We took the train to London on Thursday to take up our slot at the Leonardo exhibition at the National Gallery.
As we left Leamington, we heard of the death of George Whitman, the founder of Shakespeare & Company, the wonderful bookshop and literary centre on the left bank of the Seine. When we returned, we heard of the death of Christopher Hitchens. In between, we had an underwhelming experience in the company of several hundred strangers, most of whom were wearing National Gallery headphones and were more concerned with following the audio commentary than looking at paintings and drawings by the man whose polymath genius prompted the coining of the term ‘Renaissance Man’.
It was a curiously dispiriting experience. Although admission was limited to half hour slots and the £15 pre-booked tickets were selling for hundreds on e-bay, there were simply too many elephants in the room. It was impossible to view the paintings with any kind of perspective and nor were we able to get sufficiently close to any of the drawings to appreciate them or their subject matter. Those with audio commentary would simply stand in front of the paintings, often with their backs to them, waiting to move on to the next.
There was, however, one brief moment when the crowds parted like the Red Sea, and for about 10 glorious seconds, I had a clear view of The Lady with an Ermine. It is marvellous.
The exhibition is unprecedented. It is the most complete collection of Leonardo’s rare surviving paintings ever assembled. It is, as everyone says, “un-missable”. Well, we didn’t miss it. And we did get a fleeting glimpse of greatness, of Leonardo’s genius.
But I will remember the 15th of December more for the death of Christopher Hitchens, a man about whom I have written before on these pages (30-11-2010), when I first heard of his illness. Whitman died above his bookshop at the age of 98: this is what they used to call a ‘good innings’, and he died surrounded by his books. Hitch, however, was only 62, the same age as I am, and he died in Houston, Texas, which somehow seems inappropriate.
Better writers than I have written his eulogies and his obituary. (There is a particularly fine piece, by his friend Ian McEwan, in today’s Guardian.) Here’s what I will miss, in no particular order:
o His wonderfully fluent, seemingly effortless prose;
o His commitment to dialectical materialism;
o His atheism;
o His contrariness;
o His posh voice;
o His drinking;
o His smoking;
o His work ethic;
o His erudition;
o His bravery.
RIP Christopher Hitchens. He will be much missed in this household, and wherever books are read and politics discussed.