Columbus, OH: The Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum

dsc09555It’s odd that when I lived in Cleveland, I went well over a decade without visiting Columbus (I went a few times as a child, primarily to go to COSI, but never as a teenager or 20-something), and now I try to go back every time I’m in Ohio, but I suppose the joys of the North Market (I love their Belgian waffles) have won me over, plus my uncle and his partner live down there now, and they have two super cute golden retrievers and know all the best ice cream places in C-bus, so that’s another good reason to visit!  Fortunately (because I can’t drive), Marcus and my brother were also both up for a day trip.  However, me being me, I had to sneak in a museum visit somewhere between waffles and ice cream (it was pretty much a perfect day), and not wanting a repeat of the grim-yet-inconveniently-hilarious Jubilee Museum last year, I did a better job of researching my options this year.  Some of the places that looked interesting (like the James Thurber house) were closed because it was right after Christmas, but the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum, located right on the massive OSU campus, was open, and seemed right up my alley (and interesting enough to not bore my brother).

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Not being a football fan or cool enough to have friends to party with when I was an undergrad (or a grad student, for that matter), I’d never actually been to OSU, but my brother (who is much more popular than I am) had, so he knew roughly where to go (and to get doughnuts from Buckeye Donuts down the street, which was a smart move, even though eating a doughnut right after gorging myself at the market meant I had to unbutton my jeans to make space for everything (TMI?)).  (In fairness to me, I graduated when I was 20, so I wasn’t even old enough to (legally) drink, thus there wasn’t much point in bar-hopping.)  However, as I said, the campus is huge, and was almost empty because it was winter break, so we did initially get a bit lost and had no one to ask for directions, but we eventually figured out that we were looking for Sullivant Hall and managed from there.

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The Billy Ireland Museum immediately won my heart because in addition to the museum being free, there was also a display of free cartoon-themed bookmarks and exhibition programmes (really nice ones!) sitting out on a desk when we walked in, which the student working there urged us to take (he didn’t have to tell me twice!).  To avoid disappointment (or a trip to the Jubilee Museum), be aware that the museum is closed on Mondays, and only open from 1-5 the rest of the week.  The museum consisted of three mid-sized galleries, the first of which seemed to hold highlights of their historical cartoon collection, as well as cartoons from around the world.  Don’t miss pulling out the drawers of the cabinets in here, because they held some of the best stuff, including that cartoon of TR and Taft (above left) and an early drawing from Disney’s Robin Hood (above right), my favourite Disney film!

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They even had some pieces by English cartoonists, like Gillray and Rowlandson, in addition to a selection of non-boring manga (pretty much miraculous in itself, because I hate most manga with a passion).  I do have a general policy where I don’t like comic strips where the people actually look like realistic people (my favourite modern comic strip is Pearls before Swine, in case you’re wondering. I’m basically Rat), so I didn’t spend much time with all the Dick Tracy/Mary Worth type stuff on the walls, but I would take every one of those cat comic bobble hats in that case, and wear them with pride.

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One of the main reasons I wanted to catch the Billy Ireland Museum on this visit was that they had a temporary exhibit called “Windows on Death Row: Art from Inside and Outside the Prison Walls” which sounded really interesting.  I am opposed to capital punishment, as are apparently most cartoonists and satirists (the exhibit only had two pro-death penalty cartoons, because they said that was all they could find), so it wasn’t going to change my mind or anything (though maybe it would give you something to think about if you were in favour of capital punishment?), but the artwork done by inmates was very moving (particularly the painting done by a man who was executed shortly after, and a cartoon by a professional cartoonist who was the recipient of this man’s last phone call, which depicted that conversation), and the statistics were thought-provoking.

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For example, I learned that Ohio has the seventh highest number of inmates on death row of any state (currently 142) and has executed the eighth highest number of people since 1976 (53, which trails behind Texas’s appalling 538(!), but still).  In addition to charts and polls, there were also a number of stories from death row inmates, prisoners serving life sentences, and others in the criminal justice system who had widely varying views on the death penalty, which helped bring some balance into the exhibit. I do think it’s always important to educate yourself on both sides of an issue, even if you don’t agree with one of them, and I think the museum tried their best to make that happen with the captions and other text, despite the obvious anti-death penalty bias of most of the cartoons.

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On a cheerier note, the final room contained “What a Hoot,” an exhibition devoted to the work of Mike Peters.  I can’t say I was familiar with Mike Peters’s work before seeing this (I have seen greeting cards featuring characters from his comic strip Mother Goose and Grimm but The Plain Dealer (Cleveland’s newspaper) never carried the strip when I was growing up, so I’ve never really read it), but I was genuinely “loling” (as the kids say) at some of his cartoons.

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Mother Goose and Grimm is about an old woman and her dog, Grimm, so was sort of Garfield-esque (whether that’s good or bad I’ll leave you to decide), but I think quite a bit funnier, because he detoured into other subjects, including some brilliant punny ones. There was also a whole wall devoted to presidential cartoons (I think Nixon through (shudder) Trump, but there might have been a LBJ one in there?), which I loved, and a number of other political strips that had to do with non-major events that took place before I was born, so I didn’t really know what they were about.   In addition, the exhibit contained some biographical information on Peters’s life.

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After experiencing all those different emotions in a relatively short time (laughter-contemplative sadness-laughter again), I left feeling really impressed with the Billy Ireland Museum.  As my brother said, “It was just the right size,” so that even he didn’t have time to get bored, but there was plenty there to make it well worth a special visit, and most importantly, it showed that cartoons can be so much more than the medium might have you believe at first glance.  It left me wishing there were more free museums on the OSU campus (except for a museum of biological diversity that is only open once a year, I couldn’t find any), because this was so well-done (and also wishing that British papers had a whole comics section like the PD and Akron Beacon Journal still do, because I miss reading them). I’ll post a picture below of the front of the building, so you know what you’re looking for if you go, because I don’t want anyone else to get lost (for real, OSU is the largest university (by enrollment) in America.  It has over 63,000 students!) if you decide to visit, because you really should, if you’re in the area and like cartoons! Don’t miss those Buckeye Donuts either!  4.5/5.

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Cleveland, OH: Cleveland Museum of Art Redux

dsc09619Because I went back to Ohio for a few weeks over Christmas (and now I’ll have that stupid Back to Ohio (actually called “My City is Gone” apparently) Pretenders song stuck in my head all day), I wrote and scheduled a whole bunch of posts in advance because I knew I’d be too busy eating doughnuts, ice cream, and pancakes, and hanging out with my brother to want to do much writing while I was there.  As a result, I haven’t really written anything in about a month, and I’m finding it really hard to get back into the swing of things (and this damn jet lag (which I should probably just call insomnia at this point) isn’t helping).  So I thought I’d start by revisiting what used to be my favourite Cleveland museum: the Cleveland Museum of Art.

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I first wrote about the CMA in my first month of blogging, nearly four years ago now, shortly after they had finished their extensive remodelling project, and unfortunately at that point I was so attached to the old museum that I didn’t really give the new museum a fair chance. I also think that many of the galleries had yet to re-open then, so I wasn’t experiencing the museum at its fullest potential.  Well, this was my first trip to the CMA since that last ill-fated one, and I’m happy to report that it feels like a museum I can love again!  It doesn’t hurt that the CMA is still one of only a few free museums in Cleveland, though they do get you with the $10 minimum parking fee in their garage (yikes! Try to find a metered spot on the street if you can, because I think those are only a couple bucks), and they charge for major special exhibitions, but there were none on at the time of my visit.

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The main reason I was inspired to go back was that the museum was hosting a small exhibit on early portrait photography that sounded interesting (I confess I was hoping they’d have some of those creepy Victorian death photographs, but no such luck), but the exhibit was hidden away in the  middle of the second floor galleries, which meant I got to do a lot of exploring before I found my way there.  And look, I found one of my favourite paintings on the way (that I bitched about not being able to find last time): Cupid and Psyche, by Jacques-Louis David (above left).  And that excellent saucy portrait of George Washington by Charles Wilson Peale that I also know well and love (above previous paragraph).  And the three Van Gogh paintings the museum owns (my favourite is the tree one shown above right).  It was glorious, like finding long-lost friends.

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I am also very glad that the museum seems to be ordered in a manner that makes sense again.  I think when I visited four years ago, only about half the galleries were actually open, so they only had some of the collection’s highlights on display, and they weren’t really arranged in any particular order.  Happily, the paintings are now sorted chronologically, by country of origin, and by genre again, which makes it easy to find paintings that I know are there and want to see, like the handsome fellow on the left, above (Jean Terford David, painted by Thomas Sully.  I believe his wife’s portrait is also there, but the poor woman is kind of unremarkable next to Jean’s strong jawline and dreamy tousled hair). The only exception to this was Henri Rousseau’s Fight between a Tiger and a Buffalo, which I love, but wasn’t in any of the places I expected to find it.  However, thanks to the free wifi the museum now offers, I was able to search for it on my phone, and discover that it wasn’t currently on display.  Annoying, because I really wanted to see it, but still better than me aimlessly wandering in search of it (or I guess I could have gone old-school and just asked someone working there, but if I can avoid human contact, all the better).  You will also notice that unlike at the hideous (except the armoury) Wallace Collection that I wrote about a couple weeks ago, the paintings are attractively displayed against plain walls painted in soothing solid colours, which makes them a pleasure to look at.  (The painting on the above right in Mary Spain’s Girl with Birds, but I was so busy looking at the cat that I scarcely noticed the birds.)

