Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Imperial Wanderers: Cricket Tours in the High Noon of Empire

June 1, 2017

In my capacity as a convenor of the Sport and Leisure History seminar series at the IHR it’s a great pleasure to flag up the forthcoming paper by Dr Prashant Kidambi on early Indian cricket tours to the UK. I’ve written about his work on a previous occasion so if you want to get a flavour of what to expect should you come along to the IHR do read that post. For those interested in cricket history, the history of the British empire or Indian history it promises to be a rewarding evening with the chance to discuss the subject with Prashant in a relaxed but intellectually focused atmosphere. Click here for details.

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#cricket #India #history

The National Gallery basement and Arthur Ransome

May 15, 2017

The National, besides its usual haul of treasure, now has two must-see freebies to lure in the art hound (of which more in another post). And this in addition to the fact that the whole of the basement is now fully opened up to the public for the first time, or at least in this correspondent’s memory.

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The Fall, 458489 BSIDES. Better than the A-sides for some aficionados.

The basement, as well as housing the displaced works owing to the Michelangelo/Sebastiano exhibition taking place in some of the permanent galleries, now has a smattering of the NG’s artistic B-sides in ‘Room A’. Which makes it sound like it’s not worth the trouble to go down there. But that’s wrong. These are for the most part high quality B-sides, reminiscent of The Fall’s classic compilation, 458489, in that some of this stuff is better than what’s upstairs/on the flip side. Especially in the way that the work is curated – a broad sweep of art from the Renaissance to the late 19th Century in one room, allowing the eye to juxtapose subject, style and composition to delightful effect.

The central space is dominated by four grand canvases of battles from the French Revolutionary wars (Jemappes, Valmy, Montmirail and Hanau) by Vernet that are splendid in their drama and attention to detail, even if the carnage wouldn’t be to everyone’s taste. Those of a more peaceful bent might want to stroll around to Gentile Bellini’s Madonna and child, which for me is as handy a bit of god-stuff as any you’d fine in the Sainsbury Wing.

In between you’ll find a broad range of things to enjoy – the Impressionist Jongkind’s view of the Boulevard Port-Royal, Puvis de Chevanne’s Summer and a heap of Golden Age Dutch stuff were my own particular favourites until I came across a wall of Dutch seascapes from the nineteenth century. These were less familiar to me than the Van de Veldes (of which there are a couple here) from the seventeenth century, which is probably why they attracted my attention.

They are both by Paul Jean Clays, an artist of whom I knew nothing, and on seeing the first I noted in my book, ‘Ships Lying Off Dordrecht reminds me of Flushing in Ransome. Round boats coming up to meet us. Dutch flags, blue sky flash though grey cloud, can hear the seagulls and smell the rain approaching in the air.’

What I meant by ‘Flushing in Ransome’ is one of the greatest children’s books ever written (sadly overshadowed by its more famous predecessor) We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea by Arthur Ransome. In this story the Walker children (made famous by Swallows and Amazons) in a series of slightly improbable conjunctions of circumstance are swept out to the North Sea on a small yacht, the Goblin, where they are forced to cross to Holland, driven by the weather and their own determination not to fuck things up (ok, that isn’t exactly how it’s phrased in the book). If you don’t want to know how things work out for then skip the next paragraph or two!

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Ransome is also an underestimated illustrator.

After a perilous crossing in hideous weather and with a cute cat picked up along the way they are guided into Flushing by a peaceable Dutch pilot, who is flabbergasted to find that they’d made the trip all by themselves and not as they pretended to him under the guidance of a master who is too tired to emerge to talk to the pilot in person. But the real joy comes when they realise that their father by coincidence is on his way back to Blighty via Holland on leave from the Navy and he leaps ashore from his ferry to complete a happy family reunion.

I once heard someone on Radio 4 say that there was no politics in Ransome’s children’s fiction. Let’s  leave aside the fact that the whole adventure is predicated on the disruptive shock of modernity in the form of a symbol of modernity (a motor bus) knocking over a representative of tradition (Jim Brading, the Goblin’s skipper, who is no fan of motors on the road or in boats and romanticises the pre-modern technology of sail).

