Tuesday, 15 May 2012

The Guildhall Art Gallery and Roman Amphitheatre

Guild Hall (centre) & Art Gallery (right); line shows extent of amphitheatre.
Executive Summary
Ambling along Gresham Street, taking a detour into Guildhall Yard transports you into a microcosm of London history and architecture. Lining the tranquil square, you’ll find the guild church St Lawrence Jewry (rebuilt by Wren after the Great Fire of 1666), the late twentieth century Guildhall Art Gallery (rebuilt after being destroyed in the Blitz) and the medieval Guildhall, the ceremonial and administrative centre of the City of London and its Corporation. Guildhall Yard encompasses even more history than these three remarkable buildings suggest: during building work for the new gallery it was revealed that they sit atop the site of an ancient Roman amphitheatre. Head for the Guildhall Art Gallery to see a selection of the City of London Corporation’s impressive (and free!) art collection, and the evocative remains of the Roman amphitheatre.

The Great Fire of London, 1666, after Waggoner
Recruiting in the Guildhall, Charles Wakefield, 1920
Go There...
... For surprisingly vivid eyewitness accounts - in oil paint - of London's triumphs, tribulations and proto-celebrities, and a chance to enter a Roman amphitheatre accompanied by rampant applause.

Must-Know Info
Opening Hours: Monday – Saturday 10am-5pm, Sunday 12pm-4pm   Admission: free (small charges for temporary exhibitions)    Nearest tube: St Paul’s or Bank

Sir Matthew Hale - Fire Judge, 1670, John Michael Wright
The Corporation’s art collection was ignited at a pivotal moment in London’s history: the Great Fire of 1666. In the wake of the devastating fire, which destroyed five sixths of the walled area of the medieval city and rendered at least 65 000 people homeless, a panel of judges was appointed to assess property claims. They worked three to four days a week without pay, listening and deciding on cases quickly and efficiently: without them, legal wrangling and contradictory interests would likely have fatally undermined London’s rebuilding and recovery. Instead, the City effected a Phoenix-like rise from the ashes: in less than ten years the entire area had been rebuilt (save for a few parish churches). In gratitude to the judges, the Court of Aldermen commissioned portraits of them to hang in the newly restored Guildhall. It was from this nucleus that the Guildhall collection grew over the centuries through commission, bequest and acquisition. While twenty of the twenty-two original portraits were damaged during the Blitz, two survive alongside a diverse collection that now numbers over 4500 works reflecting the city’s social, political, aesthetic and physical landscapes.  

The first Guildhall Art Gallery opened in 1885, with the aim of making the City of London Corporation’s accessible to public view. This educational and philanthropic gesture was a leitmotif of Victorian society, simultaneously responding to a widespread perception of an ‘increased Taste in Art’. The building was destroyed during an air raid in 1941 – luckily much of the collection had been safely stowed underground in Wiltshire – but it was only in 1988 that work began on a new permanent Gallery. While digging the foundations, the Museum of London Archaeological Service discovered the remains of a Roman amphitheatre, the existence and location of which had long been the subject of popular speculation. Immediately declared an Ancient Monument, the ruins precipitated a redesign of the building, which eventually opened in 1999 (with the Amphitheatre open to the public since 2002).

Interior, first floor: you can see the top of the Copley painting on the right.
Curation & Interpretation
Copley's massive painting spans two storeys
Of the vast collection, only about 250 works are on display at any one time. Currently, the main section of the gallery has a strong nineteenth century focus and curatorial approach: paintings by Millais, Leighton, Constable and Landseer amongst others jostle salon-style against walls of rich Pompeian red, reflecting the influence of the Royal Academy in the Victorian era. 

Spanning the height of two floors, pride of place is reserved for John Singleton Copley’s The Defeat of the Floating Batteries at Gibraltar, September 1782, one of the nation’s largest oil paintings (543 x 754cm). Commemorating a dramatic British victory over Spanish forces for possession of Gibraltar (where the British had long been besieged), the painting was commissioned to honour the officers who had bravely withstood the siege, though it also included the relief fleet that arrived a month after the battle. Copley’s ability to coherently integrate multiple narratives, dramatic points of view, and named individuals was what won him the commission, but – with so many stories, personalities and interests to represent – it was also what led to the painting taking eight years to complete rather than the estimated two. Today, the monumental work acts as a connecting device between the upper level and the ground floor, which houses more of the expansive collection as well as temporary exhibitions.

