Sunday, 20 July 2014

The Building Centre

Store Street, London WC1E 7BT
Thursday June 12th and Thursday July 17th 2014

This was my second trip to the North London’s Building Centre, but not because I was due to rush out and build a house – ‘Grand Designs’ style.
We, that is Jo, Mary and Linda had originally visited the Building Centre on June 12th; however events on the return journey denied me (Linda) the tool s to write up the blog.  People only interested in the Centre should skip the next few paragraphs, but for those interested in the background to the double visit, here it comes: I shall try to be brief.

Returning through Waterloo in something of a rush as we were due to go away the following day, I jumped onto a Jubilee Line train heading south – however my shoulder bag  swung out behind me and did not make it into the carriage.  No matter, I thought – the driver will make his/her standard world weary announcement about people blocking the doors and would release the bag, still attached to my shoulder. No such thing: as we sped off the bag banged along the train between train and sliding doors (for non-Londoners the ‘newer’ sections of the Jubilee Line have platform security doors to prevent such incidents). Once into the tunnel it had even more space to flap around as the speed increased, and mid-way the metal clasps and leather stitching gave up and the bag fell beside the tracks. Like me, the other girls standing at this end of the train were speechless with horror but advised I get out at the next stop, which I did. Mike Read, on duty at the barriers at Southwark Station (and presumably in a few months cuts to ticket office staff may mean he won’t be) was very kind but it took several tellings of the tale before he grasped that I hadn’t, muppet like, left the bag either on the platform or in the carriage.  After a couple of phone calls to his manager he gave me a telephone number to call and advised that once the power is switched off operatives ‘walk the line’ each night and should be able to retrieve the bag or its remnants.   By now I was beginning to realize I was card-less/pass-less/cashless and without house keys; also in the bag of course the camera and ‘blog’ notebook plus other personal items.  
I explained that I needed to travel on to get a phone somewhere and I was issued with a ‘permit to travel’ which turned out to be me telling other ticket officials I had ‘permission’ to travel from a TFL barrier official who was about to go off duty… tricky. Still I managed to ‘blag’ my way past the Southern Region chaps at Peckham which is where I chose to go. My mother’s care home let me use one of their precious lines to follow up reporting the bag – when I finally got through to Lost Property they were very solicitous but pointed out they get 2000 items reported each day. My story somewhat perplexed  them as the bag was not really ‘lost’ just hard to retrieve (“No it did not fall on the platform – I am still clutching the strap”). The links between the Lost Property guys and whoever is in charge of the engineers seemed tenuous but I was assured word would be passed on. I hauled the only other local house key holder out of his World War 1 conference and asked him to make a quick getaway.  Nevertheless  I lost six hours which could have usefully been spent writing up the blog and packing for a 2 week holiday. As it was I had to ask Jo to follow up with Lost Property as they thought nothing would be handed in till Friday and they ‘collect’ from Waterloo on Mondays and Fridays. If I hadn’t been leaving at 5.30 AM the next day I would have gone to Waterloo myself but no such chance…

Fast forward two weeks and I start to try replacing my phone via its insurance (an insurance I nearly cancelled as I had never dropped the phone and rarely lose things outside the house). Quite rightly they were horrified that I had not reported it immediately (how ? from where? ) but I assured them it was probably lying smashed on a rail line somewhere just south of Waterloo. Not so.
Talkmobile were very quickly able to tell me the phone had been used between 14/6/ - 16/6/2014 to make serial overseas calls until the Talkmobile credit limit of £59 had been reached. Then whoever had attempted to upload £30 - £60 of more cash using … my credit cards. Suddenly a loss had turned into a theft.  (I had fortunately already had the three bank cards stopped as I thought they might survive any bag crash) so another complicated phone call to the British Transport Police (Waterloo division) followed.  At least with a Crime Number getting replacements for all my lost professional, loyalty and membership cards was possible without having to pay. Most organisations were very sympathetic though I could hear that call centre operatives outside London were truly puzzled at my account. The phone and its new SIM  card arrived within a couple of days but unfortunately we had been so excited at finding it still worked that Talkmobile forgot to cancel it so by July 3 the ‘new owner’ had made another £50 worth of calls and my new phone died. Our home insurance company were less accommodating and seemed obsessed with the phone though I assured them three times it was not part of my claim with them.
Two and half weeks down the line I am nearly back where I started; still no sunglasses or nice leather purse and I have yet to choose a new camera. In the meantime we took last week’s photos on the phone and that is why I needed to return to the Building Centre to recapture what happened on 12/6/2014.

