Exhibition Review – Fashioned from Nature (V&A) and Voice & Vote (Palace of Westminster)

The natural world has always inspired fashion through patterns, prints and design as well as being a source of materials used to make clothes and accessories. Nature is an enduring theme and one that has never fallen out of fashion due to its timelessness and universality.

The V&A’s current exhibition Fashioned from Nature looks at how the natural world has influenced fashion and been a source of material for the production of clothes from the 17th century until the present – the downstairs gallery focusing on both these aspects. For centuries the demand for materials such as wool, fur and bone stimulated both domestic and foreign trade. Several places in Europe became famous for a particular product: such as England for its wool, Italy for silk and France and present day Belgium for lace. From the 17th century onwards, the establishment of global trade links and the acquisition of colonies outside Europe resulted in the introduction of materials and fabric such as cotton, pineapple fibre as well as the skins from animals such as the crocodile. The later development of faster means of transportation and production meant that such materials became more widely available and cheaper.

 

Another main aspect of the exhibition is with regards to the influence of nature in fashion design, with the enduring popularity of floral prints and embroidery seen in extant pieces and fabric swatches from the 17th and 18th centuries to the present day. Flowers were also popular as accessories such as hair ornaments and corsages pinned to dresses and gowns, and technological advances during the 19th century meant that the use of artificial flowers became widespread. This was especially the case for weddings where orange blossoms made of wax were a common alternative to the real thing.

Global trade and exposure also meant that materials could be sourced from abroad, whether it was new materials or as a way to top up or replace European stock. This was particularly true with fur and feathers: for instance the North American beaver was highly sought after the decline in numbers of the same animal in Europe. Exotic birds from the Americas, Asia and Africa also provided the feathers used to trim hats, fans, gowns and coats, which unsurprisingly led to issues around the environment cost and questions about the ethics of such a trade to satisfy demand for more and more fur and feathers in the name of fashion.

 

This brings me to the one major issue I have with this exhibition. While it was relevant to highlight the cost of fashion to the environment and wildlife, it is tackled in a heavy handed and patronising way. The sections dealing with how industrialisation and growing demand led to greater awareness in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is treated in a much more backhanded manner with the implication that industrialisation was a bad thing over all. However those that deal with the present can’t resist beating the visitors over the head with shrill pronouncements about fast fashion being bad for the environment and workers’ rights in the developing world. I detect a sense of snobbery here as the exhibition’s interpretation puts the blame on the poor and those who cannot afford designer and sustainable fashion for any current environmental problems the planet is facing thanks to the rise of disposable fashion.

Overall the exhibition has a lot of offer in terms of content and information however I wish there was more about the work of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), as they demonstrated how patient campaigning, royal patronage and generating awareness led to the egret’s numbers recovering after they were hunted to near extinction for their feathers. What was the big let-down in the end was the exhibition failing to ask and explore that all important question – shouldn’t the fashion industry and its allied sectors put its own house in order first before presuming to lecture the public on the negative impact of fashion on the environment?

 

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As we continue to commemorate the centenary of the Representation of the People Act of 1918 which gave women over 30 the right to vote, the Palace of Westminster has decided to mount its own exhibition about the tumultuous road that led to female suffrage. Westminster’s offering however goes one step further as the exhibition also delves into the 90 years since women were able to vote on equal terms with men and the 99 years since the first woman took her seat as a Member of Parliament.

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Entitled Voice and Vote, the exhibition charts the history of the history of female suffrage and female participation in a chronological manner. Before the 19th century, not only were women barred from voting, they were even forbidden from entering the Houses of Parliament. After the Napoleonic Wars, a group of women managed to find a way to enter the building, watch and listen to the debates from the ventilator; this also coincided with calls for social reform and women were at the forefront of many of these campaigns which ranged from prison reform, abolition of slavery, improvement of working conditions among others.

When the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt following the 1834 fire, a Ladies’ Gallery was added so that women especially female relations of MPs could watch and follow the debates. However, heavy metal grilles were placed over the windows which obstructed the view and made the gallery hot and uncomfortable. One woman likened the Ladies’ Gallery to an eastern harem where women were literally shut up, out of sight out of mind; and eventually it became known as the “Cage” and yet another symbol of women’s lack of political and social rights.

The next two sections dealt with the struggle for women’s suffrage and while there was too much emphasis on Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes on what should have been a more balanced view that included the suffragists (many of them men), it was fitting that this exhibition highlighted the stunt pulled by the Women’s Freedom League (WFL) where one of their members chained herself to the grille in the Ladies’ Gallery, not only to submit a petition to grant women the right to vote but also to point out the hated symbolism behind the grille.

