London is blessed with a large selection of excellent museums and galleries. The majority of these are free. The Imperial War Museum in Lambeth is a good example of this. It is one of five Imperial War Museum locations in the UK, three of which are in London. Set up in the 1920s to commemorate the effort and sacrifice of Britain in First World War, it is now dedicated to the understanding of modern war, and confines itself to those conflicts in which Britain or the Commonwealth had some involvement.
The building is impressive, surrounded by the green lawns of Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, it is about a five minute walk from Lambeth North tube station. It has ionic columns at its entrance and an impressive dome. It also has its own interesting history, in the 19th Century it was the notorious Bethlem Royal Hospital, the psychiatric facility that allowed visitors to watch the inmates as public entertainment. It is this building that became the origin of the word bedlam.
The museum is arranged over five floors. The top floor is the Lord Ashcroft gallery which has a large collection of medals awarded for bravery and the stories of many people who have been presented with them. It is an interesting investigation into the definition of courage and what inspires heroic acts.
The fourth floor is dedicated to the holocaust and the rise of Nazism in the mid twentieth century. This contains a surprisingly in depth analysis of the political climate that led to the spreading of the ideology and a comprehensive presentation of its results. There is a scale model of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, which really gives perspective to the magnitude of the crimes. This floor needs to be approached with care, the display is moving and distressing.
The Third floor has an exhibit called Curiosities of War, which is a collection of unusual war related items. This is quirky and comparatively light. The second floor is split between conflicts after WWII and a display about espionage. The recent conflicts exhibition is thought provoking, it brings current events sharply into focus. The spy section seems lightweight, I guess it is tough to say much about state secrets without giving those secrets away. This floor also holds a real size model of an atomic bomb, it is shocking how small it is.
The two lowest floors hold the largest items, tanks, ambulances, rockets, large guns and planes….the remains of a vehicle that was once a car bomb. The descriptions of the items and the uses to which they were put is almost more interesting than viewing the items themselves.
The Hall of Remembrance, is a gallery that was proposed to be built containing artwork commissioned as a memorial to the war dead of WWI. The project ran out of money in the 1920s and was never completed. The Imperial War Museum holds all the artwork that was due to be shown in this gallery and has put it on their website in the form of a virtual gallery. This is a beautiful testimonial and well worth a visit, I have put a link here .
War is not entertainment and this will not be your jolliest day out in London. However, The Imperial War Museum is something that you really should visit when you come to the UK. It is wonderful that this city has such high quality resources and amazing that it offers them for free. The building has step free access and there is parking for Blue Badge holders, but it needs to be booked. Recommended.
Duke Riley’s Fly by Night is an art event happening over three midsummer evenings in Thamesmead. It is part of LIFT 2018, which seems to get better each year. The installation itself consists of releasing 1500, racing and homing, pigeons, which have been fitted with LED leg tags, over the Thames at sunset.
The venue for this event is a little way out of Central London. Crossness Pumping Station is a Victorian sewage treatment plant in East Thamesmead and the viewing area is in the grounds of its beautiful Grade I listed building. Thoughtfully, the organisers have kept the building open late and a trip around the accompanying exhibition “The Big Stink” is a diverting start to the evening as we wait for the sun to set.
The location itself is attractive, in an unconventional way, factories and wind turbines face us on the opposite shore. On a good summer evening, watching the sun slowly sink into the urban skyline over the river has beauty of its own, even if, it is not one of the first places you would think to come. The anticipation rises as the sun sinks and slowly the first pigeons rise from their hotel/loft into the sky. They circle the area in small flocks, rising and swooping in the dying light. Gradually, as the evening closes in, the pigeons begin to gather flickering lights as the LEDs start to win the battle over sunlight. Slowly, and almost imperceptibly, over the course of the thirty minute flight, the pigeons fade into the night and all we see are the soaring and diving leg tags making patterns in the night sky.
Beautiful and surprisingly thought provoking.
The painting above is of the NE corner of Trafalgar Square and St. Martin-in-the-Fields in 1888. It hangs in Tate Britain and it is by William Logsdail. In case you missed it, the first part of my paean to Trafalgar Square is here: Love London, Part 1. Trafalgar Square, Nelsons Column and Charles I, London WC2.
On the lower northern wall of the square are busts of three First Admirals of the fleet; Cunningham, Jellicoe and Beatty. Admiral Andrew Cunningham was distinguished veteran of WWII and his bust was added after the other two in 1967. Jellicoe and Beatty are Admirals of WWI and their busts were placed in 1948, facing Nelson, “Hero of the fleet”. I hope it is true that they both admired Nelson as much as they are supposed to, because upon their deaths, in late 1935 and early 1936, they were both entombed in St Paul’s Cathedral, also facing his tomb.
Also on the lower northern wall of square is an often overlooked historical treasure “The Trafalgar Square Standards”. They are low down along the steps and in the wall behind the seats. These were the official British Imperial measurements of length until we adopted the metric units of measurement in 1995. These were set into stone, by the Standards Department of The Board of Trade, in 1876 and if you suspected that any measuring implements were incorrect you could bring them here to settle the argument. There are three sets of these official standards, the others are in the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and in the Great Hall of the Guildhall in the city. The official measures included are; the inch, foot, yard, link, chain, perch and pole.
