London

London: Bat Skeleton Mounting Workshop @ Kensal Green Cemetery

I promised you something more Halloweeny this week, so how about a bat skeleton mounting workshop inside a cemetery? Way back in August (you have to be on the ball with these events), I booked places for Marcus and myself at a workshop taking place in early October at Kensal Green’s Dissenters’ Chapel as part of London Month of the Dead for the incredibly extravagant price of £50 each. What can I say – I felt like a splurge and it’s not as though I’ve exactly been to loads of events in the recent past. And surely two bat skeletons are better than one? The only thing that gave me pause (other than the price) was the fact that there was a butterfly mounting workshop taking place before the bat workshop, and as regular readers will probably know, I am absolutely terrified of butterflies. I realise it’s an incredibly stupid phobia to have, but phobias aren’t exactly rational. And because it’s specifically the wings that freak me out, dead ones are frankly just as bad as live ones (maybe worse, because a live one will eventually leave). However, I reasoned that the butterfly workshop was meant to end well before ours started, so all the nasty butterfly parts would be cleaned up by the time we arrived and I wouldn’t need to worry about it.

Unfortunately, like at almost all London Month of the Dead events, my hopes were swiftly to be dashed. When we got there, we couldn’t go into the chapel because it was still full of people working on dead butterflies. I could see the disgusting things still pinned to the tables, so I moved so they were out of my eyesight and waited for everyone to finish, desperately hoping that someone would thoroughly clean everything between sessions (especially because of Covid, but especially especially because of butterfly guts). However, when they finally finished and we were allowed in the room, nothing had been cleaned, there was still one clearly damaged butterfly sitting out on a table, and the woman leading the workshop asked us to sit at the table right next to it, which was still covered in disturbing looking smears that I’m sure were butterfly-related (you can see some of them in the above photo), so I tried not to touch anything for fear an errant scale or antenna would stick to my hand. She then launched into a thirty minute lecture on bats that I was absolutely unable to concentrate on because I spent the whole time staring at the butterfly on the next table. A piece of its wing had fallen off, and the breeze was kicking up outside the chapel’s open door, so I was convinced the wing was going to blow across the room into my face and the thought made me want to vomit. I wasn’t totally wrong, as the wing did blow off, but it landed on the floor near Marcus instead of blowing into my face. As I watched the remaining butterfly bits on the table continue to violently flap in the wind, I finally broke down, accepted I was going to look like a crazy person, and briefly explained my phobia and asked the woman running the workshop if she could please move the butterfly corpse to the other side of the room. She complied and I breathed what turned out to be a very short-lived sigh of relief, because, after she passed out the bat skeletons (they were from painted bats, which, ironically, are sometimes called butterfly bats, but they look nothing like butterflies. They’re actually cute), she announced that there were extra butterflies and we were welcome to use them to create a diorama with our skeletons. In fairness to her, she did ask people not to work near me if they wanted to use them, but that meant the woman at our table who wanted to use one moved right behind me to the same spot where the other butterfly had been, and she just put the butterfly down loose on the table (after touching it with her bare hand – barf) whilst she started working on her bat, with the windy storm still brewing outside. I genuinely had a bit of a freak out where I jumped up, backed away from it, and started jabbering on about how it was going to blow into my face if she left it there. Despite her attempts to reassure me that it wouldn’t, I refused to sit back down until she hid it under a box. Basically, I was THAT person, you know, the sort of person I would normally be complaining about, and there’s probably someone else with a blog out there talking about the insane woman in their bat skeleton workshop, i.e. me.

