Ylva111's Blog

Fashion, terror and the Gods – London in November

November 11, 2017
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For those of us who were here or anywhere in the world at the time, the images of Nine Eleven will stay with us forever.  At the Age of Terror exhibition dozens of newspaper front pages from around the world make a vivid impact at the start and reverse images of the two towers on the floor creates a sense of the height of the blocks.  And for those who need reminding or were too young at the time (or not even born) there is a film showing news broadcasts of  the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York as it happened on 11 September 2001.

This new exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London occupies most of Level 3 and is sparsely and elegantly displayed to maximise the impact of each statement and art work. The exhibition is about what happened afterwards – the global response to the Age of Terror through art works and videos.  It is not a comfortable exhibition as we come face to face with increased state control, rendition, new weapons, drone attacks, as well as increased security, the loss of personal freedom and detentions.  Age of Terror continues until 28 May www.iwm.org.uk


Diana’s dresses at Kensington Palace

At Kensington Palace I caught the last few days of the Enlightened Princesses exhibition, covering the 18th century royals, Augusta, Caroline and Charlotte, spurred by the stimulating two-day conferences on “enlightened royal” women across Europe, organised by Historic Royal Palaces.

Does Princess Diana fall into this category? We will never know her full potential but she certainly did a lot for fashion as the exhibition now at Kensington Palace shows.  More than 20 of her most iconic outfits are on display, many designed by British designers such as Caroline Walker. It illustrates how her taste changed and fashion evolved from the ruffles of her younger years to the elegance and sleekness of her later evening gowns.  They are here, individually displayed on  fashion dummies but also in photographs of Diana and the occasions when she wore a particular dress, each contributing to the story of her public achievements and private sorrows.

This is another trip down memory lane, tinged with sadness because of her premature death. For the fashionistas it’s a treat – and there are fans here from all over the world to see these beautiful dresses.  Unfortunately the exhibition is crammed into some not very large spaces, so there is queuing at busy times.  It continues until the end of the year.  www.hrp.org.uk/kensingtonpalace


What next – well it’s the British Museum again…

Listening to the beguiling voice of Neil MacGregor (former director of the British Museum) each morning on BBC Radio 4, describing one of a hundred objects linked to religion, took me to the museum for the Living with Gods exhibition.  Here you can see each of the artefacts described on the radio and many more.  This exhibition is in the small display area above the old Reading Room so not big, but just right for this interpretation of mainly small and sometimes very personal objects used in religious worship.

If you haven’t listened to the radio broadcasts, I recommend the audio guide to get the full benefit of the stories behind these sometimes humble objects.  You will leave convinced (as though we needed it) that all religions have more in common than some of the faithful believe.  Here you can share stories, objects, images, prayers, meditation and rituals with others from different faiths.  The power of prayer, the importance of festivals and pilgrimage and the marking of key life experiences can be found in all religions, and even those who have given up religion altogether will enjoy exploring the cultural experiences we share with others.

The exhibition touches on religious differences but on the whole you will leave this exhibition uplifted with a feeling of communion.  And there is a gift shop!  http://www.britishmuseum.org

 More from me at my website to ylvafrench.co.uk



Fast track mail, power of opera and a discovery at the RA

October 13, 2017
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The Postal Museum opened in London in June and is on track to become a top attraction. Not so much for its exhibitions but for the Mail Rail experience – a trip in the miniature mail trains which ran under London’s streets for 75 years.  The tunnels were built in the 1930s to avoid traffic congestion.  That’s hardly improved but the level of mail, which once stood at 3.6 billion items per year, has declined considerably.

The new museum is located on two sites in Farringdon, with the Museum and Café in a new building, and across the road, backing onto the old Mount Pleasant sorting office, the Mail Rail experience. We started with a coffee in the already popular museum café and then moved on to the exhibition.  The first part covers the history of postal services as they developed during the reign of Henry VIII from ad hoc royal deliveries to regular mail coaches across the country.  This section was rather noisy with audio commentaries and interactives aimed, it seemed, mainly at children.  But as we progressed into a mail service for all, through the invention of the Penny Black stamp in 1840 by Rowland Hill, there was more information, a section on the two world wars, and excellent interactives and films which explored individual subjects in depth, for example, the introduction of postcodes.

