Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum

Nestled into the cliff face above the pier at Bournemouth is the hidden gem of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum.

From the roadside it appears as a single-storey, unremarkable Victorian building, but from the beach below it offers intrigue, tempting you with its turrets peeking above the bushes in the cliff top garden.  The road entrance is only apparently used these days for newly-wedded couple; we plebs must make our way to the garden entrance to gain access through the modern extension on the west side of the house. Strangely in keeping with the rest of the house, the new extension adds its own style to the mixed bag of stylistic references. In that perfect way of Victorian eclecticism, the house borrows from oriental, Italianate, Scottish Baronial, classical and French traditions, reflecting the owners’ collections and travel itinerary.

So who would live in a house like this? Merton and Annie Russell-Cotes, that’s who. Pretty much a self-made pair: entrepreneurs, hoteliers and collectors.  A Victorian love story of a boy shipped off to Glasgow following his father’s death, bereft of his inheritance, only to discover his true love in Annie Nelson Clark, the daughter of his art and literature loving friend John King Clark.

After marrying and working in Dublin, Merton was recommended the south coast of England to alleviate his chronic chest ailments, so he bought the Bath Hotel in the centre of Bournemouth. Having renovated and extended the hotel in floor plan and in name – it became known as the Royal Bath Hotel because of its association with Edward VII, at the time scraping a living as the Prince of Wales – the Russell-Cotes then set to work building a family home next door. The building is in fact the vision of Merton, but his intention was to build it as a gift for his wife. Their story appears to be one of deep love and wedded bliss as our guide Pippa has interpreted it – she is leading us through the building on a mammoth 2 hour tour – what she calls a drop-in tour. You can drop in to the tour at any time, likewise you can drop out at any time if you’re getting bored with her commentary. It says much about Pippa’s commentary that the numbers double (if not more!) by the end of the tour. She brings the house to life, describing the decor, the history, some of the painting, the couples love of celebrity and their shoulder-rubbings with actors of the day. In fact, I’m wondering if I should check out Pippa’s credentials as her delivery is so polished and her storytelling so professional, I’m wondering if she is an actor herself.

She portrays Russell-Cotes as a self-publicist, encouraging friendships with royalty and actors. She tells us about the Lillie Langtry loo, the red glass in the conservatory, the Rosetti painting, the Japanese collection, the Napoleonic wine cooler and campaign lamp (both actual possessions of Napoleon in whom Merton had a particular interest). Benevolently, the Russell-Cotes, erstwhile mayor of Bournemouth and having secured the title of Sir and Lady, left the house and it’s substantial collection to the people of Bournemouth, with a separate sum bequeathed to pay for the upkeep of a curator for a number of years.

   

Perhaps they would have turned in their family mausoleum had they known that a 1960s curator had taken it upon himself to paint the rich red main hall peppermint green, or gloss paint the woodwork in the boudoir brilliant white, rather than retain Mrs R-C’s preferred pink! Happily a lottery grant has helped to restore the house almost to its former glory. Wallpaper and paint samples hidden behind furniture and electric fittings have helped to identify wall hangings and commission replacement furnishings.  The painted ceilings, friezes and cornices are almost there, but the conservatory with its peeling paint and emergency buckets still has a long way to go.

                               

If you aren’t inclined to take the tour, there is a perfectly good introductory film at the entrance to the museum just before you enter the original house through the conservatory. There are also information boards available for descriptions about the paintings and sculptures in the collection. And it is possible to wander through the house appreciating the rooms, the art and the antiques without having to read up about each individual item. Unlike many historical buildings the Russell-Cotes Museum does not force you around a predetermined route with ropes and barriers to keep you in check. You may wander at your leisure and take a break on any of the many chairs not sporting a teasle. A lovely touch, I think, to deter you from sitting on a delicate fabric or potentially hazardous item of furnishing!
   

In fact it’s probably best to take a seat every now and again, as after a while you find the Florence-effect coming on. There is far too much in one place to appreciate everything! It’s handy therefore that Pippa is on hand to draw our attention to some of the stand-out pieces in the collection, where the money was spent on bespoke art and where saving were made on catalogue-bought fittings.  She points out that, ironically, the paintings, sculpures, china cabinets, curios and stuffed animals are only a small portion of the enormous collection which would have cluttered the house in the Russell-Cotes’ time.

 

Of course mid-Victorians were exposed to the styles of art, architecture and industry from around the world, particularly with the opening of the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851, but it wasn’t until the 1880s that Japan began to open its doors to the world, and en route back from New Zealand the Russell-Cotes chose to purchase some exceptional tourist souvenirs –  some of which, on reflection, should probably have stayed in the country of origin. And if that makes you think of the Elgin Marbles, then you might be surprised that they (or plaster cast replicas) adorn the frieze about the entrance staircase. Other friezes, also catalogue-bought, are made from compressed paper – I’m immediately interested considering my minor obsession with Victorian papier-mâché, but in this case the cherubic bottoms adorning the upper levels of the main hall haven’t fared so well and one has a thumb-sized dimple in his buttock.

As well as the impressive collection of Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite art, there are amazing Sèvres and Imari pieces of porcelain dotted around, Māori art, and Japanese carved Ivory. In fact there are Japanese pieces all over the place, having overspilled from the Mikado’s Room overlooking the little Japanese bridge in the garden. Apparently on their return to Bournemouth and before the house was built in 1901, the Japanese collection was housed in a suite of its own in the Royal Bath Hotel and only guests worth their salt – royalty, actors, dignitaries, etc – were invited to view the treasures which travelled back from the Far East in 100 packing cases.

