Thursday, 28 May 2015

Vestry House Museum

Vestry Road
London E17 9NH

Wednesday May 27h 2015

Partly a nostalgia for the wonderful Walthamstow Bus Station and partly a need to include the museums with names near the end of the alphabet led Jo and Linda to plan a visit to the Vestry House Museum . The Victoria Line has maintained its early promise and delivered us on time for a quiet visit with only a few other keen half-term visitors. Like most local museums this one is supported by the local council and the building also houses the archives for said borough – Waltham Forest. As they are one of the few local authorities to put up their own blue plaques,  it is not surprising that they support and promote their museum.

One of the joys of small museums is that the staff, be they employed or volunteer, are friendly and keen to chat, unlike the ├╝ber busy and remote national Museum bodies. Also the range of exhibits is delightfully eclectic, at times seemingly random.   First a word about Vestry which I took to be a church adjunct kind of place (as in ‘born in the vestry’) where you might get dressed for performing the weekly rituals, but I gather from our in-house historian that it was in fact more like the administrative offices for the money side of the church, so offices is what this building clearly once was. They would have run the local alms houses (nearly opposite) set up for the ‘decayed tradesmens’ widows’ a misplaced adjective leaving us unsure as to which lot were decayed…and the National School fore-runner of a more public education system (see the blog entry for the ragged Schools for more detail on this).

Their star exhibit, which gets a room to itself, is the Bremer car, which looks more like a dog-cart sitting on some risky looking machinery. Its claim to fame is that it is thought to be the first vehicle with an internal combustion engine and the ‘inventor’ was a local lad, but as it never quite made into production it was hard to get excited. After nearly decaying the museum rescued it in 1933, restored it in1962 and entered into the London to Brighton run in 1963 – if I tell you it took 8 hours plus to complete the run you will get some idea of its efficiency.

The next two rooms seem to be for temporary exhibitions – one wall had a very fine display of photographs from the Contact the Elderly charity celebrating 50 years in 50 portraits of users of their service, so not specifically pertaining to Walthamstow. Still any reminder of how easy it is to get lonely and any attempt to counteract this is worthwhile. Adjacent to this was a display of 150 years of Polish migration, which most people see has occurred in four distinct phases:

1830-34   Influx of intellectuals and middle class exiles  following a revolution
1881-1920   Jewish refugees from the various eastern European pogroms or persecutions
1939-1945 World war 2 refugees of all sorts
1898 – to present day.

There are some very interesting stories and photos covering the excellent contributions and enrichment made over the centuries by this one group of migrants to the general well-being of Walthamstow, and the UK overall. The contribution from local  migrant groups includes some of the businesses they founded including  Lebus Furniture with factories locally and in nearby Tottenham – I can still remember their items being bought before the advent of MFI and the demise of furniture being ‘real wood’. Their factory also built  Mosquito planes and Horsa glider fuselages – woodwork is woodwork after all.

After these stark reminders of war time the next room had more soothing exhibits – some fashion items from early Victorian calico through to a Sixties bikini by way of a war time bridal gown – I said things were eclectic. Rather incongruously in the corner of this room, where the fine linenfold panelling has come from elsewhere, is the police lock-up for when Vestry House was home to the local police,  established earlier by Sir Robert Peel in 1829.

If downstairs was a nostalgic nod to working and leisure time in olden days Walthamstow,  the upstairs contains a wealth of interest for children, or more likely those reminiscing about their childhood.   Two local firms were hugely popular, especially perhaps in the post war era of children now firmly established as being ‘in need of play’ a big bulge in the birth rate and before the advent of TV and other electronic games. Britains, the manufacturer, in spite of the name eventually  moved production to the Far East and the company is now American-owned but we all remember both the toy soldiers and the farm animals they produced.

To recall the domestic side of life there is a reconstruction of a Victorian parlour, much reference to the ‘servant problem’ and the fairly commonly seen displays of cooking and baking utensils across the years.

Tucked away in a corner upstairs, alongside the borough’s Roll of Honour, is another reminder that Jack Cornwell was one of the youngest recipients of the VC and very much a local lad. Like many local museums these also contain the local archives which need to be viewed by appointment. Staff seemed a bit surprised that we weren't actually from Waltham Forest but we felt this little Museum did merit a visit in its own right. And the garden was a peaceful plot. 

