London Exhibitions I have Loved

Over the lifetime of Catherine’s Cultural Wednesdays I have been to more exhibitions than I can count. Now I combine them all my guide to London Exhibitions which gets updated regularly. I began to delete the really old posts and then got all nostalgic, so am gathering them all here instead. London Exhibitions I have loved 2013 – 2018.

Multiple visits to museums are made so much easier by being a member, take a look at my guide of London Museum Membership and also my carefully researched guide to London Museum Cafes.

Table of Contents



Jaw dropping, that is what Mat Collishaw Thresholds is.  Ground breaking, amazing all those words.  Back in 1839 William Henry Fox Talbot presented his photographic prints to the public for the first time at an exhibition at King Edward’s School in Birmingham.  Now using the wonders of virtual reality you can experience that display.

Woman being fitted with backpack to view Mat Collishaw Thresholds Virtual Reality artwork
Virtual Reality Ready

Once kitted out with a backpack headset and earphones you step into a white room. But you don’t see a white room, you see the library, you hear sounds, you feel the warmth from a flickering fire.  


Seaside selfie Kiss Me Quick
Seaside Selfie

Four great British seaside photographers gathered together. Ranging from the black and white images of Tony Ray-Jones form the sixties to the hyper real colours of Martin Parr. David Hurn lovingly depicts the Welsh coast and Simon Roberts has undertaken a mission to photograph all 56 remaining English piers.

CHARMED LIVES IN GREECE at the British Museum

Once upon a time there were three young men who met at the end of the second world war and became lifelong friends. Meet our heroes Niko Ghika, John Craxton and Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor.  Stars of Charmed Lives in Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor at the British Museum.

I concede that before visiting this exhibition I had never heard of Ghika or Craxton.  Leigh Fermor however is one of my favourite authors.  It turns out that while I may never heard of Craxton before I do own some of his artwork.  He designed the covers for Patrick Leigh Fermor books. A quick survey of my shelves reveals five of his book covers.

The exhibition follows their friendship with the artworks of Ghika and Craxton on display with quotes from Leigh Fermor liberally sprinkled around the walls.  Men sitting in cafes, the sea lapping on perfect beaches it is a happy and sunny show

Vitrines of memorabilia are almost as numerous as pictures.  Patrick Leigh Fermor’s typewriter is in one of them.  I know that it is just a type writer but it is the the type writer on which ‘A Time of Gifts’ and ‘Between Woods and Water’ were written, two of my all time favourite books.

Mostly the vitrines contains letters, photos and copies of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s books which he had inscribed for his friends like this copy of Mani which was given to Joan who Patrick Leigh Fermor later married. I loved this exhibition, it is small but joyous.

Monet and Architecture at the National Gallery

Monet and Architecture?  Surely that should be Monet and Lily ponds!  Turns out that Monet painted just as many buildings as he did ponds.  Monet and Architecture at the National Gallery is here to show us that his buildings are every bit as compelling as his flowers.  One of the pictures in this exhibition even combines the two, with a bridge over a lily pond.  If, when this Monet exhibition has finished, you still want to see Monet at the National Gallery then you can as “The Water Lily Pond” lives here.


As famous artists go, they don’t get much more famous than Picasso.  Famous and prolific.  Picasso 1932 Love Fame Tragedy, the new exhibition at Tate Modern is dedicated to his output in just one year it is stuffed to the gunnels with top notch work, no sketches found at the bottom of a drawer here.

Why 1932? You know how big zero birthdays are.  You approach them with trepidation.  How can I be that old?  You probably have a big celebration.  Then suddenly you are 21, 31, 41, 51 and heading for next big zero thinking about what you want to keep and what you want to change.  That’s how 1932 was for Picasso.  He turned 51.  He was famous.  He was married with a child.  He had a lovely Parisian home and had just bought a chateau, Boisgeloup, as a country retreat.  He was respectable.  But, he also had a young mistress, Marie-Therésè Walter who was less than half his age.  He didn’t want to settle down and be respectable.  He painted Marie-Therésè over and over again.  We see her distinctive shock of blond hair and prominent nose peering out at us from almost every wall.  Picasso dubbed 1932 as the ‘Year of Wonders’


Flaming June comes home to Leighton House

Flaming June, star of countless posters, mugs and mousemats has come home.  She has had a bit of journey but for the next few months she’s back in South Kensington with the chums that were created at the same time.  Lord Frederic Leighton sent six paintings to the 1895 Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy.  He was the Academy’s President, so no nervous nail-biting to see if the Committee would hang them.  All six of them had been painted in his studio in the previous months and just before they went out into the wide world he took a picture of them all.

Painting Flaming June by Lord Leighton
Flaming June by Lord Leighton

Flaming June is now his most famous painting.   Right from the start she was copied, her first owner was The Graphic magazine which made a high quality reproduction as a Christmas giveaway.  Then she fell out of fashion and nothing more was heard of her until she was uncovered from a fireplace in Battersea and taken to a junk shop.  It was there that a young Andrew Lloyd Webber was capitivated by her and ran to ask his Grandmother to lend him the £50 necessary to buy her.  Grandma’s response was NO, that she didn’t want Victorian rubbish in her flat.  Following her close shave with future musical stardom, she was acquired by Museo de Arte de Ponce in Peurto Rico and there she still lives.

Now June and the other paintings sent to Summer Exhibiton that year have been reunited and hang next door to each other once again.  Well nearly all: one is missing.  Just as Flaming June was discovered behind a piece of chipboard, so might her sibling be lurking somewhere, maybe it’s time to take a close look in your attic.


Modigliani painted faces that are instantly recognisable.  Elongated necks, almond eyes and equine noses stare out of canvases, all different but all the same.  Modigliani at Tate Modern is packed with portraits (well there is one landscape that rather shows why he was known for his faces) and sculptures but is it worth seeing.

I love the haughty clean lines of the faces in Modigliani’s paintings but it is sculpture that I truly covet.  There is something ancient about the faces.  To me they have always looked like the kind of object that might have been worshipped centuries ago.  So it was pleasing to learn that the artist used to places lights on the statues in an act of quasi worship.

Long faces and nudes that’s what Modigliani is known for.  Twelve unclothed ladies have been gathered together for this exhibition at Tate Modern.  They gaze at us from the walls of the central gallery.  Sometimes we see the same woman in portraits with and without clothes next to each other.  At the time these nudes were considered outrageous and were censored.  Not because of the naked flesh, which has been on display since the earliest depictions of Eve, but because Modigliani dared the show pubic hair, previous nudes all looked as if they been waxed.

Modigliani was a sickly soul.  He had tuberculosis which he didn’t help with prodigious quantities of drinking and smoking.  In the final months of the First World War, as Paris came under increasing fire, Modigliani decamped down to the South of France with his pregnant lover Jeanne Hébuterne.  Whilst there he didn’t paint professional models but rather the family and friends that surrounded him.  I especially liked this portrait of Jeanne.

Matters were not helped by living in a damp cold studio and he died aged only 35 in 1920.   By the magic of Virtual Reality we experience sitting in Modigliani’s Ochre Atelier on the rue de la Grand Chaumière in Montparnasse.  A breeze wafts a paper to the floor, cigarette smoke curls upwards, water drips from the ceiling, sardine tins litter the floor.  I confess that I did bend down to try and retrieve the paper as it fell.  Tickets for the VR are free but make sure that you collect a timed ticket as you enter the exhibition, just having your show entry ticket will not be enough.

Regicide, Restoration and Royal Art and Power

Cavaliers and roundheads are the staples of British history.  Charles I was fond of the fine things in life, lost touch with the people and so lost his head.  Fondness for the fine things went beyond fancy lace collars and floppy-eared spaniels: he was the first British Monarch to amass a truly great art collection.  Once Cromwell had chopped off Charles I head, he set about selling his fantastic art collection.  Fast forward a decade, Cromwell is dead and Charles II returns to claim his father’s crown.  Like father like son, he knew a thing or two about Royal art and power and set about creating his own collection.  This Spring it is possible to see the collections for father and son in London.  Start with the father at the Royal Academy and then stroll across Green Park to see the Charles II collection on show at the Queen’s Gallery.


Charles I got bitten by the art collecting bug when he made a visit to the Spanish court when he was heir to the throne.  Negotiations for his marriage to a Spanish princess were proceeding very slowly so he set off in disguise to pay a visit to the Spanish King.  Charles didn’t return with a bride but he did come home with his bags packed with paintings by Titian and Veronese, including this rather fine portrait of Charles V and a Dog by Titian.

Once home Charles set about amassing a collection of his own.  He made a good start by buying up the art of the cash strapped Gonzaga family in Mantua.  Included in this job lot is what is now known as the Lely Aphrodite.  This third century Roman sculpture was bought by the painter Sir Peter Lely in the Commonwealth Sale and then reacquired by the Royal Collection after the painter’s death.

Not content with just buying paintings, he set about commissioning artists like Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck to create works for him.  These portraits painted of Charles I and his family occupy the central rooms of the exhibition.

Charles was not the oldest son of his parents. Henry, Prince of Wales died young but before he died he had started an art collection of his own.  Charles inherited his brother’s collection and kept it close by him in what was known as the Whitehall Cabinet.  One room in Charles I King and Collector aims to recreate the feel of the Cabinet, it is filled with Holbein drawings and Hilliard miniatures and is my favourite room in the show.

Things didn’t end well for Charles I.  He was on the losing side of the English Civil War and ended up walking out of the Banqueting House in Whitehall Palace to be beheaded.  Shortly afterwards Oliver Cromwell had Charles’ magnificent collection sold off in what was known as the Commonwealth Sale.  All the labels in the Royal Academy exhibition say whereabouts in which Royal Palace the painting hung, how much it sold for and to whom in the Commonwealth Sale.  It is fascinating to see where the paintings went and where they still live.

Charles I’s collection was spread far and wide, both the Spanish and French Royal families snapped up lots of bargains.  Those paintings still hang in the Prado and the Louvre today.  This is the first time that these paintings have al hung together for over three hundred and fifty years.  Once you have seen the father’s collection, take a stroll across the park to Buckingham Palace to see the son’s.

CHARLES II ART AND POWER at the Queen’s Gallery

Just over a decade after the regicide of Charles I, his son was invited back to assume the throne.  Charles II came back to find his palaces bare, all the pictures and tapestries sold.  He didn’t even have a crown to wear as Cromwell had had the Crown Jewels melted down.  Charles set about refurnishing his homes and creating bling that ensured all that saw him could not but doubt that he was an anointed King.  First things first, he needed regalia and set dressing for his coronation.  This stunning selection of ecclesiastical plate includes silver gilt maces and altar dishes that created a glittering display in Westminster Abbey for Charles II coronation and of many other monarchs since.

The Royal coffers didn’t contain enough to buy back all his father’s art collection, so Charles cannily offered an amnesty.  Anybody that returned stuff back to the Royal collection would not be prosecuted.  People were keen to curry favour with the new monarch and many items were restored to the Royal walls.  In the Royal Collection today and on show here is the proclamation of the amnesty.

