Going underground

Like any place inhabited by humans for centuries, London is a multi-layered city, its history piled up beneath the feet of the people who walk its streets. This was the subject of last night’s tremendous discussion with Dr Tom Ardill of the Museum of London and award-winning Blue Badge Guide Fiona Lukas.

Tom showed us just how Londoners from the Romans onwards had utilised the natural tributaries of the Thames. First the Walbrook in the Roman city, which soon became clogged with waste, then, later, the Fleet, which met the same fate, becoming notorious for its floating bodies of dead cats and dogs ( and sometimes humans, falling into the noxious Fleet was a death sentence ). It wasn’t surprising that, by the thirteenth century Londoners of the City were seeking for a fresh water supply further afield and they lighted upon the Tyburn. In order to bring its waters to the City they constructed the Great Conduit which ran south then east across London.

Engineers installing gas pipes along Oxford Street in the 19th century stumbled upon the remains of this and, in the 21st century, Crossrail again unearthed it. The Tyburn also supplied water, supposedly, to a set of Roman baths near North Audley Street and Oxford Street. There are references to these baths in a number of sources and a detailed description, but no physical evidence has yet been found. It is here, in ‘Plague’ where  crime is committed and where the detectives first meet George Bindel London sewer man extraordinaire.

Another fascinating element last night was Tom’s explanation about the plans of the Tyburn Angling Society, a quixotic enterprise which seeks to ‘daylight’ the River, bringing it back to the surface ( and destroying millions of pounds of Mayfair real estate, including Buckingham Palace, in the process ). As he pointed out, there are cities elsewhere in the world where this has been done, like Seoul in Korea and it is being done,  on a much smaller scale, with the River Quaggy in London.

Fiona’s description of the modern travails of London Transport with new London Underground stations was very interesting, especially the example of the new, very deep and very modern, Westminster station .  I never knew that the two District line tube tunnels were on top of one another not along side, but, when I thought about it, this made sense of the way the inside of the station was designed. I certainly wasn’t aware of the difficulties encountered because of the proximity of the station to the Houses of Parliament, not least the secrecy about why designs for the new station were repeatedly vetoed.

Learning about the ghost stations, often abandoned because too many stations had originally been built ( which meant that the tube journeys were taking too long, so often were the trains stopping and starting ) was also fascinating. Down Street, where Churchill’s wartime cabinet used to meet when the Cabinet Office War Rooms were unavailable, or Brompton Road. There is also Aldwych, formerly Strand, a station I used to walk past every day on my way to work in Bush House, close to, yes, a bona fide Roman Baths.

My own contribution was limited compared to the experts’ but I was able to talk about Whitehall, the formation of Thorney Island and its development into Westminster and cite a quote from Cassandra in ‘Plague’ about the concentration of power. My favourite contribution, however, related to a different exhumation, that of the remains in Old St Pancras Churchyard, removed to allow for construction of the London Midland Railway. A young Thomas Hardy oversaw the works and composed this piece of jolly doggerel ( which parodies, I think, the first of Wordsworth’s Lucy poems – any Hardy scholars reading this please tell ).

‘We late-lamented, resting here, Are mixed to human jam, And each to each exclaims in fear, ‘I know not which I am!”

The whole of ‘Secrets of Subterranean London’ will be posted on Youtube next week and I will post the link to it here when it is. In the meanwhile I’ll be talking about ‘Plague – A Novel of London’ for the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster Libraries at 6.30 p.m. GMT on Wednesday 16th December, if anyone is interested in hearing more. It’s another FREE event, but to attend you must register on Eventbrite.

Secrets of Subterranean London

Claret Press is organising an online event which may be of interest to readers of this website. On 11th December, from 7 – 8 in the evening, I will be speaking with Tom Ardill, Curator at the Museum of London and Fiona Lukas, award-winning Blue Badge guide and expert on the London Underground.

Tom curated, with Kate Sumnall, the fascinating 2019 exhibition on London’s ‘Secret Rivers’ at the Museum of London in Docklands, which I blogged about at the time. Did you know, for example, that there is a Tyburn Angling Society, set up to try and ‘restore’ the river so as to fish in it ( an almost impossible task since it has been subsumed into Bazalgette’s wonderful London sewer system, but a charming, if quixotic, idea  )?  He is also a fellow river traveller, having followed the course of the Tyburn, as I did, but taking the southernmost arm, down to Pimlico and he ran it, rather than walked. You can read about his run here. Tom is curator for Paintings, Drawings and other artworks held by the Museum too. Of course, as readers of Plague will know, a Museum of London archaeologist appears at the beginning of the book. He bears no relation to Tom.