So, getting back to the REAL point of this blog:
When is a Museum not a Museum ?
Quite rightly Mary raised this point as we walked round the Building Centre which seemed to consist of various commercial outlets. We have included art galleries under the ‘umbrella’ of museums and some of those are commercial.  We also ‘count‘ homes and houses, which may be just that and not necessarily a museum.   Some places just have ‘collections’. Whether today’s visit counted as museum is doubtful but as the Building Centre does have exhibitions alongside the commercial stuff, and features in our 250+list of London Museums courtesy of Wikipedia we decided to go with it.
PS We know the list is not definitive and even in the few months we have been on this Project there are new additions – the Museum of Illustration recently opened , and the Black Cultural Archives  collection is due to open this month.

The Building Centre has a longer pedigree than you might think – founded in 1932 – it moved into these premises built as rather swish car showrooms in 1952. Since 1963 it has been a charitable organisation to provide a forum for the built environment be it research or  education. Some of the funding will come from the commercial activities. The upper floors are offices with links to the centre. Down on the lower ground floor there is a conference centre and various product displays to do with windows and doors, cladding, flooring and fa├žades (that’s bricks to you and me, or rather jazzy coloured concrete), heating and cooling, and innovations that help with sustainability and environmental  compliance. Having only ever lived in a very domestic scale house, it is interesting to see where the engineers and architects and builders might come to select – say – automatic opening doors for shops or offices or lifts to take you to the 63rd floor… some of the materials are very covetable – beautiful and largely sustainable woods for flooring and an extensive range of  brick colours and types

However the most generally  interesting part of the centre is the map/model  in the permanent  galleries on the ground floor  which allows you to walk round London seeing the transport links and the taller buildings already erect or those planned , for example, the new Vauxhall quarter with its American Embassy ‘fortress’ – it has both moat and walls. On our original visit the second gallery had a range of posters, one for each of the 33 Greater London Boroughs showing new and proposed structures of interest over a certain height – by my return visit these had gone with a ‘waiting for new exhibition’ sign up.

What remained was another display of the 33 Development areas for each local authority, which complemented some of the outdoor display (new since June) that compared successful projects in New York to proposed ones in London where there is potential for community based facilities for play or fitness – hence the title FIT London

Also tucked away in the corner are a range of design exhibits by Chinese designers – as  I lingered there was something of a heated debate going on with two visitors very critical of  a range of cloud shaped coffee tables and chairs as they could not ‘see the point’. In their minds clearly coffee or tea could only be taken off square or round conventional tables.
Still some of the charming designs on offer made a welcome respite from the corner keen to tell us about ‘Heathrow City – Developing the vision’ which is of course, misleading title apart,  all about Boris planning a new airport in the South East estuary. This exhibit – largely architects’ drawings and plans/projections and computer simulations plus a voice-over from ‘you know who’ – is complemented by a substantial booklet setting out the case for the estuary airport. 

A visit to the Building Centre is vital if you are interested in new plans and buildings for London or if you are researching materials for your own building project, otherwise  a quick tour of the ground floor in your lunch hour would do.  

Saturday, 12 July 2014

The London Canal Museum

12/13 New Wharf Road
King’s Cross
London N.1 9RT  

Wednesday July 9th 2014

Accessing the London Canal Museum could not have been easier – for Linda from South-East London it was an end to end ride on the Route 63 – one of our favourites – and for Jo a short walk,

The Museum lies on the now very attractive and highly desirable (estate agent speak) Battlebridge  Basin, once the hub of several industries,  warehouses and a place for canal boats to stop or rest. Nowadays to access the waterside you need either to visit King’s Place or pay to get into the museum – otherwise the canal basin side spaces are private. But like the horses we entered from the street.

