Grimm Tales: Telling Stories

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I managed to get hold of a ticket for Grimm Tales: Telling Stories last night at the Cambridge Theatre in London. I was gutted when I found out that Philip Pullman wasn’t going to be there owing to ill health (get well soon, Philip!) but was partly mollified on learning that Meg Rosoff would be conversing with Neil Gaiman instead. Another surprise came when author Audrey Niffenegger (The Time-Traveller’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry) appeared on stage to read a story from Pullman’s new book, a retelling of several Grimm fairy stories. She received a massive cheer from the audience, which she became part of after her reading was complete.

Despite being disappointed at Philip Pullman’s absence, I enjoyed listening to Neil Gaiman (author of several books including Neverwhere, American Gods and Coraline) and Meg Rosoff (author of a number of teen novels including How I Live Now) talk about the history of fairy tales and their relationship to culture. Some of the things they discussed I already knew – such as the original version of the Sleeping Beauty story (put it this way, she wasn’t woken with a kiss) – but other ideas and concepts were new to me.

I found it interesting to hear about stories from contrasting perspectives and different cultures: Neil Gaiman is a British author living in the USA and Meg Rosoff is an American author residing in London, and I enjoyed hearing about their diverse experiences. The differences between the US and British attitudes to scary stuff were fascinating: the film of Gaiman’s Coraline – a frightening movie for kids – was greeted quite matter-of-factly by British audiences and critics but with puzzlement by their US counterparts, who were surprised that it was meant to scare kids.

The evening, which was over far too quickly, ended with a reading by Gaiman of his new story, Click-Clack the Rattlebag. I am sure I was not the only audience member to be enthralled by the tale: the twist towards the end drew a gasp from the audience and I spent a lot of time looking over my shoulder on the way home!

Muse at the O2

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The O2, all set for Muse

I went to see Muse on Friday at the O2. It was the fifth time I’d seen them and they were as brilliant as usual. They even played a song from Showbiz (Sunburn) which I wasn’t expecting.

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Muse rocking the O2

I haven’t actually listened to their new album yet, but I quite liked the tracks I heard here, so hopefully I will be impressed.

Kelly Clarkson: Stronger Tour 2012 at Wembley Arena

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I went to see Kelly Clarkson on Saturday night at Wembley Arena. She was absolutely amazing. It was the first time I’d ever seen her live and she was fantastic. Her voice was brilliant of course and she had a great rapport with the audience – she came across as so lovely and really down to earth. I feel a bit guilty that I missed my friend’s birthday night out to go to the concert, but in my defence, I booked this back in May and I didn’t know the two events would coincide.

I’m slightly disappointed she only sang one song from My December which is my favourite of her albums. However, that album was her least commercially successful record so I wasn’t really expecting it.

Here she is singing Because Of You which is one of my favourite of her songs.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LatSGkLoETk]

The Queen: Art and Image – National Portrait Gallery

I was already at the National Portrait Gallery to see the exhibition on Henry Stuart, so I thought I might as well stick around to visit the exhibition installed to celebrate Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. Called The Queen: Art and Image, it explored images of the Queen throughout her sixty-year reign, starting with her arrival back on English soil after learning of the death of her father and her accession to the throne.

I thought the exhibition was very interesting from a cultural perspective as it showed how the Queen and the royal family were portrayed throughout the last half-century, reflecting the dramatic socio-cultural changes in British life. Earlier, formal paintings and photographs, such as the Coronation picture by Cecil Beaton, gradually gave way to more informal and radical images, including Andy Warhol’s colourful pop art images and the infamous Sex Pistols album cover. More recently, traditional yet modernised images such as the Queen relaxed and smiling sit alongside sculptured pictures such as the head of the Queen constructed of trinkets and an image of Elizabeth II made up of lots of little pictures of Princess Diana.

This sort of exhibition probably only has immediate appeal to royalists but I think it has a wider resonance too, reflecting changes in society as well as developments and fashions in the artistic world.

The Lost Prince: The Life & Death of Henry Stuart – National Portrait Gallery

As the National Portrait Gallery is open late on Thursdays and Fridays, I sometimes like to walk down after work to have a wander around. On Friday night I decided to pay a visit – although I took the tube to Leicester Square, as it was pouring down.

My plan was to see the new exhibition The Lost Prince: The Life & Death of Henry Stuart. As someone with a strong interest in history, and who has studied the period immediately preceding the Stuart accession (the Elizabethan era), I was very excited about this.

Henry (1594-1612) was the elder son of James VI of Scotland and I of England, who succeeded to the English throne on the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. Elizabeth had reigned for so long that the last time an entire family inhabited the royal household was beyond living memory. As the eldest, Henry was the heir to the throne and the hopes and dreams of the nation were invested in him: his princely nature, air of nobility, youth and exuberance promised a positive future.

