Thursday 18 February 2016

London, my London

In 1870, an almost-thirty-year-old Claude Monet arrived in London with his family, forced to emigrate by the raging Franco-Prussian war back home. Whilst staying in the British capital, Monet found time to study the works of British visual arts giants Constable and Turner. Their influence can be seen in one of the French painter's most famous works, “The Thames below Westminster” from 1871. As a keen admirer of impressionism, I always make sure I pay it a visit whenever I am at the National Gallery. The delicate, foggy-looking, but still light-filled canvas portrays London’s Embankment in all its romantic glory. Never mind the fact that by then, my adopted city had acquired various nicknames, some of them fog-related. By the end of the 18th century, London was already known as “The Smoke”. “Pea-souper” and “London Ivy” were also two others terms that described the gamboge-coloured smog that stained clothes and occasionally brought the city to a standstill.

As I turned right on to Victoria Embankment on my bike in August last year, I tried to imagine what the view greeting young Monet on one of his excursions along the Thames would have been back then. On this completely fog-free, very warm summer day, I thought that he must walked further up, probably as far as Embankment Pier to get a good sense of proportion of the bridge and buildings he would later immortalise.

Some fellow bloggers and readers have mentioned that London must be a cycle-friendly city. Maybe the assumption has been made because of my enthusiasm when writing about touring the city on my sturdy Raleigh. But the fact remains that London, like many other metropolises around the world is chiefly car-obsessed. That the situation has changed in the last few years should not be underestimated. There are more bicycles on the street of London now. Many of them, I found on the Embankment. On this particular day I was a lucky witness to the latest works on the East-West Cycle Superhighway. This is a new scheme that will create safer routes for bike-riders and a better understanding of cycling as a healthy-living, pollution-free travelling option. But a lot remains to be done. The project has attracted controversy and it has polarised motorists and cyclists. It has not helped that newspapers like the Evening Standard have decided to use it in arather sensationalist tone when reporting on the matter.

I would have loved to pay more attention to the view Monet must have enjoyed when painting his “The Thames below Westminster”, but I was more concerned about keeping myself safe. The Superhighway was still being built which meant the closure of one lane on the normally avenue-wide Victoria Embankment. Frequent temporary traffic lights did not help as drivers became more impatient. Much yelling and cursing accompanied me during my journey down this popular thoroughfare. Although the pavement looked tempting I did not give in to law-breaking. The myriad tourists and people enjoying a sunny, summer day out would not have forgiven me. Families milled about. This was the London I had come to fall in love with over the years: welcoming, laid-back and inviting.

In order to distract myself from the frequent swearing directed at me and fellow cyclists, I allowed my mind to wander off. I thought of the refugee crisis reaching peak point at the time and how maybe, just maybe there might have been a Monet amongst those displaced by the Syrian conflict. I tried to think hard of how this 21st-century “impressionist” (man or woman) would portray the bridges, piers and building heaving into view now, what they would think about them.

Another Monet-related thought magicked itself all of a sudden when I cycled past Temple tube station. This was the point from where the proposed Garden Bridge would cross over to the South Bank. The Joanna Lumley-backed, Princess Diana-inspired project, whose total cost is £175m with £60m coming from the public purse, has caused an uproar. Not only because it arrives at a time when local councils budgets are being slashed but also because the benefits of it are not clear yet. It will be a pedestrian-only bridge with cyclists made to dismount and push their two-wheelers to the other side. Physical activities, other than running, will be banned. Other prohibitions will include: social gatherings, flying kites and playing musical instruments (what if people decide to whistle? Then, what?). What would young Monet have made of this urban ornament? After all he was the one who painted the Water Lilies series. Perhaps he would have been inspired to leave a trail of thin, but visible brush strokes behind. Or maybe, just maybe, he would have sided with the dissenting voices. Monet was amongst those who came to the aid of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish French officer falsely accused of communicating French military secrets to the Germans at the tail end of the 1800s. He was a bit of a revolutionary in that sense. Besides, impressionism was, lest we forget, a radical movement in the 19th century. Panned, derided and laughed at by the critics, the impressionist works that hang in major museums around the world today would not have been there had it not been for their creators' tenacity. I thought of "The Thames below Westminster" again.

The Embankment came to an abrupt end at Westminster Bridge. Checking the notes in my pocket, I realised that I was supposed to cycle around the Palace of Westminster in order to carry on down Abingdon Street-cum-Millibank. This I did, venturing further into deep southwestern London territory. All along, I had the Thames on my left, its dark, muddy waters throwing up quick flashes of light in the early afternoon summer sun.

Someone is having a break
A queue of cars was awaiting me on Chelsea Embankment. After having almost glided down Grosvenor Road, traffic-free, the bumper-to-bumper, straight line forced me to snake my way around the motors. Through their windows I saw handbrakes pulled all the way up, looking like headless versions of van Gogh’s sunflowers and desperate-looking faces which carried none of the mirth I had seen before between Temple and Westminster tube stations. I turned right onto Cheyne Walk in a clever attempt to avoid the build-up, but when I re-joined Chelsea Embankment the situation was the same. Once again, the pavement looked tempting. Once again, I resisted. 

