Monday, 20 April 2015

The Horniman Museum

100 London Road
Forest Hill
London SE23 3PQ
Thursday April 16 2015

Whether this can be truly called a museum outing is a bit debateable – with all of us involved in family related health problems this week and for some time to come it was difficult to arrange a planned combined visit. However as Linda has lived on the Horniman’s doorstep for the past 40+years it seemed acceptable that she should ‘wing’ this report a little.

The Museum's  history is not untypical of many created in the Victorian era – private collector (Frederick John Horniman was a tea importer) who collected varied objects from his world-wide trips and then ran out of space at home – the first displays were in his home up on Surrey Mount and then in 1898 he had Charles Townsend build the dedicated museum near the top of the hill, with its entrance on the main road, which is now the South Circular. A Jubilee era extension almost doubled the capacity of the museum, and moved the entrance so you now go in from the surrounding park or, more correctly, gardens.

For us the Museum is indivisible from its surrounding gardens which are a real glory. They boast a children’s play area, theme based on musical instruments, a proper elevated band stand, a small animal enclosure (small area: some small animals but quite hefty alpacas included) an education centre, an African garden, vegetable allotment and formal  walled flower garden ringed by seats and often a suntrap. On a clear day you can see as far as the Wembley Arch & Hampstead in the north of London and even moderate visibility gives you the Shard.

The Museum has three substantive and permanent collections and a changing series of ticketed special exhibitions. The Aquarium is beautifully presented with most fish presented at adult knee height thus really involving the visiting children.   In 2013 it won Children’s museum of the Year and it is really VERY child-friendly with clearly worded low hanging exhibition labelling – and interactive sections in all parts of the collections. This makes it very busy during the school holidays but also in term time with significant number of school parties on organised outings. As former pupils of Horniman Primary School you can imagine how familiar our own children were, especially as they also spent part of the holidays doing exhibit-related craft workshops. Today it was still close enough to the beginning of term for there to be very few visitors and I certainly had two sections to myself.

I started with the Musical instruments collections which is hugely impressive, embracing as it does anything you might wish to blow, suck, bang or pluck from round the world.   It just so happens that twenty sorts of woodwind and the noise they make does not greatly interest me but may well hold fascination for most other less philistine museum visitors than myself. The children’s hands-on area was being happily used by some push-chair aged toddlers and was very suitable for tinies.

The musical instruments used to be up in one of the galleries but had moved into the newer build Centenary gallery which opens out of the three story atrium – a lovely space today only adorned by some Chinese lanterns but allowing for book launches, performances and lots of visitors.

Meanwhile the ethnographic collection – masks, puppets, headdress, votive offerings, fertility symbols from different faith and culture groups – had migrated into the older galleried exhibition hall dating from 1902, so imagine something like the set from ‘Night at the Museum’  and you will get the picture.

Most scary in this section is the avenging god Kali dancing on the body of Shiva.  
Before the museum was re-arranged these exhibits used to be softened by a rather endearing statue of the half bull Nandi and the odd elephantine Ganesha but they seemed in short supply today. More colourful were the artefacts from Polynesia and Guyana. The Horniman curators have taken great care in presenting these objects but even so it does sometimes feel like a museum of museum displays. The African worlds have another gallery to themselves and this feels more cohesive, with the separate tribal regions presented in both a historic and contemporary context; of course many of the people concerned live locally and are able to contribute.

Most famous and most unreconstructed are the Natural History Galleries with their serried ranks of glass display cabinets illustrating different wild life and domestic species.   Probably grouped more for their visual impact than any other taxonomy they are a testament to the not so dying art of the other t-word – taxidermy. I gathered from a recent launch of Kate Mosse’s last novel – The Taxidermist’s Daughter – that this nearly forgotten Victorian skill (and real artistic skill is required) is finding some resurgence amongst modern artists.

The most famous exhibit is of course the ‘over-stuffed’ Canadian walrus who has held centre stage on his ice-floe for over a century – when the museum was remodelled in 2002 there was an outcry when there was talk of not including him so here he still sits making a handy ‘meeting point’ on the first floor. What’s more I had forgotten how cosy this floor of the museum is and how we used to arrange Sunday PM viewings to economise on the home heating! Our favourite remains the dodo which you can find both here and in the garden.

If I have a criticism of the Museum it would be getting from one section to another as it does sometimes feel like three separate spaces not very clearly connected and you could easily lose a child in one of the less popular galleries…

Anyway if you follow the directions for shop and café – all on the ground entrance floor – you will find your way out with both facilities offering a good range of gifts and a popular indoor/outdoor eating space. The adjacent grand Victorian conservatory or crystal palace hosts additional functions. In the end my revisiting of this South East London gem was well worth while, as indeed your visit will prove.   