Towards the end there is a temporary exhibition focusing on what an individual letter might mean with examples from across the world. Here I expected more information on the organisation’s past as well as looking to the future – the separation of the Post Office into Royal Mail and British Telecommunications, privatisation, what’s happening to post offices and the impact of the digital explosion.  Maybe that will come later.

Across the road the Mail Rail exhibition is located in the original basement premises of the network with more history displays on the development of the underground train service for mail bags and also the real trains with Royal Mail carriages where post was sorted overnight as they sped north. You can try this for yourself in a “moving” carriage! Some people will remember the Great Train Robbery of 1963 which has its own display.  Book early if you wish to experience the ride down the dark tunnel!  Well worth it, apparently, although your blogger did not try it this time. http://www.postalmuseum.org


Power of opera

Opera: Power, Passion and Politics, the latest exhibition at the V&A, is a wonderful visual and audio experience. The designers have taken full advantage of the new underground space unveiled last month – a huge plain box –  and created seven distinct areas exploring the magic of opera.

Your headphones vibrate with music as you walk through the exhibition and wall posters provide information. Monteverdi’s Venice starts the show, which then moves to Handel’s London, stopping later in Vienna.  Here a scene from the Marriage of Figaro is played out on the screen with the wonderful music on your headphones.  Then it’s on to Milan and Verdi’s Nabucco – revealing the power of the collective voice for Italian unification.  Paintings, costumes and other objects in each city area illustrate the theme of passion and politics.

As we reach the 20th century a chaise long is the centre piece, while the gruesome but wonderful Salome is shown on the screen, followed in the next section by equally brutal scenes from Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk – a murderous story in Stalin’s Russia.  Plenty of passion here!

There is so much more to experience, so allow plenty of time for this exhibition, linger and enjoy the music. It continues until 25 February 2018.  www.vam.ac.uk

Footnote from the Royal Academy

On a re-visit to Matisse’s Studio – my favourite exhibition this year (closing on 12 November), your blogger discovered the new Ladies toilets – top-marks to the RA for space and comfort…..the big redevelopment rolls on.

More from me at my website to ylvafrench.co.uk

Inside out at Tate Britain and other news

September 29, 2017
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Rachel Whiteread’s sculptures now at Tate Britain are spaciously displayed in the upstairs gallery – walls removed to give head room to the large objects. Smaller pieces are ranged round the walls and include a mattress, bookshelves and torsos cast in hot water bottles!  “Untitled Stairs” rise magnificently in the centre – on their way to nowhere.  There is some colour among the smaller objects but overall this is a white and grey exhibition.  Don’t miss the information on public commissions outside and the inside out shed in the garden.  Whatever it is, it’s not boring!

At Tate Britain until 21 Jan 2018 – http://www.tate.org.uk

Inside Matisse’s Studio

This smallish exhibition at the Royal Academy is thoughtful and engaging. Some of you may remember your blogger visiting the Matisse Museum a few years ago on a wonderful South of France tour with Martin Randall Tours but I was not so impressed with the museum which was cold and impersonal.  This is the opposite.  The RA has created an intimate experience where objects from the artist’s personal collection are related to paintings and other works.  They include small sculptures, textiles and even furniture.  This exhibition closes on 12 November, so book now.  www.royalacademy.org.uk

The Bowes Museum now at the Wallace Collection

The wonderful Bowes Museum in County Durham has leant some exquisite Spanish paintings to the Wallace Collection. Here in the small exhibition suite  you can lose yourself in these mainly religious works, some by El Greco and Goya.  But don’t forget the Spanish paintings on view in the main gallery on the first floor.

