As well as Canada House itself, I’ve always wanted to visit the Canada Gallery, the art gallery attached to the main building that showcases art with a Canadian theme or connection. Unlike the House itself, which is only open on occasion for guided tours, the Gallery is open much more regularly, and you don’t have to book. The Gallery is probably overshadowed by its bigger and more famous neighbour, the National Gallery, but it’s well worth a visit in its own right; it’s small, the perfect size for whiling away a few spare minutes.
Exhibitions change regularly, so repeat visits are worthwhile. On this, my first visit, the exhibition consisted of work by Scottish artist Barbara Rae. Inspired by her namesake and fellow Scot, Dr John Rae, who explored Canada’s Arctic in the 1830s, Barbara set out to traverse the Northwest Passage herself, encountering dramatic icebergs, polar bears, native Inuit and the northern lights. I loved the resulting artwork, which seems infused with the magic of the changing colours of ice. Alongside these works, a selection of Inuit sculpture both complements the main exhibition and carries its own unique authority. This exhibition runs until 16 February, and no doubt more good quality exhibitions will follow in future.
One of the places I was most excited about visiting during Open House London was Wandsworth Prison Museum, as it is so rarely open. This tiny, free museum in a small garage near the museum entrance is crammed with relics and artefacts relating to the history of Wandsworth Prison.
These include: examples of prison officer uniforms, an ‘escape board’ listing the names of inmates thought to be an escape risk, a selection of truncheons and handcuffs, and documents relating to the prison’s history. There is a photograph of ten-year-old Robert Davey, sentenced to three months in prison in 1874 for stealing rabbits, and and an Illustrated London News article about Kate Webster, the only woman to be executed at the prison: she was hanged in 1879 for killing her elderly employer, Julia Thomas. There is an original Victorian prison door, which was only replaced in the last few years. The hangman’s noose on display is actually a film prop, but the black cap which was worn by the judge pronouncing sentence of death is the real thing.
I had also been able to sign up for an architectural tour of the prison, which was a strange experience. The prison was built in 1851 as the Surrey House of Correction, laid out in a panopticon style, with wings radiating out from a central chamber. At the time it was built it was hailed as the prime example of a modern prison, designed to accommodate the increasing numbers of prisoners that the smaller London jails could not cope with. It originally held both male and female prisoners, though now it is a male-only prison. We passed the former location of the condemned cells and the gallows, a sobering experience, and also paid a visit to the prison’s medical centre, where Oscar Wilde, one of the prison’s most famous residents, spent some time. Other notorious prisoners over the years have included John Haigh, Ronnie Kray, Derek Bentley and escapee Ronnie Biggs.
The tour was unusual and worthwhile; the museum is fascinating and well worth a visit.
I’ve been meaning to visit Orleans House Gallery for some time, and the annual Heritage Open Days event provided the perfect opportunity. The Gallery is situated beside the river at Twickenham, south-west London, in beautiful grounds.
The Gallery is home to temporary exhibitions in both the main building and the stables. The current exhibition in the main gallery is Collection Curiosities, featuring intriguing pieces from the Richmond Borough Art Collection, and it contains many fascinating works including a picture of the ‘Hammersmith Ghost’ and a necklace of human bones. In the Stables Gallery, the current exhibition explores the work of local artist Roger Hutchins, whose varied output is well worth a look and features many local landmarks.
Upstairs, a study room hosts small permanent exhibitions on the French connection to Orleans House, the explorer Richard Burton (who grew up in the vicinity), and the local area. There are also several paintings on the wall with a local connection or theme, and visitors are invited to comment on them by writing on a luggage tag and sticking it alongside the picture. I really liked this interactive aspect and some of the comments were really amusing.