The other contributor is Fiona Lukas, an award-winning Blue Badge Guide, (  she was Guide of the Year for the City of Westminster and City of London ) whose speciality is London Underground. She regularly hosts the popular tour The Lure of the Underground ( listen to her podcast about it here ) and is coming with interesting facts aplenty, including about the ghost lines and stations no longer in use. I had used to walk passed the old Aldwych station everyday on my way to work and have come across others, like that at Marble Arch.  There are many other little known LU-owned places, like the Bakerloo Line depot at London Road, south of the river, which features in Plague.

My contribution will be about those bits of subterranean London which feature in the novel, although I expect Tom to have far more knowledge than I about the Tyburn itself. I’ll be touching on Plague Pits, Roman Remains – like the baths at North Audley Street, completely unmarked on the surface, the Great Conduit which runs along Oxford Street and, of course, the Palace of Westminster, with all its idiosyncrasies.

I can’t wait to ask Tom about some of the historical sites and Fiona knows all about the engineering, which is of particular interest to me. We will, doubtless, touch on the brilliant Bazalgette and his sewers. By the way, those who have read Plague will understand the reference to sewers and the ‘sewer walk’ undertaken by some of the main characters, but they may not know that the book contains a small homage to another book in which sewer scenes appear, which was made into an even more famous, not to say iconic, feature film. To find out what this homage is, or make your guess at it, come along and join us on 11th December.

Tickets are, astonishingly, FREE on Eventbrite HERE. It’s already proving very popular. See you there.

For more on Plague and the River Tyburn try        Walking a Book, Walking a River      or   The Book Walk Continues

Bookwalk Out-takes

The recent Bookwalk for Plague has already been the subject of posts here, but these include only a small percentage of photographs taken. We made several digressions and diversions during the day to take photographs of things we liked (which was partly why it was so much fun to do). These reflect the various enthusiasms of myself and my fellow walker, Helen.

First up – bricks. The Victorians were great decorators in brick, something I’ve had several conversations about recently because we’ve just had a face lift for our Victorian house. I now know more about bricks than I ever thought was possible, largely courtesy of David Fairbrother, who oversaw the work, a man who truly loves bricks. On our walk we encountered some excellent examples of Victorian brickwork, like that announcing Grosvenor Works or the decoration on the buildings at the top of Great Smith Street, or, see left, the brickwork on the Marlborough Head public house, North Audley Street (readers of the novel will recognise that street name). The young woman working there was surprised and, I think, rather charmed, by our fruitless search for any indicator that there were Roman baths nearby.

Second, statues of admirable people. There were lots of those – from William Tyndale to Sir Joseph Bazalgette (who has already appeared in the Bookwalk blog ) via a whole procession in Embankment Gardens. Given limited space here, that of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square will represent them all.  She holds aloft her uplifting message ‘Courage calls to courage everywhere’.

Third, idiosyncratic peculiarities, based, broadly, around the subject matter of the book. So, a Stop Works sign propped in a doorway of the Norman Shaw buildings on the Embankment ( a former home of the Metropolitan Police and work place of one of the victims in the novel, where he is helping to refurbish the building ).  Colourful chains at the construction site on Davies Street by Bond Street Underground Station, site of the first discovered crime, against said victim.  The vaulted roof of the arches through which one passes from Horseguards Parade into Whitehall (which appears to be numbered, something I’ve not noticed before) and the receding arches within the arches, through which the protesters pass before harassing my heroine.

One of the most eye-catching was what must be one of the smallest public houses in London. Not, perhaps the smallest  that, I believe, is The Dove in Hammersmith, but pretty small nonetheless. We found the four-storey Coach and Horses on the edge of Mayfair, it is still a working pub ( though we didn’t enter, either this or the Marlborough Head, just in case you’re wondering, we were committed book walkers ).  Besides, the No Entry sign outside could have put us off. Other unusual architecture spotted includes Sothebys’ warehouse, found down a back street and what looked like a closed up market hall in Davies Mews.