              

Beyond the classical and oriental inspired Main Hall, an extension leads on to what was originally the kitchen garden. These four rooms now form an art gallery housing works of art from the collection and in the furthest two rooms is the current exhibition – Refracted: Collection Highlights –  curated with the help of the local LGBT+ community. Sections are inspired by the colours of the rainbow and even if none the individual pieces of art are to your taste, you’ve got to admire the arrangement of the galleries – it’s a joy to walk round the exhibition just to get the juxtaposition of the painted walls! I do like the work on display though – particularly Walter Cranes and the Casque D’or by Kate Olver – but to be honest I’m all Uffizi-ed out now and I’m off to the cafe for a spot of lunch.

                                        

My head is still spinning with some of Pippa’s stories, and there is far too much to impart – so I think you should make the trip to Bournemouth and have a look at the museum and collection yourself.

The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum is open 10am-5pm, Tuesday-Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays. It occasionally closes for special events. It costs £6 for adults and OAPs and £4 for children and concessions on means-tested benefits. Worth every penny!

 

 

Science Museum

   

I haven’t been to the Science Museum in South Kensington for some years – 10? 12, perhaps? – so I was looking forward to seeing what new stuff was in store for me and my nephews.

Surprisingly, considering it was the start of the schools holidays, the queue to get in was minimal. A quick bag check and straight through to the entry tills where you can pass through free of charge or offer a donation to the upkeep of the museum (suggested £5 donation per person).

Now I must be honest here – I can’t say I was ever much taken with the Energy Hall in the main gallery. I know they are all big impressive exhibits, all important breakthroughs in their own right, but they never quite got me steamed up! I know my dad would have loved the huge scale models – they were probably there to be seen when he was a boy, and they do suffer slightly from old-world museum exhibit syndrome with a tad of dustiness about them.

Which is a big shame really, because, if like me, you’re not totally enthralled with the grandeur of this massive gallery, then you might be forgiven for thinking it’s going to be a bit of a bland, bygone museum experience. But, oh no, you just need to move on a few metres into the Exploring Space gallery and that, for me, is where this museum starts!

I’m not going to say this is the most perfect gallery of all time, it just resonates deeply with me and my dreams, as a seven-year-old, of becoming an astronaut. (I still have these dreams, but I’m sure now, as then, they’re not too keen to let a chronic asthmatic into space!)

                           

This is a gallery filled with rockets, satellites, a replica of the Eagle Moon lander and dangling planets in a moodily dark atmospheric gallery. I think perhaps the last time I was here, me and my eyes were a tad younger and I didn’t notice how difficult it is to read the information panels beside the exhibits. I can see that they are filled with fascinating facts about the Apollo missions, Sputnik, Valentina Tereshkova, the first and only female to fly solo in space – but I can hardly read a bloody thing. And it gets worse when someone joins you at the exhibit and their shadow falls over the captions!

Never mind, I know most of this stuff anyway, so I can happily chunter on to my nephews, probably boring them rigid in the process.

We have to cut our time in the gallery short because we’ve booked in to the Legend of Apollo experience and need to hightail it through the Making of the Modern World gallery with all manner of transport and technology, stopping briefly for a pee stop and to take a photo of Stephenson’s Rocket.

We file into a small room and start with an explanatory film about the missions to the moon before moving in to the Discovery Motion Theatre, picking up our 3D glasses on the way to experiencing the animated journey in a multi-sensational, chair rocking, 3D, surround-sound spectacle.

It was fun and a little unexpected – I thought it was just a film! – and we filed out and straight on to a second 3D experience in the enormous IMAX theatre on the top floor. From the IMAX films on offer, we chose A Beautiful Planet. Who doesn’t enjoy a 3D film? No-one can criticise the amazing effects and the scale of the experience, but I think I have to criticise the makers for being a tiny bit misleading with the name of this film. I think perhaps ‘Good bits of IMAX film from space tied up in a tenuously linked storyline about Earth, and perhaps Mars, and a lot about the International Space Station’.  Obviously, A Beautiful Planet is catchier!

Footage of Earth from the Space Station is always impressive – night shots of cities, beautiful oceans and awesome weather conditions, but the IMAX experience was disappointingly ‘flat’. The best footage of Earth was taken from ground level over the oceans and across mountain ranges which then morph into Mars – possibly to reinforce the environmental message of the dangers of climate change.

The best footage, however, comes direct from the ISS with astronauts, boxes, oranges and all manner of debris floating before your 3D specs. My verdict – great footage, bad plot, but highly enjoyable nonetheless.

From the IMAX theatre, we hit the Deep Blue Diner for lunch – nice salads on offer here, a selection of burgers, kids’ menu – with waitress service in a moodily-lit, vibrant blue corner of the Wellcome Wing. Tasty!

After a nice relaxing lunch, we hit the trail again. Retracing our steps we head for a closer look at the Rocket and move on to inspect Tim Peake’s capsule with its charred shell and enormous parachute. Casting my mind back a couple of hours to our Legend of Apollo experience, I feel I can appreciate the scars and the scale of the craft a little more (even if I’d still like to experience the real thing for myself!). What I love most about the Soyuz TMA-19M descent module is its lovely art deco shape. Obviously, the design of the capsule follows all the rules of fit-for-purpose. There’s no concern for superficial styling to make it look nice – it has to be designed to fit in the nose of the Soyuz rocket, attach snuggly with the ISS and return to Earth safely though the planet’s atmosphere, withstanding temperatures of 17,000°C. So there’s no option of a pretty rose window or an Art Nouveau-style handle, but strangely, it looks so stylish that the landing capsule could have come straight from a Tintin novel or even from the mind of HG Wells. For me, the highlight of the visit!

  

We wander aimlessly into places that look exciting to the boys. The Flight gallery is a favourite, with its history of flight from balloons as depicted on commemorative china, which I loved, while the boys were off examining the cockpit of a 1943 Douglas DC-3. Raised walkways make the most of the exhibits from Amy Johnson’s Gypsy Moth to the Hawker P1127.

The boys pass up on the chance to ‘fly’ in one of the simulators – they’ve just had lunch and don’t want to lose it. There’s also a virtual reality space descent following Tim Peake’s return to the planet, which we’ll leave for another day as I seem to be the only one interested. We also leave the Wonderlab, skip the Information Age gallery, pause for a while in the Mathematics gallery to rest on the benches and admire the amazing canopy designed by Zaha Hadid Architects. The undulating 3D forms are inspired by the in-flight air currents of the 1929 Handley Page ‘Gugnunc’ aircraft at the head of the gallery. Illuminated by a constantly moving violet light, the whole gallery has such an hypnotic effect, that I almost had to force myself to look at the other exhibits.

We ended up on the top gallery overlooking the main Energy Hall. The interactive Energy gallery keeps us all entertained, and it’s a shame that some of the consoles are out of action. While the boys try out all the exhibits, including the Do Not Touch installation (which, of course, just cries out to be touched!), I go for a quick whizz around the watches in The Clockmakers’ Museum. A bit of a weakness of mine – clocks, globes, orreries, astrolabes… In reality I know nothing about their workings, I just like looking at them!

     

It’s interesting that in a museum where often the overall design of the individual galleries outdoes some of the exhibits therein, here we have a relatively old-fashioned display of clocks and watches packed into cases. Some of the delicate pocket watches are exquisite, but there are far too many of them to appreciate each one. Instead I jump from case to case, picking out my two or three favourites and reading about them. There’s also one of John Harrison’s early marine chronometers and a wonky little orrery tucked inside a glass globe that grab my attention before I return to the boys in the Energy gallery.

So we leave with, I reckon, only one third of the museum covered. There’s plenty for a return visit… the Robot exhibition, the Statoil Gallery, I didn’t get to visit my favourite home appliances in The Secret Life of the Home gallery in the basement – and then there’s the new Medicine gallery due to open in 2019.

 So plenty of reasons for a return visit!

Hadrian’s Wallsend


So, Wallsend eh? Growing up, I always thought it was a funny name, up there with the likes of Pity Me and Tantobie, to cite just two brilliantly-named north eastern locations. But I’ve just been for a visit and found out Wallsend’s even sillier Roman name – Segedunum!

Segedunum is the Roman fort at one end of Hadrian’s Wall, that amazing national treasure built across the Northumbrian and Cumbrian countryside to keep out those scary Picts. The settlement is not qute as large as the incredible Vindolanda site further along the wall, but its definitely worth a visit.


Having said that, though – if you ever wonder why historians get excited about discovering a series of small walls, then you might be even more curious about us showing excitement when some of the missing walls have been filled in with even smaller walls of contemporary cobbles. Not even the real archaeological deal, just something indicating the original lie of the land.

 
But it is interesting – a real eye opener showing the arrangement of life in a Roman fort. The cavalry barracks with their arrangement of rooms for officers and horses – hearth at the front denoting a room for three cavalry men, and the room at the back with a big pit for draining away the urine of the three cavalrymen’s horses. The hospital latrine with it original arrangement of drains and the channel from the water tank showing the hygiene logistics of the camp. The grandeur of the commanding officer’s house built to reflect the rich Roman villas of the Mediterranean – including the shaded courtyard to protect them from the Northumbrian sun!
 
At the far end of the site is a reconstruction of the bath house, sadly closed to the public due to a large whole in the roof, rendering it unfit and unsound for visitors. Luckily for us, there is a reconstruction of the bathhouse floor plan further along Hadrian’s Cycleway – about 200 metres from the main site. The verge of the Cycleway and parts of the site itself were in full bloom with wild flowers planted courtesy of the remainder of a half million pound grant awarded by ex-chancellor George Osborne – surely one of the very few gestures by a Tory government for the benefit of the north east, even the attendant at the museum, rolled her eyes in confusion at the thought!
 
 
It was a grey day when we visited, but the site was in glorious colour thanks to the wild flowers filling the verge of the cycle path – thanks in part to Mr Osborne’s £500,000 grant. The small Roman garden by the now-defunct bathhouse was also quite lovely, with places to picnic if the rain held off.
 
 
Segedunum – Seg (rhyming with egg)-u-due-num, if you’re asking (‘Seggy’ for short, according to the attendant) – consists of the restored section between the roadside and the cycleway, the new bathhouse site and an informative purpose-built museum with viewing gallery.
 
I must admit that Mr Jenkins and I thought the viewing gallery was an airport control tower, but the elevated section of the museum helps you to view the whole site with the help of an animated timeline, taking you from the Roman invasion of Britain, through the abandonment and decay of the camp, it’s return to nature, and then, in the Victorian industrial era, a building flurry of terraced housing, quickly demolished as time flies by to the excavation of the site and renovation of the original Roman fort. The top of the tower, on level 9, is served by a lift, so you don’t have to climb all the stairs. Strangely, levels 8 to 4 don’t exist, so it’s straight down to the cafe on level 3 and the galleries on levels 1 and 2. The staff are friendly and there were a bunch of tame Romans around adding colour to the story of the fort. The Romans, in full regalia, were hanging around the car park and mingling with visitors on level 1, where items excavated from the grounds were displayed with interactive displays, and films explaining the social structure of the Roman and indiginous inhabitants.
 
