Wednesday 25 April 2018

Behind the Scenes at the Museum of London

On the 17th of April 2018, the Samuel Johnson Reading Circle went behind the scenes with the Museum of London’s curator of fashion, Timothy Long. 

Having filed in and shown security several copies of the same book (we’re all reading The Age of Wonder in readiness for the next session) failed an initiation test involving blank metal coins and lockers – eventually we were sorted into some sort of order, ushered to the bowels of the museum and through all the signs not permitting us to enter- always a thrill.

The Fashion and Textiles department itself reminded me of secondary school technology classrooms; with high benches and high stools, rooms lined with bookcases containing box-files marked ‘Fashion 1984’ and ‘Youth Tribes 91-94’. There were partial mannequins dotted about and a piece of metal I recognised which had once served the place of a grand lady’s wig.

It was explained to us that the Museum of London had just finished a relatively major reshuffle of their sight/sound presentation of Vauxhall Gardens. A 15 minute show, with access to seating and changes in lighting, it was originally designated as a way of breaking up museum-fatigue and show off some of their extensive eighteenth century fashion collection. The previous pieces having been shown off for over five years, it was time to take the strain from them and give other outfits a chance to shine. We were shown some of those items before they were put to bed for a while.

The first was a relatively simple dress, with red and white stripes and little bushels of wheat embroidered on. Timothy explained how, in designing the Vauxhall Gardens exhibit, the team had created ideas of characters. This character was a relatively poor person who had saved up to go to the pleasure gardens and having spent a day there was preparing to leave before the richer, rowdier set arrived. The dress had been altered a number of times, as had almost all the dresses in the collection. Dresses were even cut to leave room for alteration as the dress was worn for different occasions and passed on to different people.

There are two broad approaches to keeping and displaying fashion and textiles. One is to focus on the fashion/art element of the piece, in which the item displayed is altered to bring it back as close to it was originally. The other is the historical approach, where all the alterations and even the dirt tells a story. We were told about a flapper dress that had a huge stain on it - which was left on the dress because it came from the original wearer smudging it when fixing her new car - an oil smudge as a sign of independence.

We were shown a man’s suit in a shiny green colour with cream cuffs and cream sleeves. These cream parts were heavily (and brightly) decorated in flowers and peacock feathers. We were asked to describe who the wearer might have been. We thought they may have been rich, perhaps someone who’s wealth came from the East India Company (hence the peacocks) and obviously someone who doesn’t mind showing of a little. All of which could have been right, but not necessarily. The lack of tailoring (shaping of the cloth to alter shape) and the way the embroidery occasionally went under the buttons showed it to be something of a kit. An expensive kit nonetheless, but still a broadly off-the-shelf look.

The last piece was a very striking court dress in a deep green. It was threaded throughout with silver cloth and had puffy bulbs at the front and clusters of metal and silk slivers in little pom-poms. Almost square at the bottom, triangular at the top and presenting bosoms front and centre, it would have been a very striking outfit. Peering underneath (because how couldn’t you?) the dress was structured with about four rigid frames, leaving the bottom half to be rather free underneath, even if the top was all squeezed and pulled about.

- Oh, and the deep green colour. Although awaiting tests, it is very possible that the dress was dyed with an arsenic based dye called Scheele’s Green, which could cause a person to foam green at the eyes, ears and mouth before dying. Alison Matthews David has written a book about such things called Fashion Victims, containing more deadly clothing.

Finally, we learned about displaying fashion pieces. The most common way is invisible display, in which a piece is placed on a mannequin without a head or any accessories. Often, these mannequins need to be radically altered to fit the body shape expectations of the time. This is the cheaper, easier method of display; accessories don’t need to be created or found, there is no problem with strange head shapes on mannequins or the expense of wigs and hats. However, the Vauxhall Gardens exhibit took this harder path, for which Timothy Long turned to the public and crowdfunded by £13,000.
The Johnson Reading Circle had a wonderful time peeping behind the scenes of one of London’s best museums and it was a lovely bonus meet-up, one which of course lingered with pizza and wine.

