Monday, 19 June 2017

Museum of the Order of St. John

St. John’s Gate
St. John’s Lane
London EC1M 4DA

Friday June 16 2017

After our travel travails of last week we thought we would try an easier option and head into town, more specifically Clerkenwell and a double dose of culture with the Museum of the Order of St. John and the Charterhouse, of which you will hear another day.

The Museum of the Order of St John is tucked into one side of a gateway Arch – the surviving remnant of the Tudor period of a still more ancient foundation. We had taken a tour to see more of the building (excellently led by Susan – many thanks), but the core museum galleries are accessible daily and give the history of the institution and display some of its artefacts. The Museum has been recently renovated and there are short films with St John’s volunteers contributing to the story.
Firstly, and to clarify any Dan Brown created misconceptions, the Order of St John was founded in Jerusalem before the Crusades to offer hospitality and care to pilgrims who made the trek to the Holy Land – the Knights Templar were there to guard the temple (of the Holy Sepulchre) and were altogether more pugnacious, and NOT the subject of today’s museum.

Think large hostel rather than hospital, with about 1000 beds it is thought – obviously the folk who had made the long journeys were in need of rest, recuperation and possibly some nursing , and this is what they would have received in the Holy City from c 1078, some 40 years later those offering the service were recognised as Brothers – that is monks, though they were never a silent, begging, academic or even particularly spiritual order . It is not clear for which St John they were named – I like to think it was for the Greek Patriarch now known as St John the Almoner but it is more likely St John the Baptist. The order remained in Jerusalem for about 100 years, then as Crusader power waned moved to Acre and spent the next seven hundred years or so wandering round the Mediterranean – Cyprus, Rhodes, Malta and (after Napoleon evicted them from there) finally Rome. Some of the some of the Museum’s ojects reflect this peripatetic history.

In 1140 the order set itself up in England and Clerkenwell became its HQ and main base. At the time of the foundation this area had several religious foundations – the Carthusians arrived much later   but the orders at St Bart’s and St Mary’s had been founded a few years earlier. Bart's  went on to become a medical foundation while St John’s took some time and changes to find its niche. With ‘Faith Care & Valour’ as its founding principles it was both a very English story and an International one.

The picture which takes pride of place and is conspicuously not one of the many ‘Knights’ who led the Order is rather surprisingly a Caravaggio of the 'Card Sharps'. Originally thought to be  a copy but now officially authenticated, it seems slightly at odds for a quasi religious organisation though of course Caravaggio did flee to Malta after the alleged killing in Rome and was taken in by the Hospitallers there, even becoming one of their ‘knights’ till he started brawling again and moved on to Sicily. This is a very recent loan to the Museum.

Back to Tudor London and the Dissolution of the Monasteries – it would seem by this time the Order of St John was in less than perfect working order and the ‘last Prior’ William Weston did not resist the Dissolution and so there was little bloodshed: the Priory was taken apart amicably with the usual removal of building materials for other ventures – the Church had been in some disarray since the Peasants’ Revolt . What remained was the Tudor gateway built only shortly before Henry VIII started his ‘reforms’. The gateway we were told was used in a variety of ways after the Hospitallers dispersed – Henry kept his hunting gear here – so a kind of shed – while part of the Chapter House was turned into the Office of the Master of Revels, otherwise known as the censor who cast his eyes over Shakepeare’s plays before they were performed. Richard Hogarth opened a coffee shop here but as the ‘gimmick’ was Latin only to be spoken he did not do well, though of course his son William fared better at his chosen field of drawing and prints. For a while the gateway hosted the ‘Jerusalem Tavern’ probably frequented by Dickens and later still it became the parish watch House.

By the mid-19th Century the ‘brand’ was re-established, resurrected even by those sort of Victorians who liked clubs and dressing up but the new British chivalric order has no organisational link with the surviving Hospitallers in Rome, being both non-religious and non-military,  though maintaining the emblematic cross that has been its insignia since the Mediterranean years.  Rather like the stars of the European Union flag the eight points of the equilateral cross represented the different langues or languages spoken round the Mediterranean and further north, where the Hospitallers operated.

The interiors of the building, where the tour goes, are on the whole late Victorian /Arts & Crafts refurbishments of the Tudor exterior so there a lot of emblematic Whitefriars Stained Glass
with the Arms of notable ‘knights’ and the various insignia of the Order – the Cross, the shell for the Pilgrims, the Tudor Rose and the Hypericum – otherwise known as St John’s wort and used then and now (CAUTION advised) as an anti-depressant amongst other things. We usually have the Hidcote variety in our gardens and parks and very jolly it is too.

