history

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.

 

Roma, Ancora

I was back in Rome for a short trip a couple of weeks ago for the second time since I started blogging, hence the post title. Because this was my fourth trip to Rome overall, I’d already seen most of the major sites (though I still haven’t actually been inside the Colosseum…), so I was quite happy to just eat, stroll around, take in a bit of culture, and then eat some more. We also only really had less than two full days there, so we just didn’t have time to do very much (not even eat as much gelato as I’d hoped). So rather than break up the trip into multiple posts, I’ll just do this one big one.

 

We arrived quite late in Rome on the first day (due to our decision to take a bus from the airport. It’s cheap for a reason), when all the museums were already shut, so we just went to grab a pizza and gelato (gelato pic from second day, as I looked too hideous in the ones from day one), which wasn’t really a problem as those were my top concerns anyway. Roman pizza is super thin and pretty much the best (except for maybe New York pizza), though I am the sort of person who likes to eat dinner promptly at 5, so got very impatient and hungry waiting for the pizzerias to open for dinner at 7.

 

Day two was meant to be the nicest weather of our trip by far (though still quite windy; Italy was going through an unseasonable cold spell whilst we were there), so we took advantage by heading out to see the Non-Catholic Cemetery where Keats and Shelley are buried, which is located right by the Piramide Cestia (built in 18-12 BC for a Roman magistrate, and based on the pyramids in Egypt, albeit on a much smaller scale). The grounds of the pyramid are only open a couple Saturdays a month, so we couldn’t go in, but we could enter the cemetery, which is free with a recommended €3 donation.

 

I would have happily paid that anyway for upkeep, but even more happily paid when I realised the cemetery also cares for at least four delightfully grumpy feral cats, who freely wander doing their cat thing. The cemetery is often thought of as the Protestant Cemetery, but actually people from all non-Catholic religions (or no religion at all) are interred here. There are some vague arrows pointing to Keats’ and Shelley’s graves, but what you need to know is that Keats is in the grassy annex next to the main cemetery, right by a bench on the left wall with a plaque of Keats’s head above it, and Shelley is in the main part of the cemetery – from where you enter, go straight up to the top, and proceed left along the back wall. He’s quite near to Goethe’s son, who is also here.

Shelley is buried next to Edward Trelawney, who paid for his grave, and who I’ve always thought of as kind of a hanger-on (he basically fanboyed around with all the Romantic poets), and Keats is similarly buried next to Joseph Severn, who arranged this well after Keats’ death and without consulting him, though I don’t think quite as poorly of Severn, maybe because he drew some great portraits and nursed Keats in his final hours. And the non-famous graves in here are pretty great too – I may have changed my mind about looking sassy on my grave like Ady, and instead go for reclining with a favourite book and beloved pet, like the excellently named Devereux Plantagenet Cockburn, above right. I just need to acquire a pet at some point before I die. It’s a wonderful cemetery, and much bigger than it looks at first glance – go, you’ll enjoy it!

We subsequently headed over to see the Mouth of Truth, to test whether it deemed us liars and bit our hands off (I wasn’t actually worried, since if anything, I’m too honest). I had never actually been here before, and was a bit dismayed about the line, but it moved very quickly, thanks in large part to a man working there who hustled everyone along. He’d grab your camera, take a couple of photos of you, and then BOOM, move you along out the side door so the next person could step up. A good system that more popular attractions could benefit from! It’s next to a church that contains the alleged head of St. Valentine – make sure your knees and shoulders are covered if you want to come here, since they do enforce “modesty standards”.

After having a delicious lunch of a whole fried artichoke and cacio e pepe served in a bowl made of cheese, we headed over to see the Medical History Museum at Sapienza University, which I had skipped on previous visits since it didn’t look like anything special, but given my love of medical history, I thought it was probably time I checked it out anyway. Also, I was intrigued by the re-construction of an alchemist’s lab that was meant to be in the basement. This turned out to be less exciting than hoped-for, as you can see above (I had to find light switches to even see anything, as all the lights were turned off down there. I suspect we were the only visitors that day), but the museum did have some fantastic stained glass windows depicting medieval medicine (I love the panel with the dog, but knowing what I know about medieval medical practices, I suspect no good can come of it for either the dog or the patient).

