Julia Margaret Cameron – V&A


The Julia Margaret Cameron exhibition at the V&A opened yesterday, and since I was meeting up with a friend in the museum café, I suggested that we pay it a visit, as she is also interested in Cameron’s work. The first thing we noticed on approaching the entrance to the free exhibition was the installation outside allowing you to take Victorian-style pictures. I’m not convinced my photo looks particularly authentic – the glittery pink bag strap is a bit of a giveaway – but I think this will be really popular with exhibition-goers. You can share your pictures on social media using the hashtag #VictorianMe.


The free exhibition, held in one room on the first floor, marks the bicentenary of Cameron’s birth, and is made up of over 100 photographs from the Museum’s collection. The V&A, then the South Kensington Museum, was the only museum to exhibit Cameron’s work during her lifetime: the founding director, Sir Henry Cole, presented her work in 1865. In 1868, the Museum offered Cameron the use of two rooms as a studio.

The photographs exhibited include portraits of the great and the good – among them Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Charles Darwin – and Cameron’s own servants and family members, many of whom were posed as biblical, historical or allegorical characters.

Julia Margaret Cameron’s style was unique for the time, and wasn’t always appreciated. I personally love the out-of-focus technique she employed, which give her pictures an ethereal, dreamlike quality, which is unique in Victorian photography. Many contemporary critics were less than complimentary. One of the things that surprised me was seeing how confident Cameron grew as her career developed: in her letters she describes her own work as innovative and groundbreaking. On reflection, this lack of modesty probably helped her promote and establish herself in an industry dominated by men.

The most interesting thing about the exhibition, for me, was the inclusion of some “imperfect” works that Cameron herself did not want exhibited or sold. These show the issues that Cameron had in creating her work, including cracks in the images and damage to the negatives. Critics may have seen Cameron’s work as clumsy and flawed, but she had high standards of her own, knew what she wanted and how to achieve it, and was able to turn her mistakes to her advantage.

The exhibition runs until 21 February next year. While you’re in South Kensington it is also worth visiting the Science Museum’s exhibition, Julia Margaret Cameron: Influence and Intimacy, which I have also written about.

British Optical Association Museum

I visited the small British Optical Association Museum (also known as the musEYEum – see what they did there?!) and was surprised that it was so central: just round the corner from Charing Cross, within the College of Optometrists building on Craven Street. Curator Neil Handley who showed me round suggested that it was the most “centrally located museum in London”. The museum has the world’s oldest collection of spectacles and vision aids.


An optometrist is someone who specialises in eyes: they undertake eye examination and sight testing, advise on visual problems, prescribe glasses and contact lenses, and dispense certain ophthalmic drugs. The College of Optometrists is a membership organisation which aims to raise the standards of optometric education and support members in their professional development.

The British Optical Association Museum was founded in 1901 by J.H. Sutcliffe (1867-1941), an optician and administrator who ran the Museum for the first forty years. In common with other medical professionals in the nineteenth century, optometrists sought to be respected as the educated and skilled practitioners they were, and founded the British Optical Association in 1895. The Museum was created to emphasise the long and distinguished history of the profession, and became part of the College of Optometrists when the BOA was disbanded.

The museum has a rich and varied collection consisting of anything and everything to do with eyes, glasses and contact lenses. It has a pair of glasses belonging to Dr Johnson, and another from the Coronation Street character Deirdre Barlow; pairs made for Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie for the film The Tourist, as well as contact lenses worn by Leonardo Di Caprio (The Beach) and Matt Le Blanc (Lost In Space); not to mention other assorted bits and bobs including a miniature opticians’ shop from a model village, and a Halifax money box featuring Howard Brown, the bespectacled one-time face of a major ad campaign. One of my favourite things was a little pair of “pecktacles” designed for chickens.

