Harrow Old Speech Room Gallery and Museum

Harrow School is one of the most famous schools in the UK, and possibly the world. Its alumni include several writers, artists, politicians and even actors – the lovely Benedict Cumberbatch is an Old Harrovian.

The school has an art gallery and museum – the Old Speech Room Gallery – which is open to the public, though only on certain days of the week during term time. I took the opportunity to visit when I had a day off work.

The Old Speech Room was built in 1819-21 as a chamber in which to encourage public speaking. It was converted into a gallery by Alan Irvine in 1976 as a repository for the School’s distinguished collection of antiquities and fine art.

The main reason I wanted to visit at this particular time was the Cecil Beaton exhibition. Beaton was a photographer and artists who was popular in the mid-20th century. He photographed film stars such as Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe and also gained prominence as a war photographer. In my old job at Cambridge I was responsible for cataloguing his letters, so I was interested to see this exhibition of his portrait photographs. I really like his work – I’m no photographer but I can tell that his use of light and composition is brilliant.

The gallery has an interesting collection of Egyptian and Greek antiquities, and also contains artworks, including a painting by the former Prime Minister Winston Churchill. What I was most excited about, however, was the exhibition of artefacts relating to Lord Byron, including his swords and other possessions. Some of his letters were on display, and I spent a while trying to decipher his handwriting, which is surprisingly readable considering the time at which it was written. I’ve read Byron’s collected letters – they are fabulously lively and engaging, and his personality leaps off the page with every sentence. Seeing the pieces of paper on which he actually wrote was amazing.

The gallery is a bit out of the way, and the opening times aren’t always ideal, but it’s well worth visiting if you can – there’s a surprising amount to see, and it’s very interesting, not to mention free.

FACTS

Address: Harrow School, 5 High Street, Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex, HA1 3HP

Website: harrowschool.org.uk/1574/public-facilities/visit-the-old-speech-room-gallery

Opening Hours: Weekdays during term time between 2.30pm and 5.00pm.

Prices: Free

Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace

I paid my first visit to Buckingham Palace in 2011, but for some reason never published my thoughts until now. The Palace is probably one of London’s most famous visitor attractions and is hugely popular with tourists. The State Rooms are open for visitors during the summer months only, and any ticket you buy is valid for a year provided you get it stamped before leaving. It is recommended that you buy your ticket online before you go as it does get very busy.

The entrance to the Palace is on Buckingham Palace Road, just past the entrance to the Queen’s Gallery if you are coming up from Victoria Station. After queuing to buy/collect your tickets, you pass through security, but this isn’t too much of a hassle as every single member of staff is really friendly.

Originally known as Buckingham House, the building became a palace in the early nineteenth century when King George IV decided to modify and improve it. The work was concluded by his brother William IV, but it wasn’t until Victoria came to the throne in 1837 that Buckingham Palace became the official residence of the monarchy.

During Victoria’s reign, further building work was carried out: the new East Wing, now the “front” of the Palace, was built to close off the quadrangle, and the façade was given an overhaul in 1913. Today, Buckingham Palace has over 800 rooms, and 240 bedrooms for the Royal Family and their live-in staff. It is still the home of the Queen, but is owned by the state and paid for by the Government, helped by the income from visitors each summer since 1993, when it was first opened to help pay for the rebuilding of the fire-damaged Windsor Castle. As well as acting as a Royal residence, the Palace hosts numerous state and diplomatic functions, and the “Changing of the Guard” takes place each day just outside.

Once inside the Palace, it’s best to use the audio guide to help you get around, as it is packed with interesting information about what you are seeing. The State Rooms are very impressive, with gorgeous gilt decorations and incredible artwork. The Picture Gallery in particular has paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Rubens. I liked seeing the Throne Room, familiar from official pictures of the Royal Family, and the back of the famous balcony.

The Royal Wedding was the theme when I visited, and there were some interesting exhibits about William and Kate’s nuptials. The highlight for me was Kate’s wedding dress, designed by Sarah Burton for Alexander McQueen. Close-up, it was possible to appreciate the detail and thought that had gone into creating the dress.

After exiting the house, you walk through the garden with impressive views of the back of the Palace. You leave the grounds via the gift shop, which has plenty of tasteful and not-so-tasteful Royal-themed memorabilia.

It’s expensive, but a visit to Buckingham Palace is worthwhile, and if you live in London it’s good to make the effort at least once. Even better, get your ticket stamped and go back the following year for free.

