On Sunday I headed to the British Museum to visit the Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art exhibition. I got to the front gate to find a massive queue of people waiting to have their bags checked before going into the museum, so I nipped round the back and went in through the Montague Place entrance instead. Ha.
The exhibition itself was fascinating. In an era when the definition of “beauty” is constantly being challenged and debated, it is interesting to see where our beauty ideals originally stemmed from, and to be reminded that these ideals are always subject to change.
The introduction to the exhibition examined the concept that the Greeks, unlike the Egyptians and the peoples of Mesopotamia, saw nudity as both beautiful and moral. Athens in the 5th century BC was the world’s first democracy, and there was a focus on the human self in art and thought that strongly influenced conceptions of beauty. The Greeks later influenced the Romans, who admired the Greeks and often copied them.
In early Greek society there was a strong focus on the young, athletic male as the chief personification of beauty. Three students training as sculptors in Argos represented these figures; the work of Myron, Polykleitos and Pheidias showed how beauty was exemplified by order and symmetry, balance and even the use of mathematics to calculate perfect ratios. The exhibition looked at the use of colour and other materials to adorn statues: contrary to the belief that Greek statues were stark white, many had elaborate decoration.
Greek society was unique in that its gods were portrayed in human form. This led to many representations of gods and demigods reflecting an ideal human body. Herakles was one example: the son of Zeus forced to complete twelve labours in penance after killing his family was often portrayed in Greek art and sculpture, and was seen to have an ideal physique.
What of women in all this? As in countless societies throughout history, women did not enjoy equality in Greek society and were seen as passionate and out of control: it was believed that their bodies had to be hidden as they threatened the stability of male society. Therefore, nude statues of women are rarer than those of men, and statues that do exist often show drapes covering the female form. Having said that, the drapes offered opportunities for talented sculptors to show off their abilities: the draped torsos on display were incredibly detailed and superbly carved. Sometimes statues did show off the nude female body, particularly statues of the goddess Aphrodite who was often shown as though bathing. Centuries later, Roman women were inspired by Greek statues of women to commission their own versions: on display here was a statue showing the head of a Roman woman – which was probably taken from the life – on an idealised Greek body, lending the statue a somewhat incongruous appearance. This statue was actually one of my favourites as it made the ancients appear really human – the classical equivalent of PhotoShop.
Other aspects of the exhibition looked at the representation of animals and creatures, such as the Sphinx, nymphs and satires, as well as how the portrayal of children evolved from the images of them as tiny adults to individuals with particular proportions. Famous literary and philosophical figures such as Homer and Sophokles were portrayed as similar “intellectual” types, while more individual portrayals increased in popularity, such as the detailed and memorable statue of a fisherman.
Later Greek society celebrated a wider diversity of body shapes: there were statues of the old, the young, “types” belonging to the theatre and “grotesque” characters. The influence of the Ancient Greeks was spread by Alexander the Great: it can be seen in contemporary statues of Buddha in the east, wearing typically Greek drapery. The Italian Renaissance revived interest in Greek depictions of the body, though Roman copies were by then more common than Greek originals. Two statues in particular helped to influence early modern ideas about the Greek body: the Belvedere Torso (thought to represent Herakles, or possibly Ajax) and the statue of Dionysos from the school of Pheidias.
The comprehensive exhibition is open until 5 July and is well worth a visit if you can catch it before it closes. Despite only having a layman’s knowledge of Ancient Greece I got a lot out of the exhibition – it is really well thought out and displayed.
My auntie and my cousin love shoes even more than I do, so when they came down to London for a few days they were determined to visit the new Shoes: Pleasure and Pain exhibition at the V&A. They invited me along too, and I was happy to accept.
The exhibition contains weird and wonderful shoes from history, fashion and everyday life, spanning the globe and a period of centuries. It displays around 200 pairs of shoes, exhibited largely on boxes with mirrrors behind to showcase the entire shoe. The shoes belonged to both men and women and were worn for all sorts of different occasions, encompassing Seventies platform heels, eighteenth century Indian wedding shoes, Fifties stilettos, tiny shoes for bound or “lotus” feet in China and moccasins from Canada. It was interesting to see how historical styles influenced more modern designers and how shoes reflected wealth and social status: for instance, fragile shoes with high heels were generally worn by the rich who lived idle lifestyles. There was a section on fetish shoes and another one for famous shoes, including David Beckham’s football boots and the ballet shoes worn by Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes.
The second level of the exhibition contained information about how shoes are made, including some very modern 3D-printed sandals. This exhibition is an absolute must-see for anyone who loves shoes.
