Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Syon Park

My eldest son set me a challenge for his recent trip to London. He was travelling with his “partner” (don’t like the moniker but can’t think of anything better) and wanted to show her one of the great country houses of England. The challenge consisted of the fact that we only had an afternoon to devote to the visit.

It’s not that we don’t have great houses close to London, such as Osterley, Kenwood, Chiswick or Ham. They may be lovingly maintained by worthy organisations such as the National Trust and English Heritage, but if you are only going to visit one great house, it’s all the better if the family is still wealthy, powerful and in residence. The furniture and furnishings are the “real deal”. The photographs of the weddings, the christenings, the Christmas celebrations and the inevitable one of the family with the Queen, make the experience richer and more unique, not to mention more voyeuristic. If the house can claim to have been eye witness to important moments in British history, better still. After mulling over our options, I emailed Lee to say we should definitely go to Syon Park

Located 10 miles from Central London, Syon Park has been in the possession of the Percy family, the Earls and Dukes of Northumberland, for more than 400 years. Before that, part of the house had been an Abbey which, following the Dissolution, became a Crown property. The house is full of royal connections. In Tudor times, Catherine Howard, fifth wife of Henry VIII spent a miserable Christmas there shortly before her execution and Lady Jane Grey was married and resided at Syon until she left for the Tower of London to begin her nine day reign. The corpse of Henry VIII lay in state in the Chapel on its way from Westminster to Windsor, but the decomposing body exploded in its coffin, and dogs were found licking the dripping remains, which was taken as a sign of retribution for Henry’s dissolution of the Abbey.

But the story of Syon Park is first and foremost the story of the Percy family. Henry Percy, 9th Earl of Northumberland, acquired Syon through marriage in 1594. From a high point when he entertained King James I at Syon, to a turn of fortune which saw him spend 15 years in the Tower of London for alleged complicity in the Gun Powder Plot, Percy led a colourful and fascinating life. He had his ear pierced while campaigning in the Low Countries and built a bowling alley while holed up in the Tower with prodigious amounts of wine and tobacco and 20 servants.

Over the centuries, the titles, lands and vast fortune of the family have thrust its members to the forefront of the nobility and national affairs, and an afternoon at Syon Park gives visitors the opportunity to experience 400 years of British history through the prism of one of its most important families. For visitors more interested in the decorative arts and architecture, Syon Park also excels. There are stunning Robert Adam’s interiors, arguably his greatest, original Spitalfields silk furnishings, State bedrooms used by Princess Victoria and her mother the Duchess of Kent and a remarkable collection of paintings, porcelain and furniture. An excellent audio guide which is included in the price of admission really helps to make the house and its inhabitants come to life.

Film fans will recognise the settings from such movies as “The Madness of King George”, “Gosford Park” and “The Golden Bowl”. The Gardens and surrounding parklands provide wonderful opportunities for long walks which feel surprisingly rural given one’s proximity to London. For avid horticulturists, there are spectacular greenhouses, Capability Brown landscaping and garden elements from several historic periods. There are lots of attractions for children on the property, including a huge Indoor Action Playground, a Butterfly House and an Aquatic Experience although each attraction carries an extra charge and the costs do add up.

Still, we ended up having a wonderful time at Syon Park. The short commute, lovely rural setting, rich history, original decorations and furnishings, and well thought out audio guide all contributed to a first class experience at one of England’s premier grand houses. If you only have a few hours and an itch to see a stately home, you will be well served by heading to Syon Park.

Syon Park
Brentford, Middlesex TW8 8JF
Tel: 020 8560 0882
Fax: 020 8568 0936

Syon House:
Open from 21 March to 31st October 2007 inclusive - Wednesdays, Thursdays, Sundays & Bank Holiday Mondays (also Good Friday and Easter Saturday) - 11.00 to 17.00 hours (last entry 16.15 hours)

March to October 2007 open daily - 10.30 to 17.00 hours (or dusk if earlier)
November 2007 to February 2008 weekends & New Year's Day only - 10.30 to 16.00 hours

By Public Transportation: Take the District Line to Gunnersbury and Bus 237 or 267 to Brentlea Gate. The pedestrian entrance is 50 yards away.