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The Dulwich Picture Gallery

Wednesday 20 May 2015

The Dulwich Picture Gallery
SE21 7AD

Linda and I went to the Dulwich Picture Gallery partly because Linda had to be home in good time, so it was convenient, but mostly to see the Ravilious exhibition.  Photography is not allowed in this special exhibition, but you can see copies of a number of those that were in the gallery here, as well as a biography of the artist here.

We thought it was a wonderful exhibition:  curated by theme rather than by date, his prewar pictures hung alongside his war work.  This meant that his farm interiors sat beside his remarkable studies of submariners at work and at leisure;  his pictures of the coast, with bathing machines and beach huts at Aldeburgh were next to pictures of coastal defences;  his Still Lifes (Still Lives?) included a set of bomb disposal tools, and his many pictures of boats were paired with pictures of warships, leaving Scapa Flow, or in harbour in Norway.  His apparently 'natural' views are all carefully composed, often as if made with a wide angle lens, and the gentle colours often contrast with the stark subject matters.

Our only disappointment was the limited selection of postcards in the shop, given that we can't have the pictures themselves.  We also thought (as we so often do at special exhibitions) that we could have gone to the Imperial War Museum, or elsewhere, any day of the week to see these amazing watercolours, drawings and engravings.  In fact I met a lady on the bus afterwards who had been pleased to see the work that lives in her home gallery in Aberdeen.

We then had a quick look around the impressive permanent collection of the Gallery.  We have to say that after the clean lines and crisp observation of Ravilious, we found the old masters less alluring than we might otherwise have done.  There was a room full of Dutch 16th and 17th century rustic scenes, with cows, shepherds and such, and including a couple of Cuyps.  We then saw a pair of paintings by the 18th century Tilly Kettle.  I naively thought this might be a female artist, but he was a man, normally making his living by working amongst the expats in India.

An area full of Rubenses reminded us (as does watching any film with Marilyn Monroe, incidentally) that there was a time when being a beautiful woman did NOT entail a stick insect shape:  some of these Graces and Goddesses were, to say the least, chubby.

We very much admired the Rembrandts, including a picture of a girl at a window, as well as one of his son Titus as a young man. The gallery has a number of van der Veldes and Ruisdaels as well: clearly the various collectors and benefactors liked Dutch paintings. 

We enjoyed watching a couple of charming Primary School groups behaving impeccably.  The whole school seemed to have arrived, since some were in the education area, some looking round and some being shown interesting details by the in-house educators. 

We noted a couple of small Raphaels, and some Veronese too, but perhaps the most enjoyable pictures were some by Murillo, small boys and a girl with flowers:  a pleasure because they were glowing and easily visible, unlike the in-need-of-a-clean Murillo works we had squinted at a couple of weeks ago at Apsley House

All in all, it is a remarkable collection, and we enjoyed it a great deal;  but as we headed off, it was the Raviliouses which glowed in our minds.  Do go if you possibly can.

Oh yes, and their next special exhibition will be about Escher, so that will merit a revisit.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Fenton House

Hampstead Grove,
London NW3 6SP
Wednesday May 6th 2015

I would like to say this was easy to find but for some reason as you exit deep from the bowels of the earth, Hampstead Underground Station, it is the signs for those other Hampstead delights – Willow Road and Keats’ House – that catch the eye. I was almost halfway to Belsize Park before realising this was not the way to go – my hint would be to head straight up the hill the biggest sign being for the Holly Bush pub and keep going right.

Fenton House is impressively large given the now limited space available up on the hill but of course it would have pre-dated many of the other buildings, built as it was probably in 1686. It has had innumerable owners and tenants taking a whole page in the National Trust guide book but I suppose they key people were the Fentons, after whom the brick-built family home was named, and Lady Binning the last owner, avid collector and benefactor to the National Trust in 1952. Most of the owners were stolidly middle class – merchants, lawyers even a gas engineer (to the Ottoman Empire no less). There are actually only eight rooms to visit on the two main floors and then six additional rooms within the attic space on the second floor, so while grand and with beautiful pieces of furniture you can just about imagine yourself living there…

All the rooms have generous windows with excellent views over front and back gardens which are of course maintained to a wonderful standard. The downstairs rooms, as you might expect, were used for reception, dining, the smaller as a library with the upper floor for bedrooms and more intimate drawing rooms.