One of the oldest items in the collection is a statue of Saint Odilia, in which eyes are carried on a Bible: churchgoers would pray to the statue in hope of relief from eye disease. Another is a small statue showing a wearer of early glasses. The history of spectacle design is a fascinating one: they began as two lenses pinched on the bridge of the nose (as shown in the old statue) and did not get side pieces until the early eighteenth century. The oldest pair of glasses in the Museum’s collection dates from 1550-1650, and the earliest pair with sides dates from 1728-30. Glasses aficionados can find much to interest them in the museum: lots of different styles fashionable throughout the ages are on display, including the notorious NHS glasses that seem to have made a comeback in recent years. Some modern glasses even have 3D-printed frames.

At one time tortoiseshell (or turtleshell) was a particularly popular material for spectacle frames: it was flexible but reasonably sturdy, and it was also attractive (not so good for the poor turtles though). As opticians didn’t want to be seen as retailers, they disliked displaying glasses frames in their windows, so stuffed turtles were often used instead (at least until the turtle became a protected species) and turtles became a kind of symbol for the optician. I wonder if this is why my contact lens solution from Specsavers has a picture of some turtles on the front?

There is an interesting display on how glasses are designed and made, and another section featuring various bits of eye testing equipment used over the years. I didn’t find these as frightening as the old equipment from the British Dental Association Museum – in fact, variations of the alphabet displays used to test eyesight are still in use today.

As well as the usual vision-correction spectacles, there are other kinds of glasses on display, including Eskimo snow glasses designed to protect eyes from the glare of the sun on snow, and different kinds of sunglasses. Interestingly, early sunglasses used green or blue glass, never black, as this shade was associated with the glasses worn by the blind. “Make-up glasses”, designed so that one lens can be lowered to allow the wearer to apply mascara, are also displayed, as are false eyelashes and even eye make-up.

Other things on display include telescopes, opera glasses, spy glasses and binoculars, as well as some very interesting fans with tiny telescopic lenses in the centre. Early contact lenses are also included: fascinating to me as a contact lens wearer, they made me feel incredibly thankful that I live in the twenty-first century. The earliest contact lenses were huge, covering the entire eye, and they could only be worn for two hours at a time.

Sometimes eyes became diseased, and had to be treated: eye baths were designed to allow the user to wash out the eye with water or another solution, and there are several examples here. If the worst came to the worst and the eye had to be removed, one could wear an eye patch (like a pirate – there is a pirate mug on display) or choose a glass eye. The earliest artificial eyes were Egyptian, and were given to the dead to allow them to “see” in the afterlife; centuries later, the living could choose from a “chocolate box” of glass eyes, selecting the most appropriate match. Nowadays, of course, an artificial eye is individually made for each person.

The British Optical Association Museum is fascinating and it’s well worth making an appointment to visit. If you wear glasses or contact lenses it’s particularly interesting, and I for one am extremely thankful for optometrists and all the work that they do, and have done in the past. If you are unable to visit, or want to get a feel for the kind of objects they have, you can view the collection online.


Address: The College of Optometrists, 42 Craven Street, London, WC2N 5NG

Website: college-optometrists.org/en/college/museyeum

Opening Hours: By appointment only, during the week: book via phone or email

Prices: Free

Somerset House: The Old Palaces Tour

Somerset House is one of the most interesting buildings in London, but the history of the site itself is just as fascinating. The current building was completed in 1780, but the site has a long history before that. It’s possible to go on an Old Palaces Tour to learn about the history of the site before the current building existed.

The site was a prime spot from the early days of London, being located on the banks of the Thames in between the financial heart, the City, and the centre of Government, Westminster. When the Duke of Somerset became Lord Protector on the accession of the boy-king Edward VI in 1547, he decided to build himself a palace on this very spot, even though it meant demolishing several churches and chapels that already existed on the land. A few years later, Somerset Palace – architect unknown – was complete, but the Duke was executed for treason in 1552 and it passed into the hands of the Crown. Elizabeth used the Palace on occasion, both as a Princess and later as Queen, but it was more heavily used after her death in 1603.

