Tuesday, May 8, 2018

London 2018: Museum Lane - Victoria & Albert, Science Museum

Shortly after our first visit to London in 2000, it was announced that most of the nationally-run museums and art galleries in the U.K. would be funded by the Department of Culture, providing free admission for the public to view their permanent collections.  A fee might still be charged for special exhibits.  Not requiring to pay for entry made it much more appealing to visit smaller or more obscure museums.  We will be taking advantage of this by visiting the Victoria and Albert, Science Museum, National Gallery, Portrait Gallery, Museum of London, the Design Museum and possibly the Natural History museum if there is time.  Because we don’t need to pay for entry, we do not feel like we have to spend all day at each venue in order to “get our money’s worth” and could leave if the collections do not interest us.  It also allows us to visit a museum more than once if required.  In fact, we plan to spend 2 days at the Victoria and Albert since there was so much to see including a couple of paid special exhibits, as well as the multiple tours that we want to take.

On our first full touring day in London, we would be jet-lagged so rather than planning a heavy travel day which included navigating the transit system, we decided to take a slower pace and visit something within walking distance of our apartment in Earl’s Court.  We are within a 25 minute walk of Museum Lane, where a stretch of museums can be found including the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, and the Victoria and Albert.  The plan was to walk through Museum Lane wandering through the Wildlife Garden of the Natural History Museum, take the 10:30 introduction tour of the Victoria and Albert (with plans to return the next week for a full day visit), and then spend the rest of our time in the Museum of Science and Technology.  Unfortunately the Wildlife Garden was not accessible until the Natural History Museum opened at 10am.  From what we could see of the garden after peeking over the gates, we decided that it was not worth waiting around for this.  We will be in this area again and still might have a chance to check it out another day, so onward towards the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Named after Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) is the world’s largest museum of decorative arts and design, with a permanent collection of over 2.3 million objects and 145 galleries.  The collection spans from ancient times to present day, with items from Europe, North America, Africa and Asia including works of glass, ceramics, ironwork, silver, jewellery, textiles and costumes, architecture, furniture, sculptures, drawings, prints and photographs as well as theatre-related artifacts.  The initial basis of the collection came from the best pieces of the Grand Exposition of 1851, the brainchild of Prince Albert, which was held in the Crystal Palace.  Queen Victoria initially wanted the V&A to be named just for Albert, but was overruled.

We only had 2 hours to tour the V&A during our initial visit to London in 2000, which was not even close to enough time to do the museum justice. My husband Rich spent his time thoroughly perusing just a couple of rooms including Arms and Armoury, while I opted for the quick “overview” of the museum, racing through all the rooms to get an idea of what was on display.  On this trip we are allocating ample time, with plans for two visits to the V&A.  This first time would be a scouting trip where we would take the Introductory Highlights Tour to get an overview of things that we would want to see in more detail.  On the second visit, we plan to come on a Friday when the museum is open until 10pm, giving us a full 12 hours if we needed it (hopefully not!).  We also asked about which exhibits might close early on the Friday to ensure we got to those first.  On this morning, we had half an hour between the opening of the museum and the start of the highlights tour, so we took a quick look at the exhibits in the vicinity of the start of the tour, including the Dacre Beasts, four painted wooden animal sentries each bearing banners with coats of arms.  Standing over 6 feet high, the Gryphon, Bull, Ram and Dolphin guarded Dacre Castle in Cumbria for almost 500 years.

Since the British Gallery was right near the entrance where our tour would start, we thought we would knock off that area. The first thing of interest that we encountered was King Henry VIII’s beautiful 16th Century writing box, made of  walnut and oak, lined with painted and gilded leather and silk with a shark-skin outer covering.  Painted on the leather are the badges and royal coat of arms of Henry and his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, as well as figures of Roman gods including Mars, Venus and Cupid.  The multiple compartments inside the box are lined with red velvet and painted with images of Christ and St George slaying the Dragon.  Having seen how small beds used to be in previous centuries, we were surprised to see the Great Bed of Ware.  Created in the 1590s in the town of Ware, the bed is over 10 feet wide, which is incredibly large for its time.  Carved in oak with human figures carved and painted in the head board, the bed was referenced by William Shakespeare in his work Twelfth Night.  Mary Queen of Scots created embroidered panels during her imprisonment with coats of arms and emblems representing courage in adversity.  It seems amazing that she had the fortitude to work on embroidery in the face of her situation and pending beheading.

