Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Review: Hogarth's Progress at the Rose Theatre, Kingston



Recently, I took a jaunt to the Rose Theatre in Kingston to see the double bill of ‘The Art of Success’ and ‘The Taste of the Town’ known collectively as ‘Hogarth’s Progress’. 




The first play was a revival of one performed in 1986. It stars Bryan Dick as Young Hogarth, just married and completing his first big success with ‘The Harlot’s Progress’. He goes on a big night (afternoon?) out, paints a killer in Newgate Jail, is thrown mostly naked out of a prostitute’s house and returns home to his own home to be terrorised by the escaped killer who doesn’t like her portrait. 

My principal note for the play was ‘that spun in some strange directions.’  I was expecting something of a biopic but this was something far stranger. Most strange was the flashes of nightmare, mostly shown on projections around the set. These included Hogarth’s wife with a pair of shears about to emasculate him, nightmare versions of creepy women, a poxed prostitute and -  most strangely - the male characters trying to rape Hogarth while taking selfies with a smartphone. 

There’s an obsession with filth in the play, or at least an obsession with shocking the audience with filth. A Lord enjoys some sexual act that involves him caked in blood (his own?); Queen Charlotte enjoys humiliating de-facto Prime Minister, Walpole and humping at his naked bottom; and Hogarth loves being farted on, shat on and pissed on. I find the whole ‘tee-hee prostitutes, pox and dirt’ eighteenth century to be something of a cliché, though maybe it hadn’t been as played out in 1987.

It’s clear that the play is not interested in telling Hogarth’s life but in using his life to say…something. What? I could never decide. There’s stuff about censorship, one of the sub-plots being about Walpole’s pushing of a censor’s bill, especially to silence Fielding. There’s a theme of who owns an image, with the criminal hunting Hogarth for his picture and Hogarth trying to convince Walpole to create a copyright act. There are themes of artistic integrity and selling out, whether an audience should be charmed or shocked. Finally, there were themes of the eighteenth century’s simple views of women - represented by a virginal wife, a prostitute and an unhinged murderer.

I enjoyed Bryan Dick’s Hogarth. He was fierce, pathetic and interesting, though less a battling pug at this moment and more a weasel. I was less keen on his wife Jane. The real Jane Hogarth ran off with him against her family’s wishes and so can’t have been as prim as she is portrayed here. Robert Walpole is a played as gibbering idiot who has the ability to walk into people’s houses in a strange, almost dream-like manner. I was most disappointed with the portrayal of Henry Fielding, played as an idealistic, naïve bumpkin, hardly the writer of ‘Pasquin’ , ‘Tom Jones’ and the founder of the Bow Street Runners. He was mainly there to be the idealism to Hogarth’s cynicism but both seems to have been equally idealistic and realistic.

I enjoyed parts of the first play but had no real notion of what it is supposed to be about and found it chaotically determined to shock more than entertain. I also didn’t realise it was supposed to be a comedy.



The second play is a gentler affair, even if Hogarth himself is less gentle. Where the first was a slightly histrionic, overplayed attempt to shock, the second is essentially a sitcom episode . Welcome to Chiswick where poor Jane Hogarth has to put up with her grumpy husband, please her demanding mother and entertain quirky neighbours like David Garrick. 

In this episode Hogarth is reeling over bad criticism, especially a sharp comment by former antagonist, Robert Walpole’s son, Horace. Hogarth and Garrick go for a drink and insult a war veteran. Hogarth then goes alone, breaks into Strawberry Hill and confronts Horace Walpole over his comment. Returning home he is distracted by a prostitute and beaten up.  Meanwhile, Jane has to take her Lady Bracknell/Lady Crawley-esque mother on a shopping trip. There they are laughed at by bluestockings and Jane’s mother dies.  

Keith Allen looks like old Hogarth and I he clearly enjoyed playing the disappointed full-mouthed old man that came across in Jenny Uglow’s wonderful biography of him. I also enjoyed the gags where no-one had read ‘The Analysis of Beauty’ or appreciated his Sigismunda picture. Jane was probably the centre of this play, she was tired and put upon which had us feeling for her wasted life. I loved the portrayal of Garrick, it was a little obvious to have him vain but he was also as likeable as his contemporaries described and I loved his death of Macbeth sequence. The extremely mannered and bitchy Walpole was also exactly as I imagine him and it was gratifying that his best laughs came from lines in his letters.

