London

London: Christmas at Kew

Just a quick one today about our visit to Christmas at Kew Gardens a few weeks ago, which I had to book way back in July because Christmas at Kew sells out fast! We loved our visit so much last year that I was watching their Instagram like a hawk this year to see when they announced ticket sales, and immediately pounced. I confess that a large part of my motivation was that the chips and waffles I ate there last year were so delicious that I was eager to eat them again, and I’m happy to report that both those vendors were there again this year – the waffles were just as tasty as last time, but the chips were sadly not quite as good, mainly because they stopped offering the three cheese version in favour of parmesan only, and three cheeses are always going to be better than one. The chips themselves were still ace, they just could have used some cheddar too. We were a little worried the light displays would be the same as last year’s (not that we didn’t enjoy them, but it’s a bit boring seeing the same thing twice), but they were all new and exciting, though I seem to have taken fairly terrible pictures this year. Anyway, I’ll leave you with a few more (not-great) photos, and the hope that everyone has a very happy Christmas! I’ll be going on hiatus until probably mid-January as I really just want to enjoy my break from work (and visit to Cleveland if all goes as planned!) and not have to think about blogging for a bit, but not to worry, as I already have a few posts lined up, so it will not be anywhere near as long of a break as I took last year. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

 

London: Peru – A Journey in Time @ the BM

I can’t say I’d given a great deal of thought to Peru before, other than it being where potatoes and the Inca come from, so I was hoping to learn more in the British Museum’s new exhibition Peru: a journey in time, which runs until 20th February 2022. Tickets are £15 or £7.50 with Art Pass. The exhibition is located in the round tower in the middle of the museum (a relief after the trek up to Room 90 last time, though there are still a not-insignificant number of stairs involved if you don’t take the lift), and although the BM always attracts a good crowd, this was definitely a bit emptier than other recent exhibitions I’ve seen there. This was perhaps helped by the arrangement of the cases, which really utilised the space effectively (maybe they should be taking notes for their own Room 90?).

 

As I said at the start, I really knew very little about Peru, despite having taken a course in Latin American Civ as an undergrad, so hadn’t really heard of the civilisations that came before the Inca, even though Andean culture was flourishing for a good 5000 years before Europeans arrived on the scene. Although the Inca get the most press, presumably because they were there when the Spanish invaded, they were able to build such a powerful empire only by drawing on all that had come before them. Earlier civilisations included the Paracas, Nasca (relatively famous because of the Nasca lines), Moche, and Wari, all of which were represented here, and I preferred these earlier artefacts to the Incan ones; firstly, because they were new to me; secondly, because I think it’s incredible that objects so old have survived in such great condition (helped by the fact that many of them were retrieved from grave sites of mummified bodies. If conditions are good for mummification, odds are they’re decent for artefacts too); and finally, and most importantly, because they were awesome!

  

Each civilisation had its own specialty, though there was obviously some overlap between them. For example, the Moche were known for their erotic pottery, of which there is apparently an entire museum in Peru (mentally added to my must-see list!), and the Wari were known for their weaving skills. And all of the cultures depicted people and animals in some form or another. There was also a running theme of severed heads, which doesn’t sound terribly appealing, but these were honestly some of the cutest severed heads I’ve ever seen, mainly because they were stylised rather than gory, and their facial expressions indicated they were fairly happy with being severed heads (even though I’m sure the victims wouldn’t have actually been that chill whilst their heads were being harvested).

 

You can see the sophistication of these cultures through the quality of the art they produced. Some of the more realistic depictions of people looked as though they could have been made yesterday instead of hundreds or even thousands of years ago. But these civilisations had also developed complex agricultural systems and roads superior to anything in Europe that came after the Romans before the modern era, so it’s not really surprising that they could also turn their hands to art. Of course, they also practiced a lot of human sacrifice (as you might have guessed from the severed heads), so it’s not like everything was a bed of roses, but all things considered, it’s still appalling that the Spanish just marched in and destroyed thousands of years of amazing, vibrant culture without giving a damn for what was lost.

  

I think you can probably tell by now that I really loved the objects in this exhibition. These artefacts are incredible, and absolutely something you should see for yourself if you can (some are part of the BM’s collections, but many of them are on loan from Peru, so take advantage whilst they’re here!). The exhibition isn’t a large one, and I feel it could have benefited from more information about each of these civilisations (it was a bit of a rushed history because they were trying to fit so much in) but it’s still well worth your time. 4/5. And a shout-out to the BM’s retail manager/buyer for finally giving the people what they want merch-wise! I am now the proud owner of a new mug printed with the design from the severed head blanket pictured below, and it’s made my evening tea and biscuits time even more delightful.

London: Hogarth and Europe @ Tate Britain

Here’s another one of those early modern exhibitions I was talking about in my previous post, and this one is firmly in my wheelhouse: Hogarth and Europe: Uncovering City Life at Tate Britain (which runs until 20th March 2022 and costs £18 to enter, or £9 with Art Pass). I absolutely love William Hogarth. I took a course on Restoration and 18th century literature as an undergrad, which was my first real exposure to the long 18th century from a non-biased perspective (the American 18th century history that you learn in school tends to be mainly about the American Revolution and the evils of the British), and I completely fell in love with the Georgians. They were just so fun compared to the boring Puritans of the 17th century (and the dour Victorians, but their obsession with death is what I love about them, so I’m not going to rag too much on that), and the cartoonists of the 18th century, including Hogarth, were a huge part of what makes them fun, so I was pretty excited to see this exhibition and enjoy something a bit lighter than the predictable but sad end to the Elizabeth and Mary exhibition at the BL I’d seen the week before.