Our Highlights Tour started in the grand Rotunda where we admired the giant “chandelier” made of green and blue pieces of blown glass that is 3800 pounds, stretching 27 feet high and 12 feet wide. Using historical techniques of Murano glass-making, it was created by Dale Chihuly in 1999.  When completed, Chihuly decided it was not big enough and took it back to enlarge it, finally installing it in 2001.  Tippoo’s Tiger (ca.1793) is a wooden semi-automaton depicting a tiger mauling a prone British soldier.  When you turn the handle, the tiger sinks his teeth into his victim as the soldier’s arms raise in pain and noises representing the scream of the wounded solider and the growl of the tiger emit from the piece.  You can watch a short clip of Tippoo’s Tiger in action. Hidden inside the automaton is an organ that can be played.  We were also shown an ornate Chinese chest made of Cloisonne enamel on copper that is decorated with lotus blossoms and gilded dragons.  It is lifted on both sides by the figures of two servants whose clothes match the décor of the box.  There is some debate over whether this is an ice chest or an incense burner.  The tour guide’s favourite piece is a floral bouquet titled “Devil’s Trumpet” designed by Ann Carrington in 2016.  Inspired by 16th Century Dutch still life images of flowers, the work is cleverly created using a collection of silver plated spoons and cutlery, although you have to look closely to realize this.  As we were guided through the museum from highlight to highlight, we passed by some other sections that we took mental note of, which we would check out on our return visit to the V&A.

The V&A cafeteria offers an overwhelming choice of beautiful locations to dine at including three indoor rooms called “the refreshment rooms”, which were each individually designed by a different architect, and an outdoor garden setting with great views of the architecture of the building.  We chose to eat in the large central dining area called the Gamble Room (1865-78), designed by James Gamble in Classical Revival style.  It features walls and large columns both covered in colourful ceramic ‘majolica’ tiles made from pottery, decorated with coloured lead glazes.  There were large stained glass windows depicting images of workers and a ceiling decorated with enameled iron sheets.  Adjoining the Gamble Room were two smaller rooms.  To the right was the Poynter Room created by painter Edward J. Poynter, which is highlighted by a large cast-iron stove decorated with Japanese motifs and walls lined with blue and white tiles in the style of Dutch Delftware.  The green Morris Room on the left was created by William Morris with a design influenced by Gothic Revival features and Elizabethan-style paneling.  The top panels featured friezes of hounds chasing hares interspersed with gilded sunbeams while the bottom panels featured floral motifs and images of medieval women.  The ceiling was covered with geometric patterns and floral designs.  Each of these rooms exemplified a different take on Victorian style but all were quite beautiful.

It was a difficult decision to eat lunch inside on what was a warm sunny day, so we compromised by having a drink and a rest out on the terrace of the Garden café after touring the Science Museum.  Since admission is free, we could wander back into the V&A at our leisure.  Located just outside of the refreshment rooms, the garden café offers umbrella-covered seating situated around a large wading pool and green space where people can suntan or picnic.  Sitting outside, we could also admire the northern façade of the building, which was designed in the Italian Renaissance style using red terracotta brick and mosaics, and topped by a frieze on a central pediment with a scene commemorating the Great Exhibition.  The heavy bronze doors leading out to the courtyard were designed by James Gamble and feature six panels depicting the range of the museum’s collections.  These include astronomy (Isaac Newton), Michelangelo (sculpture), Titian (painting), James Watt (mechanics), Bramante (architecture) and Humphry Davy (chemistry).