                                    
 
It’s an interesting place, not over-packed with info, making it accessible for those tempted in for a quick idea of the place, or children with a shorter attention span. The in-depth details are imparted from an engaging film showing characters from the heyday of the fort, and from their modern-day counterparts with their brightly coloured armour and weapons.
 
 
The museum employees pointed us up to the viewing gallery first, but recommended a trip to the main gallery to chat with the Romans before they knock of at 3pm. The tea room would be closing early too, so get yourself up there if you need a cup of tea… Duly instructed we were up in the friendly, if almost empty, tea room by 3.30pm overlooking the site of the fort and the car park, just in time to watch the Romans pack their armour into crates and lug them into the boot of their cars.
 
Back down to level 2 and a bit more information about the colliery and shipbuilding. Not quite as exhaustive as the Roman exhibits, but interesting none-the-less. However, it is the museum’s Roman credentials that make this place, and the exhibits work hard at emphasising the day-to-day life of the fort and its interaction with the existing community. It made me wonder why I always spurned the offer of a trip to Housesteads when I was younger. Housesteads, that other popular Roman site on Hadrian’s Wall and popular destination for boring Latin teachers….. Perhaps I was just waiting for technology to catch up to make the visit a tad more interesting.
 
Segedunum is open to public from the 1 April to the 30 September, daily from 10am-5pm. Entrance fees are £5.95 for addults, £3.95 for concessions and children under 16 go free.
 
 

Asunder – a film by Bob Stanley

I suppose if I told you I was off to watch a black & white film with a live music accompaniment you’d be thinking I’d taken an interest in old Charlie Chaplin movies with a bloke and his piano at the side of the auditorium tinkling away to give atmosphere to the silent performance….

And I suppose in a way, that’s exactly what I was watching. Except this is Asunder, a 21st century film about a much more serious subject than the antics of a silent movie clown.

Asunder is a charming collection of images and feisty stories of real people from the northeast of England caught up in the drama of the first world war, commissioned to commemorate the anniversary of the Battle of the Somme by Sunderland Cultural Partnership and 14-18 NOW (amongst others). The project was spearheaded by Bob Stanley of Saint Etienne with Esther Johnson as film maker and live musical score from a collaboration of Sunderland’s own Field Music and Newcastle’s Warm Digits, with the help of the Royal Northern Sinfonia and The Cornshed Sisters.

The intention of the film is to connect the viewer to the lives of people left behind in wartime Britain, centred around Sunderland at the mouth of the Wear. Footage from the war, both at home and on the Western Front, is partnered with an excellent score, emphasising the wartime tension courtesy of the string quartet and mournful loss, expressed perfectly with the plaintive flute.

Kate Adie narrates, taking us through the lives of soldiers, munitions workers, conscientious objectors, suffragettes and footballers, while Alun Armstrong is the voice of the Sunderland Echo, sharing headlines and snippets of news from the home front and the front line.

I understand totally the choice of Adie for this gig – her links to Sunderland and her interest in WW1, and her voice as a well-known, award-winning war journalist, makes her a no-brainer. Then why did I feel uncomfortable with her narration? Sure, she lends gravitas to the film, but there’s something about the contrast of her elocuted, clipped tones with Alun Armstrong’s cheeky northern accent. Something about the way she pronounces ‘Sunder-land’ with emphasis on the ‘-land’, with a hard ‘A’, when everyone in Sunderland pronounces it (mumbles it, even) ‘Sunderlund’. I wondered if by separating the Sunder from the land, that she was trying to emphasise the title.

Its premiere was held at the Sunderland Empire in 2016, performed on the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme with the whole of the Royal Northern Sinfonia, but I watched it at Milton Court adjacent to the Barbican in central London. Instead of the full orchestra, we had a string quartet, but I don’t feel short-changed in any way. The acoustics in Milton Court are excellent and the emotion conveyed by the musicians was perfect. The Cornshed Sisters, with their lovely harmonies, sang ‘The Rigs of Sunderland Fair’, name checking many places from my early years and some which, even at the time of WW1, had already been wiped from the map.

The artist’s notes describe the juxtaposition of the world of 1916 with the world of 2016 where optimism has been eliminated by fear, nationalism and rage. It is set in Sunderland although the notes suggest it could be any town or city in the UK, with the universal call to arms, rise in the status of women, the pain and drive and humour of those caught up in a war-to-end-all-wars which was experienced throughout Britain.

But Sunderland it is, and that caused me a bit of disappointment.

Because I’m not sure if something had been missed in translation, but I saw very little of 21st century Sunderland in the film, sitting in the capital and watching it through the eyes of an adopted southerner. Poignant stills of derelict shipyards are interspersed throughout the film, along with an empty cafe looking out to the beach at Roker, quiet terraced roads and boarded up corner shops. Is this the celluloid realisation of Bob Stanley’s 2016 Sunderland? It bears little relation to the Sunderland I know… accepted, I haven’t lived there for 35 years, but I do visit regularly and last time I was in the city centre, it was a bustling place. Is this a true portrayal on film of the parallels of a town/city separated by 100 years? I’d like to think that those recent images were chosen merely as a foil for the film to convey a sense of loss, rather than as a representation of the coastal city I know and love.