 

However, Hogarth, though he included comic touches in many of his works, was more than just a satirist. He was also a moraliser, and this exhibition dwelt on not only his political and ethical views, but also the relationship between Britain, Europe, and the transatlantic slave trade. When looking up the exhibition to refresh my memory in order to write this post, I stumbled upon some newspaper reviews, and man, they were not happy at all about the slave trade angle. Part of me can kind of see their point, since Hogarth, as far as I know, had no direct involvement in the slave trade, other than enjoying a higher standard of living as a result of the increased range of products and wealth available because of forced labour in the colonies, which was true of basically everyone in Britain at that point, but another part of me absolutely gets what the Tate is trying to do. If you’re talking about an artist and how he fits into the wider world of the 18th century, it only makes sense to mention the slave trade, since it played such an integral part in shaping society. And you do see the physical marks of slavery in Hogarth’s paintings in a very direct way. He often depicts Black servants with a silver collar around their neck, which was a direct mark of ownership, and deeply disturbing once you start noticing it. Honestly, I thought the commentary on slavery was interesting and it was not anywhere near as distracting or obtrusive as many of the professional reviewers seemed to find it, but I do write purely for my own enjoyment rather than to push a specific angle, so I can be as honest as I like. I can’t say the same for journalists working for right-leaning publications.

 

I also don’t think it detracts from Hogarth’s work to point out examples of his hypocrisy. Yes, he was flawed, but who isn’t, and learning about his personal beliefs adds even more dimension to his work. I think Hogarth is fascinating because of these contradictions. He called out the ills of society and the class system whilst being firmly Establishment, particularly in his later years. He seemed to be somewhat pro-women’s rights, through his pointing out the evils of forced prostitution and arranged marriages, but he also painted pictures that played into horrible Georgian ideas of women enjoying rape, particularly his racist portrayal of a Black sex worker “luring” men into an orgy. He seemed to have an affinity for the lower classes, often portraying them sympathetically, and fostering a number of foundling children with his wife, but also mocked people he saw as members of the non-deserving poor, i.e. alcoholics or the “idle”.

 

But that’s enough about the politics, let’s get down to the paintings and the engravings! The main reason to love Hogarth is for his work, and there were some great pieces on display here. You can view most of his famous engravings at various museums in London in print form, and of course I’ve seen them many times before, but I always enjoy an opportunity to look at them again because the level of detail means I’ll pick up things I’ve missed in the past. Usually, it’s whatever is going on with the background figures, which pretty much always includes a dog or cat (or more depressingly, an enslaved person), like the dog in the picture above left, who is dressed up like a human and standing on his hind legs. I also love Trump, Hogarth’s pug, who was a pug back before pugs had been bred into the completely flat faced things that struggle to breathe that they are today. He’s also probably the only thing named Trump that you will ever hear me speaking affectionately towards. Trump appears in one of Hogarth’s most famous self-portraits, but you’ll also spy dogs that look very much like him hidden in the corners of some of Hogarth’s other works.

 

Hogarth was also known for the deliberately uncomplimentary way he approached portraiture of the rich and famous, and it was trendy amongst the upper classes to have their portraits painted by Hogarth just to see how unflatteringly realistic he would make them. I particularly like the reverend with devil horns and an ass’s ears. His most famous moralising works were here too, including Gin Lane and Beer Street, Marriage a-la-Mode, The Rake’s Progress, The Harlot’s Progress, and many more. These are all great, but I actually prefer some of the lesser known (and less moralising ones) like The Enraged Musician (I wrote a paper on it for my MA), which was here too (the print, not my paper, obviously).

 

I was clearly very keen on the Hogarth parts of the exhibition, but I was less enthused by the Europe bits. These were meant to show how Hogarth influenced and was influenced by various European painters (to make him seem less of a John Bull type, which I guess can happen when you spend a lot of your career painting offensive caricatures of the French), but most of the other artists didn’t do a whole lot for me, save for the Dutch guy (whose name I can’t remember) who painted a bared buttocks with a face on it being hung out of a window (so my type of low-brow humour!). I did like the giant maps in the section on various European cities, including Amsterdam, Venice, Paris, and London, though London is really the only one of those cities I know well enough to have been able to make comparisons between the 18th century layout and the present day. Overall though, I don’t think the “Europe” part of the title added much value to the exhibition, and I would have preferred if it had been on Hogarth alone with a more in-depth look at 18th century British society, which would also have made the role of slavery in the British Empire a more natural inclusion.

 

Simply because I love Hogarth and his work so much, I did slightly prefer this to the Elizabeth and Mary exhibition at the BL, though speaking as someone who is well-versed in the period, and contrary to the opinions of the professional critics mentioned earlier, I think they could have dug even deeper below the surface with their analysis of many of the pieces on display here. There are many details in Hogarth’s works that would have been obvious to his contemporary viewers, but aren’t easily apparent to modern ones, and I think the exhibition could have done a better job of pointing these out. Some of the works didn’t have any real interpretation at all other than commentary from a modern artist saying what they thought of the painting, which isn’t massively useful when it comes to understanding Hogarth’s work. The work itself though: *chef’s kiss*. Great selection, and I could absolutely have looked at this stuff all day if there had been fewer people waiting their turn (still nowhere near as crowded as Paula Rego though). 4/5.

