London: Port City @ Museum of London Docklands

I will take any excuse to go to Museum of London Docklands because it is only a short DLR ride away from Greenwich Market, home of my beloved Brazilian churros, so when I saw that they had a new exhibition called Port City, I thought, “Churros plus maritime history?! Sign me up!” I normally work on the days the churro stand is there, so I don’t get to visit often, but I had a day of TOIL to use in early March, so I took full advantage and planned to head out east. However, my luck being what it is, there was a Tube strike that day. Fortunately, the DLR was still running so we did manage to get there via a more convoluted route, but because we had to leave for the museum earlier than we were planning due to the longer journey time, I didn’t have time to attire myself in a vintage-inspired nautical outfit, as I otherwise definitely would have. I know, no major loss to the world, but I do like to theme my clothes if possible!


Port City is a free exhibition located in Museum of Docklands’ relatively small temporary exhibition space, the same one where I saw the Havering Hoard, Secret Rivers, and many others. It runs until 8 May 2022 (and apparently opened back in October – where have I been?). The exhibition “traces more than 200 years of extraordinary experiences and intense activity on a river that has always been essential to the city’s survival”, though seemed to focus mostly on the 20th century.


Obviously, the Thames is a hugely important part of London and probably dear to every Londoner’s heart (certainly my own), but we often don’t think of London still being a major port, not least because we’re inland, but also because most shipping operations these days happen at a “mega port” about thirty miles outside the city, so it was interesting to explore that side of London.


My absolute favourite thing in the exhibition, though excessively imperialist by today’s standards, was a map of the world from the perspective of Britain as the centre of the still fairly flourishing empire of the 1920s. I spent about ten minutes examining it on account of the little animals with talk bubbles drawn all over the map, particularly the polar bears. I had just remarked on their being incorrectly located in the South Pole when I noticed one of them had a talk bubble saying, “It’s a long way to Tipperary” and another saying, “This is all wrong! We belong at the North Pole!” Nice.


There were some interactive elements to this exhibition, though sadly the ambergris pictured above was not one of them. I excitedly reached my hand in the hole to touch it, only to be blocked by plexiglass that was invisible from the side. However, there were a few boxes filled with authentic smells of the docks, some of them surprisingly pleasant. We were the only people in the exhibition, so I was able to pull my mask down for a bit to give them a good old whiff.

I also loved the wall of nautical inspired phrases and London place names. You could pull out different bricks to read how these terms came to be, and I spent a good long while pulling out all of them. By the way, the horrible sounding Mudchute, a stop on the DLR that I’ve mentioned before, was named after muddy engineering overspill, so it was just as unpleasant as the name implies (I don’t think the overspill is there these days, but I suspect it’s still not particularly nice).


Before we went into the museum, Marcus commented that the statue that used to stand out front was no longer there, and neither of us could remember who it was depicting. Turns out it was of the slaver Robert Milligan who helped to create West India Docks, the area the museum is in, which was initially built to house sugar processed by enslaved people in the West Indies, and his statue was understandably removed in 2020. So it was helpful that the exhibition mentioned it and saved us the trouble of looking it up!

Apart from the odd snippet of pertinent facts like that, the exhibition was largely object and image driven, with only small amounts of information on the signage, so although it was quite visually engaging and interactive, I would have liked to see more text. I think it would have been interesting if it focused a bit more on the early history of Docklands, as that was a relatively short section before jumping into more recent history, and I tend to prefer Georgian and Victorian history to the 20th century. Also, though it’s a depressing subject, it might have been nice if they’d included more information on how areas like Canary Wharf have turfed out the poor and been turned into the hideous high-rise monstrosities they are today (I absolutely loathe Canary Wharf and Canada Water, in case you couldn’t tell). However, as it was a free exhibition, I really can’t criticise too much, and being the only people inside was an added and delightful bonus, though for the sake of the museum and the very friendly and enthusiastic staff member who greeted us, I do hope their visitor numbers pick up. 3/5 (the churros, as always, were a solid 5/5).

London: The Moon @ the National Maritime Museum

I’m trying my best to keep to a Halloweeny theme in October (I don’t even think Halloweeny is a word, but it doesn’t stop me from using it constantly), and even though this exhibition wasn’t directly related to Halloween, what could be more atmospheric on Halloween night than a big old full moon (or even a spooky crescent moon)? I’ve always loved the moon, as I think I’ve said on several occasions – my old bedroom was star and moon themed, and I currently have four moon tattoos (with probably more to come) – there’s just something about the whole nighttime/dark side of human nature aspect of it that I can relate to.  The Moon exhibition is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, and runs until 5th January 2020. This is the first special exhibition the National Maritime Museum has had in quite a while (or at least, the first one in a while that has been worth seeing), and you know I’m always up for an excuse to get Brazilian churros from Greenwich Market, so off to Greenwich I went!

This exhibition was a little bit cheaper than their exhibitions normally are, at £10 (half off for National Art Pass), but it was also a bit smaller than normal. The woman at the ticket desk was really lovely and friendly (it’s always flattering when they ask if you’re under 25, especially now that I’ve hit 34…), which was nice, since I’ve encountered a few grumps there in the past. Amazingly, you were actually allowed to take photos, which is almost never the case at the National Maritime Museum – had I known, I would have brought Marcus, but as it is, you’re left with my crappy phone pics. Hopefully you can still get some sense of how pleasingly dark and lunar it was inside.

The gallery was divided into four different sections, each with a different theme, and opened with an exploration of how different cultures have viewed the moon throughout history, and the role that it plays in society and religion. This included the really cool moon mask shown above, some gorgeous silver moon jewellery, and a few bits and bobs from the Romans, Egyptians, and Mesopotamians, including a little tablet inscribed with lunar eclipse rituals.


Not being a big ancient history fan, the more interesting section to me was about the moon and the role it played in four humours theory medicine right up until the 19th century. I loved the crescent moon apothecary sign! And of course the term “lunatic” derives from the moon and the role it was thought to play in human behaviour (it was thought to influence moisture in the brain, which in turn could lead to fits of “lunacy”). The exhibition highlighted the sad case of James Norris (who I think I mentioned in the Bedlam exhibition write-up), who was kept chained up for fourteen years in Bedlam before campaigners demanded his release (he died soon afterwards). Pierrot is kind of a creep (since he’s a clown), but I would definitely hang out with his charming moon friend.


The second section was more scientific in nature, and I guess was trying to tie in the moon to the National Maritime Museum’s collections, because they really pushed the moon as navigational aid and bringer of tides angle (I mean, it is a navigational aid and bringer of tides, so it’s not really an angle as such, but they were clearly trying to get the whole maritime theme in there in a way that felt a bit forced). And I know I’m always showing you that portrait of young, dishy Joseph Banks, so you might as well look at one of the fatter, less dishy older man he became.


