George IV: Art & Spectacle – Queen’s Gallery

George IV painting

George IV: Art & Spectacle is the latest exhibition to take place at the Queen’s Gallery, London. This king, who spent many years as Prince Regent (giving the Regency period its name) before taking the throne in his own right, is portrayed here as a keen art collector whose legacy can still be seen today.

Growing up, George was not allowed to leave the country owing to the orders of his father, George III, so instead he collected works of art from all over Europe and the east, as well as paintings of subjects closer to home – his family, and earlier monarchs. His energies were first directed at Carlton House, his London residence, which he filled with art, sculpture and furniture, but his vision eventually outgrew this comparatively small living space. Famously, he established the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, and on becoming king he instigated work at Windsor Castle and Buckingham House, transforming the latter, under the care of architect Thomas Nash, into Buckingham Palace.

It seems that George did have a keen eye: he collected works by the likes of Rembrandt, as well as commissioning works of his own. He enjoyed literature too, keeping a collection of Jane Austen’s works in each of his residences, and inviting Sir Walter Scott to dine.

One thing I found interesting about the exhibition was that George, spending money lavishly at a time of economic hardship for many of his subjects, was widely disliked, and this image of him has coloured our perception. I’m not really surprised, and it makes me wonder if having this exhibition now was really a good choice, as poverty levels in the UK reach crisis point. Not long ago, there was criticism over a plan to refurbish Buckingham Palace during this time of austerity, and however much George IV embraced the arts, I feel similarly about his own spending, fascinating as this exhibition was.

200 Years of Polar Exploration

exhibition poster

The auction house Spink held an exhibition entitled 200 Years of Polar Exploration recently, featuring artefacts that have never been on display before, including photographs, equipment, medals and other memorabilia, from the expeditions of Scott and Shackleton, to 21st century explorations led by figures such as Sir Ranulph Fiennes and the late Henry Worsley.

The exhibition was staged in aid of The Endeavour Fund, which aims to help wounded, injured and sick service personnel and veterans use outdoor challenges and sport as part of their recovery and rehabilitation. This was the charity promoted by Worsley, who took part in several Antarctic expeditions before tragically dying of peritonitis during his 2016 attempt to make the world’s first unaided Antarctic crossing. One of the items on display was his pair of skis, decorated before their use by his children – a moving and poignant sight.

Other items included medals, and photographs from the Heroic Age and later. As always, I loved the opportunity to explore artefacts re;ated to Antarctic exploration and its history.

Secret Rivers – Museum of London Docklands

Secret Rivers exhibition

I managed to catch the Secret Rivers exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands on its very last day. The exhibition looks at the history of several of London’s hidden rivers, many of which have been covered over, re-routed or used for other purposes.

First to be examined was the Walbrook, which flowed through the heart of the City of London. This river was often used for ritual (the Temple of Mithras, which I’ve previously visited, was nearby), and the items found in it bear witness to its role at the centre of life in Roman times.

Secondly, the most famous lost river, the Fleet, was explored. This river was located outside of the City, and as such originally played a role at the heart of rural life, before an increasingly dense population helped to pollute the river (during the fourteenth century, people used to build houses with toilets extending out over the river, so that waste would drop directly into it – one of the items recovered from the river was a three-seat medieval toilet). Eventually it was covered and used as a sewer, though you can still swim in the Fleet up at Hampstead, where the outdoor pools are filled with water from this river.

From here, the exhibition explored the contrasting ways in which rivers were used. The Neckinger in Bermondsey, for instance, was heavily polluted and had several mills along its banks, while the Westbourne in west London was used to create the ponds in Hyde Park. The Tyburn, now covered over, has been the subject of a campaign to restore it and use it for fishing, while the Wandle has been uncovered at several points, making it a haven for wildlife. There is also the Lea, still used for recreational activities and transformed towards central London by the construction of the Olympic Park.

Finally, the exhibition looked at the works of art that have been inspired by the hidden rivers. Of particular interest to me were the various books, which I plan to seek out in the future.

The Old Savoy – The home of The Deco Theatre, Northampton (Heritage Open Days)

The Savoy
The Savoy in its heyday

I had been planning to make a visit to Northampton for two reasons: one to see a friend, and two to see a play. When I realised that my visit would coincide with the annual Heritage Open Days, I decided to make the most of my day and look for a venue to visit.

I decided on the Deco Theatre, which is located on Abington Square. Built in 1935-36, it was designed by William Riddell Glenn (1884-1950). It opened as The Savoy on 2 May 1936, as a cinema with an Art Deco auditorium, and originally seated nearly 2,000 people, with an in-house Compton organ which entertained audience during the interludes.

