Friday, 29 January 2016

Hogarth's House

Hogarth Lane, Great West Road
Chiswick W4 2QN

Wednesday 27 January 2016

Hogarth's House opens at 12.00, which was fine by us as it is a long way west for both of us.. So Linda and I met at Turnham Green and paused for rather a good sandwich before our walk to the House. A promising brown sign by the tube station proved to be the only hint until we were pretty well there, but Linda had brought a map so we were fine.

Having seen some original paintings last week, we were keen to visit the artist's country home. Not that it's much of a country retreat now, with the great West Road roaring past, but the house contained a couple of pictures of views over rolling cornfields, as well as a map from around the time of the Hogarths' residence.

We had found Sir John Soane's Museum rather dark and chilly (though of course interesting) so this was a pleasant contrast.  It was occupied both before and after the residence of the artist and his family, which began in 1749. The hallway contained information about this as well as a display case of ceramics.  The main downstairs room, the 'New Dining Room' told us about his life.  He was a Freemason (who wasn't in those days?) and, like many of the great-and-good, a supporter of the Foundling Hospital.  In fact he served as a foster parent to some of the orphans who were put out to nurse in these salubrious country areas.

The room contained a statue of the artist at work, as well as a twentieth century cardboard diorama of Hogarth displaying one of his works to an appreciative audience.  He was a highly successful man, earning as much as £100 a week (at a time when a farm labourer might earning less than half a pound (9s) a year.  He realised that a single picture, however costly, could hardly make his fortune and so engraved many of his works to reach a wider audience. So the walls of the house have the complete set of the Rake's Progress, the Harlot's Progress, Marriage a la Mode and the Four Stages of Cruelty

Being made Serjeant Painter to George II probably also helped!

We learned about his wife, and the two sisters who were a key part of his life, though Anne died before the move to Chiswick.

Upstairs, the display of engravings on the walls continued, including less well known works, like the furious musician trying to teach against the noises of the street.  There was much else of interest as well.  In one corner was a closet with clothes on hooks as they might have been in his day.

One of the rooms was designated 'a private room' and it had an ingenious device enabling the occupant to bolt or unbolt the door without rising from chair or bed.

Throughout the house there was information about the other residents and the history of the House.  The top floor is not open to visitors, but we were told that it had suffered bomb damage during the Second World War

We made our way into the garden, which gad once been a serious kitchen garden and orchard;  an ancient mulberry tree survives, and we could get an impression of the shape of the house and the various additions which had been made, before heading back into the house.

The last room is rather different: During the nineteenth century, Thomas Layton lived in Brentford, and was a collector. I should really put the word in capitals since, by his death, he had collected over 22,000 books.  Some of his library, after a firm culling by the Borough's librarians, is now here, and is amazing.  He seems to have had broad interests, to put it mildly.  We saw The English Housewife's Household Physick, with treatments for many common and less common ailments; a 1631 edition of Foxe's Acts and Monuments, the Book of Martyrs which so shaped the Protestant view of the Catholic Church; a book about world-wide body adornments, from piercing to tattooing; a 1668 verse version of Aesop's Fables, and many others.

Returning through what had been the Hogarths' kitchen, with its trapdoor to the cellar, we paused briefly to admire the copy of the painting of Hogarth's servants (we have seen the original, which is in Tate Britain).  We also smiled wryly at Martin Rowson's depiction of the roundabout that has been given Hogarth's name.  All in all, we had spent a very pleasant hour in this cosy and interesting home.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Sir John Soane’s House

13 Lincoln's Inn Fields,
 London WC2A 3BP

Thursday January 21 2016

Just across Lincoln’s Inn Fields from the Hunterian Museum you can find the ‘Free to enter’ Sir John Soane’s House and Museum, it having been his home, his place of work and even in his time a Museum which offered free entrance then too. You could also say it was a gallery given the splendid array of artwork he both acquired and commissioned. On  one of London’s cooler winter mornings Jo and I divested ourselves of phones (they are very strict and supervise you switching off) and of course there are no cameras allowed – not that the illumination  was really good enough for much and at times was barely light enough to see! 

