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Yesterday I went along to three exhibitions by City of London institutions which opened recently. All are well worth visiting; all are free.

Guildhall Art Gallery: Sublime Symmetry
This exhibition features the works of William De Morgan, the late 19th century London ceramicist, friend and collaborator of William Morris, GF Watts and many others. We are long-standing fans of De Morgan. The closure of a dedicated gallery in Wandsworth some years ago tragically meant that a huge collection of his work, which is owned by the De Morgan Foundation, has been kept behind closed doors. It’s important therefore to do all you can to get to this show. The theme is De Morgan’s background in mathematics, how that meshed with his interest in Islamic symmetical forms and from there informed his decorative work. The artist’s father and brother were both celebrated mathemeticians. Augustus De Morgan was the founding Professor of Mathematics at UCL, friend and correspondent of Ada Lovelace among others, and clearly a warm and funny character. It felt good to meet him. But of course, the stars of the show are De Morgan’s sumptuous, exquisite works. Vases, bowls, dishes, tiles all beautifully decorated with figures from nature and myth.
This runs until 28 October.

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Guildhall Library: Worshipful Company of Tylers and Bricklayers
More a display than a full blown exhibition, this is the latest in the library’ series which features the City’s livery companies. This year celebrates the 450th anniversary of this company’s first Charter, granted by Elizabeth I 1568, although the company can trace its origins back to 1416. We are shown many objects from its collection, well complemented by items from the library as well. This includes probably my favourite, the so-called “Breeches” Bible from 1589, which was used for the administration of oaths. It is, of course, a late generation English bible before the advent of the Authorised Version (1611) and furhermore is the only example of a chained book in the library’s collection.  In addition we have a trowel (of course), ledgers, ordnances and minute books, a loving cup and a portrait miniature of its most famous member, the playwright Ben Jonson who was a bricklayer before he made it big in the London theatre.
Runs until 31 August.

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The ‘Breeches’ Bible, 1598.

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Ben Jonson’s overdue subscription recorded as paid.

London Metropolitan Archives: Picturing Forgotten London
What I love about the LMA exhibitions – and this one is no exception – is that you see historical images that you’ve never seen before. Not one. This is remarkable considering the hundreds of London history books out there, not to mention what’s online. To choose one example, I thought I’d seen everything on frost fairs: not so!

The headline title is a broad topic indeed which features not forgotten London necessarily, but a London which simply no longer exists, whether the obvious things such a buildings, but also professions, animals, forms of government, everyday life, religion, commerce, housing, transport, technology, sport, food and welfare. The images which bring these themes to life – whether maps, engravings or photographs – are clearly heavily researched astutely chosen.

Warmly recommended. Runs until 31 August.

© London Met Archives 28160 Frost Fair low_500

London’s last frost fair, 1814.

By the time this print was published, just few days later, the ice had melted, and the fair gone forever. London Bridge can be seen in the distance.

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Rural Archway, 1841.

A winding lane with barns and a farmhouse. It is hard to imagine London’s built-up suburbs as open country but the last farms in the area only disappeared in the early twentieth century.

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Commercial warehousing, buildings and shops in front of St Pancras Station, 1871.

St. Pancras station opened in 1868 but the hotel and grand entrance were not completed until 1876. Older buildings were demolished as part of the project, including this row of houses and shops which stood nearby. It’s hard to imagine this picturesque scene on one of the busiest parts of Euston Road today.

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South Bank, 1952. Featuring County Hall and the Skylon.

This seemingly free-floating steel structure stood outside the Dome of Discovery on the main Festival of Britain site on the South Bank. With no particular function or message, ‘Skylon’ was nonetheless much loved. It was removed shortly after the closing of the Festival.

 

 

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shakespeare and London, london metropolitan archivesThe name of a new exhibition at the London Metropolitan Archives.

As an article in our current Members’ newsletter points out, Shakespeare is not as widely celebrated in the town of his trade as one might expect. You have to search hard for places touched by him. A great example is the spot where he bought a property in Blackfriars – whether to live in or to rent out is not known. The deed which records this sale is the prize document in the exhibition. It bears the Bard’s signature, one of only six known to exist worldwide.

shakespeare and London, london metropolitan archives

There are many other objects in the show, including other official documents, correspondence, prints, playbills, programmes, maps. Nor is it in any way restricted to Shakespeares’s own time, far from it. We celebrate many historical luvvies from Richard Burbage down to Sir Laurence Olivier. As you might expect, Hogarth’s famous engraving of his good friend David Garrick doing Richard III is featured.

shakespeare and London, london metropolitan archives

We get the story of Shakespeare’s Globe including a beautiful model from 1951 when its modern photocopy was possibly still a glint in Sam Wannamaker’s eye. You like maps? There are some near contemporary beauties on the wall including the Norden map from 1593. The original – in a book – is about nine inches wide. The LMA have scanned it at massive resolution and blown it up to about six feet wide, so you can appreciate better the London topography at the back end of the sixteenth century. Such a boon.

shakespeare and London, london metropolitan archives

In addition to all this, there are four smallish audio visual displays. Except without the “audio”, just the visual (what’s that called?). Anyway, they use subtitles. Hoorah, so much more civilised than having booming displays causing noise pollution when you’re trying to enjoy displays. Museums, take note. My favourite was the one about contemporary and subsequent pubs with Shakespearean connections. There’s much about the Mermaid near Cheapside, of course (long gone), but loads more fascinating facts. How many pubs in London today bear Shakepeare’s moniker? Can you name them?

If you’ve read my recent posts about the Office of Works and Royal Mint shows, you’ll know I’m a great fan of smaller exhibitions. Typically, they’ll take you about an hour or so to do properly, and you’ll leave feeling educated and entertained rather than overwhelmed. Shakespeare and London at the LMA is another perfect example. It opens tomorrow and runs until 26th September. Entry is free, don’t miss it.

More information.

shakespeare in london, london metropolitan archives

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