Charles loved art and loved ladies.  He had Sir Peter Lely paint many of his favourites, known today as the Lely Lovelies, here they hang altogether along a wall looked over by a magnificent portrait of the King in his robes of state.

Foreign monarchs fell over themselves to shower the new King with paintings that took their place alongside the old King’s collection.  My favourite of all the paintings on show at the Queen’s Gallery?  It is this Boy Looking through a Casement.  I love the way that he looks so cheeky.  The painting has quite a story too, it was in the collection of Prince Henry, Charles II’s older brother, and was sold in the Commonwealth Sale to Robert Houghton  for £3 (along with another painting) before being given back.

Charles II is known as the Merry Monarch and this exhibition shows why.  He loved beautiful things; art, women, furniture, all of which are on display here.  He also knew the importance of appearance and the potency of royal art and power.


Believe it or not, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was published 20 years ago.  Where better to mark Harry Potter’s birthday than the British Library.  Exhibitions at the British Library are always well worth visiting but they have pulled out all the stops for Harry Potter: A History of Magic.  The typed synopsis (yes, it was so long ago that people used typewriters) that was sent to twelve publishers before Bloomsbury saw the light, opens the show.

Not all the objects are just for gazing at.  The celestial globe that you can see here is over 400 years old but with the help of Google Arts and Culture you can interact with the globe and see the star formations that feature in Harry Potter.  Did you know that Bellatrix Lestrange is a star?


Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is not so much exhibition but more of show. From the moment you put your Bowers and Wilkins headphones on you are immersed into the world of Opera.  Lush music washes over you as you are read all about its beginnings in seventeenth century Venice.  The city was in decline as new shipping routes took away her business, tourism was the way forward and Opera was the brand new way to draw in well heeled visitors.

Opera is the original multimedia entertainment.  It has the lot.  Music, voice, lavish sets, sumptuous costumes and great people watching from your theatre seat.  Ingenious sets were one of the big draws to the new Venetian theatres.  You turn a corner to find your self in the wings of a theatre stage, keep on walking and take a seat in front of a reconstruction Of a Rinaldo set. Sit and listen to Chorus of Mermaids and be transported back to seventeenth century Venice.

One of the problems of an exhibition about sound is that visual things can be a bit tricky.  The V&A has got around this by the use of chalk board style graphics on the walls that lead you through the development of Opera by looking at seven different works.

Period instruments and clothes are on display for you to look at as the music washes over you. The V&A has mined its vast costume selection as well for period clothes.

Opera houses tend to be extravagantly opulent buildings.  In the UK we don’t have that many but in Italy there are over 150 opera houses.  Artist Matthais Schiller set about photographing them for this art work.  It is huge, you sit there with Verdi’s Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco playing in your ears.  Wonderful, wonderful stuff.

Opera is one of those marmite things.  You either love it or hate it.  I think by now it is probably obvious that I love Opera, but even if you don’t it is well worth visiting Opera: Passion, Power and Politics to learn how what at first sight appears to be an art form of the establishment reflects the changes in the world around it.


Who is Basquiat and why does he Boom for Real?  Basquiat was young, still in his teens when the art world began to take notice of him and only twenty eight when he died of a heroin overdose.  Boom for Real was his favourite phrase, hence Basquiat Boom for Real.

People first began to notice Basquiat when a rash of graffiti that was wittier than usual and all tagged SAMO© was noticed on the walls of New York.  Who was the artist?  Just like Banksy now, nobody knew who was behind the images.  Unlike Banksy Basquiat stepped forward from the shadows.

From spray painting walls he went on to produce postcards which he sold for $1.  Imagine what a good investment that would have been!  He even plucked up the courage to ask his hero Andy Warhol to buy one.

So excited was Basquiat at having met Warhol and sold him a postcard that he rushed straight home and produced this double portrait of the two of them.  The pair went on to be great friends and collaborators, the Arm and Hammer painting is was produced by the two of them.

Basquiat took inspiration from all sorts of places and worked with people in many mediums including film and music.  Through out the exhibition you can hear music that he worked on and watch the films that he collaborated on.  One of them New York Beat, which stars a teenage Basquiat, is shown in its entirety and features Debbie Harry as a good fairy.  Allow lots of time if you want see them all.


You know that you are getting on a bit when a museum that you visited when it was new shuts for three years to be updated.  The Burrell Collection in Glasgow has got the builders in and its twenty strong collection works by Degas have come down to the National Gallery in London for an extended stay.  Who was Burrell?  He was a shipping magnate who used his fortune to collect all manner of things and then left his vast collection to the city of Glasgow.

The first Degas painting that Burrell ever bought starts the London show.  A woman stares back at you through field glasses.  You get a real sense of the watcher being watched.

Formal portraits of languid rich people were not Degas’ style.  He preferred to depict fleeting glances of scenes that he saw all around him.  I love this drawing of two men chatting in the Café Châteaudun with a blurring suggesting animated discussion.

Degas is famous for depicting racehorses, ballet dancers and women bathing, this drawing of a horse and jockey at the end of a race caught my attention.  You can feel the exhaustion of the horse and I like the grid that you can see that would have helped Degas with his composition.

These two depictions of Russian dancers usually live at different ends of the country.  The one on the left is the sketch that Degas made and on the left is a finished pastel picture on tracing paper.  You can see that he has traced the outline of the original and flipped it over to better suit the image that he wanted to create.

If I could take just one picture home with me it would be this one.  It shows a ballet dancer adjusting her strap, it is a perfect size to hang on the wall at home and I especially like the sense of movement.  You feel that she is about to fling her left arm out at any moment.


MATISSE IN THE STUDIO at the Royal Academy

Matisse liked to buy stuff.  Not expensive stuff, just beautiful stuff.  Once he owned it, he painted it.  His studio was full of it, everybody who visited Matisse in the studio commented on it.  Now the Royal Academy has gathered together some of that stuff and stood it next the pictures that Matisse painted of them.

Sometimes when it is a vase of flowers your focus is firmly on the vase and the flowers.  Seeing the very vase is interesting and I would quite like to have one just like it.

Things become altogether more fascinating when the painting is of a person or a room.   Your attention is then ordinarily taken by the person or the biggest thing in the room.  Once you have the objects in front of you, it is the chair you look at and not the beautiful woman.  I covet this table as well.

Mr CW and I have been looking for the perfect wing chair for a long long time.  I was glad to learn that Matisse had similarly long quests for the perfect chair.  He searched for a year before he found this wooden Venetian chair.  The first thing he did once he got it home was to put a vase of tulips on it and draw the whole lot.  Not something that either Mr CW or I have the talent to do.

Seeing the objects that lived with Matisse in the studio in the flesh with his painted version is fascinating.  Best of all was seeing how he gained inspiration from the objects and used them as a leaping off point.  He commented on the shapes in this panel of Chinese letters and was inspired to produce his famous cut outs.

PLYWOOD at the V&A

Which of these can be made of  Plywood? Chairs? Yes.  Racing cars? No. The fastest, highest flying aeroplane in the Second World War? Don’t be daft.  They were the answers that I would have given you before I went to see the Plywood exhibition at the V&A.  Turns out that the answer to all three questions is yes and that plywood is altogether more interesting than you would have thought.

Around the middle of the nineteenth century the production of plywood was mechanised and at a stroke a cheap, strong, light, pliable material became available.  Hatboxes, surfboards, whole houses, cars and, yes, chairs were all constructed out of it.  How does ply differ from normal wood? I hear you cry.  Well, you get a large log and shave it into one very long, very thin piece and then you glue lots of the thin layers together.  Once you have a sheet of plywood you can mould it into pretty much any shape you want.  When it came to designing the De Havilland Moquito, it was found that the lightest metals need welding and support but not plywood and so the very metallic-looking plane is actually made of wood.

There are, of course, lots of Eames chairs on display.  We’ve all seen the picture of Christine Keeler astride the plywood chair.  Also on show is a Singer sewing machine with a curved plywood cover.  At the turn of the nineteenth century Singer was the biggest furniture manufacturer in the world.  Not making chairs but tables and cabinets for all those domestic sewing machines.

ALMA-TADEMA at Leighton House

Sir Laurence Alma-Tadema was one of the the most famous painters of his day.   The price he paid for Victorian superstardom was twentieth century obscurity.  Yet the images that he created inform our idea of what history looks like, all those sword and sandal movies are straight from his paintings.  Now the largest collection of his works seen together in the UK are on display in the home of one of his greatest friends, Lord Leighton.

Leighton House is pretty splendiferous, it has a blue tiled Arab Hall complete with golden dome and tinkling fountain, and Alma-Tadema’s muscled historic heroes and diaphanously clad women fit right in.  Movie makers have taken inspiration from his paintings: there is a section of the exhibition devoted to showing you clips of the paintings and the movies.  Star of this show is an image that looks beautiful but depicts horror.  The Roses of Heliogabalus shows the eponymous Roman emperor watching with glee as his guests are drowned in rose petals.

Not all the images are so gory.  Victorian artists had a taste for building fancy houses, Alma-Tadema’s had one room filled with panels painted by the artist’s friends.  The house is long gone but the panels survive and are on display here.

GIOVANNI DA RIMINI at the National Gallery

Small but perfectly formed describes the Giovanni da Rimini exhibition at the National Gallery. Small and free.  Less of an exhibition and more of a welcome party for “Scenes from the Lives of the Virgin and other Saints” by Giovanni da Rimini.  To make sure the less than snappily titled work settles in, her sister work “Scenes from the Life of Christ” has made the journey from Rome.  It is the first time that the pair have hung side by side for a long time.

Two paintings by Giovanni da Rimini on display at the National Gallery with people talking behind
Giovanni da Rimini at the National Gallery

How did the National Gallery come to acquire this Giovanni da Rimini?  Well, the Duke of Northumberland decided to put her up for auction in 2015.  The National Gallery was loath to see her leave the country, at this point Ronald S Lauder (of cosmetics fame) stepped in and donated the money required.  Somewhat unusually the painting will live with Mr Lauder during his lifetime making regular visits to the National Gallery.  This is the first time that “Scenes from the Lives of the Virgin and Other Saints” has been on public display.  Over seven hundred years old and the detail and colours are amazing.  These are stories told in a cartoon like fashion, in that one picture follows another.


The first time I saw Hokusai’s Great Wave it was on the cover of Iris Murdoch’s  “The Sea, The Sea”.  It took sometime for me to realise that the image was much, much more famous than the book.  Now the British Museum has an exhibition looking not only at Hokusai’s career after he created the Great Wave.

Hokusai The Great Wave
Hokusai The Great Wave

Standing in front of the print for the first time, I realised that there are tiny fishing boats struggling against the might of the wave.  The Great Wave is not some rarified work of art that was owned only by the very wealthy.  There were many thousands of prints made and they were sold at a price that ordinary households could afford.

Natural forms of all types captured Hokusai’s imagination.  I love this carp caught in a torrent of water.  Somehow his eye seems to fix on you as he swims downstream heading for calmer waters.

The famous Great Wave print is actually quite small, that cannot be said of this extraordinary painted panel.  The crashing wave is contained within a lavish gilded floral frame that somehow seems quite right.  There are two of these next door to each other and are on loan from Japan.  They are ceiling panels make for a festival cart made when the artist was 85.

