A visit to Windermere Jetty Museum

Leaving Blackwell we decided to drive over to, another Lakeland Arts site, the Windermere Jetty Museum, a short drive away on the other side of Bowness. We’d visited before, just before the first lockdown, but though we could spend a little time there revisiting the exhibits and enjoying a brew on the lakeside.

As it turned out we spent longer there than we expected as there were a couple of art exhibitions – normally they would probably have been shown at Abbot Hall but with that still be shut for refurbishment I guess Lakeland Arts were taking advantage of the facilities here.

First, though, we had a look around the main displays

One of the exhibitions, shown in the main building in a room with a view over the lake, featured large scale abstract watercolours by Barbara Nicholls, an artist from Cheshire.

Her technique used to create these works involved laying out large sheets of heavy weight
paper on the studio floor, which were then wetted before applying the pigments which would then begin to spread out by capillary action – just like ink dropped onto wet blotting paper. The skill of the artist is then to manipulate and control the pigment. The finished works being made up of sections from several of these sheets cut and then collated to form a whole.

These monumental watercolours emerge from a process of manipulating coloured pigment in large quantities of water. The pigments behave in a variety of ways; some gather in dark, opaque pools, others are translucent, lapping at the paper to form gentle tidal marks.

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It was quite appropriate for paintings created by the movement of water to be displayed in a room with a view over the Lake.

The second exhibition was in the old fire station that had been relocated from Bowness village to the grounds of the museum

Dovetailing is an immersive installation by Sculptor Juliet Gutch in collaboration with composer and viola player Sally Beamish and filmmaker Clare Dearnaley inspired by luthiery (the making of stringed musical instruments). 

Entering the small building we encountered a darkened room with wooden mobiles suspended from the ceiling with a film being projected onto a screen.

The mobiles were made up of wooden shapes resembling shavings produced during the planing of the wood used in the construction of a violin or viola. The film, with the soundtrack by Sally Beamish, included natural sounds, the workshop process during the manufacture of a violin and the movement of the mobile forms.

Then it was time for a brew. It was a pleasant day so we sat outside looking over the water (there are good views from inside the cafe too)

I liked the wooden shelters that had been built by the museum staff using boat building techniques

Leaving the museum we weren’t ready to set off for home so we drove into the village centre, parked up and went for a walk along the lake.

There is very little of the east side of Windermere where it’s possible to walk along the lakeside. Most of the land is privately owned and access isn’t possible for the hoi poloi – reflecting the theme of the exhibition we’d visited at Blackwell that morning. The main exceptions are Fell Foot, at the south end of the lake, and Cockshott Point, a stretch of parkland where we were walking at Bowness. Both of these are owned by the National Trust. Cockshott Point was bought by the Trust with the help of a certain Mrs Heelis (better known as Beatrix Potter) who sold some paintings to raise funds for the purchase. Without this intervention it would have been likely that the land would be sold to a private buyer who would have prevented access.

There’s more of a “right to roam” on the west side of the Lake (formerly in Lancashire!), but, again this is due to the intervention of the National Trust. I think a lot of people think the NT is all about preserving manor houses, but their original vision was about opening up the countryside and without them large area of the lake District and other parts of the country wouldn’t be readily accessible.

So our say in the Lakes ended as it started, with us reflecting on how access to the countryside and the lake shores is still limited and how we need to continue to campaign for the “Right to Roam”.

Sizergh Castle. A walk, a meal and a concert.

A few weeks ago we had tickets for a concert in Kendal by This is the Kit. Rather than just drive up in the late afternoon for the evening performance we decided to make a day of it. We had thought of visiting Blackwell as we hadn’t been there for a while, but found that they were installing a new exhibition that would open a couple of days later so it wasn’t the best time to go. We’ll get up there soon though, Something in Common tells the story of England’s countryside and the peoples’ fight for Common Land, a theme right up my street, so to speak. So, instead we decided on visiting Sizergh Castle, a National Trust property, as we hadn’t been there for quite some time.

