Friday, 30 January 2015

Florence Nightingale Museum

2 Lambeth Palace Road,
London SE1 7EW
Wednesday January 29th 2015

Reaching this museum on public transport could not be easier, nestling as it does just below Westminster Bridge on the south side. There are copious signposts round St Thomas’s (and Guy’s) Hospital which lead you down to what passes for a car park/delivery area below ground level, and this is indeed a museum without natural light – good for conservation I guess. It is also sufficiently small that I am sure it attracts patients or patients’ relatives who may have an hour or so to spare between tests.

 Today the Museum was playing host to a lively Primary School brought to heel by a ‘Nightingale‘ clothed education officer…  I had last visited some 20 years ago when it was 2 rows of glass cases so it was refreshing  to find it had been re-configured into three information ‘pods’ .
It starts with ‘The Gilded Cage’, which is how Florence viewed her own privileged upbringing , in this case portrayed by a very vivid imitation box hedge set about with the odd rose bower. The larger exhibits are in glass display cases with contextual photos to be viewed through small spy-glass windows into the hedge – probably easier if a child as set quite low, and also awkward for spectacle wearers. There are also several head-sets offering aural accounts of Florence’s early life, travels and friendships.
‘Florence’ is now such an accepted girl’s name that we forget that her parents, made wealthy through family ownership of lead-mines, had named her after the Italian city where she was born. Had it been her sister ‘called to do good works’ would Parthenope (the Greek for Naples) have become as popular? Her parents’ honeymoon was an extensive affair which took them round Europe and Italy for some years. The girls were home-educated in languages but their father also introduced them to maths, which was unusual for women to learn, and Florence clearly benefitted by having a mind that could assess ‘supply and demand’ and translate this into figures. The sisters travelled widely through Europe and North Africa along with friends, the Bracebridges, who would  prove to be friends with influence in later life.

Life must have seemed quite boring once she returned from her travels and in 1837 Florence said she received a sign from God that she needed to serve. Always aware of the poor her initial plan was to start nursing at the nearby Salisbury Infirmary but such was the family opposition that she could not follow through; her father forbade it and mother and sister also had negative and emotional responses. Florence herself went into something of a ‘decline’ (?depression). The reason for the opposition was that respectable women did not nurse at that time – the image of the nurse then was something between a ‘camp follower’ (following ‘you man’ into battle but then more widely available for the troops) and a drunken ineffective spinster – rather in the image of Dickens’ Mrs. Gamp. Later she was allowed to go to Germany to join a Protestant convent where they did community nursing.

The second pod of the museum, covered in a wonderful array of good imitation Iznik tiles, records her progress through the Crimean conflict, one of the first overseas wars to be fully reported back home. And the reports, courtesy of TH Russell of The Times told of a casualty toll that owed more to disease than death on the battlefield. So Sidney Herbert, friend of the Bracebridges, called on Florence to look to what was happening. Meanwhile the young Brunel (**more of him next week) went out and built an Army hospital – now does this remind you of the British Army and other response to the current Ebola outbreak? – while Florence set off with her little bag of quinine and anti-diarrhoea medication with 38 other nurses. And the Bracebridges.

Once out there she found darkness (and sorted out a safety oil lamp), squalor (each nurse to have a bar of carbolic), disorder (she ordered beds/bedding) and poor food (she made sure the men had adequate nutrition by calling on Alexis Soyer to cater and to devise a safe stove) and generally brought things into order.  She provided the nurses with a uniform with a sash clearly displaying their job and it is upon these managerial skills that her reputation is appropriately founded. She called herself a ‘general dealer and storekeeper’ and had the strength of character and conviction to get what she needed out of the Army and government.   Florence also became a reluctant celebrity and although she refused to sit for any portraits – not least the famous image of her receiving the troops at Scutari – that did not stop the burgeoning British ceramics industry memorialising her in a variety of statuettes/candle holders, imitation lanterns and the like. She is reputed to have hated what she called the ‘buzz fuzz’ of all this though she did agree to sit for a bust by Steell as it was paid for by the soldiers.