The Roman amphitheatre with its flourescent gladiators and spectators.
Downstairs are urban and river scenes of the city, from "eyewitness views" of the Great Fire to grandeloquent ceremonial processions: a kind of pre-photographic scrapbook of the city’s life and times. Further down, a sub-basement contains the scant remains of Roman Londinium’s 6000-seater amphitheatre. Integrating this feature into the gallery must have been no mean feat, and, as a result, entering into its sparse and sepulchral darkness after the warm collusion of the galleries above is slightly jarring. Only the remnants of the eastern entrance’s stone walls remain, with some suggestions of draining flues and animal pens, so it must have been quite a challenge to make a coherent exhibition from the space. Joining the rest of the dots for your imagination are black and fluorescent green projections of the seating area and computer-meshed outlines of gladiators and spectators that make you feel like you’ve stepped into an early online role-playing environment. Curiously-stencilled light filters dapple the basement with spectral patterns and the cranky whirr of dusty technology, while, as you reach the end of the original entrance and enter the arena, the roaring applause of the crowd is cued. Plans are apparently afoot to reopen the amphitheatre as an entertainment venue, enlivening the echoing space once again with living applause (although spoken word poetry and stand-up comedy events are scheduled to replace public executions and fights-to-the-death).

Millais's popular companion paintings: First Sermon and Second Sermon
Best in Show
Don’t miss John Everett Millais’s charming pair of paintings First Sermon (1863) and Second Sermon (1864), featuring his five-year-old daughter Effie. In the first painting, sitting bright-eyed and upright in the old high-backed pews of All Saints Church, Kingston-on-Thames, Effie’s little face holds a look of concentrated decorum. The work was such a hit at the Royal Academy exhibition that Millais went on to paint a companion piece depicting the little girl’s second visit to church, in which the novelty has worn off: in his speech at the next Royal Academy Banquet, the Archbishop of Canterbury apparently framed it as a warning against “the evil of lengthy sermons and drowsy discourses”.

Anecdotal Aside
Much of the City of London Corporation’s collection consists of portraits of royals and other influential political and civic figures, including a visually arresting 8ft, £150 000 marble statue of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher which stopped me in my tracks. In 2002, the recently unveiled sculpture was decapitated with a cricket bat (and a metal bar, when the bat couldn’t hack it) by a man who had kept the weapon of assault tucked in his trousers to avoid security. At the subsequent trial, he claimed the act was a satirical vehicle to highlight such issues as “globalisation, the environment, religion, capitalism, the third world war, greed, the music industry, terrorism, Tony Blair, America and Afghanistan”. The work was restored and returned to display (behind bullet-proof glass) at the Guildhall Art Gallery: Perhaps if the statue had been in keeping with Thatcher’s moniker of the “Iron Lady”, the damage would not have been quite so costly…

Postman's Park: you can see the memorial panels under the roofed area.
Parting Shots
After a visit to the Guildhall Art Gallery and Roman Amphitheatre, carry on along Gresham Street, turning right into Aldersgate. At the London City Presbyterian Church, step into Postman’s Park (near the site of the former headquarters of the General Post Office) where many postal employees would spend their breaks. Today it is better known for G.F. Watts’s Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, which commemorates individuals who died to save others. Begun in 1900, the memorial represents each through a hand-painted panel of several tiles with a description of the incident. Though short, they are often unexpectedly literary (William Donald of Bayswater… “drowned in the Lea trying to save a lad from a dangerous entanglement of weed”), intimate (Herbert Maconoghy, schoolboy from Wimbledon… “his parents absent in India, lost his life in vainly trying to rescue two schoolfellows…”) or bizarre (Sarah Smith, pantomime artist “who died of terrible injuries received when attempting in her inflammable dress to extinguish the flames which had enveloped her companion”). 

When the memorial opened, only four of the planned 120 plaques were in place: Watts added another nine during his lifetime, and his wife Mary oversaw the installation of another thirty-four. It was said that Watts had hoped that such extraordinary acts of heroism by ordinary people – what makes a nation truly great – would continue, and that society would continue to commemorate them rather than its material possessions, but it wasn’t until 2009 that a new tablet was added to the memorial. Leigh Pitt, a print technician from Surrey, died on 7 June 2007 rescuing a nine-year-old boy who was drowning in a canal. His colleague approached the Diocese of London to suggest adding him to the memorial and, since then, the Diocese has decided to continue considering suitable names to be added to the memorial in the future.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Time for a Cuppa: The Twinings Tea Bar & Museum

Twinings Tea Shop: pediment and statues added 1787
Executive Summary

In my adolescent years I was given to the wild excesses of Twinings Earl Grey, an imported box of which cost half my monthly allowance in Cape Town. So when I came across the original Twinings shop on Fleet Street recently while scouting the area for a local history adventure trail I was designing for kids visiting Dr Johnson's House, I found myself eagerly crossing the threshold…