The Science Museum opened in 1857 after splitting off as a separate entity from the V&A, which is conveniently located right across the street.  The museum has galleries dealing with a range of topics including Flight, Space, Power, Materials, Math, Making the Modern World (transportation/inventions) and Clocks and Watches.  Most of this was that that interesting to me, but was fascinating for Rich.  He animatedly pointed out planes, trains, machinery and other exhibits to me and tried to explain their significance, which made the experience much more interesting than I anticipated.

We saw the first prototype for the Hawker Harrier (1960), which was a jet that could hover, take off and land vertically like a helicopter.  This feature was useful in wars where a pilot was required to land without a long runway.  The Vimy Vickers Bomber was the first aircraft to fly non-stop across the Atlantic.  Rich was especially looking forward to seeing “Puffing Billy”, the oldest surviving steam locomotive in the world.  Billy was used in 1814 to haul coal 5 miles between the mines and the ship ports and moved not much faster than a person’s brisk walking pace.  This train inspired the 1829 Stephenson’s Rocket Locomotive which reached a top speed of 29 miles per hour and was one of  the first  locomotives intended to to move passengers as opposed to freight.

When we came to the Clockmaker’s Gallery, Rich, who is a watch enthusiast and vintage watch collector, really became excited.  The gallery features the world’s oldest horological collection including watches, clocks, marine chronometers, sundials and examples of hand engraving, mapping the history of innovation in watch and clock making in London from 1600 to the present day.  There was a large display honouring Dr. George Daniels, touted as the “Greatest Watchmaker of the 20th Century”.  Daniels designed high-quality mechanical watches and invented the “Co-axial escapement” which allowed a watch to unwind in a controlled manner.  An electronically powered escapment model built by Dr. Daniels demonstrates the smooth movement that incurs almost no sliding friction and therefore requires minimal lubrication or servicing.   The Swiss watch company Omega currently owns the patent to manufacture watches with the co-axial escapement.  Also on display were watches created by Daniels including an 18-carat gold “Grand Complication” watch with dials that shows the moon’s phases, days of the week and month, leap year, temperature, perpetual calendar and power reserve.  The highlight of this exhibit is Dr. Daniel’s own personal Patek Phillipe watch into which he installed his co-axial escapement and proceeded to wear it for 10 years without the need for attention.  Rich posted some photos from this exhibit on his watch forum and it created quite a stir with the other watch enthusiasts.

My favourite exhibit of the museum was “Reflections”, a recreation of Berenice Abbott’s parabolic mirror which she used to create her famous 1958 photo.  Abbott was an assistant to Man Ray before setting out on her own.  The Reflections mirror was created by inserting each folded steel mirror onto a circular tube structure, securing them with washers, nuts and bolts.  The concave mirror demonstrates the law of reflection, where all the mirror pieces are angled towards your eyes when you look at it, so that your face is perfectly reflected back at you.  It was fun trying to see our reflections in this mirror but difficult for Rich and I to be in the same frame at the same time due to our differences in height.  I found a YouTube video that showed the mirror being assembled.

I also liked the section on “Materials” where different fashion items are created using unexpected materials.  There was the jacket made from steel wool, the ensemble including dress, jacket and purse made from straw, the astro-turf shoes, the 15 pound morning gown made from a carpet (reminding me of the curtain dress from Gone With the Wind), and the cloak made of recycled soft drink cans.

On the way back from our museum visits, we wanted to stop at Harrods, the luxury department store in the Knightsbridge district just east of the Victoria & Albert.  It was founded in the 19th Century by Charles Harrod who instituted the concept of credit for his best customers including Oscar Wilde, Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward and Laurence Olivier.  The store changed hands several more times, including two decades of ownership by Mohamed Al-Fayed, who installed several large memorials of his son Dodi and Princess Diana shortly after their deaths.  We visited Harrods on our first trip to London in 2000 but spent all of our time in the giant Food Hall, so we never saw the memorials.  Our return visit comes just after the announcement that the memorials would be removed, so I guess we missed our chance to see them at all.  I remember that the food hall was a sight to behold and that we splurged and bought some giant breaded shrimp for some exorbitant price as a snack.  This time, we still intended to tour the Food Hall and pick up something to bring home for dinner, but also wanted to check out other parts of the store as well.  Times have changed since our last visit when we were severely chastised for taking photos of the Food Hall.  Now, customers merrily snap their photos throughout the store, right in front of store clerks and it is considered normal.  In fact, photos are probably encouraged now for marketing purposes, since photos posted on social media equal free publicity.