Room 13 by Robert Swindells was one of my favourite books as a child. I never had my own copy so decided to invest. It’s a tale of a school trip to Whitby during which some of the students find that they have to defeat Dracula. It was every bit as good as I remembered, and very atmospheric.
I’d never read anything by Geraldine McCaughrean before but I was drawn to this book, The White Darkness, because of my interest in polar history. The protagonist, Sym, is taken to Antarctica by her uncle and the tale is an exciting adventure story. However, she also has an imaginary friend, the polar explorer Titus Oates, one of the five who made it to the South Pole in 1912 only to die on the return journey. Definitely recommended, I really enjoyed this book.
While I was in Stratford upon Avon recently to see a Shakespeare play I came across a leaflet stating that tours were being offered around Shakespeare’s old school, King Edward VI School in the heart of the town. I made an impromptu visit, eager to enjoy the chance to look around.
I was given a tour by a very pleasant and polite pupil of the school (feeling incredibly old as I write that). The building incorporates the 16th century Upper and Lower Guildhall, still used today. The school itself is still going and it is a state school, not a private school, as I’d thought at first. Shakespeare attended this school, then Stratford Grammar School, between the ages of approximately 7 and 14.
The Lower Guildhall
The Upper Guildhall
The school was raising money for a forthcoming performance of John Ford’s The Lady’s Trial at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London (the Jacobean playhouse at the Globe Theatre). I wish them the best of luck with their production.
You don’t get much more popular than the “Queen of Crime”, Agatha Christie. I’ve read her Miss Marple books and some of her standalone novels but I hadn’t read any of her Poirot books until I took out The Mysterious Affair at Styles from the local library. Originally published in 1916, it was her first book and I really enjoyed reading it – naturally I didn’t manage to guess who the villain was.
I read the first book in the All Souls trilogy by Deborah Harkness, A Discovery of Witches, a couple of years ago and didn’t love it, but for the sake of completion I read the second and third books recently, Shadow of Night and The Book of Life. I enjoyed the second more than the first and the third more than the second, and by the end I was sorry to leave the characters behind, so I’m glad I stuck with it.
My attempt to visit each one of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries continued with a trip to Brompton Cemetery. This is the most central of the seven and the easiest one for me to reach, located in west London. However, it is also positioned right next to Stamford Bridge, and the day of my trip coincided with a football match between Chelsea and Sunderland – considering I am a Sunderland supporter I should have probably been aware of this, but I was taken by surprise to find hordes of people clad in blue getting off at Fulham Broadway station. Eventually I managed to disentangle myself from them and made my way over to the cemetery. Many supporters clad in football shirts and scarves were wandering through the cemetery, but the rush of people eventually petered out, to be replaced by cheers and roars from the football ground which punctuated the quiet during the tour.
The cemetery lies between Old Brompton and Fulham Roads, on the western border of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The postal address is Old Brompton Road, London, SW10 9UG and the nearest tube station to the main entrance (the North Gate) is West Brompton, with Earls Court a little further off. However, the tour was scheduled to begin at the South Lodge, so I got off at Fulham Broadway instead.
Brompton Cemetery, which is Grade I Listed on the English Heritage Register of Historic Parks and Gardens, was originally consecrated by the Bishop of London in June 1840. The cemetery occupies a rectangular site, and comprises 39-acres (16 hectares) which were purchased from Lord Kensington in 1838.
The cemetery was founded by the architect, inventor and entrepreneur Stephen Geary (1797-1854), who was also responsible for Highgate and Nunhead cemeteries. However, when the company directors held a competition for the cemetery’s design, the lead judge Sir Jeffry Wyatville (1766–1840), a distinguished architect, chose a design by his assistant Benjamin Baud (c.1807-1875), forcing Geary’s resignation.
Baud’s design incorporates neoclassical elements but is chiefly notable for its resemblance to a cathedral. The central avenue, or “nave”, leads to the domed chapel, or “high altar”, while a circle of arcades with catacombs below is said to have been inspired by the piazza of St. Peter’s in Rome. The North Gatehouse was designed to represent the “great west door”; it suffered bomb damage during World War II and has since been restored.
The cemetery was purchased under the short-lived Metropolitan Interments Act of 1850, which prohibited burial in overcrowded crypts and urban churchyards, and gave the state the power to purchase commercial cemeteries. It was the first cemetery to be nationalised, and remains Britain’s only crown cemetery, currently in the care of the Royal Parks Agency. Closed to burials between 1952 and 1996, it is now once again a working cemetery, restored, maintained and preserved by The Friends of Brompton Cemetery.