 

London: Elizabeth and Mary @ the BL

Very cheery of me to open this post with a funeral cortege, but it gives you an idea of what to expect. Also note that this is Elizabeth’s funeral. Mary did not get a cortege. In fact, Elizabeth would have basically had her murdered and shoved in a ditch if she could have gotten away with it.

There’s so many early modern history related exhibitions on in London at the moment that seeing them all is making me feel a bit like I’m doing my Master’s again, which is maybe why it’s taken me so long to write up some of these posts – it’s too much like doing schoolwork! I’ll get around to a couple of the other exhibitions in future posts, but for now, let’s talk about “Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins Rival Queens” at the British Library. Admission is £16 or £8 with Art Pass, and the exhibition runs until 20th February 2022.

 

I’ve been over the Tudors for quite a while now (they’re just so overdone), and I feel kind of bad saying this because it’s not very feminist of me, but even when I was into the Tudors, I was always much more interested in Henry VIII than Elizabeth I. There was just so much more drama! But I would still say I know quite a lot more about Elizabeth than I do her Scottish contemporary. Most of my knowledge of Mary, Queen of Scots actually comes from works of fiction. I used to be obsessed with Judith Merkle Riley’s books (I only just saw she passed away in 2010 when I was looking her up for this post), and though The Oracle Glass was always my favourite (because witches), I also loved The Master of all Desires, which was about Catherine de Medici and Nostradamus, and featured Mary, Queen of Scots as a secondary character, a teenager who was engaged to the sickly dauphin. I also have always remembered the vivid description of the murder of David Rizzio, one of Mary’s closest advisors, in The House with the Clock in its Walls, where Rizzio is described as spurting blood like a plum spurting juice.

All of this is to say that the sections on Mary were definitely more eye opening than the sections on Elizabeth. For example, I didn’t realise that Mary was only 44 when she was executed. I knew she had been imprisoned for a couple decades before she died, so I just assumed she was a tad more elderly (I don’t know why, because I’ve definitely read descriptions of her execution that must have mentioned it, but only the part about her wig falling off her decapitated head and her dog emerging from her skirts after she died only to have its face shoved in her blood by the executioner stuck in my mind, and I guess the wig aspect had me picturing an older woman), but nope, she was just did a whole lot of living, including two failed marriages (three, counting the dauphin) in the brief period of relative freedom between her childhood in the French court and being dethroned at the age of only 24.

 

The exhibition was divided up into roughly chronological sections taking us through Elizabeth and Mary’s lives (Elizabeth was nine years older), and although we encountered the usual slow-moving crowd at the start of the exhibition (why does the British Library seem to attract almost exclusively older people? Not that it’s a problem, but I think it’s odd that it’s rare to see someone under the age of 70 in their exhibitions) that meant a bit of queuing, the crowds completely thinned out after the first couple of sections, so we could move about fairly freely, which I always appreciate.

 

As with most exhibitions at the BL, the strong point here was without a doubt the vast array of original documents, many of them written in the respective hands of Elizabeth and Mary themselves, including one where Mary apologises for her poor English, as she had never written anything in the language before. Spending her childhood in France had not equipped her well for ruling Scotland, not least because her staunch Catholicism did not endear her either to Protestant Elizabeth or the majority of her subjects. There were also a number of hand-drawn maps, including the one, above left, that shows a bird’s eye view of Lord Darnley’s murder scene. Darnley was Mary’s second husband and was murdered under mysterious circumstances that left Mary herself under suspicion. He was a real jerk though, and Mary would have been well rid of him had she not immediately married the Earl of Bothwell, who very likely had been the one to murder Darnley, and also probably raped Mary, which is why she was forced to marry him so suddenly in the first place (she mentioned being “ill-used” by him or words to that effect in one of her letters). This marriage was also what led to Mary’s downfall. Bothwell was a controversial figure, hated by many nobles, and the marriage divided the country, triggering a rebellion that forced Mary to flee to England, where she was taken into custody on the orders of Elizabeth, who saw her as a potential threat.

  

She was also ill-used (in a different way, I hasten to add) by her jerk of a son James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) who was eager to take Elizabeth’s side if it meant she would make him her heir. I might just be prejudiced by what I know of the adult man, but he comes across as a slimy little toad, albeit one fairly accomplished in languages, judging by some of his beautifully lettered schoolboy work (above right). Although, since he had never really known his mother, who was imprisoned when he was still a baby, I guess it’s understandable that he wouldn’t have felt any particular loyalty to her.

 

Ultimately, Mary was a victim of her religion, poor choice in men, and her own poor judgement in plotting against her cousin Elizabeth (not a smart move when you’re in prison and all your letters are surveilled). At the start of her imprisonment, Mary was still trying to reach out to Elizabeth as a fellow queen and cousin to enlist her help in getting the Scottish throne back, but she quickly became disillusioned and attempted to ally with anyone who might be willing to help, including the governments of various Catholic countries and English noblemen with Catholic sympathies. It was her association with the Babington Plot, which aimed to have Elizabeth assassinated and Mary crowned in her place, that led Elizabeth to wash her hands of her cousin and consent to her execution (though Elizabeth apparently tried to have Mary quietly bumped off by one of her keepers so she wouldn’t have the shame of signing a fellow queen’s death warrant. Nice). The letter above right, shows the code used in the letter that implicated Mary in the plot, which was cracked by Elizabeth’s spymaster Francis Walsingham. The left image is the quilt Mary made in her captivity, since twenty years of it meant she had a lot of time on her hands in between plotting.

