Saturday, 28 May 2016

Barbican Art Gallery

Silk St EC2Y 8DS

Thursday 26 May 2016

Mary and I met a little before 10.00 and sat by one of the Barbican's water features. hoping that the weather was being kind to Linda on holiday.

Then we headed into the Art Gallery, where no photographs are allowed, sorry!

We had neither of us been to the gallery before, and were impressed by its size, though not particularly by its captioning, which was hard to read for people of mature years.

The exhibition is called Strange and Familiar and features the work of a considerable number of foreign photographers, and Britain as they saw it. It's displayed in more-or-less chronological order. We started with Edith Tudor Hart, an Austrian who moved to Britain for political as much as artistic or romantic reasons. Her husband was a doctor in South Wales in the 1930s, and she had communist sympathies, so her pictures are of pit workers, pit wash houses and poor children, as well as refugees from the Spanish Civil War. 

Henri Cartier Bresson was employed by a number of magazines, and photographed British occasions from the coronation of George VI to the Silver Jubilee 40 years later.  But the photographs are mostly street scenes, the crowds with their periscopes, the litter in the street after the processions, and tired people in the parks. There was a single picture of debutantes at Queen Charlotte's Ball, too.  He also went up to Blackpool and photographed holiday makers who seem to suggest that obesity is not only a modern problem. A lovely picture of some young women in their curlers on the pier led one to suppose that they were planning a seriously exciting night out. There are some of his images here but not, I think, any that we saw at the Barbican.

Next came Robert Frank, a Swiss-American who was in Britain in the early 1950s. He photographed posh chaps in London, with bowlers or top hats before he too moved to South Wales to photograph miners and their families, You can see many of the photos here.

Meanwhile Paul Strand left the USA in 1949, since being a Communist sympathiser was a bit unhealthy.  His choice of subject was the Outer Hebrides, notably South Uist and Benbecula.  

The exhibition included a number of books of photographs, making us think that the 'coffee table' book has been somewhat superseded by You Tube and all that. Cas Oorthuys came from the Netherlands in the 1950s and 1960s to make the 'This is...' series of books: his 'London' showed bus queues, street market, people sitting in Hyde Park and CND marchers. 'Oxford' also has workers at the car plant, as well as students and High School girls. Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, by contrast, made a book called 'Eton Portrait'.

I won't go through every photographer's work, though I will say that Frank Habicht, photographing London in the late 60s showed us Biba, young people smoking spliffs and the crowd at a Rolling Stones Concert, and Candida Hofer depicted the deprivation that was Liverpool in the early 70s. Possibly the most moving set was that of Akihito Okamura, in Belfast in 1968.  Although he had gone initially to trace the family of John F Kennedy, he captured the poignant business  of every day life alongside the military:  soldiers on patrol through shopping streets, blood and flowers at street corners, and children watching the Protestant marches in July.

So I should say that the Exhibition is well worth the entrance charge;  and that photographers, like the rest of us, see what they expect to see: but they preserve their views for the future.

Friday, 20 May 2016

The City Centre

80 Basinghall Street
London EC2V 5AR
Friday May 20 2016

There was some debate as to whether this was really a ‘museum’ but as an exhibition with permanent status and public access  (albeit limited to Fridays and Saturdays) it would seem to fit our rather loose criteria. Anyway it is very similar to the Building Centre, which we visited in June 2015, with less promoted products.

We met at Moorgate Station and plumped for one of its many exits – the area is virtually unrecognisable due to the amount of construction work both overground and underground – the Elizabeth Line gets its tentacles everywhere though not destined to call at Moorgate. After some dithering – as we often do when confronted with the reality of maps – we found ourselves close to Basinghall Street, effectively round the back of the Guildhall, so we approached Reception staffed by 4 people (none of them in high heels) and asked where we could find the City Exhibition with the ‘scale model’. ‘O that’s not open to the public’ they said; ‘yes it is’ we said, ‘on Fridays from 10.00.’ ‘Well we don’t  know anything about that – it must be the marketing centre,’ trying to dismiss us. So where’s that then – round the corner they waved us off and out. As we enter the ‘Square Mile’ (City of London) so rarely nowadays we forget how money speaks and oozes from every pore of every building, and that we don’t quite fit in…

Having said that, once we rounded the corner we did indeed find the City Centre (neat name) which was previously the marketing suite. In some senses it is still a marketing tool in that it promotes different aspects of the City Corporation. The scale model and the photos depicting four facets of the City could amount to promotional material – each wall holds a series of photos relating to
·         The Green City – there are more corners of garden and planting then you might think and even a map is offered so you can follow a Garden Trail. The Postmen's Park is ne of our favourites. 
·         The Cultural City: For the most part his showcases the open air art works – street art – that hug the ground round the various new towers included in
·         The New City: here there is no shortage of examples to be found as architects aim for immortality by building ever higher, or more recently ever curvier.
Lastly, or should it be firstly, comes
·         The Historic City: Not quite as much of it as there might be given the Blitz, and more recent rebuilding, but essentially this shows us the ‘star’ buildings of the City – St Paul’s of course, several old churches (many have been left in ruins which make for rather picturesque settings for the gardens – see above) and the civic spots of Guildhall, Mansion House , the Bank of England and numerous Guild centres. Roman bits lurk everywhere but most accessible by the Museum of London. 
Technically the Tower is in Tower Hamlets and not the City but creeps into the model..

