Friday, 26 February 2016

Kingston Museum

Wheatfield Way
Kingston KT1 2PS

Thursday 25 February 2016

On this lovely sunny (but chilly) day, Linda and I met at Waterloo to catch a train to Kingston.  The half hour (ish) journey gave us plenty of time to chat, and then it is a short walk to the Museum.  I mention these travel details because we think this place is well worth a visit.

We spent a little time at the reception desk, discussing whether this blog counts as 'publishing'; but you can tell from Linda's photos that we were deemed to be OK to take and use pictures. (We do like to ask, in case...)

First  we came to the community case, where local groups can display their treasures;  these included a ribbon threader and a charming cork with a sailing ship on it, from South India.  Next door was a case of Martinware, made in Southall at the time of the Arts and Crafts movement, but we were not very taken with the dense shades and thick encrusting of the pots.

The Museum clearly has a trail for small people, with occasional labels to point in the right direction.

The main body of the museum is about the history of Kingston. from neolithic flints to the Second World War. What impressed us most was the signage, which was clear and readable.  The staff obviously followed the principle that, if you know about archeology, carbon dating, the names of historical periods and so on, you will just ignore the captions, but if you don't they are useful.

Compared to Hampstead, where we were a couple of weeks ago, Kingston has more 'history', as you might expect from the site of a major river crossing.  There was a case of weapons recovered from the river (or rather from a silted up branch excavated when the shopping centre was being built. Were these carelessly lost overboard? thrown in for religious reasons? dumped because they were damaged?  Looking at the remarkable Saxon logboat which is on display, I thought capsizing might have been a real risk, weapons and all! The logboat was dated in the 1990s, using the master sequence of tree ring data through hundreds of years with which archeologists compare whatever wood they find (I didn't know about this method)

If there were Roman buildings in Kingston (and there must have been, since they used the Thames crossing) they do not survive, but we saw a few pots and coins and an altar. Kingston is one of the boroughs with treasure trove rights, and on display were some gold coins from the Chessington Treasure.

Linda was very taken with the early 20th century stained glass windows.  They have motifs from the past life of Kingston, and embellish the rooms from the earliest human inhabitants through into Tudor times.

There was a brief account of Ethelred 'the Unready'. Linda preferred the 1066 and All That image of him effectively still in his pyjamas when the Danes landed though I did try to persuade her that he was merely 'badly advised'.

As the Middle Ages got going, Kingston became very busy.  Ship building was an important industry, and some timbers were on display, together with brick fishing net weights and an artist's impression of the bridge which spanned the Thames here from at least the 1190s.  We admired the way that photos and drawings, as well as the useful captions, were used to fill out the limited objects.

During the Civil War, Kingston sided with the King, only to be defeated by the Parliamentarians.  But trade and commerce continued to be the key to the city's fortunes, and there was an interesting case about trading standards and weights and measures.

Possibly the least attractive object we saw was a huge novelty vase, made of crazy paving bits of ceramic by Thomas Abbott for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897.  He offered a prize to anyone who correctly guessed the number of pieces.

The theme of boatbuilding led us to the story of the Watermen, and swan upping, as well the Doggett's Coat ad Badge race, run every year since 1715.

There was also a display about the Surrey Yeomanry, and the militia, which was a kind of Home Defence Force, with handsome uniforms, but exemption for anyone who could pay £10.00.  Since militia men were promised that they would never have to serve overseas, the force was never really tested in combat. 

More recent combat methods also played their part in the story of Kingston, since both Sopwith and Hawker had factories and research establishments nearby.  So we say models of the Camel and the Hurricane, as well as some photos of the assembly plants.

There were some photos of the bomb damage inflicted on Kingston by the Luftwaffe, and a case with gas masks, ARP labels and so on.

But the museum does not ignore the domestic side of life and there was a case about how laundry was done until the twentieth century. Just as we forget to be grateful every time we drink straight from a tap or flush the loo, so I think we need reminding that it really used to be wash DAY, with the hard labour boiling and scrubbing and mangling and starching and drying, not to mention ironing.  There were some flat irons and some gophering irons for all those sweet middle class victorian frills.