The Wallace Collection is locked in a time warp by its past but has over the years managed to transform itself by adding the education and exhibition suites downstairs, as well as the popular café in the covered courtyard. Now bigger plans are afoot with an extension at the back to provide more space for temporary exhibitions. http://www.wallacecollection.org

Get smart or see for yourself

How to look at art in galleries is a debatable issue. Some head straight for the label to make sure they know what they are looking at.  Others stand back and take in the whole, then examine every detail, sometimes creeping so close that they set off the alarm!  Then there are the people with the audio guide, listening intently but still pushing in to read the label in case they have missed something.  Others peer at the screen of their multi-media guide.  And now there is Smartify.

At the Wallace Collection and other galleries you can try it out for yourself by downloading the free app on your smartphone. Your phone scans the painting and using image recognition brings up information on the painting. You can save the image to “build your own gallery”.

The stated aim of Smartify is to broaden access by making a visit to museums and art galleries more interactive and fun for the “mobile” generation. This is, I am sure, a worthy aim and perhaps slightly less irritating than people taking photos of paintings but it raises interesting questions.  Who benefits – the museum which provides the information free or the visitor strolling past or Smartify?

More from me at my website to ylvafrench.co.uk

Winner takes nearly all

July 10, 2017
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While The Hepworth Wakefield took the Museum of the Year Prize of £100,000, it was not quite all.  This year the Art Fund introduced a new gift for the finalists – £10,000 each.  It may not make a lot of difference to Tate Modern but for the other runners up, the Sir John Soane Museum, the Lapworth Museum of Geology and the National Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art, it could fill a useful hole. Your blogger did not make it to Newmarket before the Prizegiving event at the British Museum at the beginning of July but having met the team at the grand event will surely make it there in the near future.

Away to Newmarket! ….was a popular invitation from both King James I and later, his son Charles I. James I had a royal palace built here and by 1610 the Court would spend several weeks a year enjoying hunting, horseracing, riding in the countryside, masques and other entertainment. It’s ironic that poor Charles I should have been arrested by Cromwell’s troops in 1647 as the Civil War came to an end and brought to Newmarket, before his execution in London.  Charles II, when restored to the throne, wasted no time in returning Newmarket’s role as the rest and recreation place for the royals (and mistresses)!  Today it is of course the centre of an important global industry, horse race breeding and training.

Back to the Hepworth

The Hepworth Gallery at Wakefield – in a most attractive building by David Chipperfield – was first shortlisted for the Museum Prize, when it opened in 2013 but missed out on the big money.  I enjoyed my visit there just over a year ago, best described as stimulating but also peaceful, inviting you to contemplate each object in the different settings created by the daring architecture. The sculptor Barbara Hepworth grew up in Wakefield, where she met her contemporary, Henry Moore, before moving to London and later St Ives.  The changing displays illustrate her life through her works.  Your blogger has mentioned before, the sculpture by Hepworth, overlooking the lake at Battersea Park, created as a model for the much larger memorial in New York to Dag Hammarskjold, the Swedish UN Secretary, who died in 1961.

More royal history in Edinburgh

On a weekend visit to Edinburgh, your blogger enjoyed the extensive exhibition “On the trail of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobites”. In fact it was well into the second half before the Bonnie Prince himself arrived but the ground had been thoroughly prepared. There were no less than five challenges to the united English/Scottish throne first occupied by the Stuarts through James I from 1603.  And it was the last of these (apart from more recent, less violent events) when the Young Pretender, born in exile, made the final Jacobite bid.  After various battles he marched South in 1746 with his troops, heading for London but halting fatally at Derby.  Lacking the expected support from French and English volunteers, Prince Charlie then turned and headed north, with the Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II and his troops hot on his heels.  The Duke became known as “the Butcher” after the terrible battle at Culloden, when the Jacobites where not just defeated but slaughtered. The Young Pretender survived, fled and hid in various places, including dressing up as a woman, before returning to France, where he declined into drunkenness and ignominy.  A sad story, well told.

On a more cheerful note…..

On a more cheerful note, don’t miss the wonderful Canaletto exhibition at the Queens Gallery, see May blog. And for a good laugh, and some thoughtful insights, explore Grayson Perry’s “most popular art exhibition ever” at the Serpentine Gallery.

