Having been a bit slack at museum-hopping of late – a favourite pastime – I journeyed into town early yesterday and put a Big Day in.
First stop, Guards Chapel and museum round the back of Wellington Barracks in Birdcage Walk. The chapel was re-built in the early 1960s having been destroyed by a V1 flying bomb on 18 June 1944, a direct hit during a service which killed 121 worshippers. While the building is modern architecturally, it successfully retains an ancient feel due mainly, I think, to the ornate altar and the dozens of battle standards mounted down both sides of the nave in the traditional style. I made friends with the staff at the Museum, but didn’t check the exhibition having done so quite recently. Possibly mainly for those with interests military, it is nonetheless an excellent collection of uniforms (a lot of red), weaponry, medals and so forth.
Popped in the Churchill War Rooms just to say hello on my way to the London Library in St James Square, which I thought I should join. You know, fill in a form and get a library card. The very nice lady in reception gave me a brochure and a form and explained that it would cost £395 for a year’s ticket and that the price was going up in January. Mmmm… maybe some other time. A public library it is not, silly me. Still, looked nice enough.
On to Sir John Soane’s Museum in Lincolns Inn Fields via London Transport Museum (another quick hello job). I hadn’t been to the Soane for probably 15 years. It’s one of those London’s-best-known-secret kind of places. They confiscate your brolly and bag at the door and make you switch off your mobile. Photography strictly prohibited. Numbers inside the building simultaneously is limited. This may sound a bit daunting, but it’s all very politely done and the idea is to maximise the enjoyment of the place for all: there are some very narrow bits you have to negotiate. Entrance is free.
Sir John Soane (1753 – 1837) was one of the leading architects of his day who married into money and spent it collecting stuff and doing architectural experiments on his own house, planning laws not then being quite what they are now. He subsequently bequeathed the lot to the nation on his death (see feud with son, below), hence the museum. Soane collected anything and everything, which included: antiquities, chunks of classical buildings, statuettes, sculptures, medallions, an Egyptian sarcophagus (for which he had to remove a wall at the back of the house to get it in) and paintings (notably Canaletto and Hogarth).
The museum is crammed with treasure, being quite claustrophobic in parts. But for me, the best treasure is the Hogarths, which are among his most important series: The Rake’s Progress, comprising eight canvasses; and The Election, comprising four. I am much better educated on Hogarth than I was 15 years ago, so this was a hugely pleasurable experience. But I don’t think you even need to be an art lover to enjoy these particular works.
In the library is the best-known portrait of Soane, by Sir Thomas Lawrence. I’m not sure why it isn’t part of the current Lawrence exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery (go, it’s fabulous). The museum doesn’t seem to have a no-lending policy since one of the Canalettos is out at the Canaletto and His Rivals show at the National Gallery.
My only criticism of this wonderful museum is that it is very gloomy. This may be in the interest of protecting the exhibits, I don’t know, but on a mid-winter’s day, you’ll spend several minutes acclimatising yourself to the poor lighting and quite a lot of time squinting at things thereafter.
Soane led a very interesting life which is worth exploring. I’m particularly intrigued by the protracted bitter feud he had with his son George, who went to extreme lengths to destroy his father’s reputation. They were never reconciled.
A short walk back past Holborn station to the Cartoon Museum to see their current show, Ink and the Bottle, Drunken Cartoonists and Drink in Cartoons, which explores the relationship between alcohol, cartoons and cartoonists. Our favourites of yore – Gilray, Rowlandson, Cruikshank – are well-represented, particularly Cruikshank. There are original engravings of Gilray’s George III and Queen Charlotte having a frugal breakfast and their errant son the Prince Regent post-prandially picking his teeth with a fork. There is a large original engraving of Cruikshank’s famous hymn to the evils of drink: The Worship of Bacchus, the original painting of which featured at Tate Britain’s recent Rude Britannia show. Those of you who saw Ian Hislop’s Do-gooders last week will know that Cruikshank was a dipsomaniac of note who Took the Pledge and thereafter became a committed temperance campaigner. His father died as a direct result of over-indulgence and his brother also was a heavy-duty imbiber.
Of course, no party is complete without Wm. Hogarth Esq. Beer Street and Gin Lane are perhaps something of a commonplace, but you get so much more out of seeing engravings in the original, as here.
The exhibition features many of the nation’s leading cartoonists of the 20th and 21st centuries addressing alcohol: Bateman, Giles, JAK, Smythe (Andy Capp) and McGill are among them. The contemporary stuff includes works by Steve Bell and the boys from VIZ. It’s a lovely show which ends 13 February 2011, don’t miss it.
What else? Had my eye open for public clocks, some working, some not: