London Day 6: Art, Architecture and Empire


The London rain was falling as we rose for our fifth day, but we did not let it stop us. By 9:30am, we were entering Westminster Abbey. More than merely a church, this building was the site for the coronation of every British monarch since 1066, sixteen royal weddings, and the burial sites for twenty British monarchs up through the death of George II in 1760. Many other notable people also rest in Westminster Abbey, such as Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, William Pitt, and Charles Dickens.


A post-war window in the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey

Fortunately, the German Blitzkrieg did not claim Westminster Abbey, though a nearby bomb did blow out all of the stained glass in the east end of the Lady Chapel in 1941. Today, the seven huge replacement stained glass windows tell the story of Westminster Abbey, and it is now a memorial chapel for the airmen who died in World War II. This is also the location of the oldest door in Britain (ca. 1050).


A humbler side to the Abbey: a small door, Britain’s oldest

We spent the middle portion of our day in Tate Britain, a world-renowned art gallery in the Millbank section of London. The objective was to view the ‘Artist and Empire’ exhibition. This incredible grouping of art not only showed how the British Empire viewed the people they encountered, but how those people viewed the British in return. Therefore, the exhibition showed countless masterpieces of Western art inspired by and in the subject of the various people under the empire’s umbrella, such as A Cheetah and a Stag with two Indian Attendants (1765), by George Stubbs, but also works like Figure of Queen Victoria (ca. 1898), a wood carving by a Yoruba artist from Nigeria.



Above: George Stubbs, A Cheetah and a Stag with two Indian Attendants (1765).  Below: Yoruba artist, Figure of Queen Victoria (1898)

We rounded out the day in Sir John Soane’s Museum. Once the residence of Soane, he also used the space for academic training of his pupils as well as his architect’s office. Stipulated by a Private Act of Parliament, the house directly became a museum at the time of Soane’s death in 1837. The collections are vast, and include 45,000 objects and 30,000 architectural drawings, encompassing both time and space. This interior view of Soane’s Museum from the Illustrated London News from 1864, highlights two of the many important pieces in the collection: the statue of Apollo, above, and the sarcophagus of Seti I, below. Today, the house remains largely identical to the day Soane passed away.


View of the Soane Museum, Illustrated London News, 1864

By Jesse Kraft, PhD Student, University of Delaware Department of History

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