Charles I Reassembled

When I chose to go grey five years ago…

Um – let me clarify. I’ve been going grey since I was thirteen. What I mean is, when I chose to stop covering my grey with various shades of brown, I thought I’d be mistaken for an old lady. But one mid-week trip to the Royal Academy is a sure bet to make you feel young at heart. If only by comparison.

The Charles I exhibition at the Royal Academy is, according to the blurb, the first time the iconic art collection has been reassembled under one roof since it was carved up and sold off by our short-lived republic in the mid-1600s. It is a unique chance to see countless Van Dycks, Rubens, Holbeins and the odd Velasquez and Rembrandt; to appreciate the detail and texture at close quarters of an amazing collection of art.

Well, it would be if it wasn’t for the gaggle of old ladies planted in front of each and every painting. Seeing so many of them in one place makes me realise that even if I am, physically speaking, looking older these days, I know that in my heart I am miles away from these old biddies.

For one thing, I haven’t perfected the lethal bony elbow for nudging people out of the way when you want to get a better look at Van Dyck’s self-portrait. Luckily Charles I was heavily into enormous portraits of himself befitting his God-given status, and most of them are best viewed from a distance, and I’m still tall enough to view them over the combined mop of grey heads. But my feet, unfortunately, are still at ground level and not quite as lucky – especially when those with no spatial awareness decide to use their seriously deficient reversing skills to step on my toes with their sensible shoes.

Alongside some incredible allegorical art by Rubens, I was equally amazed at the seriously wicked glances given by the tiny old people to anything shorter than themselves – people in wheelchairs, children, and the like. I haven’t reached that milestone of intollerance just yet.

And I know for sure that after gazing at Velasquez portrait of Philip IV Of Spain, I was probably the only person in the gallery inwardly humming Everything Everything’s Hapsburg Lippp.

Yeah – still worlds apart!

Back to the art then. My favourites include the Bronzino’s Portrait of a Woman in Green – the lovely direct gaze of a women probably not noted for her beauty, but the artist has captured a wonderfully kind and wistful expression; Van Dyck’s three-way police mugshot of Charles I (possibly predicting Charles’s future run-in with the authorities), and the lovely chalk portrait of Anne Cresacre by Hans Holbein the Younger. I overheard one old lady in front of this portrait point out rather begrudgingly, ‘He is quite good, isn’t he?’ Major understatement!

And of course, there are the exquisite miniatures, and here I had to implement my own bony elbows in order to get a look-in.

As always, I find lots of thought-provoking questions come up during these exhibitions that need further research. Like, in Van Dyck’s portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria and Sir Jeffrey Hudson, I’m wondering – I think I’d like to know a bit more about the child-like Sir Jeffrey. And why, if the collection was so widely dispersed during the civil war, then how does HM the Queen seem to own the majority of the paintings on display. How did they fall back into Royal ownership after the restoration?  What exactly is a Hapsburg Lip?

Off to do some research…

Sad Window :(

This has to be one of my favourite sad window displays.

Spotted in an abandoned florist in Greenwich, it’s obvious that the teapots were a foil for the flowers. But now they are the main attraction with a selection of desiccated foliage poking out and scattered around.

I hope someone eventually came back for the teapots.

Robots AND Recyling!!

This is awesome!  Two of my favourite things in one place…. robots and recycling!

AI Build and Bottletop will be creating a new store interior on Regent Street over the next couple of months. Bottletop is a luxury fashion brand, but I’m more interested in the interior than the handbags. Designed by Krause Achitects, it will be entirely 3D printed using Kuka robots and Reflow filament made from recycled plastic waste – all in line with Bottletop’s sustainable values.

Worth braving the West End Christmas crowds for a cheeky peek, I think!

Guernsey Trip #1 – The Bailiwick of Guernsey Millennium Tapestry

St Peter Port in Guernsey is littered with little museums and galleries, but sadly, most of them close at the end of September. So arriving at the beginning of October, was perhaps a bad plan!

Never-the-less, the two main museums, Cornet Castle and the Guernsey Museum at Candie are open almost all year round, as is the small, but beautifully formed, Guernsey Tapestry museum.

I’ll start with the tapestry museum – it was the first one I visited and very pleased I did. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I visited the Bayeux Tapestry recently and wondered how it would compare. The tapestry was started as a community event to mark the millennium, involving the ten parishes of the Bailiwick of Guernsey working on their own tapestry with supervision from a team of tapestry doyens. Each of the tapestries depict a piece of Guernsey history over the last 1000 years, from the mythological and ghostly tradition of the island and the conflict of war to art, craft, architecture, tomatoes and cows.

The panels were designed by artist Valerie Chandler and transferred onto textile by Jenneth Fitzgerald, who co-ordinated the mammoth project and received an OBE from Prince Charles in recognition of her achievement (an award that she promptly shared with everyone involved in the project).

Ok, it might sound a bit amateurish – random people of varying abilities contributing to a tapestry, but the results are anything but. The vibrant colours, textures, attention to detail, humour and heart – you’ll find it all. It’s obvious that the people involved in the project, from the co-ordinating team to the children who added a stitch or two, have taken pride in their work.

Like the Bayeux Tapestry, the Guernsey Tapestry is housed in a purpose-built gallery with dimmed lighting. Like the Bayeux Tapestry, an audio guide talks you through the tapestries drawing your attention to a quirky detail or a pertinent point in Guernsey’s history. The audio guide doesn’t point out to you the different textures, used to great effect on the second panel by to depict the waves rolling against the western shore of the island, or the flames in the sixth panel or the fishermen’s nets in panel number eight. Luckily Caroline is on hand to help with any questions I have about the work. She can also point to the cow on the St Peter Port panel where her tapestry stitch resides.

At the very least, the Guernsey Tapestry is a great starting point for introducing you to Guernsey’s unique history, but I think if you look closer and immerse yourself in the fabric of time, you’ll get a great deal more out of this lovely place. And if you need more colour, just ask at the desk in the gift shop – I was lucky that it was a quiet day and got myself an impromptu second tour with my own private guide, with insights into the tapestry and some of the personal stories behind it.

Definitely worth a tour. It cost £4.95 for adults, £4.50 for over 65s and students. Children under 16 go free.

Easter to end of October, Monday – Saturday 10am – 4.30pm.
(November to Easter open Thursdays only 10am – 4pm)

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.