Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The Banqueting House

Monday 1September 2014

Whitehall, SW1A 2ER

Linda and I arrived in Whitehall in good time for the 10.00am opening of this treasure of the Royal Historic Palaces' collection.  It was not quite raining, but even so, we should have been glad had the place opened on time, rather than five minutes late.  Still, this did give me a chance to discuss with an armed police officer why there were no signs telling me I could not lock my bicycle anywhere hereabouts.  I pointed out that not all cyclists knew the area, and that if there are to be police-state restrictions, they should at least be signalled.  He seemed bemused....

So, at 10.05 the gates were unbarred and we entered, pausing briefly in the Undercroft, now mainly a cafe, to use the facilities, which were very smart.

We had accepted the free audio guides, and so were listening as we went upstairs to the Banqueting House itself.  The main problem is this:  there is just one room to look at.  It is a sumptuous room, with a frankly astounding Rubens ceiling, but it is still one room, so the audio guide has amazing amounts of background information of an educational nature.  We were told, for instance, the difference between Ionic and Corinthian columns (both on display here) as well as much history of the buildings which were here before this one.

All this on top of a useful video show, starting with The Archbishop of York, whose property this land had once been.  (The video says 'Wolsey', but the land actually belonged to the archdiocese before Henry VIII took it and used it to build his Whitehall Palace).

After an number of the fires so customary in Tudor times, and after the accession of James I, the ramshackle tilt yards, cockpits and tennis courts were pulled down, and the most fashionable architect of the day, Inigo Jones designed the building we have today. He had just returned from Italy, and clearly kept a book mark in his copy of Palladio's great work while he designed the Banqueting House.

The audio guide had a lot to say about Masques, banquets, entertaining foreign ambassadors and so on.  But once Charles I had the ceiling put in, masques stopped, as the innumerable torches and candles would have damaged the ceiling paintings.

And the paintings are gobsmacking; nine enormous canvases, brought by ship from the studios and workshops of Peter Paul Rubens, in response to a 1639 commission from Charles I.  He paid £3000 for it, which according to an inflation calculation website is something like half a million pounds now.

The audio guide told us all about how they were rolled, shipped and lifted into place, but it is more useful to use the beanbags to lie on, or the angled mirror trollies to have a really good look at them.  In the centre, James I is being welcomed into heaven by a clutch of putti and classical goddesses.  Then there are various classical scenes, including one likening James to Solomon.  All in all, the ceiling is a statement about the Divine Right of KIngs, which was Charles I's overarching belief. 'Even by God himself', claimed Charles, 'Kings are called Gods', though I have been unable to trace his particular reference for this claim.  This was the Hall where the later Stuart kings handed out the Maundy money, and also touched people to cure them of the King's Evil.

Which brings me neatly to the most important date in the history of this fine building:  30 January 1649, when the King, Charles I, stepped out of a window onto the scaffold and was beheaded.  I suppose it's not surprising that the Historic Royal Palaces underplay this moment.  They talk about his walk from St James' Palace that morning, wearing two shirts in case people thought his shivering was fear. The video says he was 'accused of treason'. But there is no mention of his negotiations with France and his alliance with the Scots (when he promised to make England Presbyterian when he got his throne back...) both of which actually ARE treason unless one is a Divine Right believer.  Still, he died, and the Parliamentarian republic continued to use the Hall as a formal reception venue, presumably dissuading people from looking up at the ceiling.

Of course, when Charles stepped onto the scaffold, Whitehall looked rather different from the view he would have had today.

In 1698, fire swept through Whitehall Palace, the Banqueting House being the only survivor, possibly because Christopher Wren used gunpowder to prevent the spread, as had been done in the 1666 fire in the City.  

The Banqueting House has the now-obligatory rack of dressing up clothes for children, but there were none while we were there.  In fact I think there were about 10 of us altogether in the time we were there.

As you can tell from the wealth of facts I have passed on above, HRP clearly feels the place needs lots of information to compensate for the fact the your £6.00 does not buy you much to look at, aside from the ceiling.  But still, worth a visit.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

The Jewish Museum

Raymond Burton House
129-131 Albert Street
London NW1 7NB

Tuesday August 11 2014

In a slightly counter-intuitive move and because the venue and timing suited those of us with other commitments we opted to visit London's Jewish Museum located in a beautiful 19th Century terrace on the surprisingly quiet Albert Street , which is just off parkway in Camden - Mary and I arrived via the Northern Line at Camden alongside the hordes heading for the markets, while Jo bicycled. The Museum does not have dedicated bicycle racks so she had to make do with a piece of street furniture. 