The third pod – more soberly decked out as a series of wooden filing cabinets – documents her work (and to a lesser extent her life) following her return from the Crimea. A Fund had been set up in her name which she used to establish the Nightingale School of Nursing at St Thomas’ as they were sympathetic to her cause. She was very clear as to what was needed for nurses to learn and practise and how hospitals should be set up. She was a great believer in fresh air and cleanliness (soap) and felt this should be extended to family homes also. Her beliefs were so strong that she could not at first accept that cholera might be caused by polluted water rather than ‘miasma’ (bad air) and such was her influence it delayed progress on the provision of adequate sewerage. Florence wrote more than 800 assorted books and pamphlets as well as extensive and  varied correspondence. This third pod looks at her reforming zeal and legacy into the First World War using Edith Cavell as a prime example of a Nightingale-trained nurse. It also looks at her later life, punctuated by illness and accompanied by cats lived out near the old family home, depicted now in the new 'medium' of photographs.  

(Jo and I were somewhat surprised to see Edith Cavell’s dog, so long a mainstay exhibit at the Imperial war Museum has now taken up residence ‘centre pod’ so to speak! )

The legacy, her legacy, is depicted in a frieze of photos/posters/book covers round the entire room including the older styles of ward management and patient care, alongside the new.   Florence was often criticized for not supporting Women’s Suffrage or the vote and equally the Museum does not actually address the power balance in the relationship between doctor and nurse.  The photos are interspersed with ‘talking heads’, one of whom points out that often the greatest advances in medicine are made during major conflicts.

Florence Nightingale was surely a more complex person than presented here but the Museum does an excellent job in showing her undoubted gifts of organisation analysis, innovation and persistence all of which combined to make a heroine in her own time, a role model for generations and the founder of modern nursing and management.

PS Wellcome Images come free  for non-commercial use from their digital image library.

Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The Geffrye Museum

Wednesday 21 January 2015

The Geffrye Museum

136 Kingsland Road, London E2 8EA

The Geffrye Museum is very convenient for those of us who live on the route of the Overground.  I almost wrote that it 'couldn't be easier';  but in fact it will be even easier in a few years when they open their new entrance exactly opposite the exit to Hoxton Station. There is a brief description of the ambitious plans at the end of this post, and lots more on their website.

So Linda and I met at the main gate and went in at 10.00, which is opening time.  These former almshouses, dating from 1714, are a Museum of the Home.  They provide an attractive and fascinating account of the homes of the 'middling sort': the poor over the centuries not having anything much to pass on, and the very rich putting their furniture and fittings in stately homes.

From the 16th to the 18th century, these people mostly worked from home, or rather had shops and office premises which formed part of their houses.  Here, for instance, is Mr Henry Lambert, a Master ship's chandler and sail maker, in his parlour overlooking the Thames which provided his livelihood.

The Museum starts with a parade of chairs, which set the scene neatly, becoming more comfortable from the 16th to the 20th century, and then progressively less comfortable but much more artistic.

The main display is a series of rooms, each group beginning with a context-setting explanation.  The time lines are clear, with the sort of historical events most people have heard of, and cutaway drawings to show where the displayed rooms fit into everyday life.

The children's trail features Sam the dog, bewigged for the late 17th and 18th centuries, and sporting a topper for the Victorian era.

The 1630s are represented by the hall of the house, with dark table and stools to sit on;  the room is panelled, and the flooring is rush matting, rather than loose rushes as might have been the case 70 years before.  By the 1690s, there is softer floor covering, and a handsome drop-leaf desk as well as a drop leaf table.

The next moment is 1745, and attractive porcelain embellishes the room as well as fine wall coverings.

You then come to a narrow gallery from which to view the gardens.  The wall is painted with a frieze of flowers, peacocks and a very elongated horse and rider, perhaps to allow for the curve of the wall.  You can relax here and read gardening books of several vintages.

The gardens are attractively laid out, but we were not tempted, on this chilly and damp day, to explore them, instead moving on to the central space of the range of almshouses, which used to be the Chapel.  It is austerely decorated with the Apostle's Creed, the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments.  I noted particularly the phrasing of the 6th commandment as 'thou shalt do no murder' rather than 'thou shalt not kill', since I had met this before in chapels where soldiers might be expected to worship and worry about their professional duties if the balder statement were used.

Possibly my favourite room was the next one, a large space where visitors can sit and study various art books;  there was also a fine range of children's books.  But what made the room so interesting was that the walls are crowded with paintings of domestic scenes from the 18th to the early 20th century.  Here is 'Maternal Anxiety', though Linda and I both thought the baby looked fine!