Many of the objects on display are shown rarely as they are extremely fragile.  Halfway through the exhibition some of the more vulnerable works are to be removed and replaced with other similar items to prevent the vivid colours from fading.  Being able to examine the Great Wave closely and those two magnificent panels are worth visiting the show for alone.


Ignore the torrential rain and gale force winds, Summer is here.  No it really must be, because the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition 2017 has opened.  Every year for the past 249 years unknown artists have had the chance to hang works next door to the most well known artists of the day. Joshua Reynolds, founder of the RA, has his statue adorned with a garland for each Summer Exhibition – this time he has a sash and looks very dashing.

Summer Exhibition 2017
Summer Exhibition 2017

Most of the 1,000 works on display are for sale, the programme comes not only with details of the art and artists but also a price tag.  This makes my game of ‘what would you take home if you could?’ that I play in every gallery that I visit, just that bit more exciting here because if my piggy bank has enough in it, I just might. 


These are not just any Canalettos, these are the Queen’s Canalettos. The Queen owns 50 paintings and over 140 of drawings by him …. more than anybody else.  Canaletto and the Art of Venice celebrates his Venetian images and is on show at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

Canaletto and the Art of Venice

Canaletto was the son of Bernardo Canal, hence his name meaning little Canal. I had always thought that it was in some way a reference to the fact that he painted canals. His father was a set painter for the theatre and Canaletto followed in his footsteps but branched out and started painting Venetian scenes. These came to the attention of the British Consul Joseph Smith who recognised that they would make perfect souvenirs for British tourist in Venice for the Grand Tour. Smith stocked his Venetian palazzo with many Canaletto paintings to provide a showcase to visiting tourists. This series of twelve paintings shows the Grand Canal in its entirety.

Two boys look at Canaletto and the art of Venice exhibiton at the Queen's Gallery London
See that dog?

I spent a long time looking at these and when I turned to find the Junior CW’s they were animatedly pointing at a series of paintings in the opposite corner. Turns out that they had spotted that Canaletto quite often included a dog in his paintings but his repertoire of dogs was limited to two. Maybe he just painted his own dogs over and over again?

Joseph Smith ran out of money toward the end of his life and his art collection was put up for sale. George III bought it, mainly for the books because at the time the paintings were not fashionable. George had just purchased Buckingham House and had a lot of walls to fill, most of them still hang in what became a Palace. Viewing them in the place that has been their home for centuries is a special experience with or without teenagers.


Dior, Chanel, Yves St Laurent are all big fashion beasts, if asked I could describe a look they are famous for.  Cristobal Balenciaga is a name I know but I could not tell you what his clothes look like.  American Vogue editor extraordinaire Diana Vreeland declared that for 2o years he was the prophet of nearly ever change in silhouette.  Judging by this pink dress on show in Balenciaga: Shaping Fashion at the V&A, his still is. Those sleeves are everywhere this spring.

Balenciaga was the son of a Spanish seamstress, when he was 12 he was apprenticed to a tailor.  By the time he arrived in Paris he had 20 years’ experience of pattern cutting, dress making and tailoring.  He often used very simple shapes but with very clever engineering to make spectacular sculptural garments like this camel evening jacket.  Those waves are created by a ribbon running the length of the sleeve between the lining and the fabric.

Working out how some of the more complicated dresses are constructed has long foxed fashion students.  The gowns are too fragile for rigorous physical inspection and so the curators of Balenciaga Shaping Fashion came up with the idea of working artist Nick Veasey x-raying the dresses.  The resulting pictures show perfectly placed weights to make a hem hang just so and in the case of this red dress boning not only in the bodice but also in bustle.

Wearing Balenciaga’s clothes was the preserve of the rich and famous.  Gloria Guinness, one of his regular clients, commented that his clothes were so beautifully constructed, so perfectly thought out, that there was not a woman in the world who could not wear them.  Luckily the V&A have provided a skirt or cape, depending on how you wear it, for visitors to the Balenciaga Shaping Fashion to try on.  What do you think?

Balenciaga Shaping Fashion
Birthday girl in Balenciaga

Balenciaga produced many different looks in his career maybe that his why I could not have defined his style before visiting Balenciaga Shaping Fashion.  Now I know that if a ‘new’ shape appears in the shops, chances are he had a hand in influencing it.  If the V&A were to put on a course to make that skirt I tried on I’d be there like a shot.

DIANA: HER FASHION STORY at Kensington Palace

Diana, Princess of Wales fascinates me.  Judging by the queues to see Diana: Her Fashion Story at Kensington Palace, I’m not the only one.  You queue to buy your ticket and then as you skip up the stairs thinking that your queueing time is done you get in line again.  On the day I visited, people snaked all the way across one room and round out into the garden.  Don’t let the queues put you off: the frocks are fantastic.

OK, I know these are not frocks but they are iconic.  The tweed suit was worn by Diana for a photocall at Balmoral during her honeymoon.  Sounds ludicrous now, but it kicked off a trend for tweed suits, the ‘interview’ suit that I bought as graduation loomed was a blue tweed number (it also had a matching hat which I never wore!).  Next to it is the Emanuel blouse that featured in Vogue just as the engagement of Diana and the Prince of Wales was announced.  She liked it so much that the Emanuels were asked to design her wedding dress.

This sequin and pearl strewn dress is often called the Elvis dress.  Standing in front of it enables you to see just how many sequins and pearls were sewn on by hand to create the shimmery column.  I’ve always thought that the jacket looked like an Elizabethan ruff, so I was delighted to discover that designer Catherine Walker took her inspiration portraits of Elizabeth I.

Most of the dresses on display are instantly recognisable from the many pictures taken of Diana.  This Catherine Walker dress embroidered with falcons was new to me.  It is demure and beautiful.  Diana wore it on a state visit to Saudi Arabia, the falcon is the national bird of Saudi Arabia.  Does the United Kingdom have a national bird, I wonder.

It isn’t only dresses that are on display, one wall is dedicated to sketches that the designers made to show their ideas at the beginning of the design process.  It is amazing to see the sketches that became outfits so familiar from newspaper and magazine pictures.  These drawings are by Roland Klein.

Before you leave the Palace, make sure you go to the loo on the ground floor.  The corridor outside is hung with this rather fine wallpaper showing Diana wearing many of the dresses on display.  Julie Verhoeven created the design and it was made up by Cole and Son.


Confession time ….. I’m a bit too young for early Pink Floyd music.  Then they made a decision not to release singles which meant they didn’t earworm into my life via the wireless.  Then there is the gender thing.  Pink Floyd was what the boys bought.  The covers, they are iconic but prior to walking into Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains I had never knowingly listened to an entire Pink Floyd album.

You are handed a pair of Sennheiser headphones as you walk into Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains and they immediately plunge you into a different world.  As you wander round music and interviews start playing automatically, its all very clever.   You enter via a giant recreation of the Bedford van in which the band started their touring career.  Instruments are on  display, you hear the band talking about how they played around with the new fangled synthesisers to make amazing soundscapes.

Then there are all those iconic album covers.  ‘Wish You Were Here’ came with postcards of the diver and flaming man, I remember my brother had them pinned to his notice board.  Pink Floyd worked closely with Hipgnosis  design company on many of their album covers we hear them describe the making of the images.  Before digital trickery, the diver was actually somebody doing a handstand and then holding the position for long enough for the ripples to die away, that’s quite some breath holding!  The flaming man really was on fire, he wore a fire proof suit and was surrounded by fire extinguisher wielding crew just out of shot.

Pink Floyd were famous for their stage shows as well as the iconic album covers, vast inflatables filled the stage.   As you enter one room are greeted by a 3D recreation of Battersea Power Station complete with a pig floating above it just like the ‘Animals’ cover.  At over nine metres high it is the highest exhibit to have ever been included in a temporary exhibition at the V&A.  Right next door to it is a another 9 meter creation, this time of the teacher from ‘The Wall’.  Keep on going and you come across a recreation of the ‘Division Bell’ cover – interesting fact alert – the  building you can see behind the giant heads is Ely Cathedral.

In the final room all four walls are given over to a projection of the bands final live performance together.  The music pounds out from all sides making you feel that you are there watching them live.  For me the stand out moment of Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains was standing in a dark room watching a rotating hologram of the prism on the cover of ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ rotating whilst listening to the album play, it was magical and I could have stood there for hours.  Since I have returned home I have been listening to Pink Floyd on the Sonos and do you know what, its not just music for boys.

SELFIE TO SELF-EXPRESSION at the Saatchi Gallery

“Why are all those people standing with their back to the Eiffel Tower?” I wondered out loud on a visit to Paris a few years ago.  “They are taking selfies”, I was informed by two barely ten year olds.  Everywhere you go now, it seems that somebody will be pointing a camera phone at themselves to record their visit.  Now the Saatchi Gallery has decided to put on the first exhibition devoted to the selfie or Saatchi Selfie.  Where better to take the teens?

The first room is filled with images of old-school selfies, those painted with brushes and paint by artists.  This being the twenty-first century, the paintings are not the actual paintings on canvas but photos of them displayed on what looks like giant phone screens.  You are encouraged to vote for your favourite by touching the screen and are rewarded by a big heart.

Saatchi selfie
Screen shots

One vast room is devoted to thousands of images of people using Skype, FaceTime and the like.  Not only can you see them, you can hear them too: its like sitting in the middle of a call centre and hearing one end of lots of conversations.  The projector even projects on you, casting your shadow on the display, making you become a part of it.  All very clever.

There are pictures of people taking selfies and lots of those selfies themselves.  I confess that one of my favourites is a piece of fake news.  Alison Jackson is well known for a her photographs that look like paparazzi shots but are actually cleverly composed using actors.  This shot of hers purporting to show Donald Trump taking a selfie with some Miss Universe contestants is great, we can believe it, but at the same time there are tiny details that go just too far over the top.

It’s not just humans that take selfies; this macaque monkey is the first known animal to knowingly take its own photo.  I notice with dismay that he has got the smiling and looking into the lens thing on his first attempt, unlike my own sorry attempts.  Maybe if I asked the macaque, he could take a photo of me?


MICHELANGELO & SEBASTIANO at the National Gallery

Michelangelo is famous for frescoes and statues, not work that you would think would travel well.  After all, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is hardly going to decamp to Trafalgar Square for a Spring break.  As for Sebastiano, I concede that prior to this week I would not have been able to tell you who he was.  So the latest National Gallery exhibition didn’t fill me high hopes.  How wrong I was, every room has jaw dropping stuff to see and the story of the friendship between the pair is the stuff of a page turning novel.

Michelangelo was already a star by the time Sebastiano arrived in Rome.  Snapping at his heels for renown was Raphael, whom he hated.  Raphael was an oil painter, the chink in Michelangelo’s armour.  Sebastiano was pretty handy with the oils, so Michelangelo reckoned that a combination of his draughtsmanship and Sebastiano’s painting would knock Raphael off his perch.  A friendship was born.

