Saturday, August 2nd 2014
Unusually warm conditions (unusual for this wet and wind-swept island, at least) continue, discouraging over-vigorous activity. A leisurely breakfast at Pret in St John Street seemed a good way to set the day in motion. Then we took to the buses. I didn’t ask where we were heading but Tigger obviously had a goal in mind and that was good enough for me.
We changed buses at the Hyde Park end of Piccadilly which is both a major thoroughfare and a district of large buildings of which a few are still residential and others accommodate hotels or business premises.
On the bus stop timetable, we spotted this small creature. I am not sure whether it is a hoverfly or a bee. Its furry jacket suggests to me that it is probably a bee but I could be wrong. While we are used to honey bees there are other different types of bee, many of which are solitary, and they are not always easy to recognize. There are also many different species of hoverfly and it is no doubt to their advantage if potential predators mistake them for bees or wasps which, unlike the peaceful hoverfly, are armed with stings.
When we got off the bus at South Kensington and struck out alone Harrington Road, our destination became obvious: The French Institute! I was looking forward to rummaging around in the library and perhaps having lunch in the cafe but, alas, it was not to be. The Institute was closed for its summer break. I wrote about a previous visit (see Italian Friday… French Saturday) and that will have to do until we can come back on a day when they are open.
Fortunately, although the Institute itself was closed, there was plenty to see in the area. We found a quiet cafe in Bute Street and watched the toing and froing in the Farmers’ Market.
The presence of the French Institute and the French Lycée acts as a magnet to the London French community. A visible result of this is a number of French shops, particularly food shops and bookshops. We had already looked in one French bookshop along the way and found a second one here in Bute Street, disarmingly called The French Bookshop.
The name is about the only concession made to the surrounding culture. On entering I was met with a polite but firm “Bonjour” and I was to all intents and purposes in France. French bookshops look, sound and smell quite different from English bookshops. Maybe it’s the paper or the bindings or.., well, I really don’t know, but the difference is quite marked. As well as books, the French bookshops in the area also sell stationery, much of it what is needed by students at the Lycée but all of it uncompromisingly French.
I wanted to buy a book but which one? The bookshop seemed to have everything, from the classics to the latest titles. This was going to take all day, unless… The shopkeeper seemed unoccupied apart from keeping a quizzical eye on me so I asked her advice. She was only too happy to oblige and pulled out a book here, another there, a third over there, all the while explaining what they were about. I couldn’t help wondering whether she had read all the books in the shop. I wouldn’t be surprised. In the end I plumped for Je vais mieux, not least, I must confess, because of the author’s unusual name which is apparently pronounced ‘fwen kee noss’. If you are French, you put the emphasis on the last syallble, fwenkeeNOSS.
Continuing our explorations, we spotted this unusual post box. I am used to seeing free-standing pillar boxes and smaller wall boxes, and even boxes strapped to telephone posts, but this one is different from all of those. It is flat fronted like a wall box but is as large as a pillar box. It has been set it what looks as though it once served as a gate post, though its companion is no longer present. It bears the royal cypher of Queen Victoria, meaning that it was installed well over a hundred years ago. I appears in lists under its identifier, “SW7 5”, but I have not been able to find out anything about its history or design. English Heritage has listed a number of other post boxes in the area but not this one though it seems to me interesting enough to protect.
Further up the road is a Victorian church built by William Butterfield in 1865. It was then called At Augustine’s Queen’s Gate. In 1949 it was considered worthy of a Grade II* listing by English Heritage. You can see some pictures of the interior on this Victorian Web page. I don’t know whether it is still listed as I have been unable to find an up-to-date listing reference. The church now bears the rather boring name “HTB Queen’s Gate” in which the initials, I believe, stand for “Holy Trinity Brompton”, which was also once a church in its own right with a proper name. In other words, St Augustine’s is one of a group of four churches that have been gathered together under the single HTB banner, no doubt because it is these days hard enough to fill one church, let alone four. It’s a pity they couldn’t come up with a less boring name. Here’s an idea: why not call it Saint Augustine’s?
Across the road we found our second unusual post box. This one is a proper free-standing pillar box and at first sight it is in every way like the traditional boxes up to the present day. But wait a minute: where’s the royal cypher? It’s not there. You can’t tell in which reign the box was installed unless you know something about post boxes. This design appeared in 1879 when it replaced the then current Penfold boxes. Whether through an oversight or as a deliberate design policy, I do not know, but the royal cypher (which would have been “V R”) was not included. nor were the words “POST OFFICE” that normally appear somewhere on the box. As a result, these post boxes became known a “Anonymous Pillar Boxes”. With the accession of Edward VII, the royal cypher was once again included.
