Saturday, 28 April 2018

Chiswick House & Gardens

Burlington Lane, Chiswick
London W4 2 RD
Thursday April 26 2018

Both of us had visited this property before in weather fine enough to be able to picnic but that was not to be the case today. It was a pleasant walk from Chiswick Station and when we had wavered on the platform as to which exit to take a woman had helpfully indicated the main exit – adding we were not to miss the Conservatory.

Passing some well-heeled SW London properties and also some delightful WW1 Almshouses (restored), we arrived at the Burlington Gate, which gives you a clue as to whom the property originally belonged. Richard Boyle, third Earl of Burlington , who inherited  at a the age of 10 years, lived when in London  at Burlington House which is now the Royal Academy of Art.  Like many of his age he embarked on the Grand Tour which in his case seemed mainly to be a ‘gap year’ spent shopping: he returned with no fewer than 878 trunks of purchases, and then needed somewhere to put them. On his second tour he did focus more on the sights and sites and fell in love with the classical Palladian villas he visited round Vicenza, Italy. He also wanted ‘somewhere in the country, near the Thames’ to entertain friends and continue supporting the Arts, by now home- grown ones, hence Chiswick. By the time the house was rebuilt to this design (the previous wooden structure having burnt) he had acquired a wife, and eventually there were three girls.  Chiswick was used for fun and pleasure and summer entertaining. Since it is seemingly without a kitchen, presumably the food was brought in ‘Deliveroo’ style?? Other artistic folk were nearby – such luminaries as Pope and  John Gay, author of the Beggars’ Opera.

During our visit marquees were being erected in the garden, presumably for some corporate or private function, and we thought it must have been little different in Burlington’s day. His stroke of genius was to get , William Kent, whom the Earl met in Italy, to design the house, the garden and some of the contents.  Kent had started  as a painter but then became the architect and interior designer who came to define early Georgian England , a style that many still feel is the most quintessentially English – it isn’t of course but it has lasted well and with its classical symmetry is very soothing. So in Chiswick he gave Burlington, and ultimately the Nation a classical gem.

The actual house entrance was not very well marked and we must have walked round what felt like 1½ times before finding the right door as of course one is not permitted to enter via the grand staircase.
The downstairs of the villa housed both a salon and the Duke’s library, though none of that remains, and some of his larger ‘souvenirs’. On the whole he did better with the statuary than the paintings, we thought, and quite enjoyed the randomness of a Sphinx here and a Napoleon there, but with little light and no furniture the general impression is of a rather grandiose cellar; cold in both the physical and the emotional sense. 
Lack of signs, again, meant we did a few circuits looking for the stairs – one of the drawbacks of symmetrical buildings, we discovered, was that all four corners look alike internally and the stone (presumably servants’) stairs are well tucked away.

However, the climb is rewarded with a some very ornate rooms, and at this level with generous windows overlooking the landscaped gardens complete with modern marquees. Five /six rooms surround the central domed salon, which as can be seen from the exterior views has a grand and glorious domed roof/ceiling decorated with both paintings and plasterwork. The gallery especially, where the colour palette is restricted to white and gold really shows up the workmanship of the apse niches and ceiling. The introductory film had alerted us to the two side/console tables, which had been restored and photos of which I seem to have found from a previous visit. (Photography is not now allowed on this level.)

 The surrounding rooms are respectively the Red, Green and Blue Velvet rooms – the latter has a  pile/flock wallpaper  in a deep intense blue.

In the Domed Saloon (if careless with my double vowels I could call it the doomed salon) we dutifully namechecked the various paintings and confirmed that most were indeed ‘after Van Dyck’ or ‘after Reni’ with some bona fide Knellers.  We felt perhaps the Italians saw all these money rich/time poor Brits coming and sold on some hack works... On the other hand much of the original contents of this house were relocated to Chatsworth.

Through marriage this property became part of the Devonshire Estates and while successive Dukes did live here it was never a main residence. In some ways this was probably a good thing as the main interior rooms were spared too many ‘makeovers’ and were left as we find them today. The 5th Duke added a side building and made several changes in the garden going for a more informal look – winding paths rather than too many straight vistas. His is the pretty bridge.  His wife, Georgiana, portrayed in the film 'The Duchess' did some of her partying here. English Heritage had added some placards to celebrate the ‘Women of Chiswick’ which of course included Georgiana, Anne Venables, a Chiswick housekeeper and Eleanor Coade, who devised a secret formula stone suitable for statuary and building. While she was not local to Chiswick there are several samples of Coade Stone work within the garden, so perhaps a suitable place to remember her.

Various less illustrious, though no less moneyed, tenants followed and by the twentieth century the house was in some disrepair and shortly before the Second World War it and the park were passed over to what is now English Heritage and Hounslow Local Authority. Much restorative work was needed with many of the later additions removed and the garden restored to a more Burlington /William Kent era lay out.  The park is a joy with mature trees, water (originally the Bollo brook) and points of interest – bridge/ columns, lions etc – dotted throughout. It is also very well used by the whole range of park people: runners, dog walkers, families.