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And the CMA genuinely does have a first-rate collection.  You’ll notice the Picasso and the Velazquez above, but they’ve also got Monets, Manets, Gauguins, Toulouse-Lautrecs…basically all the big names, as well as an extensive collection of top-notch American paintings, like Ryder’s The Racetrack (Death on a Pale Horse) shown below left, and the portrait of Nathaniel Olds by Jeptha Wade that I included in the last CMA post, but had to include again because I love it so much (below right).

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I did eventually find my way to the portrait photography display that I had come to see in the first place, though ironically, it was pretty much the only place in the museum that photography wasn’t allowed.  It was only one room, but it was pretty interesting, mainly because I enjoy photographs of Victorians that prove that they weren’t always as stuffy as we sometimes imagine them to be, especially all the posed “joke” photographs that were apparently popular at the time, including one of a couple guys pretending to rob their friend, and another of men pretending to fight.

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There was also a small temporary display on Catholic vestments (more copes and chasubles, woot?), which I suppose was fine, but after seeing the incredible pieces of medieval English embroidery at the V&A, boring floral embroidery really paled by comparison.

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The final temporary display I saw was in the aptly named “Focus Gallery” and revolved around the 14th century Gothic table fountain (above left).  Apparently, table fountains (basically automata that spouted water at the dining table in various clever ways) were very common amongst the wealthy in medieval Europe, but eventually almost all of them disappeared, and the one now in Cleveland is believed to be the most complete surviving example.  And splendid it is too, full of dragons, and little grotesque figures that play instruments and spout water.  I presume it’s too fragile to actually see it in action, but they made a video of what it should look like when it runs, and the fact that it wasn’t in motion allowed me to study all the charming little paintings around its sides in detail.  Delightful.  I also liked the less elaborate castle themed fountain (above right).

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Because Cleveland is only a medium sized city, they don’t really have the resources to have separate museums for archeology and antiquities and all that kind of stuff, so it all gets lumped together at the CMA.  Although my description probably makes it sound like some poky local museum, which it is definitely not.  It’s a big museum, and everything is beautifully and professionally presented.  My whole point is that this is also the place to come in the CLE if you also want to see armour, or Ancient Egyptian stuff and other ancient artefacts.  There’s lots of very old Asian and Islamic art too!

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And the Christian religious art might not be in the creepy old gallery I used to love anymore, but it it still full of disturbing pieces (and some funny ones, like ol’ St. George above, who appears to be sprouting some sort of potato from his head).  That throne puts me in mind of Mr. Burns’s “chair” at Springfield University (which I would totally have in my flat, by the way).

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At some point Marcus decided he was going to photograph all the lions, only a couple of which I’ve included here (they have a surprising amount of lion-themed art), but I liked his thinking – I think picking one theme and focusing on objects relating to it is a good way to gain a new perspective on museums you’ve been to before, or just keep them interesting (I know the head on the left is not a lion, but it is a splendidly derpy face, so I couldn’t not include it, and it was in the same gallery as the lion on the right).

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The museum also had a few new technological/interactive things that I don’t recall seeing before, like a giant wall where you could select objects from the museum’s collections, and learn more about them, and some kind of motion wall thing that I noticed children jumping up and down in front of.  There were also quite a few touchscreens in “Gallery One,” which highlights some of the museum’s best pieces, and gives you a chance to discover more about the meanings behind them, and the historical periods in which they were created.  I think it’s a neat idea, even though the execution wasn’t quite as attention-grabbing as I would have liked.

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I think there were a few small galleries we didn’t have the chance to see, but I feel like I got to experience most of the museum, and have a much better appreciation of what the big remodel has done for the CMA.  Although the historic 1916 exterior is still hidden within the atrium, you do get excellent views of it from inside the atrium (you frequently have to go out on the balconies to move between galleries, so you get lots of chances to admire it) and it is a gorgeous space.  I can imagine that with Cleveland’s long and crappy winters that it is also nice to have a place to walk around and get some sunlight without trekking through ice and slush.  I have indeed completely revised my previous opinion, and can say that the remodelling process, though very irritating in the last few years I was actually living in Cleveland and wasn’t able to visit the Art Museum, was a good thing in the long run, and the museum has eventually emerged all the better for it.  4.5/5, and unquestionably the most spectacular museum Cleveland has to offer.

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London: Opus Anglicanum @ the V&A

Sorry, I seem to be blogging about a lot of temporary exhibits lately where photography isn’t allowed, and this is yet another one.  I always think not including pictures is especially obnoxious when the exhibition is based around a type of art (rather than objects, though I suppose all museum displays are primarily visual in nature), but my hands are tied by the V&A’s policy and the guard in constant rotation around the exhibit to enforce it.  Anyway “Opus Anglicanum” (literally “English Work”) is an exhibition the Victoria and Albert Museum has on until 5 February 2017, and is all about medieval English embroidery.  Which probably doesn’t sound terribly thrilling (especially without any visuals, but bear with me).

First, the practicalities. Opus Anglicanum costs £12; I only went because they offer half-price admission to National Art Pass holders, so I got in for £6.  It also may be advisable to book online, as the V&A tends to always be busy, and it seems like they don’t release very many tickets per time slot (though there were still enough people in there to make it unpleasantly crowded at times); fortunately, unlike most other museums, they don’t charge a booking fee, you can book on the day of your visit, and they include all the discounts and concessions available as options when booking, so it’s quite easy to do so, and it means you don’t have to queue in the ticket line when you get to the museum.

Although the V&A is one of those vast institutions where if you take a wrong turn you’ll probably find yourself in a room you’ve never seen before, even if you’ve been there like 20 times, there are large signs pointing the way to Opus Anglicanum, so it is easy to find your way there, but the only indication that you’ve arrived is the ticket booth outside, because the Opus Anglicanum sign is hidden inside the doors to the exhibit.  The exhibition space was (probably by necessity, we are talking old, old fabrics here) quite dark, with the embroidered pieces (mostly copes, chasubles, and panels) inside glass cases lining the walls. By the way, in case you’re wondering (I know I was!) copes and chasubles are both types of religious vestment, sort of cloaky/poncho-y things.  You can see some examples on the exhibition page that I linked to in the first paragraph (and please do look at them since I have no photos to show you!).

As I said, it was fairly crowded; not crazy Museum of London crowded, where you actually have to queue to look at anything, but crowded enough that I sometimes had to crane my neck to look over the shoulders of people to read captions.  This wasn’t helped by how annoying some of my fellow visitors were, especially a group of what appeared to be university students who were jotting down notes as some woman lectured in front of a case, all of them completely oblivious to the fact that they were blocking the case for everyone else, and weren’t even looking at the objects within the case themselves!  Why they couldn’t have listened to a lecture on the benches provided or in the open centre space away from the exhibits, I do not know.  Fortunately, most of the people were congregated in the first and last rooms, so I was able to move along the middle section with ease.

Now, about the embroideries themselves: as the V&A say on their exhibition website, “from the 12th to the 15th centuries, England enjoyed an international reputation for the quality of its luxury embroideries.”  This was an attempt to showcase some surviving examples, there not being many of them, because as you can imagine, cloth doesn’t hold up particularly well centuries on.  Also, many of the ones that were located in England were destroyed during the Reformation.  Bearing that in mind, it’s rather incredible that they had as many examples as they did (I can’t even keep clothes hole-free from one year to the next unless I double-bag them in plastic, thanks to my impossible-to-get-rid-of moth infestation).  And most of the pieces they did have, despite being largely religious in nature, were very enjoyable indeed.

In addition to having a fondness for the way medieval artists rendered faces, I also like the way they depicted animals (and the unicorn just chillin’ out in a depiction of the Garden of Eden was another bonus), and there was lots of those embroidered on these objects.  I was also unexpectedly partial to the many, many depictions of the martyrdom of various saints.  Perhaps surprisingly, given how many years I was forced to attend Sunday School, I know very little about how saints were martyred.  For some reason they didn’t teach us that there, which is a shame, because that is the one part of religious education I could have actually derived some enjoyment from, given my fondness for both the macabre and memorising useless facts.  There was one panel in particular that showed the martyrdom of nine different saints that I was completely fascinated by.  One of them (Bartholomew, I looked it up after I got home) was being flayed alive, another (Hippolytus) was being pulled apart by horses, and another (Stephen I think) was being stoned to death, yet the saints had calm expressions, with only slightly sad down-turned mouths to hint at any kind of distress, which I found hilarious in a grim way.  Also, there was another scene that was apparently depicting the conversion of St. Paul, but it looked like someone was sticking something up his butt, more like a martyrdom a la Edward II (not that he’s a saint, but you know what I mean) than anything.  I’ve tried looking it up, but can’t make sense of it, so if anyone else knows the story behind (ha!) this please do let me know!

