Broadway to Bluegrass…ish – Ramin Karimloo returns to London

I first came across Ramin Karimloo when he played the Phantom in the sequel to the original Phantom of the OperaLove Never Dies. Since then I’ve seen him as the Phantom in the 25th anniversary production at the Royal Albert Hall, sat in the front row to see him play Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, and watched him at a concert in the Royal Festival Hall. He has an incredible voice, seems like a lovely person and is very versatile: the music he plays ranges from Broadway and West End classics through to indie-guitar ballads and American country and bluegrass, hence the title of his two gigs in London on Sunday and Monday.

2012 1126 Broadwaytobluegrassish 01

I was lucky enough to get a ticket for last night’s show and it was fantastic. The venue was a really intimate one and the atmosphere was friendly as everyone there was an enthusiastic Ramin fan. The presence of a number of guests mixed things up a bit: singer Simon Bailey performed a track with Ramin and then sang one of his own;  Lee Mead and Stephen Rahman-Hughes sang backing vocals to ‘Oh What a Beautiful Morning’; and Hadley Fraser (who performed as Raoul opposite Ramin’s Phantom and Inspector Javert with Ramin’s Jean Valjean) joined the stage so that the duo could perform as the Sheytoons. I had an amazing time, although I managed to consume slightly too much wine.

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This morning I saw that the setlist had been posted on Ramin’s Twitter feed, which is handy as I didn’t recognise all of the songs. Now I know what they are!

Broadwaytobluegrass Setlist

My highlight of the night was when Ramin performed ‘Bring Him Home’ from Les Miserables – absolutely stunning. I can’t wait to see him live again!

The Women’s Library

I am a librarian by profession and a few weeks ago I attended a talk about The Women’s Library in east London, which I wrote about on my librarianship blog. I found the talk really interesting so decided to pay a visit to the Library on Old Castle Street. The Library has been going through something of a crisis recently: it is currently supported by London Metropolitan University but in the last year or so the University stated that they were withdrawing support and the last few months have seen an urgent hunt for a new custodian. Recently it was announced that the London School of Economics would be taking on this role, so the collection will hopefully remain accessible though not in it’s current location.

With this in mind, I decided to visit the exhibition currently on display in the Library, called The Long March to Equality: Treasures of The Women’s Library. The exhibition explores the history of the development of women’s rights and displays many of the Library’s most precious artefacts. Arranged in roughly chronological order, the exhibition begins with a display of early printed books that were primarily by, about or for women, going on to examine the women’s rights movement in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and the different groups which fought for increased rights, changes in the law and votes for women. One of the most intriguing items in the collection is activist Emily Davison’s return ticket to the Epsom Derby, which raises the question of whether her death under the King’s horse was suicide or a tragic accident. Why buy a return ticket unless you intend to come back?

The exhibition goes on to explore the feminist movement of the seventies and the political, social and literary aspects of this. It covers the eighties and nineties, and I was amazed to discover that some important equality laws were not put in place until after I was born in the mid eighties. The exhibition ends with the present day, exploring the role of feminism in the twenty-first century and what has been achieved, as well as how far we still have to go.

I found this free exhibition to be very interesting, and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in history or women’s studies. It is open Tues-Fri from 9.30 until 5.30, and until 8pm on Thursdays.

*The information below was updated in 2015, reflecting the collection’s new location*

FACTS

Address: Houghton Street, London, WC2A 2AE

Website: WomensLibraryLSE

Opening Hours: Exhibition Space open 9am-7pm Mon-Fri, 11am-6pm Sat-Sun. Collections accessible by appointment.

Prices: Free

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde – Tate Britain

The new exhibition recently opened at Tate Britain, and it was one I knew I absolutely had to see. The exhibition was entitled Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, and as a huge fan of this particular band of artists, has been on my must-see list for months.

I arrived at the Tate on Saturday morning about an hour after the exhibition opened, and was shocked at the sheer number  of people there. I knew it would be popular, but I hadn’t realised just how popular until I got inside the first room. Though entry to the exhibition was timed, I felt that there were far too many people there: I had trouble getting close to the things I really wanted to see, and was repeatedly annoyed by people pushing in front.