Because of the Heritage Open Day I was able to take part in a tour of the Gallery, learning about its history along the way. James Johnston, joint Secretary of State for Scotland, commissioned architect John James to build a house in 1710. Ten years later, the Baroque Octagon Room was constructed, designed by the Scottish architect James Gibbs. Both George I and George II visited, and Queen Caroline (wife of George II) and her children dined here in 1729. A dinner menu from this time is still in existence. Louis Philippe, Duc d’Orleans, lived here in exile from 1815-1817, and gave the house the name by which it is now known. He became King of France in 1830, revisiting in 1844 accompanied by Queen Victoria. Louis’s son, Henri, Duc d’Aumale, lived here for nearly two decades from 1852, building a gallery and library next to the house.
The Octagon Room has recently been restored, and along with part of the adjoining building is the only remaining part of the original structure, which was demolished in the early twentieth century. The rest of the site was saved by wealthy local Nellie Ionides, who sounds quite a character – she liked poodles and champagne, and combined her two interests by naming her pet poodles after brands of champagne. In the garden, it is possible to see markers showing where rooms of the house would originally have been located, and there is a model of the site inside.
Nowadays, Orleans House is a successful small gallery running numerous exhibitions and events, and is well worth a visit.
Headstone Manor & Museum is the local history museum for the London Borough of Harrow in northwest London. It was built in around 1310, and was once home to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The house is surrounded by a filled moat, the oldest in Middlesex.
After Henry VIII became the head of the Church of England, he took control of the Manor and surrounding lands, eventually selling it to a court favourite. It remained in private ownership, undergoing dramatic changes, extensions and restorations, until it fell into disrepair and was bought by Hendon Rural District Council in 1925. The site was opened as Harrow Museum in 1986, and a restoration programme began in 2004.
The Manor is Grade I listed, and is full of information on the history of Harrow: it has records dating to the year 825.
The tour started by the visitor centre, which was built in 2017. We headed into the “Small Barn”, which has a display of rural life in the life of Headstone Manor. We were shown the “Great Barn” (often used for special events) and the 18th-century Granary (moved from a site in Pinner in 1991), before heading into the Manor itself.
Being taken around the house by a guide meant that we had various interesting things pointed out to us, including the joins where extra bits of the house had been added on, graffiti on the outside walls, and uncovered bits of wallpaper. The Great Hall originally extended out into the garden, but most of it was destroyed in a fire. The house also has various displays of historical information and objects, focusing on such varied subjects as the construction of the Metropolitan Railway into Harrow, and cookery book writer Isabella Beeton.
After the tour, I was able to take some time to wander around the house at my own pace. It is a fascinating place to visit and free to enter, so well worth the trouble.
I’ve been to the Courtauld Gallery a number of times while I’ve been living in London, sometimes to attend special exhibitions, sometimes just to view the permanent collection. It is small compared to the likes of Tate Britain and the National Gallery, but that just makes it more manageable.
The Gallery, located in the North Wing of Somerset House, was founded by Samuel Courtauld, and initially included mainly Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works. It now has a wide range of art including religious Renaissance paintings, Old Masters and twentieth-century art. There are around 7,000 drawings as well as prints, decorative arts and a sculpture collection.
Although the gallery is best known for its 19th- and early 20th-century works, the Courtauld’s galleries extend back to the early Renaissance, featuring some 7,000 drawings as well as prints, decorative arts and a fine collection of sculpture.
Not to be confused with the Greenwich Heritage Centre, which is located in Royal Arsenal, the Discover Greenwich Visitor Centre is located near the Cutty Sark, in the grounds of the Old Royal Naval College. Housed in the Pepys Building, originally an engineering laboratory for the ORNC, it opened in 2010.
The free Centre offers an introduction to the history and attractions within the Greenwich World Heritage Site. It has information on the history of the Palace of Placentia, models of Christopher Wren’s original designs for Greenwich Hospital, the carved heads originally intended to decorate the exterior of the Painted Hall, and a model of a lion originally intended for external decoration, too. I particularly enjoyed the section about Greenwich Palace, the birthplace of Henry VIII, and the archaeological work that has discovered more about the palace and its layout and decoration.
The Centre has other displays about maritime Greenwich and about the history of the Royal Naval College, which occupied Greenwich Hospital and the surrounding area between 1873 and 1998. It also has a Tourist Information desk and a gift shop.
