A Victorian Obsession: The Perez Simon Collection at Leighton House

Last Thursday I went to the Leighton House Museum near Holland Park in order to visit the latest exhibition, A Victorian Obsession. Leighton House is the former home and studio of Frederic, Lord Leighton (1830-1896), a leading exponent of nineteenth-century classical art and one-time President of the Royal Academy. I’ve visited the house, designed and built to Leighton’s requirements by George Aitchison RA, before, and it’s beautiful: a Moroccan-style fountain court and a blue-tiled hallway are just two of the marvellous rooms inside.

Currently the house is home to part of the collection of Juan Antonio Pérez Simón, a Mexican businessman and art collector who holds the largest collection of Victorian and Edwardian art outside Britain. The pictures cover the period from around 1860 until the start of World War I, and the unifying theme is “representations of female beauty”. It’s easy to be somewhat cynical about this theme, but in fairness all of the artists represented were superb painters and their work encompasses a huge diversity in such representation, from the inspiration of the Greco-Roman period to Arthurian legend. The paintings are displayed throughout the main rooms of the house, which is a perfect setting considering that many of their artists knew this house and its owner well.

The paintings encompass late Victorian art in many forms, including historical painting and Pre-Raphaelite imagery. This kind of art is very much to my taste, so I greatly enjoyed the exhibition. There were paintings by artists with whom I am familiar, including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. I particularly like the work of John Everett Millais: his The Crown of Love (1875) was on display here, and I also loved The Crystal Ball (1902), a magical work by another of my favourites, John William Waterhouse. Some of house owner Frederic Leighton’s work made an appearance, several paintings returning to the house for the first time since they were created. Leighton’s Antigone (1882) is impressive, as is Crenaia, The Nymph of the Dargle (1880), modelled by Leighton’s favourite muse Dorothy Dene.

Throughout the exhibition I was introduced to other artists I hadn’t previously been aware of, including Henry Arthur Payne, Arthur Hughes and John Melhuish Strudwick, whose Passing Days (1878) is an allegorical representation of the passage of time. His Elaine (c.1891) is a gorgeously detailed representation of the woman of Arthurian legend who pined away for love of Lancelot.

One artist seemed to dominate the exhibition – Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Famous for painting historical scenes, particularly those inspired by Ancient Rome, he painted several of the works on display, including An Earthly Paradise (1891), a rather sweet picture of a Roman woman with her young child. Alma-Tadema’s couch – the only object in the exhibition which is not a picture – sits underneath this painting. The artist designed the couch himself to use as a prop in his historical scenes, and it even has differently-designed legs – one side of the couch represents Egyptian style, the other, Roman. It’s rather fun to play “spot the couch” with Alma-Tadema’s pictures – it appears in several.

Alma-Tadema’s famous work The Roses of Heliogabalus (1888) is the highlight of the exhibition, presented in a room of its own which has been scented with roses courtesy of Jo Malone. The picture shows the young, wicked Emperor Heliogabalus suffocating his guests under a shower of rose petals, and it is beautifully detailed, although I can’t help but concur with the contemporary critics who felt that the victims hardly seemed frightened enough.

This superb exhibition is a must-see for any fans of late Victorian art. It runs until the 29th of March and normally costs £10, or £5 with a National Art Pass. Special late evening openings allow free entry for Art Pass holders between 5.30 and 8.30 on 19 February and 26 March.

Disobedient Objects – V&A

I popped into the Victoria & Albert Museum today to visit the Disobedient Objects exhibition, which is on until next weekend. This free exhibition looks at the role of objects used as tools for social change, beginning with the Suffragette teapots designed to promote the movement and ending with graffiti robots and protest banners.

The exhibition is inspiring, showing how people have come together over the years to protest against government decisions and instigate change. Quite different from the usual displays at the V&A, but well worth it.

