Wednesday, 30 April 2014

The Cubitt Studios and Gallery

Wednesday 30 April 2014

Having missed last week's outing, I enjoyed a lone trip this week, both Linda and Mary being busy.  I made my way to Islington Mews, a tiny and unpromising dead end off the Pentonville Road near Angel.  Unlike many of the museums we have visited so far, the entrance is not impressive.  But a press on the bell produced a nice young man who pointed out that the plant pot was also a cycle rack, and asked me too close the door behind me when I came in.  I noticed when I left that the door has fierce labels saying 'do not slam the door' and 'do not touch the scaffolding pole' which may say something about the stability of the building.

The Cubitt complex is mainly a set of studios for artists, but there is also a simple two room Gallery.  The pictures come from the Cubitt website as I did not feel it appropriate to wield the camera in a gallery space without permission. 

The current offering is called 'The Shape of a Right Statement'.  It takes the form of two screens, one small and one large, showing monochrome 'home movies' of the American artist, Cynthia Maughan.  She tries to adjust a scarf to hide the marks on her neck;  she displays a coffin made out of 850 toothpicks with a shrouded skeleton inside; there is a man standing by an open refrigerator.  Then there is a long sequence about a blonde femme fatale. And so on.  The smaller screen, also black and white, showed hands administering a dose of liquid from a medicine bottle, as well as a charming interlude called 'what if the sun fell on my corral'.

The information sheet explains that these works are 'returning to a non-linear understanding of survivalism and fascination between sincerity and manipulation'.

I was the only person in the room for the 20 minutes that the loop took to run;  I also had a look at a smaller TV screen.  Again, I need to refer to the notes.  The artist, Wu Tsang 'seeks to insert a question mark into notions of authenticity, and the intention of the speaker.' The way he does this is by producing the words of the autism rights activism Amanda Baggs, who can be seen here.

OK, I admit it:  I was baffled by the whole experience.  But it was interesting, in a baffling kind of way, and I shall watch out for other exhibitions at the Cubitt Gallery, to see if  I get a better grip on the next one.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

All Hallows

Byward Street EC3R 5BJ
Thursday April 24th 2014

This visit was to provide something of a contrast to the Gold of Mammon that had been our previous visit, to the Bank of England Museum.  It is not a very long walk from Bank, essentially a gentle eastward incline though it is not advisable to dawdle on the comparatively narrow pavements of the City of London as you may well get shunted aside by someone in a hurry.
We did not really know what we were looking for but the church is a sizeable edifice that seems to stand on a kind of island on Byward Street very close to the Tower of London. You really cannot miss it.  I was doubtful about who could form part of the congregation of such a church, there being a distinct shortage of local homes, but once inside the distinctly rebuilt interior it seemed clear it is still quite a lively local church offering itself as a sanctuary for ‘city workers’. Certainly the Kitchen, which is the church’s café, smelt most appetising and has an entrance straight onto the plaza area which fronts the modern glass building. During our visit the Organist / an organist was having a practice for a scheduled lunch-time recital,  which added to the atmosphere. 

The Church claims to be the oldest in the City with origins going back to Saxon times, the Arch for example, but due to some inexpertly kept gunpowder sacks the whole building went up in a boom just in time to be rebuilt in a post Reformation style, with a sturdy brick tower, to survive the Great Fire of 1666; in fact Pepys climbed said tower in order the better to observe the extent and progress of the fire. The building fared less well during the Blitz and was badly damaged, hence the somewhat bland interior. However there are plenty of artefacts to keep one’s interest and to warrant it counting as a Museum as well as a place of worship. There is a strong Maritime theme with several ship models hung on the walls, a dedicated chapel and a ship’s bell from a recent shipwreck.

The font cover is displayed behind a grille as it is a beautiful piece by  Grinling Gibbons. Here is an artist whose key works have to be seen where he completed them, and this one seems to soar towards heaven.

If you can manage the few steep steps down to the crypt there are other treasures on display – it’s a charmingly mixed bag which somehow summarises the history of London – a tessellated floor complete with drainage channel from a Roman home and a glass case of that strongly earth coloured Samian ware and some burial plaques – the light was a bit low to decipher the (Latin) text.  Unusually (because many of these artefacts, if not destroyed in the Reformation, definitively went during the Civil War) the church has a lovely carved alabaster plaque, which apparently was stolen fairly recently but recognised and returned.