The exhibition displays portraits of Henry, his royal parents and siblings, as well as those around him responsible for teaching, caring for or advising him. The pictures give some indication of the personality of the royal Prince, as well as the impression he and his advisers wished to convey. Miniatures by Nicholas Hilliard and  Isaac Oliver and full-size portraits by Robert Peake show Henry wearing armour, demonstrating the noble values of bravery and chivalry, or handsome, richly costumed and showcasing his extensive collections of jewels and other riches. Henry and his court helped to inspire a renaissance in the arts, and some of the items he collected are on display.

By modern standards I am not sure if Henry was the most likeable person. It was reported in the exhibition that when Henry received a gift of a number of brass statuettes, he was asked if he would like to give one of them – a horse, on display here – to his little brother Charles. Henry’s response was to say no: he wanted to keep them all for himself!

Perhaps it is unfair of me to condemn this attitude: the Prince of Wales, as he was created in 1610, had to bear the weight of a nation’s expectations and this was a lot to take for one so young. Some of the earlier portraits show the young boy dressed in lavish royal costumes that seem to swamp him. This is echoed in the two small suits of armour belonging to the Prince which are on display, worn by him during lavish court tournaments and masques.

Though clever, Henry apparently did not enjoy book-learning to the same extent as his younger brother. Some of his school books are displayed here, one of which in particular made me smile: one of his tutors wrote a couple of sentences below his own writing which are very disparaging towards Henry’s handwriting skills! However, the Prince possessed an extensive library and a number of works of art – many of which are now scattered all over the world in the hands of public galleries and private collectors – and he was interested in gardens, authorising a lavish project to redevelop the gardens of Richmond Palace, though he sadly died before the work could take place.

The final room of the exhibition explores Henry’s death and the reactions it provoked among his family, the nobility and the rest of the country. While helping to prepare for his sister Margaret’s wedding, Henry caught a fever (now thought to be typhoid fever) and, despite the best efforts of several doctors, died a few weeks later. His family and the nation were distraught: writers and composers registered their sorrow in poetry and music; printed books had pages with black borders and one of the dirges composed on his death is playing in the room. A portrait of Queen Anne, Henry’s mother, is displayed and shows her wearing black clothes for mourning: I found this interesting as I had thought the fashion for wearing black for mourning only came in with Queen Victoria.

At Henry’s funeral, weeping crowds lined the streets and the effigy on top of the hearse was reportedly so lifelike that it provoked fresh storms of grief. What remains of this effigy – namely the wooden torso and limbs, the wax head and hands having been stolen or rotted away years ago – is on display in this room, looking poignantly small in the plain glass case.

Charles Stuart was devastated by his brother’s death and treasured his memory all his life. During his reign as Charles I he commissioned an enlargement of a miniature of Henry which hung in his rooms at Whitehall, and is now on display here, the final portrait of a Prince who was never to fulfill his potential.

The exhibition got me thinking about how the course of history can change. What if Henry hadn’t died? He would have become King Henry IX, and the events which resulted in the English Civil War might never have happened – although, given Henry’s somewhat imperious personality, this is not certain. His life and death reminded me of another, very similar situation a hundred years before: the premature death of Arthur, eldest son of Henry VII. Named for the legendary English king, hopes and expectations surrounded young Arthur as they would encircle Henry a century later, but Arthur’s premature death ended them, paving the way for his younger brother Henry to inherit the throne. In both cases, the death of the much loved and admired heir led to the accession of a ruler who would change the course of English history – albeit more successfully in Henry VIII’s case, at least for him.

I definitely recommend this exhibition to anyone with an interest in Stuart England, seventeenth-century art and the history of royalty in Britain. The curators have chosen their objects well and they are presented with thought and care. Unlike some exhibitions and galleries, which contain an overwhelming number of items, this exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery takes the ‘less is more’ approach, meaning that you can examine each individual item in more detail, finding out more about it.

Osterley Park and House

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Last year, I visited Osterley Park which is situated in between Ealing and Heathrow Airport in south-west London. At the time of my visit, the Long Gallery in the house was closed for filming purposes. I asked one of the volunteers what was going on, and she said that it was top secret – not even they were allowed to know. All she could tell me was that it was a major production.

I got on with my life and thought no more of it, until earlier this year when I found out what the production was – no less than the new Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises! The Long Gallery, main staircase and a number of other rooms stood in for various rooms in Wayne Manor, while the Library served as the entrance to the Batcave via a door in one corner disguised as part of the bookcase.