I attended a tour run by the Friends. These take place on Sunday afternoons and I was pleasantly surprised to find quite a crowd waiting at the gate. Our guide was incredibly knowledgeable and I am sure he could have told us much more about the cemetery than he was able to impart during the two hours of the walk.
Brompton doesn’t have the number of famous people that the likes of Highgate and Kensal Green possess within their walls, but there are still several notable individuals buried here. George Salting was an art collector who left considerable legacies to the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert and the National Gallery.
Pioneer of the women’s suffrage movement Emmeline Pankhurst is also buried here, though we didn’t get to see her grave.
We stopped off by the chapel, which was open for us to take a look around. It is possible to buy drinks and snacks here too.
I was advised that the best way to take pictures of the chapel’s ceiling was to lie down, so that’s what I did – on a row of chairs rather than the floor.
Just beyond the chapel, two arcades flank more sets of gravestones.
Gilbert Laye was an actor, composer and theatrical manager. I particularly liked his headstone, with the comedy and tragedy masks on either side.
Continuing the theatrical theme, Walter Brandon Thomas was an actor and playwright best known today for his (genuinely funny) farce Charley’s Aunt.
Blanche Roosevelt Macchetta was the first American woman to sing at Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House. After an accident, she died at the age of 45. The statue on her grave is of her.
Below the arcades, catacombs are located. We weren’t able to look inside on this occasion but we were able to admire the gates, with their ornate design heavy with symbolism, including the two serpents.
The interesting gravestone with the image of a wolf marks the former burial place of the Native American Sioux chief, Long Wolf, who died of pneumonia while touring with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. In 1997 his remains were returned to his home in South Dakota.
Queen Victoria had the body of a favourite servant, her courier Joseph Julius Kanné, buried here.
Brompton Cemetery has memorials to the Brigade of Guards and the Chelsea Pensioners, as well as the graves of several Victoria Cross holders. One of these is Reginald Warneford, who was awarded the medal for downing an airship but who sadly died just over a week later during a non-combative flight.
The cemetery has an interesting connection with the author Beatrix Potter, who lived nearby as a child and who is thought to have walked in the cemetery frequently. It has been suggested that the names of several individuals buried here influenced the names of some of her best-loved characters.
An interesting-looking sarcophagus on “legs” was bought by the painter Valentine Princep as a 13th-century original. Many years after his death, however, it was found to be fake.
One of the most impressive monuments in the cemetery is the burial place of Frederick Richards Leyland, an art collector from Liverpool. His tomb was designed by the Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones, and is Grade II-listed.
Richard Tauber was an acclaimed Austrian tenor who settled in Britain after the German annexation of Austria just before the Second World War.
John Snow – not that John Snow, not that one either – was a physician who famously proved that cholera was not, as was commonly supposed, spread in the air but was ingested by mouth: he traced an outbreak of the disease in Soho to a particular pump on Broad Street, showing that the disease was transported via the water. I remember learning about him in history lessons at school, so I was rather excited to see his grave.
The cemetery is something of a haven for wildlife.
Like the other cemeteries I’ve visited, Brompton Cemetery has some beautiful architecture to admire, including some impressive gravestones as well as the cemetery design as a whole. Familiar symbols of death, such as urns and broken columns, sit alongside ornate Art Nouveau designs.
The central path ran the length of the cemetery, leading towards the North Gate.
Brompton’s central location makes it an ideal place for a leisurely walk. I would definitely recommend a tour, too, so that you can discover more about the cemetery.
Would I go back?
Yes – I wasn’t able to see Emmeline Pankhurst’s grave and because of the rain I wasn’t able to wander about as much as I would have liked. I’d love to have the chance to explore the cemetery at my leisure, and to visit the catacombs, too.
Address: Old Brompton Road, London, SW10 9UG
Size: 39 acres
Still in operation?: Yes
Official website: https://www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/brompton-cemetery
Owners: Crown Estates, managed by The Royal Parks
Friends group: Friends of Brompton Cemetery (http://brompton-cemetery.org.uk/)
Tours: These cost £6 and take place at 2pm every Sunday from May to August, and on two Sundays a month from September to April. Meet at the South Lodge, at the Fulham Road entrance.
I had never read Voltaire’s Candide before, but I had seen the musical version by Leonard Bernstein (“Isn’t it a lovely day / For an auto-da-fé”), so I knew something about the story before I picked it up. The short book satirises the philosophical idea that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”, and was banned many times during its history: in 1762, Candide was listed in the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, the Roman Catholic Church’s list of prohibited books.
I’m a huge fan of the novels of Isabel Allende and her latest, Ripper (originally written in Spanish), is as full of fascinating characters as her other books. However, it is unusual in that it is set in the present day and is also a murder mystery. A great read.