Thursday, 28 July 2016

Handel & Hendrix in London

25 Brook Street
Monday July  25 2016

Today’s expedition could not be further from the gentle hills of North Kent , where we were last week, as Brook Street is pretty much in the heart of the West End with quick access to Oxford Street, Regent Street and Mayfair. Crossrail was disturbing the relative peace of these back streets but it is very tranquil inside the pair of Georgian town houses which combine to make the
Handel & Hendrix in London Museum. 

The Museum has only recently re-opened in this configuration – essentially Handel lived at Number 25 with adjacent rooms in 23 used for exhibition and performance space while Hendrix lived on the top two floors of 23 with the exhibition and film of his life in London taking up the top floors of 25 which we presume was either let by Handel or used by his servants .

Both houses are classic Georgian town houses – such a good design for a busy metropolis where ground space is limited so while the footprint is modest both houses run to five floors.

The tour starts on the first floor – Handel moved in here in 1723, a German citizen (immigrant or economic migrant?) who had followed his Hanoverian King to England and been rewarded with being given charge of music at the Chapel Royal (located in St James’ Palace) – additionally he was asked to tutor the three daughters of the King ,  possibly a less joyful job as it seems only one of them was remotely musical.   As a ‘foreigner’ he was not allowed to buy or have a mortgage though he did take English citizenship in his Forties. The first room is known as the Composition Room and though bare bar a few chairs and an organ is well illustrated with prints and pictures of Handel’s contemporaries and the many musicians he knew, employed, encouraged or otherwise would have known. By the time Handel had moved here, he had already achieved success with a variety of compositions , most memorably the  Water Music.

During his many years living in this house he combined continuing to compose – there are strings of operas based on Roman and other classical stories – with directing an opera company. This can never have been an easy job –set aside the rivalries and budgeting he contended with diva sopranos who asked him to re-write parts to suit their ‘changing voice’ with variable critical responses and a near riot in the Footmen’s Gallery – we presumed the footmen various sat up in the gallery ready to accompany their downstairs lords home, a slight reversal of ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’. As well as the prints and portraits there are selected excerpts from contemporary commentators, some of them less than flattering about the principal performers.  The back room on this floor offers a range of costumes for dressing up and ‘photo shoots’ but only if you are of a smaller size!

The ‘Music Room’ which has the maximum light from the three windows had some wind instruments , which I thought formed part of the display – however soon four musicians appeared and having sorted their presumably jumbled pieces started rehearsing thus reprising the original function of this room.

Like Handel’s musicians and contemporaries coming from all over Europe there is text available in all the most common languages for today’s visitors. Still on Floor 1 but crossing over to Number 23 two equally large rooms have been designated an Exhibition Space. Certainly spacious and with panels of text rather than artefacts (there is some actual music) this room currently gives context to Handel’s 1723 by informing of what else was happening in London and the country. For example, following the Workhouse Act of 1723 subsequent ‘enabling’ legislation allowed individual parishes to implement a workhouse system without recourse to parliament. Knatchbull’s Act of 1723 allowed parishes to stipulate that those who required relief had to go into the workhouse. Prints show the plan for the Mayfair Workhouse, long since demolished. It seems incredible to think that this current hotspot of prime real estate once had a designated building for the relief of the Parish poor, but this particular legislation also specified that those seeking relief would be obliged to work . This whole concept of the working poor and relief of poverty still pervades current thinking and policies… Another notable piece of 1723 legislation was reactive, as so much law making is, this time to curb and punish what had been a proliferation of ‘poaching’.  As Henry Fielding refers to poachers in his 1749 novel ‘Tom Jones’ one can only surmise that ‘The Black Act’ of 1723 was not altogether successful  as is often the case with clandestine crimes and criminals.

The exhibition is not all about the music then!