Tea may be seen as quintessentially British - the ideal accompaniment to any social occasion and the first port of call in dealing with crisis - but until the late 17th century it was a beverage largely unknown in Europe. Nestled in Fleet Street, Twinings Tea Shop boasts a long and colourful history: a history visually announced by the languorous sculptures of two ‘Chinamen’ (rather cringeworthy by postcolonial standards) which flank the pediment above the door. Established in 1706, the Twinings tea shop is the oldest shop in London still owned by its founding family and located on the original site, not to mention holding the world’s oldest continually-used company logo. In the back of the shop is one of London’s tiniest museums, but well worth perusing over a nice cup of (free) Earl Grey.

Go there…
… To try a new or unusual tea in the free, help-yourself ‘Tea Bar’ while looking at nineteenth-century prints of monkeys harvesting tealeaves in Ceylon or checking out antique tea caddies (you, not the monkeys, though I wouldn't put it past them). It’s also a fun place to take tourists (the box sets of tea make great gifts too), or to meet a friend to catch up over a cuppa.

Must-Know Info
Opening Hours: Monday – Friday: 8.30am-7.30pm, Saturday – Sunday: 10am – 4pm  Closest Tube: Temple

Jean Carolus, Afternoon tea, 1879 (oil on canvas)
Afternoon tea, c.2012. Still a stylish affair...
Straddling the border between Westminster and the City, the location of the Twinings shop on Fleet Street was a cunning move on the part of Thomas Twining, thronging as the area was with aristocrats who had been displaced by the Great Fire of 1666. And, given the prohibitive tax on tea, it was only the aristocratic who could initially afford to drink this exotic elixir, stored under lock and key in beautifully ornate caddies. With the knowledge and connections forged of working for an East India Company merchant in his early career, Thomas was well placed to corner the legitimate market, though tea smuggling was rife. In fact, tea leaves were cut and dyed with all manner of toxic substances to preserve and make it attractive for sale – the veritable heroin of its day. 
Royal Wedding blend, 2011
Tea grew to great popularity in the eighteenth century alongside the rise of tea gardens, giving the coffeehouse and pub a run for their money, and gradually changing the eating patterns and social habits of the nation. Previously the evening meal was taken in the late afternoon, but with the rituals that grew up around afternoon tea, such as accompanying it with cakes, buttered toast and elegant company (hoorah!), dinner became a much later affair.  Originally providing liquid refreshments in the form of tea, coffee and drinking chocolate alongside dry tea for sale, it was the latter that made the family’s fortune. Under Queen Victoria, the family received an exclusive Royal Warrant to provide its wares to the royal household. Centuries on, and very little has changed: a special commemorative tea was released in 2011 for the royal wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton (a delicate White Earl Grey with ‘light rose petal flavours’ and a ‘bright, sparkling amber colour’), and there’s no doubt a special release brewing for the Queen’s Jubilee. But Richard Twinings – Thomas’ grandson – was also instrumental in the passing of the Commutation Act, which dramatically lowered taxes on tea (from 119 to 12.5%), making it accessible to all classes and wiping out the tea smuggling underworld.

Curation & Interpretation

It’s worth noting that the tiny museum at the back of the shop does not purport to tell the history of tea (for that, you can catch glimpses at the London Docklands Museum, or hopefully a more comprehensive account once the defunct Bramah Museum of Tea and Coffee reopens). Rather, it’s the museum of a dynasty, intertwined with the evolution of a brand. Portraits of notable Twinings patriarchs line the walls of the shop like the corridors of a country estate, each perching somewhat proprietarily over a niche of products for sale: pastel-hued tealeaves of variously fruity persuasions or the coveted tea of the month display.  
The portraits bear you along into the tea bar and museum at the back, the journey into the past completed by horse and carriage: printed across one wall is a C19th photograph of a delivery cart parked outside the store. Cases contain collections of notable tea caddies, family portraits, royal charters and early packaging, an eclectic mashup of objects and ephemera with little interpretation or evidence of curatorial intent. Perfect, however, for letting your eye alight on an unexpected treasure over a steaming mug of Lapsang Souchong.
Anecdotal Aside
Thomas Twinings’ son Daniel, who took over the family’s growing tea concern, was the first to export tea. He included amongst his patrons the governor of Boston. And we all know how THAT turned out.