You may notice another peculiarity of this post box. Imagine trying to post a large envelope: see how small the aperture is. It is also right at the top, just below the roof of the box, creating a real risk that items will get jammed and will not drop into the collecting area. In later boxes the aperture was placed lower for this reason.
We next walked along Cromwell Road which leads to an area once known as “Albertopolis” after Prince Albert. The Prince proposed that some of the profit made from the Great Exhibition, in whose successful creation he had played so important a part, should be used to buy land on which could be established some educational foundations. The first of these that we reached was the Natural History Museum which, though dear to Albert’s heart, was not the first to be built. Today there was a huge queue to enter, so we moved on and looked at the Science Museum next to it. There were queues there too. So we plumped for the Victoria & Albert Museum which, though it was busy, we were able to enter easily.
This, the first of the museums to be built, was originally called by the snappy title of Museum of Manufactures. Happily, by the time it opened to the public in 1857, it had been renamed the South Kensington Museum, perhaps because its coverage had been considerably widened. In fact, some of its exhibits were later moved to the newly founded Science Museum.
I don’t know how many people could sleep in the Great Bed of Ware but it’s probably big enough for a small (and well behaved) family. It existed by no later than 1596, when it is mentioned by a traveller, and became famous for its size. It even rates a mention in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
The South Kensington Museum did not rest on its laurels but expanded several times, adding new parts. It was in 1899 when, at her last public appearance, Queen Victoria laid the foundation stone of the Aston Webb building, that its name was changed to the one by which we know and love it today – the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Anything feline always catches my attention and therefore so did the above ceremonial flagon. Made of silver gilt and clearly not intended for just one person to drink from, the original was made in about 1600 for Queen Elizabeth I and sold in 1629 to the Tsar of Russia, the leopard being a symbol of royal power. This copy was made in 1884.
I noticed this piece less for its intrinsic artistic appeal (I think it is a rather conventional piece, perhaps intended for someone’s garden) than because it is by Albert Toft (1862-1949) some of whose works I have come across before. For example, he created the rather fine sculptures that adorn the outside of the Hall of Memory in Birmingham (see Birmingham jewels) and The Spirit of Contemplation in the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle (see Durham 2013 – Day 2).
This parlour designed in 1727-28 is everything that the cluttered parlours of the High Victorian Age a hundred years later were not: simple, elegantly proportioned, classical in inspiration, cool in colour. The deeply moulded ceiling is enlivened with colourful paintings but the overall effect is restraint and balance. Which you prefer, the cool but restful 18th century restraint or the warmth and homely clutter of the Victorian room, is a matter of personal choice. I think I admire the 18th-century parlour but feel more at home in the Victorian. Even now, in our brave new world of the 21st century, I think we are almost palpably closer to the Victorians than we sometimes realize.
There was a special exhibition on at the V&A. Admission was free and there was a grown-up attitude to photography: “Photography is allowed unless objects are marked otherwise”. The exhibition was Disobedient Objects, described, in part, as follows:
Disobedient Objects is an exhibition of art and design from below. The objects on show were not made by commercial designers, but by people collectively taking design into their own hands to make a change in the world. The makers often worked under duress with limited resources, driven to out-design authority using imagination and creativity.
The exhibition was in a fairly small space with items closely packed. The place was crowded and it was therefore quite hard to take photos without heads, faces and bodies getting in the way! I contented myself with the above two views.
We made our way out through the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries and I was struck by how many people there were visiting the museum, including families with children. Admittedly it is a weekend during the school summer holiday and parents are probably hard pressed to find things to do as a family but, even with that, it’s good to see parents cultivating the “museum habit” in their children and also enjoying it.
The museums of “Albertopolis” are certainly among the nobler legacies of Prince Albert, who did many good things for his adopted country and would no doubt have done more but for his untimely death from typhoid, aggravated by exhaustion. Neither the royal couple nor the various governments that served during Victoria’s long reign are to be exempted from just criticism but they also transformed the nation and laid the foundations of developments for which we can be grateful and of which we can be proud. While the Albert Memorial remains the most striking memorial to the Prince, the Victoria and Albert and its companions are a greater and more valuable one.
We left the museum and went to the conveniently nearby bus stop to start our journey home. I will, though, leave you with a tailpiece🙂
Yes, as the caption says, I have a new hat. My old one, much as I loved it, had become rather the worse for wear. Even the ever-tolerant Tigger had passed the occasional remark. So I have swapped my black Fedora for… another black Fedora – naturally! I have of course transferred the Silver Tiger brooch that my son gave me and you might just be able to see it above my hand in the photo.