This second play was more contained than the first and the comedy had space to breathe. However, the time went a little slower and I wished for the energy of the first. Similarly, it had some very entertaining moments but they never built to much more. 

As a double bill, this was less Hogarth’s Progress but more Hogarth’s Peregrination - a meander round scenes, some enjoyable and some less but with no real point at the end. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy myself, I did but I was hoping for more. It was, however, a better fictional representation of Hogarth than the very limp novel ‘I, Hogarth’ which I don’t hesitate to not recommend. If you want your Hogarth fix, you should probably go to his house and see some prints, go to Sir John Soane’s to see some paintings or read Jenny Uglow’s huge but involving biography. There’s also a pretty decent fictional Hogarth in a Channel Four mini-drama called ‘The Harlot’s Progress’ where William is played by Toby Jones.




Wednesday, 10 October 2018

The Return of Leon Garfield (Part Two)

Following on from my initial Leon Garfield roundup and its subsequent sequel, here his 'The Return of Leon Garfield - part two. Again, I am reviewing these in the order I read them.



The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris

Leon Garfield books have a tendency toward the dark and the uncanny. But this, the first of the two Bostock and Harris novels, is a comedy of errors. In this book, a small(ish) act by two schoolboys escalates through the personal failings of the characters around them before coming to an improbable yet satisfying ending.

Harris and Bostock are two schoolboy best friends. Harris is all brains and Bostock all brawn and after hearing about the Spartan tradition of leaving babies on hills to die, they link it to the Romulus and Remus myth and decide to try it on Harris’ baby sister. The stranded baby is found by the headteacher’s dashing son Ralph, and the arithmetic master’s daughter Tizzy, who takes it back to the school where the arithmetic master challenges Ralph to a duel. The baby is taken to the poorhouse.

The trouble finding the baby involves the creepy pseudo-private investigator Selwyn Raven, who meddles and complicates things by drawing up his own (false) idea of the baby’s disappearance. He’s my favourite character in the book and has an impulsive need to see the worst sides of everyone whilst telling himself he is really after the best.

As characters try and wriggle in and out of the duel, Bostock and Harris try and get Adelaide from the poorhouse and all the other characters try to pair up with those they love…things get confusing, then very confusing, then tie themselves up.

The key to all the characters is that each one knows they are honourable and good but only by consistently lying to themselves. 

There’s no point trying to run through the plot, it ticks beautifully and ties up well. What’s more, Garfield is at his best in terms of style. I didn’t pick any lines in particular but there are plenty of fantastic ones. The insanity of the characters and the way they justify their own selfish actions are gleefully portrayed. Also, Brighton comes out well.



The Night of the Comet


It’s interesting that although Bostock and Harris instigate the farce in each novel, they don’t appear much in it. 

This is even lighter-hearted than ‘The Strange Affair of Adelaide Harris’. Where that book had frequent (if comically inflated) musings on guilt and dark secrets, ‘The Night of the Comet’ is pure romantic farce. There are no dark secrets (or even guessed-at dark secrets) but instead has people talking at crossed purposes.

Each chapter is short and sparky, and each causes the plot to take a sharp left turn - enough of these left-turns lead the characters where they should be. It’s fun, would make a very enjoyable stage-play or a great mini-series. It’s a joyful marriage of sharp plotting and sparky writing but as such is quite hard to review, it works well, achieves its purpose and that’s it.

The best character was the Irish glazier, whom love has turned into an angel. He’s been searching England from Liverpool down until being washed up in Brighton in search of his runaway love. She’s there of course, but his fondness for all women, and a few misunderstandings make their renunion a little more shaky then it could be. 

A fun slice of provincial eighteenth century romance, a tight farce and probably Garfield’s most airy and fun book.



The December Rose

This book follows the general formula of Garfield’s novels. A boy of poor means accidentally falls into a larger mystery. As the secretive net tightens, he finds allies, avoids enemies and eventually brings all the secrets into the light. The book also follows Garfield’s interest in morally grey or misguided villains and Inspector Creaker in this book is one of the best.

Barnacle is our young man, he is an animalistic chimney sweep, who overhears a secretive conversation when lurking up a chimney. Falling into the room he grabs at objects to throw and ends up running away with important evidence in his pocket. The book has the interesting (and slightly odd) notion that once he has the property he accidentally steals, he starts to move from animal to human - a function of property itself.

