Monday, 19 December 2016

The National Gallery Part 3

--> Trafalgar Square WC2N 5D
Thursday 15 December
Linda and I naively thought that a third visit might mean that we had seen all the rooms, but of course we were wrong, and after an immersion in 17th century art, particularly Dutch and Flemish, we felt we needed to call it a day.  We do own an amazing number of remarkable pictures (by 'we', I mean the nation, not Linda and me, obviously)

So we set off from the Sainsbury Wing, where we had met, and crossed to the older part of the building which, paradoxically, contains the more modern works, and started in Room 16, which contains two lovely Turners and a couple of Claudes as well.  

As so often, it occurred to us that we could go to Tate Brit any day of the week, and wallow in Turners, but the trouble with living in a city is that we leave its treasures to visitors.

We then moved into the Dutch galleries, which we enjoyed even more.  A painting by Ter Borch showed a soldier dictating a long letter, presumably to his girl, while an officer stands by looking bored, and a Netscher depicted a young girl studiously learning to read while a small boy messes about on the floor: stereotyping which students of modern education will recognise.  

Then there were a couple of wonderful de Hoochs.  If anything were to turn me to a life of crime, it would be my longing to possess a de Hooch. We were pleased to see a Fabritius, having read that book The Goldfinch, and of course the lovely Vermeers.

More action packed were the Art Gallery, and an Avercamp ice scene, as well as the Elder Breughel's depiction of the Three Kings visiting the infant Christ.  There were quite a few of the Breughels that seem to have been reproduced by his son and the studio from templates left by the Elder.

We slipped fairly rapidly through a room full of vases of flowers, which, Linda pointed out, reflected this golden age for the Dutch United Provinces:  the porcelain of the Far East filled with tulips which were the western craze of the moment. Several of the vases had snail and other bugs on them, presumably to denote mortality.

We then came to a room which had a Poussin (Moses being found) as well as some other French paintings, including Le Sueur and Philippe de Champaigne, whose pictures of Cardinal Richelieu are interesting.

The next room contains a number of pleasant surprises, including a charming Rubens of Susanne Lunden with all her clothes on and a pretty straw hat.  Linda and I agree that we do not enjoy the more normal Rubens style, of ladies who could do with some Pilates classes to firm them up a bit.

We also liked the Jacob van Oost portrait of a thoughtful eleven year old boy.  The plain wash background seemed to us rather modern, a bit like Annigoni's 1956 portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.

Van Dyck's portrait of Cornelius van Geest was striking, and then we moved into a Spanish Room, including a lot of works by Murillo, who was clearly much to the taste of British Collectors in the 18th century. 

This room also contains a number of splendid works by Velasquez, including the so-called Rokeby Venus, famous for being slashed by the suffragette, Mary Richardson, in protest at the arrest of Mrs Pankhurst.  We could not see the marks of the knife, which we gather fell between her shoulder blades.

Room 24 is a place to linger, as it has a number of remarkable Rembrandts, including Belshazzar's Feast and a lovely picture of a woman, paddling in a stream.  Our photographs went rather blurry, so there are links to the pictures instead.  The Woman Taken in Adultery was also striking; all those nominally religious people who condemn others for sinning could do with checking out what Jesus said in the event depicted by Rembrandt.  There were several portraits of old people and indeed of the artist himself.

Finally we came to Room 32, which is a huge gallery full of Italian paintings, including several by unknown artists,  Many were of the Virgin and Child and other New Testament themes, but Linda was particularly taken by a Salvator Rosa painting of 'Philosophy'. Well, she has been watching Poldark, so this darkly romantic figure was a good one to finish on.

We had seen many more wonderful works than I have mentioned here;  we really appreciated the captioning, which told the story or explained the reference points of each work. We shall be back;  but we shall also remember that the 17th century galleries would be a great place to pass an hour or so any day of the week.

Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Brent Museum

Willesden Library Centre,
95 High Rd,
London NW10 2SF
Thursday December 8   2016      

The one thing this Museum lacked was a map showing us the boundaries that Brent has – formed like all the other London Boroughs in 1965 it brought together bits of the capital close to Kensington and Chelsea and Camden but also Harrow and Barnet.   At one point it must have looked like leftover corners from its neighbours but surely it has developed its own character, and as this Museum  so clearly shows, its own history and memories.

The Willesden Green library is very striking, taking up a substantial corner site on the High Road, which is used by a significant number of bus routes in spite of its narrowness, so we were not on unfamiliar territory. Inside the library there is light and space and quiet, though there was a storytelling session taking place in the ground floor children’s section. A sweeping staircase takes you to the Adult Library on the First Floor and (though we had to ask) the Archives and Museum at the top. The broad and safety conscious-bannisters form small display cases where memorabilia belonging to Willesden worthies or former craftsmen are displayed but the purpose-built museum follows a more usual chronological approach.        
There is an interactive display about the River Brent which sadly was not working: buses apart this is one of the borough’s features we have also followed as it forms a significant section of the Capital Ring Walk and in fact one of the most beautiful. We were told that the name comes from a Celtic goddess named Brigantia – she who eventually settled into being Britannia.   If there were Roman and Saxon remains we somehow missed them, as the focus was on following the development of the area from one of largely agricultural and grazing lands to industry and commerce.

Watling Street was a major Roman Road now the thoroughfare through Kilburn, and the museum shows how important the Kilburn Priory was as a place of pilgrimage.  Priory apart the land was productive for farming of all sorts, though as urbanisation increased dairy farming became more important. We did not note any key buildings or events from Tudor times. St  Andrew’s In Kingsbury is considered to be the oldest building in Brent and even then you would have to ‘pick out’ the original bits from successive restorations – the picture here is from a walk and not the Museum…
There are artefacts from several small local dairies, who sometimes delivered up to three times daily, but by the 19th century a Mr Titus Barham, in the way of entrepreneurs, founded the Express Dairies, on the back of which he became very rich. (When I was in Primary School in NW London (and this is going back 60 years) the playground factions divided pretty much between rival football clubs Spurs or Arsenal but just below was whether you had your milk delivered by the United Dairies (RED livery) or the Express Dairies (BLUE) (though a few playground oddballs went with the Co-op in GREEN) which indicates how powerful these brands became – but like many their day came and went.This article maintains Titus Barham was the making of modern Brent !

Other major manufacturers included a brickworks large enough to make an impact on the local environment with rows of houses – some large and imposing but also many for the ‘incoming’ railway workers; this mainly round the Kilburn area. While the menfolk were engaged in industry the museum credits women with having laundry jobs, later working for drapers and running haberdashery shops, with the appropriate ‘goods for sale’ on display. Following the First World War house building expanded prolifically with the spread of ‘Metroland’ – as the Museum shows there was no shortage of railway lines through the area and housing followed stations. Metroland was a term coined by the promoters of the Metropolitan Railway and certainly spread out from the parts of Brent such as Neasden, Sudbury and Wembley before heading into ‘the Shires’.
Naturally all these modest house owners needed to be fed and by the Twenties there was a proliferation of factories – most of them still household names.  

By the Twenties and Thirties the canal road and rail connections round park Royal were so good that many different manufacturers set up there: McVities originating from Scotland as you might expect have long (since 1902) and continuing links with the Harlesden end of Brent and for any biscuit lover the time-line is a must. If savoury is more your line Heinz and Smith’s Crisps were here too. Also the famous architect Giles Gilbert Scott built a brewery for  Guinness, which they only vacated in 2005. Park Royal is still a busy Trading Estate encompassing both large brand names and smaller outlets – we criss-crossed it many times on our bus journeys as it continues to offer employment.

