Friday, 24 July 2015

The Foundling Museum

Brunswick Square
Wednesday July 22  2015

Needing  an escape from packing boxes I thought I would give myself a short break.  My original plan had been to tackle the Handel House, handily central but they are having something of a makeover to include Jimi Hendrix in their experience so I thought it might be better to wait and try the Foundling Museum  instead, not realising how extensive it is – four floors of varied delights though I was ready to think I had seen it all after the ground floor (no helpful signs saying ‘ Museum continues on upper  floors’) .
With a double concession for age and National Trust membership the entrance cost was quite modest.  This, the UK’s  first purpose-built home (institution might be a better word) for parentless children, was the idea of a certain Captain Coram, who on returning to the UK from his naval career was appalled at the number of abandoned or dying children on the streets of London – the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution and migration from country to town had increased the population of the poor and many a mother single or otherwise could not afford to look after ‘another mouth’. While waiting for his Royal Charter, Captain Coram did not give up but trundled London’s streets getting signatures in support from the (mainly) female wealthy.  The Charter (on display in one of the early cabinets) came through in 1739, construction by ‘public subscription’ started in 1742 and by 1745 the building was up and running.
Unlike many other countries both then and now captain Coram did not opt for a ‘baby hatch’ – he planned to meet the mothers also, and interview them.  

Initially the ‘hospital’ was so overwhelmed with mothers pleading to have their children ‘looked after’ that they ran a lottery system – white balls signified that you secured your child a place. Whichever way the decision went it was distressful and by far the most poignant display is the cabinet of tokens – little keepsakes left with the child along with a promise to come back and get them. These are as humble as wee scraps of material and stand in stark contrast to the comparative opulence of the Georgian homes of the wealthy middle classes that would have supported Captain Coram in his endeavours.  Homes such as we had seen for Dr Johnson, Charles Dickens which were as nothing compared to Wellington’s  perhaps.  
Many of the children were initially placed with foster carers (?wet nurses) outside London and then returned to the Foundling Hospital at ages 3-5 for what was surely a very strict and regimented upbringing . By all accounts physical needs were well met – there are samples of menus and the innovative appointment of a doctor who came regularly and provided a screening and inoculation service. Dr Richard Mead was both ground-breaking in his research (contagious diseases anyone?) and in the ideas he had for the children at the Foundling Hospital where he made sure the building contained a pharmacy and sick room.
What the children lacked of course was any sense of identity, belonging or being valued or loved.
On arrival the children were given a number and bare details entered into a registry (immaculate record keeping was the order of the day) and eventually renamed – a list on the wall shows that the names of the ‘great and the good’ were often redeployed to the foundlings – perhaps in the fond hope this might prove a spur to greater things. Maybe the little ones did not know who Julius Caesar, Geoffrey Chaucer or Francis Drake were, or more understandably popular fictional characters.  But with up to 400 children aged 3/5 to 14 life was never going to be anything other than regimented, institutionalised and soul destroying .  It was not clear how many mothers were later in a position to reclaim their children if their situations  improved.

