Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The William Morris Gallery

Lloyd Park, Forest Rd
Walthamstow E17 4PP London

Thursday  July 25th 2014

For anyone not immediately local the easiest approach to this, one of three William Morris-linked sites on our list, is via the Victoria Line which leaves you in busy Walthamstow Central; I was more than happy to revisit one of London’s better bus stations but we decided to walk following the directions usefully painted high on the brickwork. The side roads we followed obviously took a pride in being on a designated route and there were ample displays of window boxes and pots, most people’s front gardens now taken up with the borough’s bins – a common problem this.

Our plan had been to picnic in  Lloyd Park named for the last owners of the Water House, a wealthy printer who left the estate to the borough in 1900. It seemed an ideal area with something for everyone – tennis courts, some wild areas, children’s play equipment and formal and less formal flower beds. The gallery’s tea-room opens onto the gardens so doubles as a park café. However like everyone else we were caught out by a sudden downpour and, having abandoned that very British habit of never going anywhere without a brolly (sunshine goes to the head), instead of a good explore of the park we had to shelter under a tree generous enough to allow us to eat our rolls in comparative dryness even if standing up.

We made a dash for the front of the house, which is where William’s parents moved (from somewhere quite local) when he was 14. It’s a handsome house, on the solid side, and its own history is not forgotten as you tour through the rooms. The terrazzo floored entrance hall is now the shop with the main exhibition room off to left and right in the bays or wings.  The gallery was re-vamped just two years ago and the exhibits are well presented: a balanced combination of artefacts, interactive games (brass rubbing/make your own stained glass window), information and context.  The rooms are both chronological and thematic so we have ROOM  1 – Morris the Man which allows his own quotes to mingle with those of his peers and admirers, and explains  how his love of local nature round the ‘suburban village ‘ of Walthamstow and Epping influenced some of his later designs. Largely educated at home – he ‘left’ Marlborough College after some anti-teacher demonstration and university life at Oxford was more about making formative friends and contacts rather than the degree itself (does that sound familiar?). At Exeter College he met another like-minded artistic spirit – Edward Burne-Jones  – and the rest as they say is history.

To be fair to William Morris he never forgot how privileged he was to be able to follow his inclinations, to have inherited wealth from his canny investor father, and how capital was never in the hands of the workers.  He was even aware that many of his hand produced goods – the wallpapers and textiles – were beyond the reach of many people and ironically chafed against some of his more expensive and expansive clients.  Surprisingly for such a life-long idealist he was quite a canny entrepreneur and managed to secure several jobs at churches undergoing restoration, using his friends and wife as both agents and in Jane Burden, now Morris’s wife, an adept embroiderer.

Later on the firm exhibited at trade events and eventually opened a prestigious showroom in Oxford Street, charmingly evoked in a separate gallery room.  The museum follows this expansion of his business with opportunities to understand block printing/tile making/weaving on a loom with a section on his work at Merton Abbey (we shall doubtless be going there in due course) and indeed the Red House – the first marital home in Bexley are included also. Getting your friends to help decorate is always a good ploy, especially if they are all artists, but unfortunately it also meant breaking up the marriage as Rossetti seduced Jane away from William.

The upstairs rooms of the Gallery were today unbearably hot and stuffy so we gave them less attention – they look at Morris’ legacy inspiring others such as Voysey, Webb, Crane and the wonderfully named Mackmurdo in the Arts & Crafts Movement. Morris was always ‘hands-on’ be it as an artist designing for the company or as a socialist out campaigning (100 lectures a year) or demonstrating – banners abound. He founded the Kelmscott Press also and there are examples of beautifully produced but rather turgid works. 

To tie in with the anniversary of the start of World War I the special exhibition room is devoted to the posters and art work of Frank Brangwyn who spent his early years in Belgium and campaigned on behalf of the refugees the war brought from that country to this one. 

The café has been built onto the side complete with glass roof vents etched with a Morris design, and the Unisex toilets have large scale colour reproductions of the ever popular wallpaper designs : there can be no-one who  has not seen  a sample of his work somewhere, and the gallery as a whole makes an excellent job of celebrating his life and work.