If you wish to follow Timothy Long and his work at the Museum of London, his twitter handle is @Fashion_Curator . He’s a man who obviously loves what he does and was very good company.

-And the photos were thanks to Dr Jane Darcy, 'cos I never have a camera.

Wednesday 18 April 2018

Review: 3 Historic Houses

I was going to call this post, ‘What I did on my Easter Holidays’ because I have done rather a lot. The first week was spent in Poland. There I ate cheaply; drank wodka, learnt how to throw axes, visited a pinball warehouse, Jagiellonian University,  Wawel Castle - and went to Auschwitz. I don’t want to talk about Auschwitz.

The second week, I caught a sudden flu and, wrestling my way out of bed, went to three historic houses. 

The first was Benjamin Franklin House, an eighteenth century townhouse tucked down the side of Charing Cross Station where Franklin lived for sixteen years and is the only Franklin residence in existence in the world. They haven’t got much else though. With the exception of a purse, a letter and a pile of poorly anatomised bones found in the garden, they have nothing. The rooms are painted a sickly green that Franklin had his rooms painted in, some fireplaces…and some audiovisual equipment.

Because there is nothing in the house to look at, there’s a show. The show consists of a bewigged woman, playing Molly, the landlady’s daughter. She interacts with projected sound and vision of people like Peter Coyote and Imelda Staunton playing Benjamin Franklin and the landlady, Mrs Stevenson. The show is a prime piece of Philly cheese steak. The actress (who we didn’t get to thank) put her all into an extraordinarily difficult kind of performance, where she was trapped in a succession of rooms with eight people, acting and reacting to piped in voices in her, and our, heads. 

To give the audio-visual exhibition its due, it did pack in a lot of information about Benjamin Franklin, firmly establish many of his claims to fame and explain what he was doing in London, and how it all fall apart eventually. And as I said, the actress did a good a job in a strange situation, and I was a little moved at the end.

People wishing to go to the museum should know that it is only during these audio-visual tours and they happen on the hour (except Mondays, when it’s a tour of the empty building).

The volunteers who ‘welcomed’ me in, were terse and rattled off their words in quick, bored, spurts. I felt like I had put them out turning up ten minutes before a performance.

Next was a hop-skip and jump up to Handel and Hendrix in London, aka Handel/Hendrix House. 

I slipped in from the courtyard, was given a place to put my bags and told I could spend as long going up the stairs and back and forth as I wished as there was no set route. The bottom rooms contained a spinet (an early organ) and two harpsichords as well as a great many pictures. I saw a Hogarth I had never seen before; a portrait of Rich, the owner of the Lincoln’s Inn theatre, as well as a great many images of Vauxhall Gardens. A couple of the rooms had Handel music to listen to but the ones that didn’t, had volunteers. 

The volunteers at the Handel/Hendrix House were the secret weapon. Many of the rooms had little to show but a handful of objects (many of them reconstructions) and images -  but the volunteers had warmth and character and stories. I learnt that Handel was accused, probably wrongly, of sneaking out and having a sneaky nice wine instead of sharing it. I also got to have a chat about castrati, soprano wars (Handel preferred Faustina) and Handel’s personal preference for cherrywood and plum material.

This favouring of plum material and cherrywood was something I learnt by talking to the volunteer in the bedroom. She also taught me what a tester bed is - it’s one where the curtains are hung from the ceiling and not from a four-post. The room next to it showed a reconstruction of Handel’s banyan - a type of luxurious casual gown. Handel would have liked wearing one, because as well as being a stout person, he was a tall one, over six-foot. (Though I reckon Johnson still could have had him in a fight.) Also - I want a banyan.

There was also that staple of the historic house museum - dressing up. As fun as it is donning a nice frock on my visits to Dr Johnson’s House, at the Handel/Hendrix House the clothes inspired by both Handel and Hendrix. I had great joy in creating my own Jimmy Handel-rix monstrosity.

Upstairs, in the flat next door, lives the attic of Jimmy Hendrix. Similar to the Handel House, there was a suite of rooms playing music to give the background and then access into the main bed/sitting room, which only had one piece of original furniture but the rest recreated carefully from photos and interviews. It was a warm, comfy place, like the ultimate student gaff. The volunteer again was very interesting, telling me about how the room was used and pointing out just how many ashtrays there were.