Even without taking the butterfly incident(s) into account, I have to say I was disappointed in the workshop. To me, “workshop” implies that some instruction will be provided, but the “instructor” handed us an intact bat skeleton, a piece of card, a shadow box, and some super glue, told us to glue the skeletons down to the card and stick them in the box, and then left us to it. Going into it, I had imagined that the skeleton would be individual bones that we were stringing back together rather than simply gluing down an intact skeleton, so this was definitely a bummer. She said that we could pull the wings out if we wanted to (because the skeletons were all folded up with their wings crossed across their little chests and it would have looked like crap if we’d mounted them like that, not to mention that it would have only taken about two seconds rather than the two hours allotted for the workshop), but she had never done it before so didn’t really know the best way to go about it, despite apparently selling mounted bat skeletons on Etsy for years, which was super helpful. Then, after we muddled along as best we could which involved breaking the wings into pieces to get them to open and messily supergluing everything back together, she came over and said “oh, it’s too late now, but you really shouldn’t use that much glue because it will show. You should glue the bones to each other instead of to the card. But it’s too late now.” Awesome, thanks! She had spent quite a lot more time with the other table (probably because I seemed dangerously unstable after the butterfly freak out) which meant that she hadn’t really seen what we were doing until it was done. I do like my bat, but one of the bones is in the wrong place, which I didn’t realise until after I mounted it (I know it looks obvious in the picture, but at the time I kept saying, “I think I’m missing a bone,” and no one thought to point out that it had broken off and was attached to the wrong wing until after I put it in the frame, not that I’m annoyed or anything), and there is totally glue everywhere, because my solution to the pieces not sticking down to the card was to smother everything in even more glue. Since no useful guidance was provided, I could have bought the materials for half of what we paid, and done it at home just as badly, except for the potential difficulties of sourcing my own bat skeleton. It is illegal to kill a bat in the UK (which I would never do anyway. I love bats!), or even to preserve a dead wild bat (which I would consider, especially because I found a poor dead little bat on the way to work the other day, and it would have been very easy to take him home and harvest his skeleton, but I didn’t). We were told the skeletons were ethically sourced when we signed up, otherwise I wouldn’t have signed up at all, and she told us in the workshop that she’d gotten them from a source in Asia about ten years ago, but didn’t specify how they’d died. So now I have a nasty suspicion that they were killed for their skeletons, which makes me really uncomfortable with the whole thing. I will keep my bat as it’s already long dead and it would be even worse to throw it out at this point, but I feel a bit gross about having it now. Overall, this was another disappointing event from London Month of the Dead – the magic lantern show is the only event I’ve really enjoyed in all the years I’ve attended, and the guy who ran that is dead now, so that’s off the table – I would stop going but there’s really no one else doing adult-specific Halloween events of a gothy, non-clubbing nature, so I keep trying in hopes I find another good one. In case this wasn’t obvious from the 1400+ preceding words, this was not it.

London: Paula Rego @ Tate Britain

I realise that it’s already October, when I normally try to blog about spooky stuff, but because I didn’t want to postpone the Durham posts any more, this was the only time I could squeeze Paula Rego in that would still leave time for people to see the exhibition if my glowing review convinced them to give it a go. However, some of her paintings are quite unsettling, so hopefully that will suffice until I can get to something spookier. There are still not really that many Halloween events on this year, so I’m having to scramble a bit to come up with creepy content.

I have to admit that I’ve been struggling to write about this Paula Rego exhibition for a few weeks now, and I’m not sure why, because I really enjoyed it. I also recently read an interview with her in Art Fund’s quarterly magazine, and she seems like she’s led a fascinating life, from her childhood in the 1940s spent in a repressive dictatorship in Portugal, to attending boarding school in England as a teenager and eating so many of the cakes the other girls didn’t want because she didn’t have access to sweets growing up (this was while England was still under rationing, mind, so the cakes couldn’t have even been that nice) that her mother didn’t recognise her when she came back due to all the weight she gained, to her love of fairy tales and her passionate fight for women’s rights as an adult, so it’s not as though I have a shortage of content. Maybe it’s just that I’m a bit burnt out on writing after doing a fair bit of writing at work lately and going back to blogging regularly after posting sporadically for most of the first half of this year, but whatever the reason, I’m going to give myself a break on this one and let some of my favourite pictures from the exhibition do most of the talking, with only brief captions from me. Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll be back to my normal long-winded self in no time!

