O happy town beside the sea,
Whose roads lead everywhere to all;
Than thine no deeper moat can be,
No stouter fence, no steeper wall!
Ralph Waldo Emerson
I’m on the train to Boston on my second last big excursion before leaving New York. I’m very happy. Outside it’s misty and completely overcast, such a refreshing change from the heat wave we’ve been having in Manhattan. There is no air conditioning in the studio, and the heat builds up day after day until it feels like a sauna, so it is wonderful to be heading into cooler territory. It’s green and lush out there in the New England countryside and most of the houses are wooden and English-looking, painted a soft grey colour with white window trims. There is also a lot of water and many many boats. I settle back into my seat and gaze out the window with a smile on my face.
I love train travel. I love wobbling up and down the aisle as I make my way to the cafeteria and I love pressing the buttons that automatically open the carriage doors and take you from one end of the train to the other. I love writing in a train, and reading in a train – and just staring out the window, daydreaming while taking in the scenery. I never feel trapped in a train, like I do on a bus – a train offers freedom, but a secure and comfortable type of freedom.
I had originally planned to travel to Boston much earlier in my residency, but the day Gerard and I arrived in New York was the day of the Boston bombings, when two brothers set off explosives that kill 3 people and injure over 180 taking part in the Patriot’s Day marathon. The event cast a dark shadow over that first week of our adventures and it was then I decided to shift the trip to Boston to as late as possible. So now, just two and a half weeks before the end of my residency, I am taking the four and a half hour journey to get there. My main reason for going is to visit the Boston Public Library, which is known for its extraordinary art and architecture, and for being the very first free lending library in the US. And, of course, Boston is so very English, which rather appeals to me.
When I arrive, I catch a cab to John Jeffries House, a privately run Bed and Breakfast that was once the home of Dr John Jeffries, an ophthalmologist, and more recently nurses quarters for staff at the nearby hospitals. Today, it is a wonderfully simple but elegant place to stay, right near historic Charles Street. It was also the only place I could find where the room rates were reasonable.
* * *
I’m sitting in the Boston Public Library, in the beautiful main reading room, called the Bates Hall. The surprising thing is that the room is almost completely packed with people – while there are spare seats here and there, there is not a single free table.
The tables and chairs are arranged in two long rows that run the length of the room. The chairs have those oval shaped backs with vertical slats, reminiscent of Quaker furniture. The reading lamps are an intense green colour. My seat is actually a bit low for comfortable typing and I have chosen a spot that does not have a power point, so my battery will run out soon unless I find another location, but at the moment I don’t want to move.
The ceiling is a huge highly decorated single arch and at each end it becomes a dome. The walls are constructed from large stone blocks and the windows, along one side only, are great high arches that sit above bookshelves. The bookshelves are all a bit saggy. They hold reference tools – bound subject indexes near me – and I wonder if they are actually used or whether they may be there just for show.
It’s a bit noisy in here – the scraping of chairs, the whispering of the two men at the other end of my table, a cough here and there and the clicking of computer keys. An attendant has just told a woman in front of me that she has to get rid of the drink she has taken in with her. He walks up and down the length of the room, tapping people on the shoulder if they are falling asleep and generally keeping an eye on things.
The extraordinary thing about being here is that there is no security check or bag check, and I don’t need to have a library card to get in. Anyone can come here and just use the space. This is so very different from the Library of Congress in Washington DC, where you cannot simply walk in and use the reading rooms. I like the Boston Public Library policy – it makes the library a true community service. However, I suspect that many of the people in here have come to use the free WiFi in air conditioned comfort.