Incidentally, what does 'tradition' taste like?
Parting Shots: The Taste of Tradition
In 1831, Twinings launched the Earl Grey brand, named after then Prime Minister Charles Grey (who is now more famous for the eponymous tea than for the electoral Reform Act of 1832 or his role in the abolition of slavery). The distinctive taste came from infusing black tea with the oil of the bergamot orange from South-East Asia. The origin of the blend has become a source of myth and legend. My pick is the idea that it was a serendipitous accident caused when a gift cargo of tea from China to Earl Grey absorbed the flavour of the Bergamot oranges stored alongside it on the long journey. In 2011, after almost 200 years of Earl Grey tea as the ultimate cipher of ‘genteel contentment’ (according to the Telegraph), Twinings decided to oomph up the citrus overtones, only to be barraged and boycotted by outraged teadrinkers across the nation declaring it was so bad they’d ‘rather drink PG Tips’ <cue collective intake of breath at the sheer audacity>. Twinings has since capitulated by (re)introducing Earl Grey: The Classic Edition. Now that’s what you call a storm in a teacup!

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Dr Johnson: The Definitive Englishman

Twilight at Dr Johnson's House, 17 Gough Square
Portrait of Johnson by Joshua Reynolds
I’ve recently started volunteering at Dr Johnson’s House, doing some education and interpretation work, which I’m really enjoying. It not only feels like a home, it also comes complete with a family of staff comprised largely of eccentric retired volunteers who always bring along A. a cardigan (it can be a tad chilly inside) B. a whole lot of good stories, and C. baked goods. As such, it’s hard not to be positively biased towards the place!

Executive Summary
If you’ve ever wondered about the man behind the most influential dictionary in the history of the English language, and the subject of the first modern biography (James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, 1791), you’ll find the answers in a captivating four-storey Georgian townhouse just off Fleet Street. A short-sighted tea addict who went from relatively obscure Fleet Street journalist to renowned literary celebrity; a man who could coordinate the myriad meanings of over 42 000 individual words but still couldn’t balance his books (he continually took in waifs and strays even as the bailiffs arrived imploring him to pay outstanding bills for milk), Johnson (1709-1784) was a man wrought by complexities and contradictions. He’s also the second most-quoted Englishman after Shakespeare, given his ability to let rip a pithy phrase or witty rejoinder at a moment’s notice (always assiduously recorded by Boswell). After all, it was he who famously said ‘He who is tired of London, is tired of life’ – that ubiquitous sentence so beloved of city tourism marketers and makers of bespoke teatowels – which is reason enough to find out more about the man himself.

Go there…
The cosy parlour, with portrait of Francis Barber and self-portrait of Joshua Reynolds
…If you’re looking for a retreat from the hustle and bustle of The City. The peaceful interior invites you to sit in the chairs, on the window ledges and at the tables; to make yourself at home with Dr Johnson. It’s also worth spending some time flicking through the facsimile copies of the original 1755 dictionary and memorising some of the choicer definitions for ‘spontaneous’ use in dinner party conversation.

Must-Know Info
Opening hours: Monday – Saturday: 11am – 5pm, Closest Tube: Chancery Lane
Admission price: £4.50 adults, £3.50 concessions
Pull up a chair in the library
Built in 1700, Johnson’s house - restored to the era in which he lived there (1748-1759) - is one of very few of its time remaining in London. While undoubtedly the building’s most famous tenant, he was followed by many others: at one point, the house became a hotel, followed by a printing works, and eventually fell into disrepair. Luckily, in 1911, and despite advice to stay well clear of the venture, liberal MP Cecil Harmsworth bought and restored the building, discovering that most of its original features (panelling, open staircase, wooden floorboards etc) remained unchanged. In restoring the house, Harmsworth was keen to encourage an atmosphere that was homely and inviting – you can pull up a chair and relax in the study or peer out on Gough square from the comfort of a windowseat – with period furniture and carefully-selected Johnsonalia, yet free of the cluttering ‘bric-a-brac’ typical of historic houses and traditional museums. Opened to the public in 1914, during the Second World War Dr Johnson’s House was used as a social club for the Auxiliary Fire Service. It sustained minor bomb damage but lived to tell the tale…

Portrait prints of Johnson's circle line the withdrawing room
Curation & Interpretation
Harmsworth’s guiding spirit remains in evidence curatorially. The house is pared down but cosy, giving a sense of Johnson’s rather modest means while still delivering evocative portals to his personal and professional life: a porcelain tea set owned by his dear friend Mrs Thrale; a portrait after Joshua Reynolds (one of Johnson’s closest friends), presumed to be of Johnson’s Jamaican-born manservant (and later heir) Francis Barber, who cheered the lexicographer immensely after the death of his wife, and who went on to become one of the first black schoolmasters in England; a great wooden chest that once belonged to famous actor (and prior pupil of Johnson’s) David Garrick, who staged Johnson’s neoclassical tragedy Irene at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane in 1749. 