From then until its demolition nearly 200 years later, the Palace was most notable for being the home of three Catholic queens: Anne of Denmark, Henrietta Maria and Catherine of Braganza. Anne, wife of James I of England and VI of Scotland, renamed the building Denmark House, hosted numerous lavish masques, and commissioned elaborate extensions to the palace. A similar policy was followed by Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, and her addition of a Catholic chapel did not help improve relations between the King and his Parliament. On the outbreak of the Civil War, Henrietta Maria fled to France, Charles of course was defeated and executed, and Denmark House became the headquarters of General Fairfax, commander of the Parliamentary Army. The contents of the house were inventoried and sold – to this date only one picture remains as a record of what the interior looked like – and Inigo Jones, responsible for much of the seventeenth century redesign of the building, was fined by the Parliamentarians who viewed his work for the royal family with suspicion. He died at Somerset House, his estate confiscated. However, on Oliver Cromwell’s death – his body lying in state at Somerset House – Charles II was restored to the throne and Henrietta Maria, now Queen Dowager, returned to Somerset House.

The final Roman Catholic queen to inhabit the house was Catherine of Braganza, who moved in after the death of her husband Charles II and remained there during the reign of William and Mary, a difficult situation as the monarchs were Protestant. After Catherine left in 1693, the Palace was used by various government departments before falling gradually into disrepair. George III agreed that the building should be demolished and replaced by a new building for the purpose of government offices, on the condition that Buckingham House, further to the west, should be given to the Crown.

We were taken round the existing Somerset House during the tour and the history of the old palace was explained to us: it was fascinating considering that hardly anything of the old palace still exists and we had to rely on our imaginations. Our guide was really knowledgeable and enthusiastic and really brought the old palace to life.

Overlooking the Thames, the main transport thoroughfare at the time of the old palace

After spending some time in the courtyard, we ventured downstairs to where the nineteenth-century embankment is visible as well as the level of the Thames waterline. Originally, boats could come right inside the palace, and these days one of the royal barges is installed behind a pane of glass (one of a pair, the other barge is at the National Maritime Museum).

The embankment
The barge

Next we visited my favourite part of Somerset House – the Deadhouse, underneath the courtyard. When the old palace was demolished, the only bits saved from it were some of the graves from the Roman Catholic chapel, which have been installed here. They include the grave of a doctor, the wife of a gardener, and a diplomat.

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Finally, we visited the Strand Lane Baths, which are located next to Somerset House. During the nineteenth century, it was widely thought that these dated back to Roman times, and there is a worn Victorian sign inside the building stating this. Indeed, the National Trust sign outside calls them the Roman Baths. However, it is now generally accepted that the baths date from no earlier than the beginning of the 17th century. An intriguing theory claims that the bath was originally the feeder cistern for a magnificent fountain in the grounds of the old Somerset House, built for James I’s queen, Anne of Denmark, in 1612. The Hidden London website has a very informative piece about this.

Looking down Strand Lane
The original National Trust sign which still says Roman Baths
The building
The baths
The baths
Victorian sign

By the late eighteenth century, the baths were being used as a public bathing facility. Charles Dickens reportedly bathed here, and made his character David Copperfield take the plunge here as well. Whenever they date from, they are a fascinating little feature of the embankment. Apart from these tours, access is only possible on Open House Weekend or by making an appointment with Westminster Council.

I thoroughly enjoyed my Old Palaces Tour. Tours take place each Tuesday at 12.45 and 14.15. They are free, but are popular so don’t arrive too late. I turned up at a quarter to twelve and the first tour was full up, but I was the first person to register on the second. It’s definitely worth making the effort to go on this tour.

Fleming Museum

With a day off work and nothing definite to do, I decided to head down to the Fleming Museum in Paddington. Named after renowned scientist Sir Alexander Fleming, the museum commemorates his discovery of penicillin, a hugely significant event that changed the course of medical history and saved thousands of lives.

Entrance to the museum (now closed) as you enter the hospital courtyard

The museum is located on the second floor of St Mary’s Hospital, which has a long and distinguished history itself, having been founded in 1845. As you turn in to the entrance from Praed Street you can see the sign for the museum; however, to enter you must go into the hospital main entrance and follow the corridor round.

