Bank holidays, for me, are times to go out and visit places, experience something new. Red House, the former home of William Morris (founder of the Arts & Crafts movement, famed for his socialism and wallpaper designs), has been on my list for some time. I decided to organise an outing and got some of my librarian friends to come along this August Bank Holiday.
Red House was occupied by William Morris and his family from 1860 until 1865, when financial difficulties unfortunately compelled him to leave. He commissioned, created and lived in the house, which was built by Philip Webb and described as ‘the beautifullest place on earth’ by Edward Burne-Jones, who also contributed wall paintings and stained glass to the project.
Red House is located in Bexleyheath, easily reached in half an hour via train from London. A short walk takes you to the house, which is well signposted, even for pedestrians. In the morning the house is open only for guided tours, and I timed our visit so that we would arrive just as the self-guided visitors were being allowed in.
Red House is beautiful and rather unusual, with a large garden comprising grassy lawns, rose bushes and a vegetable patch complete with sinister scarecrow. I liked the well built in front of the house, which was rather medieval in style – I believe this was the point.
Inside the house, the first room you come to contains a new exhibition of the original house plans and architects’ drawings, a fascinating insight into how the building was constructed. The route through the house covers the entrance hall (where Morris often ate, in the manner of medieval halls of old), dining room, sitting room, bedroom and study. There was much to admire including beautiful wallpaper, not all of which is original to the house, but all of which was designed by Morris. Much of the furniture was designed by Morris and Webb and there were several examples of embroidery by Morris’ wife Jane and her sister. I loved the details such as the round windows and the stained glass. The house had a number of exciting hidden treasures, such as the mural painted on the back of the cupboard by Lizzie Siddall (wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti), and the smiley face painted in blue on the corner of the ceiling of the upper landing – author unknown. Newly discovered wall decorations, hidden behind panelling for years, were also on display. The study was light and airy, and it was pleasant to imagine William Morris working on his designs. Looking out of the window, it’s hard to imagine you are in a built-up residential area and not the middle of the countryside, although of course in Morris’ time the area would have been much more rural than it is now.
Touring the house didn’t take a great deal of time, and it was a shame some areas were cordoned off as ‘Private’. Still, I’m glad I visited, if only to experience the atmosphere of somewhere my favourite Pre-Raphaelite artists visited.
Address: Red House Lane, Bexleyheath, London, DA6 8JF
Dulwich Picture Gallery was my destination of choice on Saturday. To get there, I took the train from Victoria station. It had been raining that morning, but by the time I got there, the sun was out and it was actually quite warm.
There were some rather odd sculptures in the garden: faces made up of flowers and foliage. I think they were meant to represent the four seasons, but it took me some time to work out which was which.
Dulwich Picture Gallery was the first purpose-built art gallery in England and was designed by the architect Sir John Soane (who was also responsible for the Bank of England, and is now most famous for his museum in central London), created with top-lighting to illuminate the pictures to best effect without causing too much light damage. The collection was built up by Noël Desenfans and Sir Francis Bourgeois, originally for the King of Poland, though after his forced abdication the pair were left with the collection on their hands. After trying unsuccessfully to offer the works to numerous figures of royalty throughout Europe, none of whom seem to have bothered to reply, Bourgeois (Desenfans had died earlier) left the collection to Dulwich College, stipulating that it should be on public display.
The Gallery concentrates on the Old Masters of the 17th and 18th centuries and there is some impressive art in the collection, including paintings by Rembrandt and Van Dyck. I’m no art expert but I enjoyed looking at several of the paintings on show, including Rembrandt’s famous Girl at a Window and a copy of Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse by Sir Joshua Reynolds. There was a temporary exhibition of Andy Warhol’s pictures but I didn’t bother with that.
Alongside the Olympics this year, the World Shakespeare Festival is taking place, with many events occurring in London that I’ve been able to take advantage of. The British Museum has got in on the act, with an exhibition called Shakespeare: Staging the World. I knew I wanted to go as soon as I found out about it. Luckily I work fairly close to the British Museum so was able to pop there on Friday night after work – they are open late so it is the ideal time to go if you work all week but want to avoid the weekend crowds.
While I think it’s a huge shame that the famous Round Reading Room has been hijacked as an exhibition space, I do think that the staff and curators have done a good job in assembling an absorbing and well laid out exhibition. The first thing I saw as I went up the stairs was a copy of the First Folio under glass – I’ve seen this on display before but it’s always exciting to see it again. The exhibition began on a comparatively small scale, examining late sixteenth century London with a famous panoramic view of the city on display and an assortment of objects recovered from theatres of the Tudor era, including toothpicks, coins and pipes. I picked up an interesting snippet of information about the origins of the word ‘groundling’ (used to refer to spectators standing in the pit, both in Tudor times and at the modern Globe on Bankside) – it was, apparently, a fish with the habit of “lying on the bottom of the river, gazing at the surface with its mouth open”.