FACTS

Address: London, SW1A 1AA

Website: royalcollection.org.uk/visit/the-state-rooms-buckingham-palace

Opening Hours: Approx. 9.30am-7.30pm during summer opening

Prices: £20.50 Adult,, £18.80 Concession, £11.80 Child; under 5s free; combined “Royal Day Out” ticket available

Southwark Cathedral

I’ve wanted to visit Southwark Cathedral for quite a while, and finally got my chance the other week. I was hanging around the London Bridge area one Sunday waiting until the right time to take the train to New Cross (I was going to the theatre) and decided to pop in.

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Southwark Cathedral

Southwark Cathedral has a long and distinguished history. There has been a church on this site since (probably) the first millennium, and it is recorded that it was refounded as a priory in 1106. Parts of the current building date from this time, although the church was restored in the 19th century and new extensions were added in 2000. The church became a cathedral in 1905 on the creation of the area’s diocese.

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Plaque at Southwark Cathedral

While the building itself is worthy of a visit, there are other aspects of the cathedral which mark it out. It was probably Shakespeare’s place of worship, as he lived and worked nearby, and is in fact the burial place of one of his brothers. It also contains the tomb of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, one of the translators of the King James Bible, and the founder of Harvard University was baptised here in 1607. Of particular interest to me was the tomb of John Gower, Poet Laureate to King Richard II and King Henry IV, and author of the Confessio Amantis, of which a manuscript exists in my old workplace in Cambridge (hence my interest). You can see the title of the book engraved on the volume carved in his tomb effigy.

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Tomb of John Gower

It is requested that £4 is donated to the cathedral to contribute towards its upkeep, which I was happy to pay. Even without the noteworthy individuals associated with the place, the cathedral is still a stunning building that is well worth a visit.

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Ceiling of the cathedral

Saatchi Gallery

I had a bit of time left on Saturday morning and decided to pay a visit to the Saatchi Gallery, which is fairly close to Buckingham Palace. I’m not the greatest fan of modern art, and I must confess that one of the main reasons I went was so that I would have an excuse to tick Sloane Square station off my list.

Founded in 1985 by advertising behemoth Charles Saatchi in order to display his collection of contemporary art, the Gallery occupied several premises before finally settling in the Duke of York HQ building on King’s Road, Chelsea with an exhibition dedicated to new art from China. It has been there since 2008, and Saatchi gifted the Gallery and more than 200 works to the state in 2010. The Gallery aims “to provide an innovative forum for contemporary art”.

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Entrance to the Saatchi Gallery

The Saatchi Gallery is pretty famous for holding regularly changing exhibitions of modern art, and the current exhibition is called Korean Eye 2012. Having been to Korea before, I was interested in seeing what Korean art was all about and this curiosity partially overcame my aversion to modern art, which I don’t understand and rarely like.

Many pieces displayed as part of the exhibition were odd to say the least. The first exhibits I came across were the apparent result of smashing up a pile of crockery and sticking it back together to produce something resembling a termite nest. A giant ball of wood dominated one room. I came across some pictures which appeared fairly normal until I walked past them and realised they were hologram pictures: the stylishly clad ladies viewing works of art miraculously appeared to shed their clothes when viewed from a different angle. This technique is undoubtedly clever, but also a bit voyeuristic.

Still, the display exceeded my expectations and I was genuinely impressed by some of the work. In one room I came across a round side table on which rested a cup of tea. Initially scornful, I peered at it more closely and observed a little whirlpool disturbing the surface of the tea. The exhibit was accurately titled ‘Storm in a Teacup’ and I really liked it, partly because I genuinely don’t know how the whirlpool got in there.

Another artist had produced models from cardboard, which were well designed and carefully put together, except for the fact that they were unfinished. A cardboard dog with perfectly constructed and finished hind legs and an abstract box-shaped head was particularly eerie. In another room, photographs of women posing in white dresses took on a life of their own with the addition of white fabric attached to the bottom of the frames, extending the dresses beyond the boundaries of the photographs and adding an extra dimension to the work.

In addition to the Korean art on show, there was an exhibition of chess sets, each the work of a different artist. There were some pretty unusual sets on display: I especially liked the ‘picnic’ set with slices of pizza as pawns. There was also a great set with one team made up of characters like Superman, WonderWoman and Jesus and the other consisting of such figures as Voldemort, Dracula and Saruman.

The Saatchi Gallery itself is well laid out with a clean white design and logically labelled exhibition rooms. It is free to enter and doesn’t have the pretentious atmosphere I had expected: there were all kinds of people there, including Korean (I presumed) holidaymakers and families with small children. I never thought I’d say this about a modern art gallery, but I actually quite enjoyed my visit, and I’d consider going back.

