Sunday, 30 October 2016

The Heath Robinson Museum

Pinner Memorial Park
West End Lane

Saturday 30 October 2016

With Linda meeting a friend, Roger and I took the Metropolitan Line to Pinner and strolled to this new and splendid celebration of William Heath Robinson's life and work. He lived here before moving to Surrey.

The Museum is very new, and one of the charming attendants told us that the lighting is still incomplete: certainly those of us with varifocals had to squint a bit at the captions, but the display and the explanations made it all worth while. The permanent display tells the story of his life.
Born in 1872, and from an artistic family, he was a book illustrator, including fairy stories, and some Shakespeare plays. He also wrote illustrated his own books, including The Adventures of Uncle Lubin. The Museum contains a number of volumes of his work, as well as many framed versions.  

To help him make a living, he produced humorous drawing for magazines and newspapers, the Daily Sketch recognising his wit and skill early on. He designed a series of nursery plates, and was employed to embellish one of the bars in the RMS Empress of Britain. Since she was sunk by a U-Boat when serving as a troop ship in 1940, only a couple of the plaques remain.

His watercolours and book covers and illustrations are all delightful, but of course. like most fans, we were really there to see the 'gadgets'. These began well before 1914, but became especially popular during the First World War. Some of these works are in the main gallery, and some in the temporary gallery, which is at the moment showing 'the artist at war'.

Perhaps shaken by the propaganda about atrocities and secret weapons, he designed a series of supposed German war machines: a set of open doors and windows with air hoses to give our boys stiff necks being one example.  Even more endearing are pictures from a a series called The Saintly Hun. From 1916 comes 'Three Uhlans helping an old lady cross the river Meuse'. Since the Uhlans were the troops most accused of burning churches and bayonetting babies in the government's heavy-handed propaganda was, this was perhaps his riposte.

At this point I should say that even Roger's skills as a photographer can't catch the dense detail of the works. But I hope they will give you enough of a flavour to get you to Pinner.

When it comes to the Second World War, Heath Robinson has slightly different targets. Fear of invasion is one of his subjects. There is a detailed seaside scene of deckchairs, sandcastles, ice cream stalls and the bandstand, each on an individual plinth under the water to give the impression of shallow water and thus drown the invading Nazis, who are shown stepping off their landing craft and sinking. But if they had landed, the tank stopper would have used melting butter (this was before rationing began, naturally) to stop them -  literally -  in their tracks. He also has a plan for 'doubling Gloucester cheese by the Gruyere method'.

Next, he has something to say about reserved occupations. A factory using complex machines to make the holes in waistcoat buttons is one example, as is 'testing the strength of washing lines'.

His third invention was the 6th Column, the brave chaps (and women) dealing with the Fifth Column, about which the government was obsessed. They are shown dismantling a secret gun emplacement in the dome of St Paul's for example.

Since the dastardly doings of Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty at the start of the war, were a constant topic of Nazi Propaganda, Heath Robinson also depicts him planting a bomb under Hitler's breakfast table, disguised as a swan to sow magnetic mines, and so on.

Finally, we come to the glorious series of modern life-style guides for which he is possibly most famous. Living in Flats is probably the best known, but they are all represented here.

And then it was 'exit through the Gift Shop', as Banksy said.  They have lovely postcards and books and mugs and tea towels. But I would suggest that they have got the jigsaws a bit wrong:  35 pieces is great for children, but the adult puzzle-addict is looking for 1000 pieces, rather than 250, I should say:  perhaps a collage of assorted images. When they have one, I shall be back. Actually, I shall probably be back anyway.

Monday, 24 October 2016


Great George Street, SW1P 3AA

Friday 21 October

Although the Institution of Civil Engineers is not on our original list, the opportunity to see the longest LEGO bridge in the world was not one to be missed. 
Sadly Roger was not with us any more so the only photos are from my phone.  The Institution is housed in a magnificent building,  and the exhibition is up in the handsome library. The LEGO bridge is merely the centrepiece of an exhibition about bridges of all kinds and their crucial role in the whole history of mankind.