This part of the exhibition was full of a lot of drawings of the moon, a moon globe (much cooler and rarer than an Earth globe), and some Victorian photographs taken by a guy of a plaster model of the moon he had made that actually won some prizes for photography (they knew he used plaster models, they just didn’t care because they were good photographs. Have totally forgotten guy’s name though). I really hate Pink Floyd (and now I know that song is going to get stuck in my head), but I liked the first photograph of the dark side of the moon, taken by Soviet craft Luna 3 in 1959.


The third section was about the space race, and I suppose this had all the exciting items that most people would have come to see (certainly judging by the people gathered around the cases – most of the exhibition was pleasantly empty, but there was a small crowd in here who fortunately dispersed by the time I made it to that side of the display), including Neil Armstrong’s “Snoopy helmet” (so named for the flaps that bore a resemblance to the cartoon dog’s ears), a watch worn on the moon, the camera equipment that was taken on the Apollo 11 mission, and a whole bunch of chunks of moon rock (the US brought back something like 340 kg of it and Nixon presented a little chunk to every country in the world. You can see the UK’s fragment further down in this post).


Me being me, I was much more interested in the weird stuff, like the display about HG Wells’ The First Men in the Moon, which was quite scientifically accurate about some things, but not about the aliens (there was a little model alien here based on Wells’ description), Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon, which was playing on a video screen (it totally creeps me out, but I like it), and of course, the excellent Soviet and American propaganda posters (I have to say that I vastly prefer the Soviet style. What’s with all those lame eagles everywhere on the American one? It looks like a joke poster).


The final (small) section was about the future of the moon. Are we going on more moon missions? Will people ever colonise the moon (or will America just exploit its natural resources?)? These and other questions were discussed here, and there was a touchscreen where you could answer some questions yourself and see what other visitors had said, one of the only interactive elements in the exhibition (I don’t consider touchscreens that simply play a video on command to be interactive. They’re just kind of boring).


Although there weren’t as many interactive elements as I’d have liked, I found the staging of this exhibition to be quite cool, with a lot of interesting visual effects that really added to the atmosphere (or lack thereof, since we’re talking about the moon). The was a large lunar calendar on one wall, a big rotating moon on another, and of course the giant lit-up crescent moon shown at the start of the post. It felt like a space I could have hung out in all day (if there had been more content to read), and I would definitely have the big old crescent moon in my house (which is exactly what a guy did for an art project, as you’ll see at the end of the post).


Though I don’t really believe in it (I’m more of a non-practising, non-theistic Pagan, except when I’m in the mood to whip up a spell), I would have liked to have seen more about the witchy aspects of the moon, as the exhibition focused more on ancient and mainstream religions. Even more mythology would have been interesting – there was a chart listing all the different faces that people see in the moon, depending on hemisphere, which was really neat, and I wanted more of that – but I did only pay a fiver, and for that price, I’m pretty happy with the size of the exhibition, just wish it had been a bit more interactive. I still enjoyed the environment of the exhibit (definitely helped that there were very few other visitors) and all the great moon themed art and artefacts (though I could have done with more of that in the shop, instead of boring old t-shirts and magnets). And of course I loved my pre-exhibition churro in Greenwich Market. 3/5 for The Moon exhibition.



London: Death in the Ice @ the National Maritime Museum

Yeah, that’s my butt.  Just so you don’t think I’ve gone full-on Tina Belcher and am posting pictures of strangers’ butts.

Unless you’re brand new to my blog (in which case, welcome!), I’m sure you all know by now how interested I am in the grim history of polar exploration. John Franklin’s final expedition was perhaps the grimmest of them all (not only did everyone die, but there is also evidence that the last people left alive ate the bodies of their dead fellow crew members), so when I heard last year that there would be a Franklin exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in summer 2017, I was pretty excited. And now here we are, less than a fortnight after the exhibition opened, and I’ve already been to see it!

“Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story of Franklin’s Final Expedition” costs £12, and is located in the basement gallery of the National Maritime Museum. As usual, I balked at paying that much, so I went with Marcus so we could take advantage of the National Rail 2-for-1. There was initially a bit of confusion going into the exhibit because there was a sign at the top of the stairs saying that no “rucksacks” were allowed in the exhibition, so Marcus went to drop his off at the cloakroom, only to find there was a £1 charge (which I know is not that much, but still). The guy working there said that he could in fact take it into the exhibition, he just might have to carry it in front of him, which was fine. So we went down, only for the woman at the entrance to tell him to put his backpack in what she claimed was the “free cloakroom.” Fortunately, after we asked if he could just carry it instead, she did allow him to bring it in, which saved us a trip up the stairs (and a pound), but it did show that there is a lack of communication amongst the staff about official museum policies. One thing there is no confusion about, however, is their policy on photography in their special exhibit gallery. It’s never allowed, and this exhibit was no exception.

The exhibit space was dark and atmospheric, which I quite liked, but it clearly wasn’t a hit with everyone, because I immediately noticed a woman there who was standing right on top of all the labels, and using the flashlight on her phone to read them, despite the large print guides that were available (I did hear a security guard offer her one, but she apparently preferred her method, other visitors be damned). The first two galleries provided a bit of background on the history of British polar exploration generally, starting with Martin Frobisher, and some background on Franklin’s expedition specifically.  However, it paled in comparison to the excellent and comprehensive history available at the Polar Museum in Cambridge, and I think that if you didn’t know much about Franklin going in, it was probably a little lacking. Because I don’t want to repeat the museum’s mistakes, let me give you a little background on Franklin and his expedition here:

John Franklin was a Royal Navy officer with extensive experience of surveying the Arctic. However, though he had mapped much of the Canadian coast, he still hadn’t uncovered the fabled Northwest Passage (a common belief for centuries was that there was open water at the North Pole, and if you could just find an entrance to it, you could cut journey times to the other side of the world in half), so agreed to undertake one final voyage in 1845 to try to find it. He took two ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, crewed by 105 men and 23 officers, including Francis Crozier, who captained the Terror. Both ships had been used on a previous Arctic expedition, but to keep up with the latest technology, were now outfitted with steam engines and propellers in addition to reinforced bows and iron rudders (which added a lot of extra weight). Unfortunately, the work had been done in a hurry, and wasn’t of the best quality. In addition, Franklin, though experienced, was quite old to be undertaking this kind of voyage (59 in 1845, which I know is not that old by modern standards (just look at Ranulph Fiennes!), but Franklin wasn’t exactly fighting fit), and like most Europeans, was disdainful of Inuit ways, which might have helped the men survive after they abandoned ship. No one is entirely sure exactly what happened on the voyage, which is what makes Franklin’s expedition so intriguing even to this day, but it is certain that they all died, some while they were still on the ships, and many more in camps on land as they tried in vain to reach civilisation, and some recent discoveries (as discussed later in the post), might eventually help shed more light on it.  Now, back to the exhibition!