PS We had planned to photograph the tiling down on Walthamstow Victoria Line platform to prove the above point but the tube was having none of it today as the line was suspended from Seven Sisters so we made our way home via Liverpool Street.


Thursday, 24 July 2014

Kenwood House

Hampstead Lane
London NW3 7JR
Thursday  July 17th 2014

Let’s be clear: a trip to Kenwood,  located in a superior position on Hampstead Heath, with both house and garden, could be a ‘grand day out’ at any time of the year and what’s more a free one. The fact that I spent only a couple of hours there is not a reflection of my superficial approach but more like keeping up with an old friend who has had a facelift; in truth I have been taken and taking visitors to Kenwood for over 50 years.  
Today’s trip was inspired by seeing 'Belle' at the cinema and it certainly gave me a different perspective to walking round the house, dotted as it is with family portraits of the 1st Lord Mansfield, wonderfully portrayed by Tom Wilkinson in his role as Lord Chief Justice.  

There are pictures too of other family members and of course Dido Belle herself, though what is at Kenwood these days is a copy as the original is now in Scotland. Though apparently most of the inside shots for the film were Osterley rather than Kenwood it has given the house a family feel.

The house is of course more famous for its Adam interiors and its collection of more world renowned, non family paintings including a wonderful Rembrandt self-portrait and three Van Dycks and a tiny intimate Vermeer. When younger I used to bleep over the Dutch landscapes but now find them quite restful.  Certainly on a hot day a view over a canal in winter is very cooling! Lord Iveagh, who bought many of these artworks and bequeathed them and the house to the Nation, obviously liked calming works of art and portraits of pretty ladies and little girls. I was pleased to see that my favourite 1630 de Jongh of the old London Bridge is still there, almost 3D in its quality.

As a child I used to stand in wonder behind the velvet rope that stopped visitors from going into the library and gaze at its ornate ceiling – really rather more like confectionery than plaster work, it is so finely executed. Today you can sit in the Library and savour its stillness. English Heritage have provided leather sofas and armchairs in most rooms and along with the excellent room guides – handy but sturdy books in large print with a painting or piece of furniture per page.  The information is just enough and for the really keen the full catalogues are also made available.  Additionally there are small random exhibits for e.g. a facsimile of Mr Repton’s business card or a historic postcard of the view over London.  So not only is the whole  tour of the house  free but you do not even have to buy a guide book to get  a fuller experience – at the level and pace you want. There is also a children’s backpack and the orangery, which used to be full of rather tired looking citrus trees, now houses the educational toys and tools. 

There are more exhibits, miniatures and the like upstairs, which today was shut to the public because of a conference. No matter. I wandered out into the gardens, which the 2nd Lord Mansfield (a nephew of the 1st and rather less conscientious in his family commitments) had had Repton remodel the garden “to display in its full force a terminating scene the most magnificent that can be conceived’ which means today instead of a rather duty lane you can enjoy a steeply dipping lawn (complete with children rolling down it) ending in a lake and ‘fake bridge’.  A bemused visitor was saying ‘What you mean a fake bridge?’ Up close it’s like a stage set and two dimensional.  We were last here in the late autumn trying to locate one of the sources of the River Fleet  which supposedly starts somewhere near the bottom of the slope.  Today I got no further than the nearest bench (so many folk have donated benches in memory of loved ones they must be running out of space to put them) so I sat admiring the human-like form of the Barbara Hepworth sculpture which has the most up itself title.  'Monolith Empyrean'??

Then it was back through the rhododendron and ivy tunnels to the brief bit of Hampstead Heath where the Corporation of London has placed a concrete slab so photographers can take their panoramic shots without getting their feet muddy.  Today was a dusty rather than muddy day and the view too hazy to be really spectacular.

Another thoughtfully placed bench by the roadside made waiting for the trusty Route 210  back to the Northern Line a pleasure but you could of course ‘make a day of it’ and walk on down across  the Heath and leave via a range of other public transport options.  
There are of course both shopping and eating opportunities at 'The Brewhouse' in the grounds....

Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Building Centre

Store Street, London WC1E 7BT
Thursday June 12th and Thursday July 17th 2014

This was my second trip to the North London’s Building Centre, but not because I was due to rush out and build a house – ‘Grand Designs’ style.
We, that is Jo, Mary and Linda had originally visited the Building Centre on June 12th; however events on the return journey denied me (Linda) the tool s to write up the blog.  People only interested in the Centre should skip the next few paragraphs, but for those interested in the background to the double visit, here it comes: I shall try to be brief.

Returning through Waterloo in something of a rush as we were due to go away the following day, I jumped onto a Jubilee Line train heading south – however my shoulder bag  swung out behind me and did not make it into the carriage.  No matter, I thought – the driver will make his/her standard world weary announcement about people blocking the doors and would release the bag, still attached to my shoulder. No such thing: as we sped off the bag banged along the train between train and sliding doors (for non-Londoners the ‘newer’ sections of the Jubilee Line have platform security doors to prevent such incidents). Once into the tunnel it had even more space to flap around as the speed increased, and mid-way the metal clasps and leather stitching gave up and the bag fell beside the tracks. Like me, the other girls standing at this end of the train were speechless with horror but advised I get out at the next stop, which I did. Mike Read, on duty at the barriers at Southwark Station (and presumably in a few months cuts to ticket office staff may mean he won’t be) was very kind but it took several tellings of the tale before he grasped that I hadn’t, muppet like, left the bag either on the platform or in the carriage.  After a couple of phone calls to his manager he gave me a telephone number to call and advised that once the power is switched off operatives ‘walk the line’ each night and should be able to retrieve the bag or its remnants.   By now I was beginning to realize I was card-less/pass-less/cashless and without house keys; also in the bag of course the camera and ‘blog’ notebook plus other personal items.  
I explained that I needed to travel on to get a phone somewhere and I was issued with a ‘permit to travel’ which turned out to be me telling other ticket officials I had ‘permission’ to travel from a TFL barrier official who was about to go off duty… tricky. Still I managed to ‘blag’ my way past the Southern Region chaps at Peckham which is where I chose to go. My mother’s care home let me use one of their precious lines to follow up reporting the bag – when I finally got through to Lost Property they were very solicitous but pointed out they get 2000 items reported each day. My story somewhat perplexed  them as the bag was not really ‘lost’ just hard to retrieve (“No it did not fall on the platform – I am still clutching the strap”). The links between the Lost Property guys and whoever is in charge of the engineers seemed tenuous but I was assured word would be passed on. I hauled the only other local house key holder out of his World War 1 conference and asked him to make a quick getaway.  Nevertheless  I lost six hours which could have usefully been spent writing up the blog and packing for a 2 week holiday. As it was I had to ask Jo to follow up with Lost Property as they thought nothing would be handed in till Friday and they ‘collect’ from Waterloo on Mondays and Fridays. If I hadn’t been leaving at 5.30 AM the next day I would have gone to Waterloo myself but no such chance…

Fast forward two weeks and I start to try replacing my phone via its insurance (an insurance I nearly cancelled as I had never dropped the phone and rarely lose things outside the house). Quite rightly they were horrified that I had not reported it immediately (how ? from where? ) but I assured them it was probably lying smashed on a rail line somewhere just south of Waterloo. Not so.
Talkmobile were very quickly able to tell me the phone had been used between 14/6/ - 16/6/2014 to make serial overseas calls until the Talkmobile credit limit of £59 had been reached. Then whoever had attempted to upload £30 - £60 of more cash using … my credit cards. Suddenly a loss had turned into a theft.  (I had fortunately already had the three bank cards stopped as I thought they might survive any bag crash) so another complicated phone call to the British Transport Police (Waterloo division) followed.  At least with a Crime Number getting replacements for all my lost professional, loyalty and membership cards was possible without having to pay. Most organisations were very sympathetic though I could hear that call centre operatives outside London were truly puzzled at my account. The phone and its new SIM  card arrived within a couple of days but unfortunately we had been so excited at finding it still worked that Talkmobile forgot to cancel it so by July 3 the ‘new owner’ had made another £50 worth of calls and my new phone died. Our home insurance company were less accommodating and seemed obsessed with the phone though I assured them three times it was not part of my claim with them.
Two and half weeks down the line I am nearly back where I started; still no sunglasses or nice leather purse and I have yet to choose a new camera. In the meantime we took last week’s photos on the phone and that is why I needed to return to the Building Centre to recapture what happened on 12/6/2014.

