s Raising of Lazarus (National Gallery accession number NG1; its first ever painting), then good for them!

The National Gallery, John Julius Angerstein, Greenwich and much more besides, are covered in detail in Blue Guide London.

David Esterly - The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making

In March 1986, a disastrous fire swept through the royal palace of Hampton Court. Started by an overturned candle in the grace and favour apartments on the top floor, it did enormous damage to the apartments below that had been built for King William III at the end of the 17th century. Among the decorations of these apartments was a superb set of carvings by Grinling Gibbons, the greatest of the English sculptors in wood.

Across the Atlantic the news filtered through to David Esterly, also a carver in wood, but rare among his contemporaries in that he specialised in the same type of flamboyant and intricate carving that was the hallmark of Gibbons’ work. He feared the worst, the total destruction of the carvings, and was relieved to hear that, despite much damage, only one seven-foot drop that had graced the side of a door had been totally lost. The others could be repaired but this one had to be recreated from new.

Esterly won the commission to create the new work and this is his finely written and meditative account of the journey to its completion. He had come to carving late, after years of academic study of literature that had focused on the relationship between the poet Yeats and the 3rd-century mystic philosopher Plotinus. A chance visit, when he was thirty, to the wonderful altar carving by Gibbons in St James’s Piccadilly (image above) transported him to the ‘still centre of the universe’ and a new course for his life was set.

A carver needs wood, from the linden tree, or limewood as it is normally known, a set of tools and his or her own skills. The relationship between the three is constantly changing as the wood, at first so vulnerable to direct attack, tries to craft its own patterns against the power of the tools and their master. So carving is never dull and Esterly works longer and longer hours in the room designated to him and his co-workers in the palace. His studies of Plotinus alerted him to the possibilities of a perfection that transcended what his own efforts were shaping and so this is indeed a meditation into the core of creativity. One mark of perfection is to carve what cannot be seen to the same quality as what can be seen as if the invisible permeates the visible and so leads to a yet higher excellence. Esterly ridicules the conceptualism of Jeff Koons, who can imagine an idea in wood and then commission inept carvers (Esterly wonders whether they carved so badly as a deliberate prank) to shape it before an undiscriminating buyer parts with nearly six million dollars to own the finished article.

There are other stories running alongside the patient work of recreation: the inevitable bureaucratic conflicts, the decision whether to leave the new work as it would have been created by Gibbons or whether to match the colour to the remaining carvings. Had Gibbons used any form of sandpaper to finally smooth his work? The conventional view had been that he had not—but then what were those parallel striations which could be seen close up? The combined expertise of the Victoria & Albert and Natural History Museums finally brings up ‘Dutch rush’, a plant that incorporates silica on its stems and which once dried can indeed be used as sandpaper. An experiment shows that the striations match perfectly and a new understanding of Gibbons’ methods has emerged.

The Lost Carving reminded me of Orhan Parmuk’s My Name is Red, where his 16th-century miniaturists debate whether the end of their art is to achieve the perfection of their forbears or to risk evolving new forms. A phrase from an ancient Egyptian text also returned to me: ‘Take counsel with the ignorant as with the wise, for the limits of excellence cannot be reached and no artist fully possesses, his skill’. Esterly, sensitive as he is to the mystery of beauty, would certainly drink (a pint of Adnams Mild at the King’s Arms by the Lion Gate of Hampton Court) to that.

Reviewed by Charles Freeman, historical consultant to the Blue Guides. To read more about Hampton Court (as well as Charles Freeman’s own account of Eton College), see Blue Guide London.

The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making published by Duckworth is the UK, Viking / Penguin in the US is now out in paperback.

The image at the head of this review shows a detail from Grinling Gibbons' limewood reredos in St James's Piccadilly. Photo © Blue Guides

To see more details about this book, check the Amazon links below.

