Thursday, 28 May 2015

Vestry House Museum

Vestry Road
London E17 9NH

Wednesday May 27h 2015

Partly a nostalgia for the wonderful Walthamstow Bus Station and partly a need to include the museums with names near the end of the alphabet led Jo and Linda to plan a visit to the Vestry House Museum . The Victoria Line has maintained its early promise and delivered us on time for a quiet visit with only a few other keen half-term visitors. Like most local museums this one is supported by the local council and the building also houses the archives for said borough – Waltham Forest. As they are one of the few local authorities to put up their own blue plaques,  it is not surprising that they support and promote their museum.

One of the joys of small museums is that the staff, be they employed or volunteer, are friendly and keen to chat, unlike the über busy and remote national Museum bodies. Also the range of exhibits is delightfully eclectic, at times seemingly random.   First a word about Vestry which I took to be a church adjunct kind of place (as in ‘born in the vestry’) where you might get dressed for performing the weekly rituals, but I gather from our in-house historian that it was in fact more like the administrative offices for the money side of the church, so offices is what this building clearly once was. They would have run the local alms houses (nearly opposite) set up for the ‘decayed tradesmens’ widows’ a misplaced adjective leaving us unsure as to which lot were decayed…and the National School fore-runner of a more public education system (see the blog entry for the ragged Schools for more detail on this).

Their star exhibit, which gets a room to itself, is the Bremer car, which looks more like a dog-cart sitting on some risky looking machinery. Its claim to fame is that it is thought to be the first vehicle with an internal combustion engine and the ‘inventor’ was a local lad, but as it never quite made into production it was hard to get excited. After nearly decaying the museum rescued it in 1933, restored it in1962 and entered into the London to Brighton run in 1963 – if I tell you it took 8 hours plus to complete the run you will get some idea of its efficiency.

The next two rooms seem to be for temporary exhibitions – one wall had a very fine display of photographs from the Contact the Elderly charity celebrating 50 years in 50 portraits of users of their service, so not specifically pertaining to Walthamstow. Still any reminder of how easy it is to get lonely and any attempt to counteract this is worthwhile. Adjacent to this was a display of 150 years of Polish migration, which most people see has occurred in four distinct phases:

1830-34   Influx of intellectuals and middle class exiles  following a revolution
1881-1920   Jewish refugees from the various eastern European pogroms or persecutions
1939-1945 World war 2 refugees of all sorts
1898 – to present day.

There are some very interesting stories and photos covering the excellent contributions and enrichment made over the centuries by this one group of migrants to the general well-being of Walthamstow, and the UK overall. The contribution from local  migrant groups includes some of the businesses they founded including  Lebus Furniture with factories locally and in nearby Tottenham – I can still remember their items being bought before the advent of MFI and the demise of furniture being ‘real wood’. Their factory also built  Mosquito planes and Horsa glider fuselages – woodwork is woodwork after all.

After these stark reminders of war time the next room had more soothing exhibits – some fashion items from early Victorian calico through to a Sixties bikini by way of a war time bridal gown – I said things were eclectic. Rather incongruously in the corner of this room, where the fine linenfold panelling has come from elsewhere, is the police lock-up for when Vestry House was home to the local police,  established earlier by Sir Robert Peel in 1829.

If downstairs was a nostalgic nod to working and leisure time in olden days Walthamstow,  the upstairs contains a wealth of interest for children, or more likely those reminiscing about their childhood.   Two local firms were hugely popular, especially perhaps in the post war era of children now firmly established as being ‘in need of play’ a big bulge in the birth rate and before the advent of TV and other electronic games. Britains, the manufacturer, in spite of the name eventually  moved production to the Far East and the company is now American-owned but we all remember both the toy soldiers and the farm animals they produced.

To recall the domestic side of life there is a reconstruction of a Victorian parlour, much reference to the ‘servant problem’ and the fairly commonly seen displays of cooking and baking utensils across the years.

