A grey stone medieval building with a large wooden door, many windows and turrets.

Guildhall Art Gallery in London: go for the Romans, stay for the plates

If you and a friend are idly rambling across the City of London from the Bank of England towards the Museum of London, you may find that you stumble across the Guildhall Yard outside the Guildhall Art Gallery.

And if you stumble across the Guildhall Art Gallery you may realise that you have never actually been inside, and decide to visit.

And this would be a good decision for any number of reasons.

Firstly there is a Roman amphitheatre in the basement.

Well, part of one, because Roman amphitheatres were pretty big, actually. Go back up to the Guildhall Square, and they have drawn a big black line on the ground to help you trace our the perimeter further.

Guildhall Yard, with the medieval Guildhall to the left and the 20th century art galley building to the right. In th foreground you can see a curved line which represents the perimeter of the amphitheatre. People are walking or standing in the square.

In fact, the amphitheatre is probably the reason the Guildhall, the administrative buildings for the City of London was built where it is. No need to start from scratch when you can re-purpose some nifty foundations and all that.

The City of London (note the capital letter), in case you are wondering, is a sort of super local council, needing to organise all the usual things in its immediate surroundings such as schools and the bin collection. But it combines this with continuing its historical role representing the financial, mercantile and commercial interests that still have their home in the City (note the capital letter). Bits of it are modern.

An old medieval building is on the left and at right-angles a modern concrete building with many glass windows.

Bits of it are not. It had special mention in the Magna Carta and everything, and was such a political force that it was stripped briefly of its powers after it supported the republicans against the kind in the civil war (when Charles II took back over, obviously). It survived the Great Fire of London and the Blitz mostly intact. Mainly it just lost its roof, and its protective guardians, the two giants Gog and Magog, chained up in the main hall since time immemorial. Luckily they were able to carve some new ones.

Incidentally, if you are wondering what the Magna Carta is, here is a song about how the British invented democracy.

Anyway. Guildhall has one of the 17 copies of the Magna Carta. Because of course it does.

A picture of the Magna Carta, an old parchment with a large seal at the bottom

It’s not the administrative centre for London as a whole. It’s not where the mayor of London (currently Sadiq Khan) hangs out.

No. It’s where the Lord Mayor of London hangs out. Glad we cleared that up then.

Anyway. The historical buildings are now used for municipal and corporate entertaining. You can hire them, in fact, should you need a medieval banqueting hall that seats 900 and is suitable for formal dinners and cabarets (apparently). You can also visit them on a tour once a month or so.

But underground you can enjoy the fact that 2 000 odd years has exposed the clever plumbing arrangements for the amphitheatre, thus putting the focus on the Roman’s mad engineering skills not the fact that the stadium was used for watching people and animals fight to the death.

Some people stand in a darkened room containing some ruins from a Roman amphitheatre. Glowing green digitally projected figures and seats give an impression of what it may have looked like.

The Guildhall Art Gallery has about 4 000 works of art to its name, but only displays about 250 of them at any one time, which means that there’s a high chance of being able to go back a few times and not get bored after you have looked at your favourite things.

A gallery in the Guildhall Art Gallery. There is a woman walking up some stairs bewteen colums to a large open plan room with a red carpet, green walls and gold framed paintings. The ceiling is white glowing panels.

Among the things that will be there will be (changing) paintings of London. Mama has been out of the Big Smoke for just long enough to forget just how irritating she found travelling around, sorry, trying to travel around the capital, and decide that there were some things about it she quite liked enjoyed. In a misty nostalgic sort of way. So she liked that area.

Three paintings of London at the Guildhall Art Gallery. The top one shows an almost phtograph like quality of a pleasantly overgrown bit of wasteland and some red roofs. The bottom left is abstract black, grey and white squarish shapes and lines. Another shows a street scene at a markey with some cars and a building in the background.

The Guildhall Art Gallery is also big on the Victorians. Now Mama is not big on the Victorians. Mama tries not to judge historical periods, but largely fails when it comes to the Victorians, irrational though this may be. She considers them class and prejudice ridden, sentimental, violent, sexist, hypocritical, with terrible fashion and interior design sense, and a particularly unfortunate habit of demonstrating all of these traits all over the rest of the world.

Still, free art is free art. Which is presumably what all the great unwashed thought when the City graciously started collecting them paintings in the 1800s.

Two Victorian paintings. The upper one shows a woman cradling a dying man in a forest. A figure in black stands behind a tree, holding a sword. The second shows a groups of women in long red, blue or green stresses standing draped beside a river.

And then there is thirdly. Which is that if you are really lucky, you will be there when they have got the plates of William de Morgan out of the cupboard for a special exhibition.

A selection of William de Morgan plates with styalised animal and plant designs in blue, red and brown.

Mama was just this lucky.

A large plate with a styalised blue bird design by William de Morgan

William de Morgan was an Arts and Crafts sort of person, a friend of the wallpaper designer William Morris, who spent a very long time mucking around with tiles in Fulham and trying to work out how to do iridescent glaze on his pottery, called lustreware. And managed it! At which point this sort of thing became very unfashionable and so he turned, considerably more successfully, to novel writing.

A William de Morgan vase and plate in red lustreware in the Guildhall Art Gallery. Tiles are displayed on the wall behind and some people are in the background looking at them.

Mama does not share this lack of enthusiasm for de Morgan’s ceramics, and was actively distressed when she was alerted to the appearance on the Antique’s Roadshow of someone who had bought a de Morgan dish at a car boot sale for a fiver. Bah.

A large plate with a brown styalised dinosaur and foliage design. A woman in a floral dress stands in the background with her back to us.

Mama also appreciates de Morgan because his wife, Evelyn, was such a good painter she subsidised the pottery for years, a suffragette and an outspoken pacifist. Mama always admires people with taste. Even if they were born in the Victorian era.

Large plate with a styalised red peacock design by William de Morgan

De Morgan’s Dad was also on display. For excellence in maths. Mama quite enjoyed that bit too. Mama enjoys other people’s excellence in maths. It’s like watching somebody juggle with 17 balls while standing on a tiger. Or something.

The back of a William de Morgan plate which has blue and white rings and the name of his factory on it

So. The Guildhall Art Gallery is worth a visit if you are ever at a loose end in the area. Would probably be improved of they had a cafe on site though.

More information

The Guildhall Art Gallery’s page on the City of London website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about the Corporation of London.

Address: Guildhall Yard London EC2V 5AE

Admission: Free

Opening: Monday to Saturday 10am to 5pm. On Sunday it closes an our earlier.

Getting there: Don’t drive. I don’t care if it’s a bit of a walk from either the underground stations of Bank (Central and Northern lines) or St Paul’s (Central line). Just don’t. There’s probably a bus, but Mama doesn’t live in London any more so her encyclopedic knowledge of London’s bus network has faded.

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GUILDHALL ART GALLERY in London has a Roman amphitheatre as well as paintings and a copy of the Magna Carta
Fifi and Hop

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Herself

Kidding Herself is (nominally) written by Herself, a seven-year-old girl, and describes an AngloRusski family's local travel adventures in Moscow, Russia (and the UK).

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