As the guide book (to be salvaged from its six month sojourn in store along with several other boxes of ‘stuff’) informs, the house is in fact the middle of three including what was a  stable block, now housing the amazing Hogarth’s ‘Rake’s Progress’ in its original place and state. Having moved earlier this year I have some sympathy for the Soanes who had downsized from Pitzhanger Manor out in the country (Ealing) to this more modest place in London and so found it difficult to find enough space for the very many books and artefacts Sir John owned and wished to display.

In some ways he was a victim of his own success – in 1776 whilst a student at the Royal Academy Schools he won a prize for his design of a Triumphal Bridge and with the reward money financed a ‘Grand Tour’ trip to Italy and Greece from where he brought back innumerable examples of classical architecture: bits of frieze and cornice and statuary and urns and sarcophagi which are now ranged around the house. Very few are labelled either because he never did label them or because you are supposed to know.

Certainly anything more than a superficial glance would slow down the flow of people traffic through the house. There is a large reception cum dining room at the front but the overriding impression is of niches and corridors and small spaces full of the above memorabilia, which come in all shapes and sizes. His study, painted in Pompeian Red  for warmth and as a tribute, doubled as his washroom (the bathroom on the second floor is yet to be restored) and with the exception of the front rooms the light is poor enough to wonder how he managed to work and draw in such detail.

Admittedly he was very ingenious in the way he tried to get light into the many corners – there are cupolas and windows where you least expect them and a very generous use of mirrors and slivers of mirrors to maximise light. Today was dull and wintry but I cannot imagine it ever being very bright and there is also a feeling of pervasive dust. This may sound deeply unattractive but in fact it is quite atmospheric and certainly unique as a museum in the world of the digitised archive…

More space was clearly needed for the ever expanding collection – there are ‘models’ of his projects both built and unbuilt and the polished drawings of his plans as executed by the faithful Joseph Michael Gandy and then drawings and models by his predecessors and contemporaries.  The ceilings are all worth looking up for – we wondered whether the range of nymphs and cherubim were quite ‘his style’ they seemed to sit oddly with the more classical aspects of his designs but were told they were what was fashionable/usual for the time and income bracket.

You can also look down into the cellars or basements which offered additional displays of marble bits and pieces. He took over Henry Holland’s collection, having been a pupil of the architect Henry Holland (architect) and doubtless saw it as a tribute. As a conceit, and because there were still some remains of an earlier monastery,  Soane named the downstairs area ‘The Monk’s Parlour’ having fabricated a Padre Giovanni – the area was designed to make you gloomy and melancholy and apparently Soane would spend time down there once a widower and ‘dining alone’. 

Throughout the house there are mentions of his wife Eliza – he married the daughter of one of his builders and they seem to have been a devoted couple, though there is little sense of Eliza as a person in her own right. Her breakfast room is intimate and has pictures of her dog Fanny, buried on the premises in a large funerary thing.

Soane blamed his surviving son (the other having died of consumption) for his wife’s death as she muttered, as most parents do at some point, ‘You will be the death of me’. Admittedly the son in question was quite a wastrel, not inclined to follow in his father’s footsteps and had just been sent to the Debtors’ Prison.

Talking of Debtors’ Prison, one of the stand out exhibits in this house is the small room crammed with paintings on four walls – these are also double stacked with the use of clever shutters that fold out to reveal yet more works  including of course the famous Hogarth series painting ‘The Rake’s Progress’ which depicts the downfall of a young man with too much disposable income and not enough sense or conscience as he abandons his faithful (and pregnant ) fiancée en route. She does not abandon him and indeed attempts to rescue and rehabilitate him, to little avail as he ends his life in Bedlam. If you enjoy narrative art there is lots to look at here and Hogarth was the master of these series. The room also has ‘The Election’ which is good fun and not as dated as you might think…

Inspired more by Hogarth than Sir John Soane (Jo never did like an architect and while she tolerated this house more than 2 Willow Road she was not a fan) we shall head out West next week to visit the artist’s country house. 

