Monday, 30 October 2017

The Red House

Red House Lane,

Thursday October 26

Maybe it was being in Redbridge last week which reminded us that we, or at least Jo, had not yet visited the Red House, a house built and designed by Philip Webb and William Morris and lived in by the latter for a mere five years. The actual building – a substantial red brick and tile hung detached house – was completed in a year for the sum of £4000 equivalent to about £474.000 today.

This was the shell and grounds only, as the designer and architect pair were intent on designing and executing the interiors themselves with the help of some friends. That their friends happened to be such famous artists as Edward Burne Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti was handy. The house was to be one of ‘work and joy’.

Our photos are a mixture of ‘some prepared earlier’ from a previous visit to the house in rather better weather and the rest today. Morning visits are by guided tour only, though you are then free to wander after 1.30PM. Without flash and given the gloom of the day the interiors are quite hard to capture.

The house is now in very suburban and largely residential Bexleyheath and whereas the view from the house windows today is largely of bungalows and  mid-20th century developments, in Morris’s day it would have been orchards and fields.  At the time of his moving here the The Big Stink was exercising middle class Londoners and Morris wanted a home as opposed to living above the shop in Red Lion Square.

Webb was starting out on his career of architect to the affluent middle classes and the house looks very large from the outside though on the inside actually has quite few rooms, most of them now barely furnished. Also while many of the rooms are decorated with Morris wallpapers  this would not have been the case  at the time when most rooms would have had either wall hangings – tapestries created by the equally gifted womenfolk – or wall paintings , or ‘art’ as the guide named  it. Because the house was requisitioned during the war (they handed out the ration books) it was generously overpainted with brown coats so it has taken many years and painstaking work to uncover what few paintings remain.

It seems that Morris might have had a great scheme, a bit like ‘Grand Designs’, to portray the Trojan wars but restorers are still unsure ( or I wasn’t paying attention) what was where, whether it was ever finished, and what has been subsequently lost or remains to be discovered. Visible today are borders here and there, and ornamentation round the windows. Many (or all?) of the classical/medieval/mythical people depicted were based on real life people in the Morris circle, including Morris himself and his long time student friend and now collaborator Edward Burne Jones, and their respective wives. While Morris was ace with a pattern he had no great talent as a painter, and it is likely that one of the weekend guests brought in to help with the decoration was the (in)famous Dante Gabriel Rossetti; consequently some of the damsels he painted are clearly his earlier muse Lizzie Siddall. Later of course Rossetti would go off with Jane Morris …

You enter through the graceful Gothic arched porch into the generous hall (sorry, descriptions of houses always tends to descend into ‘estate agent’ speak) where we were told the grand fireplace was one of many designed by Webb, but each slightly different. The brickwork is lovely but sadly the house is really cold and the chimneys did not ‘draw’ that well. The other impressive piece is the green settle with its two Malory inspired cupboard doors.

The room immediately to the right is the dining room, again with fireplace and a heavy oak trestle of the kind would have been in use (another was abutted and led out onto the hall) to accommodate the weekend workers/ visitors. There is another red settle though looking more like a dresser/ sideboard. Morris liked his victuals and he had obviously inherited enough and earned enough to feed everyone.

The stairs up to the first floor are oak, most beautifully carved and finished and our guide thought purposely squeaky to avoid clandestine comings and goings. Or just squeaky.

Once upstairs you are allowed time to admire the painted ceiling, the huge height of which is of course seen in the external complex roof structure. In the second half of the landing the ceiling has been copied/restored. The windows offer views of the lovely gardens which surround the house. 

There are three main rooms upstairs open to the public.  We presume the bathrooms and kitchens were later additions/alterations by the post-war owners, themselves architects for the LCC and who left the house to the National Trust. 

The master bedroom is small and would have been even smaller when it contained the built-in wardrobe part of Webb’s design. Jane Morris covered the walls with hangings based on the daisy pattern wallpaper but apparently this was one of the coldest rooms and even thick serge cloth may not have helped much. The next door room is the studio used originally by Morris and then by later owners. There is the cut wooden block for the pattern ‘marigold’ and the corresponding print on the walls to give you a feeling for the ideas, creativity and processes that went into Morris’ company – he may not have been a great fan of wall paper himself but they remain, along with the matching fabrics, one of the most enduring products of the company… Their presence in the house is largely down to later owner the LCC architect and Morris fan Edward Hollandby .
As you would expect from an artist’s studio the light is wonderful. 

