Light Show – The Hayward Gallery

Light Show, the current exhibition at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank, has been enjoying enormous popularity since it opened on 30 January. Tickets are selling out well in advance, so I decided to buy my ticket a couple of weeks ago in order to visit the exhibition yesterday. Setting my alarm for 8 am on a Sunday morning was torturous, but certainly worth it.

2013 0310 Hayward Gallery

The exhibition explores the use of light to shape space and experiment with different forms. Installations encompassed clear and coloured lights, fluorescent strip lighting, bulbs (including one designed to represent moonlight), mini LED lights, sparkling effects and continuous illumination. Some of the installations were enclosed in different rooms. I was amazed, impressed and enlightened (excuse the pun) by the exhibition.

I had a number of favourite exhibits. One was the very first one I saw – Cylinder II (2012) by Leo Villareal. This consists of strips of LED lights (19,600 in total) arranged in a cylinder, which move in hypnotic and evocative ways. The lights are actually controlled by a computer programme, but they are stunning. Another was Anthony McCall’s You and I, Horizontal (2005). This is in a room of its own and a projector throws out a beam of light – essentially a light sculpture that you can walk through.

Another favourite was Ivan Navarro’s Reality Show (Silver) (2010). This is a small room with four doors, around the size of a telephone box. When you are inside you can look up or down and see mirrors reflecting rows of light endlessly, as if you are in a long column or pipe. You can see yourself in the doors, but outside the sculpture, others can see you inside – a claustrophobic and unsettling experience. Navarro grew up in Chile during Pinochet’s dictatorship and the installation echoes the surveillance and control inherent in the system.

One thing that both surprised and impressed me was the extent to which children seemed to be enjoying themselves. Personally it wouldn’t occur to me to take a small child to a modern art exhibition, but there were loads there on this Sunday morning and they were fascinated by the exhibits – from the small baby amazed by the twinkling lights to the little boys excited by the rooms of coloured light.

Light Show is on until 28th April. You will almost certainly have to book in advance, and I also recommend booking the first slot available and turning up as soon as possible – in theory you can arrive at any time during the hour stated on your ticket, but even with visitor limits the space can get very crowded and early arrival gives you the best chance of beating the crowds. I’m so glad I came here – I wasn’t sure if I was going to enjoy it, but I really did.

Two Temple Place

Having a National Art Pass, I hear about lots of places to visit that I wouldn’t otherwise have heard of. One of these is Two Temple Place. Located on the bank of the Thames near Temple Station, it is a little-known gem, a beautiful house that was originally built by William Waldorf Astor in the late nineteenth century.

2013 0306 Two Temple Place 01

The house hosts free exhibitions of publicly-owned art during the first quarter of each year. The current exhibition is called Amongst Heroes: the artist in working Cornwall, and is a significant exhibition exploring the themes and images represented in Cornish art of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There are some fascinating paintings in the exhibition: some of them are historically significant, showing the way people on the Cornish coast lived (with a strong focus on fishing, mining and other forms of work) and many of them are beautiful, showing the impressive nature of the Cornish landscape.

2013 0306 Two Temple Place 05

Even more than the exhibition, I loved the house itself. Though it was designed and built just over a hundred years ago, it has the look of a medieval mansion with lots of panelled wood and ornate fireplaces. Astor clearly loved literature – the staircase is dotted with figures from Alexander Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and scenes from Shakespeare decorate the panels along the top of the wall.

2013 0306 Two Temple Place 06

The house is open until 14 April for the duration of the exhibition, after which it will close until next year. I definitely recommend a visit – it’s an unusual and beautiful place.


Address: London, WC2R 3BD


Opening Hours: 10am-4.30pm (9pm on Wednesdays) January-April during exhibitions

Prices: Free

Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men – Museum of London


On Sunday I visited an exhibition at the Museum of London, entitled Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men. It explores the relationship between the trade in dead bodies and the study of anatomy in the early 19th century, and was inspired by the 2006 excavation of a burial ground at the Royal London Hospital, in which evidence of dissection, amputation and anatomical examination was found. I am rather squeamish and was worried that the exhibition would be a bit gruesome for me, but despite a few icky bits I was fine. The exhibition was sensitively arranged and the bones and anatomical models on display were generally presented from a scientific point of view.