 (The City Centre  lies very close to the HQ for the Armourers – Jo and I remembered when they used to be ‘Armourers & Braziers’ but thought they may have dropped their other half title so as not to be confused with certain items of lingerie.) 

Back to today – the main attraction is of course the very excellent scale model of the City of London which does extend beyond its 1 Square Mile boundaries especially to the south as it includes the Thames – and even the inappropriately named City Hall, now with its new incumbent Sadiq Khan.
We had great fun spotting or more often failing to spot different buildings as none of them  or the streets are labelled – the ‘key’ buildings – presumably those of architectural merit – are detailed while others are merely to scale blocked in white or grey. It is impressively up to date and includes the about to be opened extension to Tate-Modern  ( again not the City but Southwark) . Some buildings are so ‘overstated’ that they jar (there you have architects Jo would say) others blend together well, but overall the skyscrapers lack the cohesion of Manhattan.

Jo took a picture of London bridge and the Shard so that I could do a ’little rant’: London Bridge is gradually transforming itself to facilitate more cross London trains to run but in the interim it is not possible to change trains to move onto Waterloo or Charing Cross – this has had a huge impact on the Overground /Jubilee line interchange at Canada Water and with the road traffic slowed round Elephant while roundabouts are eradicated and cycle lanes fenced off the combination results in South East London being even more inaccessible – we were promised a fully functioning London Bridge in 2016 which now seems to have slipped to 2017. None of this is of course visible on the model where everything looks pristine and traffic free…

The Gallery would be an ideal drop-in for city workers – it’s a quiet oasis and more intimate space in what is the big corporate world and worth a visit for anyone interested in London’s growth and development. 

PS Even the toilets have pinstripes...

Sunday, 15 May 2016

British Museum (Visit 1)

Great Russell Street
London WC1B 3DG

Thursday May 12th 2016

In many ways we had been avoiding the British  Museum (BM) – not because we did not enjoy it, not because we did not think that the late Director Sir Neil McGregor was admirable in all sorts of ways  and had made the museum even more attractive, but because the ‘idea of it’ seemed so overwhelming. On today’s count the museum has approximately 99 galleries (there are some As and Bs) spread over 5 floors and while this shows on their map I think it’s probably an underestimate.
So it’s a bit at a time until we get bored, but it will certainly take us till the end of the Project. 
Today we started with Africa, not because we are being alphabetical or anything organised like that, but because it’s on the lower ground floor near the back entrance and we wanted something (comparatively) crowd-free. To say we were alone would be a lie but there was plenty of peace and quiet to enjoy this very well curated collection of both historic and present day cultural artefacts. The starting point is here you can find  modern artists ‘ responses to more traditional art forms – masks, pots, sculptures etc – and samples from the more historic collection alongside short film clips showing how the craftsmen use their materials.

Mozambique, we learned has about 40 languages so there was a mural called Mother Tongue, and then a very modern response to the traditional woven Kente Cloth  made of recycled bottle tops.

There are many artefacts which are universal – textiles, pots and sadly weaponry; there are also sections for religious and ritual occasions, and I suspect this will be the pattern for the remaining 98 galleries. When I tell you that this particular gallery was larger than the whole of Barnet Museum you can imagine how daunted one might feel.   

In the ‘Masquerade’ section are a range of masks and head dresses, some ceremonial used to ward off evil spirits , or perhaps give you the courage to face your enemy be it man or hippo (’otobo’ we learnt, and one of Africa’s largest animal killers, not counting malaria). These are heavy and complex constructions and not the kind of thing you would wear down to the market.

Back to the textiles where there was a range of both historical and more modern kente cloths. Kente means basket, which makes sense when you look at the woven patterns.  Also on display was hand stamped Kanga cloth which originated when six hankies (len̹co In Portuguese) are sewn together – the printing process allows for a degree of political propaganda along the way…
As we learnt from the Indian textiles and what is of course obvious is that the textiles (as later the pots) depend on locally available materials so it is only in coastal/mountain North Africa  that you find wool used. Other cloths include raffia and some imported fabrics.

One of the most splendid ( and possibly controversial)  sections of this particular gallery is the display of Benin Bronzes and included is a short film explaining the processes used, pretty much unchanged, over the last four centuries. The intricacy and humour of the plaques once used to decorate the palace exterior are one of the prize exhibits at the BM 
And rightly so – you can linger here gazing at the different expressions of the people immortalized in bronze.   

Wood carving is also well represented but of course less likely to survive than bronze, so again there are modern examples to show that the skills still flourish.

