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Archive for July, 2017

DSC08984b200With grievous museum losses in recent times – notably the London Fire Brigade museum in Southwark and the Artillery Museum (“Firepower”) in Woolwich – it’s always welcome news when a brand new one opens its doors. Friday 28th July saw the much-anticipated foundation of The Postal Museum in Phoenix Place, WC1, virtually on the doorstep of Royal Mail’s massive Mount Pleasant London hub.

An official postal service was first founded by Henry VIII in the early Sixteenth Century more effectively to manage intelligence throughout his domain, hence the Royal Mail. Of course it wasn’t for the great unwashed and indeed unlettered wider populace. A universal postal service didn’t properly kick in until 1840 and onwards with the introduction of the Penny Post. If fact, until that time, most letters and parcels were financed by the recipient rather than the sender. This gave rise to coded symbols and marks being put on the outer surfaces of folded letters (envelopes are a relatively modern invention).

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The post nonetheless was already big business long before Rowland Hill and his stamps, Anthony Trollope and his post boxes.

The Postal Museum takes us through all the developments and innovations of the mail down the past half millennium, but most importantly the people who kept the system going, focusing mainly, as one would expect, on the humble postie who in times gone by had quite spectacular uniforms. He and 1,500 of his colleagues volunteered and perished in WW1, bands of brothers in the Post Office Rifles, a unit founded in 1860 at the same time as the Artists Rifles at at time when Britain was thought to be in grave danger (it wasn’t). Their absence gave rise for the first time to women posties.

There is a straightforward historical narrative with certain things – like wartime – to zoom in on depending on your interest. For me it’s the coaching era, the pure logistics. There were quite remarkable timetables, precision and scheduling in the pre-railway age. I didn’t know that in the mid-20th Century the Royal Mail had its own Frank Pick. Just as Pick did with London Transport, Sir Stephen Tallents (Londoner, Harrow, Balliol – what’s not to like?) beefed up and standardised the Royal Mail’s corporate image, its design, its message, how it presented itself to the world. He used many of the same artists that Pick did, notably Max Gill, unsung brother of Eric.

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Sir Stephen Tallents

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Poster by Max Gill. Fans of “Wonderground” will recognise it!

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Although a typographer in his own right, Max used brother Eric’s Gill Sans for this logo. Indulge me!

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The Postal Museum is excellent. A hugely diverse combination of the obvious and the obscure. Wonderful ephemera, of course. It doesn’t patronise children, a mistake of many museums nowadays, I feel. I have seen the wider collection at Debden and Mount Pleasant so have an idea what choices have been made what to put in and to leave out. The curators have done a really good job: congratulations to them.

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Mail Rail.
There’s more good news. Mail Rail is the Postal Museum’s sister attraction which will open early September. It was the Royal Mail’s own underground railway which ran from Paddington to Liverpool Street from 1927 although existing on a smaller scale since the 1870s, another brianchild of Rowland Hill. It was mothballed in 2003 and has been reawakened for the public to ride on, with another superb exhibition alongside. A marvellous thing when you consider that these conveyances carried no humans at all, not even drivers.

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A guest post by Roger Williams, LH Member.

1. Exterior

Sandycombe Lodge, the country house that JMW Turner built in 1813 in Twickenham behind Marble Hill, is now open to the public for the first time. It had been bought in a run-down state in 1947 by Professor Harold Livermore, an Hispanic scholar, and his wife Ann, who wrote about Spanish music, and they immediately began trying to restore what had been a small wartime factory. On his death in 2010, Professor Leverhulme bequeathed their house to the nation. Now, after a £2.4 million conservation effort, it has been brought back to what is believed to be as near as can be to Turner’s original home. This involved knocking down extensions, removing external white rendering and uncovering the initial decoration, including marbling on the stairway. The house was designed by Turner, but if some of the detailing echoes Sir John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, it is because the two were friends and contemporaries, Turner being appointed the Royal Academy’s Professor of Perspective just a year after Soane was made Professor of Architecture.

2.telescope

On first sight it is an unprepossessing, late-Georgian villa, with just two first-floor bedrooms. The larger one is at the back, facing Marble Hill House and the Thames, and although the view is now constricted by subsequent developments, a telescope has been installed (above) through which visitors can spy a re-created picture of the view Turner saw in his day.

3.Kitchen

In the basement is the kitchen and range (above), the domaine of Turner’s ‘Old Dad’ who looked after the house and garden until he was 80. His father had been a barber and wig-maker in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, where Turner was born on St George’s Day, 1775, and had tirelessly promoted and helped his only child. Turner’s mother had died in Bethlem Hospital nine years before Sandycombe Lodge was built, and William Sr continued to help in the running of Turner’s Gallery in Marylebone, hitching lifts into town for the 10-mile journey.

4.Eel pots

Nothing in the house is labelled, and visitors, in limited numbers, are shown around by knowledgeable guides such as Ken Osbourne, pictured here in the kitchen with fishing rod and eel trap. These and the late-Georgian items of furniture, such as the ‘Turkey’ rugs, have been hunted down by Catherine Parry-Wingfield, Chair of the Turner’s House Trust, who has been instrumental in creating the house-museum.

5. Turnerships

Prints on the walls include some from Turner’s teaching manual, the Liber Studorium, from Professor Livermore’s own collection, but there are no original artworks. Turner bequeathed his drawings and paintings to the nation, and these are now in changing displays in Richard Sterling’s 1986 Clore Wing of Tate Britain, while the Royal Academy has his fishing rods and paint boxes. Security issues mean these cannot be loaned, although, Parry-Wingfield is hopeful that this may one day happen.

