During the summer holidays, I discovered that I could get an Art Pass for £25 a year because I work at a school. I was very excited about this, because I’ve long fancied having an Art Pass. It allows a person to get into some museums for free and to see big exhibitions for half price. When I got back to London, I used it as much as I could.. and here is what I saw.
City Wall at Vine Street
My first visit wasn’t actually to an Art Pass venue. It’s a chunk of London’s Roman wall underneath a new student housing block. It’s free to visit, but booking helps.
The centrepiece is a chunk of Roman wall. It’s a lot like the other pieces of Roman wall dotted around the Tower of London; neat, solid and separated by bands of red tiles. Jutting out the front is a later addition to the wall, the foundations of a Roman bastion. However, that is not all. The Roman wall was incorporated into the mediaeval wall, and that included in 17th and 18th century houses, which was then included into Victorian and 20th century warehouses. Elements of all these time periods are visible on the wall, making it not only a remarkable existing piece of archeology, but a microcosm of the whole 2,000 year history of London.
Around the wall are display cases that show objects dug up around the wall. These include roman pots and tiles with cat footprints on, the usual stash of broken pipes and a lot of green glass bottles. All of these things are simple, quotidian, largely pretty smashed up. They aren’t particularly awe-inspiring to look at. But the write-ups are really good, there’s always a way of putting the objects in their everyday context and encouraging the visitor to reflect. Some of the best exhibition labelling I’ve seen.
There are also two focus cases that have a handful of objects found in the rubbish pits of two eighteenth century houses. The housing records are used to give the people who owned them a name and there are reflections on how the different things the two families threw away reflected on the families. Included in these cases was a rabbit skeleton, not butchered but thrown whole, it may have been a family pet and the rubbish pit was its last resting place.
City Wall at Vine Street is a great example of how to do a lot with relatively little and is very recommended.
Portraits of Dogs: From Gainsborough to Hockney
This was an Art Pass venue. I’d visited to the Wallace Collection at the beginning of the summer and enjoyed it very much. I did, however, balk at visiting this special exhibition because as fun as it seemed, I wasn’t sure it would be £18 worth of fine. It was definitely worth the discounted price though.
Starting with some Roman greyhounds and a page of Da Vinci dog’s paw sketches, it then went to pictures by eighteenth century painter, George Stubbs. He actually painted 15 full length portraits of dogs, more then he did of horses. It’s fascinating how his pictures are of specific dogs, they live such relatively short lives, but are here mounted and present forever. There was Ringwood, the foxhound and Turk, a wonderfully floofy beast.
My favourite room was of Landseer dogs. He used them in allegorical and comical settings. Unfortunately, none of these dogs were playing cards (they missed a trick there) but there was a dog court, presided over by a poodle with ears like a judge’s wig. My favourite of these was titled, Dignity and Impudence, with dignity played by a bloodhound called Gryphon and impudence played by Scratch, who was, of course, a Westie.
There was a room devoted to toy dogs, which included two stuffed ones. Marie Antoinette was found of toy dogs, calling them names like Bebe and Mimi. There was a story (probably apocryphal) of a French farmer who came to Paris and learnt that the tiny, useless beasts were being sold for twenty-seven livres, and so rocked up to the city with a bunch of large dogs that he was shocked he couldn’t give away. I also learnt that Pekinese dogs were originally bred for the Imperial Chinese family, that no-one else was to own one and that it was protocol to bow to them as they scampered around the Forbidden City. I also learnt that the British came and nicked them, the first Pekinese in Britain being named Looty.
There was a Gainsborough picture, Tristram and Fox, which looked more alive than his human paintings. There was a portrait of one of Byron’s massive dogs, which he loved more than most people. There was a room of portraits of Victoria’s dogs, including many pictures by Victoria herself. This lead to Hockney’s cosy pictures of sausage dogs, which I felt looked slightly more sausage then dog.
Portraits of Dogs is probably not a sublime or grand experience, but it left me with a smile on my face. If I had a tail, it would have wagged.
The Postal Museum
This was another half price deal with the Art Pass. I mainly picked it because I’d never been before and it was close to the Unforgotten Lives at the London Metropolitan Archives. It also meant I could go to Grimaldi Park and visit the grave of Joseph Grimaldi.
The Postal Museum is in two parts, I think I accidentally went to the second part first. It was a ride on the mail rail, a narrow-gauge underground railway which used to zoom letters under the city. It was a little odd getting into the headspace of a package as I squeezed into the carriage and was whisked on a little loop. The audio commentary was really good, and there were projections at various stops telling the history of the service. Essentially, nearly all post found its way into London before being sent out to various directions - they’ve reorganised the system so it doesn’t work like that any more and the Rail Mail became defunct. I was surprised to find that Mail Rail boasts its appearance in the film Hudson Hawk, I didn’t mind that film but it’s not much to boast about.
The little museum afterwards has one of the pneumatic railway cars from 1869 (there’a a chapter about it in Barnvard’s Folly, the book that introduced me to Robert ‘Romeo’ Coates). I also learnt that it was illegal to post copies of Ulysses, and any copies found were burnt. Did you know that at one point there were railway sorting offices? They zoomed around the country, picking up letters with ingenious bag/hook apparatus and then passed them onto local stations by lobbing them into waiting nets. It’s a system that ended in the 1970s. Why is modern life so much more boring?
The Postal Museum itself is in a building a little further along. I learnt the post service was set up by Henry VIII and originally only took the King’s mail. However, later monarchs learnt they could make money by having other people to pay to use the service and so a regular postal system was set up. By the 18th century, they made more money by carrying passengers as well.
There was a good selection of stuff from the Georgian postal service, including guard uniforms and an 18th century mail coach. The best part was a section telling the story of a coach in 1816 which was attacked by an escaped lioness, which took out one of the horses before being shot. The post was only 45 minutes late.
The rest of the museum tells the more modern story of the postal service. There’s stuff about the development of stamps, post boxes, uniforms and different vehicles. My favourite being the ridiculous 5-wheeled cycles. The have the large ‘penny’ wheel of the penny-farthing, supported by four stabilising ‘farthings’. Another nickname for the ridiculous contraption was the ‘hen and chickens’. They were really only popular in Horsham, where they were invented.
It’s a museum very well set up for younger visitors, with lots of interactive elements and things to do at a more suitable height.
Unforgotten Lives: Rediscovering Londoners of African, Caribbean Asian and Indigenous Heritage 1560-1860.
Another freebie without the Art Pass. I talked about this and a matching lecture last week.