The auditorium
The auditorium today

The cinema closed in 1995, struggling to compete with multiplex cinemas, and was bought by the Jesus Army Charitable Trust (who still use part of the building as the Jesus Centre) in 2000. The Deco (not connected with the Jesus Centre) opened as a local theatre in 2004. Stage Right began running The Deco in 2009, and have gone from strength to strength. Plans are afoot to transform the entrance area and the front of the theatre, removing the cross and replacing it with new signage.

Sign reading 'To Balcony'
Art Deco-style sign in the foyer

Even though I’m not from the area I always enjoy visiting a theatre wherever I am. The Deco’s history is not uncommon, but still fascinating, and the efforts of those who work there to maintain it as a venue are admirable. I wish the theatre all the best for the future.

The Deco Theatre
The Deco Theatre today

Top Secret: From Ciphers To Cyber Security – Science Museum

I visited the new Top Secret: From Ciphers To Cyber Security exhibition at the Science Museum with a friend. The exhibition was free, which I thought was really impressive, and very enjoyable.

The exhibition was designed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of GCHQ, the UK’s Intelligence, Security and Cyber agency. There was even a Lego model of the GCHQ headquarters in Cheltenham.

Lego model
Lego model of GCHQ headquarters

The exhibition started with the First World War and explored how communications and intelligence developed over a century. It featured artefacts, documents and declassified files.

The best-known aspect of the exhibition was probably the work of Alan Turing and the team at Bletchley Park to crack the Enigma Code, but there was also information relating to the Cold War, including a model of a house displaying a story about a quiet suburban couple who turned out to be Soviet spies.

There was also a hands-on area where you could have a go at cracking codes yourself, which was probably designed for children but which my friend and I thoroughly enjoyed.

The exhibition runs until 23 February 2020 and is then due to visit the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester. It’s well worth a visit.

Edvard Munch: Love and Angst – British Museum

The Scream
The Scream (lithograph)

I visited the Edvard Munch: Love and Angst exhibition at the British Museum with a friend on its very last day. I actually knew nothing about Munch except for his painting The Scream, which I do love, so was interested to find out more.

Madonna
Madonna

Munch came from a loving family in Norway but over the years his family became a source of deep worry and tragedy to him. His mother died when he was five and his oldest sister, Sophie, died of tuberculosis when he was thirteen. Another sister, Laura, spent time in a psychiatric hospital with schizophrenia and Munch himself had a breakdown later in life. This is reflected in much of his art, including his ‘vampire’ works, his images of illness and death, and the famous ‘Scream’. It’s the black and white lithograph that’s on display here, not the famous painting, but it still makes an impact.

The Sick Child
The Sick Child

As a theatre fan. I was intrigued by Munch’s stage sets for the works of Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen, and some of his designs are displayed alongside his painting of the great playwright himself. Overwhelmingly, though, this is an exhibition of work that focuses on the dark side of the mind.

Henrik Ibsen
Henrik Ibsen

Misshapes: The Making of Tatty Devine

Entrance to the exhibition

The UK jewellery brand Tatty Devine turns 20 this year, and to celebrate has launched a touring exhibition, Misshapes: The Making of Tatty Devine, which kicks off in London before visiting various cities around the UK. As a longtime fan of the brand, I paid a visit on its first day.

Early examples of TD's work

The free exhibition, hosted at the Lethaby Gallery, King’s Cross, tells the story of how Tatty Devine founders Rosie Wolfenden and Harriet Vine met at Chelsea College of Art and began to work together, making jewellery out of guitar plectrums, leather samples and other bits of so-called “junk”, running a market stall selling their wares, and eventually, after a trip to New York, settling on acrylic as their main material. With the aid of a laser cutter, they began making jewellery from this versatile substance, and over the years have refined their techniques, pushing the boundaries of what acrylic can do.

New examples of the brand's work

I was interested to see examples of the pair’s early work, as this was long before I became a fan of the brand. Some of the early pieces were pretty cool – I wouldn’t mind a keyboard belt. I also didn’t know that the Tatty Devine logo was supposed to resemble the logos in old-style 50s records.

Plan for the archway of stars in Greenwich

Examples of pieces from every stage of the brand’s heritage were on display. I did find myself with a big wave of Tatty regret as I viewed pieces that have long since vanished from stores (especially the fortune teller statement). However, I also saw a couple of pieces that I do own – one being the William Morris brooch.

I really loved the exhibition as a big fan of the brand. After its stint in London, it will visit various venues around the country – so keep an eye out!