So, getting back to the REAL point of this blog:
When is a Museum not a Museum ?
Quite rightly Mary raised this point as we walked round the Building Centre which seemed to consist of various commercial outlets. We have included art galleries under the ‘umbrella’ of museums and some of those are commercial.  We also ‘count‘ homes and houses, which may be just that and not necessarily a museum.   Some places just have ‘collections’. Whether today’s visit counted as museum is doubtful but as the Building Centre does have exhibitions alongside the commercial stuff, and features in our 250+list of London Museums courtesy of Wikipedia we decided to go with it.
PS We know the list is not definitive and even in the few months we have been on this Project there are new additions – the Museum of Illustration recently opened , and the Black Cultural Archives  collection is due to open this month.

The Building Centre has a longer pedigree than you might think – founded in 1932 – it moved into these premises built as rather swish car showrooms in 1952. Since 1963 it has been a charitable organisation to provide a forum for the built environment be it research or  education. Some of the funding will come from the commercial activities. The upper floors are offices with links to the centre. Down on the lower ground floor there is a conference centre and various product displays to do with windows and doors, cladding, flooring and façades (that’s bricks to you and me, or rather jazzy coloured concrete), heating and cooling, and innovations that help with sustainability and environmental  compliance. Having only ever lived in a very domestic scale house, it is interesting to see where the engineers and architects and builders might come to select – say – automatic opening doors for shops or offices or lifts to take you to the 63rd floor… some of the materials are very covetable – beautiful and largely sustainable woods for flooring and an extensive range of  brick colours and types

However the most generally  interesting part of the centre is the map/model  in the permanent  galleries on the ground floor  which allows you to walk round London seeing the transport links and the taller buildings already erect or those planned , for example, the new Vauxhall quarter with its American Embassy ‘fortress’ – it has both moat and walls. On our original visit the second gallery had a range of posters, one for each of the 33 Greater London Boroughs showing new and proposed structures of interest over a certain height – by my return visit these had gone with a ‘waiting for new exhibition’ sign up.

What remained was another display of the 33 Development areas for each local authority, which complemented some of the outdoor display (new since June) that compared successful projects in New York to proposed ones in London where there is potential for community based facilities for play or fitness – hence the title FIT London

Also tucked away in the corner are a range of design exhibits by Chinese designers – as  I lingered there was something of a heated debate going on with two visitors very critical of  a range of cloud shaped coffee tables and chairs as they could not ‘see the point’. In their minds clearly coffee or tea could only be taken off square or round conventional tables.
Still some of the charming designs on offer made a welcome respite from the corner keen to tell us about ‘Heathrow City – Developing the vision’ which is of course, misleading title apart,  all about Boris planning a new airport in the South East estuary. This exhibit – largely architects’ drawings and plans/projections and computer simulations plus a voice-over from ‘you know who’ – is complemented by a substantial booklet setting out the case for the estuary airport. 

A visit to the Building Centre is vital if you are interested in new plans and buildings for London or if you are researching materials for your own building project, otherwise  a quick tour of the ground floor in your lunch hour would do.  

Saturday, 12 July 2014

The London Canal Museum

12/13 New Wharf Road
King’s Cross
London N.1 9RT  

Wednesday July 9th 2014

Accessing the London Canal Museum could not have been easier – for Linda from South-East London it was an end to end ride on the Route 63 – one of our favourites – and for Jo a short walk,

The Museum lies on the now very attractive and highly desirable (estate agent speak) Battlebridge  Basin, once the hub of several industries,  warehouses and a place for canal boats to stop or rest. Nowadays to access the waterside you need either to visit King’s Place or pay to get into the museum – otherwise the canal basin side spaces are private. But like the horses we entered from the street.