Friday, 10 April 2015

The Whitechapel Gallery

77-82  Whitechapel  High Road,
 London E1 7 QX
Wednesday  April  9 2015

Today’s museum outing was prefaced by another (yes, we feel entitled to be blasé having already been in the Evening Standard and Guardian and on BBC and ITV) meeting with the press – this time Alexi  Duggins, Editor at Large (that means he gets to leave the office – a lot) from Time Out who have previously given us a boost  and reference though not a full article. I think the element he found most intriguing was that we stuck at one thing whereas I suppose his professional life is defined by variety and novelty.

Very helpfully he and his photographer had alerted the gallery that they were coming and this allowed us to take a few photos, and be escorted by Alex, the Gallery’s press and PR officer.

 The gallery has a long and venerable history and we liked the fact that it was founded in the spirit of Victorian philanthropy – the Barnetts strike again! – and the wish to bring art to the East End, and also allow locals to exhibit.  (Though to prove that philanthropy is not always modest, we have been interested to learn that it lost a chance for a substantial donation from John Passmore Edwards when, unlike the Library next door, it declined to call itself the Passmore Edwards Gallery.)  The South East London member of the party is pleased to note that architect for the Gallery, Charles Harrison Townsend, is also the man who designed the Horniman Museum.

From 1901 the Whitechapel Gallery has stood at the heart of a changing community showcasing the work of a range of contemporary artists for free and welcoming in the locals – most galleries that do not house permanent collections are to be found ‘up west’ and are essentially commercial. There was a great range of limited editions prints should you have the wall space.  The original purpose designed building was revamped in the Eighties and in 2009 almost doubled its exhibition space by incorporating the Passmore Edwards Library from next door – the fusion of the two buildings works extremely well and we loved the space and light within before we had even entered any of the display galleries. It is no accident that two previous directors, Charles Aitken and then Sir Nicholas Serota, went on to helm the Tate Gallery(ies). Their reputation has been in hosting more challenging exhibitions, but also those that draw on the local community.   

The downstairs room had just closed its exhibition about the ‘black square’ looking at abstract art which has been around longer than you might think.   We were upstairs enjoying the energy of Peter Liversidge’s ‘Notes on Protesting’ where he had worked with a local Tower Hamlets School (Marion Richardson, she of the handwriting) to get primary age children to think about what they disliked and wanted to change. Anything that politicizes and activises young people must be good and we agreed with most of their choices: banning dog poo (or at least clearing it properly) and helping poor people ranked high and were straightforward and laudable. A plea to do away with Homework is not new and as Jo said years of research has not really proved whether making younger children (as young as 4+) ‘do homework’ actually improves their learning or achievements overall. I suppose for secondary age pupils the time might be too short to cover the curriculum without doing some of it out of school?? Anyway I digress – There must be an improvement in school meals as these did not feature greatly in the protests.  As part of the artwork the children were filmed doing their ‘protesting’ Peter Liversidge likes to combine documentation and performance in his conceptual art.

Gallery 7 a lovely airy space was used to display a range of works curated by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. This exhibition is entitled ‘Natures – Natural and Unnatural ‘ with works generally redolent of Spring so the whole room has a positive but peaceful air to it. She has drawn on contributions from the Moscow based V-A-C  gallery (a fairly recent post Glasnost collection hoping to showcase home-grown more modern art ) broadly referencing nature in its content.  Warhol’s screen print of a dairy cow was based , as is often the case, on some advertisement, and is quite reminiscent of ‘la Vache Qui Rit’, a childhood favourite – persevere with this website and you will get an irreverent gallop through two millennia of ‘art’ cow style.

Talking of familiar tropes – there were sunflowers  about as cheerful as you can get – this time thanks to David Hockney rather than Van Gogh but with the obligatory wilting bloom  - always there as a ‘vanitas’ symbol of the brevity of life.

We enjoyed the masked people (or were they blooms?) by Enrico David not quite dancing like the Russian artist gyrating to Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Child’ on the grave of his father, not so much in disrespect as joy.  An eclectic and stimulating choice.

