Thursday, 30 April 2015

Apsley House

Wednesday 29 April 2015

149 Piccadilly, Hyde Park Corner W1J 7NT

After our brief flurry of fame thanks to Alexei at Time Out ( if you missed it!) and the raucous reaction of our nearest and dearest at our being described as 'twinkly pensioners', Linda and I returned to normal, with a visit to Number One, London, as Apsley House is sometimes known.

You will not remember, but we had planned to visit the place after a trip to the Wellington Arch, only to find that it was closed.  This time we checked the website.  Closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, and not open till 11.00 it said, so we duly arrived and went in. No photography is allowed, though there are many images on the internet, so they are my illustrations.

We were by no means the only people waiting to get in, but being members of English Heritage meant we did not have to queue for tickets. EH does not charge for the audio guides, but we found them of limited value, though the introduction to each room was helpful.  The entrance hall contains many pictures and busts of the Duke of Wellington, since this house is a shrine to the memory of our greatest war leader. (What if the much more beloved Nelson had survived Trafalgar to win more naval battles during the years when there were no victories on land, I wondered)
My favourite picture was of him 'Riding home to retirement in 1853':  no crowds, just an elderly man at the end of a political career.

Next we went into the Museum Room, full of presents from foreign powers, and oddly reminiscent of the Vatican or (for those old enough) the Lenin Museum in the days of the USSR:  a range of silverware, Field Marshals' batons, dinner sets with scenes from his campaigns. In the middle is a table ornament of Egyptian design, originally given by Bonaparte to Josephine as a divorce present, but subsequently presented to Wellington by the restored French monarchy.  We did not like it, though it would certainly have prevented the bad manners (in those days) of talking to the people opposite at table.  The lighting was so dim that reading the captions was a trial. (see below about the brightly lit porcelain displayed in the basement)

The stairwell contains an extraordinary statue of Bonaparte as Mars. Bonaparte was apparently embarrassed (he is wearing nothing but a fig leaf, and was not very tall, not to mention being rather more portly by the time he took delivery of the statue in 1811). Oddly enough, a small version, and without fig leaf, is in the Wallace Collection. More endearing was a picture of the elderly Wellington with Queen Victoria and the infant Prince Arthur.

The landing upstairs displays a full length portrait of Bonaparte in military uniform, but clearly being imperial;  it is paired with a similar sized picture of Wellington, in civvies (he usually wore a blue coat and cream breeches to go into battle, rather than uniform).  So the message is clear:  the triumphalist loses, and the modest man wins. Both 46 years old at Waterloo, they had both had their military education in France, but there the similarities end, since Wellington had never been a revolutionary and was anyway from a much higher 'class' than his enemy.  Wellington was to regret in later life that his whole image was based on his 'saving' of Europe at Waterloo, but virtually the whole of Apsley House is about his military career.

The upstairs is a circuit, so we began with the striped drawing room, which a contemporary (according to the sound guide) called 'a private Valhalla'. It contains pictures of many of Wellingtons officers, including Beresford, Alava and Murray.  The Piccadilly Room contains a Titian of Danae, though this is not mentioned on the sound guide or in the Room literature, because it has only recently been accepted as an original and displayed here.  Much more interesting was a David Wilkie picture actually commissioned (and paid for) by the Duke, showing old soldiers receiving the news of Waterloo.  There was also rather a good Maes of a maidservant eavesdropping on some lovers.

The Portico Room contains memorabilia of the Duke's old age, including his false teeth and hearing aids.  We should have found it useful to have some kind of a time line, or biography of the man, so we could have put him in the context of his era.  It's all right for people like me, who studied and taught History, but other people may not know what happened when.  

There are two dining rooms.  One is, we supposed, the informal eating place, and the other the magnificent Waterloo Banqueting Room. The table, which used to seat 35 men every year for the anniversary dinner, is crowned with the magnificent silver ornament which was a gift from the Portuguese, Britain's allies throughout the Peninsular War. The names of the battles are surrounded by nymphs and other mythical symbols. We should have appreciated some kind of crib, but neither the audio guides nor the captions had any detail.  Again, some of us know the names and significance of Vittoria, Salamanca, Badajoz, but I'm not sure everyone does.