Once inside the building you lose sight of the 19th century facade. The Museum moved here in 1994 but was only opened in this much more spacious format in 2010 – a disused piano factory had given the Museum space to expand and on our visit today we really only covered two floors.  There is a plan to move the Jewish Military Museum here quite soon and there is also space for special exhibitions, usually on the ground floor where there are also toilets a cafĂ© and shop, and one of their prize exhibits a ritual bath (Mikva) rescued from Milk Street. The cloakroom happily takes bags. 

Mary opted to start with the 2nd floor, which is a more intimate space devoted to the religion of Judaism. She also attracted the attention of one of the several volunteer room guides who was keen to enlighten her about the detail of Jewish beliefs and rituals. I was left largely to my own devices either because I was making notes or they assumed I must know some of it…only partly true. Talking of enlightenment, the centre pieces of this space are a range of beautiful specifically religious light fittings from round the world. We were very impressed with the labelling and displays within the museum, there seemed to be an ideal balance between artefacts/context and robust inter-active explanations and enhancements.  For instance there are short videos of young Jews explaining the various customs pertaining the celebrations and rituals of birth, marriage, death etc. Walking seven times round the groom – symbolic for the journeys to make a home. Stamping on the glass – to remember that there are difficult times as well as happy during a marriage and to remember the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem. There are significant amounts of polished silver for candelabra and the handles which hold the holy scrolls – the Torah. More unusually there was a swaddling cloth to hold the male infant’s legs during circumcision – at which point Mary got into a discussion with one of the museum volunteers, who it seemed was a retired doctor… there was also an example of an elaborately calligraphed Ketubah, otherwise known as a ‘pre-nup’. Another grand exhibit is the upright chest, beautifully decorated walnut wood, made to hold the scrolls and found  in 1932 being used as a boot cupboard – probably bought in Italy by some well -heeled Englishman doing the ‘Grand Tour’.

Touring and moving on is of course key to the Jews’ story and it is no different for those in UK; the Jewish arrivals from the time of William the Conqueror in 1066 are where England’s particular time-line begins. They came as the money (lending) men behind the invaders and stayed to be merchants, settling undisturbed for some 200 years. First expulsions came during the reign of Edward I and he also introduced the system of ‘badge-wearing’ shaped like the 2 tablets rather than a star of David.    And expelled they stayed except for a few who perhaps ‘hid’ their religion as nicely represented by a single candle burning in a window.  You can listen to Anthony Sher talking about Shakespeare’s representations of Jews and his own experiences growing up in South Africa.

Oliver Cromwell, who had some tolerance for minority religions (and needed some independent cash backers) allowed the Jews back in and again they settled in our larger cities. Walk through Lincoln for example and you will find the corner named as ‘Old Jewry’. Once the Jewish community became well established in the UK there a range of artefacts showing Jews following a range of occupations form peddler to politician (there are some who might think these two sides of the same coin – peddling trifles or peddling lies?) of whom Montefiore and of course Disraeli were the most famous. A large section is devoted to memories from the old East End – the Jews like refugees/arrivals/immigrants before and after them settled in the streets round Whitechapel and the Commercial Road. This theme – life, work and play in the East End – is handled really well, which is not surprising as the Museum was originally founded to preserve evidence of this way of life before the buildings, fittings and folk disappeared. You can hear ‘testament’ from different generations of the Jews who formed part of the mass migrations from Eastern Europe bringing with them their skills, foods and Yiddish language – a mixture of largely old German, Slavic and Hebrew. Tailoring is looked at in some detail as is membership of trade unions, and indeed political parties. 

Like all ‘arrivals’ they were greeted with suspicion and fear – an excellent display shows a range of ‘press cuttings’ over several centuries pointing out the ‘perceived threats’ posed by the incomers showing how little ignorant  public opinion has changed over the years.

The role of Jewish  servicemen  during both world wars is covered briefly (we had missed the special WW1 exhibition which rather to our surprise had already been taken down) and this aspect of Jewish History will undoubtedly be covered in more detail when the Military Museum moves here at a later stage. Highlighted is the poet Isaac Rosenberg, killed in France in 1915, and a serving sailor. 

