Friday, 15 September 2017

Artangel ‘Natural Selection’

Former Cuming Museum @ Former Newington Library
155 Walworth Road

London SE17 1RS

Wednesday September 13 2017

As you will know by now our interpretation of what counts as a museum is ‘flexible’ as you might say including as it has a few stately homes and private galleries. Today’s visit was to an installation /exhibition put on by the wonderful organisation that is Artangel, who have for many years promoted and curated interesting artworks in site specific locations (what in another context you might call a ‘pop-up’). So not strictly speaking just a London thing.

The venue however has been a Museum, namely Southwark’s very own Cuming Museum named for a father and son collecting duo who donated their exhibits to Southwark. From the sound of things they covered similar ground to the Horniman’s collection (natural history, artistic and ethnographic artefacts) and remained open to the public until the fire of 2013. The same rather fine Victorian building also housed a library, and the clinic which lingers on next door. Whether it is all the new building at the Elephant (glimpsed in this photo taken from the bus stop) but the former library complex has now been occupied by some local art and art education projects with presumably free space for exhibitions. And it was for the exhibition that we came….

‘Natural Selection’ with its echoes of Darwinian theory,seemed an appropriate title for a display looking at the variety, complexity, flexibility and longevity of nest building, and along with that the eggs that go into these nests and the people who have collected them. Yet ‘selection’ also implies that choices go into the materials chosen for each nest (and indeed the works chosen for an exhibition).

The exhibition has been assembled by father and son team Peter & Andy Holden.  Peter worked for the RSPB for 30 years during which time his roles included setting up and running the YOC (Young Ornithologists Club) so what he does not know about birds is not worth knowing. As there are photos of Andy in his pram clutching an RSPB brochure I assume he is pretty knowledgeable also but inclines more to the artistic. The show is over two floors each with a half hour video. The upstairs one is about nest building – divided into three chapters technique, site and materials – and while Peter gives you the natural history commentary Andy’s is more about the artistic aspects – he cradles nests like precious ceramic bowls which in a sense they are. He examines the materials from crude twigs to mosses and mud with colourful embellishments and the different patterns and textures they achieve, and ponders the question of whether there is more at work than instinct and inherited behaviour. It is a wonderful synthesis. In a side cabinet you can see particular nests closer up – three examples of the weaver bird,  who has evolved an ever longer tunnel approach to the tree-hanging nest in order to protect from ever longer snake predators – a kind of ‘evolutionary arms race’ as the video puts it.

The guillemot’s egg is just placed simply on a small plinth – no nests for them as the bare conditions of the windy cliff faces has little nest material available. However the eggs have a distinctly pointed profile which combines with the effect of the yolk ‘weighing down’ the egg so that it won’t roll off – meanwhile the individual colourings allow the birds to distinguish their own eggs amongst the thousands in the colony.

I was very dismissive of one nest – wood pigeon it turned out – which looked like nothing more than an untidy heap of twigs.  However apparently they spend so little time building it leaves them more for breeding, unlike the weaver or even more so the Bower birds, whose elaborate structures are courtship devices (I suppose driving a Ferrari may attract you a different kind of mate from driving a second hand Reliant Robin). The most arresting exhibit is a person-sized replica of the Bower Bird’s nest but without the adornment of blue plastic spoons or colourful berries which they seem to prefer as decoration.

The Latin American ‘oven bird’ has a structure akin to a mud hut (birds got there first and some have theorised that humankind copied them) which made Andy wonder how anyone can build something so complex without having a concept of what the finished article should look like before you start…. And up to now we have not thought any living creature apart from ourselves has this capacity??

As you can see this exhibition with its combination of artefacts/film and found objects was both thought provoking and moving. A further room contained less nest-specific but still bird-related items, including posters for previous Holden lectures and events, a graphic design realised as a wallpaper, and some turned wood artefacts whose profiles represent sonograms of the songs of various bird species.