Anyway, as far as the exhibition was concerned, I thought it was excellent. I know very little about art, but the Pre-Raphaelites have always appealed to me; perhaps my fascination was inherited from my mother, who studied art at college and who also likes their work. I’m also attracted by their pivotal role in Victorian culture, and the fact that they were influenced greatly by literature: some of my favourite writers, including Shakespeare and Tennyson, inspired the movement, and several members, including Dante Gabriel Rosetti, wrote poetry (his sister, who was not part of the group but who modelled for some of their pictures, was the famous poet Christina Rosetti).

The exhibition aims to emphasise the revolutionary nature of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, whose members – as well as several followers – made a conscious effort to break with tradition and seek new ways of making art. While their works remain popular to this day, it is not always apparent just how radical their approach was; in fact, the Pre-Raphaelite movement has been described as the first modern art movement.

The exhibition was displayed over several rooms, each exploring a different aspect of the movement. The first room looked at the origins of the PRB and their influences. The movement was founded in 1848, and sought to recapture beauty and spirituality in a world undergoing industrial and social upheaval. Members were inspired by early Italian painters whose works were displayed in the National Gallery (painters who worked before the time of Raphael; hence the name of the brotherhood). Other influences included William Blake, whose works combining poetry and art inspired similar creations in PRB members, and other contemporary artists of the time.

Secrecy surrounded the brotherhood at first: early works were signed with the secret initials ‘PRB’; an example of this is Isabella by John Everett Millais, on display in this room.

The second room explored how the Pre-Raphaelites explored history in their work. Their style was realist, almost photographic in its detail, thus illustrating a historical subject with a modern sensibility. One of my favourite pictures in this room was painted by Millais, and shows a Highland woman welcoming her husband, who has just been released from prison where he was kept by the English after the Battle of Culloden. Another was William Holman Hunt’s impression of the scene in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (the group was frequently inspired by Shakespearean scenes) in which Valentine rescues Sylvia from Proteus. I also liked the fact that some of Elizabeth (‘Lizzie’) Siddall’s watercolours were shown here. Most often remembered for her tempestuous and doomed relationship with Dante Gabriel Rosetti, and for being the model for Ophelia in Millais’ painting, her pictures showed that she was a talented artist in her own right.

Sir John Everett Millais,

The ‘Nature’ room contained many beautiful paintings, including Ophelia, mentioned above, which is one of my favourites; the colours are so lustrous and the water and the greenery captured so perfectly. Lizzie Siddall spent days lying in a bath of water in order to model for the doomed heroine. Other pictures were of landscape scenes, bright and summery or bleak and bare. I don’t normally associate the Pre-Raphaelites with landscapes so this section was a revelation for me. A particular highlight was Ford Madox Brown’s An English Autumn Afternoon showing the view from Hampstead towards London. I’ve seen this view myself but it looks very different nowadays: I enjoyed seeing what it was like a hundred and fifty years ago.

The photographic quality of many of the Pre-Raphaelites’ works is perhaps most evident here. Some critics accused them of working from photographs but in fact this was not the case: they would generally paint the landscapes outside during the summer (years before the Impressionists began to do the same thing) and retreat to their studios in the colder months to add figures and finish off the works. Their accurate, realist style was hugely modern and different from anything which had gone before.

The next section explored salvation, religion and social attitudes. The nineteenth century was a time of great change, with the publication of Charles Darwin’s theories, social conflict and division. The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood sought to make Christianity accessible to all, portraying religious figures with naturalism and compassion. Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents was a revolutionary work, showing the Holy Family as ordinary working people: he made studies for the painting in a real carpenter’s shop. Hunt, one of the more religious of the Pre-Raphaelites, made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land so that his work would be more authentic: he completed several important works based on his experiences there, including The Scapegoat, which illustrated an old Biblical legend in which a goat, bearing the sins of the population, is expelled from a village. The group’s portrayal of women was in some ways radical for the period, but in others encompassed Victorian ideals – unsurprising considering that all its members were male. In Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience, a woman comes to the realisation that her way of life – she is a kept woman – is wrong. On the one hand, Hunt does not judge her for her lifestyle; on the other, there doesn’t seem to be any issue with the morality of her lover’s chosen way of life.