More about the Museums of the Year Prize at http://www.artfund.org and more from me at my website to ylvafrench.co.uk

Second visits make all the difference

June 15, 2017
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On my second visit to the new Design Museum in the former Commonwealth Institute I started to like it…..And perhaps when I re-visit the transformed Garden Museum at Lambeth the same will happen. Any visit to the Royal College of Surgeons’ museum at Lincoln’s Inn will have to wait a few years!

The Design Museum warmed up by Californian Dreams

On my first visit shortly after it opened, I found the new Design Museum cold and unfriendly and the permanent exhibition on the second floor crammed and uninspiring. Memories of the old Commonwealth Institute kept crowding in and I looked for some recognition of the battle that had gone on in the ‘90s to keep it going, something which I had played a small part in.

This time we visited the California: Designing Freedom exhibition, spaciously displayed in the ground floor temporary exhibition gallery.  This took us on a time trail from the ‘60s – the summer of love – to geeky blokes in garages launching the tech revolution.  Here was the design palette for the LA Olympics in 1984 with its colourful branding in contrast to the strict guidelines to laid down today by the Olympics Association. And we remembered some of those first cumbersome computers, mobile phones, printers and fax-machines, and compared them with today’s replacement.  It’s clear for all the efforts of Apple and others that they, too, will soon be museum objects.  The exhibition continues until October.

The café on the ground floor still needs some murals or posters, but has good coffee and a great selection of filled rolls and sandwiches. And friendly guides meet visitors as they arrive. The only thing missing is a bit of history!


Mystery burials at the Garden Museum, Lambeth

The Garden Museum, newly reopened, in St Mary’s Church on the edge of the Lambeth bridge roundabout also evokes memories. In the ‘70s and ‘80s,  the intrepid Rosemary Nicholson made it her life work to save the church and the churchyard where the gardeners, father and son, Tradescant are buried.  At the London Tourist Board we did our bit by staging the annual London In Bloom Prizegiving in what was then a rather chilly church with one toilet and not much comfort.  Rosemary would be pleased to see what the dynamic director, Christopher Woodward, has achieved.  A hard-won extension at the back provides more space not just for the café but also for a learning centre. The exhibition galleries are linked by a new high level walkway and tell the story of gardening in short sharp bursts.

During the redevelopment work the builders lifted a few flagstones in the floor and revealed a secret burial chamber with up to 30 lead coffins.  Five of these were identified as those of Archbishops, former occupants of nearby Lambeth Palace. The crypt can now be glimpsed through a glass panel in the floor and perhaps more information on this discovery will follow.

We missed the opportunity to try the new café which was not quite ready, and will return. Hopefully the second visit will not just provide a good lunch but also a slightly more welcoming feeling in the church itself.  A few plants perhaps, not just in the beautiful churchyard garden but here as well? And a little bit more about the history of the church?


Royal College of Surgeons

If you were planning a revisit to the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons, Lincoln’s Inn, you’ll have to wait. The building is now closed and all the museum objects are being packed up and will in due course (2020?) be displayed in a new museum, on the ground floor of the building.  Something to look forward to – in the meantime, why not take a trip to the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow!

More from me at my website ylvafrench.co.uk

Discover Venice in London

May 25, 2017
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Can’t face the thought of the summer crowds in Venice? Why not head to the Queen’s Gallery in London where Canaletto and the Art of Venice has just opened?  Mind you, there may be a few obstacles as you make your way along Buckingham Palace Road with other tourists in search of the Palace.  Passing the porticoed entrance to the Queen’s Gallery, some are tempted inside to explore the shop; others join the queue for the Gallery, sometimes in the mistaken belief that they are entering the Palace itself.

All this, as well as the entrance charge, will be worth it, however, for all lovers of Venetian art. So take your time to explore this beautifully presented exhibition which includes not just the Queen’s works by Canaletto but many works of art by his contemporaries, such as Sebastiano and Marco Ricci, Rosalba Carriera, Zuccarelli and Battista.

Who was Joseph Smith?

