Friday, 11 August 2017

Greenwich Old Royal Naval College – Painted Hall & Chapel

King William Walk
Greenwich SE10 9JF
Friday August 04 2017

When we visited the small exhibition giving the history of the Old Royal Naval College in the Visitors Centre we tried to tack on a visit to the actual college buildings which are usually open to the public – namely the Chapel and Dining Hall. The Chapel certainly was open but the Dining Hall is currently undergoing a major CONSERVATION  (NOT restoration ) project. However you can still visit, advisedly by prior booking, for a guided tour of the ceiling complete with hard hat and high-vis jacket. That makes it sound a lot more exciting than it is as the scaffolding platform is very sturdy, wide and stable and the 67 steps are no worse than using the stairs when the escalators fail .

Just a reminder of the history in case you weren’t paying attention in November, not to be outdone by Charles II and his Royal Hospital for Army pensioners at Chelsea, William II’s wife Mary was keen to do the same for mariners but sadly died before the building was completed so some of the inscriptions we saw being conserved and cleaned today were her husband making sure her memory and intentions for the foundation were honoured.

The exterior of the building is truly magnificent and best viewed from the middle of the Thames – and that was Wren’s brief – to encompass the whole vista from top to bottom with the two arms or wings allowing  the visitor to glimpse the already complete Queen Anne’s House halfway up the hill.

As for the inside, initially James Thornhill was a ‘cheap’ option as set against imported Italian workmen and apparently he was paid a £1 per square foot on the wall and £3 per sq foot on the ceiling. Out of this he paid any helpers and the materials.  Unlike most Italian ceilings this is not a fresco but oil paint applied to a plastered ceiling. In fact all things considered (dining sailors eating by candle light, smoking and throwing their food around) the ceiling is in quite good shape. The remarkably few cracks will be restored; the varnish that has deteriorated cleaned and re-applied, and the darker areas cleaned to become more visible, but not to the extent that there will be ‘visibly brighter’ spots but to maintain the integrity of the whole art work.
In addition to explaining the aims of this very expensive conservation our guide Simon pointed out several ‘characters’ who certainly would not have been so evident from below.

Essentially the design consists of a large central oval where the most important people are and two semi-circular arches each with a ship ploughing the seas into which the key English rivers, as represented by their gods, flow. The perspective works in all directions: very cunning this. The rivers are all personified and come with their most famous products so the Severn with lampreys and the Tyne with coal.  The not so subtle subtext being what a productive country we are. No comment.   

The central oval is given over to the Royal Patrons surrounded by a variety of classical gods who double by portraying virtues that befit a reigning monarch – such as wisdom (Athena) or strength (Hercules –obvs.)   More interestingly the guide pointed to a red cap which stood for Liberty (as seen on the French Revolutionaries) and the leg of William grinding the face of tyranny (Louis XIV) under his foot. Interesting as you assume the crowned heads of Europe might stand together but I suppose that the so-called Glorious Revolution (with the monarch ruling with the consent of Parliament) counted as relative ‘Liberty’ compared to Louis’s absolutism. There was also a difference of religion standing in the way and historically the French and English are rarely on the same page as friends…

Apart from the rivers there are references to the four elements and four seasons – I’m not sure where the others were but Winter showed the fine head which one could immediately see was that of a real person – indeed a seaman pensioner by the name of John Worley. He had a somewhat rowdy reputation so having him ‘sit’ for James Thornhill kept him out of trouble for a while.

James almost certainly employed others to do some of the ‘hack’ work but to be fair the standard is extremely high and while I would not go as far as saying , as one observer did, this is greater than the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel , it is a great achievement an d the women all look a good deal more womanly than any Michelangelo ever achieved ( the Pieta excepted). The sailors who wined dined and smoked under this ceiling until 1998 certainly appreciated their charms. 

Thornhill was encouraged to promote the nautical elements so down at ground level, in a more sombre grisaille, is a wealth of sea shells, anchors and ropes to adorn the sides and corners.