With comparatively few artefacts to display (written records and lists abound, the uniforms no different from ‘below stairs’ wear seen elsewhere in historical homes) the museum manages to convey the poignancy of the children’s lost histories. By the 20th century (when the school had moved to the country) there were enough survivors for there to be oral history and the memories, some good many depressing, echo as you walk around. Another strength of the museum is the way it continues to harness art, music and literature to depict the children’s lives.
Obviously confidentiality prevents any detailed accounts of the current lives of looked after children but I was very taken with the art work by Emma Middleton where she had collaborated  with Ealing and Westminster’s looked after children to convey how a careless comment by a teacher can really hurt those with complex family histories or poor self-esteem.
The museum has a long history of philanthropic support from the artistic community, what we would call celebrity endorsement, and it is clear this is a tradition which persists, very fruitfully, to today. Whereas the original foundations had support from Dickens, Hogarth and Handel today’s continues with support from the popular children’s author Jacqueline Wilson (Hetty Feather ) there’s a plot spoiler here, David Shrigley who updates the poignancy of the little tokens and Lemn Sissay poet extraordinaire.
The museum is completely right to stress and strengthen its 21st century links for if you look out of the back windows you will see the two buildings and a garden and playground where Coram continues to work placing children for adoption and forging new and old family bonds.
But back to the original foundlings – what was their future? Girls of course were prepared for a life in service and the boys for apprenticeships. Interestingly by the time of World War I 80% of the boys went into the armed services. Sometimes it is easier   to follow life in one institution with a career in another.
From the history of the foundlings you move into the history of the building – firstly on the ground floor a kind of  board room, complete with solid table and pictures of bewigged patrons including the interesting John Brownlow who went from foundling to Secretary of the Foundation and Historian. Emma Brownlow’s picture of ‘The Foundling restored to its mother’ has an interesting title (the child seems clearly female) and subject matter.
When I had checked the upstairs was not reserved for staff I was duly astonished to  find an extraordinary interior – the Court Room with stucco decorations and generally viewed as one of the finest Rococo ceilings in London – as the fashion for this kind of work was quite short (first half of 18th century)  this is even more remarkable. On the walls are two series of pictures alternating – small medallions of similar foundations to the Foundling Hospital – so the Seamen’s Mission at Greenwich, for example, or the Charterhouse and old St George’s Hospital – placed between more worthy religious or mythological paintings.  The second even larger room contains a range of pictures, mainly more wig-wearing patrons and board members but certainly Hogarth’s portrait of the founder Captain Coram and its companion piece depicting Dr Mead are worth lingering over.

In contrast to the frivolity of the ceiling the stairs are beautifully solid with a generous scattering of working long-case clocks striking melodiously throughout the visit.  Even more melodious are the exhibits of the second floor – the Cloke Bequest of Handel memorabilia. There are two armchairs connected to cd players and I heard another visitor say ‘I could stay here all day listening to Handel’s music’.   Frederic Handel was a long-time London resident and had not written much for some years when he presented his ‘Messiah’ for its London preview at and for the Foundling Museum – a performance that has since become an annual tradition. Handel had also provided for distressed, as in impoverished, musicians.
There is a basement to the building, where special exhibitions are put on.  Currently there is a presentation about  the history of stucco work, nowadays modelled in clay and moulded which is much easier than  working with stucco which requires speed and dexterity.

I suppose it would have been nice to see the accommodation for the children as opposed to the grander reception rooms but otherwise I cannot fault the Museum (only established in 2004) for its presentation of its history and that of the foundlings and for maintaining a fine balance between the work of the past and the work of the future.    

Friday, 17 July 2015

Royal Academy of Arts

Piccadilly W1J 0BD
Wednesday July 15th 2015

With Mary in Wales, Jo in France and Linda about to move house the Museum Project was very much taking a backseat but as we had already lost a week’s packing time to overseas visitors we (Linda plus no longer quite so regular 63) gave ourselves a couple of hours away from house-clearing. The Royal Academy is close to its 250th anniversary (hence the start of a new building project) and yes it is another art gallery but one run by artists and still adhering to its founding principles of both providing an education and laying down a collection. Artists elect fellow artists to become Academicians and the Summer Exhibition is their chance to show their works, alongside those selected by the Committee from public submissions.

There is no permanent collection to speak of.  During the rest of the year the RA presents a range of exhibitions: downstairs in the suite of large galleries it usually showcases a single artist or school, the best another culture can offer, while upstairs in the Sackler galleries you can see smaller works which would otherwise be lost in the capacious main rooms. On the whole we prefer the special exhibitions, often very popular (put Monet or Impressionism in the title and you are bound to ‘pull in the punters’) or offering an introduction to art from distant museums in distant countries. The Summer Exhibition, on the other hand, we have found tends to be rather more predictable and formulaic.