The ground floor has a variety of exhibits and herein lies one of the problems about this museum – what story is it trying to tell? At least half the ground floor is given over to the tale of poor immigrant makes good – namely Mr Carlo Gatti , originally from a poor rural Ticino (then Italian now Swiss) family. His father had already moved to Paris and young Carlo came to London, specifically to the already established Italian community in Holborn, to seek and make his fortune --- he started as a hot chestnut man and then moved through a variety of jobs, including catering restaurants, and his main link to this building – the storage of ice imported from Norway to be distributed amongst the London gentry. Along the way he invented a hot chocolate making machine and probably the ‘penny lick’ – ice-cream in a cone shaped glass (we presume the glasses were washed between customers), small receptacles that must have pre-dated the good old cornet. He finished his life pretty rich, with a descendant becoming the even more respectable Mayor of Westminster. Mr Gatti used this warehouse to store his ice and you can still peer into a deep well , which would have been 13 metres at its deepest.  This roaring business continued to the eve of the first World war and I guess by the time peace was restored refrigeration was arriving… Now we all love the story of the Italian who brought ice-cream to London, and though it is told in fairly old-fashioned ‘story boards’ there are enough artefacts and advertising material to make a good enough display.
 The ice was of course brought to this depot by canal boat, and the rest of the ground floor and first floor is given over to a history of canals in general – and in London in particular. The emphasis here is rather on the use of canals rather than rivers for transport though the London canals in their time have connected the Rivers Lee and Thames and through England they link the four key waterways of Trent/Mersey/Severn and Thames.  The  Duke of Bridgwater is given his due for innovation though there is comparatively little space given to the overall context of the Industrial Revolution and the need to transport fuel and raw materials to some places and finished good for export to others. Travelling the canals of the UK gives you a much clearer idea of the industrial heritage. 

Here  in the museum the emphasis  is more on the era of horse drawn barges and narrow boats (London saw both as the smaller boats came down from the Midlands and further), their motorised  successors  and the eventual decline probably dating from the big freeze of 1963 when the canals were barely usable.  The decline through the Sixties and Seventies eventually gave way to a revival for leisure purposes and the foundation of the Inland Waterways Association guaranteed a steady maintaining of the waterways for holiday cruising --- as veterans of several canal holidays through the Eighties we must be very grateful to the founders of the IWA Tom (LTC) Rolt and Robert Aikman for their vision and perseverance.  Our trips were all out of London where we have only followed the canals via the foot/tow paths.

The museum has a ‘mock-up’ of the stables which most interestingly are on the 1st floor – access via a ramp – to keep ice and horse separate. The animals were most adept at dragging heavy loads and knew to stop at locks and tunnels and doubtless for ‘time-out’ ( ie a trip to the pub).

Talking of towing out on the basin itself you can see the little ‘pusher’ tug boat (a bit tautological that) as apparently it was 40% more efficient to push than to pull.

There are ample examples  of ‘canal art’, that is colourful tinware with a range of stock designs – flowers of all kinds and fanciful buildings – the myth has always been that canal folk made the most of their boat homes but missed having gardens and permanency which they always portrayed decoratively on their home wares.  You are able to go inside a butty boat and admire the lace curtains and restricted but cosy living space.
If this review seems a little random this is merely a reflection of the museum’s lay-out ; there is a leaflet which advises on the best circuit but this is not very obvious when you are somewhat in the gloom negotiating round the exhibits.  The information boards also seem to hover between telling a national and a more local story…we did think the shop offered a good range of books maps and canal related materials.

(Also – having just returned from the relevant part of France – we cannot help observing that the LCM, like most canal museums in England, declines to note the impressive achievements of the Canal du Midi, which pre-dates Bridgewater’s efforts by the best part of a century…)
 Horses go over the tunnel, while boatmen 'leg it' through...

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Kensington Palace

Wednesday 2 July 2014

Linda, back from the sunny south of France, and I, decided on a Royal Palace for today's visit:  Kensington Palace to be precise.