Michelangelo decamped to Florence to work for the Medici’s, but the friends continued to correspond and managed to fit in the occasional visit.  On one of these Michelangelo advised his friend on the composition of a depiction of The Raising of Lazarus, this went on to be the first painting to be catalogued in the National Gallery collection, NG1, it is where the collection started.

Lustrous oil paintings and sculptures are not the only things on display.  Letters that they wrote to  wrote to each other and preparatory sketches show how ideas for composition changed.  Somehow these make them more real, like people who have just left the room.  My favourite is this sketch on the back of  Lamentation over the Dead Christ, the first painting Michelangelo and Sebastiano collaborated on.

Michelangelo Risen Christ both works seen together at the National Gallery London
Michaelangelo Risen Christ at the National Gallery

Michelangelo started creating the statue of the nearer Risen Christ for a friend, but stopped when he discovered a fault in the marble.  He was unable to start afresh due to other work commitments but letting his friend down niggled at him.  Many years later he finished the second version.  This is the first time they have ever been in the same room (even if one of them is a high class cast).  The first glimpse of this room is one of the most stunning first views of anything that I have ever seen.

Having maintained a long distance friendship for many years things fell apart when Michelangelo returned to Rome to work on the Sistine chapel once more.  Sebastiano had cracked the art of oil painting on plaster and urged his friend to try out the new technique.  Nobody knows what happened for sure but Michelangelo soon reverted to the fresco method and stopped talking to Sebastiano.  Not only that when Sebastiano died, Michelangelo was ran down his friend.  Deriding him as lazy and destroying his posthumous reputation, that’s why I’d never heard of him.


Exhibitons at the British Museum are usually full of stuff.  Things made by people long, long ago.  Not this one, The American Dream: pop to present is stuffed to the gunnels with prints created in the last six decades in America.  Surely we should be in the Tate?  Wrong.  The national collection of western prints and drawings is held at the British Museum.  They know what they are talking about.

Printmaking is not a new medium, think about Dürer’s Rhino, but in 1960’s America the combination of changes in production, marketing and consumption led to a boom.  Andy Warhol embraced the medium to reproduce everything from soup cans to movie stars.

Iconic images of flags, cars and comic books are everywhere here.  One of the really appealing things about show is the way that windows have been opened up allowing you to glimpse both images you’ve already seen and those that are yet to come.

All the prints are displayed in chronological order.  So you get to see Ed Ruscha’s iconic petrol station, like a lesson in perspective drawing, quite early on.  Glance to the right through the oblong window to the last room and you can glimpse what looks like a blank white paper, framed accidentally.  When you get there, you realise that it’s the same petrol station but devoid of colour; the artists comment on the blandness of modern life.


The Royal Academy has rolled out the red carpet to mark the centenary of the Russian Revolution.   You ascend its grand staircase toward Revolution: Russian Art 1917-32, with its marble clad in scarlet.  Portraits of Lenin and Stalin kick proceedings off, most are of the usual head and shoulders kind, but I was taken with this kaleidoscopic vision of Lenin marching.

Then the workers take over.  We see outsize peasants striding out through Russian cities and workers striding purposefully toward a bright new socialist future.

Where will the workers live?  In new modern flats with sleek lines.  One of these efficient living spaces designed by El Lissitzky is on display.  No kitchen, because eating should be a communal and not a solitary occupation.  I wonder if people smuggled in paraffin stoves?

Immediately after the revolution all sorts of art flourished which were celebrated in 1932 with an exhibition at the State Russian Museum in Leningrad (as it was then called).   Abstract artist Kazimir Malevich was honoured with a whole room, which is recreated at the Royal Academy.

Almost immediately after the exhibition Stalin began to clamp down on the types of art that were allowed.  Abstraction was out  and social realism was in.  Lots of strapping healthy workers, like this young girl  in what looks like a Newcastle United football strip.

When Stalin changed his mind about the kind of art that he wanted produced he didn’t simply get new artists in.   He sent the old ones to gulags.  Right at the end of the exhibition is a room with a slide show of the mug shots of those that were sent into internal exile many of them never to return.  Sober thoughts to take back down those red stairs.

DAVID HOCKNEY at Tate Britian

David Hockney is 80 this year.  Tate Britain has decided that simply sending a card is not enough to mark the occasion and has put on the most extensive retrospective exhibition of his work ever.  Proceedings are kicked off with some of the paintings he made when he was a student at the Royal College of Art.  I was particularly taken with this depiction of a packet of Typhoo Tea: in the audio guide that comes with the ticket, David Hockney explains how he drinks tea when working and so when he came to decide to do a still life empty packets of tea were in plentiful supply.

Pictures hanging on the wall are the traditional focus for an exhibition but at this one I was amused by the titles for each room.  ‘Paintings with People in’, ‘Sunbather’ and ‘Close Looking’ for example tell you what you are going to see without pulling any punches.  The huge colour saturated canvases in ‘The Wolds’ gave me the perfect opportunity to play with my new wide angle lens.

Playing with the possibilities of new technology is, for me, one of David Hockney’s endearing features.  When I first came to London, the Hayward had a show of collages that he had made using Polaroids.  I remember it as being wonderful and embarked on similar experiments, the Tate devotes a room them.  He is still better at them than me.

Colour and lots of it dominates the exhibition.  So when you get to the penultimate room and are greeted by twenty five black and white drawings documenting the arrival of Spring 2013 in the Yorkshire Wolds, the effect is arresting.  I was unable to resist taking a close look at all of them.

For most of us, iPads have transformed our lives by making us more connected to each other all the time.  Whilst I’m distracted by the endless chatter of instant messaging, David Hockney has embraced the devise as an artistic tool.  Not only as the finished image but also to record the creation from the first mark through to the final flourish.


Child’s Play is a term we use to mean that something so simple that it requires no thought. Children play, its what they do, its how we learn.  Mark Neville is a photographer who travels to the worlds grittier places.  His photograph’s of children playing all over the world are gathered for this exhibition at the Foundling Museum.

One thing becomes clear, it doesn’t matter where you spend your childhood the attraction of round objects to play with is universal; old tyres, Frisbees, balls you name it, if its round a child will find somewhere of playing with it.   Acting up to the camera is another universal thing, in these two pictures the boys dressed for a play stare challengingly at the camera whilst the in the school photo all the children pull their best silliest face.

Playing is more than fun, it is essential for mental health.  This exhibition is more than pictures it is part of a campaign for safe play spaces.  Appropriately you can gaze out of the windows into Coram’s Fields.  Any child can enter the seven acre central London park but adults have to be accompanied by a child.  The playground occupies the site on which Thomas Coram set up the Foundling Hospital, the first children’s charity.

ROBOTS at the Science Museum

Explaining what wonders an exhibition holds at a press view is usually done by the curator.  Not so at the Robots show at the Science Museum. Fittingly we were addressed by RoboThespian who after a brief explanation broke into a song and dance routine

One the best British museums that I have been to outside London is the Bowes Museum high up in the Pennines at Barnard Castle.  What has this got to do with Robots? I hear you cry!  Well, it is home to a stunning mechanical silver swan that swims on a glimmering stream and then gobbles up a silver fish.  The swan has swum away from Barnard Castle for the first time, he will perform every weekday at 10.25am, so you’ll need to get up early to see the show.

Silver mechanical swan from the Bowes Museum
Bowes Museum Silver Mechancial Swan

It wasn’t until 1920 that the word Robot first appeared, Czech playwright wrote a play entitled Rossum’s Universal Robots, taking the word from an old Slavonic word robota meaning ‘servitude’ or ‘drudgery’. The play is now forgotten but the word lives on. George, one of the first British humanoid robots can be seen, I particularly like his id badge.

Walking is second nature to us, but is actually a very complicated thing to do. Simply telling a robot to walk is far from simple. This Bipedal walker, with lots of dials started life in a garden shed, the result of a hobby. It was one of first walking robots. The hobby has now turned into a business with the Shadow Robot Company making ground breaking hand robots.

The final part of the exhibition is devoted many moving robots.  Some of them are designed to do the exact but repetitive tasks needed on a production line.  Others like the life-like lady, or Komomoroid, will read the news.  Asimo is the world’s most advanced humanoid robot and may one day be able to interact helpfully with people.

  Many of the robots on display show off what the companies that make them can achieve, Harry the trumpet playing robot needs flexible lips, clever fingers and, of course, puff to be able to produce a credible sound on the trumpet.


Kipling, now you are thinking about The Jungle Book or about cakes.  Think again, Lockwood Kipling is the father of Rudyard and nothing to do with the cakes (I think), he is also the subject of an exhibition at the V&A.  Not just because he was a good Dad but because he was a talented man in his own right and one that was involved with the early days of the V&A itself.  He can be seen today on the terracotta panels that adorn the upper reaches of the museum’s inner courtyard.

Lockwood Kipling ceramic panel on the exterior of the V&A courtyard
Lockwood Kipling panel on the V&A courtyard

Lockwood Kipling was the son of a Methodist minster, when he was a teenager the family came down to London to see the Great Exhibition.  Lockwood was blown away by the exhibits in the India gallery (some of which became part of the founding collection of the V&A) all thoughts of following in his father’s footsteps were abandoned.  He headed to the Potteries for a training in ceramics before joining the fledgling V&A.

Soon he was sent to Bombay to teach at the Sir Jamsetjee JeeJeebhoy School of Art and then off to Lahore to be the principal of the new Mayo School of Art.  Whilst he was there he developed an interest in the art and artists of India (these were pre-partition days and the whole sub continent was called India).  He made many drawings of both craftsmen and of the their work as well as encouraging many of them to refine their skills.

What really made his name back home was the commission to design the Delhi Durbar, put on to mark the coronation of Victoria as Empress of India.  So impressed was the Queen by reports of his work that she commissioned him and his former student Bhai Ram Singh to create the Durbar Hall at Osborne House and an Indian Billiard Room at Bagshot Park.  Both of these rooms are depicted on wall size projections along with some of the furniture that the duo designed for the rooms.

I had never heard of Lockwood Kipling before the invitation to the Press view arrived, what an interesting man.  What is also fascinating is the glimpse into how the V&A began all those years ago.  With interested people going out and gathering interesting things of the very highest quality to inspire and inform visitors to the new museum.  This time when I walked through the central courtyard on my way to the fine tearooms I looked up at the terracotta plaques with especial interest.



Selfies are modern.   Well, up to a point.  People have been making self portraits for as long as charcoal has been around.  Turns out that the Queen has quite a collection of selfies and now 150 (the collection of miniatures counts as one!) of them are on display at the Queen’s Gallery.  Well sort of, Portrait of the Artist is depictions of artists whether by themselves of by other artists.

Think of the walls of royal palaces and you tend to think of Old Masters staring down at you.  Here the first image that you see is of Lucian Freud (don’t worry, there are plenty of Rembrandt and Rubens later), turn around and David Hockney looks out at you from a portrait that he made on his iPad.

Two oil paintings showing Edward Seago painting the Duke of Edinburgh and the Duke of Edinburgh painting Edward Seago
Edward Seago painting the Duke of Edinburgh and the Duke of Edinburgh painting Edward Seago

Royals are not only painted but sometimes also paint others.  I really liked these two pictures.  One is by Edward Seago and shows the other by the Duke of Edinburgh. Both are sat on the deck of Brittania painting the pictures that we see.


