Monday, 15 February 2010

The Victoria and Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum is hardly 'unknown' London, being as it is the world's largest museum of art and design containing over 4.5 million objects. And yet, even on supremely busy days when the queues to get into the Natural History and Science Museums are snaking their way down Exhibition Road, it is possible to find a quiet spot where you can peruse the exhibits in peace. This is for two main reasons: firstly the museum's sheer size (I have visited a fair few times now and am still finding a wealth of new galleries on each visit), and secondly the fact that it doesn't really appeal to children. This is not a museum filled with hands-on displays, flashing lights and electronic beeps; instead it simply presents its objects as they are, letting the sheer quality do the talking.

The variety of exhibits is astounding. Where else is it possible to view samurai swords, Renaissance sculpture, one of Mick Jagger's stage outfits and a hurdy-gurdy all under one roof? And remarkably it is all interesting. Even the things that sounded hugely dull to me before I visited turned out to be fascinating. For example, a gallery dedicated to ironwork that I expected to walk straight through ended up containing extremely intricate locks with their mechanisms completely visible as well as imposing gates and a rose with petals so delicate they almost looked real.

My most recent visit was this Saturday, and as usual I covered a considerable amount of new territory. Here are some of the objects that I regarded as highlights:

Samson slaying a Philistine by Giambologna, 1562, Florence.

My favourite sculpture in the whole of the museum, this grand piece has recently been moved near the entrance to give it the prominence it deserves. One of the very few works by Giambologna to have left Italy, it was based on an idea of Michelangelo and was his first major commission. It depicts the Old Testament Judge Samson slaying a Philistine with an ass’s jawbone; a common subject but one rarely executed with such skill.

Despite having spent more than three hundred years outside, the marble is still incredibly detailed and we can see clearly the lean muscle of the men, the intricate folding of the cloth and the texture of their hair. Unlike many sculptures this was designed to be viewed from any angle; it does not have a 'front' and so the viewer has to walk all around to appreciate it fully. The cold stone may be immobile but this does not prevent it from having a real sense of movement, of violence and of urgency. The men's faces also tell a tale: the features of the Philistine convey real panic, whereas Samson shows only cool dispassion.

The Upas, or Poison Tree, on the Island of Java by Francis Danby, 1820s, Britain.

The work of Francis Danby belongs to the school of Romanticism with its towering hills, dazzling sunsets and epic vistas. 'Romantic' scarcely seems like an appropriate word to describe this painting, however. At first it appears simply to be a view of a clearing surrounded by steep-sided mountains; dark, yes, and certainly grand, but nothing too unsettling. A step closer, and everything changes. The man in the foreground who from a distance could be thought simply to be leaning over is revealed to be turning away in disgust and fear, patterns on rocks are resolved into skeletons, all suddenly reeks of death and decay.

The inspiration for this painting came from a poem by Erasmus Darwin, who wrote the following notes:
'There is a poison-tree in the island of Java, which is said by its effluvia to have depopulated the country for twelve or fourteen miles...condemned criminals are sent to the tree...and are pardoned if they bring back a certain quantity of the poison.'
A grim subject indeed. The painting is not without a ray of hope, however. Far away in the distance are the snow-covered peaks of less doom-filled mountains and the stars are still twinkling in the blue-black sky.

Iron comb, Berlin, 1820s.

The Victoria and Albert Museum contains a great many shiny things, and the highest concentration of these is found in the jewellery section. 'Dazzling' is the only word that can adequately describe this gallery, surely a criminal's dream with so many diamonds and precious gems all lined up together. I personally am not a great jewellery fan and so found many of the items hideous, but it was nonetheless impossible not to admire the skill of the craftsmen who had created such things.

One case in particular stood out to me, being as it was an oasis of light relief in the midst of all that sparkling. There were no jewels to be found here; instead all the pieces were fashioned out of cast iron, giving them a delightfully Tim Burton-esque feel. The comb above is a prime example. Its dark, Gothic decoration makes it seem suited to the graveyard, and yet such items were only worn by women in the very upper echelons of Society. The style is known as 'Berlin iron' and was not widely popular outside Germany. Unfortunately most examples have now rusted away.

The Ommeganck in Brussels on 31 May 1615: The Triumph of Archduchess Isabella by Denis van Alsloot, 1615.

