A few days in London: from pearls to plywood and the Pickwick Papers

Being a tourist in a city where I once lived  as a worker, commuter, tax payer and home-owner is a joy. It’s an absence makes the heart grow fonder scenario. Although I made the most of London when I lived there from 1987 to 1996, there’s nothing sweeter than returning, unencumbered by day to day responsibilities, with the time and space to experience the place afresh, and inspired by the appreciative perspective of a long-distance traveller. Google tells me London is 10,497 miles away from Melbourne.

This time I tapped into a bit of glamour with dinner at the Athenauem Club in Pall Mall, one of London’s oldest clubs which counts 52 past and present Nobel Prize winners among its members and has oil paintings of Dickens, Darwin and other dignitaries lining the walls. Another night, my sister took me to the theatre to see the Ferryman by Jez Butterworth at the Gielgud Theatre in Piccadilly. The play set in the 80s about four generations of an Irish family was mesmerising with 22 actors on stage at one time plus a live rabbit and a real-life baby. It’s a tale of grief, disappearance and loss – an aunt to dementia and an elder son’s body is found in the bog. Woven throughout the family narrative are myth, magic, ‘the Troubles’ and the corrosive and threatening presence of the IRA.

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Pall Mall at night

Before the theatre we strolled through the Burlington Arcade admiring its high-end jewellery, leather, cashmere, shoe and perfume stores all so exclusive that, in most cases, you must ring the bell to be admitted. For fun, we enquired about the price of a beautiful pearl necklace only to find it was £77,000!

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Pricey Pearls

As if to bring things down to earth – albeit in an airborne way – the ceiling space in the Arcade featured the work of French artist Mathilde Nivet whose 300 bird sculptures, painstakingly crafted from paper, fluttered overhead.

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After that it was onto Fortnum & Mason known as Fortnum’s for short, an elegant and gracious store with its plush red carpet and spiral staircase connecting the floors selling luxury hampers, teas, coffees, cheeses, biscuits and fine wines all presented in its trademark green tins or boxes. It’s a bit like entering a fairy tale until you come to pay the bill.

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A quick trip to the Victoria & Albert Museum offered plenty of contrast. An exhibition about plywood  showed how layering cross-grained veneers to make material stronger than solid wood has been used since 2600 BC in Ancient Egypt, but the advent of mechanised saws in the 1830s saw it emerge as a key material in the industrial age as it was cheaper than cast metal.  From the covers for Singer Sewing Machines, tea chests, car parts, surf boards and the moulded fuselage of Mosquito aeroplanes in the Second World War, the exhibition highlighted the versatility of plywood. Today, plywood has become popular as a material for digital design due to rise of digital fabricating machines known as CNC Cutters (Computer Numerical Control).

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No visit to the V & A would be complete without a wander through the fashion section where we took in (crazy) cumbersome court mantuas, corsets and crinolines –  the starchy, scratchy and restrictive Victorian costumes were a perfect segue to a trip to the Dickens Museum the next day.

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A court mantua worn by women in the 1750s to royal assemblies and balls

Dickens and his wife Catherine lived at 48 Doughty Street in Bloomsbury from 1836-1839, and this is where he wrote OIiver Twist, the Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby. Some samples of his hand-written drafts – they were published in monthly parts – are on display along with his writing desk and chair and one of his reading desks, from where he performed his public readings. He’d edit his own text and write himself stage directions in the margins. Upstairs in one of the bedrooms is a mirror in which he practised impersonating some of his characters so he could ‘see’ them.

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A hand-written draft page from Oliver Twist

Other more quirky exhibits include a model of a hedgehog in the kitchen (they were kept in Victorian kitchens to eat insects and keep the bug population down), a commode with a letter from Dickens to his doctor complaining about: “distention and flatulency, and disagreeable pains in the pit of the stomach and chest, without any disarrangement of the bowels.” Sounds like a long-winded way (forgive the pun) way of describing indigestion. Dickens was also a big fan of cane chairs, perhaps the latest in ergonomic design back then. He writes to a friend: “I can testify there is nothing like it. Even in this episodical hotel-life, I invariably have my cane chair brought from a bedroom, and give the gorgeous stuffed abominations to the winds.” I’m sure Dickens would have been a fan of mattress toppers had they existed in his day. See: To sleep, perchance to dream

Berlei bras, Bridges and Bakelite Radios: Brave New World

It’s easy to put on rose-tinted glasses and think that the world used to be an easier, better place in bygone eras. Pick your decade and add a touch of sepia and a few cherry-picked memorable events, and it can all seem much more glamorous, if not romantic.

Wandering round the NGV Australia’s exhibition of life in 1930s Australia – Brave New World, named after Aldous Huxley’s classic futuristic dystopian novel – I was struck by how many of the themes and concerns of that era still preoccupy us today – from consumerism, traffic congestion and the loss of individuality in an increasingly fast-paced and mechanised world to the position of women in society.