Barnacle bumps into a big man - not big exactly, it’s as if if what you see of him is the visible sign of a much larger person. This is Mr Gosling (again with the bird names) and he is the rentee of a barge. Taking in Barnacle leads him and the other bargees into danger.

The rest of the book is a thrilling affair, delving into the notions of spies and secret policeman. Seemingly innocent actions like peeling an apple or humming a song are imbued with special and eery significance. The thriller element is tighter in this book than most other Garfield works and I was pulled along at a breakneck pace. 

The book not only thrills but it makes interesting points about class and the importance of the everyman. A conspiracy of lords and government is infiltrated by chimney-sweeps and people who barge manure down the Thames. There are also points about servants and masters. Creaker and Barnacle are the servants of unfair, weak masters but Barnacle rises above it by running into Gosling - the question is whether Creaker will let morality overcome his own loyalty.

Of course, the writing is always brilliant. There were many examples but I’ve picked out the description of a low-dive pub which ‘poured light into the night like a disease.’

It’s another solid book in Garfield’s work.

I shall be looking at his completion of 'Edwin Drood' soonish.




Wednesday, 3 October 2018

The Return of Leon Garfield (Part One)

I discovered (and almost instantly loved) Leon Garfield back in 2015, where I did a round up of some of his books. I most particularly love the strange match between the children's marketing of many of his books with there adult themes, and for the often surprising way he describes things.

Recently, I've had another big splurge. The splurge being so big that I am splitting this round up into two parts. As before, I am reviewing these books in the order that I read them rather than order he wrote them.





The Ghost Downstairs

Although ‘The Ghost Downstairs’ is one of Leon Garfield’s shorter books and presented with wonderfully atmospheric illustrations by Antony Maitland (who worked a lot with Garfield), I can’t imagine it’s much of a book for children. Set in the mid 19th century, it tells the story of Mr Fast selling his soul to the devil - sort of. 

The first line is a gripping one and explains the character well;
  "Two devils lived in Mr Fast: envy and loneliness.” Rather than Garfield’s usual young boy protagonist, Fast is a clerk in a solicitor’s office whose chief pleasure is in drawing airtight contracts that no-one can wriggle out of. This sets him in good stead when the mysterious Mr Fishbane offers to draw up a document that offers him his heart’s desire for a price. Mr Fast calculates that a million pounds would be able to procure him all other desires and in exchange he agrees to pay seven years off his life. The twist is, that he specifies that those seven years should come from the first half of his life, so when he gains his million, he feels that he’s got away scot-free.

This isn’t exactly what happens though. So many of his desires, dreams and personality were formed by those first seven years that he has absolutely no idea what he wanted the million pounds for. What’s more, the child of his first seven years is coalescing into the ghostly form of a boy in a sailor suit that he sees following him around.

The rest is a succession of creepy stalking and ghostly chases - not that the ghost is chasing him, he is chasing it to find out what desires he has. Within eighty pages, the book comes to an explosive end.

Aside from Garfield’s writing, which is consistently at it’s strangest and most interesting, I liked all the reversals in what should have been a pretty normal Faust retelling. The robbing of his childhood was haunting and the notion that he has to stalk the ghost felt fresh and new. The evocation of Victorian London with its smoke and fog, the dome of Saint Paul’s looming in the background added another level of atmosphere and intrigue and the moment where Fast realised what he actually wanted was very poignant.

I’d say this is one of Garfield’s best.


Guilt and Gingerbread

Despite being the adventures of a young eighteenth-century man, ‘Guilt and Gingerbread’ is a bit of an outlier in Leon Garfield’s novels. This is because the book is a fairytale and not a historical novel. It’s also one of the few of his novels that feel specifically child-friendly.

It tells the story of Giorgio, a young philosophy student of Padua University who quits because philosophy is a stupid subject (something I wholeheartedly agree). He travels to the small German kingdom of Oberwesselburg to try and win the heart of Charlotte, the ruler. On the way he meets an old lady who gives him a beautiful bridal veil as well as magic scissors and thread. The old lady commands him to bring her the princesses golden heart in return for certainty in marrying her.