The expansion of industry and commerce is indivisible from the history of immigration as the plentiful work available attracted and employed successive waves of incomers. Brent is one of the most diverse boroughs in London and also probably still has the largest number of Irish families, most of whom arrived originally to fill labouring jobs. During the Fifties and Sixties the Caribbean families came in significant numbers alongside those from Gujarat. When the British passport holding Indians of East Africa were no longer welcome there they came over from Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. These communities are now well settled and more recent arrivals mirror those of the rest of London’s residents and workforce. The Irish left their mark on the Kilburn/Cricklewood axis with the Galtymore Ballroom and large convivial Irish pubs. In another part of the borough closer to Wembley is the stand out structure of the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, described by Wikipedia as ‘Europe’s first traditional Hindu stone temple’. The cases hold exhibits reflecting all these cultures. 

Perhaps the authorities had a sense of all this diversity or perhaps it was prescient when they decided to hold the  Empire Games in Wembley ( and nearby White City )  in 1934. Brent’s legacy was of course Wembley Stadium, both the original and the 2007-opened buildings being instantly recognisable. Both old and new stadiums have hosted some memorable events including the original Live Aid and even better attended the Pope’s Visit.

All this industry and development is not to say that neither World war had an impact on Brent. There are memorials to a local man winning a VC in the first World War, and rather touchingly a librarian from this very resource who also died and has his own plaque. Though not as heavily bombed as South London, Brent suffered quite badly because of the industry, which did also include the Handley Page works at Roe Green and de Havilland in Cricklewood. This did not stop the local folk raising cash to buy a Spitfire plane, which went to a Polish Squadron; this was obviously a national effort as we had seen similar contributions to ships at both Tottenham and Waltham Forest borough archives.

Inevitably where there was war damage those large high rise estates such as at Stonebridge replaced the much needed housing and in turn became unpopular.

The Archive has a generous space set aside at the end for special exhibitions and a BBC trailer had alerted us to this one: The Grunwick Strike. This was extremely well documented partly due to the fact that Special Branch had released their papers from this era having played a significant if covert role.(They kept a list of every single poster and placard, which must have helped the exhibition curators!)

Grunwick was a photo processing plant – in the era before every phone became a digital camera people used to post their holiday snaps to be processed and about a week later a pack of photos arrived back by post. Much of the workforce was female and at that women of South Asian heritage who were ‘kept in their place’ by all possible means of bullying and degrading working practices. When an enterprising and educated worker called Jayaben Desai (originally from Tanzania) talked about Union involvement attempts were made to dismiss anyone who joined her.  The epigram and the theme for the whole exhibition was ‘We are Lions’ from her riposte to management:
“What you are running here is not a factory it is a zoo. But in a zoo there are many types of animals. Some are monkeys who dance on your fingertips, others are lions, who can bite your head off. We are the lions Mr Manager. “

The strike ran for two years and is immaculately documented with a detailed time line on the floor and corresponding panels for each key stage of success and defeat. It is seen as particularly significant in (trade union) history as, like the strike at Dagenham, it involved low paid women and workers from an ethnic minority. Their treatment at work was degrading – being followed to the toilets etc. The strike also featured significant police involvement which seems staggering when you look at these petite Asian women on the frontline – though there were 550 arrests no strikers were involved in violence against the police and it soured community/police relations for some time. The subsequent government must have taken notes and used even more extreme tactics and in the end legislation to curb unions. All these workers wanted was:
1)     The right to belong to a union.
2)     The right to have the union recognised.
3)     The right not to be dismissed for joining a union.

This special exhibition – and I have really compressed the amount of information on display – made a stirring end to our visit to the Brent Archives and Museum so we took one last look over the balcony where  Brent worthies and celebrities have little showcases (Twiggy anyone?) (Bob Marley passing through?) and made our way down and out. 

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The Michael Faraday Museum

The Royal Institution
21 Albemarle Street

Friday 3 December 2015
Everyone knows about the Royal Institution, cradle of British science through the centuries since its foundation in 1799. You can walk up the fine staircase and visit the Lecture Theatre, as seen on TV for the Christmas 'bangs and smells' lectures.

