Barnes Foundation, Cezanne, Chestnut Street, Declaration of Independence, Museum of American Revolution, Renoir, Van Gough, William Penn
When I woke on Monday, after of course having a cup of coffee and writing my blog post, I left the apartment to go and do a little shopping so that I would have a few things in the pantry for my stay. I found a Target store close by and was soon back ‘home’ where I had a breakfast of orange juice, granola and blueberries, followed by a plate of scrambled eggs. In past years I have awarded an imaginary prize for ‘Best Breakfast on the Tour’ – fortunately I don’t think that my attempts will be at the top of the table when the December comes around, (I would have to disqualify myself for insider dealing), but it was a pretty good effort I have to say.
The next job was to decide what to do with my day, and as I was right there, in the middle of Philly, it made sense to stay in the city and see what it had to offer. I have stayed here before in previous years and have visited the Art Museum, the Free Library and The Eastern State Penitentiary before, so I decided to try something else this year and the answer I came up with was a trip to The Museum of the American Revolution – a strange choice for a Brit in the very seat of American liberty, but it was a subject that has fascinated me ever since I become a little bit obsessed with the musical Hamilton during lockdown. I booked a ticket for 11am (thereby saving myself $2 over purchasing one at the museum itself), and set off to walk. It was a beautiful warm day and the light through the trees and sparkling on the fountains made for a very happy and relaxing stroll.
One of the main thoroughfares in Philadelphia is Chestnut Street, and as I made my way along it it was fascinating to feel myself walking back in time. At first the skyline was dominated with tall glass skyscrapers and it was similar to being a modern city such as Minneapolis, but nestling among them were older buildings, Victorian warehouses and houses, and occasionally a wonderful painted sign from long deceased trader or business, hinting at how Chestnut may have been 150 years ago or so.
On and past the City Hall with the statue of William Penn standing proudly atop it. The Hall was completed in 1894 and for a long time dominated the skyline as a City ordinance was passed stating that no building could rise higher than the level of Penn’s bronze hat.
Eventually in 1986 the need and greed of big business overcame the statute and the statue as 1 Liberty Place soared up and beyond, opening the doors for other developers to build their own towers. Soon William Penn was hidden, but he exacted his revenge by cursing the city’s sports teams, suddenly results dried up. It was only when it was decided to put another statue of Penn at the very top of the Comcast Centre building in 2017, that the curse seemed to be lifted for The Eagles won the Superbowl of that year. Further along Chestnut and the buildings changed again. The Gothic excesses of the Victorian age were replaced with simpler, sparser houses and homes, less akin to Minneapolis and more akin to Williamsburg, and for good reason for I was now walking through the age of Revolution – 1776 and all that. If I had been a British soldier standing on that very spot in the 1770’s I may not have been quite as welcome, for it was there that the Declaration of Independence was drafted, approved and signed at the Second Continental Congress on July 4th 1776.
I arrived at the museum in perfect time and checked in at the front desk, quipping ‘I am from Britain, be gentle…!’ I was aware that a phone call may be coming in for an interview, so checked that I would be able to leave the museum and return if necessary, and then made my way into the small movie theater where I would watch an introductory film about the war.
The whole morning was fascinating and I learned so much. I was able to add facts to battle names that I had heard of but knew nothing about: Kipps Bay, Concord Bridge, Bunker Hill and others. The most surprising revelation to me was to discover that The Battle of Brandywine was fought at Chadds Ford on the Pennsylvania-Delaware state line. Chadd’s Ford is where I stay when I perform at Winterthur, and is one of the most gentle, beautiful places that I visit.
Another exhibit that the museum is very proud of is Washington’s Tent. In another movie theater visitors watch a history of the tent that General Washington used in the field, for he wanted to be among his soldiers, rather than being a remote commander. After Washington’s death the tent was kept by Martha at Mount Vernon before eventually becoming the property of her grand daughter Mary Anna who married Robert E Lee. During the Civil War Lee’s house at Arlington (where the tent was kept) was ransacked and the tent became the property of the Federal Government. It saw a lot of action, that tent. Now it is carefully preserved and shown for a few moments once an hour under restricted lighting conditions to preserve the canvas (and to build the mystique for the visitors). Our guide grandly announced that the Museum would preserve the tent for as long as America was an independent country – ‘And how long will that be?’ he asked a guest, ‘Forever!’ was the patriotic reply. Although apparently in the last crowd the answer had been ‘Three years and two months……’ Our genial host admitted he hadn’t asked any follow up questions to that rather alarming assertion.
Much as I enjoyed the museum, I was now ready for a change of pace and walked out into the sunshine again and forwards in time once more. Somewhere along Chestnut I bought a salad and sat in the open air outside the City Hall (under the watchful gaze of William Penn). My next stop was an art gallery recommended by Bob the evening before – The Barnes Foundation. Dr Barnes was a collector of art and most especially impressionists, post impressionists and early-modern. He had a particular passion for Renoir, Cezanne, Matisse, Picasso and Van Gogh, but his great interest was how the art was viewed, so rather than displaying his collection in rooms dedicated to a certain artist or a certain time, he would mix and match, seeking links through colour or form or structure or subject.
The collection is housed in a modern building with a tranquil reflecting pool alongside. This was a gallery for serious art lovers and throughout little groups stood together stroking their mask-covered chins, nodding wisely and pointing out some detail on either a painting or a collection, that astounded them. I am was in that league, but I did enjoy the art! To be honest there was too much Renoir and after a while the rather highly coloured, swirly, out of focus nature of a lot of his art began to make my eyes go a bit strange. For a while Liz and I were were chatting via WhatsApp (which was very nice, it was as if we were in the gallery together) and she admitted not to being a great fan of Renoir either: ‘It feels like eating too much sugar’!
The Cezannes and Van Gogh’s were amazing however and it was very nice way to spend an afternoon.
As I left the Barnes Collection I realised I was feeling tired, so made my way back to the apartment block where I had a little nap before getting up to cook dinner – Meatballs in tomato sauce with spaghetti.
It had been a most enjoyable day and yet a contrary one – a Brit visiting the Museum of the American Revolution and a man not very keen on Renoir visiting one of the largest collections of his work! But I had had fun – I had pursued happiness and I had found it.