Sunday, 16 October 2016

Victoria & Albert Museum

Cromwell Rd, London SW7 2RL
Thursday October 13 2016

We did visit the V&A about a year ago but for a special exhibition so it was time to appreciate the substantive collections – plus we both needed to be in the nearby Paddington area at lunch-time.

On the whole the collections within this Museum of the Decorative Arts (as they tend to call them overseas) are arranged by type of artefact, so fashion/ textiles/ sculpture/ furniture/ theatre and so on – within which there are galleries devoted to the arts of the different continents, mainly of the Old World. Today we played close to home and decided to indulge ourselves and plumped for the ‘handy near the main entrance’ Medieval and Renaissance European Galleries which cover all types of exhibits. There are three beautifully arranged and captioned galleries covering the period from approximately 1000 – 1600.

I would advise visitors to do things properly and go down to the basement in order to cover things chronologically, but we were of course lured into the middle floor by the large and arresting marble artefacts and the quiet plashing of a fountain.  For us the other attraction of these galleries was the reminiscence factor as we remembered various earlier trips to visit the art hotspots of Europe, mainly in Italy, Germany and France. The UK is sorely underrepresented but more of that later… To be honest the collection is good enough to give the experience of an art culture mini-break.

For once our photos are acceptable (I won’t say good because they are rarely good) and many of the exhibits speak for themselves.   The influence of the church is enormous and the wealth lay pretty much divided between them and the nobility – only towards the end of this period, late 1500s, do we see the manufacture and owning of costly for-ornamentation artefacts dropping down the social scale to the newly emerging merchant and middle classes.

Broadly speaking the different parts of Europe are represented by works they are best at – so for Italy stonework, sculptures and Madonnas; for Germany and the Low Countries tapestries and woodwork of all kinds, later printing. Each piece represents complex skills and mastery of their craft and for the earliest works the craftsmen’s names long lost. What the museum displays particularly well is stained glass where you can get much closer to see the detail and with a constant light than in their original church settings – the same could be said for altar pieces. The details can be scrutinised from the inclusion of the donor in a crucifixion scene to noting the Virgin’s rather nifty red pointy shoes. Whilst in the religious section there was ample opportunity to recap the various saints’ lives, be they spotting St Anthony Abbott with his pig
or St Margaret fighting off the dragon. St. Roch too has a familiar – a dog who brought him bread when he had been ostracized because of the plague – sadly a story that still finds its echoes today.

Still on animals but rather more creepily I was surprised to see that on (1)  the Palissy plate, probably ordered by French royalty or nobility, the animals had been suffocated in vinegar or urine to preserve them and then crafted and painted over turning this from a thing of beauty to one of horror…  Best of all is the ‘Palmesel’ or small portable statue of Christ riding on a donkey – we had seen examples of this appealing rural but well executed work in Germany but had not realized that some villages in Southern Germany still dress up the Christ figure so that he plus donkey can be carried into church or chapel, as shown on the accompanying video.    

Artefacts from the UK are few: Henry VIII’s reformatory zeal and greed did for the wealth of the churches which merely got re-cycled amongst the King and favoured nobility and if anything even faintly decorative remained Cromwell’s followers made sure it did not. The cathedrals were more or less unscathed but smaller churches and abbeys left to run to ruins. The exhibits on the third level include some copies/casts of stone head sculptures from Salisbury cathedral and the whole wooden front of a nobleman’s house demolished to make way for the railway out of Liverpool Street.

Interestingly there is a pair of angels destined originally for Wolsey’s tomb then taken over by Henry VIII but never used for his either. Very ‘Wolf Hall’.  The workmanship here falls short of the  German woodcarver Riemenschneider,
ose pair of angels soar while Wolsey’s seem more earthbound.  Somehow Germany managed to reconcile the ‘old and new’ religions without too much destruction – some of that came later with Baroque overlays and the RAF.

Don’t leave your visit until too late in the day and you can spend two hours on a relatively quiet spiritual, cultural, historical and often inspiring journey across Europe’s Renaissance.   