The National Trust are capitalising on this and have put on an exhibition (Real to Reel) about filming at Osterley over the last half-century. The house’s location inside the M25 and within easy reach of central London, Heathrow Airport and Ealing Studios has made it the ideal location for filming and it has appeared in many productions including The Grass is Greener, BBC titles and – I’m sure – the recent BBC production of Parade’s End (it wasn’t mentioned in the exhibition but I could swear I recognised the entrance hall masquerading as a hospital!).

The house itself has a long and distinguished history, described by Horace Walpole as ‘the palace of palaces’. Robert Adam, architect and designer, created the house in the late eighteenth century for the Child family. Today, the house is presented as it would have been in the 1780s, and it is very beautiful, with gorgeous furniture and impressive artworks.

I enjoyed the exhibition, as well as my visit to the house, and was glad to be able to see the Long Gallery for the first time. Osterley Park is aptly named as the grounds are vast and beautiful, ideal for talking a walk on a crisp autumn day.

FACTS

Address: Jersey Road, Isleworth, Middlesex, TW7 4RB

Website: nationaltrust.org.uk/osterley-park

Opening Hours: Wed-Sun 11am-5pm during the summer (house), extended opening times for the park. Check the website for winter opening times.

Prices: £11 adults, £5.50 children (house); National Trust members free.

Richie Sambora at Shepherd’s Bush Empire

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I was at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire last night to see Richie Sambora (the guitarist with Bon Jovi). I had a brilliant time. Naturally enough he mainly performed songs from his new album, Aftermath of the Lowdown (which I haven’t got hold of yet; I really must, it sounds brilliant) but played a few others too, including a cover of ‘Don’t Look Back In Anger’ by Oasis, which was most unexpected. I was a bit gutted he didn’t perform very many songs from his first two albums, but at least he did ‘Stranger In this Town’, which is my favourite.

He played quite a few Bon Jovi tracks, including ‘These Days’, although personally I’d have preferred him to perform more of his solo songs. I love Bon Jovi, but I’ve seen them before and I’m sure I’ll see them again, and there were several songs I would like to have heard that weren’t performed. I still had a fantastic time though.

The Empire itself is pretty awesome too: a converted theatre with the seats taken out of the stalls for standing/moshing purposes. There wasn’t a great deal of moshing going on last night, despite the surprising plethora of younger people there; I’d expected the audience to be mostly older. I found it quite amusing that the older people hung around at the back while the younger ones pushed forward into the crowd.

Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War – Imperial War Museum

At the weekend I paid a visit to the Imperial War Museum, again using my trusty National Art Pass to visit the exhibition of photography, Cecil Beaton: Theatre of War. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I was responsible for cataloguing Beaton’s letters in a previous job, so am always interested in taking a look at his work.

Beaton is most famous for his society photographs and his work designing costumes and sets for films such as My Fair Lady, but he also acted as an official war photographer during the Second World War. His appointment by the Ministry of Information came at an opportune time, as his career was foundering after an ill-advised anti-Semitic cartoon published in New York. Beaton’s wartime work helped to restore his reputation and became, according to him, his most important body of work.

The exhibition was bookended by displays examining his work before and after the war. Early in his career, he photographed society figures such as the Sitwells and moved in exalted circles. After the war, his reputation established, he was able to rely less on photography as his career as a set and costume designer for theatre and film productions took off. However, he still remained a popular and cutting-edge photographer, taking pictures of Twiggy and Mick Jagger towards the end of his career.

During the war, Beaton’s photographic lens reached from  Blitz-torn London and the Tyneside dockyards to as far away as India, the Middle East, Burma and China. His photographs still have the slightly posed, theatrical quality of his society pictures, but exported to a war setting. This makes for a series of photographs that are immensely different from any other war pictures that I have seen. RAF pilots being debriefed after a bombing raid; London’s churches lying in ruins; soldiers relaxing off-duty in Burma – the pictures are a record of life at the time, but also have considerable artistic merit. They also made a clear contribution to the war effort: Beaton’s picture of three-year-old Eileen Dunne, sitting up in her hospital bed after being bombed out of her London home, appeared on the cover of Time magazine in America and, by evoking the sympathy of the American people, influenced their entry into the war. I wish I could show some of his photographs here, but they are all under copyright; however, if you search Google Images for ‘Cecil Beaton’, you will be able to find many of his pictures. Alternatively you can click here to view some of his war images on the Guardian website.

Complementing the exhibition were displays of magazines to which Beaton contributed, as well as some of his diaries and letters relating to his photographic assignments. I was pleased and proud to see that some of the letters on display were the very same letters that I catalogued three years ago.

POP! Design Culture Fashion – Fashion & Textile Museum

I have a National Art Pass, which means I get discounted or free entry to lots of museums and galleries in and around London. I also make the most of the handy website, http://www.artfund.org/, which lists all the places at which you can get a discount, in order to plan where to go next. The website was the place I learned about the Fashion & Textile Museum in Bermondsey, south London. It is a small museum and only open when there is an exhibition on, which is probably why I’d never come across it before.