Women over 30 were finally given the right to vote in 1918 and the following year saw the election of Nancy Astor to Parliament. She was quickly allocated a space which proved to be inadequate as more women were elected as MPs and yet again highlighted that Parliament was still very much a male dominated institution. Despite the fact that women could stand for the Commons, the House of Lords was still barred to them and Viscountess Rhondda, who had inherited her father’s title, led the campaign to open the upper house to women. This was finally realised with the Life Peerages Act in 1958 while female hereditaries could take their seat from 1963.

The exhibition was on display at St Stephen’s Hall and given that the hall was undergoing repair and conservation work might account for the small space allocated – which is a shame as I believe that using the whole area would have demonstrated what major strides women had made in public life and cementing their place in history.  It may be slightly fanciful to suggest that the exhibition, by being shoved into a corner of a great public building, is symbolic in itself of the fight that women had and in many ways still do have to be taken seriously in the wider public sphere – it’s impossible to imagine new male MPs being designated as ‘Blair’s Babes’ or ‘Cameron’s Cuties’ in the trivialising and patronising way that female MPs have been. Despite the small space however they were able to recreate what it would have been like peering through the ventilator or the Ladies’ Gallery; and objects from the Parliamentary Archives and loans from other collections were able to bring to life key events in the struggle for the right to vote and participate in political life.

At present, women have occupied many of the highest political positions from being Speaker of the House of Commons to the Premiership. One leaves the exhibition thinking that women have come a long way but more needs to be done. A journalist once remarked that women would have true equality with men when they didn’t have to be at least as twice as good as men in any job to be taken seriously, and the rise to positions of power and influence of mediocre and untalented women was as taken for granted and unquestioned as that of their mediocre and untalented male counterparts. Looking around the current crop of female politicians perhaps women have achieved that true equality: no-one is really remarkable and some are outright mediocre or nonentities. No different to the vast majority of men after all.

 

 

The bloggers visited both exhibitions on 1 September 2018. Photos were taken by blogger

Fashioned from Nature is currently on at the V&A (London) until 27 January 2019. For more information, please visit this link: https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/fashioned-from-nature

Voice and Vote: Women’s Place in Parliament is on at Westminster Hall (Palace of Westminster) until 6 October 2018. For more information, please visit: https://www.parliament.uk/get-involved/vote-100/voice-and-vote/

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Exhibition Review – Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector (The Wallace Collection)

In 1870, Richard Wallace (1818-1890) received a windfall from his employer the 4th Marquess of Hertford which comprised an art collection consisting of Old Master paintings, 17th and 18th century furniture, snuff boxes and perhaps the second largest assembly of Sevres porcelain in Britain (all in addition to homes in Britain and France as well as land in Britain). Ostensibly the inheritance was a reward for the services Wallace had performed for the 4th Marquess as his private secretary and art advisor, but the long standing belief was that Wallace was the illegitimate son of the 4th Marquess by a mistress, Agnes Wallace Jackson.

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Since the 4th Marquess of Hertford never married and had no legitimate children, the title and the estate passed to a nephew: however as his art collection was his private property, the 4th Marquess decided to bequeath it to Richard Wallace. The inheritance would be the bedrock of the Wallace Collection and it is fitting that the museum has decided to mark the bicentenary of its founder’s birth with an exhibition looking at Wallace’s life and interests through the objects he collected.

During his lifetime, Wallace was well known as a philanthropist – known for his work for the poor both in Britain and France as well as being an art collector. His philanthropy and collecting came together as he was a generous lender of objects from his collection to museums and art galleries and he gave money to enable museums to purchase works of art. In 1872 – by then Sir Richard Wallace – he arranged for a loan of his collection to the Bethnal Green Museum (now the V&A Museum of Childhood) with the stipulation that no admission charge would be levied. The exhibition ran until 1875 and by the time it had closed some 2.3 million people had visited.

On Wallace’s death in 1890 he left everything to his widow Lady Wallace (their only son Edmond having predeceased his parents). In 1897, Lady Wallace died and she left her husband’s art collection, papers and Hertford House to the nation on the condition that admission would be free (much like Wallace’s stipulation to the loan to Bethnal Green Museum). The Wallace Collection finally opened to the public in 1900 and since then has become well known for its stupendous collection of Dutch and British paintings, French porcelain and furniture, arms and armour.

To celebrate the bicentenary of its founder, the Wallace Collection has put up an exhibition simply entitled Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector. Featuring archival material from the collection’s files that charts key events in Wallace’s life; such as the codicil in the 4th Marquess’s will where he bequeaths his private property to Wallace, receipts that showed how much Wallace was prepared to spend to add to his collection and a catalogue for the Bethnal Green Museum exhibition.

The main highlights of the exhibition of course are the featured objects that demonstrate what kind of a collector Richard Wallace was and his main interests. Unlike the 4th Marquess who collected Old Master paintings and 18th century French porcelain, Wallace’s tastes ran more to Medieval and Renaissance decorative art, arms and armour and non-Western art. He was also particularly drawn to objects that had an interesting provenance or story behind them.