Rembrandt: The Late Works – National Gallery

After a tense few days during which I feared I’d missed my chance – only a phone call to inquire about tickets saved me – I managed to get a ticket to the National Gallery‘s exhibition Rembrandt: The Late Works on its last day. My efforts proved to be well worth it: the exhibition was very well laid-out and organised, and I really appreciated the fact that information about the pictures was set out in a booklet rather than presented on labels beside the paintings – this meant that though the exhibition was very busy, it was still manageable because you weren’t faced with hordes of people crowded round the pictures trying to read the captions.

Of course, it goes without saying that the actual content – Rembrandt’s work – was stunning. I particularly liked the five self-portraits on display at the beginning: full of variety, they captured the painter in different moods and at different stages. The most affecting was the portrait painted in the year of his death (1669), which shows him as visibly frail, but I also liked the 1659 portrait in which he wears a quizzical expression.

The exhibition focuses on the later years of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), and like the Late Turner exhibition at Tate Britain that I visited last year, it shows that the artist did not become complacent or enter into a decline during his last years, but continued to experiment and develop as an artist. In particular, The Conspiracy of the Batavians under Claudius Civilis (c.1661) shows a profound mastery of the creation of darkness and light in painting, while his two versions of the Roman heroine Lucretia (1664 and 1666) are extremely powerful.

Less outwardly grand, but equally masterful, is his picture of his son Titus at his desk (1655), an affectionate and intimate portrait. Fully finished paintings sit alongside sketches and drawings in the exhibition, showing the developments of Rembrandt’s ideas and style, and several of these are exquisite, although their role in the development of the artist’s work will likely appeal more to other artists or art students.

This exhibition was well worth the visit and I am glad I managed to make it before the end.

2015 Reading Challenge – A classic romance

2015-01-22 23.14.41

I’m not sure if the compilers of the 2015 Reading Challenge intended for the category “classic romance” to be interpreted in this way, but that’s what I’ve chosen to go for. After all, medieval tales of knights, damsels and dragons were the original romances.

Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur isn’t an easy read, but it is a worthwhile one. The legend of King Arthur had been around before and would continue to pervade European culture for years afterwards – Arthurian tales are still being created and adapted today – but Malory’s version is one of the most famous and influential. I have found myself wanting to reintroduce words like “smite” and “churl” into the language, however.

Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination – British Library

I finally managed to make it to the exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination at the British Library before it closed. It extended its opening hours during the final week, which was handy for me because I turned up on Monday (the exhibition space is normally open until 8 pm only on Tuesdays) to find the space almost empty. This made it a very pleasant experience to go round.

The exhibition, which opened in 2014, was designed to mark the 250th anniversary of the publication of the first Gothic novel. This was Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto, which made its debut in 1764. The exhibition covers the history of Gothic over the last two and a half centuries, and I found it fascinating. Many of the books on display and much of the information imparted were things I was already familiar with, but plenty of others were not.

In the eighteenth century, Gothic – which encompassed such authors as the aforementioned Walpole (who lived in a Gothic villa in Twickenham, Strawberry Hill), Matthew Lewis (author of The Monk) and Ann Radcliffe (author of The Mysteries of Udolpho) reflected the cultural concerns of the period, with ruined castles and abbeys, upstanding young noblemen, virginal heroines and mad monks. Renewed interest in sixteenth century writers such as Shakespeare and Spenser, and a growing interest in the “Gothic” or medieval past, combined with a growing interest in death and the supernatural led to many novels being set in medieval or Renaissance times, the era between the superstitious past and the dawning of the Age of Enlightenment.

I was excited to see a first edition of The Castle of Otranto, as well as copies of the “Horrid Novels” mentioned in Jane Austen’s satire of the Gothic craze, Northanger Abbey. I hadn’t realised that they really existed, so I left determined to track them down.

The French Revolution inspired more disturbing forms of Gothic literature, and the Romantic era borrowed from Gothic – most particularly in 1816 when the famous stormy night at the Villa Diodati resulted in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Polidori’s The Vampyre. However, in the Victorian era Gothic was largely set in urban areas and in contemporary times – Dickens in particular used Gothic imagery to emphasise the plight of the poor. The later Victorian period saw penny dreadfuls take centre stage, and lurid stories such as The String of Pearls by James Malcolm Rymer (which introduced the character of Sweeney Todd) became popular, as well as the eternal classics Dracula and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In the twentieth century, graphic novels, film and TV allowed the genre to develop further, and the exhibition ended with a display of recent photos taken at the Whitby Goth Weekend, which is now entering its third decade.

