It’s been quite an arty week: Modigliani on Tuesday, a second visit to Cezanne at the National Portrait Gallery with my friend Annette on Friday, and today a whole day’s course on the exciting and fabulous late 16th-early 17th century artist, Michelangelo Merisi, otherwise known as Caravaggio. I think I may have become a fan of, and fascinated by, Caravaggio through watching so much Andrew Graham-Dixon on TV over the last few years! Caravaggio is his specialist subject and favourite artist. But also I remember going to an exhibition years ago, I can’t even remember what or when, and the Caravaggios stood out so strongly that even in a large room I was drawn to them immediately, like a magnetic drawing me in, mesmerised and awed by his use of light, the sheer power of his painting. I’ve seen Caravaggios in other places, many galleries have one or two, and most particularly I remember seeing some in Valletta in Malta where I was visiting friend Liz and she took me to see them. Caravaggio had to flee Rome after murdering a pimp, a price literally on his head (anyone capturing and killing him could take just the head back to Rome for a reward). He went to Naples where he stayed for a while and did some of his most famous works, then moved on to Malta where, as a famous artist, he was welcomed and taken into the Knights of Malta. Now ‘respectable’ again, he sought a pardon from Rome. But before he could return he attacked one of the Maltese Knights (obviously not knowing when he was on to a good thing and safe), so was imprisoned. Somehow he escaped, taking a boat back to Rome via Naples for the new pope had agreed to pardon him. Well, there was only one Caravaggio; no other artist painted like him. But a mishap on the way led to his death, so he never made it back and died just 39 years old.
What attracted us to wanting to learn more about Caravaggio? asked our lecturer Marie-Anne Mancio at City Lit. I don’t think Caravaggio is an artist you can have indifferent feelings for – you either dislike him (and some have, particularly after his death until the 19th century, for his drama, feeling it overdramatic), but if you’re drawn to him, then it’s a strong attraction. His painting is like no other; his use of light extraordinary. But I don’t think you can ignore the history, the man himself, prone to violent outbursts, rebellious, and courageous (or just not bothered what others thought) enough to paint in a new and radical way. He wasn’t interested in painting mannered religious paintings, idealising people, in the way artists had done before him; Caravaggio painted real people, wearing real clothes, living real lives.
Another reason for signing on to the course at City Lit was to see Marie-Anne again. I did a great day’s course on Grayson Perry with her in the summer at City Lit and have booked a 3-day art tour of Genoa with her next May, through her company Hotel Alphabet, so I knew it would be a good and fun day and I’d learn a lot. And I did!
City Lit is based on the edge of Covent Garden, just off Kingsway. The course started at 10.30 and so I decided it would be good to find somewhere for coffee before it started. The Black Penny is very close to the college in Great Queen Street. I remember looking in there for coffee when I did the Perry course and was put off by them not offering pastries like croissants with their morning coffee, only cakes and cookies. But today I decided to give it a go. It was nice inside and the staff immediately friendly. There was a great display of cakes and cookies but I wanted something fairly modest at this early hour of the day so decided on one of the little banana bread cakes.
Surprisingly, as it’s very much a café, they offer you table service. So I sat down at a window seat, looking out on to Freemasons’ Hall opposite and when someone came – quickly – to ask what I wanted, ordered a flat white (my usual morning coffee) and the banana bread cake.
The cake was delicious; light (banana bread can be heavy) and tasty. The flat white excellent. It was a good way to start what proved to be an excellent day. The bill was £5.80, which I thought pretty good because I’ve paid over £6 for an indifferent coffee and poor croissant elsewhere in central London.
Come lunchtime, it was an obvious choice to head back to The Black Penny. When writing about cafés on the blog it’s a rare thing to get the chance to try them out twice in a day. But also, I liked the place and had liked the look of their all-day menu and guessed I could get a good light lunch there.
‘The Black Penny’ is an interesting name. It was the world’s first adhesive postage stamp used in the public postal system and first issued in 1840. The façade of the café appropriately dates from the mid-19th century and also its interiors. I stayed on the ground floor near the entrance but there’s another area downstairs. They’ve done a good job of preserving some of the old 19th century features with a modern feel, making it an attractive area to sit and relax.
I didn’t want more coffee; I’d already had two. So I ordered fresh mint tea (£2.50). I was delighted it came in a teapot with cup on the side. I really do like tea to come in a teapot and not just a teabag – or in this case mint leaves – dropped into a mug and topped up with water. The tea had a full, wonderful flavour and was just what I wanted. It was both warming on a cold day (wet and miserable outside) and refreshing.
For food, I’d ordered one of their ‘Black Penny Hashes’: Wild Mushroom and Crispy Polenta Hash with salsa verde, rocket and a poached egg (£10.90).
It was fantastic. A wonderful combination of flavours and everything perfectly cooked.
I’d gone vegetarian for lunch but there were plenty of meat alternatives: both a salt beef and a confit of duck hash. There are lots of Breakfast Classics, most offering eggs of some kind, and many had a modern touch on classic breakfast with halloumi, or baked ricotta, and harissa spiced scrambled eggs. If you want to stay a little more classic, then Bubble ‘n’ Squeak includes grilled pork and sage sausages, BBQ sauce, watercress and a fried egg (£10.90); The Hunter is eggs how you like them with sausage, smoked bacon, roasted tomatoes, mushrooms and beans (£12.90). There are also cereals, like Bircher Muesli and porridge, and All Day Buns – simply filled buns with breakfast ingredients.
The Black Penny is open 8am-6pm Mon-Fri; 9am-6pm Sat; 9am-5pm Sun.
I’d had a great day of art and food again, rather different from Tuesday but just as enjoyable.