Tucked away in a corner upstairs, alongside the borough’s Roll of Honour, is another reminder that Jack Cornwell was one of the youngest recipients of the VC and very much a local lad. Like many local museums these also contain the local archives which need to be viewed by appointment. Staff seemed a bit surprised that we weren't actually from Waltham Forest but we felt this little Museum did merit a visit in its own right. And the garden was a peaceful plot. 

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The Dulwich Picture Gallery

Wednesday 20 May 2015

The Dulwich Picture Gallery
SE21 7AD

Linda and I went to the Dulwich Picture Gallery partly because Linda had to be home in good time, so it was convenient, but mostly to see the Ravilious exhibition.  Photography is not allowed in this special exhibition, but you can see copies of a number of those that were in the gallery here, as well as a biography of the artist here.

We thought it was a wonderful exhibition:  curated by theme rather than by date, his prewar pictures hung alongside his war work.  This meant that his farm interiors sat beside his remarkable studies of submariners at work and at leisure;  his pictures of the coast, with bathing machines and beach huts at Aldeburgh were next to pictures of coastal defences;  his Still Lifes (Still Lives?) included a set of bomb disposal tools, and his many pictures of boats were paired with pictures of warships, leaving Scapa Flow, or in harbour in Norway.  His apparently 'natural' views are all carefully composed, often as if made with a wide angle lens, and the gentle colours often contrast with the stark subject matters.

Our only disappointment was the limited selection of postcards in the shop, given that we can't have the pictures themselves.  We also thought (as we so often do at special exhibitions) that we could have gone to the Imperial War Museum, or elsewhere, any day of the week to see these amazing watercolours, drawings and engravings.  In fact I met a lady on the bus afterwards who had been pleased to see the work that lives in her home gallery in Aberdeen.

We then had a quick look around the impressive permanent collection of the Gallery.  We have to say that after the clean lines and crisp observation of Ravilious, we found the old masters less alluring than we might otherwise have done.  There was a room full of Dutch 16th and 17th century rustic scenes, with cows, shepherds and such, and including a couple of Cuyps.  We then saw a pair of paintings by the 18th century Tilly Kettle.  I naively thought this might be a female artist, but he was a man, normally making his living by working amongst the expats in India.

An area full of Rubenses reminded us (as does watching any film with Marilyn Monroe, incidentally) that there was a time when being a beautiful woman did NOT entail a stick insect shape:  some of these Graces and Goddesses were, to say the least, chubby.

We very much admired the Rembrandts, including a picture of a girl at a window, as well as one of his son Titus as a young man. The gallery has a number of van der Veldes and Ruisdaels as well: clearly the various collectors and benefactors liked Dutch paintings. 

We enjoyed watching a couple of charming Primary School groups behaving impeccably.  The whole school seemed to have arrived, since some were in the education area, some looking round and some being shown interesting details by the in-house educators. 

We noted a couple of small Raphaels, and some Veronese too, but perhaps the most enjoyable pictures were some by Murillo, small boys and a girl with flowers:  a pleasure because they were glowing and easily visible, unlike the in-need-of-a-clean Murillo works we had squinted at a couple of weeks ago at Apsley House

All in all, it is a remarkable collection, and we enjoyed it a great deal;  but as we headed off, it was the Raviliouses which glowed in our minds.  Do go if you possibly can.

Oh yes, and their next special exhibition will be about Escher, so that will merit a revisit.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Fenton House

Hampstead Grove,
London NW3 6SP
Wednesday May 6th 2015

I would like to say this was easy to find but for some reason as you exit deep from the bowels of the earth, Hampstead Underground Station, it is the signs for those other Hampstead delights – Willow Road and Keats’ House – that catch the eye. I was almost halfway to Belsize Park before realising this was not the way to go – my hint would be to head straight up the hill the biggest sign being for the Holly Bush pub and keep going right.

