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

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

Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 – National Gallery

2012-09-14-18-07-45

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.

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

Designing 007: Fifty Years of Bond Style – Barbican

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the James Bond films, the Barbican currently has an exhibition of artefacts and items from the series called Designing 007: Fifty Years of Bond Style. I knew I wanted to see this straight away, as I’m a big Bond fan. Happily, the exhibition is open late during the week. I went to the Barbican straight after work last Wednesday and as I  crossed the entrance threshold was greeted by this:

2012 0822 Barbican 01

Does he resemble Sean Connery?

Because of the way the Barbican is laid out, the entire exhibition couldn’t be contained within one area, so you have to present your ticket to be stamped at the beginning of each section. The first time, your ticket is stamped with a zero. The second time, you also get a zero stamp, and the third time… well, you can see where this is going.

2012-08-26-21-35-06

I loved the exhibition. It was expensive at £12, but there was lots to see – I was in there over an hour and a half. There were lots of artefacts and memorabilia on display, such as Oddjob’s hat, the golden gun, a fake golden ingot from Goldfinger, and Vesper’s necklace from Casino Royale. I loved the section on Q’s gadgets, which had, among other things, the little Snooper Dog from A View to a Kill. Screens overhead played video clips showing the items in action. There was a large costume display of original and reconstructed garments belonging to Bond and his friends and enemies, as well as numerous evening gowns worn by the women (including one from the as-yet-unreleased Skyfall). The displays spanned the entire half-century of 007: the bikinis of Ursula Andress and Halle Berry were displayed, as were swimming trunks belonging to both Sean Connery and Daniel Craig. I enjoyed, too, looking at the costume and set designs from the 1960s to the early 21st century, encompassing the different countries Bond visits.

Most of the exhibition was shown in the first section, while the second was devoted to the Bond villains. Bond villains have to be recognisably ‘other’: they need something that marks them out as different, such as a physical disability, a foreign appearance, or a ‘different’ style of clothing. This is obviously problematic and throws up the rather conservative and old-fashioned attitudes inherent in the franchise. This section was really interesting though and had some iconic objects on display, notably Rosa Klebb’s poisoned shoes shown in From Russia With Love.

The third section was the ‘Ice Palace’, which had as a centrepiece a model of the ice hotel from Die Another Day, with video clips of Bond’s various ski-ing-related exploits on the surrounding walls. Some of the stunts are pretty impressive.

I was planning on having a Martini in the specially-created bar; I took the lift to the first floor, went to the bar, saw that the cocktails cost eight pounds each, and went straight back downstairs again. I did, however, pick up this souvenir in the gift shop:

2012-08-26-21-34-29

After the exhibition I wandered outside to find somewhere to eat my sandwich. I’d never been to the outside seating area, and though it’s a bit of a concrete jungle, I actually quite like it.

2012 0822 Barbican 02

The Barbican is a theatre as well as an exhibition centre, art gallery and general Space Where Interesting Things Happen. I went to see a performance of the musical Carousel on the same evening (I wrote a review here). A very enjoyable evening was had altogether.

2012 0822 Barbican 06

The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic Photography – The Queen’s Gallery

This year, 2012, marks the 100th anniversary of Robert F. Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole. For those who are unaware, Scott and four companions reached the Pole on 17th January – having been beaten by the Norwegian, Amundsen, and his team a little over a month before – and died three months later on their way back to their base camp. To mark the occasion, an exhibition of Antarctic photography is taking place in The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, London. This exhibition includes photographs from Scott’s expedition (known as the ‘Terra Nova’) and Ernest Shackleton’s ‘Endurance’ expedition of 1914-17.

I’ve developed a bit of an interest in Antarctica, and particularly this period in its history (known as the ‘Golden Age’ of Antarctic exploration), after reading a novel, Antarctic Navigation by Elizabeth Arthur, last year. I thought this exhibition looked very interesting and decided to pay it a visit, managing to persuade two friends to accompany me.

Photographs were very important to the explorers on these expeditions. They acted as proof of their achievements and evidence of the breathtaking environment they were surrounded by. They recorded scientific findings, the beauty of Antarctica, and the hardships of the journey. They also helped to raise the profile of the expeditions in the public eye, provided material for subsequent exhibitions, and could be sold as prints to raise money to pay debts.

penguin photo

 

The photographs were donated to the reigning monarch at the time, hence their appearance in the Royal Collection. I will write about the exhibition itself first and the Queen’s Gallery later.

***The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic Photography***

The exhibition takes place in two large rooms in the Queen’s Gallery. As well as pictures, editions of books about the expeditions are on display alongside a map of Antarctica and a timeline. Also displayed are the British flags used on both the ‘Endurance’ and ‘Terra Nova’ expeditions, the last recovered from the tent containing the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers.

*Scott*

The first part of the exhibition covers Robert F. Scott’s ‘Terra Nova’ expedition of 1910-12. It takes place in one large room with two smaller rooms alongside. The majority of these photographs were taken by official photographer Herbert Ponting.

Heart of the Great Alone

These photographs are incredibly beautiful, stunning and dramatic. Looking at them I got a sense of the excitement Ponting must have felt at the strangeness of this new world. Several scenes involve tiny figures standing beneath huge ice sculptures (‘Castle Berg’, a picture of an iceberg that resembled a medieval castle, is a notable example). Another shot shows the ship, the ‘Terra Nova’, taken through an overhang of ice. Two pictures of amusing, adorable Adelie penguins hang on opposite sides of the wall (as postcards, these became bestsellers after the original exhibition).