The portraits round the wall are of the monarchs of the League against Bonaparte, but there are also many 'Old Masters', though a number of them are more from League 1 than the Premiership.  They are almost all in need of cleaning, which seems a pity. There was a little Breughel (Elder) of the animals entering the Ark, but it was frankly dingy. The wonderful Velasquez Water Seller, as well as his portrait of Pope Innocent X are here. Some of the pictures are hung so high that we (well, I actually) had to keep asking the room attendants the titles and artists concerned. They mostly had better eyes than us, but I don't really understand why there cannot be a full list in each room. If I had a couple of Murillos, a Rubens and the odd Correggio I would get them cleaned and hang them so they can be appreciated.

Next we visited the Yellow Drawing Room, which contains Wellington's grand piano, one of the first ever made, by Americus Backers. This website tells you all you could possibly want to know about pianos, but says that the Duke's model is in Edinburgh. The Duke was a more than competent musician, and the sound guides told us that his father had put him in the army to deter him from becoming a professional violinist.

Finally we headed down to the basement, where the loos were handsomely old fashioned. I can only assume that EH, or the current Duke, are not on metered water, as the tradional chain flush was amazingly extravagant.  The stairs down were filled with etchings of Wellington's funeral, almost impossible to see in the dim light, which was a pity.  Similarly, there was a wall of cartoons of the Duke, mostly hostile, but without any explanation at all. Some of us may know why he is depicted as a lobster, though I doubt if it is general knowledge.  EH might like to send someone to look at the way cartoons about Napoleon are on display at the British Museum, or indeed head to the Cartoon Museum.  The other puzzling thing in the basement was a case of porcelain which was brightly lit so we could actually admire the pieces:  puzzling because, in the Museum Room upstairs, the lighting was crepuscular, making it difficult to see the objects and especially the captions. If dim light is a conservation essential, what's going on in the basement?  However we did enjoy some of the other objects: Bonaparte's travelling coffee set, as well as some eagles and Wellington's campaign dining service.

The shop is very stark, containing only material about the man and the battle, in contrast to most EH shops which are full of toys, posters and other fun items.  I suppose this may be because the house is still used by the current Duke of Wellington.

All in all, we very much enjoyed the visit, despite the various criticisms in the account above.  The fact that it had stopped pouring with rain by the time we were ready to leave was a bonus.

Monday, 20 April 2015

The Horniman Museum

100 London Road
Forest Hill
London SE23 3PQ
Thursday April 16 2015

Whether this can be truly called a museum outing is a bit debateable – with all of us involved in family related health problems this week and for some time to come it was difficult to arrange a planned combined visit. However as Linda has lived on the Horniman’s doorstep for the past 40+years it seemed acceptable that she should ‘wing’ this report a little.

The Museum's  history is not untypical of many created in the Victorian era – private collector (Frederick John Horniman was a tea importer) who collected varied objects from his world-wide trips and then ran out of space at home – the first displays were in his home up on Surrey Mount and then in 1898 he had Charles Townsend build the dedicated museum near the top of the hill, with its entrance on the main road, which is now the South Circular. A Jubilee era extension almost doubled the capacity of the museum, and moved the entrance so you now go in from the surrounding park or, more correctly, gardens.

For us the Museum is indivisible from its surrounding gardens which are a real glory. They boast a children’s play area, theme based on musical instruments, a proper elevated band stand, a small animal enclosure (small area: some small animals but quite hefty alpacas included) an education centre, an African garden, vegetable allotment and formal  walled flower garden ringed by seats and often a suntrap. On a clear day you can see as far as the Wembley Arch & Hampstead in the north of London and even moderate visibility gives you the Shard.

The Museum has three substantive and permanent collections and a changing series of ticketed special exhibitions. The Aquarium is beautifully presented with most fish presented at adult knee height thus really involving the visiting children.   In 2013 it won Children’s museum of the Year and it is really VERY child-friendly with clearly worded low hanging exhibition labelling – and interactive sections in all parts of the collections. This makes it very busy during the school holidays but also in term time with significant number of school parties on organised outings. As former pupils of Horniman Primary School you can imagine how familiar our own children were, especially as they also spent part of the holidays doing exhibit-related craft workshops. Today it was still close enough to the beginning of term for there to be very few visitors and I certainly had two sections to myself.

