Monday, 15 December 2014

The Brunei Gallery

University of London
Thornhaugh St, Russell Square
Bloomsbury WC1H 0XG

Thursday December 11 2014

We wanted something fairly simple to fit around the pre-Christmas preparations, and also fairly central, so looking at our alphabetical list I hesitated between n the Brunel Museum (fairly self-evident) and the Brunei Gallery, not previously known to either of us.  As it forms part of London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (S.O.A.S.) – a nearly 100 year old academic institution located in the heart of London’s University area in Bloomsbury – we were expecting an ethnographic and artistic display rather as one might find at the British Museum or the Horniman.

Both of us were slightly damp so it was very pleasant to sit in the spacious but cosy foyer watching the students coming and going. There’s no cloakroom so we took our bags etc with us and photography is not allowed.  The gallery occupies two floors – basement and ground floor with a roof-top Japanese garden; unfortunately because of the weather the garden was closed off and we could only peer through the windows. It has to be said that without much foliage it looked similar   to some other London Japanese gardens with its crane ('not ostrich, Linda') and turtle stones; however it must offer a peaceful retreat for the students of SOAS.

Most of the gallery’s two floors were taken up with the current special exhibition, Serendipity Revealed, which was looking at modern art from Sri Lanka showcasing over 100 works by 15+ artists. The (free) catalogue is very impressive in being illustrated and including short biographies of the contributing artists, and the not very good photographs in this posting are taken from that. We certainly noticed some strong threads through many works, namely that these young people had grown up during times of war and this was very much reflected in the art – thus bullets in books, ‘objets trouvés’ (found materials) in the shape of severed limbs, barbed wire lights and so on. More attractive, though perhaps less thought provoking,  were those works using what we might be seen as traditional art forms – close patchwork embroideries of salvaged sari materials, batiks large and small.  The photo art seemed particularly evocative and we enjoyed the panoramas of city life and the chap doing outdoor ironing in front of Colombo’s key monuments. In many ways the exhibition felt like an extended tourist promotion.

Only a small section, as far as we could tell, was devoted to what you might call the permanent collection. With an introductory panel explaining all the various languages, some disappearing, there were examples of beautiful scripts, works of art in their own right. This was followed by displays if different devotional  or other written material – books not being the only way to present the written word but scrolls and some rather intriguing fans, or what the French might call ‘pliants’, as finely decorated as any medieval manuscript you might have seen. These were the Pitaka or ‘rules’; for Buddhist monks.  We were not sure from where these items had come but guessed maybe they were the gifts or collections of previous and current academics.

I suppose we need to return to see other ‘special exhibitions’ as today’s trip really only celebrated the oriental as opposed to the African artists. The gallery is an excellent adjunct for anyone wishing to explore and get to know current themes and pre-occupations for these countries and certainly gets away from the overwhelmingly euro-centric exhibitions we have been to so far. 

1. Cora de Long 'Circus, Flught Bag 2011
2.  Kingsley  Gunatilleke 'Bulletbook 1, 2014
3. Koralegedara Pushpakumara 'Wall Plug 16' 2013
4. Bandu Manamperi 'Iron Man in front of Town Hall, Colombo, Sri Lanka 2014

Sunday, 7 December 2014

The British Library. Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination

Friday 5 December 2014

Euston Road, NW1 2DB

Everyone knows the British Library, but Mary had not visited it before, so she and I went, while Linda was busy with domestic tasks.  We went to the current exhibition, which is about the long history of Gothic literature, and I do warmly commend it to everyone.  You have till 20 January, so get down there!