Sir Paul Pindar's House Front 

Friday, 7 October 2016

MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) London

MOCA Project Space
113 Bellenden Rd
London SE15 4QY

Thursday October 6 2016

MOCA London is – after the Horniman Museum and the Dulwich Picture Gallery  – the third closest place on the project masterlist to Linda’s home, so it seemed like a good place to visit on a rather frustrating day.  (It had originally set aside for some work in the house, which then got postponed, but an early afternoon appointment for a flu injection removed any prospect of more distant travel.)  So, somewhere local then, accompanied by fellow-injectee and partner Roger, who has written the following…

MOCA , as its website will tell you, was founded in 1994, initially as a ‘project based’ museum, meaning that it was to function without any formal premises, instead offering a series of international exhibitions in a wide range of media at a variety of virtual or ‘pop-up’ sites.  Then in January 2004 MOCA, following a small change of mind, opened its project space in the Bellenden Renewal Area in Peckham to give itself a small space for exhibitions that were to be ‘locally based but global in focus’.

Bellenden Road has over the last 10+ years been getting increasingly trendy and gentrified, and some surviving old-style caf├ęs and food shops now rub shoulders with artisan butchers, grocers, craft shops, eateries and the very excellent Review bookshop.  The road also boasts artist-designed bollards (Anthony Gormley) and mosaics and street lamps (Tom Phillips).  

MOCA is a former corner shop at the junction of Bellenden and Chadwick Roads with a ghost sign for an old printers on the Chadwick Road side.  The old shop provides the exhibition space and shelves of reference books; the hinterland houses we don’t quite know what, apart from quite a loud black dog (safely held back by a stairgate) and a helpful man who explained what we were looking at and pointed us to some additional printed material about the current exhibition and the artist responsible.

The current exhibition – running from 2 - 29 October – is Relation-Ships (Existence Doubtful) by the artist Janet Bellotto.  This  takes a look at Sable Island, which is actually little more than a sandspit, 109 miles southeast of Nova Scotia in the Atlantic Ocean – the uncertainty of some cartographers about whether there was really anything there is quoted in the exhibition title.  The island is inhabited only by seals and horses – the latter feral descendants of beasts left behind after one of several unsuccessful attempts to create some kind of permanent settlement there – and is (in)famous for the very large number of ships that have been wrecked there over the centuries.

The exhibition basically has three elements: a panorama of the island on the outside of MOCA (a still photograph when we visited mid-afternoon, though the website talks of projections), and, inside the shop, a screen showing a short video loop of the island and its animal population and a list occupying two full walls naming and categorising (ship, brig, brigantine etc) the hundreds of ships that have been wrecked there from the 16th to the 20th centuries.  At least two of them, we noticed, had been called ‘Hope’!

As people who had never heard of Sable Island, we were interested to have made its acquaintance and agreed that Bellotto had managed to produce from her material something greater than the sum of its nature film and shipping list parts.  Possibly not worth making a long trip for a specific visit, but definitely a worthwhile add-on if you were thinking of exploring contemporary Peckham anyway. 

Friday, 30 September 2016

Wellington Barracks (The Guards Museum)

Birdcage Walk SW1E 6HQ

Thursday 29 September 2016
After Linda's remarks last time concerning our diligent coverage of military museums, we thought we should do one more.  So we met at the gates of the Guards Museum.  I arrived somewhat early, anxious about where I might leave my bike in paranoid Westminster;  but I need not have been concerned, as the charming person who unlocked the gates at 10.00 showed me a secluded corner.  I should have enjoyed my wait a little more had it not been pouring with rain, but I had the pleasure of watching 'carriage training' going on around the circuit of Birdcage Walk, the Mall and Horseguards Road.  

Linda arrived, bone dry, and we then discovered that there are no toilets in this Museum, so we headed off to the far side of St James' Park.  Having had our 20p's worth, we were anxious about a school party about to do the same and fumbling for change.

Back at the Museum, we paid the very modest entry fee, and were told that no photography was allowed.  The explanation was that someone had photographed one of the Queen's uniforms and put it up for sale on the Internet....