The ground floor has a variety of exhibits and herein lies one of the problems about this museum – what story is it trying to tell? At least half the ground floor is given over to the tale of poor immigrant makes good – namely Mr Carlo Gatti , originally from a poor rural Ticino (then Italian now Swiss) family. His father had already moved to Paris and young Carlo came to London, specifically to the already established Italian community in Holborn, to seek and make his fortune --- he started as a hot chestnut man and then moved through a variety of jobs, including catering restaurants, and his main link to this building – the storage of ice imported from Norway to be distributed amongst the London gentry. Along the way he invented a hot chocolate making machine and probably the ‘penny lick’ – ice-cream in a cone shaped glass (we presume the glasses were washed between customers), small receptacles that must have pre-dated the good old cornet. He finished his life pretty rich, with a descendant becoming the even more respectable Mayor of Westminster. Mr Gatti used this warehouse to store his ice and you can still peer into a deep well , which would have been 13 metres at its deepest.  This roaring business continued to the eve of the first World war and I guess by the time peace was restored refrigeration was arriving… Now we all love the story of the Italian who brought ice-cream to London, and though it is told in fairly old-fashioned ‘story boards’ there are enough artefacts and advertising material to make a good enough display.
 The ice was of course brought to this depot by canal boat, and the rest of the ground floor and first floor is given over to a history of canals in general – and in London in particular. The emphasis here is rather on the use of canals rather than rivers for transport though the London canals in their time have connected the Rivers Lee and Thames and through England they link the four key waterways of Trent/Mersey/Severn and Thames.  The  Duke of Bridgwater is given his due for innovation though there is comparatively little space given to the overall context of the Industrial Revolution and the need to transport fuel and raw materials to some places and finished good for export to others. Travelling the canals of the UK gives you a much clearer idea of the industrial heritage. 

Here  in the museum the emphasis  is more on the era of horse drawn barges and narrow boats (London saw both as the smaller boats came down from the Midlands and further), their motorised  successors  and the eventual decline probably dating from the big freeze of 1963 when the canals were barely usable.  The decline through the Sixties and Seventies eventually gave way to a revival for leisure purposes and the foundation of the Inland Waterways Association guaranteed a steady maintaining of the waterways for holiday cruising --- as veterans of several canal holidays through the Eighties we must be very grateful to the founders of the IWA Tom (LTC) Rolt and Robert Aikman for their vision and perseverance.  Our trips were all out of London where we have only followed the canals via the foot/tow paths.

The museum has a ‘mock-up’ of the stables which most interestingly are on the 1st floor – access via a ramp – to keep ice and horse separate. The animals were most adept at dragging heavy loads and knew to stop at locks and tunnels and doubtless for ‘time-out’ ( ie a trip to the pub).

Talking of towing out on the basin itself you can see the little ‘pusher’ tug boat (a bit tautological that) as apparently it was 40% more efficient to push than to pull.

There are ample examples  of ‘canal art’, that is colourful tinware with a range of stock designs – flowers of all kinds and fanciful buildings – the myth has always been that canal folk made the most of their boat homes but missed having gardens and permanency which they always portrayed decoratively on their home wares.  You are able to go inside a butty boat and admire the lace curtains and restricted but cosy living space.
If this review seems a little random this is merely a reflection of the museum’s lay-out ; there is a leaflet which advises on the best circuit but this is not very obvious when you are somewhat in the gloom negotiating round the exhibits.  The information boards also seem to hover between telling a national and a more local story…we did think the shop offered a good range of books maps and canal related materials.

(Also – having just returned from the relevant part of France – we cannot help observing that the LCM, like most canal museums in England, declines to note the impressive achievements of the Canal du Midi, which pre-dates Bridgewater’s efforts by the best part of a century…)
 Horses go over the tunnel, while boatmen 'leg it' through...

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Kensington Palace

Wednesday 2 July 2014

Linda, back from the sunny south of France, and I, decided on a Royal Palace for today's visit:  Kensington Palace to be precise.

In 1897, Queen Victoria agreed to open the place up to the public, provided the tax-payer maintained it and left some of it for Royal accommodation, so visiting is not a new tourist experience.

We began by visiting the loos.  This sounds easy, but the signage is, to say the least, discreet, and the lights don't come on till you enter the space, so it was all a bit cryptic. And the signs, when you do spot them, are rather twee:  ladies, gents, babies in need of changing and wheelchair users all have crowns on.  Hmm.