It sounds like I’m complaining. Really, I loved the film! I loved the music more, but the film had some amazing images and some of them were repeated throughout the film, so I have a lovely bank of still and moving image memories of munitions girls in the overalls and makeshift masks hammering on the top of a shell, soldiers fooling around on the front line with makeshift armour, and kids in their Sunday-best following the camera to stay in shot. But most of all, I’ll remember the aerial footage of the trenches, zigzagging their way through the French and Belgian countryside – miles and miles of maze-like channels looking strangely neat and manicured from this height.

Did it connect me to the first world war – give me an understanding of how it was for the people left behind? Yes, it did. And in fact, it made me want to find out more. I’ll definitely be planning a trip to Richmond Castle to see if I can spot the graffiti left by conscientious objectors imprisoned there waiting for their death sentences to be commuted. I’ll definitely be researching a bit more in the life of trouser-wearing and tattooed female footballer, Bella Reay. And I’ll definitely be listening to more Field Music.

If you live in or near Sunderland, you can find a screening near you.

 

Hot Stuff – Glass Class at London Glassblowing

 

It’s amazing what you can do with a metal rod , some molten glass and a selection of mediaeval tools.  Perhaps I should clarify – it’s amazing what you can do with a metal rod, some molten glass and some mediaeval tools… IF you have years of experience and a large dose of talent under your belt.

I will be grateful for the rest of my life for the fabulous gift Mr Jenkins gave me for my last birthday – a day of glassmaking at London Glassblowing – but I will also be aware that I’ll never be glass artist, and instead will merely appreciate the work, skill and talent that goes in to making the beautiful works of art displayed at London Glassblowing, Peter Layton‘s glass studio in Bermondsey Street.

     

I’ve loved watching glass artists from an early age. I think I saw my first glass blowing demonstration around the age of nine or ten and found it instantly fascinating. I’ve witnessed the same techniques being used in glass studios around the world, in the States, Australia, Italy, Portugal…. and in my home town, Sunderland. I was lucky enough to see glass being made at Hartley, Wood & Co in the Monkwearmouth area of Sunderland in the early 1980s before the factory closed. The scene inside probably hadn’t changed much over the previous century, perhaps a few nods to health and safety, but the guys there explained that the tools were identical to their Roman counterparts.

And here I am watching a glass making demonstration in 2017, feeling a little bit annoyed with myself that when I booked last July (yes, demand for these classes is that high!) I hadn’t realised there would be a planet-wide women’s demonstration marching through the major cities of the world. I felt that I was letting the side down a bit, but then I soon became absorbed in the art of glassblowing and a fear of major injury!

Our demonstrator is Anthony, one of the two tutors on hand today to take us six novices through our paces. It looks so simple; collect the glass, add some pigment, mold it, poke it, heat it up again if it’s losing its pliability, work it a bit more with the scary pincer things (they’re called ‘jacks’, apparently), knock it off the rod and stick it in the oven to gradually cool.

So while you’re doing all that, you also have to concentrate on keeping the glass centred on the end of the rod by twisting it constantly, while also being aware of the magnificent heat given off by the blob of red hot stuff a few centimetres from your hand. And then there’s remembering not to touch the rod with your right hand – turn it with the left, the right hand will be too close to the end of the metal rod which has just been in the furnace and could cause a bit of unnecessary welding between rod and skin!

During our health and safety intro, we were all warned that most people will try to touch the rod with their right hand – and at least two of the three in my group did. So we took on board Anthony’s advice and sat on our right hand when it wasn’t in use.

                              

Our tutors Anthony Scala and Tim Rawlinson are both artists in their own right, and part of the London Glass-blowing studio. But today they are putting their own work to one side to help us realise our goal of ‘3 to 4 pieces by the end of the day’.

We all begin with a vaguely triangular-shaped paper weight with a single colour. I’m up first. We work in a team, my two fellow novices and I. One molds the glass, one works as assistant and one takes photos. And Anthony guides you through the techniques managing to do much of the work himself. Although it’s me holding the rod and the tools, he’s guiding my hands and correcting any mistakes as we go. My assistant Lisa is on hand to shield my hand from the heat of the glass with a paddle of wood, to spray water on my pad of paper made from a copy of the Metro and to make sure I’ve replaced the tools pointing in the right direction. Jane is the official photographer for this first session, though I’m far too engrossed and terrified in equal measure to bother smiling for the camera.

We swap so that Jane can can be put through her paces, I take over as assistant and Lisa takes the photos. Then it’s all change again. And we have three triangular paperweights in the big oven over in the far corner. I forget the correct name for it, as I have for most of the tools, equipment and techniques in use during the day. 

Next we make a more complex shape using two or three pigments, and by lunchtime we have three more paperweights in the oven.

Lunch is a welcome break. Leaving the searing heat of the studio to the freezing winter day outside and the short hike to Tanner & Co just up the road. The price of the class includes lunch too, and it’s a great choice for lunch – a lively atmosphere and great food, not to mention the home-made lemonade! We’ve already chosen our dishes, shortly after our health and safety talk, and our order was sent on ahead. I went for the haddock and crab fish cakes, which were lovely, but it didn’t stop me hankering after Lisa’s bacon and cheese burger. 