Surgery during this period was difficult and dangerous, made even more risky by the lack of anaesthetic. Surgeons needed to develop their knowledge of anatomy and disease, and the best way to do this was by examining and dissecting real bodies. However, demand far outstripped supply. Religious beliefs, superstitions and personal feelings meant that the vast majority of people were terrified at the prospect of their bodies being cut up after death. In addition, they did not want to be equated with murderers, whose corpses were habitually donated after being hanged.

The ‘resurrection men’, or ‘body snatchers’, stepped in, raiding churchyards to provide the surgeons with the corpses they required. They were feared by the population at large: the exhibition displayed an iron coffin used to protect its inhabitant from being removed, and other artefacts designed to prevent grave robbery. This fear is understandable, especially given the publicity surrounding those body snatchers who did not stop short at robbing graves, but actually resorted to murder. Still, the bodies were necessary to the surgeons in order to broaden their knowledge of anatomy, and thus enable them to save lives.

I was interested and surprised to learn, at the end of the exhibition, that there is still a shortage of bodies for dissection at the beginning of the 21st century. Maybe there needs to be some sort of campaign?

Death: A Self-Portrait – Wellcome Collection

I was intrigued by the poster for Death: A Self-Portrait, the current exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, as well as the title of the exhibition itself. I visited the exhibition on Saturday with two of my friends, after having lunch at the African Kitchen Gallery next to Euston Station (which I highly recommend).

I had to laugh at the sign outside the exhibition door. It read:

No photography is allowed in Death

Well, I can’t imagine it’s easy to transport cameras to the other side.

The exhibition is based on the collection of Richard Harris, a former antique print dealer based in Chicago. He has amassed a diverse and fascinating collection of objects and artworks exploring attitudes towards and the iconography of death. The collection prompts questions about the role of art in exploring attitudes to and ideas about death, and the existence of a collection at all suggests a desire to somehow escape or transcend death.

For a free exhibition, Death: A Self-Portrait is extremely comprehensive, containing about three hundred artefacts spread over five rooms.


Contemplating Death

The first room looked at how death and mortality might be contemplated. It displayed several memento mori (Latin for “remember you must die”) artefacts, including Adriaen van Utrecht’s 1643 painting, comprising a skull set in the midst of assorted items including flowers and a pocket watch. The desire for personal possessions seems to contradict the knowledge that we are all going to die: it is commonly said that “you can’t take it with you”, whether the ‘it’ is money or valued possessions. Perhaps our love for things is a way of fighting against the idea of mortality?


The Dance of Death

I found this section bizarre, but brilliant. The Dance of Death, or Danse Macabre as it is more commonly known, appeared first in the medieval period when death was at the forefront of peoples’ minds: plague, famine and war conspired to kill off individuals in their hundreds. Death was the ultimate leveller: it came to peasants and nobles alike. I have come across images of the dance of death before, in the course of my historical studies. Pictures of grinning skeletons dancing with humans are both amusing and morbid. My favourite item on display was a giant skull made largely out of plasticine during the last few years in South America. Looking more closely, you can see the shanty towns of South American cities, crushed by capitalism and Western culture: tiny books with recognisable covers – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Great Expectations, Catch 22 – lie in layers at the skull’s eye level.


Violent Death

This section was, I thought, the most disturbing. Here, images showing violent death, often in war, were displayed. I studied the First World War for A Level English Literature and one of the ideas that came out of my studies was that World War I was the first in which the horror and violence of war were truly condemned: before that, the honour and glory of soldiering was emphasised. Francisco Goya’s ‘Disasters of War’ series, produced in the wake of the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1810-20, seem to disprove this theory. They are disturbing, vivid and brutal images; at the beginning, only the invaders are violent, but towards the end brutality is evident from both sides. Jacques Callot’s ‘The Miseries and Misfortunes of War’ of 1683 also contributes to the debate, while Otto Dix’s ‘The War’ of 1924 is equally violent, but in a way less immediately disturbing, given that the horror of World War I is well documented.