The third, and largest gallery was meant to be roughly the dimensions of the lower deck of the Erebus, Franklin’s flagship (I’m guessing they specifically arranged it that way, but perhaps it was just a happy coincidence), and this gallery had sort of sailory audio effects, with the sounds of men mumbling and coughing, and boards creaking all around us. I liked that this helped me imagine a bit what it would have been like inside the ship, and to further the effect, they had seats in there the size of a ship’s chest, which would have been shared by two men, in which they would have kept all their personal belongings (they weren’t very big). The downside of Franklin’s expedition being a complete and utter disaster (besides everyone dying, of course), is that aside from some letters mailed from Greenland, before Erebus and Terror set out for Nunavut, and a note found inside a cache (more on that later), there is virtually no information about what happened on board the ships – no diaries, logs, or unmailed letters have survived, so the museum didn’t really have a lot to say about ship life, other than using Franklin’s previous Arctic voyages, and other voyages around that time to infer what might have happened. Thus there was a display of games (used to keep up morale), accounts of the plays men often performed in on these kinds of voyages (again, morale), and a cat o’nine tails in a display about discipline, and not a whole lot else.

Anyway, because there wasn’t much to be said about the expedition itself, the exhibition quickly moved on to the search efforts. The expedition had been supplied for three years, so nobody thought too much of it when a couple years went by without hearing word from Franklin. Typically, ships would get frozen into the pack ice, and were then trapped until the summer thaw, which didn’t happen some years, so they’d have to spend another year trapped in the ice (more than one other expedition met disaster that way, though not to the extent that Franklin’s did). But when 1848 rolled around and nobody had heard anything, people, especially Jane, Franklin’s wife, began to get concerned, and the Royal Navy sent out some search parties, in addition to offering a £10,000 reward to anyone who discovered the fate of the ships (which was a lot of money back then. Hell, it’s still a decent chunk of cash now!). My favourite of these search parties was led by Dr. John Rae, a Scottish surgeon who befriended many of the Inuit and was a successful explorer because he used their survival techniques and lived off the land. Rae was the one who got closest to the truth, again, because he listened to the Inuit, which is why many people in Britain hated him, not least Jane Franklin, and when he dared to say that there was evidence that the men had resorted to cannibalism, his reputation was ruined.  (There was a letter here from Charles Dickens to a newspaper saying that he thought the stories of cannibalism were just the Inuit trying to cover their tracks, because they probably murdered and ate the men themselves, because you can’t trust an Inuit (his words). It made me hate him even more than I already did.)

Sadly, John Rae only rated about a paragraph in this exhibit, though a little more space was given to some of the other search parties, and some of the artefacts they’d left behind in the Arctic (including a metal food box with polar bear tooth marks in it!). But the main artefacts I was there to see were from the Erebus and Terror themselves. Yes, after over 160 years, the ships were discovered at the bottom of a bay off the coast of King William Island. The Erebus was found in 2014, and the Terror even more recently, in September 2016, hence the timing of the exhibition. There was a video of scuba divers exploring the wrecks, which was pretty cool, and some neat stuff that they’d dredged up from the deep, including the ship’s bell, various metal bits and pieces, and even a bit of cloth from a uniform. There were also artefacts found in the camp of the last men to die (it’s thought about 30 or 40 men made it to the northern coast of mainland Canada. Inuit actually encountered some of them, but they didn’t help them because the Inuit themselves were starving that year, and had no food to spare), and these were really neat, including a hymnbook, a small beaded purse, a pair of mittens with hearts stitched into the palms, and a few pieces of silverware with one of the officers’ family crests on them which had initials crudely scratched into them, so it’s thought that the crew might have shared out the officers’ possessions after they died and discipline broke down.

Speaking of artefacts, there was also the aforementioned letter left by some of the officers in a cache, initially in 1846 when the voyage was still going relatively well, saying that they’d wintered on Beechey Island, where three crew members had died, and then again in 1848 after the boats sank and Franklin had died (he died in June 1847, probably well before most of his men. As I’ve said, he was not in the best of shape, so the voyage would have been quite taxing even without starvation and frostbite and everything else) along with 9 officers and 15 men.  I saw a facsimile of this at the Polar Museum, and was excited to see the real thing, but unfortunately, the real thing was all ripped and stained, and harder to read than the facsimile!  The same could be said of Jane Franklin’s letters to her husband, sent when she thought he was still alive (obviously, he never got them, and they were returned to her), not because the condition was poor, but because she had absolutely appalling handwriting.

My absolute favourite part of this exhibition was the medical section. In one room, they had very clear photographs of the bodies of three men (William Braine, John Hartnell, and John Torrington) who had been buried at the first camp on Beechey Island and exhumed in the 1980s. They were still remarkably well preserved on account of the cold, and it might have been a little grisly for some, but I loved reading accounts of their injuries and what diseases they might have been suffering from whilst getting to look at their actual remains (and I wasn’t the only one…there was a child in there asking his mother which corpse was her favourite. I don’t much like kids, but this was a child after my own heart!). There was also a display on what might have killed the men of the Terror and Erebus, because starvation alone apparently doesn’t explain all the deaths, especially because a cache of food was found near some of the bodies. Theories range from botulism, scurvy, tuberculosis, hypothermia, lead poisoning (the food for the expedition was prepared in a hurry, and some lead solder contaminated it during the canning process, plus the ship had a water distillation system that also leached lead), and others, but none of those conditions provides a complete explanation (it was probably a variety of causes of death that did them all in), and the exhibit explained why, as well as offering a helpful interactive screen showing a breakdown of exactly how men did die on other naval expeditions of that period. The interactives in this exhibit were generally quite good, with a few that played short videos of Inuit oral testimony that explained what they witnessed happening to Franklin’s men and ships (recorded by modern Inuit people, from oral traditions that had been passed down), maps of the probable expedition route, and a 3D virtual model of the wreck of the Erebus that you could “explore.” Because it wasn’t too crowded when we visited, I actually got a good look at all of them, though of course the disease one was my favourite.

Although it was exciting getting to see some of the artefacts from Franklin’s final expedition, something about this exhibit just felt rushed to me…perhaps they wanted to get it out quickly in order to capitalise on interest about the discovery of the Terror? They mentioned how much time it takes to preserve artefacts that have been left underwater, and it seems to me like they hurried to get some out in time for the exhibition, when it might have been better if they’d held off for a year or two til there was more to look at, and maybe some conclusions could have been drawn from the ruins to tell us more about what went wrong. I also felt the content was a little lacking…I read Anthony Brandt’s The Man Who Ate His Boots (mainly about Franklin) a while back, and while the book wasn’t perfect, it was quite interesting because it pieced together what might have happened on the voyage from accounts given by Rae, other search parties, the Inuit, and modern historians. This exhibition really didn’t do that, perhaps because they didn’t want to use speculation rather than fact, but trying to tell more of a story about Franklin’s voyage would have made it a more cohesive exhibition, rather than it skipping abruptly from the interiors of the ships to search parties. It was interesting enough, it just didn’t give the complete picture (unlike their Emma Hamilton exhibition, which was excellently comprehensive). I’m glad we only paid £6, as it didn’t take that long to see it, and I don’t think it was worth £12. It runs until the 7th of January 2018, so you’ve got plenty of time to go visit, which I would do if you’re as keen on polar exploration as I am; otherwise, I think you can safely give this a miss and wait for their next special exhibition instead. 3/5.