Sir John Everett Millais,
Sir John Everett Millais, ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’

Another room explores the representation of beauty in Pre-Raphaelite works. In around 1860, some members of the movement began to explore the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’, presaging the Aesthetic Movement. Dante Gabriel Rosetti in particular embraced this theme, painting numerous images of beautiful women gazing out of their pictures and wearing rich robes of varying hues. This was probably my least favourite room of the lot: I like pictures to have a bit of meaning behind them, and the cynic in me believes that Rosetti’s desire to paint nothing but beautiful women stemmed from more than an artistic theory.

The Paradise section explores other art forms rather than painting: tapestries, furniture and textiles are among the pieces shown here. William Morris, inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites, set up a firm to produce items such as textiles, furniture, stained glass and tiles that were both beautiful and functional. Several members of the PRB were involved in this enterprise in the early stages. I found these items interesting to look at although I must confess that I prefer the paintings.

The final section explored mythologies and their role in inspiring Pre-Raphaelite painters. Greek and Roman myths as well as legends and stories from literature were covered here. Edward Burne-Jones’ picture King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid is a striking example of this, dramatic and detailed.

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones,
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, ‘King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid’

I spent two hours in the exhibition, and felt slightly exhausted by the end. However, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and really appreciated the chance to learn more about a movement in which I am very interested.

Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present – National Gallery

The National Gallery in London is currently hosting its first major exhibition of photography, Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present. It explores how both early and modern photographers were influenced by the work of artists, particularly Old Masters, when exploring the possibilities of this relatively new art form.

The exhibition is divided into themes, with paintings and photographs displayed alongside each other. I found it interesting to look at how photographers were inspired by artists. Julia Margaret Cameron, for example, took inspiration from the Pre-Raphaelites to create her soft-focus pictures. Richard Learoyd’s photograph ‘Man with Octopus Tattoo’ was displayed alongside James Anderson’s traditional sculpture involving humans wrestling with an octopus. Gainsborough’s eighteenth-century painting of Mr and Mrs Andrews is juxtaposed with Martin Parr’s 1991 photograph which also shows a couple setting up their first home together.

In some ways I found the Still Life section the most interesting, despite viewing still life paintings as among the most boring. A video of fruit in a bowl decaying, speeded up so that the process lasts only a few minutes, comments on the decay inherent in life in the same way traditional still lives do. I recognised Fantin-Latour’s ‘The Rosy Wealth of June’, a rich and brightly coloured arrangement of stunning flowers spilling out from a vase, and really liked Ori Gersht’s 2007 interpretation: he blew up a similar arrangement of flowers, capturing the moment of explosion on film to create a hugely dramatic image.

Ignace-Henri-Théodore Fantin-Latour, 'The Rosy Wealth of June'
Ignace-Henri-Théodore Fantin-Latour, ‘The Rosy Wealth of June’

Dramatic paintings of historical events were displayed alongside photographic tableaux of such events. I also liked Thomas Struth’s 1989 photograph of the National Gallery, which makes a centrepiece of one of the Gallery’s beautiful paintings but also recognises the importance of the Gallery’s visitors.

I’ve never had a major interest in photography and my knowledge of art has always been limited, but I really enjoyed this exhibition. I feel as though I learned something about both photography and art and gained a greater understanding of the possibilities of both mediums.

Skyfall

On Sunday I went to see Skyfall at the BFI IMAX, near Waterloo station. I couldn’t believe how expensive it was. There’s a reason I don’t go to the cinema very much anymore. Still, it was JAMES BOND.