The “Jesse Tree” also seems to have bee a popular motif, as there were about ten depictions of it here (still not entirely sure what a Jesse Tree is, but my friend who attended Catholic school used to call me that as a child, which pissed me off because I hate being called Jessie), and lots of Holy Family scenes. There was also a shirt belonging to Edward the Black Prince, some splendid brass rubbings of knights that were drawn in almost an Edward Gorey-esque style (or more likely, Edward Gorey copied that style), loads of items sewn with gold and silver thread, which is why they had survived so long, and a few pieces of stained glass with amusing angel designs.  In addition, I loved the illuminated manuscript depicting the Garden of Eden (with the aforementioned unicorn), and I thought it was awesome that they had a surviving embroidery needle in one of the cases! But unsurprisingly, my favourite piece there was entirely secular in nature: The Fishmongers’ Pall, commissioned in the 16th century by the Fishmongers’ Guild and used to cover guild member’s coffins (I think up to the present day!), was a magnificent piece of embroidery from the last years of English dominance of the art, and was covered in delightful merpeople.  The end of English embroidery came about shortly after the mid-16th century, largely because of Henry VIII (the man has a lot to answer for), as elaborate gold-and-silver embroidery wasn’t much in demand in Protestant churches, and in the secular world had somewhat gone out of fashion amongst the nobility as well.

I think the exhibit did an adequate job of explaining the rise and fall of English embroidery, although I would have appreciated more context on some of the saint martyrdom pieces, since they looked so interesting (read: gory) and I really had no idea what was going on in most of them!  Same goes for some of the other less well-known religious images as well; for example, all the Jesse Tree pieces had captions saying that Jesse was asleep at the bottom, but who was Jesse, why was he asleep, and most importantly, why the hell was there a tree growing out of his head?! Also, although it was large enough to justify £6, there ain’t no way this was a £12 exhibition, but the V&A’s exhibition prices tend to be rather high, so it wasn’t unexpected (it is in Kensington after all, must pay the bills somehow!).  The embroideries themselves are very enjoyable, and well worth seeing just for the animals (lions with eyebrows!  I was glad to see that I’m not the only person that draws eyebrows on animals (eyebrows add personality, I think)) and the facial expressions on some of the embroidered people, but don’t expect to spend a lot of time here, because the captions are fairly short and there’s nothing interactive. 3.5/5.

London: The Wallace Collection

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I feel almost certain that the Wallace Collection doesn’t spend enough time advertising the fact that they have an armoury, otherwise I definitely would have visited before this.  Here I was, labouring under the impression that it was just a bunch of boring old Dutch art, when they had this fabulous armoury hidden away in there the whole time!  But then again, to be honest, I’d never really given that much thought to the Wallace Collection one way or another (Dutch art or otherwise) until I realised just how dire my blogging situation is becoming (London’s a big city with loads of museums, but after almost four years of blogging, I’ve been to nearly every one of them.  I’m seriously worried I’m going to run out of blogging material!) and was desperately searching for any museum in London I hadn’t visited, regardless of how boring and unappealing it sounded.

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Although the Wallace Collection is free, which always wins a museum points in my book, it wasn’t doing anything to change my mind about the whole “boring and unappealing” theory at first glance. It was one of those places with a very hushed atmosphere, where you’re afraid to make any noise, and unfortunately, I happened to be wearing some unintentionally jangly boots (they have a little buckle on the back which jingled every time I took a step, which I definitely don’t remember them doing to that extent last year.  Must remember to try to remedy that before wearing them again), so I had to do a very weird walk where I stepped very slowly whilst barely raising my feet off the ground.  (Side note, I went to see Half a Sixpence after going to the Wallace Collection, and it has a song with the repeated lyric, “clanga janga ringa janga,” (it’s not quite as stupid as it sounds, I swear!) so it might have been appropriate that I wore those boots after all.  Side note within a side note: I actually really loved Half a Sixpence!  It was cheesy, but that’s kind of what I want from a musical, and the songs were catchy as hell. Like this one.)

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It was also the sort of place where there was a guard in every room who would follow you around the room with their beady eyes (or maybe just me on account of my annoyingly loud boots), which makes me really super uncomfortable.  I always feel like they’re going to kick me out if I don’t look up to scratch (for the record, I’ve never been kicked out of a museum, but I did get kicked out of malls several times as a teenager on account of looking like a weirdo who was unsettling the normies, and I think it’s given me a complex), and my boots definitely weren’t helping.

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In addition, as you may have noticed, the whole place was done up in an opulent-but-ugly Louis “Various Roman Numerals” style (I’m assuming either XIV, XV, or XVI, but I don’t know enough about faux-French interiors to tell the difference), which made me feel really out of place.  I was basically just walking through the rooms as quickly as I could (bearing in mind I was trying not to make any noise) so I could say I’d visited it and could blog about it, until I saw a delightful sign hanging over some steps reading, “To the Armouries.”

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So I descended into the gloom, feeling glad to be free from the horrors of Louis whatever, only to be met with this magnificent sight at the bottom of the staircase.  They really weren’t exaggerating, this was a proper armoury!  I’m pretty sure my fondness for armour has been well-documented, but yeah, for a pacifist who isn’t particularly interested in modern instruments of war, I really like armour.  I almost did my Master’s in Medieval History instead of Early Modern History based solely on how much I like the bubonic plague and armour, but ended up going Early Modern instead because the programme convenor sounded nicer on the phone than the medieval lady (probably a wise choice in the end, as the Georgians are much more my speed than medieval people. I’m also a big fan of the Victorians…if there was a Master’s programme that combined the Georgians and Victorians, that would have been ideal).  Needless to say, I don’t know how an armoury of this calibre in London could have escaped my attention for all these years.

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The halls of armour were fabulous, and appeared to be arranged around a “secret” restaurant (I don’t think it’s actually secret, because they mention it on the website, but I didn’t see how you would enter it.  Not that I really cared, because museum restaurants aren’t really my scene and we were planning on going to the hole-in-the-wall producing delicious food that is the Roti King later that evening anyway. Roti canai is the best), so they basically took up almost an entire floor of the not-insubstantial building.  I also really liked that many of the pieces of armour (not all) had captions; even though I didn’t have time to read them all, it was nice to see after places like the armoury in Graz that had no signage whatsoever, in either German or English.

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It wasn’t only armour down here though; there was also an assortment of medieval jewels, religious carvings, and neat things made out of silver, like this ostrich eating horseshoes, which I think may have been a symbol featured on the Wallace coat of arms.  I assume this had something to do with the old myth that ostriches could digest metal (I don’t know where the idea came from, but they had an ostrich at the Tower of London back when it housed a menagerie (we’re talking 18th century here), and visitors would feed it nails, presumably until it died, but come to think of it, I’m not entirely sure what ended up happening to that poor ostrich).  I guess I haven’t really mentioned the Wallace of the collection until now, but yeah, Sir Richard Wallace was a late 19th century Marquess of Hertford who expanded on the collection started by four of his ancestors, and after he died, his widow bequeathed it to the nation.  Which explains both why it is both eclectic, and free.

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It also wasn’t just medieval or early modern European armour here; there was a whole room of Eastern armour, which was pretty cool too, although I guess it doesn’t get as much attention as the European stuff because it doesn’t tend to have helmets and face plates made with ridiculous moustaches attached.

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After the glorious respite that the armoury provided, I reluctantly headed back upstairs to what I had come to think of as the “stuffy bit” to see the rest of the art.  We had reached the long gallery, ubiquitous in stately homes, which was indeed quite long and full of more art.

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However, this art was better than most of the crap in the other rooms, because they had the Laughing Cavalier, which I’m pretty sure is famous, and also that rather splendid portrait of George IV (I assume from his Prince of Wales or Regent years, because he was way more enormous by the time he became king).

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Aside from that though, the art here was fairly unmemorable, which is why I haven’t talked about it much.  Oh sure, there were a surprising number of paintings of chickens (which I love) and also a rather good cow picture downstairs, but most of it was just portraits of various low-level aristocrats, or still lifes of dead animals, and other similarly horrible and uninspiring stuff.  Basically, if I hadn’t seen the armouries, I wouldn’t be recommending this place to anyone.  But I did, and so I will!

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Though in my (very inexpert) opinion, there are only a few pieces of art here worth seeing (let’s be honest, the main attraction of the upstairs rooms is marvelling in how they managed to find curtains hideous enough to match the wallpaper), the armouries are splendid, and clearly a bit of a hidden gem.  For that reason alone, the Wallace Collection is definitely worth a look if you’re passing through the Marylebone/Bond Street area, and I felt that it was possibly even worth braving Oxford Street in December (the things I do for this blog)!  3/5 as a whole, but I’d rate the armouries higher.