London: Emma Hamilton @ the National Maritime Museum

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


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


Emma as a Bacchante, George Romney

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

Lady Emma Hamilton, as Cassandra

Emma as Cassandra, George Romney

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


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


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

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


Emma Lady Hamilton wearing Maltese Cross, Johann Heinrich Schmidt.

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


Nelson and Emma in Naples

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


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

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


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

London: Samuel Pepys; Plague, Fire, Revolution @ the National Maritime Museum


Certainly a Pepys exhibit was as good of an excuse as any to go eat churros visit Greenwich and the National Maritime Museum again.  I’d been avoiding the area for some months, as the last time I was there, the market was all tore up, and the Brazilian churro stand was nowhere to be seen.  Fortunately, I’m happy to report that Greenwich Market seems more or less back to normal, and the churro stand is back in its rightful spot every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.  Not that you HAVE to eat a churro if you go to Greenwich, but if the option to consume an oozing dulce de leche stuffed fried sugared pastry exists, why wouldn’t you choose it?!

Anyway, after getting the whole churro business out of the way (I’m obsessed! (and half hoping the owners read this and offer me free churros, but since they have no idea who the hell I am, that’s not likely)), we were free to pop over to the National Maritime Museum and see the Pepys thing.  Because in addition to churros, I also love Samuel Pepys, misogynistic philanderer though he was.  Admission with voluntary Gift Aid is £12, but you can drop it down to £10.80 if you decline the donation, or even better, £5.40 with a National Rail 2-for-1 and a friend (or in my case, partner, since I haven’t really got any friends).  Like all of the National Maritime Museum’s temporary exhibitions, it’s in the basement gallery, which is always bizarrely dark (I get the whole conservation thing, but it seems consistently dark, no matter what they’ve got in there.  You also can’t take pictures, perhaps because it’s so dark you couldn’t do it without a flash anyway), but reasonably spacious, so that they seem able to spread things out enough that people aren’t constantly on top of each other, which I appreciate.  We also visited on a Friday afternoon, which helped cut down on the crowds.  Basically, it was a far more pleasant experience than the Crime Museum exhibit all around, even if the material wasn’t quite as interesting.

Which is not to knock Pepys and his writing; he’s great, it was perhaps more that the information here was fairly basic, and given that I’ve spent a fair bit of time studying the latter half of the 17th century, there wasn’t very much to learn.  The exhibit tied together various historical events that happened during Pepys’s lifetime with his diary entries (or other writings, in the years after his diary finished).  But because Pepys journalled (is that a word?) from 1660-69, the bulk of the exhibition was devoted to London during those years.

The exhibit opened with the downfall of Charles I, explaining how a young Samuel Pepys was a witness to his execution, and including some Civil War artefacts.  It didn’t waste too much time on Cromwell and the Puritans, and why should it?  They were dreadful!  Good times were restored along with Charles II, and the exhibit went on to discuss the pleasures of Restoration-era life, including theatre, Charles II’s many mistresses (and Pepys’s fumbling attempts to fondle his maids and other female acquaintances), and the plague of 1665, followed by the Great Fire.  Everyone knows Pepys buried his Parmesan during the fire (one of the reasons I like him – hard Italian cheeses are my favourite, though I tend to favour pecorino over parmesan.  It’s saltier.  I would still happily nosh on a big ol’ wheel of parmesan though), but there were some lesser-known Pepys passages available here, especially in the interactive diary readers on the wall.  I was amused to read that he left Charles II’s coronation celebrations early, as he “needed a piss.”  Again, he’s a man after my own heart/small bladder.  Speaking of bladders, I briefly got excited when I saw a bladder stone on display here, hoping it was Pepys’s elusive one (which I’ve spent a good many hours trying to track down), but it was just there to show the approximate size his would have been (which probably means my research is correct, and Pepys’s stone is long-lost. It’s a shame, that).

There were some cool computery effects throughout, including a silhouettey performance of Macbeth, with Pepys’s comments on the play narrated over it (I liked the witches), a tracker that showed how many people died from plague over the course of 1665, and a bunch of flame effects in the Great Fire room, with a map that showed London being engulfed.  There were also a lot of genuinely neat artefacts – not so much from Pepys, as many of his possessions seem to have been destroyed, including the painting of Elizabeth that matched his own (poor, long-suffering Elizabeth.  Not only did she have to put up with all of Pepys’s crap, she died when she was only 29), but from the royals.  I loved the letter from Charles II to one of his mistresses (Louise de Kerouaille), who he called “Fubbs” because she had chubby cheeks (he even named his yacht Fubbs, after her).  I mean, the Fubbs thing was kind of charming, albeit mildly insulting, and he had fairly messy handwriting, which you probably wouldn’t expect from a king.  And there was a fantastic portrait of him leading the Navy as some kind of mer-creature, with lots of weird looking fish and things all around.  And one of James II wearing these spectacular sandals.

The exhibit moved on from 1660s London to the post-diary part of Pepys’s life, when he became Chief Secretary to the Admiralty, and was involved in all things naval, which is presumably why this exhibit was at the National Maritime Museum in the first place.  It also mentioned his interest in science, although in a backhanded way, as it stated he probably didn’t understand much of what was discussed at the Royal Society, despite being its president for a time.  (To be fair, Pepys himself admitted as much, but it still seemed a bit mean, as he was clearly a man who loved learning, even if some of the concepts were beyond him.)

Finally, it closed with the Glorious Revolution, which led to Pepys’s downfall in a way, as he was very close to James II, despite being Protestant himself.  He was accused of being a Catholic sympathiser and imprisoned for a time (there’s definitely a book out there that I’ve read about this,  but I can’t remember what it’s called).  Though his name was eventually cleared, it pretty much put an end to his career, especially as he was already in his late 50s at this point.  There were some excellent paintings of Pepys attending James’s coronation though, so at least something good came out of the whole fiasco.

I was asked to rate the exhibit (via computer survey, there wasn’t anyone there dying for my opinion or anything) immediately upon leaving, and gave it a 7/10, which translates to a 3.5/5 on my own rating system, and I think I’d like to stick with that assessment.  I didn’t learn very much that was new, but people who aren’t that knowledgeable about Pepys or Restoration London probably will learn a fair bit, and there were some fantastic paintings and letters here that everyone can enjoy.  Again, probably not a 12 quid exhibit, as it only takes about an hour (if that) to look through, but I definitely think the 2-for-1 price was more than fair.  I especially appreciated the lack of crowds.  Oh, and the posters advertising the exhibition are extremely excellent (pictured at the start); if they don’t sell you on going to see it, I’m not sure what will really.  Definitely worth a “Pepys,” this one (yes, I’ve used that joke before).

