Oh to be in England
Now that April’s here,
And whoever wakes in England
See, some morning, unaware,
that the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England – now!
These were Robert Browning’s words which ran through my mind while walking in the beautiful English countryside with friends. June, not April, early summer rather than spring, but still with its own unique poetry.
My recent trip to London was more varied than previous trips made since we’ve been based in Stockholm, with a perfect blend of the bucolic and the erudite: beautiful English countryside alternating with city culture.
We began with a 50th birthday celebration in the village of Wroughton near Swindon, in the picturesque hills and vales of Wiltshire, southwest England. We stayed at the White Hart Inn, suggested by our hostess, which I can highly recommend:
Salisbury Plain is well-known for its Pre-Roman stone circles, World Heritage Sites Stonehenge and Avebury, and most of the day-time activities organised by our hosts, including walking, cycling and touring, took place near Avebury. Constructed over several centuries during the 3rd millennium BC, this Neolithic henge consists of three stone circles, all located around the village of Avebury.
The Avebury sites, once the workplace of farmers almost six millennia ago, are well-preserved and presented, with information boards including maps explaining the various components of the Henge: Windmill and Silbury Hills, West Kennet Long Barrow, and the Sanctuary (main stone circle), as well as museums.
The Alexander Keiller Museum houses archaeological treasures found at the sites by this millionaire archaeologist, each revealing something about the mysteries of the place. The other half of the museum, a 17th century threshing barn, has interactive displays on prehistoric megaliths, and is home to five species of bats, apart from other curiosities: the remains of a barber-surgeon were discovered under one of the stones, and the coins from his pockets can be seen in the museum.
It was fascinating to speculate on how these stones had been brought to the sites and erected, without the benefits of modern technology. A mysterious atmosphere, both pagan and sacred, haunts the place, and the sense of a millennia-old mystical presence is curiously palpable when wandering, with the sheep, among these ancient stones.
There is also the medieval Church of St. James (12th and 13th centuries) in Avebury, built upon Saxon foundations which date from the 10th century or earlier.
Nearby stands a beautiful Tudor Manor House (16th century) with tranquil gardens which include an orchard with rare Wiltshire varieties of apples and other fruit trees, a Half Moon Garden (“a secret space of old walls and honeysuckle”), an East Garden with sweet-scented lavender borders, a Kitchen Garden and a Topiary Garden, all beautifully maintained by the current occupants.
From the Garden of Hidden Delights brochure:
Don’t miss my favourite Avebury moment: Stumble across the tiny pet cemetery, a poignant reminder of those pets who would have had Avebury Manor as their playground. (Eleanor Eaton, Visitor Services Manager.)
The house is privately occupied today, but some rooms, each with their own unique character, are open for visitors to explore. A café and shop cater to all the needs of the eager weekend visitors, and children can do colouring-in projects in the barn.
Our weekend in the country was further enhanced by a visit to a beautiful garden, one of many opened to the public on weekends for charitable purposes. All offer a splendid English afternoon tea complete with cakes and cream scones to be enjoyed in magnificent grounds.
Another ditty came to mind whilst wandering through the miniature henge, rose and herb gardens and superb floral walkways.
How many kinds of sweet flowers grow
In an English country garden?
I’ll tell you now of some that I know
And those I miss you’ll surely pardon.
Daffodils, heart’s ease and flox
Meadowsweet and lady smocks
Gentian, lupine and tall hollyhocks
Roses, foxgloves, snowdrops, blue forget-me-nots
In an English country garden!
There were many visitors there that sunny Sunday afternoon, enjoying the sublime weather and their tasty teas on the immaculately manicured lawns. Plump bumble bees buzzed in the profuse floral clusters, lured by their heady scents, and birds twittered merrily in the trees. It is the very model of an English country garden, and indicative of the beautiful panoramas that inspired the Nature Poets of yesteryear.
With some time to spare before returning our rented car to Heathrow the next day, we made a quick detour southwest to Wells Cathedral.
