Thursday, 16 August 2018

Royal Academy of Arts (2)

Piccadilly W1J 0BD
Friday August 10  2018

More return visits? Yes and no. We included the Royal Academy three years ago – it is of course an institution which holds ‘special exhibitions’, often two at a time, based on single  artists or themed  by country or materials –‘bronze ‘  for e.g.  Probably it is most famous for the annually held ‘Summer Exhibitions’  and  that is what we posted last time

Three years down the line we decided to take a look at this year’s offerings but also to take the opportunity to visit the Royal Academy’s new and newly opened  extension

 This year’s show  was co-ordinated by Grayson Perry (everyone’s favourite modern potter and commentator) and he asked several of his fellow academicians to curate or co-curate each of the rooms. Inevitably they choose each other’s works so instead of the usual habit of clustering the recent works of say Ken Howard in one place they are scattered throughout. Each room is a glorious and colourful mixture of works and mediums (media?) from traditional oils and pencil sketches through to installations, videos and what one might loosely term sculptures. There is the usual room of architectural models both projects and familiar completed works. 

The downstairs of the Academy building has nine (?) large galleries grouped round a central octagonal room with several openings.  Upstairs were later opened the newer Sackler galleries – a more intimate space for smaller works and exhibitions. During the summer show this is largely for the open submissions – that is works sent in by the general public. To be honest the ‘hang’ (‘When did this become a noun?’ asked my linguist friend) is so dense it is somewhat off-putting and you would need to know what you were looking for to linger here…

The ‘new’ building is what I remember from the dim and distant past as the ethnographic and anthropological collections from the British museum. The only visit we made was on a rainy Sunday in winter when you could still park free and we plus two small children had an underwhelming and forgettable afternoon. Evidently the British Museum closed its ‘branch’ down and the building stood empty for some time.

The Royal Academy has therefore acquired a vast space, which must more than double its capacity.

Obviously there is additional space for toilets cafes, shops and meeting rooms for the Academicians and an impressive lecture hall. The staircase and stairwell is the size of a not so modest house.  The exterior has been cleaned and this work was still in progress. It will be interesting to see how the spaces will be used.  

The two buildings are connected by a tunnel and a bridge (lifts are provided for the short flights needed here) and the underground space – very crypt-like – is now cleaned exposed brick.  Currently this tunnel/corridor displays  the various statues and bodies ( some of them ‘flayed’ to expose the underlying musculature)  that the academy’s School has  used to teach ‘Life Drawing’. There will also be a space for the current students to display their work.

As you cross over you pass over a small bridge over a courtyard and enter into the next gallery so as to minimise the ‘break in continuity of the viewing experience.  If you then go down you can appreciate the full size of   the new acquisition.

So there you have it – a new museum/gallery for London.

The photos include some from the building and a very few of the most eye-catching pieces from the Summer Show – this year’s has been a good visit (it closes this weekend) as ‘there is something for everyone’ especially children as it offers variety rather than a serious themed contextualised educational offering.  Let’s hope the RA follows Perry’s example in future  Summer shows.

Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Horniman Museum & Gardens

100 London Road
Forest Hill
London SE23 3PQ
Friday August 3 2018      
                                                                                                                                                                   The  more alert amongst you will have noticed that
  1. We have not blogged for a while due to  holidays and hosting overseas visitors various and
  2. We have visited here before

However today’s visit was to look at a new feature in the Gardens – the Butterfly House – and the newly restored/re-opened World Gallery. 

The Butterfly House is  near the top exit and where the head groundsman’s house and garden used to be is now a glasshouse filled with temperate and tropical plants.  As you can imagine entering this when the outside temperature is already in the low thirties was just short of madness so we would advise a visit when the weather cools down. Brightness is helpful in order to see some of the more camouflaging species. There is a cost which can be combined with other attractions, such the Aquarium in the main building (also highly recommended), and a family ticket is the best value at £13-50.

For much of the visit we had the space to ourselves plus a few hundred butterflies – there is   always a very friendly and knowledgeable staff member on duty; today they were working in hourly shifts because of the heat but it is well worth speaking with them. While it was quiet we enjoyed the gentle sweep of the butterflies who seem unafraid of the human presence. These of course are tropical species and both larger and often more colourful than our own – there are plates of succulent fruit and they often pause to draw nourishment. Obviously – because they flit – it is quite hard to capture with a standard camera (not helped by the fact that my camera was reacting to the heat by going on periodic strike action).

