The early 1600’s in Britain are best known for the political upheaval surrounding the English Civil War rather than an illustrious arts scene, however the Royal Academy of Arts’ current ‘Charles I: King and Collector’ exhibition certainly questions that. Twelve vast gallery spaces across Burlington House are dedicated to showcasing the kings’ collection, and the walls of each gallery are painted a vivid shade of regal blue or red and act as the perfect backdrop for works by Anthony Van Dyck, Peter Paul Rubens, Titian, Pieter Bruegel, Andrea Mantegna and Hans Holbein amongst others. These works have been sourced from the Royal Collection, the Louvre in Paris, the Prado in Madrid, the Frick Collection in New York and various private stores, and reunited for the first time in over four centuries, having been sold off following Charles I execution in 1649. The show flows easily, manages to feel relaxed despite its grandeur, and the works bounce off each other; evident in the opening gallery where a portrait by Van Dyck of Charles I from three different angles is positioned behind a marble sculpture of the kings torso, marrying the two together. The sheer scale of several paintings, four enormous tapestries from the Mortlake workshop and the nine canvases depicting the ‘Triumph of Caesar’ by Mantegna shown side by side in one space is truly staggering. Status affirming images are common, but this exhibition does more than simply portray Charles I as king, and there are numerous family portraits and intimate scenes between himself and his wife Henrietta Maria on display. The final gallery focusses on Van Dyck and Rubens, two artists who owe their careers to Charles I who commissioned several works, including the ceilings of Banqueting House by Rubens which are likely to have been the final images the king saw before being beheaded outside it.
Nestled between the Old Town Square and Vlatva River you’ll discover Josehov, Prague’s Jewish quarter. Turning off a street brimming with designer shops and boutiques, the cobbles are suddenly decorated with the Star of David – and six synagogues, the Jewish Town Hall and one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Europe all vie for space within a few streets. My first stop was the Spanish Synagogue, a Moorish revival style building which opened in 1867 with a double height gilded main hall surrounded by balconies and stained glass windows. The exhibition inside tells the story of Jews in Czechoslovakia since the emancipation under Emperor Joseph II through to the traumatic events of the 20th century. Five minutes’ walk away is Pinkas Synagogue, devoid of any interior decoration and instead the walls are covered in 78,000 names written in black or red ink representing Czech victims of the Holocaust. This powerful memorial was designed by the painters Vaclav Bostik and Jiri John and opened in 1960 but was closed eight years later during the Soviet occupation of the country, and only reopened after the fall of Communism in 1998. Behind this synagogue is the Old Jewish Cemetery, an apt location to memorialise the pre-twentieth century Jewish community with graves dating from 1400’s until 1768. A path leads you around the tomb stones to the Ceremonial building which outlines daily and special Jewish rituals and practices through a basic but informative display. My final visit was to Maisel Synagogue, a neo-gothic style building which resembled a church more than a traditional synagogue. Whilst it was interesting to witness such architectural variation in close proximity, their singular usage as museums felt a little unnatural and I was sad not to see a practising community within the synagogues, and ultimately the exhibition content began to feel a little repetitive across all five sites.
Raven Row is undoubtedly one of my favourite galleries, located in east London near Spitalfields Market in two adjoining eighteenth century townhouses on Artillery Lane (aptly known as Raven Row until 1895). It is eccentric without being pretentious, large enough to get lost in but still feels intimate, and always host to something curious. Its current exhibition ‘The Ulm Model’ is no different, educating visitors about the lesser known German school of design which only operated for a short period between 1953 and 1968. This exhibition was exactly what I wanted from my Sunday afternoon… a relaxed cultural fix without feeling protracted or contrived. The curation is simple and uncluttered, and specially designed display structures showcase items ranging from weighing machines to crockery, electric razors, traffic lights and petrol cans. As well as the objects themselves, the exhibition also includes drawings, models and prototypes created by the schools’ students as well as sections dedicated to some of their more progressive work for corporate clients, namely Braun and Lutfhansa. The key pieces that captured my attention include Dieter Raffler & Peter Raacke’s multi coloured plastic shell suitcases, Hans Roericht’s TC 100 stacking set of teapots, cups and saucers, as well as Hans Gugelot & Dieter Ram’s record player designed for Braun. The original wooden floorboards, fireplaces and other period features of the building juxtapose against the modernist design of these objects nicely, and exploring the various rooms and corridors of this gallery unsure what you might find around the next corner adds another element. Whether you are a design geek or neophyte, I’d suggest taking advantage of this exhibition and paying a visit before mid December while these German works’ are collectively on display in London.