London: Ships, Clocks, & Stars + Longitude Punk’d

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And so my treks around London continue (for once, I think I might actually see every special exhibit currently here that I wanted to see, plus some I didn’t!).  Lured by those Brazilian churros yet again, I made my way out to Greenwich last week for the first time in months, only to discover that the churro stand isn’t in Greenwich Market on Wednesdays anymore.  Thankfully, I was planning on visiting some museums out there anyway, so my voyage was not made in vain (though I was very hungry and cranky going churro-less).

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Although I often don’t really see the point of steampunk, I’d nonetheless wanted to see Longitude Punk’d at the Royal Observatory for a while, and as £8.50 currently gets you a combined ticket to the Observatory and the special exhibit at the National Maritime Museum, there was really no time like the present.  I began with Ships, Clocks, and Stars: The Quest for Longitude, housed in the downstairs galleries of the National Maritime Museum, as it seemed like it would probably be the less interesting of the two exhibits.  I wasn’t wrong about that.

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Basically, as ship technology improved and sailors were able to travel farther distances, the main thing holding back exploration and navigation was the problem of calculating longitude at sea (well, and scurvy, but they were working on that too).  Latitude was no problem, as you can just do some quick calculations based on the angle between the North Star and the horizon (I use “you” in a general sense here, as I certainly am not going to be calculating any damn angles.  I hate geometry), but to calculate longitude, you need an extremely accurate clock, which for reasons I probably got into when I was writing about the Clockmakers’ Museum, was a tricky thing to achieve at sea.  To this end, rewards of up to £20,000 were offered, until John Harrison came through with his crazily complex clock. Actually, I’m pretty sure I also said this in my post about the Clockmakers’ Museum, but I still don’t really want to get into the science or the technology here, because I don’t fully understand it, and it kind of bores me.  This is probably why I didn’t enjoy The Quest for Longitude very much, as 80% of the content was about the science behind longitude and the way the clocks were made, and I found my eyes glazing over as I was trying to read the captions (side note, I only just discovered, from the video inside the exhibit, that British people pronounce “longitude” with a hard “g.”  I don’t know how I lived here for six years without knowing that.  No wonder the guy at the admissions desk initially seemed confused when I tried to buy a ticket).

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However, I do seize on any points of interest where I can, so the exhibit wasn’t a total bust.  There was a small room devoted to the voyages of Captain Cook (and that dishy Joseph Banks), which I remain fascinated by, and even more enticingly, a lone case containing objects belonging to Captain Bligh, that notorious captain of the Bounty who was set adrift in a small boat with 18 of his men by the mutinous Fletcher Christian.  I think Bligh’s feat of navigation was just incredible (really must get around to reading that book about the Bounty that’s been sitting on my bookshelves), and I was enthralled by the artefacts here from that journey:  a bullet Bligh used to weigh out bread, a small cup (shot glass sized) for liquid rations, and a coconut bowl that he took his own meagre meals from.  If the whole exhibit had been on Cook, Bligh, and other explorers like them, I would have been thrilled (maybe that’s what they should have next?) but alas, the title did promise longitude, and that is mainly what was delivered.  One other item of note was an insulated suit worn by Nevil Maskelyne, Astronomer Royal, when he was taking calculations in the freezing Royal Observatory, of which more later.  Anyway, it seems like I mainly took issue with this exhibit for living up to its description, so it’s really my own fault that I didn’t enjoy it, knowing that I’m not that interested in technology and such.  So I’ll give it 3/5 with the caveat that if you’re like me and aren’t very mechanically minded, this probably isn’t the exhibit for you.

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Moving on…I next talked myself into taking that long, steep trudge up the hill to the Royal Observatory (if you’ve ever been there, you’ll know what I mean) to see the steampunk wonders of Longitude Punk’d.  It is sort of the partner exhibit to The Quest for Longitude – whereas the National Maritime Museum was all business, the Royal Observatory took on the fun side of navigation.  The premise behind the exhibit, as outlined in a cute little booklet at the entrance, was that a mysterious Georgian Commodore took on the task of solving the problem of longitude…with the help of trained Kiwi birds.  The exhibit was thus dedicated to the strange explorations of this imaginary Commodore, and the “alternative history” of many of the other figures of the time.  It was based inside Flamsteed House, and spread out throughout the building; initially with one piece in each room, and then a final gallery doused with cheeky steampunk madness (the pictures throughout this post are taken from Longitude Punk’d, as The Quest for Longitude didn’t allow photography).

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This included a range of fantastic clothing, like Captain Cook’s jacket with a map painted on so he would never get lost again, a constellation dress (shown before the previous paragraph, and absolutely gorgeous), the solar system dress shown above, and another example of a useful quilted suit that wasn’t too far off from the actual suit used by Maskelyne (I have to wonder if the designer saw the original). My favourite part was undeniably the gallery right at the end though (and this despite the presence of many loud obnoxious teenagers who didn’t know how to conduct themselves properly in a museum), which was a mix of steampunk creations and normal looking maritime art with hilarious cheeky captions.  For example:

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And (assuming you can read the caption through the shadows of the weird way I curl my fingers when taking a phone picture):

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And so on, as most of the captions in here literally gave me a good chuckle (which probably looked creepy, as I was there by myself, quietly laughing in the corner).  I guess it’s even funnier if you know the real history behind it, so I suppose it was useful in the end that I went to the National Maritime Museum first (and also that I just happened to be reading a book on maps at the time that discussed the conference that led to the Prime Meridian being set in Greenwich); I guess these museums know what they’re doing after all.

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I really really loved how clever and beautiful everything in this exhibit was; I think the creators must have a sense of humour similar to mine, and I really do recommend checking it out before it finishes in January.  Longitude Punk’d is only in one building of the Royal Observatory, and the combined ticket gives admission to the whole of it; weirdly, I’d never visited the non-free galleries of the Observatory before, so I had a good look around.  I liked that there was a camera obscura, though it was somewhat ruined by the constant parade of tourists who didn’t seem to understand how it worked and so kept failing to close the curtains properly, and the giant telescope was pretty cool, even though there were some guys repairing it whilst I was there. There were a few galleries with clocks and stuff, but it wasn’t ultimately that memorable or different from the stuff in the free galleries or the Clockmakers’ Museum I seem to keep mentioning in this post, so you’re really primarily paying for the steampunk stuff.

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(The picture above left is of the magic longitude tracking kiwi birds in diorama form, and is pretty adorable in person).  So I’m going to give Longitude Punk’d 4.5/5, even though I don’t think it’s worth £8.50 by itself (and therein lies the beauty of the combined ticket) because it really meshed with my personality and interests a lot better than The Quest for Longitude, but if you’ve got the ticket to both, you may as well see them both, right?  Just don’t make the mistake I did of visiting on a non-churro day, as even though I really enjoyed my steampunk adventure, I still regretted the lost opportunity to consume a fried-to-order pastry piped full of oozing dulce de leche.