The National Trust website describes the property as a “beautiful medieval house with rich gardens and estate“, and I think that pretty much sums it up. The house isn’t owned by the Trust though – this is one of those sites where the owners couldn’t afford to pay for the upkeep of the house and estate so made a deal with the Trust. The castle with its garden and estate is in the care of the National Trust but the house is still owned by Hornyold-Strickland family – a type of arrangement I’m not comfortable with. Most of the house is open to the public, but there’s a private residential wing and I expect the family use the hall for entertaining outside he NT’s opening hours. I’m not sure whether they live there full time, mind.

We parked up and after a coffee went for our self-guided tour of the hall and gardens.

The oldest part of the house, the defensive tower, was built in the mid 14th century. It used to be thought that it was a pele tower, built as a defence from marauding Scots, but these days is considered to be a “solar tower” as it contained private living space for the owners, for their “sole” use – hence the name. A true pele tower was a defensive structure that could be used by the local population when being harassed by the reivers.

The most impressive features of the house for me were the oak panelling and fireplace surrounds.

Some of the panelling had been sold to the V&A in the 1890’s. However it was returned in 1999 on a long-term loan.

As usual with these “stately homes” there was a large collection of paintings, particularly portraits, and we spotted a couple by the local lad George Romney. The Strickland family were Catholics and strong supporters of the Stuart monarchy and one room is full of portraits of the monarchs from that dynasty.

The gardens are particularly impressive. Our previous visit had been during the autumn so the colours were much fresher and greener in early summer. However, I reckon they would look good whatever the season.

The limestone rock garden, which was created in the 1920s, is the largest of it’s type under the National Trust’s stewardship.

I always like a good vegetable garden!

After looking round the garden we returned to the cafe for a light meal before setting out for a walk around the grounds. A misunderstanding on my part meant we ended up following the longer set route which was more than J intended. I blame my poor colour vision for misreading the map!

After walking through some fields and meadows the route took us into the woods of Brigsteer Park

and then on to Park End where a short diversion down a boardwalk took us to a hide overlooking a recreated wet land.

Park End Moss, which is on the edge of the Lyth Valley, was once an area of degraded farmland that’s been “rewilded” by the National Trust into a wetland haven for wildlife. It’s probably how much of the valley would have looked before it was drained to create agricultural land.

Looking back as we climbed the hill up towards the nearby farm we had a good view over the wetland with Whitbarrow dominating the far side of the valley (I must get up there one of these days).

We then had a steep climb for a while to take us to the top of a ridge overlooking the valley (I was getting in trouble now for misinterpreting the map).

A short diversion along the ridge as far as St John’s church

allowed a view over the valley right across to the Lake District Fells. Worth the climb (at least I thought so).

We then followed the route back down through woods and field to Sizergh (down hill more or less all the way), passing some typical Cumbrian farmhouses (I think they’re rented out now as holiday cottages by the Trust).

The cafe was closing up as we reached the hall complex so there wasn’t time for a final brew, so we returned to the car and drove over to Kendal which only took about 15 minutes . We had a mooch around the town centre, including the obligatory visit to Waterstones where, as frequently happens, books were purchased. We then picked up some supplies from Booths supermarket followed by a tour around the one way system so that we could park up before we made our way to the Brewery Arts Centre. There were no spaces left in their car park so another trip around the one way system was needed to find a space on an alternative convenient car park – free after 6 pm – near Abbot Hall (which has been closed for the past few years as it’s being renovated. Hopefully it will be reopening soon – fingers crossed)

We’d decided to eat in the Arts Centre restaurant. Having never been there before I was surprised just how large it was and there seemed to be plenty of customers, many taking advantage of an early evening pizza deal. We were too late to take advantage of that but, in any case, I was very pleased with my choice of a rather tasty pie with sweet potato fries, followed by

a pudding to mark the state of our nation i.e. an Eton Mess.

I rather liked this tapestry representing different aspects of Kendal, that wa son the wall of the restaurant.

We finished in good time for a pre concert drink and then on to the gig.

