Sunday, 14 May 2017

Osterley Park

Jersey road
London TW7 RB

Thursday May 11 2017

As the weather had lifted slightly we dared to venture out on the Piccadilly Line  (completely irritating with the announcements  going  full time and repetitively all the slow way out to Osterley Station) where the very kind station attendant allowed us to use their  toilets and made sure we set off in the right direction – sometimes it pays to look a bit ditsy.  The walk to the National Trust Property (donated back in 1949) took us along the Great West Road (a route we remembered from our bus days) down a side street and through the park, passing some cows en route.

The house's history goes back to 1564 when Thomas  Gresham, that wily founder of the Royal Exchange, had it built as an investment and to some extent that is how it has mainly been treated. Not far enough into London to be a ‘capital residence’ nor far out enough in the country to offer  the full hunting/shooting / fishing experiences it seems often to have been the owners’ second if not third property, used mainly for  summer parties. Gresham left no direct heirs so the house eventually passed to the Child family as one of their number had stood guarantor for a rather speculative and profligate owner who could not keep up the payments on both the house itself and the rather incoherent alterations he was making to the basic Tudor brick building.  The Childs had started life as London Goldsmiths but morphed into bankers and like many of their ilk went for a showy makeover.  As luck would have it some local worthies – Francis Dashwood (he of the Hell fire Club) and the Duke of Northumberland (we had spotted his canals from the buses locally) – recommended the capital’s newest architect Robert Adam, who not only remodelled the exterior but paid intense attention to the details of the interior thus giving the nation a unique legacy of the range of his work.

Adam reduced the number of rooms and there are in fact only a few open to the public. Interestingly I had a guide book from the Nineties which indicated you could see some bedrooms on the second floor but today we followed a trail round the ‘piano nobile’ – a very posh, built-to-impress upper ground floor – and some of the ‘below stairs’ rooms. The park garden and café were all quite busy but inside the house there were only two visitors apart from ourselves. This meant the National Trust room stewards (in the US they would have been called ‘docents’) were keen to share their knowledge. To be fair they did point out details we might not have noticed or known – for example that the short column supporting a vase in the dining room concealed the chamber pot. Likewise in the state bedroom (already an outmoded addition when Adam designed it) contains the pot in the steps needed to climb into the bed.

The tour starts in the hall after you have climbed the significant number of stairs to reach the door through the ‘floating portico’, and arguably this is the most impressive and elegant of the rooms – the palette is quite muted but the detail in the plaster work intricate and absorbing. Jo found  an overweight putti whose teeny wings would never have got him airborne... The trompe l’oeil friezes (much scope for misplacing your vowels there) either end over the fireplaces are impressively deceptive and the inlaid floor is both practical for those entering from outdoors and an exhibit in itself. 

The next room is the ‘Eating Room’ – unusual for what is usually known in these circles as ‘dining’ but maybe they had abandoned the separate ‘breakfast room’ and just ‘slummed it’ in here? Again there is plenteous (sorry 18th century speak creeping in) pretty plaster work, this time against a pale green background – you can really see where Josiah Wedgewood found his inspiration
Adam made sure his carpets were designed to echo his ceiling motifs which gave all the rooms a pleasing coherence. Adam's hand is in every item – pedestal, light – I expect he changed the window handles.  The plaster work is designed around a range of pictures, mainly on mythological themes and chosen, one felt, because of the décor rather than any intrinsic impact.

No carpets in the Long Gallery but a good stretch of floor for exercise and running for children, we suspected. The pictures here are mainly ancestral and look out across the garden. Between the generously provided windows are a series of ivory carvings of intricate workmanship and ships – literally. Carved ivory has a wonderful lace like quality and one can still see the appeal of this now banned substance.

From the  gallery you plunge into what I call ‘conservation gloom’ where the light levels are so low it’s a bit difficult to make out what you are looking out – necessary but sad especially when the decoration involves multiple tapestries.

Also underlit but much more visible is the State bedchamber – not that a royal visit was ever really anticipated and even less than royal guests to this room were few and far between (according to the steward, the lady of the house would bunk down here having given up her own bed to visitors) but it was a chance for Adam to design a bed – as tall as a double-decker (a fact these visitors will certainly retain) and needing steps  to access it; the commode (as noted) hidden inside the steps.

The tour of this floor ends on the most dramatic note, as is usually the case, with the very unique ‘Etruscan Room’ lined with hand painted wall paper. The steward pointed out the small areas of ‘dirt’ left on each wall to indicate how grimy it had become before it was carefully cleaned.