                                                                      

After coffee, it’s back to the studio. I first visited Peter Layton’s studio in London Bridge when he had premises further down the road. I went off in search of him after seeing one of his Ice Baskets on display at the National Glass Centre in Sunderland. Being greedy, I now have two Ice Baskets and a couple of smaller pieces by other artists at the studio.  It’s like being a kid in a sweet shop – so many different colours and shapes beautifully offset against the white background of the the gallery, it’s difficult to choose your favourite. At the back of the gallery the studio can be seen between two pristine white walls. The contrast is not restricted to just colour, but to atmosphere too. The lovely calm of the the gallery gives way, in a matter of footfalls, to a mixture of energy and excitement. Hushed tones in the sparkling white room are exchanged for the constant noise of the furnace, the heat and a hint of terror in the concrete and breeze block studio. I feel more at home in the studio. It’s exciting and it’s filled with stuff. I have to remember to stop taking photos and check to see where the next molten blob of glass on a red hot metal pipe will be coming from. It’s so easy to become mesmerised by the twisting pieces of glass slowly forming into its final shape, watching the pigments change colour as the glass cools, that you forget that there are real dangers close at hand.

   

In the afternoon, we’re learning to blow glass. We start with a simple glass tumbler, no colour, just clear glass. It’s a laugh. So now we have to remember all that stuff from this morning AND blow down the rod at a constant, controlled rate. This is much harder. I’m in danger of becoming demoralised, I don’t think I’m a natural at this. It’s not just the fear of making a mistake, it’s the realisation of how many techniques and senses you need to have on the go at any one time and, frankly, I don’t think I’m up to the job! Yeah, there’s the constant turning of the rod, treat it gently thread it through your fingers and don’t grab it stressfully in the palm of your hand. Don’t panic and twist it too manically if the glass moves off-centre, ease it back calmly and slowly. But in contrast to the light touch needed with the rod, you then have this hulking great lump of hell to deal with, and the more glass you collect from the furnace to build up your object, the heavier it becomes. Muscles much larger than mine are needed to move it easily from the furnace back to the chair. Balancing the glass on the end of the rod takes more coordination than you would think. Using the jacks to pinch in the glass needs strength that was comically lacking in my right hand.

I decided that I’d put so much of my heart and sole into making that ‘simple’ tumbler, that I chose to form it into a small vase instead. That way it would be less likely to get damaged in my household! 

      

Then, towards the end of the day, when you’re hot, dehydrated and worried about a deodorant breakdown situation, comes the finale. The end piece of the day – a piece of blown glass in the shape of a bowl, vase, dish, using two, three or more colours. The range of colours to choose from is amazing. There are plastic drawers full of pigments, powder and crystals. I knew this was my last chance so I tried to think which of my many favourite colours I should choose. It was a hard choice and it took me a while pondering, but I finally went for a rich green-blue with a streak of red. Not really sure how it’ll turn out, it was a compromise – choosing a gorgeous colour, but adding something that might make it fit in with my sitting room decor… just in case it’s good enough to go on display. That’s one of the fascinating things about glassmaking, you can’t truly know how the colours and pattern will turn out until you see the finished object. I made a bowl, goldfish-style. Not a dramatic statement, but a shape I like. I was so pleased when I finished – proud of myself and delighted that I hadn’t met with any major injuries!

     

Jane was next up while I took photos. She too went for a round bowl, but her colours were inspired by her beautiful rusty pink jumper with flecks of heathery blue. Lisa, who had previously created a paperweight using primary colours, decided to go the whole hog for her final piece and create a rainbow bowl. With the help of Anthony, ribbons of coloured glass were wound around the bowl in ‘roygbiv’ sequence. It was amazing to see the colours change as the pot cooled, but we will all have to wait to see the final results. Roll on next Saturday!

I would heartily recommend the day-long class as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and it’s great to think I’ve created a hand crafted piece of glass, but I can’t honestly say it was all my own work. And anyone thinking you can turn up to the class and produce a piece of art without any previous experience might be a tad disappointed. Luckily, I had no preconceived notions that I could be a glass blowing genius. We’ll leave that to Anthony and Tim and the rest of the talented artists at London Glassblowing. 

Thank you to Lisa and Jane for their help with photography.

Seth Lakeman at The Union Chapel

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Mr Donkin, my enthusiastic history teacher, tried his hardest to make the historical relevance of folk music of interest to a bunch of 13-year-olds. He failed miserably. He should have waited a few decades to introduce us all to Seth Lakeman.

I saw him last night at the Union Chapel in Islington. (That’s Seth Lakeman, not Mr Donkin.) What an amazing venue and what a stonking gig!

I’ll admit I wasn’t sure about the venue.

It’s fine, said Mr Jenkins, it’s an old church and you sit in pews.

Still wasn’t convinced – but hey, worth a go.

We got there early enough to see the support band. I wasn’t sure who they were. In truth, I’d just let Mr Jenkins arrange the whole thing, with my input being a brief ‘Yup’ to the question, ‘Do you fancy seeing Seth Lakeman?’

The Union Chapel is an incredibly atmospheric place. The lovely stained-glass windows are still in place to complement the stage lighting, with a Christmas tree and some illuminated reindeer thrown in for seasonal good measure.

There’s a bar and I fancied a drink, but it was on the opposite side of the venue from where we’d chosen to sit. Handy for the loos, but not the bar. I considered struggling through the pews to get a pint, but I noticed that most of the audience with drinks where holding on to bottled water or a mug of something. I wondered if it had been a Methodist chapel and in fact the bar only sold tea, or was there some by-law about having to serve lager in a mug to appease the relevant gods. Or perhaps they just didn’t allow alcohol into the auditorium, cos I sure as hell saw no-one drinking alcohol near me. But the guy in front did have a hot chocolate with marshmallows. And the guy two rows in front was cuddling his mug of tea with one hand and cupping a Tunnock’s foil-wrapped Tea Cake with the other.