The Tate also has custody of the model boats Turner owned and used as aids to his paintings. The Trust commissioned variations of two of them from model maker Kevin Thatcher to go on display in the sitting room . Many of these were originally made by French prisoners during the Napoleonic wars.

Turner was a keen fishermen, but the enormous pond he created, apparently almost the size of a football pitch and stocked with fish, has long since disappeared beneath urban housing. He sometimes went fishing with his friend Soane, both self-made men, both at times socially uneasy and irascible. But Turner enjoyed gatherings, too, and a cunning key in the door of a longcase clock in the dining room starts a recording of an account of a picnic enjoyed by Turner and his friends on Ham Common on the opposite side of the river.

Turner was also instrumental in starting the Royal Academy Dining Club’s annual river jaunts which began at Eel Pie House in Twickenham, not far from Sandycombe Lodge in 1818. Five years later Turner proposed they went to the Crown and Sceptre in Greenwich, which was famous for its whitebait dinners. The RA Dining Club’s annual Whitebait Dinner has continued ever since, now taking place during the Summer Exhibition under the enthusiastic eye of the RA’s current CEO, Charles Saumarez Smith, whose recent blog gives a report of this year’s outings and the riverside architecture seen en-route to Greenwich.

For details and opening hours, see http://turnershouse.org


Roger Williams’ latest book is Whitebait and the Thames Fisheries.

 

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Review: M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster, by Henry Hemming.

51egqtRjPEL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Maxwell Knight was a pioneer of 20th century espionage and counter-espionage who referred to himself as M; his section was known as M, and all his agents were designated M/1, M/2 and so on. Although it is not known whether he knew the Bond author, it seems most likely though currently unprovable that Ian Fleming’s character was named after him. The author addresses this in his final chapter, but it doesn’t really matter one way or the other: the “real” M’s story is remarkable in its own right.

Born in south London in 1900, Knight spent part of World War One in the navy reserve. He was first recruited as an agent – having been identified as a good candidate at an anti-Soviet right-wing rally – in 1923. He was initially tasked to infiltrate the British Fascisti, modelled on its Italian counterpart but at this time a very different creature from the Mosley organisation a decade later. With no training whatsoever, he took to the task like a duck to water, rising quickly in the organisation. An explanation for this might be that being right-wing himself, Knight was at home in this environment: there was little pretending to do. He became close friends with – among others – William Joyce, aka “Lord Haw-haw”. It is suggested, but not proved, that Knight may tipped off Joyce as World War Two loomed, allowing the traitor successfully to skip to Germany (the author injects an interesting point on the Friend v Country debate per EM Forster which had some currency at this time). This, however, was his only concession to the past, by this time having come a committed espionage boss against the Nazis.

This is the story of how initially, during the interwar years, Maxwell Knight built his own group of agents who committed domestic espionage against strongly pro-Soviet left-wing groups. He nurtured them, encouraged them, comforted them in their almost endlessly dull existences: being an agent is a stressful and lonely business. In particular, he proved what valuable spies women could be, running completely counter to the MI5 orthodoxy at the time. He used at least six of them, largely to great effect. But the whole organisation was yet tiny, and the author makes the point that in the Soviet v British espionage stakes it was like Manchester United versus Corinthian amateurs, even back then. Apart from the audacious kidnapping of a left-wing agitator on a Liverpool-bound train, most of the action throughout this book takes place in London.

All changed in the late 1930s when it was demonstrated without doubt that agent provocateurs in countries like Czechoslovakia proved great enablers in aid of Nazi invasion and that Britain potentially had no shortage of these too (as we know). M section under Knight turned to countering fifth column pro-German activity. His suggested solutions, including widespread internment, were severe indeed though ignored for some long time by the Home Office.

Among many, no doubt, we are told of a number of amazing missions: the capture of the Woolwich Arsenal spy ring in 1938 (they had been sending ordnance designs to Germany);  the unmasking of Tyler Kent, the spy within the US Embassy in 1940 which owing to America’s nominal neutrality and the implications of diplomatic immunity a) had to be handled most carefully and b) was referred to the very top of both governments’ relevant departments. All these missions were undertaken with a combination of patience, commonsense and unease. They are described with crackling suspense and in great detail.

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But what sort of man was M? You would argue that the job description demands that he must have been a bit of a strange one: unusual. And indeed he was. Maxwell Knight was an outsider. Though clearly good with people and a kind friend on a personal level, despite being twice married he lived largely alone, if we exclude the menagerie of wild animals he kept in his flat (perhaps these are two sides of the same coin). Despite belonging to many London clubs, he was not what they call “clubbable”. He was a big fan of jazz music and keen clarinettist. Both his marriages were almost certainly unconsummated, the problem lying on his side. With no evidence that he was bi- or homosexual, the author suggests he simply may have lacked the penchant.

Knight adored animals, particularly wild ones, many of which he kept at home, as mentioned. One of the most amazing things about this MI5 spymaster it that in the early 1960s he became known to millions of his fellow Britons as a radio and television presenter of various nature and environmental programmes, very much a proto-David Attenborough. Proper you-couldn’t-make-it-up territory.

This is a beautifully balanced biography of a complicated and interesting man. The derring-do and intrigue are wonderfully researched and described: fabulous true stories. But where the book really scores is the effort taken by the author to understand Maxwell Knight the man and through that prism explain how that shaped him and the things he did. Highly recommended.


M: MI5’s Greatest Spymaster (400pp, hardback) is published by Penguin Random House with a cover price of £20, but available at time of writing for substantially less if you’re quick!

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