Putting aside the symbolism involved in the story in the struggle of tradition v modernity the contemporary political context for this novel, while never stated, is ever present. The book was published in 1937, a time when anxiety about British dominance of the sea was not just focussed on the North Sea, where the story takes place, but also in the Pacific, where Walker père has been stationed and the Japanese threat is just as obvious as the Nazi one closer to home (to readers in the 30s at least, nowadays it seems that the British prefer to forget that WW2 was a war of imperialism as much as national survival). Ransome’s story then can be read as an exhortation to the young to be stoic in the face of adversity, and a reassurance of the reserves of British resources far flung around the globe to come to the rescue of those struggling in the motherland.

Looking around for academic analysis of the Swallows & Amazons series I’ve yet to find much. It would seem an admirable project for a PhD to me, especially as as far as I can see most writing about Ransome has concentrated on his role as a sometime spy during the Russian Revolution and beyond.

Anyway, with all this going through my head it was with great delight that I saw that the pendant piece to Ships Lying Off Dordrecht was entitled Ships Lying Off Flushing.

What joy. What simple joy.

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#NationalGallery #Ransome

Translating Marivaux

March 2, 2017

Reading Le Monde over the last few months I’d noticed an uptick in performances of Marivaux recently. Despite being subjected to heavy doses of Molière during my French A-Level I’d never made much of an effort to familiarise myself with classical French theatre in the intervening twenty odd years. But with a twenty quid voucher to spend in Skoob (thanks Amanda!) I took a punt on Marivaux’s collected works in English.

I started with a short one, naturally. A one act play. L’ile des Esclaves as performed at RADA in the 80s (and including Liza Tarbuck in its cast) turned out to be a straight translation of the original and an amusing role reversal comedy along the lines of Trading Places (one of my favourite films of the 80s). Well, the Trading Places comparison interested me – aren’t we living through the consequences of a similar period of the over-inflation of financial markets and the ensuing social polarisation that usually accompanies it? Marivaux was more contemporary than I’d anticipated.

I wanted to go back to the original and of course the London Library had a full edition of the plays. The original tells of a pair of masters and slaves from Athens in classical times washed up on an island run by the descendants of escaped former slaves. Captured by the ex-slaves’ leader the masters are forced to serve the slaves to learn how to be good people and all kinds of shenanigans ensue before all are reconciled  along the lines of conventional classical drama.

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Thinking through comparisons with 18thC France (about which of course Marivaux was writing – very presciently one might argue given what happened sixty years after the play’s première) and present day England didn’t present much of a challenge and I used the play just as an interesting nugget of conversation for a few days.

Until I dropped in on a meeting of the Crouch End Players. The CEP is a local drama group who function as an excellent piece of social glue in an area of London (well, like any big city) where it’s easy as a newcomer to just do the work/home/work/home thing.

They have a development group to produce new writing and I thought it would be an interesting exercise (and a useful distraction from writing lectures) to tackle L’Ile and translate/update it. Not even having written a piece of drama before didn’t seem a barrier as with Marivaux’s text to support me structure wouldn’t be a problem.

And now the first draft is complete! Updated as Corbyn Island I’ve eschewed the RADA line of setting the play in classical times to let the parallels be made by the audience and decided to do a much cruder rendition in the present day because well, because I’m cruder myself I guess! Whether it will see the light of day on the stage we shall see but it’s been worth its while as an exercise in its own right.

The translation was difficult, my French is okay for reading a newspaper but not necessarily up to the niceties of 18thC dialogue while supping a beer on the 19.02 from Leicester. But in a way I felt that this was an advantage as I didn’t really want to make an exact replica of Marivaux’s work but rather to catch its sentiment in a twenty first century accent. Think Citizen Smith meets Ex on the Beach. Let’s hope it comes off.

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#Marivaux #France #CrouchEndPlayers

 

Cricket as Revolution

February 23, 2017

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to attend an excellent panel discussion on Cricket as Revolution organised by the LSE as part of its literary festival. The two speakers were Dr Prashant Kidambi of The University of Leicester and the journalist and cricket historian Peter Oborne. 


It was an excellent evening. Prashant kicked off with an unscripted 15 minute talk outlining the theoretical approach that he’s taking to a social history of Indian cricket that he’s researching now. His argument that the development of cricket is closed tied to the modernisation of Indian society in the twentieth century is one with which I agree wholeheartedly and whose grid of analysis (the rhetoric of equality on the field v quotidian bias on class/ethnic/caste lines, the role of mass media, the varying role of nationalism, and the role of class formation) could be applied across a range of sports in a range of territories. 