 

The rest of the museum was bigger than I was expecting (on three floors counting the basement), but I was correct in initially thinking it wasn’t really anything special. It contained a very generic overview of the history of medicine, with a few specimens and medical instruments, but nothing terribly unique or interesting outside of Garibaldi’s crutch. Also, the main signage in each room was in English, but none of the object labels were; apparently there are audio guides available, but I didn’t see anyone working there during my visit who I could have asked for one. I think I would have preferred the Anatomical Museum, also on campus, but that was open by appointment only, and I feel a bit weird about being shown around somewhere, especially if I don’t speak the language. It was free, so I didn’t lose anything by going, but there are definitely lots and lots of attractions to see in Rome before trying this one. At least it was quiet!

Our last day in Rome dawned cold and rainy, just really unpleasant weather (I was not a happy camper, as you can see, and my mood was not improved by street vendors constantly trying to stick umbrellas in my face. Couldn’t they see I already had one?), but we braved it to head over to the Capuchin Crypt, which I had first visited about 9 years before. Needless to say, things have changed a lot since my first visit. I remember just walking into the crypt, after dropping a few euro into a donation basket, and it only took maybe ten minutes to see. They have now turned it into a whole little complex with a museum about the Capuchin Order, which costs €8.50 to enter (including crypt and museum). Unfortunately, you weren’t allowed to take pictures anywhere inside, not even the museum, but there were a lot of gems here, and just about everything had an English translation (and they even had a public toilet, though it was one of those horrible seatless ones). I learned an awful lot about famous Capuchin monks, and there were a lot of relics, creepy dolls, and even a wooden statue of a dog with a bread roll in his mouth, which I am sorry I can’t show you. The crypts themselves seem more or less unchanged, and involve fabulous tableaux of bones and mummified monks in a series of rooms (like a whole room lined with pelvises, and chandeliers made from human bones that hang inches from your head) that were started in the 17th century and added to up until the 19th century (the Marquis de Sade visited here and helped to popularise it). It is all excellently gothic, and I love it. Definitely visit if you’re anything like me, though again, be sure you are clad “modestly” (not a challenge on a day as cold as the one we visited on).

 

Unfortunately, because I wasn’t expecting there to be a museum, the visit took much longer than anticipated, and we had to head for the airport right after (a fiasco that involved missing a train because the platform was seriously like a mile away from the barriers and having to take the same bus back to the airport that we were trying to avoid after the journey there, but at least we made our flight in the end), so I didn’t even get to eat any gelato that day! Fewer than 48 hours is certainly not enough time to do Rome properly, but if I’d been able to get some food on the last day, I think I’d have been satisfied enough with what we did considering it was my fourth time there. The weather was disappointing, and we didn’t get to see the Galleria Borghese, which a friend had recommended, because it was booked up, but it was overall a decent trip, if not quite as fruitful in terms of gelato as my last one.

 

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.

 

 

Underground Hamburg: ElbTunnel & St Nikolai Museum

Because we saw so many other things in Hamburg besides the three museums that were large enough to merit their own posts, I’ve decided to do something a bit different than my usual mop-up posts and split them into two posts roughly defined by subject matter. This is the underground side of Hamburg, and I don’t mean the U-Bahn, though it was super handy and we used it a lot, or Hamburg’s notorious sex district (which we obviously didn’t visit, though I don’t think female tourists are allowed in one of the areas anyway, which is pretty messed up), but attractions that are literally underground.

The first of these is the Alter ElbTunnel (also called St. Pauli Elbe Tunnel), which is not so much a tourist attraction as a practical way for people to get from one side of the river to the other, as indeed many of the people down there seemed to be doing. In fact, I like to think of it as what the Thames Tunnel could have been if safe lifts had been invented at the time of its construction, so it would have had a practical use which would have given it a hope of surviving (though obviously I would have loved to have visited it in its heyday in any capacity). The ElbTunnel opened in 1911, and was apparently modelled on Glasgow’s Clyde Tunnel, which I have never visited.