Then the run of period rooms recommences, with the 1790s, books and porcelain embellishing the living space, and then 1830.  Swathes of curtain and rather oppressive carpet brought us to the 1870s, where the piano and the dried flowers in their glass dome on the mantelpiece denoted the affluence of the Victorian middle classes.

The 1890s room had an aesthetic, arts and crafts sort of atmosphere, with William Morris wallpaper, and charming tiles around the fireplace with its display shelves and porcelain.

A second parade of chairs brings the visitor into the 20th century. The Edwardian room took me shivering back to my grandmother's house, since the high backs and wings to the chairs were reminders of the draughts that whistled around as one huddled close to the fire.

The 1930s room was all walnut and rectangles, with a less-than-attractive rug on the floor;  and then came the 1960s, and something really familiar, since we started our married lives with a Guy Rogers chair, and low sideboard (though ours was white with orange handles....)

The last 'period' room is a 1990s dwelling, with smooth laminate floor, a mezzanine balcony bedroom, and an open plan kitchen area.

We then enjoyed a further room of domestic art works, this time from 1900 to the present day, and learned that the Museum holds the English Regional Chair Collection (which sounds rather like those 'order' beds at Kew or Wisley).

Downstairs is the special exhibition space, which is, at the moment, showing the plans for the new developments.  The Museum has been going for a hundred years, and the display gives visitors an outline history.  By 1906, the almshouses were empty, and up for sale.  The Peabody Trust would have demolished them and replaced them with housing, but there was a campaign to preserve them in  their historic form.  The LCC stepped up, and they became a museum, the first Curator being appointed in 1913.  A key moment was probably 1935, when visitor numbers were falling, and the Council appointed Marjorie Quennell as Curator. The History of Everyday Things in England in all its volumes showed her particular interests, and the Geffrye Museum became a centre of education as well as a home for just such 'things'.

Tragedy struck in October 1940, when people were killed in the air raid shelter constructed under the front lawn., but after the war the Museum resumed its previous life.

They now plan a major development, of which the convenient new entrance is a small part. There will be more exhibition space, so they can hang more of their 250 paintings of domestic life, and extend from living rooms into sleeping areas and kitchen displays.  They also hope to expand their 'recreation' of the almshouses, with costumed volunteers playing the part of residents from the period when Sir Robert Geffrye's benefaction provided accommodation for the 'deserving poor' of this part of Hackney.

As we headed back through the period rooms, after a refreshing cup of coffee, we were delighted to see a school group of very young children (year 1?  possible even Foundation) sitting completely engaged as they were told about one of the rooms by one of the Education team.

We shall be revisiting to note the new developments in this lovely museum.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Ben Uri Gallery

108a Boundary Road
St John’s Wood NW8 4RH
Wednesday January 14th 2015

On a very cold January morning Jo and I made our way down Boundary Road from Swiss Cottage, appreciating the wealth of seemingly well- kept social housing provided by Camden Council which lines the street from Finchley Road. Linda remembers all this stretch as a post-war bomb site so it is not surprising that the bulk of housing dates from the Fifties and Sixties as this area was gradually rebuilt. As there are blocks and estates it is difficult to keep track of numbers but once we had crossed Abbey Road (yes that one – see Routes 139 and 189there was a short stretch of mixed shops, very reflective of the area, including 108a which is the current premises of the Ben Uri Gallery.

When we spoke with Laura Jones, who welcomed us on behalf of the gallery, such is the fame that precedes us (not), she explained that these premises – essentially one of the shops using ground floor and basement for exhibition space – was the second home of the Gallery which started life in Soho. They celebrate their centenary this year with an opportunity to display rather more of the 1000 or so pieces in their collection with an exhibition scheduled for the Inigo Jones room at Somerset House later in 2015.   Having limited space means they focus on special exhibitions and this one – due to finish in February – is very aptly called Re-figuring the Fifties and features five artists. And, to use a hackneyed phrase, it very much does what it says on the tin. The five selected artists, coming after nearly a century of successive waves of Impressionist landscapes and scenes, cubism, fauvism, modernism, expressionism – and doubtless several other isms I have omitted – chose to return to figurative art. This does not mean that any of the featured ARTISTS have not been influenced by what has gone before but rather they have incorporated trends into their very personal styles. What is more each artist identified very closely with the areas where they lived and worked, and this gives their art a special edge.

