Friday, 22 July 2016

Down House

Luxstead Road
Downe   BR 6 JT

Tuesday July 2016

Today was probably our fifth visit to Down House, the home of Charles Darwin, but if there is a Project to complete – needs must.  There is a single decker bus ( 146 )  that does the round journey to and from Bromley in under an hour but having other errands to perform we came by car. Jo is away in France and doubtless enjoying the same sunny and high temperatures as the UK today. Having said that, by the time you snake your way down the lanes to the village of Downe the air is quite fresh and there was a slight breeze – appearances to the contrary Darwin chose the location for its comparative seclusion but still accessible to London and he and Emma chose the  house to suit their growing family with space to spare for the science rather than for its beauty.  

The property is managed by English Heritage  and if we have a criticism it is that the only picnic spot offered was across the road, through a brambly stile and then the only option to sit on the ground – today of course it was dry and doable but I think a few picnic tables or at least a bench or two would not come amiss??

Back to the House – it has 5 ‘show rooms’ plus an upstairs  suite of exhibition rooms outlining  Darwin’s family tree , life and of course the research and findings which made him one of the key 19th20th Century influential thinkers (Freud, Marx and Einstein being the others and only Freud has a visitable house in London) . I am not going to attempt to summarise either the Origin of Species or the survival of the fittest which the displays do far better. Charles’ life pre Down House is also illustrated in detail including a hologram model of the cabin he shared with Fitzroy aboard the 'Beagle' and letters he sent ( he was a great letter writer  and made friends with the postman who collected and delivered post several times a day.)  There are sketches too he made of different finch types,  tortoise s told apart by their different shells,  pigeon types (he  joined the local pigeon  fancier club)  and you can easily infer that he had been thinking ‘evolutionary’ type thoughts long before he published. In fact the first publication date was precipitated by other thinkers and scientists coming to similar conclusions about how species evolved.

Upstairs rooms include a hands-on education room, reading room and the more recently opened Darwins’ bedroom. The display rooms were formerly those of the various children. Both Charles and Emma came from large families and were in fact cousins and part of the Wedgwood  (as in pottery) dynasty. Their bedroom has an adjacent dressing room now supplied with the obligatory garments for ‘dressing up’ in period costume. The room has several quite religious drawings and texts to remind you that Darwin was a believer and was at times quite conflicted by the controversial impact of his scientific conclusions. The room is also supplied with different books that the Darwins liked to read to each other. Somewhat strangely this was the only room where photography is permitted.

Downstairs there are four main reception rooms with hall and kitchen being used for administration and café, as you might expect. Both sitting and dining rooms have generous bay windows that look out onto the garden and are furnished in conventional Victorian style Though Darwin had ample space elsewhere for his experiments ( the Wormery and lab.  in the garden, his study /laboratory across the corridor) that did not stop him bringing the worms into the sitting room which was usually seen as Emma’s province where  she could embroider and read so she must have been very tolerant as the specimens being observed invariably escaped ...

The  cupboard by the back door is complete with croquet set and other games and Darwin was known to be quite an indulgent father by Victorian standards allowing the children to toboggan  down the stairs on a tin tray, which must have been incredibly noisy. 

The rooms to the front of the house are in fact smaller and darker and are retained much as they were – there is a large Billiard Room now decorated with newspaper cuttings and cartoons of the time which show the again the furore the publication of his ideas caused. It may seem that choosing to live in the Kent countryside made Darwin look reclusive but in fact he did receive visitors, often other scientists, and was in constant correspondence with the rest of the world.

The most evocative room, and the one which makes the whole visit really come alive, is his study/ workroom with tables of fossils and other bits, microscopes, slides, samples, books, jars and stacks of index boxes and cards to match. There is a heavy and large armchair on castors which enabled Darwin to ‘scoot’ between his various tables and desks within the room. After his return from the Beagle voyages he never felt really well again and though modern thinking is not sure whether this was a form of hypochondria or whether he had picked up some long lasting tropical bug so in his later years Darwin  had a ‘commode’ put in the corner of this his main workroom.