What stood out in the exhibition for me were objects that had royal provenance: such as a dagger than belonged to King Henry IV of France which was presented to him as a wedding gift (and later carried by the Emperor Napoleon as a talisman), and a pair of jewelled cups that were made for the Qianlong Emperor for the annual New Year rites. I can imagine that what attracted Wallace to acquire both was not only the craftsmanship and attention to detail that was very evident but also the fact that both were owned by monarchs and had an interesting story behind them.

 

 

The story behind an object would have most likely been a motivation for the acquisition of the Horn of St Hubert, which as tradition dictated was used by the saint while out hunting when he encountered the stag with the cross between its antlers. For many, many years it was displayed at Chauvirey-le-Châtel until the 1870s, when it was sold to Richard Wallace who paid 16,000 francs for it.

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As knowledgeable as Richard Wallace was about art and although he took great care with his purchases, he was not immune to purchasing fakes and reconstituted pieces. Some of the Renaissance jewellery that he acquired were not made in the 16th century as advertised but were very clever 19th century copies or outright forgeries, but such was the craftsmanship that they quickly became works of art in their own right. Another example was a silver gilt basin that was made in Portugal in the 16th century but someone later added the coat of arms of Pope Pius IV (1499-1565) in order to increase its value and fabricate an important provenance on a well-made but obscure piece.

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The exhibition is small but perfectly formed and does shine a spotlight on Richard Wallace which enables the visitor to get to know more about the man behind the collector and philanthropist. Despite the fact that his collecting slowed down in the 1880s due to being affected by the agricultural depression, Wallace remained committed to ensuring that his collection was accessible to the general public and this was finally realised in 1897 when Hertford House and its contents were given to the nation, an act of generosity which was described by a fellow collector and rival, Ferdinand de Rothschild as a “windfall…..[whose] artistic value is inestimable” and to this day it remains a jewel among Britain’s museums.

 

Sir Richard Wallace: The Collector is on at the Wallace Collection from 20 June 2018 to 6 January 2019. Admission is free and for more information, please visit https://www.wallacecollection.org/whats-on/sir-richard-wallace-the-collector-3/

The blogger visited the exhibition on 31 July 2018, photos also taken by blogger

Exhibition Review: Royal Women: Public Life, Personal Style (Fashion Museum, Bath)

The strong interest in what female members of the British royal family wear continues with the latest addition in the person of the Duchess of Sussex. The coverage of her wedding gown and the ensemble she wore to her first official engagement demonstrates that this interest in royal fashion has not abated and is exacerbated by the presence of blogs, social media and the omnipresent 24/7/365 news culture.

This interest is not new however as demonstrated by an on-going exhibition at the Fashion Museum in Bath entitled Royal Women: Public Life, Personal Style, featuring clothes worn by Queen Alexandra, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother) and Princess Margaret; each a wife or sister of a monarch. As public figures and being royal there are expectations to be met such as being above politics, so they should be seen and not heard. What royal women wear should be above fashion and be suitable for the occasion and the people they will meet: hence the bright colours in order to stand out, hats must never obscure the face, bags should never get in the way of shaking hands and accepting gifts from well-wishers. Even shoes are selected with comfort in mind.

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The exhibition is a small one with the clothes drawn from the museum’s own collection and loans from the Royal Collection. What was interesting is the information regarding how the museum was able to acquire dresses with royal provenance. Some like Princess Margaret’s were donated to the museum by the princess herself, while others such as a gown worn by Queen Mary were given by one of her ladies-in-waiting. Displayed chronologically, the clothes are a mini-history of royal fashion from the 1860s to the 1950s as well as highlighting how the four royal women featured used fashion and clothes to create their image and assist in their performance of their royal duties.

The women featured fall into two headings. Trendsetters like Queen Alexandra when as Princess of Wales she popularised tailored separates for day wear and jewelled chokers (to conceal a scar brought about by scrofula) for evening, and later Princess Margaret whose fashion choices generated headlines and epitomised glamour, especially after the austerity of the Second World War. Or in the case of Queens Mary and Elizabeth, their style was an integral part of their identity and as such instantly recognisable. Queen Mary remained wedded to the Edwardian styles that went out of fashion even during her lifetime, while Queen Elizabeth, with the help of designer Norman Hartnell, became known for her sparkling evening gowns which were heavily embroidered and beaded and in the distinct crinoline shape.

One of the interesting highlights of the exhibition was how clothes were not only re-worn but even recycled. Queen Alexandra’s wedding gown is virtually unrecognisable in the photographs of her on her wedding day but this is not unusual, as wedding dresses during this period were worn more than once – first on the wedding day and then reworked. As the wedding dress was the most expensive outfit in the entire bridal trousseau, it made sense for the gown to be designed in such a way that it could be worn again and again.