I went on a tour of the library on the evening of my arrival in Boston a couple of days ago. It was led by a very knowledgeable docent who focussed on the art and architecture of the building. I can say now that the Boston Public Library is my favourite of all the libraries I have visited. The architecture and art work seem like a blend of elements from the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library – neo classical, extremely grand and elaborately decorated with paintings and mosaics. But here, in this library, while the building itself feels more restrained, the art work seems just so much more sumptuous, rich and emotionally charged. Two huge lions, created from unpolished marble, and reminiscent of Patience and Virtue, who guard the outside of the NYPL, sit on either side of the landing on the huge stairwell leading to the second floor. The second floor itself feels like the entrance to heaven, decorated magnificently with the ethereal paintings of the French artist, Puvis de Chavannes, depicting the nine muses of Greek mythology, dressed in white robes in a pale blue-green landscape, hailing a figure who represents the Genius of Enlightenment in a grove of olive and laurel. The doors to the main reading room lead off from here. To the left is a vast red coloured room, with mostly empty bookshelves that go all the way to the ceiling and all the way around the walls. There is nothing at all in the centre of the room and it feels like a ghost library. I think Candida Hoffer, the artist who is known for her stunning photographs of libraries, has documented this room.
And then, as we may our way up the marble stairs to the third floor, I let out an audible gasp as I see the Singer Sargent Gallery. The imagery is just so rich and so detailed and so delicious, dominated by intense reds and gold and blues, that I am fluttering inside. The docent tells us that Sargent’s aim was to illustrate the development of religious belief throughout the history of the world, and ultimately to show that mankind had outgrown religion and no longer needed it to progress successfully through life. It is truly a remarkable feat of painting, and created quite a stir when first exhibited, with reviews that denounced what some claimed was Sargent’s sacrilegious view of the world. All of the images were painted on canvases in Sargent’s London studio, then shipped to Boston to be installed in the variously shaped wall panels, also designed by Sargent, in this long narrow gallery. One of the panel’s is empty. It is very large, and was supposed to illustrate the final triumph of man over religion, but Sargent never completed it. He was nearing the end of his life and was apparently very disheartened by the negative reviews of the work so far, so he never finished it.
The docent leads us back downstairs and into the Abbey Room, which is just as lavish as the Sargent gallery. It features a Venetian ceiling and a series of wall paintings by Edwin Austin Abbey called The Quest and Achievement of the Holy Grail, which were installed in the library in 1895 and depict characters from the Arthurian legend. There is also an impressive fireplace in here that dominates one wall.
All of these beautiful art works are in the McKim building, the classical, research wing of the library, which underwent extensive renovation in the 1980s, primarily to upgrade its climate control. Back in 1972, a modern extension to the library was also opened. Called the Johnson building, it is the public lending library. Like the modern Madison building in Washington DC, which is part of the Library of Congress, it has a large globe in the entrance lobby – but nowhere near as impressive as the one in the Madison.
Both buildings are interconnected, built around a wonderful internal courtyard that has a fountain in the centre and is encircled by a canopied walkway where people sit, work, read or eat their lunch. I had a very delicious sandwich here, sitting very close to a man I suspect was homeless – he had lots of bags filled with possessions, and was nodding off in his chair.
The exterior of the building is also magnificent. It sits directly opposite the remarkable Trinity Cathedral, separated by Coply Square Park. Along the top of the Library are the following words are enscribed: THE PUBLIC LIBRARY OF THE CITY OF BOSTON • BUILT BY THE PEOPLE AND DEDICATED TO THE ADVANCEMENT OF LEARNING • A.D. MDCCCLXXXVIII
But here I am now, in the Bates hall, quietly working away. I am actually not feeling very well and may have to leave sooner than I had hoped. I awoke to a very irritated left eye, a heavy feeling in the head and a tight throat. I am also desperately struggling to stay awake. I wonder if the irritated eye is a message from my body – a message that says I have been overusing my eyes, seeing too much, overstraining my vision…
Surprisingly, when I leave the reading room, I feel much better.
* * *
When I first arrive in Boston I walk into town through the Commons and past the State House to the Athenaeum, where I have booked a tour of this elegant private library. Founded in 1807, the Athenaeum precedes the Boston Public Library by 88 years and is the city’s first and oldest cultural institution. It has the most wonderful address – 10 1/2 Beacon Street – and I enter another world as I step through its beautifully rich, red, brass-studded front door. It is a library of the past – quiet, hushed, very very beautiful – and also rather posh.