Up on the second  floor is a reconstruction of Handel’s bedroom with adjacent dressing room – although the house already benefitted from water indoors (as opposed to the parish pump, always a good breeding ground for infection) the flush toilet was still some years off so this would have doubled as ‘bathroom’ too. The display tells us that in his later years Handel had his servant bed down next door rather than upstairs. Though Handel had a long and busy professional work record little seems known of his private life – other than he was a ‘private’ man and never seemed to have had any long-term relationships. In later life he combined direction with philanthropic work and famously wrote his ‘Messiah’ Oratorio for the benefit of  the Foundling Museum where much of the original Handel memorabilia  are lodged.  He died here in 1759.
Continuing up the stairs (which do get narrower/steeper as you climb) you then arrive at the Hendrix Exhibition , where there is far more to read and absorb, though poor old Jimi died at 27. The reason of course is that even before video and social media many of this musician’s performances are recorded on film and there are several transcripts of interviews with him, newspaper, magazine and fan articles.  His short life is covered in considerably greater detail than Handel’s much longer one.
Jimi was of course another ‘foreigner’, born in Seattle.  He took up the guitar at a very early age – his father thought being left-handed was the ‘devil’s work’ so Jimi learnt to play a right handed guitar left –handed which apparently contributed a) to his unique sound and b) to his habit of holding/playing  his guitar in all sorts of strange positions. He was of course a virtuoso guitarist and once heard, never forgotten but underneath the undoubted talent lay years of hard graft. He fell out of school and after a minor misdemeanour into the 101st Airborne regiment then out of the army after a parachute malfunction, but there followed years of playing in a variety of ‘backing groups’ on what was known as the Chittlin’ Circuit – music tours for Black audiences in what was (still) segregated America. He loved to improvise even then and there is a wonderful story that, exasperated by his maverick playing  his then band /group leader Burke traded him to Otis Redding  for two horn players just to get some peace. When Keith Richard’s then girlfriend heard him play in New York she insisted on bringing him to the UK, and the rest, as they say, is history. Initially he formed part of the Jimi Hendrix Experience with two white English musicians but they were discarded on the way…. The exhibition focuses on his few months living at Number 23 Brook Street. Prior to moving here he had ‘sofa-surfed’ around Soho as his all-night playing did not go down well with neighbours.  The ever grounded Ringo Starr stood guarantor for the small flat/ rooms rented here.  There were no other live-in tenants below, just an employment bureau and small café. The bath and kitchen were even further upstairs presumably not now accessible for health and safety reasons so what you see, admirably reconstructed, is the bed-sitting room and next door crash pad now set out as the Record Room.

The latter is lined with vinyl and there is a careful listing of all the LPs that he owned with his and general comments where appropriate, showing his influences before and those he influenced in turn and some records were well and truly used. Like most jobbing musicians Jimi was a ‘night-owl’: concerts and performances were often followed by jamming sessions when his friends crashed here. It was also his ‘office’ and there is ample evidence of the number of interviews which took place here, when he finally woke up PM. It was from these pieces and their accompanying photos that the museum was able to reconstruct the main room. They were also greatly helped in this by his then girlfriend Kathy Etchingham who was with him throughout his time at Brook Street. It was a ‘first own home’ for both of them but buying the carpet and curtains from John Lewis looks very ‘mainstream’ and not very ‘rock n’roll’  until you realize ( as we did) that it is a five minute walk away. They were of course aware that Handel had preceded them as his Blue Plaque was already up next door, and this added to the attraction. The tidy room is very atmospheric with its combination of old and new fabrics and what was modern then – a good record player and speakers and electric fire   now looking very period after nearly 50 years… the small heater brought back memories (not good) of those months of freezing pre central heating.

That just about brings the tour to an end – actually the two great musicians though very different and separated by 200 years – one a steady establishment figure , the other a unique performer lost to the  darker side of the Sixties rock’n’roll life-style – but both living on, of course in their music, but also in these houses , to give enjoyment to successive generations. 

Friday, 22 July 2016

Down House

Luxstead Road
Downe   BR 6 JT

Tuesday July 2016

Today was probably our fifth visit to Down House, the home of Charles Darwin, but if there is a Project to complete – needs must.  There is a single decker bus ( 146 )  that does the round journey to and from Bromley in under an hour but having other errands to perform we came by car. Jo is away in France and doubtless enjoying the same sunny and high temperatures as the UK today. Having said that, by the time you snake your way down the lanes to the village of Downe the air is quite fresh and there was a slight breeze – appearances to the contrary Darwin chose the location for its comparative seclusion but still accessible to London and he and Emma chose the  house to suit their growing family with space to spare for the science rather than for its beauty.  