Once you have finished with the Painted Hall you are encouraged to cross the courtyard/quadrangle to have a look at the Chapel, beautifully free of scaffolding and with an equally impressive if very different ceiling, more rococo plasterwork. The building is beautifully proportioned with a well preserved floor and some impressive woodwork. Being a chapel there are memorials round the sides and entrance to both famous (John Franklin  the North West Passage explorer) and forgotten mariners..

Greenwich is always a treat as Wren’s waterside building never disappoints but it was a particular treat to get up into the ceiling of the painted hall and appreciate its details at leisure.  

Friday, 4 August 2017

Westminster Abbey

Monday 31 July 2017

While it's about time I took my turn after all the posts by Linda and the 63 Regular, it has taken me some days to get around to this one, because I am somewhat daunted by the grandeur and fascination of what we saw.  I initially thought I might write a one-liner: 'you really should go' but I realised that would not do. No photos inside, by the way, so do go to the website, and especially watch the video about Poets' Corner, which gives you a taste of the wealth of things to see in the Abbey.

I have mentioned before that I believe teaching to be the best job in the world;  but a totally unexpected bonus was a chance meeting with a former pupil, who proved to hold an impressive position at Westminster Abbey and who offered to show us round herself. The fact that she had attended the same academic institution as Roger though some years later, made it extra serendipitous. 

We arrived shortly before the first of the day's share of the 1,100,000 annual visitors, and spent some time looking at the shrine of Edward the Confessor, the High Altar, and various medieval royal tombs. Susan was able to take us into the shrine to get a closer look at the amazing Cosmati pavement.

But the high point (literally!) of the visit was an insight into the extraordinary project which is to be the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries. The modern lift which will give access to the remarkable museum space in the Triforium is not yet ready, but we were able to see the planning and detailed work which is going into this new treasure for London.

After a cup of coffee and a sight of the beautiful Litlyngton Missal in the Library, we let Susan return to her work, while we took the audio guides to visit the areas which we had not yet seen.  Although Poets' Corner is the famous area, there are several composers also memorialised on the floor so you need to look down as well as up.  We brooded over the fact that James I was able to pop his mother, Mary Queen of Scots in here, only a couple of decades after her execution for treason, and noted several places where closeness to the monarch in life helped to achieve a prime spot in death. We saw the Coronation Chair, now without the Stone of Scone which was returned to Scotland in 1996. We also paused by the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, with its surround of poppies. We thought the audio guides were clear and well done.

It's not only the memorials which show the Abbey forever renewing itself.  New stained glass windows also feature in several places.

After over four hours we felt we could do no more, but shall certainly be back when the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries are open. Residents of London tend not to visit the most iconic sites of their city (Linda had not been inside the Abbey the Cathedral since Primary School, for example, and I had only been as school party escort).  But this is really worth a visit.  It may seem expensive:  but the drama and beauty of the place, and the time you can spend there seeing (as Howard Carter said) 'wonderful things' makes it compare very favourably with some expensive, short and bizarre theatre experiences we have had recently. Do go:  but allow at least a whole morning.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Croydon Museum

Croydon Clocktower
Katherine Street
Croydon CR9 1ET
Friday July 21 2017

Having had three public transport malfunctions this week – one so serious we totally missed a booked outing to the Salters Hall – we played close to home today thinking a simple trip down the Overground would be hazard free, but of course there were cancellations by the time we were making our way home.
The museum is housed in what was the former Town Hall: a splendid  Victorian building complete with statue and celebratory friezes – very much the type of building the proud civic elders would have had built to serve and promote their locality.

Croydon Museum, like ancient Gaul (still in Roman mode after last week’s trip) is divided into three parts of which we managed two. We did not have enough time for the second floor gallery devoted to the Museum’s art collection which focuses on works by those artists born or resident in the borough, and competent artworks of places in and around Croydon.  These you can see in greater detail here.

