London

London: Wandsworth Prison Museum

I’ve been interested in seeing the Wandsworth Prison Museum for some time, but it only opens to the public a few days each year and I never quite managed to catch one of these open days. However, a friend of mine sent me an email about an open weekend in early June as part of the Wandsworth Heritage Festival, so I made sure to make the effort to get there this time, even though I had to go alone and take my own poor quality pictures because I was working on the Saturday of the open weekend, and Marcus was volunteering at a filming of Antiques Roadshow on the Sunday, so we didn’t have an opportunity to go together (yes, I gave up a chance to queue for hours and have my antiques appraised to do this instead. Actually, I could have still queued for hours after visiting the prison museum, but it was hot that day, and I did not fancy spending three hours standing in direct sunlight, especially since I already know that anything antique that I own is of low value. Poor Marcus had no choice but to stand outside all day, and ended up with terrible sunburn, but at least he got to volunteer with the cool militaria expert with the moustache).

   

The prison is located in the North Car Park of Wandsworth Prison (still a functioning prison), which is probably why it is only open a few times a year. It was hard to spot it because of the high walls surrounding the prison, and I didn’t see any signs anywhere as I would have expected from an open day, so I ended up circling the entire complex and walking back again from the opposite direction. It was on the return trip that I spotted the A4 sign with a tiny arrow directing me to the museum, which was completely invisible from the angle of my initial approach. I was glad I managed to find the museum on the second attempt, because I was worried I might be starting to look suspicious to the guards strolling around the site (I mean, they weren’t in watch towers with guns or anything like that, but authority figures still make me nervous). It is in a small shed right in the parking lot (as seen at the start of the post), but the current shed is apparently twice the size of the shed it used to be in, so I guess that’s an improvement. However, after looking at pictures of the old museum, I don’t think they’ve actually added anything to the new museum, just spread things out a bit more.

  

Wandsworth Prison has had some famous inmates come through it over the years, including Oscar Wilde, who spent four months here whilst awaiting transfer to Reading Gaol; John Haigh, the “Acid Bath” murderer; Ronnie Kray, and Ronnie Biggs (also Hawkwind played here, as you can see from the newspaper article above, but their female singer was advised not to take her top off on this occasion as she normally would onstage, and she apparently followed that advice). Obviously Wilde is a far more sympathetic figure than the others, but I can’t pretend I’m not interested in the lurid details of true crime, so of course John Haigh is of considerable interest as well. Contrary to his nickname, he didn’t actually kill people with acid, but battered or shot them to death first, and then dissolved their bodies in acid to hide the evidence (I’m not sure if that makes it any better than just killing them with the acid, but it does sound slightly less agonising for the victims). Although you wouldn’t have learned much of that here, as it was much more a prison museum than a crime museum, and frankly, even the history of the prison was a bit lighter than I was hoping.

 

The most interesting things in here by far were the execution box, which I think I saw before at the Black Museum exhibition, and the life mask of one of Britain’s last and most famous hangmen, Albert Pierrepoint (he featured prominently in the black comedy play Hangmen, which I saw a few years ago. The main character is a second-rate hangman who is super jealous of Pierrepoint (pronounced peer-point)). People were executed at Wandsworth Prison, including the aforementioned John Haigh, hanged by the also aforementioned Pierrepoint, but Wandsworth Prison was also the keeper of all the execution boxes for the whole of England. They had twenty boxes containing rope, straps, a sandbag, a hood, and whatever else you might need to hang someone, which were sent out as needed. There was a police officer supervising the museum whilst I was there (I wasn’t sure if you were allowed to take photos, and I was too shy to ask, so I kept trying to surreptitiously take them when his back was turned. I’m sure he was on to me, as I must have looked shady as all hell, so I dropped some coins in the donation box on the way out to look more like an upstanding citizen), and he started telling some guy about the difference between American and British noose knots, which was super interesting (basically, American knots lock on the neck and can only be cut, rather than untied, so are single use. The British just used a basic slip knot so the rope could either be reused or cut into lengths and sold to souvenir hunters to make some extra cash on the side for the hangman (I already knew about them selling the rope, but I don’t know anything about knots, so that part was news to me)). I wish he had shared more stories like that without prompting, because I don’t really like asking questions.

 

Aside from those objects, it was fairly standard prison museum fare – lots of photographs and newspaper clippings, and a couple uniforms and a little wooden (cardboard?) model of the prison, although there were a few grisly bits thrown in here and there amongst the mundane if you took the time to look, like the innocent looking ruler and pliers that were actually tools used by executioners to measure the rope for hanging. But it certainly wasn’t as thrilling as an actual criminology museum, and for all that the museum had been recently redone, I found the information in the cases quite hard to read, as it was printed in small font on laminated sheets hung in the back of the cases, and with the sunlight streaming in through the open doors, it was hard to get the right angle to actually be able to read them and match the labels up with the objects in the cases, let alone clandestinely photograph them.

Apart from being intimidated by the location (which, as you might expect, is not the easiest thing to access. You kind of have to get a bus from Earlsfield, or walk for quite a while) and thus having a bit of a panic when I couldn’t find it right away, I certainly don’t regret visiting, but I do wish that the information was more detailed and a bit easier to read. I also wish the officer working there could have shared more behind-the-scenes stories with us, as that was what made the City Police Museum so delightful on my first visit (until they went ahead and ruined it by making it very impersonal). I imagine they’ll probably be open at some point in September for either Heritage Open Days or Open House London if you want to pay this museum a visit yourself, though I think there are certainly better crime and punishment museums out there. 2.5/5.

 

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London: “Smoke and Mirrors” @ the Wellcome

What we have here, for once, is a happy confluence of an exhibition at the Wellcome that I really really wanted to see, and visitors being allowed to take photos of said exhibition (which isn’t often allowed at the Wellcome). Oh happy day (and now I’m going to have the Sister Act 2 version of that song stuck in my head for the rest of the day)!

 

“Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic,” which runs until 15 September, is basically exactly what it sounds like – an examination of how magic works on the human mind – and is free to visit, like everything at the Wellcome. It was not too crowded at the time of my visit, which made for a nice change over the usual packed rooms, though my fellow visitors still managed to park it right in front of every video screen (good I didn’t care about watching most of them anyway, though I did watch a bit of Arthur Conan Doyle talking about Spiritualism. He didn’t sound at all like I expected, as you can probably tell from my expression).

I’m not much of a fan of most magicians anymore (they tend to either be too cheesy or take themselves way too seriously), though I loved watching them when I was little, and walked around with one of those kids’ magic kits forcing my mother to watch me perform tricks (like pulling a handkerchief out of a wand, which was super magical if you ignored the end of cloth that was protruding out of the wand at all times), but I am very into the idea of magic (and magick), and all the paraphernalia that goes along with it. And of course I’m interested in historical magic and seances (though I don’t actually believe in ghosts), so I was especially excited to see the items belonging to Mina “Margery” Crandon and Harry Houdini (there’s a book called The Witch of Lime Street that details their encounter, which I read last October (part of my annual Halloween book season of spooky reads)).

