North Yorkshire: The Good, the Bad, and the Meh; A Tale of Three Captain Cook Museums

I know that Captain Cook is problematic for a number of reasons, not least for the negative impact his “discoveries” had on pretty much every indigenous population he encountered, but I have to admit that I find his voyages absolutely fascinating. Ever since reading Tony Horwitz’s Blue Latitudes, I have wanted to visit the Cook museums in North Yorkshire, which include the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum in Marton, the Captain Cook and Staithes Heritage Centre in (you guessed it) Staithes, and the Captain Cook Memorial Museum in Whitby (there’s also the Captain Cook Schoolroom Museum in Ayton, but that wasn’t open at the time of our visit). Because we are gluttons for punishment, we decided to do all of these museums in one day (along with Durham Town Hall, which we visited that morning). Fortunately, all the museums had eliminated their pre-booking requirement by then, which made the logistics of the day a lot easier. I’m not going to give very much background on Cook’s voyages in this post, since I’ve done that in various earlier posts, but will instead focus on the content of the museums.

  

The Captain Cook Birthplace Museum was the closest to Durham, so that’s where we started. There may be parking closer to the museum that we didn’t see, but we followed the signs and were directed into a carpark in a field next to a funfair. We ended up having to walk about half a mile across the field to reach the museum (Tony Horwitz also describes a trek across a “soggy field” so I suppose that was the closest carpark. We were lucky to be visiting in July, because the field was refreshingly green and dewy rather than soggy), where we were greeted by the large moai statue perched in front of the museum. I felt a bit apprehensive about entering because of all the noise coming from inside the building as we approached the admissions desk to pay our £4 entry fee, but it transpired that it was only the museum café that was busy – we were the only visitors in the museum, which made for a very pleasant experience indeed.

  

There isn’t much to tell about James Cook’s childhood in Marton, mainly because it’s not well-documented historically, but that didn’t stop the museum from putting together a tableau of a young Cook and his mother in their cottage kitchen, complete with pre-recorded dialogue in amusingly strong Yorkshire accents, and a dish of some truly disgusting looking fake stew. The cottage where he was born no longer stands, having been destroyed in the 1780s due to its already derelict state. The family only lived in the cottage until Cook was eight; they moved to Ayton in 1736, which was where Cook was educated in the village school.

  

Since the information on Cook’s early life is so limited, the museum quickly moved on to his later life, from his move to Whitby, early career in the Navy, and finally, to his three voyages of exploration, with a different room devoted to each. Despite the many typos I uncovered on the museum signs (especially with dates – at one point they claimed the house where Cook lived in Whitby was built in 1865, nearly a century after he died! I think they meant 1685, and someone had neglected to proofread thoroughly before printing), this was by far the most interesting of the three museums. They didn’t have many original artefacts (most of the objects in the museum were facsimiles), but they had a lot of objects generally, not to mention a healthy supply of mannequins. They even had a video showing you how to do a Yorkshire-themed haka, which was fun, if a bit too long.

 

In addition to Cook, the museum also had a small gallery on other adventurers from the local area, including Gertrude Bell, Katherine Maria Pease Routledge, and most interestingly to me, Frank Wild, who was a veteran of multiple Shackleton Antarctic expeditions. In another nearby field, there is an urn marking the probable location of Cook’s birthplace, and you can buy a DIY cardboard replica of the cottage in the shop (we got it mainly because it said Cleveland on it). Although it may not have gone far enough in discussing the devastating effect Cook’s voyages would ultimately have on the people he encountered, this was by far the best of the three museums, so it’s a bit of a shame we started the day with it, as I’m a great believer in saving the best for last.

 

Although we were both already a little museumed-out after taking the time to thoroughly peruse our first two museums of the day (counting Durham Town Hall), and we did discuss skipping Staithes and heading straight to Whitby, I was stupidly won over by the hyperbole on northyorkmoors.org.uk, which insisted “You really should seek out this fantastic visitor attraction.” OK! We eventually found a space in the carpark in Staithes, which was crowded because no cars are allowed in the village proper, which is located at the bottom of an exceedingly steep cobblestone hill.

  

The Staithes Heritage Centre is fortunately free, because I would have been even more annoyed by the experience if we’d actually paid for it – as it was, I was pissed off enough that I had to walk up and down a giant steep hill for this. Tony Horwitz mentioned the re-creation of William Sanderson’s shop, where Cook worked for a whole eight months as a shop assistant after leaving Ayton at the age of 17, which is partially what sold me on visiting, but the “1745 life-size street scene of Cook’s time in Staithes” is right at the start of the museum (and holds an actual shop – this small museum has not one, but two gift shops, which should tell you something about their priorities) and when I stopped outside it to wait for the man in front of me to finish reading the sign so I could have a better look, the woman at the front desk rather testily asked me if I needed help with something, so I felt like I was being moved along, and gave up on the “street scene” to head upstairs to see the “huge collection of exhibits from Cook’s life”.

  

I won’t deny that it is a “huge collection” relative to the amount of space that contained it, but my god was it just a load of crap. Picture a room crammed with the most worthless ephemera, including newspaper clippings related to Staithes, model ships, prints, 20th century Cook memorabilia, and terrible paintings by local artists. If there were any original artefacts, they would have been impossible to spot amongst the piles of tat. Even the allegedly “artisan gift shop” didn’t contain any products that I would consider living up to that description, so after reluctantly walking a bit further down the hill to see the sea (grey and depressing), we laboriously climbed back up the giant hill and headed straight for Whitby.

 

We had been to Whitby about eleven years ago, but neglected to visit any museums on that visit, possibly on account of the awful weather. Unfortunately, this visit had even more awful weather. It was lovely and sunny in Marton, but by the time we got to Whitby, the wind had picked up and it started absolutely pissing it down, so we made a run for the Captain Cook Memorial Museum. This was by far the most expensive museum of the day, at £7 (though they also have the fanciest website, so at least you can see where the money is going I guess), and unfortunately also the most crowded, as two other groups who were presumably also attempting to shelter from the storm came in right behind us, and we found several more groups ahead of us. The museum didn’t appear to have any particular rules about Covid safety, as we were all just crammed into this relatively small house (some of the groups not wearing masks), and one of the volunteers proudly announced that he had just closed the windows since it was raining in, which goes against all the rules at the museum where I work (we are required to have ventilation, to the extent of sitting freezing in my office with open windows in the winter, and just letting it rain in all over the listed woodwork when it’s storming (we go around sopping up the water with rags at the end of the day)), so I wasn’t feeling particularly comfortable in here.

  

This house (which was indeed built in 1685) was owned by Cook’s master, Quaker shipowner James Walker, and was where Cook lived from 1746 until 1755, when he went off to sea, so this is the only one of the buildings we saw that day where Cook had actually lived. The family were quite fond of him, to the point where the maid forgot her formal Quaker ways and referred to him as “James, honey” when he returned to visit after one of his voyages. This museum focused more on the scientific aspects of his voyages (the first one was meant to be recording the transit of Venus), and did contain some original artefacts, though the bits of Cook’s correspondence on view were only facsimiles. They still made for interesting reading, but my favourite part was the special exhibition in the attic on that dishy Joseph Banks, which we sadly weren’t allowed to photograph.

  

Had I not seen the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum, or been crammed into a stuffy house with so many maskless people, I think I might have enjoyed the Cook Museum in Whitby a bit more, but as it was, I was not particularly impressed, especially with the £7 admission fee, as the Birthplace Museum had easily three times the amount of content and much more pleasant surroundings. I also think (as you may have guessed from the “Memorial Museum” part of the name) that they glorified Cook even more than the Birthplace Museum did, the Birthplace Museum at least having made a significant effort to describe the cultures of the indigenous people Cook encountered. There is also meant to be a Cook collection in the Whitby Museum (and a hand of glory!), but we were so sick of museums and getting rained on by this point that we just huddled in a doorway eating some chips before heading off on what was probably my most important expedition of the day: procuring Bram(ble) Stoker ice cream.