Fenton House is impressively large given the now limited space available up on the hill but of course it would have pre-dated many of the other buildings, built as it was probably in 1686. It has had innumerable owners and tenants taking a whole page in the National Trust guide book but I suppose they key people were the Fentons, after whom the brick-built family home was named, and Lady Binning the last owner, avid collector and benefactor to the National Trust in 1952. Most of the owners were stolidly middle class – merchants, lawyers even a gas engineer (to the Ottoman Empire no less). There are actually only eight rooms to visit on the two main floors and then six additional rooms within the attic space on the second floor, so while grand and with beautiful pieces of furniture you can just about imagine yourself living there…

All the rooms have generous windows with excellent views over front and back gardens which are of course maintained to a wonderful standard. The downstairs rooms, as you might expect, were used for reception, dining, the smaller as a library with the upper floor for bedrooms and more intimate drawing rooms.

Rather than itemise the displays in each room it seems more straightforward to look at the different collections.

The musical instruments from the Benton Fletcher Collection in the main were re-homed (it’s not just dogs you see) post war after their original habitat was destroyed. Loosely speaking they are of the piano family, so harpsichords, virginals and even a hurdy-gurdy and you can hear one here – quite folky though a little goes a long way… also lutes – as you are all better at this than me you can fit the names to the pictures!! If you visit PM some days there are skilled performers who conjure music from these pretty little domestic sized instruments, some very beautifully decorated and hand crafted out of fine woods.

The furniture in most rooms is beautiful, appropriate to the age of the house, well maintained   and delicate rather than heavy or obtrusive so there are pretty occasional and dining tables, a travelling desk, wickerwork chairs, and a range of glass fronted display cabinets though some of these are more recent and as a novelty contained electric lighting!

The most prolific collection is the ceramic one spanning both overseas and domestic items. Downstairs you will find the rather ‘frilly’ that is rococo style Meissen figures with the usual harlequinade characters though we warmed more to the down to earth butcher and letter writer. Upstairs were less finely finished English pottery pieces, Rockingham and Staffs varied. These included one of my weaknesses – cow creamers – and coming from a family of collectors I can see how a single (widowed lady) of generous means could fall into buying several examples of miniature sheep, cows etc. There are tea-sets too though of the grotesque rather than useful variety – in fact there is very little that is of a practical nature  and as Jo would say requires an army of domestics to keep it dusted.

There is also a floor to ceiling cabinet containing a range of blue Chinese pottery – we understood that the collection of this used to be even bigger but the better pieces went to the V&A. Compared to the rather busy figurines it is always soothing to contemplate a Chinese plate or celadon bowl…

Lady Binning whiled away some of her time doing tapestry footstools but the house actually contains a substantial number of fine tapestries – some original, some facsimile in her ‘re-created’ bedroom. The Stuart pictures, though faded are finely done, and blend in with the oriental themes.

The artwork is also impressive, most evidently in the Dining Room broken through to include the morning room (oh, we love a floor plan) where some-one invested in what might be loosely termed the Camden Town Group, an Edwardian era of more modest domestic paintings – in other words you can imagine them hanging in your own house as opposed to a grand gallery though of course the Tate has a very fine collection.  

Fenton House examples include Spencer Gore, several Sickerts and a lovely Duncan Grant though he does not quite count. I would guess the buyer for this house eschewed some  of the more urban paintings of buses and gasworks but we did enjoy Dame Laura Knight’s picture of ‘Woman Getting Dressed’: she might have belonged to the group had they allowed women in.

Up on the attic floor there are still ceramics to be seen but certainly the more interesting and venerable instruments are here – possibly at risk from both beetles and the breezes from the balcony.