Small as the museum is, it occupies several floors: first there is a reception room, which has a few information boards, then you go upstairs and into the shop where you purchase your ticket. You can leave bags and coats in here.

The first part of a visit comprises a tour – if that is the correct word considering it only encompasses one room – of the very room in which Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928. Though the layout and fittings are not wholly original – the room was restored at a later date and the space was reproduced to reflect its condition at the time of the discovery – the fact that it is the original room in the first place is pretty impressive. The view from the second floor window is largely what it would have been in the 1920s, and it’s easy to imagine yourself back in time.

The museum guides are all volunteers, and are enthusiastic and knowledgeable. My guide was extremely interesting as he explained the context behind Fleming’s work and how he came to make his discovery. About to go on holiday, Fleming left a petri dish by the window, and when he returned six weeks later he noticed that something in the dish seemed to be killing the bacteria that had contaminated it. The original petri dish is now in the British Library: the one on display here is a replica.

One aspect of the story in particular I found really enlightening. In the past I’d always assumed that Fleming’s discovery was wholly down to luck – that he’d left the petri dish out by mistake and noticed the mould by chance. However, my guide explained that Fleming would routinely leave petri dishes out for a while and check them, just in case. It wasn’t just luck that facilitated the discovery of penicillin – Fleming’s deep scientific knowledge and inquiring mind played important roles too.

Having said that, it was not Fleming himself who developed the drug to explore its full potential, but two scientists at Oxford, Australian Howard Florey and German refugee Ernst Chain. It was 1940, and they wanted a drug that would be effective on troops at the front.

The development of penicillin got off to a shaky start. At first, members of the team employed to test it tried it on themselves. The first member of the public to receive penicillin, a policeman, showed impressive signs of recovery, but unfortunately the penicillin ran out and he relapsed and died. On a similar note, the drug was used on a young boy suffering from an eye infection. He miraculously recovered, but sadly the infection had damaged his carotid artery, and he died from a hemorrhage. I couldn’t help feeling that these incidences would have been more traumatic for the friends and family of the sufferers than if they had just died in the first place – this way, their hopes were raised only to be dashed again.

The next part of the museum, up another flight of stairs, involves watching a short video about the discovery and how it progressed, followed by a small exhibition room which you can explore at your leisure. The information boards in the room charted the story of penicillin, repeating some of the information I had already learned, but adding new snippets. For instance, I learned more details about the initial testing of the drug, and the efforts that were made to stabilise the chemical compound, as well as the problems faced in ensuring enough penicillin was produced to meet demand.

In modern times, it is well known that drug-resistant strains of bacteria are developing in response to the use of penicillin and other antibiotics. In fact, Fleming himself predicted that this would be a problem, and it was an issue almost right from the start, with scientists having to come up with new ways of adapting the drug to stay one step ahead of the bacteria.

Fleming, Florey and Chain were awarded the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work with penicillin. It is thanks to them, and to this “wonder drug”, that we are able to take antibiotics for granted, and there are diseases nowadays considered mild that at one time could have been fatal. It doesn’t have the most convenient opening times, but it’s worth making the effort to visit this small but fascinating museum.

Plaque on Praed Street commemorating the discovery of penicillin


Address: St Mary’s Hospital, Praed Street, London, W2 1NY

Website: medicalmuseums.org/alexander-fleming-laboratory-museum

Opening Hours: Mon-Thurs 10am-1pm; other times by appointment only

Prices: £4 adults, £2 concessions

Tatty Devine Sequin Necklace Workshop

I recently signed up for another jewellery-making workshop with Tatty Devine: this time to make a sequin necklace. I made my way to the Brick Lane store on Saturday morning. Last time I was here, it was during the evening and we were offered wine and nibbles; now, we got cups of tea and chocolate brownies, perfect to cheer us up after the rather dreadful weather outside.


The first step was to choose our sequins. This was incredibly difficult as there were so many lovely colours to choose from. Eventually I went for a rainbow effect, and chose a gold chain to add a bit of bling.