This 12th century medieval masterpiece has attracted pilgrims and tourists for centuries, and it was enlightening to attend an hour-long tour with our knowledgeable guide who drew our attention to various details of which I would otherwise not have been aware.
The most arresting feature of this gigantic Gothic structure are the scissor arches in the centre of the nave, a simple yet stunning design which appears modern but was a medieval (14th century) solution to the sinking of the tower foundations.
Other endearing elements are the carvings with a personal touch on several of the column capitals. This is one of eleven “toothache” characters in the cathedral, indicative of the pain afflicting those who lacked effective dental care all those centuries ago:
Another carving features a farmer grasping the thief of his grape harvest by the ear (vineyards have existed in Kent since introduced by the Romans from 43 AD).
The Wells clock, installed in 1390, is one of the oldest medieval clock faces in the world, and reminded me of those at Lund Cathedral in southern Sweden, and the famous Astronomical Clock in Prague. On every quarter hour jousting knights appear, to the great amusement of us visitors:
Wells Cathedral boasts one of the most substantial collections of medieval stained glass in England, the crowning glory of which is the Jesse Window (c. 1340-45) which occupies most of the upper east end of the building. It narrowly escaped destruction during the English Civil War (1642-51), and steps were taken to protect it during the WW II:
This magnificent work of glass art depicts the Tree of Jesse, Christ’s “family tree,” with His ancestors, all of whom stemmed from Jesse of Bethlehem, the father of King David, as mentioned in the Book of Isaiah. The black branches of the tree can be seen trailing through the glass-work.
Wonderful concerts take place in this cathedral, including concerts by candlelight (principally Baroque repertoire), oratorio, medieval choral music, and organ recitals.
With a little more time to spare, we decided to make a brief visit to another of our favourite cities in nearby Somerset, the ancient Roman city of Bath, located on the River Avon.
When in Bath, be sure to pop into the “Pump Room” for a superb meal, to the accompaniment of genteel chamber music:
They no longer serve the famous “Bath bun and a ham sandwich”, but do offer a variety of splendid afternoon tea packages ranging from £22.50 to £40, which include chocolate-and-coffee Opera Cake, raspberry choux, fresh fruit tarts and macaroons.
There are a number of picturesque pedestrianised walkways with novel shops and boutiques in Bath; shopping and a historical walk are listed among the “things to do” on the tourism website.
And thence to London, where there is a seemingly unlimited abundance of cultural, technological and creative achievements of which this feisty island nation may be justly proud.
Two principle themes dominated the media and conversation this week: “Brexit” and Queen Elizabeth II’s 90th birthday. As for the former (English politics never cease to monopolise the news in the English-speaking world), there are those who want to stay in the EU, regarding their links with mainland Europe too significant to lose, both economically and in terms of keeping the peace, and there are those who want to leave, because they see no reason to have anything further to do with the immigrants currently flooding the Continent, or the funding and support thereof. Both sides were well represented on TV, with small businesses and marketeers dreading a loss of income should the UK leave, and the prospect of fracturing the European common market forever. Posters stating “VOTE LEAVE” were placed all over the countryside and in the towns; we await the outcome of the Referendum with baited breath.
As for the Queen’s significant milestone birthday, nothing can match the British passion for pomp and ceremony. On the morning of 11th June the air throbbed with surveillance helicopters, and I joined the throngs making their way down St. Martin’s Lane to Trafalgar Square and Pall Mall in eager pursuit of the day’s celebrations. The bells of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields peeled forth, adding to the excitement.
Oranges and lemons
Say the bells of St. Cement’s
I owe you five farthings
Say the bells of St. Martin’s!
Trafalgar Square was cordoned off for the erection of a stage for a pop concert that evening, diverting my route past the National Gallery and around through Admiralty Arch.