I did not take any photos, because it is dimly lit and flash photography is not allowed, but I still wanted to write about it, because it is one of the best curated exhibitions I have ever visited, in that it provides a clear and cogent narrative and is also great fun. The few illustrations here are from the BL website. It starts, as British Gothic did, with Hugh Walpole and the Castle of Otranto.  There is a section about other so-called ancient documents (as Walpole claimed his novel was) including Ossian and Chatterton.  We were amazed by a souvenir handkerchief after the death of Chatterton, which suggested that it was Walpole's contempt which made him take his own life.  And then it's on for a brisk outline of the spate of Gothic novels that filled the 18th and early 19th century, starting with the prolific Mrs Radcliffe. There is a lovely case displaying
all the 'Northanger Horrids': the novels which, as Isabella Thorpe assured Catherine Morland, were 'really horrid!

It seemed to Mary and me that these unfortunate middle class girls, kept indoors and only meeting suitable men (if any!) would find horrible tales of dangerous hero/villains particularly alluring.  And while Jane Austen parodied them, the Bronte sisters (there is a bleak picture of Haworth Parsonage in the exhibition) were happy to invent Heathcliff and Rochester, ghosts tapping on windows and demented first wives in the attic.  

It wasn't just novels:  buildings in the 'Gothic' style, and amazing artworks are also recorded here.  'That' picture by Henry Fuselli, which the serial killer Paul Spector has on his laptop in The Fall, is reproduced in the exhibition, together with several other of his works.

The story of the rainy days at the Villa Diodata (where Mary Shelley invented Frankenstein and his monster) is here (with a letter from Byron to his publisher denying that there is anything indelicate about Don Juan) This is one of several places you can don headphones and have the illegible scrawl of some great mind read to you!)

The story then moves, as so much of the population did, into the cities, and Gothic becomes urban, with Jekyll and Hyde, and Jack the Ripper linked firmly to the genre. There were play bills and newspaper articles, including extracts from the Police Gazette, which was a tabloid before tabloids really existed.  Next comes the cinema.  There are brief film loops of 'Bride of Frankenstein' and other Hammer Horrors (the sound of the woman screaming every few seconds can be heard all over the exhibition, which helps the atmosphere) as well as clips from the TV Bleak House and more modern films like The Wicker Man. Mary and I were a bit concerned that school party children were able to watch these X rated clips, but then agreed that they were probably less spooked than we were.

A nod in the direction of Goth fashion, and some discussion of the gothic nature of some superheroes, Batman, Spiderman and so on brought us up to date.

I could go on and on, but I won't.  The only thing I would add is that virtually all of what is in the Exhibition comes from the British Library itself, rather than being borrowed in.  Yes, all these amazing things belong to us!

Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Fan Museum

Wednesday 26 November 2014

The Fan Museum
12 Crooms Hill
Greenwich SE10 8ER

We have had quite a serious and warlike time recently, so it was with great pleasure that Mary, Linda and I met outside the Fan Museum for a bit of delicacy and elegance.  The Museum is housed in two Georgian terrace houses, and was charming in every way.  The people on reception were informative and friendly (and National Trust members get a serious discount!)  The Fan Makers have had guild status since the early 18th century, and exhibitions have played a part in their history from the start. In France, there were different guilds for the makers of different components. The Fan Museum itself is the outcome of generous patronage by Dickie and Helen Alexander, the former head of Securicor and his wife, whose portrait hangs in one of the downstairs rooms.

The street sign of a Japanese fan maker marks the doorway to the shop, but we ignored the retail opportunities for the moment, while learning the names for the different parts of the fan (leaf, ribs, guard and sticks) and then examining the detailed displays.  There were pictures of Indian fixed fans, punkahs, and also examples of Malaysian and Sri Lankan fans. A round fixed fan is called a 'cockade fan' by the way. But the French and other European fans are the real treasures. Ivory is now unacceptable; but when you see how finely and delicately it can be carved, you can understand why craft workers loved it so much. Apparently (don't read this next phrase, Sophie) hippopotamus teeth were also used. There were examples of mother-of -pearl and tortoiseshell fans.

Some of the leaves (see, we had read the information about components of the fan) were mounted as pictures on the wall.  One was by Gaugin, and one by Sickert:  an illustration of the music hall song 'the boy I love is up in the gallery'.  The ground floor also had modern electric fans, of the Xpellair variety and a modern Dyson bladeless fan.

