Natalie was excited about her mission: using her map-reading skills, she was planning to get us from the north end of Kensington Garden to the Imperial War Museum. We would be crossing three parks and the River Thames. We decided we would walk through the parks and then take a taxi. Within an hour, with Natalie guiding us to the end of Green Park where we caught a taxi, we were dropped off by one of London’s excellent cabbies at the front gates of the Imperial War Museum, which stands in the middle of a park. It’s building was formerly the central portion of Bethlem Royal Hospital, or “Bedlam,” which specialized in the care of the insane. You might have heard about “Bedlam,” which was notorious until 1770 (on a different site) for having allowed patients, who were often manacled or chained to the walls, to be viewed by paying visitors as a public attraction (you can find references in literature set during these times).
I couldn’t help but think that there was something symbolic about a former hospital for the insane housing a museum of war, which might be considered human beings’ most extreme form of insanity. Our primary reason for coming was to see a painting we had wanted to see in person, which I write about below. Unexpectedly, we found our time at the Imperial War Museum one of peaceful contemplation.
The main floor’s exhibits focus on air warfare.
I couldn’t help but stare, with my mouth hanging open, at a huge German V2 rocket, which were launched against England in 1944. The bombs were built by slave laborers, most of who died of starvation, in huge bomb factories. Seeing weapons of destruction so closely is quite frankly disturbing. I had to sit down. Natalie and I talked about the novel she is writing about three sisters who escape London during the bombings. All three of us remember an episode from one of our favorite British television series, “Foyle’s War.” Stories help us make sense of it all.
To juxtapose the machinery of war with the personal story of war, we entered an adjoining space where one London family’s daily experience through World War II is effectively captured in re-creations of rooms from their home, with their actual personal belongings. Finally, we went upstairs to the art gallery where we find the painting we had come to see in person: John Singer Sargents’ “Gassed,” a large canvas approximately 8’ tall and 20’ wide. Sargent painted this scene after being on the World War I battlefields.
One thing that is so remarkable about seeing paintings in person is that one can actually see details in the paintings that don’t come across in print. Look closely at the close-up from this painting and you will see soldiers in the background playing soccer.
We sat and stared at this painting for a long time. We were the only ones in the gallery. It was incredibly peaceful.