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London: Eltham Palace

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With nothing better to do of a Sunday, I decided we should visit Eltham Palace, another English Heritage property, because I’m really putting that membership card to work (and the guy who sold us the membership hyped the place up).  Eltham Palace is in Greenwich, so I was thinking I could swing by the market and grab one of my beloved Brazilian churros, but it turns out that whilst Eltham Palace is technically in the Royal Borough of Greenwich, it’s about 4 miles away from the nice bit with the market and all the museums, so it’s about as much in Greenwich proper as Lewisham is.   So I was already kind of annoyed when we rocked up and had to pay for parking, which the website assured me would be refunded upon admission, only to see a giant “No Refunds” sign in the carpark.  I believe this was because they were having a “selected special event” in the form of their annual Art Deco Fair which meant the Great Hall was full of stalls selling antiques that I didn’t want and couldn’t afford even if I did.  Real special.  Like all English Heritage properties, there were people hanging around trying to foist memberships on people, and even having membership already isn’t enough to deter them, as they still ask you more than once (if you haven’t yet been suckered into joining, it’s £10.20 for admission to Eltham).  There is also no photography permitted inside the house, which I suspect has nothing whatsoever to do with preservation, as plenty of properties of a similar age and older allow flashless photography, but is a ploy to try to sell guidebooks.  Also like most of their properties, Eltham Palace has limited signage, forcing reliance on their extraordinarily long-winded audioguide, yet another attempt to sell guidebooks (I’m becoming increasingly cynical about English Heritage; visiting three of their properties in rapid succession has tipped me over the edge).

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Though Eltham Palace’s tourist literature makes quite a stink about Eltham being one of Henry VIII’s palaces (the original property was built around the 13th century, acquired by the future (ill-fated) Edward II in 1305, and added onto by subsequent monarchs), you’d never know it when visiting the property.  The Eltham Palace of today revolves around a house tacked onto the Great Hall by the Courtaulds (of Institute of Art and Gallery fame) in the 1930s, which is entirely done up in an Art Deco style.  Art Deco isn’t really my favourite style (I find circular furniture really off-putting for some reason), but the home was reasonably attractive, even though all trace of its medieval past (save for the Great Hall) had been eliminated.  The focal point of the house is the circular living room, with wings radiating out from that centre room.  There was some exquisite paneling on the walls, with some Romans in the living room, and animals with delightful expressions in the dining room.

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Virginia’s boudoir (which was really more of a sitting room than a boudoir) was also quite nice, there was some neat Kew Gardens wallpaper in Stephen’s bedroom, and I did like the Great Hall even though it had been restored by Stephen Courtauld, who had more of a Hollywood interpretation of medieval architecture than a historically accurate one, but it did feel like we were only getting to see a small number of the rooms in the house.  All the modcons of the house were firmly drilled into us via the audioguide, as they had underfloor heating (which is a hell of a lot better than the crappy radiators my flat has, 80 years on), electric fireplaces, and special spotlights built into the beamed ceilings to better highlight the couple’s art collection, but the most whimsical feature was the cage built to house the couple’s pet lemur, Mah-Jonng (obviously long-deceased, but they had stuffed lemurs hidden in unexpected places throughout the house, which I thought was cute).  I was glad that there was at least a small sign in each room with information about it, as it was better than suffering through the interminable audioguide, but it still wasn’t really enough, particularly as they never even made clear who exactly the Courtaulds were (other than involved in the film industry, and extremely rich).

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The gardens at Eltham are meant to be quite famous, and they were nice, but we had to circle the property a few times before we could figure out how to access them (via stone steps through an archway).  We visited on a cold and slightly rainy day, so they’re probably nicer when it’s not quite so cold and muddy, but there were still quite a few flowers in bloom.  I did think it odd how even in the gardens, it was difficult to get a good view of the palace from the front; it was like the grounds had somehow been contrived to keep you from getting too close to the estate, and created the impression that there were parts of the property we were somehow missing (though I’m fairly sure we saw everything that was open to the public).  Again, I was struck by how completely the medieval palace had been wiped from history; for all that elements of it were supposedly incorporated into the gardens, English Heritage made no mention of it anywhere on the site.

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Since it was free with our membership (except for the stupid parking; it was only 2 quid but it’s the principle of the thing), I don’t regret visiting, but if I had to pay a tenner, I would have been super annoyed, as I think what we saw was only worth about half that (at least Down House has a museum in the upper floor, so you actually leave feeling you’ve learnt something, rather than leaving perplexed about what happened to the medieval palace, as I did here).  Also, be forewarned that for some weird reason, in addition to being shut all winter, Eltham Palace is also closed on Friday and Saturday, so you’ll have to make any weekend visits on a Sunday.  It’s certainly a remarkable example of an Art Deco home, but it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for.  3/5.


London: The Queen’s House


I was craving a churro the other day (ok, and I wanted to buy some new shoes), so another trip to Greenwich was in order.  I suppose I could have gone to Camden, as they also have churros and the shoe stall I like, but Camden is pretty horrible and crowded, and Greenwich is quite pleasant.  The only trouble is, I’ve already posted about most of the free museums in Greenwich, so I wanted to find something new to see without spending any extra money (which could instead be spent on more churros).  Granted, I could have just gone and ate the damn churro without going to a museum, but then what would I have to blog about?  A quick investigation online led me to the Queen’s House.  I’m not sure how this previously escaped my attention, since it is literally next door to the National Maritime Museum (you can even see the edge of it on the right of the photo above, at the end of the columns), but there’s a lot of attractive buildings in Greenwich, and I’m usually eating an ice cream when I walk down that way, so I’m not at my most observant.

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The queen in question is Henrietta Maria, wife of the ill-fated Charles I, who only lived here for a few years because of the whole, you know, Civil War and all.  It was designed by Inigo Jones, and initially commissioned for Anne of Denmark, James I’s wife, but she died before construction could be completed.  Catherine Pelham also lived there for a bit, which is of interest only because she was cousin-in-law (once-removed, I think, at least as far as I can work out) to Elizabeth Hay, wife of William, and I think any connection to William Hay is neat, as he seems to be mostly forgotten.  It’s weird, but I often feel like I know the Georgians better than my actual acquaintances; I always get excited when I find a connection to Georgians I “know.”  Anyway, the house later became the Royal Naval Asylum, for orphans of seamen (ha), and then ultimately became part of the Royal Museums of Greenwich group, and currently houses the art collection of the National Maritime Museum.  Whew.  All you probably need to know is that it is free, and is a rather lovely setting for an art museum.

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Architectural highlights include the Tulip Stairs, which are meant to be haunted, though I didn’t sense any strange pockets of cold air when I was walking up them, and the Great Hall, with its collection of four busts, and a splendid black and white marble floor that they are rightly quite keen to preserve (there’s a warning about grit on your shoes posted outside).  I began my visit by climbing up that very staircase to the first floor, which held the Stuart galleries, and a special installation by Alice Kettle: “The Garden of England,” which consisted of three pieces with a flower theme set amongst the 17th century portraits in the North West Parlour.  The Stuart room was fittingly graced with portraits of Henrietta Maria and Charles I to each side of the window, and there was a dollhouse sized version of the Queen’s House itself in the next room.

