Here I am, back to the Ashmolean again, and sooner than I thought I would be. I did say when I posted about it previously that even though I was pretty annoyed with them for not having the dickhead plate there, or at least for not telling people that it was on loan, I was debating going back for the witchcraft exhibition in the fall. And that’s exactly what happened, the lure of witches being far too great to resist. Besides, Halloween events in London were pretty lacking this year – mostly just lectures, which I would normally have attended, but with my brother here the week most of them were on, I skipped them in favour of doing stuff with him (as you’ll see in future posts), since he’s not a big lecture person. And of course I had to have a Halloween post, so “Spellbound: Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft” fits the bill nicely.
But I didn’t travel all the way up to Oxford and only see “Spellbound.” Even though we were only visiting Oxford for about four hours on this trip, we still had time to return to the Weston Library. After the success of “Sappho to Suffrage” and “Designing English”, I was keen to see what else they were offering. Well, “Sappho to Suffrage” was still there, but they did have a new display in the foyer called “Unhealthy Times of Kings and Queens” which was right up my alley (I’ve only just realised that British people say “up my street” instead (after co-workers kept sending me links to various weird exhibitions with the subject line, “This looks up your street.” They weren’t wrong), which I can’t quite bring myself to do). This was only one small case, and I would have loved a whole exhibition’s worth, but what was here was pretty great, including little blurbs about various British monarchs and their ailments and plenty of artefacts to illustrate how those illnesses were viewed at the times these monarchs suffered from them. Daniel Lambert (Georgian Britain’s fattest man. I have a Staffordshire knockoff figurine of him) even made an appearance, and I absolutely love the description of him in the pamphlet on display: “a truly astounding prodigy of human dimensions.” It seems a rather nice way of calling someone fat.
Tickets had sold out for the day the first time I tried to visit “Frida Kahlo: Making Her Self Up,” back in the summer when I ended up visiting “Fashioned from Nature” instead (and I remember that day well too. It was unbearably hot so I got an ice cream that dripped all down the front of my dress on the way there, and I didn’t notice until after I entered the exhibition, so people probably thought I was a slob). So I went home and booked for the first available date on one of my days off, which ended up being the 15th of October. Despite the lengthy wait, I suppose I should consider myself lucky for having gotten in at all, as the exhibition is now sold out for the remainder of its run (through 18th November).
So clearly, there are a lot of Frida Kahlo fans out there – even with my timed ticket (normally £15, £7.50 with National Art Pass), I still had to join a queue to be let into the exhibition (there was presumably a one in, one out system). And of course, once I made it inside, it was super crowded (and photographs weren’t allowed, though it didn’t stop half the people there from attempting to take them. It was gratifying when the stewards caught them and yelled at them. To avoid this fate myself, I am illustrating this post with objects and art in the exhibition that I found images of online). Not quite Harry Potter exhibition bad, but unpleasant enough. The worst part was the opening gallery, which was long and narrow and had photographs grouped together in clumps, which does not lend itself well to orderly viewing. It was very much a “push in where you can” system, at least at first, and I am not shy about shoving myself in if it means avoiding a queue.
The exhibition was based off of a selection of Frida’s clothes and personal possessions which were walled up in a bathroom in her home after her death, which was opened fifty years later (so, 2004). It wasn’t really explained why they were walled up in the first place, but this exhibition marks the first time they were shown outside Mexico, which does explain its popularity. The opening section was about Frida’s family background; she had a German father, Mexican mother, and three sisters; two older, one younger. After she contracted polio as a young child, she became very close with her father, who struggled with his health himself, but had a rather distant relationship with her mother; obviously her style and artistic interests very much favoured the Mexican side of her background, but she always used the Germanic name her father had chosen for her. The polio left her with uneven legs and a resulting limp, but she was still on track to attend medical school when she famously suffered a horrific accident after the bus she was riding collided with a streetcar, forcing an iron handrail through her body, damaging her spine and reproductive system, and leaving her in chronic pain for the remainder of her life. However, this was also the catalyst for leading her into art, since her poor health made it impossible for her to return to medical school. This section covered all of this biographical information, as well as Frida’s communist leanings (although it didn’t go into great detail), and contained a rather splendid collection of photographs of Frida and her family, many of them taken by her father, Guillermo (he adopted the Spanish version of his name, William, after moving to Mexico), who was a keen photographer.