On the lower ground floor there is the Riesco gallery, a collection bequeathed to Croydon by local businessman  Mr Riesco, or, according to this item, what remains of it. I had been here (between changing buses as several numbers congregate outside the Clock Tower, as the Town Hall is now known.) when there were more ceramics on display and certainly no skeleton. Some of the pots have gone and those left, mainly Chinese, are arranged to show the development of different techniques, the introduction of new colours and more sophisticated designs. I personally love a pot but can also see that in these cash strapped days many councils might feel there was a case to trade in a few of them  to release enough money to refurbish the local theatre and concert halls.

The skeleton displayed in the Riesco Gallery as 'Bones of Croydon' is a relatively recent find and is beautifully displayed here – each bone named and a dating puts him as Anglo-Saxon and with probable healing rickets!!

Having established that there were isolated dwellings and inhabitants in the area, the Museum which relates to the history of Croydon is on the first floor and offers you a circular tour through linked galleries covering the years 1800- to the present   with stories told through individual artefacts.
Even in 1800 there was little except fields hereabouts – criss-crossed by four main roads to Brighton, London Mitcham and Wickham which met somewhere later to become Croydon…

For each group of objects which might contain a tool, a book, a letter, a photo or drawing and a memento there would be a corresponding touch screen, where the visitor could select which item they wanted information on and how much of it, thus: the object, to whom it belonged, the context both local and national and an additional explanation if the object is arcane or archaic… This works very well as you can follow, in a very legible (or audible – where possible, the explanation is provided by an extract from an interview with the donor) form, individual paths, stories and histories. The major flaw of course comes when a display screen does not function as then you have no idea at all what the object might be or its significance… Today two of the many screens were out of order, most annoyingly in the World War II section, but there was plenty to detain, inform and entertain  us.

There are some big exhibits – a large clock from the Greyhound Pub, the stained glass window from a local builder, and most intriguingly a section of pipe, which sucked or pushed air fast enough to propel a train along a track – a relic  from a project to connect Croydon to Forest Hill by such a system.  There is a small model where you can demonstrate this but the Atmospheric Railway was ‘an idea ahead of its time’ in terms of the fit between the concept and then-available materials, which is perhaps why Croydon is not remembered as a pioneer of modern transportation.

Smaller random objects include Fitzroy’s iguana – as it happens that intrepid navigator and companion of Darwin  is considered a ‘local’.

For the early period smaller items include a letter sent by a local MP: they had free mail until the Penny Post was established in 1840 when they paid the same as everyone else. There is an 1849 Board of Health seal which must have been an early fore-runner of local authority health and safety inspections. Talking of food outlets Sainsbury’s had an early store here and the display includes some loyalty tokens given out to customers – what benefits they gave is not explained!

Moving onto the 20th century there is testimony form a local M&S employee who said she worked 74 hours a week but loved it (I’m actually not sure how that is possible as there was no Sunday opening at that time) . One of the more poignant exhibits is a black leather shoe with ‘padlock’ fastenings used to ensure the patients at Cane Hill did not remove their footwear... This website  shows the ruins of the once large and imposing mental health facility but you will not be surprised to know that it is now a vast housing development !

Talking of housing much of Croydon is residential and there was a significant expansion in the Twenties and Thirties with developments round Coulsdon in particular.

These were referred to as ‘Dream Houses’ though whether the rail journeys that transported you into town were quite so dreamy is another matter (some bitterness here as a trip to Farthing Down earlier in the week resulted in a near 2 hour journey and we start south of the river…) .

The other major housing developments are also well represented with the homes for 20,000 people built at New Addington ready to move into in 1955. This was primarily necessary as Croydon had suffered so much from German bombing during the Second World War; this was partly strategic as Luftwaffe targets fell short but there was also enough light industry and Croydon airport as targets in their own right. The third major housing expansion came with the Forestdale building  through the Seventies and as this link suggests,  much improved links came with the tram system.

60,000 homes were damaged in the war and in spite of many children evacuated there were still about 5,000 deaths. On a single night 62 people were killed when a bomb hit Croydon airport though the news was suppressed for ‘morale‘  reasons. Croydon’s war is commemorated among other exhibits in a painting ‘Croydon Courageous’ by local artist Norman Partridge and by a very unusual rendition of the Battle of Britain in lace. 