We had to scoot through the main Chapter Hall (where there was a meeting in progress), which looked very like an ‘old school or college’ dining hall, but could linger in the smaller meeting rooms above the Arch. As ever in these institutions the stairs are lined with portraits of benefactors, worthies etc.

The most interesting room is the Malta room so called because of the large (very dark so not easily reproduced) picture of Valletta harbour named after the admirable admiral Jean Valet who managed to defend Malta against the Turks in a long siege. There are some wonderful Iznik tiles (presumably from the Order’s time in Cyprus or Rhodes) and a Pietra Dura table. The rent for the Order to stay on in Malta was one fully trained Maltese Falcon per year, payable to the Holy Roman Emperor. By this time the order, never deeply spiritual, had branched out into what you might call trade and ‘luxury goods’ exchange round the Mediterranean. The table depicts the lesser pigeon but we all know what a Maltese Falcon looks like thanks to Humphrey Bogart. Spiral stairs lead back down from the Gateway rooms.

Susan, our very knowledgeable guide then stood us in the street to help us orientate ourselves not only to the rooms we had visited in sequence but to the extent the Priory lands had occupied.

The Priory Church, already damaged, was badly bombed – this map gives you an idea of the extent of the Estate, and why Priors were not merely religious figureheads but also important local people with power..
We walked across both the Clerkenwell Road and St John’s Square, where the original outline of the round nave (based on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem) is marked in cobbles, and into the church.

Seely & Paget were chosen to rebuild the very war-damaged church and the result is a square airy modernist space – it has neither vicar nor parish so is mainly used for ‘events’ and came as something of an anti-climax after the long history.
The entrance to the small complex (and garden) was done by the Docwra  firm, whose lorries we see digging up roads round London but whose links with the Order of St John  go as far back as the Prior responsible for building  the Tudor gate!     

The crypt offers a bit more atmosphere (and authentic damp underground smell) and two interesting tombs – one of an unidentified Spanish knight of St John carved in alabaster complete with lion and page, imported from the cathedral in Valladolid, the other from the tomb of  the last Prior, William Weston, depicted as a skeletal effigy to remind us all that death is the great leveller.

We did however greatly appreciate the peaceful St John’s garden – a modern evocation of a cloister so with a range of medicinal plants but also with Mediterranean planting to link back to the  900 year old  origins of the St John’s Foundation.  The Museum will give you the range of the Foundation’s history and geography through a range of boards, maps and key exhibits but the tour will give you a greater understanding and detail of a unique London visit.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Forty Hall


Thursday 8 June 2017

Compared to last week, the signage was much more efficient, and both Overground and bus staff knew our destination and could direct us. But the journey was far from perfect.  It took us three hours to get to Forty Hall, thus breaking the 'Andrew Rule' which states that one should spend as long in the place as the journey time. At Seven Sisters, where you change from the Victoria Line to the ex C2C Overground which takes you to Enfield Town once every half hour, the offer was 'White Hart Lane', with no clear promise of Enfield Town until you reached the platform.
It is a relief to be able to say that it was totally worth it.  Forty Hall was rescued in 2010-2012 by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Enfield Council, and the building has been restored to a high standard, with ongoing interpretation and furnishing work to ensure repeat visits.

It's one of the houses built by ex-Lord Mayors of London, in this case Sir Nicholas Rainton.  He chose this country area as it was as far as you could get from London in a day without changing horses (ie not much slower than our journey...) We learned this and many other interesting facts from the signage and recorded conversations with Sir Nicholas. He was a member of the Haberdashers' Company, and grew wealthy trading in fine textiles. In 1640, he had a spat with Charles I who put him in the Tower when he refused to divulge the names of other rich men who might 'lend' the beleaguered King large sums of money. Quite astute, given the outcome of the Civil War.

Since he had no children, the Hall passed to other families, and the renovation has involved removing quite a lot of derelict or Victorian stuff, and replacing it with convincing synthetic materials to show how it would have looked.  On the other hand, the main staircase is of fine oak.

We passed into the dining room, with a handsome plaster ceiling and also with replica food, including a splendid pie with a lid and some marzipan playing cards, apparently a conceit for dinner parties in the seventeenth century,  Linda, who likes marzipan, got a gleam in her eye at this.