Photo courtesy of the Syon House website

Friday, March 16, 2007

More Medical Museums

Museums are boring. Boring. BORING.

How many times have I heard that? How often have I countered with, “But this museum is great … different … you’ll like it … trust me.”

Well, here I go again.

London’s twenty-one Health and Medicine museums are great, different, you’ll like them, trust me. I never would have thought it. Math and Science are not my thing, but the doubleganger and I had such a blast the last time we visited medical museums, we thought we would have another go. And so, we visited two more this week. We saw an exhibit on enemas, an original copy of Handel’s Messiah, tons of tumours, a Holbein, some syphilitic brains, some Hogarths, the skeleton of an Irish giant and films of modern keyhole surgery. Along the way, we encountered exhibits covering philanthropy, anatomy, biology, musicology, pathology, architecture, surgery, and art history. We saw a heart wrenching collection of mothers’ tokens left with abandoned babies (think of Oliver Twist) and a collection of medical specimens that is a virtual Noah’s Ark of our insides. We had a fine, entertaining day. In fact, we hadn’t had this much fun since the last time we did a tour of London’s medical museums.

The Foundling Museum

Our first port of call was the Foundling Museum on Brunswick Square in Bloomsbury on the former site of the Foundling Hospital, Britain’s first home for abandoned children. Back in the 1720’s, when babies littered the streets of London, Thomas Coram, a childless ship’s captain decided to do something about it and began a tireless campaign to establish a home for abandoned children. The techniques pioneered by Coram and the Foundling Hospital have become the playbook of modern philanthropy. George Frideric Handel performed fund raising concerts in the Chapel regularly (think of Live Aid) and William Hogarth persuaded the great artists of the day to donate work to the cause which could be viewed by the fashionable and wealthy who had come to inspect the children. In fact, it became so fashionable to attend fund raising events at the Hospital that at one Ladies Breakfast, the windows had to be nailed shut to prevent the ladies from sneaking in.

There are three reasons to visit this museum. First, it has a small but very good art collection with wonderful Hogarths, Gainsboroughs and Reynolds combined with several spectacular interiors from the original Hospital. Second, there is a strong collection of Handel memorabilia including an original copy of Handel’s Messiah which he left to the Hospital in his will. Most importantly, the exhibition “Coram’s Children” which focuses on the lives of the orphans who passed through the Hospital will touch your heart: the little bits of ribbon, jewellery and coins left by the mothers but never given to the children, the Infirmary Book entry “in a dying condition”, the orphans who sent back photos of themselves to the Hospital because it was the only family they ever knew. “Coram’s Children” is powerful social history, simultaneously depressing and uplifting and a very good thing for today’s children to see. The novel, The Coram Boy, by Jamila Gavin also brings the story to life for young readers (Eloise loved it) as well as the stage adaptation which has had two sell out runs at the National Theatre.

The Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons

From the Foundling Museum we walked over to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London’s largest square and home to one of four surviving Inns of Court as well as the Sir John Soanes Museum and the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons.

The Hunterian Museum began as the private collection of the surgeon John Hunter (1728-1793) and was originally displayed in a private museum in Hunter’s house on Leicester Square. Today you enter the museum through the imposing portico of the Royal College of Surgeons where you are given a badge and directed to head up the stairs. We did not, choosing instead to wander around the ground floor where we came across Holbein’s painting of Henry VIII giving the Charter to the Barber-Surgeons. We also came across a weirdly entertaining exhibit on enemas and a bronze and marble Victorian monument holding the remains of Dr and Mrs Percy Macloghlin (well, no one knows for sure whose ashes are in there as Mrs Macloghlin is rumoured to have had an affair with the sculptor which may have affected her original intent).

