Travel: Answering the Call

by Diane Dorrans Saeks

Photo courtesy of Claridge’s

After an uncharacteristically long hiatus from a well-known city, one writer immerses herself in vibrant new offerings.

“Where to, my lovely?”

The broad Cockney accent of the London cab driver makes my heart leap. I’ve just arrived early at Heathrow and already feel so welcome after two long COVID-era years without international travel.

After circling past the ornate Victoria and Albert Museum, the Edwardian grandeur of Knightsbridge and verdant Hyde Park, we soon arrive at The Bloomsbury, a neoclassical beauty designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens in 1928. Inside the hotel, I love the jolt of its new Coral Room — vividly pink — by Swedish architect and designer of the moment, Martin Brudnizki, based out of London and New York. (Fun fact: He recently designed Michael Mina’s The Bungalow Kitchen in Tiburon.) Nearby stands the august British Museum. I adore these only-in- London clashes of pomp and punk, and the Modernism-meets-Classicism that I am here to celebrate and study.

Photo courtesy of Bloomsbury: The Doyle Collection

With a heady new sense of freedom, I flew to London for a precious few days and the hit of rich cultural life. In the last couple of years, important art galleries opened, dramatic new exhibitions were presented, and I just had to be part of it again. I created a personal itinerary and whipped up a feast of classical paintings, favorite artists and insider design stalking. Top of my list are the Tate Britain (currently working on adding more works by women painters and artists from more diverse backgrounds) and the National Gallery (for da Vinci, Holbein and a Rosalba Carriera portrait, also one of the few works by a woman in the museum’s collection).

I started the first day at 10 a.m., climbing the ornate circular stairs at the exciting new Courtauld Gallery to admire the ethereal collection of Cézanne landscapes and works by the Bloomsbury Group. Famished, I enjoyed a late lunch at nearby Spring, chef Skye Gyngell’s restaurant with a passion for local small-farm ingredients.

Ajarb Bernard Ategwa’s “Posing with my Parrot” is part of the Reframed: Woman in the Window exhibition, now on view at Dulwich Picture Gallery. | Photo courtesy of © Ajarb Bernard Ategwa / Jack Bell Gallery

The following day, I took a half-hour train ride south to the city’s exquisite Dulwich Picture Gallery, built in 1817. I love the skylit galleries of this first purpose-built public art museum in England. (Noted architect Sir John Soane shaped its classical interior.) Collections include exceptional portraits by Rembrandt, Poussin and van Dyck. A casual lunch at Flotsam & Jetsam, the new museum cafe overlooking a sunny park, offered time to chat with locals before the return train trip.

I spent my third day in Marylebone, immersed in the glittering Wallace Collection. It’s surprisingly quiet, considering the major full-length van Dyck portraits, rooms of decorative arts and portraits by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, one of the few works by a woman among the masters.

In honor of Her Majesty’s Platinum Jubilee, I planned a special visit to the Queen’s Gallery, adjacent to Buckingham Palace, to peruse Japanese court arts. Starting July 22, visitors can rub elbows with royalty in the celebratory Queen’s Platinum Jubilee exhibition. I also squeezed in visits to my favorite bookshops — Heywood Hill, Hatchards and John Sandoe — to select a brace of new design books, all signed.

The Wallace Collection is displayed at Hertford House, which opened to the public as a museum in 1900.

Between galleries, I window-shopped in Mayfair and Marylebone, antiqued on Pimlico Road and enjoyed a rousing pot of Earl Grey Classic looseleaf tea with buttery scones at Fortnum & Mason, where I bought gilded tins of F&M teas (Jubilee and Royal Blend) to take home.

Each night, dinners with friends at their homes were full of laughter and connection. Avoiding formality and over-the-top ceremony, I created quiet, tranquil and fulfilling moments of great beauty among the Caravaggios and Gainsboroughs.

This could be your favorite-ever casual trip to London. Go soon.

Where to Stay Now

Claridge’s (above), in the heart of Mayfair since 1812, feels today like the white-hot center of London’s social whirl. Don’t miss the new ArtSpace gallery or afternoon tea with elegant Cole Porter-esque piano accompaniment. |

The Bloomsbury (left), a 1928 classical red brick monument to Sir Edwin Lutyens’ grand style, stands in a leafy, historical neighborhood of poets, including Virginia Woolf. And the hotel’s poet in residence is Leontia Flynn.

The Insiders

From one foggy city to another, San Francisco travelers share their London favorites:

Komal Shah

“I visit all the contemporary art galleries. At the Turner galleries at Tate Britain, J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) broke convention with his Thames paintings, which feel very modern.”

Steven Volpe

“No one does bookshops like the English. I always visit John Sandoe Books in Chelsea. Opened in 1957, it’s privately owned. Rare art, biographies and design books — a must.”

Martin Muller

“I wander through Cecil Court, lined with rare book dealers, followed by dinner at ultra-traditional Wilton’s in St. James, one of my favorite restaurants in the world. I admire the Sir John Soane’s Museum with antiquities, Old Master paintings and over 30,000 architectural drawings.”

Denise Hale

“I have stayed at Claridge’s since the late ’60s. I admire the polished, discreet service. They know how to run a luxury European-style hotel. I enjoy cocktails with my friend, the great artist David Downton, at the Fumoir bar.”

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