 

As you may know, Whitby is the setting for Dracula, and a meeting place for goths. The only part of my visit eleven years ago that I really enjoyed was eating a scoop of Bram(ble ) Stoker ice cream (blackberry ice cream with white chocolate chips. The flavour is delicious, but I’m really in it for the name). Marcus had taken a picture of me eating my ice cream outside the shop, which made it easy to spot, and though the exterior has changed, the shop is still there, and I was thrilled(!) to see they still had Bram(ble) Stoker ice cream, so you better believe I stood out in the freezing rain and ate it (I also may have died at this point, because I appear to be a ghost in all the remaining photographs of that day). Having completed my mission, we ran back to the car and headed straight for our (incredibly grim) hotel in Malton (not to be confused with Marton). I am glad to have finally seen these museums after reading about them years ago, but the only one I think was worth the effort was the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum. Definitely skip Staithes, and only bother with Whitby’s Cook Museum if you’re hiding from the weather (which is apparently always awful there, because if it’s not warm at the end of July, when is it warm? I can see why James Cook got the hell out as soon as he could).

Beamish, County Durham: Beamish Museum

I know I said in my last post that I didn’t really know why we settled on Durham as the destination of our first holiday since 2019, but actually, Jozef Boruwlaski was obviously a factor, as was Beamish Museum. Based on lots of past experience, I know that living history museums are very hit or miss. When they’re good (Blists Hill), they’re so much fun, but when they’re bad (Hale Farm, where I did a short-lived internship many years ago), they’re dismal. Beamish bills itself as “the living museum of the North” and is one of the largest open air museums in England, as well as the first regional open air museum (meaning that it focuses on the history and culture of the North East rather than having buildings from all over the country).

 

At the time we visited, you had to pre-book a timed arrival slot in advance, so I booked a couple of weeks in advance to ensure we didn’t miss out. Tickets are £19.50, and the booking procedure is slightly complicated, as you have to book both a timed slot and a pass as separate entities, but I figured it out in the end. I was a bit annoyed with the weather forecast for this trip, because it was meant to be cold and rainy, and I had packed accordingly, but our first two days up north were actually super warm and sunny, and you know I would have worn a cute 1940s dress to waltz around in the 1940s town if I’d have known. As it was, I had to settle for an overall style jumpsuit and t-shirt ensemble that probably made me look more equipped to work in the pit town, but whatever.

  

We were slightly dismayed when we arrived to find ourselves standing in a massive queue directly under a hot sun broiling down on us in defiance of the weather report, but at least there were amusing signs written in “Northern” (Geordie maybe? I don’t know what a Durham accent is officially called, but it sounds fairly Geordie to me, and Beamish is located about halfway between Newcastle and Durham) to entertain us whilst we waited, to say nothing of the various dogs accompanying our fellow visitors. Fortunately, the line moved fairly quickly, and we soon found ourselves inside the massive expanse of Beamish.

 

There is a Routemaster bus that will take you between the various historical villages, but there was a huge queue at every single bus stop, so we opted to walk (plus a Routemaster isn’t exactly Northern. According to its sign, it stops in Aldwych, so I joked that we should hop in it and go back to London). It’s not all that far from one village to another, but you will end up doing a lot of walking by the end of the day, so make sure to wear comfy shoes (I actually was, for once, since I thought it might be too muddy for sandals with all the rain we were meant to get. Of course everything was bone dry, so I had hot, sweaty feet for no reason). We started with the first village chronologically which was an 1820s one whose main attraction was “Puffing Billy”, a replica of the earliest surviving steam locomotive. Of course, like everything else at Beamish, we were faced with a big ol’ queue to ride it, and since they were only allowing four groups on the train at a time, we really could not be bothered to wait. It only rode a short way down the tracks and back again anyway, so it was probably almost as fun just watching (i.e. not very).

  

This village had a few other buildings, including a church and a manor house that you could enter. Because of Covid, the site still wasn’t fully operational, so there weren’t many interpreters about (not a problem for me, since I find interacting with them super awkward anyway), though there was a man sitting at a table in the manor house whittling a spoon. He didn’t really explain why, but then again, we didn’t ask. All along the path up to the house (which was up a steep hill), we had seen fake historical posters advertising a really big pig, and the only thing that convinced me to climb the hill was the promise of a big pig at the top, so of course I was going to be very annoyed if I didn’t see one. Actually, there were two pigs, though they were more of the ugly hog variety than the cute pink curly tailed kind, and they weren’t unusually large. After those posters, I was expecting more of a Wilbur situation, with a “Some Pig” spiderweb above his head (oh god, now I’m going to end up crying if I think about poor Charlotte).

  

En route to the Victorian town, which is apparently actually a 1900s town, and was clearly meant to be the highlight of the whole affair, we passed a 1950s town that was under construction, which will include some ugly pre-fab houses and a chippy once it is completed. The 1900s town was the most town-like in terms of the experience, as they had a working bakery and sweetshop you could go into. Again, the queues were very long, so we just went into the bakery, because you can get boiled sweets anywhere. The bakery had a surprisingly large variety of old-timey things, and even more surprisingly, only a few of them contained loathsome raisins, so I had a nice raisin-free selection to choose from. I ended up with a jam and coconut sponge (because I felt like it was more old-timey than the lemon drizzle Marcus got) and a Victoria cream biscuit. The sponge tasted nice, but it was very dry (and nowhere near as delicious as the bakery from Blists Hill), and I was absolutely dying for a cup of tea, which, oddly for a British attraction, was absolutely nowhere in sight, so I just had to choke it down. I saved the biscuit for later, and it was also nice, but so greasy it had made the bag it was in completely see-through, which was a bit off-putting (I’m not on Dr. Nick’s weight-gain diet).

 

Because some of the shops were still closed, they had set up a series of tents outside where you could buy Edwardian merchandise, and having finally spied a suffragette sash for a reasonable price (£13.50. They used to have some at the Museum of London, but they were almost £100!) you better believe I bought one, and put it on and marched around singing “Votes for Women, step in time” as soon as I got back home. There was also a drugstore and photography shop, but unlike Blists Hill, you couldn’t dress up in Victorian clothes and have your photo taken, so we skipped those too due to the wait. We did go in a couple of the terraced houses at the end of the village, but they were underwhelming, and I was put off by the maskless, shirtless, beet-fleshed teenagers who were in there with us. We did finally discover a tearoom down this end, but having long since swallowed all my cake by this point, I wasn’t inclined to queue for hours for a tea. There was also a pub, but guess what? Yep, massive queue.

  

Just outside 1900s town was a funfair, but it seemed to be aimed pretty squarely at children, so we didn’t even bother walking in, other than to get a picture of the creepy clowns on the helter skelter (I always forget what British people call them and end up calling them “Curly Wurlys” or “Topsy Turvys” before I think of the right term, though the former is of course a chocolate bar, and not even one I particularly like). I really needed a wee by this point (despite not drinking any tea), but having passed the “Ladies Waiting Room” in the train station because I didn’t think you could actually go inside, I was forced to use a busy one near some heavy machinery up a hill, and it was dis-gus-ting. I still shudder thinking about it, especially the cherry pit someone had thoughtfully spit out in the sink that was just bobbing around in there.

 

Having survived the horrors of the modern but gross toilet, we walked up the hill to the 1940s wartime farm. The most entertaining thing about the farm was the chickens, one of whom had escaped her pen and was just wandering around pecking at stuff. Otherwise, it was just a collection of smelly barns with not much in them, and a grim stone-floored cottage whose toilet still looked more pleasant than the one I had just used.

  

Finally, we headed to the 1900s pit village and colliery. Like much of the North, this region was once home to many coal mines and the small museum of coal mining in one of the buildings here was one of the more interesting parts of Beamish, as there wasn’t a whole lot of signage elsewhere. There were also a few more houses, a church, and a school where loads of noisy children were playing the stick and hoop game out back. I was initially excited by the coal-fired chippy, but again, the apparently hour-long queue (according to the sign outside) was enough to stop me from even considering being a bad vegetarian and eating dripping-cooked chips. I was pleasantly surprised that we could actually go into what I think were the winding engine house and heapstead, which had excellent views of the pit village, though disappointed to learn that they normally have a mine that wasn’t open to the public yet when we visited. I’m always up for putting on a hard hat and crawling into a dark pit.