Travelling around Britain in style

Recent debate regarding rail travel in Britain has revolved around the provision of first class facilities – with some saying they should be completely scrapped to reduce the problem of overcrowding. So with some uncertainty hanging over the future of first class train travel, Blue Guides’ resident rail expert Mark Dudgeon recently went roving on the rails to see what the fuss is all about – and is the extra cost of first class worth it?

Not all Train Operating Companies (TOCs) in Britain offer first class facilities. Generally, on shorter more commuter-oriented services, the trains are one-class-only. On many longer routes, however – principally the West Coast Main Line (London to the West Midlands, North-West England and Glasgow), the East Coast Main Line (London to Yorkshire, North-East England and Edinburgh) trains offer a separate first-class section with a reduced number of seats, more space and extra treats such as free catering.

Costs

First-class travel can be very expensive - especially buying “walk-up” tickets, and if travelling during peak periods, which are generally early-to-mid morning and late afternoon/early evening on Mondays to Fridays. A walk-up round-trip ticket for the 180-kilometre, 80-minute hop from Birmingham to London, for example, costs a painful £264 in first class.

These prices may be acceptable to the captive business market, but clearly many tourists would baulk at such extravagance. There are ways, however, of reducing the cost. Purchasing advance tickets (right up to the day before departure) for travel outside peak periods can reduce the costs significantly. Rail passes, such as a BritRail pass which is available to non-residents only, also can help, especially if you are travelling a lot by rail. If you are using a rail pass in Britain, there is the added advantage that reservations can be made free-of-charge at any staffed station - just remember to take your pass with you to make the reservations.

So what can you expect for the extra cost of travelling in first class? Generally, you’ll get a bigger and more comfortable seat - first class seating is usually three-across rather than four-across in standard class - and on several long-distance routes, free wi-fi is available. And then on many long-distance services, dependent on the time of day, there will be some form of complimentary catering offered.

Blue Guides put three of the major Train Operating Companies to the test ….

Virgin Trains

First class on a Virgin Pendolino
Scrambled eggs & smoked salmon breakfast

Virgin Trains operate the West Coast Main Line (WCML) franchise, with fast, frequent trains between London’s Euston station and: Birmingham and the West Midlands; Liverpool, Manchester and the north-west of England; and Carlisle and Glasgow. On the whole they are a well-regarded outfit, and there was an outcry when they were about to be stripped of the franchise a couple of years ago – a decision which was later reversed.

On Virgin’s flagship trains, the Pendolinos, first class can comprise up to four coaches, so be prepared for airline-style service. However, the quality of breakfasts, in particular, is consistently good and much better than you would receive on an average short-haul flight. Staff are efficient, occasionally tending to the brusque – probably because of the number of passengers they have to serve, often in quite a short space of time.

Full English breakfasts are generally served from a platter and consist of fried egg, tomato, sausage, bacon and a potato. Alternatives include vegetarian breakfast, scrambled eggs with salmon, and sausage muffin. Blue Guides found the English breakfast offering to be hot, freshly cooked and tasty, adequate in size, if not especially abundant. Toast and croissants are also served, with fruit juice and tea and coffee. Service could be touched up – grab the tea or coffee when you can – there may not be a second chance – and occasionally, as happened to the Blue Guides' reporter once, you may find occasional slip-ups such as the fruit juices being served after the meal!

During the rest of the day, hot and cold snacks are served, and on some evening services from London a hot-course evening meal (often a curry or similar) is offered followed by dessert or cheese and biscuits. All accompanied by your choice of drinks (alcoholic or not) from the complimentary bar trolley. Full details of Virgin’s first class catering services are shown here on their website.

Seating is reasonably comfortable - seats are in twos or fours, generally facing each other with tables - but the inward sloping sides (necessary because of the tilting action of the train through curves) – do make the carriages feel, you might say, somewhat snug. There is the added bonus of free (and, in our experience, reliable) wi-fi in first class.