Months of rehearsing had gone into the weekend’s programme of events. These included a Thanksgiving service at St. Paul’s Cathedral (better seen on TV) on Friday 10th June, also Prince Philip’s 95th birthday, and was attended by the royal family and a number of world leaders. The splendid Trooping of the Colour ceremony on Horse Guards Parade next to St. James’s Park took place the following morning. This impressive display of impeccably synchonised regimental choreography takes place annually on a Saturday in June, and has since 1748 marked the official birthday of a British sovereign. The Queen traveled in an open horse-drawn carriage with Prince Philip from Buckingham Palace to the parade ground, followed by her inspection of both the foot and horse guards, and various other ceremonies, all to the bombastic music of the Household Cavalry and a Corps of Drums. Some had dressed to the nines especially for the occasion, in pretty dresses and fancy hats, the gentlemen in tails and top hats, and I was able to snatch a few shots:
After another ceremonial journey back down the Mall to the Palace, the entire royal family appeared on The Balcony to greet and wave at the cheering crowds beneath.
I found myself a space in the Mall from which to watch the Royal Airforce flypast – the dénouement of the spectacle. Wave upon wave of military planes – eight “elements” in all, heralded by a quartet of helicopters, flew up the Mall towards the Palace and beyond: a Spitfire, a Hurricane, two Hercules, Typhoons and Voyagers and a lumbering C-17, culminating in a spectacular display of red-white-and-blue smoke jets from nine Red Arrows. Cameras clicked, flags waved, strangers hugged and shared their excitement with each another, and the people cheered as this spectacular array of airborne military hardware paid homage to the longest reigning monarch in history.
It was not easy either making my way into the Mall before the flypast or out of it afterwards. I had to elbow my way with the best of them, herded by police personnel armed to the teeth with batons and rifles, as we tried to funnel our way out through narrow gateways into the cool sanctuary of Green Park without.
It was worth every moment, and I thoroughly enjoyed all the excitement. For those anti-royalists who question the validity of this grand institution in this day and age, and the expense of the pomp and pageantry, I have first-hand experience that they offer immeasurable entertainment to the British people, and an excellent source of income for the tourist industry.
During the week there was much feasting and merrymaking, especially that weekend: street parties and Morris dancing, pop concerts and pop-up stalls. With customary British gusto celebrations took place throughout the length and breadth of Merrie England.
I always enjoy a performance at the Royal Opera House, and this year, in honour of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death (1616-2016), I attended a modern performance of one of his last plays in ballet form: The Winter’s Tale.
Some might argue that excluding the immortal words of the Bard from a performance is like pouring away good wine whilst keeping the bottle. But Shakespeare did write jolly good stories, and some of them make ideal material for an action-packed ballet, as does The Winter’s Tale. (Verdi’s three Shakespearean operas bear testimony to their efficacy as operas: Otello, Macbeth and Falstaff, as well as those of other composers.)
The age-old themes of a suspicious and jealous husband, the subsequent collapse of his innocent wife, his remorse, her recovery, and happily-ever-after reunion, was vividly portrayed with choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, and the scenario and music by Joby Talbot (1971-). The latter was a bit of a mish-mash of different styles, I believe the modern term is “fusion”. I heard African elements, and Mexican, Caribbean, and even Eastern European. A bansuri (Indian bamboo flute), hammer dulcimer and African and South American drums are employed in a small band of Bohemian musicians onstage during Act I (Shakespeare’s “Bohemia” is an idyllic Arcadian paradise), and Talbot created different themes to represent the different characters – and emotions: jealousy is represented by “big bass drum and gong notes…and strangulated low brass and muted trumpets, and shrieking E-flat clarinets” (Talbot).
Classical Grecian hand gestures are included in the choreography, reminiscent of Debussy’s revolutionary ballet Prelude à l’aprés-midi d’un faun.
Is this plagiarism? The contemporary American composer John Adams spoke proudly of his “raiding the trash can of musical history” in his music. It all depends whether one is a purist, or whether one enjoys the Adams approach to art. But isn’t most art ultimately a monumental “plagiarism” of what went before? with the addition by various prodigies of original touches, of course. After all, Beethoven’s first two symphonies are emulations of those of his great Classical predecessors and teachers, Haydn and Mozart, with the unmistakable Beethovian stamp upon them; his other symphonies are ground-breaking, to be sure. But they in turn paved the way for the Romantic symphonists, the Post-Romantics, Stravinsky and the Soviets, and so on.