Before I could consider the plot of Alan Garner’s Elidor (about slipping from one dimension to another inside a decommissioned church), the lights faded and the support band started up. I haven’t had such a delightful surprise in ages. Beautiful voices and acoustic folk music reminded me of Simon & Garfunkel, but they were women, and there were three of them, so there was another, deeper level to their impeccable harmonies. But there was also something Bluegrass there, mixed with a bit of Celtic – like Pictish Trail meets the Soggy Bottom Boys. Before the end of the first song, I was checking my phone to find out who they were.

Wildwood Kin – that’s who. Check them out, they are something else.

They finished their set and we all clapped enthusiastically. There was some whooping too, but we all stayed in our pews. I think the combined memories of the audience (averaging the age of 50, I reckon, but ranging from mid-20s to nearly-90s) forced us to remain seated and respectful in our pews (or was that just me?). I know I used to fear the uppy-downy dance on a Sunday morning, especially when I joined my friend at her Catholic church. It was a dance I didn’t know the steps to and often missed the beat, standing when I should be sitting, kneeling when I should be standing. It was safer to keep with the crowd, and so I did at the Union Chapel and remain seated.

Even when Seth Lakeman arrived and invited us to get up and dance in the aisles, we pretty much remained seated – except for one lone women at the far side near the bar. I admired her from afar for her confidence, but remained in my pew. The audience in the gallery were more enthusiastic though.

It wasn’t actually until the encore when Seth told us to get up, that we all, every last one of us (except for the 70-odd year old bloke just down our row and a woman with a crutch), rose up and gave the music the attention it deserved.

It seems I’m a little more taken with the antics of the audience, than with the gig itself. Not true – not true at all! It was amazing! During the short and perfectly formed solos I didn’t have time to let my mind wander to interesting diversions like ‘Is Seth short for something?’, ‘Why is the audience still sitting down?’ and ‘Does playing the violin like that hurt your neck?’.

The band were dynamic. Seth was funny and engaging between songs. The music was, like, amazing. There were a few songs I didn’t know, but we were asked to join in anyway. I probably would have obliged with the singing if I’d been standing in normal gig circumstances, but I was sitting in a pew and the guy in front would have had my tuneless drone spoiling the gig, and I found myself mouthing the word I did know in homage to my time spent in church as a girl.

What I hadn’t realised was that the support band were even more supportive in the main event. New songs from a collaboration between Seth Lakeman and Wildwood Kin were aired and when the rest of the band returned to the stage, the women hung around in the background to provide backing vocals and some Celtic reels.

The music roller-coastered from beautiful ballads to breakneck-speed fiddling – it was dynamic and forced you, even seated, to pew dance and the floor bounced and vibrated with tapping feet and clapping hands and pew drumming. It is always such a pleasure to experience accomplished musicians playing a great set.

It was an awesome night of music, full of atmosphere, new musical finds and a slightly numb bum thrown in for good measure!

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The new album Ballads of the Broken Few is available on CD & vinyl.

Goth City

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Goth Central

You wonder, as you walk in to the curiosity cabinet that is the Whitby Museum, why you have never visited it before! At first glance it appears to be an old fashioned museum stuck in a Victorian time warp. And that’s correct – it has all of the dry display cabinets of the old Geological Museum in London’s South Ken, coupled with the eclectic collection of Forest Hill’s beautiful Horniman Museum. And it’s true, some of the exhibits have been in the Whitby Museum for so long that their typed up description label is fading on yellowing paper, so much so that in some cases I had to photograph the label and enlarge it on my phone to be able to read it! It’s actually quite a charming little foible of the museum.

But did I just mention the electric nature of the Horniman Museum? Well, bless me, it has competition with the Whitby Museum – if you’d like to consider museums which have the most wide ranging and frankly quite bizarre collections I’ve come across. The Hancock Museum of my childhood (circa 1970) had a similar atmosphere, but the amazing thing about Whitby is that the collection is housed mostly in one room. It’s not large by museum standards, but it is absolutely packed to the brim with artefacts and oddities.

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A handy returnable laminated guide sheet is handed to you when you hand over your £5 entrance fee, but it doesn’t give you the full gist of what’s in store. Wandering around I found many displays pandering to my wide range of interests, from the huge collection of ammonites (a favourite obsession of mine), to the collection of cameras collected over the last century (tying in with my love of photography), to the handicrafts section (my other job alongside picture research), to the cabinets packed with china and glass (both lifelong passions) and the amazing miniature models (harking back to my early days studying precision modelling). There’s also a standing stone with cup markings, for goodness sake (… thinks back to the many holidays spent dragging my kids round fields looking for wild versions… ).

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And if you’re looking for weird juxtapositioning, opposite  the stone you’ll find a grandfather clock alongside a ceiling height totem pole!

imageThen there were the work related exhibits – the orrery in the explorers exhibition tying in nicely with my four years of working on the orrery and tellurion model making magazines, the amazing fossils, including the huge ichthyosaurus embedded into the wall of the museum, harking back to the geological and fossil publication I worked on a few years back.

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It may have been synergy that guided me to Whitby and the museum during the October half term holiday and leading up to Halloween – and neither disappointed on the gothic front. Whilst a fine selection of goths roamed the streets of Whitby looking for the Bram Stoker experience, the ghoulish highlights amongst the museums collection left a more subtle skin-crawling impression.

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Top of the list were the incredibly haunting faces of the dolls in the toy section, the boat of bones – a model of a gun ship made by French PoWs during the Napoleonic wars from the bones left over from their meat rations, and best of all, the creepy Hand of Glory – a desiccated human hand found in a local criminal’s home kept as good luck trophy (and in fairness, the guy was never caught!).