On the way upstairs (proper carpet! we liked that) we passed fans made for the 1878 Paris Exhibition as well as early 18th century Japanese fans.

The lady at the entrance had explained that, because of the fragility and light sensitivity of the Collection, the Museum has changing exhibitions, and the current one is 'Visions of Beauty'.  We have seldom come across a more appropriate name for an Exhibition.  Many of these fans were from the early 18th century, with mother-of-pearl or ivory sticks, often with extra embellishments in silver.  We learned that the reverse of the leaf (which faces the user) would also have a design on it, though usually simpler than the 'public' face.

As a lifelong reader of Georgette Heyer, I had always been puzzled by the concept of a 'chicken skin' fan, but we now know that this is a very fine form of kid.  One of these had a picture of Bacchus and Ariadne by Guido Reni:  the painting was sold by Henrietta Maria to raise money for her husband Charles I in the Civil War, but he fan still exists.

There were fans with recognisable people (the mistresses of French Kings, for example) and one of two actors, surrounded by their five children;  the rest of the leaf had scenes from various productions.

We were interested to see a couple of 'eventails a necessaire':  fans which also contained smelling salts, rouge, sewing kits and so on.  Some of these were from the 18th century but there was also an art deco one in celluloid with a tiny powder compact in the handle.

We nowadays associate Rimmel with cosmetics, but they too were fan makers in the 19th century, and one of their fans (with perfume bottle) was reviewed in the Hairdressers Journal of 1860.


The Exhibition extends into the 20th century, with a group of wooden fans, using pretty ladies to advertise various products:  a forerunner, we supposed, of promotional calendars.

We then went down into the shop, which is very reasonably priced and has some lovely things in it, and also made use of the award winning loos.  We cannot, of course, speak for the Gents, but the Ladies had fan shaped soap in a fan shaped dish, a flower arrangement and a comfy chair in case of need. On the back of each door was the Grand Magazine's 1760 encomium in praise of fans.

All in all, this is a museum which we warmly recommend:  very cheering on a soggy November day.

Friday, 21 November 2014

The Fusiliers Museum (City of London)

Tower of London  
Wednesday November 19 2014

Entrance to this small museum  is free but only once you have paid the considerable cost of entering the Tower of London; as this was our second visit we felt it only right to go at this point, and it actually proved to be refreshingly approachable after our experience of the White Tower.  
The reason the regiment was formed was that James II, with the Monmouth Rebellion  brewing, was of the view that his guns and ammunition (kept at the Tower) needed  more protection – not sure what the existing sentries would have thought of that. However, as the sparks from a musket might have ignited the gunpowder they were guarding the soldiers were issued with ‘fusils’ (rifle) based on the flintlock rather than more ‘sparky’ matchlock ignition system. Fusil is also the French for gun, but there you go. (After grappling with the 101 different bits of terminology relating to a horse’s armour as seen in the White Tower this was simple! )

So there they were, based at the Tower and recruiting from the surrounding neighbourhoods, so it seemed a shame not to deploy them when a conflict popped up somewhere. Essentially the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers (City of London) have participated in every major conflict from 1685 to the present day. The main part of the museum exhibition is arranged on the ground floor of the building (formerly the Staff Quarters of the Officers) just tucked behind the White Tower. There are 1-2 cases devoted to each successive conflict, headed by the testimony of a contemporary participant, and admirably all ranks are represented here  with their perceptive, moving or prescient comments highlighted. The key battles at which they were present are explained, and drawings or photos and artefacts of the engagements form part of each display. Impressively the only real major defeat was at Cowpens.
As some-one who is incredibly vague about military matters I found the attached board very helpful:

A SECTION comprises 8 soldiers under the command of a CORPORAL
A PLATOON comprises 30 soldiers under the command of a LIEUTENANT
A COMPANY comprises 100 soldiers under the command of a MAJOR
A BATTALION comprises 600 soldiers under the command of a LIEUTENANT-COLONEL