The property is managed by English Heritage  and if we have a criticism it is that the only picnic spot offered was across the road, through a brambly stile and then the only option to sit on the ground – today of course it was dry and doable but I think a few picnic tables or at least a bench or two would not come amiss??

Back to the House – it has 5 ‘show rooms’ plus an upstairs  suite of exhibition rooms outlining  Darwin’s family tree , life and of course the research and findings which made him one of the key 19th20th Century influential thinkers (Freud, Marx and Einstein being the others and only Freud has a visitable house in London) . I am not going to attempt to summarise either the Origin of Species or the survival of the fittest which the displays do far better. Charles’ life pre Down House is also illustrated in detail including a hologram model of the cabin he shared with Fitzroy aboard the 'Beagle' and letters he sent ( he was a great letter writer  and made friends with the postman who collected and delivered post several times a day.)  There are sketches too he made of different finch types,  tortoise s told apart by their different shells,  pigeon types (he  joined the local pigeon  fancier club)  and you can easily infer that he had been thinking ‘evolutionary’ type thoughts long before he published. In fact the first publication date was precipitated by other thinkers and scientists coming to similar conclusions about how species evolved.

Upstairs rooms include a hands-on education room, reading room and the more recently opened Darwins’ bedroom. The display rooms were formerly those of the various children. Both Charles and Emma came from large families and were in fact cousins and part of the Wedgwood  (as in pottery) dynasty. Their bedroom has an adjacent dressing room now supplied with the obligatory garments for ‘dressing up’ in period costume. The room has several quite religious drawings and texts to remind you that Darwin was a believer and was at times quite conflicted by the controversial impact of his scientific conclusions. The room is also supplied with different books that the Darwins liked to read to each other. Somewhat strangely this was the only room where photography is permitted.

Downstairs there are four main reception rooms with hall and kitchen being used for administration and café, as you might expect. Both sitting and dining rooms have generous bay windows that look out onto the garden and are furnished in conventional Victorian style Though Darwin had ample space elsewhere for his experiments ( the Wormery and lab.  in the garden, his study /laboratory across the corridor) that did not stop him bringing the worms into the sitting room which was usually seen as Emma’s province where  she could embroider and read so she must have been very tolerant as the specimens being observed invariably escaped ...

The  cupboard by the back door is complete with croquet set and other games and Darwin was known to be quite an indulgent father by Victorian standards allowing the children to toboggan  down the stairs on a tin tray, which must have been incredibly noisy. 

The rooms to the front of the house are in fact smaller and darker and are retained much as they were – there is a large Billiard Room now decorated with newspaper cuttings and cartoons of the time which show the again the furore the publication of his ideas caused. It may seem that choosing to live in the Kent countryside made Darwin look reclusive but in fact he did receive visitors, often other scientists, and was in constant correspondence with the rest of the world.

The most evocative room, and the one which makes the whole visit really come alive, is his study/ workroom with tables of fossils and other bits, microscopes, slides, samples, books, jars and stacks of index boxes and cards to match. There is a heavy and large armchair on castors which enabled Darwin to ‘scoot’ between his various tables and desks within the room. After his return from the Beagle voyages he never felt really well again and though modern thinking is not sure whether this was a form of hypochondria or whether he had picked up some long lasting tropical bug so in his later years Darwin  had a ‘commode’ put in the corner of this his main workroom.

On such a lovely day it was a joy to be in the garden; in front of the house there are lawns and formal beds and along the path a generous flower border and the garden tapers with the back third laid to vegetable beds. You are also able to look at the greenhouse with its potting shed where  there is a display hive for bees, quite active today. Darwin of course was also interested in plant and insect species .

Leaving through a small gate near the back wall you can follow the circuit that Darwin named his ‘sand walk’  and where he could take several daily ‘constitutional ‘ walks – using the time alone ( or occasionally accompanied by one of the children) to clear his mind and formulate his theories.  The path does a little loop through some trees and then back to the house with a public footpath running across.
Downe (with an ‘e’) is the local village down the road and the Darwins were part of the small community for the forty years they lived here.