The tunnel is free to use for pedestrians and cyclists, but there is a small charge for cars (though there’s no point driving through it unless you are just using it to get from point A to point B, as you’d miss all the lovely terracotta ornamentation). Access on foot is via one of four lifts (two on each side, and they have a separate giant lift for cars) or a big metal staircase, and we opted for the staircase, somewhat to my chagrin, as I’ve got a little bit of a thing about heights (doesn’t stop me from going up tall things, but I don’t actually enjoy being up there), and I would have felt a whole lot better if the staircase had been visibly supported by something more than a handful of steel girders. It was worth seeing from a (scary) height though, so much so that I took the stairs down again on the return trip. Probably best to opt for the lift on the way up though, as there’s a LOT of stairs.

The main reason for going down at all, in fact, other than the views of Hamburg from the south side of the tunnel, are the aforementioned fabulous maritime-themed decorations that line the tunnel, which you can see above in collage form. I particularly liked the rats with the old boot. The tunnel was bombed during WWII, but the tiles managed to survive, and obviously still delight to this day.

The other underground(ish) attraction I wanted to talk about is the St. Nikolai Memorial and Museum, which was largely destroyed during WWII. The remaining spire of this church is clearly very much not underground, and is a prominent part of Hamburg’s skyline. However, the museum is underground, being housed in the former crypt, so I think I can get away with this somewhat tenuous link. (Whatever, it’s my blog, I’ll do what I want.) Admission to the tower/museum is €5, and you get a euro off if you have the Hamburg Card. We waited a short amount of time to ascend to the top of the tower in the lift, which was somewhat underwhelming, as you’re still inside the tower at the top, and there’s no viewing platform or anything (and if you thought Hamburg was cold at ground level, just try it at 76 metres). I couldn’t wait to get into the museum, which was substantially warmer.

The museum talks about the events leading up to Operation Gommorah in 1943, as well as the bombing itself, which destroyed much of Hamburg, including the rest of St. Nikolai Church, and killed 35,000 people. This was a much more comprehensive exhibition than I was expecting, and really got into the history of the church (interestingly, the minister at St. Nikolai when the Nazis first took power was a liberal who was sympathetic to the plight of those persecuted by the Nazis and tried to help them. After he died (of natural causes), he was replaced by someone much more conservative), which was redesigned by George Gilbert Scott (Sr) in 1846 (the iconic spire is still the tallest church tower in Germany, and the fifth tallest in the world), as well as what living conditions for civilians were like at the time of the bombing, including the fact that though there were public bomb shelters, the few Jewish citizens who had been permitted to remain in the city were not permitted access to them.

This was actually a very interesting museum – I liked that it talked about how people trying to hide from the Nazis could use the chaos resulting from the bombing to flee the city and assume new identities somewhere else – and it had a fair amount of wartime photographs and artefacts. The decision was made after the war to preserve the church’s spire in its blackened state to serve as a memorial to all victims of war and tyranny. As part of the memorial, there have been some sculptures placed in the former churchyard of various despairing figures that some people were rather inappropriately trying to take smiling selfies with when I was there.

I’m glad we paid St. Nikolai Memorial a visit – it was interesting to get a German perspective on the bombings, since you don’t always see the aftermath when you’re looking at it from the perspective of the Allies (other than when Germany bombed Britain, of course), and it was well worth €5 for the museum, even though the trip up the tower was less impressive than I had hoped.

 

 

Hamburg: Museum of Hamburg History

I generally try to visit a city history museum everywhere I travel to get a better sense of the place, if the city in question has one, and fortunately, Hamburg was happy to oblige with the Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte (Hamburg History Museum). I was initially a little wary about visiting, because their website was entirely in German with no other language options, which typically isn’t a good sign in terms of there being English in the museum. However, the reviews on Trip Advisor assured me that there were English translations available in the museum, so I was willing to take a chance. The museum is located in the middle of a rather nice park (or at least it would have been rather nice had there not been such an icy wind outside), so on a reasonably warm day you can grab yourself a franzbrotchen from one of the city’s many bakeries, and enjoy the stroll (I still ate the franzbrotchen, I just didn’t enjoy the stroll).

Admission to the museum is normally €9.50, but we only paid €6 with the Hamburg Card, and it was a big museum (never mind that this type of museum would be free in the UK). We started our visit on the first floor with medieval Hamburg, and I was pleased to see that the vast majority of labels did have an English translation available. Unfortunately, I realised I just wasn’t really that interested in medieval Hamburg, at least not in the dry way it was presented here, so I kind of skimmed over this section. Fortunately, I did enter the dark wood panelled space at the end of this gallery, because it unexpectedly contained the object I most wanted to see (which I learned about on Atlas Obscura before visiting) – a skull with a spike through it!

