Saturday, 19 December 2015

The Design Museum

The Design Museum
28 Shad Thames SE1 2YD

Thursday 17 December 2015
The Design Museum will be moving to what used to be the Commonwealth Institute in Kensington soon.  It's going to close in June 2016 and reopen about a year later.  So Linda and I thought we would visit it while it is in its convenient location for us both.  Not that we were helped by TfL's idiosyncratic Journey Planner, which suggested it was a 25 minute walk from London Bridge Station when actually you would have to dawdle to take more than 10 minutes.

We began with their special exhibition entitled 'Cycle Revolution' which was very interesting though rather evangelical.  An introductory film of many cycling notables said that the move to city life made cycling the best way to get about, and pointing out that in Copenhagen 45% of journeys to work are by clcyle compared to 5% in London. On the other hand, I don't think Copenhagen is full of HGVs and construction traffic inching through narrow roads.

The exhibition had a section about cargo bikes, including photos of a fine pram cycle and a stretcher from the Second World War, as well as the real things from early 20th century grocers' delivery to modern day carriers for goods or children.

The walls were lined with cycles of all sorts, as well as accessories and what we took to be an air bag for a cyclist's skull. And there was a large section of folding bikes, from the first Bromptons and Bickertons to current more space age and convincing ones. Clearly with bike theft and bike storage being two of London's many problems, these are a part of the future.


Next we came to a side-section about the bespoke cycle makers, with their snappy slogans and obsessive commitment to perfection. Some of these are women, some have witty names like 'Bespoked', but all have in common the wish to design the ideal bicycle.  

So it was worth having another look at the original Raleigh safety bicycle, from the 1880s to remind us that most design changes are really tweaking of the original shape and function.

We moved on then to a section called 'The Thrill Seekers' with film of BMX, mountain biking and (I think, though they were so covered in mud it was hard to tell) cyclo-cross.

The next section had to be about road racing and especially that British speciality, the Tour de France. Linda is not interested in cycling, so I was anyway very grateful for her tolerant willingness to visit the show.  But now she had to put up with a lot of nerdy stuff about the need to put the team logo on the yellow jersey between the finnish and the podium, and why this one was not all sweaty.

There were fascinating infographics (to me!) about the statistics of the race, the contents of the Sky Team cars and the contents of the musettes that feed the riders.  Linda was interested to know that competitors could change bikes or, indeed, get off and push. The person who came last in the 2015 TdeF took 89 hours, 43 minutes and 13 seconds, five hours longer than Froome.  And of the 198 who started, 160 finished/

Oh, yes, and the 2016 route has been published.

We move on to look at track cycles, extraordinary gadgets with no gears and no brakes, anything to reduce the weight.
You can of course learn this arcane skill or simply watch while you have a cup of coffee, at the Olympic Velodrome.

Linda's patience having been tested, we headed downstairs, past a fine sculpture made of frames, and some road signs, including a mobius strip warning triangle, to reach the gallery where the winners of the Designs of the Year 2015 are displayed.

These are voted for and range from fashion items to buildings, with some strange and wonderful things in between.  We noted that socially worthy items had tended to get the most votes, including a system for ridding the oceans of the plastic flotsam which occupies thousands of square miles. Also a programme that prints 3-D prosthetics in South Sudan and an excellent filtering and composting toilet for villages and camps with no running water.

Then there was a gadget to fix to your cows's tail so you know when she is going into labour.

And a wheel chair with the shock absorbers built into the wheels.

We paused briefly by hats, furniture, potential schools, new fonts and typefaces, and then spotted a new take on those dangerous immersion heaters for cups of coffee we used to have as students in the 60s (the 1960s, that is) This one menas you don't use a kettle, but rather a kettle base and whatever container you need to bring your water to the boil.  we thought this rather clever, though we have not had much difficulty in only part-filling our kettles.

There was also a display by the designers in residence at the museum, but we were somewhat 'designed-out' by the time we reached them.  There is a lot to see and we had a good time.  We hope their move to Kensington goes well.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Victoria & Albert Museum

Cromwell Road, London SW7 2RL
Thursday December 10 2015

We should really stop going to all the special exhibitions but it is difficult to avoid when the end dates approach and time runs out. Talking of time – we badly misjudged our meeting today standing effectively at opposite ends of the South Kensington tunnels so were a bit later into the Museum than intended. Fortunately, this is an exhibition with mainly large objects and the Museum had provided good clear labelling which could be read from afar.

