With the sun shining brightly on an autumnal November morning, I decided to head into central London to see Soutine’s Portraits: Cooks, Waiters & Bellboys, an exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery in Somerset House.
How could a food and travel blogger resist an exhibition with this name? It seemed perfect and it’s been on my mental list of things to do since it opened last month. The Courtauld Gallery is one of my favourite places: a small, friendly gallery that often has wonderful exhibitions. They’re never big, there’s not the space, but they are frequently exquisite and special. Apart from their temporary exhibitions they have a fabulous permanent collection that’s well worth a special visit if you’ve never been there.
Arriving at Waterloo station at about 10am, my first thought was ‘coffee’. I have a couple of favourite places in Covent Garden but wanted to try somewhere new, so headed to Grind in Maiden Lane.
Inside it was big and bright. Not too busy when I arrived but a lot busier when I left about 20 minutes later.
I’ve developed an interest in looking at how much a flat white (my usual morning coffee) and a plain croissant costs to eat in. Prices vary enormously from £3.96 in my local Your Bakery Whitton, £4.10 in Paul Bakery, to over £6 in some London cafés (which definitely feels completely over the top). Thus £5.30 in Grind, this branch sitting in a prime Covent Garden street, didn’t seem too bad.
I like that they didn’t ask me what size coffee I wanted. When ‘flat whites’ arrived in UK there was only ever one size – now some cafés want to serve medium and large versions. I’m very Italian about my coffee (yes I know flat whites are Antipodean) – I never order anything other than small (regular). I have to say that Grind’s ‘small/regular’ was quite a small cup, but it was great coffee, served at the right temperature (i.e. not too hot and not too cold – ‘just right’ as Goldilocks would say). I particularly liked that once ordered and paid for, I could sit down and wait for it to be brought to me. It came with a glass of water came too. That’s a brilliant touch – very continental Europe. The croissant was excellent – a great flavour with a good, flaky texture. Grind offer an all-day menu if you’re looking for more of a snack or meal (varying slightly according to which branch you go to). In the evening they become a bar and are famous for their Espresso Martini. The coffee is ground daily at their Shoreditch headquarters.
From Grind, I slipped down Southhampton Street into the nearby Strand and walked the short distance to Somerset House and the Courtauld Gallery.
I have to confess to knowing nothing about Chaïm Soutine (1893-1943) before hearing about this exhibition. I was intrigued to learn that he became a leading artist in 1920s-1930s Paris, where he’d moved to from his homeland of Russia. He was hailed as an heir to Van Gogh and became best friends with Modigliani. He lived in poverty for a time in the Montparnassse area of Paris before his portraits of Parisian hotel and restaurant workers were noticed and bought. Soutine was a Jew, escaping religious persecution; he notoriously had a temper, suffered from depression and had few friends other than Modigliani. It is interesting therefore that he chose to paint portraits of Parisian lower life, by which I mean people with low-paid jobs in the service industry, whose lives were full of drudgery, to express his own inner angst. The faces in these portraits are vividly moving and disturbing; people, sometimes kids, crushed into uniforms, crushed into a painting’s frame, as if wanted to burst out, full of tension, sometimes world-weary, sometimes angry, but above all, real people. If you can get along to the Courtauld Gallery before 21 January 2018, then it’s well worth seeing.