I’ve known of This is the Kit for a number of years – they’re played regularly on Radio 6 Music – and enjoy their work, and I wasn’t disappointed with the concert. I was impressed with the venue. It was larger than expected but with the main seating area quite steeply banked there was a good view of the stage from most seats. I think it’s likely we’ll be returning in the future as we can combine a concert with a day out in the southern Lakes and a nice meal in the restaurant! I’ll be keeping an eye on their “What’s on” page on their website.

After the concert we headed back to the car passing the Leyland Motors Clock that once stood on Shap summit but in 1973 was relocated to stand outside the Brewery Arts Centre.

So, all in all, a good day out.

Windermere Jetty

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Just over a week ago we headed up to the Lake District to visit the Windermere Jetty steamboat museum that opened last year. Windermere Jetty is part of Lakeland Arts, so we were able to use our Friends membership to gain entry. The collection of boats is housed in a brand new purpose built modern building.

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The museum has a collection of 40 vessels that tell the story of boating on Windermere from 1780 to the present day. There’s a conservation centre, where boats are repaired and renovated, a waterside cafe looking over the lake and mountains and they also run Heritage Boat Trips out on the lake on board Osprey, a restored Edwardian steam launch.

On arrival we booked our place on a boat trip (there’s an extra charge for this) and then had a look around the main exhibition spaces.

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The collection includes examples of steam launches – pleasure boats owned by wealthy families – power boats used for racing and setting speed records on the lakes, and working boats

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Steam launch Branksome, built in 1896.
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An old rowing boat

Th Steam Boat Dolly was built around 1850/60. Originally on Windermere it was transferred to Ullswater where it sank in 1895. It was salvaged in 1962 and then restored.

Steamboat Dolly

And here’s Beatrix Potter’s flat bottomed rowing boat!

Beatrix Potter’s rowing boat
The view from the cafe

We broke our exploration of the collection for our trip on the Osprey, which was built in 1902 in Bowness. Built as a private pleasure boat, from 1948 it was used as a passenger vessel for the Bowness Bay Boating Company.

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It was a perfect morning for a boat trip. The lake was calm, the sun was shining, the air was clear so we had excellent views over the mountains of the Fairfield Horseshoe and the Far Eastern Fells, where the high peaks were capped with snow.

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A Windermere Kettle – used for making a brew on board!

After a good hour on the water the Osprey returned tot he Jetty

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After disembarking, we had a bite to eat in the cafe, enjoying the views through the large windows and then finished our tour of the museum. We had a look at the Conservation workshop

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We had a look at the old boat that was on display outside the workshop. We couldn’t go inside but were able to look through the large windows where we could see a couple of the staff hard at work.

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We then passed through the boat yard, where there were a couple of larger boats on display and then on into the boat house.

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There were more boats from the collection inside the boathouse, together with other privately owned boats that were moored up.

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Jane a very glamorous speedboatt built in 1937
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Two small boats used in the film of Swallows and Amazons

After looking round the boat house we went back into the main gallery for a final look. We’d spent a good 3 hours in the museum and it’s somewhere we’ll certainly be going back to in the future.

Conwy Castle

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After a week away in Ireland with work, I took a break last week . We’d thought about going away somewhere, but decided we’d stay at home and have a few days out. Things didn’t work out quite as we’d planned, but I still had an enjoyable week off.

On Monday we decided to take advantage of our Cadw membership and drove over to Conwy, about an hour and a half away in North Wales. I zoom past regularly on the way too and from Holyhead during my Irish trips, but it has been a while since we last visited the town.

Conwy (Anglicised as Conway), was founded along with it’s castle by Edward I during his subjugation of Wales in the 13th Century.  The castle and the town walls (which are still practically intact) form an imposing fortification that dominates a strategic position at the mouth of the River Conwy. They’re even more impressive when you consider they were built in 4 years between 1283 and 1287, at the same time as similar fortifications were being constructed further south down the coast at Caernarfon and Harlech.

