Friday, 27 June 2014

The Wallace Collection

Wednesday 25 June 2014

Having visited a small collection of 'wonderful things' last week, today's visit was on a much grander scale.  Mary, just back from Scotland, had not visited the Wallace Collection before, so we met there at 10.00 (when it opens) and spent a very pleasant couple of hours just getting an impression of what a family of obsessive collectors can achieve over a couple of centuries.

The Great Gallery is closed at the moment, so some walls in other rooms are fairly crowded. But they have hung a few of the best known works in the temporary exhibition space downstairs, so we were able to look at the Dance to the Music of Time and the Laughing Cavalier in comparative emptiness.  There are pictures of every picture (if you follow me) on the website, so I did not try to take photos of the paintings.  

The furniture and other decorative arts are, however, what makes the Wallace Collection stand out from other treasure houses of art, so we stood amazed before marquetry, Sevres porcelain, jasper and bluejohn jugs, urns and vases, and clocks.  This one was presented to the new Louis XVI, and shows him getting advice from Minerva about how to rule well.  Poor man, if he had refrained from attempts at reform, he might have survived for a while longer.

Then there are the Maiolica plates;  having recently seen The Last Days of Troy at the Globe, I enjoyed the Judgement of Paris, though I don't think I would want to eat my meals off all those buxom goddesses.

I also took Mary to the armouries, or those galleries which are open at the moment, since arms and armour was the particular interest of Sir Richard Wallace himself.
(Why are some galleries closed? Because until the Great Gallery is sorted, ready to reopen in mid September, other galleries are needed for storage).

With so much to see, we did not have time for the Canalettos, but had a good look at the Dutch galleries, as well as taking in a bevy of pretty Fragonards and Watteaus.

To complete the experience, I insisted that Mary should admire the loos, surely the loveliest in London, and she treated me to a coffee in the restaurant which occupies the former central courtyard.

It is a wonderful place, so if you haven't ever visited, do;  and if you have, go again!

Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Smythson Stationery Museum

Thursday 19 June 2014

We shall tell you about what happened to last week's visit when the pain is a little less acute...  But for now, let me tell you about this morning.

Mary is sailing around the west coast of Scotland, Linda is in France, so I was on my own for a trip to New Bond Street, and possibly the smallest museum on our list:  Smythson's Stationery Museum.

Smythson's is a long-established stationery store, full of beautiful things.  They have a tiny museum room, with six cases, to which I was directed by charming staff, 

A set of Bridge scoring pencils dated from 1970, but there were several earlier items. I admired the bespoke stationery of the Maharaja of  Baroda from 1926, and various bespoke seals from the fist half of the 20th century.

 But perhaps the most remarkable case contained the 'Featherlight Monitor Bag' of 1905, proclaimed to be 'the best London make'.  I had to ask what it was for, though it is clearly a doctor-type bag.  And so it is:  the glass jars and bottles, all with monogrammed lids, were for collecting specimens of this and that, such as doctors still enjoy.

As well as the cases in the museum, the spacious rooms of the main shop also have historic items in glass cloches.  I was not particularly taken with the whiskey-soda set from 1920 in the form of three fake books, but I loved the 1909 leather clutch bag, 'a very convenient and portable arrangement', and the 'featherweight pocket diary: may be carried in the breast pocket without the least disfigurement'.  Clearly all the well-dressed chaps of 1908 would have one.

Then there was a 'pocket flask in solid leather slipcase' from 1902, priced at 6/-.  According to the This is Money website's historic calculator, six shillings then is about £32.20 now, which sounds quite reasonable.

The rest of the shop is full of wonderful things but, as you might expect in New Bond Street, no price tags.  I suppose that, if you need to ask the price ....

But if you want a holder for your tablet, your phone, your passport, your jewellery, Smythson's is a good place to vist.  And even if you don't, the museum is lovely and the staff friendly.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

The Prince Consort National Memorial

Wednesday 11 June 2014
On a beautiful, sunny day, Linda and I met with a group of Friends of the British Library for a tour of the Albert Memorial, whose official name I have used as the heading for this post, so that you know I am not talking about one of the other 25 Albert Memorials in Britain.  This is THE one, opposite the Royal Albert Hall.