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I felt that perhaps I was on a nostalgic journey, enjoying hunching over the wood and glass cabinets the way I used to with the semi precious gems in the Geological Museum in days or yore. I felt that I was enjoying the museum so much because it transported me back to my childhood. I felt that no child in its right mind would enjoy such a dry display in these days of instant entertainment. And as I look around over the top of the cabinets, I was one of 5 adults all around my age, who seemed to be the only visitors to the museum – hmmm, what would a child make of this museum, I thought.

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After a brief trip upstairs for a speedy journey through the history of the wedding dress, I arrived back in the main room to find it full of families – one girl dragging her mum to see the stuffed birds in their display case, and a family pouring over the amazing dolls house back in the children’s toys section, and one boy gobsmacked by the tale his dad told him of Victorian headmasters beating naughty children with the cane displayed in the education display case. An older girl gazed at the carved Whitby jet trying her best to photograph it through the reflective case.

Perhaps I was wrong then, perhaps kids today appreciate the object on display more if it’s not surrounded by all singing, all dancing interactive gadgets.

I wondered again, as I left the museum, why I hadn’t visited it before now. I’d had, after all, a mere 50 years of visiting Whitby on a regular basis! If you find yourself in Whitby – on a seaside holiday or as part of a gothic retreat – I would highly recommend the museum. You can find it in Pannett Park, open daily and costs a fiver for adults (concessions £4 for seniors and £3.50 for students). Children under 17 go free.

National Glass Centre

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I’ve been a regular visitor to the National Glass Centre for many years now. It celebrates the glass-making heritage of Sunderland in a unique building, with its unassuming, industrial entrance in direct contrast to its show-off riverside façade.  I love the entrance which dips away from what is ostensibly the roof of the Centre, drawing you down into a progressively enclosed channel of claustrophobia before propelling you through the doors and back into the light.

In the early days I became a ‘friend’ and spent many happy hours there with my children in the great interactive gallery with its imaginative explanations of the history, the properties and the possibilities of glass.

img_2381Verdant Seascape Sculpture, Fritz Dreisbach

My recent visit was interesting. It’s been a good few years since I was last there, so I dragged my sister along for a trip out. She was quite surprised that I wanted to have a look around – thought I’d be more interested in heading straight to the cafe for a coffee. But I managed to stop her in her tracks and drag her around the recently renovated top deck of the centre, completed a couple of years ago after a £2.3 million overhaul.

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Now, I might eat my words here, but I do believe that the National Glass Centre appeals to all ages. In the early days when it first opened, one side of the top floor was dedicated to an informative, hands-on, children-friendly exhibition. After a few years it started to look a little tired; worn out by little hands and big, hell bent on lifting flaps and turning cranks. It’s been replaced by a more subtle display of the history of glass making on the Wear – imaginatively done, with archive images and phone points to listen to the voices of workers from the Jobling, Pyrex and Corning factories of days past. There are peep-hole displays with a fine selection of locally made glass oddities, glass displays with front and back transparency to tempt you into the next section, and a fine rotunda-style film show. Sadly, the lighting in the rotunda was too intense and introductory film show, which offered much in the way of eye-candy with beautifully photographed glassmaking processes, was too weak to compete. I’d like to think they’ll have it sorted by the next time I visit.

Meanwhile there’s a dedicated kids’ area in the Learning Studio, adventure backpacks and family workshops. And of course, there is always that perennial enjoyment for kids – running across the 6cm thick glass roof while terrified parents look on – hoping to their own personal god that the glass is strong enough to hold their weight. Best ever fun my children had was lying on the glass roof making faces at the tea-drinking customers in the cafe eight metres or so below!

img_2377The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, Andrew Miller

The temporary exhibition when we visited really appealed to my sense of recycling – Andrew Miller‘s ‘The Good, the Bad & the Ugly’. I love his philosophy behind the exhibition, a collection of discarded objects, apparently worthless, but considered for their history, their previous design credentials, their past emotional attachments and their ultimate rise in status as a work of art. I’m sure that there will be the odd observer who will look at Miller’s work and exclaim, ‘It’s just a load of old rubbish!’ – and yes, they’d be right, but the ‘rubbish’, like the work of Joseph Cornell to Ai Weiwei, has been thoughtfully combined to create a compelling piece of art.

Finally done upstairs and having paid our suggested, but not compulsory, donation of £5 each, my sister finally got me to the lower level and the much sought-after cup of coffee. The Glass Yard cafe here has won awards, and it’s a fine place to sit and watch the Wear wander past the huge panoramic windows on its last leg to the North Sea. It’s also next to the amazing gift shop, which has introduced me to a few glass artists in the past, including Peter Layton at London Glassblowing (where incidentally, I’ll be trying my hand at glassblowing in the new year. Exciting stuff!). As often happens, I managed to spend a wee amount on a piece made at the NGC, and you can actually wander down the corridor at the far corner of the shop and sit yourself down for spell of glassblowing voyeurism.

It’s great to see such artists at work moulding the glass to their own fancy, seemingly unfazed by the tremendous heat of the furnace (for lovers of eco-friendly facts, you’ll be happy to know that the heat from the furnaces is also used to heat the building). The NGC has had links with the University of Sunderland for some years now – it’s only fitting that a city so emphatically linked with glass-making is now teaching the next generation of artists.

The National Glass Centre sits on the north bank of the River Wear in Sunderland – entrance is free with a collection box for the generous.