  

By this point we were fairly tired from all the walking and we’d seen everything that didn’t involve a massive queue, so we decided to head up to Hartlepool (home of the “Monkey Hangers” because they literally hanged a poor monkey during the Napoleonic wars, which is not something I’d be bragging about. They have a monkey trail dotted around the coastal path with little monkey statues on the markers) so we could have an ice cream and chips that weren’t cooked in dripping. As you can probably tell, I was definitely disappointed by Beamish, both because it wasn’t fully reopened yet, and because of the giant queues at anything of interest. They were allegedly limiting numbers at the time of our visit, so I hate to think what it’s like normally (though in fairness, we were there during the first week of summer holidays, which I’m sure is busier than most other times). It wasn’t quite as bad as our Black Country Living Museum experience, but it was certainly no Blists Hill. 3/5, mainly because I like my sash and I’m a sucker for a ye olde bakery, even though the cake was (probably authentically) dry.

Durham: Durham Cathedral and Town Hall

Like many people, I had not been anywhere on holiday since December 2019 (and even then, it was just visiting my family in Cleveland for Christmas, which I wouldn’t really call a holiday). With rules and requirements changing by the day back in July, Marcus and I were still uneasy about travelling outside the country, but with us both fully vaccinated, a trip within Britain certainly seemed doable. Inexplicably, we somehow decided that Durham would be the site of our first overnight trip in over a year and a half (maybe we just had Barnard Castle on the brain, which is not all that far away from Durham), and with train travel providing (what felt like to me) an unacceptable amount of exposure to other people, we set out on a six hour car journey early one morning in late July.

  

I was very much hoping to stop at Betty’s Tea Rooms in Harrogate on the way, but we got there around lunchtime, and when we drove past in search of parking, we could see that the queue wrapped around the block, so we didn’t even bother to stop the car. However, just outside Harrogate, a sign reading “World Famous Ripley Ice Cream” caught my eye. If you want to know how to get my attention, just combine the words “world famous” and “ice cream”. Despite their claims, I had never actually heard of Ripley or their ice cream before in my life, but we stopped in this quaint village for a much needed toilet break and some of that famous ice cream from a small, but busy shop. I’m still not sure about the “world famous”, but it was very good ice cream (they even had three flavours of soft serve you could swirl together, in addition to hard ice cream) and I would definitely stop again (I regret not stopping on the way home, but we went a different route and it wasn’t on our way). Thus satiated, we headed straight up to Durham, and got there much earlier than anticipated, thanks to not stopping in Harrogate. We had been planning to see the cathedral the following morning, but as they were still open for a few hours when we arrived, we decided instead to head straight there and check into our hotel afterwards.

 

A lot of the North is very damn hilly, and Durham was no exception. We huffed and puffed up multiple flights of stairs when leaving the carpark, followed by a climb up a hill to reach the cathedral. Durham Cathedral is apparently the first “stone-roofed cathedral in Europe”. Construction started in 1093, and was mostly finished by 1133, so it is pretty damn old. It is mainly notable for being home to the prince-bishops, bishops who, due to Durham being a difficult-to-control buffer zone between England and Scotland, were given the right in 1075 to rule over the surrounding region, including the ability to raise an army, levy taxes, and mint coins. Perhaps most excitingly, the cathedral is also the place where the Venerable Bede and St Cuthbert are buried, and I’d certainly heard plenty about the former in the Anglo-Saxon history classes I took as an undergrad (hands up if you initially thought his first name was “Venerable”. Yep, me too). The cathedral is still an active place of worship, and entrance is technically free, though they will hit you up hard for donations once you get inside (it’s difficult to resist when you’re forced to speak to someone at an admissions desk who practically nudges the card reader towards you).

 

Bede’s tomb is one of the first tombs you’ll see. It’s located in a little chapel that was the only place women were allowed to visit when the cathedral was a monastery (pre-Henry VIII). This chapel was hosting a “sound and light installation” when we visited that basically just made it hard to see Bede’s tomb and hard to hear the volunteer who was trying to give us information about the chapel, so I certainly wouldn’t rush there on account of it. Following that, we had to pass the stern admissions/donations lady who mentioned that there was a “tour” of the cathedral about to begin that included the chance to climb up 325 steps to the tower for only £5.50. I don’t know why we never seem to learn our lesson when it comes to climbing steps, but Marcus was obviously keen, and though I knew we would regret it, I didn’t want to deprive him of the opportunity, so I agreed.

  

And so we found ourselves climbing 325 slippery and winding stone steps. Climbing up wearing a mask was bad enough, since as soon as I started breathing heavily it sucked the mask into my mouth so that I couldn’t breathe, but I was loath to pull it down after the old man behind us removed his mask and started hacking up a lung the entire way to the top. I’m sure it was just from the exertion of climbing (and I’m not sure why he didn’t turn back after the first hundred steps when he was very obviously struggling. We were genuinely concerned he was going to drop dead, but he was with his teenage granddaughter, and she didn’t seem overly concerned, so maybe he does it all the time) but it was still not pleasant, so I ended up rushing to the top much faster than I would have liked to get away from him. The views were fine and all, but in my opinion not worth how sick I felt after practically running up the steps whilst not really being able to breathe, or worth paying £5.50. If anything, the way down was almost worse, because I have what is apparently a selective fear of heights that only really activates on stairs or ladders, and I had this horrible mental picture the whole way down of me tripping and smashing my head on 325 stone steps all the way to the bottom. It was not a fun time, but I made it without falling.

 

Now, since the woman who sold us the tickets had mentioned a “tour”, I assumed we were supposed to meet up with a tour guide at some point, but the admissions woman didn’t give us any specific instructions, nor was there anyone waiting to meet us when we came down the steps (and she was very clear that we had to climb the steps at exactly the time we climbed them, I guess to make sure traffic was one-way, so we couldn’t have missed them), so we just pressed on and explored the rest of the cathedral on our own. We did, however, encounter a tour group walking around about fifteen minutes later, so maybe that’s the one we were meant to join? Frankly, given my history with guided tours, I would have paid £5.50 NOT to have to go on it, so I wasn’t at all bothered, but you might want to ask more follow-up questions of the admissions woman than we did if you would like to go. As it was, we visited St. Cuthbert’s chapel, where I lit some candles for my grandparents (I don’t believe in it, but they did, so I do it for them) and checked out some of the tombs and weird contemporary sculpture – my favourite feature of the cathedral was the giant clock pictured a few paragraphs above this one. I did try to find the grave of Jozef Boruwlaski, who is buried here (more on him later) but had no luck.

  

The cathedral is meant to be home to a museum, currently accessible by guided tour only, but no one mentioned it to us (I only knew about it from their website), so I assume there weren’t any tours available, unless that was the tour we were meant to go on. So, we just visited the shop to get a few postcards and headed back down the hill to get the bags from our car and then back up the hill to get to our hotel. On the way, we encountered a man who rudely stuck his arm out when we apparently got too close and yelled at us to “stay away” (we do generally give people a wide berth in these Covid times, but he and his wife were walking really far apart and taking up the whole pavement, so the only way around was through. Also, he was not even wearing a mask, so maybe that should be his first step if he’s really that worried about it, instead of being a dick to strangers). This, plus the hills and the fact that the restaurant I wanted to visit was closed on a Monday (which was not mentioned on their website) and the only restaurants that were open on a Monday were super gross, so I had to eat horrible unsalted soggy chips for dinner, soured me pretty quickly on Durham, but we were spending two nights there, so I did end up seeing a bit more of the city in the form of the Town Hall.

 

The Town Hall is actually one of the reasons Durham has been on our must-visit list for a while. Way back in 2009, I wrote my master’s thesis on constructions of dwarfism in 18th century England (yeah, that served me well in the jobs market) based on the writings of William Hay, Alexander Pope, and Jozef Boruwlaski. Jozef was born with a form of dwarfism in Poland in 1739, and his small stature quickly attracted the attention of the Polish aristocracy. Various aristocrats “adopted” him (definitely not as nice as that makes it sound) and Jozef travelled with them around Europe. He eventually married and had his patronage from the King of Poland withdrawn for earning money by performing music whilst in England (the King heard exaggerated reports of how much money Jozef was making and decided he didn’t need the King’s money anymore, which wasn’t true), so, forced to find another source of income, he ended up settling in Durham, where he composed his memoirs in 1820. He died in 1837, and as I mentioned earlier, is buried in the cathedral, though good luck finding his grave. However, all was not lost, because the Town Hall is home to his violin, one of his suits, a life-size statue of him, and a handful of other personal possessions.