There are four plinths built to contain statues in the square. The two on the south side of the square contain statues of Victorian Major Generals, Napier and Havelock. They both served with distinction in the campaigns in India. The third plinth is occupied by an equestrian statue of George IV. It was commissioned by the King himself and depicts him riding bareback, without stirrups and in ancient Roman dress. He intended it to be placed on the top of the Marble Arch, but it was put here in 1843.
The fourth plinth was intended to hold a statue of William IV. It was empty for over 150 years until 1999 when it was decided to put a succession of works of art on the plinth, each occupying it for a limited amount of time. These art pieces have generated a great deal of debate over that past twenty years and, in that respect, the concept has certainly been a success. All of them have been controversial, most of them have been innovative and some of them have been attractive. Among the more memorable are; Anthony Gormley’s “One & Other” where over the course of 100 days, 2400 different people each spent one hour on top of the plinth, Marc Quinn’s “Alison Lapper Pregnant” and Yinka Shonibare’s “Nelson’s ship in a Bottle”. The current incarnation, Michael Rakowitz’s “The invisible enemy should not exist” is a recreation of a sculpture of a Lamassu (a winged bull and protective deity) that stood at the entrance to Nineveh from 700 B.C. It was destroyed in 2015 and this piece is made completely from empty Iraqi date syrup cans. I find it beautiful.
On the South Eastern corner of the Square is a round edifice with a light on top. This is claimed, by some, to be the smallest police station in the world. Put in temporarily in WWI but made permanent during the general strike of 1926, it is a raised room from which a policeman could stand and watch the square in order to phone Scotland Yard, if a demonstration in the square showed signs of becoming dangerous. When the light was changed from gas to electric, the light used to flash when the phone rang, in case the assigned policeman was patrolling the square.
I have a couple of pieces other random trivia about Trafalgar Square. The north side of the square is substantially higher than the south. This slope is not natural, the south end was lowered in order to made the National Gallery building more imposing. The earth was used to level St James’ Park. Adolf Hitler planned to remove Nelson’s column and statue from Trafalgar Square when Germany conquered Britain. His intention was to place them in Berlin as a victory trophy.
While you visit Trafalgar Square, you should visit St Martin-in-the-fields on the NE corner and the National Gallery. I plan to do separate pieces about these. I will put links here when I have completed them. Also, on the South side, between Whitehall and The Mall, there is an unobtrusive hotel called The Trafalgar. This is a smart hotel and if you go to the back you can catch a lift up to a rooftop bar. The cocktails are central London prices, but they are good and the roof terrace has lovely views over the square.
Trafalgar Square is a tourist attraction that is packed with both dramatic architecture and history. It has a claim to be the centre of London, in both a physical and psychological sense. Other places have claims also; Bank, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus even Hyde Park Corner, but there are a couple of good arguments in favour of Trafalgar Square.
It has been the scene of major British public gatherings and demonstrations from soon after its opening right until the present day. It was the backdrop to the Poll Tax demonstrations in the 1990s, CND rallies in the 1960s and ’70s, Chartist gatherings of the nascent Labour movement in the late 1800s and more recently campaigns against Climate Change and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Over the Christmas period it holds London’s most famous Christmas tree, a gift from Norway every year since 1947, as a thank you for Britain’s support during WWII. It was also the traditional gathering place for London’s New Year celebrations until the crowds became too big and deemed too dangerous to have at a single venue.
Trafalgar Square was designed in 1826 by architect John Nash, it did not really begin to take shape until the late 1830s when the National Gallery was built in 1838. It is named after the battle of Trafalgar, a famous 1805 victory over Napoleon.
The centrepiece of the square is Nelson’s Column; a monument to the leader in that battle. This was erected in 1843 just before the square became a public area. It is a 43metre high, granite column with a 7metre statue of Horatio Nelson on top. The column itself is a Corinthian column, having an ornamental top. This ornament is made from British cannons. There are also bas-reliefs on each side of the column at the bottom, depicting earlier famous British war victories and these are made from the melted down remains of weapons captured from the French and Spanish armies. Famously, the stonemasons who built the column are reputed to have had dinner served on its top, before the statue was placed.
The Lions at each corner of the column were designed by Edwin Landseer and were installed in 1867. They are made of bronze and each one weighs over 6000kg. The fountains at either side of the column, were added later. The current fountains were designed by Edwin Lutyens and added just before the start of WWII. Trafalgar Square as a whole is Grade I listed, which is the highest level of architectural protection in the U.K. awarded only to buildings of exceptional interest.
The oldest statue is to the South of the square. It depicts Charles I on a horse. This was made in 1633 and sent to be melted down after the abolition of the monarchy in 1653. The brazier to whom it was given, made his fortune selling trinkets made from the melted down statue, but he had kept it intact to return to the crown on their reinstatement. This is also what Trafalgar Square its claim to be the physical centre of London, as it is to the base of this statue that official distances to London are historically measured.