 

The exhibition was ostensibly divided up into three themed sections: The Medium, Misdirection, and Mentalism, but as so often happens, I didn’t really see that much of a clear distinction between them, as the exhibition seemed to flow in more of a chronological manner than a themed one. The Medium was about the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and was thus my favourite part. There were some cases in the middle that contained an array of objects used in seances, including a rapping hand and a cool handmade Ouija board with a very happy little sun.

  

This sort of segued into a section on Houdini himself, containing a great poster for one of his shows, and a kimono style robe belonging to Margery Crandon, as well as a bunch of pictures of her manifesting her “ectoplasm” (chunks of meat, in reality). I was excited to see that Houdini’s famous bell box was here, though it looked much easier to use than I was expecting. Margery Crandon’s whole conceit was that she channeled spirits using the help of her guide, who was her dead brother Walter. In the early 1920s, Scientific American magazine promised a prize of $2500 to anyone who could demonstrate genuine telekinesis, and though Margery’s husband was a wealthy doctor, she wanted that prize (though she was probably more after the fame). Houdini was on the panel of men sent to test her using a variety of supposedly cheat-proof contraptions Houdini had devised, including the bell box, which she would have to ring whilst tied up inside a large wooden box (large enough so that she could sit comfortably inside; it wasn’t a torture device or anything) from which only her head protruded (also on display. The box, that is, not her head). But after seeing the box, I realise it was much less complicated than it sounded, as you didn’t have to actually reach inside the box to ring the bell, you just had to depress a panel on the top. No wonder she was able to ring it by leaning her head forward out of the box! Not sure why Houdini, the great sceptic, didn’t invent a better system than this, but then spiritualists did make up a lot of rules that had to be followed (like seances being held in the dark, for example, or the entire circle having to hold hands), and were conveniently unable to channel anything if these rules were broken. Makes you wonder how anyone could have believed in them, let alone the people who still do!

 

But let’s put my thoughts on human gullibility aside, and focus on the rest of the exhibition (and yes, I realise that most people who consult psychics are grieving and desperate, and I should really be angry at the people who choose to exploit them, but still). There were a series of short films in here showing how various magic tricks worked on the brain, and I’m sure these were very interesting (and maybe I should have watched them so I could have learned exactly why some people do believe in these things instead of just calling them gullible), but there were a lot of people in front of them and I have a limited attention span (far more entertaining was the early film showing a psychic being unmasked after floating a “ghost” through a room on a fishing line). So I just enjoyed looking at the props on display instead – a gorilla head worn by Derren Brown, the box Paul Daniels used to saw Debbie McGee in half, and Tommy Cooper’s fez.

 

My distaste for magicians does not extend to Derren Brown, whom I quite like, though I haven’t been to one of his shows because I’m terrified he’ll pull me from the audience (probably not, because I wasn’t susceptible to hypnotism when my high school psychology teacher attempted it on the class (much less shady than it sounds), but you never know), and I definitely enjoyed looking at some of his props, including the very cool poster shown above.

 

I know Derren Brown did something similar to this on one of his shows, but there was also a wall showing a series of random statements given to a group of people as their horoscope, who all thought it exactly described them. Of course, the catch is that all their horoscopes were exactly the same! I wish I could say this means I never bother to check my horoscope, but of course I do, if I happen to catch sight of it in the paper.

 

I think my issue, if I have to have an issue (yes I do, it’s the Virgo talking, haha), is that because this exhibition was focused on the psychology of how magic works, it was quite light on history, and I would have really preferred the history! I’m glad there were at least some artefacts here, especially those relating to the Margery Crandon case, but I would have liked to see more historical background behind them because I’m sure not everyone had read about these things beforehand. So it was disappointing in that respect, but I still think it’s an interesting subject and I’ll happily go see pretty much any exhibit about the occult, so I left reasonably content. 3/5.

  

London: “Edvard Munch: Love and Angst” @ the British Museum

I was intrigued by the advertisements I saw for “Edvard Munch: Love and Angst” at the British Museum, which runs until 21st July, so I decided to pop along to see it a couple of weeks ago. Before visiting this exhibition, my knowledge of Edvard Munch was pretty much limited to The Scream. I’m not even confident I can pronounce his name correctly (“Moonck?” “Monk?” “Monk-ch?”), which is why I ordered my ticket online, but the exhibition doesn’t seem to usually book up in advance, so there’s probably no need to do the same unless you share my fear of being laughed at by ticket desk staff.  I only just realised that the British Museum offers discounted tickets on Mondays; the exhibition is normally £17, but drops down to £14 on Mondays, so was only £7 with my Art Pass discount.

The exhibition was held in Room 35, which is one of the smaller galleries inside the big central column structure in the middle of the BM (their large exhibition gallery is currently hosting “Manga,” which I’m on the fence about visiting. I personally don’t care for manga, but I feel like other people might. Is anyone interested in reading about this?). I was surprised I was able to take pictures, since usually you aren’t able to in here, so I was unprepared for it (basically, I had neglected to bring Marcus and his camera), so I apologise for the poor quality of the photos I took with my phone. I would say the exhibition was medium crowded – easy enough to look at things, but a little more challenging to photograph the paintings without someone’s head in front of them. I tried my best!

Munch grew up in Kristiania, which later became Oslo, and also lived in Paris and Berlin for a time, so the exhibition was divided up into spaces that reflected the work he produced whilst living in each city. Like many artists, Munch didn’t exactly have the happiest childhood – his mother and older sister both died of tuberculosis, and his father was attentive, but was extremely religious, and would tell him that he was disappointing his dead mother in heaven when he misbehaved (yet would also regale his children with ghost stories that gave poor young Edvard nightmares and had an obvious influence on his later work). He also had a family history of mental illness – one of his younger sisters ended up in a mental institution, and Munch had his own struggles with depression and anxiety, which again, is fairly obvious when you look at his work.

 

He also had torrid love affairs, as artists tend to, including one with a woman named Tulla Larsen which ended with Munch accidentally shooting himself in two of his fingers, which were never the same again. He had painted a portrait of the two of them that he chopped in half after the shooting incident, as seen above (next to his drawing of Nietzsche, which I love).

 

Despite all this, Munch still manages to come across as quite a sympathetic figure, and I loved the work on display here, particularly his wood block prints. He manages to make his work bleak and beautiful, but definitely not soulless. I know the woman in the print above left is meant to be a bit of a succubus (“female entrapment” is the term they used in the exhibition), but they both look so damn happy that I can’t help but be drawn towards it.

 

There was work by other artists who had influenced Munch as well, like Acid-thrower by Eugene Samuel Grasset (acid throwing was also used by revolutionaries in Paris in the 1890s, and though she looks more glamorous than today’s acid-throwers, it doesn’t change the fact that it was (and is) a horrible, horrible thing to do) and Skull in an Ornamental Frame by Hans Wechtlin, which I just loved.