Maybe it’s just because Mary seemed to have a more interesting life, so I paid more attention to the Mary content, but this exhibition seemed skewed towards Mary, focusing only on Elizabeth in relation to her interactions with Mary, which was fine with me. I might have watched too much Blackadder or just absorbed the misogyny of various history books, but Elizabeth has never struck me as a particularly charming individual, whereas Mary seemed to have too much charm and too little agency over her own life. I loved looking at all the hand-drawn maps and letters actually written by these monarchs – the British Library’s collections are indeed spectacular. If I had a complaint, it would have been that some of the text was fairly dry, and the story wasn’t always told in the most engaging way. For example, the story I told about Mary’s execution at the start wasn’t mentioned here, maybe because the story about the dog was only included in a later account, so may not be historically accurate, but the wig part did definitely happen (it was mentioned by various people present at the execution) and is the kind of grisly little fact I love. More interesting historical tidbits like that, as well as the inclusion of more types of artefacts, might have made this more broadly appealing to the general public, but for a history nerd like me, it was still pretty enjoyable. 3.5/5.

And Mary did have the last laugh, in a way. When James VI/I became king, he had both Mary and Elizabeth interred in Westminster Abbey. Guess who looks more attractive on their tomb? (Attractive being a relative term, because the styles of the time were not flattering.) That’s right, Mary.

 

London: Hokusai The Great Picture Book of Everything @ the BM

If you’re like me, you probably mainly know Hokusai from The Great Wave, but he also produced a number of brush drawings, which are featured in the British Museum’s Hokusai: The Great Picture Book of Everything exhibition, running until 20th January 2022. The exhibition page on the British Museum’s website made it look like there were lots of demon and animal drawings involved, so I decided to head out to see it, despite it being held in the dreaded Room 90, which is very probably the farthest spot away from the museum’s entrance. Be prepared to climb LOTS of stairs (I think there probably is a lift somewhere, but I’m clearly a glutton for punishment)!

  

Having braved the security shed and the many flights of stairs (not always the easiest feat in a mask – I’m very pro-mask, but does anyone else find when that when you exert yourself and try to take a deep breath, the whole mask gets sucked into your mouth and makes hard to breathe? I find the same thing happens when I get excited and talk too fast, so I’m probably just doing something wrong), we arrived at the exhibition. I don’t think the British Museum strictly requires pre-booking anymore, but I’ve gotten in the habit and have just carried on. Tickets are £9, or £4.50 with Art Pass, which is relatively cheap for the BM, but I’ve been to lots of exhibitions in Room 90 that were free, so I think it’s a bit pricey given the size of the space.

 

The exhibition was mainly centred around the walls of the gallery, which meant lots of queuing, or if you’re me, getting annoyed and just going around the exhibition in non-sequential order by popping over to wherever I saw a gap. Layout aside, the drawings themselves were actually pretty great. This particular collection was produced between 1820 and 1840 for an illustrated encyclopaedia called The Great Picture Book of Everything, but the book was never actually published. I’m not sure how these drawings were saved, since the exhibition implied that drawings of this nature would normally have been destroyed after the woodblocks had been completed, but the British Museum somehow acquired them, and here we are.

 

As I was hoping, there was indeed a large selection of animal drawings, and I particularly liked the elephant and the camel. Though there were a few wordier display cases that talked about the techniques Hokusai used to create his works, there wasn’t quite as much text under each individual image as I would have liked, some simply stating what was in the picture rather than an explanation that provided context.

 

This was especially noticeable in Hokusai’s drawings of ghosts and demons, which I loved, but I’m fascinated by folklore, and I couldn’t help wanting to know more. “The head of Meijian Chi springs from a boiling cauldron and takes revenge on his enemies,” which was under the image on the left, above, was simply not enough for me to go on. I want to know the whole damn story!

 

I was also disappointed by the small scale of the exhibition – I get that it was only meant to be in Room 90, but there is actually another room attached to Room 90 that is part of the same gallery. I have definitely seen this utilised in other exhibitions, but on the day of our visit, it held drawings of Switzerland (to be fair, I did enjoy these, especially the comic ones, but I felt like they should have been using the space for the paid exhibition).

 

I suppose because it is by far Hokusai’s most famous piece, there was a small display on The Great Wave at the back of the exhibition that discussed the woodblock printing process used for Hokusai’s work, and how experts can tell when each copy was created by the degree of detail remaining in the woodblock. This was interesting, but didn’t have much to do with the rest of the exhibition, and felt more like an attempt to flesh it out more than anything else.

 

I loved Hokusai’s drawings, and I think the exhibition made an interesting point about how his work, which often featured people and animals from other countries, showed that Japan was less insular in this period than previously thought, but I just don’t think there was enough here to justify the price tag. Better to have made this a free exhibition or only charged about a fiver (which to be fair, is about what I paid, but only because I have an Art Pass). 2.5/5.

