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.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

The Fashion and Textiles Museum - Knitwear Chanel to Westwood

Wednesday 12 November 2014

We had already visited the Fashion and Textiles Museum in Bermondsey Street, Southwark back in May, for their lovely exhibition 'Artist Textiles – Picasso to Warhol' and we do not normally expect to visit places twice, life being short and museums many.  But following our brief flurry of publicity, a few weeks back, we got a kind invitation to have one of their guided tours.  And Sue G, an occasional member of the project team, pointed out that I, as someone who knits, should not miss the knitwear exhibition.  She was right!  

I need to begin with a gripe, however:  we were clearly told that no photography was allowed, and so we took no photographs:  but throughout the tour, other people were taking pictures, both with phone and camera, and were not being stopped or even told off!  So this brief account is unillustrated, but if you click here and then on the picture, you will get a range of photos as good as anything Linda could do.

Our guide explained that knitwear used to be for undergarments, though there was avery pretty red and black knitted underskirt that was eminently wearable in any circumstances.  But the start of the twentieth century, with women extending their spheres of activity and removing their corsets, moved knitwear to the outside.  Chanel was designing and selling knitwear before the First World War.

The exhibition moves through the 1920s and 30s, showing how knit and crochet work well with the 'flapper' fashions of the day, and also included swimwear.  We three remembered that knitted, sagging woollen cossies were still around in the 1950s, when we all longed for the ruched, rayon type instead.

Machine knitting was shown along side hand knitted items of the Shetland/Fair Isle type. We saw high fashion items, Schiaparelli with the signature zip fasteners, as well as more Chanel.  And then it was on to the 1940s, clothes rationing and Make do and Mend. Clearly multicoloured garments were a fashionable way to use scraps of wool, and sitting in air raid shelters provided time to knit and be creative.  There was a brief mention of the fact that some men, particularly sailors and POWs, also knitted.

Next there was a case of the Lana Turner type of 'sweater girl' garment, and on upstairs to where fashion really started to take advantange of the flexibility of knitting (including items made from jersey, which is of course knitted, but is mainly sewn to make clothes).

Kafe Fassett led us to Quant, Westwood and Rhodes, with clothes that were more cat walk than shopping trip, and some extraordinary designs by modern students, with perspex, tin foil and many beads sewn on.

All the way through, the walls were embellished with Vogue covers, knitting patterns and other delights to keep us happy as we moved from case to case.

It was all eye catching and amazing.  I suppose the problem is that the world really has moved on:  buildings, whether public or private, are mostly kept too hot for woollen garments;  and once you go out of doors, you need something windproof and waterproof. Perhaps when the fuel runs out we shall all snuggle back into warm and beautiful knitwear.  But even if we don't, this is a lovely exhibition.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Dr Johnson's House

17 Gough Square
City of London EC4A 3DE

Wednesday November 12 2014

We had a commitment for lunch-time so an 11AM start suited us very well; Mary still being overseas, Jo and Linda arrived by bus and took a short walk from the bustle of Fleet Street and Farringdon Road. Gough Square is a surprisingly small and quiet enclave between these two more major thoroughfares. In fact Johnson lived in over a dozen different addresses during his time in London but think of this residence as ‘Johnson – the Dictionary Years’ with apologies to Sue Townsend  and Adrian Mole.

Johnson was born in Lichfield Staffordshire and seemed to have been a rather sickly child – it is thought that he had scrofula, a type of tuberculosis and seemed to suffer with his chest for most of his life.  Nothwithstanding this, most accounts and portraits depict him as singularly robust and he was clearly fond of his food. He lived from 1709 to 1784 making him a near contemporary of last week’s ‘collector’ John Hunter. Sam Johnson was no collector – in fact he had great trouble hanging on to money at all – unless you see him as a collector of words. He rented this property as it was close to his printer, a Scot named William Strahan.

The house has four stories plus a basement, where now are located the museum’s office and toilets.

The public enters into the Dining Room from a side door probably added later. Each room is simply furnished with plain tables and chairs to allow the visiting public to sit and read the copious  laminated room notes, which give some information about Johnson and his many friends and acquaintances.  Basically he moved in celebrity circles and knew the actors, writers, politicians and clergymen of the day. Unusually for the time he was open to mixing with women on an equal footing and entertained the so-called ‘blue-stockings' of the day 'along with all the men. These were formidable women who translated the classics, wrote letters and journals and travelled.  Each room contains a range of prints pictures and portraits, many of them by or copies of Reynolds, as he too was a friend of Johnson’s.  Surprisingly (to me at least) the one person he did not entertain here was his eventual biographer, James Boswell, as they met after he moved on in the neighbourhood.

From entering the dining room which is now the ticket office and shop (with a nice range of postcards giving the most famous of his quotations – it also has a neat cellaret in the corner handy for storing more stock) you enter the actual hall behind the very impressive front door. Apart from the massive chain, made by the women chainmakers of Edgbaston (pioneers of claiming for a 5 day week) and bolts there are spikes across the upper fanlight to deter any one from posting a small child thief through the top of the door! Apparently Johnson was often in debt and tended to keep front door callers at bay.