Talking of cleaning, this was our cue to descend to the kitchens and domestic areas – spacious, stone flagged and pretty cold unless you were one of the cooks, we suspected. Such ovens as there are post-date Adam, who would not have been interested in where, as Jo calls them, the ‘lowly worms’ were working. We have come to suspect that the National Trust run a central ‘lending library’ of fake plaster food and you order in according to the season and period of the house... In what must have been the servants’ communal sitting room there was what looked like a football table but which proved to be a variant of ‘Devil Among the Tailors’ – a sort of table top skittles, whose history and rules are explained  here.  Though this was rather a handsome set the top proved too top-heavy to work – excusing the pun.

We left the house by the lower entrance apparently used by the family in bad weather.

The gardens today, even without much sun, were a real joy and offered a refreshing contrast to the artifice of much of the interior – always a risk giving a designer total free rein but it was good to be in nature as opposed to such a contrived environment. Not that the gardens are neglected in any way – far from it. You do not escape Adam totally for he provided the owners with a little summerhouse/conservatory which today held a combination of heady jasmines and citrus bushes in bloom.

We were very taken with the Paulownias which looked quite exotic but are perhaps not as difficult to manage in the UK as all that and there were late tulips under their spread.                                                            

There is also a Winter garden which was ‘going over’ but with a good range of slightly tougher specimens, and from there if you choose you can enjoy a longer woodland walk which takes in more of the untamed property and walks you round the lake coming back to another good view of the house. We crept quietly round mother Swan  preparing to rehearse her cygnets for  the 'pas de quatre'


Overhead planes apart (and it’s much quieter than Kew Gardens) this was a peaceful half day’s outing  when you consider its location, once seen as rural, now firmly wedged between major trunk roads and airport. 

Monday, 8 May 2017

Royal Observatory, Greenwich

Blackheath Avenue
London SE10 8XJ

Thursday May 4 2017

The planned schedule had us down to visit the World of Rugby at Twickenham, which on closer inspection is having a makeover so we were spared from what was probably our least anticipated visit. As an easy substitute we therefore headed south to the fertile area of Greenwich for today’s trip to the Royal Observatory.

 Having climbed the steep hill we sat theoretically to enjoy the view – one of London’s best – but today in spite of a cold wind the air was grimy with a mixture of mist and pollution. We also thought we would wait while the youth of Europe milled around taking photos of themselves astride the Meridian Line.

However once you pay your entrance fee and pass behind the original observatory building you enter quite an oasis with a small neatly planted courtyard garden laid out in the style of the Stuart building. The original  building went up in just over a year and was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and was in fact the first purpose built  project for scientific purposes with the possibility for the Astronomer Royal to ‘live over the shop’ and Flamsteed was the first to take up this post.

I had imagined the Observatory to be full of dusty old planet diagrams of the Solar system but in fact at least half of it is presented as a ‘family house’ with snippets of biographical detail of the   ten Astronomers Royal (Astronomer Royals?) who lived here. Maskelyne was the first to bring his family – one daughter only – but we were charmed to see details of Margeret’s developmental milestones: weaned at 8 months and walking at thirteen and even immunised against smallpox as a toddler . The exhibits are sparse with one cabinet containing herbal remedies for ‘upset stomachs’ with ginger being well promoted.

Others show simple explanatory charts as might appeal to children. The portraits include Herschel and his sister Caroline, discoverers of Uranus and eight comets respectively, who would have visited the Maskelynes. I particularly liked Maskelyne’s bespoke ‘stargazing’ outfit – a mixture of linen, wool and silk fibres (his sister had handily married Clive of India and sent him the fabric) with little flaps to go over his feet. Looking at the Heavens involved quite a lot of outdoor standing and peering, and potentially freezing...  

The next but one family in contrast had nine children, not all surviving. Airy was a great organiser and put the Observatory back on a more scientific basis with a keen eye for data collection (after all the purpose of the Observatory had been to help the navy navigate better) but this top flight mathematician also established the 0 meridian with such accuracy that it was accepted by the rest of the world in 1884. The ‘family’ rooms dedicated to him reflect the man and his many honours rather than domestic life.

From here you climb a narrow staircase up to the Octagon Room – from the outside I had thought this something of a vanity project as of the kind architects sometimes indulge in, Sir Christopher Wren being no exception. However when you get into the Octagon Room, and Jo and I had it to ourselves, you can see the design for what it is – eight tall narrow windows allow for telescopes to be trained in all and any directions. Between the windows built into the panelling are a series of Tompion clocks.