This painting was influenced by Rego’s childhood experiences in authoritarian Portugal, and shows the dictator Salazar vomiting (vomiting was definitely a recurring theme in this exhibition!) next to what is meant to be a woman with exaggerated pubic hair (representing Rego’s belief that women’s lib was the way forward for Portugal).

 

This painting shows a young murderess-in-training practicing for her first victim, so of course I loved it and had to have a photo with it.

 

This was one of the most poignant paintings, completed shortly after Rego’s husband Victor Willing died. Rego and Willing are one of the dancing couples.

 

I was sitting on the sofa watching TV and minding my business a few weeks ago when a spider literally the size of my palm scuttled out from underneath the sofa and just stood there and stared at me with impunity until I trapped it under a tin (big spiders only ever seem to come out after Marcus has gone to bed, so I trap them under a tin and leave a note on top to alert Marcus, who puts them outside in the morning). This picture is not dissimilar to my experience, right down to the expression on Little Miss Muffet’s face.

 

These are part of Rego’s abortion series in support of decriminalising abortion in Portugal (which was illegal until 2007). They show women in the aftermath of undergoing illegal, unsafe abortions.

 

Love this powerful woman holding a dagger and a sponge (meant to represent the one soaked in wine offered to Jesus on the cross) who is meant to be an avenging angel figure.

 

The last room of the exhibition had paintings featuring monstrous beings, including this triptych with a creepy pillow-headed figure.

 

This is The Barn, inspired by a Joyce Carol Oates short story. This was just one of many creepy and wonderful paintings based on stories and fairy tales. I particularly liked the distraught faces on the watermelons.

Other than the fact that there were way too many people inside (back to pre-Covid times at the Tate, apparently!), I absolutely loved this exhibition. Her artwork is amazing, and I can’t believe I’d never heard of her until recently. Paula Rego is at Tate Britain until 24th October (£18 admission or £9 with Art Pass), so definitely go see it if you can. It gets a 4/5 from me.

London: Grinling Gibbons 300 @ Bonhams

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

 

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

 

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

  

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

  

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

 

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

 

London: Sophie Taeuber-Arp @ Tate Modern

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

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

  

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

  

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

London: Eel Pie Island Museum

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

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

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

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

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

London: Chintz @ the Fashion and Textile Museum

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

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

  

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

 

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

  

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

 

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

  

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

London: The Havering Hoard @ Museum of Docklands

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

  

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

 

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

   

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

 

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

London: “Epic Iran” @ the V&A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

London: Ritual Britain @ the Crypt Gallery

I went to see the “Ritual Britain” exhibition, a collaboration between artist Ben Edge and the Museum of British Folklore, at the Crypt in Euston a few weeks ago, and though the exhibition ended on the 4th of July, I still wanted to post about it so people who didn’t get the chance to go can at least see some photos and read about what it was like.

I’m interested in folklore generally, maybe because America hasn’t really been around long enough to have developed folk traditions in the way they exist in Europe (though I guess we have urban legends that are gradually becoming folklore – it’s been a while since I’ve read Ghostland, but I seem to recall Colin Dickey addressing this very subject more extensively than I can do here), so I’m trying to fill the void with other countries’ traditions. Given all the super weird and highly regional British customs and practices (straw bears, Burry Men, cheese rolling, shin kicking, etc), I think it’s a bit odd that there isn’t a permanent folklore museum here, since I’ve certainly been to ones in other European countries, though maybe it has something to do with the legacy of imperialism and some British traditions being a bit controversial (burning Catholics in effigy springs immediately to mind). At any rate, the Museum of British Folklore normally only exists online, with occasional temporary exhibitions hosted in various galleries and museums around the UK. This was the first one I’d heard of taking place in London, so I was excited to attend.