The other domestic interior displayed a truly terrifying pressure cooker, looking like an overgrown hand grenade, and perched on an early electric cooker.

We saw the symbols of Mayoral authority, and then there was a case about the schools of the Royal borough, originally set up to  teach 'honest poor men's sons to write, read and cast accompte' but now an Academy and a great deal more complicated than that!

At this stage, in an area about spare time, we met one of Kingston's world famous sons, the HMV dog Nipper, who was owned by artist Francis Barraud.

We also learned about Jack Keen, champion cyclist of the 1870s, and saw some examples of his cycle manufacture.

On our way upstairs, we admired several beautiful posters recommending travel to Kingston by trolley bus or tram, but we did not pause for long, as we wanted to see the special exhibition 'Talking Objects, Telling Stories'. 

Here we found 20 objects, some very valuable, others precious is a more homely way.  each had its story on a nearby poster.  They were all from Kingstonians of what one might call the South Asian Diaspora:  people whose forbears had come from India though their own families had come from Uganda, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and so on.  As well as wedding saris, there were domestic implements like steamers and coconut graters, several more than a century old, but still useful and used today.

We found it both interesting and moving.

And finally, we headed back downstairs to meet another of Kingston's globally famous sons, though I will say it took us some time (and an excursion into the shop) to find that Eadweard Muybridge was indeed born in Kingston - in 1830. This is the only tiny flaw we found in the signage throughout the museum!

I do hope you're not saying 'who?' since you have heard of him, or at least his works: he was the man who finally demonstrated how horses really move, using his technique of multiple photographs and his zoopraxiscope.  He also took some amazing early pictures of American sights, including some of the Yosemite National Park in1867, having mooved more or less permanently to the USA.

Pausing in the shop, to learn that the Museum was opened in 1904 with help from the Carnegie fortune, we were delighted with one more extraordinary exhibit:  the specially made pewter dish on which a baron of beef weighing 200lbs was served to 700 children to celebrate the coronation of George IV.  I expect the King would have been pleased as he was certainly one who enjoyed his victuals!

Friday, 19 February 2016

The Royal College of Physicians

11 St Andrew's Place, Regents Park. NW1 4LE

Thursday 18 February 2016

Linda and I were lured to this museum by the promise of an exhibition about Dr John Dee, but we were interested to see the Denys Lasdun building which replaces the bit of the John Nash Terrace known as Someries House.  This had been bombed during the Second World War, and the Crown Estate Commissioners were happy with the (now Grade I listed) modernist design, which was completed in 1964.  Not everyone was happy:  an unidentified neighbour, quoted in the lobby said 'This was an elegant, gracious street, and now they slap us in the face with this thing'.

The Doctor Dee Exhibition was upstairs, but first we made use of the handsome loos and friendly cloakroom, and had a look around the ground floor. This is adorned with a case full of those ceramic medicine jars which feature in most medical museums, and also leads into the Treasure Room of the College, which was full of 'wonderful things'.  Like many male dominated institutions from the middle ages to the present day, fine dining is an important part of the life of the College. I wonder whether, with a woman president, this tradition will continue. Linda and I much admired the wonderful silverware, particularly the charming grape scissors embellished with tiny bunches of grapes. 

We were also very interested in the various medical items on display, beginning with the Prujean Chest, designed to carry surgical instruments on seaboard, or mule-back to where they were needed in war zones. We saw some of the coins handed out to people 'touched' to cure the King's Evil.  My mother used to suggest that if you were going to get within touching distance of the monarch, you might have a really good wash, which might help your scrofula symptoms, but I am just as ready to believe in a miracle...  A slight shudder marked our spotting of a range of nipple shields, and we also noted the leech jars and applicators.  An antimony cup, made of toxic metal to encourage vomiting, reminded us of the obsession of our ancestors with the need to purge poisons out of the system. One of the highlights, for me, was a set of ivory handled acupuncture needles from the end of the nineteenth century, since I had thought that the whole 'chinese medicine' thing was a fairly recent phenomenon.  Other ivory items included the handles of canes, for status, and pointers , for use by lecturers. (Which reminds me to say that there were several conferences and lectures going on in various meeting rooms and theatres)