On such a lovely day it was a joy to be in the garden; in front of the house there are lawns and formal beds and along the path a generous flower border and the garden tapers with the back third laid to vegetable beds. You are also able to look at the greenhouse with its potting shed where  there is a display hive for bees, quite active today. Darwin of course was also interested in plant and insect species .

Leaving through a small gate near the back wall you can follow the circuit that Darwin named his ‘sand walk’  and where he could take several daily ‘constitutional ‘ walks – using the time alone ( or occasionally accompanied by one of the children) to clear his mind and formulate his theories.  The path does a little loop through some trees and then back to the house with a public footpath running across.
Downe (with an ‘e’) is the local village down the road and the Darwins were part of the small community for the forty years they lived here.

This outing is highly recommended in the summer but you can cower in the house when the weather is less good and the visit offers an excellent combination of atmospheric rooms backed by very clear exposition of the life and works of one of history’s most thorough and  influential thinkers.

(Mulberry Tree)

Friday, 8 July 2016

The National Gallery 2

Thursday 7 July 2016

Because I had a rather busy morning, Linda and I decided on a central target and a second slice of the National Gallery. Being orderly folk, we continued chronologically, and set off through the 'High Renaissance and Mannerism' galleries.

Many of these artists were based in Venice. Florence was being ripped apart by civil wars, religious extremism and the like, whereas Venice was sitting snugly on Europe's growing demand for Eastern luxuries,  so Veronese had a good market for his historical, allegorical and religious works.  So we saw Alexander being kind to Darius's family; four depictions of aspects of love: this one is 'Unfaithfulness; and Saint Veronica mopping the face of Christ.

We found ourselves more taken by the faces of people, whether young men or popes, and paused reverentially before the very unfinished Michelangelo which you can see here. We were a bit baffled by Tintoretto's Allegory of Prudence, supposing it to be about different ages and attitudes to life, whether lion-like of hound-like.

 The National Gallery has several El Grecos, instantly recognisable and interesting, and a number of Titians.  He (or maybe one of his customers) seems to have been a bit obsessed with the story of Diana and Actaeon, and we were glad we had paused before them as we were to meet them in another form later. He had also painted the story of Diana and Callisto, which we didn't know and which had slight modern resonances: Jupiter had seduced her by disguising himself as Diana, which maybe says something about the way Diana's chaste band of maidens behaved;  but when so was found to be pregnant, she was expelled from Diana's entourage as if it were her fault alone.

I suppose I should admit that I found the stories more engaging than these large and opulent paintings, and found it rather a relief to move into the room with the Dutch artists, dominated by the great painting of the Ambassadors.  We were sure it used to be displayed with a clever device which showed you where to stand to sort out the foreshortened skull in the foreground:  now you work it out for yourself, or watch other viewers and then 'get it'.
It was a delight to see a Lucas Cranach, or rather to see the model he so frequently used, this time as Venus:  Cupid is being stung by a lot of bees, because he has stolen their honey.  She, like most mothers, though perhaps slightly less completely dressed than most mothers, is telling him it serves him right.

We loved the portrait of Erasmus, by Holbein, looking strangely like Mark Rylance.  It has glass on it so Linda could not get a picture, but it's here.

In the next room there were some splendid Titians and Giorgiones, including a man sporting a sumptuous ermine collar

We felt that was enough for one afternoon:  we also reminded ourselves that these pictures are here every day, conveniently placed for quick visits, and so we thought we would leave the 17th and 18th centuries for another time.  

But we did visit two smaller, temporary exhibitions of a very different nature before we left.  First, there is a single room with about 24 Dutch flower paintings.  Detailed and luminous, they reminded us that tulips and chrysanthemums were new and much valued in the 17th century.  We had not heard of most of these artists, but were surprised and delighted to see that Breughel the Elder took time off from painting religious and rural scenes to paint some vases of flowers.