  

The Town Hall is currently only open Wednesday-Saturday, so we headed there on a rainy morning just before leaving Durham (and believe me, I could not wait to leave). Entrance is free, and they’re not real pushy about donations like the cathedral are. They are seemingly really proud of Jozef Boruwlaski being a Durham resident, with a ten minute introductory video on him featuring a song about him written by a local band, and of course the display case holding his suit and violin, and his statue. After spending so much time studying him years ago, it was nice to finally see some of his artefacts in person, though I do feel bad that it still felt a bit like gawking, given how much he hated being forced to exhibit himself for money when he was alive.

  

Durham Town Hall also features a cool medieval hall lined with the names and portraits of its mayors and honorary mayors (the ubiquitous Bill Bryson is one of those) and some cracking stained glass, and a council meeting room with a crest from a Durham warship hanging on the wall that features “a gruesome severed leg…a reference to the ship’s namesake Richard Witherington” who fought in a local battle against the Scots. Apparently his lower legs were chopped off and he carried on fighting on his knees. There was also a small room full of portraits by a local artist. The best one was of a cat.

  

Although small, the Town Hall was probably my favourite part of Durham. The cathedral was undeniably beautiful, but despite my very Catholic childhood, my atheist adult self feels kind of uncomfortable in religious spaces, particularly as a vicar read the Lord’s Prayer over a loudspeaker twice when we were there and encouraged everyone to join her (years of being forced to attend church meant I followed along in my head against my will, though the Catholic version goes on for quite a bit longer than the Anglican one if you include the stuff the priest says at the end). The city itself is pretty, but there’s none of the things I consider essentials, i.e. artisan bakeries or ice cream shops, or much else apart from the same crappy chains you get in every English city. At least now that I’ve seen it, I never have to go back, so that’s a plus (we did skip the castle, but I can live with that). More on the rest of our trip in the weeks to come!

London: Grinling Gibbons 300 @ Bonhams

I’ve always been slightly intimidated by the big London auction houses, and have generally stayed away for fear that someone would shout “pleb!” as soon as I walked through the door and have me thrown out, so I honestly didn’t realise that they sometimes put on exhibitions. However, Bonhams had been advertising their free Grinling Gibbons exhibition so widely that I couldn’t help but take note, and I was intrigued enough by this display commemorating the tercentenary of the amazingly skilled wood carver’s death to brave New Bond Street (just off the once again dreadful Oxford Street, now that tourists have returned), where their showrooms are headquartered.

 

The exhibition only ran for a few weeks, and Marcus and I ended up not having a chance to see it until its last day open, which was last week and also happened to be my birthday, so we were planning on doing stuff in central London that day anyway. Despite my fears, Bonhams was actually super chill, much chiller than most museums! Instead of being subjected to a bag search and having to pre-book tickets, we just strolled in off the street completely unquestioned and were free to look around without anyone bothering us. We had a lunch reservation that afternoon, and we weren’t anticipating that the exhibition would be very large, so we had only budgeted about half an hour to look around. First impressions seemed to confirm our presuppositions, as there were only a handful of artworks in a corner of the ground floor showroom, most of which were pretty impressive (even the creepy lobster), but they were all new and thus obviously not carved by Gibbons. However, we quickly discovered that the exhibition proper was actually located on the second floor, and headed upstairs to check it out.

 

As soon as we entered, I questioned whether half an hour would be enough. The exhibition filled a large gallery, and featured more text and artefacts than some exhibitions I’ve paid to see, so I was instantly impressed. Grinling Gibbons was a sculptor and wood carver active in the late 17th and early 18th centuries who was best known for his incredibly intricate and lifelike carvings. He was born in the Netherlands to English parents (his unusual name is apparently a portmanteau of two family names, poor guy) in the mid 17th century, and there’s not much known about his early life, other than that he was educated in Holland and had moved to England by the time he was in his early 20s. He was basically “discovered” in his studio in Deptford by the diarist John Evelyn (who you may remember also lived in Deptford until Peter the Great trashed his house…it’s a long story) in 1671, and ended up working for the royal family. You can still see his carvings today in various churches, palaces, and stately homes, including Hampton Court, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Petworth House.

  

The highlight of the exhibition was definitely the cravat that belonged to the wonderfully flamboyant Horace Walpole, owner of Strawberry Hill House, who liked to trick his guests with it at parties. It was carved out of limewood, which is white when fresh, so it would have actually looked just like a lace cravat when Walpole wore it. There were also pieces by modern artists in this gallery, and I loved the prosthetic legs carved to resemble Victorian boots, though I can’t imagine they’re the most practical for walking.

  

I also really loved the heads of Charles I and Charles II, where you can see Gibbons’ skill for portraiture, particularly in Charles II, who has had his paint stripped off so you can appreciate the beauty of the carving. The exhibition had very detailed signage throughout, including large text panels on Gibbons’ life, which were very interesting and much appreciated. I’m certainly no expert in wood carving, and it was also nice to learn the provenance of the pieces – when you think about it, it’s not surprising an auction house would be skilled at this. I just wish all museums were this thorough with their labels!

 

Although I didn’t have quite as much time to look around as I would have liked, I still got to see everything and quickly read all of the text, and it ended up being a great way to spend a small chunk of my birthday. I also enjoyed having a quick peek at some of the high end items up for auction in the downstairs gallery, including some amazing terracotta lions (est. £20,000-30,000) and a gun that belonged to Tipu Sultan (I think of Tipu’s Tiger fame), estimated at £250,000-350,000. So I was right to suspect that actual auctions here are not for the likes of me, but as far as exhibitions go…if I hear of another one taking place, I will definitely not be scared to venture back! For a free exhibition, this was fabulous, and although it is no longer at Bonhams, the exhibition will be moving up to Compton Verney in Warwickshire, where it will be on display from 24th September until 30th January 2022, so you still have a chance to see it. And never fear; although it was hosted by an auction house, the items on display were all on loan from various historic houses and museums, where they will be returned when the exhibition in Compton Verney finishes, so you don’t have to worry about them being sold off to private collectors. 4/5.

 

London: Sophie Taeuber-Arp @ Tate Modern

Maybe everyone has heard of Sophie Taeuber-Arp but me, but my first introduction to her was a post on Tate Modern’s Instagram advertising this exhibition. If you are as in the dark as I was, Taeuber-Arp was an early 20th century Swiss artist who dabbled in a number of media, including painting, sculpting, architecture, performance, textiles, jewellery, and puppetry (and though I think her name is pronounced “tauber” I have to rhyme it with George Costanza’s description of what the Kruger Industrial Smoothing sign looked like after the “r” fell off (“k-ooger”) and think of it as “tae-uber” in my head to spell it correctly). Because I will go see pretty much anything that looks even vaguely creepy, the images the Tate had posted of some puppets she’d made convinced me that it was worth seeing, and I booked tickets for the opening week.

    .

The exhibition at Tate Modern runs until 17th October, and is £16, or £8 with Art Pass. The galleries were pre-booking only when we visited, and things were strangely quiet for a Friday, not that that’s a problem, perhaps because this and a Rodin exhibition were the only things on. We quickly made it up and into the exhibition, which began with a timeline of Taeuber-Arp’s life, and a video montage of her work, but there were a lot of people gathered around the video (which appeared to be in German), so we skipped it and headed straight for the next gallery.

  

This exhibition space was very large and open, which made a nice change from some of the narrow galleries I’ve been to lately, as everyone had plenty of space to social distance (I guess people aren’t doing much of that these days, but this was back in July when there were still officially some restrictions). It also helped in terms of social distancing that there wasn’t a huge amount of content in the biggest room, but it was a bit of a disappointment otherwise, because this was my favourite part of the exhibition, mainly because it contained her puppets! These were made in 1918 for a puppet show production of a fairy tale called King Stag. I’m not familiar with the original fairy tale, but this appeared to be a Dada-esque interpretation of it that was probably not aimed at children, judging by the character named Dr. Oedipus Complex (the guy in black with the hat and cape) and the general scary appearance of the puppets.