This remarkable oil painting, which shows a grand circus-like procession, is one of the first exhibits to be seen in the Theatre gallery. The above scene is only a tiny portion of the painting, which in turn depicts only one sixth of the entire parade. The whole event, bizarrely held to celebrate the moving of an image of the Virgin Mary across Brussels a long time earlier, must have been truly spectacular!

The style of painting is not the most accomplished and is rather cartoony, but given the subject matter this seems appropriate. Most impressive is the sheer amount of detail that has been crammed in. We can see each individual performer, each crowd member (some of whom appear to be engaged in scuffles), each horse and rider, each banner. It is a scene full of energy, full of excitement, full of spectacle, and as such is a perfect introduction to all the aspects of theatre that are explored later in the gallery.

Plaster cast of the Tomb of St Sebaldus, Peter Vischer, 1519, Nuremberg (original).

I will never tire of the cast rooms in the Victoria and Albert Museum, they are quite frankly amazing. Unfortunately one is undergoing work at the moment, but the other is fully available to wander around and gape at. The idea behind them is this:
In most cases if the British wanted something archaeological or cultural from a different country they just took it (see the British Museum for extensive examples of this). However, in some countries, such as most of Europe, this sort of stealing wasn't an option, and so instead plaster casts were taken. These plaster replicas allowed students of architecture, for example, to learn and be inspired by all sorts of objects without having to actually go abroad to see them. Lots of these casts now have ended up in the Victoria and Albert Museum, collected together in these huge rooms. Tombs, archways, Tabernacles, pulpits, statues and (most impressively) the enormous Trajan’s column, are all sat there right next to each other. It is completely bonkers. Go and see it.

Once you have got over the sheer wow-factor of the room it is possible to take in and appreciate some of the detail. When looked at closely, the Tomb of St Sebaldus shown above is hard to beat. Little creatures and people are everywhere, playing instruments, arguing with each other, looking bored, looking menacing. No surface is left undecorated, even those too far into the centre to eyeball closely. St Sebaldus himself is something of a mystery. No one seems to really know when he lived or what he actually did; he might have been a hermit and was probably a missionary, but as for anything else, who knows? Regardless of whether it was deserved or not, there's no denying he got a cracking tomb. My favourite thing about it? It's supported by snails!

All pictures are from the website of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Bushy Park

City as it is, most of London life takes place indoors. There are of course stunning views to be had strolling down the Thames but most such walks will be undertaken with a building as their goal, be it a museum, a theatre, a friend’s home, or even a workplace. We humans are not however meant to have a roof above our heads constantly, and so once in a while (or as often as possible in my case) it becomes necessary to get out in the open, to give our legs a stretch and to breathe in some fresh(ish) air.

One good place in which to enjoy such an escape from the built environment is Bushy Park, situated between Teddington and Hampton in south west London. I should note straight away that some people would not take this to be in London at all, lying as it does in the relative ‘sticks’ of Zone 6, but personally I adhere to the view that anything inside the M25 is part of London, whatever its residents may argue to the contrary. But anyway, back to Bushy Park. One of the old royal deer parks, it is second only to nearby Richmond Park in size, but has, I feel, a nicer atmosphere to it. The bulk of its area is left fairly scrubby, with unkempt grass in spring and summer being replaced by tall bracken in autumn and winter. Scattered groups of trees add interest, while long, wide rides in the southern half add a sense of grandeur.

Not all of the park is laid out so openly, however. There are two fenced-in plantations containing much denser vegetation that are also worth a look. Parts of these have been elegantly landscaped, with artfully-placed trees overlooking ponds frequented by all manner of ducks. Better though are those sections that have been allowed to grow a little more wildly, where the bushes are not as neat and the paths not as clear-cut. I have managed to spend whole afternoons tucked away in these upper reaches without coming across another soul.

Back outside of the fences two of the most prominent features (excepting the road that unfortunately blights the centre of the park and the Diana fountain that this winds around) are the Heron and Leg of Mutton Ponds. These attract a quite impressive selection of wildfowl, with red-crested pochard and Egyptian geese being often present in addition to the more usual gulls and mallards. On one of my more recent visits I was able to get within a metre of the very obliging heron pictured below.