We were able to take a picture of the entrance, however, with a model of a Guardsman doing the kind of boot polish that must be a regular part of ceremonial life. 

The Museum visit begins with a very clear explanatory video about the history of the Guards:  the five Regiments are all distinguishable by their buttons, collars and plumes. The oldest regiment is the Grenadiers, founded in exile in Bruges in 1656 to protect the exiled pretender to the vacant throne, the future Charles II.  In fact, the Coldstream Guards are older by a few years, but they were on the Republican side when formed, so had to take second place after the Restoration.  Then came the even older Scots Guards. In 1900, Queen Victoria wanted some acknowledgement of the work done by Irish regiments in the Boer War, and so inaugurated the Irish Guards.  This is the regiment into which Rudyard Kipling managed to get his son Jack, who had failed the eye test for every other fighting force.  Jack was of course killed at Loos in 1915.  1915 was also the year that the King (and former Prince of Wales) established the Welsh Guards.  So there you have the 5.  The motto 'septem juncta in uno' refers to the fact that there are also two regiments of Horse Guards.  The seniority of the Regiments is noted by the way their buttons are arranged:  in 5s for the Welsh Guards, 4 for the Irish, you get the picture.  They also have national symbols on their collars, at least the Scots, Welsh and Irish do, and Welsh Guards get given a little miniature leek every year.  I was a little worried about what birds are slaughtered to provide the plumes, so was reassured to be told that they are 'just any feathers' from slaughter houses, which are then dyed and formed into plumes.

The Museum is arranged mostly chronologically and, since the Guards have been involved in every conflict you can think of since the 17th century, it's pretty well a history of Britain's wars. 
Near the start there is a display about the Victoria Cross:  the Guards Regiments feature prominently among recipients of this highest award for gallantry. Originally they could not be awarded posthumously. Victoria, in her inauguration of the medal, referred to it as 'taking precedence over all other Orders' and of course you can't be made a member of an order once you are dead.  Edward VII sorted out this anomaly on his accession and, given the extreme kind of heroism for which VCs are awarded, many since then have been posthumous.

In the early days, the Grenadiers used to serve on board ship as Marines, which is why they play 'Rule Britannia' as well as the National Anthem on ceremonial occasions.

So, explained by uniforms, weapons, prints and portraits, we walked through Britain's military history.  Illustrated instructions on how to use a grenade (17th century type) and a pike were followed by a picture of the Battle of Dettingen, 1743 being the last time a British sovereign commanded troops in battle, as all pub-quizzers probably know.  Meanwhile the Duke of Marlborough had fought his battles and been given Blenheim Palace. One of the objects in display is the 1984 version of the banner which is the annual quit-rent for the house. The Guards were involved in trying to prevent the American Colonists from breaking free.  

And then we come to the wars again Revolutionary France and Bonaparte. It seems to be from those wars that battle honours are listen on colours, the first being Lincelles, which was part of the Flanders campaign of 1793.  The Coldstreams held the farm at Hougoumont during the battle of Waterloo, and the lock of the courtyard gate is in the Museum. There is also a little diorama of the engagement, somewhat different from the Playmobil version we saw in France in July 2015.

40 years of peace followed the defeat of Bonaparte, so we moved on to the Crimea, including a gruesome medical kit with saws for removing limbs, and also a detailed account of stupid Lord Raglan and his needless sacrifice of brave men. 

During the campaigns in the Sudan, the Guards established a Camel Regiment, horses clearly being of no use against the Mahdi.  And then there were the wars to keep the Boers of South Africa calm.  The move away from nice bright red uniforms came around now. But during the First World War, it became clear that German snipers were targeting the gold badges on officers' caps, so they were removed.

The Second World War saw the grenadiers getting a new Colonel, in the shape of the 16 year of Princess Elizabeth, and we saw her charming 'thank you' letter for the honour.

Since then, the Guards have been involved in other conflicts, including Northern ireland, the Falklands and the Middle East; all these are referenced in the Museum.