And yes, The Scream was here as well in its lithograph form, as well as an etching of a dead mother and grieving child who is using the same gesture as the figure in The Scream, sadly based on Munch’s own life experience, but it’s nice to know that although his life was not without more than his fair share of pain and suffering, there was more to the man than that.

 

Although he certainly fitted the archetype of the tortured artist for much of his life, after suffering a breakdown in 1908 that briefly hospitalised him, he stopped drinking, which led to improved mental health, and his paintings finally began to sell in Oslo, which further brightened his mood and led to more cheerful paintings (by Munch standards) with broader brushstrokes and increased use of colour. He lived to the age of 80, long enough for the Nazis to label his work “degenerate,” predictably enough, leaving Munch in fear his personal collection of his art, which he kept in his house, would be confiscated. Fortunately for the world it was not, and the Nazis even had the nerve to try to co-opt his popularity by paying for his funeral, even though they hated him in life, and he was definitely not a Nazi sympathiser.

 

I really enjoyed all the pieces in this exhibition, as well as getting to learn more about Munch’s life. I definitely consider myself a fan now! I think this exhibition was just the right size – enough space that I felt I got my money’s worth (£7, not £14), but not so big that I got tired of looking around before I finished. As usual, I could have done with slightly fewer people, but I’ve definitely experienced worse. Definitely worth a visit for the angst-ridden among us – weirdly, I find that when I’m feeling down, as I have been lately, it helps to look at slightly depressing art like this, and know that I’m not alone in my ennui (even though Munch was a lot more successful at it than I’ll ever be), so it was just what I needed. 3.5/5.

 

London: The Mithraeum

The London Mithraeum has been on my to-do list for a long time, but because Ancient Romans aren’t exactly a priority, I kept putting it off. But since I knew I’d be in the area anyway for a training course, and I was taking a trip to Rome the week following, I thought I might as well get myself in the mood by looking at some Roman ruins right here in London (I also made potato pizza al metro style, which is one of my favourite things to eat in Rome, but that was more because I had potatoes and slightly mouldy Gruyere to use up, and because you can never have too much pizza). Planning ahead with the Mithraeum is key, since they strongly encourage you to pre-book a free slot.

The Mithraeum is located in the Bloomberg building, which I was a little concerned about finding since the City is very easy to get lost in, but it is located right next to one of the many entrances to Bank Station and is clearly signposted outside. I arrived about twenty minutes early because my course had finished a bit sooner than anticipated, but I was welcomed right in (though I was asked for my ticket as soon as I walked through the door, so clearly they are serious about the pre-booking, even though it wasn’t busy at all when I was there), and given an introduction to the three floors of the space, which made it sound quite grand. The reality is a little bit different. The ground floor is meant to be the gallery space, though I really didn’t get the current installation at all, nor was there any explanation provided. It just seemed to be a load of bottles sitting on a tiled cube, with some tiled benches to one side that may or may not have been part of the installation.

The highlight of this section was definitely the big wall o’artefacts, actually a wall of Roman ruins excavated from the site, which were beautifully arranged and had a rack full of tablets next to them that you could pick up and use to learn more about each object. I’ve never seen shards of pottery referred to as “sherds” before, as they were here, but perhaps it’s an Anglicism I’m unfamiliar with (I asked my curator colleague about it at work, and she informs me that you come across it occasionally, but shard is more common now. I guess they’re more or less interchangeable, except in the case of the building. Maybe I’ll start calling it the “Sherd” just to be weird). Had I known how underwhelming the other floors would be, I might have spent more time studying the wall, but as it was, I only spent about five minutes looking at it before heading down to the mezzanine level.

This contained replicas of exactly three objects, each with a touch screen where you could learn more about it: the head of Mithras, the Tauroctony (a plaque with a bull on it, basically), and a replica of the original temple. Now seems like an appropriate time to get into the history of the site that I’ve been neglecting up til now. Basically, like pretty much everywhere in the Square Mile, this area was part of the original Londinium, Roman London. In 1952, a temple was discovered during the course of excavating a bomb site. This was the Mithraeum, a 3rd century temple dedicated to the god Mithras, who appears to have been known mainly for slaying a bull. Not much is known about the Cult of Mithras, except for it was men-only and probably involved drinking in some capacity, but it was certainly popular, as 100 different Mithraea have been discovered all over the former Roman Empire. The one in London was dismantled in 1954 and reconstructed in a different site, but when Bloomberg bought the original site in 2010, they agreed to move the temple roughly back to where it was discovered, which is where it is today.

They clearly have tried to turn the Mithraeum into a bit more of an experience than what is merited by what is actually here. They only let people in every twenty minutes to the actual ruins, so you just have to hang out in the dark mezzanine area with the three illuminated objects in the meantime, which is why I regretted not spending more time on the ground level. Once you are actually inside, you experience, as they call it, “an ephemeral installation,” aka some sound and light effects: hazy light and a recording of some men mumbling in Latin. The lights gradually come up so you can actually view the ruins, which are underwhelming at best, but that is what I tend to think about all ruins. I was wondering whether I had to stay in here for the whole twenty minutes, because I’d more than finished with the ruins after about three (there being nothing to read within the temple itself), when some guy came out and told us a bit more about the site. Apparently 80% of the ruins are original, and 20% are a reconstruction, which I assume includes the metal figure of Mithras and a bull in the middle of the altar. Fortunately, after he finished talking, people started to leave, so I felt free to make my escape too.

As I always feel when something is free, I can’t complain overmuch, but the word “underwhelming,” which I’ve already used at least twice in this post, is the main thing that comes to mind. Apparently the old site wasn’t much visited, and I think they’ve tried to jazz it up a little to make it more of an attraction, but there’s only so much you can do with ruins. I suppose if they’d tried to get more artefacts in they could have made more out of it, but most of those, including ones found on the site (other than what’s on the display wall) are now housed at the Museum of London. So I’ll give it 2/5. It’s nice that they’ve tried to preserve it, and maybe people who actually like the Romans (not me, though Mary Beard tries her best (and to be fair to her, her programmes are interesting, I’m just not motivated to learn more after I finish watching them)) will get more out of it, but I certainly wasn’t thrilled.

 

 

London: “Van Gogh and Britain” @ Tate Britain

I don’t think I even need to say how much I love Van Gogh to anyone who reads this blog regularly, but yes, I love Van Gogh! And so Marcus booked us tickets to go see the new exhibition at Tate Britain, “Van Gogh and Britain” whilst there were still tickets to be had (I assume there are still tickets at this point, since it runs til 11th August, but I also know that exhibitions in London can completely book up if you’re not careful to get in early). Because Van Gogh is such a big name that they can get away with it, admission is definitely on the pricier side at £22, though fortunately they do offer discounts for National Art Pass holders, so we got in for £11. And yes, we did have to stand in the queue you see above, even with pre-booked tickets, but it moved quickly.