If you follow me on Facebook you will already know that we finally succumbed to the temptation of a chilled pint of beer, at Cask, a craft beer emporium in Tachbrook Street, Pimlico. So, for those who care about such things, rest assured that your walkers were eventually refreshed and, yes, I’ve noticed that two of these photographs are of hostelries!

For more on the Book walk see    Walking a book, walking a river      The Book Walk continues     and    ‘With an address like that you must be very wealthy’ 

‘Plague’ (Claret Press, 2020) is available for pre-order on Amazon HERE. It is published on 15th September.

Stranger than Fiction II

So this article is a sequel.  I’ve already written about how the plot of ‘Plague’ has coincided with real life, but, astonishingly, the coincidences keep coming! 

There is the recent, real, discovery of hundreds of bodies, skeletons, in a lost medieval sacristy belonging to Westminster Abbey as reported in The Guardian at the weekend. Not, I know, the same as the discovery of a plague pit, with or without modern corpses, but startling nonetheless and an example of how the land around and beneath Westminster, or Thorney Island, still has secrets to divulge. Just as it does in the novel.

But an even closer correlation between ‘Plague’ and what is happening now might be what I can only call the procurement scandals. In the novel large government contracts, worth several billion pounds, are being tendered and, as one of the characters says ‘…the contracts aren’t being awarded in the usual way.’  It’s corruption – the contracts are being given to companies run by associates and accomplices of the villains, who also make money on the stock exchange as the shares of those companies rise in value.  At least in the book the companies in question have the relevant expertise and a track record in providing the types of services being tendered for.

In real life, however, we see huge contracts being awarded to companies with little or no experience or expertise in the field of activity required, but which do have close ties to various individuals in government. The Good Law Project, together with Every Doctor, are pursuing judicial review of the procurement of PPE from three companies, one specialising in pest control, one a confectionery wholesaler and one an opaque private fund owned via a tax haven. The PPE – face masks – sold by the last of these companies, Ayanda Capital, under a contract worth £252m, was found to be unsuitable for use in the NHS (and untested). Yet at least this contract was publicly tendered. The contracts granted to Public First, a company with close ties to Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings, seem not to have been tendered at all and The Good Law Project and a number of non-Tory MPs are seeking judicial review of the awarding of them. They have also begun proceedings against Michael Gove in regard to one of these contracts.  Contrary to government regulations, the contracts themselves have not been published (once granted, contracts are required to be published within thirty days).

As the same ‘Plague’ character, a journalist, says ‘There’s a smell attaching to it. Lots of money involved.’  My main character Cassie is, of course, working on minor procurement contracts at the start of the novel, but she has no enthusiasm for the work. As a former senior civil servant I sympathise with those who are having to deal with the situation now, knowing that the correct procedures aren’t being followed. It seems that Ministers are hiding behind COVID and emergency powers to hand large sums of money to preferred bidders, regardless of said bidders ability to deliver the contracts.

I wonder if there will be a Stranger then Fiction III? What about those share prices? Watch this space? 

For more on ‘Plague’ try       Walking a book, walking a river            The Bookwalk continues          With an address like that you must be very wealthy   

‘With an address like that you must be very wealthy.’

Is the thought of my heroine, Cassie, when told where another character in my novel lives.  Yet, before our Bookwalk took us to look at the enviable address, we had some more medieval ground to cover, specifically the 14th century Jewel Tower. This remnant of the Abbey, which stood next to the Abbey moat, now stands on Abingdon or ‘College’ Green opposite Parliament. It is part of the Palace of Westminster, although set apart from Barry’s Victorian pile and Westminster Hall and it plays a crucial role in Plague.

The Tower, made of Kent rag-stone, stands on ground considerably lower than the ground which surrounds it, a testament to its great age.  It is open to the public, though not at the present moment. We entertained a rather bored-looking set of professional camera men set up in their familiar interviewing place on the Green, by doing our own ‘pieces to camera’ both in front of the Jewel Tower and the Victoria Tower, one of the few parts of the Palace of Westminster not covered in scaffolding or sheeting. Returning to Parliament Square, we went past the Abbey itself and entered Great Smith Street, then Little Smith Street, into that maze of small alleyways with buildings belonging to the Abbey and the Church.

Great College Street was our destination, where Westminster School buildings run into the 14th century boundary wall, and under which the River Tyburn ran. It is on the corner with Barton Street where our desirable residence sits. Here we were fortunate to come across a woman who worked in the next house along, who was charmed by the thought of the neighbouring house appearing in a novel (and we think we made a sale). I hope the occupants of the actual house  are equally charmed.