Skyfall poster

One of the friends who came to see the film with me commented that one of her friends had seen it, and that that their verdict was that it was good, but Daniel Craig kept taking his top off. I have no idea why this is considered a bad thing.

I did think the film was excellent, a fitting marker of the fiftieth anniversary of the 007 franchise. I’ve been a fan since my childhood; I love the old sixties films with Sean Connery, but the films need to adapt and change in order to stay fresh and relevant, and I thought Sam Mendes did a brilliant job at bringing the series up to date while still remaining true to the spirit of the originals. Continuing the rejuvenation of the series, which began with the superb Casino Royale and continued with the less impressive Quantum of Solace, we find out more about Bond’s troubled background, are reacquainted with Judi Dench’s M – determined to prove that MI6 is as relevant as ever in the modern age – and are introduced to Q, no longer the white haired and white coated eccentric of the old days, but an incredibly youthful computer geek, played by Ben Whishaw. “Were you expecting an exploding pen?” he says to Bond when they meet for the first time in the National Gallery. “We don’t really go in for that any more”. We also meet another character familiar to fans of the series – I won’t say any more for fear of spoilers.

Javier Bardem’s villain is chilling and camp, and in a modern twist is a whiz at technology, sabotaging computer systems from the safety of his private island. The locations in this film are stunning, from Turkey to Shanghai and Macau, though my favourite parts were those set in London: as a bit of a London Underground geek, I was excited to see Bond weaving his way through the subterranean tunnels of London and amused to watch him try to navigate the tube at rush hour: though as my friend pointed out, it was wrong that he was travelling on a Jubilee Line train on a District Line track. I doubt that many people would notice this, though!

The ending of the film made me sad as I hadn’t seen it coming. I was pleased once I realised what the title of the film was referring to, as this had me puzzled for a while.

I loved Skyfall and can’t wait for the next instalment of Bond in a few years’ time. I understand that Daniel Craig will be returning, which makes me extremely happy.

Firepower: the Royal Artillery Museum

After popping into the Greenwich Heritage Centre, I went to visit Firepower: the Royal Artillery Museum. The museum covers the history of the Royal Artillery, which was first formed in 1716. This particular building was opened in 2001, but before that the collections were housed in the Rotunda on Greenwich Common from 1820, and prior to that the Royal Artillery Museum was known as the Royal Military Repository, established in 1778 by a Royal Warrant issued to Captain William Congreve RA by King George III.

The Royal Arsenal has a military history dating back to Roman times, but the RA itself dates to the sixteenth century. The museum covers the history of the Artillery and the RA, with a special mention for the role the Artillery and the Arsenal played during the war years.

The museum holds collections of artillery of all kinds, including an early 15th century bombard, an early mortar and a 14th century Chinese t’ung, as well as cast-iron and bronze guns. Modern ammunition and medals are also featured. A timeline of artillery places the museum’s collections in context. I’d be lying if I said I was fascinated by armaments, but I thought the displays were well thought-out and engaging. The children I saw in the museum seemed particularly fascinated.

Perhaps of greatest interest to those with an interest in military matters, the museum is worth a visit especially if you have children. The entrance price is very reasonable and there’s a great deal to see.

FACTS

Address: Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, London, SE18 6ST

Website: firepower.org.uk

Opening Hours: Tues-Sat 10am-5pm

Prices: Adult £5.30, Concession £4.60, Child £2.50; under-5s free.

Greenwich Heritage Centre

I visited Greenwich Heritage Centre on my tube jaunt down to Greenwich. The Centre, which is free to visit, is located in Artillery Square in the Royal Arsenal, a short walk from Woolwich Arsenal station.

The small museum is about the development of Greenwich from the earliest times to the present day. It contains a wealth of artefacts including tools that were used in the Royal Arsenal, an Egyptian mummified cat, nineteenth and twentieth-century artworks and material from the Roman temple in Greenwich Park.

The museum takes its unusual logo from an artefact called the Bellarmine Jug. This was excavated in the 1970s from the old Woolwich Dockyard and was made in a large kiln there in the 17th century.