One of our earliest Museum visits had been to the Clockmakers' Museum, (since that time moved to the Science Museum) complete with this Londoner's time pieces.  
  Tompion clocks were very accurate for the times and the pendulums are hidden in the panelling. This is a beautiful room mainly because it combines form and function so well with breath taking views.

Going down the other staircase you descend into the exhibition which gives the context to explain time and the Longitude meridian.

Take a deep breath – the reason navigators needed to know accurate time at both Greenwich and where they were was to establish Longitude or rather how far East or West they were. Inaccuracy at sea spelt disaster as the 1707 Shovell Disaster so clearly showed.

Such huge loss of life stirred both the public and the Crown into offering a substantial reward for anyone who came up with a solution to accurate measurement of Longitude . Time pieces during this era were heavily dependent on pendulums. As   anyone who has ever tried to move a pendulum clock knows they are remarkably sensitive  to displacement and sulk very easily. Being aboard a ship was almost wholly incompatible and you can see why sailors relied on the sun during the day and sand clocks overnight. Mr Harrison of Lincoln decided to have a go and spent the next 45 years designing various models referred and preserved in the Museum as H1, 2, 3 & 4 The early one is a brass fantasy in a ship shaped stand but by the end  it was actually a watch that permitted the required level of accuracy and portability. The Crown had changed hands and there was some demurring about awarding Harrison his prize but he finally received it and a place in history. The best account of his obsessive pursuit is in the book ‘Longitude’ by Dava Sobel which lets you understand the underlying science at the time you read it even if it is difficult to retain.

The rest of this gallery is devoted to other time pieces – early sundials (not much use in the UK or aboard ships), sand clocks and of course the development beyond clockwork instruments.   With the development of the railways and later air travel both national and  International time-keeping   had to be agreed on and maintained to a high standard,. In the 1940s quartz began to be used as a substitute for pendulums and now of course most time keeping is digitally managed. The great era of public clocks is no more (hence my fondness for them when riding London buses) as everyone carries a time piece with them. 

As you leave the Time and Meridian exhibition you recross the small courtyard and enter a part of the exhibition devoted to some of Halley’s work.  Apparently when he arrived to take up his post of Astronomer Royal he found Flamsteed’s widow had stripped the observatory of her husband’s instruments. This building houses the larger exhibits many of which were purpose built by successive astronomers as they pursued their individual interests (not entirely what the post was about)   There was a note to say that Halley in spite of his lasting fame was a bit ‘sloppy’ with is recording of data… still his fame lives on.  

Not quite understanding the purpose of the various instruments on display, and for my part a limited interest in planetary motion (it comes of being very short sighted and living in a light polluted city when you only see the moon in London ‘once in a blue moon’ so to say, let alone anything else) we did not linger long here.

This last section apart we enjoyed the Observatory, its location, its building and its contents. The Greenwich websites are excellent and virtually anything I tried to check was available and linked to their range of quite unique exhibits.  Living locally you take them for granted which should not be the case.

PS Some debate but consensus seems to be that the plural of Astronomer Royal is Astronomers Royal…

Friday, 28 April 2017

The National Army Museum

Royal Hospital Rd, Chelsea, London SW3 4HT

Thursday 27 April 2017

The newly re-opened National Army Museum passed the first test for 50% of us, by having good cycle racks. This enabled me to recover from the tetchiness which beset me when I found that I was not allowed to walk through the Royal Hospital Grounds (Closed for the set-up of the Flower Show)

The new building is spacious and bright, the facilities excellent, the cloakroom for leaving bags convenient, and so we were all set to explore. 

We were advised to start on the top floor, and that is where many of the interesting exhibits are. It is called 'Society and the History of War'. The layout is basically chronological, with recurring topics treated within each time-section.  And they certainly didn't pull many punches, pointing out that armies have always taken 'souvenirs' or 'loot' from their enemies, whether in the 1640s (where the story begins) or in the present day. Similarly, behaviour which shocks the modern woolly liberal is not avoided. We did not know that expanding bullets date from the 1890s, and that it seemed more acceptable to use them against recalcitrant 'savages' than western enemies. 'Is there such a thing as civilised warfare?' asked the captioning. The Geneva and Hague Conventions of 1864 and 1899 seem to have been rather less applied in colonial wars.

This was the first of several opportunities to use an interactive to 'vote' on what we thought. If I may voice a tiny criticism, the page that gives you how the vote has been going says 'visitor's responses', rather than 'visitors' responses' but no doubt they will sort that out.