Although there was a monastery nearby and ther had been a Norman Castle over the river at Deganwy, Conwy was a new town, built from scratch. It was a bastide, a settlement populated by English settlers from which the Welsh natives were barred.

After parking up we stopped for a brew and a cake in a nice little Turkish cafe in the town before making our way to the castle.

The castle is a massive structure with a high curtain wall with eight towers and is extremely well preserved.

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Spiral staircases in the towers have been restored so that it’s possible to walk a complete circuit around the battlements and visitors can also climb to the top of most of the towers.

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There’s great views from the battlements and towers over the town and the river

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It was a bit of a dull day, so the estuary looked rather grey, but attractive, nevertheless.

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There were views over to the mountains

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Looking over the battlements at the north end of the castle there was a good view of the three bridges – the new road bridge we’d driven over, the suspension bridge built by  Thomas Telford in 1822–26 and the tubular railway bridge designed by  Robert Stephenson which opened in 1849. The two older bridges are smaller versions of the structures built by the same engineers over the Menai Straits .

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Visitors need to take care as the steps, battlements and flooring is rather uneven in places. A slight slip coming down from one of the towers led to a twisted ankle that had some repercussions for our plans later that week.

The Tassen Museum

Well, I never thought I’d ever visit a museum dedicated to bags and purses, but that’s what we did after we’d been to Foam. My wife had been before on a solo trip to see our daughter earlier this year, had enjoyed it and said that I’d find it interesting. It’s on the Herengracht, just a short walk from Foam, so we made our way over there.

The museum was founded to display a private collection of bags owned by Hendrikje and Heinz Ivo. Originally it was in Amstelveen, a suburb south of Amsterdam, but moved to it’s present location in a rather grand 17th-century canal house that had previously been the residence of the Mayor of Amsterdam in 2007.

The collection is shown on the top two floors of the house with elegant tea rooms and temporary exhibitions on the first floor. So visitors start by climbing to the top floor and working their way down.

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Modern stained glass window in the ground floor ceiling

My wife was right, I did find it interesting and enjoyed the visit. It was really a social history revealed by showing how handbags and the like (including bags used by men) evolved since medieval times. Right back then, both women and men kept their money and odds and ends in a leather bag on their belt – the oldest item in thecollection is a sixteenth century men’s bag made of goat leather with a metal frame.

the oldest exhibit

Over time men started to keep their stuff in pockets in their clothing while women tended to keep their’s in bags, the design which evolved over the years. For a while chatelaines, a series of chains hanging from the belt with hooks to hold small purses, scissors, sewing equipment and other items were fashionable, and their were quite a few examples of these in the collection.

From the 17th century to the late 19th century, women used pockets too. But these were seperate from clothing. They were hung from the waist under clothing which had slits in them so the pockets could be reached. This is how Lucy Lockett could lose her pocket! These went out of fashion with the advent of high waisted dresses in the Georgian period, leading to the development of the handbag.

Men continued to use bags, of course (I have several myself!), but they tended to be for specialised purposes – and there were examples of these, including tobacco pouches, gamblers’ bags and doctor’s bags, in the collection.

I found the top floor, with the earlier items, the most interesting. The floor below had a large display of bags from the 20th century, including expensive examples by designers and bags previously owned by celebrities including Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor and Hilary Clinton. They even had one from a certain Prime Minister, whose name I can’t bring myself to mention.

It’s amazing how many different styles of bag there have been, some of them quite vulgar! A surprising range of materials have been used to make them too from bamboo, beads, feathers, perspex, bottle tops, plastic cables and the skins of various animals including crocodiles, stingrays, leopards, and armadillos. Some of the animal skin bags being particularly horrible in that they included heads, legs, tails and other body parts as decoration.

If I hadn’t been encouraged by my wife, I’d never had thought of visiting the museum. But I found it fascinating and worth taking the time out to have a look around even for those of us with no interest whatsoever in fashion for the insights into social history. .