The church’s registers – impressive ledgers – are also displayed to show that William Penn was baptized here and another book certifies the marriage between Samuel Adams  and his wife.  These US connections have ensured periodic sponsorship of different restoration or building projects.

As ever we could have lingered longer and certainly the church offered not only a welcome contrast to our earlier visit but also to the bustle of tourists heading for the Tower of London. 

Thursday, 24 April 2014

The Bank of England Museum

Threadneedle Street EC2R 8AH  
Wednesday April 24th 2014

Jo was fielding grandchildren so Mary and I braved the multiple exits of Bank Station (having arrived there via the DLR) to meet at the Bank of England Museum. It is quite hard to photograph from outdoors and one is therefore very reliant on the various models and prints of what was clearly designed as a well-fortified but attractive building. The Museum is free which might in part account for its popularity – today there were two overseas groups of students (bored French girls hanging out in the loos – plus ça change) so presumably still on holiday, and both secondary and  primary London groups who were back in harness. The primary children were a joy, enthusiastic and fizzing as they completed their quiz sheets and played at lifting the gold bullion. There is nothing immediately attractive to children, with most of the exhibits being a series of glass cases, and a very few interactive items inviting you to ‘balance the economy’ and keep inflation at bay – as if.

My abiding memory of a long ago previous visit (accompanying my own primary age children, as it happens) was of a range of bank notes and coins and this is still a substantial part of the exhibition. Today we had time also to admire this  building which started in 1788 and had three upscalings, including the seven new storeys that were added in 1925. The banking happened initially in the Grocers Hall in Poultry, with substantial input from the Goldsmiths’ Company  (who held the gold), and then transferred into its purpose-built premises in 1788. Prime architects of their day have been involved but the major vision came from Sir John Soane.

After the sections detailing the building’s evolution there are more detailed references to political and other changes which impacted on monetary policy, linked also to the different governors who headed up the Bank over the 300+ years. Houblon was the first and already worrying about ‘utterers’, that is rogues who were forging the fairly easy to copy early bank notes. The most poignant display is for Sir Kenneth Grahame, author of ‘the Wind in the Willows’ whose resignation letter is a model of not only beautiful handwriting but moving and well-argued reasons for giving up, Mary and I were pleased to hear that the man, who was clearly suffering from mental exhaustion, was able to admit it and enjoyed a further 25 years of life; a rather better outcome than some modern day pressured bankers.

What the children seemed to enjoy most was to admire the gold bars in a modest pile (not nearly as many as are stored in the secure bits of the Bank) and attempt to lift one.  The Bank’s silver was also displayed with a really pretty basting spoon and sugar shaker reminding us that the banking hierarchy probably dined pretty well also.   
Much of the display is devoted to showing the development of the banknote over the years, with the seven or so security devices now built into notes to prevent forgery – microlettering, motion thread, metallic thread, holograms, raised print and watermarks.  Phew: you wonder with all that there’s time to think about the more controversial question of who should go on the notes.
And indeed there is no mention of it herein the museum.

The last few cases (if you have gone round in the correct clockwise direction) hold coins through the ages, which somehow look smaller than when they are in your purse or pocket. The Museum is able to have some nice shiny coins, and we noted a few empty cases – waiting for the next development in banking we supposed.

While we are more likely to join an anti-capitalist demonstration than a ‘Keep the Pound’ one we found enough to keep our interest for nearly 90 minutes.  I could quote you endless and contradictory maxims about money but while it’s still needed in this format the Bank of England seems as good a place as any to store it, invest it and regulate it.  

The Bank provides both a map guide to the exhibits and a clear summary of its role. here is the website if you wish to plan a visit.  We spotted some chaps in pink, and I mean pink not the red that foxhunters call ‘pink’, tailcoats and it turns out they are the Bank’s security personnel , dressed as once the footmen were. Their numbers are dwindling, presumably the uniform being a turn-off for many, but it was good to hear the Bank employed its own security staff directly, not going through any of the global firms who do this job often indifferently.  There is a small shop with rather pricey items and the afore mentioned toilets, located at the far end from the entrance

,  fine when not full of French students. 