We had left the Conservatory to last, excited by the thought of a collection of historic camellias only to find there was a private function with no admission for Jo Public . At this point  April did its thing and dumped a very cold shower on us when we were furthest from shelter  so we cut our losses and headed briskly back to the station and the restorative warmth of a SW train (I never thought I would say that)  and central London after a somewhat muted morning out.  

PS The photo shows some ‘home-grown’ camellias…

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Queen Elizabeth's Hunting Lodge

8 Ranger's Rd, London E4 7QH

Thursday 19 April 2018

Beautiful warm and sunny weather accompanied our train ride from Liverpool Street to Chingford for this interesting excursion.  Linda and were accompanied by Roger, the former 63 regular, who was somewhat bemused by our nostalgia for the Chingford bus station, neatly positioned next to the Overground.  But we did not need a bus, as it is a ten minute stroll into the outskirts of Epping Forest and to the Hunting Lodge.

 You know you are almost there when you pass the extremely pseudo-Tudor Premier Inn. The Lodge itself is whitewashed all over, as was apparently the norm at the time of its building.  

As Linda commented later, like the New River (neither new nor a river...) it is neither a Lodge, nor built for Queen Elizabeth, but the Victorians liked to associate anything then could with a previous great female ruler.
Before we went inside, we headed to the green space at the rear of the Lodge to admire the truly spectacular views over this edge of the Forest (perhaps I should explain, as we were told later, that the capitalisation is required because this was a Royal Forest, and as such subject to the Forestry Laws, which King John was forced to sort out alongside other issues in 1215.)

What you see indoors is made up of two parts.  First, we went into The View, as the Visitor Centre is aptly named.  We found this very interesting, which will indicate to those of you who remember that I can be resistant to being educated, the high quality of the displays.  There are two parts:  'who needs the Forest' was all about the different species which inhabit the Forest, and the different uses to which it is and has been put.  Information about the English Long Horn Cattle which now graze the glades, also told us about the Common Rights of ancient times and the attempts by rich landowners to fence parts of the Forest (about which more later). The advice to modern visitors was to enjoy the cattle, 'just try to avoid stepping in their flower dispersal systems', thus neatly making the point that cowpats are ecologically crucial.

The Forest has also been a place for leisure activities for centuries, though the coming of the railways meant a huge increase, as the East End poured its population into the countryside at weekends.  One of the entrepreneurs who set up Riggs Shelter, with refreshments for visitors, was told to supply toilets lest visitors made the Forest 'one perfect closet for their convenience'.

The veteran trees are also remarkable, some of the beeches being as much as 500 years old.  The Forest is very densely planted, with up to 800 trees per acre (compared to 70 in Richmond Park) and this is possible because of centuries of pollarding, or lopping as the Commoners' rights called it.  The poor wanted the branches for firewood; and once the 'bolling' that remains is too high for deer and cattle to munch, the tree can thrive and be lopped frequently.  When lopping was ended in 1878, the compensation built a community hall in Loughton, called Lopping Hall.
Ancient trees led seamlessly into an account of invertebrates, and therefore small bug munching mammals, and therefore owls and other birds.

The other part of the exhibition was about 'who saved the Forest' and here we got a wonderful combination of the great-and-good and the ordinary people. Octavia Hill wanted fresh air as well as good housing 'the poor should never be denied beauty' she said;  William Morris played in the Forest as a lad:  there was a charming cartoon of him saying 'I just can't stop drawing leaves'.  G B Shaw was also in favour of preserving the Forest as an openly accessible space, as was Thomas Nelson, the Solicitor who took up the case of the Commoners against the 16 Landlords (boooo!) who had fenced parts of the Forest. As we know, the right of pasturage and therefore of the openness of the Forest won the day.  And the wealthy City of London stepped in and purchased much disputed land for the public good.  Queen Victoria visited in the 1880s. to be greeted by civic displays and an arch.

But the less wealthy and influential also played their part.  There were serious demonstrations against the enclosures in the 1850s and 60s;  and in the 1970s when a motorway called the M16 was planned as a sort of pre-M25 ringroad, there were again major protests.

There was much more to enjoy, as well as a display of work by local artists, but it was time to move into the Hunting Lodge.

The very friendly staff gave us a brief introduction:  the building dates from 1543 which (as Nigel Molesworth would say, and as I have quoted before, 'any fule kno') was Henry VIII.  At that time it was called the Great Standing, and was a three storey timber frame, to enable the corpulent monarch to kill 'his' deer without getting onto a horse:  game would be driven into the courtyard, and the King and his courtiers would shoot from the upstairs.

The ground floor was set up as the kitchen.  We always enjoy fake food, particularly the venison pastries as described in a quote from Samuel Pepys. And we were impressed by the huge hams, presumably removed from the fire place which the cauldron of pottage was set set to simmer.

But most splendid of all were the decorations of the pies and pasties (pastry being as important as bread in those pre-potato days). There were apparently books of designs, as well I am looking for something more than diamonds next time Roger and Linda make a pie.

The room had some information about who used to poach the Royal deer, their names and histories being known from court records.