Probably less well known is the sizeable contribution Jewish fighters made during the Spanish Civil war, and on home ground to the Union movement generously  illustrated by a range of exhibits. The years between the two wars saw the rise of Zionism and the campaign for a safe haven for Jews in the Palestine, while Europe saw the growth of the right wing anti-semitism that would eventually become the destructive Nazi regime leading to the most infamous episode in Jewish history; both the stories of those who survived the camps and Holocaust and those who were able to flee are told through moving testament. Never an easy listen or visit but an essential part, and here a very proportionate part of the Jewish history in the UK.

Today the Museum felt calm allowing the visit to be contemplative of what is anything but a calm and quiet history; this may be a very different experience during term time but certainly today we had a full and informative visit.

28/8/2014 PS
Upcoming, and clearly not to be missed the Jewish Museum will be having a special exhibition of the work of Abram Games as previewed in this 'Observer' feature.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Chapter House of Westminster Abbey

Monday 11 August 2014

As we left the Jewel Tower, the charming person on duty in the tiny cafe mentioned to us that English Heritage also controls the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey, so we could see that without paying the £18.00 that it costs to see the whole Abbey.  (we shall do that, of course, when we have more time...)

She also pointed out that we could avoid the enormous queues for the Abbey itself by going through Deans Yard.  

So we did.  At the door, we were given yellow passes to show when challenged (we weren't) and headed round the Cloisters, pausing briefly to admire a couple of memorials.  These included one to James Cook, with rather lovely blue enamel sea

Passing what claims to be the oldest door in Britain, dating from about 1050, we came to the Chapter House, which was looking rather fine as the sunshine came through the stained glass windows.  These date from the 1950s, the originals having sustained damage during the Blitz.

We admired the renovated vaulting, as well as the medieval pictures on one of the walls.  

These showed scenes from the Apocalypse, though the Kamyl and the Dromedary did not appear to bothered by the end of all things. These painting were commissioned by John of Northampton in the 15th century.

It is also possible to see some of the floor tiles, as they have been left exposed in the centre of the durable carpet which protects much of the floor.
 As part of the Abbey's commemoration of the Great War, three pictures by Hughie O'Donohue RA called The Measure of all Things.  They were of men dressed in modern clothes, but lying in cruciform shapes, possibly on a battlefield.  The artist explains here.

By the time we left the Chapter House we felt sated, although our yellow passes would have got us into the Abbey Museum and the Pyx Chamber as well.  But it was time time to go, just in time to catch the next heavy rain shower.

The Jewel Tower

Monday 11 August 2014

As Linda mentioned, we had been intending to visit Apsley House as a follow up to the Wellington Arch but, as has happened several times before, we had not checked the website. Indeed, it had not occurred to us that a major, publicly owned tourist attraction in London would be taking a day off.

So instead we headed for another English Heritage place, the Jewel Tower in Westminster. This started life in the reign of Edward III, who needed all the wealth he could get for his wars in France.

So the first use of the Tower was the storage of valuables.  There were a few examples but, at least as interesting, was a bit of audio about returning some plate which had been to Eltham Palace for the Easter feasting.  Although the number of dishes in the list was correct, one of them was clearly wrong, as it weighed more than it should have done.

Which brings us to another use of the Tower across the years, namely the place where the standard weights and measures of the Imperial system were housed and used.  Linda broke into a quick chorus of 'I love you A bushel and a peck' and we also saw the master measures for a grain and a scruple.

There were very clear information boards around the place, but the attempts at interactives were less successful:  the Baker's scales probably needed adjustment as they were a bit sticky.

The weights and measures had to be moved when traffic vibration from the road outside upset the delicate checking processes.  

The third use of the Tower was as storage for Parliamentary papers.  The scrolls were kept in large pigeon holes. presumably by date, though we thought that the apparent post-it notes in the display were not nineteenth century.  Several very important documents survive today because they were stored here and not in the House Of Commons when it burned down in 1834. These documents include the death warrant for CharlesI, though only a replica is on display now. Luckily, the next time the House of Commons was destroyed, papers were not lost.