Eros and Thanatos

Eros and Thanatos are the contrasting instincts towards life and towards destruction, according to Sigmund Freud. In this room, our fascination with death, pain and disturbing phenomena is examined. Anatomical studies reflect the knowledge gained from the dissection of the dead, while postcards of lovers, or of friends playing cards, have been made to look like skulls. I found this room intriguing too, and especially loved the postcards, which were very clever.



The final room examined the ways in which we commemorate the dead, suggesting that the varied ways different cultures achieve this have one thing in common: to connect with the dead and our ancestors. From the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, to the American families posing with skeletons, they are all about exploring our relationship with the dead. Other interesting artefacts in this room included Tibetan ceremonial cups and Aztec vessels, as well as a rather frightening grave guardian from a Pacific island.



I thought this exhibition was excellent: well put together, thought-provoking and varied. At the end, there is a video which shows Richard Harris discussing the exhibition and there is also a chart which provides much food for thought, showing the ways in which people died during the 20th century. The larger the circle, the greater the number of deaths, and related methods of death are linked together. Some of the results were to be expected – the high proportion of deaths from cancer, for example – but others I found surprising, such as the huge numbers dead from diarrhoea. A few I actually found reassuring: the number of deaths caused by air travel accidents is tiny by comparison to most other causes.

This free exhibition is on at the Wellcome Collection, near Euston, north London, until 24 February 2013, and comes highly recommended.

Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire – British Library

The British Library always puts on good exhibitions and the new one, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire is no exception. I visited on Saturday and found it an enlightening experience.

I know very little about India; in fact most of my literary, historical and cultural interests are very Western-based so I hoped this exhibition would give me the chance to broaden my horizons. The Mughals ruled India for over three hundred years, from 1526 when Henry VIII was on the throne in England until 1858, the time of the early Victorian era. I am roughly familiar with the progress of British, and to a lesser extent European, history during this period, but my knowledge of Asian history of this (or any) period is slim.

I found it interesting that the Mughals were an Islamic dynasty, but those over whom they ruled were mostly Hindus. By and large, according to the exhibition, rulers exercised religious tolerance. This helped to keep the peace throughout the empire and fostered debates on different aspects of religion. Geographically, the empire at its height spanned a large and diverse area, including most of what is now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.

The first Mughal emperor was Babur (1483-1530), who came from Samarquand (modern Uzbekistan) to conquer Kabul, Lahore and Delhi. Descended from Genghis Khan and Timur, the emperors adopted Persian as their cultural and administrative language.

There were fifteen major emperors over the years: traditionally the early six emperors are known as the ‘Great’ Mughals, famed for their expansion of the empire and their commissioning of great buildings such as the Taj Mahal and the Delhi Red Fort. I found it difficult to get my head around all the different emperors, but a central part of the exhibition displays pictures and artefacts relating to each emperor in chronological order. I found this very handy to help me work out who was who and give me some insight into the achievements and character of each emperor.

The exhibition was divided into sections, looking at life in Mughal India, painting, religion, literature, science and medicine. Images and artefacts were displayed clearly, and there were numerous books and other examples of writing, as you might expect from an exhibition at the British Library. I thought the art was incredibly beautiful, very different to the Western style of painting, colourful and vivid. I found it particularly interesting to see paintings of British and other European visitors in this style, which were in great contrast to the paintings you see in places like the National Gallery. One of the most unusual pictures was of one of the emperors engaged in some bedroom fun with a mistress: I found it very bizarre that an emperor would agree to being painted in such a compromising position!