We saw arquebuses, as well as the heavy breast plates, or cuirasses, which gave French Heavy Cavalry their name. French regimental flags, as presented by Napoleon were alongside the eagles with which they were replaced as Bonaparte began to think of himself as a Roman Emperor. The skeleton of his horse, Marengo, was also there!

When it came to the first of our several and always disastrous campaigns in Afghanistan, there was a section about Major General Sir William Elphinstone 'the most incompetent soldier who ever became general', according to his contemporary, General Sir William Nott.  (They do all seem to be given titles, just the same...)

The Crimean War told us about the beginnings of useful medical care for the wounded, and the establishment of the Royal Army Medical Corps.  We have an uncle who was in the RAMC during the Second World War. The medical kit on display reminded us how glad we are to be living now, not then.

The 'load and fire a rifle' interactive was under repair, which we didn't mind too much, but we were pleased to see that weapon of enlightened Imperialism, the Maxim Gun. I had hoped to find you a link to the full text of Belloc's 'The Modern Traveller', but all websites seem to quote just the two well known lines ('whatever happens, we have got The Maxim Gun and they have not') . The disaster at Isandlwana also had a section (another inadequate commander, I am afraid) and the display of uniforms which accompanies all the sections turned from red to khaki.

One of several ongoing themes was the effect of armaments research on technology, and the development of communications for war was one example. There was an interesting section about the onset of total war.  Apparently during the First World War the soldiers hated snipers more than any other enemy:  the thought that someone was deliberately targeting individuals was less acceptable than indiscriminate industrial killing. We had never considered that before.

Then we came to the Second World War, which focussed on the Normandy Landings. There was some reference to the need for accurate meteorological forecasting, and a brief mention of the fact that many ships brought the troops across, but, as this is the Army's museum, no other mention was made of Operation Neptune and the remarkable achievement of 15,000 naval vessels (but you have heard me banging on about the neglect of naval history before, so I shall desist)

The obligatory 'dressing up' section, which all museums seem to have, was about camouflage, very well done and actually informative: against a choice of backgrounds (desert, jungle, snow) you could put on some kit and see if you blended. I could wish that other museums spent some time thinking about what dressing up is FOR.

There were then sections on Korea, Malaya, Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Iraq and Afghanistan.  We learned that it was during the Malaya conflict that General Templer coined the term 'hearts and minds' in an attempt to persuade populations not to back insurgents. Rules of engagement were discussed here, and we saw some kit for remotely dismantling explosive devices.

The section about war films and other popularising media was very interesting: from the tableaux of 1815 London to much more recent show-biz.  The 'hit parade' included The Grand old Duke of York, Kiss me Goodnight Sergeant Major, and the Manic Street Preachers.

'Landscape of Legacy' offered another view of how war shapes the modern world, with pictures of Blenheim Palace and other monuments to and about war.

Recruiting posters, toys and games also featured, as did advertisements for Cadet and TA opportunities.  Recruiting posters from all periods were alongside a range of prosthetic limbs and 'Help for Heroes' material.  

The 'Wear a Flanders Poppy' poster was dated to the mid 1920s.  We had known that the first few Armistice Days after 1918 were opportunities for parties, and it took some years for sober remembrance to replace them.  This was where we heard some war poetry from the 1914-18 war. A display about Wootton Bassett, newly 'Royal', again took us back to the price that needs to be paid for war.

They we came to a section of anti-war (and anti-army) posters and photos, again spanning a wide historical scope, which was a good opportunity for interactives about what the army is for and how soldiers should behave. 

A section on the reporting of war was also helped by an opportunity to decide whether we would take the press corps with us into action.  We also enjoyed a little game about codes, including the kinds that soldiers of the First World War used to tell their families things that the censors might block.

It was interesting to be reminded of the way that war terminology seeps onto the Home Front.

By the time we headed downstairs to the first floor, we felt we had seen and taken in a great deal, so we rather skipped the Art Gallery, and glanced only briefly at regimental badges and more uniforms.  There was an opportunity to match insignia badges to ranks, but we were only told our score,(low) not the 'right' answers.

This is where there was a brief section about women in the army, illustrated by two iconic posters, one from each of the World Wars, but we felt that there was more that could be said on this issue.

Finally, we came to a wall of very interesting statistics, though we were not clear whether the money values listed were 'modern equivalent' or actual.

We just about had the energy to admire Anna Redwood's Desert Rat Sculpture before heading off home. 

We shall certainly visit again, possibly starting at the bottom to do justice to the areas we rather skimped this time. We thought the Museum had done a good job of bringing itself up to date while remaining thought provoking and challenging.