Saturday, 20 May 2017

The Painted Hall Project



The Painted Hall of the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich has what is considered one of most impressive and important baroque interiors in Europe. Originally built at the instigation of Queen Mary II, it formed part of the Royal Hospital for Seamen which was intended to offer care to sailors invalided out of the navy.The Hospital was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor, and was built on the site of the Palace of Placentia, more often known as Greenwich Palace, which had been the birthplace of Henry VIII and his daughters, Mary I and Elizabeth I.


The Painted Hall itself was originally intended to be the dining hall for the inhabitants but from the start it was felt to be too grand by the pensioners themselves, who preferred to eat in more humble surroundings. It very quickly became a space for ceremonial occasions and other special functions but was also an early "tourist" attraction, open to paying visitors! In 1806, the lying in state of Admiral Lord Nelson took place in the Painted Hall, following his death at the battle of Trafalgar. Huge crowds queued to view the body over a three day period before he was taken to his State funeral and internment in St Paul's Cathedral.


The decoration of the Hall was carried out by James Thornhill between 1707 and 1726. For this the agreed payment was £3/square yard for the ceiling and £1.00/square yard for the walls. However, when it came to actual payment, there were the inevitable delays and disagreements with those holding the purse strings! Eventually, Thornhill received a total payment of £6,685.00. This was a princely sum in the early 18th Century but when looked at a little more deeply does seem a tad miserly. This was a 19 year project, during which he had provide his own materials and the scaffolding. Plus, as this was not a single handed operation, he had pay the team of assistants required to get the job done.


On the plus side, a prestigious commission like this also led to work from other sources.  During the period that he was working in the Painted Hall he also carried out a number of other important projects including a number of walls and ceilings at Chatsworth House, the grisaille  panels inside the  dome of St Paul's Cathedral and the ceiling of the New Council Chamber of the Guildhall in the City of London!


Also within the same period he opened a school of drawing (twice) where one of his pupils was William Hogarth who also later became Thornhill's son in law.

Oh yes, he was also a fine portrait painter and the Member of Parliament for Melcombe Regis in Dorset. This man was a seriously good at multitasking!


The painted ceiling is a massive and important work. It emphasises Britain's naval power and international trading success but also reflects the political, social and scientific achievements of the age. It is an incredible cocktail of around 200 contemporary, historical and allegorical figures, musical and scientific instruments, warships and weapons, and a pretty hefty chunk of the animal kingdom!


One of the problems with working on a project of this length was that things change. Thornhill had to keep on top of the shifts in political power and social values and, of course, changes in the monarchy. He was clearly a man who  knew which side his bread was buttered, so he frequently modified his design as the years went on. Britain went through a series of royal changes over the 19 years. Starting with the joint monarchs William III and Mary II, followed by Queen Anne and finally George I. He made sure that they were all well presented in a respectful and flattering manor, unlike Louis XIV who is shown being trampled under King William's foot!


This political tiptoeing paid off when, on 2nd May 1720, he was knighted by King George I, the first British artist to receive such an honour.

I have to be honest here, and admit that I didn't know anything about James Thornhill before I started researching this article. Why is his name not mentioned in the same breath as Constable or Turner? Perhaps it is because the majority of his great works grace walls and ceilings rather than canvas but, whatever the reason, he deserves more recognition.


The Painted Hall is currently part way through a major project. The emphasis is on cleaning and conservation, rather than restoration. The plaster is in remarkably good condition, with very few cracks, all of which seem to be minor and easily stabilised. The painting itself is also in very good shape, the real problem being the various layers of varnish that have been applied over the years. Darkened and crazed in some areas. As much as is possible, it will be cleaned and treated sympathetically, without disturbing the actual painted surface.


Until September 2017, you have the once in a lifetime opportunity to get up close and personal with the ceiling of the lower hall. Measuring 15 by 30 metres, it towers over 18 metres above floor level. The extraordinary scaffolding (around 7 miles of tubing and weighing roughly the same as the Space Shuttle........apparently!) enables you to get within touching distance of this amazing art work. To be honest, the majority of the detail and 18th century symbolism would be beyond the comprehension to most of us in the 21st century but, fortunately, the wonderful guides are there to help you through this visual minefield. Plus you get to wear a hi viz waistcoat and a hard hat. What more could you want?