When there, he finds himself lead to stealing her heart by cutting her chest with the magic scissors, placing another object in there and then sewing her up. This happens three times (of course). The first time he replaces her heart with an apple that makes her jolly and sweet until a maggot inside drives her mad. The second time he replaces the heart with a lamb’s, but it isn’t, it’s a pig’s and it makes her hoggish. The third time he replaces it with a rose, which makes her sweet but she fades as the summer does. Eventually, he replaces her golden heart, throws the witch’s presents in a river and runs away…only to bump into the princess who reveals her love for him. They marry and all live happily ever after. There is left the implication that the princess was also the witch, testing her suitor.

There is also a really lovely bit where they describe why they love each other and are completely honest. They list some physical and personality characteristics but conclude they don’t know why - I thought that was a nice touch.
This is a well told an interesting fairy tale, charmingly illustrated by Fritz Wegner but I wasn’t as engaged as I am by his more usual stuff. A better Leon Garfield take on a fairy tale is ‘The Wedding Ghost’, which is a very strange, chilling retelling of ‘Sleeping Beauty’.


The Apprentices (1-12)

‘The Apprentices’ is a sequence of twelve stand-alone short stories which have loose links where characters from some of the stories turn up in others. Each of the main characters is an apprentice of some kind. Garfield has, in the past, created stories about all sorts of settings and jobs that I’ve rarely seen tackled anywhere else. Novels include a depiction of the life of a coach driver, the running of a pleasure garden and a number of journeys with traveling players. ‘The Apprentices’ adds lamplighters, funeral directors, midwives, printer’s devils and all number of other jobs.

Garfield is his usually unusual self - I only had my notepad for some later stories but I noted a description of one apprentice where it say that ‘when God made him, he must have had his elbow jogged.’ I also enjoyed chemists regarding their patron saint as ‘Thomas, who thrust his scientific fingers into the wounds of Christ’. 

Many of the stories have a strange, slightly religious base with references to the nativity, the devil and songs of angels. Some of these stories lean more heavily on the unnerving than others but as a whole, it’s subtle and makes the whole sequence feel slightly askew as if more is happening than first appears.

The first story is one of the strangest. A lamplighter gains an apprentice called Possul (Apostle) who serves as a linkboy, lighting people home for money. The lamplighter regard his duty to bring light as a religious duty (even if he is not very good at his job) and Possul carries on this idea. Possul is a strange boy, rarely speaking and of ghostly paleness, who, when he lights people home happens to show them the terrors of London’s night. He appears as a light in the darkness in a number of the stories and even inspires a novel in a later story called ‘Thine is the Kingdom’.

That novel appears in my favourite story, ‘Tom Titmarsh’s Devil’. It’s a love story between a wild girl who works for a printshop and the more guarded apprentice of a bookseller. She brings ‘Thine is the Kingdom’ to the bookseller to commission. It’s a nightmarish trip through London, inspired by one of Possul’s journeys and ends up criticising the church’s ignorance of the evils outside. When this book is condemned to be burnt, the bookseller’s apprentice tricks the illiterate hangman into burning a different book instead. This was my favourite as I loved the character of the printer’s devil and the terrifying nightmare.

Each story was different, with a different set of characters, a different way of telling the story and a different tone. Though some were better than others, it doesn’t suffer from the problem of most short story collections where some are far better than others - each is enjoyable on its on it’s own terms.

I completely recommend this collection as an engaging and unique work told with Garfield’s usual style and quality. I did wonder, however, what it is about bird names in the book - there were people called Larkins, Swallows, Starling, Hobby, Hawkins, Parrot, Falconer, Linnet, Nightingale, Titmarsh and many more. 


Fair’s Fair

This is another of Garfield’s rare excursions into writing a children’s book definitely written for children. It’s also one of his books that drifts into the nineteenth century and the area of fairytale. It’s about Jackson, a homeless orphan who shares a warm pie with a large, threatening dog. The dog has a key around his neck so Jackson follows the dog to its home. It’s an empty mansion with another orphan called Lollipolly, who find food being left every day for them. There’s a twist ending but it’s pretty clear.

Despite its simple story and far simpler telling, Leon still knocks a few stylistic balls out the park. Snowflakes are described as ‘fighting in the wind’ and the steam of Jackson’s warm pie is described as not ‘being his soul going to heaven’. It’s also the only Leon Garfield book I can think of that is told in the present tense.


