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I visited the National Maritime Museum yesterday, which has some fantastic examples of ship figureheads and ship badges from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From the outset of the age of seafaring, images were used to mark out the identity of a ship and these soon developed into painted wooden statues, mounted onto the bowsprit.
Early on the images were often religious symbols to protect the ship during its voyages or animals to indicate the ship’s power and grace and to frighten enemy sailors. Serpents, swans and lions were among the most popular animals used to adorn ships in the medieval and early modern periods.
In the eighteenth century, painted human figures became more popular. These were often mythological figures and/or figures that represented the name of the ship. The popularity of these figures continued into the nineteenth century, becoming larger, heavier and more elaborate. Certain figures were very popular, for example a naked or semi-clothed woman was said to calm a stormy ocean.
With the success of steam-powered ships, figureheads went out of use and were abolished by the Royal Navy for major vessels in 1894. In 1918 the Navy adopted the use of ship’s badges displayed on the bridge to mark the identity of a ship. These were much more uniform in design but still contained symbols of the ship’s name.
I visited the Black Country Living Museum last month, which is just outside Dudley near Birmingham. It’s an interesting mix of museum and reconstructed town with actors, reconstructed shops, an old mine and a canal with tunnels. It’s huge and really deserves a whole day to see everything and I reckon it’s perfect for families and kids.
Before you are released into the outside areas, there is a small but really informative museum about the Black Country area, which encompasses Wolverhampton, Walsall, Dudley and Sandwell. It gives in depth information about the industries that emerged and developed in these areas: coal, iron, steel and more specifically chains, locks, glass, springs, equestrian and railway equipment. The areas really became the driving force of the industrial revolution and the museum is designed to give you an overview of what was produced in the Black Country before you walk into the reconstructed town.
Outside the museum there is a small transport museum with cars and engines from the era and there is a working tram which you can take to get around the grounds, although I didn’t take that up myself. On a nice day (which this was!) it’s a genuinely nice place to have a walk around. There’s a small park and the lanes and cobbled streets that run through the town are so quiet it is easy to imagine you are back in the nineteenth century. There are over fifty reconstructed houses, shops and workshops which you can explore, and actors in period costume give you information about how people used to live. On that note, the actors have got the balance quite right: they are not too pushy and unnerving and they won’t overact or refuse to come out of character. I normally don’t like actors at historical attractions but the people working here were pretty friendly without being overwhelming.
Walking around the town it is easy to see why the Black Country Living Museum is such a good place for kids. There were several school parties there when I visited and they seemed to be having a great time playing Victorian games like hoop rolling on the cobbles. There is also a reconstructed school where we could see the kids being given an authentic Victorian lesson in the classroom. Once they’ve put up with the educational side, there’s a reconstructed funfair with authentic old arcade games and rides which although slightly creepy is probably good fun if you’re part of a huge group of children.
Other highlights of the experience include a reconstructed coal drift mine which you can explore in a group led by a guide. It’s pitch dark and very narrow and uneven so gives you as good an idea of the mining conditions of the time as you you’re going to get in a museum. Miners tended to work twelve-hour shifts, some could be as young as ten years old and casualties and deaths due to flooding, falls and collapsed mines were common. This tour was one of the most interesting parts of my visit to the museum and I recommend you check the tour times early to be sure you don’t miss the opportunity to go.
The Cradley Heath Workers’ Institute is another really interesting building in the town. The interior of the building is set in 1935 and the information, photos and artefacts inside explore the British labour history. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the 1910 chainmakers’ strike, there is an exhibition about Mary Macarthur, secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League. I might explore her life in more depth in another post.
Again if you check the times early and pay a little extra, you can take a canal trip through the tunnels and it really is worth it. When I went, it was the last trip of the day so we were the only ones on the boat and had a private tour from the guide. The tunnels are some of the longest in the country and were built to transport cargo and to give access to mine limestone from the hills. The guide we had was really interesting and showed us fossils in the rock and even better there is an audio-visual display half way through the tour which incredibly shows you the geological history of the Black Country from the Big Bang to today!
Finally don’t forget to check out the Bottle & Glass Inn, which serves traditional food and real ale. Unfortunately it was closed when I got round to visiting it, but I did visit the authentic Hobbs and Sons Fish and Chip shop which was excellent, and serves pickled onions and pickled eggs!
The Black Country Living Museum is well worth a visit if you’re in the area and is a particularly good day out for kids. The adult price is £14.95 which isn’t too bad considering the size of the place and the amount to see there, so I would say it is worth it. If I had any criticism it would be that I would’ve liked to find out a little more about how they set up the museum in the first place, what was there before and how much of the buildings are original and exactly what the reconstructed parts were based on. But leaving aside the history of the museum itself, it does give a great overview of British industrial and labour history in the Black Country area, and I certainly learnt a lot and have a much better feel for the period than I did before I visited.