The purpose of the exhibition, as you may have guessed from the title, was to cover both Van Gogh’s experiences whilst living in London (between 1873 and 1876) and his posthumous influence on British artists of the early-mid 20th century. Van Gogh moved to London when he was 20 to work for an art dealer, which lasted for two years until he was dismissed (he was developing increasingly radical ideas about art, which proved incompatible with his position) and dabbled with preaching and teaching in Isleworth and Ramsgate. Although he never returned to Britain after 1876 (he left before he had even begun painting, though he did make little sketches whilst he was here, some of which were on display), the experiences he had here clearly shaped his life and art, especially the time he spent visiting museums. The exhibition had his signature in the Dulwich Picture Gallery guestbook on show, as you can see above (I can definitely read the “Gogh” and maybe a “van”, but that doesn’t look like “Vincent” to me. Honestly, it looks more like Theo Van Gogh, but they said it was Vincent, so I’ll go with it).

The first four rooms contained a mix of Van Gogh’s paintings and paintings that he saw whilst visiting London that inspired him, some of which he copied in his own style whilst learning to develop as an artist. As you can see, calling this exhibition crowded is an understatement, but due to how things were laid out, I found that I was able to slip in and look at paintings with relative ease. However, although it was clearly beneficial for me as a blogger, and I know I often complain when exhibitions don’t allow photography, in this particular instance, I felt it would have been a much better experience without it. People were just standing in front of the paintings for ages whilst trying to get that perfect shot, and not even looking at what was right in front of them, which really annoyed me – especially because Van Gogh has a tendency to make me a bit emotional, and I wish everyone could take the time to really appreciate his talent for finding beauty in the mundane.

Like me, Van Gogh had a bit of a love-hate relationship with London. He said, “I often felt low in England, but the Black and White and Dickens [“black and white” meaning British prints] are things that make up for it all.” The exhibition contained quotes excerpted from Van Gogh’s many letters, to great effect, and even some facsimiles of his letters, the originals being too fragile to travel (Van Gogh spoke four languages, including English, so the ones here were written in English, and I enjoyed reading them). He discovered Gustav Doré’s engravings of London, and absolutely fell in love with them, collecting as many as he could afford. He even made his own version of Doré’s print of prisoners exercising at Newgate, as seen above right. There was also a painting of the Victoria Embankment (above left) about which Van Gogh said, “A couple of days ago we got a painting by De Nittis, a view of London on a rainy day…I crossed Westminster Bridge every morning and evening, and know what it looks like when the sun’s setting behind Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, and what it’s like early in the morning, and in the winter with snow and fog. When I saw this painting, I felt how much I love London.” Which sums up how I feel when I cross over Hungerford Bridge at night. Oh, Vincent.

Like I said, it’s not hard for me to get emotional over Van Gogh, and that’s definitely what happened when I read the caption on the painting of a “sorrowing old man,” based on an earlier lithograph he did of a war veteran he sometimes used as a model. According to one of his doctors, when Van Gogh was mentally unwell, “he usually sits with his head in his hands, and if someone speaks to him, it is as though it hurts him, and he gestures for them to leave him alone.” Just like the man in his painting, which he did when he was staying at Saint-Paul Hospital. Reading that just about broke my heart.

There were lots of pieces here that I’d never seen before, including one of the hospital at Saint-Remy that I visited last year, which was one of my favourite pieces in this exhibition. I also really loved the sketch of Vincent and his brother Theo, done by Vincent’s friend Lucien Pissarro, which is thought to be the only image of the brothers together (and it’s gratifying to see that Vincent looks pretty much as he does in his self-portraits, so the picture we all have of him in our heads is probably fairly accurate).

My favourite part of the exhibition was definitely the half on Van Gogh and Britain, rather than on British artists and Van Gogh, but there were still some Van Gogh paintings to enjoy in the final five rooms, although they were heavily interspersed with those by British artists influenced by the Post-Impressionists. Obviously I enjoy the Post-Impressionists myself, but I still had to laugh at the cartoon showing “Post-Impressions of the Post-Impressionists” based on the first time these paintings were shown in London in 1910, twenty years after Van Gogh’s death.

There was a whole room devoted to Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, which was first exhibited in 1924 in the original location of the National Gallery at Millbank, in what is now the Tate. Since the painting moved with the National Gallery to Trafalgar Square in the 1960s, this is the first time it has made the trip back across town. The National Gallery was given permission to buy the painting by Theo Van Gogh’s widow Johanna (Theo died only six months after Vincent), who devoted the rest of her life to promoting Vincent’s work, and offered the museum the painting only a year before she died.

I’ve stuck to mainly including Van Gogh’s paintings throughout this post, but I had to show you this painting of a young Roald Dahl by Matthew Smith (above right), which was heavily influenced by Van Gogh’s style. In fact, the last room was entirely pieces by British painters, mainly Francis Bacon, not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I felt like I had to return to the room before it to look at some of Van Gogh’s work again so I could leave on a high note. There was some discussion in here of how Van Gogh’s mental illness affected British perceptions of him throughout the 20th century, which I thought was quite interesting, and I would have enjoyed hearing more about it, though I suppose that topic could (and apparently has, judging on some of the books on display!) fill a book.

The shop had some nice merchandise, including the very expensive, but very cute crocheted Vincent doll (I went for the cheaper miniature key chain version, but he was still £8!), and I also went home with a print of the above self-portrait. The exhibition mentioned that the last Van Gogh exhibition at the Tate, in 1947, attracted 5000 visitors a day, and judging by all the people that were there when I visited, I could easily imagine this exhibition surpassing it. I didn’t love the experience of visiting because of the crowds and the issue with people taking photos (which I know is a bit hypocritical since I had Marcus take photos for the post too, but I would have been perfectly fine with no one being allowed to take photos in this instance) – lest you think I’m exaggerating, have a look at the collage Marcus made, below. It was a fairly big exhibition, and I’m delighted I got to see so many Van Gogh pieces, including some that had never been on public display before, but I’m still glad I only paid £11, because £22 is an awful lot of money (and to be fair, I spent more than £11 on stuff from the shop, so they got the full admission fee out of me in one way or another)! Nonetheless, I think the exhibition was well done, and I especially appreciated all the text, which can be rare in an art exhibition – thanks to Van Gogh’s eloquent letters, I feel I understand certain aspects of his life better, particularly the time he spent in London.  I liked that the exhibition focused largely on the lesser-known parts of Van Gogh’s life, since I think most people who are willing to pay £22 to see a Van Gogh exhibition are familiar with the most well known parts of his life story by now, and don’t need to re-read it fifty times. And of course, Van Gogh’s art is always gloriously moving. So, 3.5/5 for the exhibition, even with the issues with the crowds.