The Main Gallery houses the exhibition Inside the Arsenal, which examines the story of the Royal Arsenal and the Royal Woolwich Dockyard from the time of Henry VIII to the present. The role of the Arsenal during the war years is examined, and there is a piece on the Arsenal football team, who later moved to north London, where they are still.

Alongside the main part of the museum is an exhibition called The Millennium Embroideries, showcasing the incredible talents of local women who have created embroidered panels covering the borough’s history over the past thousand years. When I visited, there was also an exhibition in the Temporary Gallery concerning Asian culture in Greenwich, which was very interesting.

The Greenwich Heritage Centre is a small but free interesting museum, and if you’re passing through the borough on your way to the more famous heritage attractions, it’s worth popping in here to get a sense of the borough’s history.

FACTS

Address: Artillery Square, Royal Arsenal, Woolwich SE18 4DX

Website: royalgreenwich.gov.uk/heritagecentre

Opening Hours: Tues-Sat 9am-5pm

Prices: Free

A day of DLR-ing

As part of my project to visit every tube station in London (in which I am including both the Overground and the DLR, since they are on the Tube map), I decided to tick off a few on the DLR (the Docklands Light Railway) on Saturday.

I decided to start at the bottom and work my way up, so I got the train from Charing Cross to Woolwich Arsenal, the only DLR station in Zone 4. The area – known as Royal Arsenal – was historically where weaponry and munitions were built from roughly Tudor times up until the Second World War. There are still buildings in existence that were once part of this area, including the Royal Arsenal Gatehouse.

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Royal Arsenal Gatehouse

I visited Greenwich Heritage Centre which has a small exhibition about the development, heyday and decline of the area, which is no longer home to factories but is being redeveloped as a residential area: numerous new and converted flats are dotted around. The area is situated by the river and there are some fabulous views towards central London and downriver.

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I also went to Firepower: the Royal Artillery Museum. As the name suggests, this was all about artillery and weaponry which I can’t say interests me a great deal, although I was amused by the party of little boys marching to the orders of an army major (I think they were having a birthday party or something).

From Woolwich Arsenal station, I took the DLR north under the Thames, first to King George V station (which is in a largely residential area) and then to Pontoon Dock, which is right next to the Thames Barrier and its accompanying park.

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Thames Barrier

Subsequently I got off at West Silvertown, the most notable feature of which is the Tate & Lyle factory, decorated with a large model of a golden syrup tin. To complete my journey, I went north and got off at Stratford High Street, walking through a shopping centre (not Westfields; the other one) to catch the Central line at Stratford.

Hollywood Costume – V&A

Another Friday night, another exhibition after work. This time I went to see the Hollywood Costume exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington. I’d booked my ticket in advance, which was just as well as my chosen date was sold out well before the day itself.

Hollywood Costume brings together iconic, special and unusual costumes from the history of cinema, exploring the important role costume plays in storytelling. The exhibition was divided into three sections. The first explored the role of costume in film, using examples to demonstrate the importance of what the actors wear. I found this really interesting, giving a context to the exhibition rather than just displaying lots of pretty costumes. Among those costumes exhibited was the iconic outfit of Indiana Jones, with a detailed exploration of each item. The ‘curtain dress’ worn by Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind was also on show. Outfits from The Adams Family were also displayed, and there was a whole section on costume drama, highlights of which were dresses worn by a number of actresses, including Judi Dench, playing Elizabeth I.

In this section I learned that it is actually more difficult to clothe actors in modern films, as audiences are much more familiar with modern styles of dress. The idea is that you don’t really notice the clothes, yet each item is chosen with thought and care. Though I’m not a particular fan of the film Ocean’s Eleven, I enjoyed the display of mannequins around a table each dressed in a different character’s outfit. The display showed how each outfit reflected the individual’s personality. On a similar note, the outfits worn by Jake Gyllenhal and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain appeared fairly similar on the surface, but contained subtle differences which reflected the history of each character.