The other exhibition, also no photography allowed, displays the results of the Rootstein Hopkins Foundation's project.  The artist George Shaw produced 'My Back to Nature' while working among the pictures of the National Gallery. The introductory film showed him thinking and working, and he was especially concerned with the Diana and Actaeon pictures we had see earlier. His own work does not normally include people, but he made the point that an awful lot of the events and shenanigans of classical art happen on the outskirts of woods or among trees. The works that he had made were detailed depictions of modern woodland scenes, litter and all. We liked them better than this Daily Telegraph reviewer seems to have done

We had enjoyed our visit to this National treasure house, and will be back.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Rainham Hall

The Broadway
Rainham Essex RM 13 9YN
Thursday  30 June 2016

Today we were doing a double trip and the two experiences gelled quite well...
We left Eastbury Manor having been pointed to the right bus stop by their helpful guide; we had decided on our favoured form of transport – a BUS (though Jo has defected to bicycling on her home patch) – in the face of TFL’s peculiar insistence on a lot of changes and a C2C train via Dagenham Docks (a station where I once spent a miserable 40 minutes) to get from Eastbury to Rainham Hall. In fact we had a very straightforward trip on the Number 287, which whizzed past quite a lot of new builds and large supermarkets to get us to yet another Tesco stop – this time in Rainham. From here it was a gentle walk through the ‘old village’ of Rainham to the Hall
which is round the back of the church.

We popped briefly into the church, just tidying after a funeral, and the volunteers showed us the two prizes of their building – some old graffiti in the plaster of a sailing ship and the beautiful chancel with its small windows. The church well pre-dates the destination of our main visit.

Ticket and guide book buying is combined with the new café just opened in the very recently refurbished stable block and the volunteers seemed somewhat flustered at having to deal with three separate tasks. Talking of volunteers – they are dotted throughout the house and grounds and their enthusiasm knows no bounds.

What one does not realise when surrounded by its supermarkets, library and  railway station is that Rainham sat on a quite sizeable creek where the smaller River Ingrebourne runs into the Thames, and it was this position close enough to London but not too pricy that led the Durham-born John Harle, already a seasoned shipowner ( the family business was shipping coal down the East coast to London) to set up home with his new bride. His London based income also came from shipping but more from the import/export trade between England and both the Baltic and Mediterranean states (sounds familiar?) than coastal coal.  The house went up in 1729 or thereabouts (the only date comes from the water down pipe hopper) and was built to a standard pattern rather than being ‘architect designed.’

 The house very much adheres to the trends of the day and is composed of a series of interlocking cubes built around a sturdy but decorative Caribbean mahogany staircase – at the time mahogany was used for packing cargo rather than the favourite it later became for status furniture. Not hard to guess where John Harle might have found his wood.. There are four symmetrical rooms on each of the three floors and on the upper levels there are smaller cubes between the front and back rooms. The Harles were not here for long – by 1742 he had died and his widow survived him only by five years – their furnishings, property and stock were soon dispersed and a series of rented tenants succeeded them. Not being a wealthy or ‘famous’ family there are few contemporary descriptions of what the interior might have looked like  and rather than guess at ‘standard Georgian furniture’ (from its doubtless large stock) the National Trust has opted to suggest something about being a merchant mariner in those times. There are copies of contemporary maps showing clearly the creek and wharves, copies of Hogarth’s 'Industry & Idleness' contrasting the careers  of two apprentices, a small cabinet of mariner’s artefacts and models of the kind of ships John Harle and his brothers would have sailed and owned – one of them displayed in the bath! 

One room is devoted to stuff – there is no other word – found under the floor boards during the recent restoration, including quite a few buttons and coins as you might expect.  Intriguingly probably the oldest artefact in the house is the most recent acquisition: a local postie trawling through a boot fair noted some random papers relating to Rainham (where she lives and works) and followed this up with the vendor – on hearing he had more documents she requested he send them on and so came into possession of John Harle’s original will (up till now only seen via the copy at the National Archives at Kew) in very good and readable condition. You can see her telling the story of her find on a short captioned video.  He meanwhile was buried in the church.