The LEGO Bridge is indeed magnificent, and is flanked by time-lapse footage of its construction as well as interviews with the many builders, and some discussion of problems of stress and load bearing.

Other displays of iconic bridges, and brief biographies of noted bridge builders were of interest to the grandparents in the party.  There was also an opportunity to try some VR goggles, which took the wearer down into the tube system.

But at the end of the room, with comfortable chairs for adults, was a treasure trove of construction LEGO and that is where some of the party settled, while others enjoyed the exhibition.

The staff were very friendly and helpful:  I believe they have not previously had children dropping in other than as school groups, and we had a very good time.  We also had fish and chips in the pleasant restaurant in the lower ground floor

It's only open to the public on weekdays:  how fortunate that half term is here.

HMS Belfast

The Queen’s Walk

London Bridge City SE1 2JH

Friday 21 October 2016
Today Linda was busy with domestic things, so we were delighted to have Roger join Nicholas, Christopher, Andrew and me aboard HMS Belfast. (For naval purists, I shall mention now that I can't seem to make the heading italicise or indeed bold the ship's name as would be correct) I am very grateful to Roger for taking the pictures.

Being with a 5 year old and a 7 year old slightly affects one's experience of the ship.  Plenty of space to run, and we enjoyed trying and failing to lift the huge links of the anchor cable at the bow. There was also some interest in the crane that used to lift the Walrus seaplanes back onto the ship after reconnaissance flights. But the fascinating film of the catapult launch of the aircraft was not for them, so the party could not enjoy it!

There was an 'experience' in one of the after gun turrets, but a small space filled with smoke was 'a bit scary' and did not detain us long. On the other hand, the ladders made the whole ship into an extended climbing frame.

We visited the signalling deck, and then climbed through the command area, the Admiral's Bridge and the Operations Bridge, where sitting in the high seats of the Captain and the Executive Officer was allowed. Information about the Battle of the North Cape did not engage the attention long.  

The Admiral and Captain had comfortable 'sea cabins' since their main quarters, beneath the Quarterdeck, had ceased to be satisfactory when the ship was no longer steered and fought from the stern

It's a natural progression to see the crew's quarters, where the hammocks are slung in every available space, including the capstan flat, and the space available is less than 50cm per man.  The ship's cat had disproportionate space, we thought.  The hammocks swing above the mess tables, where people are playing cards, or uckers (ludo to you and me) or writing letters, or reading, while others try tp sleep.
We passed the rum ration being served, with a careful eye kept on the list of men who had forfeited their right through misdeeds: a lesser punishment than the cells right up at the bow, where the noise of the sea and the exaggerated motion of the ship must have seemed a bit 'cruel and unusual'.

The boys were too excited by the ladders down to the shell rooms to linger in the 1950s living areas, with the excellent recreations of  dentist (aagh), surgery, galleys, meat and potato stores and so on.

Instead, we plunged down into the heart of the extra strengthened decks, where shells and cordite charges were stored for the huge guns above.  One of the main purposes of these great cruisers was to serve as gun platforms for bombarding land (as HMS Belfast did both off Normandy in 1944 and off Korea in the 1950s) It's extraordinary to think that this function is obsolete now, taken over by air power.

By the time we reached the steering and control rooms, safely below the waterline, the attention was flagging a bit, and the visits to the Boiler and engine rooms were much briefer than the adults of the party would have liked.  We shall come back, probably without the younger generation, or perhaps when they have doubled their ages.  This magnificent ship is so clearly explained and interesting that it will be worth it.

I suggest that it is also the Museum with absolutely the best views of this eastern end of the city and its river.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Victoria & Albert Museum

Cromwell Rd, London SW7 2RL
Thursday October 13 2016

We did visit the V&A about a year ago but for a special exhibition so it was time to appreciate the substantive collections – plus we both needed to be in the nearby Paddington area at lunch-time.