Foam Amsterdam

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The second full day of our break in the Netherlands we left our son to spend the day with his sister and then took the train into Amsterdam – a 20 minute journey. I wanted to visit the Foam photographic museum, which is on the “Golden Bend” section of the Keizersgracht . It was a warm day, if overcast, so we decided we’d walk along the canal, which I always enjoy. It was surprisingly quiet – there weren’t as many people and, particularly, bicycles, around as during previous visits as can be seen in the photos I shot.

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Foam is one of two photographic museums in Amsterdam. The other one, Huis Marseille, which we visited the last time we were in the Netherlands at Christmas, is also on the Keizergracht, and we passed it on our way to Foam.

There were four exhibitions showing in the museum. The main one was Silver Lake Drive a retrospective of the work of Alex Prager, an American photographer and film maker from Los Angeles. The exhibition included large scale prints and a number of films, in some cases photographs being stills from the films. Rather like Cindy Sherman, she creates scenarios but, rather than featuring herself, as Sherman does, she uses actors, models and extras. The scenarios are influenced by film noir, thriller, melodrama and crime fiction, but also have a surreal quality. Some of them were clearly influenced by the films of Alfred Hitchcock such as The Birds and North by North West.

The style of the photographs, with bright vibrant colours, was very similar to that of Martin Parr and there were similarities too in the way the photographs capture people in action, although Alex Prager’s scenes are staged whereas Martin Parr’s photographs are of real people, sometimes caught unawares but sometimes posed.

Crowd #1 from the series Long Week-end (2010)

Her compositions were interesting and often taken from unusual angles, like this one, looking upwards from floor level and with the figures positioned at the edges of the photo.

I hadn’t come across her work before so this was a good discovery!

Another of the exhibitions featured the work of a British visual artist Dominic Hawgood. In Casting Out the Self he

visualises the effect of the drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which he personally experienced as a transfer into the digital realm. (Foam website)

The works in this exhibition weren’t photographs as such but 3 dimensional objects and digital projections, a number of them including a statue of the Buddha. I had mixed feelings about this exhibition, but I did like one of the installations which included a circle of smaller reflective silver spheres surrounding a larger one, illuminated by UV light (A statue of the Buddha was also included in the installation)

On the top floor Morpher III (1989) by the French artist, Kévin Bray was an abstract multimedia work centred on a digital film in which he created a surreal, imaginary landscape.

I wasn’t so sure about this one at first, but once I’d worked out what was going on after watching the film a couple of times I found it quite engaging.

So, overall an interesting visit. Some of the works a little challenging and not to my taste but I certainly enjoyed the Alex Prager exhibition.

Teylers Museum

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During our previous visits to Haarlem, we’ve passed the entrance to the Teylers Museum, which stands on the Spaarn embankment, many times, but I’d never visited.

Open to the public since 1784, it was the first museum in the Netherlands. It was founded after the death of Pieter Teyler van der Hulst (1702-1778) a successful silk merchant and financier who had a wide range of interests in the arts and sciences. In his will, Teyler left two million guilders (roughly 80 million euros) to establish a foundation, to promote theology, the sciences, and the arts.  In 1779, the Foundation’s first directors commissioned the young architect Leendert Viervant to design a ‘Books and Art Room’ behind the Foundation House (Fundatiehuis, where Pieter Teyler had lived). The result was the Oval Room, which is still the heart of the museum, although the premises have been expanded considerably since then. In fact, it’s rather like the Tardis. It doesn’t look so big from the outside but once you’re inside there’s a whole series of interconnected rooms and a whole new extension which, from the outside, you wouldn’t know were there.

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By Teylers Museum, Haarlem, the Netherlands, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl, Link

It’s quite an amazing place. In many ways it’s an old fashioned museum with lots of exhibits, including fossils, minerals, coins and scientific instruments, many in glass display cases. There’s also two galleries of paintings and a large collection of drawings and prints by artists including Michelangelo, Raphael, and  Rembrandt. The building itself is also fascinating. We spent a couple of hours looking round but there’s really too much to see during one visit.

