Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Royal Air Force Museum

Grahame Park Way, London NW9 5LL
Wednesday March 23 2016

This museum is really only for  folk who like aeroplanes as, apart from a few uniforms, the main emphasis is on the aircraft used  or abused ( ie shot down) by the Royal Air Force over the last 100 years. The RAF, very much the junior service, was founded in 1915 and the Milestones of Flight Gallery was opened   as a centenary exhibition in a new purpose-built hall in 2013. Somehow we failed to grasp that the other display galleries were in separate buildings so only in fact visited a fraction of the whole Museum  as a result. To revert to our former pursuit – it felt a bit like discovering we had got off the bus before it reached its destination. At the other BIG national Museums we knew we had to make some choices and plan return visits but here we just failed to find about 3/5 of the displays!!

We walked from Colindale Underground Station marvelling at all the new buildings that had gone up since we were last here – the Newspaper bit of the BL is now ‘Luxury affordable flats’ or  similar and the whole area either side of Grahame Road is a work in progress.  And of course much of this area was the former Hendon Aerodrome run by the RAF, which is why there is quite so much ‘brownfield site’ to develop.  Grahame Road is named for the pioneer aviator and entrepreneur Claude Grahame of whom more later.

The Museum itself occupies a large site and we trekked across a huge car parking area.  (Museum Entrance is free but contributions welcome and the car park charges.)  The white domed buildings, new built but looking like a cross between a hangar and a garage, seemed to be a conference centre. Presumably the vision was for conference members to wander into the galleries when time and boredom permitted. The car park seemed quite empty today as was the Museum itself, though it did swallow up a French school party — not an easy meal to digest.  

We headed upstairs in the first hall noting that both lifts were out of order as were some of the audio-visuals. Compared to many museums (and this one is free, which must have a bearing on things) there are very few staff as the exhibits are so huge and suspended from the ceiling that there is little risk of the public  either harming or nicking the objects. Some of the planes are real, some replicas and there is everything from a reconstruction  of  the plane Bleriot flew in his historic cross channel trip from Calais to the very modern European  Fighter. The early planes are intriguing in their fragility seemingly made of balsa wood and linen on a set of bicycle wheels and exposed to the elements. At least they would have been quiet unlike the modern jets – I have been at air days and displays when the Typhoon flies overhead and you really do need ear plugs.

Across the ground floor wall there is a Timeline cross referring world events, random  facts (invention of the zip fastener)  and milestones in aviation history including the more daring exploits of early flight and of course the foundation of the Royal Air Force in 1915* up to its modern day. The yellow line over the top indicates the length of the Wright Brothers’ first flight – about 120 yards...There is plenty to read and this gives a good context for the displays in this hall and presumably the rest of the museum.

[*Anorak alert: the historians associated with this project had always understood that the Royal Air Force was founded in 1918, by a merger of the Royal Flying Corps (founded 1912) and the Royal Naval Air Service (founded 1914).  Quite where the date of 1915 comes from we do not know, but this is what various placards say here and elsewhere in the Museum.]

My only ‘ambition’ before the visit was to see a Halifax Bomber having just finished reading  'A God in Ruins' with the author, Kate Atkinson’s hero a Halifax pilot, where life expectancy was short, but with descriptions that will stay with you.  There did not seem to be a Halifax which was slightly puzzling , though of course had we found (where there any signs??) the gallery for Bomber Command or the Battle of Britain, we might have seen one.

The sign we did see was for the ‘First World War’ in the air in the Claude Grahame-White Building – from the outside this looked so pristine we assumed it was a newly built addition though very much in the style of an airfield command unit. Once inside it was clear from the oak staircase and panelling that this was original and research indicates it was  moved and rebuilt

It is known as the Watch office and the front is for business and the back opens onto a large hangar space where  the history of Grahame-White’s enterprise and the early days of the RAF are presented. Presumably beyond that would have been the airfield and runways, which the RAF were reluctant to give up until it
became clear that vertical take off was not the next big thing…but a passing phase.
We enjoyed the atmosphere of the building – a wonderful panelled board room complete with doggy water bowls  and the role of the RAF  in the First World War clearly set out. In spite of tales of the Red Baron aerial combat played a minor role compared to the importance of photography, reconnaissance, escort and artillery observation and of course with such a ‘new’ service teaching men how to fly was a major part.  Each of these functions is illustrated by the appropriate exhibits – maps plans etc. The planes on show in here also have their engines proudly displayed.
We emerged into the Spring gloom and noted  the Museum to our left – little did we know the other buildings housed  other substantial collections.