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

2 Willow Road

Wednesday 16 April 2014

The three of us had planned for this to be a two-site trip, but we found Erno Goldfinger's House to be sufficiently thought provoking for one day.

The National Trust, for it is they who own it, does not allow photographs, so I suggest that you visit the website for a few images.

We arrived by Overground, mostly, with a touch of rail and tube and some of us patronised the handsome period conveniences at South End Green, before heading up the hill. 2 Willow Road opens at 11.00, and we discovered that we had chosen the time of day which is guided tours only (what did I say a few weeks ago?  check the website!)

The tour begins with a film, shown in what was once one of the two garages of the property.  It felt (and was) rather 1990s, with captioned talking heads describing Goldfinger.  Much of what we were told was repeated on the guided tour, so I think the film would be of more use to people who go in the afternoon and look round on their own.

Then our guide appeared, rather disconcertingly in fairly 17th century breeches;  perhaps 1930s 'spiv' gear might have been more appropriate. Starting outside, he pointed out the concrete frame of the house, with a single skin of bricks, and suggested that it fitted in well with what he described as the ugly Victorian and Edwardian houses further up the hill. You can form your own opinion here. Clearly environmental and conservation groups had less power then than they do now.  Ian Fleming was one of the objectors, getting his revenge later by naming a nasty villain after the architect.

We were told that, because concrete frames do not shift, there are almost no skirting boards in the house. We went indoors, and were shown the Pirelli rubber flooring, laid in the 1970s because the lower part of the house tended to flood as water poured off the Heath and down the road. What is it about architects and basic forward planning?  It seemed to me on a par with a bridge that wobbles when -oh look - lots of people use it, and an aquatic centre that needs extra seating put on top of it if is to fulfil its Olympic purpose.  But I digress.

This house was built between 1937 and 1939.  During the Second World War he was able to live in it, although there was not much architectural work to be had.  He had sensibly fallen in love with and married Ursula Blackwell, heiress to the Crosse and Blackwell canning fortune.  He did not become a British citizen until 1945, which may help to explain why he was not conscripted.  

From the narrow hallway, you go up spiral stairs with hemp balustrades and a brass rail to the living area on the first floor.  The servants' quarters in the basement are now the custodian's flat and so not open to the public.  The upstairs rooms are remarkably bright (except where the National Trust has protected the contents with net curtains on the south side)  There is a splendid dining room with a miniscule kitchen - in which, we were told, Ursula rustled up delicious meals for their many guests.  Also a studio/study and a living room.  This overlooks the garden, now looking lovely since it is cared for by the NT's gardener from Fenton House up the road. Apparently the Goldingers were not keen gardeners.  The rooms were divided by partitions which could be folded back to make large entertaining spaces.

All the walls in all the rooms are hung with items from the Goldfinger art collection, including Henry Moore drawings, Bridget Rileys and several Max Ernsts.  We found our guide rather too keen to express his own views on the art works, which made it a little hard to associate them with the family who had lived here, and who had chosen them.  But we did note the incongruity of some Austro-Hungarian candle holders which belonged to Goldfinger's mother, who lived in the house with them for several years; also a Staffordshire figure on the very modern mantlepiece.

Indeed, there were more surprising artworks, as the artist Ryan Gander has inserted 'interventions' in many rooms. 

Upstairs again, we saw the nursery, as well as a couple of bedrooms, very bare (unlike the cluttered living areas) and apparently very cold, as it was necessary to have grilles with circulating air to counter the condensation arising from the concrete and the metal windows.  It was built in the period where rooms had wash basins, and the lavatory was separate from the bathroom, which seems strange to the modern mind.  The 'master bedroom' had an ensuite bathroom with a bidet which, as our guide said, must have puzzled the 1930s British plumber.

Some of the furniture was designed by Erno Goldfinger, but there are also pieces designed by his daughter. It mostly looked more striking than comfortable.

In general, I did not warm to the house or its designer.  He lived in this comfortable low rise while advocating and building high rise for the ordinary folk (and yes, actually spent six whole weeks living in the Balfron Tower: I expect the lifts were working while he was there).  He 'entertained lavishly' though it seems to have been his wife who provided the food, from a kitchen only just larger than the great man's desk.