We were impressed with the trust that the hall places in its visitors, as few of these things were nailed down or fenced off, the exception being in the upstairs great Chamber, where you need a member of staff with you.  This is because they have on loan from Tate a fine picture of the Carpenters' Room at Forty Hall in the 17th century, and the terms of the loan require supervision of visitors.  But a charming person came and told us all about it while we admired the room.

On the landing, there were some fairly late stained glass windows, dating from the period when the Carrington-Bowles family owned this place. Their canting (punning) coat of arms has a bee and three owls. 

The original design of the house, typical for its period, was to have a circular route on each floor through the various rooms around the central staircase, but later families, keen on privacy, had split some of the spaces, making it necessary to try every door in order to see everything.

Upstairs rooms are furnished in various styles and eventually there will be a room for each of the families and periods of the house's history.

Sir Nicholas Rainton's bedchamber contained not just a close-stool, but also details of his will. And then we came to a Bowles room, with a gramophone and other 50s furnishings. We had passed one dressing up box in the ground floor, and now found a much more exciting one, with opportunities to dress as symbols of the wealth and power of the city.

In several rooms there were board games of the periods of the house available to play, and on the upper landing we were pleased to see a window depicting the ornamental hermit so essential for a proper estate!

The top floor has information about the renovation of the Hall, as well as fine views of the 'countryside' that Sir Nicholas valued.

We went down the servants' stairs to reach the kitchen, which again had replica food to enhance the atmosphere


We had wondered why there were pictures of Elizabeth I around the place, but this was clearly explained.  This is the site of Elsyng Palace, built by Henry VIII and home to the children of his fractured domestic life.  No visible sign of the Palace remains, but a great deal of archeological work has been done to show where it was and what it was like.

We also looked at the spaces which are available to hire, which seemed to be in former barns and stables, before heading out to walk round the water and get some final views of this handsome house.

 Well worth a visit, was our opinion, though perhaps a car might be an advantage given its location.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Dorich House

Kingston University
67 Kingston Vale
SW15 3RN

Thursday June 1 2017

To say we had difficulty in finding this museum would be something of an understatement – true we were not meticulous in our research but between a minute on the phone Google Map and a memory of a Kingston Vale address c/o of the University we started the more epic bit of our journey at Putney station. The Route 85 heading to Kingston was familiar enough and we thought Kingston Vale began just after the huge ASDA store (where the buses all take a little turn) so rode one stop beyond – sure enough there was a sign for Kingston University Campus so we entered a rather inauspicious entrance (‘looks like where the dustbins go’ we said) and found a couple of students working on an …….airplane…. this must be the Engineering faculty we said – indeed. Admittedly they had not heard of Dorich House but were totally charming and helpful and suggested we got back on the bus and rode up Kingston Hill to the next chunk of the Kingston Campus. (Even the University’s own maps appear a bit uncertain about what is Hill and what Vale…)  Another bus stop, another wait, another 85 and some minutes later we got off at another chunk of Campus .This looked more promising with a range of buildings nestling in the woods and a choice of paths. Who knows, there might have been a house too? We headed for the Reception where they were – again – very receptive and helpful, informing us that Dorich House was stand alone on the opposite side of Kingston Hill and even directed us to the stop for the free University Bus which was just about due.

It was of course only one stop so off we got again and finally saw the entrance to the museum – there is both a sloped and stepped approach as the house has been built in a dip away from the main road – and you then wander through the garden to the front door, where today we had to ring the doorbell to gain entrance.  No brown ‘attraction’ signposts at all – apparently the authorities will not put up signs for places that do not get enough visits. The slight fault in logic here does not seem to have occurred to them…

Once finally inside you are offered a short film as introduction but are then pretty much free to roam, and today we seemed to be the only visitors. Slippers placed inside the entrance were there ‘to add atmosphere’ though I thought they might be needed to save the very beautiful wooden polished floors.

There are three strands to this visit – the life of the now all but forgotten Dora Gordine, her work and the remarkable house.