The exhibition was free and there no pre-booking required, which is a bit novel in itself these days, but I was worried that it would get crowded on the weekends, so I took a Friday off to go (I mean, it wasn’t just for this. I also wanted to hit Borough Market, because it’s too busy on weekends and I never get to go anymore since I changed jobs and thus my working days last November, and I had to use the leave up soon anyway), and there was only a handful of people inside, so this was obviously a good plan. I’d been to St. Pancras Old Church (my computer wants me to change Pancras to pancreas so badly) before to see their awesome tombstone tree, but never St. Pancras New Church (which was built in 1819, so isn’t really that new anymore), and the Crypt is an awesome and creepy venue, as you can see from the photo at the start, which made it perfect for this exhibition, as I tend to think a lot of British folklore is vaguely sinister in a Wicker Man sort of way.

The exhibition consisted of Ben Edge’s “Frontline Folklore” series of paintings interspersed with objects from the museum’s collection. Now, I LOVE Ben Edge’s paintings (I just ordered a print of that Clown Church one for my house to go with the clown eggs Marcus made – I have a real obsession with creepy-ass clowns lately, maybe because of the clown episode of Wellington Paranormal, which literally made me laugh until I cried), but the real stuff is even scarier, and an old crypt that was full of actual stacks of tombstones was an excellent way to showcase it.

Just look at the unsettling stares of those Morris dancer dolls (designed to showcase the costumes of different troupes) or that giant corn dolly (those always make me think of that Jeffrey Ford “Word Doll” story, which I recommend if you haven’t read it). I actually took a Morris dancing class once, and it is a LOT harder than it looks, so I’m impressed by anyone that can actually do it, but I have to admit that there is something a bit off-putting about the whole thing to anyone who is a bit of an outsider, especially the sides (fortunately not many, these days) that still insist on using black face (when I went to the Morris class, I deliberately picked an all-female side with more progressive views (they dance at Pride and stuff), but I was still scared they’d hear my accent and tell me to get lost or something, and I really had to work up my courage to actually attend. They turned out to be perfectly nice, but it was still a blindingly white affair, and I can see why, if I felt intimidated about going just on account of an American accent), and I would say that Morris is actually one of the more accessible British traditions. Some of the hyper-localised customs give me Tubbs and Edward from The League of Gentlemen vibes (“this is a local shop, for local people; there’s nothing for you here.”), I guess because they seem designed to make outsiders feel like outsiders, but I suppose that’s also how places develop an identity for themselves, so maybe I’m interpreting things in an overly negative way due to my lack of exposure to these customs until moving to the UK as an adult. With all that being said, I think it is the fact that a lot of these practices are contained to one specific village or area that makes them so strange and fascinating to me.

There was a video at the end of the exhibition, made by Ben Edge, where he had filmed some of these practices in action back in 2019, including the Mari Lwyd, which is basically a skeleton ‘obby ‘oss (hobby horse) used in Wales in a sort of caroling tradition, where men carry it from house to house demanding food and drink and singing a special song in Welsh, and if you aren’t expecting it, it has to be way freakier than any carolers at your door (though I would hide from them too). He had also filmed himself in 2020 talking about the way that the pandemic and the BLM movement were changing British folk traditions, such as the elimination of black face from Morris dancing (except for the resistant troupes I mentioned earlier). It seemed really interesting, but it was also very long, and I wasn’t inclined to sit there for an hour and a half in a tiny room with strangers watching a video, so I only caught about ten minutes of it, but maybe it’s available somewhere online. They did have an events programme tied in with the exhibition that included some film screenings and Morris dancing, but I’m still not super keen on the idea of standing in a big crowd, even outside, so I deliberately didn’t visit on one of those days.

Even thought the exhibition was fairly small, I really loved it. The venue was ideal, and the stories behind Ben’s paintings were fascinating (they’re all available to read on his website if you click on the individual paintings), as were the objects selected from the Museum of British Folklore’s collection. I do wish the museum had a more permanent home, because I’d love to see more of their collection as well as learn more about the history behind the traditions. I also think a larger space would give them room to address the ways that some of these traditions have become problematic, and the ways that other customs have evolved to stay alive to the present day. I’m sorry I’m blogging about this too late for you to see this exhibition for yourself, but if it sounded appealing, at least now you’ll know to keep an eye out for any future Museum of British Folklore/Ben Edge exhibitions popping up near you! 4/5.

