2015 Reading Challenge – A book with more than 500 pages

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It was tough, but I’ve finally finished Proust’s massive tome, In Search of Lost Time. Despite the length it was a worthwhile read, if an occasionally tedious one. The narrator was fairly irritating at times, but the depth of description and the minute dissection of feelings was really powerful, I thought.

National Maritime Museum

The National Maritime Museum

On Friday I was due to go to the National Maritime Museum for a visit to the Caird Library and Archive (librarianship being my day job) and, having not visited the NMM proper for several years, I decided to take the entire day off and go around the museum before my library visit was due to begin. The museum, the main part of which is free to enter, was established by Act of Parliament in 1934, opening to the public in 1937. The site, encompassing the Naval College and the Royal Observatory, is a World Heritage site, and the buildings started out in 1807 as a school for the children of seafarers, though the most recent addition, the Sammy Ofer Wing, was only completed a few years ago.

Stern of a ship

The Museum’s collections include many and varied items relating to the history of Britain at sea, including art, maps, manuscripts, ship models and plans, a maritime reference laboratory, and seafaring objects including figureheads.

Interesting collection of figureheads

The central galleries have some fascinating exhibits on display. One of my favourites was Prince Frederick’s barge. This was used on the Thames by the Royal family for many years, often for pleasure cruises.

Prince Frederick’s barge (1731)

After wandering about the bright, airy central area of the Museum for a while, I checked out the different galleries. Voyagers: Britons and the Sea had varied artefacts from different time periods relating to how people on this island surrounded by sea saw their relationship to the water. Guiding Lights: 500 years of Trinity House and safety at sea looked at lighthouses and other ways of helping ships avoid the rocks, while Maritime London: 1700 to now is a chronological exploration of how London developed as an important port.

I then moved upstairs to the top of the building, where I looked at the Nelson, Navy, Nation gallery. Probably most notable for displaying the coat Nelson was wearing when he died at Trafalgar, the gallery also looked at the lead-up to the battle and the aftermath. I then popped into Forgotten Fighters: the First World War at Sea, which was a bit dry for my tastes, but an appropriate commemoration of World War I. Back on the first floor, the Great Map caught my eye. Children and families can play games and use tablets to interact with the map, but I contented myself with just looking at it. Next to it was the Environment Gallery, informing us about existing and possible future damage to our seas.

The Great Map

Two particularly detailed galleries, The Atlantic: Slavery, Trade, Empire and Traders: the East India Company and Asia look at the wider context of Britain’s relationship with the sea and the lands that sailors were able to explore and exploit. Finally, I ended my journey around the museum with a look at the restored Baltic Exchange Memorial Glass, damaged in the 1992 bomb that led to the demolition of the Baltic Exchange (the gherkin now occupies that site).

Baltic Exchange Memorial Glass

Plenty for all ages to see and do (there are also childrens’ play areas): not bad for a free museum.


Address: Romney Road, Greenwich, SE10 9NF

Website: rmg.co.uk

Opening Hours: 10am-5pm

Prices: Free (except for special exhibitions)

Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840–1860 – Tate Britain

The final exhibition I saw at Tate Britain was Salt and Silver: Early Photography 1840 – 1860. It was a fascinating exhibition with some of the earliest photographs ever taken on display. William Henry Fox Talbot pioneered a method of taking pictures with salted paper prints in 1839, the same year as Louis Daguerre invented the daguerrotype. Talbot’s images included pictures of china, glass, paper and people – including his daughter – as he explored the potential of the new medium. Other photographs on display include fascinating Paris landmarks including the Arc de Triomphe, images of India and the American Civil War, and the construction of Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square.

Later, Gustave Le Gray improved the salted paper print method by using waxed paper negative proofs. Further images displayed showcase the extra detail this method offered: the pyramids of Egypt, the Crimean war and ordinary life, in the shape of some Newhaven fishwives, are pictured. Early photography was inspired by portraiture when it came to pictures of people: pictures were often posed, but they were unique in being able to capture individuals, particularly children, at a specific moment in time. Most of the pictures are of ordinary people, but there is one notable image of French author Victor Hugo.

A fascinating exhibition, this is a must-see for anyone interested in photography or history.

Sculpture Victorious – Tate Britain

During my day out at Tate Britain, I visited a great many exhibitions including Sculpture Victorious. This exhibition looks at the development of the art form during the Victorian era. Victoria and Albert encouraged and commissioned work, as did the state, and this helped to encourage a “golden age” of sculpture.

The first section explores images of Queen Victoria herself, from Francis Chantrey’s 1839 young and sensual marble bust to Alfred Gilbert’s 1887-9 marble bust and Edward Onslow Ford’s 1897 bronze bust, made only a few years before Victoria died. Her image was familiar to all her subjects as it was dispersed throughout the country on cameos, medals and coins – some of which are displayed here, including Canadian and Indian coins, a Crimea medal and a Great Exhibition medal – as well as large and small busts. The item I found particularly interesting was Benjamin Cheverton’s 1842 bust, a copy of Chantrey’s made using Cheverton’s ingenious “reducing machine”.