London: Bags Inside Out @ the V&A

I love vintage fashion, and I will be the first to admit that I have way too many items of clothing, but I’ve never been a massive bag person. I mean, I do still have multiple purses, but they tend to be fairly utilitarian bags in different colours rather than anything expensive or weirdly shaped, so a bag-themed exhibition wasn’t a huge draw. However, Bags Inside Out has been at the V&A for what feels like years at this point (I actually think it literally will be years because of the Covid closures – it runs until January 2022, and had to have been there since 2020), and since it is the only fashion themed exhibition they’ve had for ages, I still reckoned I should go see it.

  

Tickets to Bags are £12, or £6 for Art Pass. The entry procedure at the V&A (in September, when I visited) was a lot less rigmarole than my previous visit in July. Someone basically just asked if we had a ticket and then waved us into the museum. No bag checks or scanning of tickets until we were actually at the exhibition entrance. I have a friend who works at the V&A who told me they’ve been having a lot of trouble with getting people to wear masks, as they can no longer require it, and on my visit, it was probably about fifty/fifty (we’ve had fewer issues where I work because our visitor numbers are minuscule compared to the V&A and they have to ring a doorbell to get inside the building, so we can monitor them more closely). The exhibition was being held in the usual smallish gallery where the fashion themed stuff is, so the downstairs bit was super crowded and we had to queue for a bit to see into some of the cases, which I wasn’t thrilled about.

 

Maybe it’s because I was rushing a bit to get past the crowded first section, but I only saw a bit of information about how bags eventually evolved from pockets (and what people did before pockets, I do not know. Carried crap in their hands I guess) before the exhibition quickly jumped right into the functionality of bags, and as someone who is generally more interested in history than design, it wasn’t a great sign. However, some of the bags here were quite interesting. The military ones didn’t particularly do anything for me, but I liked some of the gaming purses, and of course Emilie Busbey Grigsby’s fabulous trunk (one of nineteen she would typically take on transatlantic crossings. Oh, to be that rich).

 

There were also a selection of bags belonging to famous people. I loved Vivien Leigh’s attache case, which apparently went everywhere with her, and Gladstone and Churchill’s bags were also functional and attractive, but Margaret Thatcher’s handbag was about what you’d expect.

 

Some of the designer bags were ug-lee – I’d honestly rather have something from the wall of totes or one of the “humorous carrier bags,” especially the one advertising “Colon Care Co-op” (not a real place) – but I was relieved that unlike that awful shoe exhibition at the Design Museum, only a small portion of these bags were actually proper high fashion designer stuff, with the remainder being far more functional.

 

I preferred the upstairs section of the exhibition, which was much more spread out so we could look at things properly. It didn’t hurt that the first case I set eyes on was full of animal bags. How cute is that frog shaped sweet bag? When I first saw it, all I could think was that the bag certainly wouldn’t be able to hold enough sweets for my needs until I read that it wasn’t intended for sweets as in candy; rather, it would have held sweet smelling herbs or dried flowers.

 

Also loved the sugar skull bag, though I honestly just find clutches annoying, because I need to have my hands free. I got a cute one to shove my phone and stuff in when I got married but because we travelled there on foot and were carrying cookies and cupcakes to hand out to our guests after the ceremony since we couldn’t have a reception due to Covid, I just ended up putting everything in a giant tote that I set out of sight during photos. Same goes for the Dairy Milk and horse chestnut bags – cute idea, but an absolute pain to carry, and good luck getting a phone in there! I swear I’ve seen the Normandie bag before, maybe at the Ocean Liners exhibition, but I still enjoyed seeing it here because I love all things nautical.

 

The other main section up here was about the construction of bags, and I really would have preferred a section like this on history instead. This part of the exhibition was mainly just annoying, because it was bedecked with loads of different fabrics that I was just itching to touch, except there were “do not touch” signs everywhere and a steward giving me hairy eyeball, so I didn’t dare. Yes, I know I shouldn’t be touching things anyway because of Covid, but don’t make something look marvellously tactile and then tell me I can’t touch it, because that’s just cruel.

  

Honestly, the best part of the exhibition, other than the frog bag, was the fact that they had rerouted the exits to make the exhibition one way, so we emerged into the wrought iron section of the permanent collections, which I hadn’t visited in years (the V&A is huge and I normally just come for special exhibitions these days, so it’s easy to forget this stuff exists), and I’d forgotten how cool it was. This is not to say that the Bags exhibition was terrible, but it wasn’t all that big, and the bags were quite spaced out upstairs, so they weren’t necessarily utilising all the space they could have for displays, which meant the interpretation was definitely a bit lacking. Some of the bags were really neat, but I didn’t come out of this feeling I had really learned anything about bags, and I can’t say I’m any more interested in them as a fashion item than I was going in. 2.5/5.

London: Van Gogh House

I had learned quite a lot about Vincent Van Gogh’s time in London after visiting the Van Gogh exhibition at the Tate a few years ago, but one thing I didn’t learn was that you can visit one of the houses where he lived. Actually, you probably couldn’t at the time of that exhibition, because they’ve only just opened to the public following a “major conservation project”, but I spotted them on Art Fund’s website right after their reopening (due to Durham and Halloween, this is a very delayed post – I visited in early September when we were having a mini heatwave, hence my summery outfit) and booked Marcus and myself in for a visit.