I feel I’ve been a little slow on the uptake with summer exhibitions… but so pleased I got to see ‘Found’ at The Foundling Museum last week before it closed on 4th September. Curated by Cornelia Parker, the list of over sixty participating artists’ reads like a who’s who of the contemporary art world including Phyllida Barlow, Mark Wallinger, Richard Wilson, Jeremy Deller, Mona Hatoum, Marin Creed and Gavin Turk amongst others. Inspired by the 18th century tokens mothers left with their babies as a means of identification at the original Foundling Hospital established by the philanthropist Thomas Coram in 1739, all of the artworks within this exhibition are created from found objects kept for their significance. Things get off to a strong start as a trumpeter dressed in typically brightly coloured fabrics by Yinka Shonibare greets visitors in the foyer. A temporary exhibition space in the basement contains over thirty pieces, whilst another fifty are dotted throughout the rest of the building intertwined with the permanent collection and period rooms – and this is where much of the success and indeed joy of the exhibition lies! Moving up the central spiral-stairwell a contemporary painting by Rose Wylie is hung alongside old masters, in the grand Court Room with Rocco ceilings and Hogarth paintings you’ll find Gavin Turks ‘Nomad’ installation of a dirty sleeping bag positioned to echo the shape of a human form sleeping within it, and a small iron sculpture by Anthony Gormley of his own child as a baby is displayed on the floor in a corridor! Despite strong competition from all the artists, I feel the prize for best ‘found’ item should go to Cornelia Parker herself who rescued Jimi Hendrix’s staircase from Handel/Hendrix House in London’s Brook Street following its restoration – and is aptly on display in the basement for this exhibition.
Raglan Castle is a majestic carcass of a building set within the rolling Monmouthshire landscape. The earliest parts of this late medieval ruin were erected in the 1430’s in pale sandstone, with later additions in Old Red sandstone as well as Bath Stone for detailed features. Today it is not only a visitor attraction, but also recognised as a Grade I listed building and Scheduled Monument. Through its exposed positioning and unique shape, it is palpable that the castle was designed to be approached and entered from every angle, as it actively encourages you to walk around it and view its varied facdes. This element has thankfully not been lost as there is no set visitor route and nothing precious about the castle’s presentation – even dogs are welcome to explore the ruin and go up the stone spiral staircases on a lead. Over the centuries Raglan passed from the Herbert family to the Somerset family via marriage, and underwent siege during the English Civil War in the 1640’s as the owners were Royalists. The castles’ thick stone exterior made for strong fortifications and the building only surrendered when the base of the Great Tower was demolished by hand with pickaxes, leaving what was above it to collapse. The colossal dimensions of these walls remains impressive today, and is most evident in the windows and stairwells where the sheer scale of the stone masonry is explicitly exposed. Raglan was neglected by the Somerset family after the War as they decided to put money into repairing other properties and left the castle to deteriorate. In 1938 it was placed in the guardianship of the Commissioners of HM Works and underwent two decades of repair following the Second World War. Today the castle and tower are open once again offering an insight into the socio-political history of the area, as well as stunning views of the Welsh panorama it sits in.
Just beyond one of the most westernised areas of Bangkok (Siam – home to huge malls, international shops and fast good giants) the roads begin to narrow, the houses start to become dilapidated and you find yourself in the old city once again. It is down one of these side streets, alongside the canal that Jim Thompson House is situated. Jim Thompson was an American who served in Thailand during World War II and returned to Bangkok after leaving the service to settle permanently and establish his silk weaving business. In addition to his worldwide recognition in the silk industry, he became something of a legend posthumously after going missing in the Malaysian jungle in March 1967 never to return… the House comprises six traditional teak buildings which were dismantled and brought to the current site and reassembled to form Thompson’s home surrounded by lush gardens. All visitors are given a tour of the site, and this timed tour is the only way to gain access to the interior of the House. The exterior is largely authentic; elevated above ground to avoid flooding during the rainy season, roof tiles fired in Ayudhya (the old capital) to a centuries old design, and painted with a red preservative paint common to historic Thai buildings. The interior showcases some of Thompson’s western additions – such as a bed and dining table in contrast to most Thai’s who would sleep and eat on the floor, chandeliers from 18th and 19th century palaces and interesting furniture including a Mai Jong gaming table, native drums upturned to create table lamps, and a ceramic frog women could squat over and urinate in without having to leave the building in an era before plumbing! Whilst I appreciate the need for conservation and monitoring footfall, the rigidity of a tour left little time to explore the interior and appreciate its idiosyncrasies.
Dennis Severs House is a magical place, even more so at this time of year when their annual Christmas installation decorates all five floors of the Grade II listed Georgian terraced house. Situated on Folgate Street, behind Spitalfields Market (East London) the house was purchased by an American artist named Dennis Severs in 1979. At that time the building was in a dilapidated state and Severs began an extensive refurbishment programme, decorating each of the ten rooms in a different historic style from the 18th and 19th centuries. Not content with refurbishment alone, Severs also added the fictional story of the Jervis family, originally Huguenot silk weavers who inhabited the house from 1725 to 1919. Visitors ring the bell to gain entry to the house and are asked to remain in silence for the duration of their visit, as a scintillating combination of sound, smell and sight arouse your curiosity and help guide you on your own journey. With no electrics, the house is lit entirely by candlelight and each room is absolutely bursting with furniture, trinkets, half eaten food, portraits, old masters paintings, clothes, jewellery, musical scores and more! Visitors begin their descent back in time in the basement cellar and kitchen, then upstairs to the ground floor eating parlour, up another flight of stairs to the withdrawing room and smoking room, upstairs again to the chamber and boudoir, before a final climb to the top floor which is rented out to lodgers and in a much more ramshackle state than the rest of the house – and end back on the ground floor in the back parlour. The house motto is ‘Aut Visum Aut Non!’ translated as ‘you either see it or you don’t’ – and if you fail to be transported back to the Victorian age through the bewitching experience presented here, then you are truly missing out.