Each floor of the building has a classically designed reading room, with French neo-classical furniture, real Persian carpets and white bookshelves with decorative columns. The Athenaeum collection itself is extensive and includes 100,000 rare books, art works and historic objects, as well as a vast library of art books housed in the vaulted basement, complete with plaster sculptures of classically posed figures. There is a card catalogue down there too, drawer after drawer after drawer of hand written bibliographic details that used to describe the entire Athenaeum collection. Of course, it is not used now, but it is a wonderful thing to behold.
The Athenaeum once had a reputation as a rather conservative and exclusive establishment, patronised by the doddery elite of Boston, but our docent tells us that that image has been transformed over recent years, and now anyone can become a member at a base rate of $290 per annum. Apparently joining up is also the cool thing to do if you are young and wealthy. And it’s not just about borrowing books or using the reading rooms, it’s also about attending special events such as concerts or special talks where you get to rub shoulders with the wealthy patrons of the Athenaeum.
I visit three other superb cultural institutions while I’m in Boston: the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which are very close to each other in the west of the city, and the Institute for Contemporary Art, or ICA, which is on the south eastern waterfront in a dramatically designed building by Diller, Scofidio and Refro, and which won the Harleston Parker Medal for the most beautiful building in the city.
I go to the Gardner first, a museum I had never heard of until some friends of Kathy and Sardi’s told me about it. They described it with such exuberance and so glowingly that had no choice but to make a visit – and I was not disappointed. Isabella Gardner (1840-1924) was a New York girl who married a very wealthy Bostonian and began to collect art from all over the world. Her collection grew so large that she decided to build a house – fondly called The Palace by the locals – to show off her paintings, furniture, tapestries and other elaborate objects. She lived on the fourth floor of this home-come-museum, and displayed her collection on all the other floors, arranging it into room-like installations. She was, in a sense, both an installation artist and an interior designer – and well before her time!
The palace was built to Gardner’s strict specifications, which created a number of engineering issues and some, but not many, compromises. For example, Gardner wanted the building constructed using only traditional methods and she didn’t want any steel beams incorporated, but because the stone walls of the building are so heavy, she fortunately conceded to the engineers advice.
The building is constructed around the most superb interior courtyard garden I have ever seen, filled with lush green plants, carefully selected flowers from the garden, and ancient sculptures that are arranged with perfect aesthetic balance around a mosaic centrepiece and with a water feature at one end. Visitors are not allowed to enter this little paradise, but you can walk around it and view it from a covered walkway, where you can also pick up paper and pencils to sketch what you see. As you look up, you see real Venetian windows and archways framing the walkways around the floors above, and a stunning glass vaulted ceiling that encloses everything and protects it from the elements. Apparently Gardner’s guests would wander about in here after attending one of her special musical evenings and then make their way upstairs through the various floors of her collection. There was no gas or electric lighting – just candles scattered throughout the building, along the walkways, in candelabras, in the window ledges. I picture Gardner and her guests, dressed in the most elegant fashions of the time, crystal wine glasses in hand, swanning from one room to another in the twinkling semi-darkness. Today, of course, there are no candles – that would be too risky – but the museum has installed subtly positioned lighting to mimic the effect of candlelight.
The installation rooms are extraordinary. Each space is arranged as a room from the past, for example, there is a room that looks like it is from Louis IV’s palace, another that resembles a Medieval dining hall and another that has a distinctly Renaissance aesthetic. There are paintings, furniture, sculptures, tapestries, objects in display cases… a Rembrandt, a Vermeer, a Velasquez, a Giotto, a Boticelli, an oriental section, narrow passageways lined with cabinets filled with unusual objects, mysterious doorways… There are also a number of fabulous John Singer Sargents, including a portrait of Gardner wrapped in a shroud-like white shawl, completed just two years before she died…. and so on it goes. It is all too much to take in and I wander about almost in a daze.
The museum was recently renovated with a Renzo Piano designed extension, which includes a new entrance way, a concert hall, modern exhibition spaces, study centres, a restaurant and a very tempting shop. The extension is so clean and so minimal that it seems at first to be at total odds with Gardner’s vision but, like the extension Piano created for the Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York, it actually enhances rather than detracts from the original building. The result is a truly beautiful and unique museum experience.