Van Gogh House is located about a ten minute walk from Stockwell Underground Station, in a surprisingly nice leafy part of Stockwell that feels more like Hampstead. Due to a train mishap, we arrived about ten minutes late, which I was mildly panicking about since I hate being late, but it turned out that we were the only people visiting, so it was fine. Tickets are £5 or £2.50 with Art Pass, and they’re requesting that you book in advance, though based on our experience, you might well get lucky if you just show up. There was an exhibition at the time of our visit called “Life and its most trivial particulars.” This rather pretentiously named photographic installation by Brian Griffiths and Frank Kent runs until 18th December, and basically just means there’s a photograph in each of the rooms, so I wouldn’t rush to the house on account of it.

At the time Van Gogh lived in this three storey Georgian terrace, from 1873-74, it was a boarding house run by Ursula Layer and her daughter Eugenie, the latter of whom Vincent seems to have promptly fallen in love with, but it was unrequited. His sister Anna also moved in for a bit before they got a house together in Kennington in August 1874. So Van Gogh didn’t spend a tonne of time in the house, but at least he actually did live there, which is more than you can say for Cooks’ Cottage in Melbourne.

The house itself is quite cool, with original timbers in the floor, a lovely sunny room filled with houseplants much healthier than mine, and not one, but two toilets (even though one of them was a proper old Victorian pull-chain toilet, which I love, neither of them would have actually been here at the time Van Gogh was living here. They only had an outdoor privy back then, presumably supplemented with chamber pots). However, because Van Gogh didn’t become a huge name until quite a long time after leaving here, and researchers only discovered about fifty years ago that this was the house he had stayed in, quite a lot had been done to the house in the intervening years, so it’s not as it would have been in the 1870s. Considering the fate of the houses of many other historical figures, I suppose we’re lucky that it’s still standing at all!

Though I of course wanted to know every detail of Van Gogh’s time here, unfortunately, there’s not a great deal of information in the house. There was a small fact sheet laid out in each room containing a bit more information about the room and what Van Gogh was doing in London at that time, but that’s pretty much it. The photographic exhibition had virtually no information other than the names of the pieces. I know they were meant to be inspired by Van Gogh’s work, so if you’re familiar with his paintings, it’s not that hard to make a connection between, say, the photograph of potatoes growing and The Potato Eaters, but the connections were often tenuous at best, and it would have been nice to know more about what Van Gogh meant to the photographers, or how the photos were composed. I think they do occasionally offer guided tours, so it might be worth going on one of those to learn more about the history of the house, because you won’t get it from the current signage.

There was another installation where a modern artist had tried to recreate the paints used in Van Gogh’s paintings, but it literally was just a bunch of stripes painted on a wall, as seen above. Again, more information than just the names of the colours would have been appreciated. I feel like I’m being quite down on the house, but I do think the house itself was nice, and I loved being able to walk in the footsteps of Van Gogh, I just wanted to know more! I think the £2.50 we paid was reasonable, but a fiver is a bit steep for what you get. 2.5/5.

If you find yourself wanting more Van Gogh after you leave, you’re in luck, because there is a lovely little “Van Gogh Walk” about a minute away from the house. Most of this area was built up towards the end of the 19th century – at the time Van Gogh lived here, he was still surrounded by patches of nature and loved going for strolls to look at the flora and fauna, so this walk was in homage to that. You can stroll this plant-filled little passage down to the bust of Van Gogh at the end, on which someone had rested a disgusting sunflower head. Yes, I love Van Gogh, but I absolutely loathe sunflowers. I find their big heads revolting, don’t ask me why, and I honestly can’t even look closely at them without wanting to gag. I also hate the thickness of their stems and they way they loom over you in a sinister way, but I’ve probably already said too much. Regardless of my issues with sunflowers, I enjoyed the Van Gogh Walk, and the plaque and quotations in it probably contained more information than his whole damn house did, so I’d definitely stop and see it whilst you’re there.

London: Pollock’s Toy Museum Redux

I originally blogged about Pollock’s Toy Museum way back in 2013 when Diverting Journeys was new, and I have to say, I don’t think anything has changed in the museum since then. However, because there are few things more unsettling than a room full of antique dolls, I thought Halloween would be a great time to revisit and do a new post (also, I wanted to freak out Marcus, who hadn’t come with me on my initial visit, as payback for when he’d stuck Tapping Trump (this scary Trump head thing that taps his finger when the motion sensor gets triggered. We normally put it in our front window for Halloween) in the shower the night before, and I almost had a heart attack when I unsuspectingly sat on the toilet and he tapped on the glass right next to my head). Because very few people read my blog in the early days, I thought I might as well save myself some effort and reuse my original text since it’s unlikely you will have seen it before, but because my original photos were taken on a really crappy phone camera (I think I had finally moved on from my flip phone by then, but I was just using one of Marcus’s old phones at that point, so it was still well out of date even in 2013), you get brand new photos to really appreciate the horror of those creepy doll faces (though some admittedly still have bad glare because everything here was behind glass). Everything in italics is part of my original post, updates are not italicised.

 

Given how often I head to Goodge Street for an extremely cheap and studenty yet strangely delicious pizza from ICCO, it’s odd that Pollock’s Toy Museum has escaped my attention until now. Oh sure, I knew it existed, but I think I’ve sometimes confused it with the Museum of Childhood, which I think is more child-centric. It wasn’t until I saw Professor Hutton visit it on Professor Hutton’s Curiosities (which was disappointingly London-centric (and this is coming from someone who lives in London), and I’m sorry, but Professor Hutton kind of freaks me out. Something about his long, unkempt witch-like hair – he looks like the type of man who would have long, yellow, dirty nails) that I realised both where it was, and that it looked a bit creepy, and therefore awesome.