From there, the gallery progressed into a section about Casa Azul, Frida’s childhood home, which was also the home she returned to as an adult with her husband, Diego Rivera, and painted it an amazing deep blue. I loved the map that Frida drew of the house, with a little unibrowed stick figure to indicate where she was born (which wasn’t accurate, since she was actually born at her grandmother’s house, but was no less charming for that), and all of her animals carefully labelled, with the exception of what were clearly ducks in a pond, because, as she put it, she didn’t know the English name for them. She owned a special breed of Mexican dogs that looked rather like larger chihuahuas, and also had pet monkeys and a deer.
The next room was about Frida’s interest in native Mexican art, in particular votive paintings, which are amazing. Votive paintings are a tradition that originated in rural Mexico as a way of thanking the saints after someone was saved from bodily harm. If someone survived a life-threatening experience, they would commission an artist to paint a small picture showing the event in question, which they would then hang as an offering in their local church. Though they are obviously very heartfelt, due to the melodramatic nature of the things they depict, and their rather primitive style, they are often unintentionally hilarious, and I love them, as did Frida. She had a whole wall full of these paintings at Casa Azul, and they were a major influence on her art, as can be seen in the paintings she made of herself after various operations (some of which were in the final room of the exhibition). The best piece here, in my opinion, was one that showed a man being hit by a train, and this was Frida’s favourite as well, because of its similarities to her own accident.
The next gallery was probably my favourite, and was all about Frida’s health and how it affected her art. She was very frail, and had to wear a corset to support her spine, which she used her elaborate and beautiful dresses (based on the traditional dress of the women of Tehuana, Mexico, which was a matriarchal society known for its exceptionally lovely clothes) to try to conceal. The central theme of this exhibition was that everything about Frida’s outward appearance was very much an intensely cultivated persona, and a way for her to transcend her pain and frailty and become something magnificent (hence the double meaning of the exhibition’s title, in that she both made herself up with makeup, and she made her “self” up). She even tried to make her plaster corsets (which were moulded to her body, and could stay on for months at a time) reflect her personality by painting them with things like sacred hearts and hammers and sickles. I would say that it seemed like a lot of effort for something she tried to keep concealed, but that wasn’t quite the case, as Frida, despite her marriage to Diego, had a number of affairs with other artists (as did Diego, including one particularly hurtful one with Frida’s own younger sister, who lived with them), and allowed herself to be photographed topless, and in her corsets, by one of her lovers. I can’t say I blame her, as in addition to Diego’s affairs, he was also a rather unfortunate looking man – her nickname for him was Sapo-Rana (Frog-Toad), and I can see why.
While celebrating Frida’s indomitable spirit (there were plenty of photographs of her painting while on bed rest, on an easel suspended above her head), this gallery was also depressing, because of course her ill health got the best of her in the end. She struggled with gangrene in her toes, which eventually led to the amputation of one of her legs, so the exhibition included a prosthetic leg clad in one of Frida’s signature red embroidered shoes, though by this point Frida was confined to a wheelchair. She died only a year after her leg was amputated, because her body had pretty much given up the fight at that point (after more than 30 surgeries), even though she was only 47. She also had some struggles with addiction to painkillers (there is some speculation that her death was the result of an overdose), which is understandable, given the amount of pain she seemed to have been in at all times from the aftereffects of both polio and her bus injuries.
I know talking about her death probably makes it sound like I’m approaching the end of this post, but there was one remaining gallery. This was the one that held all of Frida’s dresses, which were incredibly gorgeous, especially a blouse embroidered with animals and Aztec dancers. I did find the labelling a bit confusing though, as the dresses appeared to have been arranged more to make a statement than for clarity, and with dresses displayed in rows, it was hard to tell which sign went with each dress. There was also some of her jewellery – my favourite piece had little leg and arm shaped prayer tokens, which were probably chosen somewhat ironically by Frida in reference to her health issues (she renounced her Catholicism after discovering communism).