I started with the Musical instruments collections which is hugely impressive, embracing as it does anything you might wish to blow, suck, bang or pluck from round the world.   It just so happens that twenty sorts of woodwind and the noise they make does not greatly interest me but may well hold fascination for most other less philistine museum visitors than myself. The children’s hands-on area was being happily used by some push-chair aged toddlers and was very suitable for tinies.

The musical instruments used to be up in one of the galleries but had moved into the newer build Centenary gallery which opens out of the three story atrium – a lovely space today only adorned by some Chinese lanterns but allowing for book launches, performances and lots of visitors.

Meanwhile the ethnographic collection – masks, puppets, headdress, votive offerings, fertility symbols from different faith and culture groups – had migrated into the older galleried exhibition hall dating from 1902, so imagine something like the set from ‘Night at the Museum’  and you will get the picture.

Most scary in this section is the avenging god Kali dancing on the body of Shiva.  
Before the museum was re-arranged these exhibits used to be softened by a rather endearing statue of the half bull Nandi and the odd elephantine Ganesha but they seemed in short supply today. More colourful were the artefacts from Polynesia and Guyana. The Horniman curators have taken great care in presenting these objects but even so it does sometimes feel like a museum of museum displays. The African worlds have another gallery to themselves and this feels more cohesive, with the separate tribal regions presented in both a historic and contemporary context; of course many of the people concerned live locally and are able to contribute.

Most famous and most unreconstructed are the Natural History Galleries with their serried ranks of glass display cabinets illustrating different wild life and domestic species.   Probably grouped more for their visual impact than any other taxonomy they are a testament to the not so dying art of the other t-word – taxidermy. I gathered from a recent launch of Kate Mosse’s last novel – The Taxidermist’s Daughter – that this nearly forgotten Victorian skill (and real artistic skill is required) is finding some resurgence amongst modern artists.

The most famous exhibit is of course the ‘over-stuffed’ Canadian walrus who has held centre stage on his ice-floe for over a century – when the museum was remodelled in 2002 there was an outcry when there was talk of not including him so here he still sits making a handy ‘meeting point’ on the first floor. What’s more I had forgotten how cosy this floor of the museum is and how we used to arrange Sunday PM viewings to economise on the home heating! Our favourite remains the dodo which you can find both here and in the garden.

If I have a criticism of the Museum it would be getting from one section to another as it does sometimes feel like three separate spaces not very clearly connected and you could easily lose a child in one of the less popular galleries…

Anyway if you follow the directions for shop and café – all on the ground entrance floor – you will find your way out with both facilities offering a good range of gifts and a popular indoor/outdoor eating space. The adjacent grand Victorian conservatory or crystal palace hosts additional functions. In the end my revisiting of this South East London gem was well worth while, as indeed your visit will prove.   

Friday, 10 April 2015

The Whitechapel Gallery

77-82  Whitechapel  High Road,
 London E1 7 QX
Wednesday  April  9 2015

Today’s museum outing was prefaced by another (yes, we feel entitled to be blasé having already been in the Evening Standard and Guardian and on BBC and ITV) meeting with the press – this time Alexi  Duggins, Editor at Large (that means he gets to leave the office – a lot) from Time Out who have previously given us a boost  and reference though not a full article. I think the element he found most intriguing was that we stuck at one thing whereas I suppose his professional life is defined by variety and novelty.

Very helpfully he and his photographer had alerted the gallery that they were coming and this allowed us to take a few photos, and be escorted by Alex, the Gallery’s press and PR officer.

 The gallery has a long and venerable history and we liked the fact that it was founded in the spirit of Victorian philanthropy – the Barnetts strike again! – and the wish to bring art to the East End, and also allow locals to exhibit.  (Though to prove that philanthropy is not always modest, we have been interested to learn that it lost a chance for a substantial donation from John Passmore Edwards when, unlike the Library next door, it declined to call itself the Passmore Edwards Gallery.)  The South East London member of the party is pleased to note that architect for the Gallery, Charles Harrison Townsend, is also the man who designed the Horniman Museum.

