Charles I Reassembled

When I chose to go grey five years ago…

Um – let me clarify. I’ve been going grey since I was thirteen. What I mean is, when I chose to stop covering my grey with various shades of brown, I thought I’d be mistaken for an old lady. But one mid-week trip to the Royal Academy is a sure bet to make you feel young at heart. If only by comparison.

The Charles I exhibition at the Royal Academy is, according to the blurb, the first time the iconic art collection has been reassembled under one roof since it was carved up and sold off by our short-lived republic in the mid-1600s. It is a unique chance to see countless Van Dycks, Rubens, Holbeins and the odd Velasquez and Rembrandt; to appreciate the detail and texture at close quarters of an amazing collection of art.

Well, it would be if it wasn’t for the gaggle of old ladies planted in front of each and every painting. Seeing so many of them in one place makes me realise that even if I am, physically speaking, looking older these days, I know that in my heart I am miles away from these old biddies.

For one thing, I haven’t perfected the lethal bony elbow for nudging people out of the way when you want to get a better look at Van Dyck’s self-portrait. Luckily Charles I was heavily into enormous portraits of himself befitting his God-given status, and most of them are best viewed from a distance, and I’m still tall enough to view them over the combined mop of grey heads. But my feet, unfortunately, are still at ground level and not quite as lucky – especially when those with no spatial awareness decide to use their seriously deficient reversing skills to step on my toes with their sensible shoes.

Alongside some incredible allegorical art by Rubens, I was equally amazed at the seriously wicked glances given by the tiny old people to anything shorter than themselves – people in wheelchairs, children, and the like. I haven’t reached that milestone of intollerance just yet.

And I know for sure that after gazing at Velasquez portrait of Philip IV Of Spain, I was probably the only person in the gallery inwardly humming Everything Everything’s Hapsburg Lippp.

Yeah – still worlds apart!

Back to the art then. My favourites include the Bronzino’s Portrait of a Woman in Green – the lovely direct gaze of a women probably not noted for her beauty, but the artist has captured a wonderfully kind and wistful expression; Van Dyck’s three-way police mugshot of Charles I (possibly predicting Charles’s future run-in with the authorities), and the lovely chalk portrait of Anne Cresacre by Hans Holbein the Younger. I overheard one old lady in front of this portrait point out rather begrudgingly, ‘He is quite good, isn’t he?’ Major understatement!

And of course, there are the exquisite miniatures, and here I had to implement my own bony elbows in order to get a look-in.

As always, I find lots of thought-provoking questions come up during these exhibitions that need further research. Like, in Van Dyck’s portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria and Sir Jeffrey Hudson, I’m wondering – I think I’d like to know a bit more about the child-like Sir Jeffrey. And why, if the collection was so widely dispersed during the civil war, then how does HM the Queen seem to own the majority of the paintings on display. How did they fall back into Royal ownership after the restoration?  What exactly is a Hapsburg Lip?

Off to do some research…

Guernsey Trip #1 – The Bailiwick of Guernsey Millennium Tapestry

St Peter Port in Guernsey is littered with little museums and galleries, but sadly, most of them close at the end of September. So arriving at the beginning of October, was perhaps a bad plan!

Never-the-less, the two main museums, Cornet Castle and the Guernsey Museum at Candie are open almost all year round, as is the small, but beautifully formed, Guernsey Tapestry museum.

I’ll start with the tapestry museum – it was the first one I visited and very pleased I did. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I visited the Bayeux Tapestry recently and wondered how it would compare. The tapestry was started as a community event to mark the millennium, involving the ten parishes of the Bailiwick of Guernsey working on their own tapestry with supervision from a team of tapestry doyens. Each of the tapestries depict a piece of Guernsey history over the last 1000 years, from the mythological and ghostly tradition of the island and the conflict of war to art, craft, architecture, tomatoes and cows.

The panels were designed by artist Valerie Chandler and transferred onto textile by Jenneth Fitzgerald, who co-ordinated the mammoth project and received an OBE from Prince Charles in recognition of her achievement (an award that she promptly shared with everyone involved in the project).