You may have heard that all the distances to London are measured from Charing Cross. This is true. The Charing Cross was one of 12 crosses placed by Edward I in memory of his wife Eleanor. It was originally in the spot currently occupied by the equestrian statue of Charles I. It was destroyed by order of Parliament after the civil war. A replacement cross was built and placed in front of Charing Cross station during the reign of Victoria. There is an original Eleanor cross still standing, from 1294, in Waltham Cross.
Part 2 of the Trafalgar Square post is here: Love London Part 2. Trafalgar Square, George IV, Victorian generals and the Fourth plinth.
The Wallace Collection is a must see museum/gallery if you come to London. The items on show were bequeathed to the nation in the late 19th Century and have been on display here since 1900.
The number and quality of the Old Masters from the 15th to the 19th century is amazing. It has some of the finest examples of 18th century French furniture in existence. There is also a rich assemblage of porcelain, sculpture and royal amour in the collection. One of the more unusual pieces is a particularly ornate cannon.
Many of the pieces were bought during the sales of art following the French revolution, which is why the collection is so strong in 18th Century French art. Such good examples of the Louis XV cabinets and marquetry cannot be seen anywhere else in the world.
A condition of the bequest was that none of the pieces ever left the collection, even to go out on loan. So if you ever wish to see, say, “The Laughing Cavalier” or Canaletto’s “View of the Grand Canal” you have to come here.
It is astounding to discover that it is free to visit this collection, although they do ask for a donation. It is also surprisingly quiet, compared to the other, bigger museums and galleries in London. This is presumably because it is not in the main exhibition area of town, although you could argue that, situated between Oxford Street, Baker Street and close to Selfridges, it is even more central than those in South Kensington.
Notable among the Old Masters in the collection are 5 Rembrandt, 4 J. W. Turner, 8 Canaletto, 2 Titian, 12 Reynold, 5 Cuyp, 2 Gainsborough….. the list goes on, it is an amazingly rich and full list. There is even a wonderful portrait of Queen Victoria from 1837, when she was newly ascended to the throne.
The Wallace Collection should not be missed when visiting London. Bring your friends when you visit, and you will surprise them with both the quantity and the quality of the art here. Given how quiet it tends to be, even in the summer, I am going to count this as a hidden gem, and I recommend it heartily.
Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World is the opening exhibit to the new Design Museum in High Street Kensington. It is actually 11 different installations exploring issues that define our world in the 21st Century. As you would imagine, with so many totally unconnected exhibits, some work better than others and some are more interesting than others.
I like the curious robot that comes and stares at you when you look at it. It feels quite aggressive and two separate parents who thought their child would love it, had to deal with them running away in tears after it came right up to their face.
The installation about Grindr and how it changed lives in the 21st Century is worthy, but it is also a bit dry and dull, which is not something I would have expected to report on an exhibit on that subject.
The Mongolian Yurt is nice, one can sit inside and watch a video about how the city of Ulaan Baator is growing very quickly. There is an installation about Death Masks. These death masks are pretty and quite creepy. They are made in plastic with a 3D printer. There are 5 different fictional people with 3 masks each, depicting different states, I don’t know why they have done it, but they are interesting to look at.
The video about dolphins and go seems plain weird, half of it is pictures of sea and boats from a dolphins point of view, and half is of a computer playing the game go. I may have got that wrong, I found it hard to understand, possibly because the point of it just went right over my head. The exhibit of videos playing in a corrugated shack about the Bolivian ghettos are thought provoking.
I like the 2 very different ones about recycling clothing. One was about recycling clothing in rural China and the other about a machine that sorts discarded clothes by colour.
My favourite is the living room furnished with an item from every country in the EU, the view from the “window” is quite chilling.
The price of entry to Fear and Love is £14, quite high considering the mixed standard of installations, but there is a free permanent exhibition on the third floor, which is excellent and certainly worth a visit. So, although there are things here that will make you stare and think Why?, there is also a wide variety of subjects on display and everyone is likely to have at least something that will delight them.
La Recoleta Cemetery is one of most amazing things to see, in one of the largest and most beautiful cities on the world. This cemetery occupies 14 acres of the most desirable real estate in a very fashionable area of downtown Buenos Aires. This cemetery is packed with streets of mausoleums honouring the great, the good and the dead of this fine city.
There are over 6000 monuments here, in the shape of chapels, pyramids, Greek temples. There are hundreds of statues, pillars, columns all commemorating in death, the achievements during the life of its inhabitants.
These shrines vary hugely in design, in shape and in beauty but the combined effect of seeing them all together is contemplative; mementos of a life now past.
Buenos Aires is a busy vibrant city and Cementerio de la Recoleta is a lovely step away from that bustle into a more introspective place, a welcome contrast and a place to gather your thoughts and fortify you, before continuing your adventures in the city.
The stained glass windows in the tombs, vaults and burial chambers are particularly striking and I loved the way it was possible to collect their reflection in the windows, looking in.
Pictures courtesy of Michael Jolly.