After these manifestations of power and prestige from the palace walls it is no surprise to see there is a section on weaponry, whose manufacture must combine functionality with good design. Examples range from earlier simple shields to a range of lethal looking throwing knives. Mozambique lived with civil war for over 20 years (1972-1997) so once peace was established there was clearly an arms amnesty and the weapons collected fashioned into a ‘tree of life’ or peace – it is both intriguing and moving and quite rightly has toured the continent before coming to rest at the BM.

A more peaceful conclusion to the gallery was the magnificent range of pots showing the variety of colours, skills and techniques available from the various African countries, all of which were that perfection combination of utility and beauty. 

Having spent a good hour downstairs we thought we wanted a real contrast – the current paying exhibition is about Sicily but up on the fifth floor there was a small exhibition of Francis Towne’s watercolours of Rome, many of  which he had bequeathed to the BM. Towne was born in Middlesex but moved to Exeter where he remained for the rest of his life  he started as a coach painter but then started using water colours and undertook a protracted trip to Rome to record the ancient city and sell his pictures and copies to the many travellers who went on the ‘Grand Tour’. There are numerous examples of the sights of Rome which are somewhere between architectural drawings – accurate and spare but with trees – and landscapes that owe more to the imagination than real life. The results were never good enough to win him a place at the Royal academy (he was rejected 11 times and seen as distinctly ‘provincial’) but the good folk of Exeter bought enough to earn him a  reasonable living. Interestingly he did not become regarded again until the Thirties where his ‘spare’ style was seen as Modernist, exactly why his Victorian contemporaries had found his work too plain.

We were not particularly excited by these which are well displayed – under glass but sloping so you can get really close – and well captioned but nevertheless bland,  lacking the drama and individuality of other similar works. 

Friday, 6 May 2016

The Sherlock Holmes Museum

221B Baker St 

Thursday 5 May 2016
This was rather a new experience for Linda and me.  We have, of course, been to tourist hotspots before, but here we had a really artificial experience.  We started with the not-English-Heritage blue plaque, and then moved on to the not-Policeman who guards the door: yes, we were in the realms of fiction, and the home of the 'man who never lived and will never die', as the Museum of London named him.

Linda had been a bit tentative, claiming not to have read the stories since she was 11, but we paid our (quite serious) entrance fee and went in. The first pleasure was the loo in the lower ground floor, a period piece with instructions about how to deal with an overhead cistern, wooden seat and a charming towel rail.

You go next door to enter the house itself, and then go into Holmes' bedroom. We thought the contraption by the fire might be for airing his shirts. Most of the walls here, as throughout the house are hung with period prints and etchings of a Victorian kind: narratives, domestic scenes and sweet children. I suppose Mrs Hudson would have felt them appropriate for whatever lodgers she had.The study/sitting room next door displayed the pipes, the chemical apparatus and several reference books of the kind that Holmes referred to when researching his cases.

We also liked the post and newspapers rack on the wall.  

We went upstairs, to find Billy, the messenger boy, waiting to be sent on an errand, and Dr Watson's room. Here was displayed his stethoscope. As Linda said, he did not appear to do much work in his general practice, since he always had time to rush off when Holmes needed his help.

All the rooms had display cases with artefacts and souvenirs from the various cases:  the mummified 'savage' of Wisteria Lodge, the Cardboard Box in which Miss Susan Cushing found two severed human ears; a map of Dartmoor.  I could put links to versions of each of the stories, but I shan't. You can find the stories if you want to, but it seems to me that this is strictly a museum for disciples. I was, however, impressed with how many of the stories Linda still remembered.  

The actual wicker chair which the artist used for the Strand Magazine's illustration of The Greek Interpreter was also here, as was a plaster cast from The Six Napoleons. The poisonous blowpipe from The Sign of Four was on display and we had to keep reminding ourselves that these things are 'not real'....

Upstairs again, we came to a room with tableaux from some of the cases. Here was Lady Frances Carfax in her coffin; the noblewoman shooting the blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton, and a couple of others.  We were of course, but a step from Madame Tussauds, so I suppose a few models were not out of place.

Perhaps the oddest thing up here was a folder of recent letters to the great man, many of them from China and Japan. The school teacher in me was amused by a disaffected student from Dallas, Texas, who had been set to write a letter as an assignment ('it's an extra credit' she confides to 'Dear Mr dead Sherlock Holmes' going on to suggest that her teacher has 'lost it')

Up again, there was a handsome lavatory suite embellished with blue leaves. I am not sure that there would have been plumbing this high in the house (not least because we had seen a basin and ewer on the ground floor and a 'thunderbox' on the first floor, implying  a less 20th century approach to personal hygiene)

 Also stored under the roof were the valises into which Holmes might fling a few essentials before heading off to serve the various crowned heads of Europe, some of whom presented him with medals which were on display.

So that only left the shop, housed in rather a fine conservatory, but containing nothing that we were drawn to. We were surprised that they were not selling more of the books, for example. Perhaps when the grandsons have been inducted into what really felt a bit like a cult, we might return and shop.

But we had enjoyed ourselves and thought the costumed room attendants managed traffic flow very well. And now it's off to get the complete works down off the shelf for a reread....