Cartophile, is that the word for somebody who loves maps?  Well it is now.  I am a cartophile.  Old maps, new maps, imaginary maps, any old map, I love them all.  Imagine my excitement when I spotted that the British Library has delved into its extensive collection to put on a show of over 200.  Despite the title not all of the maps on show are twentieth century, Mercator’s atlas is here, but rather the focus is on the century when maps went from being the preserve of the wealthy to being readily available to all of us.  Sometimes when you look forward to something it can be a disappointment.  Not this show.  It even has a map on the floor!

Right at the beginning, there is, naturally, a map of the exhibition; an electronic one that shows where all your fellow cartophiles are.  As they move from looking Mercator’s map to the General’s map of the Somme, you see their representative dot move.  That General’s map, it has all the familiar Ordnance Survey symbols and some nifty decoupage to make understanding the contour lines easier.  The Tommies’ map is shown next to it, far more portable copies for them.  During war time accurate maps are as vital as good guns.  On show though is a map of Brighton dating from 1990.  No war then, I hear you cry.  What makes this one unusual is that all the text is in Russian, it was one of a stash of maps found in Latvia after the Soviet Union collapsed.  A scary thought that the Russians had such detailed maps of the UK.  Soliders are often handed escape maps printed on fabric; after the Second World War one ingenious seamstress got round rationing by making this dress out of silk escape maps.

Its not all war.  Anybody who has ever visited London will have navigated their way around the tube system using a map that shows how the routes connect rather than where they actually are.  Harry Beck was the man who came up with this idea, on show is his original sketch.  It is just round the corner from Tolkein’s notebooks containing his own sketch of Middle Earth, along with incredibly detailed plot notes.

Even if you don’t feel the need to collect every single sheet in the Ordnance Survey Explorer series, this is a fascinating exhibition.  Maps and mapping changed completely during the twentieth century going from being the preserve of the wealthy to mass ownership.  Now everybody keeps an electronic map in their pocket but the paper ones continue to exert a fascination for me.


Sunshine, that’s what springs to mind when you think of Australia.  Fog is the first thing that you see depicted when you enter the Australia’s Impressionists exhibition at the National Gallery.  Not any kind of fog but London fog.  For that is where the painters came to learn their trade.

Once back in Australia the lessons learnt in Europe fused with a rapidly changing country.  There are over one hundred beaches in Sydney giving Australia’s Impressionists a wide choice of seaside locations in which to paint.  Australia’s Impressionists offers a glimpse into the artistic world of a nation just emerging as a stand-alone state not just as a series of picturesque locations but in what was a new way of painting and showing the building of railways and the like, as well as pretty beaches.


Emma Hamilton: you know her, she’s the one that ensnared Admiral Lord Nelson with her flirty semi-clad dancing.  Turns out there was a lot more to her than that as I learnt at the latest exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, EMMA HAMILTON: SEDUCTION AND CELEBRITY. As the daughter of a blacksmith and a servant, little is known about her early life. Emma followed in her mother’s footsteps and became a servant for the Linley family who had connections to the Drury Lane theatre. At some point she caught the eye of Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, one thing led to another and she became pregnant. Sir Harry dismissed his sixteen year old mistress and life looked grim for Emma at this point.

Emma was beautiful so soon Charles Greville, another wealthy man, stepped forward to be her ‘protector’.   Pleased with his new possession, Charles asked the premier portraitist of the age, George Romney, to paint Emma. So impressed was Romney that what was meant to be just one portrait became seventy over a nine year period. A whole wall is filled with them at Greenwich.  Many of them were reproduced as popular prints; Emma was famous.

Famous but not rich. Charles Greville needed to marry a wealthy woman and so arranged to have Emma shipped off to his Uncle, Lord Hamilton, in Naples. Emma had no notion of what was happening.  She thought she was going on holiday, not passed on like an unwanted gift. Turns out the Lord Hamilton was not so bad after all.  She learned Spanish and French in a year as well as studying the classics.  He even married her.  Emma became the friend and confidante of the Queen of Naples and an important diplomatic conduit between Naples and England.  She also came up with a novel form of entertainment called ‘Attitudes’.  Part of the exhibition is devoted to a rather clever smoke and mirrors reproduction of these Attitudes.

At this stage, enter Nelson.  The hero of the battle of the Nile was rather taken with Emma and her Attitudes and before long they were lovers.  Lord Hamilton was very understanding.  Polite society was scandalised for Nelson had a wife back home.  Their relationship was far more than a fling, it was the real thing.  Lord H died but divorce for Nelson was out of the question.  The lovebirds had a daughter, Horatia, and set up home together until the idyll came to an end with the death of Nelson at Trafalgar.  Love letters between the two are on display, Norfolk’s finest had quite a way with words.

After Nelson’s death,  she was left with a lavish lifestyle but not the means to support it.  A codicil added to Nelson’s will just before Trafalgar asking for a pension for her in recognition for her diplomatic work in Naples went unheeded.  She kept the coat in which Nelson died with her at all times, but died young after a spell in debtors prison.

Uniform that Admiral Lord Nelson was wore when he died.
Admiral Lord Nelson coat

There were many pretty, poor girls like Emma who found temporary protection with wealthy men, most were dumped when they either got pregnant or old.  To inspire the greatest portraitist of the day, devise a new form of entertainment, marry a Lord, befriend a Queen and win the love of an Admiral was exceptional.  Emma must have been quite a woman.


Ever wanted to own David Bowie’s record player?  Well now you could.  His fancy pants designer record player, specially adapted to allow him to transfer some of his rare vinyl collection into digital format, is one of the four hundred items of his art collection up for auction at Sotheby’s.  Not that it is any old record player, no this one is a design classic, others just like it are in the collections of at least three major museums.  It has an estimate of £800-£1,200, but expect Bowie fans to push the price higher.

When I bought my first house many years ago the design magazines were full of Memphis furniture.  Whilst the odd person of my acquaintance was able to afford a Memphis cup and saucer the rest of us had to make to do brightly coloured kitchen bins.  David Bowie didn’t have the same money restrictions.  One hundred of the Memphis design group’s products are up for sale.  Chairs, room dividers, rugs and mugs; David Bowie bought them all. 


History, textiles and the Victoria and Albert Museum; these are a few of my favourite things. Opus Anglicarnum: Masterpieces of English Medieval Embroidery is made for me – sewing at the V&A. It is the exhibition that I have looked forward to most this year and the one that I have enjoyed most.

What is Opus Anglicanum? I hear you cry. English medieval embroidery is the short answer.  From the 12th to 15th century anybody who was anybody in Europe either owned or wanted to own some Opus Anglicanum.  Pope Innocent IV sparked off the international craze when he was so taken by the rather fine vestements of some English clergy that he asked where they came from and promptly put in an order for some fancy garments of his own.   Very little of this intricate work still exists and most of what does are clerical robes.  The stitching is so dense and intricate that a first glance it looks like a woven fabric, in fact not a micron of the base linen fabric is visible under the fine detail of the stitiching.

Now the colours of the garments are muted reds and fawns, when they were new they must have shouted with colour and glimmered with gold.  The workers clustered around St Paul’s Cathedral and it was their skill of working with gold thread with which so impressed the great and good of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.  Even now the glimmer of the fabric in the subdued lighting of the V&A galleries is impressive.  Most of the garments that survive are ecclesiastical due to the custom of burying Bishops in the their finery, it seems stunning that such costly fabrics were not passed down from one bishop to the next.


Abstract Expressionism, what is it?  The artists defined as being Abstract Expressionist are a disparate bunch all producing very different work.  Now is the time to decide what you think Abstract Expressionism is all about as the Royal Academy has put on the first big exhibition devoted to the genre for over six decades Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko are all there.


Two world wars and a global economic depression marked the first half of the twentieth century. In America, the way that some artists responded to that violence and dislocation has been dubbed Abstract Expressionism.  Each one of them responded in very different ways. Suffice to say that their angst was expressed in an abstract manner.  You won’t find many depictions of objects or people here.  Each room is devoted to a different artist, a wise move given the lack of a single theme.  The exception to this single artist theme is the David Smith sculptures that pop up throughout the exhibition creating many interesting frames for the work of other artists.


Pollock and Rothko with their dribbles and blocks of colour are familiar from reproductions.  Ad Reinhardt was not a name that I was completely familiar with before visiting the Abstract Expressionism exhibition.  He does blocks of colour. At first glance you look and think, I could splash on a single colour of emulsion onto a large canvas and sell it.  Take time and stand and look at the red or black canvases.  They are not simply black or red. Different tones of redness and blackness begin to swirl in front of you.  Definitely more than emulsion slapped onto canvas.


The Queen is 90, the Queen has worn lots of frocks over the years. Fashioning a Reign takes a look at those frocks. Three exhibitions devoted to the Queen’s wardrobe have been created in Holyrood, Buckingham Palace and now Windsor Castle, each venue has different outfits on display. At Windsor the semi-state apartments show the outfits off to their best advantage. The rooms were created for George IV: think Brighton Pavilion but grander.


Three green dresses stand in the Green Drawing Room, the fabrics of room and clothes bringing out the best in each other. In the middle is a white dress with green straps and a dramatic fold of green falling down the back. This was worn on a state visit to Pakistan, the green is the green of Pakistan and complemented the Order of Pakistan that was worn with it. Nothing as “shouty” as wearing the flag but a subtle compliment to her hosts nevertheless.


George VI and his Queen Elizabeth look down on the Crimson Drawing Room from their full length coronation portraits. Between the two of them, their daughter’s frock shimmers beneath the chandeliers under which they were first worn. Countless tiny beads have been embroidered onto the waist of the dress, the signature look created by Norman Hartnell. Seeing the workmanship and intricate detail up close is wonderful.

Riding horses is something that the Queen loves to do. It is here at Windsor that she gets to ride most of all so it is fitting that we see her riding outfits. Jodhpurs worn so often that they have a small tear in the leg. They stand next to the Queen’s Robes of the Garter, all deep blue velvet and feathers.


FIRE! FIRE! at the Museum of London

Fire! Fire! Pour on Water! my primary school days echoed to the sound of that round as we practiced over and over again for an inter-schools singing get-together.  We all know about the Great Fire of London, dates and causes committed to memory…. 1666, started in Pudding Lane from a baker’s oven.  When the Junior CW’s studied the fire in Year 2, we made the pilgrimage to the Monument only to discover halfway up that one child was deeply fearful of the spiral staircase and wanted to go neither up nor down.  Now to mark the 350 anniversary of the Fire, the Museum of London has put on a special show.

Such widespread destruction left a blank canvas for architects and town planners.  All manner of fancy plans were put forward.  Christopher Wren proposed wide streets radiating out from a central point.  Existing property owners proved reluctant to the new plans and swiftly built on the existing sites leaving us with the medieval street plan. 