Surrey and London: HG Wells in Woking and God’s Own Junkyard @ Leadenhall Market

Short post this week on a couple of non-museum things I saw recently. First of all, whilst we still had a car last month, we decided to go out to Woking to see some of the HG Wells sites there. HG Wells moved to Woking in 1895, and only lived there for about a year and a half, but he began writing some of his most iconic stories there, including The War of the Worlds. Now, I have never actually read The War of the Worlds, nor seen any of the films, but I am of course aware of the general idea of the book just by absorbing bits of pop culture for 35 years, and I like HG Wells mainly because of my love of the 2016 stage version of Half a Sixpence (in large part because of adorable Charlie Stemp, who was Kipps in the West End version I saw. I do not like the Tommy Steele film version. Tommy Steele’s teeth creep me out), which is based on his novel Kipps, so even though aliens are not really my thing in that way that proper monsters are (aliens seem to attract weird conspiracy theorists who creep me out more than Tommy Steele’s teeth), I was still down to see The War of the Worlds mosaic and other sites.

  

There is a Wells in Woking walk map available online (link leads to pdf) that will lead you from the train station, through the town, out to the sandpit, and back to the station again for a three and a half mile walk, but it was hot, we were both tired, and we had come by car, so we opted to just park by the sandpit, walk out to see it, and then get back into the car and drive into town. Unfortunately, we made the mistake of parking in a horrible giant shopping centre in town where we literally had to ask someone for directions out because there appeared to be no exits, and the whole experience has given me a probably undeserved distaste for Woking and its shopping centre.

  

Anyway, the sandpit, where the Martians landed, is pretty cool. It is just a big sandy pit in the middle of some trees, with a water-filled depression at the bottom that is meant to be the landing spot, but sand is intrinsically fun, and I bet I would have loved playing in it as a kid. In Woking proper, there are a few different sites to see if you manage to find your way out of the shopping centre. There is the town gate, which has the outline of a Tripod on it, a big Tripod sculpture, which has gross tentacle things hanging off the bottom, a statue of HG Wells himself, and a really cool mosaic in a subway (at start of post), which was probably my favourite thing. There is also Lynton, the house where Wells lived, but Google told us it was a mile walk away, and you can’t go in it or anything, so we didn’t bother. It’s probably more fun if you actually do the trail properly and don’t park in the shopping centre car park, but at least now I’ve seen it and I don’t have to go back to Woking.

 

Slightly more fun was the God’s Own Junkyard takeover at Leadenhall Market, in the City of London, which is there until the end of July. God’s Own Junkyard is a neon sign museum in Walthamstow, which I really should go to one of these days, but Walthamstow is a pain to get to and not particularly nice once you’re there, so when I read about the pop-up in Leadenhall Market, I definitely wanted to see it. I love the weird old bits of the City, and I hadn’t been since before Covid (and I also wanted to visit Eataly, the super expensive Italian food market that has finally come to London. So pricey but so good). The installations are open all the time, but if you want to go inside the shop space, you have to visit between Wednesday and Sunday.

 

I love neon. I think it’s pleasingly retro and super fun to look at, so I was excited to see this, and they do have some great signs. The pop-up shop had the most in it, but there were also two shop windows elsewhere in the market displaying signs that the family business had made for Judge Dredd and Eyes Wide Shut – I have never seen either of those movies, but I enjoyed the signs on their own merit. I honestly expected it to be a bit underwhelming, as these things usually are, but I was pretty solidly whelmed. The guy working in the shop was very enthusiastic and told us a lot about how the signs are created (he was a little hard to hear because there was loud music blasting in there, but the loud music was Hall and Oates, so I can’t really complain) and the lido sign was particularly cool (I have a skirt with very similar looking diving ladies on it, which sadly was not the one I was wearing that day). It’s definitely worth a look if you’re in the area or need an excuse to grab some focaccia and fresh scamorza at Eataly (and have deep pockets. For Eataly, that is, not the neon pop-up, which is free).