Ok, it might sound a bit amateurish – random people of varying abilities contributing to a tapestry, but the results are anything but. The vibrant colours, textures, attention to detail, humour and heart – you’ll find it all. It’s obvious that the people involved in the project, from the co-ordinating team to the children who added a stitch or two, have taken pride in their work.

Like the Bayeux Tapestry, the Guernsey Tapestry is housed in a purpose-built gallery with dimmed lighting. Like the Bayeux Tapestry, an audio guide talks you through the tapestries drawing your attention to a quirky detail or a pertinent point in Guernsey’s history. The audio guide doesn’t point out to you the different textures, used to great effect on the second panel by to depict the waves rolling against the western shore of the island, or the flames in the sixth panel or the fishermen’s nets in panel number eight. Luckily Caroline is on hand to help with any questions I have about the work. She can also point to the cow on the St Peter Port panel where her tapestry stitch resides.

At the very least, the Guernsey Tapestry is a great starting point for introducing you to Guernsey’s unique history, but I think if you look closer and immerse yourself in the fabric of time, you’ll get a great deal more out of this lovely place. And if you need more colour, just ask at the desk in the gift shop – I was lucky that it was a quiet day and got myself an impromptu second tour with my own private guide, with insights into the tapestry and some of the personal stories behind it.

Definitely worth a tour. It cost £4.95 for adults, £4.50 for over 65s and students. Children under 16 go free.

Easter to end of October, Monday – Saturday 10am – 4.30pm.
(November to Easter open Thursdays only 10am – 4pm)

National Glass Centre


I’ve been a regular visitor to the National Glass Centre for many years now. It celebrates the glass-making heritage of Sunderland in a unique building, with its unassuming, industrial entrance in direct contrast to its show-off riverside façade.  I love the entrance which dips away from what is ostensibly the roof of the Centre, drawing you down into a progressively enclosed channel of claustrophobia before propelling you through the doors and back into the light.

In the early days I became a ‘friend’ and spent many happy hours there with my children in the great interactive gallery with its imaginative explanations of the history, the properties and the possibilities of glass.

img_2381Verdant Seascape Sculpture, Fritz Dreisbach

My recent visit was interesting. It’s been a good few years since I was last there, so I dragged my sister along for a trip out. She was quite surprised that I wanted to have a look around – thought I’d be more interested in heading straight to the cafe for a coffee. But I managed to stop her in her tracks and drag her around the recently renovated top deck of the centre, completed a couple of years ago after a £2.3 million overhaul.

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Now, I might eat my words here, but I do believe that the National Glass Centre appeals to all ages. In the early days when it first opened, one side of the top floor was dedicated to an informative, hands-on, children-friendly exhibition. After a few years it started to look a little tired; worn out by little hands and big, hell bent on lifting flaps and turning cranks. It’s been replaced by a more subtle display of the history of glass making on the Wear – imaginatively done, with archive images and phone points to listen to the voices of workers from the Jobling, Pyrex and Corning factories of days past. There are peep-hole displays with a fine selection of locally made glass oddities, glass displays with front and back transparency to tempt you into the next section, and a fine rotunda-style film show. Sadly, the lighting in the rotunda was too intense and introductory film show, which offered much in the way of eye-candy with beautifully photographed glassmaking processes, was too weak to compete. I’d like to think they’ll have it sorted by the next time I visit.

Meanwhile there’s a dedicated kids’ area in the Learning Studio, adventure backpacks and family workshops. And of course, there is always that perennial enjoyment for kids – running across the 6cm thick glass roof while terrified parents look on – hoping to their own personal god that the glass is strong enough to hold their weight. Best ever fun my children had was lying on the glass roof making faces at the tea-drinking customers in the cafe eight metres or so below!

img_2377The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, Andrew Miller

The temporary exhibition when we visited really appealed to my sense of recycling – Andrew Miller’s ‘The Good, the Bad & the Ugly’. I love his philosophy behind the exhibition, a collection of discarded objects, apparently worthless, but considered for their history, their previous design credentials, their past emotional attachments and their ultimate rise in status as a work of art. I’m sure that there will be the odd observer who will look at Miller’s work and exclaim, ‘It’s just a load of old rubbish!’ – and yes, they’d be right, but the ‘rubbish’, like the work of Joseph Cornell to Ai Weiwei, has been thoughtfully combined to create a compelling piece of art.