Life has never been the same since the late 1960’s. At least that is what those who were old enough to party but too young to have families at the time will tell you. Those of us who were too young have been told that Glam Rock, Punk or Two Tone just failed to measure up to what came before. “You say you want a revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-70” sets out to tell us all how wonderful and world changing it was, complete with a surround sound. You are handed a headset at the door, make sure you put them on immediately as the soundtrack starts at the wall of album covers in the corridor.

Everything from the Green Movement (no arguments there) to Home Computing (not so sure) are credited as having emerged from the late sixties in the final gallery. John Lennon and Yoko Ono holed up in the Amsterdam Hilton are shown on a film and as you leave Lennon’s ‘Give Peace a Chance’ slowly merges into the strains of William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ showing that Revolution is not so new after all.


Close-ups of flowers, reproduced on thousands of posters that adorn student walls, that’s what Georgia O’Keeffe does.  It’s true that is what she does do but she is also so much more than that.  Cityscapes, landscapes, cloudscapes and bones, lots of bones: she painted them all.  Her images are so familiar that it came as a shock to discover that there are none of her works in UK public collections.  Now though, Tate Modern has gathered together over 100 works from more than 60 lenders across 23 US states.  If you live in Europe, this will be your best chance to see Georgia O’Keefe paintings for a generation.

Georgia O’Keeffe had a long life, nearly 100 years, and one that took her from rural Wisconsin, via New York to New Mexico.  1887-1986 saw enormous changes in society, technology and communication.  All of those big contrasts in landscape and changes in the world are reflected in her work.  New York Street with Moon shows blocky interwar sky scrapers lit with a pool of street light and the moon set in a field of clouds.  It’s not photorealism but you still get an enormous sense of time and place.

Kings Cross Pond Club

King Cross Pond Club Lily
Kings Cross Pond Club

What do I like? Swimming, yes.  Art installations, yes.  Swimming in an art installation?  Sounds right up my street. Kings Cross Pond Club is the first-ever man-made public bathing pool.  What makes it art is that its creator, Marjectica Potrc, says it is.  If you haven’t explored the area behind King Cross and St Pancras Stations in London, now is time to do so.  Urban regeneration is taking place here: former railway buildings now house Central St Martins fashion school, piazzas with fountains have appeared and in among the many building projects are pieces of high quality public art.  The pool is one of them for that fully immersive experience.


Summer, time for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. This year Richard Wilson has gone for white, white walls and duos.  As a mother of twins I like the duo theme.  Artists who work together feature in every gallery or, more obviously, there are pairs of people glancing down at you.  Gilbert and George are the most famous duo working in the UK today, they have produced a massive work especially for the Summer Exhibition entitled Beard Aware.

Gilbert and George Beard Aware, Summer Exhibition 2016
Gilbert and George Beard Aware, Summer Exhibition 2016

Some numbers ….. 12,000 works of art were submitted for the Hanging Committee to consider.  For at this exhibition, amateurs rub shoulders with the world’s best.  Two thirds of the final 1,240 pieces were ones that were sent in on spec.  The rest are a mix of Royal Academicians, Honorary Members and invited artists. 


People, lots of people, that’s what you get with the latest Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy.  You get exactly what it says on the bill board: 82 Portraits and 1 still-life.  All the same structure, all painted over three days, all subjects sat on the same chair in the same studio. All 83 canvases are hung in the order that they were painted. 

Edith Davaney, David Hockney

What would you wear if you were invited to sit for a David Hockney portrait.  A splash of colour seems to have been the answer that most came up with.  A bright orange jumper here, a pair of pink trousers there.  Rita Pynoos opted for such a cascade of red silk that it had to be painted all in go, because the slightest movement would have changed the look of the whole image.  The pictures are all hung suitably in portrait style, except one which is in landscape.  I always like images of siblings and here are the Barringer brother, canvas on its side to accommodate them both.



Big boot Italy, kicking little Sicily helps us to remember where to find the largest island in the Mediterranean.  Not only big but centrally located and fertile, she has been an attractive asset to many different cultures over the years.  SICILY: CULTURE AND CONQUEST focuses on two them, the arrival of the Greeks in seventh century BC and later the attentions of the Normans.

Ancient Greeks would have you believe that it was the Greeks that spread civilization around the Mediterranean, but in Sicily the Phoenicians already had a thriving and sophisticated trading hub established before the Greeks came in with their own brand of civilization.  Splendid Greek ruins dot the Sicilian countryside, they are plainly too big to be transported to London for the duration of the exhibition so we have to make do with wall-sized photos and very fine they are too.  What we do see is a splendid Gorgon face.  She perched at the highest point of a building waiting to turn ill-wishers into stone; presumably nice people were immune to her charms.

Say the words “Norman Conquest”  in the UK  and we all think of William the Conqueror, say it in Sicily and it will be Roger that springs to mind.  Roger and his two successors, both William, established a superpower here.  Whilst they built stunning mosaic-bedecked cathedrals reflecting their Christian culture, they borrowed widely from the many cultures and traditions that could be found in Sicily.  Jews, Muslims, Orthodox and Roman Christians all practiced their religions side by side.  On display is a tombstone written in four languages that illustrates this harmonious living perfectly.

Many fabulous objects jostle for attention in this exhibition but it is the walls covered with life-size photos of ruins, beaches and cities that grab your attention first.  Our summer holiday is already booked but now I’m wondering what Sicily would be like in October. 

IN THE AGE OF GIORGIONE at the Royal Academy of Arts

Who was Giorgione?  That was the question that sprung to my mind when confronted with the latest exhibition in the Academy’s Sackler galleries.  Turns out that he was not only a game changing artist in Venice at the beginning of the sixteenth century but the man credited with painting the first landscape painting.  So why had I never knowingly heard of him before?  He died young leaving contemporaries like Titian to grab the posthumous fame.

Bacchus Ariadne Lombardo
Bacchus and Ariadne by Tullio Lombardo

Paintings by Giorgione or believed to have been painted by him are not the only works on display.  Titian, Bellini and Dürer are more familiar names and are well represented.  I particularly liked this sculpture by Tullio Lombardo, which is probably a portrait but is entitled Bacchus and Ariadne.  It must be fun to be an art historian and pore over the stories behind great works of art.


Ready Made Bouquet Margritte Botticelli
René Magritte, The Ready-made Bouquet

Botticelli, star of a thousand mouse mats.  Venus emerging from her shell with only luxuriant hair to cover her modesty or Primavera with her floral frock are familiar even to those who have never stepped foot in Florence.  James Bond kicks the exhibition off with Ursula Andress emerging from the sea in homage to Venus.  The first shiny black gallery is devoted to the many modern artists who have taken Botticelli as their starting point.  Dolce and Gabbana trouser suits, Andy Warhol screen prints, colour saturated photographs by David LaChapelle all jostle for attention.  My own favourite was a Magritte that sees Primavera gracing a silhouette of a bowler hatted man.

London Exhibitions Autumn 2015


I am a Plantsman’s daughter. I am also an Artist’s daughter.  Plants and paintings have always been there in the fabric of my life.  Judging by the swirling crowds on both occasions that I have visited PAINTING THE MODERN GARDEN, I am not alone in liking paintings of gardens.  Flower gardens were the preserve of the wealthy until the end of the nineteenth century until growing numbers of the middle class began to have more leisure time to spend in the gardens of their suburban houses, gardens that didn’t need to be given over to the growing vegetables.  Plant-hunters brought back many new showy blooms, such as dahlias, fueling a passion for plants.

Agapanthus Triptych Modern Garden
Agapanthus Triptych by Claude Monet

Mention Monet and gardens to most people and they will think of waterlilies.  Monet spent his last years painting in his garden at Giverny, his eyes misted with cataracts, but the shimmering water and luminous lilies drew him back to his easel time after time.  Fittingly the last two galleries are devoted to Monet and Giverny with the showstopper saved for last.  The Agapanthus triptych usually resides torn asunder in Kansas, Cleveland and St Louis, this exhibition reunites the constituent parts.  As you stand in the middle of its curve it is easy to imagine yourself on the Japanese bridge looking down at the pool’s surface.  It is a bit of shock to leave the bridge and find yourself tempted by a lily pond glasses cases, complete with matching lens cloth, for £10 in the gift shop.


The Fabric of India is my kind of an exhibition.  History, fabric and art.  Sometimes when you really, really look forward to something, the reality can prove to be a bit disappointing.  Not so this time.  From the moment you walk in and are greeted by an enormous seventeenth century Mughal floor covering acting as a background to a pair of stunningly modern saris, you know that you are in for a treat.

Once upon a time a man was strolling along a New York street and noticed a heap of fabulous fabric thrown out on the pavement.  Seventeen metres long and a couple high it was too much for him to carry so he arranged for a clutch of friends and a van to collect the cloth.  Jerome Burns is an art appraiser and recognised the wall hanging as an important piece of work so offered it to the Victoria and Albert Museum.  Rosemary Crill was the lady from the V&A who accepted the cloth and now she is co-curator of this exhibition.  If I owned such a wall hanging, it would fit nicely in our playroom, but then I wouldn’t be so careless as to chuck it out.

Fabric of Inda
Gujarat wall hanging

Museums, reading and sewing are my top three things but a very close fourth is maps.  So a fine Kashmir shawl with a map woven into it was always going to be a winner with me.  It was given to Queen Victoria and I like to think of her sitting in Osbourne House swathed in the shawl whilst examining the map of Srinagar.  Sadly it was never worn.  Life in Cultural Wednesday Towers would be very different if I could spend my days sat in a room adorned with applique elephants, wrapped in a map pashmina and reading books.

CELTS: ART AND IDENTITY at the British Museum

I am East Anglian and proud of it and have always believed the Celts are completely different as they come from the opposite part of the country to me.  Turns out I’m wrong and that I may well be every bit as Celtic as my Cornish friends.  The term Celt was first used by the Greeks to mean anybody that didn’t share their Mediterranean culture and later the Romans adopted the term.  Celts were never a tribe just a collection of peoples who didn’t toe the dominant culture of the time.

All those swirly lines that are an integral part of Celtic Art in popular imagination have their roots in the stylised depictions of birds and animals that the ancient Celts saw around them.  Early in the exhibition we see an exquisite flesh hook, that would have been used for extracting hunks of meat from cooking cauldrons, adorned with a string of swans.  Quite how the flesh hook would have worked stumps me but as an object of beauty it is stunning.

Snettisham Hoard Celts

Back to East Anglia …… in 1948 a farmer was blamelessly ploughing his north Norfolk field when he struck gold.  Further investigations have revealed many stashes of Celtic jewellery in the Snettisham area dating back to 150-50BC, some are mangled fragments and others magnificent torcs.  Six cases of treasure are on display at the British Museum.  We East Anglian Celts plainly liked our bling, indeed it was with extreme reluctance that I left a rather fine reproduction necklace behind in the shop for somebody else to buy.

London Summer Exhibitions 2015

LADYBIRD BY DESIGN at the House of Illustration

Ladybird books, the stuff of my childhood and the subject of an exhibition at the House of Illustration. Learning to read and learning to live were Ladybird’s strong points.  Peter and Jane were the stars of these books.  Peter would do manly things such as help his Father clean the car, whilst Jane would assist her stay-at-home Mother with domestic tasks and they all lived happily together with Pat the dog.  Quite how we grew up to be go-getting career girls and metrosexual urbanites is anybody’s guess.  The physical books were appealingly child-sized.  Priced at two shillings and sixpence they were beyond my pocket money but just right for kindly Aunts to buy for birthdays.

