Monday, 30 January 2017

The National Gallery 4

Thursday 26 January 2017

Linda and I being, as you know, completists, made one further trip to the great National Gallery, in order to finish our exploration of the collection. As has happened on each of our visits, we were amazed at the number of splendid pictures that 'we' own.  
We went straight to the rooms coloured green on the map (18th century and beyond) and were instantly immersed in Goyas, including the Duke of Wellington, looking strangely un-commanding.

There were lots of Guardis, too. but it was the Longhi of Venetians in masks examining a rhino which caught our attention, before we moved on to a room full of Canalettos (or should that be Canaletti?)

The Stone mason's yard was interesting because of the women workers, though one seems merely to be scolding the children.  Perhaps women were employed to do sanding and washing and brought the children along to save child minding costs.

Next are several rooms of British artists: Zoffany, Lawrence, Hogarth explaining the ins and outs of 'Marriage a la Mode'. And of course, Stubbs, whose fabulous 'Whistlejacket' dominates one wall and fades out the other pictures hung there.

As we paused by Turner's Fighting Temeraire, we were interested to learn that it will feature (with a portrait of the artist as well) on £20 noted from 2020 onwards. Looking at other Turners, we felt that when he went into narrative (like 'Hero's farewell to Leander') he was less convincing.
One of the excellent freelancers who work here was talking to an impeccably behaved primary school class about 'Speed and Steam'. I restrained myself from contradicting her by pointing out that 20mph was really very fast to people used to horse and cart (it is the hare in the picture who is said to embody the speed)

We were delighted to see one picture by Joseph Wright of Derby: his remarkable painting of a demonstration of vacuum. And we enjoyed Hogarth's portrait of the Graham children, with baby Thomas (who did not live to see the completed picture) in his frock.

We skipped past a number of Lawrences and Raeburns of the upper classes to reach the Constables and then suddenly we were out of British art and (mostly) into France.

The British nation seems to own lots and lots of Monets, including his excellent portrayal of the Gare St Lazare, but we were also pleased to see the Pissarros of Sydenham and Upper Norwood.

Knowing the Bathers at Asnieres quite well we were interested in Theo van Rysselberghe's take on pointillism  in his Coastal Scene; and we loved the room with the various Vuillards in it, though the attendant said he thought the mantelpiece looked more like a coffin.  It is an unusual picture, in that it was bought for the National Gallery in 1917, while the artist was still alive.

 Linda and I share only a very limited liking for Pierre Auguste Renoir, and indeed for Gaugin, so we were able to make speedy progress to van Gogh, via a number of Cezannes.

 Getting back, as we did, to Pissarro, we wondered why his son, Felix was looking so moody: possibly just a seven year old not wanting to sit still.  Which reminds me to say that we did like the captioning, which often had bits of story as well as 'art' information.

Towards the end of our visit, we came to another lovely Pissarro. the 'Cote des Boeufs' of 1877 and were interested to read that it had been transferred from the Tate in 1950 when, presumably, the Tate decided to become either 'Britain' or 'Modern'

 We were very taken with George Bellows, about whom I knew nothing. and his portrayal of dock workers in the New York docks, and we also enjoyed a Klimt lady and a Matisse portrait.

There there were rather too many Degas for my liking, though we enjoyed the adolescent glare of his teenage cousin Elena Carafa.

All in all, and I know we have said this before, our visit reminded us that we should not need a 'project' before wandering in and looking at wonderful pictures.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Tower Bridge Experience

Tower Bridge
Thursday January 19  2017

For some reason (probably TFL) we thought the entrance to this ‘experience’/museum was on the South side of Tower Bridge but the start is actually at the base of the North Tower. Though very cold it was in fact a beautiful day so the camera had been working away capturing the full tourist experience from alongside the ‘Belfast’ (of which more later).

Tower Bridge is one of several maintained by the City of London aka the Corporation and hence is well emblazoned with the city’s crest and decorated with its limited palate – red and white.   It does cost but there are .reasonable reductions for the usual concessions

There is a clear trail to follow and a lift takes you to the top floor, which is a spacious lobby to the walkways. By way of introduction there is a collage of early film clips of ‘heavy traffic’ in London – because horse drawn vehicles take up so much space and are less disciplined than more modern vehicles the traffic shots round London’s pinch points – the Strand, Hyde Park Corner and the bridges – look every bit as busy as today. London needed a new bridge to relieve the strain elsewhere and also one that allowed tall ships as far up the Thames as possible. This was the brief and several proposals were made. The first filmed ‘lift’ was in 1903.