This collection of streets to the south of Westminster School, running down to Smith Square, are, to my mind, some of the most desirable in London. The fine Georgian town houses sit in quiet, tree-lined streets, yet are close to one of London’s ‘centres’ and the epicentre of establishment power. Many of them are still in private ownership, either as houses or apartments, though there are many school buildings at the north end and the Georgian buildings give way to corporate headquarters and government departments to the south. Marsham Street is lined with government buildings – the Home Office, the Department for Transport, the old DTI building, many of them linked. All lie on the route of the number 88 bus – the ‘Clapham omnibus’ – and we hopped on to it for a few stops to Pimlico, because we were running out of time (and, by now, our feet were hurting). The Pimlico which we currently see, of elegant early Victorian terraces, is predominantly the creation of the property developer Thomas Cubitt in the 1830s. In the novel it is where a supporting character lives, on Tachbrook Street, so named for the Tach Brook which, at this point, ran into the old River Tyburn and thence to the Thames.

We did another piece to camera – three times, as it happened, because of the noise of children playing nearby – and provided some diversion for folk sitting outside a local craft beer pub, which we visited shortly afterwards. This gave us time to look back through the three hundred and twenty photographs and ten pieces to camera which we had shot, before taking the 88 again, this time to Vauxhall and the restaurant where our other halves awaited. The day ended with a most perfect sunset over the Thames and Pimlico.  A really great walk ( over seven miles of it ) and a really great day. My thanks to Helen Hughes for her photography and her company.

Read more about Plague and the Bookwalk at           Walking a book, walking a river…    The Book Walk continues…

‘Plague’ is published by Claret Press on 15th September 2020.

Troy: myth and reality

Terrific exhibition at the British Museum, which, among other things, tells the stories of the Iliad, the Odyssey and, to an extent, the Aeniad, through the artefacts of the ancient world, I recommend it very highly. Beginning with the marriage of King Peleus and sea-nymph Thetis, to which the goddess Discord was not invited, through to depictions of the characters in the Trojan epics in more recent art, this exhibition immerses the visitor in the world of Troy, the imagined as well as the archaeological city.  I spent several happy hours in it yesterday (and will be returning next week).

The words of Homer’s epic poems feature through-out, as you would expect, though Virgil gets a look-in too. The exhibition begins appropriately, with the opening lines of the Iliad ‘Rage – Goddess sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles‘.  Quotations sprinkle the show and there are recorded readings, in Greek and English.  The Roman bust (left) of Homer as blind poet can be found at the start, it is a copy of an older Greek original.  Statuary, in marble and, on a smaller scale, in metal and on stone sarcophagi features.  So do ceramics.

I had forgotten just how exquisite the painted decoration of Greek ‘red ware’ and ‘black ware’ was, from the coloured figures, like those on the large two handled pot depicting Achilles killing Amazon Queen Penthisiliea (right) or the Judgement of Paris on a wine krater, to the delicate line drawings showing Briseis being led away from Achilles’ tent.  I will also remember the stone bas relief showing this scene, with Achilles looking away in anger, but Patroclus placing a consolatory hand on Briseis’ shoulder as she is collected by Agamemnon’s soldier. A tender gesture.

It is testament to the power of the ancient story that the characters live so vividly again. But then, the story has been told and retold, as evidenced by the lines from the epics scribbled by ancient Roman children on the papyri copy books displayed. Its retelling is brought bang up to date with the poster from the, much derided, 21st century Hollywood film Troy and modern versions of The Judgement of Paris – photographic – and The Siren’s Song ( see left for the ancient depiction, below for the modern collage by Romare Bearden ).  Aficionados of the male body please note, Brad Pitt has quite a lot of competition in the buffed masculinity stakes, though it’s interesting that, even where a ‘hero’ such as Odysseus is obviously beyond youth and is depicted on artefacts with an older face, his body is still drawn as youthfully ideal. Hollywood’s fixation with perfect bodies is nothing new.

There is a very interesting section on the real city of Troy, or what we now believe is the real city. Not Schliemann’s much too early, if appropriately burnt, discovery but a later version. I didn’t realise just how many Troys there were, built on top of one another, but there are informative graphics showing just how these cities developed and when.  Indeed the whole exhibition is  well organised, with clearly written and illuminating captions. Technology, from the annotated drawings in light of various pieces of complex decoration to help the viewer unscramble some of the detail, to the videos showing the massing levels of the different Troys is used cleverly and well.