Giant jewellery shapes

Mary Quant – V&A

Entrance to the exhibition

Mary Quant was the second major fashion exhibition I attended at the V&A within a fairly short space of time. Born in London, Quant revolutionised the British high street in the 1960s, making high fashion available to everyone and popularising the famous miniskirt. I have to admit that on a personal level, the clothes aren’t really my style – I prefer longer skirts and dresses in general, and the Dior-influenced vintage look is much more my scene. In fact, my favourite piece in the exhibition was a maxi dress from the Seventies. However, there’s no doubt that Quant’s clothes had a huge influence on style, and her practical, fun pieces helped to democratise fashion.

Quant sailor dress
Quant sailor dress
Mini dresses
Mini dresses

The exhibition takes us through Quant’s career and showcases the pieces that made her famous, including monochrome daisies, coloured opaques, practical underwear, and even modern makeup (I could tell from the style of the marketing that Lush was influenced by Quant’s makeup range). I really liked that the museum got the public involved, requesting people to send in their own Quant clothes. I went to the exhibition with my auntie and I enjoyed hearing about her own experience of the brand – wearing a minidress to meet her future in-laws and worrying that the skirt was too short!

Makeup range
Makeup range, decorated with the trademark daisy
Red maxi dress
My favourite piece from the exhibition

I thought it was cute, too, to showcase the mini, Barbie-style Quant dolls, dressed in miniature versions of popular fashions. A way to get younger girls interested in the clothes so that they could covet them for themselves when they were older.

Daisy doll
Daisy doll

Overall, the exhibition is definitely worth a visit – for the social history as much as the fashion.

Eel Pie Island Open Day & Museum

Bridge to Eel Pie Island
Crossing the bridge to Eel Pie Island

Eel Pie Island is a small island in the middle of the Thames, just across from Twickenham. It is currently home to several artists’ studios, and twice a year hosts ‘open days’ where the general public can visit this normally-private island and purchase art if they so wish.

View of the island
Looking across to the island

One of these open weekends was held on 29-30 June and I went along towards the end. The island is reached via a bridge on the bank in Twickenham, and once you reach the other side there’s a winding path that takes you past plenty of weird and wonderful sights. My favourite was the house with an upside-down ice cream on its roof, but there was plenty to see all the way through.

House with ice cream on the roof

I don’t have the budget or the space to indulge in art purchases, but if you do, there’s plenty on offer, both traditional paintings and more modern crafts.

Porthole

After my visit to the island, I headed back over the bridge to visit Eel Pie Island Museum. This small but impressive museum has been open since 2015 and tells the story of the island from its early days as a tourist attraction during Georgian times to its present as a home to artists.

Eel Pie Island Museum
Eel Pie Island Museum

During the era of Alexander Pope, Eel Pie Island was popular as a picnic and refreshment spot. Less congenially, it was also used as a place wealthy men could keep their mistresses out of the way of their wives’ prying eyes.

Music memorabilia

In the 1950s, owing to the efforts of a number of individuals, Eel Pie Island became home to a burgeoning jazz scene and eventually rock n’ roll. Major artists who played here included David Bowie in his early days, the Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and more. The museum is full of artefacts from this era as well as reminiscences and remembrances from people who remember those days.

The history of the island

Sadly, the music scene eventually left the island, which became a commune for a short while before the hotel housing members eventually burned down. Nowadays, as I saw on my visit to the island, artists live and work here, meaning it still remains a home for creativity of one kind or another.

FACTS

Address: 1-3 Richmond Road, Twickenham, TW1 3AB

Website: eelpiemuseum.co.uk

Opening Hours: Wednesdays to Sundays 12-6pm

Price: £3 single visit (under 16s free, when accompanied by an adult); £5 Annual Passport (unlimited visits for one calendar year, from date of Membership)

Writing: Making Your Mark – British Library

British Library Writing exhibition

I paid a fascinating visit to the new British Library exhibition, Writing: Making Your Mark, which looks at the history of writing from ancient times to the present day.

The origins of writing can be found 5,000 years ago; it began in different places around the world at different times and for different reasons. One of the main advantages of writing was the possibility of communication across time and space: we can, if we understand the alphabet and language used, read what somebody wrote several thousand years ago. Various writing systems and styles have developed, many of which have common ancestors. I found it fascinating to look at different systems and see how they developed from older ones.

Materials and technology have changed over the years, beginning with carved letters produced by a stylus in wax. The ancient Egyptians used papyrus before paper was developed. Handwriting, too, has undergone changes, created first with quill pens then fountain and ball point. Medieval manuscripts gave way to the printed word, which at first emulated the handwritten style. Calligraphy remains a valued, albeit niche, skill even since the development of typewriters and then computers.

Learning to write has always taken time and effort, even from the very beginning. Learning how to form letters is an important part of education for young children. The future of writing surely involves technology, with the increasing use of emojis, but people are still interested in notebooks and pens.

Clay tablet
4,000-year-old clay tablet