We then headed out, past the statue of Field Marshal Alexander, to look at the chapel.  It's not very lovely from outside, having been rebuilt after a V1 on 18 June 1944, but the inside is magnificent. There are pillars of different marbles, stained glass, mosaics and a fine font.  The upper part of the nave is filled with regimental colours of varying periods.

The shop was of rather less interest to us, since we are unexcited by model soldiers: their speciality.

But we had enjoyed the museum and its clear account of these ancient regiments.
And at least it was not raining when we came out.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

The MCC Museum

Lord’s Cricket Ground
St. John’s Wood Road
London NW8 8 QN

Thursday September 22 2016

We recently calculated that while we had tackled most of the military museums we had not been near any of the 5 sporting ones so today, rather to my dread and fear of boredom, we headed to our booked tour of the the MCC Museum  and grounds. This is an expensive venture – £20 or £15 concession – and what the website does not explain is that on a match day you do not gain access to the pavilion, changing rooms or ‘hallowed turf’ but you do get to sit in the stands and watch whatever match is on, which actually is quite a bargain given the average price of tickets.

I followed (and mainly overtook) the ranks of blazered gents heading out of St John’s Wood Underground as the Grace Gate is about as far away from both tube stations as you could get – Jo had wisely come by bus. Most of our group were overseas tourists, mainly Australians and Indians and very keen and knowledgeable fans. I’m not sure the tours get many unaccompanied women and they seem to form a small part of the crowd likewise – given that cricket happens during the day and all day that rather limits its supporters to being either the idle rich, the retired or both. The weekend crowds may be different but I had certainly never seen quite so many garish ties and blazers in one place.

Interestingly the story told us by the guide does not quite match the one related here. True, in the early days the blazer was the composite of the Oxford and Cambridge colours – so dark and light blue –however when the money ran out, as it did when the club moved for the second time, a Mr Nicholson whose fortune came from gin agreed to bail out the club to buy them some new land and ‘in thanks’ they revised their colours to go with the gin bottle label --- early sponsorship in other words. This site is the third home of the Marylebone Cricket Club (when I was little and still lived in a  Middlesex, which was not yet part of Greater London, I assumed the M stood for that county but no...) previous sites having proved too clay ridden or having to make way for the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union canal.  The various stands (which are of course all seats) are named after various famous cricketers, of whom I had heard of some.

Back to WG Grace (who was one of the famous medical students trained at Bart’s – see blog entry. Having heard about his frequent cheating – it’s probably just as well he played more cricket than practising medicine – WG claimed the public came to see him, not any random bowler who might get him ‘out’ so he would blatantly ignore the umpires who soon learnt to bend to the old man’s will... His bulk and presence would have been quite intimidating and even today the bearded busts and statues are immediately recognisable.

In the Museum itself, which is laid out over two floors with a commemorative window showing the refurbishment dating to the Nineties, there is a range of floor to ceiling glass cabinets. To be honest we did not look at them in detail (we were free to return at the end of the tour but had other things to do) but can be summarised thus – as bats and balls, caps and facts. So for instance there is a section devoted to famous/record-breaking wicket keepers including their padding, similarly for bowlers of different ilks. Cricket is a sport obsessed with records and dates so alongside each battered ball or signed bat is the relevant record – in both senses of the word. One of the most interesting manifestations of this attention to statistics is the classic score book – meticulous pen strokes on very narrow lines recording each ball and its outcome…

Our main talk took place in front of the display containing ‘The Ashes’ – it was good to hear the full story though if you know it skip this bit! The first ever Test Match took place in 1877 and seven years later the Australians came over for a test on the last day of which the English team collapsed and sustained their first ever defeat on English soil. Thereafter the Times newspaper wrote a half serious ‘obituary’ for the death of English cricket. By September of that year the English team set sail for Australia, where a revenge match was due to take place early in the New Year but of course the sea voyage would have taken most of the three months!!! The team arrived for Christmas and were invited to stay with the chair/head of the Melbourne Cricket Club, at his palatial pad. As a joke the wife of the chair emptied a perfume jar she had (that’s why the urn is so small) and filled it with the ashes of a set of bails and presented it to the English captain, who took it in good spirit and thence back to the UK. In 1927 the widow offered it to the MCC , where it has remained ever since save for two short trips away, one in the care of the Duke of Edinburgh.  I had always thought that like most trophies the ‘thing’ stayed with the winner until the next match – not so. As the winners don’t get anything except the glory and honour there is now a Waterford Crystal vase which does go with the winners and why it is currently here at the MCC.  The current tally is 32 wins each for England and Australia.