Less water-inclined birds also abound. The green parakeets are worth a special mention; with their in-your-face plumage and piercing squawks they are pretty hard to miss. They are also rather exotic, and it is quite a shock to see these creatures flying happily around suburbia. After all, they are normally associated with rainforests and other such areas with rather balmier weather. Native birds such as green woodpeckers, thrushes and jays are also common, and one time I even caught sight of a cuckoo.

Not all the park dwellers have wings. Although not technically ‘wildlife’, the deer roam around freely both in herds and individually. There are a good mixture of fallow and red to see, and all are pretty well used to humans, allowing us to get much closer than would ever be possible out in the real countryside. Mingled in with the brown deer are a smattering of completely white animals. The limited herd sizes seem to allow the albino genes to propagate much more extensively than would happen normally; these white deer stand out a mile which is hardly a good survival trait when predators are lurking nearby.

The most common creature by far in the park however is unfortunately two-legged. A third car park complete with cafe has recently been opened, and this has encouraged the humans to swarm. I don’t wish to begrudge anyone their fresh air, but most seem to come in their cars to harass the deer, make lots of noise and then leave. As more people come the park becomes less of a haven for wildlife, and the sense of peace visitors feel is being gradually destroyed. So my advice would be to visit, but to come by public transport or by foot, to stay clear of the areas around the car parks, to get lost in the wilder sections of the plantations and to head to the corners the parents with buggies have not yet found.

Royal Parks website

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons

The Hunterian Museum, named after the 18th century anatomist and surgeon John Hunter, is perhaps one of the most disconcerting places to visit in London, and as such is not recommended for the squeamish. It lies inside the grand Royal College of Surgeons which takes up most of the south side of Lincoln's Inn Fields, a typical London square bursting with interest. Open from 10 am to 5 pm Tuesdays to Saturdays, it is free to enter. Simply collect a visitor's pass from the front desk, walk up the staircase along which portraits of past Fellows of the College stare out, and enter the lower level of the museum.

Most immediately striking is the sheer quantity of specimens on display. Brightly illuminated glass cabinets are full to bursting with jars containing bits and pieces of every creature imaginable. From the tongue of a chameleon to the large intestine of a whale, the specimens are both fascinating and repulsive. Apart from those few examples where the entire animal is contained within its formaldehyde tomb, it is almost impossible without hunting out the label to guess the organism from which the sample came.

Around the edge of the room are displays which detail the history of both the College and of the science of anatomy in general. These are illustrated by both its human samples and by the tools that were used to obtain them. A particularly interesting exhibit shows large wooden dissecting boards with a different section of the nervous system on each. Less easily stomached are the examples of diseased body parts, showing starkly how things in the body can go horribly wrong. Other curiosities worth singling out are the towering skeleton of Charles Byrne, a so-called 'Irish Giant' whose body was collected by Hunter contrary to his wishes, and the pickled brain of the father of computing, Charles Babbage.

Picture by Paul Dean

For some light relief, head to the far end of the museum where a small collection of paintings are hung. These are not the kind of pictures that would normally be found in an art gallery, not due to lack of merit but rather due to the unusual subject matter. They depict people or animals which would have been highly novel at the time of painting: a rhinoceros hangs close to a portrait of a native American; a hugely obese man looks across at a noble with dwarfism.

Upstairs the exhibitions are more informative and less nausea-inducing. Here the story of surgery is dealt with, moving from Joseph Lister's groundbreaking discovery of antiseptics to bang-up-to-date methods such as keyhole surgery. It is staggering how much practices have evolved and improved over the past hundred years or so. I left the museum feeling slightly freaked out, but also very glad that I was born now rather than in the times when barber-surgeons considered a filthy, blood spattered apron to be a badge of honour.

The photograph on the top left of this post shows the skeleton of a hydrocephalus sufferer.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Sir John Soane's Museum

Sir John Soane (1753 - 1837) was the architect who designed, amongst many other buildings, the Bank of England. Strongly influenced by what he saw on an early study tour to Italy, he decided to specialise in the neoclassical style, bringing the majesty and elegance of Greece and Rome to his own country. He did not allow his humble beginnings as the youngest son of a bricklayer to impede him; thanks to his inclination to work hard and his natural talent he soon found success and was able to thrive. A few years after winning the Bank of England commission he purchased number 12, Lincoln's Inn Fields, eventually acquiring numbers 13 and 14 as well. It is in these houses that the museum now lies.