I also took away a list of Hendrix’s record collection. It was great to know he had a Bonzo album, an Acker Bilk and a Frank Zappa. He was also into electrified Chicago bluesmen like Muddy Waters and (my fave) Howlin’ Wolf.

I also went to Dickens house. This was where Charles Dickens wrote his early novels, though most of the furniture comes from a later Dickens house - his dream home in Kent.

What this means is that unlike the other two historic houses, there are a great many objects linked to Dickens and his work in the house. As well as early drafts of novels; near priceless instalments from the major novels, the desk on which Dickens wrote, the window from which little Charles Dickens bemoaned his life as a bootblack worker and the bars which his dad (and Mr Micawber) were kept behind for debt. For a massive Dickens fan, there are enough relics to make a visit essential (and stand, much as I stood in Lichfield with a lump in my throat at Johnson’s writing board).

Dickens house also paints an interesting picture of Dickens. There is a set of clothes, showing his slim, short figure. There’s a mirror with a description of Dickens practising the faces and voices for his characters and his personally designed speaking desk with a reading copy marked up by Dickens to help him perform it. While his… ‘complicated’ personal life is touched on, his energy and enthusiasm make him seem like good company.

I was also delighted that one of his favourite authors was Oliver Goldsmith, and he had a personally bound life of Goldsmith. He was also a great fan of Smollett and Fielding, and had Hogarth prints throughout the house - I liked him more for this.

The last thing Dickens House focuses on, is the way the young, upwardly moving household was managed in the nineteenth century. The kitchens and wash house are very interesting - and I would love to take the kids next time I’m forced to do Victorians.

The Dickens House also had a volunteer per floor, one of which was very friendly but the others very clearly didn’t want to be talked to. Oddly, both the person at the pay-desk and the one who talked to me, both told me they found Dickens' work a bit of a chore.

Ultimately, a historic house museum relies on what you bring to it; a diehard Dickensian will adore the Dickens house and a Franklin fanatic will thrill to walk the halls of their great philosopher - but in and of itself, the Handel/Hendrix House won me over because of the joy of the volunteers that brought the two very different personalities together.

Wednesday 11 April 2018

Review: The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin

I know Hamilton is the cool founding father of the US, but I was always more interested in Franklin.

I knew a little of his achievements by osmosis; I knew he’d proved lightning to be electricity and created rods to protect buildings; that he’d invented a hauntingly strange musical instrument, that he’d drafted the declaration of independence and constitution and also written a book on farts. I was aware that he was integral in getting French help in the American rebellion, he was a member of the Lunar Society and once lost a chess match to Kempelen’s Turk.

I didn’t know I was only scratching the surface.

It turns out Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography doesn’t cover most of the famous years of his life, finishing shortly before the rebellion. It’s more of an origin tale than a proper autobiography. The first part was written in England very shortly before the kick off of the rebellion, the other two parts from comfortable old age later.

They broadly tell the story of how an impoverished runaway became a newspaperman, gained in influence as a projector of good causes and became a trusted and vital part of colonial infrastructure - and as a bonus, he also was given a gold medal and membership to the Royal Society for work on electricity. 

I was expecting a man full of energy, interests and unquenchable spirit for life like Erasmus Darwin. I found a stiff, prudish, puritanical prig stuffed on pious platitudes. There’s not a tired phrase Franklin doesn’t cling to, a person he doesn’t meet who he deplores for drinking - a man who scolds himself for a fondness for puns and describes his only interest, reading, as something that ‘debauched me from my work’. 

Franklin also has this peculiar anti-interest in food. He is extremely proud of his indifference to food and is a vegetarian for a while and like many vegetarians, he feels the need to tell people he is one. I’m with Samuel Johnson that ‘He who does not mind his belly, will hardly mind anything else.’

To be fair to him, he did work hard - but he also made sure everyone knew he was working hard, ensuring he was the one who wheelbarrowed paper from the supplier so everyone could see. This hard work set the foundation for all he was going to achieve and could be used as inspiration if I didn’t find him a little cold.