Finally done upstairs and having paid our suggested, but not compulsory, donation of £5 each, my sister finally got me to the lower level and the much sought-after cup of coffee. The Glass Yard cafe here has won awards, and it’s a fine place to sit and watch the Wear wander past the huge panoramic windows on its last leg to the North Sea. It’s also next to the amazing gift shop, which has introduced me to a few glass artists in the past, including Peter Layton at London Glassblowing (where incidentally, I’ll be trying my hand at glassblowing in the new year. Exciting stuff!). As often happens, I managed to spend a wee amount on a piece made at the NGC, and you can actually wander down the corridor at the far corner of the shop and sit yourself down for spell of glassblowing voyeurism.

It’s great to see such artists at work moulding the glass to their own fancy, seemingly unfazed by the tremendous heat of the furnace (for lovers of eco-friendly facts, you’ll be happy to know that the heat from the furnaces is also used to heat the building). The NGC has had links with the University of Sunderland for some years now – it’s only fitting that a city so emphatically linked with glass-making is now teaching the next generation of artists.

The National Glass Centre sits on the north bank of the River Wear in Sunderland – entrance is free with a collection box for the generous.

Newton vs Thatcher


I recently found myself in Grantham with a few hours to kill, so true to form I sought out the nearest museum…

Sadly, Grantham Museum has been hit by funding cuts and this is reflected in the quality of some of the displays. Not all, though. There are some imaginative arrangements going on here, but the display boards invariable sport a spattering of typos and, more heinous from my point of view, bad quality, pixelated images!

It’s a small affair, slightly minimalist in layout, but covering the main points of interest from these here parts – Barnes Wallis and the Dambusters, transport links, D-Day landings and Thatcher, the Milk-Snatcher. But most interesting as far as I’m concerned is the small exhibit dedicated to Isaac Newton.

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I hadn’t realised Newton hailed from Grantham – perhaps he’s been overshadowed by a more invidious inhabitant – but soon got an inkling with the Newton Shopping Centre and sign posts pointing to the Isaac Newton School. Newton moved into the home of William Clarke in Grantham at the age of 12 so that he could attend the town’s grammar school. There is a replica of his foster father’s apothecary shop included in the exhibition, along with a cast of his sundial, an interactive display of the town during Newton’s lifetime and his death mask, which was used to sculpt the marble likeness for his tomb in Westminster Abbey.


Thatcher’s display has a late 1970’s sitting room with a telly, running a continuous loop of her victory over Jim Callaghan and the Labour Party. Alongside is a timeline of her ‘successes’ and a display case holding her shoes and handbag. I wondered if in years to come someone would think to display Obama’s toilet bag or Blair’s shower cap in a museum. But then, perhaps someone is actually interested in such trivia.

The museum was threatened with closure by local council cuts and is now run mainly by volunteers. After an interesting hour mooching round the museum I headed to the small cafe at the front of the building, tempted by the coffee machine I’d spotted on my way in. Sadly though, it appeared to have been hit by the cuts too and the elderly volunteer waved a jar of instant at me asking if this would be OK. Nope, I don’t think so. I opted for a tea instead, which duly arrived in a cardboard cup. I would have passed on that too had I realised…

While we we were waiting for the kettle to boil (a veritable lifetime!) the volunteer made small talk and suggested a pilgrimage to the home of Margaret Thatcher after my visit to the museum. A pilgrimage! I would much rather slit my own throat, and I told him I was much more interested in the architecture of the town and its links to Isaac Newton, (The rest of the sentence ‘…than some foul politician who spent most of her time in office dismantling the lives of those least able to defend themselves.’ remained unspoken.) In spite of my obvious antipathy to Grantham’s greatest leader, the staff were very helpful and informative about the museum and the town, which is situated on the route of the Great North Road. The hotel in which I’d just spent the previous night was apparently, a main stopover and had links to English royalty from days of yore, including Richard III and King John. So off I went to have a closer look and continue my tour of Grantham…


Grantham Museum is situated right beside the tourist and arts centre and admission is free. Check out their facebook page too.