A second example of this clothes recycling was the dress worn by Queen Mary for Princess Elizabeth’s wedding in 1947. Designed by Norman Hartnell and described as “gold lame and turquoise cut velvet”, it originally had long sleeves and a high neck. The gown was later altered with the neckline adjusted and the sleeves cut to create the floaty panels around the upper arms. Both gowns demonstrated how clever alteration can result into a new dress created out of an old one.

Another interesting highlight was with regards to the change in Alexandra’s wardrobe after 1892 which marked a turning point. The death of her oldest son the Duke of Clarence hit her hard and after a period of deep mourning, she decided to wear half mourning for the rest of her life in his memory. This was in marked contrast to her mother-in-law Queen Victoria who wore black for forty years following the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861. Her choice is reflected in two gowns in dusky blue and mauve – two popular colours associated with half mourning, and they give us a good idea of the colour palette in Alexandra’s wardrobe during the last three decades of her life.

While the clothes are well presented, it’s a shame that apart from a hat and two pairs of shoes that belonged to Queen Mary as well as a glove that belonged to Queen Alexandra accessories are absent, which prevents the viewer from getting a more rounded picture of each woman’s taste and look. However this is a minor quibble more than anything. What is disappointing was there is nothing on display from Queen Elizabeth’s famous “White Wardrobe” designed by Norman Hartnell for the state visit to France in 1938. More than anything, the “White Wardrobe” represented a crossroads in Elizabeth’s over all look that marked the beginnings of the popular and iconic images of her as queen consort and queen mother.

The exhibition closes with a surprise loan from the Countess of Wessex which brings the exhibition fully to the present and demonstrate that while fashion have moved on, the demands of royal dressing have not. There is also a film showing the four featured women out and about performing their public duties which gives us a glimpse of them and their clothes in movement.

Certainly this exhibition leaves me wanting more but while small it is packed full with interesting information and trivia and as the surprise loan demonstrates, the public’s fascination with what royal women wear continues.

 

Royal Women: Public Life, Personal Style is on at the Fashion Museum Bath until 28 April 2019. Admission included in the ticket price.

For more information please visit: https://www.fashionmuseum.co.uk/

The bloggers visited the exhibition on 23 May 2018 and photos were taken by the bloggers.

Exhibition Review – Ocean Liners: Speed and Style (V&A)

Glamour is not something we associate with travelling nowadays, with shrinking legroom, tight security, baggage restrictions and the ingenious ways by which airlines (especially budget ones) routinely fleece their customers. However, that wasn’t the case as during the early decades of the twentieth century, long before air travel became a reality, travelling by sea was the only way to cross continents and travel lengthy distances. The great liners of the day with names such as Olympic, Mauretania, Normandie, Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth and the United States plied the world’s oceans and became a byword not just for technological prowess but also for glamour and beauty.

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Organised with co-operation from the Peabody Essex Museum, the V&A’s Ocean Liners: Speed and Style is the first exhibition to provide a comprehensive exploration of these “floating palaces” and operates on three levels: first it looks at the glitz and allure of travelling aboard a liner. As one enters the exhibition space, the visitor is treated to a recreation of that glamorous world where the interiors are as luxurious and lavish as any great palace or hotel as manifested by doors and panels from the SS France, the panel which adorned the grand staircase of the RMS Olympic as well as the furniture and panels from the RMS Queen Mary and the SS Normandie. Customer service was also paramount as the liners ensured that not only did their visitors travel in comfort and style, but every need and whim was anticipated;  for example. the Queen Mary having a room that could convert into a Roman Catholic chapel and a door that doubled as a menorah for use by Jewish passengers for Sabbath services.

Nowhere is the glamour of ocean travel shown more clearly than in the “life on board” section where the displays are meant to evoke the travelling experience for first class passengers. Ocean liners emulated grand hotels not only in terms of interiors but also in terms of food and service with top chefs acting as consultants. The entire on board experience was deliberately designed to replicate how the rich and powerful lived on dry land to make travelling as appealing and convenient as possible.  There were also activities on board such as sports and games for young and old alike but the main highlight is the fashion featured – a Christian Dior suit belonging to the actress Marlene Dietrich as well as a small selection of gowns worn by socialite Eleanor Grigsby as well the luggage in which their clothes were packed – dressing cases full of cosmetic bottles and Vuitton trunks that covert into chests of drawers – no slinging a soft bag into the overhead locker for these travellers. These clothes emphasised how much being on board was also to be seen and nowhere is this more apparent with the recreation of the “grande descente” where female passengers wearing their best gowns and jewels would descend the grand staircase of a liner on their way to dinner.