On the whole the collections within this Museum of the Decorative Arts (as they tend to call them overseas) are arranged by type of artefact, so fashion/ textiles/ sculpture/ furniture/ theatre and so on – within which there are galleries devoted to the arts of the different continents, mainly of the Old World. Today we played close to home and decided to indulge ourselves and plumped for the ‘handy near the main entrance’ Medieval and Renaissance European Galleries which cover all types of exhibits. There are three beautifully arranged and captioned galleries covering the period from approximately 1000 – 1600.

I would advise visitors to do things properly and go down to the basement in order to cover things chronologically, but we were of course lured into the middle floor by the large and arresting marble artefacts and the quiet plashing of a fountain.  For us the other attraction of these galleries was the reminiscence factor as we remembered various earlier trips to visit the art hotspots of Europe, mainly in Italy, Germany and France. The UK is sorely underrepresented but more of that later… To be honest the collection is good enough to give the experience of an art culture mini-break.

For once our photos are acceptable (I won’t say good because they are rarely good) and many of the exhibits speak for themselves.   The influence of the church is enormous and the wealth lay pretty much divided between them and the nobility – only towards the end of this period, late 1500s, do we see the manufacture and owning of costly for-ornamentation artefacts dropping down the social scale to the newly emerging merchant and middle classes.

Broadly speaking the different parts of Europe are represented by works they are best at – so for Italy stonework, sculptures and Madonnas; for Germany and the Low Countries tapestries and woodwork of all kinds, later printing. Each piece represents complex skills and mastery of their craft and for the earliest works the craftsmen’s names long lost. What the museum displays particularly well is stained glass where you can get much closer to see the detail and with a constant light than in their original church settings – the same could be said for altar pieces. The details can be scrutinised from the inclusion of the donor in a crucifixion scene to noting the Virgin’s rather nifty red pointy shoes. Whilst in the religious section there was ample opportunity to recap the various saints’ lives, be they spotting St Anthony Abbott with his pig
or St Margaret fighting off the dragon. St. Roch too has a familiar – a dog who brought him bread when he had been ostracized because of the plague – sadly a story that still finds its echoes today.

Still on animals but rather more creepily I was surprised to see that on (1)  the Palissy plate, probably ordered by French royalty or nobility, the animals had been suffocated in vinegar or urine to preserve them and then crafted and painted over turning this from a thing of beauty to one of horror…  Best of all is the ‘Palmesel’ or small portable statue of Christ riding on a donkey – we had seen examples of this appealing rural but well executed work in Germany but had not realized that some villages in Southern Germany still dress up the Christ figure so that he plus donkey can be carried into church or chapel, as shown on the accompanying video.    

Artefacts from the UK are few: Henry VIII’s reformatory zeal and greed did for the wealth of the churches which merely got re-cycled amongst the King and favoured nobility and if anything even faintly decorative remained Cromwell’s followers made sure it did not. The cathedrals were more or less unscathed but smaller churches and abbeys left to run to ruins. The exhibits on the third level include some copies/casts of stone head sculptures from Salisbury cathedral and the whole wooden front of a nobleman’s house demolished to make way for the railway out of Liverpool Street.

Interestingly there is a pair of angels destined originally for Wolsey’s tomb then taken over by Henry VIII but never used for his either. Very ‘Wolf Hall’.  The workmanship here falls short of the  German woodcarver Riemenschneider,
ose pair of angels soar while Wolsey’s seem more earthbound.  Somehow Germany managed to reconcile the ‘old and new’ religions without too much destruction – some of that came later with Baroque overlays and the RAF.

Don’t leave your visit until too late in the day and you can spend two hours on a relatively quiet spiritual, cultural, historical and often inspiring journey across Europe’s Renaissance.   


Sir Paul Pindar's House Front