Part of the major post-war rebuild included both the Fairfield Halls and the Whitgift centre so called because Trinity School (linked to the Whitgift bequest)  moved from its central location leaving the local authority free to build what was one of the UK’s earliest shopping malls., and arguably the start of ‘destination’ shopping. There have been many since it opened in 1970 and inevitably it is now showing its age and changing tastes and demographics and shopping destinations have led to the current decline. As for the Fairfield  Halls, their history is well documented with many posters programmes and photos covering the  numerous celebrities who appeared over the years. They are of course currently closed due to a major refurbishment funded in part by the sell-off of some museum items referred to earlier…

The Sixties and Seventies were a vibrant time for Croydon: many of the Art College alumni went on to greater fame, especially Bridget Riley who taught and Malcolm McLaren who studied there.  

Croydon is a very diverse borough and has a long history of welcoming overseas workers and their families and these are well represented amongst the exhibits – we liked Sisi’s photo as she proved to be the first black woman who worked for the police.  Some samples from the huge Wing Yip outlet reminded us that Purley Way is not just for IKEA..  The articles ‘from home’ are very poignant  as was a rumpled sports bag and blanket belonging to a formerly homeless young man and the history of George, born of indeterminate gender (but clearly his parents opted for him to be a boy) until years of feeling  different allowed him to become Georgina…

As noted earlier, Croydon also has a large art collection which is featured in a specific gallery on the second floor which we did not have time to visit today; however, several of the star works, including the Riley and a Tagore, are integrated amongst the exhibits in the main display.

There are some drawbacks to the Museum’s system of ‘choosing’ what to follow up as it can leave large gaps: if you don’t guess which object is the gateway to a major theme you may miss that strand altogether. But equally it means you can visit and revisit and gain different impressions and experiences each time, so perhaps a good idea after all?

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Crofton Roman Villa

Crofton Road
Orpington, Kent
BR6  8AF

Friday July 14 2017

“Adjacent to Orpington Station” is one of the selling points of this volunteer run Museum, under the watchful eye of the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit so we left our train and walked through the car park and the story of the museum proved to be a tale of car parks various. 

Research has shown that the Roman villa was built following the Romanisation of England in the 2nd Century and occupied and altered over the following 250 or so years. Its site was on a ridge overlooking the Cray valley below, though now what you notice most is that it appears to be on a slope between the station and the road both of whose foundations, back at the start of the last century, evidently destroyed much more of the remains than the comparatively small section available for public view today. Seemingly the building of the railway did not cause a stir amongst the archaeological community but by 1926 when the foundations for the new Civic Building were going up the first remains were discovered. Both the former town hall and the station did and do have car parks and while the latter were being extended again in 1955 (Orpington has always been prime commuting territory) there were some limited excavations but the site was given proper attention in 1988 and was opened in its current configuration four years later.

Research has also revealed that the original villa probably had about 16 rooms, until at some stage late in the 3rd Century the family retrenched to one end of the property at which point they updated the heating system seemingly as part of their ‘downsizing’. The building was sophisticated enough to have glass windows and a heavy roof, with pottery shards from ‘round the Empire’. The remains are such that you can walk round most sides and peer into the foundations – the rooms are numbered and the education officer pointed out the two styles of heating (both underfloor in the modern way) some with underfloor ducts and some with the floor raised on small pillars in part reconstructed. This was not a really sophisticated villa (or maybe multi coloured floor mosaics had gone out of fashion)   but the original floors were etheropus signinum (mottled pink concrete) or tessellated terra cotta tiles.

What was really impressive about this display was the wealth of educational material on display on small tables round the ruins. Here groups of visitors, particularly young visitors, could get seriously involved in a variety of activities. There was a table of Roman games complete with rules and replicas, dolls to dress, dressing up clothes from farm boy to senator, quiz sheets, trails and a range of Roman ‘brass rubbings’ figures dressed appropriately for their stature and place in the well explained Roman society. The walls are covered in charts explaining the life of a legionnaire, a child, a family, what they ate, and so on…

There is also a touch table with fragments from the dig (you can also dig for finds in a sand tray with appropriate archaeological trowel and brush) with numbers to indicate where they were found. Those artefacts which were found whole are available in reproduced forms to handle.

