This is an exciting time for fine art and fine hotels in London, so we asked artist, designer, and long-time Tablet Plus member Rymn Massand for a full report on both. Below, she breaks down the four must-see exhibits currently running, and reveals her picks for the city’s most well-crafted hotels.
London has long had a taste for architectural innovation, and while many of its modernist buildings were controversial at first, they’ve become well-loved symbols of local art and design. A perfect example is the old Bankside Power Station, which is now comfortably settled into its second life as Tate Modern.
FAHRELNISSA ZEID, June 12–October 8
Sometimes you walk into a show and think, “where has this artist been all my life?” That is the feeling I had walking into this beautiful, complex, and slightly bonkers show. Born in 1901 to an elite Ottoman family, Zeid witnessed the birth of modern Turkey. Her life and art were affected by politics and intrigue to an extent that seems possible only in fiction. She drew heavily on the visuals of her childhood (Bedouin women returning from market, family gatherings in ceremonial moments) and turned those memories into some of the most visually arresting work I’ve seen.
GIACOMETTI, May 10–September 10
While I was excited to see that there was a major Giacometti exhibition on, what I didn’t realize was how deep the show would go. Things I did not know: one, he was a terrific painter (dark, moody, and intense); and two: before he arrived at the elongated figures we all associate with him, he worked extensively in surrealist sculptures and objects. These take up a large part of the exhibition, along with film of him working, and his marvelous sketchbooks from when he was a young boy exploring Egyptian art and drawing exact likenesses of what he saw.
Victoria and Albert Museum
Few museums have the depth and breadth of the V&A. It houses a permanent collection of textiles, sculpture, painting, photography, furniture, architecture, and more, spanning around 5,000 years. Their gift shop is like no other museum gift shop, and I spend a fair amount of time in museum shops.
PINK FLOYD: THEIR MORTAL REMAINS, May 13–October 1
Marveling at Pink Floyd’s intelligence and inventiveness, and the music that moved me as a teenager (and still does), was joyful on so many levels. It was a revelation to hear the backstory, to read insider documents like their concert rider (“4 bottles of Beaujolais bottled in France only”) and see their videos, instruments, and sets. The show is not just a trip down memory lane, it’s living proof that ideas, boldness, and real talent stand the test of time.
Dulwich Picture Gallery (Image: John Singer Sargent, Santa Maria della Salute, Venice, c. 1880-1920, watercolour and pencil on paper, 45.7 x 30.5 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum. Given by Mrs Ormond and Miss Sargent in memory of their brother. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
Dulwich Picture Gallery
Dulwich is not exactly central but it was well worth the trip — a brief one via National Rail.
JOHN SINGER SARGENT: WATERCOLOURS, June 21–October 8
For the first time in a hundred years, the Dulwich Picture Gallery has an exhibition of John Singer Sargent’s travel watercolours, on loan from both public and never-before-seen private collections. Many artists painted their personal travelogues as watercolors or pen and ink, and often they were dismissed as merely souvenirs. But the ease with which Sargent renders his watercolours, and the beauty of his simple lines, along with the way in which he crops, blurs, focuses on details, and captures unusual angles, makes a gorgeous visual treat. It also gives us a view into his informal and intimate side.
Firmly In Love With Firmdale
I discovered Firmdale hotels through Tablet years ago and I always stay with them while in London. The service, the grace, and the hospitality are all lovely. But many hotels have that. What distinguishes them is their attention to detail and their impeccable taste.And those pencils! The signature Firmdale striped pencil is a different colour for every one of their hotels. The art director in me thrills to this small detail. They’ve managed to make their small boutique hotels feel like the only place you want to be, which is quite an achievement, considering the competition.
Without further ado, here are Firmdale’s eight London hotels. All are Tablet Plus, and all carry Kit Kemp’s unmistakable interior design style. Be sure to also check out the group’s two New York City outposts, Crosby Street and The Whitby.
Covent Garden Hotel
Covent Garden might be where London’s charms are at their most concentrated — it’s got everything, from theatres and shops to restaurants, bars, even the Royal Opera House. It’s a fine introduction to this classic city, and the Covent Garden Hotel is a fine introduction to Firmdale: the comforts and service of a large-scale luxury hotel and the style and atmosphere of a one-off boutique, all under one roof.
Ham Yard Hotel
The latest of the London Firmdales, Ham Yard is also a long-awaited demonstration of what they can do with a bigger canvas. This little corner of the West End is practically a self-contained Firmdale neighborhood, containing not just a typically luxe and lavish hotel, restaurant, and bar, but shops, a cinema, and a vintage bowling alley as well — all just streets away from Soho’s theatres and the shops of Regent Street.
Even more central to the West End, even more convenient to Theatreland, and practically next door to the National Gallery, the Haymarket, in its stately building, has perhaps the highest profile of the London Firmdale hotels. It’s also got a rather unexpected secret weapon in the form of an 18-meter indoor swimming pool in a stunning subterranean space — and upstairs it’s got some of the capital’s most extravagant hotel suites.
The Soho Hotel
Tucked away down the blind alley that is Richmond Mews, the Soho Hotel borrows a bit of the vibe of the neighborhood’s famous members’ clubs, and it’s likewise become something of a gathering place for the local filmmakers and entertainers. It combines classic Kemp style with a slightly moodier, more urban feel, perfect for a neighborhood that’s arguably at its best after dark.
Charlotte Street Hotel
Just to the north of Soho, bordering on Bloomsbury, storied home of London’s intellectual set, is Charlotte Street, which presents an ever-so-slightly more serious take on the Kemp house style, and is full of references to the early 20th century when Virginia Woolf and friends dominated London’s cultural life. And while the British Museum is scant steps away, so too are Oxford Street and the West End theatres.
Dorset Square Hotel
Just off Baker Street, blocks from Regent’s Park, Dorset Square is a smaller-scale, more residential sort of hotel. It’s part of Firmdale’s Townhouse collection, and its 38 rooms occupy a well-preserved Regency house that’s been given the Kemp treatment twice over — this was an early first draft for Firmdale, later sold on and then re-acquired and re-designed. What’s old is new again — these days it’s as lovely as all the rest.
Just off the Brompton Road, right around the corner from Harrod’s, the Knightsbridge Hotel is a quieter affair than its setting might lead you to believe. Another in the Townhouse line, the Knightsbridge is smallish in room count but still packs in all the comforts of a full-scale Firmdale hotel, right down to the in-room spa treatments and a legendary afternoon tea.
Not far down the road from the Knightsbridge is the last in the Townhouse line, the perfectly lovely Number Sixteen, one in a line of beautiful white Victorian terrace houses. Thanks in no small part to the beautiful back garden, it’s the London residence you’d choose if you wanted a taste of country-house life in the heart of Kensington. It doesn’t get much more pleasant than this.