This gallery was even darker than the rest of the exhibition (which was already quite dim), presumably to protect the fabric, but I think it led to a woman mistaking me for her daughter, as she put her hand on my shoulder and began speaking to me in Spanish (at least, I think that’s what was going on. I did have similar hair to her daughter, so we might have looked the same from behind, but it did weird me out a little). It also contained some of Frida’s art, which had been on rather short supply in the rest of the exhibition (where the focus was more on photographs and the art Frida collected), so we could see for ourselves how she created her image from all the aspects of her life the exhibition had been talking about.
Although I think some people may have been disappointed by the fact that more of her art wasn’t here, since I’m not that familiar with most of her work anyway (other than all the iconic images of her with unibrow in full bloom. Not snarking, because mine would look exactly the same in a couple weeks if I stopped plucking today), I wasn’t all that bothered by it. I was less impressed by some of their poor choices of signage materials – the labels in the corset room were all just stickers stuck on the outside of the cases, and some of them had peeled off to the extent that you couldn’t even read them. Actually, they were difficult to read anyway, because they were white letters on a glass case in a dark room, so you had to angle yourself just right to see them, which wasn’t always easy to do in an exhibition as crowded as this one. That said, although it was quite crowded, other than in the first gallery, the objects were generally spread out enough so that you didn’t have to queue to see everything, and could just kind of wander around to whatever was free, which was a pleasant change from the initial part of the exhibition.
Given my love of medical history, I actually really loved that the focus was primarily on her health, with a bit of fashion thrown in, as those things are so much more my cup of tea than art. I think there could have been more about her life in general, because as I said earlier, her political beliefs were only very lightly touched on, as were some of her family relationships (I didn’t realise she’d had a difficult relationship with her mother until I did a bit of research whilst writing this post, because all the exhibition said was that she was upset because she was suffering from her own health problems (it might have been one of her miscarriages. The accident left her unable to carry a child to term) in America around the time of her mother’s death, so she couldn’t make it back to see her, which seemed to imply at least some sort of loving relationship). But I think, given the title, the exhibition did pretty much deliver on what it promised, which was to explore Frida Kahlo’s artistic persona and what went into creating it (and my god, it must have been an effort for someone as ill as Frida was. She got fully dressed in her ensembles every day, regardless of whether she was expecting company. I change into jimjams the second I walk in the door, and if I don’t leave the house at all, I might not put on actual clothes for days at a time).
I guess I should also comment on the shop, because the V&A’s exhibition shops are always so fabulous it makes me feel a bit sick with jealousy, given how crap it makes the museum shop I run look in comparison. They had brought in a lot of Mexican art, and even though I kept bitching about how much cheaper it was to buy these things in Mexico, I still paid £6 each for two little Dia de los Muertos style metal skeleton wall hangings (I know that sounds cheap, but they really are very thin and small. I reckon I should just go back to Mexico one of these days though – I’ve only ever been to Tijuana, and that was 15 years ago. I would absolutely love to go for Dia de los Muertos one of these years), and there were plenty of other things in there I would have bought as well, if I were a wealthier woman. In the end, it was actually more enjoyable than I was anticipating, despite the crowds, and I’m glad I had the chance to see it. 4/5. The V&A is also hosting a Day of the Dead celebration this Saturday which they’re tying in with this exhibition, but as it’s free and unticketed, I’ll probably give it a miss, though I will of course report back if I decide to go. My brother’s visiting this week, so I’m off doing vaguely touristy London things, but I will have something relatively Halloweeny to post about next week!
I am, as I so often say, motivated mainly by food, and my visit to the East Grinstead Museum is a perfect example of this. We only stopped off because it was on the way to the Kent and Sussex Apple Juice and Cider Centre, which I need to visit every fall to procure cloudy apple juice in an attempt to satiate my autumnal appetites for American-style apple cider (if you get a good cloudy apple, it kind of fills the void, but is nowhere near as full-bodied and delicious as actual cider. Given the prevalence of hard cider here, I still can’t work out why no one seems to utilise all those apple presses to make the soft stuff, but I digress…). I get the impression that East Grinstead got HLF funding at some point in the relatively recent past to redo their museum, both because I had never noticed it before when searching for stuff to do, so it either didn’t exist or looked so unremarkable that I was disinclined to visit; and because the building itself looked relatively new, as did the displays.