The front parlour has the original wood panelling and a rather lovely striking upright clock.  It is also the room where the museum commemorates the life and times of Johnson’s servant Francis Barber  
(probably a name given by his plantation owner in Orange County Jamaica before he was sold on when the plantation came under the hammer). But a lad when he came to England, he was sent to school by Johnson and he remained with Johnson till the latter’s death; Francis (Frank) married an English girl and was left £70 by Johnson in his will (considered  a generous legacy for a servant) . Rather movingly Francis and his wife née Elizabeth Ball moved to Lichfield after his master’s death.

Johnson had himself married another Elizabeth who was some 20 years his senior but she died soon after they moved to this house. He never remarried and apparently lived in some fear of being alone; hence perhaps the relentless socialising.  The other memorable (or not) figure depicted in this room is the Earl of Chesterfield who was supposed to be the patron and sponsor of the Dictionary but put virtually no money upfront and then only a small amount on publication. Admittedly Johnson had reckoned three years and the completed work took him seven , which is still a MASSIVE achievement when you think it took the whole French Academy forty years…

The Parlour has a Powder Cupboard even larger than the one we saw at Southside House – the ubiquitous wigs, seen in most portraits in the house needed a space somewhere.  The centrally located stairs lead up to two very handsome  adjoining rooms, a withdrawing room for ‘ladies’ to one side and Elizabeth Carter (she of the Classical translations) had a room here also.   The pretty little ‘whatnot’, a piece of furniture like a cake stand, is hers.  The delicate glass fronted bookcases hold their works. Also here you can see a chest used by David Garrick the actor; he had been a pupil of Johnson’s during his brief phase as a school teacher in Lichfield and followed him to London.  Johnsons’ father had been a bookseller, who travelled the Midlands with his stock but was not good financially and Samuel was not able to complete his education at Pembroke College Oxford when money for fees ran out…

The views from this room are charming and include a Victorian addition of a stained glass window and a memorial to Hodge, the cat (also commemorated in a statue down the square). Johnson of course would have had the real thing. One of the few artefacts in the house includes an excellent brass door knocker with Johnson as the handle bit and the cat as where you strike.

Once in London Johnson became a jobbing journalist working for a variety of publications – the ‘Rambler’ and the ‘Gentlemen’s Magazine’ – but became well known for his parliamentary reports in an era where parliament did not really allow reporting. On the basis of his facility with words he was approached to compile a dictionary. There had been attempts and compilations before but Samuel Johnson was the first to give examples and contexts for the different meanings of words often using literary quotations. Additionally he addressed all parts of speech.  Like many before and since he tried to ‘rationalise’ English spelling but soon realised this was a non-starter and stuck to the original plan of the dictionary. 

Upstairs another level is in fact the library, which probably was used as a bedroom – more portraits of friends and peers line the room. In one corner there is a video with re-enacters going through a conversation between Johnson and Boswell – the sort of questions he would have asked prior to writing the biography but also ones that enhance the visitors understanding of the man and his times. There is a stunningly lively description of the shops and delights of Fleet Street from a German satirist who lived nearby:

‘The street looked as though it was illuminated for some festivity; the apothecaries and druggists display glasses filled with gay-coloured spirits, in which Dietrich’s lackey could bathe; they suffuse many a wide space with purple yellow verdigris-green or azure light. The confectioners dazzle your eyes with their candelabra and tickle your nose with their wares…  Above this din and the hum and clatter of thousands of tongues and feet one hears the chimes  from church towers, the bells of the postmen, the organs the fiddles the hurdy-gurdies and the tambourines of the English mountebanks, and the cries of those who sell hot and cold viands in the open at street corners…  Suddenly a man whose handkerchief had been stolen will cry ’Stop Thief’ and everyone will begin running and pushing and shoving—many of them not with any desire of catching the thief, but of prigging for themselves, perhaps a watch or purse.’

 The museum visitor is offered headphones to maintain the calm atmosphere of the house.

It is on this level that you get introduced to the Thrales of Southwark (where Mr. ran a brewery: he was the money, she was the brains) and of Streatham where he lived with his wife Hester. They became close friends of Johnson, and he often spent time with them away from ‘London’.  After Henry died Johnson and Hester continued their relationship through her second marriage to her children’s Italian piano teacher. A cabinet displays her ‘tea equipage’ (tea-set to you and me) reminding us how important a ceremony this was for the times and especially the women (see Twinings Museum).

The top floor is the Garret but actually pretty roomy and with more than adequate head room. Here Johnson assembled a half dozen helpers (paid interns hopefully) who sorted his work but did not do the definitions while he worked on the dictionary – at times ‘dull work’ as he put it.  There are two volumes available to browse on the table.  It is impressive to think there was no replacement work of similar stature until the Oxford English Dictionary of the early 20th Century.

Up here are reminders that this garret was used by ARP wardens during the war for ‘R&R‘ including some music making, and that a bomb did destroy part of the roof (and neighbouring cottage) . Fortunately the house was rescued and restored and opened for paying visitors (reductions for National Trust members). It is a great place to learn more about one of London’s real characters and his salon society; he appreciated brevity and clarity so I would today have fallen short of his expectations and high standards.