After the Holbein, the enemas and the Macloghlins, we headed upstairs to the Hunterian. Wow, what an entrance, which consists of a dazzling atrium filled with floor to ceiling glass display cases holding over 3,000 specimens of animal and human anatomy and pathology. Needless to say, the pathological peculiarities were the most interesting, showing the anatomical impact of such diseases as tuberculosis, rabies, typhus and syphilis. Tumours, hernias, amputated stumps, two tailed lizards and Egyptian mummies all vied for our attention. Along with the specimens, and some stomach turning films of modern surgery, there is a small but worthwhile collection of paintings which include two terrific Stubbs depictions of a white rhino and a yak as well as engaging portraits of a perfectly formed aristocratic Polish dwarf and Chang and Eng, the co-joined twins from Siam.

Afterwards, being short on time, we retired to a convenient but uninteresting place for something to eat and a quick review of the day. We both agreed that once again, medical museums had exceeded our expectations offering so much more than you would think given that the topic is related to “boring” old science (my words, not Kate’s) but this is healthcare in its widest sense, encompassing a fascinating range of subjects. So fascinating, in fact, that we even agreed to go on with our romp through London’s medical museums. Four down, seventeen to go. Watch this space.

Useful Addresses

Foundling Museum
40 Brunswick Square
London WC1N 1AZ
Tel: 0207 841 3600

Open Tuesday to Saturday 10:00-6:00, Sunday 12:00-6:00
Tube: Russell Square

Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons
35-43 Lincoln’s Inn Fields
London WC2A 3PE
Tel: 0207 869 6560
Open Tuesday to Saturday 10:00-5:00
Closed public holidays and College closure days
Tube: Holborn

Photo of painting of Captain Coram by William Hogarth

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

London's Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising

I was hugely excited when I came across the website for the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in Notting Hill. Wow, a museum in London I’d never heard of covering a sexy topic in a cool part of town – perfect. The museum had the backing of brand heavy weights such as Kellogg’s, Twinings and Cadbury. I love brands. My expectations were high.

Located in a hip mews space off the Portobello Road, from the outside, the place looked promising. Once inside, I entered a sort of time tunnel which, starting with the Victorians, lead me through a chronological history of British products and packages with over 10,000 items crammed into the exhibition cases. At first, I was amazed and entertained by the sheer amount of stuff. Package piled upon package, labels, toys, posters, cans, virtually everything consumed in this country in the last 120 years has found its way into this collection. The last time I had seen anything like this; I was in my grandmother’s attic. But what was the point? Where were the explanations of how a brand, an advertisement or a package drives consumer choice? What was I to make of all this stuff?

And I wasn’t the only one who felt something was missing. The morning I was there, several classes of teenage students were making their way through the museum. They seemed neither engaged nor were they old enough to participate in the nostalgia and based on their responses to their teacher’s questions, they didn’t learn much either. ”What did you notice as you made your way through the exhibition?” “The Mars bars were bigger back then.” Oh, the missed opportunity of it all.

At the end of the tour, near the exit, there was a newspaper article on the wall that made the whole experience fall into place. The core of this museum is actually the collection of Robert Opie, who has made it his life’s work to collect examples of everything ever sold in Britain. This is, in fact, a museum about collecting. At that level, it works. You can admire the obsessiveness. If you are old enough, you can enjoy the nostalgia. If you work at it, you can glean some social history from all these products, but in no way is this a proper museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising and with an entrance fee of £5.80, it’s also no bargain. I have rarely met a museum I didn’t like, but unless you are a huge fan of collecting or British nostalgia, I’d give the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising a pass.

The Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising
Colville Mews
London W11 2AR
Tel: 0207 908 0880
Closed Mondays, except Bank Holidays

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

The Museum of Romantic Life

“What shall we do this morning?”