Our guide went on to tell us about the origins of world cup cricket, which has been a growing competition and has accounted in part for the developments of the whole Lord’s complex. Once out of the museum we were taken on a half circle under the stands, each with a different name, and where you find the facilities – toilets and bars mainly.   Once the MCC had taken Mr Nicholson’s gin money they have continued to have sponsors and these are also in evidence as you go round the ground. We quite liked the fact that Hardy’s wines, an old established Australian firm, sponsor English cricket…

Our guide led us out onto what is known as the Nursery Ground – acquired after 1900 from a plant nursery – and where the teams warm up/practice prior to the real matches. From there you get an excellent view of the pod which arrived in 1999 – the MCC realised with a pending World Cup there would be more media interest than they could  comfortably accommodate and held an architectural competition to design a new centre for journalists and broadcasters. The winner, chosen by the committee and not the members who hated it, was a Czech architect who had probably never seen a cricket match and never visited Lord’s but came up with a design that fitted the brief and was a lot more exciting than his competitors – it also won the   the Stirling Prize  for 1999 up against the Reichstag in Berlin!

Close by is a very unassuming building which used to house the ICC which for reasons you can probably guess has moved to Dubai.
Other tours would have got you into the Pavilion – seating for members only – and the changing areas. The ground currently seats 29.000 with building in progress to increase this to 32.000 in anticipation of the crowds for the next World Cup. The average age for membership if the MCC is 72 (so bang on for Jo & me) – previously you could put down some-one’s name at birth, now they need to be 18 and as there is a 29 year waiting list it takes a while…

The grass, we were told, had to be re-laid post Olympics (they held the archery contests here to provide a scenic background on TV) and the slope, apparently famous, was kept…
It lies on a bed of about a metre of gravel so drains better than your average London on clay grass.

At this point in the season – and it has been quite hot – the wicket looked pretty worn.
So there we were in good seats, under cover, able to watch the last 20 minutes or so of play leading up to lunch at what was probably the halfway point in the key match between Middlesex County (no win for 23 years) and Yorkshire (wins pretty often). Yorkshire were batting and doing quite well so we saw some-one getting out – clean bowled – and a catch and quite a  few runs including a boundary (automatically 4)  so actually quite a bit of action for cricket which can appear static and dare  I say boring in contrast to football – what’s more it takes days to resolve anything. [Pleased to report that Middlesex won the match the following day.]

To say I had been dreading this visit would be an exaggeration but I had difficulty in getting enthusiastic about it ( I shall feel the same about the Twickenham experience when the time comes) and actually found it was an interesting tour on a subject I know little about, and am pleased to have completed.  

Friday, 16 September 2016


1 Garrick Road NW9 6AA

Wednesday 14 September 2016

It's just possible that purists may suggest that this should not count as a museum. So, without referring to the Rules Committee, I'll begin by saying that it's open to the public (by booked guided tour only) and is completely fascinating.  Oh, and it makes the great museums of Albertopolis look quite new, since it has recently celebrated its 175 anniversary.

We were there thanks to the excellent outings programme of the Friends of the British Library, not to mention the ease of travel  via Thameslink to Hendon.  No photography inside, so we have just a couple of photos of the unprepossessing exterior of this house of wonders.