When I originally heard about this exhibition, I was surprised that it was being held in the British Museum. Surely the British Library would be a more appropriate showcase for an exhibition on the most famed English-speaking writer in history? However, I soon began to realise that I was wrong. The exhibition is much more concerned with objects, and what they convey about the world in Shakespeare’s time, than books and literature per se. Many of these items come from the extensive collections held by the British Museum, and others have been borrowed from other museums and galleries. Among the items on display were an assortment of portraits and maps, objects from far-off lands (including a lamp from Calabar, now Nigeria, and a picture of the ambassador from Barbary, now Morocco), and the helmet and sword believed to have been worn by Henry V during the Battle of Agincourt (on display in Westminster Abbey until the 1970s).
After setting the scene in London, the exhibition moves to consider the wider world. In Shakespeare’s day, explorers and privateers such as Sir Francis Drake were discovering more than ever before about the world beyond Europe, and Shakespeare was able to make use of this knowledge in several of his plays, including The Tempest and Twelfth Night. As well as discoveries about Asia and the Americas, Shakespeare also used inspiration from closer to home, such as the Forest of Arden near Stratford-upon-Avon, which he used to memorable effect in As You Like It.
The exhibition explores how and why Shakespeare set his own plays in alternative worlds in order to comment more freely on his own society. I found this section particularly enlightening. For example, the history plays were written with Elizabeth I in mind: there’s a reason why Richard III was portrayed as an angry hunchback and Henry Tudor as the noble, rightful ruler. Henry V portrays a warlike nationalism that might have encouraged contemporary society to feel similar pride in their Englishness, particularly given the ongoing war with Spain. Other plays, such as Julius Caesar, deal with controversial topics such as the assassination of a ruler: by setting them in the classical world Shakespeare could explore these topics without exposing himself to royal wrath (at least not to the same extent). I already knew some of this, but I had no idea, in spite of studying it for A Level, that the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra in the eponymous play was to some extent inspired by Elizabeth I’s relationship with her favourite, the Earl of Essex. ‘The Virgin Queen’ couldn’t seem more remote from the sensual Egyptian leader, but one thing the two did have in common was their role as a leader in a man’s world.
I enjoyed the section on Venice: Shakespeare set a number of plays here (it is rumoured that he travelled to the city during his ‘lost years’), and often treats it as a kind of parallel to London, a modern city with all the problems and complexities that urban areas encounter. I found the section on foreigners – ‘strangers’ – particularly interesting. Shylock, the Jew from The Merchant of Venice, and Othello, the ‘Moor’ of the city, both belong in this category, and the ideas and feelings explored in these plays are profound, highly relevant and in many ways ahead of their time.
I often think of Shakespeare as an Elizabethan playwright, but he wrote many of his major works under the reign of James I, drawing inspiration from issues brought up by the new dynasty and the unification of England and Scotland. The exhibition explores the Gunpowder Plot and James’ hatred of witchcraft, both of which helped to inspire Macbeth, and examines the attempted unification of Britain which Shakespeare drew on when writing Cymbeline, the play about the Roman conquest of the ancient Britons. The roughly chronological exploration ends with the Bard’s last solo-authored play, The Tempest, and the ‘brave new world’ it heralds, as well as suggesting that sixteenth-century ‘magician’ John Dee was the inspiration for Prospero.
I loved the exhibition: it was very well laid out and presented, and though I have read and seen several of Shakespeare’s plays, have visited Stratford-upon-Avon and read a few books about him, I still learned things that I hadn’t known before.
Shakespeare: Staging the World is on until 25 November.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who enjoys looking at museum gift shops, and the British Museum’s is particularly special. I really wanted the exhibition catalogue (which is more substantial than it sounds, it is a proper book), but it was a bit expensive so I decided to put it on my Christmas list instead. I DID splash out on a mini volume containing summaries of all Shakespeare’s plays and a ruler listing the plays and their (approximate) dates of composition, which I genuinely think will come in handy. I also got a collapsible water bottle with the museum logo, because, really, who wouldn’t want one of those? Finally I impulse-bought a British Museum canvas bag. You can never have too many canvas bags, and if I’m going to promote something with the bag I’m using, it might as well be something I love.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the James Bond films, the Barbican currently has an exhibition of artefacts and items from the series called Designing 007: Fifty Years of Bond Style. I knew I wanted to see this straight away, as I’m a big Bond fan. Happily, the exhibition is open late during the week. I went to the Barbican straight after work last Wednesday and as I crossed the entrance threshold was greeted by this:
Because of the way the Barbican is laid out, the entire exhibition couldn’t be contained within one area, so you have to present your ticket to be stamped at the beginning of each section. The first time, your ticket is stamped with a zero. The second time, you also get a zero stamp, and the third time… well, you can see where this is going.