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London: “Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond” @ the Wellcome Collection

wellcome2Since blogging about Forensics early in 2015, I hadn’t returned to the Wellcome Collection for a proper look around (confession: I have used their toilets when I’m in the area, because it’s better than paying 20 or 30p for the gross ones at Euston Station), having skipped the last couple of special exhibits mainly because it seemed like they were always super crowded (and one of them involved walking through a room where you apparently couldn’t really see anything. Bumping into strangers is not my cup of tea), so I thought I might as well catch the latest one, even though their no photography policy doesn’t make for very visually appealing posts.

“Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond,” runs until 15th January 2017, and is free, like everything in the Wellcome. It was done in partnership with the Bethlem Museum of the Mind; some of you may have read my guest post on These Bones of Mine about the Bethlem Museum, and recall that I wasn’t too impressed with it. Unfortunately, it was a similar story with the Bedlam exhibit at the Wellcome; if it had been at another museum, I would have thought it was perfectly fine, but based on the previous high standards of the Wellcome, it seemed a little lacking.

The exhibit was meant to be divided into “scenes from Bedlam,” however, I didn’t really get the whole “scene” concept, as there didn’t seem to be a unique theme for each room because the exhibit had been mostly arranged chronologically rather than thematically. The first room appeared to be some kind of art installation relating to people’s experiences of psychiatric institutions, and then the exhibit began talking about the history of “Bedlam” itself (the nickname for Bethlem Hospital, which gradually seeped into the lexicon as a synonym for chaos), which was founded in the 13th century, and inhabited a number of different buildings around London before moving to Beckenham, where it is still located today. As you might expect, standards of care varied widely over the centuries, with the 18th century seen as a particularly appalling time: Georgians would pay admission to view the “lunatics” as a “fun” diversion, and many of the patients were kept chained at all times, like one poor man named James Norris, whose story was detailed here. James (who was described as an “insane American”) was kept chained by his neck to a post, with a metal cage over his upper arms so he couldn’t raise them, for over 14 years! The most appalling thing is that apparently no one could remember the initial reason he had been chained up, they just left him like that as it was the way it had always been done, despite the fact that he wasn’t violent, and was capable of rational conversation.  There were also a range of books and plays from this period that showed how madness was portrayed in popular culture, but overall, this section wasn’t terribly engaging.

The 19th century saw a move to slightly more humane treatment of patients, though some doctors still insisted that keeping the patients chained or straitjacketed was the best thing for them (by contrast, late 19th century Broadmoor (of all places!) seems to have been remarkably humane.  I’ve recently read The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale, which has detailed descriptions of life there (and is generally a pretty interesting book)). This section of the exhibit was located under a dome; I suppose it was meant to mirror the dome of the Victorian Bethlem, which is the current location of the Imperial War Museum (and very dome-y it is indeed), but the main benefit was that the two concentric circles the displays were arranged in left more room for people to look around than the Wellcome’s normal configuration. There was actually a lot of wonderful art created by patients in this section (sorry, “scene”), but probably the most interesting thing of all was a set of samplers made by a woman who believed she’d been confined unfairly. Her stitching was partly an artistic outlet, of course, but the samplers were also basically rambling letters to Queen Victoria pleading for her release, which I think she attempted to mail to the Queen.  The whole story was very sad. There was a movie room off to the right of this section, which was showing a strange German film called Caligari and the Sleepwalker, based on The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, in which a man who believed he was an extraterrestrial entered an extremely odd institution run by a bearded and bespectacled doctor, who was constantly chomping on gum and communicated with the patient via chalkboard. I could only take about five minutes of this before I had to leave; it was just too damn bizarre.

There was a fairly unmemorable room about how the discovery of diazepam and similar drugs changed the treatment of mental illness (thankfully, there was only a brief mention of electroshock, because that freaks me out bad); the only thing of note in here was a series of drawings by Ugo Guarino that showed the negative side of psychiatric treatments in the 1970s, and helped lead to the closing of outdated hospitals in Italy, and the opening of modern mental health centres instead.

The final room contained current psychiatric patients’ ideas of what would make for an ideal hospital; their ideas sounded lovely, like having treehouses they could retreat to when they wanted to be alone, a kitten petting room, and really comfy sofas and beds so they could just spend the whole day reading and watching TV, but it did raise some interesting questions for me, in that this ideal hospital sounds much nicer than the real world, so I’m not sure how well it would equip people to deal with the demands of the outside world.  I think it’s a tricky balance to strike, between giving people a calm, safe, and caring environment, but also an environment that will help them integrate successfully back into mainstream society, which can be a scary place for all of us (certainly us introverts anyway).

I wasn’t overly impressed with the exhibit as a whole, as most of the artefacts just seemed to be old books open to title pages or not particularly interesting-looking passages.  There were a few tablets laying out, but to be honest, I’m far less likely to pick up some random tablet that has been slung on a table seemingly as an afterthought than I am to engage with a normal interactive touchscreen that’s more clearly part of a display, so they didn’t really enhance the interactivity for me. The best part was definitely the art produced by psychiatric patients, which was poignant and insightful, but Bethlem Museum of the Mind had way more of that sort of thing, and I still didn’t think that museum was terribly good, so the same goes for the Wellcome. A rare dud. 3/5.

wellcome1“Making Nature: How we see Animals” is another temporary exhibit at the Wellcome that happened to open on the day of my visit. This is located in the smaller exhibition space on the first floor, so it was only two rooms. However, it did contain some interesting stuff, most notably information on the building of the Natural History Museum (designed by Richard Owen, the pioneering, yet controversial 19th century paleontologist and zoologist), where I learned that until the 1920s, the design included a statue of Adam that was meant to show man’s dominion over the animal kingdom (not surprising because Richard Owen seemed to be quite religious); as well as information about the creation of the hilarious Crystal Palace dinosaurs (again, designed by Richard Owen. In many cases, the dinosaurs look a bit off because Owen was simply going off the best theories available at the time, which have since been proven wrong (although apparently even he thought the Iguanodon looked a bit ridiculous), but that’s part of what makes them such a delight. Crystal Palace is a bitch to get to, but perhaps I should go back one of these days so I can blog about it!). Because the exhibit was largely about how nature is portrayed in museums, there was a bit of taxidermy: a delightful tableau from 1876 showing fox cubs at play, and even better, one of the elusive pieces from Walter Potter’s museum, with anthropomorphic squirrels playing cards. I’m still angry at myself for missing the Potter Museum auction (even though I doubt I could have afforded anything anyway), so I’m always delighted to see his pieces pop up somewhere.

Also on the first floor, hiding in the corner next to the nifty spiral staircase, was a “Spirit Booth” meant to capture your “psychic transparency,” whatever the hell that is. Basically, it was a free photo booth that would insert a sort-of ghost in your photo, so I was all for it. Mine ended up with a skeleton “spirit” which is so me; the only bad part is that my photograph will now apparently appear online (update: just found it, so you can see it for yourself), and let me tell you, there was some unfortunate lighting in that booth. Oh well, I guess the skeleton makes up for it…? But yeah, if you go to the Wellcome in the near future (“Making Nature” runs until May), definitely go up to the first floor to check out the exhibit and get your photo taken, since to be honest, I enjoyed that part of the museum more than “Bedlam.”

 

London: Fulham Palace

dsc09171I don’t think Fulham Palace gets much press, because I wasn’t aware it, well, existed, until I was searching for attractions near Hammersmith one day and it popped up on Google Maps (incidentally, it is nowhere near Hammersmith by London standards, but that’s still how I found out about it).  Even Marcus didn’t realise there was still something there to visit, and he lived in Putney for a while back in his student days (he used to go for runs in a park nearby, but assumed the palace was in ruins, as so many of these things are).  So on a day when I couldn’t be bothered to go all the way into central London, but a few stops on the District Line seemed just right, we headed up to Putney Bridge to check it out.

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First of all, the gardens around Fulham Palace are pretty damn fabulous.  We were there in mid-November, and as you can see, the trees that actually change colour were still in peak autumn foliage.  Also, there were a lot of squirrels, which isn’t really unusual in London parks, but I like them just the same.

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There was also a walled garden, which is probably pretty nice when in bloom, but my favourite thing by far was the Bishops’ Tree, as seen above.  It was meant to commemorate some of the more notable bishops who lived in the Palace, and featured a pair of thrones, a few bishops climbing the tree (and one laying on a log nearby), and a cat sitting on a stack of books, all carved out of wood.  It was seriously amazing, and just kind of casually hidden off to one side, so you probably wouldn’t notice it unless you walked around the Palace, like we did (there may have been a sign pointing to it, but it definitely gave no indication of its fabulousness).

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Fulham Palace itself dates back to about 700 CE, when the site was acquired by the Catholic church to become the country home of the Bishop of London, though the oldest parts of the current building were “only” built in the late 15th century, and there are substantial Georgian and Regency additions.  The site was occupied continuously by the Bishops of London for 12 centuries, but the Bishop of London now has a home near St. Paul’s instead (the last bishop to live at Fulham Palace moved out in 1975) so the house was no longer needed, and became a museum/cafe.