While the upstairs part focussed on nest building the downstairs looked specifically at the social history of egg collecting with much archive footage. This film is narrated by ROOK (familiar to YOC members), here animated and flying across a ‘background’ of iconic UK landscape pictures from Constable to Hockney. Egg collecting may have started as a ‘respectable’ way of studying nature and birds but it quickly became collecting for its own sake with all that means – competition, greed and eventual destruction of several rare species (such as the Red Shrike) whose eggs were sought after. Eventually egg collecting from the wild became illegal but still happens with the perpetrators unrepentant.  That the egg collectors are almost without exception MALE is interesting: I cannot imagine any woman wantonly destroying the unborn offspring of another woman or parent who has gone to the trouble of building a safe protective nest in which to nurture said progeny. After all the later weeks of pregnancy are known for ‘the nesting instinct’. That some of the nest building is instinctual is almost certainly true as young long tailed tits will build quite superior nests without any prior instruction or examples.    

The last display shows the huge range of eggs that birds can produce – each a different colour with different markings, each peacefully beautiful. This comes as quite a shock after the brutality of some of the egg collectors but these eggs are porcelain.

We normally lose interest in the video components of some exhibitions but these today were so integral and interesting that it was very easy to spend an hour at this moving and absorbing installation. 

Friday, 8 September 2017

White Cube

144-152 Bermondsey St, London SE1 3TQ

Thursday 7 September 2017

Linda and I walked down Bermondsey Road, past the enormous works which are transforming London Bridge Station, to reach the handsome building which is White Cube.

Vast spaces and white walls were what you could expect from a cutting edge gallery of modern art.

We were less taken with the art on display - well, I was - a sign of encroaching old age, perhaps.  The exhibition, Dreamers Awake, is of the works of female surrealists. Never at our best with surrealism anyway, we found the exhibition somewhat sameish and annoying.
You can read what it is about here

My problem with describing the works is this:  if I use the normal words for the subject matter of virtually every painting, drawing, bronze, carving, photograph and ceramic in the show, we shall attract huge numbers of people whose search criteria appear to be set to find such terms.  We are still bruised from the post in which I referred to the (less than fully clad) angels in the ceiling of Muchelney Church and we got 9,000 hits.... Roger suggests that I substitute the words BEAST and PENCIL for the most common objects, so here goes.

We first went into South Gallery 2, containing a range of works in different media. Some quite funny pencil sketches depicted men with multiple beasts;  some porcelain wreaths and arrangements proved to be bunches of legs and pencils (these were by Rachel Kneebone); a pink ceramic tongue protruded from a wall, possibly for use as a coat peg. There was a series of photographs of shop dummies, face down, some covered with cellophane, one with a snake, which presumably is some kind of Freudian reference. Oh, and this, one of the works we were allowed to photograph, is by Tracey Emin.

We paused before the Bal des Ingrates, a painting of women's heads peeking out from dim-sum type parcels as which were being carried on men's heads; there was one picture which had a very large spider protecting the modesty of the model (Dr Freud again, I suppose)

Another room had some rather disturbing cut out children and birds, blindfolded and trapped between sheets of glass.

In the 9x9x9 room, a cord ran from floor to ceiling with disembodied hands climbing up it. The Leonora Carrington quote on the wall ('I warn you, I refuse to be an object') left us little the wiser, since it all seemed to be objectivising, though presumably in an ironic way.  Three Lee Miller photos surprised us, since we had enjoyed her war photos a few months ago. One was a pair of severed beasts on plates, with knives and forks. We also saw a wooden chair with fabric beasts and a large pencil arranged on it. A hanged woman was suspended from a pencil.

So, as you can tell, we found the 'irony, resistance and self expression of these women artists, the object becoming subject and the artist being relocated inside the body', quite beyond us.  It was also hard to picture what sort of person would want one of these art works on their wall.  But we do know that this is our problem, not that of the artist: as Miss Jean Brodie remarked of the Guiding movement, “For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.”

Friday, 11 August 2017

Greenwich Old Royal Naval College – Painted Hall & Chapel

King William Walk
Greenwich SE10 9JF
Friday August 04 2017

When we visited the small exhibition giving the history of the Old Royal Naval College in the Visitors Centre we tried to tack on a visit to the actual college buildings which are usually open to the public – namely the Chapel and Dining Hall. The Chapel certainly was open but the Dining Hall is currently undergoing a major CONSERVATION  (NOT restoration ) project. However you can still visit, advisedly by prior booking, for a guided tour of the ceiling complete with hard hat and high-vis jacket. That makes it sound a lot more exciting than it is as the scaffolding platform is very sturdy, wide and stable and the 67 steps are no worse than using the stairs when the escalators fail .