This outing is highly recommended in the summer but you can cower in the house when the weather is less good and the visit offers an excellent combination of atmospheric rooms backed by very clear exposition of the life and works of one of history’s most thorough and  influential thinkers.

(Mulberry Tree)

Friday, 8 July 2016

The National Gallery 2

Thursday 7 July 2016

Because I had a rather busy morning, Linda and I decided on a central target and a second slice of the National Gallery. Being orderly folk, we continued chronologically, and set off through the 'High Renaissance and Mannerism' galleries.

Many of these artists were based in Venice. Florence was being ripped apart by civil wars, religious extremism and the like, whereas Venice was sitting snugly on Europe's growing demand for Eastern luxuries,  so Veronese had a good market for his historical, allegorical and religious works.  So we saw Alexander being kind to Darius's family; four depictions of aspects of love: this one is 'Unfaithfulness; and Saint Veronica mopping the face of Christ.

We found ourselves more taken by the faces of people, whether young men or popes, and paused reverentially before the very unfinished Michelangelo which you can see here. We were a bit baffled by Tintoretto's Allegory of Prudence, supposing it to be about different ages and attitudes to life, whether lion-like of hound-like.

 The National Gallery has several El Grecos, instantly recognisable and interesting, and a number of Titians.  He (or maybe one of his customers) seems to have been a bit obsessed with the story of Diana and Actaeon, and we were glad we had paused before them as we were to meet them in another form later. He had also painted the story of Diana and Callisto, which we didn't know and which had slight modern resonances: Jupiter had seduced her by disguising himself as Diana, which maybe says something about the way Diana's chaste band of maidens behaved;  but when so was found to be pregnant, she was expelled from Diana's entourage as if it were her fault alone.

I suppose I should admit that I found the stories more engaging than these large and opulent paintings, and found it rather a relief to move into the room with the Dutch artists, dominated by the great painting of the Ambassadors.  We were sure it used to be displayed with a clever device which showed you where to stand to sort out the foreshortened skull in the foreground:  now you work it out for yourself, or watch other viewers and then 'get it'.
It was a delight to see a Lucas Cranach, or rather to see the model he so frequently used, this time as Venus:  Cupid is being stung by a lot of bees, because he has stolen their honey.  She, like most mothers, though perhaps slightly less completely dressed than most mothers, is telling him it serves him right.

We loved the portrait of Erasmus, by Holbein, looking strangely like Mark Rylance.  It has glass on it so Linda could not get a picture, but it's here.

In the next room there were some splendid Titians and Giorgiones, including a man sporting a sumptuous ermine collar

We felt that was enough for one afternoon:  we also reminded ourselves that these pictures are here every day, conveniently placed for quick visits, and so we thought we would leave the 17th and 18th centuries for another time.  

But we did visit two smaller, temporary exhibitions of a very different nature before we left.  First, there is a single room with about 24 Dutch flower paintings.  Detailed and luminous, they reminded us that tulips and chrysanthemums were new and much valued in the 17th century.  We had not heard of most of these artists, but were surprised and delighted to see that Breughel the Elder took time off from painting religious and rural scenes to paint some vases of flowers.

The other exhibition, also no photography allowed, displays the results of the Rootstein Hopkins Foundation's project.  The artist George Shaw produced 'My Back to Nature' while working among the pictures of the National Gallery. The introductory film showed him thinking and working, and he was especially concerned with the Diana and Actaeon pictures we had see earlier. His own work does not normally include people, but he made the point that an awful lot of the events and shenanigans of classical art happen on the outskirts of woods or among trees. The works that he had made were detailed depictions of modern woodland scenes, litter and all. We liked them better than this Daily Telegraph reviewer seems to have done

We had enjoyed our visit to this National treasure house, and will be back.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Rainham Hall

The Broadway
Rainham Essex RM 13 9YN
Thursday  30 June 2016

Today we were doing a double trip and the two experiences gelled quite well...
We left Eastbury Manor having been pointed to the right bus stop by their helpful guide; we had decided on our favoured form of transport – a BUS (though Jo has defected to bicycling on her home patch) – in the face of TFL’s peculiar insistence on a lot of changes and a C2C train via Dagenham Docks (a station where I once spent a miserable 40 minutes) to get from Eastbury to Rainham Hall. In fact we had a very straightforward trip on the Number 287, which whizzed past quite a lot of new builds and large supermarkets to get us to yet another Tesco stop – this time in Rainham. From here it was a gentle walk through the ‘old village’ of Rainham to the Hall
which is round the back of the church.