Rather than itemise the displays in each room it seems more straightforward to look at the different collections.

The musical instruments from the Benton Fletcher Collection in the main were re-homed (it’s not just dogs you see) post war after their original habitat was destroyed. Loosely speaking they are of the piano family, so harpsichords, virginals and even a hurdy-gurdy and you can hear one here – quite folky though a little goes a long way… also lutes – as you are all better at this than me you can fit the names to the pictures!! If you visit PM some days there are skilled performers who conjure music from these pretty little domestic sized instruments, some very beautifully decorated and hand crafted out of fine woods.

The furniture in most rooms is beautiful, appropriate to the age of the house, well maintained   and delicate rather than heavy or obtrusive so there are pretty occasional and dining tables, a travelling desk, wickerwork chairs, and a range of glass fronted display cabinets though some of these are more recent and as a novelty contained electric lighting!

The most prolific collection is the ceramic one spanning both overseas and domestic items. Downstairs you will find the rather ‘frilly’ that is rococo style Meissen figures with the usual harlequinade characters though we warmed more to the down to earth butcher and letter writer. Upstairs were less finely finished English pottery pieces, Rockingham and Staffs varied. These included one of my weaknesses – cow creamers – and coming from a family of collectors I can see how a single (widowed lady) of generous means could fall into buying several examples of miniature sheep, cows etc. There are tea-sets too though of the grotesque rather than useful variety – in fact there is very little that is of a practical nature  and as Jo would say requires an army of domestics to keep it dusted.

There is also a floor to ceiling cabinet containing a range of blue Chinese pottery – we understood that the collection of this used to be even bigger but the better pieces went to the V&A. Compared to the rather busy figurines it is always soothing to contemplate a Chinese plate or celadon bowl…

Lady Binning whiled away some of her time doing tapestry footstools but the house actually contains a substantial number of fine tapestries – some original, some facsimile in her ‘re-created’ bedroom. The Stuart pictures, though faded are finely done, and blend in with the oriental themes.

The artwork is also impressive, most evidently in the Dining Room broken through to include the morning room (oh, we love a floor plan) where some-one invested in what might be loosely termed the Camden Town Group, an Edwardian era of more modest domestic paintings – in other words you can imagine them hanging in your own house as opposed to a grand gallery though of course the Tate has a very fine collection.  

Fenton House examples include Spencer Gore, several Sickerts and a lovely Duncan Grant though he does not quite count. I would guess the buyer for this house eschewed some  of the more urban paintings of buses and gasworks but we did enjoy Dame Laura Knight’s picture of ‘Woman Getting Dressed’: she might have belonged to the group had they allowed women in.

Up on the attic floor there are still ceramics to be seen but certainly the more interesting and venerable instruments are here – possibly at risk from both beetles and the breezes from the balcony.

Although when we were let into the house we were told the balcony was not open to the public as it was wet and therefore dangerous, when the curator spotted us he deemed us ‘sensible enough’ (little does he know)  to be trusted out on the small balcony which has a wonderful view. The Shard and other distant London landmarks are now a bit ubiquitous but  unique here was the opportunity to look over the walls of various grand (and regrettably empty)  Hampstead houses. This led to a shared heated invective against absentee landlords, speculative letting and overseas investors, who had little care or loyalty for local areas or community – a situation which is scarcely likely to improve. The whole ‘footprint’ of Fenton House is impressively large when viewed from above.

What had started with bright sunshine had within the space of a tube journey turned into a damp drizzly morning so we did not see the gardens at their best, but apart from some stolid gardeners we did have them to ourselves. The National Trust have of course worked hard on the restoration side of things and there is little more to say than the formal side matches the period of the house. Within it lies also a sunken garden which I am sure would capture the sun.

Through a gap in the carefully clipped hedges and cone shaped trees you can access the produce side – at least half of this is an old orchard and additionally the Trust have used young apple branches espaliered into a low fence; it will be interesting to see how this develops. Beyond that the vegetable beds were being assiduously prepared.

A devotee of any of the collections mentioned above could have spent longer lingering but we were very happy with the ensemble experience of Fenton House – why Fenton – well the owner who was a Baltic merchant (rather touchingly his daughter was born in Riga) seems to have had his name stick and who are we to argue two hundred years later?