East Grinstead is a free museum, and we found a car park that was free on Sundays just around the corner, though it appears that the museum itself has limited parking. The museum is all on one level, but the building clearly has an upstairs level (and was purpose built for the museum), so perhaps they only use it for storage or events. Therefore, the museum isn’t all that big, but it is split into two distinct galleries (three, if you count the small display area for art).
East Grinstead is remarkable mainly because of the Guinea Pig Club, which was founded here, at Queen Victoria Hospital. The Guinea Pig Club was described as “the most exclusive Club in the world, but the entrance fee is something most men would not care to pay and the conditions of membership are arduous in the extreme,” by their surgeon Archibald McIndoe. Basically, Queen Victoria Hospital was where airmen with severe burns were sent during WWII, and they were guinea pigs in the sense that they underwent radical and pioneering plastic surgery techniques to rebuild their faces. Despite all the pain and mental anguish that these men went through, they still maintained a sense of humour, and thus formed the Guinea Pig Club, primarily as a drinking club, for the men to socialise and talk about their shared experience.
Obviously this is an incredible story, and the museum devotes roughly half its space to telling it, including the experiences of some of the men in the club and the surgeons, nurses, and anaesthetists that treated them; and graphic descriptions (and depictions, in the form of wax figures, much to my delight) of the techniques used by McIndoe, including the rather old-fashioned (perfected by Harold Gillies during the First World War) but effective pedicle (see example above), where a strip of skin was cut loose along the bottom and sides, formed into a tube, and stretched and attached to another part of the body, for example, the nose, where a new blood supply would form. Once the new patch of skin had blood flow, the skin would be severed from the original area and reshaped to rebuild the patient’s facial features. While this worked very well, and helped to avoid infection in a pre-antibiotic age (since the inner layer of skin wasn’t exposed to air), it did mean that the patient would have to walk around with their arm attached to their face for a number of weeks (hopefully it was worth it in the end, but you can see why they needed a drinking club!). The residents of East Grinstead did their part to help these men transition back into society – it was known as “the town that didn’t stare,” because the people who lived here made a point to try and treat these men as normally as possible to help their mental recovery, and many of the men said that it was their acceptance by the people of East Grinstead that gave them the courage to resume normal life when they returned home. This was by far the best and most interesting section of the museum, and I really enjoyed hearing the stories of the men, and of course seeing all the wax figure tableaux.
The other main gallery of the museum was devoted to the history of East Grinstead, and this was more typical of every local history museum – some local memorabilia, a handful of prehistoric stuff, and some random ye olde artefacts (sorry if I sound less than enthused, but the museum I work for is very much in this vein, so it’s become hard for me to get excited about seeing much the same thing somewhere else, especially if I’m slightly jealous of their much more modern displays). However, this too appeared to have been relatively recently redone, and I did like some of the slightly more interactive elements, like the children’s table full of board games (including Operation, appropriately enough) and the wall of mystery objects where you had to guess their use and then use a mirror to check your answers. I also liked the little Iguanodon figurine (named Iggy) that they used as a sort of mascot on some of the object labels to tell us various facts about the town, apparently chosen because Iguanodon footprints have been discovered in East Grinstead.
There was also a small gallery filled with some artwork, as I mentioned earlier, although it was right next to the toilet, so not the easiest place to look around (it actually looked like there might have been more art in an adjacent room, but when I tried the door, it was locked, so perhaps not). But I have to give them props for having a very clean toilet with cute little rhymes in it encouraging visitors to donate to the museum to keep it running (effective too, as I dropped a couple pounds in the donation box on my way out). I also liked all the Guinea Pig Club themed merchandise in the shop, including t-shirts printed with their adorable logo, and especially the stuffed guinea pigs, though I couldn’t really justify buying one. I loved the story of the Guinea Pig Club – I would say that portion of the collection would be the reason to visit, rather than the local history stuff, unless of course you are a resident of East Grinstead (not to be mean about their local history collections, which are perfectly nice, I just think that if you’ve got a story as unique as the Guinea Pig Club, you might as well flaunt it!). 2.5/5.