Normandy & the Conquerors


We’ve just spent a week of warfare in Normandy. It wasn’t our intention to have a holiday there slap bang in the middle of the D-Day commemorations, nor did we intend to rock up at Gold Beach on the actual anniversary.

But we did, and it was a strange thing.

Arriving in the midst of a sea fret we gazed out at the strange shadows emerging from the bay. Bit by bit, the mists cleared and within minutes we were bathed in steamy sunshine. The atmosphere, too, seemed to sway between melancholy and celebration, with equal numbers of visitors meditating on the events of 72 years ago and those dressed in 1940s kit out for a bit of a party.

From the cliff top above the small town of Arromanches-les-Bains, a sobering glance out to sea reveals the remains of the landing port build by the Allies. Not much remains of Mulberry harbour, but enough to get a general idea of the scale of the thing, built prefab-style in sections towed from Britain and built in the days after the initial landings.

Luckily, Arromanches itself was spared much of the bombing that devastated other communities in Normandy and as we looked down from the cliff towards the seaside town you could make out the strains of Scottish bagpipes and French choirs, performing on the now-peaceful promenade in remembrance of the fallen of D-Day and the subsequent liberation of France.

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The cliff-top bears witness to the remains of the battle with rusting gun emplacements and floating bridges. The latter form an unlikely backdrop to the memorial honouring the sappers of the Royal Engineers, where we stopped a-while. Just down from the memorial, past the statue of the Virgin Mary and a row of multi-national flags is the Arromanches 360° Cinema.

The Cinema bombards you with images and sounds of D-Day, while down in the town itself is the Musée du Débarquement gives more detail about the Mulberry harbours and the turn of events following D-Day if you want to immerse yourself in the action or learn more about the context.

Tootling along the coast to Gold Beach we started at Ouistreham and Sword Beach, landed by the British Paratroopers, past Juno Beach, taken by the Canadians, and if we’d continued up the coast, we would have hit Omaha Beach, where US troops landed. It seemed that most nationalities chose to invade again (on a much more peaceful scale) in a show of unity, and throughout Normandy while we were there British, Canadian, American, German and (of course) French flags flew together as the region celebrated an all-encompassing accord of peace.

Driving south west of Arromanches, past the fields full of cars and camper vans and pedestrians spilling on to the roads, we headed to Bayeux. Leaving behind the memories of twentieth century warfare, we went in search of a less sophisticated, yet no less barbaric, battle.

Growing up in the UK, you can’t avoid the date 1066 – it’s our history! But it’s also the history of Normandy and one if it’s most famous sons, William the Bastard, soon to be William the Conqueror, and the amazing tapestry telling the tale of his accession to the English throne.


Now, if I’m honest, I didn’t think much of the Bayeux Tapestry when I was a kid. I thought the figures were a bit basic and the story-telling a bit confused. But, hell – what did I know. Seeing it now, being able to appreciate the historical context and the skill of the embroiderers, I was quite taken with it. I have over the years as a professional picture researcher had to research the tapestry for various publications, and of course, it’s ideal for depicting a king (three of them are featured) from the days before photography. But seeing it in real life with the imaginative and humorous commentary was really worthwhile.  The museum housing the tapestry also includes a gallery showing the techniques and materials used to make the tapestry, the history background, genealogical charts and a cinema presentation – all described in both French and English (though actually, some of the translations could have been checked out!) But fair play to them, how many museums in the UK have extended French translations, with or without the odd grammatical error?