And you can see the library, where lectures and demonstrations were held before the lecture hall was built. It's full of actual books, rather than simply leather bound display volumes of the kind no-one ever opens, so we could imagine scientists actually working here.

In the basement is the Michael Faraday Museum, and Linda and I have felt we should visit it, ever since we realised that the brutalist metal object in the middle of Elephant and Castle was a Faraday memorial. I have to say that we found the Museum a disappointment. The captions may well be very informative, but they are set well back in glass cases, and are white on orange, and so reading them was a real struggle.

The scientists were depicted in pale drawings or photographs at the back of the case, also rather hard to see. We began with Humphry Davy and were told of the 10 new elements he discovered or helped to discover. It would have been interesting to be reminded that in those days you could be both a chemist and a physicist, something that is rather difficult to do nowadays. Examples of his lamps were there, with an explanation that the gauze absorbs enough of the heat to prevent mine gas igniting and exploding. 
Explosions in the lab, and the resultant damage to eye and fingers, is one reason why Davy hired Faraday as a co-worker. We also saw Voltameters for measuring electricity, and coils for making electricity, including some made by Faraday himself. A case shows some of his laboratory note books.

Then there were several cases about John Tyndall, though it was hard to find from the display whether he was a contemporary of Faraday's, or earlier, or later. He it was who explained that the sky appears blue because blue light is scattered more by air molecules (or particles, as Tyndall called them) than red light.  Tyndall also demonstrated that food left in the air rots and food enclosed does not, thus heading us towards a germ theory of sorts.

A case devoted to Faraday's glass ingots and lenses reminded us that blown glass cannot be completely flat, and we saw the cards into which he fitted his lenses to control the amount of light he was studying.

We came to Lawrence Bragg and the x-ray spectrometer, though the Nobel Prize website does not mention much of a link with the RI. But there were useful models of molecules including lysozyme:  Linda and I have had nasty colds, so to see the key ingredient of mucus was rather interesting) Also research by Count Rumford into draughts and heat and how to make chimneys draw better;  and the development of the thermos flask, a perpetual demonstration that a vacuum is a better insulator than a blanket or some hay.  Tyndall reappeared, showing that glaciers move by constant thawing and refreezing.  And there was a case about Frankenstein and his monster, an example of early use of electricity.  We also noted a wall poster about attaching nano-magnets to cancer cells and then using heat to kill the cancer cells, but we were not sure whether this is a treatment already in use or still experimental or theoretical.

Perhaps strangest of all was an Exhibition modern lab, but with no labels:  as Linda said, was that a coffee machine or an electron microscope? We shall never know.  And there was a mock-up of Faraday's Lab, derived from a Harriet Moore watercolour, since it was dismantled and used as a storeroom for some years after Faraday's death.  We were told that the large piece of iron underneath the lab bench was part of an anchor, but the rest of the lab was left to our guesswork.

On the way upstairs, we passed the periodic table, an interactive screen on which you were supposed to note the elements as listed in the Tom Lehrer and Arthur Sullivan song.  We could not make it work, though we both know the elements in Lehrer's random order, since we both know the song:  so nul points for us.

Amongst the display cases upstairs was one devoted to Christopher Zeeman, who researched aerodynamics, making use of boomerangs of various kinds. 
If I sound less than enthusiastic about this museum, it is because it is clearly not aimed at people like me: scientists and science students will probably find it riveting.  But I should have appreciated legible captioning. And some context:  what else was going on while these people were doing their thing; when did electricity actually move from the lab to the home and the street;  how much was Faraday paid, compared to the average shop keeper or farm labourer; was there any science education for the mass of the 19th century population (actually I know the answer to this one, but not from this Museum) 

A museum about these remarkable pioneers of British science could be fascinating for all, not just people who already understand the science.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

The Queen’s House

London SE10 9NN

Thursday November 24 2016

As this is such an important building we felt it should be treated separately from the Old Royal Naval College though of course they are only a five minute stroll away from each other.  The situation is certainly elevated compared to the college and affords a view across the river to Canary Wharf (sadly lacking in symmetry) and across the park uphill to the Observatory.