Since most cars were going right, at the crossing with Beaufort Street, I found myself again on a traffic-free road, this time, Cremorne. I followed the street around, all the way to Fulham Road. I turned left and headed up to my final destination, the headquarters of the football team I had begun supporting almost straight after I moved to Britain: Stamford Bridge.

© 2016

Next Post: “London, my London”, to be published on Saturday 20th February at 6pm (GMT)


  1. Fascinating to see London through both your and Monet's eyes. I find it interesting that the Impressionists loved the technique of Turner and Constable while deriding the "romantic" nature of British landscape art.

    1. I have always found the "romantic" label attached to both Constable and Turner strange. Their technique was far too advanced for their time. Especially with Turner, I find his landscapes full of life and movement, brought on mainly by the use of light, just like Degas, Monet and Manet did later.

      Thanks for your comment.

      By the way, that is my bike in the photo. And on the blog banner.

      Greetings from London.

  2. They'd be laughing on the other side of their face now. At least you can weave through the traffic if need to be, that is a plus as well.

  3. Years back I saw Monet's water lilies executed in ice in the Antarctic. He really was a painter for all seasons (and continents).
    And yes, I too wonder just who is caught up in the refugee crisis. And hope that their potential can be realised.
    Loved learning that your bike is the one in your blog banner.

  4. So, so many years ago I was in London for about two months - how I loved it! I remember going to the National Gallery and seeing a very small painting of the face of Christ. It had no religious indication, just the most beautiful and poignant face of a man... I was mesmerized.
    I constantly long to go back, but I would not be touring on a bicycle - slow foot and bus would have to do!

  5. I feel as though I've been riding on the back, my feet out to avoid the spokes of your back wheel.
    The beginning of the post set me thinking about the pea-soup smogs of old London, and the new air non-quality in today's Beijing. Somehow I don't think it will be romanticized in the same way.

  6. It is fascinating beyond description be standing somewhere and looking at a photograph of an actual landmark or of a painting of a landscape, or to be reading a written description of a place, and to be seeing what the photographer or painter or writer actually saw any number of decades ago -- possibly, even imagining you are standing next to the them in their time and comparing thoughts. One of my favorite experiences was to be standing on a railroad bridge and looking at virtually the exact scene Ernest Hemingway described in his short story, "Big Two-Hearted River."

    I envy you your journey with Claude Monet, CiL, and even would appreciate walking in the footsteps of Karl Marx .... but, him only in a historical context and I would be calling him a fool each step along the way.

    Bicyclists and automobile drivers frequently are sworn enemies, and, from my viewpoint, we poor pedestrians often are the "targets" of both of them.

  7. Lots of interesting points in this post! Edinburgh is like London, in that it can seem, when described, very cycle friendly but is still obsessed with cars (though our bus service is generally excellent). I'm sure that there are many Monets and other talented people among the refugees seeking access to Europe. I don't like the idea of the garden bridge if it's going to be so closely policed. There are however some very inspiring new (and relatively new) greenways through cities which seem to be much more user friendly - the newly reinstated river through the middle of Seoul (or another major Korean city) and the raised greenway through New York.

  8. Oh this is wonderful...really spirited me away to another dimension of experience.
    I would love to visit London again...when the rawness of recent experience allows it...would be so nice to follow in your footsteps (or should I say, tyre tracks?!) and make some new, much happier, memories.
    Great photo of your bike, by the way!

    Have a Fabulous Weekend.:)

  9. Your entire post is interesting. I'll have to go back to London, I'm missing so much. Whenever I was there I never saw any fog - or smog.

  10. I remember walking a lot along the south bank of the Thames (the Eye side) when I was there--I did a lot of walking and occassionally subways or boats.

  11. It takes a certain amount of courage and determination to ride a bicycle through swarms of motor vehicle traffic. Atlanta's traffic is notoriously bad, but at least, bicycle lanes are being added to some of our highways. Hopefully, they will make bicycling a lot safer than it is now. Too many people on bicycles have been hurt by angry drivers. (Then again, even ONE is "too many.")

    Have a super weekend.

  12. Tan solo he estado horas en Londres pero no obstante fueron bien aprovechadas e incluso pude visitar la Galería Nacional y ver la parte de pintura.
    Es cierto que cuando se conoce la historia de un cuadro se aprecia mucho más.
    Un abrazo.

  13. Ah, a youthful account of moving through London. Thanks for taking us along.

  14. You are very brave! I can hardly imagine that beautiful old London, although this one is pretty cool. k.

  15. Hi ACIL - I admire you navigating London traffic today ... I spent a few months in the late 70s cycling around .. it was a challenge! It's interesting the gardener at Inner Temple in the 1850s was instructed to improve the air at the Embankment - by planting trees and lots of them and they used to hold plant shows in the gardens. The gardens were free to the public ... a novel experience in the latter half of the 1800s - probably when Monet was in London ...

    Fascinating information here re Monet and the pea soupers, or Dickens' fog and sooty atmosphere from the local factories, or great stink - I remember pea soupers in Oxford in the early 60s ...

    Cheers Hilary

  16. Wonderful post. I particularly like your thought of a current refugee with the sort of talent of Monet, a refugee himself.



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