After this brief introductory film, the screen surrounded by some random Victorian artefacts to give you the period feel (the smell of old wood, iron and oil is enough to make you realise this is not a new structure), you are encouraged to set off along the East walkway, where between the multiple metal struts there are extensive views down the river, and as this is the ‘last bridge’ for the time being, the view is clear – the river also widens considerably from this point.
The walkways are the exhibition space – to the right are WORLD BRIDGES, so a collection of large colour photos of the world’s iconic bridges, old and new, and their vital statistics.  We had fun spotting those we had visited and I am sure it is an added attraction for their many foreign visitors. To the left are small illustrated fact boards about the planning & structure and material of the bridge and its context – trade and commerce round the pool and docks of London.

As we said two weeks ago in the Maths Gallery, architects would be nowhere without their structural engineers and both are fully honoured here. Interestingly the engineer was J Wolfe Barry, son of the Charles Barry who designed the Houses of Parliament. We imagined the twin tower design was chosen to honour the Tower of London on the neighbouring bank. The bridge joins the south London borough of Southwark and the north east Tower Hamlets. The City’s architect was Sir Horace Jones who in fact died before completion and there were five contractors involved. The towers are actually steel structures, clad in bricks and then Portland Stone, and the upper walkways are in part to brace the lower sections though also supposed to offer pedestrians an alternative crossing when the bridge was open – however this option never proved very popular and they were closed in 1910. Once the walkways were in place construction could start on the bascules which arrived in 12 metre sections.

One of the information boards that caught our attention was the use of Thameside as ‘beaches’. The King was very keen that London’s poor children should be offered a beach experience and this tradition continued until someone realised that the swimming was dangerous because of poor water quality!

The views from up here ate stupendous and well worth the admission price alone, but of course the selling point is the glass walkways.  A small section of the walkway is heavy duty glass and therefore you can look straight down on the river or passing traffic – it is a vertiginous feeling and though we coped it was quite a relief to have the solid floor again. According to one of the very pleasant staff, who are all well informed about the exhibits, a previous school party had done hand stands and back flips along the glass walkway.

Reaching the other end there is the equivalent lobby and film screen, this time with a computer simulation of the construction process. The tour then takes you back along    the west facing walkway, where the Bridge and Information boards continue. The view this way takes in the next three bridges or so and much of London’s famous skyline – old and new plus excellent views of the Tower and the Pool of London. Jo had been working on the ‘Belfast’ when the ship was towed away to be refitted, and she remembered how the five little tugs had manoeuvred her under the walkway with the radar mast only just fitting beneath – it was a very slow operation. Somewhat to our surprise the bridge opens 3 times a day on average as even as Londoners it’s quite rare to catch it!

Still enjoying the views we completed the walkway, a bit more blasé about the glass floor second time around; you are then turned back to the south tower from where you are encouraged to walk down the impressive metal stairways. A recent addition to enliven your descent is various relief plastic plaques reminding you of London’s riverside buildings – we were somewhat surprised to see ‘City Hall’ the Mayor’s HQ referred to as the Armadillo ?

Back down at street level the trail leads into the engine rooms complete with that warm slightly oily metallic smell.  As far as we understood it the bascules – the two opening halves of the bridge worked through a counter-balance – still work on hydraulic (water) power but presumably electrically driven whereas back in the day you were looking at steam power. This is the same kind of machinery and doubtless gives the same kind of joy to its enthusiasts as steam trains. The boilers are bigger (very handsome black cast iron) and were heated by coal brought along the river and tipped from a chain of handy trugs. When the water is hot enough it turns to steam which powers the pistons – there is even a complicated (when I say complicated it means I don’t really understand it) system of power storage as of course the bridge is opened on demand and is not in constant use as the pistons driving a train engine would be.
The machinery has been beautifully preserved and presented and the information boards are multi-lingual and easy to follow.  There are even small scale models at the end which you can operate.

The exit is of course via the gift shop which offered a range of models of the bridge to build, though interestingly not the Lego one. The museum attraction is understandably popular with tourists as the views and walk are worth the price alone, but there is enough easily digested information to detain a visitor who wants a little more history and context. 

Friday, 13 January 2017

The Museum of Methodism

49 City Road
London EC1Y 1AU

Thursday 12 January 2017

If we are honest, Linda and I were not expecting much from this visit, but we were wrong: we had a fascinating  and informative time, and saw some remarkable buildings and objects.