The first display, and in many ways the most interesting, was that devoted to Major John André, a Royal Fusilier, who served with the Regiment during the (American) War of Independence as a SPY (presumably before we had different departments for these) or more properly military intelligence officer. Having risen in the ranks (of the 7th Fusiliers) and been captured he seemed to have gained the confidence of some locals and then tried to escape with papers showing locations which could have benefitted the English cause hidden in his sock. However, not having a very convincing cover story when stopped meant he was arrested, tried and eventually put to death.   He was respected by both sides and as George Washington said:
He was more unfortunate than criminal,
An accomplished man and a gallant officer".

This same conflict also saw the Fusiliers’ worst defeat ever – at the unromantically named Battle of Cowpens. Soon after the colony was lost when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown.

There followed action for the Fusiliers in the Peninsular wars and buoyed on by triumphs there participation in the Crimea – the quotation here refers to the main enemy being ‘Cholera’ but there were Fusilier heroes too.  As ever through history many recruits joined the army to escape poverty and unemployment at home but up till the Cardwell Army Reforms life in the Army was far from comfortable either. These reforms included regular payments and no more flogging. Up until this point the Fusiliers had been in jolly red uniforms with ample frogging but round about the Boer War British Army uniform saw the changeover to Khaki as offering more camouflage.

Handy historians I know were both baffled by the Fusiliers’ participation in the 1914 Great Tibet Campaign, not a part of the world that springs to mind for that memorable date. It turns out to be some skirmish with the Russians over borderlands but fear not – the Fusiliers returned to Europe to take part in the Great War: Mons, Gallipoli and the Somme of course. During this time the 38th to 42nd battalions (see above so circa 3000 men) were known as the Jewish Battalions and fought in Palestine – these included Jacob Epstein the sculptor and David Ben-Gurion – later first Prime Minister of the State of Israel and a so-called founding father.

The Fusiliers’ Second World War exploits were no less distinguished and included service in India followed by an arduous start to the Italian campaign by the ascent of Monte Cassino – a graphic description by a participant reminds you that this was not an easily won assault (or ascent). There was a captured bust of Mussolini though…

Unsurprisingly the more amalgamated (last pulling together was in 1968) Fusiliers also saw service in Korea, Northern Ireland the Gulf and Afghanistan. Dotted amongst the souvenirs of each campaign are other artefacts – a stuffed mallard Duck (presumably a mascot), photos of Graffiti from Northern Ireland illustrating how warmly welcomed they were, posters and so forth. One of the strangest exhibits is an ‘iron boot’ which was used to help sore feet heal – however when a serving soldier was seen to be poking at this healing wound he was deemed to be a malingerer.

The last room is reserved for a display of medals – both those campaign medals for the aforementioned operations and more detailed descriptions of how different Victoria Crosses were awarded to fusiliers. 

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

The Tower of London Part 2

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Linda and I returned to the Tower with the intention of visiting the bits we missed last time, especially the Chapel Royal, accessible only with a guided tour.  So we joined the first of the day, led by Yeoman Warder David Coleman.  Sadly he told me not to take notes, saying he did not want me leading my own tours.  I could hardly explain that nothing was further from my mind than making any more visits to the Tower;  and that all I wanted was to share with you people his interesting mixture of history and jokes.  He is one of 37 Yeomen Warders, all of whom have to be ex-Warrant Officers with full military careers behind them.  This has only been true since the 19th century:  before then, as with so much that is royal, places were for people with connections of one sort or another.

The poppies were being dug up as we arrived, the little tents with the volunteers moving gradually along the moat, which will clearly need reseeding.  We were given a brief account of the expansion of the Tower, including the interesting fact that the entry 'Middle Tower' used to be in the middle of the moat, with two separate drawbridges for access.  The huge moat was rather a sewer, but at high tide, sluice gates were open, to flush the stuff into the Thames and out to sea, along with all the rest of London's filth.  This ended, as we learned on our previous visit, when the cholera epidemics persuaded the authorities to have the moat drained.