Against Prashant’s coolly analytical voice we then had Peter Oborne give a less coherent but more impassioned account of the role of cricket in the formation of Pakistani identity. His shoot from the lip style in the discussion afterwards was entertaining and entailed an unexpectedly enthusiastic digression on the development of women’s cricket in Pakistan. But I reckon his fondeness for straight talking (for example the comment, ‘Dubai is the most corrupt city on earth … with the possible exception of Bueno Aires’) may give something of a headache to whoever has to edit the discussion for podcast. But if it does go up on the LSE site I do recommend a listen.

The open discussion ranged widely but focused more on present-day issues than historical events. Of course I’m interested in both but as a researcher I would have been interested more in the latter. The former I’d rather discuss in the pub or at the match. But it was good to see such enthusiasm for the game among the audience, and especially the stout defence of the Test game against the rise of T20.

Prashant I’d first met when he examined me for my PhD and during that meeting he’d mentioned that he was working on a piece about the first all-Indian cricket tour of the UK in 1911. My thesis was largely concerned with the growth of international sport in the imperial context in the 1900s and I was aware that my own section on Indian cricket was weaker compared to some of my other material but Prashant was nice enough not to take me too much for task about it.

So it’s now a pleasure to see that he has brought his work on the tour to fruition and his book should appear in the summer. Before then he will also give a paper at the Sport and Leisure history seminar series at the IHR on the subject which I’m very much looking forward to now that I’ve heard him speak, if only briefly, about it last night.


By an odd coincidence I’d given a lecture on Indian cricket the day before in which, to put it simply, I outlined that contrary to traditional (i.e. white, Anglo, middle class) it wasn’t MCC that gave the game to the world, the world took the game from the English and developed it as best they could under colonial rule. Prashant can tell the story of the tour much better than I can so I urge you to either buy his book or come along to the seminar, which will be on 5th June 2017, if you’d like to hear more about it.

#cricket #India #LSELitFest

Briggs

September 4, 2016

I am not a big fan of getting my hair cut and since my son left school I’ve been scratching around for somewhere to go since I no longer have the occasion to go to J. Moriyama‘s neck of the woods on a regular basis.

Briggs, in a little alley between Jermyn Street and St. James’s Square, is a place I have been going past on a regular basis for several years now as it’s on my favourite route to the library from Piccadilly Circus. It’s a little booth of a place tucked away and I’d often see its barber chopping hair or watching the world go by if he was between customers.

With friends I would speculate as to whether it really was a barbers given its unpromising, indeed improbable, location or whether it was rather some kind of front. A front for a shadowy department of M15 perhaps where those in the service would tap their nose before being ushered through to a shabby beige Le Carré interior that had somehow survived spending reviews, smoking bans and digitisation.

Well, this week I decided to take the plunge and find out for myself. The truth turned out to be no less romantic and a whole lot more interesting. Briggs in fact is run by Fylaktis Philippou, a Cypriot of advanced years (92 of them) who came to London in 1949 as one of the first 3,000 or so Cypriots whose community has now expanded to over 300,000. Mr Philippou (or Phil to his regulars I’m informed, I don’t think I yet qualify) hasn’t done a bad job of helping out on that score as he told me that he has four great-grandchildren (as well as the intervening descendants of course), all growing up in London.

Briggs was the owner of the shop when Mr Philippou came to London and the shop has been on its present site since 1959. To the inexpert eye (i.e. mine) it looks that it has largely been untouched since then, other than the addition of various dignitaries and family that adorn the walls. It really is a historic interior in the right sense of the word in that it is both a record of a certain era but also an organic space that remains useful for the purpose for which it was created. People often describe such a space as being like a film set but of course it’s not. It’s lived in, inhabited by real people.

The technology is historic too. Rather than electric clippers there’s some hand powered shears for your short back and sides, and a bit of scissor work to straighten up your thatch. Mr Philippou doesn’t keep you hanging around so if you choose to visit (and I urge you to) make the most of the ten minutes or so of conversation that you’ll have in return for your twenty quid. There are few people of my acquaintance who have such a long experience of the changing shape of London in the twentieth century at first hand.

It was a good lesson in the art of guiding in that if you want to find out about somewhere you can do all the research in the world but nothing beats walking into a place and asking somebody about it. I’ll be back for more.