Information boards explain the metamorphosis process – caterpillar to pupa to butterfly – and identify the dozen or so different varieties.  There is also an open cupboard where the ‘imported’ pupae hang.  Some of them (mainly the browner species) look a little 'moth-eaten' round the edges (nibbled) and do fall victim to both ants and an intruder mouse. Apparently they have no pain receptors so are not distressed by losing the edge of their wings but of course would die if they can no longer fly. The life-span is about three weeks (as a butterfly).  The staff keep a rough count by the number of corpses which they rescue before the public come in. Also they were able to indicate which caterpillars prefer which species of trees and we could see by the nibbled leaves what was popular – the butterflies are also quite tribal so keep to their own 
This was a strangely soothing yet interesting experience and one can but wonder at nature’s ingenuity and range. Among others we saw some Red Postmen, Blue Morphos, Owls (so aptly named) and Malachites – unsurprisingly the greeny ones.

We emerged through the double doors and headed downhill to the Main Museum. Since our last visit the World Gallery, which has been in the Victorian era main hall since Mr Horniman opened his ethnographic objects and stuffed animals to the public, there has been a makeover. To my best knowledge this is the third remodelling of these particular exhibits; when we first came to this area in the Seventies they were , I suspect, very much as he had left them, slightly dusty and lacking much context.  The Millennium saw the museum being extended and there was an emphasis on the African exhibits which were displayed more sympathetically and attractively.

The World Gallery only re-opened last month and to much acclaim and now brings together these African artefacts and others from round the World – the cases, which reach to the ground  so even crawling babies (and we tripped over one)  can see, are arranged both by continent and by theme accompanied by film variously of the objects in use, people speaking of their memories  of them, the personal significance of them plus films of the modern cultures which continue to use them. In short you can absorb as little or as much information as you wish. It was also reassuring to see some old familiar objects masks/puppets/ scrimshank  spruced up and given a fresh angle for the visitor to contemplate. Though not as famous as the overstuffed walrus, who at one time had his own website, there are several significant items that long time visitors to the Horniman would miss if not on display.

The Museum likes to emphasize the creativity and adaptability of  people round the world  and we particularly liked the old tins re-purposed as oil lamps,  and the advice not to worry too much….
However whether you are a regular or a first-time visitor you are sure to find something to entrance and interest you. 

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Trinity Buoy Wharf

London E14 0JW
Thursday June 21 2018

Rather like last week’s suggestion, we had been tipped off about  the gallery down at Leamouth by Victoria who reads our blog. We had arranged to meet at Canning Town Station, which the website indicated was the nearest transport link. Once we found each other – no mean feat at Canning Town – we exited in what we hoped was the right direction (Google maps indicated that there might be a problem: “Use caution–walking directions may not always reflect real-world conditions”) looking for a footbridge.

We then found ourselves in Canning Town Bus station and on the third version of asking ‘How do we get to the island?’ were bailed out by a really helpful and knowledgeable cleaner. Not only did he unlock the Canning Town Bus station loos for us  but showed us very clearly how to get onto the island. The loos have been renovated totally which might be why they keep them locked, but then the information point is not staffed either.

Back to the Canning Town Jubilee Exit and sure enough there is a long flight of stairs and a lift up to where a new metal footbridge joins the ‘island’ formed by a huge curve of the River Lea as it empties into the Thames. Google Earth still showed a building site but I would say the work is 60% completed.  Whether the completed works include social housing is not clear. The developers Ballymore  had provided a boardwalk round the edge of the island but in fact the central access route was already open and landscaped with waving grasses and birch trees. Some of the homes are occupied but as yet few shops – we passed a very modern commercial gallery clearly providing art work for the new blank walls of people’s flats. As yet no sign of any major roads…

Where the City Island development ends you pass under the Lower Lea Crossing and then onto the tip of the peninsula (for that is what the ‘island’ really is). Here are the buildings which were once part of a bustling maritime past – many large warehouses and shipyards with adjacent services mostly now re-purposed for uses such as a brewery or storage for the ENO. Several of the eponymous buoys remain steadfast amongst the older buildings and right down by the riverside tied up was an excellent lightship next to London’s only lighthouse – quite a small one as it happens.  The plan, which we only found as we were leaving, indicates that you can visit the lighthouse at the weekend.

