Monday, 28 February 2011

London: Part the Second.

The manuscript I've been working on lately, is a story set in Eighteenth Century London.  Through my research, I discovered the Foundling Hospital and - later - Foundling Museum.  That was the main point of interest of my recent overnight in London, which I wrote about in my last post. 

On that visit, I was hoping to find the memory or sense of that past time; after-images which seem to linger and accumulate in a place like London. I did.  Both of that time, and of many, many others.

The best way to get a sense of a city is to walk around in it.  So, once I'd been to the Foundling Museum - my first stop - I spent my remaining two half-days walking around the city. 
The London of Henry Fielding (author of the book I'm currently reading, published in 1749)  wouldn't have been all that different from the London of today in many ways.

Though the London I was looking for is rooted in the past, it is still very much present today:  Huge, loud, chaotic, people being moved about in wheeled vehicles, filled with clashing smells, bustling, peopled by locals and by inhabitants from other parts of Britain and the world: London hasn't changed all that much over the centuries. 

(view from a Covent Garden cafe)

Covent Garden was a must see.  Even though the structures there are mostly different to those that were there almost three hundred years ago, one still gets a feel for the busyness of the place.  And there were performers of all kinds: musicians, jugglers, acrobats - some of them really good, others really, really bad - as would always have been the case. 

This was a group of fantastic, young musicians.  That night, when I went, again, walking through the Market, there was a fabulous acrobat with nothing but a boom-box set up on the upper level.  He did a show that was a mix of break-dancing and acrobatics, culminating in a diving leap from the ground through the hooped arms of a standing audience member, and landing in a perfect roll-and-stand.  I was too busy watching to get out my camera.  I strolled down by the Thames.  In the past, it was notoriously smelly.  Thankfully, it's not so these days, though I wouldn't fancy a swim in it. 

The next day I went to my absolute favourite market: Borough Market.  It's a huge food market located in Southwark and most of the current buildings were built in Victorian times, though the original Market dates back to the 13th century.  It's currently located under a railway viaduct.  It's busy, and noisy, and the architecture is amazing - all brick and iron. 

In keeping with the Victorian theme, I found my way to a strange sort of museum. 

I've long been a fan of Sherlock Holmes.  I've read all the stories, and I've seen countless movie and television renditions of the stories.  (I was in the Basil Rathbone camp until I saw Jeremy Brett in the role.  He absolutely lives the character.)   

221b Baker Street will forever be known as the home of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, and the Sherlock Holmes Museum is located at 221b Baker Street.

I must say, it was a bit of a disappointment. As an example of what a Victorian city dwelling would have been like, it's is of interest.  They have papered the walls and furnished the rooms accordingly. 

But I had been hoping to find information about Arthur Conan Doyle and some talk of the Sherlock Holmes phenomenon: a character so well loved that he has been adapted to other media, as well as to blur the line between fiction and reality for many people - the number of fan-letters written to Mr. Sherlock Holmes over the years is astounding.

I'm not quite sure why there isn't more information there.  Apparently there was a dispute, some years ago, between Doyle's daughter and the museum: she didn't approve of a museum being set up for a fictional character and refused to donate any of her father's items to it. 

Upstairs there were two rooms with life size wax figures of some of Holmes' antagonists, but as I absolutely hate life size wax figures, I didn't take any pictures and made quick work of those two rooms. 

At the very top, was this fantastic toilet.

After the museum, I took a stroll through Regent's Park, just at the head of Baker Street.   At the edge of the pond, was a man feeding the birds.  As I got closer, I was amazed to see the variety of birds: ducks, geese, swans, herons, gulls, and - yes - pigeons.

I walked along the edge of the pond where willows hung branches into the water (note the nest at the top.) 

A lovely knobby-kneed tree.

A path that led through more trees.

Past cheeky squirrels who thought I was reaching for vittles to toss them when I fished in my pocket for my camera.

To this mysterious ivy-eaten hut.  (I was dying to hop the fence for a closer look.)

After the breather of the park, I plunged back into the other London.  And more markets.  First, Leadenhall Market.  It was my first time there.  Parts of it were used as "Diagon Alley" in the filming of the Harry Potter movies.   It's mainly a market for upscale shops, though there were vendors selling paintings and shoe-shine boys (men, actually). 

Next stop,  Spitalfields Market which is like a gigantic, covered yard sale where one can buy anything from faded maps to old Toby Mugs to vintage dresses. 


I picked up some old letters and photographs from a woman's stall. 