Wow, it’s been a long time (almost three months) since I’ve done a London post, even though I live here. Actually, there really weren’t many exhibitions over the summer (or at least ones I was interested in), so it’s probably a good thing I went to France and America – it gave me something to blog about! But autumn is looking much more promising on the exhibitions front, including this one currently at the British Museum (until 20 January 2019): “I Object: Ian Hislop’s Search for Dissent.”
I do quite like Ian Hislop (I really liked the Wipers Times musical, and I like a bit of HIGNFY as well, though I would not recommend actually going to see it filmed, because you will be there for HOURS with no toilet breaks), so I was eager to see this. Admission is £12, though we were able to get half off with our National Art Passes, and because it is not the British Museum’s main special exhibition, there was no need to pre-book (at least not on the day I visited, though if you do pre-book, be sure to leave time to get through the (newish) security/bag check shed, as there is often a lengthy queue). This isn’t to say that it isn’t still popular – there were definitely more people inside than I find ideal (bearing in mind the number of people I find ideal is zero), which would have been fine in a larger space, but because it was fairly cramped, I did have to contend with annoying people who spent way too long standing right in front of various displays and refusing to move, even when people were obviously queuing behind them.
I’d read a few reviews before visiting, which were mainly negative, so my expectations were not terribly high, but I think the exhibition got off to a strong start with Hislop’s five favourite objects, one of which (seen below left) was also my favourite object (so much so that I went home with a print of it, though I really don’t know why I keep buying prints). Unfortunately, it went a bit downhill from there. The whole premise of this exhibition is that Hislop believes history is written by the winners, so he was trying to find subversive objects that challenge the traditional historical narrative. Of course, these objects were taken from the British Museum’s collections, so were thus already part of the narrative in some sense. Ironically, the exhibition itself didn’t have much of a narrative; rather, the commentary was in the form of those little talk bubbles you see above, showing Hislop’s thoughts on each object, combined with a curator-written description of what the object was, but there was nothing particularly tying the objects together, and it skipped from different historical eras the entire time, with no coherent timeline.
That said, a lot of the objects on display here were pretty great, so even though I didn’t always understand what was going on with society at the times they were made (I was fine with the British stuff, but a lot of it was Egyptian and Roman, and my knowledge of those periods is pretty damn patchy, so just naming random emperors and assuming the general public would know who they were talking about was a bit presumptuous, even for the British Museum), I could still enjoy looking at them. And who doesn’t love a fart joke? Or a skeleton? (OK, maybe I’m the only one that loves skeletons, but I think a lot of people find fart jokes funny, judging by their prevalence throughout history.)
Or a poop joke for that matter, as seen above in the rather mean-spirited take on George III’s madness. Georges III and IV were well represented here (it’s hard to talk about satire without showing Georgian cartoons, because they were so brilliant), as was Louis XVI, though I suppose in that case the satire took a darker edge, given what ended up happening to him. I was intrigued to see that there were some dollars with political messages on them here – money that has been written on is still legal currency in the US, so I spent much of my teenage years scribbling poems and punk slogans on every dollar in my wallet, and I think I would have peed my pants in excitement (to go with the bodily fluids theme) if one of those dollars had someone ended up in here, but alas, these were much more boring than my angsty defacing.
I did laugh out loud when I saw the brilliant Louis Philippe pear drawings though (a caricaturist noted his resemblance to a pear, so that was how he was regularly portrayed in French satirical publications). Obviously it’s much easier to see the hilarity in a cartoon than in something like a statue – Hislop told us that the one above left was definitely satirical because of the “deliberately unattractive shape of the body,” (by the standards of that culture) but I just don’t really see it, given that it just looks like a normal fertility figure. I guess maybe if I had more of a background in ancient cultures and their standards of beauty, I could have appreciated the satirical bent of some of the objects more, but frankly I think the reasons given for the inclusion of some of the artefacts were a bit far-fetched, or else merited more explanation so they didn’t seem so far-fetched, because it kind of felt like he had run out of obviously satirical objects and was clutching at straws.
