Geoffrey Farmer: The Surgeon and the Photographer is currently showing at the Barbican, a strange and unnerving modern work of art. It is displayed in the Curve, a long winding gallery that reflects its name, and consists of 365 puppets made up of faces, masks, limbs and accessories applied like a collage onto fabric bodies. Popular culture, the ancient world, history and fiction are all referenced. The title of the exhibition comes from an essay by Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in which he compared the work of a magician to that of a painter and the role of a surgeon to that of a photographer. Both, Benjamin says, deal with fragments.
Creepy yet fascinating, these varied figures are rich in detail and personality. I was reminded of the song by the Doors, ‘People Are Strange’, as I wandered among them. Accompanying the exhibition was a montage of sounds, while at the end a series of pictures was presented as a film. I sat and watched these compelling images for a good few minutes.
I have ambivalent feelings towards modern art, but this is something that is worthwhile and rich in meaning. It closes on Sunday – visit beforehand if you can.
London’s Jewish Museum opens late on Thursday evenings in July and August, so I headed there last week. The museum is located near Camden tube station, and is relatively easy to find. Entrance is free for Art Fund card holders; the normal entry price is £7.50.
The museum has four floors and each has something different. The ground floor has the cafe and the shop; upstairs on the first floor, the exhibition Judaism: A Living Faith looks at the Jewish religion and displays several artefacts relating to it. Above that, History: A British Story looks at the history of Jews in the UK, particularly in London.
Also here there is a Holocaust Gallery. I found this incredibly sad and moving. It is told through the story of Leon Greenman, an Auschwitz survivor. Though of British nationality, he was living in the Netherlands with his wife and son when the Nazis invaded and, unable to prove his nationality, he was deported along with his family. Sadly his wife and son were killed in the gas chambers, but Leon survived and spent the rest of his life raising awareness of the Holocaust and campaigning against racism.
The top floor hosts temporary exhibitions: the current exhibition is Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait. Most of the items on display were loaned by the singer’s brother Alex, who also wrote the captions. The displays portray a normal girl who enjoyed music and clothes but dreamed of fame. The family photographs are warm and intimate. Particularly moving were the notes covering the board at the end of the exhibition, full of heartfelt messages from Amy’s fans.
Address: Raymond Burton House, 129-131 Albert Street, London, NW1 7NB
Like HMS Belfast, which I visited earlier the same day, the Churchill War Rooms are part of the IWM, and I visited one Sunday to take advantage of my Tesco Clubcard free ticket. Located beneath the streets of Westminster, these are the original Cabinet War Rooms used to protect the Government from attack during the Second World War. Initially I was just thankful to get out of the heat (the rooms were lovely and cool), but I thoroughly enjoyed my visit for its own sake.
The first important room I came to was the Cabinet meeting room. Not all meetings during the war were held here, but over 100 were.
I then came across the weather guide, designed to let those underground know what it was like outdoors. Famously, the guide was changed to ‘windy’ during air raids.
There were a surprising amount of corridors, with random doors leading off them at various points.
About halfway through the tour there was a Churchill Museum, examining the wartime Prime Minister’s life and career. I learnt several interesting things – I was surprised to hear that he was so radical early in his career.
After the Cabinet and a number of staff began to use the underground War Rooms, the ceiling was reinforced to provide protection in case of air raids. However, the bunker was still not completely secure and a direct hit would have destroyed it. Luckily, this never happened.
Members of staff worked day and night underground, sometimes even sleeping here.
Churchill had his own room in the bunker, complete with wall maps. He didn’t often sleep here, however.
The Churchill War Rooms are open seven days a week (except 24-26 December inclusive). I definitely recommend a visit – there is a surprising amount to see and take in, and the War Rooms are crucially important to the history of 20th century Britain.
Address: Clive Steps, King Charles Street, London, SW1A 2AQ
A couple of weeks ago, I decided to visit HMS Belfast, the WW2 ship moored on the Thames near London Bridge station. I’d got a Tesco Clubcard voucher which was about to expire, and thought I should use it up sharpish! Unfortunately the Sunday I visited was one of the hottest days of the year, and I can tell you it got pretty warm inside the ship. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my visit.