I loved the exhibition. It was expensive at £12, but there was lots to see – I was in there over an hour and a half. There were lots of artefacts and memorabilia on display, such as Oddjob’s hat, the golden gun, a fake golden ingot from Goldfinger, and Vesper’s necklace from Casino Royale. I loved the section on Q’s gadgets, which had, among other things, the little Snooper Dog from A View to a Kill. Screens overhead played video clips showing the items in action. There was a large costume display of original and reconstructed garments belonging to Bond and his friends and enemies, as well as numerous evening gowns worn by the women (including one from the as-yet-unreleased Skyfall). The displays spanned the entire half-century of 007: the bikinis of Ursula Andress and Halle Berry were displayed, as were swimming trunks belonging to both Sean Connery and Daniel Craig. I enjoyed, too, looking at the costume and set designs from the 1960s to the early 21st century, encompassing the different countries Bond visits.
Most of the exhibition was shown in the first section, while the second was devoted to the Bond villains. Bond villains have to be recognisably ‘other’: they need something that marks them out as different, such as a physical disability, a foreign appearance, or a ‘different’ style of clothing. This is obviously problematic and throws up the rather conservative and old-fashioned attitudes inherent in the franchise. This section was really interesting though and had some iconic objects on display, notably Rosa Klebb’s poisoned shoes shown in From Russia With Love.
The third section was the ‘Ice Palace’, which had as a centrepiece a model of the ice hotel from Die Another Day, with video clips of Bond’s various ski-ing-related exploits on the surrounding walls. Some of the stunts are pretty impressive.
I was planning on having a Martini in the specially-created bar; I took the lift to the first floor, went to the bar, saw that the cocktails cost eight pounds each, and went straight back downstairs again. I did, however, pick up this souvenir in the gift shop:
After the exhibition I wandered outside to find somewhere to eat my sandwich. I’d never been to the outside seating area, and though it’s a bit of a concrete jungle, I actually quite like it.
The Barbican is a theatre as well as an exhibition centre, art gallery and general Space Where Interesting Things Happen. I went to see a performance of the musical Carousel on the same evening (I wrote a review here). A very enjoyable evening was had altogether.
In June, my mam came down to London to stay with me for a few days. I decided to take her to the RAF Museum at Hendon, north London, as she is very interested in World War II, in particular Bomber Command, and I had found out that the museum held a Lancaster in the collection, which I knew she would love to see.
I had never seen the museum advertised and only heard of its existence because I am trying to visit every London Underground station. I was attempting to tick off some stations on the Northern Line and saw a couple of posters around the Brent Cross area. I looked the museum up online, and what I learned convinced me that a trip would be a good idea.
***About the museum***
The RAF Museum actually occupies two sites: there is another at Cosford near Birmingham. The Hendon site was opened in 1972 by the Queen on the site of the London Aerodrome. It is home to over 100 aircraft from around the world, from the earliest flying machines to modern state-of-the-art jets. With films and interactive activities as well as standard displays, the museum aims to offer an exciting day out for all the family.
Oh, and entry is free – another reason to visit! A few activities cost money, and you have to pay to use the car park if you’ve chosen to drive rather than use public transport, but the museum does offer a very cheap day out.
The museum is open 10-6 every day with some closures and shortened opening hours during the Christmas period. Some exhibitions have slightly different opening hours: check the website for more details.
Colindale is the nearest London Underground station (about a 10 minute walk away). It is on the Edgware branch of the Northern Line, about 30 minutes north from Central London. When you come out of the station, you need to go left: the museum is clearly signposted and it is difficult to get lost (and trust me, coming from me, this means something!).
As my mam and I walked up Grahame Park Way we saw the museum on our right, clearly visible with the name emblazoned on a grey building. We entered the grounds and saw a series of buildings, or hangars, behind a car park. The entrance was across the car park, and it had started to rain quite heavily by this time so we hurried inside!