  

This gallery also contained some of Taeuber-Arp’s photography, where she would artistically photograph herself in totally insane costumes, and I can definitely get behind that as well. Even her weird creepy Dada head (a very smooth head inspired by her woodworking background) was kind of cool, but it was mainly downhill from there. I know this is already the second time I’ve referenced Seinfeld in this post, but you know the episode where Elaine is dating that artist who makes triangle sculptures who they keep referring to dismissively as “the triangle guy”? Well, Taeuber-Arp was VERY into geometric shapes, so I am tempted to refer to her as “the square and circle woman”.

 

To be fair, she did embrace a range of techniques, and made her shapes by painting, weaving, and even glass working. The stained glasses were probably the coolest looking (they reminded me of a Catholic church my grandparents attended that was built in the 1960s and had geometric shapes in its stained glass instead of the traditional Bible scenes, I guess in an attempt to be groovy), and I’ve no doubt the weaving took some serious skill to give the shapes such perfectly pointed edges, but really, how many squares can a person look at before getting bored? Yes, there were circles too, but you know what I mean.

 

The exhibition talked a fair bit about her life and work – she married an artist called Hans Arp in 1922, which is when she began hyphenating, and they moved to a studio home outside Paris in 1929, where they remained until the Nazis invaded in 1940. They fled to the unoccupied south of France, and eventually received visas to travel to Switzerland, where Taeuber-Arp died from carbon monoxide poisoning from a faulty stove in 1943 at the age of 53, which was rather depressing to read. Her work seemed to go from minimalist to even more minimalist, with the exception of a piece she made whilst living in the south of France, when she only had pencils to work with. This sketch of the French countryside confirmed that she was actually very artistically talented in a conventional way, but apparently opted to create shapes instead, which is not the choice I would have made, but I suppose going the Huey Lewis route (“it’s hip to be square”) helped her make her name in the art world.

 

As you can probably tell, I was pretty damn underwhelmed by the vast number of geometric shape paintings in here – I could have done with about 80% more puppets and photographs, and I can tell why Tate Modern are heavily using the puppets and photos in promoting the exhibition. However, that gives a false impression as to what is actually here. Had I known I would just be looking at room after room full of circles and squares, I would have given it a miss. At least I only paid £8, and I learned about an artist I was previously unfamiliar with, but it only took us 20 minutes to look around this exhibition, and I certainly won’t be rushing out to see more shapes anytime soon. 2.5/5.

London: Eel Pie Island Museum

I haven’t spent much time in Twickenham – the last time I was there was for a three day-long first aid/CPR class for work in 2019, and this is probably just because the course was held in an office building in the middle of a housing estate, well away from the nice riparian bits of Twickenham, but I wasn’t terribly impressed with the area and didn’t really see any reason to go back. But the partner venue of the museum I work for was offering tours of Eel Pie Island, which is really more of an ait located on the Thames right across from Twickenham, and since this was the first chance I’d had to attend one of their events (we weren’t allowed to visit the other venue whilst both museums were open because we were meant to stay bubbled with our colleagues, but my workplace had closed for the summer at the time), I thought I should probably go. I won’t say too much about the tour, since it does sort of involve my job, although the guide was just a volunteer who lives on the island and wasn’t affiliated with us at all, but I was disappointed we didn’t actually get to go on the island itself. We just had to stare at it from the Twickenham riverside like the plebs we apparently were (outsiders aren’t really even allowed on Eel Pie Island – it is primarily multi-millionaires that live there these days, along with a few people in houseboats moored outside the island who they “allow” to live there and use bathroom facilities on shore. However, there is a footbridge to the island that anyone can walk across, so I’m not sure how exactly they keep people out. Presumably there’s some sort of guard/bridge troll on t’other side). I also didn’t realise the tour was taking place on a rugby day, or I definitely wouldn’t have booked, because fighting through the crowds of scary drunk men around the station was far from pleasant.

However, the tour included free admission to the Eel Pie Island Museum (it normally costs £3), and I am free to blog in detail about that. The museum is open fairly limited hours and only opened in 2018, which explains why I hadn’t visited before. We were greeted at the door by a volunteer who was very friendly and gave us a bit of an introduction to the museum, which was once part of a cinema built in 1913 that went under when talkies became a thing fourteen short years later and they couldn’t afford to wire the building for sound. Because it would require them to let outsiders in, the museum is not located on the island; instead, it is on Richmond Road in Twickenham, near a park with a fountain adorned with naked ladies and the church where Alexander Pope is buried. The interior of the museum isn’t very big, consisting of a long entry corridor lined with signage and a back gallery that includes a little seating area with free fizzy water, which was much appreciated.

The museum had signs up asking us to only take “general pictures” rather than close-ups of the displays, so I tried my best to do that, and I’m sorry if any of these photos inadvertently break their rules. Anyway, before Eel Pie Island became home to a bunch of Snobby McSnobbingtons (sorry, creatives and artists, according to our tour guide), it wasn’t even called Eel Pie Island, but was known as Parish Ait or Twickenham Ait. I get the impression there wasn’t much on it until an inn was built there in the 18th century, which became a stopping point for steamer excursions in the 19th century. There was a lady on the island who would serve eel pies to tourists (mmm, delicious Thames eels), which is how it got that name. Frankly, if that’s the best food they had to offer, I wouldn’t be stopping, but those Victorians loved it, and more hotels popped up, including a ballroom that later hosted jazz ensembles. The island is also home to one of England’s oldest rowing clubs, which didn’t allow working men to join until the 1960s, or women until the 1970s.

The hotel on the island had started to get a bit derelict by the 1960s (which I guess is why they finally relented and let working class men in the rowing club) because people weren’t really going to dance halls anymore, so a bunch of hippies moved in to squat in the hotel, and the island became a hippie commune and music venue, attracting major names in rock at the time, including The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, The Who, Black Sabbath and many other smaller bands I’d never heard of, even though I think I’m fairly well versed in classic rock. If you’ve ever heard of Eel Pie Island before, this is probably why, and it was the main focus of the museum, dominating the gallery in the back.

Because I’m not super interested in hippies (their wanton destruction of an historic hotel just kind of pissed me off) or most of the types of bands that played on the island, this probably wasn’t really the museum for me, but some of the information on the history of the island was interesting, and I loved the musical mural in the back that I sadly didn’t get a picture of in case it was considered a close-up (one of the volunteers (not the nice one who let us in) was standing by it and giving me hairy eyeball every time I pulled out my phone, so I was scared to risk it). I’ll give the museum 2/5, but you’ll probably get more out of it if you’re of the era that would have witnessed the island’s musical heyday or if you’re cooler than me and have at least heard of most of the bands that played there. And if you actually want to step foot on Eel Pie Island, it is permissible for outsiders to do so without fear of being eaten by a troll during their open studios in July, but if they don’t want me there the rest of the time, I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of turning up on their open days.

London: Chintz @ the Fashion and Textile Museum

Last week’s post was my 500th! I didn’t actually realise until WordPress told me after it was posted, or I would have picked a better topic than the disappointing Watts Gallery, but it’s still exciting that I’ve finally made it to 500, especially with struggling a bit with getting back on a regular schedule after my sporadic posting earlier this year. And now, on with post number 501!

I went to the Fashion and Textile Museum once back in 2015, and I was rather underwhelmed by the experience, so I haven’t made it much of a priority to go back. However, I’ve been very museum keen the past couple of months since things have reopened, especially since getting my second jab back in July, and having seen most of the major exhibitions in London and wanting to go to Borough Market that day anyway, I turned back to the Fashion and Textile Museum, which is located a shortish walk away from London Bridge Station, and decided to see their chintz exhibition. The museum (which I believe is where or near to where they used to film The Great British Sewing Bee), does not have a permanent collection, just temporary displays, and “Chintz: Cotton in Bloom”, which runs until 12 September, was the only thing there at the time of my visit. Tickets are a rather expensive £12.50, or a mere £6.25 with Art Pass, which seemed much more reasonable, and I was able to book tickets the day of the exhibition (Marcus and I were pretty much the only people in there).