The common factor apart from Venice itself is Joseph Smith, who as British Consul in Venice, put together an extraordinary collection not just of paintings but also of books and prints, which was sold to King George III in 1765. As a result the Royal Collection has one of the world’s most outstanding works from this golden age of Venetian art.

The exhibition starts with two familiar views of the annual Regatta on the Grand Canal, and then explores Canalettos works from his early drawings. At the Queen’s Gallery, when it is not too busy, it’s possible to get a very close look at his skilful technique displayed from an early age.  It was this which attracted Joseph Smith to the young Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697 – 1768) later known as Canaletto.  Works by other Venetians follow – don’t miss Rosalba Carriera’s wonderful pastels of the four seasons. In the largest gallery, you can inspect the sequence of 12 paintings commissioned by Smith which takes you along the Grand Canal stage by stage.  And that’s not all, less well-known views of Roman ruins are also included in this comprehensive exhibition.

Canaletto became a favourite with the British on the Grand Tour and there are many works in collections around the country – many more than in Italy. Canaletto also spent ten years in England working for a variety of stately home owners.

The exhibition continues until November. More on http://www.royalcollection.org.uk

And more in my book….

The exhibition displays Canaletto’s work in the context of other artists in Venice at the time, many of whom were supported by Joseph Smith. In my book Finding Veronese – Memoir of a painting, I follow one of these works, a copy of a Veronese altarpiece probably by Sebastiano Ricci, and its journey across Europe from Venice to London, to Scotland and finally to Sweden.

Go to ylvafrench.co.uk to read more about Finding Veronese – Memoir of a painting, available as an E-book on Amazon.

Five in the running for the Art Fund Prize

May 1, 2017
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It was good news for the five finalists of this year’s Art Fund Museum of the Year Prize; they will all get £10,000 each. And of course one of them will get the full £100,000.  Which one you may ask yourself, looking down the list.  Here is your blogger’s summing up.  (The prize winner will be announced on 5 July.)

Chance for two smaller museums

There was complete silence when the first finalist was announced – the Lapworth Museum of Geology – noone in that audience except possibly the curator had heard of it. But now they will, after a £2.7m refit this treasure trove of gemstones and other minerals at Birmingham University will be in the national spotlight for the first time.

It was different for the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art at Newmarket – the audience at the British Museum certainly knew this one (whether for the right reasons is another matter). The museum re-opened last year with new galleries and a centre for retraining racehorses.

And then the big runners

The Sir John Soane Museum, now in two buildings in London’s Lincoln Fields, is loved by many.  It has extended its displays by recreating some of Soane’s original rooms as they were in 1837 when he died. The only problem here is that there is not a lot of space for increasing the visitor flow.

At the Hepworth in Wakefield which your blogger visited just a year and a half ago, it’s all go with their own new Sculpture prize and new exhibitions. It was on the Museum Prize Shortlist when it first opened in 2012, and was pipped to the post by the Royal Albert Museum in Exeter.  Will they be lucky this time and bag the big prize?

And then Tate Modern – it couldn’t very well be left out after the opening of the magnificent Switch House. It blends perfectly with the old power station and adds space for new works as well as for those previously in storage.

The debate on Front Row

The shortlist was announced at a special event (live on BBC’s Front Row) at the British Museum with Hartwig Fisher, Director of BM and also on the judging panel for the Prize, joined by Tristram Hunt, former MP and recently appointed Director of the V&A and Sarah Munro of the Baltic. Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund also got a few words in.  Some old chestnuts, such as the Elgin Marbles, free versus charging museums and more children in museums were quickly dispatched.  The focus was on the dramatic impact of local authority cuts on museums around the country.  The two national museums on the panel were doing their bit to ease the pain with a new V&A  scheme establishing design hubs around the UK and at the BM lending objects and touring exhibitions.

Your blogger had a quick chat with another Scandinavian afterwards – former Museum Prize judge and Antiques Roadshow expert, Lars Tharp – who revealed that he descended from King Christian IV of Denmark. “But so does half of Denmark”, he added.  (According to Wikipedia Christian IV had a total of 24 known children with his two wives and several mistresses.)

Read more about my Swedish family history (no royal links I am afraid) 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