Our excellent Blue Badge guide, Richard Skinner, met us promptly at 2.00, despite the slightly slow bus journeys which many of us had experienced, because of the black cab demonstration.  He was so interesting that I shall have to work hard to keep this post from including every fact he told us.  Fortunately there is lots of detail here.

Before we went inside the railings, which were modelled on those around the tomb of Queen Eleanor in Westminster Abbey, we had a brief history of the monument.  Our guide realised that we were the type of group that did not need to be told who Albert was and so on, which was a relief.  It is remarkable that the original build came in under budget (£137,000 not £150,000 as planned) partly because the builders agreed to work at cost.  But it is even more remarkable that the stunning refurbishment of the 1990s also came in under budget, though with inflation the amounts were now in millions.

The site was selected to pinpoint Albert's greatest achievement, the Great Exhibition of 1851, and is at the point where a line drawn through the Crystal Palace meets a line drawn through Albertopolis, the fabulous collection of museums, colleges and other institutions, built with the profits from 1851.

The architect was Giles Gilbert Scott, so it is as well that the bereaved Queen was keen on neo-Gothic.  Scott looked for inspiration to the Eleanor Crosses, as well as various German Denkmals.

It is so huge and therefore heavy that its structure begins under the roadway;  17 ft deep concrete foundations support 868 brick arches (sadly not accessible as funding to restore them was not available).  Then comes the large platform, with the steps that are open to the public.  Richard told us that the 2.5 miles of granite steps come from the Lake District.

The plinths at the corners of the monument are crowned by the four continents.  In telling us about this, our guide reminded us that this was an 1860s project, so Australasia was subsumed into Asia, and had no representation.  Asia boasts an Indian Princess, a Sepoy, a Chinese potter and a Persial poet, grouped round a charming elephant.  

Africa has a camel and the Americas rather a fine bison. Our photo does not quite show that the USA herself has stars down the front of her robe, but she does. Europe has a bull, with Europa sitting on it, surrounded by a German Philosopher, France with a sword and Italy with Music and painting.  Britannia is of course ruling the waves, but her trident has been recently broken off, despite the heavier security which is now in place.

It is easier to see the statue of Albert, and the canopy under which he sits, from outside the railings.  Victoria's preferred sculptor, Marochetti, suggested an equestrian statue, which the committee rejected, though Marochetti before he died did complete the head of the statue.  The replacement sculptor, Foley, preferred to seat the Prince, in his Garter robes, and with his finger marking his place in the catalogue of the Great Exhibition.  The statue was cast by the Southwark company of Prince, so the word 'Prince' appears near the base of the statue.

In fact almost all the work was done by British firms and workmen, the exception being the mosaics in the canopy, which were supervised by an Italian firm.

Above the statue and the canopy, angels and virtues, all in gilt, lead the eye to the Cross and orb, a reminder that Victoria and her Consort were rulers who ruled under God.  Inside the canopy one can see Albert's coat of arms, as well as his quartered with Victoria's.

All this can more-or-less be seen from outside the railings. But the reason to take the tour (apart from the fascinating details the Guide will share) is to get up close to the Parnassus Screen.  This multitude of artists, poets, musicians, sculptors and architects goes all round the base of the monument, and consists of 196 figures.  As Mr Skinner pointed out, that's 195 men and one woman, the Egyptian princess Nitocris, who squeezes into the architects for sponsoring pyramids.  When you think that there are two dogs (Hogarth's and Veronese's) you can see what having a female monarch did for equality in the 1860s.

The music side is centred on Homer, but the other three sides start with the Italian Renaissance.  Many of the figures have clues, or prompts with them:  Phidias is holding a small version of his Athena Nike, Ghiberti has one of his doors for Florence Cathedral, Bernini is standing in front of the Three Graces.  Torell, one of the few English artists, has an Eleanor Cross behind him. Fra Angelico is kneeling, because apparently he always knelt to paint, as a mark of his devotion.

