Meridian House, Greenwich

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I spotted the tower of this rather splendid red brick Art Deco style building while I was in Greenwich last week so wandered over to have a closer look.

The tower belongs to Meridian House, the former Greenwich Town Hall which was built in 1938-9 to a design by Clifford Culpin. Its original use was as a municipal facility including offices, and included a civic suite and public hall but was sold off by the London Borough of Greenwich in the 1970s and now houses the Greenwich School of Management and private flats.  The Borough Hall is occupied by “Greenwich Dance” .

The elegant clock tower is the building’s  most prominent feature and was apparently influenced by the work of the Dutch architect W. M. Dudok, paricularly the Hilversum Town Hall. It was designed not only to function as both a clock tower but a public observation tower so local residents could view the Royal Naval College and the Thames.

According to Pevsner the building was

“the only town hall of any London borough to represent the style of our time adequately”.  (Buildings of; England, London 2: South)

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Nelson’s Ship in a bottle

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This giant ship in a bottle can be seen near the rear entrance to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. It’s by the Anglo-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare MBE.

The ship is a model of Nelson’s flagship, Victory, but with the sails made of the Dutch Wax printed fabrics (African style fabrics) he uses extensively in his work.

Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle’ was the 2010 Fourth Plinth Commission, and was displayed in Trafalgar Square, London, until January 2012.

Art in the Queen’s House

The Queen’s House at Greenwich is primarily used as a gallery to display art from the Maritime Museum’s collection. The works are mainly paintings of ships, naval battles, trade, diplomacy, exploration, and scientific discovery and portraits of kings and naval notables. Much of this of only cursory interest to myself. However, there were a number of works that appealed. Here are some of them.

I rather liked this painting by Evelyn de Morgan, a rare female Pre-Raphaelite. I’d seen a small exhibition of her work at Blackwell last year.

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The Sea Maidens by Evelyn de Morgan

I rather liked this Dutch delftware tile panel picture of whaling vesels. The gallery’s information panel tells us that such panels were popular in the Netherlands in the 17th and 18th Centuries and were used to decorate fireplaces, kitchens and dairies.

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Delftware tile panel

Opposite was a modern take on the tile panel picture by Tania Kovats

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Sea Mark (2014) by Tania Kovats

This painting of a stormy sea rather reminded me of some paintings by Maggi Hambling I’d seen at the Lowry in Salford back in 2009. We’re going to Whitby in a few months and I hope the weather is kinder.

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Rain, Rainbow and Stormy Seas, North Cliff, Whitby (1974) by Godfrey Coker

And nearby, another rough sea a little further up North Sea coast.

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View of Whitley Bay, Northumberland (1909) by John Falconer Slater

I recognised the subject of the upper painting in this pair of portraits even before I read the information panel – It’s Emma Hamilton (nee Hart) – and below her is a portrait of her famous lover, Horatio Nelson.

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I’d also guessed correctly that the artist was George Romney, originally from Kendal. We’ve become very familiar with his work during our visits to Abbot Hall in his home town. Emma Hart was his muse – he painted over 60 paintings of her, often portraying historical and mythological characters. Abbot Hall, for example, have a painting of her portraying Miranda from Shakespeare’s Tempest.

I liked this textile hanging by Alexander Hardie Williamson, produced for Yarrow Shipbuilders of Glasgow, inspired by ships built on the Clyde. Alas, not much left of that once great industry in Glasgow, or Britain, for that matter.
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There were also some displays of contemporary art.

There was a display of lithographs by Marian Maguire, an artist from Christchurch in New Zealand, featuring

An imagined meeting between ancient Greeks and the Maori of New Zealand brought about by the arrival of the Endeavour in the late eighteenth century.

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Portrait of Captain James Cook with a Classical Urn from the Collection of the Admiralty (2005) by Marian Maguire

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This series of images from Michelle Stuart’s

arranges astronomy-themed photographs in a grid, lending a narrative character to her poetic pieces.

It combines sights of star clusters, galaxies and nebulae with fireworks, on which Stuart has placed images of telescopic or photographic antique lenses. The lenses invite us to consider the importance of telescopes and cameras in the development of astronomical knowledge.

