Southwark Cathedral

I’ve wanted to visit Southwark Cathedral for quite a while, and finally got my chance the other week. I was hanging around the London Bridge area one Sunday waiting until the right time to take the train to New Cross (I was going to the theatre) and decided to pop in.

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Southwark Cathedral

Southwark Cathedral has a long and distinguished history. There has been a church on this site since (probably) the first millennium, and it is recorded that it was refounded as a priory in 1106. Parts of the current building date from this time, although the church was restored in the 19th century and new extensions were added in 2000. The church became a cathedral in 1905 on the creation of the area’s diocese.

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Plaque at Southwark Cathedral

While the building itself is worthy of a visit, there are other aspects of the cathedral which mark it out. It was probably Shakespeare’s place of worship, as he lived and worked nearby, and is in fact the burial place of one of his brothers. It also contains the tomb of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, one of the translators of the King James Bible, and the founder of Harvard University was baptised here in 1607. Of particular interest to me was the tomb of John Gower, Poet Laureate to King Richard II and King Henry IV, and author of the Confessio Amantis, of which a manuscript exists in my old workplace in Cambridge (hence my interest). You can see the title of the book engraved on the volume carved in his tomb effigy.

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Tomb of John Gower

It is requested that £4 is donated to the cathedral to contribute towards its upkeep, which I was happy to pay. Even without the noteworthy individuals associated with the place, the cathedral is still a stunning building that is well worth a visit.

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Ceiling of the cathedral

Saatchi Gallery

I had a bit of time left on Saturday morning and decided to pay a visit to the Saatchi Gallery, which is fairly close to Buckingham Palace. I’m not the greatest fan of modern art, and I must confess that one of the main reasons I went was so that I would have an excuse to tick Sloane Square station off my list.

Founded in 1985 by advertising behemoth Charles Saatchi in order to display his collection of contemporary art, the Gallery occupied several premises before finally settling in the Duke of York HQ building on King’s Road, Chelsea with an exhibition dedicated to new art from China. It has been there since 2008, and Saatchi gifted the Gallery and more than 200 works to the state in 2010. The Gallery aims “to provide an innovative forum for contemporary art”.

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Entrance to the Saatchi Gallery

The Saatchi Gallery is pretty famous for holding regularly changing exhibitions of modern art, and the current exhibition is called Korean Eye 2012. Having been to Korea before, I was interested in seeing what Korean art was all about and this curiosity partially overcame my aversion to modern art, which I don’t understand and rarely like.

Many pieces displayed as part of the exhibition were odd to say the least. The first exhibits I came across were the apparent result of smashing up a pile of crockery and sticking it back together to produce something resembling a termite nest. A giant ball of wood dominated one room. I came across some pictures which appeared fairly normal until I walked past them and realised they were hologram pictures: the stylishly clad ladies viewing works of art miraculously appeared to shed their clothes when viewed from a different angle. This technique is undoubtedly clever, but also a bit voyeuristic.

Still, the display exceeded my expectations and I was genuinely impressed by some of the work. In one room I came across a round side table on which rested a cup of tea. Initially scornful, I peered at it more closely and observed a little whirlpool disturbing the surface of the tea. The exhibit was accurately titled ‘Storm in a Teacup’ and I really liked it, partly because I genuinely don’t know how the whirlpool got in there.

Another artist had produced models from cardboard, which were well designed and carefully put together, except for the fact that they were unfinished. A cardboard dog with perfectly constructed and finished hind legs and an abstract box-shaped head was particularly eerie. In another room, photographs of women posing in white dresses took on a life of their own with the addition of white fabric attached to the bottom of the frames, extending the dresses beyond the boundaries of the photographs and adding an extra dimension to the work.

In addition to the Korean art on show, there was an exhibition of chess sets, each the work of a different artist. There were some pretty unusual sets on display: I especially liked the ‘picnic’ set with slices of pizza as pawns. There was also a great set with one team made up of characters like Superman, WonderWoman and Jesus and the other consisting of such figures as Voldemort, Dracula and Saruman.

The Saatchi Gallery itself is well laid out with a clean white design and logically labelled exhibition rooms. It is free to enter and doesn’t have the pretentious atmosphere I had expected: there were all kinds of people there, including Korean (I presumed) holidaymakers and families with small children. I never thought I’d say this about a modern art gallery, but I actually quite enjoyed my visit, and I’d consider going back.

FACTS

Address: Duke of York’s HQ, King’s Road, London, SW3 4RY

Website: saatchigallery.com

Opening Hours: 10am-6pm 7 days a week

Prices: Free

Diamonds: A Jubilee Celebration – Buckingham Palace

As the summer opening of Buckingham Palace is drawing to an end, I decided to pay a visit and make the most of my ticket from last year (I visited in 2011 as I wanted to see Kate’s wedding dress, and your ticket is valid for a year after purchase). To celebrate the Diamond Jubilee, there is an exhibition of diamonds at the Palace and I wanted to see this. After all, diamonds are a girl’s best friend.

Diamonds are a girl's best friend

There was some beautiful jewellery on display, some of it from the time of Queen Victoria, and I liked seeing paintings and photographs of kings and queens wearing the items displayed. Sword hilts, crowns and tiaras were among the pieces shown, and sparkled beautifully in the low-lit room.  I liked the Coronation Earrings and Necklace from 1858, so called because Queen Elizabeth II wore them on her coronation day. The exhibition also displayed seven of the nine major stones cut from the Cullinan Diamond (the other two are part of the Crown Jewels). This famous diamond – the largest ever found – was discovered in South Africa in 1905 and named after the chairman of the mining company which owned the mine in which it was found. It was formally presented to King Edward VII in 1907. Too big to be much use, it was cut up into a number of stones. I also loved the diamond crown made for Queen Victoria in 1870: it was so small and delicate.

Queen Victoria's Small Diamond Crown

I walked through the grounds afterwards; it was a beautiful autumn day, sunny but with a refreshing nip in the air. It was so early that the streets weren’t particularly busy. It was almost worth setting my alarm for seven thirty.

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Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 – National Gallery

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A sunny autumn afternoon; the perfect time to take advantage of the National Gallery’s late night Friday opening and check out the small exhibition Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 in the Sainsbury Wing. Basically, three Titian paintings –  Diana and ActaeonThe Death of Actaeon and the recently acquired Diana and Callisto – have been displayed alongside modern ‘responses’ to them.  Chris Ofili, Conrad Shawcross and Mark Wallinger have created pieces of art inspired by the paintings, with varied results. I wasn’t sure what to make of the metal crane, and the costumes were rather odd, but I liked the sets (works inspired by the paintings were performed at the Royal Ballet). I’m not the biggest fan of modern art, but I enjoyed the original Titian paintings.

Paralympics: Wheelchair Fencing

My plan to go and see some wheelchair fencing on Saturday was complicated by a short-notice visit from my mam. I bought her a ticket to see The Woman in Black but I still felt a bit guilty about leaving her to wander around Covent Garden for three hours, especially as she doesn’t know London all that well. She managed, though.

I had to go all the way to the ExCel Centre, so got the RV1 bus to Tower Gateway station (ticking it off my ‘stations’ list in the process) and took the DLR. The ExCel Centre wasn’t as busy or buzzing as the Olympic Park, I thought, but perhaps that’s because it was later in the day. The different arenas were signposted pretty well, a Very Good Thing since my capacity for getting lost is astonishing.

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The ExCel Centre

Wheelchair fencing wasn’t quite what I expected. I’d assumed the participants would be whizzing round the floor doing 360° turns and trying to prick each other with the point of their sword. However, the wheelchairs were locked to the floor and though the competitors could wiggle about and sway back and forth they couldn’t actually budge the chair. Also, they had to keep their non-fencing hand on the wheelchair handle at all times. I wouldn’t say it was boring exactly, but it wasn’t as entertaining as I’d hoped. In fairness to the sport I should point out that my understanding of the rules was slim to nil and though I was trying to work out what was going on, I didn’t entirely succeed.