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The museum is free, which is probably a good thing, because it’s not terribly large.  There’s really only two main rooms, with a few display cases in the shop as well.  However, that doesn’t mean that there weren’t fun things to do.  As you can see, I zeroed in on the bishops’ mitre pretty damn quickly (though I am not at all religious, my parents are, and I was, er…strongly encouraged to be an altar girl when I was a kid.  When the bishop came to our church to do confirmations, I had to hold his staff.  Someone else got to hold his hat, and I was totally jealous.  Well, look at me now! I guess it’s not terribly flattering though…).

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There was also a wall full of herbs (and poop) to sniff and identify the smells (these things were blatantly intended for children, but I didn’t let that stop me), and a few archeology related exhibits (check out that mummified rat!), but mostly it was a chance to learn more about the Palace, and some of the bishops who lived there.  After the Church of England was formed, bishops were allowed to marry (though Elizabeth I preferred that they didn’t, and was pretty irate when her bishop did), so some of their families lived here as well.  However, the 16th and 17th centuries were turbulent times to be alive, and some of the Bishops of London were rather ill-fated, as you’ll see in the pictures below.

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Yep, they had fabulous prints of all the bishops adorning the hall between the museum rooms.  These ones portray William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury under Charles I, who was despised by the Puritans for his “high church” ways and influence over Charles, and was beheaded after Charles’s downfall.  And then there’s poor Nicholas Ridley, who was burned at the stake with Bishop Latimer, as memorably detailed in Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (I had to read it for a Tudor Britain class, and the Oxford Martyrs have always stayed with me. Not literally).  Ridley’s print was available on a tote bag in the shop, but I didn’t notice any of the others, which is a shame, because I really like Laud’s cheeky wink.

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The other room housed a temporary exhibit, entitled (rather unimaginatively) “The Architects and Craftsmen of Fulham Palace.”  I’m sure you can guess what it was about.  The first known architect to work on the Palace was the excellently named Stiff Leadbetter; back in the 18th century, he redesigned it in a Gothic, Strawberry Hill style for Bishop Terrick, although some Regency jerk-bishop decided he hated Gothic architecture (Boo-urns!), so had it remodeled by another delightfully named architect, Samuel Pepys Cockerell.  There were some chunks of stained glass here, and other bits and pieces of plaster and such, but I think the exhibit was a little bit too text-heavy, and I found myself skimming over some of the captions.

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As I mentioned before, the small shop had some displays in it, including a copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs open to the very passage I was just talking about (I also vividly remember the section on Cranmer, the other Oxford Martyr, because he had at one point signed some sort of document that went against his morals, so he held his document-signing hand directly into the flames, so it would be burned off first.  Cranmer sounds hardcore).  Part of the library had also been preserved, along with a secret door that had a caption informing me that secret doors were a must-have for any fashionable home at the time it was built (I wish that was still the case. I want a damn secret door).

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The Great Hall was also open to the public, though there was really nothing in it save for a sign that flatly stated that Bishop Bonner kept a torture chamber in here, with no further explanation.  I looked it up, and it seems that he was a Catholic bishop who served under Mary I, and very enthusiastically tortured and executed Protestants, and forced others to work as slave-labourers on his land.  What a creep!  His ghost supposedly hosts the grounds, so I’d try to steer clear of that douche-phantom, but seriously, who puts a torture chamber in the Great Hall?  You’d think he would have at least tried to hide it in the basement or something.  He sounds like a psychopath, and unfortunately, he never really got his comeuppance (he was imprisoned when Elizabeth I took the throne, but died of natural causes before they did anything to him). I initially included a picture of the balloon bishop to cheer us all up after sadistic Bishop Bonner, but then I looked up Arthur Winnington-Ingram, and it seems he was a bit of a douche himself.  While I don’t think he actually killed or tortured anyone (it being not socially acceptable for English bishops to do that sort of thing in the 20th century) he was apparently so xenophobic towards Germans during WWI that even Asquith accused him of “jingoism of the shallowest kind.”  Yikes, these Bishops are not a good-hearted lot. Definitely nowhere near as delightful as the balloons led me to believe.

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There’s also a cafe next to the museum, which appeared to have reasonably appetising cakes, though I didn’t partake, so I can’t say for sure.  Although the museum was small, it was also free, so I can’t complain that much, and I think that excellent Bishops’ Tree, those great prints, and all the fascinating history that took place here made it worth the (short) trip (even though the museum could have said more about the dark sides of many of the bishops, since that is the most interesting part), but I certainly wouldn’t travel across London for it or anything.  2.5/5.  Oh, and on the subject of churches, I should mention that there’s an (unrelated) church nearby the museum where the scene from The Omen where the priest is impaled with the lightning rod was filmed.  If you walk here from Putney Bridge, you can’t miss it! It’s called All Saints’ Fulham, and is pictured below. (Plus one more bishop; I love those damn prints, even though they make the bishops look nicer than they actually were.)

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London: Emma Hamilton @ the National Maritime Museum

dsc09313Since I live in the Borough of Merton, and volunteer on local history projects, I probably hear more than most about Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton, because they lived in a house called Merton Place for about four years until Nelson’s death, in what is now South Wimbledon (much to my disappointment, however, the welcome gift you get for attending a citizenship ceremony in Merton is not a Nelson doll or mug, but a crappily made passport case.  I think they need to upgrade, especially because I remember reading that one of the Scottish councils gives out Highland cattle stuffed animals.  I got cheated).  In fact, apart from William Morris and the Wombles (and of course the tennis), it’s kind of our main claim to fame.  So when I heard that the National Maritime Museum  had a new special exhibit devoted to Emma herself, I had to go see it (because I feel kind of bad that Nelson gets all the attention, but especially because Greenwich means Brazilian churros, and I am addicted to those delicious things).

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Emma Hamilton: Seduction and Celebrity, opened on the 3rd of November, and runs until 17 April 2017.  Admission is £12.60, but they do offer half price admission either with a National Rail 2-for-1 or a National Art Pass, though they sneakily don’t advertise that fact (fortunately, I have no shame in asking for a discount).  It’s in the downstairs gallery where the National Maritime Museum seems to host all their temporary exhibitions, which means no photography (why does almost every London museum seem to let you take photographs of the permanent collections, but not allow them in special exhibitions?  Is it because things are on loan from other institutions and they’re worried about copyrights?  It’s annoying for us bloggers, is all. Otherwise I wouldn’t care), but a decently-sized space in which to wander about.  Because I couldn’t take pictures, I’m including some of Romney’s portraits of Emma, and other relevant images, all obtained through Wikimedia Commons.

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Emma as a Bacchante, George Romney

I visited at midday on a Friday, when it was only moderately busy, but I appeared to be the youngest visitor by a good 40 or 50 years, which obviously wouldn’t have been an issue had it not been for the following: I think the dim lighting in the exhibition may have been causing problems for some of my fellow visitors, because despite clutching special large print guides, they were still bending WAY over to read the normal item captions, thereby blocking the cases from everyone else’s view.  I suspect the large print guide might also have been contributing to this problem; many of the artefacts were letters and other hand-written documents, which I’m surmising weren’t transcribed in the guides.  Perhaps the National Maritime Museum could consider doing this in future, to improve everyone’s experience. Still, because it wasn’t super crowded, I managed to persevere with only a medium level of annoyance (I’m always at least a mild degree of annoyed, so it wasn’t bad going, all things considered).  Anyway, as promised this was mostly about Emma (or as much as it could be in a time when a woman’s life choices tended to be dictated by men.  Oh wait, that shit STILL HAPPENS (says the angry feminist in me)), so I’m going to do more of a biographical thing here than I normally would (not that I go to all that many exhibitions focused on one person) because that seems the easiest way to go about it without photos, plus I hope you’re all interested in learning more about Emma.

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Emma as Cassandra, George Romney

Emma was born in Cheshire in 1765 to humble beginnings; her father was a blacksmith who died shortly after she was born, leaving her mother to raise her (her birth name was Amy or Emy Lyon).  Not surprisingly, Emma was forced to work as a maid from an early age, eventually moving to London. Here, things get a bit murky; some historians think she briefly worked as a prostitute, others say that was just people attempting to smear her name after she became famous.  What is certain is that she eventually caught the eye of an aristocrat named Harry Fetherstonhaugh (which is bafflingly pronounced “Fanshaw”), and became his mistress, even though she was only 15 (hmmm, perhaps Fetherstonhaugh should actually be pronounced “sexual predator”).  Naturally, he discarded her as soon as she became pregnant, but Emma managed to find another “protector” in the form of Charles Greville, though she was forced to give her daughter up, and changed her own name to Emma Hart.  Greville was a complete and total ass as well, but this is nonetheless where Emma’s fortunes began to improve, because he sent her to have her portrait painted by George Romney.  Emma was an extremely pretty young woman, and she became Romney’s muse.  He seemingly painted her hundreds of times, judging by all the paintings that were on display in this exhibition, which began to make her known in society circles, her intelligence and personality doing the rest of the work.