FACTS

Address: Duke of York’s HQ, King’s Road, London, SW3 4RY

Website: saatchigallery.com

Opening Hours: 10am-6pm 7 days a week

Prices: Free

Diamonds: A Jubilee Celebration – Buckingham Palace

As the summer opening of Buckingham Palace is drawing to an end, I decided to pay a visit and make the most of my ticket from last year (I visited in 2011 as I wanted to see Kate’s wedding dress, and your ticket is valid for a year after purchase). To celebrate the Diamond Jubilee, there is an exhibition of diamonds at the Palace and I wanted to see this. After all, diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

Diamonds are a girl's best friend

There was some beautiful jewellery on display, some of it from the time of Queen Victoria, and I liked seeing paintings and photographs of kings and queens wearing the items displayed. Sword hilts, crowns and tiaras were among the pieces shown, and sparkled beautifully in the low-lit room.  I liked the Coronation Earrings and Necklace from 1858, so called because Queen Elizabeth II wore them on her coronation day. The exhibition also displayed seven of the nine major stones cut from the Cullinan Diamond (the other two are part of the Crown Jewels). This famous diamond – the largest ever found – was discovered in South Africa in 1905 and named after the chairman of the mining company which owned the mine in which it was found. It was formally presented to King Edward VII in 1907. Too big to be much use, it was cut up into a number of stones. I also loved the diamond crown made for Queen Victoria in 1870: it was so small and delicate.

Queen Victoria's Small Diamond Crown

I walked through the grounds afterwards; it was a beautiful autumn day, sunny but with a refreshing nip in the air. It was so early that the streets weren’t particularly busy. It was almost worth setting my alarm for seven thirty.

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Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 – National Gallery

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A sunny autumn afternoon; the perfect time to take advantage of the National Gallery’s late night Friday opening and check out the small exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 in the Sainsbury Wing. Basically, three Titian paintings –  Diana and ActaeonThe Death of Actaeon and the recently acquired Diana and Callisto – have been displayed alongside modern ‘responses’ to them.  Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger have created pieces of art inspired by the paintings, with varied results. I wasn’t sure what to make of the metal crane, and the costumes were rather odd, but I liked the sets (works inspired by the paintings were performed at the Royal Ballet). I’m not the biggest fan of modern art, but I enjoyed the original Titian paintings.

Paralympics: Wheelchair Fencing

My plan to go and see some wheelchair fencing on Saturday was complicated by a short-notice visit from my mam. I bought her a ticket to see The Woman in Black but I still felt a bit guilty about leaving her to wander around Covent Garden for three hours, especially as she doesn’t know London all that well. She managed, though.

I had to go all the way to the ExCel Centre, so got the RV1 bus to Tower Gateway station (ticking it off my ‘stations’ list in the process) and took the DLR. The ExCel Centre wasn’t as busy or buzzing as the Olympic Park, I thought, but perhaps that’s because it was later in the day. The different arenas were signposted pretty well, a Very Good Thing since my capacity for getting lost is astonishing.

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The ExCel Centre

Wheelchair fencing wasn’t quite what I expected. I’d assumed the participants would be whizzing round the floor doing 360° turns and trying to prick each other with the point of their sword. However, the wheelchairs were locked to the floor and though the competitors could wiggle about and sway back and forth they couldn’t actually budge the chair. Also, they had to keep their non-fencing hand on the wheelchair handle at all times. I wouldn’t say it was boring exactly, but it wasn’t as entertaining as I’d hoped. In fairness to the sport I should point out that my understanding of the rules was slim to nil and though I was trying to work out what was going on, I didn’t entirely succeed.

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I got to see both the Bronze medal match (Hong Kong v Italy) and the Gold medal match (France v China). In between, I popped out to get a drink from the bar. I asked for a lager only to be told that there was none left. The assistant must have seen the look of horror on my face because she quickly said that they still had some cider left. So cider I drank.

In the end, China won, adding another gold medal to their already rather impressive tally. France ended up with silver and Hong Kong came out with bronze. It all finished a bit earlier than I’d expected, leaving me plenty of time to get back to Covent Garden and meet my mam as she came out of the theatre.

The Olympic Park

I managed to get some last-minute Paralympic tickets – for the athletics, no less. I was pretty excited about seeing the inside of the Olympic Park.

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Welcome to the Olympic Park

The stadium is pretty awesome, and even though my seat only cost £10 I still had a really good view. The atmosphere was fantastic, and there was even a Mexican wave going! I got to see some running, wheelchair races, long jump, javelin and discus – the highlight of the morning was seeing Aled Davies win gold.