 I don't know what I'm going to do with them, but somehow I just liked the idea of having them.  Of course, I do wonder how the people to whom they belonged would feel about some stranger, a century later, being in possession of them.  Does feel strange.  For now, they sit in my secretaire, which belongs to roughly the same period. 

Finally, I had a bit of time before catching my plane, so I browsed in one of the bookshops, and came across this: Peter Ackroyd's "London: The biography."  It's one I've had my eye on for a while.  Seemed like the right time and place to finally buy it - for when I've finally finished the nearly 900 delightful pages of "Tom Jones."

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

London: The Foundling Hospital

As my train approached London last week, I had that feeling in my stomach that I always get when arriving in that city:  part excitement, part a feeling of returning to somewhere familiar (from having been there before, but also can the land of your ancestors resonate in your blood?), and part a gearing myself up for a noisy, chaotic, bustling place where past and present seem to live side by side in a crazy temporal patchwork.
My first stop was The Foundling Museum. Photography was not allowed inside, and I would have taken a picture of the building, but there was a large tour bus parked out front pretty much obscuring it.

Though these are the original grounds of the Hospital, the building itself is not the original grand Hospital building.  As the city of London grew and grew, what had been an idyllic site on the edge of the city, had now become central and noisy and polluted.  In 1926, the children were relocated to facilities outside of London.

The original building was torn down, though parts were dismantled, stored, and have been reinstalled in the current Museum building at 40 Brunswick Square.  They have preserved the beautiful oak staircase, as well as a couple of rooms - the most magnificent being the Court Room.  This was where the Board of Governors would conduct meetings, and where functions for important guests would be held.  This room (with exception of the floor) is original eighteenth century, and was painstakingly reassembled in 1937.  The ceiling is a dizzying marvel of plaster work.

The Hospital was the brainchild of Thomas Coram, whose portrait, painted by William Hogarth, and which hangs in the Picture Gallery in the Museum,  is on the cover of the Museum's catalogue below. 

This man, of humble origins, made his fortune in shipbuilding after apprenticing at the age of 16 to a shipwright.   He spent many years in North America, and eventually returned to England.  In 1722, in a state of semi-retirement, this man of endless energy and temper and idealism, sickened by the conditions that the poor - and particularly children (babies were often literally left at the side of the road to die) - were living in in London at the time, decided to found an orphanage.

Coram had a history of philanthropy.  Back in North America, he had tried to set up a colony for "destitute ex-soldiers" as well as campaigning for "inheritance rights for daughters of colonists and land rights for Mohicans."  So, he would have been well aware of the difficulty in getting something as ambitious as a Foundling Hospital off the ground, though perhaps he didn't realize that it would take a full 17 years for it to grow from the germ of an idea, to a chartered reality.

Two of the other main contributors to making this Hospital a thriving success were the artist and social commentator William Hogarth, and the composer George Frideric Handel.  They used their influence and talents to make the Foundling Hospital a very fashionable address for parties amongst high society, and in making it a venue for British painters to exhibit their work.

It's interesting to think of the parties with their music, and fancy gowns, and chatter, not far from the masses and masses of orphaned children, living a very different kind of existence, consisting of small portions of simple food, basic clothing, a regimented daily routine, and hours learning skills which would hopefully allow them to find work as apprentices once they were released into the world.  But, the fact that they had any existence at all was, in most cases, a direct result of the Hospital, and its wealthy sponsors.  
How this exhibition came about is interesting.  It started when the curator of the exhibition, John Styles, was researching his book "The Dress of the People: Everyday Fashion in Eighteenth-Century England" (2007).  It is, of course, impossible to find surviving samples of complete outfits of the poor from that time, as they would be worn to threads, and often converted to other uses.  Mr. Styles wondered whether he could get any closer by looking at samples of the textiles used to make the clothing of the poor and was directed to the massive collection of snippets of cloth in the keeping of the Foundling Museum.  It is, as he says in the catalogue, "Britain's largest collection of everyday textiles" with some 5000 swaths. 

Walking through the exhibition, one is very much aware - and the curator makes a huge point of this - that each little swath of fabric represents a child.  These swaths were added to the registration document of each child from a period between 1741 - 1760.   During this time, the process of putting a child up for adoption was an anonymous one.  However, many children were given these tokens by their mothers perhaps as a way to identify and reunite them once again (though this rarely happened).  Other times, the bits of fabric would be cut from the child's garments by the staff member who processed their admittance.  

Walking through the items on display was quite devastating.  I'm not one to cry in public, but I was relieved to have had the foresight to have brought a packet of tissues with me.

As photos weren't permitted, I purchased a collection of postcards prepared for the exhibition.