 One room houses a random selection of pieces of furniture belonging to some of the previous tenants and owners, which are still being restored. More imaginatively the little intervening cubes are filled with soundscapes – seashore birds from John Harle’s native North-East, sea-shanties from his time at sea. On the second floor there is the sound of nursery rhymes harking back to the Second World War, when Rainham Hall was turned into a nursery for the children of women doing ‘war work’ – a similar enterprise had been the case at Eastbury Manor also as the women of Barking and Rainham helped with the  war effort.

The plan for Rainham Hall, we were told, was to change the themes of what was on display, and the next planned exhibition would include its role as a nursery and base during the Second World War, and then a further installation featuring the work of one of the post-war tenants – Anthony Denney  who had photographed and designed at Vogue . He was known as well as a prescient collector of modern artists but during his 5 year tenancy at Rainham Hall had also devoted time to ‘restoring’  parts of Rainham, especially the entrance hall – again the Trust has decided to leave his ‘legacy’ including a ‘blue room’ rather than return everything to an original template for which there is no evidence.

Another eccentric  tenant, and eventual owner, was the Victorian Reverend Nicholas Brady – like many contemporaries his parish work seemed to leave him enough time to pursue various hobbies including an early cycling enthusiasm and inevitably local wildlife.   There is enough photographic evidence of his time at Rainham to make quite a lively display.

The garden is very much as one might expect from the National Trust, with abundant  and fragrant borders, but the interior, like that at Eastbury , is something of a departure with its largely unfurnished and undecorated  state   leaving  more to the imagination. 

Friday, 1 July 2016

Eastbury Manor House

Barking IG11 9SN
Thursday 30 June 2016

Today Linda and I went eastwards, for a double National Trust experience. Linda will tell you about the second in due course, but our first stop was the remarkable Eastbury Manor House.

Despite the best efforts of the terrible TfL Journey Planner. we had easy journeys, and found clear signage all the way from Upney Station to the well-hidden House.

This is one of the NT's properties which is shared with all sorts of local groups, and so was rather unfurnished but there were plenty of information boards and the staff - all volunteers - were friendly and knowledgeable

One of the ways of embellishing a new house in the 1570s was to make patterns with fire-blackened bricks, and we were able to spot a hear shape on the facade as we headed up towards the entrance.  It's called 'diaper work' and really took off in Victorian times, as almost any Pugin building would show.

Arriving at 10.10, we were the first visitors of the day. The time line in the former Great Hall explains that the whole rural area was farmland, under the control of the great Abbey at Barking. After Henry VIII closed it down, with all the others, in the second wave of dissolution in 1539, the land was sold, and this bit of the estate was sold to Sir William Denham and then to Clement Sysley, who built the great house in the 1570s, maintaining the rest of the land for farming. 

After Sysley's death (in 1580) and his wife's remarriage, the House fell upon hard times, becoming increasingly derelict as successive farmers rented it and used it for work.  In 1834, there was a report that 'fine oak floors have been taken up to repair the barns'.  The summer parlour was converted to stables, various walls were knocked down and doorways widened to accommodate farm machinery. And of course, good bits were sold off:  the great Hall's fireplace was found at Nyman's in Kent.  During the First World War, Observation Balloons were manufactured here. There was even a plan to sell it off, demolish it, and make a garden suburb.  Fortunately, the National Trust bought it in 1918 for £1,500.00 which, according to this website, would be about £94,000 now. Actually, that would be a pretty good price for any house in Britain today but it was certainly in need of millions of pounds of restoration.  It is being restored thanks to Barking and Dagenham, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the NT. It was first opened to the public in 1972 and now its revenue comes, not from farming, but from 'events'. The wall hanging dates from 2001.