The service on Virgin’s other trains – the diesel-powered Voyagers, which mainly operate between London and North Wales, and Birmingham and Scotland - is reduced somewhat because of the lower demand (there is only one first class coach in each Voyager train set), although service tends to be more personalised.

At weekends and during holiday periods, complimentary catering is generally restricted to hot drinks and biscuits.

Blue Guides’ verdict: reasonably comfortable seating, if a little cramped; good breakfasts; free wi-fi generally works well. Worth it if you can get a good, off-peak advance fare, or are using a rail pass.

East Coast

Mid-morning snack

The East Coast Main Line, connecting the capital cities of England and Scotland is the Blue Riband route of the British rail network. Sights on the way include Durham cathedral, the striking Angel of the North sculpture before Newcastle, and later along the north-east coast of England the mystical Holy Island of Lindisfarne can be spotted in the distance, often shrouded in mist, followed by the border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. On the way, look out for the large stencilled arrow signs appearing every so often by the side of the line: for example “Halfway between London and Edinburgh” and “Edinburgh 100 miles”. In order to get the best views, make sure you are sitting on the right side of the train (facing forward) going north, or, conversely, on the left side travelling south.

East Coast operates train services on this route, and - unusually - this is a nationalised body which took over the franchise when the previous operator forfeited it in 2009.

The seats in first class are comfortable - almost armchair-like - and there is more of a sense of space than on Virgin’s trains, even though East Coast’s trains are older. There is free Wi-Fi, but on the times Blue Guides has travelled on East Coast trains, the service has been very patchy and not reliable enough to do anything much more than occasionally checking or sending e-mails.

Complimentary catering in first class varies according to the time of day. There is a guide to what is available on the East Coast website, including a convenient, colour-coded timetable.

Blue Guides tested both the breakfast and daytime snack offerings. Breakfasts were ample and varied, although not consistently as good as on Virgin. The available options rotate on a weekly basis.

All-day snack offerings include a choice from a platter of fresh sandwiches, with pre-packaged biscuits, nibbles, and cakes. In the evening, a more substantial meal is offered on some services. As with Virgin Trains, the catering offering at weekends and during holiday periods is significantly reduced.

Service, we found, was inconsistent – some personnel were excellent and pro-active, while others were mediocre, sadly reminiscent of old, pre-privatisation British Rail days. The bar trolley offered soft and alcoholic drinks, but whether or not you were offered a refill seemed very much to be subject to the whim of the staff.

Blue Guides’ verdict: best part of the experience is the seating; the catering is reasonable and may or may not satisfy you depending on when and where you travel; forget the wi-fi.

Arriva Trains Wales

Premier service coach on Arriva Trains Wales
Premier service dinner main course

We’ve saved the best till last. You need to search hard to find the ne plus ultra of catering on British trains – and, it seems, not many people do. Indeed, on the day of the Blue Guides test, only three other passengers had the pleasure of this experience.

Arriva Trains Wales, which operates most of the trains within Wales (and between Wales and Birmingham and Manchester), doesn’t do first class on its high-density (some might say, spartan) trains – with one, glorious, exception. They don’t even call it first class – it’s called Premier Service, it’s an evening dining experience, and it’s only available on one train a day, five days a week. That train is the 17:16 departure from Cardiff to Holyhead, passing through Hereford, Shrewsbury and Chester before travelling along the North Wales coast to the Anglesey port. (On the early morning train in the reverse direction, breakfast is served).

Here you can experience the way trains used to be: a rake of coaches pulled by a locomotive, sitting in a proper, comfortable restaurant car with a menu and service to match. The menu generally consists of a choice of three appetisers, three main courses and three dessert and cheese options. On the day Blue Guides travelled on this train, the menu included: Baked local crab and cockle pots with fennel and Welsh cheddar; followed by: Pan-fried Gressingham duck breast served with braised red cabbage with apple, thyme and port, spring onion mash and peppercorn sauce; with Bara Brith, Cointreau butter pudding with cream to finish.