Greenwich, because of its easy access via the river and the probable benefits of ‘fresh air’,   had always been popular with royalty as a getaway destination. James 1st’s wife was Anne of Denmark and exercising his ‘divine right’ James took the land back off Henry Howard and initiated the building for her of the ‘House of Delights’ as it became known. His inspiration was to commission the architect Inigo Jones for the building and he in turn had been inspired by the new fashion of Palladian symmetry, which did of course link back to Vitruvius and classical building styles.   But the house is a delight – it manages to look compact and tidy from the outside while being surprisingly capacious inside.

Today’s approach is via the Undercroft and entrance is free. When we were there we seemed to be almost the only visitors so the somewhat bored room guides were keen to keep us ‘informed’ as we progressed around. The house has only recently (10/10/2016) re-opened after a major renovation and it sparkled inside as well as out. Our only sadness was that due to the need to conserve both wall coverings and the many pictures (newly installed pictures now number some 400) the blinds are firmly down so we were not able to appreciate the views in any direction. It is also quite easy to get confused and lost without being able to take bearings from the exterior.

The floors are fully intact save for a few cracks and complement the interior perfectly. In addition to the 40 metre perfect cube centrepiece which is the main room there are enfilades of smaller (but still well proportioned) rooms that lie beyond the grand hall. Some of these were added later and there is also a wonderful loggia which looks out onto the park behind. There are stairs both sides (and now a lift for access) with the newly refurbished Tulip (or are they more likely lilies?) banisters.  Intricate ironwork twirls effortlessly round a suspended staircase which allows you to look both up and down to the highest and lowest points, with floors suitably enhanced to meet the challenge.  It’s not the only show piece as there is an excellent balustrade surrounding the double height cube.

The smaller rooms have for the most part been hung with pictures from the collection with these arranged thematically, so Views/Ships/Naval Officers/Royals. The stand out picture is what is known as the ‘Elizabeth Armada Portrait – it looks very fresh and really catches the attention as indeed it was meant to – the outgunned English fleet had just defeated the Spanish Armada and the Queen looks very much ‘top dog’. Other Royal portraits include James II as a very camp Mars….

Apart from the assorted pictures there are a few vitrines with exhibits, largely appropriate to the setting – thus some Chinese style Delft tulipieres and some later de Morgan ceramics, as well as an imaginative Delft wall picture.  Jo refused to take a picture of an exuberant platter depicting a rather young looking Neptune on the grounds that she would not have liked to eat her dinner of a man with a six pack. I think it was more destined for the wall than the dining table so the photo of the other objects will have to suffice. Another interesting item is the Coat of Arms of the South Sea Company destined to collapse in the ‘bubble’ of that name – perhaps, like their modern day equivalents, they spent too much on the logo and not enough on analysing their investment… 

Once we had done a circuit of the rooms, peeped at the Loggia (a back extension not accessible) and revisited the grand hall by peering over the balustrade, we walked slowly down the restored tulip staircase admiring the newly painted cobalt blue banisters and the lovely spiral.

We shall have a further opportunity to admire the perfect cube from above when we take ourselves to the Observatory. 

All credit to Inigo Jones>

Monday, 28 November 2016

The Old Royal Naval College Visitor Centre

London SE10 9NN

Thursday November 24 2016

There is much to see in Greenwich‘you need more than day’ say the posters and that is absolutely true. Today was our second visit in two weeks and third overall and there will be more to come.  

The best approach for Wren’s masterpiece (this or St Pauls’ – you choose) is of course by river but we took the DLR route today and made our way into the side entrance of the visitor centre. This is a slightly strange mixture of a tourist office with tours and information specific to Greenwich but also somewhere offering London-wide leaflets (it was here, back in 2008 I picked up the four London bus maps which started us on our eventual 5 year bus odyssey), a cafĂ© and substantial toilets but threaded through these there is as well a history of the site and above all the buildings.  This I suppose dignifies this visit as a museum rather than a generic look at buildings.