Soane was passionate about his favourite branch of architecture and sought to pass this enthusiasm on to students. He therefore transformed his house into a museum showcasing the best of classical design, not only by displaying ancient objects but by manipulating the rooms themselves. He hoped that young architects would come into the house and find inspiration, encouraging them to incorporate some of what they saw into their own plans. Every nook and corner is filled with another treasure: a piece of fresco here, a cast of a statue there. As the rooms themselves are mostly quite small this proliferation of objects could easily feel claustrophobic, however Soane’s canny use of light, often entering the interior through coloured glass, alleviates any sense of enclosure.

It is difficult to pick out highlights in a museum so full of interest, and where the building itself is such an attraction, but there are nonetheless a few things which truly stand out. One of these is the sarcophagus of King Seti the first, residing in the catacomb-like basement. Although the London air has unfortunately corroded away much of its former glory, this find, one of the most important relics ever found of ancient Egypt, is hugely impressive, being entirely covered in skilfully-etched hieroglyphics. The catacombs also contain a grave, supposedly that of the invented monk Padre Giovanni, but actually containing the remains of Mrs Soane’s beloved lap dog Fanny.

The picture room is truly a marvel. Faced with a large number of paintings and not enough space in which to hang them, Soane devised a novel solution: what appear initially to be static walls loaded with artwork are in fact hinged screens which can open out to reveal yet more pictures behind. The paintings themselves are more than worthy of note. Perhaps most striking are those by William Hogarth, of which there are two series: 'An Election' and 'A Rake’s Progress', highly satirical works whose messages are just as relevant today as they were in the 1700s. In addition to these are drawings of Italian buildings by Piranesi and watercolours of several of Soane's designs by Joseph Gandy. Had all of these latter actually been built, London today would be a very different place indeed. One view of the city is particularly far-fetched, having grand mountains as its backdrop, so perhaps these ideas were based more in Romanticism than in reality.

Soane's museum is not on the standard tourist itinerary, and so is often one of the last museums that people get round to visiting. Once they have done so however, it becomes a firm favourite. The house is not that large, and so it does not take long to wander around it, and it is definitely time well spent. The staff are friendly and knowledgeable; it is obvious that they are passionate about the place and enjoy showing it off. An extra bonus is that the museum is completely free, although it is so good that it feels rude to leave without giving a donation. After all, there are few places in London as interesting or as atmospheric.

The museum's website

Lincoln's Inn Fields is an attractive London square located just east of Kinsgway. Sir John Soane's Museum is on the northern edge. The southern edge is home to the Royal College of Surgeons and Lincoln's Inn itself lies on the east side. The closest tube station, just two minutes walk away, is Holborn (Central and Piccadilly lines).

Moctezuma at the British Museum

I had never been to an exhibition at the British Museum before last week, mostly due to the fact that there are a staggering number of interesting things that you can see there for free. Handing over at least £10 for a ticket has therefore never seemed necessary, and, if the current Moctezuma display is representative of these exhibitions, is not something that I will be doing again in a hurry.

It doesn't help that they have taken over the reading room in order to stage this exhibition. I love the reading room. With its multiple storeys of heaving bookshelves running around the outer wall, all in good old-fashioned heavy dark wood, and its desks protruding in a star-like fashion from the centre, it is my idea of heaven. Having all its glory hidden away behind screens irks me. Especially when the reason for it is so underwhelming.

The major failing of Moctezuma is that it doesn't have a coherent story to tell. There are indeed some nice objects to look at (although the masks that were my favourites are normally available to see in the Museum anyway), but many of the descriptions are repetitive and failed to provide any useful insight. The exhibition is supposedly divided up into sections on such things as religion and warfare, although if it weren't for the signs it would be difficult to tell this. Little is truly engaging, which is a huge disappointment as it wouldn't have taken much extra effort to make this a must-see event.

For example, there was a diagram comprising of three gears showing how the Aztec’s, or rather the Mexica’s, (the refusal to call people by their commonly known names was another annoyance) calendar worked. Why not make actual gears rather than just drawing them, so that people could move them and hence understand better how the whole system slotted together? Instead of just having small models of temple buildings why not make a mock-up of the interior of one of them that people could walk through? The Aztec way of drawing is highly stylised and figures are often difficult to pick out on the un-painted stonework, so why not give an explanation as to why their artists worked in this way?