The three-course meal, soft and hot drinks are complimentary for passengers travelling with first class tickets and passes. The only thing that lets the experience down slightly is the wine list – reasonably priced, for sure, but on the day of our review, the only available wines were substitutes of poorer quality.

The service is personalised and friendly, and the atmosphere relaxed. This is a journey best experienced in the longer-day months of May or June, when the lovely, understated, scenery of the Welsh Marches can be savoured in all its finery, whilst sipping a glass of wine and enjoying the food in the way that civilised train travel should be. If you are travelling all the way on the longest days of year, you might well enjoy a fine sunset along the North Wales coast to boot. (We recommend you reserve seats in advance on this train: it is not compulsory, but there are only seventeen places).

So how and why does this train exist? Well, it’s operated by arrangement with the Welsh Assembly: it is financed, basically, by the Welsh taxpayer - to the tune of several thousand pounds per journey - in the interests of encouraging business connections between North and South Wales. So, be warned, it may not be around for long; and if you wish to experience it, make sure you reserve the right train because there are other, “normal” trains which ply this route.

Blue Guides’ verdict: great all-round experience, if you can get it! No extra charge for holders of a first class rail pass, but there is no wi-fi on this service.

16.04.2014
14:02

In praise of plague cakes

Photo by Phil Manning © St Olave Hart Street PCC 2013

In the eastern corner of the City of London, close to the old walls and to the place where the Aldgate once stood, is a small church, that of St Olave Hart Street. It is dedicated to King Olaf II of Norway, who fought with King Ethelred against the Danes at the Battle of London Bridge in 1014. He was canonised in 1031, so the church in London must have received its dedication after that date. In 1666 the Great Fire came within 100m of St Olave’s before the wind fortuitously changed direction, thereby saving it from being engulfed in flames. (The church was not so lucky during World War Two and sustained two direct hits during bombing raids; it has been lovingly restored and King Haakon VII of Norway laid a stone from Trondheim Cathedral, the burial place of St Olaf, in the sanctuary.)

The church is famed as the burial place of Samuel Pepys; and high up on the north chancel wall, left of the altar, is a bust of Pepys’ wife, Elizabeth (d. 1669). To the right of the altar is a wall tablet commemorating William Turner (d. 1568), Dean of Wells, militant Protestant and father of English botany. Close by, left of the southeast window, is a painted alabaster portrait bust of Turner’s son, Peter, ‘Doctor in Physick’, who attended Sir Walter Raleigh in the Tower. In 1603 Peter Turner wrote a treatise in support of plague cakes: little phials of arsenic to wear around the neck or in the armpits in order to ward off infection. Turner was a keen follower of Paracelsus, the great German physician known for his advocacy of the use of poisons to control disease: he was both early homeopath and pioneer chemotherapist. He recommended the use of mercury to combat syphilis, for example. Efficacious to a degree, but of course toxic if used in too great quantities. Paracelsus also used a solution of lead as a treatment for goitre. Peter Turner may have been right to champion the use of these poisonous pomanders. The full title of his treatise is important: ‘The opinion of Peter Turner Doct. in physicke, concerning amulets or plague cakes whereof perhaps some holde too much, and some too little’. Dosage is all. In 1605, Francis Bacon published his Advancement of Learning, in which he also mentions the use of plague cakes: ‘It hath been anciently received, for Pericles the Athenian used it, and it is yet in use, to wear little bladders of quicksilver, or tablets of arsenic, as preservatives against the plague: not for any comfort they yield to the spirits, but for that being poisons themselves, they draw the venom to them from the spirits.’

Turner’s bust (c. 1614) disappeared from St Olave’s during the confusion of the Blitz but—in another of the strokes of luck that seem to attend this church—it resurfaced in 2010 at public auction. In 2013 it was reinstalled after a 70-year absence, in a partial recreation of the original monument.

For St Olave Hart Street, plague cakes and much more besided, get Blue Guide London (18th edition), compiled, written and updated by Emily Barber.

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