The stairs up to the first floor are wide and shallow, suitable the courtiers in posh frocks.  The story that Elizabeth I rode her horse up them after the defeat of the Armada sadly only dates from 1833, and so has to be taken with pinches of salt.

The upstairs room is for education, with the obligatory dressing up clothes, including ruffs and some attractive mens hats.

This would have been the level from which the shooting happened, so the floor upstairs (past a stuffed fallow deer) must have ben just to enjoy the view, or maybe a spot of dalliance (there was Tudor type music playing up here), and it was right to be reminded that the place existed because the Forest was a royal playground, long before it became a public pleasure.

 Did I mention that it is free to enter?  Lots of details here.  Even on a less beautiful day, this is well worth a visit.

Well, then it was time to move on, Roger and Linda to walk through the Forest to Loughton (using the Freedom Pass Walks book) and me to return to the station and so home.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Hayward Gallery

337-338 Belvedere Rd,
Lambeth, London SE1 8XX
(Better Known as the South Bank)

Thursday April 5 2018

Preamble: Apologies for our silence for nearly a month – this has been due to dentistry,  family trips, holidays and general life… also it has to be said that after four years on this project (we started in March 2014) we are finding it difficult to access the last few museums on our list. During our time devoted to visiting several galleries and museums have closed (Bromley) or moved (William de Morgan tiles) and some have indeed had a makeover and re-opened – the Postal Museum and the Hayward being amongst these.

The (first opened 1968)  Hayward Gallery had been showing its age and it was good to see it looking sprucer, cleaner and lighter. It basically has two floors and a kind of mezzanine with connecting ramps. It does not of course have a substantive/permanent collection but puts on temporary exhibition mainly of more modern artists. So this is where we presented ourselves alongside many others. The Hayward is quite accessible so it was good to see several wheelchair and buggy users enjoying the spaces.

The current exhibition features the photographic work of Andreas Gursky.  He was born 1955 in what was then East Germany but grew up and studied mainly round Dusseldorf. Interestingly, his parents ran a commercial photography studio and before long he had picked up the family Leica camera and was on his way… As photographers at the bottom of the talent pool (our partners can’t abide our shaky wonky efforts) we greatly admired the technical brilliance of his early conventional landscape shots where Gursky seemed able to capture every detail of vegetation whether in the fore or back ground so they can be enlarged without losing any of their crispness. Already his technical brilliance was evident in a shot of a cable car just visible in a mountain mist.

As Gursky grew more confident and also had the funds to travel more he became fonder of man-made structures – so architecture in the broadest sense.  Sometimes he gets up close and personal with a huge lighting system or in one case with the very grey utilitarian carpet of an art gallery and these grand scale interpretations are quite arresting without being disturbing. These verge on abstracts as the context of the lighting systems is absent.  The Montparnasse Brutalist housing block does give pause for thought as the viewer cannot fail to remember the troubles there have been along the ‘banlieue’...   

Not that he ignores humankind – there are excellent compositions of the Tokyo stock exchange (pretty devoid of colour) and the German Siemens  electronics factory which conforms to every expectation of the  worker as small cog in the wheel of global capitalism. To paraphrase his own words the clarity of the image execution belies the ambiguity of the subject matter…

Nowhere is this more true than in two of my favourites: the 99cent store and the airport departure boards. By now Gursky is using digital photography and he is able to duplicate/overlap and repeat images in strips which gives an apparent impression of realism while delivering a greater impact and message.
Like many artists he enjoys the same subjects to which he returns but gives them a different treatment and thus interpretation. After the early photos of the river Rhine he returns to this and by straightening and manipulating the images delivers something akin to a Rothko (only with ‘greener’ tones) and where the grey water looks almost as though it has been painted with thick oils. Aware too of environmental degradation he captures the negative human impact on our landscapes.

Nowhere is this more true than in his pictures of oil (?slicks) on water. These later compositions have a near abstract quality and we were also taken with his version of the Formula 1 Racetrack in the desert   of Bahrain – the black empty track has been chopped and joined randomly so leading nowhere but the overall impression is like a modernist work of art. Not that Gursky is humourless – obviously taken with the rituals of Formula 1 he has recorded two pit changes – the red versus the white teams – but exaggerated the number of mechanics needed. This reminded me of the joke whereby the race is not run on the track but is just between two teams changing the car wheels….

Some of his later work also tends to the deliberately blurry (as opposed to our own incompetence) but perhaps because they were quite dark we found them less absorbing. Having said that our attempt at a close up has quite a Monet-in-the-rain look about it… actually while trying to focus on his composition of  Vietnamese basket weavers turning out chairs for IKEA…

It was encouraging to see the gallery re-open with such a popular exhibition though by popular it does not mean that many of the works do not have the kind of content to make you reflect around the subject matter. One of us has some doubts about whether photography is an art form but on the basis of this show you would have to say that it is… Also like many artists – think of Picasso who could draw life-like doves aged 8 but went on to re-interpret them through his life in different formats – Gursky could take brilliantly executed photos at the start of his career yet was re-interpreting the same or similar subject matters in ever evolving ways throughout his working life.