Ill-considered some may have found this production to be, but I enjoyed the colourful sounds emanating from the pit, including a piano and the on-stage band of exotic instruments, and the clever and attractive scenery.
The conflict-riven drama of Act I gives way to the calmer mood of Act II with its “shimmering, golden textures – bells and wind chimes becoming a backdrop to everything…gentle zephyrs…” I loved the dream-like quality of this music, and the equally magical set featuring a vast green tree hung about with gold medallions.
As for an opera, Verdi’s Nabucco starring Placido Domingo, i found to my chagrin that it had become fully booked months before – predictably.
On another evening I attended a concert at St. John’s Smith Square with my hosts – a recital performed by the well-seasoned and competent British pianist Imogen Cooper (b 1949).
This church, completed in 1728, was badly damaged by an incendiary bomb in 1941, and left a ruin, open to the sky, for 20 years. It was restored in the early 1960’s and, with acoustics suitable for any combination of instruments, and distance from traffic noise, it was turned into a concert hall. In the former crypt there is a fine restaurant called The Footstool – a satirical reference to Queen Anne’s behaviour when architect Thomas Archer asked her what design she would like for the church. Legend has it that she kicked over her footstool and exclaimed: “Like that!” giving rise to the building’s four corner towers.
Ms Cooper tackled a formidable programme with her usual cool aplomb. These included Schumann’s Geister Variations and Davidsbündler Dances, three items from Liszt’s Deuxième Années de pélérinage, evoking aptly the Italian leg of his journey which was inspired by the poetry, literature and painting of that country. The Elegy and Tristan und Isolde – Prelude by Wagner followed. While Liszt’s gargantuan piano works often exhibit showy display at the expense of the music, Cooper presented these works with an excellent blend of robust vigour and limpid Steinway tone, tenderness and ardour.
As for the Wagner items, the second of which was transcribed for piano by Zoltán Kocsis, it’s just as well that Wagner stuck principally to what he was good at: Nordic mythological music dramas. For Cooper the programme was a veritable tour de force. For me, it was a tad too long for such an unvaried programme drenched in heavy Romantic drama, in terms of period, style and mood. Even her encore was a fraught Romantic monster. I would have welcomed a Mozart on Haydn sonata, or at least a lighter Chopin etude for an encore, for a change of character and pace.
A day trip with my friends to Rye and Hastings provided a welcome breather from stimulating but taxing pavement-pounding in The City. Once we had left the outskirts of London, the scenery gave way to the gentle downs and vineyards of Kent, the “Garden of England”. We passed through many small farming settlements and picturesque villages, and it became an amusing activity for me to spot the names of the hundreds of humble (and not to humble) dwellings of the English country folk, with which almost every one is endowed: Dawn View, Yew Tree Cottage, Highnam Lodge, Our House, Dalkeith, Chapel Down, Old Harbour Cottage, Farm House, Mill House, The Haven, and literally hundreds of Rose Cottages and Old Rectories. The names of the villages are amusing too: Guestling Green, Guestling Thorn, Buckswood, Winchelsea, Icklesham, Goodworth Chatford, Winterbourne Steepleton, and plenty of Bottoms: Long-, Hatch-, Happy-, Burnt- and even Breakheart Bottom!
No longer almost entirely surrounded by sea, as it was in medieval times, Rye stands at the confluence of three rivers. It was an important member of the Cinque Ports (Five Ports) Confederation, and provided ships for the service of the king in times of war. During the 18th and 19th centuries it became a favourite haunt for smugglers who used The Mermaid and the Olde Bell Inns, connected by a secret passageway, for their dubious activities.