The V&A, as it’s often known, is the UK’s premier arts and crafts museum housed in one of Albertopolis’s most exuberant and fitting buildings. The substantive collection is arranged variously by country, type (the sculpture galleries surrounding the central enclosed garden, for example, but also ceramics, furniture, fashion etc) and era – the ‘Art of the Renaissance’ and the most recently opened galleries ‘Europe 1700-1815’ which brings together all the artefacts of particular movements. Past special exhibitions have looked at themes such as ‘Gothic’. Photography is often featured – Julia Margaret Cameron for one but we had seen her work very recently down the road at the Science Museum!

Today it was the turn of the textiles to shine as indeed some of them did.

We really approved of the first part of the special  exhibition, 'The Fabric of India'
which looked closely at the constituent elements  of what goes into fabrics and the skills needed to produce the wealth of colour and show that India – taken here in its historic sense as a continent including the now separate or contested bits of Pakistan and Bangla Desh and Kashmir. In this section each exhibit was accompanied by a small map of the area of provenance and where possible a short subtitled film showing the different skills and processes involved in the largely hand-made production of different fabrics.

Naturally there was no photography allowed so I have looked at the Indian fabrics I have at home and tried to link them with the appropriate headings bearing in mind that what was on display was old valuable heritage work whereas what I have is pretty standard Indian handicrafts for tourism and export.

As what we associate most with India is colour the exhibition starts with a clear exposition of where the various natural dyes come from, including Indigo which needs no ‘fixer’ as long as the cloth is fully submerged during the dying process. Indigo is a derivative of India.  Pomegranate skin, rather surprisingly turns cloth a somewhat drab khaki (also a sub-continent word) and you need the likes of beetles and other root plants to achieve a more credible red colour. As the plants are not native to the UK you will need to imagine them – turmeric being the easiest to find in your spice cupboard. Tying cloth –  ‘bandhani’ means to tie – will achieve pattern and designs a lot more sophisticated then the Sixties 'tie-dye' we all attempted. 

Another way of putting different colours together is to use a plain background and add applique cut-outs and there was a beautiful example of elephants marching round a room on a wall hanging.
How the colours look and ‘take’ depends in turn on the fabrics used.  Though some wool is produced/used/worn in the cooler northern parts, India is most known for  its home grown cotton and silk, and there were numerous examples of each. Muslin (as worn by Muslims, its derivation) was also described as ‘woven wind’ so light is its texture and anyone who has experienced the tropics will know how welcome the lighter fabrics are to wear. Different species of silk worm produce different grades of silk and there was clear film of the cocoons being steamed open and the silk unravelled and spun.
Here is a short film which explains but strangely I could only find 1920 film or ones showing Chinese producers whereas this one is very English.

Once you have your basic fabric the exhibition goes on to look at embellishment – this covers everything from the subtle interweaving of gold or silver thread to embroidery (Gujerat being the area for this), complex weaving to produce patterned cloth, or of course printing.

The weaving of brocade produced cloth of such magnificence it was no surprise to see it mainly used for holy garments or wall hangings (the same is true in Europe if you think about it) and there are magnificent examples of each. This includes a whole moveable tent (when the rulers moved round their lands they took everything with them). Some of these wall hangings include story-telling and there are skilled embroidered or woven parts of the Mabaratha to instruct and entertain. 
Equally there is no shortage of ‘princely garments’, those clothes worn by the ruling classes of course demonstrate both power and wealth through the richness of the cloth and embellishment.

Printing on fabrics at its simplest is not a costly process – again the method for this is carefully explained – block printing starts with a hand carved wooden block which can be re-used in different orientations and different colours to increasing complexity and effect. 