Apparently, when she saw the maquettes, Queen Victoria asked George Gilbert Scott where he was and, overriding his modest disclaimer, said he should appear.  So there he is, modestly behind Pugin in his strange smock.

Above the Frieze are four more groups, which refer to Prince Albert's modernising interests:  agriculture may have a traditional sheaf of corn, but also has a steam machine.  Engineering shows a navvy with a spade, but also a blast furnace, and a relief of the Menai Straits Bridge, built using the same box girlder technology as supports the roof of the canopy.

I could go on, but I won't.  All this for a German Prince, who was really unpopular when he first married 'our' queen, and who died aged only 42.  It shows how his hard work in the many fields represented on his monument and his commitment to his new country changed the nation's view of him.

It was truly fascinating, and when we came to an end and realised we had been listening and looking for over an hour, we were amazed. But don't take my word for it:  go and see for yourselves!

Thursday, 5 June 2014

The Courtauld Gallery

Thursday 5 June 2014

On a beautiful sunny day, Linda, Mary and I met at the Strand Entrance of Somerset House at 10.00 to visit the Courtauld Gallery.

We spared a moment to remember that 70 years ago, the weather was much less favourable, with seasick soldiers in the landing craft using their helmets for want of any more porcelain receptacles.

The Courtauld Collection is a wonderful one, and we are glad that we didn't turn away Huguenot refugee families in the 17th and 18th centuries, when the Courtaulds arrived.  Initially they were gold and silver smiths, as we saw when we reached the first floor and could admire some of the work of early Courtaulds, both male and female.  But at the end of the 18th century, they moved into textiles, and the rest of their history is made up of viscose and also some chemical developments.  But the main thing they did was collect, as well as transforming Eltham Palace in the first half of the 20th century.  Still, this is not about family history but about the art collection, open to the public for a very reasonable sum.

Linda prefers to do things chronologically, so we started on the ground floor, where there are medieval and Renaissance works of remarkable beauty.  We could see why ivory was such a sought after medium, enabling amazingly detailed and moving carving, but we also admired the various diptych and triptyches, a reminder that the rich liked to carry their devotional art works with them as they travelled.  There were several versions of the Virgin and Child and Nativities.  I liked one with St John the Baptist already in camel skin though he was still very young. A couple had midwives in attendance, which we thought was a bit improbable in a stable in Bethlehem, but good publicity for the 14th and 15th century profession. Several Flemish paintings were among the collection, both secular and religious.

 We headed upstairs to the first floor, admiring the staircase and the striking decoration of the rooms.  Each room has signage explaining its use when this was the Royal Academy of Art, which was interesting.

A range of Maiolica ware filled one cabinet, to balance the silver at the other end, and there was a lovely Adam and Eve by Lucas Cranach, one of those pictures where the vine has tactfully preserved their modesty even though, with one bite into the apple, they did not yet know that they were naked....

At this stage the Gallery was amazingly empty and quiet, so we had time to wander and look.  A room full of Rubens showed the range of his work, including a very interesting portrait of the Breughel family, with no bulging pink flesh at all.

The Courtaulds also collected English works, and we saw, Romney, Ramsay and Gainsborough represented.  There was a fine portrait of Mrs Gainsborough, for example.

It seemed to us that the Courtauld Gallery is rather like one of those tasting menus you get in up-market restaurants:  a taste of many different styles and many wonderful things, but not too much of anything.  This is especially true when you get to the substantial collection of Impressionists and Post- Impressionists.  Pissaro's picture of Lordship Lane Station in Dulwich was fun for the south Londoners in the party;  and pretty well every artist you can think of is there:  an early Picasso of some daffodils, as well as Renoir, Degas, Monet, Manet, Gaugin, Seurat, van Gogh - you get the picture.  There were also a small Rodin sculpture and a couple of Toulouse-Lautrecs.  Even Berthe Morisot is represented (she was Manet's sister-in-law which must have helped break into the male artistic world)

Some of the paintings here are very frequently reproduced, so it is a bit of a shock to see them in real life:  Dejeuner sur l' herbe is here, as is the lady in the black and white stripes in the opera box, and Seurat's young person with the powder puff.