Friday, 15 January 2016

The National Maritime Museum

Romney Road
Greenwich SE10 9NF

Thursday 14 January 2016
Linda and I have been taking tentative steps towards the 'big ones', which will clearly require several visits, and so we decided that the time had come to get to Greenwich.  Despite the fact that there are favourable offers for multiple venues in this heritage-soaked area, our brains get a bit full, and so we visited only the NMM, and only a tiny part of it at that.  We certainly wouldn't have enjoyed Cutty Sark and the Observatory as well, so we are saving them for another day (preferably a sunny, picnic-in-the-park day).
Indeed, given the vast expanse of the Maritime Museum, we resolved to visit only 'Revolution. Plague, Fire', the special exhibition about Samuel Pepys which is in the Sammy Ofer wing.  It's 'no photographs' territory, but you can find some images at the Museum's website.

Less that 10% of the exhibition is about Pepys' work for the Navy. But on the other hand,  this is the Museum we visited to see an exhibition about Tin Tin, so clearly the planners feel no need to stick close to the main message of the Museum; and it is easier to view lots of material about Pepys in one place than by calling it all up at the British Library.  It is an exhibition about the man and the remarkable times through which he lived.

It starts with, and indeed the whole exhibition is rather dominated by the sound from, the execution of Charles I.  Pepys witnessed the death at the ago of 14, and approved of it, being at the time an anti monarchist.  His time at Cambridge University would have strengthened the Parliamentarian sympathies, but once the Restoration occurred, he worked closely with the King and especially the King's brother, James Duke of York, the Head of the Navy. He was first Clerk and then Secretary to the Navy Board from 1660 till 1688. His salary of £33 6s.8d was helpfully reckoned to be about £66,500.00 in todays money, not bad for the son of a tailor

The Restoration, the Court of Charles II and his many mistresses and pleasures form a large part of the story.  An enjoyable section had Pepys' comments on theatre productions he had seen, illustrated by silhouette scenes from Macbeth and other plays. 

It was in this section that we met Elizabeth, Pepys' long suffering wife, who was a child of 14 when they married in 1655 and who had to put up with his constant philandering. We then move on to the Plague and the Fire, both well illustrated by sections from the Diary, and some good graphics as well.  The deaths from Plague, for example, are clearly linked to the hot weather of summer, which must have helped to confirm the view that 'bad air' and 'stenches' caused the disease. 

The third of the disasters of these years was the raid by the Dutch into the Medway, where several important ships were sunk, and the Royal Charles was stolen away to the Netherlands.  We had met the ship before when, renamed from being the Naseby, she had brought the restored King home. One of the objects on display was a huge link from the chain which should have protected the Medway anchorage. That was, however, the low point for the Royal Navy, and there is a huge painting of Charles II in glory after the 1674 defeat of the Dutch.

With Pepys effectively in charge of the Navy, we were shown maps, navigational equipment, and material about the Joint Stock Companies which organised trade:  the Royal African Company, the Levant Company and so on.  In 1683, Pepys made a trip to Tangier.  This had been part of the dowry of Catherine of Braganza when she married Charles, but it had proved too expensive to defend and not very useful (the trans-Sahara trade had been very much overtaken by the sea routes to West Africa and beyond). So Pepys was sent to evacuate the town and destroy the fortifications, to prevent their use by pirates. (I shall interject here the surprise I felt at seeing the Museum's shops FULL of stuff about pirates, given that a perennial task of the nation's navy, from the 14th century wool smugglers to the Somalian pirates of the 21st century, has been to grapple with these far-from-cuddly pests)

It is a natural progression from navigation to Science more generally.  Pepys was elected to the Royal Society in 1665, only five years after its foundation, and became its president in 1684.  So we had lots of pictures of the greats of science, including Halley and Newton, (Newton's Principia was published when Pepys was President of the RS) Pepys dined with Flamsteed at the Royal Observatory in 1697, just 20 years after it had been established for the purposes of navigation.  He also knew Napier, father of the logarithm. 

