Tucked away in Chelsea just beyond the Royal Hospital (where they hold the Chelsea Flower Show each May) lies London’s latest revamped museum, the National Army Museum. It’s been three years in the re-make at a cost of some £24 million and no doubt time was spent considering the branding. Could there be a more “catchy” name, after all other military museums have tried to raise their profile with some smart new brand? Fortunately this is not the case here. It is still a national museum about the British army through war and peace, light and dark, and it is very good.
I can’t promise that everyone will enjoy themselves among the guns and the tanks but in fact there is not a lot of hardware on view. This is more about the soldiers. I remember the old museum but this time I looked with fresh eyes having recently found out that I come from several generations of soldiers going back to the 17th century and the Swedish King Karl XII, who fought bitter wars across northern Europe. Many of the visitors to this museum will be former and current soldiers bringing friends and families. And they will not be disappointed.
From the vast lobby
As you enter the new, vast lobby, your bags will be searched – a reminder of the uncertain times we live in. To the right up a few steps is a large and welcoming café with ample room for children as well as adults. And, of course, there is a shop with a range of specially commissioned souvenirs all themed to the museum and its content – look out for the gin and tonic kits!
From the lobby you get a good view of what else is on offer – four permanent galleries featuring “Battle”, “Army”, “Soldier” and “Society”, as well as a temporary exhibition space – at the moment housing “War Paint” – pictures by amateur and professional artist reflecting battles and conflicts. The displays are well thought-out, dense and multi-layered with objects, facts and figures as well as questions. Most of us will respond to something here and try out some of the excellent interactives. And there are some iconic exhibits including Lawrence of Arabia’s desert robes, the skeleton of Napoleon’s horse and a 1918 original trench coat – a Burberry – designed for officers only. The Museum now has an accessible resource centre and a lecture theatre, as well as a full complement of lifts and lavatories.
Don’t miss these treats
There is so much more to enjoy this spring in London. Until 14 May you can find out more about the multi-talented Eduardo Paolozzi at the Whitechapel Gallery, David Hockney of course at Tate Britain – until 29 May, while Michelangelo and Sebastiano continues at the National Gallery and nearby at the National Portrait Gallery don’t miss the stunning portraits by Howard Hodgkin, until 18 June.
Read more about my Swedish family history and my other books including Finding Veronese and the newly launched The Go Around both available as E-books on Amazon at http://www.ylvafrench.co.uk
Great art at the National Gallery
Michelangelo and Sebastiano, the new exhibition at the National Gallery, can be enjoyed on several levels. The art historian will relish the opportunity to discover the way the two artists worked together and the influence of Michelangelo on the Venetian artist Sebastiano de Pombo. He had arrived in Rome as Michelangelo was busy on the Sistine Chapel in 1511. Soon they became friends and there are letters between the two of them translated into English for visitors to study. Michelangelo provided the younger Sebastiano with drawings and on display are some of their collaborative works.
Those who just come to see some stunning artworks will not be disappointed either, although many are familiar from the National Gallery collection. The Royal Academy’s Taddei Tondo had moved here for the exhibition which continues until 25 June. Using the Gallery’s North galleries rather than the exhibition space in the Sainsbury Wing, provides headroom for the larger than life-size marble statue of the Risen Christ by Michelangelo and the three dimensional recreation of the Borgherini Chapel from S Pietro in Montorio, Rome.
This is mostly religious art, with the occasional portrait, created for worship and as tribute to the Creator to be displayed in chapels and churches. Every effort has been made here to give the artworks space, effective lighting and useful information, and to create in these galleries some of the atmosphere in which they were originally shown.
Longford Castle – a hidden gem
Most people have never heard of Longford Castle but there it is hidden away just a few miles outside Salisbury. It started life as an Elizabethan Manor house on the river Avon but thanks to the treasures in a Spanish galleon wrecked in 1588 and a beautiful and enterprising Swedish noblewoman, Helena Snakenborg it became much more. The new home she planned with her second husband Thomas Gorges, took on the appearance of a moated, almost romantic Swedish castle with three substantial towers at each of the three corners. The triangular courtyard was later glazed over by one of the successive owners – since 1717 the Bouveries, a wealthy Huguenot family, ennobled as the Earls of Radnor.
