Postcard from Pasadena 1.

23rd October 2012

File this post (and the next couple) under what-I-did-on-a-more-or-less-holiday. Until Sunday I am in Pasadena, north-east of downtown Los Angeles, having been invited to talk about filming Shakespeare by Professor John Brewer. A decade back we made Sense and Sensation from John’s wonderful book The Pleasures of the Imagination (about eighteenth century culture in Britain and its publics; out-of-print but likely to be available again soon), and now John is Eli and Edye Broad Professor of Humanities and Social Sciences at the California Institute of Technology. Caltech is a private research university focussed on science and engineering but the institution also has a commitment to the humanities, and all the students have to incorporate some element of non-science study in their courses. So while I’m here I am speaking both at Caltech and at USC, but I am also taking the opportunity to view some early television from the UCLA archive (that’s Postcard 2.) and to visit some of the best museums in the States.

The sun is shining, the sky is a deep blue and the Santa Ana winds have blown away any smog so that there is a crystal clear view of the San Gabriel mountains to the north of Pasadena. The last time I was in L.A. I was also visiting John and I went to Norton Simon Museum and saw L.A. Opera’s disappointing Das Rheingold (see my June 2010 Tales from Hollywood blog posts here, here and here). One of the pleasures of my downtime this week is wandering around the leafy Caltech campus  which includes some distinctive architecture including the Beckman Auditorium below (Wikipedia has a good history of the institution and its buildings).

I was also able to walk from Caltech to The Huntington – although it was pretty clear from the cautious greeting of the guard on the gate (and the absence of anything resembling a pathway into the grounds) that no-one ever walks to The Huntington. Now The Huntington is one of the great libraries of North America, and this is sited in more than two hundred acres of botanical gardens (which although I recognise are beautiful are not really my thing). I came rather to see the glorious collections of British portraiture and American art.

Henry E. Huntington  (1850-1927) was a railroad baron and the nephew of Collis P. Huntington, one of the founders of the Central Pacific Railroad. Remarkably, a decade after Collis’ death in 1900 Henry divorced his first wife and three years later married his uncle’s widow, Arabella Huntington. Part of the attraction may have been that she was known as the richest woman in America, and together they were inspired collectors – of art, jewellery, antiques and manuscripts. Highlights of their collections are on view in a clutch of magnificent buildings, with one of the main attractions being a hall of breathtaking eighteenth century English portraits by Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough (in the lead image above) and George Romney.

Among the knock ’em dead full-length depictions of the great are Reynolds’ Sarah Siddons as the Tragic Muse and  Gainsborough’s pair Edward, Viscount Ligonier and Penelope, Viscountess Ligonier – that’s them above, and if you can get past the dreadful online layout of The Huntington’s e-catalogue (which is where the title links go) then there is a fascinating tale of their marriage. In a room next door is Van Dyck’s Anne Killigrew, Mrs Kirk and there are other astonishing works on every wall. I was also much taken with Turner’s The Grand Canal: Scene – A Street in Venice with its tiny Shylock and which the wall label description gets about right as ‘a fantastic dreamscape of plays and fables’.

One of the highly distinctive things about The Huntington’s galleries is that the paintings are displayed alongside sculpture, furniture and the decorative arts of the appropriate period – and this enriches the canvases immensely. I also applaud to the skies the institution’s relaxed attitude to people taking photographs in the galleries (which almost everyone wants to do). As long as you don’t use either a tripod or flash then they are happy for you to snap away – would that more British museums were as enlightened.

The British paintings are displayed in what was the Huntington’s Beaux-Arts style house, while across the park is a modern gallery for a tremendous collection of American art. Inevitably to a Brit this is much more surprising, and there are many terrific things here too, including John Singer Sargent’s Mrs William Playfair and Woman in Interior (the reproduction does it no justice at all) by the turn of the twentieth century artist Alfred Henry Maurer. Then at the conclusion of the American galleries is a room of modern works, including pieces by Warhol and Richard Diebenkorn and this take-your-breath-away Sam Francis, Free Floating Clouds, 1980:

In a third gallery on site The Huntington has just opened a compelling exhibition of photographs and other objects commemorating the Civil War. A Strange and Fearful Interest is introduced here and is intelligently reviewed by Karen Wada for the LA Times. Some of the images, like Timothy O’Sullivan’s famous shots from the aftermath of Gettysburg, are familiar, but there is much here (almost all of it drawn from The Huntington’s collection) that is not – and it is thoughtfully displayed.

Frustratingly, there is no catalogue, but The Huntington has put together a complementary web site with which is well worth spending time. Available to you even if you’re not in Pasadena this week are a fine selection of zoom-able images, some of which – like O’Sullivan’s Battle-field of Gettysburg, have accompanying narration. There is also a rewarding film In the Usual Manner with the artist Barret Oliver recreating historical images from the time of the Civil War.


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