The first pleasant surprise is to step off the horrible City Road into the calm courtyard of this headquarters of the Methodist movement.  We started in the Museum, with a brief film about the life and work of John Wesley, which is supported by a wall time line. The key points of Wesley's life are outlined, beginning with his birth in Lincolnshire (one of 19 children) in 1703, and his miraculous rescue from the fire which destroyed the Epworth Rectory, convincing his mother (and later himself) that he was a 'brand plucked from the burning' (Zechariah 3 i-ii) and chosen to serve God.  His father's patron, the Duke of Buckingham, ensured that he was educated, first at the London Charterhouse and then at Oxford, and he was ordained into the Church of England. 'Methodist' was the derisory nickname given to him and his friends of the 'Holy Club' by their fellow students, but they were happy to live their lives in a methodical way and did not object. 

The key moment in his life was probably his evangelical conversion in 1738 when, as he said, 'I felt my heart strangely warmed' and became convinced emotionally as well as intellectually of the truth of his faith. The very next year, he bought the derelict cannon foundry on the City Road, and set up a chapel, school, and dispensary and his own home: effectively a community centre. Not that he spent much time there: over the next 50 years, he travelled about 250,000 miles, preaching to the poor. 

At this stage, we were offered a tour of Wesley's House, which can only be visited in the company of one of the knowledgeable people who staff the Museum, so off we went. It is a handsome house, built with money from Methodist congregations in the 1770s. Wesley was based here from 1779 to his death in 1791. We started in the basement, where there was very little light, but our guide's torch showed us some relics of the man himself and his innumerable journeys on horseback. His shoes (small feet, but then he was not very tall) his spurs, his travelling writing desk and some of his clothes are all on display in the house. So is his rattle from when he was a baby. We were also amazed by an 'exercise horse' on which one sits and bounces up and down.  The travelling season went from March to September, so keeping the muscles in trim over the winter was important.

 On the ground floor were two rooms with opportunities for entertaining his many visitors, and some fine furniture, including a lovely corner cupboard.  Upstairs again was his study, with a fine view of the Dissenters' cemetery opposite, where his mother Susannah is buried.

His ideas on medicine were often strange, and we saw his machine for using static electricity for dealing with anything from fevers to rheumatism and hair loss.  He believed that tea was an evil drink, despite the fact that the great Josiah Wedgwood had made him a personalised and magnificent teapot, which is on display in the Museum.

We also saw an extraordinary cockfighting chair (close up of a similar one here) given him by a convert and useful as a work chair for someone who spent so much time on horseback.  The handsome 1690s grandfather clock was rumoured to have come from Epworth, but it seems unlikely that such a clock would have survived the fire of 1710.

Next to his bedroom is his prayer-room.  This is known as 'the power house of Methodism'. He rose at 5.00 every morning and spent time with his bible. He called himself a 'one book man' but was in fact very widely read.  His successor as head of the Methodists destroyed a number of his secular books, including his Shakespeare, which is a pity, as he wrote comments in the books he was reading, and his take on some of Shakespeare would be interesting.  Upstairs again there was a spare room, for visiting preachers, or for his brother Charles.  It is a small room, but the bed will fold up into the wall to make more space.

After the house, we visited the original Foundery Chapel, with a neat little organ, and a few wooden pews, before going into the main, magnificent chapel. The pulpit, which is original, began life with three storeys, to enable the preacher to he heard in the galleries, but it now has a mere two! The altar rails were a gift from Margaret Thatcher, who was married here.  Her children were baptised in the font.

Then it was back to the Museum. where we saw a wide range of items about the life of Wesley and the history of his movement to the present day.  A bible, said to have survived the fire at Epworth, and certainly showing signs of having been singed, has pride of place, together with the pulpit from the original chapel.  We were not very excited by the many portraits of the heroes of Methodism, but we did enjoy commemorative ceramics and prints, as well as the display of modern reprints of some of Wesley's many publications, including his works on Abolition. The Museum also has some fine vinyl recordings of Methodist hymns.  Actually, whether one has any religion or none, most people are familiar with Hark the Herald, and Love Divine, so we all know something of Methodism.

There was a range of trowels from the laying of foundation stones, too.

We also enjoyed the displays of collecting boxes, ancient and modern. Wesley was unashamed about 'begging' for the needs of the poor, and to this day, the Methodist Movement funds charities for children and old people, at home and abroad. 
Ever since Wesley declared 'the world is my parish', this has been a worldwide movement.  The split form Anglicanism only occurred when Wesley ordained ministers to go abroad though he was not himself a bishop. So the museum has a section about the Caribbean, where Methodism arrived in the 1770s and is strong today, and around the world. There are almost two million Methodists in South Korea, for example.

Finally, we ventured into the historic gentlemen's toilets, among the first public flush loos in London, and were suitably impressed. (There are everyday toilets as well...)

Before we left, we ventured into the rain soaked garden to see the memorial to the founder and also to note the modern office block, the rent of which helps to support the whole complex