The Whitechapel Gallery does not have a substantive collection so we had taken ‘pot luck’ with today’s visit but were overall impressed greatly enjoying the building and its facilities – large  and largely serious bookshop, airy streetside café and renovated basement loos. But of course the art was what we took  away on this marvellous spring day.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The Museum of London

Wednesday 1 April 2015

150 London Wall
Barbican EC2Y 5HN

It would clearly be a lie to say that the Museum of London is impossible to find, since Linda and I found it.  But it was not easy.  Linda naively arrived at Moorgate Station, expecting to follow the upper walkway round to the entrance. She had, of course, forgotten Crossrail, which has made the area round Moorgate - well - challenging.

And I arrived on the TfL recommended cycle route, emerging from the admirably permeable Barts area to see Museum of London in huge letters, accompanied by the Dancing Men from the Sherlock Holmes exhibition, on the round building in front of me.  So I crossed the very dangerous road, walked all round the circular structure, which has no entrances;  fortunately I was also looking for cycle parking and saw, back across the road, a small sign pointing to a lift and some stairs.  Thus, dicing with death across the road again, I was able to get upstairs and meet Linda at the entrance.  Signage? nul points.

But never mind that.  After exchanging family news, we went to drop our bags off. The lockers by the main entrance are not available, and so went downstairs, through the gift shop. The lockers, which cost a non returnable pound, swallow your money while leaving the locker open, if you turn the key after putting stuff in. Fortunately some charming staff said we could get a token the information desk (back upstairs). Clearly this often happens, an issue which could be sorted by -yes! - clear signage.

It is a measure of what a marvellous museum this is that even after these false starts, leaving me in somewhat tetchy mood, though Linda was as calm as always, we really enjoyed ourselves.

We were impressed by some poems written by local students inspired by Latin phrases;  sadly I can't find them on line, but this one may be just about legible, if you enlarge it.  We passed swiftly through the pre-Roman and Roman displays, not just because there were large groups there, but also because we remembered them well from earlier visits. We slowed down for the Anglo Saxons, and all the evidence of their Europe-wide trading links, and then carried on through the Middle Ages.  We liked the way the various trade goods were labelled 'The French Connection', 'The Italian Job', and 'Vorsprung Durch Technik', and reflected what a treasure house the Thames has been for 'bits' of ancient commerce. The model of the former, Gothic, St Paul's Cathedral also impressed us.

It was at this stage that we began to feel that our visit today was linking to many of the other museums we had been to. The Black Death exhibits reminded us the various medical museums we have been to, and there was a bell produced in a foundry which ceased to exist after the plague.

Of course the Black Death, wiping out one in three Londoners, meant that wages rose afterwards, and we enjoyed the section about the many industries of London, including metal and ceramic work, and many trades connected with the river.  There was a very good section about the remarkable growth of the printing industry, leading very easily into the 16th century, and the religious upheavals which ensued as more and more people could read the Bible for themselves.

The 16th and 17th centuries of course mean theatre and Shakespeare, and quite a lot of space was devoted to the various theatres built to the south of the river.

Tudors also liked eating, and the item I most coveted was a clockwork wagon-and-tun which could trundle along the table., dispensing rose water, which would make the diners' hands at least smell nice.  You can see a little more about it here.

There were some domestic displays, but we have to say that the Geffrye Museum does them better. 

We didn't go into the Sherlock Holmes Exhibition, as I had been before, but it is well worth a visit in its few remaining days.

A jump into the 21st century came next, because Simon had told us not to miss the Cauldron, so we turned into its own special gallery.  And how right he was:  there was film of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, and talking heads, so we met the designer, Thomas Heatherwick, some of the skilled metalworkers and some of the athletes.  Did you know that the petals were all different?  A display showed us which countries had which design between Olympics and Paras, and we saw versions of each one, as well as photos of the originals back in their home countries.

Then we returned to the story of London, with a pleasure garden of the 18th century was charming, with some film of ladies ready to go into the 'dark walks' with their beaux.  The Expanding City enabled us to have a canter through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  

We saw Chelsea ceramics which, we have to say, are not much to our taste, and a fine display about the Chartist movement, before moving on past images of notable Londoners, some better known than others.  Some of our previous trips were reflected in pictures of Dr Johnson, Elizabeth Fry (it's some time since we were at the Clink) and Florence Nightingale.  We had not known about the Hungarian-born impresario Imre Kiralfy, but we do now!  And Kamal Chunchie of the Coloured Men's Institute also gets a portrait.

Linda remembers going through the wonderful Selfridges doors to visit Santa, and there were several other Art Deco frontages as well.

A series of posters provided snapshots of the class war of the late 19th century, accompanied by some minor crown jewels and the Queen's bonnet from her 1887 Jubilee.