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All this was nicely covered in the exhibition, mostly illustrated by the actual portraits of teenaged Emma (there sure were a lot of her as a “Bacchante,” whatever the hell that is.  Something related to Bacchus, perhaps?).  It then went on to talk about what happened when she was abandoned by Greville; he decided he needed to take a rich wife, so in an unbelievably dickish move, he shipped her off to Italy, telling her he was sending her on holiday, but really he had arranged for her to become his uncle’s mistress, his uncle being Sir William Hamilton, British Envoy to Naples.  Fortunately, Hamilton seemed to be slightly less of a jerk than his nephew, because while he clearly fancied Emma, he didn’t seem to have been the rapey sort; instead, he left her alone to grieve for Greville (well grieve, and be angry.  There was one of Emma’s letters to Greville in here from after she realised she’d been discarded, and it was deliciously venomous.  Go Emma!), and recognising Emma’s spark, hired tutors for her so she could have the education she’d been denied as a child.  This led to Emma’s “Attitudes.”

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Rowlandson caricature of Emma’s Attitudes. Quite frankly, this is pretty harsh, because the whole point is that she WASN’T nude, and men and women alike enjoyed them.

No, these were not the natural response to all the shitty circumstances of her life thus far (though I wish they had been); rather, they were an almost unbearably pretentious-sounding entertainment that Emma devised wherein she would wear a loose, flowing white gown, as was the style at the time, and adopt poses of famous women from antiquity with the help of a shawl.  Some of these were demonstrated in a video in the exhibition, and there were illustrations made of these from life, as well as a tea set decorated with Emma in her poses, so I can tell you that they are not at all the sort of thing that would go over well today, but it was a simpler time, and they gained Emma a great deal of fame.  Hamilton was clearly won over too, because after Emma had been his mistress for a while, he consented to marry her, which was a HUGE deal at the time, as she would then become a Lady.  (Also, Hamilton was a keen geologist who collected antiquities, so there’s some of that type of stuff in this exhibition too.)

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Emma Lady Hamilton wearing Maltese Cross, Johann Heinrich Schmidt.

It was the marriage that allowed her to become BFFs with Queen Maria Carolina, who was the Queen of Naples, and also to meet the love of her life, Lord Nelson (she was fond of Hamilton and all, but he was more than twice her age, so not the most thrilling lover, I’m sure). While she was living in Naples, the French Revolution began, and Maria Carolina was extremely concerned about this, especially because Marie Antoinette was her sister.  When an uprising began in Naples some years later, Emma begged Nelson to come help the Neapolitan Royal Family, as she and Nelson had formed an attachment a few years before when he was convalescing in Naples after the Battle of the Nile and Emma nursed him back to health.  Nelson rocked up and did some politically iffy things, like execute one of the leaders of the revolution, despite not having the backing of the British government (the revolutionary pleaded to Emma for mercy, and got cruelly denied), but he did save the Royal Family, and he and Emma officially became an item (surprisingly, Hamilton was basically OK with this, and all three lived together for a time. Nelson’s wife was not cool with it, but she was a woman, so Nelson could easily get rid of her. Grrrr). Also, Emma became the first woman to be awarded the Maltese Cross around this time (for sending food to Malta whilst it was blockaded), which she was extremely proud of, and she had her portrait painted whilst wearing it (both portrait and cross are on display. I’m not saying much about the political situation that led to the blockade, because I’m not entirely clear on it myself.  My knowledge of Continental 18th century history is not great).

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Nelson and Emma in Naples

Unsurprisingly, this was the most interesting part of Emma’s life, which was reflected in the exhibition.  There were lots of neat things from this era, including patriotic nautical-themed scarves and jewellery that she wore to support Nelson (only those in the know would have realised the extent of their relationship, because Nelson-themed jewellery was very popular at the time), and letters written between the two when they were apart.  They also exchanged cool snake rings as a token of their love.  In 1801, they bought Merton Place, and furnished a home together, even though it was mainly Emma doing the work, because Nelson was away at sea much of the time.  I was really excited to see that they had a load of furnishings from Merton Place, because I’m always keen to learn more about it (the house was demolished in 1823, so it’s not like I can go and see it or anything).  Being that they were both self-made individuals, from humble beginnings, their taste tended towards the gaudy, and they had lots of things celebrating Nelson’s victories, as well of portraits of Emma in her prime (Emma supposedly put on a lot of weight in her 30s, and there were some pretty mean-spirited cartoons here mocking her, but she still looked lovely in portraits, so it’s hard to say what she really looked like at this point).  Whilst living at Merton Place, Emma became pregnant with their daughter, Horatia, who was also sent away after she was born to prevent a scandal (Nelson having an affair was one thing, but apparently a child born out of wedlock was a bridge too far).

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Codina, a poodle believed to have belonged to Emma Hamilton.

William Hamilton died in 1803, and Nelson was of course killed at Trafalgar in 1805, and this is when Emma’s life all came crashing down.  Because she was “only” a mistress, the English government refused to acknowledge her, despite Nelson’s pleas to do so in his will.  She not only wasn’t granted a pension, she wasn’t even invited to Nelson’s funeral (it’s a bit difficult to know who to feel sorriest for, because I do have sympathy for Nelson’s discarded wife, and I can understand why the government chose to ignore Emma, but considering she was the mother of Nelson’s daughter, they could have given her and Horatia something (or maybe not since Emma and Nelson had to pretend that Horatia didn’t exist), or you know, at least let her come see his body at a time when his wife wouldn’t be there, since he was laid out in the Painted Hall for ages)!  She tried to carry on living the lifestyle she had enjoyed during Nelson’s lifetime, with lavish entertainments, but soon ran out of money (I presume William Hamilton must have left her some, since they were legally married, and he was fine with the whole Nelson thing, but it wasn’t really mentioned.  Maybe she spent it all?) and had to sell Merton Place to pay her debts, as well as most of her possessions, which were listed on auction bills in the exhibition.  She was great friends with many of the Royals, including the Prince Regent (George IV), but of course they all deserted her when she needed money.  She was briefly sent to debtor’s prison, and eventually moved to France to escape her creditors, where she died, aged only 49, from the effects of alcoholism.

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As you can probably tell, I learned a lot from this exhibition, and I think the choice of artefacts to support Emma’s story was generally good.  However, I did think it was a little obnoxious that in an exhibit that was supposed to be all about Emma, they still chose to feature Nelson’s Trafalgar coat as the final display.  I get that people want to see the coat, but it’s normally kept at the National Maritime Museum anyway, in the Nelson gallery on the second floor, so they could have just had a sign directing people up there.  It just seemed a little distasteful that a woman who spent her life being frequently mistreated and overshadowed by men also had Nelson as the last word in her exhibition.  I also would have liked to learn more about Horatia, because she did eventually end up living with Emma briefly in France, but nothing was said about what happened to her after Emma died (I think she led a fairly boring life, and never really admitted she was Nelson’s daughter, but they still could have said something about her in here). Other than that, though, I think it was a solid exhibition, and even though Emma clearly had her faults (like calling for revolutionaries to be executed), she was obviously an intelligent and fascinating woman in her own right, and it’s nice that she’s finally getting some recognition for that.  So 3.5/5 overall, and definitely worth 6 quid, but perhaps a bit expensive at the full price.  Sorry for the Emma-essay!

London: Hampton Court Palace

dsc08740Even though Hampton Court Palace has been languishing in my sadly neglected Favourite Places page for years, and I wrote about my visit to some of its outbuildings during Open London weekend a couple years ago, I’ve never actually done a whole post about it.  Until now, of course.  Since I was doing all things touristy when my ‘rents were here, I thought I might as well take them to Hampton Court, it being one of my “favourite places” and all.

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As always when visiting Hampton Court, I took advantage of the National Rail 2 for 1 offer (vouchers available at all London train stations), which is easier to do at there than at some other London attractions, because the easiest way to get there is genuinely the train that runs twice hourly from Waterloo to Hampton Court (conveniently for me, via Wimbledon).  I recommend you do the same, if at all possible, because £21 is a lot of money.  I mean, you could buy like 5 ice creams for that, even at London prices.  But you do get a fair amount for your money, because Hampton Court is big, to the extent that you’ll get sick of walking around before you run out of things to see.  This is why, even though I’ve been there at least 5 times, I discover something new every time I go.

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Though in some instances, this is because they actually change the exhibits.  Case in point: Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar, which was definitely not there the last time I visited.  These 15th century paintings were acquired by Charles I in 1629, so I’m not quite sure why they only seem to have gone on display in the last few years, but I’m not the greatest fan of Italian Renaissance art, so I can’t honestly say I was missing out on anything on previous visits by not seeing them.