The nineteenth century saw a growth of interest in Britain’s history, particularly its medieval past. This was evident in the Houses of Parliament, designed in a Gothic style, and the fascination with the “Age of Chivalry” and church history. The House of Lords was decorated with models of the Magna Carta barons by James Sherwood Westmacott, including the Earl of Winchester (d. 1219), whose model has been loaned to this exhibition. Edmund Cotterill’s Eglinton Trophy is a beautiful and intricate example of medieval-inspired design, while many medieval tombs were conserved and their casts displayed at the Crystal Palace, including that of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

The classical world also inspired the Victorians, particularly the Parthenon marbles, casts and miniatures of which were sold and toured the country. Hamo Thornycroft’s bronze sculpture of Teucer (1881), a Greek archer named in the Iliad, was well received while John Gibson, a leading British neoclassicist, created Hylas surprised by the Naiades (1826-c.36) in marble. The Devonshire Parure (1856), a glorious collection of jewels, was inspired by classical style while Frederic Leighton’s bronze An Athlete Wrestling with a Python (1877) is particularly impressive.

The Great Exhibition showcased fine examples of sculpture from Britain and abroad. Minto & Co.’s Peacock (1873) and Elephant (1889) are attractive and bright; made of lead and tin-glazed earthenware, they exemplify the link between sculpture and manufacturing. Mid-19th century ivory sculptures from Barhampur in India are ornate and beautiful, while Thomas Wilkinson Wallis’s Partridges and Ivy (1871), made of limewood, is breathtakingly delicate and stunning. Sculptures of a Greek slave and an American slave helped to fuel the anti-slavery campaign. I was particularly impressed by Raffaele Monti’s Veiled Vestal (1847), a marble sculpture with remarkably realistic drapes veiling a young woman’s face.

The Victorian era saw the construction of more public statues than any other, designed largely for commemorative purposes. Still famous to this day is Alfred Gilbert’s 1893 Shaftesbury monument, a memorial to Lord Shaftesbury, most commonly known as the Statue of Eros in Piccadilly Circus. A statue of King Alfred by Hamo Thornycroft was erected in Winchester in 1901, accompanied by a carefully choreographed unveiling, and Alfred Stevens won the Wellington Commission to create a memorial to the Duke of Wellington in St Paul’s Cathedral.

The final section of the exhibition looks at individual craftsmanship, with examples including A Royal Game (1906-11) by William Reynolds-Stephens, an impressive piece of bronze, wood and stone showing Elizabeth I and Philip II of Spain playing chess. Another piece that caught my eye was Perseus and the Graiae (1877-88) by Edward Burne-Jones.

I have an interest in the Victorian period and this exhibition allowed me to learn about an area of Victorian art that I hadn’t really thought about before. Definitely recommended.

Nick Waplington/Alexander McQueen: Working Process – Tate Britain

At Tate Britain in order to attend some exhibitions, I came across a photography exhibition called Nick Waplington/Alexander McQueen: Working Process. The exhibition consists of a selection of photos taken by Waplington at McQueen’s invitation, concerning the latter’s final ready-to-wear collection for A/W 2009 known as The Horn of Plenty! Everything But the Kitchen Sink. As I have a ticket for the McQueen exhibition at the V&A later this year, I thought it would be a good idea to visit this one too.

The exhibition documents the process of creating the collection from start to finish, beginning with pictures of rubbish tips and ending with images of the catwalk. In between you see McQueen and his assistants designing, creating and constructing the costumes. The collection acted as a satirical and provocative retrospective of his career, with costumes made from fine silks designed to look like rubbish bags and an exaggerated emphasis on the models’ features. I found the exhibition interesting and it whetted my appetite for the larger exhibition at the V&A later on.

The Darks – Tate Britain

The Darks is an installation/exhibition by Ruth Ewan and Astrid Johnson based at Tate Britain. I had read about it on the website, and when I went to the Tate to see some exhibitions on Easter Monday, I decided to give this tour a go.

The Darks plays on the format of a museum audio guide, and was inspired – if that is the right word – by the Millbank Prison which used to occupy the Tate site. Jeremy Bentham’s original 1816 plan was for a Panopticon, a system which would enable just one watchman to keep an eye on all the prisoners, but the end result was somewhat different. The triangle of Mercy, Justice and Vigilance was supposed to inform prison design. The guide features both real and fictional accounts from the likes of Dickens as well as prisoners transported to Australia from just outside the prison. The tour starts at the Tate’s Millbank entrance, then moves onto the steps; you cross the road and walk by the river until you reach the Morpeth Arms and Ponsonby Place, then head back to the Manton Entrance in Atterbury Street, finishing up in the Tate’s Lower Rotunda.