Øve Arup at the V&A

August 6, 2016

With an hour to spare before meeting for a pre-Proms dinner I thought I’d have a look at what was on at the V&A. I wasn’t tempted by the knickers show but Øve Arup was definitely my bag and delivered an hour-sized piece of intellectual entertainment.

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The show only opened in June, as part of the V&A’s engineering season, but I don’t recall any publicity about it on my usual cultural channels. Which seems a shame as it’s a gem. Arup, despite being Danish, was a man whose history was inextricably bound up with London. Indeed the firm that he founded, which is now the leading engineering practice of its kind in the world, continues to be so after his death.

You can find out about the modern practice and its cutting edge development of the fields of crowd flow studies and acoustic engineering in a hi-tech, interactive section that works via a wifi linked app on your phone and touchscreens. Or at least you could if they all worked! The irony of the first touchscreen I tried to use not working wasn’t lost on the gallery assistant.*

But that was just a glitch – the show gives a good overview of Arup’s career from his arrival in London in the 1920s, through working in London during the Blitz to making his international reputation with high profile projects such as the Sydney Opera House and the Centre Pompidou. What is more it brings across the personality of the man with humorous sketches from his personal notebook and memorabilia from office parties and awards dos.**

I hope you’ve already decided to go and visit so I won’t describe the exhibits in detail but will pick out two titbits of particular interest to Londoners. Arup, together with Lubetkin, was the man behind the pioneering modernist masterpiece of the London Zoo penguin pool and it was a real treat to see the plans outlining the geometric and technical conception of one of the greatest sculptures in London.***

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Secondly, there is a fascinating section devoted to Arup’s work on air-raid shelter during World War 2. I’ve been guiding and teaching on the Blitz for a few years now and it was quite exciting to see the correspondence between Arup and various committees about the necessity for deep level shelters, as well as various publications that he produced for the public sphere. Perfect for someone with an interest of life during wartime in London.

It was also a delight to find a display on one of my favourite pieces of architecture – the King’s Walk Bridge in Durham. This elegant sliver of brutalism spanning the deep gorge of the River Wear has been a favourite since childhood and remains my top piece of concrete. The video of the two halves being swung into place and Arup himself the first stroller across is mesmerising and brought a sharp tinge of nostalgia for the most beautiful city in England.

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*Perhaps this was a sly reference to one high profile Arup project that is curiously neglected – the Millennium Bridge between St Paul’s and Tate Modern.

**This contrasts significantly to a similar show at the RA a year or two ago about Richard Rogers which was a long on on pompous hagiography and short on charm.

***I say sculpture because it was notoriously unpenguinny.

 

 

Chichester and Arundel

July 7, 2016

Having spent a few days away from London I would normally have returned to my desk with a slew of reviews to do from the place that I’ve been. But on this occasion that isn’t the case as I was away for a conference of the Society for the Study of French History. So this piece is more of a reflection on that conference, a sidestep into my own little obsession of going to galleries and then a thought upon a moment of touching serendipity in a church.

It was my first time at the SSFH conf, presenting a paper that I’d previously given in Middlesborough but this time to a group far more likely to be more interested in the French than sporting aspect of my research. As usual it taught me the value of presenting to an audience whose specialism lies beyond one’s own. My co-pannelists (Will Pooley and Russell Stephens,  both of whose papers were very good (and you can’t say that about everything you go to at a conference)) were talking about witchcraft and nineteenth century political cartoons so could hardly have been farther from my own field of early twentieth century sports culture. Yet in a sparsely attended session (it was the last of the conference after all) the discussion ranged freely enough to spark a few ideas that wouldn’t have occurred to me with that outside input. And I now know a shitload about witch trials and phallic imagery in the reign of Napoleon III. Result!

The other good thing about conferences (apart from the socialising, or maybe as part of it) is that it can clear the mind of applying for jobs and getting rejected, writing but ever feeling that you’re not writing enough and teaching but worrying that you haven’t given your students all that you could or should. Because by talking to other early career researchers, and I mean talking to them not reading their angsty tweets and blogs, you feel more normal about your own angst and setbacks. 

But of course much as I love conferences I do also like to get out of them and wander around. By contrast to Middlesbrough Chichester seems to be suffering from no economic dislocation, even in the early days of B****t. And this shows in the gallery attendance at Pallant House. It was solidly busy on a warm Sunday afternoon with families, young couples retirees and wannabe flaneurs like me. 