We also found the palace rather difficult to navigate, even with the free map in hand. The reason is that you have to use different staircases to access different wings, and thus have to return to the ground floor in between. It gradually dawned on us that you could follow the coded lines on the walls, different colours and symbols for different areas.  But actually, the easiest way is to ask the staff, who are numerous, and very friendly and nice. We had thought we would do things chronologically, and start with the Queen's State Rooms which are the William and Mary bit. But in the event we came to the King's Rooms first, which is George II.

You approach via a splendid staircase, with a painting of courtiers leaning over to watch you. They include the 'wild boy' of Hanover, who was brought over as a kind of mascot for the royal household. Then a series of fine square rooms awaits you:  not much furniture, but plenty of information and the aforementioned helpful staff if you want to know more.

The rooms are embellished with models dressed in paper clothes, which seems an efficient and not-too-risky way of creating a mood. We also got snatches of Handel (who was of course George II's pet composer) from time to time.

The cupola room was where dances and parties were held, and there was a gallery for displaying pictures. You would not visit the Palace for the pictures, however, as the treasures of the Royal Collection are clearly elsewhere.

Next we moved back downstairs and, having finally understood the signage, made our way along a corridor to access the Queen's State Rooms. This has a royal time line, or at least a list of monarchs with their dates along the wall, illustrated by cushions with portraits on the bench below. Then it was up another flight of stairs to reach the Queen's Long Gallery. This is the area built for Mary II and her husband William III, and Linda had to put up with a bit of a lecture about James II, the Warming Pan Baby and, as 1066 and all That puts it, 'England ruled by an Orange.'  By the way, although you can read the text of that great work of history at the website I have linked to, a bound copy would be better, because of the illustrations.  

The Gallery looks out over what appears to be a very overgrown area of beech, so we were puzzled by references to the Queen's lovely garden in the Dutch style but, as we were to discover later, that is beyond the bit you can see from the windows.

The firebacks were decorated with tulips, and there was a lot of attractive blue and white china, which did indeed give it all a Dutch feel. Mary died at the age of 32, a reminder of how deadly small pox was, and her husband then ruled for several more years, on the constitutional pretext that he had insisted on being joint monarch rather than Consort when he first landed with his army. The suite of rooms also included a domestic sized private dining room and the Queen's bedroom. There was some furniture here, though on the whole the rooms are rather bare.

We had noticed that the ceilings had suddenly become plain and dull, so were interested to learn that this was the part of the Palace that was bombed during the Second World War. No wonder the oak paneling looked so pristine!

After you have retraced your steps, you can visit an area about the more recent monarchy, or at least the dresses of the female members, called 'Fashion Rules' and sponsored by Estee Lauder. This was a collection of clothes belonging to the current Queen and her sister from the 1950s on, and then some clothing worn by Diana, Princess of Wales. They were mostly evening outfits.

We decided against visiting the fourth area, which is about Queen Victoria as we had, in fact nipped in to that area on our way back from the Albert Memorial a few weeks ago.  Rather we headed out to find the garden, which is rather fine, and includes that tall verbena which some of us find rather difficult to grow.

All in all, a very enjoyable couple of hours.  

Now for a Scrooge-like financial tip: The Royal Palaces are not cheap, so if you were to commit yourself to visiting all 5 within a year (or within15 months for the price of 12 if you are prepared to set up a direct debit) then becoming a member is entirely worth while.  Linda and I became joint members for only a bit more than it would cost us to visit the Tower of London alone. And of course, you don't queue, but merely wave your card.  So expect us to visit Hampton Court, the Banqueting House and the Tower in the next few months.

Friday, 27 June 2014

The Wallace Collection

Wednesday 25 June 2014

Having visited a small collection of 'wonderful things' last week, today's visit was on a much grander scale.  Mary, just back from Scotland, had not visited the Wallace Collection before, so we met there at 10.00 (when it opens) and spent a very pleasant couple of hours just getting an impression of what a family of obsessive collectors can achieve over a couple of centuries.

The Great Gallery is closed at the moment, so some walls in other rooms are fairly crowded. But they have hung a few of the best known works in the temporary exhibition space downstairs, so we were able to look at the Dance to the Music of Time and the Laughing Cavalier in comparative emptiness.  There are pictures of every picture (if you follow me) on the website, so I did not try to take photos of the paintings.  