The skull was found during construction in 1878, and has been at the Hamburg History Museum since 1922, except for a brief hiatus in 2010 when it was stolen, then recovered. It is thought to be the head of notorious 14th century pirate Klaus Störtebeker (yeah, I’ve never heard of him either), which had a spike driven through it so it could be displayed on a post as a deterrent to others (the video there mentioned that the hole had been made “very carefully,” and I had to wonder whether it was done when it actually was a skull, or when it was a fresh head, with flesh and brains still attached, which definitely would have required great care not to splatter brains everywhere!). At any rate, though their methods of execution were horrible, they weren’t that horrible, and it was done after Klaus was dead (from beheading) – it’s not a Phineas Gage type situation, although it’s not like Phineas was walking around with a spike through his head for long either. The head next to it is a reconstruction of what he might have looked like, based on the skull. There was also a display showing what a full row of these skulls would have looked like (there was an occasion where 78 pirates were executed on the same day, so although it already makes for a grim display, it could have been much worse), and some tools of execution, including the wheel, which they basically just smashed into your body until you were dead (so I’m not quite sure why it had to be a wheel shape, when a stick would have worked just as well, but there we are). If, like me, you are interested in this sort of thing and have a strong stomach, I recommend Joel F. Harrington’s The Faithful Executioner, which is about an early modern German executioner.

One thing I learned at this museum is that Germans (or at least Hamburgers) really really love model-sized versions of pretty much everything. Houses, churches, ships, trains, you name it (my god, how they love a model railway, and don’t worry, I’ll get to the shitshow that is Miniatur Wunderland in a later post). Before we went to this museum, I was planning on also visiting Hamburg’s Maritime Museum, but I had read that it is basically just nine floors of model ships, and after looking at two galleries full of model ships here, I really couldn’t face any more. But Hamburg’s maritime history is genuinely interesting because it is such a massive part of what shaped the city, and I was especially excited to see that they had their own section on Ballinstadt, which frankly told me more of what I wanted to know than the Emigration Museum did.

For example, they had a chart showing the price of various voyages on the HAPAG line, and what those prices would translate into today, so I learned that my great-grandmother paid the equivalent of €600 for her voyage in steerage to the US (about what a flight costs today). They also had a chart showing more information about some of HAPAG’s ships, and I could see that the President Lincoln was included, but unfortunately, the relevant parts of the chart were covered up by other papers, so I don’t actually know what they had to say about it. There was also some information about the cholera epidemic in Hamburg and what that meant for Ballinstadt, and way more photos of the complex than were at the Emigration Museum. I don’t regret visiting Ballinstadt and seeing it in person, but I wish they could have incorporated more of this on site, rather than my having to accidentally stumble upon it here.

And to get back on the subject of models, the museum has its very own model railway, which runs every hour on the hour. There is a guy who sits in a booth above it, and gives what appears to be a running commentary on all the action (in German of course), which I found hilarious. What a job, model railway commentator! It was pretty big and impressive though, and (spoiler alert) a much better experience than Miniatur Wunderland, since there were only a handful of people in here, though I must admit that I’m not the sort of person that gets my jollies from watching a model railway, even at the best of times.

The museum also has a gallery on Jewish life in Hamburg, complete with a replica (life-size this time) of a synagogue, though only one small sign in each room was translated into English, so I couldn’t read most of it. There were more galleries on clothing and music, and this weird social history sort-of-house structure that you walked through, exploring the 20th century through each of the three different floors (though don’t bother going upstairs, it’s just where they store the chairs for events). Because I have the sense of humour of a teenage boy, I laughed way too hard at the dickmilch part of the sign below, which was in the replica dairy. Half a kilo is more than enough, thanks.