The most spectacular room on this floor is the drawing room, complete with a large (over large?) settle which Webb had built for Red Lion Square and transferred here, adding a musicians’ gallery to the top – though white it does loom a bit. The room has three Burne Jones paintings which were to be part of a larger series – the wedding procession and wedding feast include familiar figures again and it is likely the visitors to the house would have been encouraged to dress up in medieval styles likewise. Since the National Trust took over the house in 2003 they have been able to reveal more and more of the wall paintings and restore where possible.

Back downstairs you exit via another passage with some of the best, and best preserved, pieces of stained glass in the building; charming birds and more of the Morris coat of arms with two beautiful Burne Jones figures which may or may not have started their life in the front door.

The tour finishes in the garden where you are able again to appreciate the exterior lines.

For any fan of William Morris this visit is a must; otherwise you would need to have a special interest in architecture and interior design. In many ways the house still feels like a project rather than a home, or a showcase for some very specific ideas on craft and design.

The garden today could only be described as autumnal with a range of wet seedheads, but when I say it still detained us for nearly half an hour you can see how richly planted it is and how much there is to look at even at the end of the season. It is also very tranquil so to walk back to the station through modern Bexleyheath comes as quite a jolt.  

Friday, 20 October 2017

Redbridge Museum


Thursday 19 October 2017

Linda and I had an easy trip to Ilford, thanks to the frequent trains to Shenfield (though the labyrinth that is Stratford Station does not make them easy to find) We had been to Ilford many times before, in the days of the buses, but we had never been to the museum. So we were pleased to see bus blinds of the old fashioned kind near the start on the Museum.  Indeed, we toyed with the idea of catching the 25 all the way back to Oxford Circus, but decided against it.

We enjoyed the museum very much, mostly because it was so well set out:  at the start there were some cases with different people's stories in them (these change regularly): there was  a case about the Pearly Kings and Queens, centred on the only Ilford woman to have been a Queen. After that, we went back in time, decade by decade, each case telling one or more individual experience.

The 1990s featured a woman who had lost her council job (as a lollipop lady) for demonstrating against the M11 devastation of Wanstead Common, though she was later reinstated.  We also saw images of Ilford's Millenium celebrations. The 1980s was about dockworkers.  Between 1955 and 1985, 29,000 dockers lost their jobs, a level of devastation which comes close to matching what had happened to coal miners earlier, though the blame lies with the man who invented the container, rather that wth politics.

The 1970s had a case with an Ilford woman's wedding sari, and also a case about the opening of a school of Irish Dancing in the borough. In passing, I should say that we prefer this approach to the past experiences of residents to the 'newcomers to the borough' approach that we have seen in other local museums.  A case about Selochrome and other film stock made in Ilford took us back to the 1960s, and the days before digital cameras; there was also the story of Ilford Jewish School, which moved from Stepney in 1970.  We had been told a few weeks ago at the Spitalfield synagogue about how the Jewish population of the east end had moved out to the suburbs like everyone else, and here we saw the school following the pupils.

The 1950s also reminded us of a previous outing, since it was about the huge house building boom of the 1950s. We had been to Dagenham, and walked though the handsome Becontree Estate, built at the time when 30,000 people worked at the Ford plant. In addition, the 1950s had the story of the great Claybury Mental Hospital, one of many which ringed London until 'care in the community' became the norm.  This featured a nurse who had worked there, as well as equipment and pharmaceuticals.

I approached the 1940s with some trepidation:  every local museum has a Second World War section, of course, and I have frequently been depressed by minor inaccuracies. (Like what? well, showing a week's ration of food on a plate without mentioning that almost everyone had an unrationed main meal at midday, whether in school, factory canteen, service mess or office cafeteria.  So that famous 'one egg, 4oz butter' was for the non-main meals of the week) . But Redbridge didn't annoy me:  the cases were the story of an Air Raid Warden (well, a married couple of air raid wardens, actually) and soldier who had served in Egypt, Italy and Germany before being demobbed in 1947. The case mentioned that 300,000 British and Commonwealth service personnel had died. The third story was about evacuees from Ilford to Cornwall, but also to Oxfordshire, where boys were housed in a purpose built camp.

There was, of course, a case about the local (Woodford Green and Epping) MP. Winston Churchill and his work during the war. Less expected, and therefore particularly interesting, was the story of local resident Sylvia Pankhurst.  Aside from campaigning for women's suffrage, she fought tirelessly for the underprivileged, becoming very unpopular during the First World War for pointing out that the poor suffer disproportionately both on the battlefield and at home.  She was outraged at the League of Nations' inaction when Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, and travelled there several times. When she died in Addis Ababa, she was buried in the graveyard of national heroes.