A number of photographs show the members of the expedition in and outside the hut (which still stands to this day). The explorers look happy and optimistic about the future. One shot of Scott’s birthday party is particularly poignant, as it was to be his last. In a side room are photographs of the five members of the polar party (the rest of the group remained behind): Edgar Evans, Edward Wilson, Robert Falcon Scott, Henry Robertson Bowers, Lawrence ‘Titus’ Oates. All of these men reached the South Pole and died on their return.

Ponting did not form part of the polar party, so the photographs from this stage of the exhibition were taken by Henry Bowers, to whom Ponting taught photography while in Antarctica. When the photographs were originally exhibited, these photographs were displayed in the centre of the room with Ponting’s around the outside. This exhibition has replicated that and these central photos detail the party on the move, pulling their sledges, and their achievement of reaching the South Pole. The men look exhausted and dejected – perhaps unsurprising as they had travelled all that way only to be beaten in the race to be first. The final photograph is of the cairn built over the tent containing the bodies of Scott, Wilson and Bowers, located in November after a search party was sent out to look for the men.

*Shackleton*

Shackleton’s ‘Endurance’ expedition of 1914-17 is the other expedition covered in this exhibition. Originally aiming to cross the polar continent, it became apparent that it was appropriately named, as the ship ‘Endurance’ became trapped in pack ice and eventually crushed. Without a ship, the only hope the crew had of escape was to use the lifeboats. The explorers made it to dry land, and Shackleton and a number of his men set off on a risky and uncertain trip to South Georgia in order to get help, leaving the remainder to wait and hope.

Photographer Frank Hurley was responsible for the photographs in this section of the exhibition. He documented the adventures of the ship as it became trapped in the ice and eventually crushed. His pictures also have a strong narrative quality which makes them particularly interesting. They capture the beauty of the ice and the smallness and relative fragility of the ‘Endurance’ surrounded by this beautiful but lethal stuff. Several photographs detail the men going about their day to day business, playing chess, exercising the dogs or carrying out scientific experiments. I do wish a bit more information had been provided. For example, several pictures referred to the ‘Welsh stowaway’ – I would have liked to know more about him and how he ended up on the ship!

Hurley was not chosen to accompany Shackleton on his quest for help. Therefore his later pictures show the life he lived for four months with the other men left behind, waiting for Shackleton to return, living in a hut made of the two remaining lifeboats and living off penguin meat. This is fascinating in itself.

Heart of the Great Alone

I found it interesting that some of the photographs were renamed to give the impression that they were images of a different event. For example, the photograph that Hurley claimed was of Shackleton’s return to rescue the men was actually his departure in search of help. This adds to the narrative quality of the pictures but not their authenticity!

**Conclusion**

I found the whole exhibition fascinating and managed to spend nearly two hours in there, which was impressive considering there were only two large rooms. I thought that the photographs were well presented and the accompanying objects were well chosen. The map and timeline provided made it possible to understand the pictures in context.

The two sets of photographs provided an interesting contrast, with Ponting’s pictures that were largely made up of beautiful shots of interesting landmarks, and Hurley’s photographs that generally told a story. One of my friends preferred the latter, as she said that she found them more interesting. I however preferred the former, as I thought that they really captured the beauty and fascination of Antarctica.

Overall, though, both sets of photographs were beautiful, informative and fascinating and credit must go to both photographers for taking such care with their work in such harsh and hostile conditions. They must have felt frustrated at not being able to record what they saw in colour, but their black and white shots are stunning and dramatic.

As a slight aside, I found the exhibition made me think about the nature of success. On the way back one of my friends said that Shackleton had seemed to be more successful. But was he? I pointed out that he didn’t actually achieve his aim of crossing Antarctica. However, he and his crew demonstrated great courage and all of his men survived against the odds. Scott, on the other hand, succeeded in his aim of reaching the South Pole (albeit too late to be the first) – but his polar team all died. Who was the most successful? I am still pondering this!

 

 

 

 

***Overall Conclusion***

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to this exhibition and my experience of the Gallery as a whole was very positive. My friends thought that £7.50 was a good price for a year’s admission, but felt that it was a bit steep for one exhibition alone. I would personally have been happy to pay just for this exhibition as I feel it was worth it – however I do have an interest in the subject matter.

I would highly recommend ‘The Heart of the Great Alone’ which is on until 15th April 2012. However if you can’t make it or aren’t interested I would recommend the Queen’s Gallery in general as it is well worth a visit. The next exhibition is ‘Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist’ from 4 May to 7 October 2012.

The website for the exhibition is available at http://www.royalcollection.org.uk/micros​ites/HOTGA/ and a number of photographs are available to view there.

If you are interested in this topic, I would wholeheartedly recommend the novel Antarctic Navigation by Elizabeth Arthur, a fictional account of one woman’s quest to visit Antarctica and recreate Scott’s ill-fated expedition (I want to write a proper review on this at some point). Also, if you live in or near Cambridge, the Scott Polar Research Institute has an exhibition about Scott and the ‘Terra Nova’ expedition at the moment.

A book made up of photographs from the exhibition has been released to coincide with it. Entitled, like the exhibition, The Heart of the Great Alone: Scott, Shackleton and Antarctic Photography, it is available from the Queen’s Gallery gift shop and from Amazon.