So then it was time to head upstairs to the Dr Dee exhibition, which is displayed around the galleries of the stairwell. As we went, we passed various other cases, including one containing a modern cartoon. This illustrated Baron Munchausen's claim that he had used a balloon to keep the entire college suspended in the air for three months;  but that since they were at dinner when he did the deed, there was no risk of the members being hungry 

John Dee never completed his degree, nor qualified formally as a Physician; nonetheless he was a Member of the College.  The reason for the exhibition is that the Library houses over 100 volumes which belonged to the scholar, courtier and magician.  He annotated all his books, with doodles, or comments, or dates, or underlinings.  So it is possible to learn about his life by looking at the books he owned: an impressive 4,000, or so he claimed. Most of these books were stolen, or sold by his brother-in-law, while he was on a six year journey around Europe, leaving the bulk of his library at his house in Mortlake. (He did take 800 volumes with him, as well as his family and his personal medium, Edward Kelley)

Born in 1527, he went to university but did not take his degree, preferring a wide range of studies, including astronomy and astrology. He was at the Royal court in 1551, possibly discussing mathematics with the young and intellectual Edward VI.  But when the reign changed, so did his fortunes.  In 1555, he was arrested and accused of witchcraft, as well as casting horoscopes of Queen Mary and her future husband, Philip of Spain. I'm not clear why he was not burned, given that Mary was quite wiling to save souls by burning bodies, but he was simply placed under house arrest with Edmund Bonner, the Bishop of London. Then, of course, the wheel turned again, and he was welcomed back to court as soon as Elizabeth came to the throne. Indeed, he was asked to pick an auspicious date for the coronation.  From then on, he was at the centre of policy making.  His copy of De Natura Deorum has a lovely doodle of a trading ship as well as a tiny Posidonius Globe in one margin. He advised the Mercers' Company on how to get to the fabulous textiles of the far east without going through the lands of the Spanish Empire (which now of course included the huge areas discovered and controlled by Portugal) The idea of a North West or North East Passage was not new, and he was also an important adviser to Martin Frobisher, the explorer sometimes unfairly pilloried for imagining that pyrites was gold.

He was also interested in history, and his History of the Normans has a family tree up to Richard II added in his hand.  His preface to a translation of Euclid has 'pop-up' triangles which the reader could cut and construct. He made distorting mirrors (Queen Elizabeth apparently enjoyed them when she visited his home in Mortlake) and mechanical toys.

As for his private life, he married twice and had eight children:  his son John was one of Charles I's physicians.

So far, so (fairly) typical for a 16th century polymath. But he also hunted for the Philosopher's Stone, and attempted to communicate with angels. A small crystal ball was on display. This sort of thing does lead to suspicion, and he was associated with Christopher Marlowe's creation, Dr Faustus.  But as the exhibition points out, close observation of nature can lead towards an interest in the occult: after all, Isaac Newton dabbled a bit as well.

In a way, the strangest thing about Dr Dee is that he continues to be well known.  When Quentin Blake was designing his mural for Addenbrooke's hospital, he included Dr Dee. For those of us who spent our late adolescence and early adulthood reading Dorothy Dunnett historical novels, he is a familiar figure, so we are glad he is getting his few minutes of scholarly fame here.

Linda and I refreshed ourselves with a brief visit to the herb garden, before setting off for home.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Burgh House

New End Square
London NW3 1LT

Thursday February 11 2016

Today found us with our last trip to Hampstead, this time for the free local resource that is Burgh House. Part community arts centre, part meeting venue and part art gallery with a small local museum thrown in, it is to be found in the charming back streets of Hampstead a few minutes from the Northern Line Underground station.   My parents were living in Hampstead when I was born and I later spent 7 years at school down the ‘bottom of the hill’ of which New End Square is about halfway. The top of the hill is of course the Heath, later glimpsed on our way home.

Burgh House stands out as a significantly larger building than the many ‘cottages’ that constitute this part of Hampstead…built in 1704 as a private residence when Hampstead Wells were seen as a go to destination for those keen on ‘taking the waters'.  It passed from owner to owner with relatively few additions or alterations – it had a brief spell as the HQ for the Middlesex Militia for about 23 years and then back into private hands. By the time of the 1930s it was empty (Hampstead perhaps focussing on promoting Modernist buildings) and taken over by Camden council (or Hampstead Borough as it would have been then) in 1947. Since then it has been in public if not consistently open use.