The exhibition starts with paintings and photos documenting the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.  The painting by Grace Cossington-Smith (a nice overlap for me as I saw some of her work recently at an exhibition entitled O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: making modernism at the Art Gallery of New South Wales) of the bridge during construction has an optimistic feel; there’s colour, movement and expansive skies. It’s as if the bridge – the largest single-arch bridge in the world when it was completed in 1932 – heralds the dawn of a new era. Horizons were expanding and skyscrapers going up – Melbourne’s tallest building at the time, the Manchester Unity building, was built in 1932.

 

Grace Cossington-Smith

Speed, efficiency and expanding road and rail networks gave artists working in new media and styles a rich source of imagery. Max Dupain’s 1938 photo of Rush Hour in Kings Cross hints at the stresses of modern life, although, to my contemporary eye, the moody black and white finish and all those vintage cars feels more 42nd Street than Darlinghurst Road. It’s sepia-tinted nostalgia at play again.

A non-stop daily train from Melbourne to Albury – the Spirit of Progress – averaging 70 mph first ran in 1937 and featured an ‘ultra modern’ kitchen meaning passengers could choose a 3-course dinner for six shillings. The menu is wonderfully dated and includes delights such as consommé or clam chowder, boiled leg of mutton or boiled flathead with parsley sauce and, for dessert, steamed Victoria pudding or compote of peaches and custard.

The position of women in society was changing as it became acceptable for women to live alone, work and even frequent nightclubs! At the same time, a leaner body type became fashionable with defined waists and more revealing clothing. To help women achieve a more sculpted figure, clothing companies such as Berlei used a Figure Type Indicator, a measure that made sure women wore suitable foundation garments to correct their ‘figure faults’. An amusing ad by Berlei – It isn’t Done –  that ran in cinemas in 1930, plays on a screen. You can view it here:  https://aso.gov.au/titles/ads/berlei-it-isnt-done/clip2/.  Women’s rights still had a long way to go.

One of my favourite parts of the exhibition is a whole room of radios from those that were set into pieces of furniture to portable Bakelite models and others with fancy Art Deco grilles. How exciting it must have been when radios first brought the outside world live into the home! A soundtrack playing in the background includes Fred Astaire favourites such as Night and Day and Cheek to Cheek.

A single black negligée on display hints at glamour and the Hollywood femme fatale – and, interestingly, an advert for a white goods blends glamour, romance and elegance with a photo of a fridge flanked by a couple in evening wear. Although it was still not acceptable for middle-class women to light up a cigarette in public in the 20s, by the 30s smoking was portrayed as being sophisticated. There’s a wall of paintings of women of the era, some of them smoking or looking suitably louche or rebellious.

Peggy Crombie painted by Sybil Craig

Reactionaries like the photographer Max Dupain didn’t like to see women emerge from being just wives and mothers and begrudged them their new-found freedoms: “there must be a great shattering of modern values if woman is to perpetuate the race… In her shred of a dress and a little helmet of a hat, her cropped hair, and stark bearing, the modern woman is a sort of solider… It is not her fault it is her doom.”

Contrast his views with those of Jean Broome-Norton, a sculptor whose Hippolyta and the Amazons defeating Theseus depicts the Queen of the Amazons with a proud and strong physique complete with conical breasts – Madonna didn’t get there first.  Worryingly, between the war years, there was a move away by some sections of society from what was perceived as the corrosive influence of Europe and a tendency to look inwards.  The human body and physical form and prowess expressed through references to Classical Greece and mythology became synonymous with nationhood. A new Australian ‘type’ became desirable, a white Australian hailing from British stock, but one that was muscular and athletic from swimming and surfing.  With the benefit of hindsight and historical knowledge, this cult of the body is uncomfortably close to the Nazi Party’s Aryan ideal and racial cleansing.

As war loomed in the 1930s, lifesavers became linked with military service as they were trained for ‘battle’ in the surf and male lifesavers became poster boys – literally– for ads marketing Australia to tourists.  It was all about manhood, military service, muscles and virility.Of course, no exhibition of this inter-war period would be complete without reference to the Great Depression. In contrast to the negligees, glamorous gowns, airbrushed posters, radios, fridges, cars and speedy trains with restaurant cars, there was huge unemployment (levels reached nearly 32 per cent in 1932) and poverty.  A series of photos and black and white grainy film depict life in the slums in the cities, while works by artists such as Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker express anxiety and existentialism.

One of the last photos in the show is by Max Dupain and it reflects concerns at the time that machines and mechanisation were destroying the body, perhaps even humanity. Brave New World (1938) shows a woman trapped by technology. Naming the piece after a book that had been banned by the Australian Customs Department, with existing copies rounded up and burnt, was provocative. One wonders how Dupain reacted (he lived till he was 81 in 1992) to the first man in space, women’s liberation and the pill. Not to mention how he would fare in today’s world where much of life is actioned by the swipe of a finger across a screen.  Brave New World is on at the NVG until 15th October, 2017.