Deservedly so. The twentieth century art collection is outstanding, with my own favourite being a Patrick Caulfield room kitschly mysterious and entirely covetable. The temporary exhibition of work by Christopher Wood deserved more of my attention than I had the energy to give. So well worth 10 quid for entry.

But talking to a local who was back for the conference she said that she wouldn’t be going because she didn’t think she had enough time free to justify spending that kind of money. Which again reinforced my opinion that such galleries should mitigate the entry charge by extending the ticket for a year, as they do in Queen’s Gallery and the London Transport Museum. This would maintain revenue while also encouraging multiple visits by Chichester residents, thus resolving that conundrum about how to find a balance between earning the tourist bucks without fleecing the locals. But if you’re in the area go there – it’s worth ten quid.

And also go to the Cathedral, which is free. Preparing for my paper I sat in the nave while the organist went through a quite challenging repertoire of what sounded like Messaien to my untrained ear. And then on the way out I saw this:-

It inspired the final poem of Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings (go here for a reading of the poem by Larkin himself) one of the few collections poetry that I know well. And very apposite in the week of my own wedding anniversary. A good omen.

A short guide to Southwark jury service

June 16, 2016

My munching time has been severely curtailed of late due to a six week stint as a jury member at Southwark Crown Court. But fear not, the reviews shall return with fearsome frequency now that I’m at liberty and the holiday season has begun.

In the meantime I thought a little taste of what it is to be a juror might be of use to those who haven’t yet been called to do their citizenly duty. Obviously I’ll not go into the details of what I was involved in there – that would be against the law. But I will say that being a juror is a uniquely rewarding experience in that it is one of the few times in your life where you’ll be asked to think and debate for altruistic purposes and with the certain knowledge that what you say will be listened to seriously and have an actual real-life outcome. Don’t avoid it, do it.

Message over, on with the faff.

HMS Belfast

What the hell (you may be asking yourself) is HMS Belfast doing as the header image for jury service. Well, you may have seen the Royal Navy’s finest on your way over London Bridge from time to time and thought, ‘Oh, I really must go and see that outpost of the Imperial War Museum that once fired the opening round of the pre-D-Day landings barrage.’ Or you may be thinking, ‘Wow that’s a bloody great warship in the Thames, what the shit’s that doing there?’

It’s guarding Southwark Crown Court.

That’s right, Her Maj takes justice seriously and just to show how seriously she takes it she’s parked twelve 6″ guns in four triple turrets outside SCC to discourage miscreants and show villains that she means business.

Day One

Day one of jury service is like the first day of school. Everyone seems to know what they’re doing except for you. Those who’ve been doing service for a week or more will flick elastic bands at you or flush your head down the toilet (if they can get it to work, just think of the horrific consequences should you have the misfortune to be in the 50% of cubicles whose flush does not work). Security guards will tut as you set off the scanner once again with an inappropriately secreted personal item. Don’t worry, by day three you’ll know the rules and be able to reel off the security code for the door without even looking at a series of numbers ballpointed on the palm of your hand. But how do you achieve this level of wisdom before you turn up?

Prepare for a queue

Monday queues are the worst as the fresh intake of jurors has yet to be separated into sheep (switched on, publicly-minded servants of their fellow citizens) and goats (the workshy, the I’m too important to take two weeks away and the genuinely unable to do JS). So be prepared for a queue out the door and the possibility of it raining while you’re waiting.

Bring a book

If you’ve got this far I’m assuming you can read so yes, bring a book. You may have to wait all day to be called. And then get sent home without being called. Take a good book of your choice. They have books in SCC but you don’t want to read them. You want to read yours. Ah, you’re thinking, but I can read a book (or similar) on my phone/pad/laptop. You can but a book won’t let you down. SCC is set up for technology from the 1980s. So bring a book. Or a ZX81. Also, having your own book will make you look clever and impress your potential fellow jurors.*

Forms

You will already have filled in several forms before arriving at court. Be prepared for more if you care about claiming expenses. Do not talk about this process, your fellow jurors will already be bored by it themselves.

Instructions

Instructions will be delivered via a prehistoric DVD attached to a telly stuck on the ceiling or over a tannoy. Or not at all. It’s your job to guess which ones are important to you without revealing any uncertainty. Uncertain jurors, like lame zebra, are the first to be predated upon by the strong.

Humour

All court employees are professional comedians. Remember, they’ve been doing this act for years and they know it’s funny. So make sure you laugh at the appropriate moments.