We went into the Summer Parlour, and it was there we noted the impressive size of the windows, a sign of real wealth in the 1570s, when glass was extremely costly.  The Winter Parlour , across the vestibule, had a good sized fire place.

The house has two matching wings, and so there were modern stairs at each side. Upstairs, we admired the fine roof beams, and were shown some of the marks that told to joiners which beam went where, just as in the instruction for some Swedish flat-pack furniture.  Here there was more information, including evidence of the estate's farming past.

The most notorious story about the house is that Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators plotted here, a tale begun by Daniel Defoe in 1724.  A very clear exposition, starting with Guido's birth in York, made clear that this was extremely improbable.  But we did like the map that indicated the rural nature of the area in the early 17th century.

Having noted the nowadays-obligatory dressing up clothes, as well as the fine wood of some of the window sills, we went on up to a sort of viewing landing.  This time we used some original, and rather scary stairs, but the views at the top made it worth while:  not so much the surrounding suburbs, but the close-ups of the chimneys and the roof.

Back to the first floor, we walked through another long gallery, formerly separate rooms and dressing rooms. According to an inventory of 1603, they had been richly furnished as bedchambers, one with a 'Spanish bedstead, canopy and curtains of yellow taffeta' and another with wall paintings, restored in 1985, of classical views through Roman arches.

We walked into the courtyard behind the house, to note the brickwork of the 'plumbing' - chutes down to ground level,whence the servants would remove the 'night soil'.

We had very much enjoyed our hour long visit to this fine house, and were pleased to get a post script.  At the bus stop, where we waited for the 287 which would take us to our next place, the family also waiting told us that Eastbury Manor was where the Gunpowder Plot had been planned. Myth is almost always more powerful than fact.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Carshalton Water Tower, Hermitage & Historic Garden

West Street, Carshalton, Surrey SM5 2PN
Wednesday  21 June 2016

Today’s trip, as last week’s,  was organised via the Friends of the British Library, and in spite of strike action by Southern Rail the party assembled at 2.00 for a ‘booked visit’. Usually this attraction is only open between April and October on Sunday PMs, being run entirely by volunteers.

The context for the Water Tower, which is not really seen at its best from the narrow but busy road West Street, is that it is part of the former ‘manor or merchant house’ built originally by a Mr Carleton but embellished by Sir John Fellowes. The house is now part of St Philomena’s School and the Tower, lake and other buildings are all part of the school grounds.

Sir John  Fellowes, like  many other ‘entrepreneurs’ in the early 18th century made his money through slavery, and if not slavery then sugar from the Caribbean, which comes to much the same thing. Having enhanced the main house he was looking for a ‘glory project’ and conceived a water Tower which had not only a practical use – to bring fresh spring water to the main house – but also a ‘vanity’ element in that at its base it housed both an orangery and a bath. It was built between 1717 and 1720 as by 1720 he was formally declared bankrupt, having been a major player in the South Sea Company which precipitated the famous  'Bubble' and subsequent crash.

He was also consigned for a month to the Tower of London where he managed to spend £1000 on ‘entertainment’, but still emerged not noticeably poorer (which is not unlike the fate of those responsible for subsequent bubbles – without even the symbolic satisfaction of a spell in the Tower).

Compared to all that putting up a water tower must have seemed quite mundane – and cheap.   

The tour started in the Orangery – a familiar structure and seen in many houses of the period (we saw one at Hampton Court last year) and in its time would have housed ‘exotic’ specimens such as citrus trees and myrtle. The full length windows are wonderful though sadly the view today is out onto the catholic Primary school with its utilitarian Sixties buildings. Adjacent and at about half the size is the Saloon, which again would have been used for entertaining. The Trust has provided and collected many prints of the key buildings over their time, which shows how the house and estate would have looked prior to more recent developments, and when the lake, as lake it is, was used for pleasure boating . Both the Orangery and Saloon had domed ceilings but World War II bomb damage led to their being restored as merely an oval ceiling.