Of course I couldn’t read works in Persian or other languages of the empire, but I found the descriptive cards next to them to be good sources of information. Many rulers were patrons of literature and several wrote poetry or kept diaries themselves. I found the works on science extremely fascinating: great advances were made through the study of the sciences, in medicine for example. Geography and astronomy were especially important and the Mughals were also influenced by astrology.

The empire began to reduce in size over time and towards its end covered only the area of the Delhi Red Fort. The dynasty came to an end in 1858 after the failed Uprising against the British East India Company.

I really enjoyed this exhibition. It was very different to what I am used to but I found it fascinating, and once again I feel I learned something.

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde – Tate Britain

The new exhibition recently opened at Tate Britain, and it was one I knew I absolutely had to see. The exhibition was entitled Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde, and as a huge fan of this particular band of artists, has been on my must-see list for months.

I arrived at the Tate on Saturday morning about an hour after the exhibition opened, and was shocked at the sheer number  of people there. I knew it would be popular, but I hadn’t realised just how popular until I got inside the first room. Though entry to the exhibition was timed, I felt that there were far too many people there: I had trouble getting close to the things I really wanted to see, and was repeatedly annoyed by people pushing in front.

Anyway, as far as the exhibition was concerned, I thought it was excellent. I know very little about art, but the Pre-Raphaelites have always appealed to me; perhaps my fascination was inherited from my mother, who studied art at college and who also likes their work. I’m also attracted by their pivotal role in Victorian culture, and the fact that they were influenced greatly by literature: some of my favourite writers, including Shakespeare and Tennyson, inspired the movement, and several members, including Dante Gabriel Rosetti, wrote poetry (his sister, who was not part of the group but who modelled for some of their pictures, was the famous poet Christina Rosetti).

The exhibition aims to emphasise the revolutionary nature of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, whose members – as well as several followers – made a conscious effort to break with tradition and seek new ways of making art. While their works remain popular to this day, it is not always apparent just how radical their approach was; in fact, the Pre-Raphaelite movement has been described as the first modern art movement.

The exhibition was displayed over several rooms, each exploring a different aspect of the movement. The first room looked at the origins of the PRB and their influences. The movement was founded in 1848, and sought to recapture beauty and spirituality in a world undergoing industrial and social upheaval. Members were inspired by early Italian painters whose works were displayed in the National Gallery (painters who worked before the time of Raphael; hence the name of the brotherhood). Other influences included William Blake, whose works combining poetry and art inspired similar creations in PRB members, and other contemporary artists of the time.

Secrecy surrounded the brotherhood at first: early works were signed with the secret initials ‘PRB’; an example of this is Isabella by John Everett Millais, on display in this room.

The second room explored how the Pre-Raphaelites explored history in their work. Their style was realist, almost photographic in its detail, thus illustrating a historical subject with a modern sensibility. One of my favourite pictures in this room was painted by Millais, and shows a Highland woman welcoming her husband, who has just been released from prison where he was kept by the English after the Battle of Culloden. Another was William Holman Hunt’s impression of the scene in The Two Gentlemen of Verona (the group was frequently inspired by Shakespearean scenes) in which Valentine rescues Sylvia from Proteus. I also liked the fact that some of Elizabeth (‘Lizzie’) Siddall’s watercolours were shown here. Most often remembered for her tempestuous and doomed relationship with Dante Gabriel Rosetti, and for being the model for Ophelia in Millais’ painting, her pictures showed that she was a talented artist in her own right.

Sir John Everett Millais,

The ‘Nature’ room contained many beautiful paintings, including Ophelia, mentioned above, which is one of my favourites; the colours are so lustrous and the water and the greenery captured so perfectly. Lizzie Siddall spent days lying in a bath of water in order to model for the doomed heroine. Other pictures were of landscape scenes, bright and summery or bleak and bare. I don’t normally associate the Pre-Raphaelites with landscapes so this section was a revelation for me. A particular highlight was Ford Madox Brown’s An English Autumn Afternoon showing the view from Hampstead towards London. I’ve seen this view myself but it looks very different nowadays: I enjoyed seeing what it was like a hundred and fifty years ago.