As we walked along the outer ward, we were harangued (silently) by a hologram in one of the windows; our guide explained the many uses of the buildings since Saxon times: as Prison, Mint, Observatory, Zoo, Royal Residence and Record Office, to name but some.  He pointed out the top apartments of the Beauchamp Tower, which - he said - would  have been used to imprison Adolf Hitler if we had caught him.

We were told of some of the 120 executions which had taken place in the Tower or on Tower Hill just outside:  the last beheading was in 1747, and he did not mention the Second World War spies shot here, about whom we had learned on our previous visit.
We paused at the Traitors' Gate, which may in fact be a mis-interpretation of Traders' Gate, since supplies for the large number of people living in the Tower would be brought by water and unloaded here. Then we went on towards Tower Green, with fine views of the oldest bits of wall remaining as well as Tower Bridge and the Shard.  Mr Coleman tried to persuade us that the spikes at the bottom of the drainage pipes were to deter guards from skulking for a quiet smoke. Hmm....
The ravens were another story:  kept here since Charles II was told that if they left the monarchy would fall, they live about three times as long as ravens in the wild.  We were warned not to try to befriend them, or share sandwiches with them, as their beaks are designed for tearing flesh.

We were told a great deal about the White Tower.  I suppose I had never thought through the fact that its handsome windows could not possibly date from Norman times. Indeed, they were part of a refurb by Christopher Wren at the end of the seventeenth century.

Then it was on to Tower Green itself, with views across to the Constable's residence and the modern sculpture which now marks the place of execution. And so we went into the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula. The Acts of the Apostles (Ch 12) describes how Peter was kept in chains, but rescued by an angel, and the chains (miraculously preserved, obviously) became a key relic. The chapel was rather a disappointment, having been substantially renovated during the second half of Victoria's reign; but the fine organ case is by Grinling Gibbons, and there are a couple of tombs with effigies on them.  No time to linger, however, as the next tour was due too enter.

That was the end of the tour, and so Linda and I went on to enter the White Tower, pausing to wonder at the ornate German cannon on the way round to the steep entry steps.

The Exhibition inside the White Tower is really about the business of being, as the signage says, the oldest visitor attraction in the world.  It has been open to the public for hundreds of years.  The 'Line of Kings' used to show them mounted on horses carved during the reign of James II (1680s) out of oak, and the heads of those old effigies are in a case as well. Apparently the Line of Kings did not aim at authenticity, and armour was allocated to periods quite different from the date of its manufacture.

There is an interesting wall of visitor comments, the earliest of which is 18th century, as well as the now-obligatory invitation to tweet, YouTube or Facebook 2014 reactions. We are not particularly excited by row upon row of breastplates, pikes, halberds etc, though they were displayed to look attractive. There was also a dragon made of armour, documents, gunpowder barrels and so on, to symbolise all the different types of power wielded in the Tower

We very much liked the chapel of St John, a classically Norman looking building, with simple round arches and massive pillars.  Apparently it house the Record Office till 1858.

There were also cases of diplomatic gifts, strangely shaped scimitars and daggers, native American regalia and embroidered armour padding of various kinds. And a case full of bits fished out of the Thames.

The last exhibition space is 'done' by the History Channel, whose logo pops up on every video clip and poster.  Topics here include the role of the Constable (but we had learned more last time along the wall-walk when we came to a tower about the Duke of Wellington's tenure); also the Royal Beasts, which again is better described elsewhere;  the fact that Flamsteed began the Royal Observatory here before moving to the clean air and greater elevation of Greenwich;  the Ordnance Survey, which had its first HQ here in the days when it was part of the Defence of the Realm to have good maps;  and the Mint.

We shared the White Tower with several school parties.  And with them we headed down the four floors of unbroken spiral staircase:  although the exhibition space is on three floors, the stairs take you all the way down to the basement, past some cannon, so that you can, as Banksy says, Exit through the Gift Shop.