By this stage in his career, the widowed Pepys was certainly among the 'great and good': he became an MP, first for Castle Rising in Norfolk and then for Harwich. He was Master of Trinity House and of the Clothworkers' Company, to whom he gave an immense silver gilt dish, jug and so on. He was a governor of Christ's Hospital Mathematical School, and there was a charming picture of the boys and girls, in their pale blue uniforms, being presented to the King, with Pepys, holding a map, among them. There was a slight hiccup when, in 1679, he was imprisoned for plotting with the French, but he was released soon afterwards.

The penultimate section is again about Revolution and civil strife, and the abdication of James II. The Popish Plot of 1678 sets the scene, demonstrating the kind of panic that can be aroused by a really convincing conspiracy theory, with shadowy foreigners and hidden arms caches. Following the death of the (probably) protestant Charles II, his illegitimate son the Earl of Monmouth tried to take over the throne.  The bloodstained crushing of the rebellion led to the accession of James II, Pepys' boss at the navy.  But the threat of Catholic dominance was too much for many of the elite, and the birth of a boy, who would supersede James' Protestant daughters, sealed James' fate. There was a picture of Mary of Modena and one of the supposed 'warming pan baby', the future 'Old Pretender'.  Not that he gave up easily:  on display is the armour that he wore at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Finally we came to some statistics and examples from the diary itself:  he left 2971 books to his nephew, who passed them to his old College at Cambridge, where they remain. The number of transcripts, books, biographies and commentaries which have followed is also immense.

So Pepys resigned from his work with the Navy in 1689, moved to Clapham, and died in 1703, aged 70.  He had lived through Royal dictatorship, civil war, republic and restored monarchy, and witnessed two revolutions, one bloodier than the other.  But as the exhibition makes clear, his value as a witness is mainly for the personal and domestic detail of his everyday life during the nine years that he wrote his diary.  And you can get the whole thing free to your e-reader any time you want.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Natural History Museum (Part 1)

Cromwell Road
 London SW7 5BD
Thursday January 8 2016

After a long break allowing for Bank Holidays and other related festivities, Jo and I resumed our Museum Project today breaking ourselves in quite gently – for various reasons. Our plan was to visit the Natural History Museum to select a ‘window’ between  the  holidays and the beginning of organised school party visits and this week seemed a good choice. To say the Museum was empty would not be true, but comparatively speaking it was fairly peaceful. 

We struggled a little without a map and eventually found one in a rather dark corner, but I get ahead of myself.  The building both inside and outside is one of London’ s most striking  and durable edifices, though doubtless needing constant  upkeep. It is both grandiose and full of detail – Jo took some sample photos of the wealth of ‘natural history’ on display on the outside: snakes aplenty and beautifully detailed statues and gargoyles. And once inside the scale is awesome and impressive. I was first brought when the (replica) Blue Whale hung in the central gallery; today its place is taken by ‘Dippy’ the diplodocus, though not for much longer as the whale is set to make a return and ‘Dippy’ to go on tour in 2018. (Dippy apart, dinosaur fans should put off their visit for a while as the gallery containing T-Rex and his chums is closed till late February.) To stand in the middle of the Museum with the wings off to the side and the grand double staircase is to appreciate the vision the Victorians had, and their passion for display and education.

After some dithering we headed for the Darwin Centre, the Museum’s most modern addition and one I had certainly not visited. Opened in 2009 and designed by a Danish architect, it is named the Cocoon and shaped a bit like a mini Gherkin – a lift takes you to the top of the building and a ramp conducts you back down past a variety of interactive (where they were working) displays illustrating the work and careful examples of scientific methods plus the opportunity to see ‘scientists’ at work (where they were working). The Museum’s curators present both their collections – variously butterflies, beetles and grasses – and the methods used to collect/catalogue, investigate and publish their work.  So the ramp experience is dotted with a series of ‘talking heads’ explaining different facets of their work. There are indeed windows into the museum’s back rooms – some are just offices – this was the only one populated today and you can see several of the 3 kilometres of Rolstor filing cabinets.   