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So despite our odd detour into Mantegna land, I suppose the logical place to start is with “Young Henry VIII’s Story,” which has been a fixture here for at least as long as I’ve been visiting Hampton Court.  It gives people who haven’t watched Wolf Hall (but seriously, Damian Lewis in a codpiece!  How could you not?  Even though the codpieces were too disappointingly small to be historically accurate…) or read as many Alison Weir books as I did as a teenager (I was a weird kid) a good grounding in what Henry VIII was like before he became an obese tyrant. Hampton Court was built by Cardinal Wolsey, but it was pretty promptly stolen by Henry when he saw how much ass it kicked compared to his own palaces (ok, technically it was “gifted” to Henry by Wolsey when he realised he was falling from favour, but I suspect that was in response to Henry dropping very pointed hints about what a great palace it was, and how fantastic it would look with a big ol’ throne in it).

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Then of course, there are Henry VIII’s actual apartments, which I’ll talk about now, even though we didn’t actually see them next because Hampton Court is like a big maze (it has a hedge maze, but the palace itself is basically a maze too).  Only about half the original palace exists, because William III and Mary II hired Christopher Wren to do some major construction work in the late 17th century, but the Great Hall and a few other cool rooms remain, including a gallery, appropriately called the “Haunted Gallery,” which is meant to be haunted by the ghost of Catherine Howard.  Though I’ve personally never sensed any supernatural presences there.

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Other Tudor attractions here include Henry VIII’s kitchens and wine cellar (always a big hit with children, which is why I don’t have any pictures of the kitchens: there were about three large school groups passing through whilst we were there, so I pretty much ran through them to avoid all the commotion) and the Royal Tennis Court, which is now a members’ club where people can still play real tennis (different from lawn tennis…it’s like a combo of tennis and squash I think.  Not sure how much it costs to become a member, but I bet it’s a lot, judging by how much it costs to just enter the palace once and not play tennis).  The Tennis Court has been completely redone since the last time I was there, and now contains museum-style displays about monarchs and their tennis skills, which I enjoyed.

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I should also mention Henry VIII’s superb astronomical clock, and the wine fountain in the courtyard (it can be seen in the second picture in this post), which is a re-creation of one used at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the famous meeting in 1520 between Henry and Francis I of France.  They actually fill the fountain with wine on special occasions, none of which I’ve managed to attend (not that I like wine anyway, but I would drink it from a fountain!).  Also, there is the fine topiary version of Henry, pictured above.

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But enough about the Tudors; even though Henry was the most famous monarch to inhabit Hampton Court, he certainly wasn’t the only one.  There were also William III and Mary II, who, as I mentioned earlier, did a fair bit of remodeling. William and Mary each have their own set of apartments here, but Mary never lived in hers as she died of smallpox before they were completed.  And they appear to be undergoing restoration work, because they’re not currently open to the public (they were even wiped from the map, but I definitely remember visiting them on previous occasions, and the internet confirms that I’m not just imagining them).  But William’s are open, even though they’re rather dull because not much information is provided inside them (there is a free audio guide, but I have never ever used it, so I can’t tell you what it’s like).

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I do have to quickly show you his loo though (on the left, the other room is just some sort of study, not a weird communal pooping room), because who doesn’t want to poo whilst sitting on a comfy velvet-lined seat (oh, just me then?)?!

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Another section of the palace I had absolutely no past recollection of was the Cumberland Art Gallery.  (No photos were allowed in the gallery, so these are from the hall outside.)  Unfortunately, most of the art seemed to be Italian Renaissance stuff, so I quickly lost interest and wandered outside to the row of Lely paintings (many of which were of Charles II’s various mistresses) leading the way to the Cartoon Gallery (another disappointment, as it wasn’t the Hogarthian type of cartoons I was hoping for, but rather some paintings Raphael did.  Snoozefest).

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Although Mary II’s younger sister Anne (pictured above), who was also queen, lived here too, Hampton Court nowadays skips right from William III to the Georgians (and I guess as well they might, if it leads to napkins that fabulous, but Anne’s personal life is fairly interesting in its own right).  The Georgian rooms also seemed to have been changed since my last visit, and redone more in the style of the Georgian stuff at Kensington Palace, which I guess makes sense since they’re all part of Historic Royal Palaces (but still, for that kind of money, I expect more individuality!).

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Georges I and II seem to have been a thoroughly unpleasant pair, always fighting with each other, and George II carried on the feud with his own child, Frederick (who died before becoming king, thus the crown passed to his son, who became George III).  Still, bickering makes for entertaining reading, and I was especially interested to learn about Caroline of Ansbach’s (George II’s wife) hernia, from which her bowels apparently eventually protruded (I assume through a layer of skin, not that her bowels were literally hanging out of her body, because I’m pretty sure that would kill you), making her extra cranky (understandably enough, though she never seemed particularly pleasant).

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And so let’s move on this fairly brief tour of the palace itself to the gardens, which are numerous and enormous.  In fact, you can buy admission to just the gardens (which I’ve never really seen the point of, but whatever); they include the privy garden, kitchen garden, orangery garden, and Tudor garden, amongst others.

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The gardens also include the Great Vine.  It is certified as the largest vine in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records, and I can confirm that it is indeed a really big vine, though not quite the tourist attraction it apparently was in the 19th century, when Victoria first opened the palace to visitors, and people queued for hours just to see the vine (which I find kind of charming, in a way.  They lived in an age that saw the creation of railroads, telephones, photography, electric lights, etc. and yet people would still patiently wait half a day to look at a damn vine).  We were the only people looking at it when I was there, but it is fairly tucked away, which is probably why this was my first time seeing it.

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Despite not really being a garden person, I have to concede that the ones here are pretty cool (not least because of that drawing of Henry VIII, which, no joke, is probably my favourite thing in the palace, tied only with the Henry topiary (I have a reprint of an old Hampton Court tram poster in my living room with a very similar looking Henry on it, only without him being angered by a fish).

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But of course the best part of the gardens is the hedge maze.  I won’t go for the obvious pun and call it a-maze-ing, because frankly, I’ve been to better (the one at Leeds Castle, which has a grotto at the centre, springs to mind), but it’s still pretty fun, especially relative to the other attractions available at the palace (don’t get me wrong, I enjoy looking at old palace rooms, but I wouldn’t exactly describe it as a barrel of laughs most of the time).  There is also a “magic garden,” but that appears to be some sort of playground for small children, so I didn’t investigate further.

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So concludes what is by necessity (so I don’t bore you all to pieces) an abbreviated tour of this very large palace.  It is expensive, yes, but you can easily spend half a day or more here and still not see everything, and I still think it is the best (by far) of all the Historic Royal Palaces (these include Banqueting House, Kensington Palace, the Tower of London, et al), so I firmly believe that if you’re doing the whole tourist thing in London, it is well worth a visit.  Even for Londoners, it’s worth coming here every few years or so, because exhibits do change, and you’ll probably discover something new.  Also, the palace just looks really cool, and I think we’re all a little fascinated by Henry VIII, even though he was one of the biggest jerks ever.  4/5.

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London: Fuller’s Brewery Tour

dsc08083-copyAs I’m sure I’ve said before, I’m really not much of a drinker.  I’ll have a gin and tonic once every few months, or the occasional cider or perry, but my extremely low alcohol tolerance coupled with some fierce gastric reflux has pretty much put a stop to any kind of more serious/regular drinking (not that I was ever a serious imbiber, but I did go out to the pub quite often when I first moved here in an ill-fated effort to be more sociable.  Ill-fated because I am not naturally sociable, and spending most of my free time with people eventually made my introversion rear up in a big way.  And didn’t win me any friends).  So a tour of Fuller’s Brewery in Chiswick wasn’t a natural choice for me, but my parents were still in town, and they are both interested in beer, plus the limited amount of people allowed on each tour meant there wouldn’t be any crowds.  Fuller’s it was then!

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Actually, it was a good chance to go, because Marcus has wanted to take the tour for years, and we were clearly unlikely to do it on our own, so my parents’ visit provided the perfect excuse.  Happily, Fuller’s participates in the National Rail 2-for-1 scheme, so I was able to get us all half price tickets by booking online using the 2-for-1 discount code (advanced booking highly recommended, perhaps even required).  £6 for a tour + generous tastings seemed like a pretty good deal, even to a light drinker like me, considering a pint in London will set you back at least £4.  (However, shortly after our visit, Fuller’s closed down many parts of the brewery for refurbishment, and will re-open in December, with a new brewing museum as part of the tour, so it will then cost £20 instead of £12, without the 2-for-1.  Basically, you should DEFINITELY get the 2-for-1 if you visit after they re-open, because £20 is a ridiculous price.)

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We all met at the Mawson Arms, the pub next to the brewery, about 15 minutes before our tour time. We were then led into the brewery, and given sexy high vis jackets to wear on the tour (probably necessary, because people kept whipping around the corner of the road that runs through the brewery on forklifts and things). Our guide was called Martin, and though he repeated himself a lot, he still did a good job of being entertaining/amusingly “Lahndahn” enough for the American tourists (my parents weren’t the only ones. There was also a group from Chicago…since my parents are from Cleveland, this didn’t go over too well as the World Series was imminent at the time of our visit.  I hate all sports, so I didn’t care either way, but my father promptly took against the man in the Cubs hat).