This free visitor centre is well worth checking out as introduction to Greenwich.
Address: 2 Cutty Sark Gardens, Old Royal Naval College, London, SE10 9LW
I wandered past the Twinings Tea Shop and Museum quite by chance on my day off; it’s located on the Strand, a busy street in the heart of London, and still retains its old-fashioned look. Inside, it sells more kinds of tea than you can shake a stick at: from black tea like good old English Breakfast and Earl Grey, to fruit teas and green teas, as well as rather more bizarre flavours like Salted Caramel Green Tea (not recommended). It’s possible to buy a Twinings-branded wooden box (like the kind you get in posh hotels) and fill it with teabags of your choice. I made a mental note of this for future reference.
The ‘museum’, which is right at the back of the narrow shop, has artefacts from Twinings rich history, which dates back 300 years, founded by Thomas Twining who helped to ensure tea became a rival drink to coffee which was then popular in London’s coffee houses. Tea’s popularity rose dramatically, and Twinings was later granted a royal warrant.
There is also a ‘tea bar’ where you can sample different varieties of tea.
The shop is a really worthwhile place to visit, whether you want to stock up on tea, look round the museum, or just sample a few different brews.
I read about the London Mithraeum on the London’s Museums blog, and immediately put it on my list of places to visit. You have to book in advance, but entry is free, and I signed up to visit in the morning of the best Saturday of the year so far. It was bright, sunny and not too cold, and as I arrived at Bank station well before my entry time, I spent a few minutes just wandering around the area and enjoying the outdoors (something which is highly unusual for me).
The Mithraeum is located in the basement of Bloomberg SPACE, which is on Walbrook, just next to Bank station. The street was named after the Walbrook river which used to flow over this very spot; I also spied an artwork by Cristina Iglesias marking this lost river. The river is important to the Mithraeum, as it was the soggy conditions of the soil in this spot that allowed the preservation of so many incredible Roman artefacts.
The Roman settlement of Londinium was founded nearly 2,000 years ago. Almost two centuries later, a resident built a temple to the god Mithras on the banks of the Walbrook. Eventually covered over and forgotten, it was rediscovered in 1954, its purpose only uncovered on the last day of excavations when a head of Mithras was found. The discovery sparked great public interest, with more than 30,000 people queuing up to see the site on some days. The Temple was dismantled and reconstructed elsewhere, opening in 1962.
Bloomberg acquired the site in 2010, and worked with the City of London and conservation specialists to restore the Temple to its original location and allow the public to access it.
I entered the building at the appropriate time, had my ticket scanned, and was immediately confronted by a very un-Roman scene: a work by Isabel Nolan, Another View from Nowhen, comprising a colourful tapestry and a large open sculpture. before heading towards the display case at the back of the building. Gazing in awe at the huge range of archaeological finds I was offered an electronic tablet to help make sense of them. As previously mentioned, the damp earth allowed for many objects to be preserved that would ordinarily have decayed long before, including a door, sandals, and writing tablets. There were the usual pottery fragments and decorative acessories, including a striking bull ornament supposed to represent Taurus.
Heading down the stairs to the next level, a timeline on the wall leads you back through time via significant events in London’s history. At the bottom, models of important discoveries with interactive displays help you to understand the significance of Mithras and the Temple before you head into the Temple itself.
Who was Mithras?
Scholars have been studying the cult of Mithras for two hundred years, but even so not a lot is known. Most of what we know is down to interpretation. The central icon of the cult, an reconstruction of which is displayed here, is an image of Mithras killing a bull, which may be a battle or a sacrifice. It has been interpreted as a creation myth and possibly a vision of the universe, owing to the Zodiac symbols surrounding one of the models. Other Mithras icons have been found all over Europe, and they and the archeological sites from which they come have helped scholars to deduct what a Mithraic ritual might have been like.