Rye is more picturesque than Hastings, with several historically significant buildings: Lamb House, the erstwhile residence of Henry James (1843-1916, The Portrait of a Lady, The Turn of the Screw, etc.),
and the 12th century Church of St. Mary’s:
The worst disaster in the church’s history occurred in 1377 when the town was looted and set on fire by French invaders and the church was extensively damaged. The roof fell in and the church bells were carried off to France. They were recovered the next year when men from Rye and Winchelsea sailed to Normandy, set fire to two towns and recovered much of the loot, including the church bells – one of which was subsequently hung in Watchbell Street, to give warning of any future attack. It was not returned to the church until early in the 16th century. (http://www.ryeparishchurch.org.uk/history.htm )
There are also several black wooden sheds down near the River Rother in Rye, where the fishermen once mended their nets, now used as antiques and bric-a-brac stores.
“On the 14th October 1066 King ‘arold was defeated at the Battle of ‘astings” – announced Colin, our cheery coach-driver. But the Battle of Hastings, which marked the start of the Norman Conquest and the end of Saxon rule in England, never took place here, but in the nearby town of Battle.
Hastings, apart from providing the setting for the popular WW II TV series Foyle’s War, has a cold pebble beach, glitzy games arcades, and many sun-seeking tourists.
But there is a fabulous view out over the town and the sea towards France from the castle ruin (built by William the Conqueror before the Battle) on the hill behind the town, reached via a short funicular.
In Hastings “old town” there is a pedestrianised street with cafés, seafood restaurants, bookstores, and quaint little shops.
Hastings was also where we also enjoyed the best fish an’ chips I have ever tasted. In the upper storey of The Seagull Restaurant (recommended by Colin), one can enjoy reasonably quick service, a delicious meal and a lovely sea view.
Passing through Kent and East Sussex we saw many flocks of sheep grazing in green meadows, and a verse from another poem entered my head as we traveled back to London:
No, no, let us play, for it is yet day
And we cannot go to sleep;
Besides, in the sky the little birds fly
And the hills are all cover’d with sheep
(William Blake (1757-1827): Songs of Innocence and of Experience, Nurse’s Song (Innocence).)
From the sublime to the extraordinary: “Sunken Cities” is an underwater archaeological exhibition (supported by BP) currently showing at the British Museum (£16.50), and our visit was preceded by an informative lecture by the curator Aurelia Masson-Berghoff. The exhibition covers the exciting rediscovery of the Ancient Egyptian cities of Thonis-Heracleion, Naukratis and Canopus, located near Alexandria at the Nile Delta, and submerged under the seabed for thousands of years. The 300 artefacts displayed were retrieved during challenging and expensive underwater expeditions, and range from massive stone statues of kings and gods to tiny gold jewellery pieces. The finds transformed historians’ knowledge of the relationship between Egypt and Greece in ancient times, and items from far afield revealed the multicultural world in which the people of these cities lived, “telling of migration, power, religious beliefs, and the transmission of ideas between two great ancient civilizations.”
“People sometimes assume that when two cultures mix, the essence of each is diluted and, as a result, weakened; this exhibition demonstrates the opposite. It is a rare opportunity to reveal the beauty and strength of Late Pharaonic art and culture, alongside the latest research on the momentous intermingling between Egyptian and Greek communities in Egypt at this time. We are illustrating this vibrant cosmopolitan world through Egyptian, Greek and ‘hybrid’ artworks, rarely ever displayed side by side. It shows ancient Egypt not as an isolated civilisation, but as the outward looking, influential and inclusive society that it was.”
I personally found the evidence of the amicable manner in which two different “religious” belief systems co-existed in that area – that of the Greeks and of the Egyptians – of salutary significance to the fraught Christian-Muslim relations of today. (Though of course this tension has existed since the Crusades.) Much can be learned from the attitude of mutual respect that emerged from my reading of the exhibition material. Find out more here .
One of my favourite activities when in London is to join one of the free tours of the National Gallery, led by a volunteer art historian. Wisely, no attempt is made to show visitors the 2,600 pictures in the collection, but to focus on only five or six items in depth.