Visitors are provided with an audio guide which provides information on selected exhibits by entering a number. For this summer the audio guide also includes an introductory tour, a “radio play” based on Napoleon’s visit to the museum in 1811 which focused on the history of the museum and key exhibits.

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We followed the “Napoleon tour”, which took about half an hour, and then had a more detailed look around, concentrating on particular areas of interest.

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Just a few of the large collection of fossils
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Humanoid skulls and bones
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Fluorescent minerals
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The large electrostatic generator. They had smaller examples to see as well.

The Oval room was one of the highlights. Originally this was the whole museum! It’s lit only by natural light that comes in through the skylights – so it’s probably best to visit on a bright summer’s day!

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It was difficult to get a shot that really shows off the room, so I resorted to embedding a picture from Wikipedia which was taken from the balcony, which isn’t accessible to the public.

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By Teylers Museum, Haarlem, the Netherlands, CC BY-SA 3.0 nl, Link (source: Wikipedia)

A painting in one of the art galleries shows what the room looked like in 1800, with the large electrostatic generator in the centre.

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A large horseshoe magnet supporting 100 kg
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An early electric battery
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An astronomical globe

The two art galleries were also lit by natural light

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The collection mainly features works from the Dutch Romantic School and the later Hague School and Amsterdam Impressionists.

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Wintergezicht met Schaatsers (1864) by Johan Barthold Jongkind
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De Molen (1899) by Jan Hendrik Weissenbruch
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Twee dienstboden op een Amsterdamse brug bij avond (1890) George Hendrik Breitner
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Trommelslaagster (c 1908) by Isaac Israels

Like many other galleries and museums in the Netherlands there was a temporary exhibition marking 250 years since the death of Rembrandt. It featured prints by the master and some of his contemporaries.

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As usual, I was bowled over by the beauty and the amazing detail of Rembrandt’s tiny prints. One of them had been blown up and covered the whole of one wall. Even on such a large scale the detail was amazing.

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And this was the real thing, which, even though it is the largest of his landscape prints, was not even as big as an A3 sheet of paper

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The newest part of the museum, an exhibition hall and a cafe, were built in 1996 and are airy, cantilevered spaces on two sides of a “secret” courtyard / garden.

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It was time for some refreshment!

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the Dutch know how to make mint tea!

We’d spent more than a couple of hours in the museum so had a last look around before returning our audio guides and leaving the building to meet up with our son and daughter, who’s been spending some time together.

Teylers is an excellent museum and I suspect we’ll be paying a visit another time when we next visit Haarlem.

The Hardmans’ House

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A couple of weeks ago, the last Saturday in May, we drove over to Liverpool. One of the things we wanted to do was to visit a National Trust property in Rodney Street, close to the centre of Liverpool. Rodney Street, a street of mainly Georgian period houses, is often referred to as the “Harley Street of Liverpool” as many of the buildings are occupied by private medical services. Gladstone, the Victorian Liberal Prime MInister was born in the street at No. 62, However, we were visiting the house at No. 59 that used to be the home of  E. Chambré Hardman and his wife Margaret who were both photographers and ran a successful photography studio and business here.

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Hardman was quite eccentric and after his wife died in 1979 from cancer he continued to live and work in the house, living as a virtual recluse until he died in 1988. He hardly left the house and was a hoarder, never throwing anything away, including foodstuffs! When he died he left behind an archive of more than 200,000 images. Realising the importance of the collection of photographs, the property was acquired by the National Trust in 2003. As it’s a small property, the Trust run guided tours of the house which, with the contents accumulated by the Hardmans, is a “timecapsule” of life in mid twentieth century Liverpool.

Chambré Hardman was Irish, and had been a regular soldier in India in the 1920’s where he developed an interest in photography. Returning to Britain, he set up in business with a partner, Kenneth Burrell a fellow officer in India. Although Burrell left the business within five years, but the two remained friends and Hardman continued to include his friend’s name in that of the business

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Chambré Hardman first met Margaret when she cam to work with him as an assistant. Although she was much younger than him there was a mutual attraction and they eventually married. She was also a talented photographer in her own right and was very much the commercial brain which helped the business to be successful. 