There is a charming terraced garden (remnants of Gertrude Jekyll's design) leading to the steps to the front portico and door – today we could only glimpse some snowdrops and daffodils but I am sure it is stuffed with decorative plants. The spaces on the ground floor are large reception rooms, two of which were in use today: one seemed to be hosting a committee meeting of some kind and the other a gardening lecture. The back two rooms are gallery spaces and today we learnt about local artist George Charlton who had a house opposite in New End Square where he moved after a successful start to his artistic career – he studied at the Slade under Henry Tonks and went on to teach there, marrying one of his pupils Daphne Gribble (I think this was a good case for taking on your partner’s name). Originally hailed as the new Cruikshank, the liveliness of  his paintings became more muted after the First World War. This exhibition focuses on nude sketches which we presume included some of his wife Daphne – she of course was an artist in her own right. Their home was visited by other contemporary artists including Stanley Spencer who may or may not have taken Daphne as his lover. The sketches are competent – lifelike, confident yet intimate – all you might want from a portraitist.

In the back room, by contrast to the black and white of the Charlton display, was an exhibition entitled ‘Firecrackers’ with works by Chinese artist to celebrate the very imminent Chinese New Year. The contrast between the colourful and heavily impasto works and the gentle monochrome is quite striking but kept us on our toes.

The rooms upstairs are smaller and more intimate and are where the history of Hampstead has been displayed in a range of placards and artefacts. There is of course a cabinet of Neolithic remains but so remote and elevated is most of Hampstead that it was something of a surprise to learn it was part of St Peter’s Monastery based in Westminster – extensive land ownership you might say. Some parts also belonged to Kilburn Priory so both before and for a long time after the Reformation Hampstead was little more than a ‘small and lonesome’ location. It did manage to have a Poor House so looked after its rural poor to some extent...

Belsize Park, I learnt, derived from Bel Assis or beautiful seat/location. There are sundry contemporary prints of the Armada Beacon, including a press button model so you can see the little braziers light up – not quite as exciting as the Museum of London’s Great Fire model but at least in working order... as of course the top of the Heath is high enough for the signal to be seen from far away.   After Burgh House was built Hampstead had its first claim to fame – another place to take the waters... the Chalybeate Well  remains from this brief era – Chalybeate apparently meaning water which contains iron.  Although short lived as a destination it had encouraged development and this continued rapidly through the Victorian era with the population doubling. Notable residents of course included John Keats (whose home we have already visited) and John Constable who lived in nearby Well Walk and memorably painted the Heath. He is buried nearby.

In contrast to many local museums this one has little in the way of local industry either pre or post the Industrial revolution. In 1907 the Underground Line opened the station at Hampstead which is still the deepest on the network and this certainly precipitated more development albeit of the residential kind. Incidentally the earth dug out was used to construct the arbours and terraces of Inverforth House and Golders Hill Park (really the Heath under another name). We also learned that, in the same way as locals elsewhere supported the navy, Hampstead chose to send its contributions for tanks. And of course if Hampstead is renowned for anything it is for its ‘liberal leaning artistic and political residents’ too numerous to list.

‘Modernist Hampstead’ is featured here at Burgh House with models and pictures of the key buildings – 2 Willow Road  and the Lawn Road Flats. There is a good display of Isokon furniture and it explains that this portmanteau word comes from isometric and construction – so there you are.

Hampstead was quite badly damaged during the war with 10 V1 and 4 V2 bombs – I can remember my mother telling that she sheltered under the table rather than using the Belsize Park deep shelter as demonstrated here. The exhibition notes the wartime and post war influx of emigres or refugees and asylum seekers as we would call them nowadays and clearly rented accommodation was easily affordable as my parents set up their first home off Fitzjohn’s Avenue. And I can remember clearly the excitement that greeted the opening of the Sir Basil Spence Library and adjoining swimming pool (replacing the Victorian baths on the Finchley Road) down at Swiss Cottage. New End had had a hospital which was later absorbed into the Royal Free, itself rebuilt in 1978. New End’s hospital is a little theatre and the Royal Free was Jo’s ultimate destination today, reached by a gentle walk down Willow Road.