I loved the exhibition – it was a brilliant exploration of Gothic through the ages and it gave me plenty of ideas of what I would like to read next.

Shoreditch Underground Station (Pillow Cinema)

This post should probably be about Pillow Cinema, the east London phenomenon dreamed up by the same people who founded Hot Tub Cinema. The idea of sitting in a hot tub surrounded by strangers has never particularly appealed to me, but the Pillow Cinema idea is much better-sounding – sprawl out on a giant bean bag, pillow behind your head, and relax while watching a classic movie. I saw Billy Elliot on Saturday, and the experience was a great one – but that’s not why I wanted to write this post, and it isn’t why I wanted to go in the first place. After all, I could probably have recreated the experience much more cheaply in my front room with a couple of duvets and a pile of cushions.

No, it was the location of Pillow Cinema that appealed to me, much more than the concept itself. Screenings are held in the former Shoreditch Underground station, and being the Tube obsessive that I am – particularly when it comes to disused or “ghost” stations – I was certain that I wanted to get inside.

Shoreditch Underground Station is located near Brick Lane, at the end of Code Street. It’s covered in graffiti so it’s not hard to spot. The station used to be the northern terminus of the East London Line, and it closed in 2006 in preparation for the development of the Overground network, which now runs through Shoreditch High Street station.

Approaching the station from Brick Lane
Sideways view
View from Code Street
The original entrance
Inside the building
Looking west
Trains still run past the station towards Liverpool Street

Originally opened in 1876, the station had only one platform and track in use towards the end of its life. It had low passenger footfall, and when it was closed, the platform and track area was filled in.

Inside the cinema
The arches
The opposite wall

The cinema is located where the platform and the track used to be. You can see the walls with their filled-in arches, and the hooks on the side designed to hold the cables. I’m probably the only person who got excited by this, but I kept imagining ghostly trains moving through the space where we were sitting, one era layered upon another like Russian dolls. Pretty impressive to me.

2015 Reading Challenge – A memoir

2015-01-04 20.03.06

As part of my 2015 Reading Challenge I have just completed my first book. The Book of Margery Kempe is something I originally came across during my first year at university – I studied History and in my first year I did a module on the medieval period: we studied several biographies and accounts of individuals, complementing them with broader studies of the period as a whole. The medieval period was never a specialism of mine, but I really enjoyed this module, and when I saw Margery mentioned on Twitter I remembered that I never did read her entire book, so I decided to rectify that.

Margery Kempe (c. 1373-c. 1440) was a wife, mother and businesswoman in Norfolk, who later in life, after experiencing madness and visions, was called to the spiritual life, experiencing visions and tears and undertaking pilgrimages to Europe and the Holy Land. Her Book, the earliest surviving autobiography in English (the manuscript was only discovered in 1934), was dictated, as she herself could not read or write.

It’s different from your usual autobiography, focusing more on the spiritual side of Kempe’s feelings and experiences. However it’s hard not to admire her determination as she faces opposition, criticism and conflict at every turn – even accounting for the fact that if I’d known her I would probably have found her quite irritating!

Not a light read, but interesting for anyone hoping for insight into the mind of someone who lived during the medieval period.

The Royal Observatory

I had a joint ticket for an exhibition, the Planetarium and the Observatory (an Astro ticket), so after I left the National Maritime Museum where Ships, Clocks & Stars was located, I struggled up the massive hill to the Royal Observatory, just in time to see the red Time Ball drop at 1 pm. This was first used in 1833 and was a way for ships’ crew and ordinary Londoners to set the time accurately.

Ball goes up…
…ball comes down.

The first thing I did was go to the Astronomy Centre, where I attended a Planetarium show called Dark Universe. This was great fun and it was an awesome experience – we sat in chairs looking up at the domed ceiling and it felt as though we were flying through the stars. The show is about what we know, and don’t know, about the universe and it is narrated by astrophysicist and author Neil deGrasse Tyson. I came out with my head spinning as I tried to comprehend how vast space is. After that I wandered around the Astronomy Centre building, looking at the exhibitions and the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, which had some amazing entries.

