Illustration: Jackson Rees
Show Hide image

Will Self takes afternoon tea at the Savoy

It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet and soup kitchen combined.

I’ve written before in these pages about the terms of my grandparents’ gustatory existence: born in the late 1880s, they stuck fast to their ­agglutinative Victorian roots by putting away three square meals every day, and a couple of hefty snacks hardly less angular. Even as a child I thought they must be involved in some strange act of religious mortification (my grandfather was a lay preacher and president of the Modern Churchmen’s Union) in so flagellating their own insides.

Breakfast was tolerably full and English, with eggs, bacon, grilled tomatoes, several rounds of toast, and sausages so thoroughly baked we named them “Granny’s Wooden Sausages”. Elevenses was bearable, because it consisted at most of a Bakewell tart, and possibly a Welsh rarebit. Lunch was solid – but by then we’d usually been out for a windswept walk on the seafront (they lived in Brighton) and so could just about choke the meat down, if not all of the three veg, and the roly-poly jam pudding. Making so much as a feint towards the cheeseboard was well beyond me until I reached my teens. However, even at that age, by the time tea hove into dyspeptic view the game was usually up.

My grandparents’ cook, the redoubtable Doris, would lay the table for exactly 4.30: white lace tablecloth; floral-patterned Royal Doulton crockery; silver teapot and hot water jug; cow creamer, honey pot, etc. There would be a plate of cucumber sandwiches, one of ham or tongue, and one of fish paste. There would be scones, or triangles of buttered white bread. The pièce de la résistance was an ornate cake stand, atop which sat the brown and menacing presence known as “Doris’s Chocolate Cake”, a ­comestible of such legendary heft and density that my father maintained, were anyone to choke down a slice without adequately masticating, that its sharp corners could be seen poking through the taut walls of their belly.

Anyway, you can imagine that with such childhood experience I have never found myself lying in some foreign field and wondering whether the church clock stands at ten to three – let alone if there’s still sodding honey for tea. But an American friend was in town and wanted the whole English-afternoon-tea experience, so I arranged to meet her at the Savoy. True, you can summon a repast styled “afternoon tea” in many less elevated establishments, but it usually consists of a desiccated macaroon and a stewed solecism of Twinings English Breakfast. If you want the real and authentic afternoon tea, such as would have gladdened Doris’s heart, it has to be the Savoy.

Mind you, I can never enter in under the art deco portico of the great hotel without thinking of Georges Bataille’s emetic-erotic classic Le bleu du ciel, which opens with the dissolute protagonist, Henri Troppmann, holed up in the Savoy with his still more rackety lover: a dipsomaniacal English aristocrat whose sobriquet, Dirty, is amply justified – the reader realises – when she calmly pisses herself in front of the chambermaid. I felt pretty dirty myself, striding across the foyer in my scuzzy blue jeans and descending to the famed Thames Foyer, the fons et origo of that great British institution, the thé dansant. Waiting for the maître d’ to find my name in the reservations ledger, I reflected that my adipose grandparents could have done with a lot more corybantic ­activity and rather less of Doris’s chocolate cake – and then my friend arrived, and beneath the wan, vernal light that fell from the restored glass cupola, we began seriously pigging.

A selection of finger sandwiches, including Wiltshire bone ham on coriander bread and coronation chicken on olive bread; freshly baked scones with home-made lemon curd and clotted cream; pastries, including a particularly toothsome éclair filled with vanilla pastry cream and slathered with lavender icing – and the whole schmozzle washed down with lashings of flowering osmanthus tea. Mmm-mm. You may wonder, gentle and socialistic reader, what possible justification I can provide for pigging out so egregiously in such a fat-cat environment. The answer is simple: afternoon tea at the Savoy is billed at a flat rate, £50. Steep for a stopgap smackerel, but not quite so appallingly plutocratic if you treat it as an all-you-can-eat buffet.

So we kept on – calling for more finger sandwiches (smoked salmon with lemon-infused crème fraîche and watercress this time), more pastries and yet more blooming osmanthus. The trolley was stopping at our table so frequently that other tea-timers were beginning to look askance; I’d drunk so much diuretic I was in danger of doing a Dirty, while my companion was surreptitiously unzipping her skirt to allow for further expansion. Then they brought the cake. I suppose in homage to Doris I should have had the Three Chocolates, but I couldn’t risk it, so instead carefully took the slice cut for me by the waiter and enfolded it in a napkin together with some spare finger sandwiches and a rather dishevelled scone.

A few hundred yards along the Strand from the Savoy, a “selection” of London’s homeless gathers each evening to receive soup and sandwiches from the Sally Army. I beat the evangelists to the punch with my Savoy doggie bag, which seemed to hit the spot – although an ex-soldier on crutches said the Three Chocolates cake was “a little on the heavy side”.

Doris would have approved.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Bush v Clinton 2

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
Show Hide image

The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle