POP! Design Culture Fashion – Fashion & Textile Museum

I have a National Art Pass, which means I get discounted or free entry to lots of museums and galleries in and around London. I also make the most of the handy website, http://www.artfund.org/, which lists all the places at which you can get a discount, in order to plan where to go next. The website was the place I learned about the Fashion & Textile Museum in Bermondsey, south London. It is a small museum and only open when there is an exhibition on, which is probably why I’d never come across it before.

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Museum entrance on Bermondsey Street

I visited the museum on Saturday and only paid £3.50 to get in with my Art Pass. One of the first things I saw when I entered the museum was this utterly stunning Dior dress. It looks like something that would have been worn by Grace Kelly.

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The current exhibition is entitled POP! Design Culture Fashion, and explores the impact of music and art on fashion in the fifties, sixties and seventies. It begins with the rock n’ roll culture of the 1950s, the world of Elvis Presley and circle skirts. This was the era that appealed to me the most; I was lusting after several of the items on display.

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I loved this circle skirt

The exhibition then moved on to look at ‘Swinging London’ and the mods and rockers culture, with displays of Mary Quant fashion and the short dresses of the time. These clothes didn’t appeal to me so much (I don’t have the figure for a minidress) but I liked this monochrome maxi:

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Subsequently, the exhibition examined the hippy styles of the late sixties and seventies, with bright colours and dramatic accessories. There was something of a Fifties revival around this time, and this dress in particular caught my eye.

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Finally, POP explored the punk era, with clothing designed by Vivienne Westwood and worn by the punk rockers of the day. These clothes weren’t particularly to my taste, but I could imagine the dramatic impact they would have had at the time.

Alongside the outfits, accessories and other items from the relevant periods were shown to further illustrate the styles of the times. A Fifties jukebox, a clothes hanger with Jimi Hendrix’s face on it and an original still from the Beatles’ movie Yellow Submarine were just some of the articles on display, along with several household items. My favourites were a set of three cushions which together made an Edwardian-inspired, Mucha-esque picture of a woman.

POP! Design Culture Fashion is on until the 27th of October. The museum is open Tuesday to Saturday, 11am – 6pm. The next exhibition, which opens on 16 November and runs until 23 February 2013, is about London fashion by designers to the Queen and is called Hartnell to Amies: Couture by Royal Appointment.

FACTS

Address: 83 Bermondsey Street, London, SE1 3XF

Website: ftmlondon.org

Opening Hours: Open Tuesdays to Saturdays, 11am–6pm; Sundays, 11am-5pm; late night Thursdays until 8pm.

Prices: Approx. £8-£9 adults, £7-£8 concessions; under 12s free

Harrow Old Speech Room Gallery and Museum

Harrow School is one of the most famous schools in the UK, and possibly the world. Its alumni include several writers, artists, politicians and even actors – the lovely Benedict Cumberbatch is an Old Harrovian.

The school has an art gallery and museum – the Old Speech Room Gallery – which is open to the public, though only on certain days of the week during term time. I took the opportunity to visit when I had a day off work.

The Old Speech Room was built in 1819-21 as a chamber in which to encourage public speaking. It was converted into a gallery by Alan Irvine in 1976 as a repository for the School’s distinguished collection of antiquities and fine art.

The main reason I wanted to visit at this particular time was the Cecil Beaton exhibition. Beaton was a photographer and artists who was popular in the mid-20th century. He photographed film stars such as Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe and also gained prominence as a war photographer. In my old job at Cambridge I was responsible for cataloguing his letters, so I was interested to see this exhibition of his portrait photographs. I really like his work – I’m no photographer but I can tell that his use of light and composition is brilliant.

The gallery has an interesting collection of Egyptian and Greek antiquities, and also contains artworks, including a painting by the former Prime Minister Winston Churchill. What I was most excited about, however, was the exhibition of artefacts relating to Lord Byron, including his swords and other possessions. Some of his letters were on display, and I spent a while trying to decipher his handwriting, which is surprisingly readable considering the time at which it was written. I’ve read Byron’s collected letters – they are fabulously lively and engaging, and his personality leaps off the page with every sentence. Seeing the pieces of paper on which he actually wrote was amazing.

The gallery is a bit out of the way, and the opening times aren’t always ideal, but it’s well worth visiting if you can – there’s a surprising amount to see, and it’s very interesting, not to mention free.

FACTS

Address: Harrow School, 5 High Street, Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex, HA1 3HP

Website: harrowschool.org.uk/1574/public-facilities/visit-the-old-speech-room-gallery

Opening Hours: Weekdays during term time between 2.30pm and 5.00pm.

Prices: Free

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

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.

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.