The photographic quality of many of the Pre-Raphaelites’ works is perhaps most evident here. Some critics accused them of working from photographs but in fact this was not the case: they would generally paint the landscapes outside during the summer (years before the Impressionists began to do the same thing) and retreat to their studios in the colder months to add figures and finish off the works. Their accurate, realist style was hugely modern and different from anything which had gone before.

The next section explored salvation, religion and social attitudes. The nineteenth century was a time of great change, with the publication of Charles Darwin’s theories, social conflict and division. The Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood sought to make Christianity accessible to all, portraying religious figures with naturalism and compassion. Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents was a revolutionary work, showing the Holy Family as ordinary working people: he made studies for the painting in a real carpenter’s shop. Hunt, one of the more religious of the Pre-Raphaelites, made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land so that his work would be more authentic: he completed several important works based on his experiences there, including The Scapegoat, which illustrated an old Biblical legend in which a goat, bearing the sins of the population, is expelled from a village. The group’s portrayal of women was in some ways radical for the period, but in others encompassed Victorian ideals – unsurprising considering that all its members were male. In Hunt’s The Awakening Conscience, a woman comes to the realisation that her way of life – she is a kept woman – is wrong. On the one hand, Hunt does not judge her for her lifestyle; on the other, there doesn’t seem to be any issue with the morality of her lover’s chosen way of life.

Sir John Everett Millais,
Sir John Everett Millais, ‘Christ in the House of His Parents’

Another room explores the representation of beauty in Pre-Raphaelite works. In around 1860, some members of the movement began to explore the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’, presaging the Aesthetic Movement. Dante Gabriel Rosetti in particular embraced this theme, painting numerous images of beautiful women gazing out of their pictures and wearing rich robes of varying hues. This was probably my least favourite room of the lot: I like pictures to have a bit of meaning behind them, and the cynic in me believes that Rosetti’s desire to paint nothing but beautiful women stemmed from more than an artistic theory.

The Paradise section explores other art forms rather than painting: tapestries, furniture and textiles are among the pieces shown here. William Morris, inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites, set up a firm to produce items such as textiles, furniture, stained glass and tiles that were both beautiful and functional. Several members of the PRB were involved in this enterprise in the early stages. I found these items interesting to look at although I must confess that I prefer the paintings.

The final section explored mythologies and their role in inspiring Pre-Raphaelite painters. Greek and Roman myths as well as legends and stories from literature were covered here. Edward Burne-Jones’ picture King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid is a striking example of this, dramatic and detailed.

Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones,
Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones, ‘King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid’

I spent two hours in the exhibition, and felt slightly exhausted by the end. However, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and really appreciated the chance to learn more about a movement in which I am very interested.

The Lost Prince: The Life & Death of Henry Stuart – National Portrait Gallery

As the National Portrait Gallery is open late on Thursdays and Fridays, I sometimes like to walk down after work to have a wander around. On Friday night I decided to pay a visit – although I took the tube to Leicester Square, as it was pouring down.

My plan was to see the new exhibition The Lost Prince: The Life & Death of Henry Stuart. As someone with a strong interest in history, and who has studied the period immediately preceding the Stuart accession (the Elizabethan era), I was very excited about this.

Henry (1594-1612) was the elder son of James VI of Scotland and I of England, who succeeded to the English throne on the death of Elizabeth I in 1603. Elizabeth had reigned for so long that the last time an entire family inhabited the royal household was beyond living memory. As the eldest, Henry was the heir to the throne and the hopes and dreams of the nation were invested in him: his princely nature, air of nobility, youth and exuberance promised a positive future.

The exhibition displays portraits of Henry, his royal parents and siblings, as well as those around him responsible for teaching, caring for or advising him. The pictures give some indication of the personality of the royal Prince, as well as the impression he and his advisers wished to convey. Miniatures by Nicholas Hilliard and  Isaac Oliver and full-size portraits by Robert Peake show Henry wearing armour, demonstrating the noble values of bravery and chivalry, or handsome, richly costumed and showcasing his extensive collections of jewels and other riches. Henry and his court helped to inspire a renaissance in the arts, and some of the items he collected are on display.