“Steven” first explained how this collection of great works by Western European painters came into being, and the chronological structure of his hour-long tour, commensurate with the chronological display of the paintings. Half of these were purchased, some for a song many years ago, and the other half have been donated.
And so we examined a magnificent 14th century altarpiece featuring the Coronation of the Virgin with Adoring Saints, “attributed to Jacopo di Cione”. It is a large and magnificent work, on wood, with a surprising amount of blue, derived from precious lapis lazuli from Afganistan, (more valuable than gold), as well as a background of fine gold leaf. My personal focus was the choir of angels in the lower part of the central panel, each playing a medieval musical instrument:
Next was Botticelli’s Venus and Mars (c.1485), a spalliera picture (a painting on a large piece of wood or furniture, such as the headboard of a bed.) A swarm of vespe (wasps – as also in “scooter”) buzzing around the head of the deeply sleeping god is a subtle reference to the Vespucci family in Florence who commissioned the work. The wasps also suggest the profundity of Mars’ sleep after making love to Venus.
Rubens’ An Autumn Landscape with a View of Steen in the Early Morning (c.1636) is a dramatic example of one of the first landscape pictures in western art history, for which there had previously been no demand. Instead of a Virgin and Child or some other religious subject at the centre, there is an old tree with gnarled roots. This is Rubens’ land, and manor house – his piece of Nature. Light and atmosphere are significant, and the feelings the painting evokes. Contrary to Steven’s perception of peace and harmony, I find the picture wild and disturbing. The climate and colours are dark gloomy, typical of the art and music of Northern Europe, compared to my native South Africa.
Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of Queen Charlotte (wife of George III) is startling in its honest naturalism. There are no crown, jewels, or other manifestation of royalty. She is portrayed a real woman and mother, not an unfeeling figurehead. Lawrence had the audacity to request that her Majesty remove her bonnet – and to smile! Such a breach of protocol was unheard of in those days, but Lawrence impressed the powers that were, and was invited back to court to produce more portraits. This picture was painted in 1789, the year of the French Revolution, and a time during which artists sought to present the aristocracy in a new way.
Eighty years later Monet (1840-1926) was experimenting with new ways to present Nature, working not in a studio but out in the open air. He initiated new painting techniques to capture the shifting mosaic of light on objects, nature and people. His Bathers at la Grenouillère (1869) presents something else new: people bathing for leisure. In those days this theme and its depiction were very daring indeed.
This year the TAKE ONE PICTURE – Discover, Imagine, Explore educational initiative for schools chose as the subject Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews (c.1750) – CHILDREN INSPIRED BY THOMAS GAINSBOROUGH.
As usual the children had produced a fantastic range of projects, including watercolours, photography, video, pottery, three-D pictures, and multi-textured and felt collages, as well as creative writing, sculpture and print-making. Some schools used the painting as a springboard to explore their own natural landscapes and local communities.
My passion for pictures knows no bounds, and, not having been to the Wallace Collection for fourteen years, I decided that it was time for a return visit. My friend Renata and I made our way to Manchester Square, Wigmore Street, behind Selfridges, and were just in time to join a guided tour.
We began in the Billiard Room of this magnificent mansion, Hertford House, where we learned about the skillful technique of Boulle marquetry with an exquisite cabinet and desk. This fine craft is named after its inventor, André Charles Boulle (1742-1732), who perfected the technique of inlaying brass and tortoiseshell in wood.
The Back State Room is home to a fabulous collection of dramatic Sèvres porcelain, particularly the work of one Jean-Claude Duplessis (1699-1774), a goldsmith and sculptor who designed gilt-bronze mounts and vase models of unprecedented technical and stylistic skill for twenty-five years. He took his inspiration from a variety of bizarre sources, including elephant trunks and royal table ornaments, to create the most beautiful and exuberant Rococo porcelain. (I would rather say Baroque, as it is too heavy and ornate for the Rococo style.) I particularly liked the pot-pourri vase in the shape of a ship, designed to dispel the human odours of the day, and the inkstand made for a princess, complete with a little bell with which to summon her maid.