  

We headed in to explore the world of chintz, a type of colourful printed cotton that was invented in India in the 16th century, and first imported into Europe in the 17th. It was initially super expensive, but as more of it flooded the market, it became so popular that England and France actually banned its import for fear it would take business away from their own cloth factories, which did not know how to make chintz until the mid-18th century. However, it remained consistently popular in the Netherlands throughout this period, and the collection on display at the Fashion and Textile Museum is actually borrowed from a Dutch museum, the Fries Museum, which I’m sure is pronounced more like “freeze” but my brain absolutely wants to say “fries”, as in chips. (There is actually a frites museum in Belgium that I visited some years ago, but I’m always down to hear more about (and eat) chips.)

 

The clothing on display was mostly 18th century, and it’s amazing that it survived in such good condition, though as the exhibition pointed out, it was a well-made, hard-wearing cloth, and the pieces on display belonged mainly to rich families who wouldn’t have put too much wear and tear on the clothing in the first place. There was a video inside showing how chintz is traditionally made in India, and it is a very lengthy ten-step process that begins with washing the starch out of the cotton so it will hold the ink (I initially wondered why they didn’t just order unstarched cloth, as they seemed to be getting it direct from the factories, but they explained they needed to treat it anyway to help the fabric retain colours better, so I guess it doesn’t really matter if they have to wash it regardless). They then have to make wooden stamps by hand with their chosen design, and the colouring process itself also involves a number of steps, including hand painting, which looks fun if you only had to do a small amount, but incredibly tedious in bulk.

  

I think my main complaint about the Fashion and Textile Museum last time was that they didn’t provide enough information about most of the pieces on display, and that held true in this exhibition as well. They did explain the history of chintz and how it was made, but most of the pieces on display had labels simply stating the year they were made and the materials they were made from, which was not that helpful. I mean, obviously I can see if it was a dress or a jacket or a hat, but I want to know more about who it was made for, the occasions where it was worn, etc. The exhibition did a slightly better job of this in the upstairs gallery, but the downstairs one was pretty sparse in terms of signage.

 

I’ve definitely mentioned in another post how those life-size wooden panels painted to look like people freak me out a bit ever since I read Silent Companions, so I was not super thrilled to find one greeting me in the exhibition, but it is Dutch, of the time period, and wearing chintz, so I understand why it was there (I wouldn’t want to be alone with it at night though). In addition to the freaky silent companion, there were also some unsettling dolls here, though I would have killed for the handmade wardrobe of the one pictured here (she had a killer hat collection just out of shot) to stick on my Felicity American Girl doll when I was a kid (I also had Samantha and one of the custom ones that was meant to look like me, because my grandma spoiled me rotten, but Felicity would be the most era-appropriate). The dresses here were undoubtedly beautiful, but due to the nature of chintz, which tends to feature floral prints, fairly samey.

  

I was way more interested in the upper floor, which was about fashions in chintz in different parts of the Netherlands. In Friesland, women traditionally wore flat straw hats when they went outside to protect themselves from the sun, which is reasonable enough, but over the years, the hats grew to such epic proportions (as seen above) that women were forced to hold on to a ribbon to steady their ridiculous hats, meaning they never had their hands free, which sounds incredibly annoying and restrictive. Just wear a smaller damn hat! There was also a tradition in the city of Hindeloopen of wearing different coloured chintz for different occasions, e.g. blue and white chintz for mourning, red and white chintz for brides, and multicoloured chintz for festive occasions. So, it might have been a mourning outfit, but I think the blue and white coat (above right) was the prettiest one on display. I think I’d defy tradition and wear it to my wedding (which I guess is sort of what I did in real life, since I got married in a black dress).

 

At the end of this gallery, there were some contemporary chintz fabrics made by various designers, and I loved these, especially the one with a hand holding a pen (prints with hands in them always feel vaguely fortune tellery to me, which I’m into). There also appeared to be a small gallery off to one side with more contemporary fabrics, but it was closed for a workshop, even though no one was in there during our visit.

 

The final section, back downstairs, was on the revival of chintz by British manufacturers in the Victorian era, when basically all interiors were absolutely coated in chintz. Even though chintz had gone out of fashion a bit when it started to be produced domestically and could be bought cheaply, it exploded again in the 19th century, primarily the more expensive hand-blocked variety for those who could afford it. There was a photo of the dressing room in Osborne House decorated for Alexandra after her wedding to the future Edward VII, and it was definitely busy (maybe the poor woman needed some distraction from the obese old lech, though he wasn’t actually that obese or old as a newlywed. Still a lech though). Because it was so common in stately homes of the era, when the houses started to get sold off and become museums in the mid-20th century, fabric companies had to start making chintz again so that these houses could be restored, leading to another surge in its popularity in the 1980s when National Trust memberships increased and going to stately homes became a regular middle class weekend activity.

 

After seeing the exhibition and learning about chintz, I agree that its history is interesting, and some of the 18th century pieces were certainly attractive, but unless I can get my hands on some of that rad hand and pen print, I’m unlikely to suddenly start wearing loads of it myself. I tend to be a bit more quirky in my choice of prints – I suppose I do own a couple of dresses with chintz inspired prints, though definitely not made in the time-consuming traditional way, judging by what I paid for them. As I said earlier, if there had been more information about the individual pieces, I think I would have gotten more out of the exhibition. As it was, we only spent about half an hour there, but since I only paid half price, I was more satisfied with my second visit than my first. 3/5.

Compton, Surrey: The Watts Gallery Artists’ Village

Even though I tend to think I’ve covered London and its surrounds pretty well on this blog, every once in a while I manage to track down a museum that has previously escaped my radar (sometimes simply because I dismissed it years ago due to it looking tiny or boring). The Watts Gallery Artists’ Village is one of those. Although I haven’t been out to Surrey as much in recent years as I had back when we owned a car, I have managed occasional excursions when we’ve borrowed Marcus’s brother’s car, and we recently had access to it for a couple of months, hence some of the recent-ish posts on non-London locales. Knowing we would have to return the car soon, I was searching for one last place to visit that we hadn’t already been that was also open on a Monday (a tricky task these days when a lot of museums are open weekends only or Wednesday-Sunday) and found the Watts Gallery. Assuming I had seen it advertised it somewhere before, I know why I would have instantly dismissed it. It absolutely looks boring, and I suspect something about it reminded me of other, creepier art collectives, like Eric Gill’s incestuous paedo group in Sussex. But then I read they had a tea room, and whilst in pre-Covid times that wouldn’t have been enough to get me to make a special trip, in this corona-world, I had not been to a tea room in bloody ages, and the idea of a pot of tea, a piece of cake, and their supposedly famous Welsh rarebit sounded absolutely delightful, especially as the weather had abruptly taken a turn for the cold again (in June).

 

I booked tickets the night before, and there were still plenty of time slots available, though it being a Monday probably helped somewhat with that. Admission is £12.50, though the main house, where the Wattses lived, is currently shut. I can’t say if it is normally more expensive, or if we were just being ripped off by paying full price and not being able to see half the property. But since we were only paying £6.25 with Art Pass, I decided I didn’t care all that much and just went ahead and booked. We arrived a bit early, as the website stated that we only needed to check in to see the gallery at our appointed time, and were free to explore the rest of the property until then. Upon pulling up, I noticed we were at least thirty years younger than any of the other visitors, and though this of course could have been because it was a Monday, I typically see at least some other people my age when visiting exhibitions in London during the week, so I suspect we simply aren’t Watts Gallery’s target audience, which was pretty much confirmed by our experience there.