LS Lowry, the enigmatic rent collector, needs no introduction and there are several of his works on display here – closely identified with Salford and the factory gates, the works here show smaller groups and more individual pieces though to call them portraits did not feel quite right – there are faces but we were not sure they were real people except perhaps for the professor bent against the weather (rather like today). Lowry’s work is always pleasing but while his name might have tempted people over the threshold it was not his work that lingered in the memory.

The other male artist, Josef Herman (a Polish-born Jew, hence the Ben Uri Gallery links) worked for many years in a Welsh mining village where he recorded the lives of the workers. His paintings are often very dark and at a superficial level do not photograph or reproduce that well; they do however convey absolutely what it takes George Orwell several chapters to convey (see ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’) – namely the weary demeanour of those who spend their working life underground, under pressure and at the time he was recording their lives (just as the coal industry had been nationalized) probably underpaid. I loved the chap in the canteen with his hot (sweet?) tea. 

Neither of the male artists made an especial study of women or children so it was refreshing to find a roomful of paintings whose main subjects were children – sometimes babes in arms in what can only be seen as echoes of the classic Madonna and Child depictions through the centuries, sometimes with their mothers, sometimes alone or a delightful sketch of a young boy entrusted to hold his younger baby sibling – you can practically hear the guiding adult ‘off-screen’ so to speak. Eva Franfurther had lived in Soho and worked as a 'nippy' or at least for J. Lyons Tea Room so the portraits of her fellow workers are very evocative.  She also befriended them enough to paint them ‘relaxing’ or more accurately resting after work.  These include West Indian (as they were called at the time) families and also a wonderful family group from the East End where she also lived and painted. The children are realistic and natural but as an artist she captures more than just the image of a good photographer.  Joan Eardley in Glasgow was doing similar work amongst the equally deprived of her community - 
Though not a native Scot she embraced both the countryside and people and her works on display here show a really empathy with her subjects.

The last artist featured in this excellent exhibition is Sheila Fell  whose work was bought and admired by Lowry and whose father was a miner – she too painted them and her native Cumbria, in bold shapes and colours. Less inclined to feature children than her fellow artists she nevertheless has a strength and energy and in her paintings which include more formal commissioned portraits as well as the ordinary folk whose lives she recorded.

We both greatly enjoyed this modest but absorbing exhibition which drew together contemporaries from the Fifties (the women all died in their forties) who had all chosen figurative painting  as their preferred interpretation,  but which gave a wonderful range of subjects, approach and execution within these boundaries.   

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Hackney Museum

1 Reading Lane
London E8 1GQ

Wednesday January 7 2015

HAPPY NEW YEAR – our followers may well have wondered whether we had faded away as we have never left such a long gap (3 weeks) between blog entries but we were back in full force today with an additional visitor, Mary’s sister who happens to be a Hackney resident. When bus blogging we always had a few routes up our sleeve to post while resting but not so with the museums, which in some cases have rather special opening times. This year we were not so much resting as recovering from a range of heavy colds that could not possibly be flu as we were all fully immunised?? TMI.

Hackney Museum is part of the Town Hall Square (plenty of room to demonstrate out there if necessary) and is in a glass building beside the newly cleaned Town hall.   The Museum is fully accessible in every sense of the word and was designed to appeal to all ages and interests – I would defy you not to find something to hold your attention.

The ground floor and spacious exhibits are arranged thematically rather than purely chronologically, with topics where historical events, artefacts and records can be linked to Hackney today through photos/ films/ interviews (several phone lines are posted round key exhibits) and some hands on things for not just younger visitors. A small scale Number 38 bus (old style) takes pride of place next to an actual old fire cart (engine would be too flattering a description). The most valuable and probably oldest artefact is the log boat, displayed underfoot under glass, which the early settlers would have used to get along the River Lea, an important route for  the borough.
Another treasure taking pride of place was a trove of gold coins found only in 2007.  The Sulzbacher family arrived in Hackney in the late Thirties, refugees from Nazi Germany – Martin was interned in Australia (!) while his wife and four children were sent to the Isle of Man, leaving his parents and brother plus family in their Hackney home. The latter were killed by a 1940 bomb though Martin and his immediate family were later re-united. One jar of gold coins, buried at the onset of war, was recovered in 1951, but the second one not found until 2007 by which time Martin had died.  However, the rest of the family did inherit and donated a gleaming gold coin – actually a US Dollar – to the Museum.