In the far corner (I think this should be more central as chronologically it comes earliest) are the displays relating to the original Tudor Palace, in the main erected by Henry Tudor (VII) as he took over the kingdom following the Wars of the Roses – it was to be the birthplace of three future and very memorable monarchs: Henry VIII, Mary and Elizabeth. The palace extended along the riverfront where even now they are finding interesting artefacts as the foreshore recedes and included a friary and a chapel.  The Friary, which put up some criticism of Henry’s ‘marriage plans’ was of course the first to go with William Peto (who had been Katherine of Aragon’s confessor) imprisoned and exiled for preaching a rather controversial anti-Anne Boleyn sermon. The exhibits here include Tudor rose plasterwork embellishments and fragments of the chapel floor and windows plus a ground plan of what was a very substantial site. After Elizabeth’s death the palace was abandoned and as other noble (hangers-on?) local families left also land changed hands...

Chronologically the next significant building was the Queen’s House (which will form the basis of a separate blog) but its very position, perched halfway up the hill, determined the design of what was to be the Seamen’s Hospital down by the river. The displays in the Visitor Centre backed by video commentary (Dan Cruickshank who sadly has appropriate things to say but says them in such an annoying way I tend to switch off – is it only me?)  focus on several aspects of architecture looking at the building materials, the design and the specification – in this case somewhere for the pensioned/retired and almost invariably disabled ex-seamen to live. Wren had precedent here with the formidable Chelsea Royal Hospital for army veterans At Greenwich his brief was more complex as he needed to allow for the river frontage and leave a clear view up to the Queen’s House. The result was a hugely pleasing symmetrical building of open courtyards with two domed communal buildings – the chapel and dining room, so plenty of room for the residents to take the air, watch the river and probably smoke… The stone has worn well and the life of Wren points out that he had a strong sense of civic duty, which indeed is his legacy of several great public buildings. There are reconstructions of what a seaman’s room might have been like (some were communal) and an idea of how he might have spent his day; according to this hardly one of riotous living. The project had originally been that of Queen Mary but when she died of smallpox the surviving William III completed it. Among its Governors was former Admiral Hardy who had served so memorably with Nelson, which must have been a thrill for the pensioners who much admired Nelson. (The main Maritime Museum has an exhibition looking at the life Emma Hamilton, but that’s for another day).

There were two intriguing wooden statues, not unlike the figure-heads we had seen round the corner two weeks ago, called ‘Gin’ and (slightly fatter) ‘Beer’, which apparently adorned the buttery where the pensioners ate.

We did go out to look at the Dining Hall which is considered very worthwhile – however it is currently closed for a major renovation and when re-opened will apparently (presumably at a cost)  include a raised walkway the better to be able to admire James Thornhill’s painted ceiling. We still remember when the Dining Room was the naval college’s and smelt persistently of cabbage…

The Chapel is equally handsome and beautifully proportioned with some intricate Coade Stone on the ceiling – this is a later building as fire had demolished the original chapel.

By the late 19th Century the Seamen’s Retreat was losing numbers as post Waterloo there were fewer conflicts thus fewer casualties of war and   those there were preferred to live at home. It took a mere four years to turn the Hospital into a college for the training of Royal Naval Officers, which opened in 1873 under the auspices of Sir Astley Cooper Key. It took students from round the world and eventually trained the merchant marine also. When I said to Jo that it seemed a bit late in the day to be training folk she pointed out that previously the officers had bought their commissions and other ranks were ‘press-ganged’.
Within 40 years they would be training sailors for war and essentially focussed only on ‘hostility’ training thereafter. There had been training facilities in Portsmouth both before they moved here and after they moved back to the South West.   Their motto indicates they embraced (not literally we hope?) the training of women also.  

(Minerva as well as Mars..)

These buildings have now been taken over by the University of Greenwich and the students were much in evidence today as we left this lower part of the Unesco heritage site.