Better initial research on our part might have meant we asked for directions once on site but neither of us remember signs or directions urging us to see more….a return visit will therefore be likely. 

 Yes - it's a woolly plane which just about sums up our experience today.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Institute of Contemporary Arts

The Mall 

Wednesday 16 March 2016
Following our visit to Canada House, we walked along the Strand to the ICA, where the exhibition was Betty Woodman's Theatre of the Domestic.
As always, we asked if we could take photos, and the very helpful person on the desk said she would organise for some images to be sent to us, through the magic that is Webtransfer (don't ask me, I'm too old to understand).  But the pictures arrived safely, so this brief post is embellished with these lovely photos by Mark Blower.  I can't decide which to leave out, so they are mostly here, but not a substitute for a visit to see the real things at the ICA Gallery.

Betty Woodman was born in Connecticut in 1930, and it seemed to us that her works were a splendid mixture of the modern and the 'homey', like the Country Dining Room. She is a ceramicist, and many of the pieces were glazed pots, with paint and other materials added.  Vases were a staple, but so varied that we were happy to enjoy them all.

Along the wall was 'Wallpaper 9', made up of ceramic plaques in pinks and greens.  Some were abstract, but they felt like fish, waterweed, tree branches and flowers.  They derive from an experiment of hers in glazing the offcuts from her main works
At the end of the bright, white gallery space were the Kimono Ladies, made of ceramic but dressed by Esther Gauntlett, who normally dresses people rather than ceramics.

 All in all, we thought we could trace her style back to its beginnings making tableware, while we thought she must be having much more fun nowadays than when limited to plates and cups.

 Betty Woodman: Theatre of the Domestic
3 February – 10 April 2016
Institute of Contemporary Arts
Photo credit: Mark Blower

Friday, 18 March 2016

Canada House Gallery

Canadian High Commission
Trafalgar Square
London SW1Y 5BJ
Wednesday March 16 2016

Today’s return trip had been arranged to fit within two galleries’ opening times so we met, as last week, on the steps of Canada House’s Gallery which lies to the side and handily opposite the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. Before we were allowed in we had to go through airport type security with a baggage control and security arch – no sniffer dogs or patting down though.

The whole of Canada House  has had a ‘makeover’ and apparently  the public can have a conducted tour to the rest of the premises via booked visits on a Friday afternoon ; we were informed of this as someone, clearly Canadian, came through the gallery to exit. 

For us today this was the only access allowed, but with a nice bench and a high quality exhibition guide we were very happy. The dozen or so paintings were all of women by a woman – the featured artist Marion Wagschal – although born in Trinidad her surname betrays the German refugee status of her parents and a move to Canada  in 1951 validates the exhibition here and she has very much been claimed as a Canadian feminist artist.

The room has six large canvases and a group of six smaller ones – these are portrait heads while the larger ones are full length. The only picture which left us luke warm was that entitled ‘Tales of the Schwarzwald as told by my Mother’: it looked dream-like and as in many dreams rather jumbled and hard to interpret. (Where’s Freud when you need him? In Hampstead.) The portraits are unflinching but not unkind and show real rather than idealised subjects, mainly women – in fact it was almost as though we recognised them as ‘old friends’...  The catalogue notes compare her to both Lucien Freud and james Ensor and this seemed very valid.  Jo liked the ‘Song for a dead Coyote’ whereas I rated both ‘Sleep’ and ‘Death’ (clearly the same person – her mother?) and the commanding presence of the subject in ‘Woman with Still Life’ .

If the crowds at the National Gallery ‘get to you’ and you want a refreshing change you could certainly do worse than pop across the road into the Canada House 

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Mall Galleries

The Mall
London SW1
Thursday March 10 2016

This was something in the nature of an ‘accidental visit’ as we had arranged a morning to view the Canada House Gallery followed by the ICA, which only opens at 11AM. However we thought the Canada House Gallery kept office hours so were surprised to be told  (from behind undoubtedly bullet proof glass) that they did not open until 11AM either  (seems to be if you want a job with  late start galleries and museums would be your thing) . So we turned our back on the Rumanian Yodas and headed across the Square back to the Mall intent on exploring what would be on offer at the ICA and at what price…  And that’s how we fell into the rather lovely Mall Galleries,  which pride themselves on being the  centre for figurative art so this was always going to be a safe bet…. With nothing  too challenging.