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Museum entrance on Bermondsey Street

I visited the museum on Saturday and only paid £3.50 to get in with my Art Pass. One of the first things I saw when I entered the museum was this utterly stunning Dior dress. It looks like something that would have been worn by Grace Kelly.

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The current exhibition is entitled POP! Design Culture Fashion, and explores the impact of music and art on fashion in the fifties, sixties and seventies. It begins with the rock n’ roll culture of the 1950s, the world of Elvis Presley and circle skirts. This was the era that appealed to me the most; I was lusting after several of the items on display.

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I loved this circle skirt

The exhibition then moved on to look at ‘Swinging London’ and the mods and rockers culture, with displays of Mary Quant fashion and the short dresses of the time. These clothes didn’t appeal to me so much (I don’t have the figure for a minidress) but I liked this monochrome maxi:

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Subsequently, the exhibition examined the hippy styles of the late sixties and seventies, with bright colours and dramatic accessories. There was something of a Fifties revival around this time, and this dress in particular caught my eye.

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Finally, POP explored the punk era, with clothing designed by Vivienne Westwood and worn by the punk rockers of the day. These clothes weren’t particularly to my taste, but I could imagine the dramatic impact they would have had at the time.

Alongside the outfits, accessories and other items from the relevant periods were shown to further illustrate the styles of the times. A Fifties jukebox, a clothes hanger with Jimi Hendrix’s face on it and an original still from the Beatles’ movie Yellow Submarine were just some of the articles on display, along with several household items. My favourites were a set of three cushions which together made an Edwardian-inspired, Mucha-esque picture of a woman.

POP! Design Culture Fashion is on until the 27th of October. The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday, 11am – 6pm. The next exhibition, which opens on 16 November and runs until 23 February 2013, is about London fashion by designers to the Queen and is called Hartnell to Amies: Couture by Royal Appointment.

FACTS

Address: 83 Bermondsey Street, London, SE1 3XF

Website: ftmlondon.org

Opening Hours: Open Tuesdays to Saturdays, 11am–6pm; Sundays, 11am-5pm; late night Thursdays until 8pm.

Prices: Approx. £8-£9 adults, £7-£8 concessions; under 12s free

The Genius of Hitchcock

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As a huge fan of director Alfred Hitchcock I was excited to see that his films were being shown at the British Film Institute over the summer in a celebration of his work, The Genius of Hitchcock. I knew immediately that I wanted to see one, and decided to pick my favourite – Rear Window. I would have liked to see more, but at £10 at a time I couldn’t afford it, especially as I have several collections of Hitchcock films on DVD already. I know some people don’t see the point of going to see a film in the cinema when you can watch it for free at home, but I liked the idea of seeing it on the big screen without distractions: at home I always seem to end up tidying my room or checking my phone while I’m watching a film.

Rear Window is a brilliant film. It’s so clever, set entirely in the apartment of L.B. ‘Jeff’ Jeffries who has broken his leg after a photography assignment went wrong. Bored, and stifled in the New York heat, he is reduced to spying on the neighbours whose windows back onto the yard. This yard is the focus of the entire film, which lends a claustrophobic and tense atmosphere to the proceedings. Jeff becomes obsessed with watching the neighbours and is soon convinced that murder has been committed.

I love the actors in this film. I really like James Stewart and he is great as the restless photographer, convinced that something suspicious is going on in the apartment opposite. Grace Kelly is fabulous as his society girlfriend Lisa and her clothes in this movie are simply stunning. One thing I like about this film is the development of the couple’s relationship. At the beginning of the movie, Jeff is convinced that Lisa is ‘too perfect’ for him and wouldn’t be able to fit in with his nomadic, adventurous lifestyle travelling the world. However, her actions during the course of the film go some way to proving him wrong as she falls in eagerly with his plans and goes outside the apartment to investigate for herself, something that Jeff with his broken leg is unable to do.

I love the way the characters living in the surrounding apartments are portrayed. Including a struggling musician, a woman looking for love, a newly married couple and a ballet dancer, many of them have few or no lines but their personalities and lives are conveyed through their behaviour. I liked how there was some sort of development or resolution to each character’s story. Another great character is the nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter), who is initially sceptical about Jeff’s claims but comes round to his way of thinking and is enthusiastic about solving the mystery.

Watching the film in the cinema was a brilliant experience. As well as the obvious – the picture and sound – I enjoyed seeing it with people who were clearly enjoying it as much as I was. There was laughter in all the right places and a palpable sense of tension as the film moved to a climax. It definitely beats watching a film on my small laptop screen.