The Last Days of Pompeii
Blogging again from 37,000 feet, I have come to the conclusion that air-stewards/esses fall into two types, much like nannies. On the one hand, there are those who exude brisk, efficient and wholesome concern (and, while affectionately liberal with the goodies, don’t encourage too many second helpings). In my experience, this is the British Airways/Air New Zealand type.
On the other are the “double dose of Calpol all round, rock the little ones to sleep, so the nannies can put the kettle on and chat about their latest dates” type. This is what I have just experienced on American Airlines, from Los Angeles to Boston. We piled on at 3.00 in the afternoon and got force-fed vast quantities of alcohol (OK – it was what is euphemistically called a “premium” cabin), lunch was delivered and taken away at lightning speed. And then it was blinds down and lights out, while the cabin crew spent the rest of the six hours engrossed in chat and doing their nails. Woebetide any passenger who didn’t go to sleep. In fact, on the flight out to LA, they actually barricaded their area with one of those little trolleys and anyone daring enough to try to pass by to get to the loo was firmly told to use the one at the back.
I wouldn’t have minded the lights-out, snuggle-down routine quite so much in other circumstances, but when you are going West to East, LA to Boston, in the middle of the day, the way to avoid jet lag is to STAY AWAKE not go to sleep.
But anyway this was the only blot on my trip to the Getty Villa and Center, where it was a nice 80 degrees and sunny, the lecture went well, plenty of books were sold, lots of friends came – and (when I wasn’t self-promoting) I had enormous fun as part of a “brain-storming” group making plans for a Getty exhibition on the “Last Days of Pompeii”.
The idea is to have a show that explores not the life of Pompeii but how writers, artists and tourists have responded to the Vesuvian catastrophe, from the eighteenth century to now. The material is amazing, and it stretches from Joseph Wright of Derby’s fantastic eruption painting (on the left) to Andy Warhol’s version of the same scene (which I put at the start of this post); from romantic Victorian sculptures of Nydia (above right), the blind heroine of Bulwer Lytton’s Last Days novel to Alan McCollum’s 1990’s “Dog from Pompeii” (an installation consisting of rows and rows of multiple copies of the famous dead dog, found as he died, still tethered at his post, pulling at his collar).
This first stage of exhibition planning is always especially fun – because you still haven’t come up against any of the practical problems about what you can actually borrow, from where. So it’s like inventing the perfect show in your head. Though not quite in this case. It was already pretty clear that, even if St Petersburg would lend it, this vast cataclysmic painting of The Last Day by Karl Briullov (and one of the inspirations for Bulwer Lytton -- in miniature on the left) was simply too big. Certainly too big to get into the galleries at the Getty Villa, and probably too big to fit into a plane.
But perhaps the best bit was looking at the Pompeian material the Getty itself has in its “Special Collections”. American “rare books rooms” tend to seem rather over the top to the average Brit. I mean there is something faintly ludicrous about washing your hands or putting on gloves and going into a climate controlled room to read a book that in Cambridge you’d be able to borrow from the open shelves of the library, dump in your bicycle basket and read at home. All the same, the Pompeii stuff in the Getty is stupendous, and includes unique notebooks with sketches of the site by eighteenth and nineteenth century travellers, as well as the rarest of printed books. On this occasion, it was the ephemera that most intrigued me – in particular, a nineteenth-century peep-show of the Neapolitan countryside, with frolicking peasants and Vesuvius smoking ominously in the background. Smoke was de rigueur for the volcano – so much so that early photographers had to insert it, we were told, with the Victorian equivalent of photo-shop.
After this it was back to Boston, for the big launch party (really nicely done by the Press…hope the damn book sells after all this) and the discussion with Niall Ferguson. In case you’re wondering, he was very cute!
Now it’s a BA daytime flight back to the UK. We’re just south of Greenland – and yes, the blinds are up and the lights are still on.