Our next mistake  was to think that the exhibition announced thus The Lynn Painter-Stainers Prize Exhibition'  was a show celebrating the work of the eponymous probably female artist. Wrong  on every conceivable  count. Firstly the Lynn refers to the Lynn Foundation, a smallish charity based in Sussex whose main focus is helping the Disabled, but which also supports the arts, while the second part refers to the fact that the Lynn has combined with the worshipful company of Painters and Stainers – one of the City Guilds – to donate prize money for figurative paintings. We weren’t entirely clear whether what was on show were all the entries or merely those shortlisted but we looked at them happily in the very excellent exhibition spaces these galleries have. No photos were allowed so the illustrations for this post are screen grabs from their website, but you can see all the entries on the website.

With the paintings being figurative,  Jo was very enthusiastic about the landscapes, especially those she knew or had walked through (so to speak), while  I, being more of an urban bunny, rather liked the ones of the now demolished Aylesbury Estate and St Martins’ Lane by night. There are several quite effective seascapes and most artists had made a good job of capturing English skies – something of a test since Constable and Turner… There are still lives, several portraits and life drawings and paintings. A very detailed picture of some honeycomb was interesting, and we both enjoyed the back gardens viewed from some tall old houses in Inner London, which showed both nature tamed and nature less well kempt.  Most disquieting was the painting. . 'The Man who drinks and his Wife'

The back two rooms (these galleries are surprisingly spacious, quiet and nearly all on one level) were playing host to a photographic exhibition and the British Life Photography Awards. Again no reproductions allowed so you will have to make do with the website. The entries came in different categories – so there were British Portraits, Britain at Work, Britons on holiday, British Weather, and Street Life. There is also a section called documentary series – a narrative  sequence of photos  being the key here. The quality of the photos was excellent and ranged from carefully composed compositions (some people waiting hours for a sunrise for example) to others captured in an instant while out and about on the streets

The portraits included some celebrities but these were far less interesting than the folk captured at repose in their homes or working and playing. We loved the winning portrait of an older man polishing a brass lamp in his well-kept council house.

Visiting the Mall galleries was a first for both of us, and the two exhibitions we saw will both have closed by the time you read this (they were only there for a week).  Nonetheless, we heartily recommend the Galleries: handy for Hyde Park, bright but secluded  and a place where it is easy to pop in for free and relaxing time with their changing displays.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Household Cavalry Museum

Horse Guards
London SW1A 2AX

Thursday March 3 2016

‘Time for another military museum’ said Jo and it’s true there are several left on our list, which at about two years into this particular Project stands  at something like 100/250 venues…  Some off our original list have vanished (or moved to the country) but others have been added as we go along so this may be a Project without end – but I digress.
Today’s destination  could not be easier to find though I wonder how many people know it is actually there, tucked away in a cobbled corner of Horseguards Parade behind the arch (built by Charles II as we learnt).  I stepped through rather gingerly as it means passing close to the horses on guard and I always think they seem a bit frisky and unpredictable and really rather large..  I have managed to get to my 7th decade of life without ever having been on a horse (donkeys yes) and they really take centre stage for this museum.

The Household Cavalry comprises two regiments – the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals, the latter itself the result of a merging the former Royal Horse Guards (Blues) and 1st (Royal) Dragoons.  It seems Charles II much admired the personal bodyguard maintained by Louis XIV in France and ‘wanted one too’. When you consider what then happened to royalty in France perhaps they weren’t the best role model to follow and the English Parliament was understandably nervous about having the monarch with a standing army so to speak until persuaded by the paranoia of the ‘Popish Plot’.  The Titus Oates claims (bit of bias here I think) may well have been an early forerunner of the ‘dodgy dossier ‘ type and it is far from clear whether there really was a plot against the king or merely Titus Oates and co out to get a few more Catholics disposed of. Whatever, having a ‘life guard’ after this seemed less extreme or exotic.

Given its corner location the Museum is pretty compact – we were offered a tablet-based headset but actually found just reading the display captions and watching bits of  video  were more than enough to tell the story of the Regiments’ origins, traditions, exploits and ceremonials.

