Not Quite a Fleeting Glimpse….

…is what one gets at the Dennis Severs House, or 18, Folgate Street, Spitalields, E1.  Not quite a fleeting glimpse of those people who have just left the room, who were eating that meal just before you walked in, or smoking that pipe, or baking that loaf.  Whose wig sits on the wing of the chair? Or whose floral perfume scents the formal withdrawing room?

18, Folgate Street is an 18th century house (1724) which has been preserved and restored and, during his lifetime, lived in, by Dennis Severs, the American artist and storyteller, who died, aged only 51, in 1999. Twenty years after purchasing the house he saw the Spitalfields Trust buy the house and commit to keeping it going, when on his death-bed.  It’s still going twenty years later.

The House is chock-full of antique furniture and fol-de-rols, china, costumes, tapestry and tat, but all in period. So is the lighting, mostly candlelight, but some gas-light in the Victorian rooms. We visited on a sunny Monday lunchtime so it was relatively light, but the house is most often open in the evenings, from 5 – 9pm Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and on Sundays ( see Tours ).  I imagine that then it is even more atmospheric, though it would also be more difficult to see the multiplicity of objects on show, often close together.

Severs created an imaginary family of Huguenot silk-weavers called Jervis to inhabit the house and it is their homely detritus (and comestibles) that one comes across as one climbs the narrow stairs, either down to the kitchen and cellar, where there are the supposed fragments of St Mary’s, Spital (1197) and the warmth of an iron range and the smell of…what is that smell?  Or upwards, through fashionable London entertaining to the elaborate boudoir and then up beneath the eaves to the penurious lodgers’ rooms.

Scent is something the House does well, as is sound – the ticking of a clock, the half-caught chatter, like Eliot’s rose garden ‘full of children, Hidden excitedly, containing laughter’ in Burnt Norton. Visitors are asked to walk around the house, on a pre-determined route, in silence, so that this sound track has full effect. There are wordless guiders, who will direct you if you go wrong.

There are other symbols of life lived in the house.  The half lemon on the mantlepiece, the half drunk glasses of sherry on the card and occasional tables, the cheese and bread in the kitchen.  I like to think of the guiders going round each morning setting everything fresh into position, spraying the scents and lighting the candles ( there are piled candle ends in several rooms, today’s occupants being as thrifty as Madame Jervis could have been ).

It takes about 45 minutes to walk through the house and costs either £10 on Monday lunchtimes, or £15 in the evenings ( a guided tour is available for groups at £50 per person ).  We arrived at about 12.45 on Monday lunchtime and had to wait for a further twenty minutes, in a queue, as only small numbers are allowed in the house at any one time.  Once inside, you realise why ( people were smaller then ).

It’s an unusual and, for me, unique, experience and well worth visiting.

For more visiting of history try                        Undiscovered                  The Real Thing      Mother of Parliaments                           An Old Prospect                     Metamorphosis                    Waterloo

All photographs are from the House web-site, photography inside the House not being allowed.

Last chance to see – John Ruskin, The Power of Seeing

This year’s Spring exhibition at 2, Temple Place is a collaboration with Museums Sheffield and the Guild of St George to bring together a range of paintings, drawings, metal works and plaster casts to celebrate the work and legacy of John Ruskin (1819 – 1900).

Ruskin was an only child, his father was a wealthy sherry and wine importer, partner in Ruskin, Telford and Domecq, his mother an innkeeper’s daughter. Both parents were fiercely ambitious for their son and he grew up in a hothouse atmosphere in Herne Hill, south London.  A road there bears his name today.

He first came to the attention of the art world with Modern Painters (1843) written while Ruskin was still at oxford. It was a passionate defence of the art of J.M.W.Turner and redefined art criticism of the day.  It brought him to the notice of luminaries such as Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Bronte. This was followed by Modern Painters II (1846) written while on the Grand Tour with his parents. He married Effie Gray, the young daughter of a family friend in 1847. Together they journeyed to Venice where Ruskin worked on perhaps his most famous three-volume work The Stones of Venice (1851-1853). It was in The Nature of Gothic chapter in Vol II that he set out his belief in artisanal integrity and attacked industrial capitalism which had such an impact on socialists like William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement.