This isn’t vital Garfield but it’s a nice little curiosity in his work. - Also, I've been reading it with some children who aren't so into reading, and they've been loving it.

Next time will be Bostock and Harris and The December Rose and I will eventually get round to reviewing his completion of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which I am greatly enjoying. Coming up will also be a Dr Johnson Reading Circle discussion of Boswell and Johnson's Scottish books as well as a review of the double-bill plays about Hogarth currently playing in Kingston Upon Thames.

Till then.



Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Review: Pleasures of the Imagination by John Brewer


John Brewer’s ‘The Pleasures of the Imagination’ might be described as a portable book, if you have a tough rucksack and a strong back. It’s a heavy work, not in tone, the writing is bright and easy to read but physically - you need a table for this one.

Broadly, the book tells the story of how the modern notions and systems of culture developed in the eighteenth century. These battles were broadly between professional practitioners of the given art verses the gentleman amateurs who developed most of the initial theory. There was a form of repetition in the book, each art follows the same broad conflict but how that conflict plays out in each arena brings new light to the assumptions of culture we have today.

It starts in the seventeenth century, with the restoration of the throne after the Commonwealth. The new court wanted to be as lavish as previous ones but didn’t have the funds to do so. There wasn’t money to build a proper, modern court nor to hold the sumptuous plays and masques of other courts and so entered into something like public-private investment. Court-City collaborations moved further into the City as monarch’s like Queen Anne, or the early Georges did not have much interest in culture. As George II was reported to have said, ‘I hate poetry and painting’. This move helped the growth of City professionals, whose idea and values of culture clashed with the Court… and that’s much the rest of the book.

The story of writing was the one I knew most about. Following accidental loosening of censorship laws, print-shops grew like mushrooms. Supplying these print-shops were a loose collection of writers for money we know as Grub Street. As these people developed in skill and confidence, they started to create genuine masterpieces and theories of their own. The summit of these authors is of course, Samuel Johnson, who declared only ‘blockheads’ don’t write for money and created masterpieces of criticism and literature. The other side of this is best shown by the Scriblerans, who consider these new writers to be a plague and that the only true thinkers on writing are those Gentlemen who have no vested financial interest in it. 

This battle is even clearer in the case of visual art. In Britain, artists were craftsmen who created decorations and portraits for families - art theorists at the time were dismayed at the English love of portraits, its selfie culture. ‘Real’ art came from the continent in the form of classical sculpture and dingy old masters. Where people like Hogarth wanted to aggressively forge an English culture of painting, celebrating the specific as much as general human themes. He tried his hardest but ultimately couldn’t achieve his wishes alone. For most of the century, the gentleman connoisseurs had the upper hand, with the money and connections to drive the art market but with the establishment of the Royal Society, the balance starts to shift. The society allows a respectable communion of practitioners and they start to portray the connoisseurs as lustful and greedy, hoarding beauty for themselves and ogling it. By the end of the century, the art world is still driven by an elite (as it is now) but an elite of practitioner/theorists rather than aloof gentlemen.

Theatre had the hardest reputation to overcome. In the mixing on classes; the very act of a communal group of people agreeing to deceive each other and the precarious state of acting itself, it was very easy to present the stage as immoral. I found the description of the audience’s interaction with the stage particularly interesting. The audience were part of the show, performing themselves in front of their peers, calling out and adding topical jokes and interpretations which were uncensorable and booing and hissing when the play went places they didn’t like. It reminded me of a comparison I made between an English football match and a baseball game I went in New York. At the baseball, there was a large screen and the crowd cheered and chanted when the screen wanted, and even used the words from the screen (in this case, “Go, Mets, Go”). In football, the chants and songs are generated by the spectators, often with topical, rude and funny words, being caught from one group of supporters to the next. This is how I imagine I night at an eighteenth century London theatre. I was also surprised that this level of interaction was regarded as particularly English and visitors from Germany and France were surprised by it.

The key element that changed this relationship between stage and stalls is, in my opinion, the development in theatre technology. As the century progressed, theatres grew larger. Newer theatres were double, even triple their earlier counterparts. As they grew larger, the feeling of the theatre as one whole organism became harder to sustain. I noticed how, when the Globe was newer, the audiences were far louder. Nowadays, the Globe is an institution in itself and audiences watch the plays quietly. Another change in theatres is the development of theatrical lighting. As the stage became lighter and the house darker, then the cues to be quieter and watch more intently become clearer.