 

Scala Street is sandwiched roughly between Charlotte Street and Tottenham Court Road, quite near to Goodge Street Station. The museum space spans two narrow buildings; one Victorian, the other Georgian, which already made it cool in my book. Walking into the gift shop/admissions, I found myself in a room that had the aura of an old-fashioned magic shop – full of shelves crammed with overhanging toys/ephemera and curio cabinets bulging with miniatures, which were lent atmosphere by the dimly lit interior. The place was completely deserted, and I was kind of afraid someone would emerge from a back room and offer to sell me a gremlin/evil Krusty doll/frogurt with toppings containing potassium benzoate, but after waiting around for a couple minutes, and nervously calling, “Hello?” a man casually strolled through the front door with the glass of coke he’d been getting from the pub next door. At last, I was able to pay my £6 admission fee (now £9), and enter through the heavy door. On this visit, two people were sitting behind the counter, and we were promptly greeted and given an introduction to the museum, but that’s much less spooky. And in case you were wondering, yes, I’m pretty sure that is a Hitler puppet holding a string of sausages in the image above left. No explanation was provided.

  

I was greeted by a winding staircase and a case full of American toys, including a bank shaped like Boss Tweed. You should know that the staircases are quite narrow and steep, and they all have toys exhibited along them, so you’ll often find yourself twisting into awkward positions to get a good look at things, whilst trying to not fall down the stairs. This was further complicated by the fact that I was holding a large shopping bag in addition to my purse, and trying to take pictures with my crappy phone, which requires two hands; honestly I was probably lucky I didn’t break a leg or something. I would imagine this would be a nightmare if the place was crowded; fortunately, I was the only visitor at the time. We were the only visitors on this occasion too, so I can see why they had to raise the admission fee.

 

After successfully getting a peek at the board games on the stairs of death (I did a year-long research project on board games when I was in third grade, and I still love playing them, on the rare occasions I can find enough people to play with), I emerged onto the first floor, which was devoted to boys’ toys (that just sounds stupid and/or pervy, sorry), although some of them were unisex, like the rocking horses and zoetropes (when I was little, my grandpa bought me a rocking horse that I named Buckles, and spent hours riding whilst singing “Home, Home, on the Range” over and over again. I must have driven my grandparents mad). I was actually quite tomboyish when I was a kid, and I loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but my mother would never buy me any of the action figures because they were for boys, apparently. I had to resort to hand-me-downs from one of my friends, which mainly consisted of the crappier characters (I probably had five Raphaels). This stuff was far more “vintage” though; I think the newest things there were some robot and space toys from the ’60s, and a few GI Joes. I must have not clocked this on my first visit, but there is a really creepy mannequin sitting in one of the display cases down here. I’m not at all one to be freaked out by mannequins normally, but this one 100% looked like he was about to turn his head and wink at me. I didn’t want to look, and yet I couldn’t bring myself to tear my eyes away until I left the room. He’s in the photo above left. Also, I hate Punch. Oh yeah, and one of the rocking horses kept creaking back and forth the whole time we were in here, so that was fun.

 

On the second floor, I checked out the collection of toy theatres, and then progressed into the Georgian part of the museum, which was unashamedly girly (I probably wouldn’t use quite that language if I was writing this today, as “girly” sticks in my feminist craw a bit, but I’ll leave it). There were some rather creepy wax dolls (particularly so if you’ve seen that episode of Doctor Who where Amy and Rory are trapped in that dollhouse with the faceless peg dolls), and I was the only person in there, completely surrounded by their dead staring eyes, in a room with creaky 18th century floorboards and the distant tortured cry of a pigeon from the ledge outside. Before fleeing (I’m being melodramatic here, I wasn’t really that freaked out), I did note the English doll who was owned by an American pioneer girl, but eventually made it back to England to rest in the museum.

  

The next room was full of dollhouses, which I definitely have a fondness for. I played with Barbies and stuff when I was little, and I had some American Girl dolls (Samantha and Felicity), but I never had a dollhouse, which is a shame, because I loved making up stories for them, and I also love miniature things. These examples weren’t quite as ornate as some I’ve seen, but I still would have loved to own them when I was a kid, and I spent some time poring over the decorations and wee furniture. Around the corner were some teddies arranged in trees, and naturally, in a teddy bear picnic tableux, though my favourite was a poor WWI soldier bear who had been injured, and was resting his bandaged leg. Just thinking about it makes me go “awwwww” inside my head. (See, I do have a soft side!) No matter how battered the teddies were, I still found them sweet rather than creepy, unlike the dolls, which are nothing but creepy, I guess because humans are predisposed to be frightened of things that look human, but aren’t human.

  

The next room though, well, that was another doll room, mainly of the china sort. I was never into baby dolls; I guess I’ve never had any kind of maternal instinct, so these didn’t do much for me, though the homemade Pearly King and Queen dolls were kind of cool. The collections finished on the staircase back down with some war related games, and foreign toys. That room full of dolls had a padlock on the door, which is really kind of worrisome. Is that to keep me out or them in? I particularly hate the one with the pageboy haircut sitting on the bed, though I wouldn’t say that within its hearing.