Not so this year. The Academy has let some of its artists curate separate rooms and the main person, Michael Craig-Martin, has added a real punch of colour which was clearly very pleasing to the many visitors today, corroborating my theory that bright colours make people more cheerful.
The main staircase, a contribution from Jim Lambie, is a delight and the whirl of colour then ‘subsides’ into a single jade hue for the central gallery bursting into magenta in gallery III but actually the second big room you visit. Craig-Martin maintains ‘magenta enhances colour and form’ though a couple of us women stood there saying ‘this is not magenta – this is pink’. Strangely in the photos it looks closer to magenta so who knows? Maybe the colour choice for the walls was right because there was lots of eye catching stuff to be seen. We enjoyed Anthony Whishaw’s ‘Come Dance with Me’, and of course ‘Reigning Apps and Blogs’. There is also a West Ham alert for ‘I’m forever Blowing Bubbles’ sprinkled over the doorway.
Mick Noon’s Moon and Dawn Fishing made a tranquil contrast to the vibrancy of the rest of the room.    

The next room’s theme was ‘English Landscapes’ interpreted in its broadest aspects – if you read the tabloid press you will know that Simon Cowell has become part of the landscape so it was right that his portrait should be included here – more interesting however were the works depicting  Mr Goldfinger’s  and  Le Corbusier’s buildings .

One of the most popular works must be Grayson Perry’s tapestry entitled ‘Julie and Rob’ – wonderfully subversive this depicts exactly the kind of visitor seen at the Academy today – she complete with her freshly picked meadow flowers (none of those nasty imported hothouse specimens) and he with a somewhat dubious red wine… full marks to  Mr Perry.

Back to buildings in the room reserved for both architectural models and drawings. Not one for Jo this, as she thinks all architects should be condemned to live in their own constructs.   However she might have liked to see the original drawings for the King’s Cross gasholder conversions. Other gems include an intriguing villa in Prague and the inevitable airport. 

Large rooms follow, many of them hung with the public’s works – by public I mean non-Academicians but some are still professional artists as well as amateurs. Different  Academicians with whose work we were fairly familiar  exhibited in further rooms – items were grouped partly according to ‘medium’ thus prints or etchings  and also photographs. We liked the children’s faces as they were about to tackle the adventure playground at Somerford, Tottenham – London featured again in the aptly titled ‘Babel London’ by Emily Allchurch and the very soothing ‘Invisible Cities’ by Tim Head.

Two artists were granted the privilege of a whole room – a South African who sketched trees and slogans over torn pages of a dictionary and Tom Phillips who has spent a lifetime also using the pages of a an old book as background and occasional text  to small postcard sized pictures – neither of which really engaged our attention. 

Overall however we rated this year’s Summer Exhibition as being more absorbing than many, though overall I would say it is a venue where you choose your special exhibition and visit accordingly. The upstairs rooms (the Sackler galleries) often show smaller works requiring closer attention (illuminations for example), while the more recently acquired Burlington annexe has large spaces at its disposal. You pays your money and takes your choice. 

Thursday, 9 July 2015

The Charles Dickens Museum

The Charles Dickens Museum
48 Doughty Street WC1N 2LX

Wednesday 8 July 2015

Today was a particular pleasure for Linda and me, because we were visiting one lovely museum with the Friends of another: The Cartoon Museum;  so thanks to Jane for organising the trip. (and a reminder that their Alice in Cartoonland exhibition is about to open)

We met at 11.00 and were led to the 'Boardroom' for a brief introduction from the Curator who, we think, probably originated in New Zealand. She explained that of the two houses, only one had been the Dickens residence, but having both means that admin and shop and cafe can be in one, leaving the original feeling very much like a home. The terrace was built in 1807, and the Dickens family lived here from 1837-1839, Dickens referring to it as 'my house in town'.  This was the period when he had ceased to be a journalist, having completed the stupendously  best-selling Pickwick Papers. It was here, the Curator told us, that he wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, and also began to edit his newspaper.  The Curator also mentioned a few highlights that we should look out for, and we began our exploration of the house.  There was a treasure hunt around the place, concerning the Mystery of Edwin Drood, though this, his last work, had nothing to do with the actual house we were in.

The hallway has interesting items on its wall: maps of London at the time, letters, including one about starting work on Barnaby Rudge, and a poster for Dickens' Boxing Day sports at Gads Hill House.  Illustrations from, or about the books were everywhere, and in fact there is about to be a small exhibition about the illustrators.