Just a reminder of the history in case you weren’t paying attention in November, not to be outdone by Charles II and his Royal Hospital for Army pensioners at Chelsea, William II’s wife Mary was keen to do the same for mariners but sadly died before the building was completed so some of the inscriptions we saw being conserved and cleaned today were her husband making sure her memory and intentions for the foundation were honoured.

The exterior of the building is truly magnificent and best viewed from the middle of the Thames – and that was Wren’s brief – to encompass the whole vista from top to bottom with the two arms or wings allowing  the visitor to glimpse the already complete Queen Anne’s House halfway up the hill.

As for the inside, initially James Thornhill was a ‘cheap’ option as set against imported Italian workmen and apparently he was paid a £1 per square foot on the wall and £3 per sq foot on the ceiling. Out of this he paid any helpers and the materials.  Unlike most Italian ceilings this is not a fresco but oil paint applied to a plastered ceiling. In fact all things considered (dining sailors eating by candle light, smoking and throwing their food around) the ceiling is in quite good shape. The remarkably few cracks will be restored; the varnish that has deteriorated cleaned and re-applied, and the darker areas cleaned to become more visible, but not to the extent that there will be ‘visibly brighter’ spots but to maintain the integrity of the whole art work.
In addition to explaining the aims of this very expensive conservation our guide Simon pointed out several ‘characters’ who certainly would not have been so evident from below.

Essentially the design consists of a large central oval where the most important people are and two semi-circular arches each with a ship ploughing the seas into which the key English rivers, as represented by their gods, flow. The perspective works in all directions: very cunning this. The rivers are all personified and come with their most famous products so the Severn with lampreys and the Tyne with coal.  The not so subtle subtext being what a productive country we are. No comment.   

The central oval is given over to the Royal Patrons surrounded by a variety of classical gods who double by portraying virtues that befit a reigning monarch – such as wisdom (Athena) or strength (Hercules –obvs.)   More interestingly the guide pointed to a red cap which stood for Liberty (as seen on the French Revolutionaries) and the leg of William grinding the face of tyranny (Louis XIV) under his foot. Interesting as you assume the crowned heads of Europe might stand together but I suppose that the so-called Glorious Revolution (with the monarch ruling with the consent of Parliament) counted as relative ‘Liberty’ compared to Louis’s absolutism. There was also a difference of religion standing in the way and historically the French and English are rarely on the same page as friends…

Apart from the rivers there are references to the four elements and four seasons – I’m not sure where the others were but Winter showed the fine head which one could immediately see was that of a real person – indeed a seaman pensioner by the name of John Worley. He had a somewhat rowdy reputation so having him ‘sit’ for James Thornhill kept him out of trouble for a while.

James almost certainly employed others to do some of the ‘hack’ work but to be fair the standard is extremely high and while I would not go as far as saying , as one observer did, this is greater than the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel , it is a great achievement an d the women all look a good deal more womanly than any Michelangelo ever achieved ( the Pieta excepted). The sailors who wined dined and smoked under this ceiling until 1998 certainly appreciated their charms. 

Thornhill was encouraged to promote the nautical elements so down at ground level, in a more sombre grisaille, is a wealth of sea shells, anchors and ropes to adorn the sides and corners.

Once you have finished with the Painted Hall you are encouraged to cross the courtyard/quadrangle to have a look at the Chapel, beautifully free of scaffolding and with an equally impressive if very different ceiling, more rococo plasterwork. The building is beautifully proportioned with a well preserved floor and some impressive woodwork. Being a chapel there are memorials round the sides and entrance to both famous (John Franklin  the North West Passage explorer) and forgotten mariners..

Greenwich is always a treat as Wren’s waterside building never disappoints but it was a particular treat to get up into the ceiling of the painted hall and appreciate its details at leisure.  