London: Dorothea Tanning and “Magic Realism” @ the Tate Modern

I don’t think I’d ever heard of Dorothea Tanning until this exhibition came to the Tate Modern and I saw an article about it in the paper. Her art looked intriguing, but to be honest I still probably would have skipped the exhibition due to the admission fee, had Marcus not been keen. But since he was, and I had been wanting to see the exhibition about art from the Weimar Republic that was also at the Tate, so this seemed like a good chance to get a look at both.

Dorothea Tanning runs until 9th June and costs £13 (but National Art Pass holders get 50% off), and there doesn’t seem to be any need to pre-book, though it was reasonably full inside the exhibition when I visited on a weekday. Tanning was an American artist (from Galesburg, Illinois originally) who escaped the boredom of everyday life by reading Gothic novels as a child, and there is definitely a strong sense of the Gothic in her surrealist paintings. The gallery was divided into rooms reflecting the different stages in Tanning’s life and career, starting with fairly tame newspaper illustrations for Macy’s from the 1930s (though I’m slightly disturbed that “beaver fur berets” are even a thing), and moving on to her first flirtations with surrealism, via her Birthday self-portrait (shown above) with a very cute little dragony-griffin thing that I would 100% have as a pet.

I quite liked Tanning’s early surrealist pieces, especially as many of them incorporated a funny little dog modelled on her husband Max Ernst’s (a German painter) pet Lhasa Apso. I was less enamoured with the ones in a more abstract style, made after she and Max moved from Arizona to France in the 1950s – I liked her use of colour, but they weren’t to my particular taste.

In the 1960s, Tanning began experimenting more with soft sculptures, which she produced on her old Singer sewing machine. They were used in my favourite installation, Hotel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (above left), which was based on a song about a gangster’s wife who poisoned herself in Room 202 of a hotel in Chicago. It was excellently creepy, with stuffed body parts emerging from the walls of an old hotel room.

The stuffed dog with the tiny turd (as it was described in the exhibition) cracked me up, and I enjoyed the video at the end of the exhibition which showed Tanning at work making some of her soft sculptures and arranging them on some stairs in a menacing fashion. It was interesting seeing the ways her work changed over her very long lifetime (she died in 2012, at the age of 101), but I wasn’t crazy about some of the pieces, and I felt it was quite expensive for what we got, especially after seeing the “Magic Realism” exhibition, which I’ll get to in a moment. I also didn’t like how you had to walk back through all the galleries to get out, which I think disrupts the flow of an exhibition. I always prefer separate entrances and exits, and I’m always surprised when larger museums with the budget to do so don’t arrange their galleries in this way, not least because it’s easier to make them flow into a shop at the end! 2.5/5.

And now for “Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919-1933,” which I was actually properly excited to see. My favourite band for years and years was the World/Inferno Friendship Society, who are rather difficult to describe – they’re sort of a blend of punk, klezmer, polka, and various other influences – and my favourite song of theirs is called “Ich Errinere Mich An Weimar,” which is about the Weimar Republic, sort of loosely based on the plot of Cabaret. So I’ve always been kind of interested in the Weimar, and this exhibition just made me even more interested.

“Magic Realism” was free to see, and runs until 14th July. It just so happened that the first room of the exhibition was the best room, so I was enchanted from the start. This room had the theme of “Circus,” mainly thanks to the excellent circus themed illustrations of Otto Dix, who was my favourite artist featured here. Lest you get too carried away with how charming all the artwork in here was, there was a timeline on the wall explaining how the Weimar Republic led straight into Nazi Germany, and how so many of the Weimar artists (who the Nazis would label “degenerate artists”) were strongly influenced by their experiences fighting in the First World War.

I was struck by how modern some of the paintings looked, particularly the woman on the right, above. I could actually see ties between some of the works in this exhibition and Dorothea Tanning. I’m not super well versed on art terminology, but after all, surely “magic realism” is just another way of saying surrealism? But I think I still prefer the style of “magic realism” to surrealism, at least judging by the pieces that were on display here.

Each room had a different theme, ending up in a particularly disturbing religion themed room (with paintings like the one below left), but I think there was nonetheless something to enjoy in each section, even the more depressing ones, and I learned a fair bit about Weimar Germany. All of the artists who remained in Germany after the Nazis came to power (some chose to flee) were forced to join the Cultural Ministry and paint only “inoffensive” things, like landscapes, and many of the earlier “degenerate” pieces that remained in Germany were destroyed, so I’m glad at least these pieces survived! I enjoyed this so much more than the exhibition we paid to see, but sometimes them’s the breaks, and there are definitely worse ways to spend money than on a museum exhibition – at least it will go to support a sector I’m passionate about. 4/5 – if you like slightly weird art, definitely go check this one out if you can before it closes!

 

London: Pitzhanger Manor and Gallery

 

I think we’ve established by now that I am not the sort of person that gets invited to premieres. However, because my friend works at Pitzhanger Manor, I was invited to their opening weekend (this wasn’t an exclusive event though, I hasten to add – anyone was allowed to book a spot, provided they did so early enough), and I was very happy to attend and feel like one of the special people for once, even though it takes about an hour to get to Ealing from where I live.

 

Pitzhanger Manor was John Soane’s country estate from 1800-1810 (because back then, Ealing was in the country instead of just being absorbed into the sprawl of London), and a place where he could show off his architectural skills to potential clients (Soane is known for designing the Bank of England and Dulwich Picture Gallery, amongst various other things). He actually worked on a wing of the house as a young apprentice, and this was the only part of the original 1768 building that he left intact after moving in. Soane was forced to sell the house after only ten years for a number of reasons, which I’ll get to later, and it passed through a number of hands over the years (including the daughters of Spencer Perceval, who has the unhappy distinction of being the only Prime Minister to be assassinated) before being taken over by Ealing Council in 1900. They decided to turn one wing into a library (which is one of the few acceptable uses of a historic home, presuming they leave the interiors intact as much as possible) which remained open until 1984, when it was decided to restore the house and open it as a museum. It opened in 1987, only to be closed again in 2015 for a major restoration/conservation project, and it finally re-opened on 16 March 2019, which is when I went to see it.

Pitzhanger will normally cost £7.70 to visit, but was free on opening weekend, which is one of the reasons it was completely booked up, with a queue of people waiting to get in if there were cancellations. I breezed past them all, because I was on the list (again, the same list that anyone could have gotten on by pre-booking. I’m really not any kind of VIP, though I like to pretend). I met up with my friend shortly after arriving, and she was obviously super busy and kept getting stopped by visitors to answer their questions, but she still managed to give me a little tour of the house, which I appreciated. The interior of the house is fairly empty – this is mainly because the vast majority of John Soane’s possessions reside in his house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which is also a museum (which I still haven’t gotten around to blogging about! I guess I’m due for another visit), but the rooms have been painstakingly restored, and there are a lot of gorgeous features. My friend explained how Soane’s architectural style was heavily influenced by the time he spent in Italy during his Grand Tour, and that one of the ceilings in the house was modelled on the Italian sky.