Dora was born at the end of 19th century in Latvia and moved with her middle class Jewish family to Tallinn, Estonia, then all parts of the Russian Empire/USSR. Already sensitive to her Jewish heritage (and its unpopularity in her country) she changed her name to Gordine when she went to Paris to study and ‘mingle’ with other artists during the 1930s. Her work started getting attention.  Most who met her assumed she was a Russian émigrée escaping the Bolsheviks and she rarely disabused them. On a study trip to England she was picked up, literally as stranded penniless at Victoria station, by an artistic London ‘set’ and exhibited works here also. She met and married a Doctor who was a medic to the Royal Family in Java and went out East with him. The marriage was not a success but the travels and the destination clearly inspired her and there are many examples of fine Eastern heads that she both sketched and cast. By 1935 she was back in London and after her divorce soon married the Hon. Richard Hare, a student of Russian language and culture, and well-off diplomat.  He had already invested in the purchase of some land off Kingston Hill and between them they designed and had built Dorich House (the title a combination of their first names: this must have been very popular just pre and post war – I can remember delivering Christmas post to a range of houses with similar concocted/composite names).

The couple lived there very happily for many years with Dora continuing to work and some significant public sculpture commissions coming in. Their togetherness is immortalized in a photo of them cleaning  the house post war (when there was a shortage of ‘help’ available) with Dora and her duster and Richard using the floor polisher – no “boys’ and girls’ jobs” there.

Richard died in 1966 and Dora never really recovered – she remained living at Dorich until her own death in 1991.  From the photos on display the house was in some disarray and disrepair until taken over and splendidly restored under the aegis of Kingston University. The links with the University remain and the curator we met today has a joint post between university education and the house.

Though at first approach the house looks rather too tall and austere in fact it works very well from the inside where the light floods in, especially from the back. Nor is the house actually that roomy or multi-layered – it’s more that the height is devoted to giving Dora two very tall studios – the one on the ground floor for plaster work, and the one on the second floor for modelling and now display of the completed bronzes. Dora’s preferred method, learnt in Paris and perfected here, was to use the ‘cire perdue’ or lost wax method of casting, the intricacies of which you are welcome to follow up!
She used a foundry in nearby Fulham.  

Back to the ground floor where the ‘plaster studio’ contains the models for completed works to be seen elsewhere in the house. There is also a short and informative film about Dora’s life and her work including some vintage footage. We were not sure whether the ‘voiceover’ was actually her – sounding very Russian and ‘artistic’ with her emphasis on ‘creation’. She did lay much store on capturing the souls of her sitters and this this is evident when you come to look at them. Less endearing was her trademark ‘kiss curl’ plastered over left cheek, which she never shed even when it was no longer fashionable.

The stairs between the floors are very long as the rooms are essentially double height on both levels of ground and first floors. There was a lift to hoist the completed works up and down but we are not sure we saw a ‘person lift’. Because the ceilings are so high the windows are supremely generous and allow the greenery of Richmond Park and the more distant Wimbledon Common to become part of the house.

Another haul upstairs brings you to the flat where Dora and Richard lived and the sitting room, dining room and smaller ? breakfast room all contain very beautiful fitting furniture and some storage.The sliding doors within a 'moon frame' are very beautiful. There are also numerous display cabinets, mostly devoted to Richard’s Russian artefacts – a wall of excellent icons and some intricately decorated  but not very appealing porcelain, a table top model of a troika and various historic prints.

These rooms are still generous though not overly high but they also have a further flight of stairs leading to the roof terrace which covers most of the house’s span. From here the views are even better and clearly Richard & Dora had planned this space for both sun and rain.  

The bulk of Dora’s work is displayed on the middle or studio level and covers the full spectrum of her output. We particularly liked her work from the Far East with Javanese Dancer, Chinese Head and so on reflecting a real talent and interest in her subjects who come across as uniformly assertive. The studio also includes preliminary sketches for the bigger (and sometimes commissioned) works.
Because of the circles she moved following the marriage to Richard there are also pictures and maquettes of actors and ballet dancers of her day.

Intriguing is the head she did for ‘Eugene waves’ (a type of perm) for an early post war ideal Home Exhibition. ‘Power’ (Commissioned by Esso for their Milford Haven refinery), was a little bit ‘Stalinist’ for my taste  with the man’s torso resplendent but definitely more human and tender than the Russian equivalents. Very appealing was her work for the Royal Marsden Hospital of mother and child. Dora’s was not work we had ever known and we appreciated both her skill, the underlying humanity of her subjects and the fact she was a rare woman working in the medium of sculpture – doubtless some of her work might appear dated alongside the more adventurous interpretations of  a Barbara Hepworth  or Giacometti but this should not detract from talent.

We were pleased to have finally made the visit to experience a life, a
work and a house so intricately bound up and open to the public.