All in all, we enjoyed our brief visit to the Tower;  it was very quiet, unlike the rest of historic Westminster, which was solid with tourists of all kinds.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

The Wellington Arch

Hyde Park Corner
Monday August 11h 2014

We, that is Roger, Linda and Jo, had planned a Wellington morning – the Duke not the boots that is – but in the event we only completed Part 1, which was to visit the Arch, owing to not having noticed that his house across the road is not actually open on Mondays.  Never mind: the Arch itself is both imposing and interesting, once planned as a grand entrance to Green Park and Buckingham Palace, now the centre of one of London’s scariest roundabouts.  Previous plans for an arch and grand entrance to West London, by well-established architects such as Robert Adam (as in Kenwood) or Sir John Soane (as in Bank of England) had been abandoned on cost grounds but following naval and military successes in the Napoleonic Wars it was felt that a triumphal arch could double as a Victory monument and an entrance statement.  In the end the go-ahead was given to Sir Decimus (yes he really was the tenth child of his parents) Burton whose original plans were rather more ornate than what you see today. This time the budget for remodelling Buckingham Palace had over run so corners were cut on the Arch, or in fact arches were cut on the arch.  

As visitors to this monument, if you take the lift to the First Floor this history of the Arch from plan to execution is well displayed. The next controversy was about the specific memorial to Wellington, to whom had already been given nearby Apsley House.  The 1st floor gallery has some excellent cartoons of the day showing how ridiculous the equestrian statue of Wellington looked atop the Arch and it was eventually sent down  to Aldershot and replaced by the Quadriga you see today. This last co-incided with the whole Arch being moved to its present site because of heavy traffic,  generated mainly by the recent opening of Victoria Station. The replacement statue of four horses pulling a chariot conducted by a young boy with Peace hovering over his shoulder was another expensive commission but a private donor and subsidy from the sculptor made a viable option – interestingly Adrian Jones, the artist, had actually worked with horses during his own military career and it probably accounts for the liveliness of the steeds.  These were finally unveiled in 1912.

The First World War clearly marks the transition from the 19th century preoccupation with triumph and glorious commanders to memorials of loss and remembrance showing the ‘ordinary Tommy.'
The current exhibition on the 3rd Floor is entitled ‘We Will Remember Them’ and is dedicated to looking in detail at London’s great War memorials, particularly those in the care of English Heritage. There is an accompanying brochure and to coincide with all the other events to commemorate the losses of war, this exhibition is timely, moving and altogether manageable as it focuses on six quite different approaches to  and examples of memorial art.

  •   Earl Haig, even now a controversial figure, is fittingly somewhat ‘old school’ and is shown on horseback, a horse the widow insisted by a real likeness of the Earl’s ‘Poperinghe’.
  •  Also traditional is the statue of Edith Cavell.  Royalty apart there are few public statues of women.
  •           For us the least known memorial English Heritage showcased in the exhibition was the ‘Belgian Gratitude memorial’ located opposite Cleopatra’s Needle on the Victoria Embankment and given in recognition of the UK offering a home for many Belgian refugees and entering the war on their behalf (something of a simplification).

  •           Most memorable probably is the Machine Gun Corps memorial depicting a very beautiful nude ‘David’ in true Renaissance style alongside the weapons of death. Interestingly the sculptor, Dewent Wood also helped the wounded with facial reconstructions.

  •           The Cenotaph, so well -known it needs no introduction, but admirable nevertheless. Sir Edwin Lutyens was probably better known for  his country houses but the simple stele has more than stood the test of time
  •           For me the most moving of the memorial sculptors is Charles Sargeant Jagger’s Royal Artillery Memorial; here is the man who captures the ‘universal soldier’ be he exhausted and at rest , the caped driver, or as at Paddington Station, reading a letter from home.

The memorials are set in a context of how the artists were chosen, and even more important how the words were chosen interspersed with the stories of certain individuals whose names can then be traced on the grand memorial such as Thiepval (Lutyens again) or range of village memorials from round the country.
Climbing to the platform of the Arch you can have an excellent view (although a bit tree-obscured  in some directions at this time of year), not just down into the Palace gardens, but also over many other memorials that cluster here – the Canadian, the Australian, the New Zealand (when trees are less leafy)  and Commonwealth memorials are innovative and reflect their own cultures whereas the Bomber Command one, already controversial , does not compete favourably and seem to hark back to a different era.

Talking of a different era the rooms now used for exhibitions used to house the Met’s ‘smallest police force’ who were stationed here complete with cat and this is about the most frivolous exhibit in what is both a memorial in in its own right, a great London landmark and a worthwhile temporary exhibition.