Bayeuxtapestry_william     Tapisserie de Bayeux - Scène 57 : La mort d'Harold

What you don’t see in school when you’re learning about the Battle of Hastings, are the delightful caricatures in the friezes above and below the main event of the tapestry. Yes, we’ve all seen William, and Harold with the arrow in his eye, and Halley’s comet – but who’s managed to spot the naked man with the unfeasibly large penis, the dragons and griffins, the soldiers nicking battle trophies and the little Gilliam-esque details?

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Tapisserie de Bayeux - Scène 57 : La mort d'Harold

Hasting and D-Day were separated by nearly nine centuries of turbulent warfare throughout Europe. I wonder if in the 28th century the D-Day beaches will still be tempting tourists. I’m sure if they are, the visitors will be greeted with the same friendly attitude which welcomed us. Normandy, on the eve of the UK referendum, was flying the flags of almost every nation under the sun; outside Bayeux Cathedral where a whole row of union flags flew to honour the British who fought for France’s liberation, at tourist sites where flags of every nation seemed to be represented, and in small towns where the flags of the EU nations flapped alongside the EU flag. Everywhere there seemed to be flag-inspired symbolism of tribal unity and it would be a shame to turn our backs on a united Europe which has held its peace now for over 70 years.

Bayeux Tapestry images courtesy of Wikipedia

Pebble Homage & Antony Gormley’s Land

Pebble Homage
© Sue Jenkins 2016

Pebble Homage has been going on in Aldeburgh for the last 12 months. It’s a great idea – enjoy the pebbly beach, pick up a stone and imbue it with your thoughts. Some people have simply added their name, others have embellished with the art of illustration rather than words, and then there are other much more intellectual offerings.


The participative art installation at the Aldeburgh Beach Lookout has been running alongside the Antony Gormley installation on top of the Martello Tower further along the beach. The suggestion is to add a thought to your pebble inspired by the walk to the tower. Sadly, I’m not sure all participants had read the blurb!

Our walk to the Martello Tower was interrupted by sea wall works and we were diverted through the yacht club to get to our destination. Not actually sure if we were trespassing, but it was worth it to get a closer view of Gormley’s sculpture – one of a series of five figurative pieces called Land commissioned by The Landmark Trust. From the base of the tower, the human form seems to be constructed from numerous weathered metal cubes of varying sizes, looking rather like Iron Man contemplating the magnificent and powerful view of the churning North Sea. Gormley would like us to reflect alongside his five sculptures; find a moment for meditation and our place in this environment.

Land, Antony Gormley
© Sue Jenkins 2016

The Pebble Homage too, would like us to look at our relationship with the beach, the waves and the endless sky and bring something noteworthy to our pebble poetry. The pebbles will be returned to the beach waiting for some unsuspecting recipient to benefit from its message. Reading one or two of the stones, I suspect a lot of thought had gone into the process of choosing a clever phrase, not necessarily connected to the experience of stumbling across the beach, but to prove the writer as a serious philosophical being. Few people, though, had managed to get beyond the need to sign and date their pebble. And then there was the one that just said ‘Bum’.

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So, I suppose in general, there’s a lot of self interest that emerges from such contemplation – no surprise there – and it has shown itself in the simplest sense with a name on a stone. But there’s a lot of humour too and its strangely satisfying to find one of the decorated pebbles beyond the immediate environs of the Lookout and adjacent table, having already started on its journey to spread its stoney message.

© Sue Jenkins 2016


Monet, Monet, Monet
it’s a Gardener’s World!

Royal Academy

I knew there was a reason I’d been avoiding the Monet to Matisse (Painting the Modern Garden) exhibition at the RA.

The world assumes that everyone loves Monet and the impressionists, and it’s probably right in most cases, but I’ve never been a great fan. Coupled with the frustration of seeing some of those beautiful flowers depicted with just a few touches of colour – never quite understood why I couldn’t achieve the same effect! Tripled by the realisation that most of the people there are going to be elderly garden-types… if you know what I mean…

But then a friend mentioned her interest in the exhibition and I dug out my ‘Friends’ card and off we trotted – typically for me, just as the exhibition was nearing its final days.