The marriage was, apparently, unconsummated ( though Ruskin contested this ) and was subsequently annulled in 1854, though not before major scandal when Effie left Ruskin for John Everett Millais. Ruskin had championed the Pre-Raphealites and continued to do so, even providing a stipend for Elizabeth Siddal, Rosetti’s wife, to encourage her art.  He also became a firm friend of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. These friendships are documented in the exhibition, as is his late crossing of swords with James McNeill Whistler.  While the case bankrupted Whistler, it also tarnished Ruskin’s reputation and may have contributed to his mental decline. I have never understood how a devotee of Turner’s art could have denigrated Whistler’s and that isn’t something which is tackled here.

The exhibition shows items from the Ruskin collection at Sheffield including his Turner paintings and Durer engravings ( loved the cat ) as well as many of his own drawings and paintings.  In addition there are newly commissioned pieces exploring the legacy of Ruskin, from Timorous Beasties, Grizedale Arts, Hannah Dowling and Emilie Taylor.  I very much enjoyed Dan Holdsworth’s moving image Acceleration Structures, based on the peaks and crevasses of three Alpine glaciers above Chamonix, where Ruskin would sketch and paint.

Ruskin died at Brantwood House, on the shores of Coniston Water in January 1900. Lionised in his lifetime, his reputation suffered in he early years of the twentieth century, but his international influence continued, with his works translated into Russian ( Tolstoy was a fan ) into French by Proust and Gujarati by Gandhi. Architects, writers and educationalists, politicians and thinkers all acknowledge their debt to him.

The exhibition ends on 22nd April, so only three days left. It is FREE to enter.  A very good idea if you want something interesting and stimulating to do on a sunny Easter weekend. More details on the web-site here.

For more on the Pre-Raphealites, Arts and Crafts and earlier Temple Place exhibitions try                Edward Burne-Jones                      Arts and Crafts                      Walking Burne-Jones        Beyond Beauty                    Rhythm  Reaction: the Age of Jazz in Britain 

Soane and Kapoor

On Friday to leafy Ealing to see the newly opened, refurbished Pitzhanger Manor. country house and showcase for architect and collector Sir John Soane, with its attached art gallery. In the sunshine Ealing looked leafy indeed, with its Common and Green ( who knew, not me, certainly ). Still there, set back from the Uxbridge Road, the original Ealing Studios where so many classic films were made. We even found a handsome Georgian/early Victorian hostelry named The Sir Micheal Balcon, after the legendary producer and head of the studios in its heyday.

Sir John Soane’s house sits on Mattock Lane, Ealing Green, its neo-classic frontage and garden now behind a formal war memorial.  Entrance gates are to the right hand side of the formal gardens. Inside it is less chaotic – less mad – than his house and museum on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, but it still demonstrates his distinct architectural style and idiosyncratic and impressive design. The interior has been meticulously restored to a very high standard, including the hand-painted and beautiful ‘chinese’ wallpaper in the gloriously light drawing room, the exquisite ceilings and ‘marbled’ walls.

The oldest part of the building is the south wing, which was build by Soane’s first employer George Dance and which Soane retained, demolishing the rest of the mansion and rebuilding it, including a colonnade of ‘ruins’, which now links the main house and the modern gallery.

Inside there is his trademark use of space and light, the arched ceilings, friezes and roundels, niches and other stone decoration, like the caryatids in the ground floor room, front right. It isn’t a large house and Soane uses a designer’s tricks to fool the eye, drawing the gaze through open, often mirrored doors, from room to room to give the impression of greater space. The entrance hall goes straight through the house to the long gallery at the rear and doors open off it, as well as rooms having linking doors between them.  The main staircase, of iron and stone, is off to the left beneath a large and elaborate skylight.  Jet, marble in various colours and, very clever, wallpaper of fake marble make the interior very dramatic.

I loved the long glass gallery which runs across the rear of the house and overlooks what would have been the private gardens, including a lake with rusticated bridge.  These have now been merged with Walpole Park (1901) a public park which includes another lake, formal gardens and a sporting pavilion. I also loved the two huge rooms in George Dance’s wing, the dining room on the ground floor and salon or drawing room on the first. I’m not surprised that Soane couldn’t bring himself to demolish this even if it means that the whole Manor has a rather lop-sided look.