The 1930s saw a huge increase in the population of the area, and there was a fine reconstruction of a 1930s kitchen, complete with Spong mincer, washtub with dolly and washboard, mangle and and, scarily, a gas iron... Linda and I both wimped out of putting our hands in a hole in the wall, fearing rats.

The Royal Charter which made Ilford a borough in 1926, and the unveiling of the War memorial in 1922 took care of the 1920s, together with a case about the sextants and compasses made by Kelvin Hughes Ltd.  There was little about the First World War; we guessed that this was because the Museum had recently had a special exhibition dealing with it. So we were into Edwardian times, with an Edwardian sitting room, and the fact that the borough had electric street lights by 1905, and trams from 1901, and opened its own electricity company to ensure a secure supply.

Then we were back before the 'march of bricks and mortar' to the time when the area was 'all sky and turnips'.  We saw ploughing match medals, and a splendid feature about the Ilford Cycle Meet which, at its height attracted  11,000 riders and over 70,000 spectators, with decorated cycles, bands and all sorts of fun.

 From the 1870s, Barnados was a presence in the area, with the large Girls' Village in Barkingside preparing girls for domestic service, rather than the lives they might have led had they stayed on the streets. This is where the dressing up clothes were....

Back into the 18th century, we read about Fairlop Fair, and had a go on a shove ha'penny board. We also admired the beautiful Kingsnorth Farrier's sign, and saw some information about local great houses, and early industry, like Howards, who made 'fine Chemicals' including quinine.

And finally, there was a brief account of Ilford's prehistory, which proves to have been exceptional:  from 1863 onwards, the fossilised remains of 20 adult and 30 young steppe mammoths were found at the Brick pits in Upsall. Although these remains are in the Natural History Museum, a replica of a skull and tusks is on show to remind one that the interglacial period in Ilford must have been quite exciting: here are some pictures of what might have been found if Essex were still covered in permafrost.

All in all, we had  very much enjoyed our time at the Redbridge Museum
and hope that the charming primary school we shared the space with 
learned as much as we did.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Bentley Priory Museum = Battle of Britain Memorial

Mansion House Drive
Stanmore Middlesex

Friday October 13th 2017

Linda arrived late for her rendezvous with Jo at Stanmore Station having forgotten that while the Jubilee Line is both fast and frequent Stanmore is still at the end of the line and therefore takes a while. Also you need to wait for the (infamous) 142 bus route, which did come after a bearable wait, on what was a mellow October day.

After chugging uphill quite slowly we were pleased to spot some reassuring brown signs for the Museum thus ensuring we did not walk in the wrong direction, a step we are apt to make… Almost immediately on turning right you come to a dual (car and pedestrian) gate and an operative springs out of a slightly upmarket sentry box to ask your business – as museum visitors you are directed to go left at the roundabout.

A bit of historical context is required – indeed there was once an Augustinian priory here once, founded probably circa  1170, which went the way of most monasteries in England come Henry VIII’s dissolution. Apparently it was offered to Archbishop Cranmer who swapped it for some land in Wimbledon, and various different entitled families lived here for the next two centuries. In 1788 the 9th Earl of Abercorn decided on a refit and engaged the already famous (Sir) John Soane to redesign his home, and a great job he made of it.

At this point the house was a hub for the Great and the Good, so much so that the widow of William IV came here to retire and die. Subsequent owners were less successful socially but did manage to add the Italian style ‘campanile’ and gardens. An attempt to launch it as a hotel was not successful (I suspect not country enough to be a real retreat and too far from town to be a London hotel) so its fate became one of the usual ones of declining stately homes – a school, which it was till 1936, when the Fighter Command part of the Royal Air Force moved in preparing for what they thought might be the next major conflict.

RAF admin. remained till 2008 (by now Fighter and Bomber commands had joined to become Strike Command) but by then the site was neither in a good state nor accessible to the public.  Cue Barratts the builders, themselves tainted somewhat by their association with a certain Prime Minister, who developed the site as essentially a large gated community with lots of communal green space and restricted and refined housing, while also making a £6 million  contribution towards the setting up of the Museum which opened in 2015.