In 1897, Queen Victoria agreed to open the place up to the public, provided the tax-payer maintained it and left some of it for Royal accommodation, so visiting is not a new tourist experience.

We began by visiting the loos.  This sounds easy, but the signage is, to say the least, discreet, and the lights don't come on till you enter the space, so it was all a bit cryptic. And the signs, when you do spot them, are rather twee:  ladies, gents, babies in need of changing and wheelchair users all have crowns on.  Hmm.

We also found the palace rather difficult to navigate, even with the free map in hand. The reason is that you have to use different staircases to access different wings, and thus have to return to the ground floor in between. It gradually dawned on us that you could follow the coded lines on the walls, different colours and symbols for different areas.  But actually, the easiest way is to ask the staff, who are numerous, and very friendly and nice. We had thought we would do things chronologically, and start with the Queen's State Rooms which are the William and Mary bit. But in the event we came to the King's Rooms first, which is George II.

You approach via a splendid staircase, with a painting of courtiers leaning over to watch you. They include the 'wild boy' of Hanover, who was brought over as a kind of mascot for the royal household. Then a series of fine square rooms awaits you:  not much furniture, but plenty of information and the aforementioned helpful staff if you want to know more.

The rooms are embellished with models dressed in paper clothes, which seems an efficient and not-too-risky way of creating a mood. We also got snatches of Handel (who was of course George II's pet composer) from time to time.

The cupola room was where dances and parties were held, and there was a gallery for displaying pictures. You would not visit the Palace for the pictures, however, as the treasures of the Royal Collection are clearly elsewhere.

Next we moved back downstairs and, having finally understood the signage, made our way along a corridor to access the Queen's State Rooms. This has a royal time line, or at least a list of monarchs with their dates along the wall, illustrated by cushions with portraits on the bench below. Then it was up another flight of stairs to reach the Queen's Long Gallery. This is the area built for Mary II and her husband William III, and Linda had to put up with a bit of a lecture about James II, the Warming Pan Baby and, as 1066 and all That puts it, 'England ruled by an Orange.'  By the way, although you can read the text of that great work of history at the website I have linked to, a bound copy would be better, because of the illustrations.  

The Gallery looks out over what appears to be a very overgrown area of beech, so we were puzzled by references to the Queen's lovely garden in the Dutch style but, as we were to discover later, that is beyond the bit you can see from the windows.

The firebacks were decorated with tulips, and there was a lot of attractive blue and white china, which did indeed give it all a Dutch feel. Mary died at the age of 32, a reminder of how deadly small pox was, and her husband then ruled for several more years, on the constitutional pretext that he had insisted on being joint monarch rather than Consort when he first landed with his army. The suite of rooms also included a domestic sized private dining room and the Queen's bedroom. There was some furniture here, though on the whole the rooms are rather bare.

We had noticed that the ceilings had suddenly become plain and dull, so were interested to learn that this was the part of the Palace that was bombed during the Second World War. No wonder the oak paneling looked so pristine!

After you have retraced your steps, you can visit an area about the more recent monarchy, or at least the dresses of the female members, called 'Fashion Rules' and sponsored by Estee Lauder. This was a collection of clothes belonging to the current Queen and her sister from the 1950s on, and then some clothing worn by Diana, Princess of Wales. They were mostly evening outfits.

We decided against visiting the fourth area, which is about Queen Victoria as we had, in fact nipped in to that area on our way back from the Albert Memorial a few weeks ago.  Rather we headed out to find the garden, which is rather fine, and includes that tall verbena which some of us find rather difficult to grow.

All in all, a very enjoyable couple of hours.  

Now for a Scrooge-like financial tip: The Royal Palaces are not cheap, so if you were to commit yourself to visiting all 5 within a year (or within15 months for the price of 12 if you are prepared to set up a direct debit) then becoming a member is entirely worth while.  Linda and I became joint members for only a bit more than it would cost us to visit the Tower of London alone. And of course, you don't queue, but merely wave your card.  So expect us to visit Hampton Court, the Banqueting House and the Tower in the next few months.