AUDREY HEPBURN at the National Portrait Gallery

Audrey Hepburn is very popular.  Don’t even think about turning up on spec to see this exhibition because you will, like me, find that other more organised people have got the tickets.  Audrey Hepburn, film star, is an image that most of us are familiar with: this exhibition has many of those but we start with pictures of her as part of the chorus line in the West End and as a Marshall & Snelgrove mannequin.  That early training as a dancer and model stood her in good stead in the years to come.

In my mind, I am slender, gamine and have effortless chic.  Reality reveals me to be a little more elephantine than Audrey.  That doesn’t stop me gazing at the black and white image of our heroine dressed in black slacks, a v-neck jersey and funnel neck top and wondering where I can buy the garments.  Surely if I were to wear such things, I would look a little less elephantine.  The photo was taken in 1955 but the clothes would not look out of place today.

CARSTEN HÖLLER: DECISION at the Hayward Gallery

Carsten Höller’s latest exhibition is all about choices.  Our first was which door to go through.  One son went with me and the other with a friend.  I expected to glimpse left and see them both as soon as were through the door.  Wrong!  We were plunged into a stainless steel tunnel and when we went round the corner we were in complete and utter darkness.  At this point I felt very, very guilty about sending two boys to face this alone.  The two of us emerged at the other end of our tunnel to two very cheerful boys.  They had solved the problem of being plunged into a dark maze by turning on the assistive light on their phones.

Flying Mushrooms Carsten Holler

Once out of the tunnel we were confronted by what looked like a large astrolabe topped with mushrooms.  Now the boys had to decide which way to push and once the matter was settled, they set off in a clockwise direction causing the mushrooms to fly around our heads.  Next up was a large puddle of pills, one more pill pings down from the roof at regular intervals causing some of the pile to ping and leap about.

Right at the top of the exhibition, we faced one last choice.  Left or right spiral?  Each spiral is a tunnel that sharply drops down the exterior wall of the Hayward.  Isomeric Slides is the proper title for these stainless steel helter-skelters.  The swift descent is the most fun that I have had all summer.  If you are in London before 6 September 2015, drop all your other plans and head for the Southbank.

Isomeric Slides Carsten Holler

BP PORTRAIT AWARD 2015 at the National Portrait Gallery

Audrey Hepburn is very popular.  If you plan to visit the National Portrait Gallery to see the eponymous exhibition then make sure you book tickets.  I didn’t and so headed off to see the BP Portrait Award display instead. Every year for the past 36 years anybody over the age of 18 can enter this competition designed to encourage the art of portraiture.


Not all tall girls have big feet but this one does.  For me the “pleasure” of shoes is simply finding ones long enough and the “pain” is all too often having to settle for dowdy ones.  Retailers plainly think that my feet are too far down for me to notice what adorns them.  Shoes Pleasure and Pain at the V&A, explores the Pleasure of beauty and the pain of suffering for that beauty.  Fittingly enough, the first case contains a glass slipper ready to transform anybody dainty enough to wear it.  For those whom money is no object, all manner of rare leathers, silks and jewels have can be used to signal your wealth to onlookers.

On my feet for this exhibition, a pair coral suede shoes with clunky silver heels, made by Clarks, one of the few high street retailers to sell routinely offer size 9 shoes and sponsor of this exhibition.

MAGNA CARTA at the Society of Antiquaries

Have you ever wondered what lurks inside the buildings that line the Royal Academy courtyard?  Five learned societies have their homes in Burlington House; the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Geological Society, the Linnean Society and the Society of Antiquaries.  Every time I visit I try to work out which of the people in the courtyard are scientists or antiquarians.  Imagine my joy when I spotted a sign outside the Society of Antiquaries proclaiming that there was a Magna Carta exhibition inside and, what’s more, it was free.

Three copies of Magna Carta are on view, the Society has never done this before.  First of all we see a copy made from a discarded draft of the original.  This ended up at Peterborough Abbey where it stayed until the Dissolution of the Monasteries when it passed into the ownership of the Cecil family.  In 1778, Brownlow Cecil, 9th Earl of Exeter gave it to the Society.  Nearby you can see minutes made at the time that thank his Lordship for a ‘curious and valuable present’.  The survival of a draft of the final document has provided valuable insight into the negotiating process that led to the final document.


Every summer for the past 247 years any member of the public able to wield a brush has been able to submit their work for consideration for display at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition alongside the work of the best artists of the day.  Within my memory, the Summer Exhibition has followed a familiar path, loved by the public, loathed by the critics and walls so densely packed with pictures that is hard to discern the colour of the walls.  This year all that has changed.  Change is apparent before you even enter the galleries as the grand staircase has been given a coat of many colours by Jim Lambie.

Summer Exhibition 2015
Royal Academy staircase

Vibrant glowing colour greets you once you’ve made your way past the shop and into the show.  Turquoise green walls surround you, glance left and magenta pink walls beckon and to the right, sky blue.  Above your head hangs a multi-coloured mobile filtering down multi-hued light.  The paintings and sculpture are pretty good too.  Somehow, painting the normally white walls has induced a warm feeling of joy.

Magenta Gallery
Magenta Gallery

Red dots abound at the Summer Exhibition.  Most works are for sale and the prices are shown prominently in the catalogue. This year, to add to the fun, most works are available to view online and all you have to do is click to buy.  Mr CW is currently more than a little worried that my credit card finger is hovering over a rather tempting John Duffin print.  

London Exhibitions Spring 2015


Gardens and paintings, two things that I love; so a combination of the two is bound to be a winner. Painting Paradise starts with an exquisite sixteenth century Persian miniature entitled Seven Couples in a Garden. The picture shows lovebirds ensconced in a garden complete with an octagonal pool and nightingales serenading them from the boughs of a plane tree. From there we leap to Henry VIII and what is important is not the people but the garden of Whitehall Palace glimpsed in the background, it is the first time that an English garden was depicted in art. Next door to Henry and his garden is a copy of the first known gardening manual and I like to think of him sitting down of an evening flicking through its pages seeking inspiration.

Fabergé made eggs, we all know that. It turns out that he also created flowers using enamel, precious stones and metal. If I could have taken one thing home with me it would be his cornflower and oats, the Queen has quite a collection of Fabergé blooms so I am sure that she wouldn’t miss one of them.

Painting Paradise
Faberge Cornflower and Oats

One wall of the gallery tells the story of neighbourly one-upmanship and a Royal disposition for garden design on a grand scale. In one painting we see a magnificent water feature at Bushy Park being shown by its owner Lord Halifax to his neighbour, the future George II. Next door is an image of the mile long canal, lined with a double avenue of lime trees constructed on the orders of Charles II at Hampton Court. Barely 40 years later we see Hampton Court has a new wing, a maze, several miles of small box lined beds and the canal is much reduced in size.

Painting Paradise
A View of Hampton Court (c. 1702–14), Leonard Knyff. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2015

The Queen’s Gallery has three exhibitions a year that draw heavily on the Royal Collections. I’ve never seen the rooms packed which is a shame: the same, however, cannot be said of the shop. Even though coachloads of tourists descend for the chance to buy classy royal souvenirs, it’s a pity that more of them don’t venture in to see the pictures.

Meet the Real Tudors at the National Portrait Gallery

Meet the Real Tudors: Two Henrys, three Catherines, two Elizabeths, two Marys, two Annes, two Janes and Edward. We all think we know the Tudors.  They are big beasts of British history: only Alfred and his cakes, William and his conquest, Charles and Cromwell or Victoria with her Empire come close in our collective imagination.  It would be easy for any display  about the Tudors to stick to the familiar stock images provided by Holbein.  Holbein is here but also smaller more intimate objects.

Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear at the V&A

My great grandmother probably never wore pants nor a bra.  She would have certainly worn a corset and maybe even crotchless drawers.  Lavinia Ellwood was a respectable Yorkshire woman and her selection of underwear would have been entirely normal in Victorian Britain.  This and many other interesting facts was gleaned from Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear (such a clever title) at the V&A.

Underwear started off mainly white and mainly in easy to wash, unshrinkable fabrics.  This was because costly outer garments, such as shirts, dresses, doublets and hose, were washed rarely and the underwear was there to protect them from sweat and the like.  As fabric and washing technology came along, so did the design of undies leading to the availability of a pair of knickers for every day of the week.

Dita_von_Teese corset Undressed
Dita van Teese corset made by Mr Pearl

Corsets: that’s what you expect at an underwear exhibition sponsored by Agent Provocateur and you will not be disappointed.  All manner of whale-boned, tightly laced historical numbers vie for attention.  My great grandmother and her friends must have been a lot slimmer than me, most of the waistlines are tiny.  Beside a particularly wasp-waisted corset was the information that, slender though it was, the slenderest item of all in the exhibition is actually modern and worn by Dita von Teese.  Crystal encrusted and designed by Mr Pearl, the go-to man if you need a burlesque costume, it makes you wonder how she manages to move let alone perform in it.

DEFINING BEAUTY at the British Museum

Male nudes and lots of them, that’s what you get at the British Museum’s latest exhibition.  The blurb before you get to see any Greek Gods tells you that whilst the men are in the main unclothed, women get to be dressed.  That having been said, the first thing that greets you as you walk in is a female bottom belonging to Aphrodite: as goddess of lurve she is allowed to get naked.  Not only is she naked, she is also a copy; getting on for two thousand years old maybe but a copy none the less. The Romans were so impressed with Greek statues that if they couldn’t get hold of the real deal then they just had them copied.  This Aphrodite is such a good copy that she is part of the Royal Collection.

MAGNA CARTA: LAW, LIBERTY, LEGACY at the British Library

Magna Carta, arguably the world’s most famous document.  Being a shallow soul I’ve always imagined it to be a bit bling.  You know the kind of thing: illuminated initial letters, maybe a few heraldic beasts dotted around for good effect and all topped off with a large seal.  Only four copies of the 1215 Magna Carta still exist and two are on display at the British Library at the end of a comprehensive and excellent exhibition.

Laws didn’t start with Magna Carta and one of the first things that you see here is the Law-code of King Cnut.  1,000 years ago Archbishop Wulfstan of York drafted the code for Cnut, it is written in Old English and begins ‘I desire that justice be promoted and every injustice supressed’.  Unfortunately King John was not quite so diligent in promoting justice.  Matthew Paris was a Benedictine monk and in his history branded John a tyrant.  We learn that the Magna Carta was not signed but rather sealed and a rather fine example of John’s seal is on display.

Ten weeks after Magna Carta was signed, Pope Innocent issued a papal bull declaring it to be illegal but it continued to be a touchstone for future generations of radicals wanting fairer government. Later, Thomas Jefferson was strongly influenced by its ideals when drafting the United States’ Bill of Rights.  Medieval documents are not the only things on display the junior CWs were particularly taken with the Horrible Histories Magna Carta rap.  If you are unable to get down to the Euston Road, the British Library have set up a brand new Magna Carta website with animations narrated by Terry Jones.