The entrance was large and airy with toilets next to the door and an enquiry desk, where my mam purchased a guidebook. This was also the place where you could purchase tickets for things like the 4D show. A free leaflet containing a map was provided. The museum has different themed sections which you walk around in order.
***Milestones of Flight**
This was the first section and comprised a large hangar inside which were hung numerous aircraft covering a period of around a hundred years. Now I am not particularly interested in aircraft, but I AM interested in history and I found this section fascinating. Among the exhibits was a lookout balloon used in World War One – I imagine this would have been very dangerous! There was also a Blériot XI, an early plane that was used by Louis Blériot in 1909 when he became the first person to fly across the English Channel. At the other end of the scale the Eurofighter Typhoon is displayed: this is the most modern aircraft the RAF possesses and can fly at twice the speed of sound.
Stairs up to the next level allowed you to see the aircraft that were hung further up. This area had walls with pictures of fighter pilots in the First World War that shot down a certain number of planes. Many of them died. Along the walkway were interactive screens offering more information on the exhibits. As you walk down the stairs you can see a huge timeline covering an entire wall of the hangar. This timeline is labelled with key events in the history of flying alongside important events in general history to put them in context. This is far too detailed to memorise and a bit overwhelming but it was fascinating to read.
This section was the reason I brought my mam to the museum, as it is home to the Lancaster, used during World War II in bombing raids over Germany. My mam knows a great deal about this aircraft, to the extent that when one flew over our house at the time of the Sunderland Airshow she recognised it from the sound of the engine! The Lancaster is certainly impressive and imposing, huge (it had a crew of seven), and I found it quite chilling to look at.
Also on display was a Halifax bomber recovered from a Norwegian lake, rusted and broken but still recognisable. Other bombers on display include a German Messerschmitt, and a Valiant from the Cold War era.
Bomber Hall is a kind of memorial to the casualties of Bomber Command. While I was there the wreath which would later be placed on the new Bomber Command memorial in London was on display. Because of the raids on Germany, many of which involved loss of civilian life, those who flew the bombers were essentially ignored after the end of World War II, even though they suffered the highest casualty rate of any of the services, and it is only now that they are getting the recognition they deserve.
***Battle of Britain Hall***
This section holds and commemorates aircraft that flew in the Battle of Britain in 1940. Spitfires and Hurricanes are among the aircraft on display, and there is also a sound and light show about the battle although we didn’t watch this. These planes are much smaller and lighter than the bombers, designed for in-air combat when speed and dexterity were of paramount importance.
There were also other hangars: Grahame-White Factory, which contains the museum’s oldest aircraft; Historic Hangars which were part of the original aerodrome and contain various exhibitions about the RAF; an Aeronauts Interactive Centre for children; and a Marine Craft exhibition. However, we didn’t have time to visit these as we had to get back to central London to go to the theatre.
***Food and Drink***
The museum has a restaurant and a café, as well as a picnic area to eat your own sandwiches: this came in handy for us as I had made us lunch to save money and we couldn’t have eaten it outside as it was pouring down! We didn’t visit the restaurant, but did have a cup of tea and a muffin in the café. It wasn’t the nicest café as it was actually inside the Bomber Hall surrounded by all the planes as well as screaming children, and there was a long queue: I felt sorry for the man serving, as he was there by himself and clearly rushed off his feet. I should point out that we were there during half term and perhaps the museum is quieter at other times.
Designated parking is available for disabled visitors, and manual wheelchairs are available for hire free of charge, though you need to pre-book. Aisles are wide for ease of wheelchair access – I witnessed this first-hand myself – and disabled toilets are available. Seating is available at regular intervals throughout the museum.
I was impressed with the museum: it was interesting, well laid-out and there was a great deal to see – too much, in fact, for us to see over the course of several hours! There are activities and interactive exhibits for children, and the children I saw during my visit seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Something to be aware of is that the museum is obviously owned and run by the RAF, and naturally enough emphasises the RAF’s contribution to the history and development of flight. Sometimes I felt that the technological advances were emphasised to the extent that they glossed over the harm and injury that military planes can cause. I felt this particularly in Bomber Hall: while I have immense respect and admiration for those who risked, and still risk, their lives to man them, they are essentially killing machines and I found it sobering to look at them. Some planes, such as the modern fighters, are used today around the world in military attacks and who knows how many deaths they have caused.
Having said that, I’m sure people can draw these conclusions for themselves and the museum is primarily a celebration of the technological development of flight. The history of flight is just over a century old, after all, and it is incredible how far we have come in such a short space of time. The museum does an excellent job of demonstrating this.
Address: Grahame Park Way, London, Greater London NW9 5LL