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Heading up to the second floor, I was very pleasantly surprised to come across a Captain Cook gallery.  I’ve been quite keen on Cook ever since reading Tony Horwitz’s Blue Latitudes, and even keener on the fine-looking Joseph Banks, but alas, this gallery was focused on artwork from Cook’s second and third voyages, and Banks went along on the first one.  Nonetheless, I thought it was incredibly cool to have the opportunity to see William Hodges‘ paintings, as they essentially represent the first time Europeans got a glimpse of Polynesia.  I especially loved his painting of Easter Island, and of course, his portrait of Cook himself, amongst a few others that I’ll also post here.  (Please excuse my shoddy attempts at photography, the lighting was poor, flash wasn’t allowed, and my hands are unsteady).

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I definitely lingered longer there than in any of the other galleries, and even came back for a second look, but there was plenty more to see.  The next room offered an x-ray analysis of some of Hodges’ paintings, to reveal the changes he made, and speculate on the reasons behind them.  There was a substantial amount of Dutch naval art as well, but pictures of boats don’t enormously appeal.  I did however get interested again when I got back into another portrait gallery.

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned about myself, it’s that I like a fine-looking seaman (ha again!). I know Joseph Banks wasn’t technically a seaman, but Cook’s voyage was pretty epic, and he managed to survive that (albeit with the help of a number of manservants).  In addition to Banks, I’ve also developed a fondness for the young Augustus Keppel (though he too, became corpulent in middle age).  I thought at first it was because I like Georgian naval outfits, and whilst I do love a good greatcoat/knee breeches combo, there was an unnamed Stuart naval officer who was looking pretty fine as well, so maybe it’s not all in the uniform.  Still, I do rather fancy Hugh Laurie as the Prince Regent (though obviously not so much as Bertie Wooster, and in spite of the fact that Blackadder drives me mad because he wasn’t yet the Prince Regent during the time period Blackadder III is set in, and in fact wasn’t even born yet when Samuel Johnson was writing his Dictionary), so there’s something to be said for the breeches and stockings after all, certainly when compared to a neck ruff.

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Now, where was I? Oh right, the rest of the Queen’s House. There was art hidden all over the place in here; I had to go down a random back staircase to see Turner’s “Battle of Trafalgar” in a room with some paintings of battles in the American Revolution.  I don’t know why, but somehow I never think of naval battles when I picture the Revolutionary War, even though obviously I knew they went on.  There was also a series of rooms devoted to maritime art by the century; I managed to catch a glimpse of my old “friend” Alfred Wallis in the 20th century section, whilst I was predictably rushing through to get back to the older stuff.

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Back on the ground floor, there was a small gallery on the Royal Hospital School (which was merged in 1821 with the Royal Naval Asylum mentioned at the start of this post), used to train future naval recruits.  This exhibit featured quite prominently on the museum website, so I must confess I was hoping for more than just one room’s worth, but I did learn a few things; one, that there was a “practice” ship in front of the school so they could practice seamanship in an authentic environment, and two, the children used to dare each other to take the Tulip Stairs, because they were also afraid of the ghost.

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I’m kind of upset with myself for not discovering the Queen’s House sooner, because it is an unexpectedly charming collection. I loved the colourful rooms and intricate wall mouldings, which, when coupled with the 18th century sash windows and the wooden floors, gave the place more of a Georgian feel than a Stuart one, and made it an excellent atmosphere in which to appreciate some of my favourite kind of art (basically, old portraits). The Cook gallery also earns them some bonus points in my book, so 4/5.


London: Museum of London Docklands


Well, considering I’d already travelled via the DLR to visit Greenwich, I figured that I might as well carry on by heading up to West India Quay to visit the Museum of London Docklands, formerly known as Museum in Docklands.  I feel that both names are somehow awkward (maybe throw a “the” in there somewhere?), but it is indeed a museum devoted to London’s Docklands, so at least they manage to get the message across.  I went to Museum in Docklands (as it was then called) some years ago for an excellent special exhibit on Jack the Ripper, and with the name change and all, felt it was long-past time for a return trip, especially as I had a vague recollection of authentic smells lurking somewhere within the building.


Model of the old London Bridge. Very cool.

A sign instructed me to “begin my journey on the second floor,” so I naturally obliged.  The first gallery takes you through the history of settlement on the Thames, beginning with the Romans (who I find a bit boring), and fortunately quickly progressing up to medieval London and beyond.  Objects of note include the model of London Bridge, pictured above, which I totally wish still existed (despite the hazards of crossing it (and passing under it, for that matter), though perhaps sans the severed heads of traitors), a whale’s jawbone (I think it was a jawbone.  It was huge!), and models of various historically important ships, such as the Susan Constant (of Jamestown fame).  Scattered throughout were wall-mounted computer screens playing videos that starred Tony Robinson (I suppose I should say Sir Tony Robinson now) exploring many aspects of riverside history. I actually really liked how this section was set up; because it was fairly narrow, and it progressed chronologically, it was easy to make sure I didn’t miss anything.


I passed through a brief recreation of some sort of quayside to get to the next gallery, which had me frantically sniffing the air in anticipation, but it was not yet time for authentic smells.  Rather, I found myself entering the inevitably depressing “London Sugar and Slavery” exhibit.  The collections here were far more extensive than the ones at the National Maritime Museum, and included an interactive feature whereby the lights dimmed in the entire room every 15 minutes or so whilst a recording began playing that discussed the experience of the enslaved, which really did help to set the mood.  I think Museum of Docklands was aiming for a more comprehensive view of the consequences of slavery than the National Maritime Museum, as they discussed the lasting effects of the slave trade, leading up to racism in the present day, which I think was a more meaningful approach.

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Heading downstairs to the “City and River” exhibit meant entering the 19th century to see the burst of new industry on the Thames.  This included information on the Thames Tunnel constructed by good old Brunel the Elder (not his actual name, just what I like to call him.  They did both have an Isambard in their names, after all.), like the neat little paper cutout seen above, and a poster on the glorious Frost Fairs, another sad loss for modern London (though it is quite nice to not have to worry about cholera at least).

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Naturally, there was also some discussion of whaling, but more of the focus was on the colliers (coal ships) from Newcastle et al, which allowed for the full explosion of Victorian industry.  However, I couldn’t devote my full attention to this section as “Sailortown” was beckoning to me from across the room, with its dim lighting giving the promise of horrible smells.


Oh, Sailortown was every bit as glorious as I remembered!  Not as good as Victorian Leeds at the Thackray Museum, mind, but still pretty damn delightful.  It’s meant to be a recreation of Victorian Wapping, and you can skulk about peering into taverns and sketchy looking purveyors of various animal bits.  My favourite part was right around the back alley where I’m pictured above, as it was clearly where they were pumping in the authentic smells (which were not as fishy as one would expect from a port, more smoky with a hint of poo) so I could really get a good whiff.  Seriously, does anyone know where they order the smells in from?  I presume it’s some kind of special vendor for museums, but I wouldn’t mind having a bottle of Victorian Smell #4 to occasionally uncork in my living room.  It would certainly make my fireplace feel more authentic (and probably Matthias, my ghost, would enjoy the nostalgia as well).