But it is a very interesting and thought provoking house.  Indeed, after over an hour there, we felt we did not want to go and visit another museum and so headed home.

Another Postscript

Though the Museum Project is well under way we still occasionally bask in the glow of our achievement in completing the Bus Project.
We were reminded (and surprised) this weekend when three family followers produced belated ‘certification’ of our five year undertaking. As I understand it the problem was not designing the text nor having them produced in ‘bus blind’ format and font, the problem was to calculate how many routes had we actually taken. It appears there is no formal list and if there were it would almost certainly include the Night, School and Mobility routes, which we did not ride, so there was much counting and calculating and comparing until the three co-conspirators agreed on a figure and here is the result:

With thanks for their efforts to give us a permanent memorial.

Friday, 11 April 2014

The Chelsea Physic Garden

Wednesday 9 April 2014

I cannot think of a better way to spend a sunny April morning than in the Chelsea Physic Garden.

We, Mary, Linda and I that is, were having rather a Charles II morning, as we started at the Royal Chelsea Hospital, about which Linda has already written.  The Physic Garden was established in the same reign though the King was not as interested in plants as he was in doing the right thing for his soldiers.

We got to the Garden just after 11.30 and, while there was no cycle parking, I found a suitable lamp post outside.  The other two had come by public transport via Sloane Square, so had had ample opportunities to notice the serious wealth in the area.  On the other hand, there are large Peabody blocks and still some social housing that has not been bought by the rich to accommodate their university offspring. 

 The area nearest the entrance is being rearranged and replanted, so that medicinal plants are grouped according to the branch of medicine in which they might be useful, so there are beds labelled – for instance - ‘oncology’ and ‘obstetrics and gynaecology’.

We did not take the opportunity of a free guided tour, not least because the labelling is excellent and the explanations clear.  But you can if you like, and they also have talks and study days which are detailed on their website.

Obviously weather and wind direction are important to the gardeners, and this is a very sheltered spot, with tall houses and flats around as windbreaks.

The plants were looking and smelling wonderful, including some beds planted by colour.  

There were other items of interest, for example a Wardian Case.  This was designed in the early 19th century by Dr Nathanial (sic) Bagshaw Ward, to carry plants safely across land and sea.  A Wardian case brought the first germinating tea seedlings from China to India, and so changed the world, or at least the hot drinks aspect of it.

There were many people working in the gardens, and I asked a lovely worker whether they used weedkiller. (The answer is no, except for painting some systemic on really difficult intruders)  The conversation then moved on to slugs, obviously, after the wet winter which the little pests have clearly enjoyed.  She said they used nematodes, but were also about to try out Grazers, which apparently makes the plants taste nasty (to the pest) rather than damaging the plant or the pets, fish, birds etc  that suffer from normal insecticides.  In fact it was first used to deter deer, rabbits etc, and has only recently been adapted for –or against - molluscs. 

We visited the fern house and were amazed by the equisetum. It seems a better name when it is in Latin than the more everyday name, ‘horsetail’, since the 'equi' bit might refer to the equal segments in the stems.  

We paused briefly to watch some people re-chiselling the wording on the plinth of Sir Hans Sloane’s statue.

And then Mary stood us a welcome cup of coffee.  

Refreshed, we went to look at the further corners of the garden, with pond and beautiful Paulownia, or Foxglove tree. 

We also liked the explanations about reclassification which is gradually going on, using DNA rather than morphology (no, I didn’t know what that means, but it is the shape and the look of the thing rather than its actual biological structure.)

We left at about 13.15.  While the garden is not cheap (£9.90 as it happens) it is a delightful and informative oasis in the middle of noisy London. 

The Royal Hospital Museum

Royal Hospital Road  SW3 4SR
Wednesday April 10th 2014

Linda walked from a very smooth Jubilee plus District Line journey to Sloane Square and Jo arrived per bike, which she was allowed to secure behind the Lodge at the London Gate Entrance to this significant and architecturally impressive site.  Mary had been sitting in the sunshine by the Army Museum  (which will wait for another day) until she checked her phone so we were able to stroll into the complex at opening time – 10AM. The excellent Bus Route 170 goes past the door – a journey we much enjoyed in  May 2011 (the Victoria Line had been a bit peculiar this morning otherwise I might have come this way). I was early enough to ponder on the riches evident in the bespoke shops and flash cars of this part of Chelsea, and then watch the Lodge keeper let in various white vans delivering to the Royal Hospital.

