London today

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St Pancras and Midland Hotel (George Gilbert Scott, opened 1866) and the British Library (Colin St. John Wilson, 1982-99)

From above, the British Library looks like a ship; an oil tanker perhaps, since it lacks the elegance of the Art Deco wraparound style.

Walking along Mortimer Street, I stopped to look at Radiant House (1915). It has a bit of everything: turquoise glazed bricks, cantilevered bays, a top-floor loggia, Romanesque windows and classical bits. The colour catches your eye, and then the eclectic charm of everything else grows on you.

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The pastry cook of Cagnes, oil on canvas, 1922

I was on my way to the Courtauld Gallery to look at the Chaïm Soutine exhibition, “Cooks, Waiters and Bellboys”. I wasn’t expecting much – all that thick paint, distortions and messy brushstrokes! – but I was actually bowled over. The title says it all (although there are also three portraits of women): these are restaurant and hotel employees whom Soutine painted before and after he became prosperous. Goodness knows if they are recognisable as the original sitters (particularly the valet de chambre with a neck like a Cluedo character’s), but to today’s viewer they are instantly recognisable as human beings . . . Here is a timid soul, here someone who fancies himself, elsewhere someone downtrodden, or an old hand. The pastry cook of Cagnes, for example: the pose is that of a pope, but the expressive ears and over-large whites arouse a sense of pathos. And the red cloth he is holding – it looks as if he has pulled his heart out of his sleeve.

The colours were vivid and occasionally unpleasantly visceral – particularly red, whether the background to the portrait of the butcher or the red hands of the sad chambermaid. Portrait formats were significant: the very narrow ones seemed to constrain and oppress their subjects.

I detoured via Fleet Street on the way back to look at the old Daily Express building:

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Daily Express building, by Ellis and Clark, 1932, in black vitrolite

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