 

 

 

Secondly, the exhibition also takes a look at how technology has transformed how people travelled by sea. From its beginnings via Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Eastern, ocean liners were initially used to transport mail and cargo gradually extending to transporting people especially those who were emigrating for a better life. However it was not a pleasant experience and as the nineteenth century gradually grew to a close, advances in ship building and technology made it possible for travelling by liner to be glamorous and aspirational rather than dirty and dangerous. Models and illustrations from the period demonstrate how much attention was paid to the design of the ship and its engines not only to make the liner look aesthetically pleasing but to ensure that safety, comfort and speed were not compromised.

Speed also comes in to what I consider the most important aspect explored by the exhibition – how ocean liners were used as tools to promote nationalism, national identity and national pride. The Blue Riband which was awarded for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic became fiercely contested and it was understandable that Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany would be exulting over German liners wresting the Blue Riband from their British rivals in 1898 and holding on to it until 1903. In a way, the competition for the coveted Blue Riband reflected the growing Anglo-German naval rivalry during this period as well as Germany’s dream of possessing a powerful navy to ensure its “place in the sun.” Nowhere is this ambition more apparent in a painted panel that was part of the Kronpriz Wilhelm’s interior which depicted allegorical images of the sea and rather unsubtly pointed out that Germany’s future lay with its mastery of maritime power.

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Increasingly as well, the state was taking an active interest in the liners and what they could achieve for the nation. This was especially true as during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, liners were increasingly being built with government subsidies on the understanding that they would be requisitioned for public use in the event of war or any national calamity as was the case during the two World Wars where the likes of the Mauretania, Britannic and Queen Mary were used either as hospital ships or to transport troops and supplies to the front.

National identity and national pride were also heavily invoked especially during the 1930s. As demonstrated by two rival liners – the Queen Mary and the Normandie, which were seen by their respective governments as a way to promote Britain and France. Queen Mary, the first of the liners built by the merged Cunard-White Star Line drew heavily on a more restrained style in keeping up with the British national character to give prospective passengers a feel of being in a stately home at sea. Its interiors, fixtures and furniture made from materials sourced not only from all over Britain but also from its empire as a way of showing that the colonies were not a financial drain on the state but rather an important source for raw materials, and that the empire was of mutual benefit economically for the mother country and its dependents.

 

The Normandie on the other hand was unashamedly Art Deco in style and reflected continuing French influence in Western art and design by commissioning panels, sculptures and interior decoration from leading French artists. It was also a perfect showcase for the best of French industry as the likes of Lalique, Aubusson and other leading companies provided the liner’s furniture and fixtures. Both liners could be seen as floating representations of their respective countries at sea.

 

The Second World War put an end to the golden age of the ocean liner and the advent of airplanes such as the Boeing 747 and the Concorde rendered long distance travel by sea redundant. But the liners still provide inspiration for romance, dystopia and nostalgia as demonstrated by films such as The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Titanic (1997). In addition, the liners themselves were a potent symbol for optimism in scientific and technological progress.

The exhibition is not without its weakness; more could have been said about those travelling in second and third class as well as the staff that saw to the needs of the passengers. But that’s a small quibble, the V&A has managed to give its visitors a slice of that glamorous life at sea that has passed into the annals of history and one that we will never see again.

 

Notes:

The bloggers visited the exhibition on 14 April 2018. Photos also taken by bloggers.

Ocean Liners: Speed & Style is on at the V&A London until 17 June 2018 after which it will transfer at the V&A Dundee from 15 September 2018 to 24 February 2019. For more information please visit: https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/ocean-liners-speed-style and: https://www.vandadundee.org/exhibitions/ocean-liners

Exhibition Review: Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic (V&A)

Long before there was Paddington Bear, Shaun the Sheep and Peppa Pig, there was Winnie the Pooh. For over 90 years, the bear with very little brain and his friends Piglet, Rabbit, Owl, Tigger, Kanga, Roo and Christopher Robin have entertained and enchanted both children and adults alike.

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The exhibition is subtitled “Exploring a Classic” and it opens with the enduring legacy of Winnie the Pooh and his friends. There are merchandise dating from as early as the early 1930s with soft toys, puzzles and a child’s tea set that was presented to Princess Elizabeth of York, down to those based on the Walt Disney adaptation from the 1960s with toys, clothes, spin off films and TV specials. Pooh and his friends have also become iconic as demonstrated by editorial cartoons heavily based on the illustrations from the books. The stories themselves have become the inspiration for two self-help books that became bestsellers during the 1990s – The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet. Crucially, the Pooh stories themselves have gone global with translations in various languages and they have never been out of print.

From the enduring legacy, the exhibition moves towards chronicling the history behind the books and the collaboration between A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard, both of whom worked for Punch magazine; the former as an assistant editor while the latter was an illustrator. Milne wrote the Pooh stories based on his son Christopher Robin and his menagerie of soft toys. Already an established writer, Milne relished the challenge of writing a children’s story believing that “[a] writer should take his job seriously even though he’s taking it to the nursery.”