All the galleries had thus far been quite large, and after the high of Sailortown, I have to admit I was putzing out a little.  Still, “First Port of Empire” had its moments.  I find maritime disasters rather fascinating, so I read every bit of the material on the Princess Alice disaster, but felt free to skim over the parts about shipbuilding and such.  There was certainly plenty more doom and gloom in this gallery as well, from fires to strikes, so there was something for all tastes I guess.  It was just a lot to take in at this point.


More authentic smells. And a bit of squatting, though alas, no wellies. Entschuldigung!

“Warehouse of the World” was more interesting to me, as there were more things to smell (Yes, I allow my nose to dictate many of my interests, but seriously, I have a lot of it, so may as well put it to use!  Can you blame me?) and a wonderful Victorian medicine cabinet, along with recreations of a customs hut and a weighing room.  Apparently the dock labourers hated working with sugar, because its grittiness would cut them, so the sugar streets were referred to as “Blood Alley” and the like. (Interesting fact of the day) After this section, I was really getting tired (bearing in mind I’d already been to Greenwich Market and the Fan Museum as well that day), but there was still loads left!

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“Docklands at War” was pretty much what you’d expect; lots of information about the Blitz, complete with replica bomb shelter.  Even though I was giving the briefest of glances to things at this point, I was genuinely surprised to learn that there were several major air strikes a few years after the Blitz.  I don’t know why I didn’t already know this, but it seems like the Blitz is all you ever really hear about.  At the end, there was a series of stained glass type panels that was meant to evoke the feeling of wartime, all in reds and blues, which gave an emotional completion to the gallery.


The final exhibit was on the more recent history of the Docklands, which included the printers’ strikes on Canary Wharf in the ’80s, various periods of economic downturn, some nice portraits of the Beatles, and the development of the DLR.  Again, there were quite a few intriguing displays here, but I just couldn’t give them my full concentration, as dinner consumed my thoughts.


Museum of London Docklands (I want to keep calling it Museum in Docklands) gets 4/5.  I obviously need to come back another time (on a full stomach) so I can peruse the last few galleries at leisure, so I’d suggest that if you live in London, it might be wise to do the same, as it is genuinely a lot to take in on just one visit.  There also appeared to be a section on the ground floor for children called Mudlarks (I assume it’s not historically accurate to the point where they have to pick through actual sewage), as well as a cafe with some tasty looking cakes (though I was hungry enough by the end to eat my shoe).  At any rate, I think Museum of Docklands has more general appeal than the National Maritime Museum, so leave a good few hours for your visit!

London: National Maritime Museum


Charmingly (?) wonky photo of the exterior

If the Fan Museum wasn’t enough to quench your thirst for museums, never fear, for Greenwich is full of other options, like the National Maritime Museum, which is free.  I’d personally advise you to detour back to the market in between museuming for ice cream, either in the form of a chocolate chip cookie sandwich, or a lovely creamy gelato from Black Vanilla (though their one flavour per small cone policy irks me, as the standard is two flavours, and I’m still debating whether the pistachio surcharge is worth it.  It was delicious, but so is the pistachio from Scoop and Gelupo, neither of which charge extra.). With a cone in hand, the National Maritime Museum is a short (and tasty) walk away.


I went here last year for the Royal River exhibit curated by David Starkey, which I quite enjoyed, despite my distaste for Starkey’s position on the Tudors.  (He’s basically a Tudor apologist, and I’m not going to be won over to the idea that Henry VIII was a good person anytime soon.) However, I didn’t get much a chance to look at the rest of the museum at the time, so this last visit was my first opportunity to check everything out.  I started with the section on explorers, which included the grisly ends of some arctic expeditions.  As I’m sure you all know, I have some interest in polar exploration anyway, (I think my first post on here was about poor Lawrence Oates, of the Scott Expedition) and I liked how this section was situated in a dark tunnel, as it was at least an attempt at creating an authentic atmosphere.

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Progressing out onto the main floor, there was a rather good assortment of ship’s figureheads, as well as Prince Frederick’s fabulous gilded barge, a true exercise in royal restraint and taste.  I do love its gaudiness though.  Rooms in the interior section of the ground floor are devoted to maritime London and arctic convoys, the latter of which was basically just a load of pictures of boats, and thus not of great interest to me.  There was a sign outside one of the rooms advertising an exhibit on cartoons within, but alas, it was closed, which was a shame.


Don’t miss the chance to view Nelson’s Trafalgar uniform, complete with bullet hole, without the terrible glare behind it!

Other objects of note on the ground floor include a nice collection of dishes and other things from cruise ships, including some menus, various mechanical bits and bobs, and a gallery hidden off to one side through a stairwell that smells of new tyres (does anyone else love that smell, or am I the only weirdo?) on Seafaring Britons, complete with charming portraits of Nelson and his mistress, and a genuine ship’s biscuit (sadly missing a photo of Lord Kitchener (or naval counterpart) in the middle, as seen in a biscuit at the Museum of Reading).

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The middle of the first floor is a large open space with a map of the world drawn on the floor, which children can ride around on various boat toys.  Dodging between them, I quickly passed through a rather lame recycling themed gallery that seemed noticeably out of place in a maritime museum, and headed over to the much more appealing section on the East India Company.  I’m well aware of the troubled history of the East India Company, which was covered in detail throughout the gallery, but there were also many wonderful items from various Asian cultures to look at.

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Equally troubling is the history of Atlantic trade, which was covered in the next gallery. The cruelties of slavery were well illustrated with chains and whips, and objects related to the sugar trade, including a collection of abolitionist tea paraphernalia.  There was also a section on other Atlantic industries, such as whaling, and something to appeal to my macabre side – an old guillotine blade that was actually used for executions on Haiti during the French Revolution.  Again, grim, but fascinating.

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Due to construction work on one of the stairwells, the first floor was a bit labyrinthine, and I ended up having to walk all the way around, and back through the East India gallery to access the stairs up to the second floor.  The only things up there at the moment are a bunch of model ships, and a children’s gallery, which I skipped.  The model ships were wonderfully detailed, (or so I’m told) but they mostly all looked the same to me, since I’m not particularly well-versed on ships, or really anything pertaining to naval history. I think if they’d had tiny people on top, I’d have been intrigued.

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I think the National Maritime Museum is a solid diversion if you’re already in the Greenwich area, and even if you’re not that interested in maritime history (I’m not), many of the galleries still manage to be engaging by discussing the larger consequences of sea-travel.  I think they make an effort to cater to children as well, which might be a concern for some of you.  I’ll award it 3/5.  I should mention, whilst we’re on the subject of Greenwich, that the famous Painted Hall where Nelson lay in state is right across the street from the Maritime Museum (albeit somewhat buried in the maze that is the Old Royal Naval College), and is worth poking your head in on your way back to the station, to complete your tour of things related to Nelson’s death, if nothing else.


Painted Hall