Although when we were let into the house we were told the balcony was not open to the public as it was wet and therefore dangerous, when the curator spotted us he deemed us ‘sensible enough’ (little does he know)  to be trusted out on the small balcony which has a wonderful view. The Shard and other distant London landmarks are now a bit ubiquitous but  unique here was the opportunity to look over the walls of various grand (and regrettably empty)  Hampstead houses. This led to a shared heated invective against absentee landlords, speculative letting and overseas investors, who had little care or loyalty for local areas or community – a situation which is scarcely likely to improve. The whole ‘footprint’ of Fenton House is impressively large when viewed from above.

What had started with bright sunshine had within the space of a tube journey turned into a damp drizzly morning so we did not see the gardens at their best, but apart from some stolid gardeners we did have them to ourselves. The National Trust have of course worked hard on the restoration side of things and there is little more to say than the formal side matches the period of the house. Within it lies also a sunken garden which I am sure would capture the sun.

Through a gap in the carefully clipped hedges and cone shaped trees you can access the produce side – at least half of this is an old orchard and additionally the Trust have used young apple branches espaliered into a low fence; it will be interesting to see how this develops. Beyond that the vegetable beds were being assiduously prepared.

A devotee of any of the collections mentioned above could have spent longer lingering but we were very happy with the ensemble experience of Fenton House – why Fenton – well the owner who was a Baltic merchant (rather touchingly his daughter was born in Riga) seems to have had his name stick and who are we to argue two hundred years later?  

Thursday, 30 April 2015

Apsley House

Wednesday 29 April 2015

149 Piccadilly, Hyde Park Corner W1J 7NT

After our brief flurry of fame thanks to Alexei at Time Out ( if you missed it!) and the raucous reaction of our nearest and dearest at our being described as 'twinkly pensioners', Linda and I returned to normal, with a visit to Number One, London, as Apsley House is sometimes known.

You will not remember, but we had planned to visit the place after a trip to the Wellington Arch, only to find that it was closed.  This time we checked the website.  Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and not open till 11.00 it said, so we duly arrived and went in. No photography is allowed, though there are many images on the internet, so they are my illustrations.

We were by no means the only people waiting to get in, but being members of English Heritage meant we did not have to queue for tickets. EH does not charge for the audio guides, but we found them of limited value, though the introduction to each room was helpful.  The entrance hall contains many pictures and busts of the Duke of Wellington, since this house is a shrine to the memory of our greatest war leader. (What if the much more beloved Nelson had survived Trafalgar to win more naval battles during the years when there were no victories on land, I wondered)
My favourite picture was of him 'Riding home to retirement in 1853':  no crowds, just an elderly man at the end of a political career.

Next we went into the Museum Room, full of presents from foreign powers, and oddly reminiscent of the Vatican or (for those old enough) the Lenin Museum in the days of the USSR:  a range of silverware, Field Marshals' batons, dinner sets with scenes from his campaigns. In the middle is a table ornament of Egyptian design, originally given by Bonaparte to Josephine as a divorce present, but subsequently presented to Wellington by the restored French monarchy.  We did not like it, though it would certainly have prevented the bad manners (in those days) of talking to the people opposite at table.  The lighting was so dim that reading the captions was a trial. (see below about the brightly lit porcelain displayed in the basement)

The stairwell contains an extraordinary statue of Bonaparte as Mars. Bonaparte was apparently embarrassed (he is wearing nothing but a fig leaf, and was not very tall, not to mention being rather more portly by the time he took delivery of the statue in 1811). Oddly enough, a small version, and without fig leaf, is in the Wallace Collection. More endearing was a picture of the elderly Wellington with Queen Victoria and the infant Prince Arthur.

The landing upstairs displays a full length portrait of Bonaparte in military uniform, but clearly being imperial;  it is paired with a similar sized picture of Wellington, in civvies (he usually wore a blue coat and cream breeches to go into battle, rather than uniform).  So the message is clear:  the triumphalist loses, and the modest man wins. Both 46 years old at Waterloo, they had both had their military education in France, but there the similarities end, since Wellington had never been a revolutionary and was anyway from a much higher 'class' than his enemy.  Wellington was to regret in later life that his whole image was based on his 'saving' of Europe at Waterloo, but virtually the whole of Apsley House is about his military career.

