20 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 71

Shopaholic desert

Petronella Wyatt

At dinner the other night in Washington I was sitting next to Robert Redford. Actually, this is a slight fib. I was in a restaurant called Nora's — which, incidentally, was the first organic restaurant in the capital — and he was at the next table. He is a man of stature; that is, he has heights attached to his shoes. He was also the polar opposite of butch, rather stringy with bad skin.

My friend and I wondered what he was doing in Washington. Obviously not dining at the White House as Mr Redford's political proclivities tend to the left-side. We guessed he might be lending support to Hillary Clinton's campaign for, erm, herself. Will she run for president? The general view is that she will not.

She has vowed to serve her full term. But there is always a possibility that Mrs Clinton might do what Robert Kennedy did. Kennedy vowed to serve out his full term too, then, on the grounds that 'the people' needed him, reneged on that promise and ran — that is, for the White House. At least, if she does the same, Mrs Clinton is unlikely to be shot, though some of us would like to have a try.

Talking of social habits, Washington is a surprisingly informal city. There are no gilded restaurants of pretend grandeur, and no Ian Schrager hotels. Nor is there an equivalent of Bond Street or Sloane Street. The most attractive part of the city is Georgetown, with its painted colonial houses on sloping streets. Ben Bradlee, of Watergate fame, has a house here. But there is little for shopaholics to do; which makes a nice change for my bank account.

Washington, apart from being a city of politics, is one of superlative galleries. But don't think the Washingtonians don't have a sense of humour about art. An exhibition has just opened at the Corcoran Gallery. It is entitled Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisited, The Sculptures of J. Seward Johnson, Jr. The Washington Post writer. Blake Gopnik, began his review with this paragraph:

Don't you hate the way it feels when you've had a couple of rotten-egg-and-sardine milk shakes, and then you get stuck going backwards on a roller-coaster for an hour or two and the only music you've got for your Walkman is an accordion version of Carmen? Then go see Beyond the Frame.

Still, most of the exhibitions are of a pretty high quality. The National Gallery is showing the art of Romare Bearden, its first retrospective of work by a black artist. Bearden, who died in 1988, is among the tiny group of post-second-world-war artists to be given an exhibition in the gallery. Bearden grew up in New York and hung out with such jazz greats as Duke Ellington. For once, this is not a boring, politically correct series of works portraying the iniquities of the white man but a mind-blowing depiction of street life, jazz clubs and the family. If only Tate Modern would put on more exhibitions like this.

Meanwhile I am back in Virginia, near Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's Palladian house. Apparently, many visitors are underwhelmed by Monticello, expecting something vast and imposing and instead finding a disappointingly small edifice. Americans, however, are obsessed with the place in the way they imagine we are fixated on royal palaces. People build diners made to resemble Monticello, grisly little houses in back streets, and goodness knows what other miniature monstrosities. They cannot understand it when I tell them that no one in Britain would think of building a restaurant modelled on Buckingham Palace.

In any case there may be nothing standing here in a few days. This part of the States is about to be hit by Hurricane Isabel. Apparently, Hurricane Isabel is no joke; I mean, not one of the very windy days you get when you go on holiday to Mauritius and the palm trees blow about a bit. It is one of those Wizard of Oz, batten down the doors and roofs jobs. Sales of nails and hammers and wooden planks are rising like tidal waves.

I may be literally blown away by next week. That is if a horse doesn't get me first. On Saturday I am going hunting. Funnily enough, I have been told not to wear my Chanel shoes.