The Geffrye Museum’s annual ‘Christmas Past’ exhibition looks at the past 400 years of festive traditions in middle-class English homes, and offers a wonderful insight into so many of this seasons now commonplace activities from the food we eat, to the decorations we put up, sending cards, hanging stockings, and kissing under the mistletoe! Based in Hoxton (East London) the museum comprises of eleven period rooms all in former 18th century almshouses originally built to house London’s poor and elderly from 1780 to 1880. The first period room dates from 1600 and they continue through to the present day, each one furnished accordingly to reflect changes in middle-class society, behaviour and tastes. I enjoyed witnessing the evolution of Christmas in the home, from the evergreens (a Pagan custom adopted by Christians) and ‘kissing boughs’ (early mistletoe) of the 1600’s, to the Rosemary and Bay of the 1700’s, and the introduction of fir trees under the reign of Queen Victoria in the 1800’s. I was also surprised by how much I learnt; I was previously unaware that Christmas was banned in this county during the Civil War as parliament was at the time dominated by Puritans who disapproved of the excess that Christmas encouraged (and the ban was only lifted in 1660 when the monarchy was restored), or that sending Christmas cards is a late nineteenth century English invention introduced by Henry Cole who sold the first commercial card in 1843 and it became a popular custom from 1870 when The Post Office introduced a cheap rate for postcards and unsealed envelopes. The almshouses are situated within tranquil gardens and there’s also an impressive on-site café serving local East London produce, so I’d certainly advise visiting the museum before the Christmas show finishes on 3rd January!
After a demanding work week in central London, the last thing I wanted to do on Saturday morning was head back into Soho… however a truly engaging tour of The House of St. Barnabas was just the antidote I needed to pull me out of my quite frankly foul mood! Situated on the corner of Soho Square (originally Fryths Square in the 17th century) and Greek Street, it is an imposing yet understated building from the exterior. As I pulled the oversized doorbell to gain entry, I was greeted by Dr. Adam Scott who led an enigmatic tour of this fascinating house. Architecturally it has been altered and extended numerous times over the centuries and today incorporates Georgian, Victorian and Rococo features as well as a neo-Gothic chapel on a Basilica floor plan. In terms of tenancy, it has been a private home to aristocrats and Members of Parliament, offices for the Westminster Commissioners of Sewers and Metropolitan Board of Works in the early 1800’s, was purchased in 1862 by Dr. Henry Monro and Roundel Palmer as a House of Charity to help those in need, and remained a hostel until 2006. Today it is a social enterprise integrating a members club which funds an employment academy serving the original purpose of helping the homeless get back on their feet. Unusually for Soho it also has a garden which is not only home to the plane tree immortalised in Charles Dickens ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ but also contains an aluminium and LED light installation by Keef Winter – just one of many artworks dotted throughout the house. Feathered creations by Kate MccGuire, sculptures by Cathy Lewis, and works by Banksy, Hirst and The Chapman Brothers all sympathetically decorate the building. The house will no doubt continue to evolve, remain resilient in the face of developers and maintain structural stability as Crossrail tunnelling continues directly below it.
I rarely leave Zone 2, and with the exception of boarding a plane at Southend or Stanstead airport, I’ve never visited Essex! That changed this weekend with a trip to Rainham Hall and Gardens – a property within the National Trust portfolio which re-opened earlier this month following a two year £2.5 million conservation project. The Queen Anne-style house dates back to the early 18th century and fittingly its first exhibition tells the story of Captain John Harle, a shipping merchant from Durham who built the Hall and was its’ first inhabitant. Refreshingly, period furnishings and the traditional “frozen in time” approach to interpretation is nowhere to be seen… instead the Hall incorporates a six minute projection of Harle’s life at sea (so effective it left other visitors feeling sea-sick!), a soundscape of the Durham coastline playing in the background, uses the Georgian bath to vividly tell the tale of Harle’s ‘Lost Ship’ captured by the Spanish in the Caribbean in 1737, includes objects on loan from The National Maritime Museum, and displays Harle’s original will discovered by a local postmistress at a boot-sale and donated back to the Hall. Additional attractions include William Hogarth engravings, a room showcasing personal items found under floor-boards and behind skirting boards comprising coins, hair pins, buttons, playing cards, a shrivelled balloon and even 1940/50’s Disney tin toy plates, as well as textile installations by a collective of artists known as ‘The Material Girls’ hidden within the buildings’ cupboards. A miniature version of the Hall takes centre stage as you enter the property, and over time this will be filled with miniature versions of each exhibition. This is a house with many different layers, and I’m excited to see how it develops and which historical period and which fascinating prior tenant is chosen to focus on next.