 Four ribbons.  Foundling 170, a girl, 1743.

A baby's sleeve (back when sleeves weren't attached to the body of a shirt).  Foundling 235, a boy, 1746.

Printed fabric.  Foundling 11868, a girl, 1759.

Flannel embroidered with a flower (before pink and flowers were associated with girls).  Foundling 12843, a boy, 1759.

Linen or cotton embroidered with flowers.  Foundling 14084, a boy, 1759.

One can only imagine what the experience was like for all involved.

I found the exhibition to have been very well put together; respectful of everyone involved: the babies, the mothers, the staff of the Foundling Hospital.  It was not sentimental, nor was it in any way callous.  It dealt with a very real, very difficult topic with respect.  It is a fascinating and unique piece of social history.

The exhibition continues only until March 6, but the Museum itself is most definitely worth a visit on its own. 

Coram's name is still attached to a London based children's charity running today.  On the fence surrounding Coram's Fields just south of the Museum is this sign.  I love the condition of entry. 

I was going to write more about my trip to London, but I think I'll leave that for another day.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

"Threads of Feeling"

Over the past week or so, I've been playing  with collage using the papers that I painted a little while back.  I've made a departure from the ones I'd been making before which featured flowers and plants done in a stylized way, very much influenced by my love of Art Nouveau and Art Deco, and especially the point where they meet.  (Perhaps I've just been watching too many Poirot reruns).   I still plan to make more in this style, as I quite enjoy doing them, but I'm also interested in the process of making more abstracted collages with papers I've coloured. 

The floor of my room was once again in a state of absolute chaos and I had to make potentially body-unfriendly leaps to get to my computer and writing table.  

In the middle of all that chaos is one of the larger ones I've been playing with.  It's nowhere near done, and I'm not entirely sure where it's going as it keeps leading me one way and then another.  Below are three smaller ones (ca. 20 x 20 cm.).  This is the approximate size of my botanical collages, and I am finding that it's a much more comfortable size for the medium than the larger one (ca. 40 x 40 cm.).

This past Autumn, I collected and pressed some leaves.  I've used one in each of the collages.  Next Autumn I'll have to collect more.  Although there are certain similarities between the two styles of collage, they are, naturally, quite different.  Both processes are enjoyable and seem to appeal to, and challenge, different parts of

As I have so many little stretched canvases which I've purchased for this purpose, I decided to have a bit of fun of a different kind the other day.  Lately, I've had banshees on my mind.  In the current story I'm writing there is a band of banshees, and in another story, currently on the back burner, the protagonist is a banshee.  I've long had a fascination with these mysterious creatures which straddle the line between ghost and fairy.  I blame it on Siouxie Sioux.  When I was a wee lass of around fifteen, I absolutely loved Siouxie and the Banshees.  That started it all. 

Part of their mystery is that Banshees are solitary.  And, unlike so many other female fairy-folk, they are feminine without being a femme fatale.  They sometimes appear as a beautiful young woman, other times as a terrifying crone.  Sometimes washing blood stained clothes by the ford of a river in Scotland, other times scaring the bejeebers out of guests in the manor home of some Irish lord soon to pass from this world to the next. 

I've started a sketch in oils of one.  When she's done, she'll sit on my wall at my writing table. 

Once again, the influence of the Art Nouveau movement can be seen.  (Thank you, Klimt.)

The banshees of my current story are leading me away tomorrow.  I'm fortunate enough to be heading to London for an overnight, to see an exhibit at the Foundling Museum called  "Threads of Feeling"  The original The Foundling Hospital was established in 1739 by Thomas Coram, and was financially aided by such London pillars as Hogarth and Handel.  To this day, one of London's largest children's charities is named for Coram.

The exhibit I'm going to see showcases more than 4,000 pieces of fabric which were attached to the entries in the ledger books of many of the babies admitted to the hospital between 1741 - 1760.  These pieces of cloth were sometimes given by the mother as a token, and were other times snipped, by the attendants, from the clothes the child was admitted in.  It's a rare collection and insight into eighteenth century dress of the poor.  It's going to be fascinating, and it's going to be incredibly poignant.  I'm looking forward to seeing it, but it's not going to be an easy exhibit to view.

When I return, I will be sure to post about the experience. 

Thursday, 10 February 2011


The first time I came to Munich was as a tourist, and  I viewed the city with a tourist's eyes.  Now that I live here - and have for about two and a half years - I have fallen into the trap of not really seeing it.  I became starkly aware of that today, on my way home.

With my usual brisk city-stride, I turned down a street - one I've been down before -  and was suddenly struck by the beauty of a wooden door.