The most famous thing here was undoubtedly the copy of the King James Bible where “Thou shalt not commit adultery” was changed to “Thou shalt commit adultery,” which Hislop definitely views as satire because he thinks it seems too perfect to be a genuine typographical error – even if he’s wrong about that, at least it was a cool thing to see. The fake artefact that Banksy put inside the BM back in the early 2000s (it took a few days for anyone working there to notice) was more obviously satirical, and the caption is pretty great.
There were a couple minor opportunities for interactivity, such as listening to protest songs on headphones in various places in the exhibition, or drawing a protest badge, which Marcus did to what I think is great effect. Other than that, though, it was a traditional, fairly staid exhibition, so there was certainly nothing subversive about that aspect of it. I think maybe if there had been some opportunities for object handling, or otherwise interacting with the collection, it would have helped carry the theme through a bit better than being confined to looking at things in cases, as you would in the rest of the British Museum.
The exhibition was fairly small (only three rooms), so it didn’t take us very long to look around. Worth 6 pounds, but definitely not 12. In the end, it seems that much of satire does just come down to fart jokes, which I certainly don’t have a problem with, but I guess it’s not very highbrow, which may have been why a lot of the reviewers took issue with it. I think it was entertaining enough, but if you’re looking for a lot of analysis, an actual “alternative history” of the world, or just want to expand your knowledge of other cultures and civilisations, this is probably not the exhibition for you, as the commentary was mainly limited to the objects themselves, with no real background or narrative. Still, I liked it a lot better than “Living with Gods,” the last exhibition I paid to see here, and there was some pretty great merchandise in the exhibition shop (in addition to the print, I got a “Truck Fump” badge). 3/5.
Oh god, the USS Cod. Where do I begin?! Actually, if it wasn’t for the strange incident at the end of my visit, I would have rated it quite highly overall, so in all fairness, I should leave the weirdness for the end, and focus on the positive that was the bulk of my experience there (and leave you in a bit of suspense for once), starting with the excellent tagline on their brochure, “In 1944 she terrified the Japanese fleet. Today she will fascinate your family!”
Doing the Donut Trail ate up a fair chunk of our morning the day after visiting Taft’s House, but we still had time in the afternoon to visit a museum, and though I suppose I should have done something more worthy and intellectual like the Underground Railroad Museum, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s House, or the Taft Museum of Art (founded by President Taft’s wealthier half-brother (he married money)), really I just wanted to see the American Sign Museum, so that’s where we headed.
The theme was even carried through to the bathrooms, which of course had neon signs pointing to them, and the shop had quite a few reproduction signs and American Sign Museum t-shirts (with a retro-look logo) available for purchase, but I just went for one of the glow in the dark enamel pins of an ice cream cone (I have about a million enamel pins, but I keep buying more of the damn things. I also keep buying jackets, so I guess it all balances out). So, was this worth $15? No, absolutely not, but I had a fabulous time in the kitschiest (I know I keep using that word, but it fits better than anything else), most neon environment imaginable, and I am so glad I went. 3.5/5 based sheerly on the amount of joy this museum brought me.
Remember how I said on my post on Rutherford B. Hayes’s house that if I could drive, I would hightail it down to Cincinnati to see Taft’s house? Well, I didn’t suddenly learn to drive or anything, but I was accompanied on this trip home by Marcus, who can drive, so although I didn’t head directly there, I did manage to finally squeeze in a trip to Cincinnati. I was visiting the US over my birthday, which I used as the perfect excuse to do something I’d been dying to do since I read about it, which was to travel to Southern Ohio and complete the Donut Trail (of which more in a later post), and while we were down there, spend some time in Cincinnati, which despite growing up in Ohio, I had never visited.