The uniforms (at a current cost of about £700 each) are what you see sitting proudly on a horse on most state occasions when the sovereign is out and about needing protection, though the role is largely symbolic nowadays. Probably the Met, who have their own stables across the road, do a fiercer job of security and protection.  The Museum allows you to look at the uniform in quite some detail and tells you the specific names of the bits of uniform – the boots reach to mid-thigh and the breast plate is known as a cuirass, the gloves as gauntlets, and the belt as a cartouche belt. Today the Lifeguards were wearing heavy red topcoats which split neatly at the back and fall beautifully over the horse’s rump. The helmets, also brass, have white plumes for the Lifeguards and red for the Blues (who have blue coats) and Royals. Part of the discipline is keeping your uniform and that of the horse smart and shiny – a volunteer told us this took 10 hours a day but I’m not sure this leaves much time for any ‘soldiering’ even if only of the ceremonial type. There is also a more gold coat as worn by the musicians who are expected to play heavy brass instruments whilst on horseback – I think maybe they are spared from having a sword as well. Though there was a lot of shouting going on during the ceremony, loud music (kettle drums and tubas) were sounded to send a message across the battle field rather than for any musical entertainment.

The cases contain small ivory ‘pass cards’ which succeeded the need to know today’s password. I suppose if you are the sort of person who forgets today’s password you might just remember to bring your ivory pass?

The Household Cavalry recruits from the whole country and Commonwealth and 85%of the soldiers learn to ride. There was an interesting interview with two recruits who talked us through the sometimes painful process of learning to ride – and training which takes about 10 months and includes the personal care of the animals and familiarising them with noise and sudden startling so they cope with both the tourists and the ceremonial occasions.  The horses are mainly bred in Ireland and their names come from a pre-selected list issued on an alphabetical basis – a cross between car registration and hurricane naming…  We did reasonably well on a ‘horse quiz’ but strangely failed to recognise  Sefton – the horse who was so badly injured when the regiment was nail bombed by the IRA in Hyde Park in July 1982.

This led us neatly into the section of the museum which is adjacent to but glassed off from the stables where the 6 or so horses are kept  for the day’s changing of the guard ceremony; we were there just around  11 AM so watched a couple of soldiers mount their horses and  trot off to do their thing. Virtually throughout our visit, there was a soldier (in camouflage not dress uniform) sweeping the seemingly endless supply of horse droppings and wet straw from the cobbled surface. Jo when still a history teacher and author had learnt that horses can evacuate their bowels up to 13 times a  day so you can see why cleaning the Augean stables was a Herculean Task though to be fair these were mainly cows.

For children there are small size replica uniforms for ‘dressing up’ opportunities.
After the chance to look behind the scenes the museum then resembles other regimental  displays.  The usual pattern is a history of engagements successful or otherwise with the exploits of outstanding heroes detailed, often with their accompanying medals or accoutrements. Needless to say just following the bicentennial, the Dragoons (forerunners of the Blues & Royals, pay attention) were at Waterloo with both other ranks and officers gaining awards. Lingering before a caption naming the most decorated UK soldier Jo reminded me however successful an ordinary soldier may have been he could not rise above a certain rank.

After Waterloo there was a six decade gap of non combat mainly because Victoria chose to keep her Household Cavalry about her (there are further stables and training opportunities at Windsor) so they did not take part in the Crimea. However in 1882 they were deployed to Egypt to suppress a nationalist uprising (sounds familiar). Time to swap horses for camels.

Before long they found themselves deployed to France where at Zandvoorde close to Ypres  they suffered heavy losses and later photos from this conflict show the Household cavalry with bicycles as both sides found to their costs that cavalry charges were tantamount to suicide missions.
According to their captions they did not motorise until 1941 which seems quite late and by 1942 had armoured cars and conscription. As equestrianism (as opposed to keeping a working horse) was something of a rich man’s sport conscription would have widened the intake. Amongst the medals you can see the cap and shirt worn by one Jackie Charlton footballer who of course played for the Blues team before having a professional career in football.
The Household Cavalry’s post-1945 engagements are pretty standard, having sent soldiers to the first Iraq conflict, Afghanistan and numerous peace keeping missions in Cyprus and the Balkans. They also spent some time in Northern Ireland which may well have precipitated the nail bomb attack in Hyde Park, which killed seven horses and 4 men and injured 23. To see the size and viciousness of the nails is really chilling.

Gladly from this dark episode we emerged into the sunshine in time to join others watching the horses lined up to change the guard. This is a regimental museum like many but stands out for its amazing location and  chance to see the mounts close up – a must for anyone who loves London or horses.