From 1901 the Whitechapel Gallery has stood at the heart of a changing community showcasing the work of a range of contemporary artists for free and welcoming in the locals – most galleries that do not house permanent collections are to be found ‘up west’ and are essentially commercial. There was a great range of limited editions prints should you have the wall space.  The original purpose designed building was revamped in the Eighties and in 2009 almost doubled its exhibition space by incorporating the Passmore Edwards Library from next door – the fusion of the two buildings works extremely well and we loved the space and light within before we had even entered any of the display galleries. It is no accident that two previous directors, Charles Aitken and then Sir Nicholas Serota, went on to helm the Tate Gallery(ies). Their reputation has been in hosting more challenging exhibitions, but also those that draw on the local community.   

The downstairs room had just closed its exhibition about the ‘black square’ looking at abstract art which has been around longer than you might think.   We were upstairs enjoying the energy of Peter Liversidge’s ‘Notes on Protesting’ where he had worked with a local Tower Hamlets School (Marion Richardson, she of the handwriting) to get primary age children to think about what they disliked and wanted to change. Anything that politicizes and activises young people must be good and we agreed with most of their choices: banning dog poo (or at least clearing it properly) and helping poor people ranked high and were straightforward and laudable. A plea to do away with Homework is not new and as Jo said years of research has not really proved whether making younger children (as young as 4+) ‘do homework’ actually improves their learning or achievements overall. I suppose for secondary age pupils the time might be too short to cover the curriculum without doing some of it out of school?? Anyway I digress – There must be an improvement in school meals as these did not feature greatly in the protests.  As part of the artwork the children were filmed doing their ‘protesting’ Peter Liversidge likes to combine documentation and performance in his conceptual art.

Gallery 7 a lovely airy space was used to display a range of works curated by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye. This exhibition is entitled ‘Natures – Natural and Unnatural ‘ with works generally redolent of Spring so the whole room has a positive but peaceful air to it. She has drawn on contributions from the Moscow based V-A-C  gallery (a fairly recent post Glasnost collection hoping to showcase home-grown more modern art ) broadly referencing nature in its content.  Warhol’s screen print of a dairy cow was based , as is often the case, on some advertisement, and is quite reminiscent of ‘la Vache Qui Rit’, a childhood favourite – persevere with this website and you will get an irreverent gallop through two millennia of ‘art’ cow style.

Talking of familiar tropes – there were sunflowers  about as cheerful as you can get – this time thanks to David Hockney rather than Van Gogh but with the obligatory wilting bloom  - always there as a ‘vanitas’ symbol of the brevity of life.

We enjoyed the masked people (or were they blooms?) by Enrico David not quite dancing like the Russian artist gyrating to Hendrix’s ‘Voodoo Child’ on the grave of his father, not so much in disrespect as joy.  An eclectic and stimulating choice.

The Whitechapel Gallery does not have a substantive collection so we had taken ‘pot luck’ with today’s visit but were overall impressed greatly enjoying the building and its facilities – large  and largely serious bookshop, airy streetside café and renovated basement loos. But of course the art was what we took  away on this marvellous spring day.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The Museum of London

Wednesday 1 April 2015

150 London Wall
Barbican EC2Y 5HN

It would clearly be a lie to say that the Museum of London is impossible to find, since Linda and I found it.  But it was not easy.  Linda naively arrived at Moorgate Station, expecting to follow the upper walkway round to the entrance. She had, of course, forgotten Crossrail, which has made the area round Moorgate - well - challenging.

And I arrived on the TfL recommended cycle route, emerging from the admirably permeable Barts area to see Museum of London in huge letters, accompanied by the Dancing Men from the Sherlock Holmes exhibition, on the round building in front of me.  So I crossed the very dangerous road, walked all round the circular structure, which has no entrances;  fortunately I was also looking for cycle parking and saw, back across the road, a small sign pointing to a lift and some stairs.  Thus, dicing with death across the road again, I was able to get upstairs and meet Linda at the entrance.  Signage? nul points.

