Saturday, 25 August 2018

The Wernher Collection at the Ranger’s House

Chesterfield Walk, Blackheath
London SE10 8QX
Tuesday August 14th 2018

With Jo still busy being a grandparent Linda & Roger decided to tackle this (pretty local) attraction, most easily reachable by the 53 bus. We had been many years ago – it’s ideal for dark winter Sundays when there’s not much to do, though you need to be alert to its rather restricted opening times. Indeed until recently you could only visit via a booked, guided tour if at all but since July it has reverted to ‘free flow’ access. This we knew from the English Heritage person on duty, and accordingly their visitor numbers have increased. . Our guide book dated from 2002 and gave a much fuller life story for Julius Wernher than that now displayed.

Instead of conventional labelling, each room has several copies of detailed descriptions of that room’s selection from the  many hundred items in the collection. Essentially it was a collection without a home, the previous residences of the Wernhers – Bath House in Mayfair and Luton Hoo in Bedfordshire – having both been demolished or otherwise disposed of.

On the other hand the Ranger’s House was a home without a collection. It was built as a kind of grace-and-favour residence for the ‘Ranger’, which in turn was an honorary position, nominally to oversee the Blackheath and Greenwich Parks but entailing very little real work. There had however been a few interesting post holders, so to speak, but essentially the House was empty when passed to English Heritage so they welcomed a collection which included furniture, pictures and artefacts.

The House was originally part of a much larger complex/estate  named  variously Brunswick House, Chesterfield House and Montagu House. Here you have a clue to one of the former ‘Rangers’, the   4th Earl of Chesterfield  known for his abundant  correspondence  on all topics but especially  letters to his (illegitimate) son containing generally sound and timeless advice , some of which you can find  here.

Some of the letters are on show in the downstairs rooms where information boards include a few details about the other inhabitants of the house, several of them ‘minor royals’  including Prince Arthur during his time at Woolwich learning to be a soldier – a role his father had prepared him for at Osborne (isle of Wight)  by building a toy fort.  By the end of the 19th century there were no more Rangers  and the house passed into public ownership (at one time serving as the changing rooms for the nearby tennis courts) passing through various hands from the London County Council eventually to English Heritage.

During the 1990s the Wernher Collection was looking for a home and was offered The  Ranger’s  House. Because it is essentially a private collection, the restrictions are various – no photos and the objects  arranged  in many cases much as they were in Julius’s time. The displays  are fairly traditional so glass cabinets with numbered items and the text in blue binders.
(The pictures are from the EH website)

The other, largely unacknowledged, issue about this collection is its ‘bloody’ origins. Julius Wernher came from a middle class German Lutheran family in the Frankfurt area (ever the financial centre of the new Germany). He apprenticed to a bank there and moved to Paris  briefly before being recalled for military service and a return to France as an ‘occupying soldier’ . Once free of the Army he moved to London and shortly thereafter, via a former Paris banking contact, was invited to go to South Africa to buy ‘raw diamonds’.  Julius was to spend ten years in South Africa and he developed a real aptitude for spotting the purity and clarity of good gems, a skill he was later to use as he acquired the artefacts on display. Combined with his business skills and some knowledge of engineering (his father had been running the railways) he was soon a major share holder in the burgeoning diamond trade, based round Kimberley where there were also some gold seams.

Now of course we know that his fortune and much of the UK’s were based on the displacement/ occupation/ colonisation and death of many of South Africa’s original inhabitants and the industries and management left a legacy of continuing exploitation and apartheid. These were the infamous ‘Randlords’.
It also meant Wernher was one of the richest men in London and with wealth came marriage, family, social climbing and two grand houses  and the ability and skill to collect, though another uncomfortable aspect of the collection (to modern eyes) is that two cabinets at least contain ivory works and artefacts made from rhino horn.

The visitor is directed upstairs where the first ‘Red’ Room is an echo of the drawing room from the Wernhers’ London home. The collection is grouped both chronologically and by type of artefact so a small side room is the jewellery vault with large intricate pieces with equally large precious stones – rubies and emeralds as presumably Julius regarded diamonds as ’work’  rather than pleasure.
Room 3 has a range of religious artefacts – small exquisitely carved ivory devotional objects. It was originally thought these were to convey the Bible’s stories to the illiterate but much more likely handy devotional (and very covetable) items for the wealthy. 

Rooms 4 & 5 are my personal favourites as they have a really colourful display of small chiefly 15th century enamels mainly from Limoges. Clearly I am not alone in admiring these but will have to remain satisfied with admiring them in museums.

The same could be said of the Renaissance ceramics with those from the Iznik Pottery in Anatolia taking pride of place. More controversial (yes, yet more un PC exhibits!) are the couple of works from Palissy, a French Renaissance potter/craftsman. His colours and glazes have no equal but sadly the animals – mainly reptiles – that adorn his (only for ornament) plates were indeed harmed in the production as the link here explains. On the Italian side there are equally colourful works using myths and legends as their narrative base.

Staying with the Renaissance there is a room of smaller  bronzes; downstairs is a more interesting bronze of St Sebastian  shown in agony (?ecstasy) but without arrows.
After the rather intense experience of  the upstairs displays you can go downstairs where the reception rooms retain some of the Wernhers’  furniture and  pictures – there are some good pieces: a lovely Lippi and a rather dingy de Hooch alongside some other works from the Dutch Golden Age  so a lovely Ruysdael . One room has four different clocks – you get the picture.

The long Gallery is an impressive space and is hung with some interesting Beauvais tapestries  depicting scenes from the life of a Chinese Emperor (as imagined by Europeans)  while the last room of the tour looks at the range of Rangers emphasizing  Lord Chesterfield.

We approached by a sort of sideways drive but you can exit round the side and back into a rose garden. This area formed part of the previous larger residences of which there remains only the walls and a ceremonial bath with steps – this was the sort of bath we saw at Carshalton and was designed more for show than cleanliness, This  one was the pride of Princess Caroline.
Unlike many houses nowadays little attention is paid to the role of the servants in keeping everything going ( ? and dusted) but one such is remembered out in the garden..

I may have given more reasons not to visit this property – that would be wrong as there are some gems. I suspect if English Heritage had full access to the collection they would display it differently and certainly offer a more child-friendly experience.  As it is the visit will appeal to those who enjoy browsing the well-chosen beautifully crafted artefacts that serious money can buy in a calm and often uncrowded  space.  

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.