Food

Or ‘food’. It may be a chore to go outside but it is definitely worth your while.

Coffee

See Food. With bells on.

The Southwark Crown Court Experience

So let’s assume you’ve been picked and you’re now a pro-juror, what tips do I have?

The jury

You and your fellow eleven citizens will spend a lot of time in one another’s company. More than you will have spent with anyone except your wife, your kids, your ailingest relative or even many of your work colleagues. And certainly more than you’ve spent with someone you actually wanted to spend time with. Often in a tiny room. These people won’t be your friends but they will be your team so do the nice with them even if they really get on your tits. It might turn out that they’re as worth knowing as you are, and even genuinely good people.

Lunch

DO NOT, unless you really have the most severe hangover/cold/agoraphobia going, lunch in SCC. Go somewhere better instead.

Sightseeing

Jury service is an opportunity to see things you’ve never got round to seeing. As well as the behemoth of Belfast you have the Old Operating Theatre, The London Fashion & Textile Museum, Guy’s Hospital Chapel, even Tower Bridge within walking distance. And massive amounts of good things should you be fortunate enough to get a long lunch or late start.

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The Old Operating Theatre lies in the former chapel on the left. Guy’s Hospital chapel is on the right of this street. The Shard is dead ahead but you don’t want to go there.

But not the Shard please. And definitely not the ‘London Bridge Experience’. Please god, those poor tourists. And failed actors.

Lawyers & judges

If you thought the court staff were funny wait till you hear the lawyers! They have better jokes because they’re paid more. And the judge has the best jokes of all because he can lock you up if you don’t chuckle. Or if you chuckle inappropriately. So play it safe when the judge cracks a joke and just smile winningly.

The defendant 

Mysteriously humourless!

 

Okay, so that’s a start but I may add more as things occur to me. Jury service is like that. One second you’re lining up to pot a tricky black to snatch the frame, the next your mind is filled with the contents of Jury Bundle 141 (which involves a particularly opaque series of financial transactions) and you’ve gone in off and the beers are on you. Yes, to paraphrase Stephen Dedelus on Bloomsday, jury service is a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.

*If you’ve forgotten your book I can recommend the excellent Riverside Bookshop in Hay’s Galleria for a last-minute purchase.

 

 

 

Easter Rising 1916

February 4, 2016

  

Fresh from two hours of document analysis with the students of the University of Westminster I was absolutely in the mood for the kind of exhibition that ‘Easter Rising 1916’ at the Photographers’ Gallery purports to be, especially as I’ve got an upcoming seminar to teach on British stereotypes of Irishmen in the nineteenth century. Looking on the website I found some good introductory blurb which promised an exploration of the complex events of the Irish revolution through documentary photographs, propaganda images and personal memorabilia. The promise wasn’t kept.

Sure enough the documents presented are complex enough. A standout object was a complex collage of images juxtaposing a photograph of John Wilkes Booth (the assassin of Abraham Lincoln) with pictures of Irish nationalists and a derogatory cartoon depiction of simian Fenians. You could write a decent essay on such a document. That is if you were told (among other things) who had assembled it, where the pictures and images that made it came from and to whom it was distributed, if it was distributed at all. There was no contextual information at all. 

Some explanations were given of the political and social context for the Easter Rising (and its political aftermath) but not enough. Even for a historian who has written (marginally) about the politics of the period there was not enough information on the images to really let me know exactly what was going on in a particular shot. There were a lot of pictures of Men in Uniforms but too often no information as to whose uniforms they were wearing. And the occasional laconically expressed moral judgement reminded me of the Empire exhibition at Tate Britain in that it showed the modern taste for self-righteous condemnation of a group of people of whose lives and motivations the commentator has a limited historical grasp.

Worse, it made no effort to make life easy for the non-specialist, for someone who may be interested in the events of the time but who hasn’t made a life’s work of knowing about Collins, French, Parnell or Markiewicz. To take one example, a picture is shown of Michael Redmond reviewing troops in 1915. A student of history would know who Redmond was and why his reviewing of troops heading to the Western Front (if that’s where they were going – we’re not actually told) would be a controversial action for a significant section of the nationalist public. 

Unfortunately for non-historians none of that is explained. Redmond doesn’t even feature in the historical account of the period that appears on the PG website or in the information panels on the walls and in the picture he is one of five or so men on a platform above the troops. So if you weren’t familiar with who he was before you got to the exhibition (physically or politically) you still would be none the wiser once you get there even though you were staring at a photograph with him in it.