Inside the Temple
Temple ‘experiences’ take place every twenty minutes. You enter a long dark room, with a walkway around the edge of the wall and jutting out slightly into the centre. Audio and lighting effects create a spooky atmosphere, as if Romans were walking into the Temple to worship. It’s hugely atmospheric and effective, and you get a sense of what the Temple might have looked like and how it all fits together. A metal frame at the end shows where the model of Mithras would have been.
To sum up…
The Mithraeum is amazing and well worth a visit. The display is great and well-organised, and the temple itself is very atmospheric. Don’t miss if you have any interest at all in the Roman history of London.
Getting back into museum visiting mode, I paid a visit this weekend to a place I’ve been meaning to go for a long time: the Royal Academy of Music Museum. I’ve attended a few concerts at the Royal Academy of Music and often walked past the free museum, but I’ve never had the chance to go as it’s only open during the day. I headed down on Saturday afternoon, turning left out of Baker Street station and passing the queue of expectant tourists waiting to go into Madam Tussaud’s.
The museum is located in the RAM’s premises on Marylebone Road. It has an entrance area with a gift shop (not to mention a well-stocked selection of music books) and displays on three floors.
The ground floor covers the history of the RAM, which was founded in 1822 by a group of aristocrats. The Academy’s first premises were on Tenterden Street; the first pupils were youngsters aged 10-15 and the President was former child prodigy William Crotch. Eventually the Academy attracted royal patronage, with George IV signing the Royal Charter in 1830.
The rest of the ground floor is given over to special exhibitions; the current exhibition focuses on the Spencer Collection, which came to the Academy from the estate of Robert ‘Bob’ Spencer, professor of Early English Song at the Academy for many years. Spencer was a former librarian, and loved tracking down and collecting the rare manuscripts and instruments that form the backbone of his fascinating collection, which was instrumental (pun intended) in igniting the study of early music in England.
The first floor is the home of the Strings Gallery, which has some fine examples of harps, violins, violas, a cello and a double bass. One violin is a Stradivari. The Piano Gallery is located on the second floor, with a number of fine examples of instruments from several centuries, including Georgian square pianos, early nineteenth century Broadwood instruments (one of these was gifted to Beethoven) and a Steinway grand.
The gallery is a very pleasant place to visit for anyone with an interest in music and instruments; it’s full of fascinating historical information.
Address: 1–5 York Gate, Marylebone Road, London, NW1 5HT
It’s the start of a fresh new year and I really want to get on to visiting some of the many, many museums in and around London. With that in mind, on the first Saturday of 2018 I headed down to the London Sewing Machine Museum, located near Tooting Bec Station in south London.
The Museum is on the top floor of the premises of the Sewing and Craft Superstore, just round the corner of the station. You go through the front entrance and up the stairs to be confronted with – unsurprising given the name of the museum – sewing machines. There is a room full of them, in fact, all of which are examples of those used in industry (the museum owner supplied all of the machines used in the film Made in Dagenham). In a room just beyond are the machines designed for domestic use, including several miniatures, a number designed to be folded away after use, and one that can be disguised as a lion when not in use. The shop front in the museum is from the original branch of the Wimbledon Sewing Machine Co. Ltd, founded by the grandfather of the present company director, Ray Rushton. He inherited his grandfather’s passion for sewing machines and is responsible for many of the collection’s gems.
I’ve never used a sewing machine myself – I’ve always found them to be a bit scary – but I was fascinated by the museum, in no small part thanks to the enthusiastic volunteer who gave us a short guided tour of the space. If it hadn’t been for her I would certainly have missed Barthélemy Thimonnier’s unobtrusive wooden machine, the first widely-used and practical machine, invented in 1829. More obvious was the ornate Victorian machine gifted to Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter and used by her nurse for many years.
I certainly hadn’t expected to come across Charlie Chaplin and Boy George in the museum. Machines associated with both entertainers can be found here: the original sewing machine belonging to Chaplin’s mother, and an identical model to that used by Boy George’s mother to sew many of his early costumes.
The museum is surprisingly interesting even for those who aren’t massively into sewing machines, and it’s free too. Well worth visiting if you have a free Saturday afternoon.