The exhibition showed how Matt Damon’s outfit as the spy Matthew Bourne was designed to blend into the background. I was less impressed with the displays relating to Fight Club, a film I haven’t seen, as the plot was basically given away. I don’t really think this was necessary: they could at least have given a spoiler warning!

Something I liked about this section was the clips of ordinary people talking about their clothes and accessories. This was interesting and made the point that even the simplest outfits have a history of their own, and this needs to be reflected in film, with characters needing a believable existence outside the movie.

The second section also divided the costumes up into themes. The first part examined collaborations between directors and designers. Edith Head, possibly the most famous costume designer of all time, designed for many of Alfred Hitchcock’s films including The Birds; one of Tippi Hedren’s outfits – a green skirt suit – is displayed here. The designer on Sweeney Todd worked closely with director Tim Burton, and the suit worn by Johnny Depp as the ‘Demon Barber of Fleet Street’ is displayed.

Another section compared outfits worn by the same character in different films, such as two costumes for Cleopatra worn by Elizabeth Taylor and another actress whose name I can’t remember. The difference between clothes designed for black and white films and for colour was also explored: in black and white films colour didn’t show so it was necessary to make outfits stand out in other ways. This part also looked at clothes designed for animated characters such as Jessica Rabbit and Shrek, and displayed a motion capture suit such as the one worn by Andy Serkis who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the forthcoming Hobbit films. The original Darth Vader costume was here too, looking particularly imposing as it loomed over the spectators.

This part ended with a look at some particular actors and their relationship with their character’s clothes. Acclaimed actress Meryl Streep has portrayed a number of different characters, such as the title character in The French Lieutenant’s Woman and former British Prime Minister Maggie Thatcher, and her outfits have helped her to get into and stay in character. The Victorian-style grey cloak and smart blue suit are very different! Robert De Niro is another actor who has portrayed wildly varying characters, and a number of his costumes are here, such as his outfit from Taxi Driver, which he reportedly wore before filming to get into character.

The final part of the exhibition dispensed with theories and themes and simply displayed iconic costumes from the history of cinema. There was a veritable wealth of costumes, many of which I recognised instantly. Among my favourites were the corseted, feathered outfit in which Nicole Kidman makes her entrance in Moulin Rouge, Audrey Hepburn’s black Givenchy dress from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the outfits in which we are introduced to Jack and Rose’s characters in Titanic, and two dresses worn by Keira Knightley: the flowing green dress she wore in Atonement and the stunning nineteenth-century style deep red gown she had on in Anna Karenina. Superheroes were not forgotten: Batman and Spiderman were both represented, not to mention schoolboy wizard Harry Potter, and anti-heroes were present too: I was delighted to see Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow costume from Pirates of the Caribbean.

Right at the end of the exhibition there were two iconic dresses: one the white frock famously worn by Marilyn Monroe, the other the gingham pinafore worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. The pinafore – which naturally enough looks rather faded now – is distinctly recognisable and is displayed with a pair of reproduction ruby slippers made to the original pattern, sparkling as brightly as the originals would have done when they were first made.

This brings me to the final exhibit: the highlight of the whole thing as far as I am concerned. In a glass case, on loan from the Museum of American History in the USA for the first time, until the 19th of November only, are the original ruby slippers. One of the pairs at least: five pairs have survived of the several made, though one of them was stolen in 2005. They have faded over the years, but the sequins are still in place and the shoes are still in one piece. They look to be about size 5 or 6. Possibly the most iconic piece of cinema merchandise in history, they came about because red was thought to offer the strongest contrast against the yellow of the brick road. In L Frank Baum’s original story, the shoes were silver. I admit I got quite emotional when I saw these slippers – The Wizard of Oz is my favourite film of all time and I felt so privileged to be able to see first-hand this piece of history.

This is a fantastic exhibition that contains a veritable wealth of costumes and artefacts. It has been thoughtfully put together and I feel as though I learned something about the nature of costume in cinema. I strongly recommend this exhibition, and would urge everyone to see it in the next couple of weeks before the ruby slippers are sent back to America!