More recent posters included wartime propaganda, together with some evacuees' suitcases, gas masks and photos of bomb sites.

Then there was the placard carried in the 1970s by the Protein Man, though 'anti-protein' better describes his passionate belief.

We finished with a round up of fashion, echoing our two visits to the Textile and Fashion Museum, and taking in Mary Quant as well as sports clothing, before heading back tot he lockers and the exit.

We had by no means seen everything this splendid museum has to offer, and so may well be back, probably before, but certainly after the planned move to Smithfield in 2021.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Whitechapel Bell Foundry

32-34 Whitechapel Road,
London E1 1DY

Saturday March 21 2015

This entry comes a little out of sequence as it needed to be a booked event – Monday to Friday the Foundry is a working shop floor, while on Saturdays Mr and Mrs Hughes, the current family who own the Foundry, do booked, conducted tours mainly for groups but with some ‘individual tickets’.  The tour lasts about 90 minutes and is very informative.
Having been instructed to arrive early we gathered out of the bitter cold.  The Whitechapel Road
is an old Roman Road heading directly east, with the wind direct from Siberia and no hills in between) and were glad to be able to shelter just inside the small front hall where there are  a series of glass cases depicting a pictorial history of the Foundry – its origins elsewhere in London, the expansion of the current (very modest) site, famous bells that have been made there ( Philadelphia's Liberty Bell  recast in 1976 for the Bicentenial celebrations ) and some scale models of the process.

When the last four group members scraped through the front door it was locked and we were given a speedy 7 minute introduction to the origins of bell manufacture and why here. The answer to the latter had of course become very apparent when we were bussing round London – because of the prevailing wind direction and river flow the rich folk essentially kept the west to themselves and made sure the messy/smelly and dangerous trades were all in the east. Bell making has a little of each plus needing the space which Whitechapel would have had in 1700 when they moved here. Monks and the Church used bells from early on – see the Venerable Bede – but round about the 12th Century manufacturing passed from the religious community to craftsmen and this is where it has remained. Foundries proliferated especially in the larger conurbations – cathedral cities. This foundry can trace its origins back to 1420, then started in 1570 (the date over the door) however moved from Aldgate East to the present premises in 1738, the 18th and 19th centuries being the ‘boom time’ (see what I did there) for bell manufacture – however, given that the average product lasts about 150 years before it even needs patching, the number of foundries declined accordingly leaving just a few world wide. This particular one thrived by closing down the opposition various and now continues to export as well as getting 20% of the business from small bells.  The shop floor onto which we were about to move has about 16/17 employees with others out ‘hanging’ or in the office. Mr and Mrs Hughes run the office and conduct the tours at the weekend when the furnaces have cooled a little.

The tour takes you out through the back of the shop through a very small courtyard filled with bells various and onto the main manufacturing floor. The process essentially has three parts

Casting: Bell metal is Bronze – so Copper plus tin (22%)  poured into moulds as a thin but very even layer between two moulds – the inner cone and the outer  core – a bit like cooking, the larger the bell the longer the cooking (melting) time and they have two Furnaces also. Like lining your cake tins so they don’t stick the Foundry uses a unique formula of loam for that purpose – the buckets show the ingredients of the loam: sand, clay, goat’s hair (which is soft but fibrous thus allowing hot air to escape on expansion) and horse manure  (also loosely packed). The furnaces heat up to 1070˚ C so a bit hotter than your oven.  This process for the bigger bells (7 foot diameter is the maximum this foundry can manage) can take up to a week and all are timed to be turned off by Friday thus having the weekend to cool.

Continuing with my cake analogy, instead of an ‘icing stage’ the Foundry has a tuning stage whereby experts (presumably not with tin ears like this author) shave off miniscule amounts of metal from within the bell in order to achieve 5 perfect notes.  As I don’t understand ( or care very much about)the numbers behind music this part of the process , doubtless very important and extremely skilled, was lost on me, but suffice to say they aim to get bells that sound ‘true’ when correctly struck by their clapppers.  This is particularly important as about 400 years ago some Englishman invented change ringing (more number work) which is almost as arcane as cricket. The UK still has numerous churches (about 5 ½ thousand) where ‘the changes are rung’ but the practice is followed overseas only in what are effectively ex-colonies. So the market is small, especially bearing in mind the long shelf life of this product.
This leads us onto the third part of the process – the hanging of the bells – the preparatory work for which takes place in the small carpentry workshops up the narrow stairs. Headroom is at 5ft 8” so most chippies need to be on the short side if they want to work here – and many do for long years of service are celebrated by plaques in the roof ends.  Different woods are used for part of the wheels – as oak and sapele ,