Personal favourites – the bas relief in which Paris looks thoroughly bored as Helen is loaded, along with the other treasures, on to his ship and the wonderfully evocative Fuseli drawing of the grief of Achilles as he kneels over Patrolus’ body.

The exhibition runs until 8th March and costs £20 to enter ( concessions £17 ). It is popular, so don’t leave it until the last minute, it will be very crowded. It took us two and a half hours to go round, taking a look at just about everything, ( though there were at least two school parties to deal with ).  It may take longer if it is even more full.

Not Quite a Fleeting Glimpse….

…is what one gets at the Dennis Severs House, or 18, Folgate Street, Spitalields, E1.  Not quite a fleeting glimpse of those people who have just left the room, who were eating that meal just before you walked in, or smoking that pipe, or baking that loaf.  Whose wig sits on the wing of the chair? Or whose floral perfume scents the formal withdrawing room?

18, Folgate Street is an 18th century house (1724) which has been preserved and restored and, during his lifetime, lived in, by Dennis Severs, the American artist and storyteller, who died, aged only 51, in 1999. Twenty years after purchasing the house he saw the Spitalfields Trust buy the house and commit to keeping it going, when on his death-bed.  It’s still going twenty years later.

The House is chock-full of antique furniture and fol-de-rols, china, costumes, tapestry and tat, but all in period. So is the lighting, mostly candlelight, but some gas-light in the Victorian rooms. We visited on a sunny Monday lunchtime so it was relatively light, but the house is most often open in the evenings, from 5 – 9pm Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and on Sundays ( see Tours ).  I imagine that then it is even more atmospheric, though it would also be more difficult to see the multiplicity of objects on show, often close together.

Severs created an imaginary family of Huguenot silk-weavers called Jervis to inhabit the house and it is their homely detritus (and comestibles) that one comes across as one climbs the narrow stairs, either down to the kitchen and cellar, where there are the supposed fragments of St Mary’s, Spital (1197) and the warmth of an iron range and the smell of…what is that smell?  Or upwards, through fashionable London entertaining to the elaborate boudoir and then up beneath the eaves to the penurious lodgers’ rooms.

Scent is something the House does well, as is sound – the ticking of a clock, the half-caught chatter, like Eliot’s rose garden ‘full of children, Hidden excitedly, containing laughter’ in Burnt Norton. Visitors are asked to walk around the house, on a pre-determined route, in silence, so that this sound track has full effect. There are wordless guiders, who will direct you if you go wrong.

There are other symbols of life lived in the house.  The half lemon on the mantlepiece, the half drunk glasses of sherry on the card and occasional tables, the cheese and bread in the kitchen.  I like to think of the guiders going round each morning setting everything fresh into position, spraying the scents and lighting the candles ( there are piled candle ends in several rooms, today’s occupants being as thrifty as Madame Jervis could have been ).

It takes about 45 minutes to walk through the house and costs either £10 on Monday lunchtimes, or £15 in the evenings ( a guided tour is available for groups at £50 per person ).  We arrived at about 12.45 on Monday lunchtime and had to wait for a further twenty minutes, in a queue, as only small numbers are allowed in the house at any one time.  Once inside, you realise why ( people were smaller then ).

It’s an unusual and, for me, unique, experience and well worth visiting.

For more visiting of history try                        Undiscovered                  The Real Thing      Mother of Parliaments                           An Old Prospect                     Metamorphosis                    Waterloo

All photographs are from the House web-site, photography inside the House not being allowed.

Last chance to see – John Ruskin, The Power of Seeing

This year’s Spring exhibition at 2, Temple Place is a collaboration with Museums Sheffield and the Guild of St George to bring together a range of paintings, drawings, metal works and plaster casts to celebrate the work and legacy of John Ruskin (1819 – 1900).

Ruskin was an only child, his father was a wealthy sherry and wine importer, partner in Ruskin, Telford and Domecq, his mother an innkeeper’s daughter. Both parents were fiercely ambitious for their son and he grew up in a hothouse atmosphere in Herne Hill, south London.  A road there bears his name today.