HMS Belfast is run by the Imperial War Museums, and information can be found on the same website. The ship was built in Belfast and launched in 1936. Hit by a mine in 1939, she had to undergo thorough repairs before returning to service in 1942, helping to protect Arctic convoys (Russia’s wartime supplies) and playing a crucial role in the Battle of North Cape. She also played a key role during the D-Day landings. HMS Belfast is the last remaining ship of her type in existence, and has been in position on the Thames for over 40 years.
Outside the ship it was hot, but inside it was even worse – hot and stuffy. The filmed ‘battle’ on the gun deck was highly entertaining, though. When I reached the ship proper, I was amused to find this sign:
I found the waxworks on the ship rather creepy, particularly this grim-looking fellow. Others could be found baking in the kitchen, manning the controls and lying in hammocks.
I ventured down to the bowels of the ship to explore, which involved a good deal of climbing up and down ladders (and is not recommended for young children). This would have been more fun if it had been less warm. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with being below the waterline, and was rather glad to be back on deck.
Even if you’re not really into naval history, HMS Belfast is a good place to visit, as there is lots to see (including a number of small exhibitions inside the ship). I enjoyed it – especially as I got in for free!
I’d never heard of the Cinema Museum until I saw it appear on Groupon. I mentioned this to the very knowledgeable and informative guide who conducted my tour, and he said, “If I had a pound for every time I heard that…” I think the museum deserves to be better known, as it is fascinating.
The address of the Cinema Museum is The Master’s House, 2 Dugard Way, London SE11 4TH. It is near Elephant & Castle tube station, surprisingly near to where one of my friends used to live. Other than organised events, it is only possible to visit the museum via a conducted tour, and this was how I got to look round on Saturday.
I’d booked in advance, but was disconcerted to find the place so quiet – I wondered if I’d turned up at the wrong time, but luckily someone opened the door for me. The first part of the tour involved watching a couple of short films while sitting in original theatre seats. One was a rather abstract promotion for the Post Office while the other was about the last tram in London – which fitted in well with my London Transport obsession. We joined up with the previous tour to visit the display of cinema uniforms, which came from a variety of different periods and cities and which varied considerably in colour, style and appeal.
After the first group left, their tour completed, our guide took us around the rest of the museum, which holds a wide and varied collection based around the concept of going to the pictures. Fixtures and fittings (e.g. carpets and signage), marketing materials, photographic images and publications such as fan magazines, films (e.g. B-movies, ads, trailers), equipment (e.g. projectors, sound systems and uniforms) and other random items. I was surprised at the number of items which seemed to be from Cumbria: when I asked the guide at the end he said that this was because one of the major contributors to the museum lived in a nearby town, and always made a point of turning up at cinema closures to get hold of bits and bobs. A piece of carpet from Workington and a sign from Egremont were just two of the items I spotted.
As a librarian by profession, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the museum has a library, which has been sorted by a volunteer (from what I could work out, the vast majority, perhaps even all, of the people associated with the museum are volunteers). There is also a room devoted to pictures of different kinds, such as stills from film sets.
On the first floor, there is a room devoted to Charlie Chaplin. Fittingly, the man actually spent time here: the building used to be the Master’s House of the former Lambeth Workhouse, where Chaplin entered alongside his mother when he was a child. The room we ended up in, the former workhouse chapel, was beautiful and the ideal place to rest and have a cup of tea.
I definitely recommend a visit to the Cinema Museum. It’s a hidden gem and well worth a look if you’re remotely interested in cinema. Get in touch on 0207 840 2200 or email email@example.com to arrange a tour, which costs £10 for adults and £7 for children and concessions.
Address: 2 Dugard Way (off Renfrew Road), London, SE11 4TH
This strange exhibition at the V&A, Memory Palace, asks what would happen if memory was forbidden. Conceived by the author Hari Kunzru, who has written a book to go alongside it, the installation takes us into a world some time in the future where all information infrastructure has been wiped out, and those in power demand that everyone follows a simple life, without remembering the past, creating art or recording history or stories.
The narrator is in prison, accused of reviving the ‘art of memory’. He has turned his prison cell into a ‘memory palace’, and stores fragments and details of recollections here as best he can.
Walking through the exhibition was a surreal experience. It made me think about the role of and importance of memory, and also the way in which memory and evidence can be interpreted in future generations. For instance, in this ‘memory palace’ the practice of recycling has been interpreted as a religion and an illegal gathering of people is called the Internet.