Other treasures donated by former residents form part of the Chalmers Collection, a few  items of which are displayed within a context of  replica interiors of Georgian & Victorian Housing.  In the 1800s the former fields of Hackney came to be known as the ‘home of the clerks’ and Mr Chalmers was one such (an incomer from Scotland) and bequeathed his art etc collection to Hackney with an annuity allowing them to commission new works of art – and indeed the more up to date works by current Hackney artists are equally on display.

For many years the borough was barely built up – in fact it was renowned for its market gardens (to supply ever hungry Londoners) and as an off shoot from these, more exotic nurseries too. The Loddiges,  for example – George and Conrad, whose father had settled from Germany 
– ran a nursery near Mare Street and after their business finished the exotic specimens are still to be found round the borough, Abney cemetery being one of the many places where their  non-European plants still survive.

I’m not sure the Loddiges were fleeing persecution but what the exhibitions make very clear is how many of Hackney’s residents past and present came searching for a new life with ‘A Safe House  & Free Speech’. The borough has long been home to generations of the Jewish community, the more devout of whom have settled round Casenove Street in Stamford Hill.

Other seekers after refuge included the large group of dissenters who were apparently not allowed to practise their particular brand of non-conformist Christianity within London itself – thus Hackney provided a safe place for them to live and worship more freely at the requisite 5 mile distance.  Daniel Defoe was one such notable dissenter, and he  was apt to ridicule both the established church and some of the more fervent anti-establishment followers  for which he was charged and literally pilloried – that is put in the stocks.   

The following centuries saw successive dissenters later known as refugees each leaving a legacy in the borough – for instance the French Hospital or the Vietnamese Centre.  They came looking for looking for refuge but also for work and by the 19th and 20th centuries there were small workshops available to join or even set up yourself. An interesting section looks at some of the relics of local industry – hot metal or old-fashioned type setting and dressmaking have long flourished, and before their trade/product was seen as barbaric furriers also thrived in Hackney; then there are machines used by hatters and most interestingly you can see how long it would have taken you to assemble a match-box: less than a certain number within the hour and you were likely to go hungry or lose the roof over your head.  Shoe-making was another popular local trade.

Talking of roof over your head – a corner of the museum is devoted to the changing housing needs and provisions within the borough, from the clerks’ houses of the early 1800s to the 19th century villas – later sub-divided into rentable (then more latterly sellable flats) – to the impressive amount of local authority provision : a replica kitchen from a GLC era flat is on display and explanations provided of how the insanitary ‘slum dwellings’ of earlier construction were either bombed or destroyed to be replaced by flats in the sky, themselves later razed to the ground.  This website gives a range of local views on the flats old and new. 

The ‘No Choice – No Voice’ section looks at the most dispossessed who have passed through Hackney ; while no-one is pretending that racism within the borough no longer exists earlier overseas residents did far worse – the early black residents, usually brought over as slaves/servants had no rights, and particular other groups fared no better. Lascar sailors were often abandoned after their ships had docked until the East India Company  was obliged to provide a shelter for their former ‘employees’ who helped create the wealth of Empire. Likewise exploited were the Ayahs, Indian nannies for UK children who found themselves brought over with the returning families and then left in limbo if not re-employed.

Another group of women without which the National Health Service would have crumbled were the large contingent of Caribbean nurses – recruited specially in the 1950s. The Museum has devoted a special exhibition to this group of formidable practitioners, many of whom have now reached retirement age. They of course have a voice which can be heard here at the displays, which is more than some of the patients of the former ‘madhouses’ of Hackney had – once ‘locked up’ (and you could be for little more than   giving birth illegitimately) you had few rights and no voice.

The one thing I would have found useful was a large scale map – old or new – to locate some of the places mentioned. For those of you who are interested in more statistics here is a Greater London website, which looks at certain well being statistics for the borough The only map on display was rescued from a corner at Dalston Junction – one of the boroughs busiest crossroads – where it may have confused many folk who are more accustomed to looking at a map with North at the top rather than randomly out to the side: maybe it made more sense when in place but I’m not sure?

Part of the heritage of the borough was also the advent of transport – for Hackney this  was mainly buses as its underground stations are sparse – so the model of the bus and an early bus map (nostalgia here for the LWB) underlined the importance of links to work and play and further afield.

This was the first of our ‘local borough’ museums and we had anticipated something  small  and perhaps dusty, but we would challenge anyone, even if not a local resident, not to find this a fascinating, clear and well -presented tribute to the people and history of Hackney, and ultimately London.