It is a fascinating and beautiful piece of British history and all of the money raised through ticket sales goes into the conservation fund, so you also get that warm feeling , knowing that you have done your bit towards preserving this treasure for future generations to enjoy.

Check out Janeslondon's post on the Ceiling Tour here, it also includes a good tip of where to eat if you are visiting Greenwich!

More photographs in my Flickr album here.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Repentant Magdalene


Yesterday I went to see the Repentant Magdalene at the National Gallery. What a lovely thing it is!

Commissioned by Emperor Leopold 1, it was painted , in Vienna, by Guido Cagnacci sometime in the early 1660's. For a picture from the Baroque period, it is remarkably unfussy. Many artists at that time seem to have been intent on cramming as much into their paintings as possible, either because that was desired by their clients (who were prepared to pay handsomely for a suitably showy result), or because they simply wanted to show just how clever they really were. This is not at all like that, it is a large canvas, around 104x90 inches with an elegant setting and lots of space. It shows Mary Magdelane renouncing her sinful ways and converting to Christianity. The really stunning thing, from my heathen point of view, is the depiction of the heroine (or villainess, depending on how you chose to read her character). While the characters around her seem to fit the Baroque idea of what a biblical figure should look like, Mary herself could have just stepped out of a 21st century fashion shoot or an ad for Chanel perfume!

No pictures from me, I'm afraid. Although the National Gallery freely allows non commercial photography of its (our!) own collection, but, as in this case, it often does not apply to artworks on loan from other collections. This painting is on loan from the Norton Simon Foundation in Pasadena and is being shown in the UK for the first time in over 30 years and we have to thank them for that.

This is a beautiful painting, way beyond my descriptive abilities. Go and see it yourself. It is on display until the 21st May.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The Veronica Scanner

Two weeks ago I had a 3D scan of my head made at the Royal Academy as part of the Veronica Scanner project. An interesting, if very short, experience, the scan itself taking just a matter of seconds.

Why did I do this? A very good question! I'm not a natural photographic subject, I don't mind spontaneous photographs but ask me to pose for a shot and I don't know what to do. I usually end up looking puzzled or gurning like a man in leave of his senses (some who know me may well think that description not too far off of the mark!)

I suppose it was partly just to try something different and to be part of an art project but it was also, perhaps, to see myself as others see me. We are used to seeing ourselves in a hard copy photograph or on a phone or a computer screen, but whether it's a still shot or a video, it is remains a slightly flat image. 3D promised something different. So why not give it a go.

So, what happened on the day? I turned up ahead of my booked time slot and took a quick look around before checking in at the desk.

There were a number of examples of printed heads on display, in a variety of materials. Of particular interest were a small series loosely based on the wonderful character heads created by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt in the late 18th century. Examples of his work are held in the collections of the V&A and the Wellcome.


The scanner itself sat in the middle of the room in a large perspex box. It looked like a giant, perforated, desk globe, split vertically with the two halves separated by a couple of feet and in the centre was a saddle-like seat.


After signing the waivers, which would allow the resulting images to be used as part of the project, and a very short wait, it was my turn to be scanned. The first choice I had to make was whether or not to wear my glasses. Apparently, most people have chosen to remove them. That didn't seem to make sense to me. Specs have been part of me for the last 50 plus years and relatively few people would remember me without them, so to keep them on was a no brainer.


The procedure was explained and I soon found myself perched on the saddle as the two halves of the sphere closed in on me. The saddle was raised by the operator to centre me in the scanner and we were good to go.


The sphere has 96 apertures and is lined with a number of low powered flash units. Eight Canon EOS 5D cameras are arranged in an arc on an exterior arm that resembles the support on a conventional globe. The cameras are timed to shoot as they pass the holes in the globe. The for those who care about these things, the overlapping pictures are saved as 24 megapixel RAW files.

Some other sitters chose to be quite creative with their poses but I decided on what I thought was a fairly neutral expression, not that I'm a great judge of these things (see my earlier comments). The operator asked me if I was ready and, after a reminder to remain still during the scan, she hit the button. It apparently takes four seconds to complete the scan, but at the time it seemed much quicker. I was aware of the arm swinging around the outside of the sphere and the flashes firing in sequence and then, it was all over. The cameras had taken their 96 shots and it was now down to the computers to make sense of it all.


After a short wait to be sure that the 96 individual shots had been recorded, it was time to leave.