The upstairs is a circuit, so we began with the striped drawing room, which a contemporary (according to the sound guide) called 'a private Valhalla'. It contains pictures of many of Wellingtons officers, including Beresford, Alava and Murray.  The Piccadilly Room contains a Titian of Danae, though this is not mentioned on the sound guide or in the Room literature, because it has only recently been accepted as an original and displayed here.  Much more interesting was a David Wilkie picture actually commissioned (and paid for) by the Duke, showing old soldiers receiving the news of Waterloo.  There was also rather a good Maes of a maidservant eavesdropping on some lovers.

The Portico Room contains memorabilia of the Duke's old age, including his false teeth and hearing aids.  We should have found it useful to have some kind of a time line, or biography of the man, so we could have put him in the context of his era.  It's all right for people like me, who studied and taught History, but other people may not know what happened when.  

There are two dining rooms.  One is, we supposed, the informal eating place, and the other the magnificent Waterloo Banqueting Room. The table, which used to seat 35 men every year for the anniversary dinner, is crowned with the magnificent silver ornament which was a gift from the Portuguese, Britain's allies throughout the Peninsular War. The names of the battles are surrounded by nymphs and other mythical symbols. We should have appreciated some kind of crib, but neither the audio guides nor the captions had any detail.  Again, some of us know the names and significance of Vittoria, Salamanca, Badajoz, but I'm not sure everyone does.

The portraits round the wall are of the monarchs of the League against Bonaparte, but there are also many 'Old Masters', though a number of them are more from League 1 than the Premiership.  They are almost all in need of cleaning, which seems a pity. There was a little Breughel (Elder) of the animals entering the Ark, but it was frankly dingy. The wonderful Velasquez Water Seller, as well as his portrait of Pope Innocent X are here. Some of the pictures are hung so high that we (well, I actually) had to keep asking the room attendants the titles and artists concerned. They mostly had better eyes than us, but I don't really understand why there cannot be a full list in each room. If I had a couple of Murillos, a Rubens and the odd Correggio I would get them cleaned and hang them so they can be appreciated.

Next we visited the Yellow Drawing Room, which contains Wellington's grand piano, one of the first ever made, by Americus Backers. This website tells you all you could possibly want to know about pianos, but says that the Duke's model is in Edinburgh. The Duke was a more than competent musician, and the sound guides told us that his father had put him in the army to deter him from becoming a professional violinist.

Finally we headed down to the basement, where the loos were handsomely old fashioned. I can only assume that EH, or the current Duke, are not on metered water, as the tradional chain flush was amazingly extravagant.  The stairs down were filled with etchings of Wellington's funeral, almost impossible to see in the dim light, which was a pity.  Similarly, there was a wall of cartoons of the Duke, mostly hostile, but without any explanation at all. Some of us may know why he is depicted as a lobster, though I doubt if it is general knowledge.  EH might like to send someone to look at the way cartoons about Napoleon are on display at the British Museum, or indeed head to the Cartoon Museum.  The other puzzling thing in the basement was a case of porcelain which was brightly lit so we could actually admire the pieces:  puzzling because, in the Museum Room upstairs, the lighting was crepuscular, making it difficult to see the objects and especially the captions. If dim light is a conservation essential, what's going on in the basement?  However we did enjoy some of the other objects: Bonaparte's travelling coffee set, as well as some eagles and Wellington's campaign dining service.

The shop is very stark, containing only material about the man and the battle, in contrast to most EH shops which are full of toys, posters and other fun items.  I suppose this may be because the house is still used by the current Duke of Wellington.

All in all, we very much enjoyed the visit, despite the various criticisms in the account above.  The fact that it had stopped pouring with rain by the time we were ready to leave was a bonus.

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.