But never mind that.  After exchanging family news, we went to drop our bags off. The lockers by the main entrance are not available, and so went downstairs, through the gift shop. The lockers, which cost a non returnable pound, swallow your money while leaving the locker open, if you turn the key after putting stuff in. Fortunately some charming staff said we could get a token the information desk (back upstairs). Clearly this often happens, an issue which could be sorted by -yes! - clear signage.

It is a measure of what a marvellous museum this is that even after these false starts, leaving me in somewhat tetchy mood, though Linda was as calm as always, we really enjoyed ourselves.

We were impressed by some poems written by local students inspired by Latin phrases;  sadly I can't find them on line, but this one may be just about legible, if you enlarge it.  We passed swiftly through the pre-Roman and Roman displays, not just because there were large groups there, but also because we remembered them well from earlier visits. We slowed down for the Anglo Saxons, and all the evidence of their Europe-wide trading links, and then carried on through the Middle Ages.  We liked the way the various trade goods were labelled 'The French Connection', 'The Italian Job', and 'Vorsprung Durch Technik', and reflected what a treasure house the Thames has been for 'bits' of ancient commerce. The model of the former, Gothic, St Paul's Cathedral also impressed us.

It was at this stage that we began to feel that our visit today was linking to many of the other museums we had been to. The Black Death exhibits reminded us the various medical museums we have been to, and there was a bell produced in a foundry which ceased to exist after the plague.

Of course the Black Death, wiping out one in three Londoners, meant that wages rose afterwards, and we enjoyed the section about the many industries of London, including metal and ceramic work, and many trades connected with the river.  There was a very good section about the remarkable growth of the printing industry, leading very easily into the 16th century, and the religious upheavals which ensued as more and more people could read the Bible for themselves.

The 16th and 17th centuries of course mean theatre and Shakespeare, and quite a lot of space was devoted to the various theatres built to the south of the river.

Tudors also liked eating, and the item I most coveted was a clockwork wagon-and-tun which could trundle along the table., dispensing rose water, which would make the diners' hands at least smell nice.  You can see a little more about it here.

There were some domestic displays, but we have to say that the Geffrye Museum does them better. 

We didn't go into the Sherlock Holmes Exhibition, as I had been before, but it is well worth a visit in its few remaining days.

A jump into the 21st century came next, because Simon had told us not to miss the Cauldron, so we turned into its own special gallery.  And how right he was:  there was film of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, and talking heads, so we met the designer, Thomas Heatherwick, some of the skilled metalworkers and some of the athletes.  Did you know that the petals were all different?  A display showed us which countries had which design between Olympics and Paras, and we saw versions of each one, as well as photos of the originals back in their home countries.

Then we returned to the story of London, with a pleasure garden of the 18th century was charming, with some film of ladies ready to go into the 'dark walks' with their beaux.  The Expanding City enabled us to have a canter through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  

We saw Chelsea ceramics which, we have to say, are not much to our taste, and a fine display about the Chartist movement, before moving on past images of notable Londoners, some better known than others.  Some of our previous trips were reflected in pictures of Dr Johnson, Elizabeth Fry (it's some time since we were at the Clink) and Florence Nightingale.  We had not known about the Hungarian-born impresario Imre Kiralfy, but we do now!  And Kamal Chunchie of the Coloured Men's Institute also gets a portrait.

Linda remembers going through the wonderful Selfridges doors to visit Santa, and there were several other Art Deco frontages as well.

A series of posters provided snapshots of the class war of the late 19th century, accompanied by some minor crown jewels and the Queen's bonnet from her 1887 Jubilee.

More recent posters included wartime propaganda, together with some evacuees' suitcases, gas masks and photos of bomb sites.

Then there was the placard carried in the 1970s by the Protein Man, though 'anti-protein' better describes his passionate belief.

We finished with a round up of fashion, echoing our two visits to the Textile and Fashion Museum, and taking in Mary Quant as well as sports clothing, before heading back tot he lockers and the exit.

We had by no means seen everything this splendid museum has to offer, and so may well be back, probably before, but certainly after the planned move to Smithfield in 2021.