Pompeii in Washington DC
I’m writing this from Washington DC. But no, I’m not here to catch a glimpse of Obama, the first family or any post-inauguration jollities. In fact it’s hard to picture what it must have been like 10 days ago, as the city centre seems oddly quiet. I’ve been walking past the US Capitol a lot since Thursday night, and there’s hardly a car, let alone a pedestrian in sight. It must be the emptiest capitol in the world.
I’ve actually come for a conference on Pompeii, that’s being held in the National Gallery of Art and its research institute CASVA, to coincide with an exhibition on Roman art and life around the bay of Naples. (The garden scene at the top of this post from the House of the Golden Bracelet is one of the prize exhibits.) I’ve earned my passage because I wrote an essay in the catalogue and did some of the audio-guide for the show. Before I leave I’m going to go and enjoy (?) the ultimate solipsistic pleasure and listen to myself taking me round the exhibition.
The conference has been hugely useful for me. My paper was on the changing patterns of nineteenth-century tourism to Pompeii, very much from the UK angle – and there were a number of people here who could help me with the Naples end of this (about which I don’t know enough).
But the extra pleasure was the fact that the whole thing was actually held in the National Gallery itself.
I’m a real sucker for conferences in museums anyway (there’s always something interesting to look at when you’re on the way to the loo). But I hadn’t been to Washington’s National Gallery for 25 years and I had forgotten how brilliant it was.
For a start, it’s completely free to get in (and even to see the special Pompeii exhibition) and the permanent collection has some real stars. Someone told me that the Gallery had never bought a thing, it was all the result of gifts from Andrew Mellon and others. That isn’t quite true, but the principle is a sound one. The whole place seems like a product of American philanthropy.
The route to the loo turned out to be particularly good, past a whole collection of portraits from different (western) cultures. Pride of place went to Copley’s ‘Watson and the Shark”, a wonderful bit of American drama showing Watson, the young English boy, attacked in Havana harbour and floundering in the water, while people on the boat try desperately to save him (they managed in the end but he lost his foot). But this was rubbing shoulders with a great David portrait of Napoleon, a Gainsborough of Mrs Sheridan, four tremendous Goyas, and an unnervingly comic Stubbs of a poodle in a punt. (For what it’s worth – to hint at an old museological debate – I get a real kick out of seeing these English masterpieces, lodged in the new imperial capital and having a conversation with all kinds of other national traditions.)
But for me the biggest surprise came upstairs, with a vivid childhood memory. When I was about six years old, my grandmother gave me a Christmas present which was to be a print of any painting I liked, framed, to hang in my bedroom. For reasons that I cant now begin to reconstruct, I chose Modigliani’s “Gypsy Woman with Baby”. I’d never seen the original. But taking a little wander in the NGA, there it was. It felt like stepping back almost half a century.
Anyway, I have just one more visit in prospect, then it’s back home. The BBC is threatening heavy snow, which wont make getting back to Cambridge around the M25 quite a quick as I had been hoping. The first plan had been to give my class in the Faculty on Monday at 11.00. Common sense then prevailed and I postponed it (not fair to the students to get them to show up, if all you do is ring from the traffic jam to send them away again). Looks like that was a good idea.