Good food, good conversation: the Literary Club
Each room features a roomcard with an overview of the use and appearance of the room, as well as detailed information on particular objects and images, while the recent addition of a superb audioguide provides another means of engaging with the space. A few discreet museum cases – the contents of which change periodically – highlight specific topics such as the arduous nine year process of compiling the Dictionary, but otherwise there are few overt interpretative interventions into the space. Most effective is the brooding cluster of portrait prints of Johnson’s various friends – artists, playwrights, professors, preachers and more – in the withdrawing room. The graphic gallery not only signals the extent of his intellectual and social circle (despite his curious tics and bad table manner, his trenchant conversation made him much in demand as a dinner party guest), it also has the effect of making you feel like you’ve just stumbled into one of his famous literary club meetings.

Why Dr Johnson’s Dictionary is Awesome
Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 was not the first English dictionary – dozens had already appeared in the previous 150 years. However, often their words were extremely rarified and not of much common use, or, like many in Nathan Bailey’s commercially-successful An Universal Etymological Dictionary (1722) they were undermined by definitions that were too general (‘Strawberry: a well-known fruit’; ‘Black: A colour’) or circular (‘Wash: to cleanse by washing’) to be of any help.  Johnson’s revolutionary idea was to capture the multitude of different ways in which individual words could be used, both literally and figuratively, by describing them in use. So he began his enterprise by reading hundreds of literary, legal, religious and medical texts by the writers he believed to be of the highest merit – Shakespeare, for example – and highlighting the best and most diverse uses of words he came across. It was up to his amanuenses to effectively ‘copy ‘n paste’ these examples alphabetically under various words in a manuscript that began to take on rather monstrous proportions (and was no doubt filled with margin notes, asterisks and haphazardly inserted pages), as Johnson encountered words like ‘put’, which not only defy specific rather than generalised explanation but also, apparently, encompass ‘66 primary meanings and 14 secondary notations’. The use of illustrative quotations and idiomatic language, as well as several levels of definition, has prevailed in dictionary production ever since, and led to the popular spin-off beloved of speechwriters everywhere: the dictionary of quotations (Thomas Jefferson used Johnson’s original dictionary in precisely this way).  

From Fry to Fue: How did Johnson handle 'naughty' words?
As the definitive English dictionary in Britain, North America and the colonies for the next one hundred and fifty years, Johnson’s dictionary had a profound influence on writers, philosophers, scientists, politicians and others from William Wordsworth to Mary Wallstonecraft, John Stuart Mill to Charles Darwin. As the fourth edition was at hand during the writing of the US constitution, Johnson’s dictionary is still consulted when lawyers debate the original meanings and intentions of specific terms, such as ‘declare’ and ‘war’ (I’m not even kidding: this came up as an issue in 2001 with the ‘War on Terror’, and again with Libya last year). As much as its reach extends beyond its original writing in both time and geography, the Dictionary is also a sociocultural artefact: it reflects an eighteenth century passion for organisation, categorisation and the conspicuous display of expanding, systematised knowledge (staged in the British Museum, public lecture halls, and institutions such as the Royal Society and Royal Academy). Finally, it contains the fingerprint of Johnson himself: his literary tastes, his hobbyhorses of moral disdain (‘Stockjobber: a low wretch who gets money by buying and selling shares’), his self-deprecating humour (‘Lexicographer: A writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge…’).

Anecdotal Aside
Statue of Hodge, Gough Square
On the opposite side of Gough Square from Dr Johnson’s House is a statue of a cat sitting on a dictionary, with a clutch of oysters at his paw. Johnson’s beloved cat Hodge – for whom he personally went out to buy said oysters (much to the chagrin of Boswell, who was unimpressed by this sentimentality) – is as much an object of pilgrimage as Johnson himself, and visitors sometimes come to the house entirely to ask for more information about the cat.

Parting Shots
There appears to be an innate human tendency, when confronted with a dictionary and five free minutes, to look up taboo words. In case you’re wondering, Johnson excludes the crudest of four-letter words, but includes ‘arse’ (‘a vulgar phrase’), bum, fart, turd, and piss. Johnson, praised by some ladies for excluding the most ‘naughty’ four-letter words, allegedly replied, ‘What, my dears! Then you have been looking!’