We went to Taft’s house (or the William Howard Taft National Historic Site Ohio as it is more properly known) first thing after arriving in Cincinnati, because it was about a four hour drive down, not counting our stops for doughnuts and Grandpa’s Cheese Barn, and they shut at 4:45, with the last guided tour at 4. The site is run by NPS, and is free to visit. They only give tours every half an hour, and we had just missed one (honestly, I was hoping to miss it because I really had to pee and wouldn’t have been able to cope if I’d had to walk around a house first), so after a quick toilet break on my part, we were shown a short video about Taft’s life, and spent some time looking around the displays in the education centre opposite the house, which were mainly about Taft’s “goodwill tour” to Japan, the Philippines, and China, undertaken when he was Secretary of War under Teddy Roosevelt, which meant he was accompanied by the irritating sounding Alice Roosevelt (I have to admit that I might have liked Alice better for her rebelliousness if she hadn’t been such a bitch to poor Eleanor, but in various anecdotes she does just come across as a massively unpleasant person. Not that I’m really one to talk). This trip was undertaken to make new trade agreements and help end the Russo-Japanese War, and also helped usher in the age of American empire. Other than the exhibition, the most memorable thing in here was undoubtedly the animatronic version of Taft’s son Charlie who told various stories about his father when you pressed a button. I would have preferred an animatronic Taft himself, but I’m not going to turn my nose up at any kind of animatronic.
When it was time to tour the house, we headed over with the volunteer who had put on the video for us. As is not uncommon at NPS sites, we were the only people on the tour (to be fair, it was the middle of a weekday, and I don’t think Taft’s house is one of their more popular attractions), which I didn’t mind because at least we didn’t have to listen to a load of questions from fellow visitors. Although I keep calling it “Taft’s house”, it was really just his boyhood home, so “the Tafts’ house” would probably be more accurate. Taft’s father, Alphonso, was a judge and politician (he also helped create the Skull and Bones Society at Yale, which has notoriously produced a number of presidents since its foundation), and William very much followed in his footsteps. William was the product of Alphonso’s second marriage – he married Louise Torrey of Boston after his first wife died, and brought her back to Cincinnati with him. Apparently the Tafts, while certainly comfortable, were not particularly wealthy, and the house, while good sized, wasn’t really all that large for eight people, plus a few servants (Alphonso had two surviving children from his first marriage, and he and Louise had four children who survived infancy). The volunteer told us that they had a constantly rotating nursery, as the oldest child would move out from the nursery when the youngest was born, and move upstairs to the room of his older sibling, who would have departed for university by then (this worked pretty well due to the age gaps between the first and second sets of children). Mount Auburn, the area where the house is located, is evidently nowadays a fairly poor neighbourhood, but it was solidly middle class whilst the Tafts were living here, though there was apparently a divide between Irish and German immigrants, so typically homes would have either all Irish or all German servants, to discourage fighting. The Tafts bucked this trend, and had a mix of both (they especially wanted a German nanny, since they thought she would be stricter than her Irish equivalent).
There were only about four or five rooms downstairs, of which the parlour was the most noteworthy, as even though it wasn’t terribly big, it used to be even smaller, being divided into a men’s and women’s parlour. However, all that Louise Taft wanted for a wedding gift was a piano, and after it was purchased, they realised that neither of the parlours were large enough for it, so they knocked out the wall and the two rooms became one (and now I’ll have the damn Spice Girls stuck in my head for the rest of the day). There were some crazy long drapes in here, which was evidently the style at the time (though rather ugly), and the wallpaper and upholstery matched the drapes. I also liked the children’s fireplace, decorated with storybook tiles (shown above), which was installed tile by tile by the children’s grandfather to commemorate every time he and the children finished the story that goes with each tile (there were a lot of storybook tiles being produced in England at that time), which I thought was rather sweet.
One of the downstairs rooms has been converted into a museum, as have all the upstairs rooms, which we were free to wander at our leisure, so the tour portion of the house didn’t actually take very long. The museum rooms were actually my favourite part, and they contained a few great artefacts, including an amazing (and amazingly expensive) law desk used by Alphonso, a lot of excellent Taft cartoons (mostly spurred on by the conflict between Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, after Taft refused to become Roosevelt’s flunky once in office), and a massive chair belonging to Taft. I have to admit that one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by Taft is because he was America’s fattest president (one of these years, I do want to host a completely tasteless “Girth of a Nation” President’s Day party celebrating all of America’s largest presidents (except Trump, even though I’m quite sure he’s not far off from Taft weight-wise)), although the story about him getting stuck in the White House bathtub is apocryphal – a new bathtub was installed during Taft’s presidency (as can be seen near the end of the post), but it wasn’t because he got stuck in the other one.