Now, two weeks later, those 96 individual photographs have been processed to produce this! It may take a little while for this to load (especially on a tablet, a friend and I have had problems on different Samsung Tabs, desktops and laptops seem OK) , but please be patient because, as the advert says, I'm worth it LOL.

I have to admit that I'm pleasantly surprised with the result. There were no guarantees that the scan would be successful and I was fairly convinced that something would go wrong, perhaps I had moved during the scan, or there would be a software glitch, but no, it has turned out OK.

So, what now? I have a digital file that I can send to a 3D printer to have my head recreated in a variety of materials from plastic to glass or even in chocolate. It is also possible to connect to a specialised routing machine to reproduce me in wood (a wooden head? Too close to the truth I think!). There is even the option to print in wax and then produce a bronze Me using the lost wax process! I'm not yet sure if any of these are going to happen for two main reasons. One, I suspect it is going to cost considerably more than a head, an arm and a leg to do it and, Two, I'm not sure that I want to be stared at, in my own home, by another version of me. Might check it out though. Just in case!


The guys below are not me!



In the nine days of the RA event more than 600 heads were scanned. The results of all of these scans can be seen here, along with more information on the project.

I'm not sure that I've learned any more about myself from this but it was an interesting experience with a surprisingly acceptable result.


That's it!







Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Moving On.

This time last week, I was getting up at stupid o'clock, going to a place where I didn't particularly want to be and doing things I didn't really want to do.

It was known as work!

Today, I got up when I felt like it. I mooched about for a bit, then I came here, doing not very much apart from sitting in the sun, drinking decent coffee, watching the World (or at least a very small part of it) passing by and listening to the birds sing their hearts out.



I can now do this whenever I like (weather permitting!)

This is known as retirement.

Highly recommended.



By the way, "here" is Holland Park, without any doubt, the best park in London and don't let anyone tell you any different. I have been coming here all of my life, from a baby in a pram to the grey haired, near OAP that I am now

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

The Royal River Salute

On the 9th September, Queen Elizabeth became our longest reigning monarch, bumping her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, off of the top spot. To mark the occasion  there was to be a flotilla of boats led by the Royal barge Gloriana. It was hoped that a rolling wave of cheers and applause would follow the flotilla on it's journey from Tower Bridge (which would open for the occasion) to the Palace of Westminster

If you didn't go, you really didn't miss anything. The whole thing was staggeringly underwhelming. I decided to watch from the Albert Embankment opposite the H of P. Actually, not so much a decision as a necessity, as it was the only point I had a chance to get to, given that I had left it so late to leave home.

 
I got there just as The Gloriana cleared Westminster Bridge. It was followed by the Havengore, two fire boats, one of which, the Massey Shaw, was a Dunkirk Little Ship. There were also a couple of Police boats and a Thames cruise boat.

 
 
 
These were followed a few minutes later by something that didn't pass under the bridge but was making a variety of wonderful hooting, screaming noises from it's steam whistles. I later found that the source of these noises was what looked like converted (in a good way) trawler named the George Stephenson that, despite having folded its funnel and mast, clearly wasn't going to risk passing under the bridge with the tide as high as it was.
 



I'm not sure what I expected of the "flotilla" (the information I saw was a little vague about that) but it was a bit more than this and the expected wave of cheers/applause that the organisers hoped would follow this event from Tower Bridge to Westminster, if it ever started, had fizzled out long before it reached me!

On the other hand the weather wasn't too bad and it did get me out of the house slightly earlier than my natural lethargy suggested was possible.

By the way, I was wrong about the George Stephenson. Not a converted trawler but something altogether more interesting. Thank you to Joanna Moncrieff for pointing me in the right direction on this one.

Oh, and I should give a special mention to the crew of the rather lovely cruiser Elvin, who seemed delighted to have so many cameras pointed in their direction, even though they were not part of the flotilla!

 

That's it!

Sunday, 14 September 2014

A Walk Under The River

There are three accessible pedestrian routes under the River Thames. The Greenwich and Woolwich Foot Tunnels are both well known and well used, I've been through both of them on many occasions. The third one came as a bit of a surprise to me.