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The Park itself is huge. There are areas for lots of other sporting events such as BMX and swimming. There are a surprising number of green spaces too. You can walk around the stadium by the river, which is really lovely and peaceful, and there are lots of flowers.

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At the other end of the park there is a stage where live bands play. My friends and I were sitting on the grass with our drinks and who should make an appearance on the stage but Mandeville (the Paralympic mascot). The Olympic mascots scare me a little, but kids love them: they were jumping up and down waving the cuddly Mandevilles they’d obviously nagged their parents into buying for them. The experience was bizarre to say the least.

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Watch out, it’s Mandeville!

On Saturday I get to see some wheelchair fencing at the ExCel centre. I’m quite looking forward to it.

Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum and Archives

We all know the modern meaning of the word Bedlam, used to denote a place of chaos. This modern meaning has its origins in the Bethlem Royal Hospital of London, which was founded in 1247 and exists to this day. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was notorious as a place where visitors could go to stare and jeer at the inmates, but it has a rich and varied past that extends way before and long after this dubious period in its history.

I studied History at university, and one of the topics I studied was the history of medicine in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One week we looked at insanity, and the different ways this has been interpreted and treated over the centuries. The role of Bethlem Hospital was significant in helping us to understand how madness was viewed and treated, and when I found out that there was a museum about the hospital, I knew I wanted to go.

Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum and Archives is located on the modern hospital site, at Beckenham, south London. It is open Monday to Friday, but only one Saturday a month. Visiting the museum is free, but you need to get the train to Eden Park from London Bridge, Waterloo East or Charing Cross. I like trains so enjoyed my journey; I always find it incredible that a short journey can take you into a suburban or even a rural area, away from the busy centre of the city.

The museum itself is tiny, but considering the lack of space a surprisingly large number of items are on show. The museum has too many objects and archival documents to be able to display them all, so if you want to see something in particular you will need to phone ahead; I, however, was just happy to browse. At the entrance to the museum room, a number of boards relate the history of the hospital; I found this particularly interesting, as beyond the little I found out during my studies, I didn’t know a great deal.

Bethlem Royal Hospital began life as the priory of St Mary of Bethlehem (the site of which is now covered by Liverpool Street Station), which was treating insanity by the fourteenth century.  Bethlem and Bedlam were interchangeable terms for Bethlehem, and were both used to describe the hospital. Refounded after the Reformation as one of five ‘Royal’ hospitals, Bethlem came under the control, and later the possession, of the City of London.

The hospital was in need of new premises by the seventeenth century: numbers had increased, and the old building was showing signs of wear and tear. The new building, designed by Robert Hooke, was opened at Moorfields in 1676. Galleries, which ran the length of the building, were where sightseers were able to view the inmates until such visits were stopped in 1770. At the time, Bethlem was the only public institution of its kind, though private madhouses did exist. It was largely designed for short stay patients, though an incurable wing did exist from the 1730s until 1919.

The third Bethlem site opened in 1815 – what remains of the building is now the Imperial War Museum.  Throughout the nineteenth century, restraint of patients was abandoned and patients were encouraged to work and enjoy recreation and entertainments. I found this interesting as the changing treatment of mentally ill people was something I had studied during my degree.

Bethlem has occupied its present site since 1930. Designed on a different system to the previous hospitals, it is made up of individual buildings containing its own ward, kitchen, dining room and garden. The hospital was joined with the Maudsley Hospital in Denmark Hill after the founding of the NHS in 1948.

Inside the museum itself, there were artworks created by former patients; often dark in tone, these were striking and unusual. Among the most interesting for me were pictures drawn by Jonathan Martin, the man responsible for setting fire to York Minster in 1829 and later incarcerated in Bethlem. He was the brother of John Martin, the famous popular painter of dramatic Biblical scenes whose work was recently exhibited at Tate Britain. Despite studying in York for three years I hadn’t realised that this had occurred!

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There were some fascinating objects on display, including fearsome-looking restraint devices and a number of alms-boxes, one bearing the pleading message, “Pity the poor Lunaticks”. Dominating the small room were the two stone figures, carved by Caius Gabriel Cibber, from the gates of the seventeenth century hospital. These are known as “Raving” and “Melancholy” madness, meant to represent the two ways in which insanity was chiefly classified at this time.

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“Melancholy” madness
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“Raving” madness

I also enjoyed looking at the archives on display, such as a book of instructions for those working at the Hospital in the eighteenth century. I think it would be really rewarding to study these archives properly and find out what life was like for mentally ill patients and those who cared for them in the past.