The second part of the exhibition (special exhibitions in the V&A are arranged in some ground floor rooms but there is always a hiatus when you cross the corridor then cross back?) looks at fabric as part of the trade, industry and identity of the producing country. There is evidence to show that Indian cottons have been traded for over 2000 years though few scraps survive. Wool lasts longer. India always exported much cloth fabric to the UK until the Industrial Revolution when mass mechanisation meant spinning, weaving and dying all happened on a more industrial scale so that from the 1780s the UK exported cotton back to India where it eventually became increasingly hard for the traditional hand-made and ‘cottage’ workshops to compete with the industrialised factories so colonised India fell onto hard times. Ghandi was a key figure in trying to reverse this trend and exemplified reclaiming traditional garments (the Khadi in fine cotton) for the Indians.

Post-war the Bollywood industry which showcases  beautiful fabrics of all kinds has been one of the ‘drivers’ for a renewed growth in the manufacturing of fabrics, and there is a strong fashion industry also – we were less interested in the various modern versions of the sari etc. but conceded they were stylish.  With the exception to the references to Ghandi and his promotion of the Indian worker there seemed little space devoted  to working conditions of the millions thus employed – working in the cotton fields has never been easy and hand stitching tiny pearls or sequins onto garments can cause eye and back strain… Nor do the poor working conditions get much ‘wall space’. Having said that, this exhibition does offer a good overview of the fabric that makes up India past and present and does what the V&A does best – giving a context for some of the world’s most beautiful objects. Having said that we still have the rest of the museum to catch up with!!

Monday, 7 December 2015

Imperial War Museum

Lambeth Road SE1 6HZ
Thursday November 19 and December 3 2015


After our incomplete visit two weeks ago we returned to a (far less busy) Imperial war Museum to complete our visit to the totally engrossing Lee Miller: A Woman’s War, which today we had virtually to ourselves, allowing us to savour each caption without feeling guilty. This is a sumptuous exhibition which takes you from the hedonistic and self-indulgent Thirties through the traumas of war and on to the rather austere post war ‘county/country’ England.
The Imperial war Museum has very strong and impressive collections of art (not time today) photography and film over and above the hardware items very evident in the galleries. Lee’s photographs were of course taken on black and white celluloid film with a heavy camera 

My difficulty is of course that photography was not allowed in the exhibition nor can I reproduce her photos on the blog – however here is a link to the official archive which has a library of over 3000 images should you wish to browse at leisure or seek something out. Her basic camera was a Rolleiflex (no light meter/ no zoom) and during the war additionally a Zeiss-Ikon, both ironically German cameras. 12 frames per roll of film. Contrast the discipline needed for that with our almost incontinent use of multiple digital snaps. Good negatives will reproduce and enlarge in good quality and there is no pixilation here.
Superficially her early life appears settled – a mother who was a nurse, an employed father, two brothers. However she was raped by a family friend at the age of eight and then had to be treated for gonorrhea, not pleasant for a child in pre-anti-biotic days. Her father introduced her to photography and took nude pictures of her. To say we found this dubious is an understatement and had some speculation of the kind of friends Mr Miller might have had… After this truncated or as we would say today abusive childhood Lee left home early and was ‘discovered’ that is talent spotted on the streets of New York by Vogue who then used her as a model for the next two years. The combination of her stunning profile with beautiful Twenties clothes is everything you might imagine. Lee then headed off to Europe and this is where she got behind the camera more consistently and very creatively. In Paris she joined a community of artists including Picasso and Man Ray, the surrealist artist and photographer – Lee’s lover for a while and they developed photographic techniques together. There and then she also met Roland Penrose the English surrealist, and later life companion.

Rather in the style of the 'English Patient' film/book she went to Cairo,  Egypt where she met and married an Egyptian – this relationship was of short duration and she returned/went to the UK to be re-united with Penrose and stayed after the outbreak of war, although recalled to the US.

This is the point where the exhibition really comes alive – Lee offers her services to UK Vogue and after an initial rejection they let her take some photos of ‘suitable clothes and hair for factories’! From 1941 her range expands – there are evacuees, ‘land girls’ 'land girls' (yes it’s been a TV series too) the Women’s Home Defence Corps, the Mechanised Transport Corps, the ATS. Lee was very thorough and made sure she recorded women doing all kinds of war work including packing parachutes. There is a wonderful shot of a Polish pilot, and WRNS in uniform. The captions explain the roles the women  would have played and their enormous if long-hidden contribution to the war effort, while acknowledging the wonderful freedoms it gave to many who were taught to drive, to work outside the home,  and given the chance to travel. In amongst these shots, Lee photographs probably World War II’s most famous female war correspondent Martha Gellhorn and the lesser known  Margaret Bourke White both US citizens like herself.