The volunteer on duty said when they were open they were fully booked with school groups and had just said good bye to the last one – it being the end of the school year. However they also run holiday activities.

For the more serious student there are large volumes covering all the ‘digs’ in Kent as a handy map shows there were far more villas around then you might think. Lullingstone Roman Villa  is more extensive and complete but lies beyond the M25. Because of two millennia  of building there are comparatively few Roman remains within Greater London and this is certainly the only villa  open to the public. Though the display is small the volunteers who manage it have maximized the impact and it makes a surprisingly refreshing visit.  
TheTown Hall building that started it all.....

PS Cray Picture from Stage II of London Loop 

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Ham House

Ham Street
Richmond, TW10 7RS
Friday July 7 2017
(This entry guest/ghost-written by ’63 Regular’ as Linda was busy.)

Ham House was an easy add-on to our visit to the Richmond Museum – all it took was a pleasant mile or so’s almost entirely car-free stroll along the river on a path offering views of passing boats and a wide choice of benches for lunchtime sandwiches.  The planes, of course, flew over continuously but we were able to forgive even them on a beautifully sunny day.

Arriving this way your approach to Ham House is impressive: a stately 17th Century red brick façade behind a garden courtyard featuring hedges and topiary cones and cylinders of box (smelling wonderful in the sun), a plethora of carved pineapples and classical busts and a Coade-stone statue of Father Thames.

The house is surrounded by gardens.  To the left (as you look at the front) is the formally laid-out but rather misleadingly named Cherry Garden, which is actually given over almost entirely to lavenders and santolina; to the right the kitchen gardens, orchard etc, and behind the house an expanse of lawns and a ‘wilderness’ which is again a bit of a misnomer given that it is very neatly divided by hedges into a Union Jack pattern…

Ham House was originally built in 1610 on land leased from the royal family by Sir Thomas Vavasour, Knight Marshal to James I, for whom the river would have made a pleasant commuter route to work at court whether in London, Windsor, Richmond or Hampton Court.  After Vavasour died in 1620, the house went briefly to another tenant but in 1626 the house was leased by William Murray, 1st Earl of Dysart, and by dint of some very astute politicking, inheritance and marriage management and general wheeler-dealering (not least through the difficult period of the Civil War, Commonwealth and Restoration) Ham thereafter remained a Dysart family property through no fewer than nine Earls and Countesses – a confusingly large number of them called Lionel or Elizabeth – until it was donated to the National Trust in 1948.  An early example of a useful marriage was that between a Dysart heiress and the Duke of Lauderdale, who served a stint as Charles II’s Secretary of State for Scotland and was the ‘L’ in the King’s 'CABAL' kitchen cabinet.

Lauderdale apart, the family seems not to have made a conspicuous contribution to ‘public service’ in any of the traditional aristocratic forms – government, military or religious – but its history does throw up some spectacular alternations of wealth and debt, large broods of children and childlessness, lavish restoration of the house (the Duke and Duchess created several of the rooms you now see at Ham) and near total neglect, and hospitality and reclusiveness, all of which you can read about in the guide book or here.

We found the house itself imposing rather than inviting – the need to keep light levels low to protect the old panelling, tapestries, inlaid floors and leather wall coverings unfortunately make it all rather gloomy and there was nothing above stairs that encouraged you to think of it as a home where a family might actually have enjoyed living.  In this reaction, we seem to be echoing Horace Walpole, who visited the house in 1770 after one of his nieces married into the family.  Even that well-known lover of things Gothic(k) found it all a bit much: “The old furniture is so magnificently ancient, dreary and decayed, that at every step one’s spirits sink, and all my passion for antiquity could not keep them up.”  In the care of the National Trust, ‘decayed’ is no longer fair, but we wouldn’t argue too much with ‘ancient’ and ‘dreary’.