Friday, 4 August 2017

Westminster Abbey

Monday 31 July 2017

While it's about time I took my turn after all the posts by Linda and the 63 Regular, it has taken me some days to get around to this one, because I am somewhat daunted by the grandeur and fascination of what we saw.  I initially thought I might write a one-liner: 'you really should go' but I realised that would not do. No photos inside, by the way, so do go to the website, and especially watch the video about Poets' Corner, which gives you a taste of the wealth of things to see in the Abbey.

I have mentioned before that I believe teaching to be the best job in the world;  but a totally unexpected bonus was a chance meeting with a former pupil, who proved to hold an impressive position at Westminster Abbey and who offered to show us round herself. The fact that she had attended the same academic institution as Roger though some years later, made it extra serendipitous. 

We arrived shortly before the first of the day's share of the 1,100,000 annual visitors, and spent some time looking at the shrine of Edward the Confessor, the High Altar, and various medieval royal tombs. Susan was able to take us into the shrine to get a closer look at the amazing Cosmati pavement.

But the high point (literally!) of the visit was an insight into the extraordinary project which is to be the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries. The modern lift which will give access to the remarkable museum space in the Triforium is not yet ready, but we were able to see the planning and detailed work which is going into this new treasure for London.

After a cup of coffee and a sight of the beautiful Litlyngton Missal in the Library, we let Susan return to her work, while we took the audio guides to visit the areas which we had not yet seen.  Although Poets' Corner is the famous area, there are several composers also memorialised on the floor so you need to look down as well as up.  We brooded over the fact that James I was able to pop his mother, Mary Queen of Scots in here, only a couple of decades after her execution for treason, and noted several places where closeness to the monarch in life helped to achieve a prime spot in death. We saw the Coronation Chair, now without the Stone of Scone which was returned to Scotland in 1996. We also paused by the tomb of the Unknown Warrior, with its surround of poppies. We thought the audio guides were clear and well done.

It's not only the memorials which show the Abbey forever renewing itself.  New stained glass windows also feature in several places.

After over four hours we felt we could do no more, but shall certainly be back when the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Galleries are open. Residents of London tend not to visit the most iconic sites of their city (Linda had not been inside the Abbey the Cathedral since Primary School, for example, and I had only been as school party escort).  But this is really worth a visit.  It may seem expensive:  but the drama and beauty of the place, and the time you can spend there seeing (as Howard Carter said) 'wonderful things' makes it compare very favourably with some expensive, short and bizarre theatre experiences we have had recently. Do go:  but allow at least a whole morning.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Croydon Museum

Croydon Clocktower
Katherine Street
Croydon CR9 1ET
Friday July 21 2017

Having had three public transport malfunctions this week – one so serious we totally missed a booked outing to the Salters Hall – we played close to home today thinking a simple trip down the Overground would be hazard free, but of course there were cancellations by the time we were making our way home.
The museum is housed in what was the former Town Hall: a splendid  Victorian building complete with statue and celebratory friezes – very much the type of building the proud civic elders would have had built to serve and promote their locality.

Croydon Museum, like ancient Gaul (still in Roman mode after last week’s trip) is divided into three parts of which we managed two. We did not have enough time for the second floor gallery devoted to the Museum’s art collection which focuses on works by those artists born or resident in the borough, and competent artworks of places in and around Croydon.  These you can see in greater detail here.

On the lower ground floor there is the Riesco gallery, a collection bequeathed to Croydon by local businessman  Mr Riesco, or, according to this item, what remains of it. I had been here (between changing buses as several numbers congregate outside the Clock Tower, as the Town Hall is now known.) when there were more ceramics on display and certainly no skeleton. Some of the pots have gone and those left, mainly Chinese, are arranged to show the development of different techniques, the introduction of new colours and more sophisticated designs. I personally love a pot but can also see that in these cash strapped days many councils might feel there was a case to trade in a few of them  to release enough money to refurbish the local theatre and concert halls.

The skeleton displayed in the Riesco Gallery as 'Bones of Croydon' is a relatively recent find and is beautifully displayed here – each bone named and a dating puts him as Anglo-Saxon and with probable healing rickets!!