At the end of the exhibition, viewers are invited to submit a memory to the V&A which will be preserved on one of their posters. The poster to which I contributed mine is below: can you guess which is my memory?
The relatively small exhibition explored the role of music in the seventeenth-century Netherlands. In the art of the time, music often represented harmony, temperance and moderation, as well as transience – still lives showed how death meant the stilling of music. Gatherings of families and friends often revolved around music – but so did entertainment at establishments such as brothels. Some of the pictures on display deliver ambiguous meanings, for instance by using close-ups of musicians to explore emotions. In a restricted society, making music was one way in which young courting couples could spend time together and explore their emotions.
Paintings weren’t the only things on display: there was also a selection of early printed music books, which were often shared by lovers and carried around in secret. Several instruments of the kind seen in the pictures were also on show, some of which were quite different to modern instruments. For example, there was a lute, a clavischord and a virginial. Some of these instruments were seen as particularly suitable for women, while others were seen as rather dubious, often because of the positions a player needed to adopt while making music.
The highlight of the exhibition was the room in which three of Vermeer’s paintings – A Young Woman standing at a Virginal, A Young Woman seated at a Virginal (from the National Gallery) and Guitar Player (on loan from Kenwood House) – were displayed alongside each other, exploring the role of music in different ways. My favourite painting, though, was The Music Lesson, in which a young woman and her music tutor share a supposedly innocent music-making experience – until you see the reflection in the mirror and notice their positions and the expressions in their faces.
The last section of the exhibition looked at Vermeer’s use of colour in his work, including his unprecedented use of expensive ultramarine and decision to use green earth when painting skin tones. This was an interesting way to round off the exhibition.
When I was at home a few weeks ago, I visited Cragside with my friend Elisa. Cragside is a historic Victorian property owned by the National Trust, and I’ve wanted to visit for ages, but being a non-driver, getting there would have been extremely difficult. There are bus connections to nearby Rothbury, with connections from Newcastle Monday to Saturday and a special summer Sunday service to the property, but I thought this sounded like a bit of a hassle, so I was glad when my friend, who has a car, said she would like to go. The house is on the B6341, 15 miles north-west of Morpeth on Coldstream road (A697), and you turn left on to the B6341 at Moorhouse Crossroads, with the entrance three miles on the left. It took us roughly an hour to drive there from Washington (just south of Newcastle/Gateshead), and there was some beautiful scenery en route. A good thing about the site is that parking is both free and plentiful.
When you turn into the estate, you pay an assistant while still in your car. An adult ticket for the garden and the house is £13.80 (£6.90 for children), with lower prices for the garden only and for winter visits. I am a National Trust member so I got in for free.
It was around lunchtime when we arrived so we decided to sit by the lake and eat the picnic food we had brought with us. The scenery was stunning, and it was so quiet and peaceful. We also took the time to look around the small visitor centre – the former stables – and check out the gift shop.
Heading towards the house, we were impressed by the beauty of it and its surroundings. Cragside is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year: it was begun in 1863 by the visionary inventor Sir William, later 1st Lord Armstrong (1810-1900), who decided to build it after recalling happy childhood memories of Northumberland during a visit to Rothbury in 1863. He was devoted to the study of engineering, science and technology, despite having been pushed towards a career in the law by his father, and Cragside became a space where he could experiment and try new things. It was the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity, and it also had a hydraulic passenger lift, a dishwasher, hot and cold running water and a plunge bath – incredible for the time. The house is beautiful as well as technologically advanced, with ornate architecture, beautiful furniture and stunning Pre-Raphaelite stained glass windows.
Outside, the house is set in the most beautiful grounds I’ve ever seen. My friend and I walked down the rockery, crossed the bridge and wandered around the wooded areas and the formal gardens. While the house was largely Lord Armstrong’s playground, the garden was the focus of his wife, Lady Margaret Armstrong, who took an active role in its development.
After a cup of tea in the outdoor café, we decided to drive around the estate. There is a specially designed route with a very low speed limit allowing you to travel slowly around the huge estate and take in the scenery. There was much excitement when a deer ran out onto the road in front of us and disappeared into the forest – I’d never seen a deer in real life before so I loved this!
Cragside is a gorgeous place and well worth a visit. If you’re in the north east, it’s a must see: beg, borrow or steal a car to get there if you have to.