Visitors enter by the old main entrance, straight into the Great Hall which has an unusual first floor gallery and a fine black and white marble floor.  Pausing for the very dark (even by Ham standards) chapel, you come to the splendid Great Staircase with impressive wood carving and plasterwork, an action-packed painting of the Battle of Lepanto and a number of ‘after-Titian’ type pictures.

From the top of the stairs, you go back through the Hall at Gallery level, with many family portraits, into the North Drawing Room and then into the Long Gallery which is not actually as long as some we have seen but still provides hanging space for several more family portraits by Lely and others.  Opening off the Long Gallery is the Green Closet – a rare example of a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ surviving from before the Civil War when such showcases for treasured knickknacks were all the rage.  This one has many miniatures, and a 1630s ceiling which (the room guide was careful to tell us) was not decorated in situ but was actually made up of paper panels stuck to the ceiling after they had been painted.

Diagonally across the Long Gallery is the ‘new’ Library, constructed in the early 1670s: a pleasant working room rather than one for socialising or showing off (although the books on the shelves are not original to the house). The room guide pointed out that cedar wood darkens with age, so the room would have been lighter when built; he also pointed out some of the ‘unknowns’ on the 18th Century globe.

The highlight of this first floor, back on the Green Closet side, is a suite of Versailles-style State Apartments (Antechamber, Bed Chamber and Closet) built to entice visits from Charles II’s Queen, Catherine of Braganza.  You visit in a brief guide-led tour.  The rooms have spent much of the time since their installation shut off from the rest of the house, and are in excellent condition, with parquet floors, tapestry hung walls, decorated ceilings and fireplaces and grand furniture, though the state bed itself is no longer present.

Returning to the ground floor, you can view a majestic WC installed under the Great Staircase, with a wash basin offering three taps (‘soft’ in addition to the usual H&C) before you go on to the suite of apartments for the Duke and Duchess, each of whom originally had a similar set of rooms as in the Queen’s Apartment upstairs, arranged either side of the Marble Dining Room.  The Duchess very soon swapped bedrooms with the Duke so she could have easier access to a bathroom she installed in the basement, though they seem otherwise to have hung on to their own designated closets etc, which cannot have been convenient.  The Duchess’s original bedroom, later the Duke’s (keep up at the back) and subsequently a Drawing Room, is known as the Volury Room.  No, we didn’t know what that meant either: it is not in our Collins dictionary and Google defaults to ‘Voluntary’ but it evidently has to do with birds, as the Duchess originally had birdcages installed outside her bedroom windows.  Another confusing name is the Marble Dining Room, as the floor after which it was named (continuing the chequerboard pattern of the Hall) was later replaced by parquet, but it remains a fine room even if leather wall coverings are not to your taste.
From these apartments you pay a brief visit to a couple of rooms allocated to senior domestics and then out again into the daylight.  Round the side of the house you can gain access to some of the below-stairs areas: a volunteer was demonstrating the preparation of herbal posies and potions in the Still Room, and the Kitchen and Cellars clearly provide scope for visiting school parties to unwind a bit.  You can also visit the Duchess’s bathroom referred to earlier, a corrective to all our lazy assumptions about personal hygiene in the old days.

Out-buildings accommodate shops, café and loos, and lead into the gardens, which we enjoyed very much.  Part of the Kitchen Garden is given over this year to growing  the 35+ ingredients for a ‘Grand Salad’ that the website describes as ‘a 17th Century showstopper’ inspired by the writings of John Evelyn: you can get a taste (ho ho) of Evelyn’s thoughts on ‘Sallets’ in this other blog.

We had a bit of a wander through the Wilderness and also lingered in the so-called Cherry Garden, which is wonderful, though bee-lovers might think the determination to grow all those lavender and cotton lavender bushes as attractively coloured tufts of leaf rather than for their flowers is a bit unfair.

Personally, we would put Ham House in the ‘interesting rather than uplifting’ category of stately home, though we feel a bit guilty saying so, as the property is very well looked after and everyone we met – whether staff or volunteer – was helpful, efficient and enthusiastic.  We still found plenty to look at, and the gardens (and the tea room) are a good way of raising your spirits after visiting he house.