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I got to see both the Bronze medal match (Hong Kong v Italy) and the Gold medal match (France v China). In between, I popped out to get a drink from the bar. I asked for a lager only to be told that there was none left. The assistant must have seen the look of horror on my face because she quickly said that they still had some cider left. So cider I drank.

In the end, China won, adding another gold medal to their already rather impressive tally. France ended up with silver and Hong Kong came out with bronze. It all finished a bit earlier than I’d expected, leaving me plenty of time to get back to Covent Garden and meet my mam as she came out of the theatre.

The Olympic Park

I managed to get some last-minute Paralympic tickets – for the athletics, no less. I was pretty excited about seeing the inside of the Olympic Park.

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Welcome to the Olympic Park

The stadium is pretty awesome, and even though my seat only cost £10 I still had a really good view. The atmosphere was fantastic, and there was even a Mexican wave going! I got to see some running, wheelchair races, long jump, javelin and discus – the highlight of the morning was seeing Aled Davies win gold.

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The Park itself is huge. There are areas for lots of other sporting events such as BMX and swimming. There are a surprising number of green spaces too. You can walk around the stadium by the river, which is really lovely and peaceful, and there are lots of flowers.

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At the other end of the park there is a stage where live bands play. My friends and I were sitting on the grass with our drinks and who should make an appearance on the stage but Mandeville (the Paralympic mascot). The Olympic mascots scare me a little, but kids love them: they were jumping up and down waving the cuddly Mandevilles they’d obviously nagged their parents into buying for them. The experience was bizarre to say the least.

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Watch out, it’s Mandeville!

On Saturday I get to see some wheelchair fencing at the ExCel centre. I’m quite looking forward to it.

Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum and Archives

We all know the modern meaning of the word Bedlam, used to denote a place of chaos. This modern meaning has its origins in the Bethlem Royal Hospital of London, which was founded in 1247 and exists to this day. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was notorious as a place where visitors could go to stare and jeer at the inmates, but it has a rich and varied past that extends way before and long after this dubious period in its history.

I studied History at university, and one of the topics I studied was the history of medicine in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One week we looked at insanity, and the different ways this has been interpreted and treated over the centuries. The role of Bethlem Hospital was significant in helping us to understand how madness was viewed and treated, and when I found out that there was a museum about the hospital, I knew I wanted to go.

Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum and Archives is located on the modern hospital site, at Beckenham, south London. It is open Monday to Friday, but only one Saturday a month. Visiting the museum is free, but you need to get the train to Eden Park from London Bridge, Waterloo East or Charing Cross. I like trains so enjoyed my journey; I always find it incredible that a short journey can take you into a suburban or even a rural area, away from the busy centre of the city.

The museum itself is tiny, but considering the lack of space a surprisingly large number of items are on show. The museum has too many objects and archival documents to be able to display them all, so if you want to see something in particular you will need to phone ahead; I, however, was just happy to browse. At the entrance to the museum room, a number of boards relate the history of the hospital; I found this particularly interesting, as beyond the little I found out during my studies, I didn’t know a great deal.

Bethlem Royal Hospital began life as the priory of St Mary of Bethlehem (the site of which is now covered by Liverpool Street Station), which was treating insanity by the fourteenth century.  Bethlem and Bedlam were interchangeable terms for Bethlehem, and were both used to describe the hospital. Refounded after the Reformation as one of five ‘Royal’ hospitals, Bethlem came under the control, and later the possession, of the City of London.

The hospital was in need of new premises by the seventeenth century: numbers had increased, and the old building was showing signs of wear and tear. The new building, designed by Robert Hooke, was opened at Moorfields in 1676. Galleries, which ran the length of the building, were where sightseers were able to view the inmates until such visits were stopped in 1770. At the time, Bethlem was the only public institution of its kind, though private madhouses did exist. It was largely designed for short stay patients, though an incurable wing did exist from the 1730s until 1919.