Astronomy Centre

Next I went to the Royal Observatory proper. Flamsteed House was the first building of the Observatory, designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1675 and built on the site of Greenwich Castle. The House contains the Astronomer Royal’s apartments, where the Astronomers Royal from John Flamsteed onwards lived and worked, and the Octagon Room, designed as the perfect spot from which to observe planetary motions, but which was actually not used for this purpose as it wasn’t positioned properly.

Flamsteed House

When I visited, the House was home to Longitude Punk’d, an exhibition complementing that at the NMM and consisting of responses to the “Longitude Problem” by a variety of steampunk artists. The artists worked together to create a kind of ‘alternate history’ and designed products relating to this, which were very inventive and impressive.

I visited the ‘Time and Greenwich’, ‘Time for the Navy’ and ‘Time and Society’ galleries which were all about the role of time in different aspects of human history (The ‘Time and Longitude’ gallery had mostly been taken to the NMM for the Longitude exhibition). There were some interesting things on display, particularly an inordinate number of clocks. I tried to take advantage of the hilltop site of the Observatory by looking out over London, but unfortunately it was a bit of a rubbish day so I couldn’t see much.

Looking towards the Thames and the O2
The National Maritime Museum

Outside in the courtyard, I watched people taking pictures on the Meridian Line – the Prime Meridian of the world, Longitude 0°. I had a go myself but I only got my feet in as I wasn’t going to faff about with selfies in front of so many people!

The Meridian Courtyard
The Meridian Line
Longitude 0°

Despite the bad weather I had an enjoyable day out in Greenwich. One day I will go back and see the National Maritime Museum properly.


Address: Blackheath Avenue, Greenwich, London, SE10 8XJ

Website: rmg.co.uk/royal-observatory

Opening Hours: 10am-6pm daily

Prices: £9.50 adult, £5 child, combined tickets with other RMG attractions available

Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude – National Maritime Museum


Christmas is over, so what to do? I thought it was time to blow away the cobwebs and get out of the house, so I spent my first weekend of the New Year doing something constructive. I was back in London so I decided to go to Greenwich, as there were a couple of exhibitions there I wanted to see.

Ships, Clocks & Stars: The Quest for Longitude commemorated the 300th anniversary of the passing of the Longitude Act in July 1714. This Act was aimed at encouraging a solution to be found for the longitude problem – essentially, working out whereabouts you are when you are at sea. In these days of accurate maps and GPS systems it’s probably hard to imagine what it would have been like to be in the middle of the ocean not knowing where you were.

Finding latitude – your position relative to the equator – was comparatively simple, as this could be done by looking at  the position of the sun. Working out your longitude – how far east or west you were – was much trickier.

The exhibition looked at the concept of longitude, doing a good job of explaining it to someone like me who honestly wasn’t quite sure what it was. It discussed the Longitude Act and those responsible for judging it, as well as various theories put forward by different individuals – some particularly outlandish!

It then went on to look at the two main theories that gained dominance – one involving clocks and one involving the Moon (apologies for the generalisations – my lack of scientific expertise is to blame!). It turned out that both theories would work, and proved effective in different ways. The exhibition then examined how travel by sea developed in later years.

I liked the interactive parts of the exhibition – there was a “coffee house” where you could read news articles about the Act, and towards the end there was a large table with an interactive surface where you could hear the judges discuss the different proposals. I did think some of it could have been laid out differently – at certain points there were long queues to look in some of the glass cases. However, overall the exhibition was really good.

Happy New Year – and the 2015 Reading Challenge

Happy New Year folks! I am back to work today, but thought I would brighten things up by starting a reading challenge. Books took a bit of a back seat last year because I spent so much time at the theatre, so I have decided to focus on reading this year.

This challenge from PopSugar has been floating around, so this is the one I’ve decided to follow.

Reading Challenge

Will you be following any reading challenges this year?