At first, I kept right on going, but then thought - if I were here as a tourist, I would probably have stopped in front of it.  So, a little sheepishly, I retraced my steps and stood in front of the door.  I admired it then pulled out my camera and took a snapshot.

 Then I carried on, and a few feet later, came to another door.

I stopped again, admired, and took a snap.  Then I saw one on the other side of the street.  This went on and on.  The workmen digging up the street watched me - this funny woman in the wine-coloured coat and teal beret - taking pictures of old doors.    

  When I looked at the doors, really looked at them, I was blown away by how much craftsmanship and planning and care had been put into making them.  Doors.  Such banal, day to day things.  But not really.  There is something quite wonderful about a door, an entrance, a passage.  Something magical.  A barrier, an obstacle.  Keeping things in, and other things out.  A keeper of secrets.  Protector of realms.  An opportunity.  An unobtainable dream.

 What lies beyond.    

Monday, 7 February 2011

Black and White and Blue skies all over

This past week, with the city firmly back in the arms of Winter, the world was one of white-grey skies, white-beige streets, and grey-beige trees. 

In this black and white, and grey and beige world, I found inspiration for my new series of abstract collages.  I had prepared scores of papers in different colours for use in these collages, but was drawn mainly to the winter coloured papers. 

With abstracts, for me, the key is finding some internal unity of the elements colour, texture and form.  I found myself looking at everything around me in these terms.  Breaking them down.  Analyzing what it was I found pleasing and why.  (Much like when I read, part of me is always aware of what the author is doing, and trying to figure out why things either work or don't work for me.) 

As I walked with my younger son to his soccer practice, I took pictures, looking for ideas. 

Crows clustered in noisy groups in slender branches.

The Narnia like pathway we walk along.  Complete with lamp post, but, alas, no Mr. Tumnus.  Yet. 

Looking for the subtle winter colours, and shapes, and forms. On the bark of a tree.

On a roof top.

In dead grasses.


A picnic table leaning over in the snow.  Waiting. 

Looking up, we thought we'd found Eyore's tail.

The collages are still in the works.  I was going to post a couple of pictures of them, but when it came right down to doing it, I realized that they are not ready.  Not yet. (Funny how the pressure of other eyes, can make one's own suddenly work better.) 

At home on the writing front, I am also surrounded by black and white.  Apart from the actual black type on white sheets of paper, much of the research material, or inspirational material for my story is black and white. 

An enlargement of the Covent Garden area of London, from Racque's 1749 map. 


A postcard of a cheery little broadsheet depicting various scenes from the outbreak of the Plague in London, 1665. 

A postcard of Hogarth's Gin Lane from 1750.

This book has been fabulous for researching Eighteenth Century life: "Engravings by Hogarth" edited by Sean Shesgreen.  It includes many of Hogarth's fabulous engravings depicting various slices of London life.  They are so full of detail, allusion, critique, and pure theatricality.  There is a good deal of commentary, but I wish there were more.  With each picture, I'm aware of how much I'm missing - not being of that time, or a scholar of that time.       

 One of the most interesting to me now is this one: Southwark Fair 1733-34.

The biography of Charlotte Charke, by Kathryn Shevelow - which I mentioned a couple of posts ago - makes reference to this print.  This print is now thought to be of Bartholomew Fair, 1733, and the player dressed as a Roman slightly right of centre who's being accosted by a pair of bailiffs, is thought, by some, to be Charlotte. 

Hogarth's prints, in conjunction with other reading sources, are proving invaluable.  And such incredible fun.  They are Shakespearean in their scope and eye for detail - not to mention bawdy humour.  

I'm finding that my story is running along very well now.  The city of London is growing almost as a character itself, which is incredibly exciting, and which is in turn giving my characters all sorts of interesting dilemmas and curve-balls.  It looks as though I will meet my April 1 deadline for the first draft.  (A good day for my deadline, I think.)

Hanging over my writing desk is this, my Muse.  A postcard (I have a thing for postcards) of a Roman copy of a Greek Head of an Amazon.  So quietly contemplative.  Embodying both strength and softness.  She can by found in the Glyptothek Museum  in Munich.  It's my favourite museum here.  The building itself is beautiful and the collection of Greek and Roman statuary is wonderful. 

 And now, what it looks like out my window today.  Gone are the grey skies.  Gone is much of the snow.  I ran an errand on my bike for the first time in weeks.  The snow drops are blooming and there is the smell and feel of Spring in the air.

I have a feeling this is going to change the direction of my collages and paintings - yet again.