 

You can see a bit of that sky ceiling in a corner of the photo above left, but my personal favourite feature in the house was the fabulous hand-painted bird wallpaper in the Upper Drawing Room, followed closely by the ceiling in the “Eating Room,” below left (which is what the dining room is called – maybe Soane liked to keep things casual?). I still desperately want a house with some Georgian blue and Scheele’s green interiors (though preferably sans the actual arsenic). John Soane and his wife Eliza were circulating whilst we were at Pitzhanger (or, you know, some actors playing them), so we had to get a picture with Soane that mimicked our photo with the actual Gary Oldman (which I realise most of you probably haven’t seen, because I only put it on my personal Facebook, but it’s a good one!), with Soane in place of Oldman.

But Pitzhanger isn’t just an historic home – it’s also an art gallery (the £7.70 admission price I mentioned includes both house and gallery)! The wing that used to be Ealing’s library has been turned into a gallery space, and the inaugural exhibition is by Anish Kapoor. I have to confess that whilst I certainly recognise Kapoor’s name, I’m not terribly familiar with his work, and this is the first exhibition of his that I’ve seen. I read before going that his “sculptures echo Soane’s complex use of mirrors and light and will enable visitors to Pitzhanger to see Soane’s architecture from a fresh perspective,” and I must have skimmed over the part about the mirrors, because what I was expecting from “sculptures” was certainly not this!

To be honest, at first glance I was underwhelmed, because it just appeared to be some mirrors on a wall. But after interacting with them, I realised they were actually pretty fun! I’m not sure if I necessarily saw the connection to Pitzhanger Manor, but it didn’t really matter because they were a good time, and people inside were really friendly due to obviously enjoying themselves as well (a lady offered to take our photo, as seen above).

 

The only critical comment I would make is that aside from an introductory panel to the exhibition, there was virtually no text inside, but I guess sometimes it’s better to experience than to just stand there reading something (my friend also told me they had a problem with people touching the mirrors and leaving fingerprints, so please, look but don’t touch!). The gallery is also home to the shop, which features quite a lot of merchandise inspired by the bird wallpaper, because why wouldn’t you highlight your most fabulous feature?

After finishing with the art gallery, we returned to the house to explore a few of the rooms in a bit more detail, including the basement, which talked about Soane’s desire to become a hermit (he apparently used to hide down there or wander his gardens pretending to be one, which I can certainly relate to), which is perhaps indicative of his mental state near the time he decided to sell Pitzhanger. He was feeling depressed because both his sons were ne’er do well types who had no desire to follow in his footsteps and become architects, as he was hoping, and because Eliza was suffering from ill health and disliked being in the country. I’m sorry that Soane had such a hard time of it, but I did like all the masks on the walls used to illustrate his changing moods.

Because my friend works here and gave me a special tour which is probably not the normal Pitzhanger experience, I don’t think it would be right for me to give Pitzhanger a score, as I normally would. But I will tell you what I liked and disliked. It is a gorgeous house, and it is clear that a lot of love and care have gone into its restoration. I also think the inaugural art exhibition is fun and interactive, but not very much else in the house was. There were a few areas for children to get more involved, and the Eating Room had some sound effects, but other than a few faux old books you could flip through to learn more about Soane’s life, and a neat little moving timeline diorama, there wasn’t a whole lot for adults to do other than admire the property. I think they would do well in future to try to get a few more artefacts and things in (maybe Soane’s Lincoln’s Inn Fields House could loan something?) to make the house more of an experience, because for £7.70, it is fairly small (there were only a couple of rooms open on each floor, maybe seven rooms overall?), even with the art gallery attached. Still, I’m glad I got to check it out on opening weekend, and thoroughly enjoyed my experience there, thanks in no small part to my friend.

 

London: “Spare Parts” @ the Science Gallery

I think it’s fair to say that I was pretty excited about the opening of the Science Gallery and their first exhibition, “Hooked,” on addiction, and shared that enthusiasm in my post last month. Which is why their current exhibition comes as something of a disappointment. (If you’ve read my post on the Migration Museum, you will notice that I’m wearing the same outfit as in this post. This is because I visited both on the same day, not because I have a weird closet full of twenty sets of the same outfit, like Jerry’s girlfriend in that one episode of Seinfeld. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Based on my initial positive experience (and my passion for Kappacasein’s grilled cheese) as well as my promise to blog about their next exhibition in a more timely fashion, I went out to see “Spare Parts” only a week after it opened. Like the previous exhibition, this was free, and I’m glad, because I got a taste of the general underwhelmingness of this exhibition right from the start. We walked in and were greeted by the first piece of art, which was supposed to be a series of four lights that flashed when you put your hands on some sensors, but it wasn’t super obvious where the sensors were at first, and even after I figured it out, they didn’t do anything (I know the lights are on in the photo, but they didn’t flash on or off no matter where I put my hands). This didn’t bode well.

The theme of “Spare Parts” was meant to be the “art and science of organ transplantation and tissue regeneration” which sounds interesting enough, but I don’t think that came across well at all in most of the pieces. “Hooked” was made up of a series of themed galleries, and even though I don’t think the themes were always super clear, at least the space was divided in an atmospheric way so that you felt you were having an experience whilst progressing through the exhibition. “Spare Parts” was far more open, and there didn’t seem to be any smaller themes at all within the larger theme of body tissues.

Also, I presumed that many of the pieces here were meant to be interactive, or at least reactive, like the typewriter that was meant to type stream-of-consciousness thoughts, or “New Organs of Creation,” which was supposed to play sounds unattainable by the human voice. I think I may have misunderstood the descriptions that were in the exhibition slightly, as I got the impression that we were supposed to speak to both pieces to get them to react (so apparently I kept saying “It was the best of times, it was the blurst of times” to the typewriter for no reason, as it was never going to type it. I must have looked like an idiot), though according to the online description, they were already programmed to do whatever they were going to do and my presence was never meant to have an effect. Either way, since they weren’t doing anything, they were rather pointless.

Therefore, I was excited when I found one interactive element, or at least one that sounded interactive – a 3D printer where you could print a miniature body part (not one of your actual body parts, but you could choose one from a pre-programmed selection, which is still quite cool). But it said to ask a member of staff for help, and sadly, they were all huddled in the corner having an in-depth conversation about somebody’s wedding. Marcus even approached them to try to get them to help, and they completely ignored him. Not cool. I get that the pay is probably crappy (if they’re even paid!), but c’mon, at least make an attempt. I was pretty pissed off to be honest, but I just wandered away and returned about ten minutes later to find that one of them had finally broken away from the conversation and was willing to help us (and to be fair, she was perfectly nice once we had her attention, it was just getting it that was the issue). Because the printing process took about fifteen minutes, and we’d already seen most of the exhibition, we just requested one ear between us. The end result is pretty neat, though I wish we had been able to obtain it on our first attempt!