For me the upstairs workshops were very evocative – workbenches with a tools laid aside, small chippings of metal, leather straps (there is only one tannery left in England) brooms and work lists, the odd ‘girlie’ calendar (yes they’re still made): my father was a Hatton Garden jeweller and though on a much smaller scale the tools and skills – incising, balancing, polishing – seemed quite similar.   His half-finished items were locked in a safe overnight however. The upstairs workshop finishes the hand bells (the cupcakes of the bell world) which come in sets and where individual ones can be replaced at impressively short notice. Hand bells were originally introduced to allow the bell ringers to practise and then became a musical set in their own right.

The tour finishes back in the courtyard where Mr Hughes bid us on our way with a right clang on one of his random bells illustrating how important is the ‘hum’ and reverberation – the physics  principle behind the ‘ strike to sound thing’ . There is also a shop of course with bells large and small but all beautifully finished and truly ‘Made in England’ which is not something y

you can often say nowadays.

Thursday, 19 March 2015

The Cartoon Museum

Wednesday 18 March 2015

Today Linda and I went to the Cartoon Museum, which is in Little Russell Street, WC1A 2HH.

It is housed in a former dairy, and consists of two rooms downstairs, and an upstairs galleried area which houses the collection of comics.

For copyright reasons, we were not allowed to take pictures of the art works themselves, so here is the embellishment of the door into the exhibition space, with a recognisable Steve Bell depiction of George W Bush as Michelangelo's Adam.

We went first to look at the current special exhibition, which is cartoons and caricatures by Marc.  Mark Boxer said of himself 'I don't draw particularly well, but I have an observant eye', but we thought his pen work was pretty impressive, and his observant eye applies both to the notables he drew and to the mores of the period. His trendy couple, the Stringalongs, with their friends Ben and Pilaf Goldblatt, figure in a number of social comments:  'Daddy and I think spelling is elitist'; 'Simon, which of these two dresses would you say was more left of centre?'

Being the age we are, we did not need many of the captions to tell us whose portraits we were admiring.  Some were international, like Kssinger, some cultural, like a black haired Simon Rattle as well as Olivier, Gielgud, Heaney, Graham Greene and even Stockhausen (we did have to look to see who this one was)

The politicians, of all hues, were there too:  Foot and Benn and Healey; Lawson and Thatcher - depicted with a 'no milk today' note for the milkman hanging from one nipple: she never shook off the Milk Snatcher label associated with her ending of free milk for school children.

(Which reminds me, we were sharing the space with a party from Snaresbrook Primary School, and I hope their teachers will not mind us saying how impressed we were with the impeccable behaviour of a lot of young people clearly having a good time)

In fact, Mrs Thatcher cropped up again in a pocket cartoon with a timely relevance as we trudge towards the general election:  two people commenting, as they pass a placard reading 'Falklands war cost £700 million,' 'At least she does not have to put it down as election expenses'.

Although this exhibition is coming to an end (to be replaced by 'Heckling Hitler', which sounds fun) the permanent collection of the Museum does include some Marc cartoons so we shall not be starved of them in the future.  And Linda and I went on to look at the permanent exhibition.  It starts with a timeline of cartoon and caricature, and then is displayed chronologically, from the beginning of the 18th century onwards. The print shops which sold the luxury items also displayed their wares in the windows, for the less wealthy to enjoy, so people could be amused by Hogarth and Gillray, as we were.  1789 and the French Revolution encouraged a flowering af radical and anti-monarchy as well as anti-French cartooning; coincidentally, the British Museum across the road is also showing a collection of the way Bonaparte was depicted by British cartoonists.  After all, the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo is coming up in June. Then it was on through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, with a good number of First World War postcards, poster and magazine cartoons.  The coverage goes right up to the present day, the last cartoon being Martin Rawson's take on the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, which you can see here, courtesy of the Guardian's website.

Pausing briefly in the little animation room, where we saw some Peppa Pig storyboards, and laughed at the covering of the benches, we went on upstairs to the gallery, where the collection of comics is available to enjoy. Actually, Linda and I are not excited by all that Judge Dredd, Batman stuff, being of the 'Eagle' and 'Girl' general;  but we did pause by some Desperate Dan and Dennis the Menace original artworks, before (as Banksy would say) heading out through the gift shop, which is a treasure house of silly cards, books and mugs.

Definitely a place to return to, we thought.