The exhibition is huge and, as expected, full of ladies of a certain age. I found it quite exhausting, both the overwhelming culture daze and the elderly visitors. I have a problem with people on their phones or listening to music in public places when they disappear into their own little world, oblivious to the people around them. The same is true of the aural guides dished out to exhibition visitors. Many times I was elbowed, barged and stepped on, having become invisible to the earphone-wearing elderly – and sometimes to those not even wearing headsets.

On occasion, the layout of the galleries made it difficult to view the paintings at their best (that is, from a distance for the Impressionist paintings) and I think I would have been happier to see a reduced number of paintings. For me, there were two outstanding Joaquín Sorollas on display and I could have done without the others, though I’d be happy to spend my day gazing at the vibrant beauty of all three Emil Nolde paintings chosen for the exhibition. The Making a Garden installation with its cold frames and miniature greenhouse falls short of showing the essential inspiration for the exhibition – the humble flowering plant, and serves only as a clever idea to house the archival material in Robert Carsen’s exhibition design. I thought I would enjoy his approach to displaying the paintings, but I’m not sure I quite got it.

The gallery exhibiting the ‘Gardens of Silence’ suggested that the gardens depicted were ‘devoid of human presence’, which I think is tenuous at best. Yes, I agree, there is not a living figure in the paintings, yet they are imbued with human presence. With the exception of one or two more natural gardens, the rest are full of man-made manicured lawns and trees, tables set for tea, lights burning in distant windows, decorative statues and urns and idealised landscaping.

There are some absolute treats though – the amazing (and huge) Agapanthus Triptych at the end of the exhibition – reunited in Europe for the first time in 65 years. The wall of Monet’s Water Lilies is interesting – of the five, my friend and I chose totally different favourites and second-bests, proving that it really is each to their own where art is concerned. We both agreed though, that in the Avant-Gardens gallery, Kandinsky’s amazing abstract Murnau The Garden II was the most appealing painting – and, for me, of the whole exhibition.

You can catch Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Mattisse at the Royal Academy until 20 April 2016.

Plague, Fire, Revolution – Samuel Pepys at the National Maritime Museum


You know what it’s like when there’s something right on your doorstep and you don’t think to have a proper look at it because you can see it anytime… and then, too late – it’s gone? Well, I was in danger of missing out on the Pepys exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich for exactly that reason. Right on my doorstep and months of good intentions to visit culminated in a last minute dash on the penultimate day of the exhibition.

And was I please I did!? It was up to the usual high standards of the Maritime Museum – imaginatively laid out and engaging, covering all the usual amazing highlights of that one decade in the 1600s.

Beheading God’s chosen ruler, a brief flirtation with republicanism, a deathly epidemic and a big fire. Everything covered with great images, portraits and exhibits. The Restoration theatre kept me entertained for ages, moving only to ease my achy bum from the hard benches. The animation depicting the Great Fire of London with voice-over reading from Pepys’ diary was very well done; exciting and poignant, and again moving only to reduce the pain caused by the hunting stool-style seats which were too narrow for my chunky hindquarters.

With each area covered by the exhibition is an interactive screen with images from the diary. Touch the screen and a translation of Pepys’ shorthand allows you to read his entry, with highlighted sections annotated for further clarification. In the plague section I was very excited to read about his witnessing a plague victim left out for collection in a lane by Coome Farm. Excited, because thats my home! Not the farm itself, but my home is a Victorian terrace build on land once belonging to the aforementioned ‘Coome Farm’.

It had fashion, art, science, architecture and a real taste of the period. So much so that I feel I need to read his diary in full. (Something I’m a ashamed to say I’ve never done.) There were ‘Eureka!’ moments when I thought, yes, that explains it all, moments of clarification in the complicated line of Royal succession and, finally, the great realisation that, in my opinion, Sir Christopher Wren was a dead ringer for Christopher Walken.

Apart from the slightly uncomfortable nether quarters, I don’t think I’m able to find fault with the exhibition, and had I seen it sooner, I would have definitely been back for a second viewing.

If you are in Greenwich on bank holiday Monday, go and see it – 28 March is your last chance. Worth the trip – I promise you!