The use of simple words and dialogue belied a quick witted verbal humour which appealed not just to children. In addition Milne’s use and misuse of language, grammar and punctuation facilitated his storytelling as they were there for both dramatic and humorous effect. But Milne’s prose is only half the story – as the exhibition shows, the success behind a children’s book is a harmony between text and illustration and this is where E.H. Shepard comes in. His technique and pared down drawings draw attention to the narrative; in addition he also used subtle details to synchronise his illustrations to the text.

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All of these are presented through displays of letters, manuscripts and drawings that illustrate how the world of Winnie the Pooh and his friends came to life. One of the key highlights for me was the map of the 100 Acre Wood which was based Ashdown Forest, not far from the Milnes’ country home in Sussex, where Christopher Robin Milne used to play as a child. The drawings by Shepard, many of them works in progress, illustrate the creative process by which both men worked together to synthesise drawings and text.

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The exhibition has something for everyone – the drawings, books, merchandise and soft toys will appeal to those who grew up reading the Pooh stories or who discovered them after watching the Disney adaptation, while the large scale recreation of several key scenes from the books not to mention the multi-media displays would appeal to children who are just beginning to discover the world of Winnie the Pooh and his friends. If there’s any exhibition that would appeal to anyone between the ages of “two and one hundred and two” then this certainly is it.

 

Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic is on at the V&A until 8 April 2018. For more information please visit the exhibition website: https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/winnie-the-pooh-exploring-a-classic

The blogger visited the exhibition on 7 February 2018

Photos from the exhibition taken by blogger

Lawrence Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity review

On paper, the artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912) was part of the art establishment – a Royal Academician, a knight of the realm and a member of the Order of Merit, with a lucrative career that brought him fame and substantial financial rewards. Scratch the surface however and you find a Dutchman (born Lourens Alma Tadema), whose artistic career took him from his home country the Netherlands through Belgium and finally to Britain where he spent the last 40 odd years of his life.

The exhibition Lawrence Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity is a comprehensive survey of his life and career and using the Leighton House Museum as a venue was an inspired choice as it gives one an idea and feel of the studio-residences that Alma-Tadema created in London with his family. The ground floor rooms display paintings from the beginning of Alma-Tadema’s career, where his early paintings were heavily influenced by artists from the Golden Age of Dutch art such as Rembrandt, David Teniers the Younger and Nicholas Maes, as exemplified by portraits that he painted of members of his family. In the 1850s, he turned to historical painting, specialising in medieval subjects. Following his marriage to a French woman (Pauline Gressin Dumoulin) and during their honeymoon in Italy, the places they visited such as Rome and Pompeii provided new inspiration for his art – everyday life set in ancient Rome with titles such as Pomona Festival and The Flower Market. While Alma-Tadema ensured that his rendering of the interiors and clothing were as accurate as possible, some details especially the faces are very contemporary, as if the people depicted are playing at dressing up.

Alma-Tadema’s development as an artist is chronicled in the upstairs room. In 1869, his wife Pauline died and while in London seeking medical treatment he was invited to the home of the artist Ford Maddox Brown where he met Laura Theresa Epps and promptly fell in love with her. The outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War and his growing feelings for Miss Epps influenced his decision to settle in Britain permanently and he married her in 1871; following which they acquired their first marital home near Regent’s Park (Townshend House). Laura became an artist in her own right and throughout the second floor there are paintings by her which show the influence of the Dutch masters and her specialisation in genre painting. There are also portraits that Alma-Tadema did of his wife and children that underscored them as a close and loving family unit.

Once Alma-Tadema settled in Britain, he became acquainted with artists from the Pre-Raphaelite movement and his colour palette changed; the darker tones of his Dutch and Belgian years giving way to the light hues influenced by his trips to Italy and his association with Pre-Raphaelite artists. By the 1880s, he was well established in his adapted country – garlanded with honours and awards as well as his paintings being well-received. In 1883, the Alma-Tademas bought a large house in St John’s Wood (located in Grove End Road) which also housed his studio. The interior of the house was done in the Roman style which served as his backdrop for many of his paintings.

During this period, Alma-Tadema also was commissioned to paint portraits and his portrait of the Polish pianist and future prime minister and diplomat Ignacy Jan Paderewski is a stark contrast to his historical paintings. While the colours are unmistakably Alma-Tadema, the rendition is almost impressionistic which showed that Alma-Tadema was more than a painter of scenes from antiquity. The same versatility can also be seen in the few landscapes that he painted, mostly while on holiday in Italy and from the view of his house in Grove End Road. The Italian paintings especially are notable for the skill with which the painter depicts the sunlight on flesh, marble and sea: paintings such as A Solicitation emit a tangible sunlit warmth and ease.