Although Taft was an unremarkable president (which angered Theodore Roosevelt so much that he formed the Bull Moose Party just to run against his one-time protege), he seems to have been a reasonably pleasant person, and by all accounts, a surprisingly elegant dancer. He had a fairly interesting life as well, serving as a governor of the Philippines before becoming president, where he (at least according to the museum) did his best to fight against the prevailing racism towards the Filipino people at the time. Most notably, Taft got to live out his lifelong dream of becoming a Justice on the Supreme Court when he was made Chief Justice by fellow Ohio president Warren G. Harding in 1921 (never mind the slightly corrupt bargaining that got him there). I definitely can’t say I agreed with most of Taft’s decisions, but for better or worse, he was instrumental in shaping the Supreme Court into what it has now become (at the time he started, they didn’t even have their own building. This may have been good for Taft, as he managed to slim down quite a bit simply by walking to and from work every day, a distance of 3 miles each way).
Although there wasn’t a tonne of information in here about Helen “Nellie” Herron Taft, his wife, she seemed to have been an interesting person, as First Ladies tend to be. She traveled with him and their three children to the Philippines, and did her best to respect the local culture by learning Tagalog and inviting locals to events. She was responsible for many firsts, including being the first First Lady to ride in the inauguration parade, the first to fight for better standards in the workplace, the first to own and drive a car, and the first to publicly support women’s suffrage (and the first to smoke cigarettes, but that’s not really a good thing); but she is probably best remembered as being responsible for planting Japanese cherry trees around the Capitol (they were a gift from Japan, and she and the wife of the Japanese ambassador personally planted the first two saplings, though I’m quite sure gardeners did the rest!).
Though Taft’s house wasn’t anything like the extensive home/museum complex that was Rutherford B. Hayes’s site, which was what I was hoping for (nor was Taft smoking hot like Rud, but I already knew that), it was still an enjoyable enough experience, and I’m glad I finally got to see the childhood home of one of our truly “larger than life” presidents at last (poor Taft. I’m really trying not to fat shame, but it’s difficult when that was basically his defining characteristic, even during his presidency. When I did a unit about him in AP US History in high school (we focused on a different president every week, which is one of the reasons I’m into presidential history today), our teacher told us to remember him by saying his name backwards, which is T-fat, so that’s how I refer to him more often than not). I picked up a pin from the shop, and they had some nice general presidential merchandise as well. As always at NPS sites, everyone working here was very welcoming and friendly, and I do hope they get more visitors than were there on the day we visited (I think they do get frequent visits from local schools, though those are probably in the morning) so they can stay open, since they’re the only Taft site I know about! (I don’t know exactly what happened to the house he lived in as an adult, but I assume it’s no longer standing.) 3/5.
Are here on Gilligan’s Isle! (I know I’ve made that joke before, but I couldn’t resist doing it again. Damn catchy theme songs.) As you might have guessed, this post is not about Gilligan’s Island (though it could be, since I have a soft spot for ’50s and ’60s sitcoms. I’ve actually been on a real I Dream of Jeannie kick lately, which is pretty good if you ignore all the glaring misogyny), but is the usual sort of mop-up post I do at the end of a trip if I have enough places to write about that didn’t really fit in with my other posts.
I love a folly, and Palais Ideal du Facteur Cheval (Postman Cheval’s Ideal Palace) is more special than the usual folly because it was the result of an artistic vision and pure determination, rather than excessive wealth. It was built between 1879 and 1912, by, as you might have guessed, a postman named Ferdinand Cheval. As the story goes, he was out on his mail route one day when he saw a stone that was so interesting it inspired him to build this entire palace (damn, it must have been some stone!). Cheval had rather a difficult life, struggling with poverty and the deaths of his first wife, first born son, and his daughter, so the attention the palace generated was probably a rather welcome respite from his daily life, but this palace was definitely primarily a labour of love. Even after stopping construction on the palace (which Cheval worked on well into his 70s), he went on to spend eight years building a family tomb in the nearest graveyard after being told by the local authorities that he couldn’t interred in his palace (he died in 1924, aged 88).