I did find a few more interactive pieces, like a giant pair of plastic globes you were supposed to wear over your ears whilst walking around the exhibition, and some pictures of organs you could colour (somebody needs to sharpen the coloured pencils though!), although the wall where you were supposed to be able to hear your own heartbeat was just a wall with some insulation over it (as you can see above the previous paragraph), and not actually fun at all. At least some comic relief was provided by a video of an artist who had received a kidney transplant dancing around the desert in a very tight bodysuit. There was a central space in the exhibition that I think was meant to be for various activities like playing a “Superturd” card game and grafting a cactus, but other than a pack of “Superturd” cards sitting on a pedestal, where they seemed to be more of a display than something you could pick up and play, none of these activities were in evidence at the time of our visit.

Because of the lack of text outside of the object labels, which in most cases weren’t comprehensive enough for me to fully understand the intent behind a piece, as well as the disappointing lack of interactivity, we finished with the exhibition in about half an hour (and it wouldn’t have even been that long if we hadn’t had to hang around for a bit waiting for the ear to print). I like that they offer a take-home element (like the 3D printed body part, or the cool terracotta tokens in “Hooked”), which, as a free museum, they certainly don’t have to do, but the rest of the exhibition was really not great. Honestly, it felt like a bit of a rush job, like they didn’t have time to set it up properly, an impression reinforced by the empty space behind the gallery still full of water bottles and used tea things that they evidently hadn’t yet cleared away after an event (and speaking as someone who has worked in both events and museums (and events at museums), sometimes you are too busy to clear something up immediately, which I completely understand, but if you have time to sit around and chat, you probably have time to tidy up. I’m turning into a real crab apple, aren’t I?). I will still go back because I like the concept of the gallery and the subjects of their upcoming exhibitions sound interesting, but I was really not impressed this time around. 1.5/5.

 

London: “Room to Breathe” @ the Migration Museum

The Migration Museum is part of a project that was started in 2013 to help tell the stories of immigrants in Britain (London in particular). They have had an exhibition space in Lambeth since 2017, but I’m sorry to say I hadn’t made it there until now. They bill themselves as “the UK’s first museum dedicated to exploring how the movement of people to and from Britain across the ages has shaped who we are as individuals – and as a nation,” and though I am aware of an earlier immigration museum located at 19 Princelet Street in London, I think they have a point. The Princelet Street Museum is only open to the public one or two days a year, and I’m not even sure if they do that anymore, since their website hasn’t been updated since 2017. Believe me, since I work in a local authority-run museum, I understand all too well the many challenges facing the museum sector these days, but as a volunteer manager, I am also very aware of how many people are out there willing to give their time and effort to help museums function, and I’ve kind of lost patience with museums that almost never open to the public. If the public can’t access it, is it even serving its function as a museum? So I agree that the Migration Museum is the first proper immigration museum that people can actually visit!

The museum’s current home is a warehouse type space not far from the Garden Museum, called The Workshop (equidistant from Vauxhall and Lambeth North) – it also seems to be the future home of the London Fire Brigade Museum, as there were a few small displays set up in the downstairs area whilst we were there including one on the role of the AFS during the Blitz (interesting because I just finished reading Dear Mrs. Bird before my visit (formulaic, and Emmy got on my nerves, but it was still rather sweet) and the main character is a volunteer for the AFS). But since it’s not officially there yet, I’ll just be discussing the Migration Museum, which is located on the first floor of The Workshop, and is free to visit.

The building isn’t in the most attractive part of London (I find Vauxhall in general to feel a little like walking through a giant industrial estate) and the stairwell up to the museum wasn’t particularly promising either, but once we were inside, we were warmly welcomed and given an introduction to the exhibition. The gallery hosts one temporary exhibition at a time, and the current one is called “Room to Breathe” and runs until summer 2019 (their own vague date, not mine). From their website: “Room to Breathe is an immersive experience inviting you to discover stories from generations of new arrivals to Britain. Journey through a series of rooms filled with personal narratives and objects that bring to life the struggles, joys, creativity and resilience of living in a new land.”

You are encouraged to touch and interact with the objects in each room, which is in part set up like a house, with a bedroom followed by a kitchen. So I sat on the bed, petted the stuffed pig, had a look through some family photo albums, opened drawers, and just generally made myself at home. We were the only people in this space, so I really did feel like it was our own private room to explore, and took full advantage (I even discovered an EP of Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus” in one of the drawers, which made me laugh, though I much prefer the version from the Planet of the Apes Musical). There were stories and experiences of various immigrants written on pieces of cloth hanging from objects throughout the room, and I enjoyed reading them all.

  

I thought the kitchen was great too, as each spice and ingredient on the shelves had someone’s personal story of immigration written on the back, as well as the reason that particular ingredient reminded them of their homeland. There were even some family recipes, and you were invited to write down your own favourite ingredient from home, though I don’t really think doughnuts and frozen custard count as ingredients, so I didn’t write anything. If you sat down at the table, it lit up and told the story of one family through a cartoon projected onto the table, which I thought was really cool. Apparently, they actually host cooking classes in this space (there’s one on Nigerian cooking on 10th April) which is a neat idea.

One of the rooms in here was an artists’ studio that is hosting different artists during the run of the exhibition. I believe Ceyda Oskay was the artist during our visit, though I think she’s only there in person on Sundays to lead craft sessions and various workshops. There was a table set up with watercolours and things where you could presumably make your own art, but there was a group in there at the time of our visit, so we didn’t really get a chance to participate, and instead headed into the school room, where we could read about people’s experiences of coming into the British educational system as immigrants, and the barbershop, where we got to sit in very comfortable barbers’ chairs, and watch someone else do the same on a screen in front of us, as they discussed their family stories of immigration (mine was a guy with a Hungarian mother speaking to his Turkish Cypriot barber).

Because the previously mentioned group was using the cafe and shop space for a conference, we weren’t able to go in to that area, so the last room of our visit was one where we were invited to write the name of someone who helped us when we needed it most on a box, and suspend it from the ceiling. Unfortunately, they were out of boxes, but the ones that were there looked really cool. There was also a board outside where you could write your story of migration, which I wanted to do, but they were out of paper for that too (they might have had more if I’d asked, but I didn’t bother). Also out here was a series of portraits of various immigrants, and I found the story of a woman who came over from the Czech Republic very relatable when she mentioned how even though Czechia was where she came from and she enjoyed going back for visits, because she’d been in Britain for so long, she felt her life was there now, and that was home. So when she goes back to Czechia she visits her family and a few close friends, but she doesn’t feel that she’s really a big part of their lives anymore, because she isn’t there, which is exactly how I feel. My life is very much in London now, and though I enjoy going back to Cleveland for visits, it doesn’t feel like home anymore. I’ve gradually fallen out of touch with all but my closest friends over the years, and I find that I have much more in common with my British friends and colleagues because I see them all the time, and we have the same sort of lifestyles. It can sometimes be hard going back “home” and feeling like you don’t belong there anymore, but that’s part of the immigrant experience, and the woman featured in the exhibition articulated it better than I am.