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Drawing on Space (2011) by Michelle Stuart

and in the same room some old educational posters showing celestial bodies

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In one of the rooms on the ground floor there was a photographic exhibition Shorelines which

presents life on the British coast and the evolving practice of photography for over 100 years, showing the documentary capacity of the camera and the artistic appeal of photographs

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An interesting example of a glass-silver negative on glass

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The Sennen Rocket Brigade Rescuing Crew from the Steamship City of Cardiff, Lands End (1912)

A modern documentary series of 32 portraits of men and women working in the Moray Firth fishing community on the North East coast of Scotland, shot on location in harbours, shipyards, factories and sheds between 2009 and 2012.by Paul Duke

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At Sea: A Portrait of a Scottish Fishing Community (2012) by Paul Duke

and imaginative contemporary works pushing the boundaries of photography.

This work by Tessa Traeger is from a series created from glass plate negatives she inherited from her grandmother’s cousin, a keen amateur photographer and co-owner of a chemist shop in Tunbridge Wells

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Chemistry of Light No 41 Bank Holiday Crowd (2014) by Tessa Traeger

Traeger was particularly drawn to those where the silver gelatin emulsion was decaying, and, photographing these with mirrors or back-lighting, created works that are at once ghostly and charming. With her series, Traeger captures the atmosphere of the time in which the photographs were initially taken, whilst evoking a sense of things past, and lost. (Museum website)

Susan Derges’ ‘Starfield Shoreline’

combines camera-based and camera-less techniques: a view of the heavens, taken in a backyard observatory in South Taunton with a 5/4 Linhof field camera; and a wave sweeping the shoreline, captured on light-sensitive paper laid on the waters edge, exposed to moonlight and a microsecond of flashlight as a wave passes across it. By overlaying the seashore with the image of a star field, Susan Derges connects the ocean and the cosmos, life on Earth to the wider universe. (Museum website)

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Starfield Shoreline (2009) by Susan Derges

There’s much more to see. I expected to spend no more than an hour in the Queen’s house, but by the time I’d finished looking around found that about two hours had passed.

The Queen’s House

“It landed like a Classical spaceship on a Tudor site”

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The Queen’s House in Greenwich was the first Classical style house in Britain (although Jones’ other masterpiece, the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall was completed before it) and so an extremely important building in the history of English architecture. It was designed by Inigo Jones, initially for James’s 1st’s wife, Anne of Denmark, although she never saw it dying shortly after construction had started. It was finally completed in1635.when it was given by Charles 1 to his wife Henrietta Maria. At the time it was built it was part of the Tudor Greenwich Palace, also known as the Palace of Placentia, the birthplace of both Henry VIII and Elizabeth 1, but couldn’t have looked more different than the rambling medieval collection of red brick buildings. Simple and elegantly proportioned, it was revolutionary for it’s time.

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Today the house is part of the National Maritime Museum and can be visited free of charge. It  underwent a 14-month restoration beginning in 2015, and reopened on October 11, 2016. It is used to display the Museum’s collection of maritime related paintings and also some temporary exhibitions. It’s also hired out for weddings, corporate events and the like so it’s important to check if it’s open or whether parts of the building are closed before visiting to avoid disappointment.

There have been a number of changes to the original design. It was originally H shaped – with the north wings linked by a bridge over a road that went right through the centre of the building, the main Woolwich to Deptford thoroughfare, following the line of today’s Doric collonades. The east and west “bridge rooms”, that completed the rectangle, were added later by Charles II.

Today the entrance is in the north front, with it’s curved staircase and balustraded terrace which were later additions. However, the original entrance was in the south front of the building  leading into the ground floor room known as the Orangery.

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The collonades were added in the early 19th century when the house was used as part of the Royal Hospital School for the sons of seamen, linking the house to two large flanking pavillions (the west one now forming the main part of the National Maritime Museum).

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Entrance to the house is via the ground level door which takes visitors into the reception in the house’s cellar. Climbing up to the ground floor I came to the bottom of one of the building’s most photogenic features, the Tulip Staircase.

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This was the first centrally unsupported helical staircase in England. The stairs are supported by being cantilevered from the walls and each tread rests on the one below.

This is Jones’ Great Hall. A perfect cube forty feet in length, breadth and height.

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The ceiling originally had an elaborate painted ceiling – An Allegory of Peace and the Arts – by Orazio Gentileschi  but it was removed when it was given by Queen Anne to her “favourite”  Sarah Churchill, and today can be found in the latter’s former house, Marlborough House on the Mall.