 

With half an hour to kill before our admission time, we headed down the road to see the cemetery and Watts Chapel, which is meant to be one of the most important Arts and Crafts buildings in Britain designed by Mary Watts (much more impressive until you get to the disclaimer “designed by Mary Watts”). The chapel is a terracotta affair, and does look pretty cool from the outside, but unfortunately my view of the inside was initially hampered by a man with a tripod set up in the middle of the chapel. He appeared to be a professional photographer accompanied by a member of staff, and I get that sometimes photographers make special arrangements to come photograph things, so I was fine with waiting a few minutes for him to finish. But then, as he was finally packing up his equipment, an older lady who had also been waiting marched over and stood directly in front of me so she could take a few photos. The entranceway is pretty small, so I backed up to give her some room, but she just kept backing up into me, and backed me right out of the door without an apology. Then, she just stood there for about five minutes holding her phone up but not actually taking any photos with it, so that she was blocking off the chapel for everyone for no real reason. Eventually I just got super irritated and stalked off angrily to explore the rest of the cemetery. Marcus did come back after she’d finally left to grab some pictures, but I was so irritated and afraid of running into her again that I just stuck my head in for a quick peek and returned to the cemetery, which did have some interesting graves in it, though I was disappointed I couldn’t find any pet ones, as I recalled reading about a pet cemetery on their website. Maybe they were in another part of the estate? Apparently Aldous Huxley is buried in the cemetery (non-pet one, obviously), but I totally missed his grave.

 

By the time we’d waited to get photos and looked around a bit, it was time to see the gallery, so we headed back down the road. We were not allowed to take photographs in the gallery, but it contained pieces by GF Watts, who was one of the founders of the Watts Artists’ Gallery along with his wife Mary, who built the aforementioned chapel. GF Watts was a painter and sculptor who was part of the “Symbolist” movement, whatever that means, but his stuff bore a resemblance to the pre-Raphaelites, and indeed, he seemed to be kind of in with that crowd. He married actress Ellen Terry when she was 16 and he was 46, which is super disgusting, though they soon divorced and he married Mary instead some time later, when he was 69 and she was 36, though the museum glossed over the huge age gaps (I only found out about them when doing research for this post). I found his art mostly pretty meh – didn’t hate it, didn’t love it. Fortunately, the museum is also home to a collection of art by the DeMorgans, William and Evelyn, who were frequent visitors, and I like their stuff a whole lot better, even though the display was rather small. William’s animal tiles and pots are excellent, and Evelyn’s paintings look weirdly modern and New Age-y for the 19th century, with rainbows and sparkles everywhere.

   

The gallery also hosts temporary exhibitions, and the one at the time of our visit was on Henry Scott Tuke, who is best known for painting a lot of nude boys and men. He liked to hang out in Cornwall where there were lots of private beaches where his models could pose nude. I don’t know if this was a special display for Pride, or if the two just happened to coincide, but it did discuss Tuke’s sexuality, and how his adoration of underage boys is problematic today, but was common amongst Victorian gay men. I don’t know why they didn’t similarly discuss this with Watts’s apparent fascination with much younger, sometimes underage women, but whatever, I’ll just always think of Watts as a gross old pervert in my head. After the Tuke section, there was a gallery of Watts’s sculptures, but they were even more boring than his paintings. The little railroad tracks he’d built to transport pieces a few metres forward so he could work on them outside was the best thing about this gallery. The gentleman working there was having a friendly and lengthy conversation with the visitors ahead of us when we walked in, but after they left, he settled back into his chair to silently glare at me from the corner, so I didn’t linger here, even though the woman at the front desk had told us we could photograph the sculptures if we wanted.

 

The property has quite a large shop full of products designed to appeal to people more in my mother’s age bracket (I definitely saw multiple things she would have liked), and there was also meant to be a “Contemporary Art Gallery” upstairs, but it was just a collection of fairly uninspiring prints all by one artist that they were trying to sell, with not much explanation about the pieces. We quickly left and headed over to the much-anticipated tea shop to settle down for that pot of tea. They hype up the rarebit quite a lot on the menu and their website, and it certainly looked good when it arrived, but unfortunately it tasted super strongly of mustard (it actually burned my throat, there was so much mustard) and not at all of cheese, and had a horrible claggy texture, possibly from the granary bread not being sufficiently toasted. I make rarebit at home a lot, and though I do have a bit of a heavy hand with the Colman’s mustard powder (though obviously not as heavy as theirs), I also put a TONNE of cheese in it so it tastes really cheesy and lovely. The cakes were a bit better, but Marcus said his coffee and walnut tasted really artificial. Mine was chocolate fudge, which is hard to go wrong with, and it was fine, but it did taste more like those little chocolate fudge “celebration cakes” you get at Sainsbury’s than something homemade, even though it allegedly was. The tea shop is also incredibly expensive – it was almost thirty quid for two small pots of tea with no refills offered, two orders of rarebit, and two small slices of cake. Them’s even higher than London prices!

Having finished our rather disappointing tea, we finally walked across the road to see Limnerslease, the Watts’s home. It’s a mock Tudor Arts and Crafts style home, which they thought of as a small country retreat, but of course it is practically a mansion by today’s standards. As I said earlier, it is not currently open to the public, so we just stood outside and looked at it for a bit, and also checked out the terracotta cross designed by Mary to mark the part of the Pilgrims’ Trail to Canterbury that runs through their estate (after my experience with Thomas Becket’s relics at the British Museum, I was scared to even look at it in case he cursed me again, but I fortunately escaped unscathed this time). I think the buildings of the “artists village” promised in the name of the place were also on this side, but they weren’t open, and we didn’t even see where they were, so I don’t really know anything about the village and who lived in it, since I assume they were keeping all the information in the village itself. This is also probably why we didn’t learn much about the Wattsespresumably all the info was in Limnerslease. As you can probably tell, I was not impressed by my experience of the Watts Gallery, and I highly doubt I’ll be returning, even when Limnerslease reopens. I’m relieved I only paid £6.25 for admission, because I would definitely have been annoyed about the £12.50 (spending all that money on tea was bad enough, but at least we got some food in exchange). The chapel and cemetery are the best things about the property, and you can see those for free, which I would advise doing and giving the gallery a miss. 2/5.

London: The Havering Hoard @ Museum of Docklands

Much as I’ve missed visiting museums, I have to admit that I am primarily a food-driven individual, and I have missed visiting markets even more. One of the places I’ve been dying to go back to is Greenwich Market, solely for the sake of getting a Brazilian churro, surely one of the most delicious foods ever invented. But Greenwich is an awfully long way to travel just for the sake of a churro (though I have been known to do it in the past), and so I tried to tie a museum visit into the experience. The National Maritime Museum is usually a prime candidate, but their special exhibition is currently just portraits from the National Portrait Gallery, and I frankly don’t see why I should pay to see that when I can just wait until the NPG reopens and see it for free. But the Museum of London Docklands is not terribly far from Greenwich (I tend to think of everything on the DLR as being close together, even though it’s actually not, but it’s fun to ride, and where else can you find places named Mudchute and Island Gardens right next to each other? (Spoiler: Island Gardens is not any nicer than Mudchute. The names are meaningless)), and they currently have a temporary exhibition on the Havering Hoard, which is on until 22 August and is free – you just need to pre-book a free general admission ticket to see it.

  

My interest in hoards is admittedly pretty minimal, but Marcus was interested in seeing it, and when a friend wanted to meet up that day, I suggested he join us as well. Even though it was a Sunday, the museum wasn’t all that busy, especially the Havering Hoard gallery. I guess we should have researched what the Havering Hoard actually was before turning up, because we were all envisioning a collection of precious objects in silver and gold, maybe some coins and jewellery, you know, nice stuff that someone would keep hidden away for a reason. Well, the Havering Hoard is not that. Instead, it is a collection of late Bronze Age pottery shards (sherds) and other practical items, like axe handles, found in the London Borough of Havering (that I had really only heard of because they were one of the few London boroughs that voted for Brexit, which pretty much automatically put them on my shit list) in 2018. It is apparently the third largest Bronze Age hoard found in the UK, consisting of 453 separate objects, though if most of those objects are broken pieces of pottery, is it really that exciting?