This museum is way too big for me to talk about each gallery in detail, but other highlights included the section on the Great Fire of Hamburg in 1842, which had various objects partially melted by the fire (seems like every city has to have a “great fire” at some point until they learn their lesson and start implementing better fire safety measures (hope that doesn’t sound too harsh in the wake of Notre Dame, but it does go to show that there’s still work to be done when it comes to preventing fires)), the interactive map where you could see how Hamburg expanded over time, and the replica ship you could climb aboard. I only gave a cursory visit to some of the galleries, because there was too much to read on one visit, and we still spent so long here we didn’t end up having time to visit any other museums that day. I think some of the history galleries could have been more interactive, because some of them were frankly boring and seemed to stretch on forever, but the more modern sections of the museum were great (in particular the ones about HAPAG and the fire), and there was enough here for something to appeal to everyone, especially model enthusiasts. 3/5.

 

Hamburg, Germany: The Emigration Museum

I spent last week in Hamburg, a holiday I had booked at the start of March at a time when I was worried that we might be leaving the EU before the holiday took place, so I wanted to be sure that even if the shit hit the fan, I’d be somewhere organised enough that getting in and out of the country wouldn’t be too much trouble (having had a hellish experience using the non-EU passport queue in Rome some years ago, before I had British citizenship). I hope I’m not being too horrible about national stereotypes, but Germany seemed to fit the bill in terms of efficiency. Having already been to Berlin and Munich, I decided on Hamburg. In addition to being the home of the franzbrotchen (a type of cinnamon roll I am very enthusiastic about, of which you will no doubt hear more in a future post), it is also a former Hanseatic League city, and of course a port city with an interesting history and quite a few museums, so I was sure we’d find plenty to do.

Because it was a port that ran various ships to the Americas, it also attracted a number of immigrants on their way to a new life, including my great-grandmother (my maternal grandmother’s mother), who had travelled from the Galicia region of Poland in order to catch a ship to the US. In 1898, Albert Ballinn, the General Director of the HAPAG shipping company (HAPAG stands for Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft, which is probably why it acquired the acronym in the first place) started to have emigration halls constructed on an island near Hamburg for the emigrants to stay in as they waited for their ships, a complex that became known as Ballinstadt. This was not so much done out of the goodness of Ballinn’s heart, but rather to make extra money for the firm, prevent the emigrants from mingling with the Hamburgers, and try to prevent the spread of disease (immigrants who were obviously sick on arrival in America would not be allowed in, and had to be returned to Europe at HAPAG’s expense, so it made financial sense to try to keep them healthy). The Emigration Halls fell out of use after WWII (after they were taken over by the SS, that was obviously the end of emigration, and during the war they were used as POW camps), and became a Portuguese restaurant in the 1980s. Eventually, in 2004, Hamburg city government purchased the property and turned it into a museum on emigration.

I knew that my great-grandmother had departed Europe through Hamburg (I suspect my maternal grandfather’s parents did as well, I just haven’t found their records) so I was eager to see this museum. She died before I was born, so I never met her, but I wanted to get a taste of things she might have experienced. We took the S-Bahn out from central Hamburg to Veddel Island, and found Ballinstadt only a short walk away (which was fortunate, because it was extremely cold and windy throughout our visit). Admission to the museum is €13, though we purchased Hamburg Cards at the airport (we normally don’t buy city passes, but these included free public transport for the duration of our stay and discounts at every museum we were planning on visiting, so in this case it was worth our while) which got us €2 off. I had read in advance that none of the signage in the museum was in English, and I was bit apprehensive when I saw an English guidebook for sale at the front desk for €9.90, because I thought €11 was enough money to be spending on a museum where I couldn’t read anything, but we were provided with a booklet containing English translations for most of the main signage free of charge, so perhaps the guidebooks were for those who wanted additional information.