A little history to start with: Morris Angel came from Germany in 1813.  Am I the only person who wonders how that was possible, in war-torn Europe, with the British naval blockade effectively strangling Bonaparte's Empire?  But anyway, he arrived and found a job as a cemetery keeper, guarding against the 'resurrection men' who supplied the medical schools with illegal dissection material. He began to purchase the clothing and furnishings of the dead from the bereaved families. Scrooge, as I'm sure you recall, in his visit from the Ghost of Christmas yet to come, watches ghoulish figures arguing over his possessions.  Soon actors and  actresses, who were expected to supply their own costumes, came to him, and from 1840, the business has run without a break.

Our guide was called Mark, and he combined humour with information in an amazing way.  We found it hard to believe, at the end, that we had been standing, walking, looking and listening for two whole hours.  He warned us that what goes on here must be kept confidential till the film, TV show or play has been staged, but with 175 years to call on, we did not feel frustrated by not knowing the very latest things. For example, Angels provided the costumes for the opening and closing displays of a major London event in 2012, which was codenamed 'Chariots'.... with no-one allowed to talk about it till twelve months after the closing ceremony.

Mark explained that costume designers are free lancers, and come to Angels for whatever their vision dictates. They may want hand crafted period costumes, or they may want something much cheaper:  Angels dressed all the Indian peasants who flooded Attenborough's screen for Gandhi's funeral, for example. We saw the three making rooms, where skilled workers were tailoring clothes, relying on the actors' measurements in the highly secret measurements book. Mostly the costumes are hired out, but for a very long run, they may be sold. There is a large alterations department:  clothing is turned up rather than being cut for shorter actors, to make it re-usable.  

All the way round, Mark fed us stories and examples:  Marilyn Monroe was here for 'The Prince and the Showgirl'; Charles Dickens hired costumes for his dramatic performances. Perhaps the most extraordinary story was that Crippen's wife's clothes had been sold to Angels, and Scotland Yard had demanded them as evidence when the murderer came to trial;  Angels has the letter that Mr Angel wrote demanding them back after the trial, since they were his lawfully acquired property. More recently, 'Absolutely Fabulous: the Movie' has been dressed by Angels.

We paused by a glass case containing 'pure filth' and 'a tablespoonful of blood' (actually high in sugar)' and other essentials if actors are to do their jobs convincingly without germs and unsuitable facial expressions.

And then we went into the warehouse, with its 8.5 miles of racks, all crowded with clothes, and with side rooms for badges, medals, jewellery, hats and so on. 'More Cardinals than there are Cardinals,' said Mark, as we walked past rack upon rack on monks, popes, presbyterian ministers, tibetan lamas and so on; huge armies of - well - armies, and navies and airforces.  Mark pointed out that though, for most of us, a badge is a badge and a stripe a stripe, there will always be someone watching from that Regiment, or that Order, who knows what's right and what isn't.

We passed racks of Santas, including Ted Heath's Blue costume (he refused to wear Socialist red, even to hand out presents) Mark told us he himself had been Elf 197 in Santa Claus The Movie, though I have not been able to spot him in the throng in this clip.

Angels owns feathers which are now irreplaceable, since it is illegal to take osprey and egret feathers. The fur room was also interesting, cold to keep out the moths;  we had a little lesson on how to deal with the pesky creatures.

We passed the locked door of the 'embargo room' where items are kept till they are sent out and used.  While we saw a current 'Poldark' costume, Mark was not willing to say whether Angels would be dressing the second series.  But we guessed...

Some of the warehouse is devoted to fancy dress, an increasingly important part of the business, with Book Week and Halloween engaging school pupils and their parents more and more.  But the largest space is occupied by items which may well be important in 30 years time:  current clothing.

A display board listed the 36 Oscars (so far) that have been won for costumes, the earliest being the 1948 'Hamlet', but also Gigi, Cleopatra, Saving Private Ryan, Titanic..... Television is also important, from 'Heartbeat' to 'Games of Thrones', not to mention 'Downton Abbey'.

Finally we say the armoury, and had a chance to see how impossibly heavy real mail and plate armour are, and what substitutes are used to enable actors to do their stuff without collapsing.

All in all, this is a wonderful place, for anyone who has ever watched TV, a film, or a show.  We will all be looking closely at the detail from now on.  And thanks, Mark!