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Even though I’m not a beer fan, I have been on brewery tours before (Cantillon, Heineken, De Halve Maan), and although Fuller’s is a fairly large operation, the tour was more in the same vein as a medium sized brewery like De Halve Maan than something as high-tech and glitzy as Heineken, where you don’t actually get to see the brewing facilities.  Fuller’s was founded in 1845 when John Bird Fuller inherited the brewery upon his father’s death and joined with investors Henry Smith and John Turner, who provided the capital and contacts that allowed operations to expand.  But the site has been used as a brewery since at least the 1600s, operating under a number of different owners. Some equipment from the 1800s is still hanging around (I think the oldest stuff just pre-dated Fuller’s), and a few old pieces are still used in the modern brewing process.

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Unfortunately, the photos are about as exciting as the tour was (i.e. not very), because breweries are intrinsically not that exciting to look at.  There’s big tanks, some of which you could peer into and see beer being sloshed around, and more big tanks with other stages of the beer-making process in them (like wort and junk), and lots of hoppy smells (to be honest, some of them smelled more yeasty to me, but Martin claimed it wasn’t the yeast we were smelling).  Martin told us a little about the history of brewing, but it was fairly basic stuff (anyone who had watched one of that Ivan Day guy’s culinary history presentations at some point or another (and he seems to pop up a lot on the BBC…if you watch British cookery programmes, you’ve probably encountered Ivan) or one of Ruth Goodman’s various (Insert Historical Era Here) Farm shows would probably already know what Martin told us; basically, before hops came to England, beer was just a sweet barley-based liquid that would start to spoil within a day.  Hops act as a preservative, but of course the downside is that they taste like bitter crap).  The tour in general didn’t go into the sort of depth that craft/home brewing types would require, and some people asked technical questions that didn’t really get answered, but I wasn’t bothered by this because I’m not a beer nerd.

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Really I think we were just killing time until the group before us left the tasting room, because I’m convinced that the “tasting” was the only reason most people went on the tour.  The tour fee included what was essentially all you could drink beer; well, all you could drink in 45 minutes or so anyway, which is how long we were given before Martin rang the last call bell (still a much better deal than that “all you can eat cake” that wasn’t, from a few weeks ago).  Fortunately for me, because I only really like fruit beers and some sours (which are definitely not part of the current Fuller’s range), Fuller’s also owns a cider manufacturer, so there were a few ciders available, and the blush cider was surprisingly very tasty.  I do find most English beers drinkable though, even if I don’t really enjoy them, which is more than I can say for those super strong and disgusting American IPAs that seem to be all the rage these days.  Sadly, my parents, who are big fans of IPAs, decided they didn’t really like real ale because it was “too warm.”  But I managed to get tipsy in the tasting time allotted (not hard for me to do, given that a pint is pretty much enough), so at least the tour had some benefit!  Still, for the normal admission price (not the discounted rate I got), I think there are better tours around (Marcus recommends Sambrook’s), so this is probably only worth doing for the hardcore Fuller’s fan.  I guess it remains to be seen what their new museum will be like, though I don’t think I’ll be rushing off to visit it.  2.5/5.

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London: Maps and the 20th Century @ the British Library, and “Intrigue” @ the Royal Academy

dsc09077_stitchLast week, when some certain election news meant I needed something to distract myself/cheer myself up, I decided to spend the afternoon visiting two new-ish temporary exhibits in London I’d been wanting to see. (Unfortunately, neither museum allows photography in the exhibition spaces, so I can’t really show you anything, which is a shame.) The first was “Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line,” at the British Library, which opened on 4 November and runs til 1 March 2017.  I hadn’t attended anything at the British Library since “Terror and Wonder,” the Gothic Imagination exhibit two years ago, which I really enjoyed, so I was hoping this would be as impressive.

Admission is £12, and they offer half price admission for National Art Pass holders, so I managed to get in for £6.  “Maps” was located in the same exhibition space as “Terror and Wonder” was, which I was pleased with because it’s such a nice large area, so visitors can spread out a bit.  Actually, seeing something else there made me appreciate how they must have gone out of their way to create a wonderfully creepy atmosphere there for the goth thing, because it’s a fairly characterless space without all the gloomy lighting and fabric hanging down.  Anyway, as you can probably guess from the name, this exhibit was all about maps of the 20th century, and how maps reflect the social and political changes that occurred over the course of the century.

The start of the exhibit was pretty cool, in that it was mapping us, the visitors, as we moved around the exhibit, with a “live” map that used different coloured dots to represent each person (the dots moved with us, which of course I had to test by running back and forth like an idiot whilst staring at the map).  Other than that, the exhibit was divided up into five main sections: Mapping a New World, which was about mapmakers and how map making technology changed over time (this section included a few pre-20th century maps to demonstrate this); Mapping War, which was mainly about WWI and WWII, Mapping Peace, which showed what happened during the negotiations following the World Wars; Mapping the Market, which was about world economies; and finally Mapping Movement, which showed how both populations and individuals moved over the century.

Because it was a Wednesday afternoon, there weren’t very many people in the exhibit, which delighted me because maps are the kind of thing that you really have to get close to and study for a while to appreciate, so it can be annoying if there’s too many people in there, because they’re likely to block a map for some minutes whilst looking at it.  Without having photographs of the maps to remind myself what was there, it’s hard to do a detailed recap, so I’ll just tell you some of the memorable highlights.  There was a beautiful, post-WWI map of a fairy tale world, hilarious maps depicting the ways Reagan and Thatcher allegedly viewed the world (though it was a bit sobering to think that Trump probably thinks in much the same way, if not even worse), and of course, early versions of some iconic maps, such as Harry Beck’s tube map.  There were also some funny cartoony anti-Nazi WWII maps (the “Adolfin Sea” made me laugh more than it should have), and an impressive map of the trenches in WWI that was handmade, with thin sheets of paper carefully layered up to depict the terrain.  This being the BL, they also had some famous maps from books, like AA Milne’s original map of Hundred-Acre Wood (I would definitely be relegated to Eeyore Land, which is all boggy and gloomy), and Tolkien’s map of the Shire, though I’m not the right kind of nerd to have properly appreciated that (I’m a nerd alright, but not a Lord of the Rings type one).

I was happy to see that this exhibit was just as big and thoughtfully put-together as the Gothic Imagination, despite not being quite as atmospheric. There was also a free exhibit about Victorian entertainment when I was there, located at the back of the main hall, which contained some excellent old posters for magic shows and clairvoyants, as well as an early film of the “egg-laying man” magic trick, which was pretty amusing.  Definitely worth walking to the back of the hall for!  I have to admit, I was definitely happier about paying £6 than £12, because I am cheap, but I think this exhibit was actually worth the money either way, because there was so much to see, and it was very well done.  Definitely 4/5 (not quite as high as “Terror and Wonder” because I just like monsters and stuff better, but still very good and interesting).

dsc09074The second exhibition I visited that day was “Intrigue: James Ensor by Luc Tuymans” at the Royal Academy of Arts (it runs til 29 January 2017).  I’m still not real sure who Luc Tuymans is, but I don’t really care because I am a huge James Ensor fan, and he was the focus of this exhibition.  I’d never been to the Royal Academy before, mostly because I balk at spending £9 and up for art, but I had to make an exception for James Ensor (I think it was actually £10, but I got a whole pound off for being a National Art Pass holder.  Dunno why they couldn’t offer half-price or free admission like almost every other museum in London, but whatever).

Anyway, I included links to a few James Ensor paintings when I went to his house last year, and there’s more on the exhibition page if you click the Intrigue link in the previous paragraph, but I get the impression that his work is of a type where you either love it or hate it.  I am definitely in the former camp…anyone who painted as many skeletons and fart clouds as he did is going to be pretty damn high on my list.  Having really only been familiar with his paintings previously, I was delighted to discover some of his etchings at this exhibit, because I think I might like them even better than his paintings, particularly the Seven Deadly Sins series (LOTS of skeletons!).  However, although Ensor’s art was all delightful, and I was very happy to see so much of it in one place, I was less pleased with the picture captions, which only provided the name of the piece and the year it was created, without any additional information whatsoever.  The free booklet they gave me was pretty informative, but it didn’t talk about every single painting, and it also didn’t discuss them in the order in which they were displayed, so I really would have preferred that the information been next to each painting, as it would be in a normal art museum.  There were audio guides available, but they cost an extra £3.50, which I thought was a bit excessive after already having to part with a tenner just to see the (fairly small) exhibition.  So although Ensor’s art did make the experience worthwhile for me (many of his pictures made me actually laugh out loud, which was what I needed that day), I’m really not thrilled about how much I paid to see it, and how little time it took to see, because there was literally nothing to do besides look at the pictures.  So although Ensor himself is for sure a 5/5 for me, this exhibit only gets 3/5 as a whole, because of the Royal Academy’s lacklustre effort.