We’d visited some years ago but decided we’d like to take another look, so I rang and booked a tour for the Saturday afternoon. The visit started with a short talk and a video providing some background information about the Hardmans and their business followed by the guided tour of the studio, waiting rooms, darkrooms, other work rooms (the business employed a number of staff who worked here) and the Hardmans’ private living quarters. There were also examples of the Hardmans’ photographs on display.

The bread and butter of the business was taking studio portraits and clients would visit the house to have their photographs taken. The business also specialised in taking photographs of children and pets. Chambré Hardman was also employed by the Liverpool Playhouse theatre to take portraits of actors, including some relatively well known faces such as Ivor Novello and Patricia Routledge (a local girl!). The Hardmans’ passion, though, was landscape photography and they spent weekends and holidays travelling and taking photographs for their own interest. Hardman also took many photographs around and about Liverpool. There’s plenty of examples of their work on the National Trust Website

Unlike the last time we visited, photographs were allowed, but, as is usually the case, only without flash. I took some snaps, but they are generally a little dark.

The majority of the rooms in the house were devoted to the business and the Hardmans’ hobby. Although it’s clear from the outside that it’s a Georgian building, the Hardmans’ modernised and adapted the house for their business, so few original interior features remain. But the interest is in seeing how they lived and worked

This is the studio where the portraits were taken

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the Hardmans’ personal dark room

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The room where the commercial photographs were finished and packaged and sent to clients. It also acted as an office

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And a few pictures from the Hardmans’ living quarters

Their living room

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The kitchen

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the kitchen store cupboard with items going back to WW2

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Old boxes from his time in India in the cellar

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Chambré Hardman died in 1988, and so was living here when I was at Liverpool University in the late 1970’s. I must have walked past more than a few times so it was particularly interesting to see what it was like inside.

Ancient Textiles from the Andes – at the Whitworth

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Last Tuesday I had a meeting at the University in Manchester. Afterwards, I’d planned to meet my wife, grab a bite to eat and watch a film at Home (the venue on Tony Wilson Place, not our house!). Before that we had an hour to spare so decided to visit the Whitworth Gallery, just a few hundred yards from the building where I had my meeting, to have a look at an exhibition of ancient textiles from South America. The exhibition mainly features textiles from a collector, Paul Hughes, together with some examples from the Whitworth’s own collection.

The textiles are very old, created between 300 BC and 1400AD. Most of them were layers of cloth used to wrap dead bodies when they were buried, called “mummy bundles”. After excavation, due to the very dry conditions and lack of exposure to sunlight, the colours were amazingly bright. The patterns have a very modern look – some of them looked like they’d just come from IKEA! – reflecting the influence of ancient cultures on modern and contemporary art and taste.

We’re all familiar with the Incas and Aztecs and possibly the Tolmecs, but from the exhibition I learned that there were a number of other “cultures” in South America before the Europeans arrived and which also preceded the Incas.

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The oldest exhibits were these two pieces created by the Paracas culture

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The piece on the left, a painted fragment of textile, is from around 100 BC. The one on the right, a shirt, is even older from about 300 BC.

Most of the exhibits were produced by the Wari culture which I’d never heard of before, but they were a major civilisation in the south-central Andes and coastal area of modern-day Peru, from about AD 500 to 1000. They were, apparently particularly, adapt at creating colourful textiles as well as metalwork and ceramics.

Unfortunately, due to the lighting in the gallery (it can’t be too bright otherwise the colours and textiles themselves could be degraded) and as I was only using my phone camera, my photos really can’t bring across just how beautiful the textiles looked. However, here’s a few of shots

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These three pieces, again from the Wari culture, are aprons created from feathers. Again the colours are amazingly bright.