We popped briefly into the church, just tidying after a funeral, and the volunteers showed us the two prizes of their building – some old graffiti in the plaster of a sailing ship and the beautiful chancel with its small windows. The church well pre-dates the destination of our main visit.

Ticket and guide book buying is combined with the new café just opened in the very recently refurbished stable block and the volunteers seemed somewhat flustered at having to deal with three separate tasks. Talking of volunteers – they are dotted throughout the house and grounds and their enthusiasm knows no bounds.

What one does not realise when surrounded by its supermarkets, library and  railway station is that Rainham sat on a quite sizeable creek where the smaller River Ingrebourne runs into the Thames, and it was this position close enough to London but not too pricy that led the Durham-born John Harle, already a seasoned shipowner ( the family business was shipping coal down the East coast to London) to set up home with his new bride. His London based income also came from shipping but more from the import/export trade between England and both the Baltic and Mediterranean states (sounds familiar?) than coastal coal.  The house went up in 1729 or thereabouts (the only date comes from the water down pipe hopper) and was built to a standard pattern rather than being ‘architect designed.’

 The house very much adheres to the trends of the day and is composed of a series of interlocking cubes built around a sturdy but decorative Caribbean mahogany staircase – at the time mahogany was used for packing cargo rather than the favourite it later became for status furniture. Not hard to guess where John Harle might have found his wood.. There are four symmetrical rooms on each of the three floors and on the upper levels there are smaller cubes between the front and back rooms. The Harles were not here for long – by 1742 he had died and his widow survived him only by five years – their furnishings, property and stock were soon dispersed and a series of rented tenants succeeded them. Not being a wealthy or ‘famous’ family there are few contemporary descriptions of what the interior might have looked like  and rather than guess at ‘standard Georgian furniture’ (from its doubtless large stock) the National Trust has opted to suggest something about being a merchant mariner in those times. There are copies of contemporary maps showing clearly the creek and wharves, copies of Hogarth’s 'Industry & Idleness' contrasting the careers  of two apprentices, a small cabinet of mariner’s artefacts and models of the kind of ships John Harle and his brothers would have sailed and owned – one of them displayed in the bath! 

One room is devoted to stuff – there is no other word – found under the floor boards during the recent restoration, including quite a few buttons and coins as you might expect.  Intriguingly probably the oldest artefact in the house is the most recent acquisition: a local postie trawling through a boot fair noted some random papers relating to Rainham (where she lives and works) and followed this up with the vendor – on hearing he had more documents she requested he send them on and so came into possession of John Harle’s original will (up till now only seen via the copy at the National Archives at Kew) in very good and readable condition. You can see her telling the story of her find on a short captioned video.  He meanwhile was buried in the church.

 One room houses a random selection of pieces of furniture belonging to some of the previous tenants and owners, which are still being restored. More imaginatively the little intervening cubes are filled with soundscapes – seashore birds from John Harle’s native North-East, sea-shanties from his time at sea. On the second floor there is the sound of nursery rhymes harking back to the Second World War, when Rainham Hall was turned into a nursery for the children of women doing ‘war work’ – a similar enterprise had been the case at Eastbury Manor also as the women of Barking and Rainham helped with the  war effort.

The plan for Rainham Hall, we were told, was to change the themes of what was on display, and the next planned exhibition would include its role as a nursery and base during the Second World War, and then a further installation featuring the work of one of the post-war tenants – Anthony Denney  who had photographed and designed at Vogue . He was known as well as a prescient collector of modern artists but during his 5 year tenancy at Rainham Hall had also devoted time to ‘restoring’  parts of Rainham, especially the entrance hall – again the Trust has decided to leave his ‘legacy’ including a ‘blue room’ rather than return everything to an original template for which there is no evidence.

Another eccentric  tenant, and eventual owner, was the Victorian Reverend Nicholas Brady – like many contemporaries his parish work seemed to leave him enough time to pursue various hobbies including an early cycling enthusiasm and inevitably local wildlife.   There is enough photographic evidence of his time at Rainham to make quite a lively display.