It’s been years since I went to Stratford upon Avon to see everything Shakespearian and I’ve forgotten almost everything about it. So as I live so near now, I’ve been back to look around and top up my knowledge. It’s a beautiful town with loads of original Elizabethan buildings still standing along with buildings from almost every era since then. Unlike many towns you visit, it has not been badly ruined by war destruction, high rise buildings or road widening. There are still nice pedestrianised areas which reduce the impact of the traffic on the old houses. Of course there have been many recent changes, but compared to other towns, the historical atmosphere of the town has survived admirably.
For £12.50 you can get a ticket which gets you entry into Shakespeare’s birthplace, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, Hall’s Croft and Nash’s House & New Place. Other houses and gardens are only open in the summer and you can get tickets that include those too. I started with Shakespeare’s Birthplace where you get a little audiovisual tour through Shakespeare’s life, which includes clips of performances of his plays as well as a good list of common English phrases invented by Shakespeare. After this you are let into the house to walk around where he grew up with his parents John and Mary and siblings Gilbert, Joan, Anne and Richard. Using documentary evidence the house has been furnished as it would have been in 1574 when William was ten.
Examples of Shakespeare’s phrases:
- dog will have his day
- heart of gold
- naked truth
- one fell swoop
- the milk of human kindness
- too much of a good thing
- wear one’s heart on one’s sleeve
William was baptised at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford on 26th April 1564 and his birthday is usually celebrated as 23rd April. He was lucky to have lived as infant mortality was high and bubonic plague struck the town soon after his birth, killing 15 percent of the population.
In the tour you learn a little about his father’s business as a glove maker and also his financial issues, having illegally dealt in the wool trade and in money lending. There are also displays about how the house was saved after falling into disrepair in the 19th century. You can see Victorian visitors’ graffiti as well as interesting photographs of the house before it was rescued and restored by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. On entering the gardens you can see actors performing scenes and monologues from his plays and I would certainly recommend visiting in the summer as the gardens of all of the properties will be much more beautiful than they do now in March. I’ll write more about those other properties soon.
I’ve been to several exhibitions recently and keeping up my posting about them is proving difficult, so here’s a start with my visit to the British Library a couple of weeks ago. I went to have a look at their exhibition on Henry VIII. The exhibition isn’t free, but you do get an audio guide recorded by guest curator Dr David Starkey. If you’ve seen his documentary, you’ll already know most of the key facts presented, but what makes this exhibition particularly good is that it brings together many key original documents and portraits that would normally be difficult to see without traipsing all over the world.
For example, the highlights include the earliest known portrait of Henry VIII by an unknown artist and the Holbein portrait of Edward VI as a baby, both of which are usually held at the Berger Collection at the Denver Art Museum. This collection also holds a portrait of Elizabeth I by Hans Eworth and portraits of several other key figures from British history. Also on show is a 1527 love letter from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn on loan from the Vatican Library, a portrait of Katherine of Aragon by Michael Sittow normally kept in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, and the 1534 Act of Supremacy and Henry VIII’s will both from the National Archives in Kew. The exhibition also includes the Beaufort Book of Hours, a portrait of Anne Boleyn from the Dean and Chapter of Ripon, the Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I from the private collection of Mark Pigott OBE and the famous document announcing the birth of Elizabeth I, where you can see the word ‘prince’ is corrected to ‘princes’.
I was so glad to be able to see these original documents all together and for that reason alone, this exhibition is definitely worth visiting. Apart from this however, there are several other interesting aspects of Henry VIII’s reign that are brought to light in the exhibition.
Firstly, you can see many documents edited personally in Henry VIII’s own handwriting and the exhibition draws attention to these alterations with interactive exhibits and transcriptions of what Henry wrote. It is certainly interesting to see how far Henry was personally involved in the break with Rome and how confident of his own religious authority he became, even attempting to alter the ten commandments himself!
In addition, the exhibition contains many original maps, plans of coastal defences and designs for tents for the Field of Cloth of Gold. I generally find historical maps fascinating, so there are plenty of opportunities to see the development of the English view of the rest of the world, as it was during Henry’s reign that cartography really began to thrive. The tent designs also give a vivid insight into what the Field of Cloth of Gold must have been like as they are surprisingly detailed and colourful.
The exhibition ends on the 6th September, so get down there and see it if you haven’t already. Even if you can’t, there are several great podcasts available in conjunction with the exhibition, including three recorded lectures by David Starkey, which supply most of the information presented in the exhibition in an interesting and engaging way.