Apologies for the lengthy lead-in, but both externally – gleaming and clean sandstone, restored and landscaped gardens – and internally the fabric of the house and the museum installation demonstrate hefty financial but thoughtful investment. Staffed, we suspected, largely by volunteers you are handed a laminate guide to the order of visit. Some of the earlier rooms and corridors are a bit like a rabbit warren and there are lots of competent but not very exciting water colours of aeroplanes and airfields various interspersed with photos. There are also separate tributes to both the Observer Corps and the Radar Section, set up in 1936 essentially as military research.  

The ground floor trail then leads into a room set up with desks and  period phones – each open drawer contains an appropriate display be it orders for the day, memos to the cabinet or headlines from the newspapers of the day. As becomes obvious as you learn more about Air Vice Marshal Dowding, he made clear to Churchill in several crisp memos (oh, I do love a historic typed memo, now completely superseded by email) that any impending war needed a strong air defence and attack system, and hence his appointment pretty much near the end of his career to head up Fighter Command at Bentley Priory.  

There are some tracking charts displayed (more of this later) including one of Hess’s flight into Scotland in an abortive attempt (unknown to Hitler) to make peace. He was of course captured and lived on for a very long time in different places of captivity including, briefly, the Tower of London.

The museum offers a short film unusual in that it is not the standard-issue composite of newsreel clips and heroic commentary (though we do get Chamberlain  announcing war)  but in fact a kind of  3D video projection/reconstruction as you look into Dowding’s office and  see him and hear him in his own words – actually quite effective.

From there you enter the grand hall and even grander staircase hung with Honours boards, squadron shields and a lace banner, a gift from Nottingham. Interestingly we had seen the same lace panel in the Croydon Museum leading me to wonder whether they had been ‘mass-produced’ ? 

At this point you are offered a respite from aerial warfare, namely a glimpse into Dowager Queen Adelaide’s very finely restored room which comes across as a haven of femininity with its chaise longue and gracious tea cups.

To be fair the Museum has included very many personal testaments of serving WAAFS who must have been very busy typing and telephoning on a 24 hour basis through the war.

From the hall you step into the Rotunda which is one of Soane’s masterpieces (‘better  than his dusty dark house,’ said Jo, who had really not enjoyed our experience there) with light through the dome illuminating what is essentially a tribute to the pilots who did not make it either during the actual Battle of Britain or thereafter. For each biography there are medals and artefacts – a log book here or a cap there. In the centre are medals and badges with their individual citations and explanations; for e.g. a small caterpillar badge meant you had ‘bailed out courtesy of your silk parachute’ a fact probably known to those of you who read all those Biggles type books…

The trail then goes into what is arguably the most interesting room, called by Dowding ‘The Filter Room’ where a combination of reports from observers with radar results were carefully plotted on a grid system overlaying the coastline of East and Southern UK  to show where alien aircraft were coming from and heading to so that the information could be collated /filtered and evaluated and  appropriate orders could be sent on to the various airfields to ‘scramble’ and hopefully intercept the invading planes. What is clear is that Dowding devised and perfected this system so that the comparatively few planes and trained fighters he had could be used in the most focussed and effective way, and as we know it held off an invasion.

It is effectively an air traffic control approach without benefit of computers or other communication.  

The last room has a smaller model of the actual filter room – there is also a gallery where the higher ranks sat presumably to set priorities. You can also sit in the mocked up cockpit of a Spitfire, which is indeed a small and thus manoeuvrable aircraft.

Back out in the hall you are allowed to climb the stairs but not penetrate to the rooms beyond, and are also
encouraged to go down a level. Away from the windows are more pictures including many caricatures of the serving officers and a more detailed life of Dowding. We had rather had our fill of the great man so moved swiftly through his Scottish childhood, education at Winchester and career in the Army both in the far East and the First World War where his observations of his superiors fighting with old fashioned methods including the cavalry made him embrace and promote newer technology including learning to fly, and the rest you already know.

The cafĂ© opens out onto the Terrace of the house with beautifully restored terrazzo flooring and a view over the gardens and £4m houses built up on the slopes.

This is essentially a one trick pony – a museum built on the career and achievements of a single  man but with substantial tributes to crews of young pilots.  By all accounts Dowding was not an easy man but he did care about his men and ensured they had adequate ‘free time’ on their bases between operations. The staff here must have worked hard at times of crisis and the quality of the restoration and presentation of the material pays full tribute to all the men and women who participated in the Battle of Britain in certainly one of the most lovely and peaceful settings of the various military/war museums we have visited.