 

Even though this is a toy museum, I don’t think children would actually like it, as you can’t touch anything. There were two young boys behind me as I left, as they had rushed through the entire museum in the time it took me to look at one room, and they seemed pretty uninterested. However, nostalgic adults would love it, as you can probably tell from the way I’ve bored you with personal reminiscences throughout. I mean, I was born well after any of the eras most of these toys were from, but I still found them delightful. Dusty cases full of Victorian toys arranged in strange tableaux in a dark, quiet museum of warren-like rooms is EXACTLY the kind of thing I love. That said, I do think £6 is kind of steep (haha. 2021 Jessica doesn’t even blink at spending £9, but 2021 Jessica has a job, unlike 2013 Jessica), but it is in central London, and doesn’t seem to be terribly popular, so I’m sure they need the help paying the rent. If you like Victoriana and/or old-fashioned museums, then I think it’s definitely worth checking out. 4/5. I stand by this. It’s still just as creepy and old-fashioned – like a breath of stale air. Love it. Happy Halloween everyone!

 

London: Chiswick Old Cemetery and Barnes Old Cemetery

Barnes Old Cemetery

Cemeteries have become a bit of a standby on Diverting Journeys around Halloween, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t include a post this year too. Not that I think cemeteries should intrinsically be viewed as creepy (death shouldn’t be taboo), but I have to admit that I enjoy them all the more if they are a bit overgrown and atmospheric. I recently visited two cemeteries in West London that I hadn’t been to before (both of which were much harder to get to than they should have been considering their proximity to where I live, but that’s really a beef with TfL) that I think are worth sharing here.

 

The first is Chiswick Old Cemetery/St Nicholas’ Churchyard (they’re in the same location, but they’re divided by a fence), which is in (you guessed it) Chiswick. We visited on the day of Chiswick’s monthly cheese market (also known as Cheesewick, which is apparently what Chiswick was originally called), which is about a mile away from the cemetery, and I was envisioning this lovely crisp autumn stroll through the graveyard followed by some leisurely cheese sampling, which was completely hampered by the absolute pissing rain we encountered as soon as we got off the train. I was completely soaked through after two minutes of walking and very cranky as a result, so it was a shame we had miles more to get through that day. However, after spending all that time getting there, I still wanted to see the burial ground, which is the final resting place of not only William Hogarth (and you know I love a Hogarth print) but also James Whistler, of Whistler’s Mother fame. Whistler, having died about a century and a half after Hogarth, is buried in the Old Cemetery, which is actually newer than the churchyard (but I guess still older than Chiswick’s current cemetery). He shares a tomb (above right) with his wife, who was also an artist, though much overlooked compared to her husband.

 

Most of the other graves in the Old Cemetery are fairly nondescript, so we quickly headed over to St Nicholas’ Churchyard, where the rain finally showed signs of stopping. There are actually two wonderful tombs here (and a number of so-so ones), and I would personally say Richard Wright’s (above) is actually better than Hogarth’s, given my love of skulls. He was a bricklayer, but he must have been a pretty fancy bricklayer, judging by his impressive tomb. And then of course there is Hogarth’s tomb (below), which was restored in 2009. I assume they mean just the carving rather than the inscription, as that was impossible to read – fortunately, they had a transcription written on a nearby sign, so at least I could figure it out that way. It didn’t take a lot of time to look around, but I think it was worth coming for the three tombs I’ve mentioned above, plus we got some delicious cheese at the market and of course bakery from Outsider Tart, a must when I’m in Chiswick.

 

We visited Barnes Old Cemetery about a week later, which is in, yep, Barnes! You’re good at this guessing game. Barnes Old Cemetery opened in 1854 and closed a century later, as it was already full and too expensive to maintain without the revenue from new burials. Rather than even attempt to maintain it, Barnes Council apparently just thought, “screw this, let’s turn it into a park. Then it can be super overgrown and no one can complain!” And that’s what they did.

 

In reality, it wasn’t much worse than many still technically active cemeteries I’ve been to in London, as there were trails to walk on and you could still read a lot of the tombstones. The only even sort of famous person buried here (by modern standards) is Julia Martha Thomas, and she’s only famous on account of her being a murder victim. She was killed by her maid Kate Webster in 1879, and it was apparently an incredibly notorious and well-publicised murder (I guess because a lot of rich and middle class people secretly lived in fear of being killed by their servants and this confirmed their worst fears, and also because there were rumours of Webster trying to sell the corpse fat to a pub (she boiled all the flesh off the body and hid the bones), and people love a lurid cannibalism story). Her skull was only discovered about ten years ago during building works at a property owned by David Attenborough. However, when time came to bury the skull, they couldn’t find her body anywhere in the cemetery, so they had to bury the skull in a different cemetery. If the professionals couldn’t track down her plot, that doesn’t bode well for the chances of a member of the general public finding her grave either, as indeed we didn’t.

 

Still, this occasion was a proper dry, crisp autumn day like I’d been hoping for in Chiswick, and it was a great time to walk around picking up horse chestnuts to take home to scare off spiders (I’ve no idea if it works, but it can’t hurt) and exploring the cemetery. The many headless angels added extra ambience and I had to laugh at the obnoxiously large tomb of William Hedgman (above left) off in its own little clearing, which was so much bigger than anything else in this modest cemetery that you know he was just trying to show everyone his superiority over the rest of the plebs here (a sentiment I would like to communicate with my own tomb). It probably won’t take more than half an hour to look around Barnes Old Cemetery, but it’s worth a visit if you’re in the area, especially in autumn!

 

London: Bat Skeleton Mounting Workshop @ Kensal Green Cemetery

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

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

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