Essentially the Royal Hospital is, in modern day speak, a combination of ‘sheltered housing’ retirement homes and care home/hospital for pension age soldiers.  About 370 of them.  Queen Elizabeth I saw the need to care for wounded or retired army personnel  but the French actually got there first when they built the even more magnificent ‘Les Invalides’.  Charles II moved the project on and arranged for his (and the nation’s) favourite architect Sir Christopher Wren to design the buildings from 1682 onwards.  The Museum, almost immediately on your left after the pensioner Elephant, is housed in the building designated originally for the 50 or so staff dealing with pay and pensions.   (A job which is doubtless dealt with these days by a few minutes on a computer payroll). The entrance hall has a large diorama showing how things were in 1805 when Ranelagh Gardens  were a pleasure destination (I always think an 18th century euphemism for sex, drugs and rock and roll). Where the present day pensioners find their leisure I would not venture to guess – though we did see some of their mobility bikes parked outside the Tesco Metro – but of course they are all of ‘previous good character’, a pre-requisite for getting a home here.

The Museum itself is one large room with a series of very legible information boards and glass cases. There is an eclectic mixture of exhibits – the Chelsea pensioner uniforms through the ages, regimental drum kits, some ’colours’, some history about the building and building materials such as original bolts and screws from Wren’s day.  As befits the venue that hosts the annual Chelsea Flower Show there is even a certificate for a prize winning garden. The end section is wall to wall medals displayed according to campaigns and regiments.  For me the most interesting thing to see was a ‘mock-up’ of a pensioner bedroom – neat and ship shape (wrong service but you know what I mean) with beautiful wood panelling but certainly not spacious. Just before our visit I had spotted a BBC item about the proposed rebuild. Certainly with an aging and increasingly dependent population Chelsea faces the same dilemma as many of the more local and less grand almshouses which is how to maintain the integrity of the building while offering residents and carers a  more disabled-friendly environment.

We exited through the Gift Shop, which is also the Post Office and staffed by Pensioners, and there are certainly some charming souvenirs – Jo was very taken with the memorial Poppy Umbrella so it was just as well it was not raining. In fact the spring sunshine was growing stronger.

The layout of the greater Hospital complex is very reminiscent of Oxbridge Colleges, which of course originated as monastic cloistered foundations, with three ‘courts’   of classical simplicity. Unfortunately the Figure Court is not enhanced by a fairly naff statue of Charles II in Roman Ruler garb but heavily gilded, ('and the Oscar goes to...') but you can look beyond to the River. The central court houses the adjoining Dining Hall and Chapel both of which can be visited.  Mary had been lucky enough to attend a wedding held here and the sideways facing pews make it both friendly and good for gawping at the bride – if that’s your thing. 

The public toilets are below the Light Horse Court and as the notices say were used as shelters during the bombs of World War 2; from this you will gather they are capacious but not accessible. In spite of this 13 people died when a bomb fell in 1941. 

There were several small groups being led round by the more physically able pensioners – if you have the time and the organisational skills to book ahead I think it would be worthwhile to get an enhanced experience of this historic site unique in that it is still very much a lively active place and home to many. 

Monday, 7 April 2014

Old Operating Theatre & Herb Garret

St Thomas Street SE1 9RY
Wednesday April 3rd 2014

Mary was back from catching up with family on her Asian adventure, so the three of us gathered at the foot of the Shard, otherwise known as London Bridge Station. This was to be our foray into the South for this week’s museums.
Some people can be quite ‘sniffy’ about South London but one of its major plus points are the trio of excellent hospitals. Guy’s and St Thomas’s are very close to each other and rationalisation has meant that some services are now combined on one or other site but nevertheless they maintain their own identity.  St Thomas’s, named for that favourite English Martyr St Thomas a Becket and originally part of St Mary Overie Priory, was essentially a very early religious foundation hospital and used to be here in Southwark before it moved to just beside Westminster Bridge.  Guy’s, which is here now, was founded much later by Sir Thomas Guy after St Thomas’s had re-established themselves in Lambeth. Number three in the South London hospital world is of course King’s College, whose main teaching area is on the Strand but whose hospital is in SE5 Camberwell.