Organic shapes taken from nature, the principal source of the Rococo artists, manifest not only in the pieces displayed in great glass cases, but the fabulous chandelier which graces this room. A Louis XV chest of drawers has no straight lines; the designs are curled, like leaves, curved and sinuous, and decorated with gold.
Forty percent of the Collection is arms and armoury, and the ornate Tudor armour on display are all works of art; it is sculpture, designed to make the wearers look larger than life, and more magnificent. Lord Sackville’s “Garniture of the field” has interchangeable pieces, and a rare 15th century Gothic German exhibit includes plate and chainmail armour for the knight’s horse as well as for the knight.
The Large Gallery, the walls of which are covered with beautiful crimson silk, displays a collection of paintings which represents a “dialogue” between the great European masters – teachers and their pupils: Rubens, Rembrandt, Titian, Velasquez, Frans Hals, Van Dyck and Poussin.
A highlight for me was Poussin’s A Dance to the Music of Time (1634-6), which depicts Jupiter’s gift to the world: wine. The four Seasons, and Saturn and Apollo, the gods of Time, dance to the music of Time’s lyre. It is a representation of the cycle of the human condition: day and night, life and death, and conveys a deep philosophical message.
Three Dutch Galleries, lined in royal blue silk, display works by Rembrandt, Brouwer and Cuyp.
The dénouement, my favourite picture in all of London, hangs in the Oval Drawing Room: Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s The Swing (1767), displaying all the gloriously carefree and unbridled joie de vivre of the French Rococo.
Last but not least during my English Expedition was a visit to one of the hidden gems in London, recommended by my host Brian: the Geffrye Museum (136 Kingsland Road, Shoreditch.)
The museum is housed in a row of 18th century almshouses of the Ironmongers’ Company, built in 1714 and set in beautiful gardens, and named after Sir Robert Geffrye, a former mayor of London and Master of the Ironmongers’ company, who left a bequest for its construction.
Described in the brochure as “a place of memories, brought back through the displays of not-so-distant home life”, each of the eleven rooms represents a different period in English history, and displays furniture, pictures, ornaments and belongings from each, “once the treasured possessions of families long ago. Home is where the heart is!”
Time spent at home today usually involves time spent with a device, watching TV, preparing meals, or, hopefully, reading. It was intriguing to enter spaces which revealed the leisurely activities of yesteryear, such as home decorating, various hand crafts and games, playing a musical instrument, and listening to the wireless.
The museum brings to life the many aspects of “home” through exhibitions and events held throughout the year. This month the special exhibition is Swept Under the Carpet? Servants in London Households. Each room displays a board describing the way of life and chores of the servants in that household, and where they belonged in the scheme of things. During the 16th century they were included, and fed, as part of the family. As time passed, however, they became relegated to a more and more obscure position. “Below stairs” became a subterranean world of its own, as followers of the popular television series Downton Abbey will have seen.
Concealed behind a disdain for everyday acts of housework, and a desire that ease, leisure and comfort define our experiences of home, servants and their work are generally invisible. Swept Under the Carpet reveals that the drawing room was also the site of domestic discipline, hard labour, expertise and skill…Servants became vulnerable to the abuse of power by their employers. This potential for exploitation continues to this day, and is exacerbated by the migrant status of many domestic workers…
Food for thought, indeed.
The museum hosts a popular Christmas Past exhibition annually, with each of the rooms authentically decorated accordingly. Outside there are several small gardens, each also representative of an era.
This is one of the most delightful – and evocative – small museums I have visited in the world, a special place to relax, enter the domestic worlds of the past, and enjoy a cup of tea and cake.
Oh to be in England once again, hopefully next year.
A recommended book: Tired of London Tired of Life – One Thing a Day to Do in London by Tom Jones
*729. Home-thoughts, from Abroad by Robert Browning (1812–1889)