Having established that there were isolated dwellings and inhabitants in the area, the Museum which relates to the history of Croydon is on the first floor and offers you a circular tour through linked galleries covering the years 1800- to the present   with stories told through individual artefacts.
Even in 1800 there was little except fields hereabouts – criss-crossed by four main roads to Brighton, London Mitcham and Wickham which met somewhere later to become Croydon…

For each group of objects which might contain a tool, a book, a letter, a photo or drawing and a memento there would be a corresponding touch screen, where the visitor could select which item they wanted information on and how much of it, thus: the object, to whom it belonged, the context both local and national and an additional explanation if the object is arcane or archaic… This works very well as you can follow, in a very legible (or audible – where possible, the explanation is provided by an extract from an interview with the donor) form, individual paths, stories and histories. The major flaw of course comes when a display screen does not function as then you have no idea at all what the object might be or its significance… Today two of the many screens were out of order, most annoyingly in the World War II section, but there was plenty to detain, inform and entertain  us.

There are some big exhibits – a large clock from the Greyhound Pub, the stained glass window from a local builder, and most intriguingly a section of pipe, which sucked or pushed air fast enough to propel a train along a track – a relic  from a project to connect Croydon to Forest Hill by such a system.  There is a small model where you can demonstrate this but the Atmospheric Railway was ‘an idea ahead of its time’ in terms of the fit between the concept and then-available materials, which is perhaps why Croydon is not remembered as a pioneer of modern transportation.

Smaller random objects include Fitzroy’s iguana – as it happens that intrepid navigator and companion of Darwin  is considered a ‘local’.

For the early period smaller items include a letter sent by a local MP: they had free mail until the Penny Post was established in 1840 when they paid the same as everyone else. There is an 1849 Board of Health seal which must have been an early fore-runner of local authority health and safety inspections. Talking of food outlets Sainsbury’s had an early store here and the display includes some loyalty tokens given out to customers – what benefits they gave is not explained!

Moving onto the 20th century there is testimony form a local M&S employee who said she worked 74 hours a week but loved it (I’m actually not sure how that is possible as there was no Sunday opening at that time) . One of the more poignant exhibits is a black leather shoe with ‘padlock’ fastenings used to ensure the patients at Cane Hill did not remove their footwear... This website  shows the ruins of the once large and imposing mental health facility but you will not be surprised to know that it is now a vast housing development !

Talking of housing much of Croydon is residential and there was a significant expansion in the Twenties and Thirties with developments round Coulsdon in particular.

These were referred to as ‘Dream Houses’ though whether the rail journeys that transported you into town were quite so dreamy is another matter (some bitterness here as a trip to Farthing Down earlier in the week resulted in a near 2 hour journey and we start south of the river…) .

The other major housing developments are also well represented with the homes for 20,000 people built at New Addington ready to move into in 1955. This was primarily necessary as Croydon had suffered so much from German bombing during the Second World War; this was partly strategic as Luftwaffe targets fell short but there was also enough light industry and Croydon airport as targets in their own right. The third major housing expansion came with the Forestdale building  through the Seventies and as this link suggests,  much improved links came with the tram system.

60,000 homes were damaged in the war and in spite of many children evacuated there were still about 5,000 deaths. On a single night 62 people were killed when a bomb hit Croydon airport though the news was suppressed for ‘morale‘  reasons. Croydon’s war is commemorated among other exhibits in a painting ‘Croydon Courageous’ by local artist Norman Partridge and by a very unusual rendition of the Battle of Britain in lace. 

Part of the major post-war rebuild included both the Fairfield Halls and the Whitgift centre so called because Trinity School (linked to the Whitgift bequest)  moved from its central location leaving the local authority free to build what was one of the UK’s earliest shopping malls., and arguably the start of ‘destination’ shopping. There have been many since it opened in 1970 and inevitably it is now showing its age and changing tastes and demographics and shopping destinations have led to the current decline. As for the Fairfield  Halls, their history is well documented with many posters programmes and photos covering the  numerous celebrities who appeared over the years. They are of course currently closed due to a major refurbishment funded in part by the sell-off of some museum items referred to earlier…

The Sixties and Seventies were a vibrant time for Croydon: many of the Art College alumni went on to greater fame, especially Bridget Riley who taught and Malcolm McLaren who studied there.  