During the recent restoration the Turner-prize winner Richard Wright was commissioned to redo the ceiling. Working with a team of five assistants, he’s created a contemporary design covering the ceiling and the upper part of the walls. A gold leaf fresco of abstract, flower like forms inspired by the Tulip Staircase.

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Traditionalists may not agree but I think it’s stunning and complements the Classical design.

There’s a more traditional painted ceiling in the “Queen’s Presence Chamber” – a design commissioned from either of two court artists, John de Critz or Matthew Gooderick, which includes an allegory of ‘Aurora dispersing the shades of Night’.
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On the opposite side of the building the “Kings’s Presence Chamber” is richly decorated with gold leaf on the ceiling, cornice and pillasters

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Leading down to the “Orangery”, the original entrance to the house, is the elegant South Staircase

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It follows Inigo Jones’ design but has been completely reconstructed as this part of the house was drastically altered in the 19th Century when it was being used as part of the school. The wrought-iron balustrade was brought from Pembroke House in 1936 to replace cast-iron balusters and a heavy handrail that had been installed during the alterations.

Other than the above (and the Orangery which I didn’t photograph) there was little of architectural interest to see as the other rooms were devoted to art and other items on display. More about that in another post (as this one is long enough). But a visit is a must for anyone interested in the history of architecture in England.

Going Underground

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The Greenwich foot tunnel under the Thames was opened on 4 August 1902 as a means for dock workers who lived on the south side of the river to reach their workplaces on the Isle of Dogs.

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It’s about 1/4 mile long, free to use and open 24 hours a day.

I took the spiral staircase down to the bottom

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and then walked across to Greenwich

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No cycling allowed

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Hmm. Obviously the rules don’t apply to these guys. Walking back through the tunnel when I was heading back to my hotel around 6 o’clock I was nearly hit several times by inconsiderate cyclists speeding past in the narrow passage.

This is the way you’re supposed to do it

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At the Greenwich end of the tunnel I cheated and took the lift back to ground level – to be greeted by this view.

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The Cutty Sark

and a view towards Hawksmoor’s St Alfege’s church

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About Time!

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During our recent short break in London, we checked in our hotel around midday on the Saturday , left our bags and headed down to the pier by the Tower of London where we caught a boat which took us along the Thames to Greenwich. Our main objective was the Royal Observatory, on top of the hill in Greenwich Park.

It seemed that for most visitors the main reason for paying the entrance fee was so they could have their photograph taken while standing astride the Prime Meridian and were quite happy to queue up for 40 minutes or so to do this. I couldn’t see the attraction myself. After all the meridian goes right round the globe and there are plenty of places where you can stand with the right leg on one side and the left leg on the other.

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As for us, we were more interested in looking round the original Observatory building – Flamsteed House which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1675 -  and the Time Galleries exhibition.

Flamsteed House is quite small and as it was a working building has been altered many times over the years. The most interesting, and best preserved, part was the Octagon Room, which seems to very much as designed by Wren.

Unfortunately it was difficult to take photographs due to the number of people milling around

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According to the Museum website, the Octagon Room

was designed to observe celestial events including eclipses, comets and planetary movements. However, the positioning of Flamsteed House meant that the original purpose of the Observatory could not be fulfilled from the Octagon Room. With big windows, the room was perfect for watching the sky, but not ideal for positional observations, because none of the walls were aligned with a meridian. Most important positional observations were actually made in a small ‘shed’ in the Observatory gardens

Another case of “men in sheds”!

The Time Galleries contain an exhibition about the need for accurate timekeeping and the role it plays in our everyday lives. The highlight were the three timepieces made by John Harrison.

Quite a few years ago I read “Longitude” by Dava Sobel. A best seller, it told the story of how Harrison, set out to solve the problem of how to determine longitude when out at sea. Failure to do this accurately had cost many lives and in 1714, the British Government offered a prize of £20,000 for a solution which could provide longitude to within half-a-degree. That’s a lot of money now and an absolute fortune at the beginning of the 18th Century.