(By the way, I am not putting a Wikilink to each of the novels as I am assuming either (a) that my readers have read them or (b) that they can find details for themselves.  Though, interestingly, there were many foreign visitors in the house, including a large number of Italian young people: can Dickens be on the syllabus in Italy, we wondered)

The Dining Room has atmospheric street sounds (horses, rather than cars) and dinner party conversation. The dinner service is embellished with portraits of famous contemporaries, including Thackeray and the artist, Daniel Maclise, several of whose works are on display in the house.  For example, the Morning Room has a charming picture of Catherine, by Maclise, in which you can clearly see her engagement ring, which is also displayed in the house. The Curator had told us that it is the model for Dora Spenlow's ring, with the little blue stones.

We then headed down to the basement to see the kitchen, scullery, wash-house and wine store (with suitably dusty bottles. There was at least a water supply in the kitchen, and a copper to heat water in the wash-house.  

We liked the candleholders with their long carrying handles, which we felt were safer than the type that has a small handle on the saucer.  The whole basement area provided us with the opportunity to remind ourselves why we are glad we did not live in 'the olden times', especially since we are probably of the class which would have been emptying chamber pots and using washing dollies, rather than enjoying London life. The explanations throughout the house were clear and interesting, describing fully which items had a direct Dickens link and which were simply of the period.

Back upstairs in the Drawing Room, we listened to a recording of Simon Callow (as Dickens) reading from Pickwick Papers, while we looked at the theatre posters round the wall.  Next door is the Study, with the desk and the waste paper basket as it might have been when Dickens was searching for the right phrases to include in A Christmas Carol. I mention this because it is a sample of how the house really does feel like the home of the author, despite his brief tenancy here.  Many of the novels are displayed here, as well as pictures of some of the characters, and the Robert W Bass painting 'Dicken's Dream', with his many characters coming to life around him.

Upstairs again and you come to two bedrooms and Dickens' small dressing room.  There are toilet articles here, including his razor and brushes.

Next door is Mary Hogarth's room.  Because Dickens was so affected by the unexpected death of his much-loved sister-in-law, this room contains quite a lot of objects and information about death, including his lawyer's copy of his will, with the large bequest to his mistress, Ellen Ternan)

The two rooms on the top floor are the Servant's Room, and the Nursery; as well as toys, and the stuffed raven, Grip, there is a charming sketch of the four Dickens children, and a bust of John Dickens, looking across the room at a painting of Mr Micawber, whom he so much resembled.  There is also the original grille of the Marshalsea Debtors' Prison, a part of Dickens' childhood which he never forgot, and which he depicted in Little Dorrit.  Another reference to his childhood comes in the form of some blacking bottles froom Warren's Blacking Factory, where the young Dickens was put to work in his boyhood.

We also saw a window, set in the wall, which is supposed to be the window in Chertsey which inspired Dickens to describe Bill Sykes forcing the young and innocent Oliver Twist though it to burgle the house.

The Servant's Room has been turned into a kind of scrap book of extracts from the novels, not only on the walls, but also, rather disconcertingly, on a duvet cover. I do not think I would like to sleep under the deathbed scene of Joe the crossing sweeper from Bleak House!

Back downstairs, we paused briefly in a small room with a time line and a virtual tour, as well as an animation of the Bass painting of Dickens' Dream; also quite a lot of information about his struggle to get authors protected by proper copyright laws.  We looked into the Edwin Drood room, before departing, feeling that we had a convincing insight into how the man might have lived his life in these two years in his 20s.

Monday, 6 July 2015

Sutton House

2 & 4 Homerton High Street, Hackney,
London, E9 6JQ
Thursday July 2nd 2015

Jo & I approached this inner London National Trust property by different bits of the Overground , which was a wise choice as the trains are nicely air-conditioned on this not quite the hottest day. The house itself was also cool and we seemed to be the only visitors not from Hackney. Because of its good location and range of communal spaces it serves as a community facility for Hackney and today the older citizens were enjoying a sing song along with hand instruments in the downstairs barn extension.