He first came to the attention of the art world with Modern Painters (1843) written while Ruskin was still at oxford. It was a passionate defence of the art of J.M.W.Turner and redefined art criticism of the day.  It brought him to the notice of luminaries such as Elizabeth Gaskell and Charlotte Bronte. This was followed by Modern Painters II (1846) written while on the Grand Tour with his parents. He married Effie Gray, the young daughter of a family friend in 1847. Together they journeyed to Venice where Ruskin worked on perhaps his most famous three-volume work The Stones of Venice (1851-1853). It was in The Nature of Gothic chapter in Vol II that he set out his belief in artisanal integrity and attacked industrial capitalism which had such an impact on socialists like William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement.

The marriage was, apparently, unconsummated ( though Ruskin contested this ) and was subsequently annulled in 1854, though not before major scandal when Effie left Ruskin for John Everett Millais. Ruskin had championed the Pre-Raphealites and continued to do so, even providing a stipend for Elizabeth Siddal, Rosetti’s wife, to encourage her art.  He also became a firm friend of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. These friendships are documented in the exhibition, as is his late crossing of swords with James McNeill Whistler.  While the case bankrupted Whistler, it also tarnished Ruskin’s reputation and may have contributed to his mental decline. I have never understood how a devotee of Turner’s art could have denigrated Whistler’s and that isn’t something which is tackled here.

The exhibition shows items from the Ruskin collection at Sheffield including his Turner paintings and Durer engravings ( loved the cat ) as well as many of his own drawings and paintings.  In addition there are newly commissioned pieces exploring the legacy of Ruskin, from Timorous Beasties, Grizedale Arts, Hannah Dowling and Emilie Taylor.  I very much enjoyed Dan Holdsworth’s moving image Acceleration Structures, based on the peaks and crevasses of three Alpine glaciers above Chamonix, where Ruskin would sketch and paint.

Ruskin died at Brantwood House, on the shores of Coniston Water in January 1900. Lionised in his lifetime, his reputation suffered in he early years of the twentieth century, but his international influence continued, with his works translated into Russian ( Tolstoy was a fan ) into French by Proust and Gujarati by Gandhi. Architects, writers and educationalists, politicians and thinkers all acknowledge their debt to him.

The exhibition ends on 22nd April, so only three days left. It is FREE to enter.  A very good idea if you want something interesting and stimulating to do on a sunny Easter weekend. More details on the web-site here.

For more on the Pre-Raphealites, Arts and Crafts and earlier Temple Place exhibitions try                Edward Burne-Jones                      Arts and Crafts                      Walking Burne-Jones        Beyond Beauty                    Rhythm  Reaction: the Age of Jazz in Britain 

Soane and Kapoor

On Friday to leafy Ealing to see the newly opened, refurbished Pitzhanger Manor. country house and showcase for architect and collector Sir John Soane, with its attached art gallery. In the sunshine Ealing looked leafy indeed, with its Common and Green ( who knew, not me, certainly ). Still there, set back from the Uxbridge Road, the original Ealing Studios where so many classic films were made. We even found a handsome Georgian/early Victorian hostelry named The Sir Micheal Balcon, after the legendary producer and head of the studios in its heyday.

Sir John Soane’s house sits on Mattock Lane, Ealing Green, its neo-classic frontage and garden now behind a formal war memorial.  Entrance gates are to the right hand side of the formal gardens. Inside it is less chaotic – less mad – than his house and museum on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, but it still demonstrates his distinct architectural style and idiosyncratic and impressive design. The interior has been meticulously restored to a very high standard, including the hand-painted and beautiful ‘chinese’ wallpaper in the gloriously light drawing room, the exquisite ceilings and ‘marbled’ walls.

The oldest part of the building is the south wing, which was build by Soane’s first employer George Dance and which Soane retained, demolishing the rest of the mansion and rebuilding it, including a colonnade of ‘ruins’, which now links the main house and the modern gallery.

Inside there is his trademark use of space and light, the arched ceilings, friezes and roundels, niches and other stone decoration, like the caryatids in the ground floor room, front right. It isn’t a large house and Soane uses a designer’s tricks to fool the eye, drawing the gaze through open, often mirrored doors, from room to room to give the impression of greater space. The entrance hall goes straight through the house to the long gallery at the rear and doors open off it, as well as rooms having linking doors between them.  The main staircase, of iron and stone, is off to the left beneath a large and elaborate skylight.  Jet, marble in various colours and, very clever, wallpaper of fake marble make the interior very dramatic.