Sir Lawrence AlmaTadema Coign of Vantage 1895 Collection of Ann and Gordon Getty

Despite his dabbling in portraiture and landscape painting, Alma-Tadema was primarily known for his historical painting. There were recurring elements in his work such as the prevalence of blue skies, white marble and vistas as exemplified by A Solicitation and Pleading. By the later phase of his career, Alma-Tadema had crystallised the elements that characterised his work: the sea, alluring women, classical sculpture, rich textures and flowers. He was known for his attention to detail and accuracy to the best of his ability (which was aided by trips to Italy and Egypt as well as informing himself of new developments in archaeology) all of which are evident in his most famous works such as Coign of Vantage, The Triumph of Titus: AD71 and The Roses of Heliogabalus. The latter is particularly interesting as it pretty much encapsulates almost all of Alma-Tadema’s elements and USP. However, I find the study much more interesting and convincing than the finished product; while the actual painting is technically accomplished and aesthetically pleasing there is none of the sense of urgency and panic as the guests are being suffocated by the avalanche of the flowers streaming over them: they seem to be wholly relaxed about their fate.  In contrast however, the study for The Roses of Heliogabalus has more of the sense of the violence and suffering inflicted on the guests as demonstrated by the contortions of the body as the guests struggled to escape the shower of rose petals that threatens to engulf them.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema The Roses of Heliogabalus 1888. Perez Simon Collection

By the time of Alma-Tadema’s death in 1912, his paintings and style had fallen out of fashion, supplanted by the likes of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, post-Impressionism and Cubism. For most of the 20th century he fell into obscurity but while Alma-Tadema wasn’t exactly a household name, his paintings gained a second lease of life in cinema. They became influential in how filmmakers brought the ancient world to life in cinema; one look at The Death of the First-Born and I was immediately reminded of the same scene in Cecile B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) where the same muted colours and subdued lighting used by Alma-Tadema found its way into the film. More recently, Sir Ridley Scott was also influenced by Alma-Tadema for his film Gladiator (2000) where the scenes of gladiatorial combat are reminiscent of A Pyrrhic Dance and the costumes worn were inspired by the women depicted in various paintings dotted around the exhibition.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema A Pyrrhic Dance 1869 Guidhall Art Gallery City of London

While some might think that Alma-Tadema’s paintings are clichéd and only fit to decorate biscuit and chocolate tins, this exhibition shows that he was more than a painter of scenes from antiquity. That said, his main body of work was all about the ancient world and the way he brought it to life does show that Alma-Tadema was indeed an artist “at home in antiquity”.

Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema The Finding of Moses 1904. Private Collection

 

Lawrence Alma-Tadema: At Home in Antiquity is on at the Leighton House Museum until 29 October 2017. For more information please visit the website https://www.rbkc.gov.uk/subsites/museums/leightonhousemuseum/almatademaathome.aspx?gclid=CIWW4KCZ8tYCFeaT7QodjWsNxg

 

The bloggers visited the exhibition on 4 October 2017. We would also like to thank Ana Garcia of the Marketing and PR Department of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea for permission to use the images in this blog.

Exhibition Reviews – Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear (V&A) and Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies (Imperial War Museum)

Despite the sexy connotations attached to underwear, the V&A’s current exhibition Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is anything but. As the title of the exhibition goes, it traces the history of underwear from the earliest extant piece dating back from the 18th century to the present as well as examining the reasons and motivation for the existence of underwear. They range from reasons of hygiene to protection down to structural support of various parts of the human anatomy. Underwear also reflects and is also subject to the changes in fashion and what has been seen as the ideal body type and shape. As we’ve come to expect from the V&A, it does all this in an informative and yet visually appealing and interesting exhibition.

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Cleverly, the displays are not displayed chronologically but according to themes and there is a wide variety of objects on display: not just underwear but advertisements, photographs, prints, packaging and even cartoons. One of the strongest aspects of the exhibition is examining how the emphasis on hygiene, protection and comfort has led to the development of fabrics and materials in underwear design and manufacture. Before the advent of synthetic fabrics, natural fibres such as cotton, linen and wool were used for underclothes for their ease in washing and durability. Wool particularly was singled out for its health benefits as advocated by Dr Gustav Jaeger for its ability to regulate body temperature. However from the late 19th century onwards, techniques were being develop to bolster the durability of natural fabrics such as for instance there was “Ellico” developed by William Elliot and Sons which was marketed as “unshrinkable wool”. By the 20th century, there was the invention of synthetic fabrics such as nylon and polyester in the middle of the last century down to today’s lycra, tactel and elastine that demonstrate the main function of underwear that is worn for both hygiene and protection.