By modern standards I am not sure if Henry was the most likeable person. It was reported in the exhibition that when Henry received a gift of a number of brass statuettes, he was asked if he would like to give one of them – a horse, on display here – to his little brother Charles. Henry’s response was to say no: he wanted to keep them all for himself!

Perhaps it is unfair of me to condemn this attitude: the Prince of Wales, as he was created in 1610, had to bear the weight of a nation’s expectations and this was a lot to take for one so young. Some of the earlier portraits show the young boy dressed in lavish royal costumes that seem to swamp him. This is echoed in the two small suits of armour belonging to the Prince which are on display, worn by him during lavish court tournaments and masques.

Though clever, Henry apparently did not enjoy book-learning to the same extent as his younger brother. Some of his school books are displayed here, one of which in particular made me smile: one of his tutors wrote a couple of sentences below his own writing which are very disparaging towards Henry’s handwriting skills! However, the Prince possessed an extensive library and a number of works of art – many of which are now scattered all over the world in the hands of public galleries and private collectors – and he was interested in gardens, authorising a lavish project to redevelop the gardens of Richmond Palace, though he sadly died before the work could take place.

The final room of the exhibition explores Henry’s death and the reactions it provoked among his family, the nobility and the rest of the country. While helping to prepare for his sister Margaret’s wedding, Henry caught a fever (now thought to be typhoid fever) and, despite the best efforts of several doctors, died a few weeks later. His family and the nation were distraught: writers and composers registered their sorrow in poetry and music; printed books had pages with black borders and one of the dirges composed on his death is playing in the room. A portrait of Queen Anne, Henry’s mother, is displayed and shows her wearing black clothes for mourning: I found this interesting as I had thought the fashion for wearing black for mourning only came in with Queen Victoria.

At Henry’s funeral, weeping crowds lined the streets and the effigy on top of the hearse was reportedly so lifelike that it provoked fresh storms of grief. What remains of this effigy – namely the wooden torso and limbs, the wax head and hands having been stolen or rotted away years ago – is on display in this room, looking poignantly small in the plain glass case.

Charles Stuart was devastated by his brother’s death and treasured his memory all his life. During his reign as Charles I he commissioned an enlargement of a miniature of Henry which hung in his rooms at Whitehall, and is now on display here, the final portrait of a Prince who was never to fulfill his potential.

The exhibition got me thinking about how the course of history can change. What if Henry hadn’t died? He would have become King Henry IX, and the events which resulted in the English Civil War might never have happened – although, given Henry’s somewhat imperious personality, this is not certain. His life and death reminded me of another, very similar situation a hundred years before: the premature death of Arthur, eldest son of Henry VII. Named for the legendary English king, hopes and expectations surrounded young Arthur as they would encircle Henry a century later, but Arthur’s premature death ended them, paving the way for his younger brother Henry to inherit the throne. In both cases, the death of the much loved and admired heir led to the accession of a ruler who would change the course of English history – albeit more successfully in Henry VIII’s case, at least for him.

I definitely recommend this exhibition to anyone with an interest in Stuart England, seventeenth-century art and the history of royalty in Britain. The curators have chosen their objects well and they are presented with thought and care. Unlike some exhibitions and galleries, which contain an overwhelming number of items, this exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery takes the ‘less is more’ approach, meaning that you can examine each individual item in more detail, finding out more about it.

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,, 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.

2012 1013 Fashiontextilemuseum 01

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.

2012 1013 Fashiontextilemuseum 02

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.

2012 1013 Fashiontextilemuseum 03

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:

2012 1013 Fashiontextilemuseum 04

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.

2012 1013 Fashiontextilemuseum 05

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.


Address: 83 Bermondsey Street, London, SE1 3XF


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.


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


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

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.

2012 0915 Buckinghampalace