The Darks audio guide collection point
Tate Britain Millbank entrance
Looking out onto the river
The Rotunda
Looking west along the riverbank
The Thames
The Thames
Prisoners departed London here for transportation to Australia
The Morpeth Arms, where prison workers used to drink
Part of the octagon that used to mark the prison boundary
Another view of the boundary
Manton Entrance
Back inside Tate Britain

The Darks is a fascinating tour and I learned a lot about Millbank Prison and the site itself. I love anything that allows me to explore more of London, so this was ideal.

Reubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne – Royal Academy of Arts

My parents left London on Easter Sunday and I spent Easter Monday seeing some exhibitions. I began at the Royal Academy, with Reubens and His Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne.

The artist Peter Paul Reubens (1577-1640) was often called the “Homer of Painting”. He has been described as the most inimitable and influential painter of the Low Countries, influencing different generations and nationalities of painters over the years. The exhibition has been organised by theme.

Natural Landscapes

The first section looks at the natural landscapes inherent in Reubens’ work and how it impacted other artists. Reubens studied natural landscapes on his estate, resulting in pictures including the Landscape with Rainbows (c. 1630) and the Evening Landscape with Timber Wagon (1630-40), which can be said to have influenced J.M.W. Turner’s The Forest of Bere (1808). Reuben also influenced British artists such as Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable.

The Garden of Love

While landscapes inspired British artists, Reubens’ lyrical exoticism, evident in works such as The Garden of Love (c. 1635), struck a particular chord with early eighteenth century French artists. Jean-Antoine Watteau’s La Surprise (1718-19) drew inspiration from the earlier artist’s Château in a Park (c. 1632-35).


Reubens’ portraits of Genoese high society in Italy, such as his Portrait of a Woman (c. 1625-30), impressed Anthony van Dyck and inspired painters such as Joshua Reynolds, Gainsborough and Sir Thomas Lawrence, whose Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester (1824) shows Reubens’ influence.


Reubens worked as a propagandist and diplomat at courts through his art, including his Cycle for Marie de Médicis (1621): he painted two series of twenty-four paintings for the galleries at her new residence. He also worked on the ceiling of the Banqueting House in London. His work inspired The Triumph of Apollo, a ceiling decoration at the Louvre painted by Eugène Delacroix.


Reubens is best known in Belgium as a religious painter, with altarpieces in Flemish and northern French churches. This aspect of his work was popular with Spanish painters, and some, which was displayed in the Louvre, inspired Romantic art such as the Sketch After Descent from the Cross (1766-69) and copies by the likes of Delacroix and Van Gogh. Claudio Coello’s Virgin and Child Adored by St Louis, King of France (1665-68) was influenced by Reubens’ Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints. The earlier painter’s St Cecilia (1620), showing the saint playing an organ, inspired Gustav Klimt’s St Cecilia (1885).


A different side of Reubens can be seen in the works that demonstrate horror and atrocity, including some gruesome details, not least scenes of people descending into Hell and the abduction of women, which frequently inspired the Romantics. Reubens’ The Fall of the Damned (1620) inspired Charles Le Brun’s The Fall of the Angels (1685), while his The Battle of the Amazons (1617-18) inspired Arnold Böcklin’s The Battle on the Bridge (1892).


The final section of the exhibition was about lust. Reubens is probably best known for his buxom nudes, such as his work with Jan Breughel the Elder, Pan and Syrinx (c. 1617). While I can definitely see the point of those who say his pictures can be sexist, I can also appreciate the quality of his work, which influenced paintings such as Paul Cézanne’s The Bathers (c. 1875) and Auguste Renoir’s Bather with Long Hair (c. 1895).

Overall, I found this to be an interesting exhibition and I did learn a lot. It emphasised the extent of Reubens’ influence over other artists and left me more aware of his impact.

Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived And Will Never Die – Museum of London

My parents and their friends came to London over Easter, and on Good Friday we went to the Sherlock Holmes exhibition at the Museum of London. We were excited by the entrance to the exhibition, which was in the form of a bookcase in which, so the assistant told us, we had to find the secret door. Unfortunately, we all felt that the exhibition itself failed to live up to this.

There were certainly many fascinating and relevant items on display, from film posters from the detective’s various incarnations over the years to original manuscripts, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1886 A Study in Scarlet notebook, containing the first ever lines of a Sherlock Holmes story, and the manuscript of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Murders in the Rue Morgue. There were also a couple of costumes – including a traditional outfit from Holmes’s mid-20th century incarnation as well as the Belstaff coat worn by Benedict Cumberbatch in the most recent BBC series.

Overall, though, I thought that there was too little that was actually related to Sherlock Holmes, and too much context and setting the scene. For instance, there were many paintings and photographs of late nineteenth century London, which helped to put Doyle’s work in context and picture Holmes’s London, but which was not directly connected to Holmes. There were also objects on display that related to the novels and adaptations, such as Victorian ephemera like typewriters and costumes, not directly associated with Holmes.

It would be wrong to say that I did not enjoy the exhibition – I found it very interesting – but I thought it had been mis-advertised. If it had been marketed as an exhibition about nineteenth-century London, I would have been quite happy.

Costume from the exhibition


Benedict Cumberbatch’s coat from the modern Sherlock