 

 

House Museum 3 of 3: Mr Straw’s House – hoarding Edwardian-style

Walking into No.7 Blyth Grove in Workshop, Nottinghamshire, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Straw family were hoarders. Not the kind of hoarding that provides voyeuristic fodder for Reality TV shows – television hadn’t even been invented when the Straw family bought their semi-detached house in 1923 – theirs was more of a post First World War ‘Make Do and Mend’ approach.

The charm of the house is that little has been touched since 1932, giving a real life – rather than a museum curated – insight into a bygone era. William Straw was a prosperous tradesman, a seed merchant and grocer with a shop at the top end of town, and father to two sons, William and Walter. William senior died suddenly while gardening aged 68 in 1932 and his wife Florence passed away seven years later.

After the death of their parents the two boys continued to live in the house, keeping everything exactly as it was for the rest of their lives, William being the last to depart when he went to hospital in 1985. It’s almost as if the house is a shrine to their parents’ memory.  They kept the curtains closed to keep out the sun in Florence’s sitting room, her bible on the table, the French Empire-style clock on the mantelpiece, her music scores on the piano stool, the bookcase fully stocked and side board crowded with ornaments and china. Fortunately, for us and future generations, William bequeathed the property to the National Trust on his death in 1990.

Florence’s sitting room

The dining room, which is to the right as you enter the front hall, where William senior’s coats, caps and hats still hang from pegs, is the room where time seems to have stood still. The calendar on the wall with a picture of two kittens is from 1932, William’s pipes and tobacco pouch and favourite chair to the left of the fireplace are as he left them. The walls are covered in dark wallpaper and hung with oil paintings, the furniture heavy and every surface laden with glass, china and pewter ornaments and collectables.

One of the most touching rooms in the house is the parents’ bedroom, where William’s detachable collars are still in a box on the dressing table with Florence’s diaries, gloves and the blue sunglasses she used on her annual seaside holiday in a drawer. The brass frame bed is heaped with Florence’s clothes perfectly preserved between layers of newspaper and carbolic soap to protect against moths. While the Straw parents hung onto everything ­– from postal correspondence to bills and old newspapers (even those that were delivered while they were on holiday) – there’s an air of thriftiness about the place. This wasn’t the age of fast fashion with flimsy throw-away items, worn just a few times, creating mountains of toxic waste in landfill sites, of electronic gadgets with built-in obsolescence or one in which plastic water bottles and takeaway food containers litter the landscape.

The Straws on their annual seaside holiday in Scarborough

Yet there’s a homeliness and cosiness amid all the paraphernalia, clutter and heavy furniture – possessions were an indicator of status and wealth in the 1920s. And, while the sons remained deeply resistant to change after their parents died, refusing to make way for modern conveniences as they became available such as phone, radio, central heating and television, their parents were not afraid to move with the fashions of the time.

One of the first things you notice on entering the house, with its attractive stained glass door panels,  is the Axminster stair carpet bearing an Egyptian design, one that was very much in vogue following the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Before moving in, William Senior had all the rooms decorated with fashionable Sanderson wallpapers, dado and picture rails put up, new curtains, carpets and lino laid. And, in a concession to modernity, a new lavatory was installed in the bathroom, and in 1927, a new sink and bath were put in with two taps to accommodate the introduction of hot water.  Imagine two taps being a symbol of luxury! With exposed lead piping – I always think of Cluedo and whodunnit – it looks sparse to our modern tastes but, along with improvements to the electrical system, the Straws were very much up and coming.

Two tap luxury

In 1940 William drew up an inventory of the entire ground floor of the house – down to every last packet of food in the kitchen cupboards –  and labelled some items of furniture. In common with the original owners of other house museums, the Straws documented their lives for posterity, whether consciously or unconsciously. What kind of legacy are we creating today in the absence of letters and hard copy documentation. Will our lives be digitally recorded and archived? What will happen to all our emails?

Curiously, the boys used a cupboard on the second-floor landing as a pantry. Sauces, tins, jars and bottles – some vintage such as Fowler’s Pure Cane Indian Treacle and some more modern such as a tin of Heinz baked beans – line the shelves. A lumber room on the same floor – probably originally a maid’s room (there are servants’ bells in the kitchen) served as a storeroom. It’s crammed with eclectic objects such as a foot-operated Baby Daisy vacuum cleaner, jars of home-made bottled jam, hat boxes, biscuit tins, wooden crates and a World War Two wardens’ helmet.

My family lived in Workshop, a small market and former mining town, in the 70s. I wonder if I ever passed William and Walter, both regular churchgoers (always sitting in the same pew) in their serge suits and bowler hats? What austere lives they led –baking bread once a week to their mother’s recipe and using her utensils, only ever lighting fires in two of the rooms even in the coldest months, their bachelor beds covered in checked blankets.  Little did I think I would return one day as a tourist from Australia thrilled to discover a time capsule of the Victorian and Edwardian Age.