Work on the Rotherhithe Tunnel commenced in 1904 and it was opened by HRH  The Prince of Wales (later King George V) in 1908. Linking Limehouse  on the north bank with Rotherhithe on the south, it was designed to provide a means for pedestrians and horse drawn traffic to cross the river without the need to travel west to Tower Bridge or east to the Blackwall Tunnel on the other side of the Isle of Dogs. Obviously, horse traffic eventually gave way to the ubiquitous motor vehicle and it is still an important, and heavily used, route from north to south but I had no idea that it was still accessible to pedestrians. According to Wikipedia around twenty pedestrians still use the tunnel each day!


So, this morning, I joined two friends, Jane and Jen to check it out for ourselves. it was a remarkably stress free journey. The pavements (on both sides) are around four feet wide and the speed limit is 20mph so, all things considered, it was probably much safer than the average country lane. The lighting was a pretty good and there were signs, indicating how far you have travelled and how far you still had to go, at regular intervals. I have to admit that air quality was not exactly brilliant but was not as bad as you might expect.


After a walk of just under a mile and reaching a maximum depth below the river surface of  approx. 75ft we emerged into the sunshine and the (relatively) fresh air of the north bank. Overall, an interesting experience but probably not one I'd care to do on a daily basis.


It is a little known fact (?) that beer is the perfect antidote to a potential exhaust fume overdose and to that end we made our way to the Old Ship pub on the delightful York Square E14 (recommended, by the way) for a pint or three. A nice way to end a nice day in good company.


By the way, it was a good job that Jane had her breakdown before entering the tunnel as we didn't have a vehicle to return to!

 
More photographs to follow on Flickr soon.


 

Monday, 8 September 2014

Jack the Ripper.....Mystery Solved?

In the 2002  book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper Case Closed, Patricia Cornwell declared that her  conclusion was , after much detailed research, that Walter Sickert was JTR. This was not an original idea, his name had been associated with the mystery for many years. It wasn't even the first publication on the subject. In her 1990 book, Sickert and the Ripper Crimes, Jean Overton Fuller asserted that he was indeed the infamous serial killer. Earlier still, in 1976, Stephen Knight in his book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution put forward the theory that Sickert was an unwilling accomplice to the real Jack.

Now we have a new real Jack the Ripper, well not exactly new. This one has been on the Ripper list since the time of the murders. In yet another book on the subject, Russell Edwards (no relation) names  Aaron Kosminski as quite definitely, without any doubt, the real thing. Based on the DNA profiling of samples of blood on a shawl said to have belonged to, or have been associated with Catherine Eddowes who was believed to have been the Ripper's fourth victim (and the second to die under his hand during the infamous double event of Sunday 30th September 1888).

I am, of course, not qualified to comment on the accuracy of DNA results although it does seem fairly obvious that they wouldn't stand up in a court of law (not that that is relevant here). Firstly, the shawl was obtained under what would now be considered very dubious circumstances. Apparently, a policeman took, or was given it, once it was considered to be no longer important to the investigation, to give to his wife. Although why anyone would give a bloodstained shawl as a gift to his nearest and dearest is beyond me.

Secondly, even though it survived and remained in the hands of the same family for all of these years it can hardly be claimed to have been kept in a sterile and uncontaminated condition. Nevertheless, DNA testing appears to show that the shawl was stained with the blood of both Eddowes and Kosminski (comparisons were made with samples donated by present day members of the two bloodlines). It seems to me that without some other supporting evidence, the best that can be said to explain this is that at some time Kosminski came into contact with both Eddowes and the shawl. Given that Eddowes was a known prostitute and that it was quite possible that Kosminski had been a client, it leaves any kind of statement that he was the killer, or was even present during the event, on very shaky ground.

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that we are probably no closer to knowing who dunnit. Authors and researchers will continue to reel out the name of the real JTR, usually homing in on one or other of the usual suspects. Interestingly, although the same names come up gain and again, someone once said that if you could line up all of the most "respected" Ripperologists, then throw back a curtain to reveal the man(or woman?) himself, they would all look at him (or her) and say "WHO?"

Without any doubt, the unsolved crimes of the person or persons known as Jack the Ripper are fascinating, innumerable theories and books have appeared on the subject and it's an absolute guarantee that just as many are still to come, but that fascination comes from the fact that we don't know his identity. Common sense tells us that, yes of course, the right thing is to find who carried out these horrific crimes and to close the case to the satisfaction of the law and the state............

.......but, a mystery is a mystery...........and people love a mystery!

For an introduction to the whole affair, take a look at Casebook: Jack the Ripper and the Wikipedia entry here.