Back from 4 days in New York, part business and part pleasure. Although as the business was with BMJ Best Health‘s lovely US partners, Consumer Reports Health, the business part was pretty pleasurable too. Of my two spare days, I spent one uptown, and one downtown. It will surprise none of my friends that I decided I’m more of an uptown girl. Here are a couple of highlights.
Uptown gazing (The Frick Collection, 5th Avenue)
To misquote Count Orsino, if art is the food of love, the visitor to the Frick Collection is in danger of surfeiting on beauty. Almost every painting, every object, would be worth the trip to see alone. And there are hundreds of them.
Barely out of the entrance hall, I was felled by a heart-breaking Vermeer (Officer and laughing girl); an essay in handling of light and placement of figures. Finally tearing myself away from the milk-fresh face of the laughing girl, I was halted by another (Girl interrupted at her music) on the other side of the door.
Two rooms are panelled throughout with the prettiest, most frivolous of French painters, Boucher and Fragonard, ripped from pre-revolutionary Parisian mansions. In the dining room, two of the world’s finest Holbein portraits – of the rival Thomases, More and Cromwell, glower at each other across the fireplace.
Sir Thomas More gets the better of this particular confrontation. Astoundingly rich red velvet sleeves, an intense black gaze, head modelled against emerald drapery, his Lord Chancellor’s chain of office gleaming. Opposing him, Thomas Cromwell is less flashy, more brooding and sombre, on a plain wooden bench. Looking, as Hilary Mantel has it in her literary portrait, ‘like a murderer’.
In the long gallery, I’m arrested by a Van Dyck (Portrait of Frans Snyders). The face is sharply modelled, lean, ascetic, with light across his brow catching a strained watchfulness. Despite the wonders in the gallery (two glorious Turners) I return to the Van Dyck. I’ve never seen a better portrait by Van Dyck, I think. I’ve never seen a better portrait by anyone.
Then I stepped into the Oval Room. He’s waiting. A mature Rembrandt Self-portrait, with a steady, defiant gaze, suffused with golden light like ancient brandy. ‘Really?’ he seems to ask. ‘Better than this?’
I sit, weak-kneed, and take him in. He has the ruined magnificence of King Lear, or Prospero. Sublimely worldly, with his bulbous nose and weary eyes, he holds a cane, a wand, like the magician-illusionist of The Tempest. ‘I’m still here’, he says.
I’m not sure I ever want to look at anything else.
Uptown grazing (Loeb Boathouse, Central Park)
His name is Trey, and he’ll be looking after me today. An all-American boy, with corn-coloured hair en brosse, and a serious manner.
The sunlight from the lake ripples across the ceiling, dancing like iridescent mackerel above the expensively-blonded heads of lunching ladies. Of whom, today, I am one.
‘Our special appetizer today is a soup made from roasted cauliflower. We roast the cauliflower in a basil-infused oil with sesame and cumin seeds, to intensify the flavour. Then the cauliflower is pureed with freshly-made chicken stock. Although it is by no means a cream-based soup, I feel obligated to mention that it does contain dairy. We add a little cream, then finish it with white truffle oil. In my opinion, it is a very well-executed dish.’*
I assure Trey that dairy holds no fears for me. I refrain from inquiring after the provenance of the cauliflower. Is it free-range, I want to ask, a heritage variety, locally-raised and harvested at dawn before the dew evaporates from its lacy green leaves?
Instead, I compound my cream-based recklessness with a glass of wine. Trey rattles off a list of grape varieties, starting with Chardonnay and ending with Sancerre. I listen, trying to match his solemnity, mentally applying my actress/wine analogy. Pinot grigio is Gwyneth Paltrow; sometimes good but too often simply pale and uninteresting. Chardonnay is Jennifer Aniston, trying hard to please. Sancerre, on the other hand, is the cooly beautiful, classically Gallic Catherine de Neuve. Feeling very haute bourgeoisie, I order Sancerre.
The soup and wine arrive together. Judiciously, I dip my spoon, taste, sip my wine. It’s all terrific. I wish I could pick up the bowl and lick it clean. I bet Catherine de Neuve does that at home.
*Or something similar. I wasn’t actually taking notes.
Image: Thanks to Matthew Knott’s photostream on Flickr, with CCL.