“It’s a virtue of the venue,” affirms Dr Hope Wolf. “There should be friction between an exhibition and its setting.” A lecturer at the University of Sussex, Dr Wolf is the curator of a major London exhibition on Sussex Modernism. It explores two questions. Why were radical artists and writers drawn to rural Sussex in the first half of the 20th century? Why was their artistic innovation accompanied by domestic, sexual and political experimentation?
“Designed by John Loughborough Pearson to satisfy William Waldorf Astor’s fantasies, Two Temple Place is something of a dream house. But his vision is demure when compared with the explicitly sexual imagery on display.” The curator acknowledges this tension in her choice of first exhibit. It’s a marble mini coffer decorated with an eroticised nude and filled with poems by the likes of Ezra Pound. In 1914 he and five other young poets presented to the Sussex writer Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, whom Ezra called “the last of the great Victorians”. The admiration wasn’t mutual. “Wilfrid was a traditionalist. He hated the artwork and poems,” says Dr Wolf. “He kept the coffer but positioned it facing a wall to hide the nude.”
Those questions. This exhibition argues that a rural retreat provided an escape from the metropolis to explore alternative living. It illustrates how the regional setting both amplified the artists’ and writers’ contrary energies and facilitated their attempts to live and represent the world differently.
A few days later, suddenly, sharing a waiter with other guests seems rather déclassé, or would be if we weren’t dining in classy Aquavit. Lady Diana Cooper once described Vita Sackville-West as “all aqua, no vita”. Not so this restaurant: aptly named after the Scandinavian spirit, it’s full of life. We’re here, for starters. Not just desserts. A Nordic invader of the New York scene in the 1980s, sweeping up two Michelin stars, it opened an outpost in Tokyo and has now come to Mayfair.
In 1989, Country Life reported: “Until quite recently London lacked continental style brasseries. There has always been a wide choice of restaurants but the alternative to an expensive meal has been the ‘greasy spoon’ café, the pub or various questionable ‘takeaways’. Traditionally the City provided dining rooms, now almost extinct, together with a diet of boisterous restaurants such as Sweetings, the catering world’s equivalent of the floor of Lloyds or the Stock Exchange. But greater sophistication was demanded by a new generation keen on modern design, New York and cuisine, as opposed to cooking.”
That all changed with the arrival of Corbin + King and Richard Caring who have filled Mayfair and beyond with brasseries. Aquavit fits into the higher end of that mould. CEO Philip Hamilton says, “Our aim is to create a relaxed morning to midnight dining experience.” Handy, as we – the Supper Club (Lavender’s Blue plus) – all have Mayfair offices, from Park Lane to Piccadilly Circus. Scandi style has been ripped off so much by hipster hangouts but this is west, not east, London. Pared back lines allow the quality of the materials to shine (literally in some cases) through: marble floors climb up the dado to meet pale timber panelling, softly illuminated by dangling bangles of gold lights.
Sourdough bread and knäckebröd (Swedish rye crisp bread with a hint of aniseed) come with whey butter. “The whey butter is from Glastonbury,” explains our waiter. It’s all singing all dancing. Chillout music is playing in the background. We’re experiencing what the Scandinavians call ‘hygge’, that cosy relaxed feeling you get when being pampered, enjoying the good things in life with great company. All the more reason to sample Hallands Fläder (£4.50), an elderflower aquavit. A continuous flow of sparkling water is (aptly) plentiful and reasonably priced (£2.00). Ruinart (£76.00) keeps our well informed sommelier on her toes.
Our dedication to reportage ever unabated, is it a dream sequence or the following day do we return for a smörgåsbord of diced and smoked mackerel tartare, sorrel and lumpfish roe (£7.00) in a salad bowl, sitting at a timber table on the polished pavement? Not forgetting the unforgettable Shrimp Skagen (£9.00)? Skagenröra isn’t just prawns on toast, y’know. Named after a Danish fishing port, other essential ingredients are mayonnaise, gräddfil(a bit like soured cream) and some seasoning. Grated horseradish, in this case, adds a bit of spice. Best crowned with orange caviar. It’s Royal Box treatment all over again as we have a dedicated waiter to our table. Or maybe that’s because we are the only alfresco brunchers braving the elements outside the box. By Nordic winter standards, it’s a positively balmy morning. We’ve a love | hate relationship with Aquavit. Love here | hate leaving.