The guide is indispensable (and free) if you are not to repeat yourself or miss some aspect of the house due to its very diverse pattern of owners and occupiers and its actually having been two houses for some years. We are now so used to Hackney being Inner London that you have to be reminded that it was once in the country and the site  was spacious enough for Sir Ralph Sadleir, long-serving aide to the famous/infamous/ Wolf Hall  ‘hero’ Sir Thomas Cromwell decided in 1535 to build himself a fine ‘bryk’ house in an era where most people made do with wood and wattle and daub – however it is emphatically not a grand palatial dwelling , but a large family house.
The most splendid and best preserved linen fold carving is in the downstairs parlour, which also has a brief ‘told to the children’ life of the house’s first owner, who, like many during Tudor times, fell in and out of favour. Linenfold does what it says on the tin, and here is a demonstration of how a wood carver might achieve this very pleasing and easy to maintain wall covering – easy that is provided you avoid beetles and dry rot….

Sticking with the building materials, the next stop of the suggested route is down in the cellar where there is information about bricks – it seems that in Tudor times the brickmakers worked on site next to the bricklayers, presumably moulding specially shaped bricks to order though they do take 4 weeks to dry off. This must have saved the Tudor roads of London and the countryside being clogged with huge loads of building supplies …. Sutton House are clearly proud to quote Hilary Mantel, author of Wolf Hall, who found the different prints embedded in the bricks very evocative.

1535 was the year the original Sadleir house was built.

Back up to the first floor you run headlong into the 21st century as this room (too damaged to restore) is now used as a community gallery whose works we enjoyed, but not enough to buy any. The staircase and landing have further ghosts of the original wall paintings. 
There follow two chambers – one small, probably originally a bedroom, and the Great Chamber by which time you are moving into a later phase of the house’s history. One of the subsequent owners after the house’s founder Ralph Sadleir, was a Captain Millward a rich silk merchant who apparently displayed his wares in this, the largest room of the house.  The 17th century silk market was clearly volatile as the captain lost his fortune and the house became a girl’s school for almost a hundred years.

What delighted Jo and me was the clear time-lines throughout the property and explanations how the different parts of the house and different uses all fitted together, and it was repeated in various rooms so became better embedded in our minds.

Though the National Trust are careful to indicate where the Tudor parts of the building are still visible and what their original functions were, they have also ‘set-dressed’ the rooms in the context of their later use – hence the Victorian Study tucked away in the corner – by this time, because of growing population especially round Hackney (sounds familiar?), the house was divided into two vertically which is why you are guided to go up one side across the top and down the other. At one point the houses had different names and very different functions. By the time you get to the top room, feeling a bit like an attic, you are firmly in the 20th century with the remnants of the squatters’ graffiti, also preserved for posterity. In a way they kept the building safe, though there was some damage inevitably, for the years they were here and until the Trust took over. They also ensured that the building would continue to serve as a meeting place for the local community.

This marks the halfway point and you go down to cross over into the ‘other half ‘ of the house as was, with the Georgian parlour as the main exhibition space – this is used to give us the story of the Huguenot family, refugees as many were, who lived here with their 9 surviving children of 12.  Pausing in the parlour allows the Trust to remind us of the Georgian preoccupation with tea and tea cups, and Mr Twining whose little museum was one of our first visits.
By 1891 the house was re-united and then used by the local St John’s Church in Hackney as the social and community premises for clubs for local youth for ‘the Spiritual, Mental, Social and Physical welfare of Young Men’.  In 1914 the church turned the other cellar into a chapel which was so dismal and damp we suspect it was hardly used.  

Today Sutton House continues to host activities for local groups – and we could still hear the community music session keeping some local older citizens well entertained as we got back to the ground floor. As particularly beloved of the  National Trust these days there was a recreated Tudor kitchen complete with a good display of very lifelike model food – we decided that they  (the NT) must have a central workshop that churns out ‘food’  for all they hundreds of properties, most of which have kitchens of one era or another…

It was equally agreeable to exit into the small courtyard, sunshine and landscaping to the sound of singing and the feeling that the National Trust had managed the not easy task of combining the preservation and lively presentation of a house with a very chequered history with continuing use by local people.