Rarely seen photographs of 19th century London are going to be revealed at an exhibition at the British Library in October. Many of the photos were originally taken in order to preserve the history of the city, while industrialisation altered its appearance significantly. The exhibition will also include images from around the world during the period, but the ones I found most interesting are those representing real people and the construction of key London sights, such as the Underground and Nelson’s Column. The photos that have been released also include one of Hippo Obaysch in London Zoo, who was donated by Egypt in 1850. From The Guardian:
The animal’s arrival at London zoo caused huge excitement and visitor numbers quickly doubled. But, as is often the way with celebrity, interest waned as people began to realise the star didn’t do very much.
The image of Obaysch will be one of more than 250 rarely seen 19th-century photographs to be exhibited at the British Library’s big winter show, details of which were announced today. Incredibly, for an institution which has some 350,000 photographs spread across its various and vast archives, this will be the first major photographic exhibition to be held at the library.
John Falconer, the library’s head of visual materials, said: “Although we have what is undoubtedly a world class collection of 19th-century photographs, these have not been particularly prominent in the public eye. This exhibition is an attempt to remedy that.”
The exhibition, Points of View, will run at the British Library from 30th October 2009 to 7th March 2010 and will be free. There’s a little more information about it on the British Library website with a video of some of the photographs.
This interesting video outlines the work of the Tudor kitchens at Hampton court. They’re open 50 days a year to show the public how food was prepared 500 years ago, using original recipes and reconstructed furniture and equipment. I was directed to this from Henry VIII’s Twitter page…yes really! It’s run by the Historic Royal Palaces to celebrate his accession to the throne.
Using digital photography, scientists have been able to reconstruct the colours in tapestries at Hampton Court. The many tapestries commissioned by King Henry VIII, particularly the ten Abraham tapestries created to celebrate the birth of Prince Edward, used to be shining with bright colours, gold and silver, but are now, as expected 500 years later, completely faded. They have been able to analyse the colours of the thread at the back of the tapestries, in order to work out the exact colour and then reapply it to a photograph so that we can see how they would have looked in the 16th century.
When Paul Hertzner, a lawyer from Germany, visited Hampton Court in 1598, he reported in amazement: “All the walls in the palace shine with gold and silver.” Now visitors amble past one of the greatest surviving sets of tapestries in the world with scarcely a glance at figures barely distinguishable against a once glowing background.
Until yesterday, when the 500-year-old tapestry shone again in crimsons, blues, yellows, greens and pinks. The magic was achieved by light, the very medium that destroyed the colour in the first place.
The tapestries have always been on display, but I haven’t been to Hampton Court for years and I don’t remember them at all. I’ve been meaning to go again for ages and now with all the celebrations for Henry VIII’s accession to the throne starting next month, I’ll make sure to go at some point.
They’re going to open an exhibition Henry VIII’s Tapestries Revealed, where lights will be shone on the tapestries to show the colours to the public. I don’t think they’ve announced when this will be, but this is what’s on the Historic Royal Palaces website:
We are developing the lightshow technology to produce a ‘virtual’ colour reconstruction of a tapestry. This technology will provide images of the scientifically-derived original appearance of a tapestry.
This will then either be projected onto large screens or – as has been successfully done in the preliminary study – on to the existing hanging tapestry. You will be able to see the tapestries in their original splendour for the first time in centuries.
The Tate Britain has announced today the opening of a new exhibition, Van Dyck and Britain, which will run from 18th February to 17th March this year. I first came across the work of Anthony van Dyck after I went to see Charles I: King and Martyr; a small collection of images at the National Portrait Gallery, demonstrating the different reactions of artists towards Charles I’s execution. That tiny exhibition has finished now, so I hope this new one at the Tate will give an even more detailed and fascinating insight into the early 17th century monarchy.
Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) was the greatest painter in seventeenth-century Britain. Though trained in Flanders, he had a huge impact on British cultural life as the principal painter at King Charles I’s ostensibly elegant court, where his impact was similar to that of Hans Holbein at the court of Henry VIII.
Van Dyck was born and trained in the great art centre of Antwerp. He made a brief visit to London in 1620-21 before returning in 1632 to King Charles I’s court. Intensely ambitious and hugely productive, he re-invented portrait-painting in Britain, retaining his pre-eminence until his premature death at the age of 42. Working in a period of intense political ferment during the run-up to the British Civil War, van Dyck portrayed many of the leading characters of the period. His iconic portraits of King Charles I have shaped our view of the Stuart monarchy, while the compositions he used influenced many future generations of British painters.