Next, it was time to assemble the necklace. After doing several of these workshops I have just about got the hang of attaching jump rings to pieces of perspex, but I still found it slightly tricky.


Once this was done, it was time to cut and attach the chain, before placing the necklace inside a Tatty Devine box to take home. I’m looking forward to wearing my necklace over Christmas!


2015 Reading Challenge – A book set somewhere you’ve always wanted to visit


The Ice Master by Jennifer Niven is a fantastic, incredibly well-researched and gripping account of an Arctic expedition in the early 20th century. I’d love to visit Siberia and the other Arctic locations mentioned in the book – but perhaps not under such circumstances.

Antarctica: Explorers Heroes Scientists – Palace Green Library, Durham

In Durham, my mam and I paid a visit to the Palace Green Library, part of Durham University, at my request to visit the Antarctica exhibitions being held there. Antarctica: Explorers Heroes Scientists includes two exhibitions on loan from the Royal Geographical Society, alongside displays exploring how men and women from the North East of England have contributed to our understanding of Antarctica.

With Scott to the Pole and Antarctic Witness contained photographs from Scott and Shackleton’s respective trips in the early twentieth century, telling the story of their adventures in Antarctica. I was familiar with these stories and some of the photographs from an exhibition I previously visited in London, but I still enjoyed seeing the pictures again. The third exhibition, Antarctic Science Today, looked at how scientists from Durham are working to understand Antarctica and the progress of global warming.

I’m glad we made the effort to visit this exhibition: it was really interesting and informative.

Home, but not home

I recently spent a week at home visiting my parents. It was a bit different from my usual trips up North: my parents recently moved house, from the semi where I grew up in a large town to a new detached house in a much smaller village.

New house

It was a tad strange going into a completely different house, but once I was there, I was ok – seeing my parents so much happier in their new home made a lot of difference. The new place is bigger than the old one, and one room is going to be a LIBRARY.

The garden

I still keep the majority of my books at home, as I simply don’t have the room to have them in London. Therefore I spent much of the week visiting various friends and relatives, rescuing boxes of books that they had kindly offered to look after, and sorting them onto the shelves in the library and my own bedroom.

My room

I also found the time to sort out some old toys. Frankly, these deserve a blog post of their own, but here are a couple of pictures to be going on with.

Swan Keyper
GoGo My Walking Pup

I did find the time to get out of the house a few times. I spent a day in Durham with my mam: we visited an exhibition at Durham University and had the chance to see Bishop Cosin’s Library in Palace Green Library, which was a real treat. We had tea and cake at Vennel’s café and later went out to the pub quiz that my dad has been going to for years.

We visited my brother at one point, and the two of us had a great game of Blades of Steel, an amazing retro NES game that we loved as children. It has the most horrendous graphics, but it is really simple to pick up and loads of fun to play.


For many years, when I was younger, my parents, my brother and I, along with my parents’ friends and their two children, would go to Ambleside in Cumbria each year during the Autumn half term in order to visit the garden centre there, which had an amazing collection of Christmas decorations. Although all of us children have now grown up and left home, our parents still make the trip every year, and this time I was able to accompany them for the first time in about a decade.

Car park

I’m not sure this was such a good idea, however. I have brilliant memories of the place, but it’s probably a mistake to try and recapture old feelings. The garden centre is pretty much the same, and the Christmas section is as impressive as ever, but the play area where us four children would spend hours is long gone. Obviously, I’m a bit old to be going on the swings myself, but I still feel sad about this!



My final day out was to Newcastle, where I met up with a friend, had some hot chocolate and visited Fenwicks Window (another yearly tradition when I was small). It wasn’t as impressive as last year’s, which was Alice in Wonderland-themed, but I did like the Northumbria Police speeding ticket stuck to the side of the sleigh.




One of the strangest things about my parents moving is that I now need to get the train from Durham, not Newcastle. Still, it was nice to be able to wait on the platform with Durham Cathedral looming impressively from a distance.

At the station
Durham Cathedral

So that was my week at home: I’ll be back at Christmas!