It was a grey day in a wintry Paris. I was there with my husband on a quick business trip and we had a half-day opening in our schedule. No children in tow. What to do?

“I know, let’s go to the Museum of Romantic Life which had been highly recommended to me as an unknown but worthwhile small museum in a section of Pigalle which had once been known as New Athens because of the large number of 19th century artists, writers and composers who lived there.

Jeff was sceptical, thinking that he would be dragged through yet another “namby pamby Chic-lit” experience when a whip round the Army Museum at the Invalides was more his style, but he was game to explore a different neighbourhood and therefore agreeable.

Readers of NoCrowds know that I am a sucker for just about any experience that resembles a time warp and on that score, Romantic Life delivers. The minute you walk down the cobblestone and ivy covered alleyway, you are transported out of Paris and back to the 19th century countryside. The Italianate mansion, set in a rose and lilac garden that must be gorgeous in summer, was once the home and studio of the fashionable court painter, Ary Scheffer (1795-1858), who counted amongst his friends the leaders of the Romantic Movement such as Delacroix, Gericault, George Sand, Chopin, Liszt and Rossini who were all regular guests at his soirees. I couldn’t wait to get inside and begin my romantic experience.

The ground floor of the house is devoted to the George Sand Collection which contains the furniture, paintings, jewellery and memorabilia from Sand’s country chateau, Nohant. Highlights include side-by-side evocative plaster casts of the hands of George Sand and Chopin (they were together for eight years) and a drawing of Nohant by Delacroix who was a frequent guest there as well as drawings and paintings by Sand of her surroundings, family and friends. You won’t find much insight in the collection as to why Sand abandoned her aristocratic husband, started smoking cigars and wearing men’s clothes and embarking on affairs with famous artists but the rooms are atmospheric and when we were there, quite deserted. Thanks to Sand’s aristocratic great grandfather who was the winner of the battle of Fontenoy and the Grand Elector of Saxony and future King of Poland, there are some engaging military portraits and busts which interested Jeff. On the next floor of the house, one finds the works of Ary Scheffer whose style has been described as “frigidly classical” and includes themes from Faust, religious paintings and some interesting portraits of Scheffer’s fashionable friends.

Jeff and I liked this small museum which was a welcome change from the many art behemoths in Paris which demand so much stamina. The mood is very “Recherche du Temps Perdu” and I think if we had gone in the summer when the flowers are in full bloom and you can take tea in the garden (the tearoom is open from May to September), we would have been even more enthusiastic. This is a museum that you can see in under an hour and if you still have an appetite for art and artists studios, the Gustave Moreau Museum is a short walk away and well worth visiting.

After our romantic interlude in New Athens, Jeff and I headed for rue Saint Marc in the 2nd District near the Paris Stock Exchange for an even more romantic lunch at the wonderful “Aux Lyonnais”. This bistro, which has been in operation since 1890, is my idea of restaurant heaven. The décor is the classic belle époque with yellowing walls, tile floors and large etched glass mirrors. The atmosphere is relaxed while the service is attentive and professional but not stuffy. Best of all, the food is fabulous, being restaurant legend Alan Ducasse’s take on traditional Lyonnais fare. There is a €28 prix fixe lunch menu which is great value for this calibre experience. With wine, water and coffee, we ended up spending €45 a head for one of the best lunches I have had in Paris.

Useful Addresses

The Museum of Romantic Life
16, rue Chaptal
75009 Paris
Tel: 01 55 31 95 67
Fax: 01 48 74 28 42
Open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 am to 6 pm

Gustave Moreau Museum
14, rue de La Rochefoucauld
75009 Paris
Tel: 01 48 74 38 50
Open every day except Tuesday from 10 am to 12:45 pm and from 2:00 pm to 5:15 pm

Aux Lyonnais
32 rue Saint Marc
75002 Paris
Tel: 01 42 96 65 04
Fax: 01 42 97 42 95