So this is an exhibition that if it were in Dublin would be forgivably light on context. But for a London audience it needed a lot more work. And ideally an Irish historian on board, I can’t imagine that Diarmaid Ferriter or someone of his ilk would have turned down the opportunity.

The Soane Museum

January 21, 2016

With an idle hour or two between teaching and meeting a friend at St Pancras I found myself wandering down to Somerset House, drawn by the lure of coffee at Fernandez&Wells and art at the Courtauld. Walking through Lincoln’s Inn fields I noticed that for once there was barely a queue outside the Soane Museum. Serendipity is a good thing. I had an exactly Soane-sized hole in my afternoon.

The last time I went to the Soane it was for an evening function with the whole museum lit by candlelight. This time, it being a public day, it wasn’t quite so atmospheric but nevertheless low lighting within and a gloomy afternoon without meant that the Soane’s peculiarly crepuscular feel was undiminished. The peculiar light, and the classical nature of the bits and pieces that scatter the rooms, put me in mind of the Rothko room at Tate Modern. They share a sombreness that silences even the squawkiest of visitors.

Which doesn’t sound like much fun! 

But it is. While his museum feels sombre it is clear that Soane had a sense of humour, which is particularly apparent in his Gothick Monk’s Room in the basement. Photography isn’t allowed so I can’t SHOW the uninitiated what treasures lie within but only describe a very personal selection of highlights, some of which will have universal appeal and some of which may be peculiar to me. The Soane is that kind of museum. It’s a collection that the architect himself developed over years, adapting the building to accommodate new acquisitions and to record tragic events in his own family (the death of his wife, his eldest son’s early death from TB and his younger son’s wastrel ways), as well as his friendship with some of the great figures of the Georgian age.

As I said,  the most apparent parts of the collection are the architectural features, some original and some plaster casts, that are spread throughout the building. It’s worth getting into all the nooks and crannies (and the whole house is a feast of n’s and c’s) to find your favourite. Amidst this plethora of classical works it is easy to forget that the museum is also one of the great art collections of London. Hogarth features highly (An Election Entertainment being my favourite) but on this occasion it was two works by the British Indian painter Hodges of Agra and Futtypoor that caught my eye.*

  

Of the collection of Great Man Memorabilia the two things that stood out were a maquette of Pitt’s statue in Westminster Abbey and a beautiful little miniature of a young Napoleon. Not in the same room alas but nevertheless a nice juxtaposition in the mind. And Walpole’s desk, which proves to be the desk of a midget. 

The last item that I’ll mention was a model and painting of Soane’s design for his wife’s mausoleum. She dies young and like Queen Victoria half a century later, he blamed the death on his son and failed to come to terms with her loss. The painting of the tomb showed it with that of Rousseau in the background in the idyllic setting of Ermenonville.

The reality of the tomb’s site is somewhat less Arcadian. On leaving the museum I walked up to St Pancras, where the tomb is to be found in the churchyard of the old church. The church is somewhat Soanesian in its eclectic amalgam of styles.

  

The church is out the back of St Pancras station on the way to Camden. As you walk north past the shiny new station, British Library and Crick Institute a bit of old London that I’m sure Soane would have approved of is clinging on for dear life. 

  

Then to the tomb itself. It looks a bit mournful (well, I suppose it is a tomb!), not to say neglected. At first this made me sad, that an object whose design Soane had taken so much care over should end up bedraggled in a grotty corner of North London. The contrast with the hyper curated and cared for space of the museum could hardly be greater. But then thinking over his love for Rousseau and his own sense of the Gothick I reflected that maybe he wouldn’t be so concerned that the tomb has been left in a state of nature, to decay over time and add to the melancholy romance of his wife’s early demise.


So I would urge a visit to the museum and then a brisk 20 minute walk to the churchyard. The museum is free but numbers are limited, so be prepared to queue. You won’t regret it.

* Hodges’ work features heavily in the Artist and Epire exhibition at Tate Britain, which I hope to blog on soon. It’s a good exhibition but has its flaws. Another highlight of the collection of paintings is Soane’s own portrait by Thomas Lawrence (who I’d commission to do my own portrait if he were still available – his depiction of Castlereagh makes a Byronic hero of someone that Byron himself loathed. A masterstroke of irony to the arch exponent of the gap yah). 


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