The third Bethlem site opened in 1815 – what remains of the building is now the Imperial War Museum.  Throughout the nineteenth century, restraint of patients was abandoned and patients were encouraged to work and enjoy recreation and entertainments. I found this interesting as the changing treatment of mentally ill people was something I had studied during my degree.

Bethlem has occupied its present site since 1930. Designed on a different system to the previous hospitals, it is made up of individual buildings containing its own ward, kitchen, dining room and garden. The hospital was joined with the Maudsley Hospital in Denmark Hill after the founding of the NHS in 1948.

Inside the museum itself, there were artworks created by former patients; often dark in tone, these were striking and unusual. Among the most interesting for me were pictures drawn by Jonathan Martin, the man responsible for setting fire to York Minster in 1829 and later incarcerated in Bethlem. He was the brother of John Martin, the famous popular painter of dramatic Biblical scenes whose work was recently exhibited at Tate Britain. Despite studying in York for three years I hadn’t realised that this had occurred!

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There were some fascinating objects on display, including fearsome-looking restraint devices and a number of alms-boxes, one bearing the pleading message, “Pity the poor Lunaticks”. Dominating the small room were the two stone figures, carved by Caius Gabriel Cibber, from the gates of the seventeenth century hospital. These are known as “Raving” and “Melancholy” madness, meant to represent the two ways in which insanity was chiefly classified at this time.

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“Melancholy” madness
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“Raving” madness

I also enjoyed looking at the archives on display, such as a book of instructions for those working at the Hospital in the eighteenth century. I think it would be really rewarding to study these archives properly and find out what life was like for mentally ill patients and those who cared for them in the past.

Red House: the home of William Morris

Bank holidays, for me, are times to go out and visit places, experience something new. Red House, the former home of William Morris (founder of the Arts & Crafts movement, famed for his socialism and wallpaper designs), has been on my list for some time. I decided to organise an outing and got some of my librarian friends to come along this August Bank Holiday.

Red House was occupied by William Morris and his family from 1860 until 1865, when financial difficulties unfortunately compelled him to leave. He commissioned, created and lived in the house, which was built by Philip Webb and described as ‘the beautifullest place on earth’ by Edward Burne-Jones, who also contributed wall paintings and stained glass to the project.

Red House is located in Bexleyheath, easily reached in half an hour via train from London. A short walk takes you to the house, which is well signposted, even for pedestrians. In the morning the house is open only for guided tours, and I timed our visit so that we would arrive just as the self-guided visitors were being allowed in.

Red House is beautiful and rather unusual, with a large garden comprising grassy lawns, rose bushes and a vegetable patch complete with sinister scarecrow. I liked the well built in front of the house, which was rather medieval in style – I believe this was the point.
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Inside the house, the first room you come to contains a new exhibition of the original house plans and architects’ drawings, a fascinating insight into how the building was constructed. The route through the house covers the entrance hall (where Morris often ate, in the manner of medieval halls of old), dining room, sitting room, bedroom and study. There was much to admire including beautiful wallpaper, not all of which is original to the house, but all of which was designed by Morris. Much of the furniture was designed by Morris and Webb and there were several examples of embroidery by Morris’ wife Jane and her sister. I loved the details such as the round windows and the stained glass. The house had a number of exciting hidden treasures, such as the mural painted on the back of the cupboard by Lizzie Siddall (wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti), and the smiley face painted in blue on the corner of the ceiling of the upper landing – author unknown. Newly discovered wall decorations, hidden behind panelling for years, were also on display. The study was light and airy, and it was pleasant to imagine William Morris working on his designs. Looking out of the window, it’s hard to imagine you are in a built-up residential area and not the middle of the countryside, although of course in Morris’ time the area would have been much more rural than it is now.

Touring the house didn’t take a great deal of time, and it was a shame some areas were cordoned off as ‘Private’. Still, I’m glad I visited, if only to experience the atmosphere of somewhere my favourite Pre-Raphaelite artists visited.

FACTS

Address: Red House Lane, Bexleyheath, London, DA6 8JF

Website: nationaltrust.org.uk/red-house

Opening Hours: Open Wed-Sun in summer; guided tours only from 11am-1pm then standard admission from 1.30.

Prices: £8 adult, £4 child; free admission to National Trust members.

Dulwich Picture Gallery

Dulwich Picture Gallery was my destination of choice on Saturday. To get there, I took the train from Victoria station. It had been raining that morning, but by the time I got there, the sun was out and it was actually quite warm.

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Dulwich Picture Gallery

There were some rather odd sculptures in the garden: faces made up of flowers and foliage. I think they were meant to represent the four seasons, but it took me some time to work out which was which.

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I think this one is Spring…
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Summer… or possibly Autumn.
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Autumn, I think.
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I reckon this is Winter, just because it’s more gnarled than the others.

Dulwich Picture Gallery was the first purpose-built art gallery in England and was designed by the architect Sir John Soane (who was also responsible for the Bank of England, and is now most famous for his museum in central London), created with top-lighting to illuminate the pictures to best effect without causing too much light damage. The collection was built up by Noël Desenfans and Sir Francis Bourgeois, originally for the King of Poland, though after his forced abdication the pair were left with the collection on their hands. After trying unsuccessfully to offer the works to numerous figures of royalty throughout Europe, none of whom seem to have bothered to reply, Bourgeois (Desenfans had died earlier) left the collection to Dulwich College, stipulating that it should be on public display.

The Gallery concentrates on the Old Masters of the 17th and 18th centuries and there is some impressive art in the collection, including paintings by Rembrandt and Van Dyck. I’m no art expert but I enjoyed looking at several of the paintings on show, including Rembrandt’s famous Girl at a Window and a copy of Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse by Sir Joshua Reynolds. There was a temporary exhibition of Andy Warhol’s pictures but I didn’t bother with that.

FACTS

Address: Gallery Road, London, SE21 7AD

Website: dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

Opening Hours: 10am-5pm; closed on Mondays.

Prices: £6 adults, £5 Senior Citizens; free for children, Art Fund members and Friends of the Gallery.

Shakespeare: Staging the World – British Museum

Alongside the Olympics this year, the World Shakespeare Festival is taking place, with many events occurring in London that I’ve been able to take advantage of. The British Museum has got in on the act, with an exhibition called Shakespeare: Staging the World. I knew I wanted to go as soon as I found out about it. Luckily I work fairly close to the British Museum so was able to pop there on Friday night after work – they are open late so it is the ideal time to go if you work all week but want to avoid the weekend crowds.

While I think it’s a huge shame that the famous Round Reading Room has been hijacked as an exhibition space, I do think that the staff and curators have done a good job in assembling an absorbing and well laid out exhibition. The first thing I saw as I went up the stairs was a copy of the First Folio under glass – I’ve seen this on display before but it’s always exciting to see it again. The exhibition began on a comparatively small scale, examining late sixteenth century London with a famous panoramic view of the city on display and an assortment of objects recovered from theatres of the Tudor era, including toothpicks, coins and pipes. I picked up an interesting snippet of information about the origins of the word ‘groundling’ (used to refer to spectators standing in the pit, both in Tudor times and at the modern Globe on Bankside) – it was, apparently, a fish with the habit of “lying on the bottom of the river, gazing at the surface with its mouth open”.