The furniture and other decorative arts are, however, what makes the Wallace Collection stand out from other treasure houses of art, so we stood amazed before marquetry, Sevres porcelain, jasper and bluejohn jugs, urns and vases, and clocks.  This one was presented to the new Louis XVI, and shows him getting advice from Minerva about how to rule well.  Poor man, if he had refrained from attempts at reform, he might have survived for a while longer.

Then there are the Maiolica plates;  having recently seen The Last Days of Troy at the Globe, I enjoyed the Judgement of Paris, though I don't think I would want to eat my meals off all those buxom goddesses.

I also took Mary to the armouries, or those galleries which are open at the moment, since arms and armour was the particular interest of Sir Richard Wallace himself.
(Why are some galleries closed? Because until the Great Gallery is sorted, ready to reopen in mid September, other galleries are needed for storage).

With so much to see, we did not have time for the Canalettos, but had a good look at the Dutch galleries, as well as taking in a bevy of pretty Fragonards and Watteaus.

To complete the experience, I insisted that Mary should admire the loos, surely the loveliest in London, and she treated me to a coffee in the restaurant which occupies the former central courtyard.

It is a wonderful place, so if you haven't ever visited, do;  and if you have, go again!

Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Smythson Stationery Museum

Thursday 19 June 2014

We shall tell you about what happened to last week's visit when the pain is a little less acute...  But for now, let me tell you about this morning.

Mary is sailing around the west coast of Scotland, Linda is in France, so I was on my own for a trip to New Bond Street, and possibly the smallest museum on our list:  Smythson's Stationery Museum.

Smythson's is a long-established stationery store, full of beautiful things.  They have a tiny museum room, with six cases, to which I was directed by charming staff, 

A set of Bridge scoring pencils dated from 1970, but there were several earlier items. I admired the bespoke stationery of the Maharaja of  Baroda from 1926, and various bespoke seals from the fist half of the 20th century.

 But perhaps the most remarkable case contained the 'Featherlight Monitor Bag' of 1905, proclaimed to be 'the best London make'.  I had to ask what it was for, though it is clearly a doctor-type bag.  And so it is:  the glass jars and bottles, all with monogrammed lids, were for collecting specimens of this and that, such as doctors still enjoy.

As well as the cases in the museum, the spacious rooms of the main shop also have historic items in glass cloches.  I was not particularly taken with the whiskey-soda set from 1920 in the form of three fake books, but I loved the 1909 leather clutch bag, 'a very convenient and portable arrangement', and the 'featherweight pocket diary: may be carried in the breast pocket without the least disfigurement'.  Clearly all the well-dressed chaps of 1908 would have one.

Then there was a 'pocket flask in solid leather slipcase' from 1902, priced at 6/-.  According to the This is Money website's historic calculator, six shillings then is about £32.20 now, which sounds quite reasonable.

The rest of the shop is full of wonderful things but, as you might expect in New Bond Street, no price tags.  I suppose that, if you need to ask the price ....

But if you want a holder for your tablet, your phone, your passport, your jewellery, Smythson's is a good place to vist.  And even if you don't, the museum is lovely and the staff friendly.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

The Prince Consort National Memorial

Wednesday 11 June 2014
On a beautiful, sunny day, Linda and I met with a group of Friends of the British Library for a tour of the Albert Memorial, whose official name I have used as the heading for this post, so that you know I am not talking about one of the other 25 Albert Memorials in Britain.  This is THE one, opposite the Royal Albert Hall.

Our excellent Blue Badge guide, Richard Skinner, met us promptly at 2.00, despite the slightly slow bus journeys which many of us had experienced, because of the black cab demonstration.  He was so interesting that I shall have to work hard to keep this post from including every fact he told us.  Fortunately there is lots of detail here.

Before we went inside the railings, which were modelled on those around the tomb of Queen Eleanor in Westminster Abbey, we had a brief history of the monument.  Our guide realised that we were the type of group that did not need to be told who Albert was and so on, which was a relief.  It is remarkable that the original build came in under budget (£137,000 not £150,000 as planned) partly because the builders agreed to work at cost.  But it is even more remarkable that the stunning refurbishment of the 1990s also came in under budget, though with inflation the amounts were now in millions.