I loved the long glass gallery which runs across the rear of the house and overlooks what would have been the private gardens, including a lake with rusticated bridge.  These have now been merged with Walpole Park (1901) a public park which includes another lake, formal gardens and a sporting pavilion. I also loved the two huge rooms in George Dance’s wing, the dining room on the ground floor and salon or drawing room on the first. I’m not surprised that Soane couldn’t bring himself to demolish this even if it means that the whole Manor has a rather lop-sided look.

On the other side of the central classical building there is a modern conversion of the old kitchen buildings into Pitzhanger Gallery. The current exhibition is by Anish Kapoor and it complements Soane perfectly. Kapoor’s mirrored and sculpted discs and boxes play with light, vision and sound just as Soane’s interiors do, tricking the eye.  The pieces are interactive and huge fun. A gallery employee told us that he saw something new in each of the pieces every day he turned up for work and took great pleasure in watching visitors play with the distortions. We certainly enjoyed doing so, taking photographs into the sculpted mirrors which captured one of us upside down in the middle ground while the other was the right way up nearer to the piece.

Entry to both house and Gallery is £7.70 (£4.95 concessions).  I recommend it highly, especially while the Kapoor is on, until 18th August.  Ealing Broadway is the nearest tube and rail station, turn left out of the station and follow the signs for Ealing Green (not Ealing Common as we did).  There are signs painted on to the pavement. There are plenty of places to eat and drink on the High Street.

Blood & Revolution

The Last Tsar; Blood and Revolution is the name of an interesting and FREE exhibition currently to be found at the Science Museum, Exhibition Road SW7.  We visited on Monday.

The exhibition looks at the demise of the Romanov dynasty in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century. Using artefacts, photographs and written records it illustrates the highly privileged life and subsequent death of the autocratic Tsars, a family touched by the tragedy of the ‘Royal Disease’ who became reliant not just on medicine but mystics and faith healers, most notoriously, Grigori Rasputin.

The kernel of the exhibition is, as befits  the Science Museum, a medical detective story, or rather several medical detective stories. The first is to identify the ‘Royal Disease’ and how it proliferated, the second is the finding and identification, using DNA sequencing techniques,  of the bodies of the murdered Romanovs and the subsequent quashing of the spurious claims of impostors to be surviving members of the immediate Romanov family.

The exhibition is good on the prevailing system of medicine and medical provision, especially in regard to mental instability or illness ( a condition often diagnosed in women who behaved ‘unsuitably’ or ‘hysterically’ ).  It shows how the ruling family kept the illness of the Tsaravitch, Alexei, hidden from all but an immediate circle of trusted intimates and medical men, thereby fuelling discontent among the aristocracy over the perceived remoteness of the Romanov family and influence of ‘advisers’ like Rasputin.   An autocratic and fundamentally unjust system could not survive without an involved and supportive aristocracy and the myth of a benign and progressive monarchy couldn’t be sustained by a monarch invisible to his people. Not so long after the outbreak of WWI a system of government which was creaking finally broke and the Tsar abdicated.

This is good, general historical context, but what is new in this exhibition is its concentration on the investigation into the death of the family, who were held under house arrest in the Ipatiev House in Bolshevik-held Ekaterinberg.  The initial investigation was headed by Nikolai, Sokolov, a Russian investigating magistrate, when that city fell out of Bolshevik control, and its findings were, for a long while, the only real evidence-informed information about their deaths. Later, after the Soviet state admitted executing the family and the eventual fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, scientists were able to piece together those earlier findings with later discoveries made during the 1970s but not made public at the time, to find skeletons which could then be tested using the latest techniques.

The identification, which involved taking DNA from living relatives of the Tsarina, resulted in confirmation that the skeletons were indeed those of the Russian ruling family. In 2007 the remains of Alexei and one of his sisters were discovered and also tested.  Facial reconstruction and modelling techniques were then used to recreate the faces from the skulls, resulting in sculptures which closely resembled the photographs of the individuals taken while they were alive. So all eleven victims were identified and the fate of the Romanovs finally resolved.

In 2009 the ‘Royal Disease’ was finally confirmed to be haemophilia B, the rarer form of the condition, which is, largely, suffered by men but can be carried by women.  It features strongly in the ancestral tree of various European ruling houses ( somewhat startlingly ).

I can thoroughly recommend this exhibition which runs until 24th March it is well worth a visit if you happen to be in London.