The beauty of nature is well presented here – not only are there examples of the notebooks of the original and pioneering  naturalists  but  there  are blow ups of  hand paintings of different  wild orchid species – there are studied both over place (different soils and ecological setting) but also over time as the Museum holds the botanical and other records of such scientists as  Hans Sloane (who gave his collection to form the basis of the current collections ), Joseph Banks (a testament to his prolific collecting are all those specimens called Banksia) and Alfred Wallace. Those bearded Victorians and earlier collectors were meticulous in their record keeping which means that today’s scientists a can compare the flowering time of species with their forerunners two hundred years ago – for some spring bulbs it can be as much as two weeks and we know there is variation round the country.  

Having introduced the eminent Victorian collectors with displays of their meticulous notebooks and had drawings – so much more time consuming than taking a photo but no better way of learning the detail of the plants sketched,  the exhibition goes on to introduce Linnaeus and  the ‘Tree of Life’, a branching diagram which shows how living things are related to one another. The categories are as follows – always useful for a pub quiz:
Kingdom > Phylum > Class > Order > Family > Genus > Species
As the display says, DNA sequencing is a powerful tool for taxonomy but even  so species can have the same DNA but look slightly different,  so the close  study of individual samples is still needed – hence the  rooms and benches you can see  through the viewing portholes set up for the  examination  of slide samples and so on.

The most engaging interactive display that both captures the imagination and demonstrates scientific processes very clearly  was one using  mosquitoes with a screen that ‘allowed ‘ you to capture them  squash them into tubes and centrifuge them for their DNA profiles,  isolating three species, two of which carry malaria – you are then invited to make choices about possible solutions…

Scientists working for the NHM then introduce their own projects involving research both at home and abroad. It’s one thing collecting soil samples for the insect life in leaf mould from the New Forest but another having multiple trips abroad to quite remote locations and we were not quite sure how these were funded? Obviously the projects are related to what is already part of the very substantive collection – 21 million plant and insect specimens – and can clearly demonstrate climate change and evolutionary change but these must be costly to arrange? The scientists explain their methodology – basically check, check and check again – and the need for peer review and revision before anything gets published.

By now we had fairly effortlessly descended a couple of floors and the lift delivered us back to the ground /café level from where we returned to one of the ‘wings’ of the original museum. Today we opted for the (surprisingly popular) Mammals gallery. Perhaps because I live close to the Horniman Museum so it was a bit of a case (no pun intended) of ‘I can get that at home’, but the various displays of  mammals – with scales (pangolins etc), flying (bats lemurs), carnivorous (big cats/wolves/bears), insect eaters (anteaters), and of course the over-represented marsupials – are when all is said and done very good but now fading examples of Victorian taxidermy . Now you might argue that seeing the animals thus and close up is better than keeping them in a zoo, but feels as unnatural; also where, you might ask, are the domesticated/working  mammals such as sheep, cows. donkeys etc?  We were distracted to the point of trying to recall from ‘Just So Stories’ (The Beginning of the Armadillos) as to exactly how the hedgehog and tortoise couldn’t curl and couldn’t swim..  

When you think that the defining characteristics of mammals (as opposed to reptiles or birds) are giving life birth and feeding, heat control, warm blood and the scent  these are not very evident in the exhibits. 

I suspect that nowadays the main attraction for most (younger) visitors  to the NHM is to see the dinosaur skeletons and remains so perhaps for future generations these stuffed survivors of a bygone age may be the only samples left of certain animals if they do become extinct?
We shall obviously need to return to visit other parts of the Museum so may yet revise some of our views