From the Saloon a small door leads to the Bath – what we might call a  communal plunge pool as it was almost certainly not used for washing and too small for swimming – so was a vanity or entertainment construction and is one of the few such to survive intact. It is beautifully tiled with Delft tiles of the period and the few missing have been thoughtfully added/reconstructed with the help of conservators at Ironbridge. There are a couple of empty niches – perhaps once filled with statues or maybe even ‘posing bathers’.

Whence the water?

Well broadly speaking the River Wandle but more specifically there are various ‘springs’ that rise here (not sure of the geological strata…) and are then channelled into a canal  that runs into the Pump Chamber – our next stop on the tour. The water wheel on display is a Victorian replacement and while narrow generates enough ‘power’ for pumps to send water up the tower for the house – Sir John’s house was ahead of its time in having running water on two floors. The Trust is working on having the mechanisms restored to working order but it is interesting to note that it was in full working use up to the start of the Second World War. Evident also are the four stout pillars which support the water tower structure above.   
Squeezed between the bath and the pump room but only accessible from the Pump Chamber is the Robing Room, or I suppose dis-robing room where the friends and family would have prepared to enter the bath by a direct door – as the Robing Room faces north and the water would have been cold this would have been a bracing experience at best. The Robing Room is largely in use as a kitchen for the Trust and those who rent the Tower as a ‘venue’.

From there the tour (and a modest 37 steps)  takes you up onto the roof at about half the height of the Tower but high enough to give a good view back to the ‘House’ over the lake and across West Road to Margaret’s Pool, named in honour of Ruskin’s mother. From here, although the lake is very grassy and overgrown, you can see how Mr Carleton’s original straight canal was ‘landscaped’ Arcadia  style , into a kidney shaped lake and curved canal to be more in fashion.  You can also gaze upwards, being careful not to fall over the parapet or into the gullies which collect rainwater and admire the Tower which once held the tank.  Fellowes also owned a brickfield, so the Tower is built of bricks, fairly soft red ones for decoration with London stocks for structure.

Leaving the Tower, and fortified by tea and biscuits, we continued to admire the outside from the back and then proceeded carefully across the causeway. Apparently the ‘lake’  has usually dried up by this point in the summer but – surprise, surprise – this year there was still enough water to mean that the groundsmen had refused to deploy their ‘heavy plant’  and cut the grass and weeds. So we threaded our way along a narrow path between shoulder high grasses and nettles, quite an experience. From midway on the causeway we could see the false or ‘Sham’ bridge which is basically at the edge of the lake but gives the illusion of water passing through it. There is a similar one at Kenwood and familiar trick of the 18th century landscape designers, in this case the aptly named Charles Bridgeman; he must have squeezed this 1720 commission in between Blenheim and  getting royal patronage!

The causeway brings you onto the school lawns and a better view of what was Sir John Fellowes’ home . The Daughters of the Cross, a Catholic Foundation, were  here for many years though the house had had some other illustrious owners or tenants previously: Radcliffe later to have the Oxford Infirmary named after him, Anson who became Admiral of the Fleet after many naval battles, and a certain Mr Hardwick who gave his name to the Marriage Act of 1759.

The Sisters left the most lasting impact on the whole estate as, as well as living here they established a school initially for their own but more recently a 1000 strong secondary school for Girls.  
Carleton’s original stable block was ’adapted’ into a school extension and the clock tower is noticeably that of the Stables. The Sisters also laid a trail (that’s what it always feels like when outdoors as opposed to round the sides of the church) of the Stations of the Cross and used the handily rustic Hermitage as a grotto for their Pieta. The Hermitage was built of ever so soft Reigate stone and while it was never probably used for a hermit it has more recently been expensively restored to make it a safe structure. It is built into a hill on the side of the lake with tunnels and suchlike to fulfil all the Romantic criteria for such a structure.

We greatly enjoyed our visit to this corner of Carshalton where a combination of industrial heritage and 18th landscaping come together most successfully.