London’s property prices being what they are very little of Hampstead is at all affordable   unless you are from overseas and Russian or a footballer...
We enjoyed today’s trip combining as it did in one visit  a small art exhibition about an artist we knew little of and a brief history of a unique part of London offering insights and nostalgia both. 

Tuesday, 9 February 2016

National Gallery

Trafalgar Square
London W.1

Thursday February 3 2016

Well we have a dwindling following – not sure whether our remarks about architects  (we like architecture) lost us some followers but they seem to have dwindled from 199 to 170…
Today’s visit was, as with all our trips to the major London museums, to be the first in a series in order to do justice to a major collection. As the 176 wended its way to Trafalgar Square I brooded about the dearth of UK-based artists in the period covered by the Sainsbury Wing –  never had as much Art as central Europe? all destroyed by the Reformation then Cromwell? anonymous? painted directly on the fabric of the church? – but I did not really reach a conclusion except that Italy clearly had artwork surplus to requirements. Or was it a case of out with the old, in with the new for them, leaving collectors to pick up the pieces?

The the website for the National Gallery is excellent and really makes most of what I write totally redundant. The room arrangement is both by chronology and area so locality artists are grouped together with Leonardo’s two works having rooms of their own. I suppose he was a man both of his time and out of his time and he certainly moved around more than most of his Italian peers.
Probably 90% of the works in these rooms are religious so it helps to have a working knowledge mainly of the New Testament and the more esoteric saints and evangelists. Any gallery visitor (or indeed art lover going to Italy) does well to arm themselves with a Dictionary of Saints as often by their symbols or props ‘ye shall know them’. For example St Peter with his keys is very familiar but there were several examples of a guy clutching what looks like a rusty barbecue – this is of course St Lawrence who met his end being roasted on a grid… St Catherine leans on her wheel and there are several St Margarets being spewed out by a dragon.

Many of these paintings are altar pieces so you did get a lot for your money – usually a central picture with two smaller side wings possibly painted both sides  and underneath the more ‘comic strip’ Predella with its story board accounts of a local or well-known miracle or Gospel Story.
There was of course a preponderance of Madonnas and child sometimes together with St John the Baptist, the Infant Jesus’ playmate and later life companion until John went off wandering in the desert and Salome claimed his head as a prize (you’ll have to wait for the Caravaggios for the full gory story).

Up to Victorian times blue remained the colour most associated with the Virgin and thus girls’ and women’s clothing and likewise deep pink was not unusual for men – at some time this ‘convention’ was reversed.

Once artists have mastered both perspective and scale the babies are roughly the right size but most look either like scaled down boys or quite overweight.  Fra Lippo Lippi one of my personal favourites, really achieves more appealing infants. His was a life and talent not to be confined to a monastery and clearly a temperament more temporal than religious meant at least that he travelled beyond his religious order, painted widely  and left a legacy of wonderful art and a son almost as talented as himself. Lorenzo di Medici was a patron and he rarely backed a loser. 

The preponderance of religious themes does not mean you do not get a good idea of what the people contemporary to the artist would have worn or looked like; plus as the century progressed artists included more background – usually the city where they had set up shop. There is a small side room where the Flemish and Northern ( German and Austrian) artists are collected and these have a  quiet clarity to them – also include more worldly paintings such as the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait and some memorable though by now unnamed local patrons.

Rogier van der Weyden, another favourite,  is represented here also and is a good place to linger.

Ucello’s battle scene and a couple of mythological treatments ate the key exceptions to this particular morning’s principal viewing. At some point in front of the Crivellis we both glazed over having really been quite concentrating for nearly two hours – it was an absorbing visit.

The pictures are exceptionally well captioned, giving a succinct precis of the scene depicted the context of the painting (ex church/commission etc) plus why if might be important – and they are honest where authorship might be disputed. Given such scholarship anything I might say is pretty much redundant but go and see for yourself – it is free after all.