Just as clothes and accessories have reflected changing trends in fashion and standards of beauty, underwear is the same and nowhere is this more apparent with the corset. Although its basic shape has remained unaltered, subtle changes reflect changing fashions from the “hourglass” shape of the 1850s to the “S-bend” of the 1890s and by the twentieth century, synthetic and elastic materials have replaced whalebone: beginning in the 1920s when the prevailing fashion for fluidity meant that underwear was used to minimise and flatten the body. What is interesting is the variety of corsets on display such as for horse riding and other sports such as tennis, golf and cycling, for maternity and to wear in the tropics – a very interesting point as even as Western women were becoming more emancipated and physically active they were still to some extent constrained, and up to the first world war were still swathed in their voluminous clothes and layers even in the heat of countries such as India, Egypt and the Philippines!

Of course the wearing of underwear is not only for practical or health reasons but also for comfort, aesthetics, allure and mystique so this is where “lingerie” comes in; underwear that is made of silk, lace, applique, crepe de chine and satin mostly hand stitched and embroidered to be used as a tool for seduction. The upper gallery also features underwear that while ostensibly as for comfort such as tea gowns, dressing gowns, hostess gowns and lounging pyjamas are also by their beauty and informality the means of seduction and allure: and the diaphanous fabrics hint to the male admirer of the delights in store for him and that he’s not going to have to fight his way through layers of petticoats and a corset to enjoy them.

Overall the exhibition is fascinating and carefully curated but especially for the last part of the exhibition there is too much emphasis on prestige brands and not enough of high street stalwarts such as for instance Marks and Spencer or Anne Summers. I believe that’s a glaring omission especially as M&S has arguably been the go-to shop for majority of women for underwear for the last 80-90 years. But apart from that quibble, kudos to the V&A for attempting to present the history of the underwear not only from the woman’s side but also to give equal attention to the men as well.

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2016 marks the centenary of the Battle of the Somme and the anniversary an added dimension as it was also exactly a hundred years ago when a film depicting the battle was premiered to picture houses up and down the country. The Battle of the Somme, featuring both actual and recreated footage was a bold and risky move by the War Office designed to rally support for the war effort and it was seen by many people. For the first time, audiences could see the battle unfolding before their eyes on screen rather than reading about it in the newspapers or through letters from family and friends at the Front.

To celebrate both landmark events the Imperial War Museum has mounted the exhibition Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies which documents the history of war movies through objects and paraphernalia such as props, scripts, notes, costumes, film clips and posters. There are also features of real people who have inspired films such as Adolf Hitler (Downfall) and T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) as well as works of fiction and non-fiction that have made it from print to screen for instance Atonement, War Horse, Empire of the Sun and Full Metal Jacket.

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Two of the interesting aspects of the exhibition are the enduring popularity of the Second World War for war movies, with many of the films featured such as The Dam Busters, Carve Her Name With Pride and The Bridge of the River Kwai made during the 1950s when the end of the war was barely a decade in the past; while the 1960s and 1970s saw the release of films featuring all-star casts such as The Great Escape and Das Boot.  This fascination has endured to this day with films such as Saving Private Ryan and Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.

The other interesting aspect is the production side of making these films where attention to detail and striving for accuracy and authenticity were emphasised. Here we see story boards; annotated scripts; models and interviews with directors, writers and other production people to talk viewers through the process by which a particular scene was shot and filmed and the issues that are at the forefront of a particular film. One of the most fascinating clips was featuring the real Omaha Beach landings on D-Day followed Steven Spielberg’s version in Saving Private Ryan and it was astonishing to see how Spielberg was able to recreate the actual event almost frame by frame.

The last part of the exhibition notes how war films have been received both by the critics and the public. Films such as Oh What a Lovely War and Casablanca have entered our popular consciousness while the likes of Patton and Bridge of Spies have garnered critical praise and awards. What comes out of the exhibition is that while no film can totally be 100% accurate and portray the realities of war, for better or for worse they shape our perception of a conflict. If a film is done well, it can help broaden our understanding of the conflict and even the times we live in today. However, the film industry doesn’t always get in right – Operation Burma and U-571 are two of the most historically inaccurate war films ever made and have the potential to perpetuate falsehoods and misconceptions. As the exhibition quoted The Times “misrepresentation on the screen can do very much more harm than an article in a newspaper” because it “speaks in a language that can be understood by millions” – a very perceptive comment that sums up not only war movies but period movies and TV programmes in general.

Real to Reel is a good exhibition but understandably it won’t be able to cover all aspects of war cinema and the focus is overwhelmingly on British and American cinema (bar Downfall which is a German film). However, there are more than enough to show why war is a popular topic for film makers and how conflicts such as the two World Wars continue to provide a fresh source for storytelling and film making even long after the real guns have fallen silent.

 

The bloggers visited both exhibitions on 9 September 2016.

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear is at the V&A until 12 March 2017 https://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/undressed-a-brief-history-of-underwear

Real to Reel: A Century of War Movies is at the Imperial War Museum London until 8 January 2017

http://www.iwm.org.uk/exhibitions/iwm-london/real-to-reel-a-century-of-war-movies