By 1944 she has persuaded US Vogue to take her on as a war correspondent and her writing proved to be as adept as her photography. From D-Day onwards she was but three weeks behind the advances of the US troops into Normandy through France to Paris and on towards Germany via Alsace. While she does record the fabric devastation of the villages through which both armies fought her main focus remains the women and children from both sides of the conflict – exhausted nurses and anaesthetists at hospitals at the front (the survival rate was very good), later French female collaborators shamed and blamed as the Allies advance. Nuns feature too and as she heads towards Luxembourg there are shots of refugees digging for dandelions.  
Paris, which had been so spared from bombing by mutual agreement, soon sprang back and the couture houses were readily re-activated. There is an amusing shot of cyclists pedalling away in order to generate enough electricity to work the hair dryers for a salon – two stereotypes of French culture in one!
Initially Lee had been attached/embedded with a particular Army corps but at some pint round St Malo she went rogue and seemed to be working/travelling virtually alone. There is a short video clip of a male colleague who remembers the pre-war fussy and polished Vogue model completely transformed into a rough and ready photographer who was completely at ease with GIs of all ranks.
From Leipzig she visits both Dachau and Buchenwald and like all those liberators and camera men was deeply affected by what she saw. Her anger is manifest when she arrives at Eva Braun and Hitler’s Munich homes, full of home comforts denied to most of the rest of Europe and where a carefully posed picture sees her using his bath leaving the mud of the camps all over the mat… There is a display of the artefacts she ‘liberated’ from Eva’s dressing table – another woman’s very different war you might say.

Post-war she was asked to stay on by Vogue but not surprisingly after what she had witnessed in that year she became depressed, something she medicated with cigarettes and alcohol. There are very interesting documentary pictures of women in Hungary and Romania (a country she and Penrose had travelled to pre-war and much loved), both a rich Hungarian aristocrat bemoaning the damage to her castle and rural Romanian workers scrabbling to feed their children. She hated Vienna where what she termed the ‘madness of music’ seemed to mask their complicity and history.

In 1953 she leaves Vogue but has a trip back to the US a year later. Her later life is spent with Roland Penrose, whom she has married, in their Sussex farm house – the most surreal (though not in the sense she would have understood it) is a picture of her in apron cooking and carefully posed in her country kitchen for all the world like an early Delia or Nigella. She died in 1977 leaving her son who now manages her archive.

This is an absorbing and compelling exhibition giving us both the best of photography and the best of women – humanity – during conflict. 

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Imperial War Museum 2: Fighting Extremes part 2

Thursday 3 December 2015

After our second visit to the fabulous Lee Miller photographs, about which Linda will write soon, we returned to have another look at 'Fighting Extremes', not least because we felt we had rather concentrated on the Ebola side of the room, rather than on Operation Shader. This small exhibition had been pushed into sharper focus by last night's vote in the House of Commons.  One of the aims of Shader was to 'build partner capacity' and it seemed to us telling that there too, they were looking to the Kurds for help on the ground. What Turkey will say and do when, the conflict is over and the Syrian part of Kurdistan is successfully taken was not discussed last night.  Presumably the Kurds will then move on to the third tranche of what they perceive to be their ancestral homeland, which is, of course, part of Turkey.

There were some interesting exhibits, including a pair of army boots with the soles embellished with the names of the various towns where the extremists have been attacked.

As with the Ebola side of the room, we were able to watch interesting videos of military and other personnel talking about their complex, overlapping and different jobs.  

And there were pictures of the contribution of British Forces to the Coalition struggle.  These included intelligence gathering aircraft and the training of the local forces in such lethal tasks as mine removal.  It struck us that this was a reminder of one of the more recent Princesses of Wales' charities, as well as a reminder of how long the impact of war will last after any victory is declared.