The museum was spread out over the three remaining dormitory buildings, and only the first building told the story of Ballinstadt, which was what I was most interested in learning about, the other two buildings being a more general emigration museum. There were small numbers on each panel that you’re meant to match up with your booklet to find the English translation of the text – though in sections where they weren’t many images or things to look at on the signage, I just parked myself on a seat (which you can spot me doing throughout the posts – my feet hurt!) and read all the room’s captions in one go. Life at the Emigration Halls definitely sounded grim – whilst the accommodations, after being expanded in 1908, were sanitary, they didn’t seem to have been particularly pleasant to live in. Emigrants were not permitted to leave the complex, and were forced to undergo regular medical examinations. There were parks, a church, and occasional concerts, so the emigrants had some opportunity for recreation, but most of their time was spent preparing for their upcoming voyage, though since they weren’t allowed off the premises, they had to buy everything at the HAPAG shop (and I’m sure they weren’t offered the lowest prices). And then of course most of them (including my great-grandmother) were travelling in steerage or ‘tween decks, which by the early 20th century were cleaner and less cramped than those on earlier ships, but were definitely still no picnic. Ballinn himself was the person who came up with the idea of using the ‘tween decks on HAPAG’s cargo ships to transport emigrants, as they weren’t fit for any other purpose (though were apparently just fine for people) – he said he would have been financially ruined had it not been for the ‘tween deck passengers (he was actually financially ruined by the First World War, and ended up committing suicide in November 1918).

All of the information about Ballinstadt was super interesting to me, but as I’ve mentioned, it was solely contained to the first hall. The second hall was the largest by far, and was initially primarily about pull-factors and push-factors that lead people to migrate. This building seemed very modern, with bold displays and interactive elements where you were supposed to insert a special card at different stations, but we were never given this card, perhaps because the screens were only in German, which we obviously didn’t speak. It was still fun to walk through and see all the different displays, especially the large ship in the middle of the hall moored inside a small indoor pond, which you could board, but I wish they could have offered something interactive for everyone, especially as it’s not difficult to provide translations for something that’s already on a computer.

I found the section on Ellis Island informative, especially the list of questions that immigrants would have been asked when they arrived (I’ve been trying my best to use “emigrants” and “immigrants” correctly throughout this post, but I find the distinction between them a little bit confusing, so sorry if I’ve made any errors), but I found that as the museum progressed, less and less of the material had translations available. By the time we entered the third hall, which contained a temporary exhibition, virtually nothing had been translated in our booklets except for the stories of various immigrants in one of the rooms, which I very much enjoyed (one of them was from a German man who immigrated to Cleveland because he was offered a job after helping to save 25 people’s lives during a maritime disaster). The last section before the gift shop contained computers where you could search HAPAG’s records (via Ancestry), and I was able to confirm that my great-grandmother did in fact come through here (I knew she had come to the US on the President Lincoln, out of Hamburg, but didn’t have proof that she had stayed in Ballinstadt. Now I know she did) in 1910 at the age of 16, travelling alone to the US. I wish I had asked my grandma whilst she was alive if she knew anything about her mother’s immigration experience, because I bet it was an interesting story.

Though I enjoyed this museum on the whole, I must admit I am perplexed as to why nothing inside the museum was in English. I always struggle with what to say about museums in foreign countries that don’t have English translations, because of course they’re not obligated to provide them – I know of few museums in the UK that bother to have signage in anything but English – and I don’t want to be the ugly American or Brit who demands them, but if they want to attract tourism, I always think it’s a good idea, because I know that I’m personally hesitant to pay to visit a museum unless I’m confident I’ll be able to read at least some of the signage. In the case of Ballinstadt, I think it really doesn’t make any sense at all to not offer English right on the signage. I know they’re trying to be a more general emigration museum than just the story of Ballinstadt, but I’m sure there are plenty of people like me out there who have ancestors who stayed in Ballinstadt and want to know more. And, as I learned in the museum, although some people ended up in South America, the vast majority of emigrants who passed through here were bound for the US and Canada, where their descendants now speak English, so I’m not sure why they’re not doing more to cater for these visitors. We were the only people in the museum for most of our visit, and when a few people turned up near the end, they were all evidently German-speaking, so I can’t imagine they’re attracting many foreign tourists as it stands.

I guess I should be glad that at least they offer the booklet for free, and that the displays were visually engaging, even if I couldn’t always understand them. Having recently visited the Migration Museum in London, I’m tempted to compare the two, but they’re such different experiences – one in established premises with informative factual displays, the other an art installation in a warehouse that focuses more on stories and emotion – that I think it’s better not to. I’ll give the museum 3/5, but I suspect that score would have been higher if I spoke German, and was able to read and use everything in here, so I’ll just have to hope they improve the interactivity for all visitors in future. Regardless, it was neat to stand somewhere my great-grandmother did and contemplate her experience here, but I think visitors without that personal connection might not have gotten as much out of it as I did.

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: 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.