The Old Operating Theatre belonged to St Thomas’s  but is actually just opposite the pretty and historic courtyards of Guy’s just to confuse matters further. The museum, which has an excellent website, is in the old rather striking tower of St Thomas’ Church. According to Wikipedia the main body of the Church is still subject to a dispute between the Jubilee Line and church landowners.  A beautiful wrought iron skull hangs over the porch entrance but the museum is up a 32 step spiral staircase so beware if you have mobility problems.
Just a word about hospitality (you can see where I am going with this): the museum because of its historic site has no toilets, and the shop is cramped but delightful – instead of the usual smooth marketing pioneered by the National Trust (soaps/china mugs etc) this is a cluttered collection containing some serious books on the history of medicine alongside GIANT microbes and you thought I was joking.
The merchandise is arranged according to where they can fit them under the eaves as opposed to any marketing strategy. We were about to show our National Trust cards to gain reduced entry when the kindly cashier/guide offered us an even greater reduction on the grounds that they had double booked two school parties and the museum would be over-run. In the event we got into the operating theatre after School 1 and were enjoying the Garret by the time School 2 arrived – so we were able to enjoy a leisurely and unimpeded viewing.   

Talking of unimpeded viewings, the operating theatre is well raked with 5 semi-circular rows for the observing medical and apothecary students. Admittedly I was wearing a back pack but found fitting along a row quite a squeeze. ‘They were packed like herrings in a barrel but a lot less silent’ one account says. How apt. The herrings would have seen only women patients as at the time the theatre was adjacent to a women’s ward – for several centuries only the poor were treated in hospital and in Southwark that probably meant the prostitutes from the very many adjacent brothels  or ‘stews’ hereabouts. Neither was there any anaesthesia till late 19th century .
The display cases show a range of surgical instruments reminding us why surgeons were called ‘Sawbones’ and surgical students named ‘dressers’ (for a lively description of similar operations see  here ).

Alongside these are examples of early anaesthetic devices and the famous bars of carbolic soap which finally offered some degree of antiseptic  protection.  Individual surgeons are remembered also –  Astley Cooper,
a St Thomas’s student, who surprisingly early operated successfully on an aneurysm. The theatre – and it must have been a real performance except for the unfortunate starring patient – is one of the earliest surviving. Note the bowl of sawdust beneath the table to catch the blood.

You leave the theatre alongside a range of cases displaying the different specialisms of both doctors and surgeons. Florence Nightingale opined that nursing children requires a special temperament but the children of Southwark were given  their own hospital – the Evelina – thanks to Baron Rothschild. It has in its time been both at Guy’s and St Thomas’s but since 2004 has its own magnificent child-friendly building at the latter.  Close to, the obstetric instruments look surprisingly big and probably remain largely unchanged so it was something of a relief to move onto dressings/pills and potions. It is likely the herbs were kept here to minimise the risk of mice and have space to dry away from the damp ‘miasmas’ of Thames side Southwark.
The LWB have relatives who are both doctors and pharmacists so could view some of the exhibits with a degree of ‘insider knowledge’ – having said that I think the museum would appeal to all and any visitor could relate to a feeling of gratitude that we are able to experience 21st century medicine in all its glory which would not be so advanced without its origins that you see here. For example, I had never heard the story of the man who sucked on his willow twigs and felt so good on the results that he shared the experience… The eventual outcome was that really useful  drug  Aspirin.

The garret is full of herbs you can still find in your garden, or seeds from the store cupboard like linseed. My only criticism would be that the beautiful, handwritten labels, totally in keeping with the atmosphere of the whole, are not easy to decipher in a low light.   Penny Royal for hysteria amongst other cures, and oranges and limes to keep scurvy at bay; the discovery of the beneficial side-effects of everyday foodstuffs are well documented here and you realize how far people had come from the days when they administered snake oil and extract of crocodile.
And all – ‘Miseratione Non Mercede' – for compassion not for gain.

I think we could have lingered longer but felt we should side-step the latest school party and let them squirm in front of the surgical instruments while we made our way back down and home from London Bridge.