Afterwards, I walk to the Museum of Fine Arts, which only takes about 5 minutes to reach from the Gardner. It is Boston’s version of the MET, offering another stunning collection that covers almost every period in art history. I spend time in the contemporary galleries seeing art works by Felix Gonzales Torres, Kara Walker, Mona Hatoum, Alex Katz and many other regulars, plus a mesmerising mirror and glass work by Josiah McElheny. Nearby is an exhibition called New Blue and White with a compelling range of design works that all make reference to the tradition of blue and white ceramic ware. I am particularly drawn to an indigo stained table covered with an ornate arrangement of ceramic white and blue flowers by Giselle Hicks – it is a beautifully conceived work and another visitor and I stand in front of it for some time in mutual admiration. There is also a very impressive installation by Mark Cooper who has made crazy, wooden, biomorphically shaped shelf-like structures in which he has displayed hundreds of lumpen ceramic objects. I also wander through the Asian and Egyptian galleries, scoot through the Impressionists, and spend time with the Romantics and the John Singer Sargents, which I enjoy immensely. And in the main café courtyard, there is a wild green grassy sculpture by Dale Chihuly made entirely from glass that reaches metres into the air like a giant prehistoric frond. And on the floor below, an exhibition of Samurai armour and artefacts from a private collection… I am exhausted by the end of the day.
My trip to the Institute for Contemporary Art is a little more dramatic. I have to take two different trains to get there, the second called the Silver line, which turns out to be an underground bus that runs on electricity. It feels rather odd standing on a platform that is actually an underground roadway. When I emerge at the World Trade Centre Station, I’m not too sure where to go. Everything looks a bit desolate and industrial. There is a big freeway, the World Trade Centre building to my right, a bridge and big buildings to my left. I eventually find the ICA by walking across a giant empty carpark. The sun is beating down as I crunch over open gravel, not a tree in sight for miles. And there it is, in the distance, the ICA, in the middle of what looks like nowhere, all by itself, on the water’s edge.
The building is quite stunning, despite its isolated position. It is a cantilevered design that hangs over the water and provides superb views from an interior viewing platform on the fourth floor, or from a bank of external steps beneath the cantilever. It also feels just a little bit scary, as if it may suddenly topple over and descend into the sea.
All of the galleries are on the fourth floor. The main exhibition features work by Barry McGee, a street artist based in San Francisco. I have never been a great fan of street art, but this exhibition is remarkable in its vision and its diversity and I spend a long time truly engaged with the work.
I also see a small solo exhibition of abstract work accompanied by a native drum soundtrack, by Jeffrey Gibson, an artist with an American Indian background, and the James and Audrey Foster Prize, which showcases the work of four Bostonian artists. Mark Cooper, who I saw in the Blue and White exhibition in the Museum of Fine Arts is one of the four, with a similarly designed installation of organic wooden structures that emerge from the floor and spread over the walls of the gallery. But the work I am most intrigued by is Katarina Burin’s installation that looks like the documentation of a 1950s Eastern European architectural group but is actually a completely invented scenario. There are also works from the permanent collection and there is a study centre called the Mediatheque which is set up in a stepped room that overlooks the water. It is so steep in there that I can’t bring myself to go in.
I also do a very touristy thing in Boston – I go on a Duck Tour, which drives you around the main sites in the city and then descends into the Charles River with a splash to give you a view of Boston from the water. This all happens in a WWII amphibious vehicle nicknamed The Duck. It’s a fun trip and the guide is entertaining as well as informative.
On my final afternoon, I wander around the Old Granary Burial Ground which includes the gravestones of the three key figures who signed America’s Declaration of Independence – Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and Robert Treat Paine. Then I make my way through the Commons and the Botanical Gardens. The gardens are particularly lush and green, with a beautiful willow-edged lake in the centre, where I watch swan-shaped boats sail gently back and forth.
I like Boston a lot. It is so very different to New York – calmer, quieter, easier – but I also miss the edginess of New York that I have started to become so used to.