What was open was a small hut, described as London’s smallest museum, namely a re-creation of Michael Faraday’s working office. Now we had been underwhelmed by the Museum in his name at the Royal Institution, which we had visited over a year ago.  What was the great man doing down here you might ask? Well, as we understand it, given his well-known work with electricity and magnetos, those early things which kept light  and eventually machinery going,  the Trinity House invited him to come down here to do research on their behalf. Cue an explanation of the role of Trinity House: first given a charter by Henry VIII, they were and are responsible for  the lighthouses, buoys and  other aids for ‘the better navigation of the coasts of England’.  We were impressed that there was an Electricians’ Workshop here from as early as 1835 . Faraday himself was employed to do research for them from 1831-65. Whether his post here was full time or not is unclear but we enjoyed his little office cum research station complete with a sea pebbled floor and fishing floats. The desk has some experiments and notebooks set out and looks both atmospheric and interesting so imagine our  dismay when we noted that some previous visitors had abandoned a pizza box and two McDonalds cups on ‘his desk’. We did not consider these suitable historical artefacts, and some ‘vapers’ from a nearby office removed them for us.

The area had also been used for building ships, the last ones in 1900, and the Blackwall Railway came here from Fenchurch Street. With the expansion of heavy industry, and thus employment in the area, eventually the working population had both a little time and money for leisure and trips to the seaside, by ship. We wondered if there might be plans to have small boats encircle the peninsula.   

Where there are hoardings these are generously adorned with Information and education boards and one of the older buildings has been taken over as a private school, named for Michael Faraday as it happens.  Others are working artists’ studios – we poked our noses into one and were welcomed by the artist but we did not like to interrupt creativity… The site is also dotted with other art works. The metal steps up to one building had been designed to reflect the area’s history. Another appealing artwork was the outline of the River  - always a joy – done in the names of boats the artist had collected..

The current main road is called Orchard Place , which felt a little anomalous in such a built up area but Jo spotted a board which I had obviously missed which explained that due to the rich nature of the muddy deposits there had indeed  been orchards here!

Apart from the creatives in their studio spaces and many contractors we seemed to be the only visitors. Our original aim had been to visit ‘The Gallery’ which we failed to find down among the cobbles and bollards but serendipitously we really enjoyed exploring an area so keen to show its heritage.

As it happened we realised the gallery was in fact the modern commercial one we had passed on our way down, but a glance through its glass plate windows was enough to speed us on our return walk .
The cafes looked appetising and people were enjoying the sunshine (and food) and we could see that given time this forgotten bit of riverside London could become what Camden Lock and Stables had once been before being taken over by the assorted youth of Europe after cheap thrills. But with luck they may be able to retain the essence and spirit of the original area.

Friday, 15 June 2018

South London Botanical Institute

323 Northwood Road
London SE24 9AQ

Thursday 14 June 2018

We need to thank Victoria for this suggestion, which had escaped our list making, possibly because it is indeed 'a hidden gem'.

Really easy to get to (though possibly it will become even easier when Thameslink sorts out its new, improved timetables) the Institute nestles behind a fine tamarisk tree a few steps from Tulse Hill station.

It is open to the public on Thursday mornings, as a reassuring sign on the front door confirms, and we were welcomed by a member of staff.

After we had visited the 'facilities'. in themselves a botanical show case, we were shown some of the delights of this Victorian house. Built in 1863, it became  the Institute in 1910, thanks to the energy and inspiration of Allan Octavian Hume.  Hume had been in the Indian Civil Service, and had become interested in botany in India. (We shall not dwell on his other hobby, which was collecting birds' eggs and skins.) It was he who worked on the Great Hedge of India, about which you can read a somewhat angled account here

We were shown the library; the impressive collection is open for reference on Thursday afternoons. In the hall is a massive clock, of Indian design and manufacture.

The Lecture Room has some beautiful bespoke wallpaper, designed by a local artist to embody various botanical specimens. The walls are lined with pictures of the various curators and librarians, until recently mostly male and bearded.  Hume himself is above the mantelpiece.

 Next we went into the herbarium, where the huge collection of pressed specimens is stored, in metal (= bug proof) cabinets.

We were shown the kind of collecting cases that the plant hunters used to bring examples back for study and preservation.

Then it was time to go into the garden, and wander through the various labelled and explained beds.  There is a pond,  and beds of medicinal, poisonous and woodland plants as well as examples from around the world


On the wall of the house is a mosaic, designed and placed to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Institute.

There are plants for sale, though we did not buy any, this time....

And in the little conservatory which leads from the Education Room (yes, they welcome school and student visits), we found various succulents and cacti, as well as some carnivorous plants.
 We were very glad we had visited, and warmly recommend it.  Details are here, in case our readers want to try it.