When I originally heard about this exhibition, I was surprised that it was being held in the British Museum. Surely the British Library would be a more appropriate showcase for an exhibition on the most famed English-speaking writer in history? However, I soon began to realise that I was wrong. The exhibition is much more concerned with objects, and what they convey about the world in Shakespeare’s time, than books and literature per se. Many of these items come from the extensive collections held by the British Museum, and others have been borrowed from other museums and galleries. Among the items on display were an assortment of portraits and maps, objects from far-off lands (including a lamp from Calabar, now Nigeria, and a picture of the ambassador from Barbary, now Morocco), and the helmet and sword believed to have been worn by Henry V during the Battle of Agincourt (on display in Westminster Abbey until the 1970s).

After setting the scene in London, the exhibition moves to consider the wider world. In Shakespeare’s day, explorers and privateers such as Sir Francis Drake were discovering more than ever before about the world beyond Europe, and Shakespeare was able to make use of this knowledge in several of his plays, including The Tempest and Twelfth Night. As well as discoveries about Asia and the Americas, Shakespeare also used inspiration from closer to home, such as the Forest of Arden near Stratford-upon-Avon, which he used to memorable effect in As You Like It.

The exhibition explores how and why Shakespeare set his own plays in alternative worlds in order to comment more freely on his own society. I found this section particularly enlightening. For example, the history plays were written with Elizabeth I in mind: there’s a reason why Richard III was portrayed as an angry hunchback and Henry Tudor as the noble, rightful ruler. Henry V portrays a warlike nationalism that might have encouraged contemporary society to feel similar pride in their Englishness, particularly given the ongoing war with Spain. Other plays, such as Julius Caesar, deal with controversial topics such as the assassination of a ruler: by setting them in the classical world Shakespeare could explore these topics without exposing himself to royal wrath (at least not to the same extent). I already knew some of this, but I had no idea, in spite of studying it for A Level, that the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra in the eponymous play was to some extent inspired by Elizabeth I’s relationship with her favourite, the Earl of Essex. ‘The Virgin Queen’ couldn’t seem more remote from the sensual Egyptian leader, but one thing the two did have in common was their role as a leader in a man’s world.

I enjoyed the section on Venice: Shakespeare set a number of plays here (it is rumoured that he travelled to the city during his ‘lost years’), and often treats it as a kind of parallel to London, a modern city with all the problems and complexities that urban areas encounter. I found the section on foreigners – ‘strangers’ – particularly interesting. Shylock, the Jew from The Merchant of Venice, and Othello, the ‘Moor’ of the city, both belong in this category, and the ideas and feelings explored in these plays are profound, highly relevant and in many ways ahead of their time.

I often think of Shakespeare as an Elizabethan playwright, but he wrote many of his major works under the reign of James I, drawing inspiration from issues brought up by the new dynasty and the unification of England and Scotland. The exhibition explores the Gunpowder Plot and James’ hatred of witchcraft, both of which helped to inspire Macbeth, and examines the attempted unification of Britain which Shakespeare drew on when writing Cymbeline, the play about the Roman conquest of the ancient Britons. The roughly chronological exploration ends with the Bard’s last solo-authored play, The Tempest, and the ‘brave new world’ it heralds, as well as suggesting that sixteenth-century ‘magician’ John Dee was the inspiration for Prospero.

I loved the exhibition: it was very well laid out and presented, and though I have read and seen several of Shakespeare’s plays, have visited Stratford-upon-Avon and read a few books about him, I still learned things that I hadn’t known before.

Shakespeare: Staging the World is on until 25 November.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who enjoys looking at museum gift shops, and the British Museum’s is particularly special. I really wanted the exhibition catalogue (which is more substantial than it sounds, it is a proper book), but it was a bit expensive so I decided to put it on my Christmas list instead. I DID splash out on a mini volume containing summaries of all Shakespeare’s plays and a ruler listing the plays and their (approximate) dates of composition, which I genuinely think will come in handy. I also got a collapsible water bottle with the museum logo, because, really, who wouldn’t want one of those? Finally I impulse-bought a British Museum canvas bag. You can never have too many canvas bags, and if I’m going to promote something with the bag I’m using, it might as well be something I love.

British Museum Gift Shop Goodies