5 High St, Harrow
Thursday November 30 2017
Parts of today’s expedition felt quite nostalgic as we met at a very cold Baker Street Station (needing an agreed rendezvous for this multi-layered interchange) and took a newish swift Metropolitan Line train to Harrow on the Hill where all the lines divide/converge. The station staff recommended we took a bus so soon we were back in the familiar surroundings of Harrow Bus Station, now complete with a major bus countdown board so we could sprint to the H 17, as ever a popular route, which delivered us to the crest of the hill, where this very famous public school stands proud. The Speech House is indicated by a brown sign.
The gallery, housed in a very imposing double fronted building atop a long flight of steps, was cosy after the cold journey and there are not many galleries which are carpeted, which this one is. The building was originally designed for the boys to practise their public speaking so there is a downstairs area suitable for talks and concerts and an upstairs gallery ready for hecklers. In its new role it is very proud that it has accredited museum status. The exhibits are on the underside of the gallery up the stairs and in the ‘overhang’.
The young woman on Reception, who was one of the permanent curatorial staff, was keen to tell us that what was on display was only a fraction of the collection. She was very enthusiastic about the gallery though today we seemed to be the only visitors. The collection also benefits from the similarly keen input of a few older pupils, presumably as part of their Art History modules. It has to be said that the standards of the displays must be a mark of the school’s wealth – in most schools the ‘archiving’ such as it is, is left to the History Department and a couple of shelves in a random cupboard.
This learning establishment has moved on from its original founder John Lyons leaving a legacy to educate seven local boys (and build a ten mile stretch of local road!) to one of the country’s more famous private schools. The accumulated wealth and privilege is visible in the museum.
Their most famous former pupils are Winston Churchill and Lord Byron, neither of whom shone academically. I suspect the museum alternate their ‘special exhibitions’ between these two and we visited when Byron was being foregrounded. To say he led a colourful life is an understatement but you can read about it briefly here. The exhibits include sketches of several but by no means all the women in his life, including his daughters Augusta/Allegra and Ada, the latter better known as Ada Lovelace, whose life of serious study and sober application was the total opposite of the father she never knew. There is also his first watch (the one you get sent to school with but I suspect a pricier item in the early 19th century). The custodian advised us to visit St Mary’s Church across the road – formerly the school chapel – apparently Byron used to lie on the Peachey Stone and look at the sky thinking poetic and doubtless other adolescent thoughts…
If I were not careful this would become the Byron Blog, so on to others… Several of Churchill’s perfectly competent and pleasant watercolours are on the walls alongside portraits of other lesser known worthies. There is a Joseph Nollekens bust of Spencer Percival, the only British Prime Minister to be successfully assassinated, and of course a Harrovian.
A number of former pupils have donated their own collections – there are several pull-out drawers of pinned moths and butterflies, Admiral Codrington (Battle of Navarino – during the Napoleonic Wars) gave some silver and Henry Blackwall Harris an extensive collection of Chinese ceramics dating from the late 16th century onwards. It is generally known as kraakware , this being a corruption of the Portuguese ‘carrack’ namely the vessels that traded with the Far East. Basically the Chinese, as ever, produced ceramics for the export market of a different calibre to home wares; these were characterized by the designs in segments round the plates and with rather fragile rims, though there are some fine pieces.
Another oriental collection was displayed downstairs – Japanese prints from the Hiroshige series of ’53 Stations on the Tokaido Road’ that some-one has uploaded to Youtube
There are also portraits of kabuki actors performing roles in the ‘Tales of Genji’.
Upstairs some items from Harrow School’s own archive are displayed – the inevitable paintings and score cards form the annual Eton v Harrow Cricket Match, photos of various mainly Shakespearean productions and accounts of the war, including some ARP watching. Of the 451 pupils on roll in 1939 43 died in active service…..
In order to give a more modern injection into the collections the curators have been round to speak with members of staff (‘Masters’ regardless of gender) and asked them to lend and describe the relevance of an artefact for them. The range is enormous – two have included memorabilia from their own families who served in World Wars I &II, others are more eclectic. These include an Irish club Rugby shirt ‘cut’ from the player who needed a year of rehabilitation following a serious sports injury, some soft toys, a four generation Christening robe, a Led Zeppelin concert programme and what our family call a cheese sniggler, namely a cheese slicer beloved in the Scandinavian countries for paring cheese for crispbreads, now of course available in most kitchen stores but part of this person’s heritage.