The site was selected to pinpoint Albert's greatest achievement, the Great Exhibition of 1851, and is at the point where a line drawn through the Crystal Palace meets a line drawn through Albertopolis, the fabulous collection of museums, colleges and other institutions, built with the profits from 1851.

The architect was Giles Gilbert Scott, so it is as well that the bereaved Queen was keen on neo-Gothic.  Scott looked for inspiration to the Eleanor Crosses, as well as various German Denkmals.

It is so huge and therefore heavy that its structure begins under the roadway;  17 ft deep concrete foundations support 868 brick arches (sadly not accessible as funding to restore them was not available).  Then comes the large platform, with the steps that are open to the public.  Richard told us that the 2.5 miles of granite steps come from the Lake District.

The plinths at the corners of the monument are crowned by the four continents.  In telling us about this, our guide reminded us that this was an 1860s project, so Australasia was subsumed into Asia, and had no representation.  Asia boasts an Indian Princess, a Sepoy, a Chinese potter and a Persial poet, grouped round a charming elephant.  

Africa has a camel and the Americas rather a fine bison. Our photo does not quite show that the USA herself has stars down the front of her robe, but she does. Europe has a bull, with Europa sitting on it, surrounded by a German Philosopher, France with a sword and Italy with Music and painting.  Britannia is of course ruling the waves, but her trident has been recently broken off, despite the heavier security which is now in place.

It is easier to see the statue of Albert, and the canopy under which he sits, from outside the railings.  Victoria's preferred sculptor, Marochetti, suggested an equestrian statue, which the committee rejected, though Marochetti before he died did complete the head of the statue.  The replacement sculptor, Foley, preferred to seat the Prince, in his Garter robes, and with his finger marking his place in the catalogue of the Great Exhibition.  The statue was cast by the Southwark company of Prince, so the word 'Prince' appears near the base of the statue.

In fact almost all the work was done by British firms and workmen, the exception being the mosaics in the canopy, which were supervised by an Italian firm.

Above the statue and the canopy, angels and virtues, all in gilt, lead the eye to the Cross and orb, a reminder that Victoria and her Consort were rulers who ruled under God.  Inside the canopy one can see Albert's coat of arms, as well as his quartered with Victoria's.

All this can more-or-less be seen from outside the railings. But the reason to take the tour (apart from the fascinating details the Guide will share) is to get up close to the Parnassus Screen.  This multitude of artists, poets, musicians, sculptors and architects goes all round the base of the monument, and consists of 196 figures.  As Mr Skinner pointed out, that's 195 men and one woman, the Egyptian princess Nitocris, who squeezes into the architects for sponsoring pyramids.  When you think that there are two dogs (Hogarth's and Veronese's) you can see what having a female monarch did for equality in the 1860s.

The music side is centred on Homer, but the other three sides start with the Italian Renaissance.  Many of the figures have clues, or prompts with them:  Phidias is holding a small version of his Athena Nike, Ghiberti has one of his doors for Florence Cathedral, Bernini is standing in front of the Three Graces.  Torell, one of the few English artists, has an Eleanor Cross behind him. Fra Angelico is kneeling, because apparently he always knelt to paint, as a mark of his devotion.

Apparently, when she saw the maquettes, Queen Victoria asked George Gilbert Scott where he was and, overriding his modest disclaimer, said he should appear.  So there he is, modestly behind Pugin in his strange smock.

Above the Frieze are four more groups, which refer to Prince Albert's modernising interests:  agriculture may have a traditional sheaf of corn, but also has a steam machine.  Engineering shows a navvy with a spade, but also a blast furnace, and a relief of the Menai Straits Bridge, built using the same box girlder technology as supports the roof of the canopy.

I could go on, but I won't.  All this for a German Prince, who was really unpopular when he first married 'our' queen, and who died aged only 42.  It shows how his hard work in the many fields represented on his monument and his commitment to his new country changed the nation's view of him.

It was truly fascinating, and when we came to an end and realised we had been listening and looking for over an hour, we were amazed. But don't take my word for it:  go and see for yourselves!