Croydon is a very diverse borough and has a long history of welcoming overseas workers and their families and these are well represented amongst the exhibits – we liked Sisi’s photo as she proved to be the first black woman who worked for the police.  Some samples from the huge Wing Yip outlet reminded us that Purley Way is not just for IKEA..  The articles ‘from home’ are very poignant  as was a rumpled sports bag and blanket belonging to a formerly homeless young man and the history of George, born of indeterminate gender (but clearly his parents opted for him to be a boy) until years of feeling  different allowed him to become Georgina…

As noted earlier, Croydon also has a large art collection which is featured in a specific gallery on the second floor which we did not have time to visit today; however, several of the star works, including the Riley and a Tagore, are integrated amongst the exhibits in the main display.

There are some drawbacks to the Museum’s system of ‘choosing’ what to follow up as it can leave large gaps: if you don’t guess which object is the gateway to a major theme you may miss that strand altogether. But equally it means you can visit and revisit and gain different impressions and experiences each time, so perhaps a good idea after all?

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Crofton Roman Villa

Crofton Road
Orpington, Kent
BR6  8AF

Friday July 14 2017

“Adjacent to Orpington Station” is one of the selling points of this volunteer run Museum, under the watchful eye of the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit so we left our train and walked through the car park and the story of the museum proved to be a tale of car parks various. 

Research has shown that the Roman villa was built following the Romanisation of England in the 2nd Century and occupied and altered over the following 250 or so years. Its site was on a ridge overlooking the Cray valley below, though now what you notice most is that it appears to be on a slope between the station and the road both of whose foundations, back at the start of the last century, evidently destroyed much more of the remains than the comparatively small section available for public view today. Seemingly the building of the railway did not cause a stir amongst the archaeological community but by 1926 when the foundations for the new Civic Building were going up the first remains were discovered. Both the former town hall and the station did and do have car parks and while the latter were being extended again in 1955 (Orpington has always been prime commuting territory) there were some limited excavations but the site was given proper attention in 1988 and was opened in its current configuration four years later.

Research has also revealed that the original villa probably had about 16 rooms, until at some stage late in the 3rd Century the family retrenched to one end of the property at which point they updated the heating system seemingly as part of their ‘downsizing’. The building was sophisticated enough to have glass windows and a heavy roof, with pottery shards from ‘round the Empire’. The remains are such that you can walk round most sides and peer into the foundations – the rooms are numbered and the education officer pointed out the two styles of heating (both underfloor in the modern way) some with underfloor ducts and some with the floor raised on small pillars in part reconstructed. This was not a really sophisticated villa (or maybe multi coloured floor mosaics had gone out of fashion)   but the original floors were etheropus signinum (mottled pink concrete) or tessellated terra cotta tiles.

What was really impressive about this display was the wealth of educational material on display on small tables round the ruins. Here groups of visitors, particularly young visitors, could get seriously involved in a variety of activities. There was a table of Roman games complete with rules and replicas, dolls to dress, dressing up clothes from farm boy to senator, quiz sheets, trails and a range of Roman ‘brass rubbings’ figures dressed appropriately for their stature and place in the well explained Roman society. The walls are covered in charts explaining the life of a legionnaire, a child, a family, what they ate, and so on…

There is also a touch table with fragments from the dig (you can also dig for finds in a sand tray with appropriate archaeological trowel and brush) with numbers to indicate where they were found. Those artefacts which were found whole are available in reproduced forms to handle.

The volunteer on duty said when they were open they were fully booked with school groups and had just said good bye to the last one – it being the end of the school year. However they also run holiday activities.

For the more serious student there are large volumes covering all the ‘digs’ in Kent as a handy map shows there were far more villas around then you might think. Lullingstone Roman Villa  is more extensive and complete but lies beyond the M25. Because of two millennia  of building there are comparatively few Roman remains within Greater London and this is certainly the only villa  open to the public. Though the display is small the volunteers who manage it have maximized the impact and it makes a surprisingly refreshing visit.  
TheTown Hall building that started it all.....

PS Cray Picture from Stage II of London Loop