John Harrison, an ordinary carpenter from Lincolnshire with little formal education and an interest in clockmaking set out to solve the problem by constructing an accurate timepiece. Not so easy when iit would be located on a ship out at sea tossed by stormy seas and in an aggressive salt laden atmosphere. Sobel’s book tells the story of how, after several attempts, he finally succeeded in constructing a practical, accurate timepiece, the first marine chronometer. Being an ordinary bloke, the Establishment made things difficult for him, but finally, grudgingly, the “Board of Longitude” awarded him the prize.

The Observatory has all of Harrison’s original prototypes on display.

This is “H1”, his first attempt. The moving parts are controlled and counterbalanced by springs so that, unlike a pendulum clock, they work independent of orientation.

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Amazingly precise for it’s time, but Harrison knew it could be improved. He managed to get some money from the Board of Longitude to refine the design which resulted in H2

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However, he realised the design was flawed as the bar balances did not always counter the motion of a ship. So he convinced the Board to let him have some more money and came up with H3.

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It incorporated two developments – a bimetallic strip, to compensate the balance spring for the effects of changes in temperature and a caged roller bearing. However, it didn’t probe accurate enough in tests. He realised he’d reached a bit of a dead end with this approach and so went back to the drawing board.

He finally came up with H4, a completely different design. Essentially a large pocket watch, 13 cm in diameter and weighing 1.45 kg. A much more practical design for taking to sea and it worked.

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The story isn’t over yet. It took another 9 years before Harrison got his prize. the whole venture had taken 43 years from start to finish.

There’s a good summary of the saga on the Museum’s website, here.

“The finest dining hall in Europe”

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After we’d finished our tour of the Cutty Sark, we wandered along the Thames the short distance to the watergate at the front of the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich. Originally the buildings housed the Royal Hospital for Seamen which was established  in 1694 "for the relief and support of seamen and their dependants”. The Hospital closed in 1869 and in 1873 was taken over by the Royal Navy as a training college. The College closed in 1998 an today the site is largely occupied by the University of Greenwich.

The buildings were designed in English Baroque style by some of England’s greatest architects from the late 17th and early 18th Centuries – including Christopher Wren, Nicholas Hawksmoor, John Vanbrugh and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart. The foundation stone was laid on 30th June 1696 and construction completed in 1751, although the first residents moved in to what was still a building site in 1705.

The dominant features  are the two domes, designed by Wren and which look like miniature versions of the great Dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.  The left hand dome (when viewed from the river) has a clock while the other has a clock like face that indicates the wind direction.

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While we were wandering around the site I noticed that people were going in and out of doors just below the domes, so we thought we’d investigate.  Walking up the steps and through the door under the right hand dome revealed an unexpected sight – a large hall with the walls and ceiling completely covered with murals. This was “The Painted Hall”.

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The term “breathtaking” is a much overused cliché, but it’s the best way to describe the impact the room had on me when I walked through the door.

The wall and ceiling decorations, which are intended to pay tribute to British maritime power, cover 2612 square metres and were painted by an artist I’d never heard of before, James Thornhill . The hall was originally designed as the dining room for the Hospital’s residents, but very quickly it was decided it was “too good” for these retired seamen and became an early tourist attraction with visitors charged to enter and look at the murals.

As is often the case photographs don’t really do justice to the room and the sense of being immersed inside one giant painting.

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The art isn’t really to my taste, but I had to admire the grandeur of the work and it certainly made an impact.

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So afterwards what next? Well the obvious thing to do was to cross the courtyard and take a look at what was under the other dome.

After walking through a relatively plain entrance hall we were greeted by another sumptuously decorated hall, in this case the St Peter and St Paul Chapel.

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According to the Old Royal Naval College (ORNC) website the Chapel

was constructed by Thomas Ripley to the designs of Sir Christopher Wren, was the last major part of the Royal Hospital for Seamen to be built. Following a disastrous fire in 1779, it was redecorated by James ‘Athenian’ Stuart in the Greek revival style,

The Chapel ceiling was designed by the master plasterer John Papworth in a neo-classical design of squares and octagons. The intricate central ornaments were carved, rather than cast in moulds. It is plastered in light blue and cream following a Wedgewood-inspired colour scheme.

In the entrance hall there’s a memorial to the men and officers of the Franklin exhibition of 1845 who lost their lives searching for the “North West passage” through the ice of the Arctic.

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Guides to the Painted Hall and the Chapel can be downloaded from the ORNC website.