Your blogger arrived on a tour of the castle organised by the National Gallery which has a close connection with the family. The famous painting The Ambassadors by Holbein is just one of works now at the National Gallery which was once owned by the family. But there is plenty left to see in this beautifully furnished and lived-in castle with a view of the garden and grounds from every window.
Our excellent guides led us on a tour not just to see the Gainsboroughs – one in every room – but many portraits by Reynolds and Van Dyck. Among the more unexpected works, I spotted a portrait by Elisabeth Louise Vigee-Lebrun of the third Earl as a young man, another portrait by Angelica Kauffman, a skating scene by Hendrick Avercamp, another full length portrait by Rubens, and one by Geerharts of Queen Elizabeth. The Picture Gallery on the first floor has a Claude Lorrain landscape at either end and is filled with treasures. These include a work partly by Rubens of the Monastery of the Escorial which had belonged to Charles I, and a stunning Correggio (now reattributed to Cambiaso) of Venus and Cupid. And there is more….I haven’t even mentioned the furniture or the porcelain.
To visit Longford Castle, go to the National Gallery website, although many of the limited tour dates are now fully booked.
Read more about Helena Snakenborg and her arrival in England on my website and find out more about my books including Finding Veronese and the newly launched The Go Around both available as E-books on Amazon and the Family Gronstedt’s history in Swedish at http://www.ylvafrench.co.uk
Spring is definitely in the air with daffodils in full bloom in London’s parks, and also at the rather grey and stony Paternoster Square in the City, as I discovered on a wander. In fact it was a promotion for Marie Curie – a most worthy cause – but they weren’t all real!
At Tate Modern the Rauschenberg exhibition is still attracting visitors as it draws to a close in early April. This is a mega selection from his long career and includes many of his well-known works such as the Goat with a tyre which has been lent by the Moderna Museeet in Stockholm. It was developed in the 1950s from a stuffed goat the artist found in a second-hand shop in New York.
Tate Britain, as predicted, is bursting at the seams with Hockney fans – well worth the effort to get a ticket. Some people love the portraits, others prefer the Yorkshire landscapes. So there will be something there for everyone.
Looking back to the 1930s
More challenging are the two exhibitions at the Royal Academy and they make a good match – maybe not on the same day. There is a lot to digest, particularly in the Russian exhibition in the main galleries. In the Sackler Wing the small but exquisite exhibition covers the impact of the depression on American art in the inter-war years.
Revolution: Russian Art 1917-1932 took me back to my visit to St Petersburg in September last year when with our Russian Martin Randall guide we spent several hours at the Russian Art Museum. The RA has brought together iconic artworks from there and also from private collectors to illustrate the post-revolutionary period by Chagall, Kandinsky and Malevich including posters, porcelain and photographs. Short film snippets show life in collective housing and on the land. There’s even a mock-up of what a small flat might have looked like. In a country where many still could not read, the propaganda value of revolutionary art was soon realised and used on the sides of trains travelling through the vast countryside.
America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s while much smaller also pulls a punch with its evocative paintings of despair as Western economies plunged into depression after the Wall Street crash in 1929. Grant Wood’s picture of the cheerless American couple in “American Gothic” is the highlight of the exhibition. But every painting in this show really does tell a story….so linger and explore. You may even spot Lenin’s face in one of the paintings.
Family memories of the depression
In my Swedish book about Family Gronstedt, the depression played its part. My maternal grand-father was not just a doctor but also an investor in property and shares. A few years after the Wall Street crash which reverberated round European capitals, the Swedish “match king”, Ivar Kreuger, took his own life in Paris causing further havoc. He had created his financial empire not just from matches but also from financial loan instruments to countries around the world – something of a Ponzi scheme – which collapsed with him taking down banks, and large and small investors. My grand-father’s finances survived the blast through Sweden’s economy but he died in 1937 with his resources severely depleted. It was a tough time for many families as the RA exhibitions show.
Find out more about my books including – newly launched The Go Around and the Family Gronstedt’s history – at http://www.ylvafrench.co.uk