Right at the end of the exhibition you come face to face with two of the four surviving originals.  Bling is very much not in evidence.  The Canterbury Magna Carta looks like (and here I write from experience) the early part of a Year 1 pirate map homework where the paper has been prepared but the map yet to be drawn.  In 1731 it was involved in a fire and then in 1836 a restorer decided to soak it and then set about it with a rolling pin to attach a backing sheet.  Barely any writing is visible.  No bling except King John’s seal but still iconic.  The London copy, also on display has words but no seal.  Chief Justice Lord Bingham wrote ‘the significance of Magna Carta lay not only in what it actually said, but in what later generations claimed and believed it said’.  He was right and might have added that appearance isn’t everything.


Wow!  I was expecting frocks, maybe even unwearable frocks along with shoes that defy gravity.  I was not expecting an emotional rollercoaster, that’s not usually on the agenda for a display of expensive clothes.  I’m still at a loss as to why I found Savage Beauty so moving, maybe it was the way that the transition from one room to another sometimes involved entering a dark tunnel.  Maybe it was the music which was especially designed by John Gosling who worked with Alexander McQueen on his catwalk shows. Maybe it was the way that each room was completely different to the next.  Maybe it was the fact that I wanted so many of the clothes.

Each room has a completely different feel. You begin with a stark space filled with mannequins clad in outfits that are informed by his early career in Saville Row.  Next you are into a space entitled Romantic Gothic where the frocks are encased in a gilded cage.  From there you are plunged into a dark bone-lined corridor to emerge into what feels like a cave. Next you are into a wooden-panelled Scottish baronial castle which contains the dress that I would like most in my wardrobe.  Its white silk with a fitted bodice decorated with ruby red Swarovski crystals and knee length tulle skirt.

Deciding where to look and what to look at is your first task in the double height room entitled Cabinet of Curiosities.  In the centre twirls a mannequin in a frock beneath a video showing the catwalk show where it was first seen. The walls are filled with boxes containing hats, dresses, shoes, more video displays and rather wonderfully a shell top made of mussel shells.

Alexander McQueen often came to the V&A in search of inspiration, so it is fitting that this retrospective is hosted at the museum. 


Monet’s lily pond, Degas’s dancers, Renoir’s girls are among the most familiar and popular images around.  Millions of mouse mats and mugs are adorned with them.  Yet time was that these images were revolutionary and laughed at by the Art Establishment.  Paul Durand-Ruel was the man whose money and tenacity ensured that the Impressionists were not ignored and forgotten. He started conventionally enough, entering the family art-dealing business but his fancy was taken a group of artists who took their easels and paints outside and depicted what they saw.


Voluptuous nudes and rather fine ceilings are what spring into my mind when Rubens is mentioned.  In fact he was a breaker of artistic moulds and his influence still holds sway today according to the latest blockbuster exhibition at the Royal Academy.  Sometimes the theme of Rubens’ legacy is a little strained.  In the first room it is not the work of Rubens that greets you but Constable, a less fleshy painter it is hard to imagine, but it turns out that both men painted rainbows as did lots of other men.  We are asked to believe that somehow all were influenced by Rubens rather than by the beauty of the rainbows.


Confession time: I love John Singer Sargent and have done since my late teens.  If I could choose one artist to have been friends with it would be JSS.  A postcard of his portrait of Lady Agnew of Lochnaw gazed down on my student desk.  He was friends with Henry James and Edith Wharton, my teenage literary crushes.  Now the National Portrait Gallery has an exhibition not of his formal commissioned portraits but those of his friends, if he is my friend then obviously these people will be too.

To begin with a shock, the man that I assumed was American was in fact born in Florence and mainly raised in Europe albeit to American parents.  The first friends that we meet are Sargent’s first employers, patrons and their children.  Édouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron were the children of the playwright Édouard Pailleron.  The pair are dressed in black and white and the boy appears slightly blurred as if in motion whilst the girl stares out at us in almost photographic perfection.

London Exhibitions Autumn 2014


The Hay Wain, Flatford Mill and Salisbury Cathedral: we all know Constable.  Reproductions of his most famous works pop up everywhere, even Banksy has produced a version of The Hay Wain.  Dedham Vale, the lovely patch of Suffolk just below Ipswich, derives a large part of its living by being Constable Country.  But it isn’t the well-known blockbuster paintings that open this exhibition, rather a selection of paintings by the likes of Rubens and Claude side by side with copies that Constable made with varying degrees of success.  When not copying the works of great artists, Constable was outside making studies of clouds or inside sketching them in order to perfect his technique and we see many oil cloud sketches.


My Boys were given a ‘do-it-yourself’ Matisse snail kit for their first birthday.  It came complete with paper, scissors and glue.  They were a little too young to wield the scissors but we spent a happy hour with paper and glue, ending up with a result that looked nothing like Matisse. Now Tate Modern has queues around the block clamouring to see Matisse’s efforts.

Remembering the happy hour of glue and scissors ten years ago I returned home determined to have a go myself.  Son Number Two declined the opportunity but Son Number One and I whiled away an hour and produced our own interpretation of Acanthus.

Acanthus after Matisse cutouts
C&J Williams Acanthus after Matisse Origami paper collage

London Exhibitions Spring 2014

FOLK ART at Tate Britain

“What is Folk Art?”  I hear you cry and not only you but also the curators of the Folk Art exhibition at Tate Britain.  Almost every explanatory panel makes a plaintive argument for it as a proper subject for an exhibition at the Tate, every other paragraph in the audio guide seems to pose the question.  They should have more confidence: Folk Art is a stunning exhibition that deserves to be as popular as Matisse is at Tate Modern.   Folk Art is “stuff” that is made by talented crafts people; discuss.

My Mother is extremely arty-crafty.  Corn Dollies, Hardanger embroidery, patchwork, needlepoint and many others have, at one time or another filled my Parent’s house and my Mother’s attention.  I too have dabbled but alas have inherited her enthusiasm but not her skill.  Fine art is all well and good but what adorns my own house is Folk Art, I’ve always felt that maybe I should be smarter or trendier.  Maybe the answer to “What is Folk Art?” is that its what the stuff that real people make, buy and have in their homes.

Wedding Dresses at the V&A

Everything you could ever want to know about the wedding dresses. Highlights for me were a silk flower sprigged gown worn in 1780.

Most swoon worthy was the Norman Hartnell dress worn when Margaret Whigham married Charles Sweeny in 1933 (the marriage failed and Margaret went on to be better known as Margaret, Duchess of Argyll).  The bias cut and embroidered gown took 30 seamstresses six weeks to make, it had an 18 foot train and cost £52. 

At the opposite end of the scale is a beautiful dress made during the austerity of the war years with rationing dictating its production.  When Elizabeth King married in 1941 she didn’t have enough clothing ration coupons for a wedding dress. But upholstery fabric was not rationed.  Buttercups strew the fabric making it look like heavy silk even though it was intended to cover a sofa.

Most eye catching: the John Galliano dress that Kate Moss wore when she married Jamie Hince.  The bias cut dress took 701 hours to embroider; it is adorned with 270,000 gold sequins, 120,000 foil paillons and 2,800 pearl beads.  Mr Hince wore a grey wool suit designed by Stefano Pilati for Yves St Laurent.  It is stunning, if I were younger, richer, thinner and getting married it would be what I would want to wear.


The RA’s annual Summer Exhibition heralds the start of the British Summer Season.  Maybe, for a select few.  Without a doubt it the world’s largest open submission exhibition with weekend daubers exhibited in the same halls as the country’s finest working artists.  12,000 works of art were put forward for the hanging committee’s perusal; only one tenth made it to the walls.  Serious critics love to sneer but every year the Summer Exhibition pulls in vast crowds of people, not only eager to see but also to buy.

Summer Exhibition 2014
Sir Joshua Reynolds

In general I leave gallery guidebooks in the gift shop, preferring to make my own mind up and read the blurb by the works of art.  The Summer Exhibition is the exception to that rule, I splash out £3 for the List of Works in which the name, title and (most importantly) price is listed.  Armed with this you can look up works that you like and decide if you want to expend the necessary cash (prices this year range from £60 to ‘refer to sales desk’) or are happy to leave it behind.  Alternatively you can look at the wackier works and marvel that anyone would pay anything for them.

Every year there is an Architecture room and it is always one of my favourites.  It abounds with models of buildings that have either just been built or are about to be, as well as pictures of new structures.  This year a model of the new buildings at the London School of Economics jostles for attention with the temporary Coco-Cola pavilion that stood in the ground of the Olympic Park.

I love the Summer Exhibition.  Not everything that hangs on the walls is to my taste, but then when do you ever go into a gallery and love everything that you see?  I like the incredible variety, I like the humour of the hanging committee (does anyone else imagine them considering their deliberations with little black caps on their heads?) and most of all I like that nearly everything has a price tag enabling me to play the imaginary game of would I buy that and if I did where would I put it?

BANKSY: The Unauthorized Retrospective – Curated by Steve Lazarides at Sotheby’s

Some say that he isn’t one man, but a collective, others that he used to be a butcher and you can find folk that claim he is a former public schoolboy from Bristol.  Whoever or whatever Banksy is, he is certainly successful.  His stencilled, spray-painted works are among the most recognised and liked of any artist working today.  Now he has made the move from grimy backstreets to the hallowed walls of Sotheby’s.

Flying Cooper

Steve Lazarides, Banksy’s agent, has curated the first unauthorised (has there been an authorised one that I missed) retrospective exhibition of his work and it is on show at the Sotheby’s S|2 gallery.  Anyone can walk in off St George Street and take a look at the 70 or so works.  If you have a spare £4,000 – £500,000 to spare you even buy one.  The atmosphere in Sotheby’s is usually one of moneyed calm, not so at the Banksy unofficial retrospective: people take photos of the art work and each other and chatter.


The Vikings are here!  The British Museum has chosen to christen its brand new Sainsbury galleries with an exhibition that aims to change our perception of Vikings from gruesome warriors to international empire builders and awesome sailors.  Myths are debunked:  Vikings did not wear horned helmets  just regular head shaped ones and they were kind, dutiful parents who fashioned toy boats out of wood for their children. Indeed the first things we see are model boats.


Diplomatic gifts exchanged between the Tudor and Stuart courts and their counterpart in Muscovy (as Russia was then known) are the focus of this exhibition.  We do see some such gifts including magnificent silverware, but most of the 150 objects on display reveal the pomp and chivalry at the heart of the Tudor and Stuart courts.
You are welcomed to the collection by a series of magnificent man-sized heraldic beasts, known as the Dacre Beasts. The first of these is a dolphin, plainly carved by a man who had never seen a dolphin in his life, and along with his cohorts a ram, a bull and a griffin stood in the great hall of Naworth Castle, seat of the Dacre family for 400 years. All who entered the hall would be left in no doubt about the power and wealth of the family.


1 Comment

  1. July 8, 2013 / 5:31 pm

    That sounds really interesting. I love all things Tudor ……

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