Upstairs again, and you come to a roomful of Cezannes.  At this stage the place was filling up, and someone was lecturing to a group of attentive students, which slightly reduced our pleasure:  but not much as we had Dufy, Braque, Modigliani and Bonnard to enjoy.  The Bonnards were a lovely surprise as we tend to think of him as an indoor person, but there were three outdoor scenes, including a wonderful pair of oxen heading off from some warm red brick barns.  

I won't go on any more, since the place is conveniently central and open daily, so you can easily visit it yourselves.  Oh yes, and the loos are in the basement and perfectly adequate, and the shop is full of lovely things.

Monday, 2 June 2014

The National Archives

Kew, Richmond 
 TW9 4DU
Tuesday  May 27th  2014

This was an opportunistic rather than planned visit – Jo was away walking in France and Mary doing her half-term duty, so a very wet bank Holiday Tuesday found Linda (and Roger) finally accessing some papers from the Forties requested back in January. The file – a bit of family history – was listed in the catalogue but as ‘Closed until 2048’ which piqued our curiosity so we made a Freedom of Information request.  This took several weeks and a bit of money finally to give us access to a very thin Home Office file with a certain amount of redacted detail...

Essentially we were doing what many of the Archives’ other visitors were also intent on – researching some family history, I mean. All I can say is that, having obtained a readers ticket (free and valid for 3 years), booked a desk and got the file, everyone else’s cardboard box or folder looked more interesting than mine.
Keeping Reading Room silent is not one of my talents so we escaped to the cafĂ© and excellent shop and the Keepers Gallery, which could easily take up to an hour of your time. Basically it showcases some of the TNA’s star exhibits and also explains the range of material for which they are responsible plus a history of the archive itself.  

 TNA are very mindful of being accessible to as wide an audience as possible so the keeper’s gallery is careful to display items to interest women as well as more recent arrivals in the UK (by this I mean more recent than the early record keeping of rolls and charters etc kept in Westminster Abbey’s Chapter House and the Tower of London) ‘parchment to podcast’ as they put it. The records were formalized as the Public Records office in 1857, and they moved out to Kew, taking on the Historical Manuscripts Commission also and the now defunct HMSO,  to this excellent purpose built and landscaped building in 1977, and it’s wearing well.

The displays show some of their treasures –
Maps and diagrams – a contemporary plan of Stalag Luft III from which the ‘Great Escape’ was  planned and executed, with more interestingly a photograph of the memorial to those escapees shot by the Germans. More photos and biographies are given of 4 spies; four men four women. They have a ‘cipher wheel’ from Elizabeth I’s reign though of course codes are much older than that. 
More relevant to what’s happening today was a copy of the document signed by Edward Heath in 1972/3 to mark the UK’s entry into the European Community that after this week’s European elections  looks at its most fragile? Similarly the Scots' defeat of the English at Bannockburn in 1314 is another anniversary with contemporary relevance.
Interestingly the horses lost in the Battle are all listed (compensation for contributing horse-owners you understand) whereas 12 million African slaves transported between 1500 and 1869 remain largely anonymous.

The whole approach to counting and accounting (‘Tallies to Taxes’ ) is also documented with tally sticks on display( the two halves need to ‘tally’) and a reminder that Exchequer took its name from the chequered /cloth also used for calculations…counters on squares.

The collection contains a wealth of maps and plans – pictorial, aerial and historical and the excellent shop will sell you reproductions of the early Ordnance Survey   versions. Photos also form part of the collection and interestingly items, other than text, which have copyright such as textile, which was a neat link back to our trip of earlier in the month to the fashion & Textile Museum.

Their most famous/precious item is the Domesday Book; the original was not on display nor was the interactive programme alert so if you want to know more, click  here

With the steady interest in family history/ service records and above all the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1 the Archive itself will be busy fielding amateur and professional historians.

I am not sure the Keeper’s Gallery is a destination in its own right, but as part of the whole experience of visiting TNA, or if you are in the area…it is well worth looking at to see the original documents  which form part of the nation’s and your own history.