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It was a very interesting exhibition with incredible pieces on display. But it raises some difficult questions. In particular, is it ethical to remove the textiles from graves? Of course, archaeologists have been doing this for hundreds of years, but in recent years they’ve often come into conflict with indigenous peoples over the custody and handling of excavated human remains, associated grave goods and other sacred objects. No easy answers, I guess.

A visit to Moorcroft Pottery

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A couple of weeks ago we drove over to Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent for a visit to the Moorcroft Heritage Visitor Centre. Moorcroft are one of the few remaining British pottery companies based in the city (or cluster of towns) which was originally the centre of pottery production. Moorcroft specialise in the production of hand made art pottery using traditional craft techniques. Their distinctive “tube lined” Art Nouveau and Art Deco inspired pieces have a loyal following and some designs can fetch high prices.

One of my Christmas presents last year was a “factory tour” and we’d finally got around to organising a date to visit. The Visitor centre is located on a former manufacturing site and the first thing you see when you arrive is the Grade II Listed Bottle Oven, the last remaining one of several that used to be used for firing the pottery made here.

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These traditional kilns were fired with coal and were very polluting, belching out smoke, carbon dioxide and other gases, so were replaced with cleaner electric kilns following the 1956 Clean Air Act. Moorcroft’s production now takes place in a more modern factory a short distance away, but this site is used for research and development of new pieces as well as hosting factory tours. There’s also a small museum of Moorcroft pieces and a shop.

We started off by looking round the display of photographs showing the history of the site and the traditional production process. And we were able to peek inside the Bottle Oven.

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This is where “ware” twas fired. The individual pieces were initially put into fireclay boxes called “saggars” which were then stacked inside the oven ready for firing at a temperature between 1000° C and 1250° C , usually for two or three days.

We then had a look around the small museum with it’s extensive collection of Moorcroft pieces covering the company’s history.

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I particularly liked this large pot with pictures of pottery workers

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There were also some pieces from the Blackwell collection which had featured in an exhibition at the Arts and Crafts house near Bowness (which we visit regularly) a few years ago

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Then it was time for the tour. The guide, Corrie, was very knowledgeable and took us through each step in the production process which included by demonstrations by the highly skilled workers.

These days the pots are cast using the slip casting technique, so the initial step is the production of the pattern which is then used to manufacture the moulds. A liquid slurry of clay is prepared which is poured into the mould. Water is absorbed from the “slip” leaving a solid layer in contact with the mould. The excess slip is poured off and the mould disassembled leaving behind the cast pot. We’d had a go at this ourselves a couple of year ago during a visit to Tate Modern (of all places!)

The casting is then cleaned up, initially on a lathe and then by “sponge fettling” (a great term!) before the design is traced onto the pot and the tube lining applied. Liquid colour is then applied inside the areas created by the lining. All these process are carried out manually and require enormous skill. And the hand made approach means that each piece, even of the same design, are all slightly different.

The pots are then given an initial firing, coated with glaze and then re-fired to complete the piece. The firing process is where the real “magic” (or, possibly, alchemy) occurs, as the colours are transformed.

No photographs are allowed during the tour, but the following video provides a potted version of the process

and it’s summarised with some good photos on their website.

We finished our visit by looking round the shop. The pieces may seem expensive for pots, but having seen the process, the skill involved and the time it takes to produce the pieces, they seemed well-priced. We were tempted to shell out but we’ve nowhere to display ceramics properly in our mess of a house (perhaps I should stop going out so much and stop home and get it sorted) and, perhaps more importantly, we’d be terrified of knocking it over and breaking it!. However, we decided to buy a plaque we could hang on the wall, selecting a design based on the work of Charles Rennie-Mackintosh, partly influenced by the exhibition we’d visited in Liverpool the previous Saturday. The price was similar to what I’d expect to pay for a limited edition print by an established artist, so not unreasonable for what, in effect, is a ceramic equivalent – and having paid for the factory tour we received a modest discount.

I really enjoyed the visit, being able to see skilled workers in action. (I had to stop myself concentrating on the health risks, mind!). And I can now really appreciate the individual nature of what are really works of art.