We wandered through an extensive Furniture and Décor section on the 2nd floor that seemed to go on and on with designs ranging from traditional to modern to contemporary.  There were some interesting pieces that I would not necessarily want in my home, but were fun to look at.  I liked the round speakers (?) with the red Rolling Stones-like lips on them, decorations that looked like the Truffula trees described in Dr. Seuss’ book “The Lorax”, a chandelier made from tennis racquets, a large round column made out of stacked books, blue/grey metal storage cabinet that looked like an Alien insect when it opened, and a psychedelically colourful guitar.

The item that was most intriguing to us was the Edelweiss custom-built self-playing piano which comes with a pre-programmed IPOD filled with hundreds of songs from a range of styles from classical solo piano to jazz, country, pop and rock.  As the song on the IPOD plays including vocals and orchestration, the piano automatically plays its accompaniment so that the two sources of music blend together.  We spent quite a few minutes watching the demo piano play song after song, and even chose some songs from the IPOD.  You can download even more songs from the Edelweiss Music Store.  Presumably the instrument also works as a normal piano and has a high-fidelity speakers system built into it.  Even more fascinating is the extent of customization that is offered including two piano designs (the Flugel and the Sygnet) from which you can customize finish, colour, contrast and even design of the piano components from a choice of styles.  There is a website that allows you to play around with the different configurations.  It was so much fun to test out all the variations and see how wild we could get.  Prices are only available upon request and must depend on your configuration choices.  I imagine that this would be quite expensive to purchase.

We were surprised to find the Halcyon Art Gallery on the 2nd floor right in the middle of the furniture section.  It is a 5000 square-foot exhibition space showcasing internationally renowned contemporary artists such as Dale Chihuly, as well as a collection of fine art from past eras.  I I particularly liked the sculptural works that feature a big hand including one with a down-cast man sitting on the palm, and the chess board table propped up by a hand as well as the chess pieces depicting hands forming sign language alphabet.  I learned another visit to Halcyon's main store on Bond Street in Mayfair that the artist is Lorenzo Quinn and that he has created giant sculptures displayed around the world, including two giant hands scaling a wall emerging from the Grand Canal in Venice.  The main store displays works particularly in impressionism and pop art styles.  We will try to look for it when we visit Mayfair at a later date.

Finally we arrived in the Harrods Food Hall and immediately noticed some differences from our last visit 18 years ago.  It is still beautifully decorated, as is the rest of the store.  We found mamy more ethnic foods being offered in the takeout counters including Chinese, Japanese, Italian, and Indian, as well as many more eating stations offering everything from fish and chips, oysters, caviar and seafood, sushi bar, coffee bar, chocolate and pastries stall, Chinese restaurant, Italian restaurant, general café  and more.  They still had the Harrods bread with the big “H” baked into it, which we remembered from last time.  We went around the takeout sections and picked a variety of delicacies to bring home for dinner including 2 flavours of sausage roll—hickory smoked BBQ Pork and pork with sweet chili and peppers, a scotch egg, small niçoise salad with sliced rare tuna, a lobster and shrimp ravioli, and two smoked salmon treats.  We also bought a cheddar scone and an olive and onion bun to eat the next day for breakfast.

In the end, this turned out to be a much longer day than I anticipated and the 33 minute/2.6km walk home from Harrods felt like such a long, tiring trek. We had loaded the Pacer Pedometer app on our iPhone a few months prior to this trip and had been tracking our daily steps and kilometers.  Checking the status 8 days into the trip, we realized that while we are walking a good distance every day (including the time walking through museums), at 21,618 steps and 15.68km, that first “short, easy” day still holds the record for our longest and farthest walk.  Oops, sorry Rich …

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