I know a lot of Americans cling to the expat label, but I have settled here and taken on citizenship – even though I occasionally get in moods where I talk about moving back because I get fed up with the cost of housing and how crowded everything is in London, when it comes down to it, I’m just not very motivated to return to the US. I’d hate to give up all my holiday time, for one thing! I know I’ve had an easier time of it than immigrants from many other countries, thanks to already speaking English (but harder than some due to all the visa processes I had to go through, which I was fine with because of all the other benefits of being in the EU. Sigh), but I do feel like more of an immigrant than an expat (the word expat seems to imply more of a temporary stay, where you don’t really try to interact with the locals, which is definitely not my experience), and I could definitely relate to many of the experiences discussed here. I think this is a wonderful project and a really fun exhibition to visit, and I hope they have luck in finding a permanent home because I think now more than ever, the contributions immigrants have made to Britain need to be recognised and celebrated. I’ll definitely be returning for any future exhibitions. 3.5/5.

I spotted this awesome carving on a building near the museum. I love the cat!

London: John Ruskin @ Two Temple Place


I hope you’re not sick of these annual shots of the exterior of Two Temple Place, because here’s another one. But really, I think we can all take another moment to appreciate that weather vane. I guess I’m never all that interested in the topics Two Temple Place chooses for its annual exhibition, but John Ruskin ranked near the bottom in terms of my interest levels (OK, he’s better than Eric Gill, but let’s face it, it’s not hard to top that molester), so I didn’t exactly rush out to see it. But it is free, and I’ve blogged about it every other year since discovering Two Temple Place existed, so I figured I might as well make the effort (really I blame that Ancient Egypt exhibit, which was the first thing I saw there, because it was really good and now I feel compelled to keep returning in hopes something else will match it, even though nothing else has come close).

I never know if photos will be allowed during a particular exhibition – it seems like every year when Marcus brings his camera, they aren’t allowing photography, and if he doesn’t have it, they do allow pictures, but this year the fates aligned and we had both camera and permission to use it (although photos were still not allowed of about a third of the items there due to copyright reasons).  “John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing” runs until the 22nd April, and clearly waiting a bit into the exhibition’s run to go see it did nothing to reduce the crowds, as it was really really full when we walked inside, though it probably didn’t help (hurt?) that it was a really nice day outside (for February).

  

All I knew about John Ruskin going in was that he was in with the Pre-Raphaelite crowd, and that he was disgusted by vaginas, or at least, his wife Effie Gray’s vagina, as their marriage was allegedly never consummated, so I was eager to learn more (Effie later married Millais, and had eight children with him, so I don’t think she was really the problem). And whilst I did learn more about certain aspects of his life, I still felt the exhibition was very lacking as a whole when it came to biographical detail. About his marriage to the aforementioned Effie, for example, all it said was that he had produced a particular series of drawings whilst honeymooning with Effie in Venice. Nothing about the annulment or controversies surrounding his marriage (I could understand why they didn’t want to get into the nitty gritty of his sex life (or lack thereof), as it’s a fairly hoity toity venue, but they could have at least mentioned that the marriage wasn’t a happy one).

But it certainly did go into Ruskin’s interests, which were apparently pretty much everything, including geology, art, architecture, botany, social reform, politics, literature, birds, and many others – pretty much everything except sex by the looks of it, though there are rumours out there about some unsavoury proclivities he may have had (on Wikipedia, not in the exhibition, of course). He was friends with JMW Turner and other artists, and was also a lecturer at Oxford, though apparently he suffered from mental illness as he aged, and people would attend his lectures just to mock him, which made me feel bad for him.

As you may have guessed from the long list of subjects he saw fit to write about, Ruskin was a man of strong passions, and also hated a number of things, fifteen of which were listed on the signage shown above, and this gave me the only laugh of the exhibition (not really a complaint, because I wasn’t expecting the subject matter to be funny, so maybe I should rephrase that as being happy I got a chuckle out of it at all). The things Ruskin loathed (mostly architecture-related) are mostly not the sort of things on which I have strong opinions of my own (surprising, I know), but I’m not overly keen on rail travel – it beats air travel, which I’m sure Ruskin would have hated even more, but I’m still not keen on sharing personal space with strangers for a significant length of time. Especially the type of people who talk on their phones in the quiet carriage, who are the worst.

  

For a man with such a clearly defined aesthetic, there actually didn’t seem to be all that much art by John Ruskin within the exhibition – much of it was simply by contemporaries he admired, or modern artists from Sheffield, which is where Ruskin lived and created a museum, and is from where many of these pieces were on loan. But he did produce some lovely botanical and geological illustrations – Marcus particularly admired his drawings of cleavage (in rocks, that is) – and he was clearly a man who understood ducks, judging by his delightful description of them: “you have to consider whether the bird altogether may not be more than a fat, cheerful little stomach, and a spotted waistcoat with legs to it…fat, floating, daintiest darlings.”

  

This exhibition also seemed to be a bit smaller than they usually are. I do feel like they shrink every year, but this one had definitely left out a room or two, as I distinctly remember passing through two or three rooms upstairs before arriving in the main gallery in the past, and this year there was only one room before it, and that room had a handful of objects in, but no captions. Like I always say, I wanted more information throughout, but I suspect they purposely keep captions short to try to sell their own guidebooks (which I’m sure are lovely, but I’m just not willing to spend that kind of money for something I’m going to look through once).

  

And whilst I think Two Temple Place is a fabulous building, I’m not crazy about the atmosphere. It always seems to be full of rich, snobby old white people who feel entitled to block your view of something for as long as they want to, and are wilfully oblivious to your attempts to see around them. Some of that may be because of the time of day I normally visit, but I always visit museums on a week day if I can, and I generally see a more varied audience than this. The people working there are sometimes nice, but more typically, they’re more like old-school art gallery stewards, eager to pounce for any minor infraction, which also makes me feel uncomfortable. I’d really like it if they took this amazing space and used it in a way that was more inviting and might attract more diverse audiences, because John Ruskin, British Jazz, and Eric Gill (especially Eric Gill, blech!) really aren’t big crowd pleasers.

After viewing this exhibition, I do feel a bit more sympathetic towards Ruskin, as no one deserves to be mocked for their mental illness, but I definitely don’t think he’s going to top my list of favourite artists or writers any time soon (especially if some of the rumours about him are true). As always, I wanted more content, and a more relaxed attitude from staff (volunteers?) and visitors alike. I wanted to score this somewhere between “Sussex Modernism” and “Rhythm and Reaction,” but I see I’ve given the former 2.5/5, and the latter 3/5, so that really leaves me nowhere to go. So I’ll opt for 2.5/5, because I remember “Rhythm and Reaction” as being a bit more interesting, though I liked the art here better than that of “Sussex Modernism,” especially the wall of bird drawings and that fabulous bird lampshade (below left).