 

Well, maybe to archaeologists, but not really to me or Marcus or our friend. The exhibition wasn’t very large because only a selection of the objects were on display (either because all sherds basically look the same, or because they just didn’t want to excite us too much), but we did take the time to read all the signage, which mainly consisted of descriptions of how the objects in the hoard would have been made, and theories as to why they may have been buried (personally, I would say it was because it all looked like garbage, and that was actually one of the theories! The others were to keep it safe, as an offering to the gods, or as a symbol of status, though I can’t see how the last one could be true. How could you show your power by hiding everything away where no one could see it?). In my opinion, the best part of the exhibition was the foot pedals that illuminated x-rays of the hoard on one of the walls. Covid safe and fun! My friend had somehow never been to the Museum of Docklands before, so we went for a stroll through the permanent galleries, which looked the same as the last time I visited, except for a cool treadwheel thing I had somehow never noticed before (maybe because it was always full of children in the past), so Covid be damned, we had to give it a go (there was a hand sanitiser dispenser nearby, so we just sanitised before and after) and it proved to be super fun but also kind of dangerous, because it was very easy to fall over once it got going.

   

Having finished with Museum of Docklands, we finally headed over to Greenwich to grab that sweet, sweet dulce de leche filled churro, and god was it worth travelling for. I just wish they’d get another stall somewhere closer to me (if I ever have a belated wedding reception, I’m going to ask them to cater it). And more delights awaited us when we walked over to Deptford to see the Peter the Great statue. I don’t know how I’ve lived in London as long as I have without laying eyes on this masterpiece, but it is seriously one of the most hilarious statues I have ever seen, and so inexplicable. Why is Peter’s head so small? Why does the little person have flies on his coat? Why does the throne have what is either Pan or a demon head on the back (I assume the eyes and ears are to show that Peter was all-seeing and all-hearing)? Why are there random dishes of food on the back of the sculpture? So many questions.

 

The plaque on the sculpture wasn’t massively helpful, telling us that it was here because Peter visited Deptford in 1698 to learn more about shipbuilding, and the statue was a gift from the Russian people to commemorate this, though it wasn’t built until 2000. I did a bit of research online, and the stories about Peter’s time in London are frankly as insane as the sculpture. He visited London under an assumed name, though as he was almost seven feet tall and the ruler of Russia, this probably wasn’t all that effective in disguising his identity. He was trying to modernise Russia, and learning about shipbuilding in London was part of this effort. He rented the diarist John Evelyn’s house, and by all accounts, completely destroyed it with his drunken carousing. His entourage included a little person (Peter was known for his fascination with genetic abnormalities, and he had a retinue of people with dwarfism as well as an army of extremely tall people) who he allegedly pushed on a wheelbarrow through Evelyn’s famous gardens, thus wrecking them. His head was a normal size in real life, but the sculptor who made this (Mihail Chemiakin, who was forced to leave the USSR in the 1970s for being too controversial) seems to only be able to sculpt tiny heads, so I guess that explains that one. The rest of it is still a mystery, but it is glorious (Prince Michael of Kent did the unveiling, and I would have killed to be there. How could you not die laughing when the cloth got pulled off to reveal this?), and we spent a good hour sitting on a bench nearby, chatting and basking in the weirdness of this statue (and watching the reactions of other passersby also seeing it for the first time), and I decided that if I ever become emperor of the world, I will have a throne just like this one. Highly recommended, much more so than the Havering Hoard exhibition!

London: “Epic Iran” @ the V&A

With a name like “Epic Iran”, you’d expect something, well, epic, right? Did the V&A’s new exhibition live up to expectations? Read on to find out (with a lot of waffle in between, though sadly not actual waffles).

I had not been to the V&A in a very long time indeed, considering how regularly I used to go. My last visit was in the last of the pre-Covid days, back in February 2020. I did try to see the “Bags Inside Out” exhibition last December when they were briefly open, but it was sold out on all the days I could visit (it’s still on, so I will hopefully make it there eventually). So when they opened slots for pre-booking in April, I hedged my bets (since we still weren’t 100% sure museums would be able to open on the “Covid road map” schedule at that point) and booked a ticket to “Epic Iran” for early June, because it looked more appealing than the Alice in Wonderland exhibition (which I’ll probably see too eventually, but I’ve never liked the book, and it looks like it will be a case of style over substance).

On a very hot day, we queued up outside the Exhibition Road entrance of the V&A (the main entrance is currently exit only) and got processed more quickly than the people who had just booked a free ticket to the permanent collections. Admission to “Epic Iran” is £18, or £9 with Art Pass, and it runs until September. It wasn’t super clear where we had to go when we first entered the building, as staff seemed mainly focussed on directing people to Alice, but we soon caught sight of some signs and made our own way there. The exhibition aims to explore “5000 years of art, design, and culture” which is quite a big ask for an exhibition space that isn’t even the V&A’s largest, but they certainly took a stab at it.

The Persian Empire got its start in the sixth century BC under Cyrus the Great, who conquered what was once Babylonia and united the region. At its height, the Persian Empire was massive and went well beyond the boundaries of modern day Iran, stretching over much of Asia, to the Balkans in Europe, and parts of Libya and Egypt in Africa. Early Persia was firmly Zoroastrian, which I remember learning about in a World Religions class I took as an undergrad. I found the religion memorable mainly for its practice of ritual exposure or “sky burial”, the idea being that to bury a corpse would be to pollute the earth, so better to leave it out to be picked at by vultures. Other than that, it seems to be your standard good vs. evil mostly monotheistic religion that Christianity and Islam both borrowed from. If you like little clay pots with animals on them, and vases of men with erect penises holding water jugs, you’ll like Zoroastrian art.

There were an awful lot of objects in this exhibition, objects that, to be fair, probably shouldn’t even be in British collections, including the Cyrus Cylinder, made in about 539 BC, which tells the story of how Cyrus the Great established the Persian Empire, and normally lives at the British Museum. Also some bad-ass animal horns and various things made from gold.

There were also some pages from a manuscript of the Shahnameh, an epic poem that tells the story of the Persian Empire through the rise of Islam in the seventh century. Like most epic poems, it involves a lot of killing, so those made for some fun illustrations. There were also early Islamic manuscripts with illustrations of various monsters and demons, which of course I loved. And brutal looking armour with pointy kneecaps, I guess so you could poke someone’s eyes out with your knees. Fun!

The little lion incense burner on the left reminds me of the robot devil from Futurama. He was in the section on poetry, which also featured a recording of someone reading out poems in Farsi. There were of course some Persian rugs here, but honestly they were probably the least interesting things in the exhibition. Who wants to look at rugs when you could be looking at paintings of people with aggressive eyebrows, women included? If I relinquished my tweezers, I think I would fit right in.

Obviously, most of history is male-centric, but the exhibition did have a section of the role of women in Persia. Women went from having some rights to having no rights, back to some, and then finally back to no rights again after the Iranian Revolution. In much of recent-ish (the last few centuries) history, women lived in harem-type arrangements where they were sequestered from men, and couldn’t leave the house without being heavily veiled; however, from the Victorian era onward, fashions within the harem setting changed greatly depending on the whims of the ruler at the time. I was interested to learn that skirts gradually got shorter, inspired by Nasir al Din Shah’s love of ballet, until the women in his harem were basically wearing miniskirts (in the 1870s!). Women eventually got to modernise and reclaim some rights, just in time for the Islamist Revolution to send them right back (actually quite a bit further back than) where they started.

The exhibition, having taken us on an accelerated ride throughout history, got to contemporary art by the end, and I really loved some of the pieces here, especially the photograph by Azadeh Akhlaghi recreating the 1974 shooting of activist Marzieh Ahmadi Oskuie, the photographs of modern Iranian women done in a Victorian style, and a shrine style collage piece with dancing blue lights. This was also the part of the exhibition where we encountered a pair of exceptionally annoying school-aged children who had borrowed a pair of those fold out chairs intended for people who struggle to stand for long periods and were proceeding to smash them repeatedly into the floor, much to the consternation of the gallery attendant, so it was fortunate we were spared them for most of the exhibition (it was half-term, but maybe a more child-friendly exhibition would have been a better choice for them). So this is maybe not one to bring the kids to, but as an adult, I really loved it. I thought the art was fabulous, and I enjoyed learning a bit more about Iran’s history, though obviously a seven or eight room exhibition about 5000 years of history is never going to be comprehensive. Maybe not quite “epic”, but it was certainly a good attempt. 4/5.

Mainly including this photo so you can see my apricot dress, because I ❤ it.