The other problem the theatre had to overcome was the reputation of actors. People like David Garrick and Sarah Siddons had to be careful to make sure their home lives were as straight as possible. Garrick also had shares in newspapers so he could spin public opinion in the theatre’s favour. He also developed a narrow repertory, with a heavy emphasis on safe comedy and prestigious Shakespeare. As the book-trade pushed Shakespeare as the national poet, so Garrick hooked his own fame to Shakespeare’s translating the role of theatre from common delusion to safeguard of the nation’s culture.

The second half of the book moves out of London to see how these changes in the Capital grew beyond it.

Thomas Bewick, the Newcastle wood-engraver shows his success coming from the eighteenth century fondness for self-improving clubs. Bewick was a member of many such clubs . A proud Northerner, he created his works himself, using provincial book-selling networks to distribute them. Although loved for his ‘simple’ qualities, he actually has very clear didactic goals with engravings and stories inspired by the ideals of those groups..

The example of John Marsh shows how music was sustained in smaller towns. Music is more expensive then other art forms, needing expensive instruments and tuition. Without a monied figure organising and gathering musicians, no music could happen. Particularly it took someone of private means to connect musicians to audience and a strict code to maintain the social balances.  I particularly found it interesting that players of brass instruments were the hardest to obtain, as the mouth-shapes made by brass players was seen as ludicrous, meaning only members of the military commonly played them. Without someone to organise music, it didn’t happen until the later foundation of professional town orchestras.

The last example given was of Anna Seward. From her safe seat in Lichfield, she propagated the voice of the gentle amateur, defending an open, free and emotional reaction to poetry. In her frequent spats with, and about, Johnson because he stood so solid and as such a figure of professional, aggressive. masculine taste. She was able to hold such a position of influence because of the London magazines and the development of the postal service, letting voices be heard that they hadn’t been before.


I found this book to be extremely clear and persuasive. I also found that the struggles in the book represent those we meet with today, where the internet allows voices to be heard from more corners of the globe. Be it gamer-gate, or the use of Facebook to influence elections are the new struggles to define culture. In the eighteenth century, the power shifted from an elite circle of rich gentlemen to an elite circle of practitioners. What will be the result of our own culture wars?



Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Trip: Smaller Museums and Exhibitions


I went to a number of smaller museums and exhibitions recently and I thought I’d look at them.


Teeth - at the Wellcome Collection


The Wellcome Collection is quickly becoming my one of my favourite repeat visits. The permanent ‘Medicine Man’ exhibit shows all sorts of fascinating things from Wellcome’s collection; including chastity belts, healing voodoo dolls and a selection of ancient Japanese priapus. Past special exhibits have included a great one on sex (where I saw Victorian fetish photos and got to sit in an orgone accumulator) and one about man’s interaction with animals (which included fascinating examples of how taxidermists arranged animals as they thought they should be rather than are).

Teeth wasn’t as good as those, but was still good fun nonetheless. Laid out in broadly chronological order, the overall tale being told was one of improvement in the dentist industry and that we’ve never had it so good. A frenchman named Pierre Fauchard was the first ‘dentiste’ and literally wrote the book. He was a big step up from former toothpullers, like Le Grand Thomas ‘the terror of the jaw’ who would physically pick people up by their mangled tooth and shake it out of them. 

Among other things, I saw a skull of a women who has dead people’s ‘Waterloo Teeth’ wired into her jaw. A number of dentures and prostheses, including Burke’s, which included a large front section to make up for a possible cleft palate. 

I saw egg-whisk style hand crank tooth drills, clockwork varieties, foot peddled and the eventual electric variety. There were also clockwork toothbrushes, chewing sticks and Napoleon’s toothbrush. Did you know that the modern toothbrush was invented by an eighteenth century Englishman? In 1770, William Addis (inspired by a broom) developed the idea for a toothbrush while he was spending time in Newgate prison for his part in a riot.  

I also learned that St Apollonia is the patron saint of dentists because her death involved toe-curling examples of Roman dental torture.

A small exhibition but a fascinating one, though one that will have you tonguing your teeth in alarm.