It’s a subtext, but Franklin is very ready to drop friends when they aren’t of any use to him, even grabbing one annoying man by the crotch and throwing him in a river. He has a club called the Junta but when they want to expand the operation, he won’t allow it except in secret, to prevent useless people joining.

At one point he considered setting up his own deistic religion, dedicated to worshipping his teachings. These teachings were of 13 virtues and an elaborate system of trying to live up to those virtues, focussing on one a week and making marks when the others weren’t achieved. I simply can’t trust a man who thinks that people can be perfect-able, and appears to think he has got rather close to it - except perhaps humility, the 13th and most reluctant virtue.

Still, the man did get things done. His Junto (Aka BF and his BFFs) pooled their books together and set up a library, which became a pattern for libraries across the country. He also set up volunteer fire associations, a militia, a university, decent paving and street lighting - and all manner of good things. As clammy as I find Franklin in the book, he was a person of great achievement.

I didn’t hate this book, but I was surprised that I didn’t love the writer.

Two favourite titbits:

That the mostly Quaker council of Philadelphia, being forced to send money to another colony to buy gunpowder but unable for pacifist reasons, managed to pass the law with the following sophistry; that it could send ‘wheat and other grains’.

And that when London printers took the first day of the week off to sleep away the hangover of a busy weekend, it was called worshipping St Monday.

Tuesday 3 April 2018

Review: Dr Johnson & Mr Savage by Richard Holmes

It’s an open secret that the image of Samuel Johnson which has gone down in history is not the one who created most of the great works he was famous for. It wasn’t until after the ‘Rambler’, ‘Rasselas’, ‘Dictionary’ and his poetry that he became the ‘Great Cham of Literature’. During the time Boswell knew him, he was comfortably off with his greatest struggles behind him.

This book tells a story before the safe, rotund old man - when Johnson was a skeletal, thuggish looking man carrying a large cudgel with which he single-handedly saw off four attackers. What became grouchiness was once outright aggression; what became fun political knockabout was once dedicated extremism and what became a healthy disdain for the wealthy was once a hatred for all rich folk.

As well as being introduced to this young, aggressive Johnson, we also meet his new bestie, Richard Savage. Having met him in Johnson’s description of his life, this new version of Savage is infinitely more…psychotic. Johnson’s Savage had a legitimate complaint in being denied his birthright as Lady Macclesfield and Earl Rivers bastard son. Richard Holmes’ Savage is most likely deluded in his belief but he certainly never seemed to question it. Where he is pursued by his evil mother in Johnson’s version of the story, he is the pursuer here, Poor Lady Macclesfield is stalked by Savage, who breaks into her house and continues a literature vendetta against her which culminates in the (wonderfully vicious) poem, ‘The Bastard’.

The endearingly childlike Savage of Johnson’s life is replaced by a more knowing, cunning person. When he mets young Samuel, Savage tends to keep him apart from his other lives, hiding his suaver and more successful elements from Samuel’s sympathy. Holmes also reveals that Savage was far more successful person earlier in his life than Johnson ever registers. At one point he had two houses, one in London and one in the Richmond countryside. At this time, he was also part of a circle including Aaron Hill and James Thompson (of Seasons fame). 

This period of success was interrupted by his murder trial. The chapter about this sequence of events was the highlight of the book. As well as going through the trial transcripts and literature around the trial with meticulous detail, Holmes also explains in parallel how Johnson presented the trial in his own telling of Savage’s life.

That said, Holmes still manages to create a picture of a fascinating and strangely likeable character - how Savage still remains a captivating person is a mystery to me but I appreciate a charismatic arsehole in life. It is helped that I love his poetry, it's strange and vigorous with an almost romantic mode of drama combined with an Augustan mode of expression

This isn’t a long book but it is a thoroughly engaging one. Richard Holmes evokes a radically different version of Johnson and describes a fascinating portrait of an infuriating and enticing man in Savage. Their friendship feels real, their world disturbingly grimy and their story an important one. 

Highly recommended.