The garden is very much as one might expect from the National Trust, with abundant  and fragrant borders, but the interior, like that at Eastbury , is something of a departure with its largely unfurnished and undecorated  state   leaving  more to the imagination. 

Friday, 1 July 2016

Eastbury Manor House

Barking IG11 9SN
Thursday 30 June 2016

Today Linda and I went eastwards, for a double National Trust experience. Linda will tell you about the second in due course, but our first stop was the remarkable Eastbury Manor House.

Despite the best efforts of the terrible TfL Journey Planner. we had easy journeys, and found clear signage all the way from Upney Station to the well-hidden House.

This is one of the NT's properties which is shared with all sorts of local groups, and so was rather unfurnished but there were plenty of information boards and the staff - all volunteers - were friendly and knowledgeable

One of the ways of embellishing a new house in the 1570s was to make patterns with fire-blackened bricks, and we were able to spot a hear shape on the facade as we headed up towards the entrance.  It's called 'diaper work' and really took off in Victorian times, as almost any Pugin building would show.

Arriving at 10.10, we were the first visitors of the day. The time line in the former Great Hall explains that the whole rural area was farmland, under the control of the great Abbey at Barking. After Henry VIII closed it down, with all the others, in the second wave of dissolution in 1539, the land was sold, and this bit of the estate was sold to Sir William Denham and then to Clement Sysley, who built the great house in the 1570s, maintaining the rest of the land for farming. 

After Sysley's death (in 1580) and his wife's remarriage, the House fell upon hard times, becoming increasingly derelict as successive farmers rented it and used it for work.  In 1834, there was a report that 'fine oak floors have been taken up to repair the barns'.  The summer parlour was converted to stables, various walls were knocked down and doorways widened to accommodate farm machinery. And of course, good bits were sold off:  the great Hall's fireplace was found at Nyman's in Kent.  During the First World War, Observation Balloons were manufactured here. There was even a plan to sell it off, demolish it, and make a garden suburb.  Fortunately, the National Trust bought it in 1918 for £1,500.00 which, according to this website, would be about £94,000 now. Actually, that would be a pretty good price for any house in Britain today but it was certainly in need of millions of pounds of restoration.  It is being restored thanks to Barking and Dagenham, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the NT. It was first opened to the public in 1972 and now its revenue comes, not from farming, but from 'events'. The wall hanging dates from 2001.

We went into the Summer Parlour, and it was there we noted the impressive size of the windows, a sign of real wealth in the 1570s, when glass was extremely costly.  The Winter Parlour , across the vestibule, had a good sized fire place.

The house has two matching wings, and so there were modern stairs at each side. Upstairs, we admired the fine roof beams, and were shown some of the marks that told to joiners which beam went where, just as in the instruction for some Swedish flat-pack furniture.  Here there was more information, including evidence of the estate's farming past.

The most notorious story about the house is that Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators plotted here, a tale begun by Daniel Defoe in 1724.  A very clear exposition, starting with Guido's birth in York, made clear that this was extremely improbable.  But we did like the map that indicated the rural nature of the area in the early 17th century.

Having noted the nowadays-obligatory dressing up clothes, as well as the fine wood of some of the window sills, we went on up to a sort of viewing landing.  This time we used some original, and rather scary stairs, but the views at the top made it worth while:  not so much the surrounding suburbs, but the close-ups of the chimneys and the roof.

Back to the first floor, we walked through another long gallery, formerly separate rooms and dressing rooms. According to an inventory of 1603, they had been richly furnished as bedchambers, one with a 'Spanish bedstead, canopy and curtains of yellow taffeta' and another with wall paintings, restored in 1985, of classical views through Roman arches.

We walked into the courtyard behind the house, to note the brickwork of the 'plumbing' - chutes down to ground level,whence the servants would remove the 'night soil'.

We had very much enjoyed our hour long visit to this fine house, and were pleased to get a post script.  At the bus stop, where we waited for the 287 which would take us to our next place, the family also waiting told us that Eastbury Manor was where the Gunpowder Plot had been planned. Myth is almost always more powerful than fact.