Immortalised - by Historic England



Part exhibition, part art installation, ‘Immortalised’ seeks to ask questions about how we as a community (especially a nation) remember people and events, and how our relationship to those things change with time. it’s housed in an old fire-engine fixing station, just behind the Thames near Lambeth Palace.

Each area in the space has a large wooden cutout of a memorial, proceeded by hanging sheets with the same shape cut out of it and mini speakers weaved into it that play songs, interviews, poems and speeches. Attached to these wooden cutouts are objects, analyses and descriptions. Some of these objects were interesting; the Lutine bell from Lloyds, the maquette for the Millicent Fawcett statue and the roundel saying ‘Gareth Southgate’ that was fixed to Southgate Station during the World Cup. 

The questions raised by the exhibition were interesting. They asked why we memorialise certain people and how the memorials of past people are seen today.

One of the most emotive and provoking elements discussed was the history of the slave trade. This took two prongs. The first, active prong, is a statue dedicated to remembering the slave - as there are no statues for them. It features a large round platform featuring slaves chained together, an old slave woman, an Olaudah Equiano and a former slave holding up a chain. The voice playing overhead stated that the statue will exist ‘to raise awareness’ - a phrase that needs to die. People are aware of the slave trade, it's not awareness that needs to be raised, it's empathy. It also said that the statue would help Africans and those of African descent to be proud, though the focus of the statue is on the chains rather than the freedom.

More interestingly, were the different ways in which the people of Bristol have interacted with the person of Edward Colson. He was a rich businessman who founded many cultural and charitable institutions of the city and was given a large statue to celebrate him. However, Colson earned his money by being one of the key lynchpins of the Atlantic slave trade and so responsible for some of the biggest atrocities of the modern age. The people of Bristol (in general) do not wish to delete their history but do need to respond to it. Suggestions have ranged from changing the plaque on the statue, to re-situate the statue in a square built in the shape of a slave ship with paving slabs representing the tiny spaces slaves were kept in. Currently he wears a red, woollen ball and chain.  I was delighted by these creative ways to react to history instead of destroying it.

This was a very interesting and thought-provoking exhibition, which was exactly what it was supposed to be.



The Migration Museum



Kept in the same building as ‘Immortalised’, it’s a museum seeking a home. 

The museum told the story of seven moments in the history of migration to Britain. These moments were beautifully varied; from the expulsion of the Jews, the coming of the Huguenots, Windrush and modern discussion of Syrian refugees. Each of these themes are addressed in a few objects and many, many first-person accounts. This is a museum of voices, sometimes too many voices, but a thoughtful, and at times joyful, look at migration in Britain.

I really look forward to the time when this museum becomes a large and settled place and l will certainly visit it and discuss it in more depth.


The Garden Museum



On the way to the Immigration Museum and Immortalised exhibition, I happened to pass a little church near Lambeth Palace. This little church is home to the Garden Museum. It was made into a museum in order to save the church. It’s internet famous due to one of its objects being voted ‘the most boring artefact in any British Museum’ - this object, an orange jumper worn by Alan Tichmarsh on the Gardener’s World TV show.

It’s not worth that derision though, the Garden Museum is interesting in its own right. Where else will you see a cucumber straightener or a collection of terrifying gnomes? Nor would I have ever seen a Vauxhall Gardens season medallion, as designed by William Hogarth. I also saw a book on flowers from 1593, pictures of botany by James Sowerby and a book that Repton used to present his vision of gardens to prospective customers. Having recently finished John Brewer’s ‘The Pleasures of the Imagination’, I related those items to what I had read and got more out of them than I would have. I also learnt that the first named gardener in Britain was named Edmund and was paid the exorbitant sum of two and a half pence a day.

Although I didn’t get ten pounds worth of interest out of the museum, I have never owned a garden or been interested in gardens. If you are, it’s likely you’ll get a lot out of it.

The museum is also worth visiting as a church. Buried there are some very interesting people; Elias Ashmole, the Lichfield native whose collection formed the Ashmolean in Oxford, John Foreman, the doctor who was the basis of the Casebooks Project and Botanists Sowerby and the Tradescants. Even if you don’t want to visit the museum, I recommend peeking into the porch and seeing one of my favourite headstones of all time.



London has some wonderful big museums and exhibitions but I recommend checking out the smaller ones to.