On the other side of the central classical building there is a modern conversion of the old kitchen buildings into Pitzhanger Gallery. The current exhibition is by Anish Kapoor and it complements Soane perfectly. Kapoor’s mirrored and sculpted discs and boxes play with light, vision and sound just as Soane’s interiors do, tricking the eye.  The pieces are interactive and huge fun. A gallery employee told us that he saw something new in each of the pieces every day he turned up for work and took great pleasure in watching visitors play with the distortions. We certainly enjoyed doing so, taking photographs into the sculpted mirrors which captured one of us upside down in the middle ground while the other was the right way up nearer to the piece.

Entry to both house and Gallery is £7.70 (£4.95 concessions).  I recommend it highly, especially while the Kapoor is on, until 18th August.  Ealing Broadway is the nearest tube and rail station, turn left out of the station and follow the signs for Ealing Green (not Ealing Common as we did).  There are signs painted on to the pavement. There are plenty of places to eat and drink on the High Street.

Blood & Revolution

The Last Tsar; Blood and Revolution is the name of an interesting and FREE exhibition currently to be found at the Science Museum, Exhibition Road SW7.  We visited on Monday.

The exhibition looks at the demise of the Romanov dynasty in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century. Using artefacts, photographs and written records it illustrates the highly privileged life and subsequent death of the autocratic Tsars, a family touched by the tragedy of the ‘Royal Disease’ who became reliant not just on medicine but mystics and faith healers, most notoriously, Grigori Rasputin.

The kernel of the exhibition is, as befits  the Science Museum, a medical detective story, or rather several medical detective stories. The first is to identify the ‘Royal Disease’ and how it proliferated, the second is the finding and identification, using DNA sequencing techniques,  of the bodies of the murdered Romanovs and the subsequent quashing of the spurious claims of impostors to be surviving members of the immediate Romanov family.

The exhibition is good on the prevailing system of medicine and medical provision, especially in regard to mental instability or illness ( a condition often diagnosed in women who behaved ‘unsuitably’ or ‘hysterically’ ).  It shows how the ruling family kept the illness of the Tsaravitch, Alexei, hidden from all but an immediate circle of trusted intimates and medical men, thereby fuelling discontent among the aristocracy over the perceived remoteness of the Romanov family and influence of ‘advisers’ like Rasputin.   An autocratic and fundamentally unjust system could not survive without an involved and supportive aristocracy and the myth of a benign and progressive monarchy couldn’t be sustained by a monarch invisible to his people. Not so long after the outbreak of WWI a system of government which was creaking finally broke and the Tsar abdicated.

This is good, general historical context, but what is new in this exhibition is its concentration on the investigation into the death of the family, who were held under house arrest in the Ipatiev House in Bolshevik-held Ekaterinberg.  The initial investigation was headed by Nikolai, Sokolov, a Russian investigating magistrate, when that city fell out of Bolshevik control, and its findings were, for a long while, the only real evidence-informed information about their deaths. Later, after the Soviet state admitted executing the family and the eventual fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, scientists were able to piece together those earlier findings with later discoveries made during the 1970s but not made public at the time, to find skeletons which could then be tested using the latest techniques.

The identification, which involved taking DNA from living relatives of the Tsarina, resulted in confirmation that the skeletons were indeed those of the Russian ruling family. In 2007 the remains of Alexei and one of his sisters were discovered and also tested.  Facial reconstruction and modelling techniques were then used to recreate the faces from the skulls, resulting in sculptures which closely resembled the photographs of the individuals taken while they were alive. So all eleven victims were identified and the fate of the Romanovs finally resolved.

In 2009 the ‘Royal Disease’ was finally confirmed to be haemophilia B, the rarer form of the condition, which is, largely, suffered by men but can be carried by women.  It features strongly in the ancestral tree of various European ruling houses ( somewhat startlingly ).

I can thoroughly recommend this exhibition which runs until 24th March it is well worth a visit if you happen to be in London.