I came away not really knowing what Moctezuma was like as a king, what society was like in the Aztec civilisation, or how the ordinary people went about their days, all things that I had hoped that the exhibition would shed light on. I could probably now sketch out a map of the centre of Tenochtitlan, or tell you the outline of the myths surrounding its creation, but I didn't feel in immersed in the culture. I appreciate that there are many things that we just don't know due to the Spanish invasion, but even if it wasn't completely accurate a bit of speculation could have added much needed colour, and the points we can be more certain on could have been fleshed out. The exhibition has received rave reviews, and so maybe I just didn't 'get' it, but I would still caution those thinking of spending a lot of money on a ticket.

Montezuma: Aztec Ruler

The Monument

A good way to get a panoramic view of London is to climb the Monument. Erected from 1671 to 1677, it was designed (as were great swathes of the City) by Sir Christopher Wren and commemorates the Great Fire of London in 1666. The height of the Monument, at 61 m, is equal to the distance between its base and the site of the bakery in Pudding Lane where the conflagration started. A towering Doric pillar of white Portland limestone, the Monument is the tallest freestanding stone column in the world, and yet nowadays it is barely visible, its dominance having been usurped by the numerous high-rise buildings that have sprung up around it. It is hence something to be stumbled upon, rather than to be admired in awe from afar.

Despite this, the view from the top is surprisingly good, and well worth the meagre £3 entry charge. The towering skyscrapers of the City, such as the famous Gherkin, and the vast dome of St Paul's Cathedral dominate the view to the north, but to the south the view opens out over the river. Tower Bridge lies a little way to the east, and to the west it is possible to make out the London Eye, carrying round in its pods the tourists who have paid far more for their panorama.

One of the best things to see, however, lies within the Monument itself. To reach the viewing platform it is necessary to climb 311 steps, which ascend their way heavenwards in a tight spiral. Once at the top it is mesmerising to stare downwards into the pillar’s core, looking at the stairs as they go round and round and round...

If you visit, do spare a thought for those who work in this place. As I descended the steps with a friend we were stopped by a terrified woman going in the opposite direction. Her eyes glued to her feet the whole time, she hastily thrust a couple of certificates in our direction. We thanked her, and she explained that she had to go up to the top to make sure everyone got this memento of their visit. Unfortunately, this simple task was made rather daunting due to the fact that she was petrified of heights...

Picture from Wikimedia Commons user Artybrad

The Monument's website

Pollock's Toy Museum

London, a place where I have been spending a lot of time recently, is full of things to see and do. Unfortunately this fact is well known and so it is also full of people, who are wont to get in the way and detract from the whole experience. It is rather harder to appreciate a painting if there is a crowd three-deep in front of it, for example. I have therefore been trying to seek out the less obvious places to go in an attempt to escape the hordes of tourists.

One such place is Pollock’s Toy Museum, situated just off Tottenham Court Road just west of Goodge Street tube station. Despite containing hundreds, if not thousands, of toys, this is not a museum aimed at children. Walking inside is like entering an Angela Carter novel and can be rather disconcerting. Eyes stare at you from everywhere: from the cracked wax face of an ancient doll, the threadbare head of a long-dead child's prized teddy bear, the maniacal glare of a wooden Punch puppet. A place not of dreams but of nightmares.

The building itself adds to the mood. Despite being two houses joined together the feeling is one of claustrophobia, with narrow twisting staircases leading to a maze-like collection of tiny rooms. Every bit of wall holds a display case, the contents collected together in themes which vary from room to room. There are doll's houses, wind-up tin machines, toy theatres, board games; toys from Europe, the Far East and Africa; soldiers, castles, farmyards. I especially appreciated a beautifully-made wooden Noah's ark in which the grasshoppers were the same size as the lions.

It is both fascinating and frightening, it makes the visitor feel both illuminated and ill at ease. But most of all, it makes you wonder why our ancestors insisted on making children's playthings that were so downright creepy. Then again, with things like Bratz dolls currently being hugely popular, maybe all kids want is to be given the heebie jeebies...

Pollock's Toy Museum

Image by user Mupshot on Wikimedia Commons