Art of the State:
British Museum.

Art The British Museum (which you can read more about here) is the first of these institutions which caused me to have an anxiety attack. This was last month before this project officially began when I decided after three or four years of monthly London trips it was about time for a visit (although I'm taking the Amy Adams in Arrival approach to time now and including anywhere I may have visited recently as being part of the project even if I didn't know the project had begun yet).  Everything began as usual on entering, toilet then lunch from the museum cafe then find the section I was focusing on for the visit, on this occasion Europe in the last millenium.

Truth be told, I'd already been nervous about that London visit for some reason.  The week before hadn't gone completely to plan for various reasons so I was already on edge when on reaching the Museum I discovered that the one working men's toilet was in the basement (as long term readers will know I spend half my time in museums and art galleries traipsing to and from the lavatory so the closer it is to the objects the better).  Then the wrap bought in the cafe was pretty horrendous, a smooshy concoction with large raw piece of broccoli root in the middle.  Then there's the map of the museum which is incredibly confusing if you don't already appreciate the geography of the building.

Such things sound like pretty low level issues but if you're already a bit tense they begin to add up.  Once I was in the museum space with the map searching for the Europe section, my head began to spin.  When I eventually reached the section I was after, my bladder was already screaming at me, the toilet so, so far away.  Between that, the sheer number of people moving around and existing and objects in display cases placed so close to each other in the rooms, one of the largest museums in the world began to give me sensory overload, like the final moments of the Doctor Who episode Turn Left but with the word "distraction" printed across all the surfaces.

Everything just got too much for me and I ended up having to run to a bench and phoning someone I could trust so that I could hear a voice which would take me out of the environment.  Eventually Mum was able to coax me back and I left as soon as I could, feeling incredibly defeated.  Apart from a visit to the nearby camera museum with its chronology of machines in the basement, the day went pretty much downhill from there and I ended up getting an earlier train home.  Although I'm sure it's not for these reasons, for the first time I understood why some people don't like London.  Sometimes it's a little bit too everything all together.

Access to the Collection.

The museum is open daily 10.00–17.30 and Fridays 10.00–20.30.   Due to its size, I can't honestly say how many of the paintings on the Art UK website are on display.  When it first opened, the National Gallery was essentially part of the British Museum so its art collection was transferred there. As one of the notes on the Museum's Wikipedia page says, "Sculptures and applied art are in the Victoria and Albert Museum; the British Museum houses earlier art, non-Western art, prints and drawings. Art of a later date is at Tate Modern. The National Gallery holds the National Collection of Western European Art. Tate Britain holds British Art from 1500 onwards."

Collection Spotlight.

Hokusai's The Great Wave off Kanagawa is graphically complex and thrilling artwork depicting the threat of watery chaos against three boats off the coast of the southern prefecture of Japan.  The white foam looks like claws about to pull the fishermen to their death, demonstrating the ongoing conflict between man and nature.  It also somewhat captures what it's like to have anxiety, forever under threat that you're about to overwhelmed knowing that eventually you will be engulfed despite taking medication, despite knowing that it will pass, hoping that that if you do capsize you'll still be able to make it back to shore.

Two things worth noting for the purposes of this project.  Firstly, it's not listed on the Art UK website which again opens up the discussion about the line drawn between museum ethnographic artifacts and public art collections - although it's worth nothing that because the database began life as the Your Paintings section on the BBC website, it doesn't necessarily feature prints or drawings yet, that would be another massive undertaking.  But it is one of my favourite objects in the BM's collection and with the greatest respect far more interesting than the paintings which do feature on the Art UK website which are mainly of interest in relation to the history of the museum.

Secondly, it isn't on the walls, only brought out every couple of years as a precaution against damage, something I only discovered on a further visit this month to see it.  Not wanting to be emotionally destroyed by a building, after visiting Leighton House and the surrounding sites, I returned to the museum, taking advice from a few people online to use the side entrance which was indeed a lot more civilised and with less queues.  Holborn tube station may be adorned with British Museum advertising, but Goodge Street is just as close and allows you to skip the crowds.  London is always somehow less intimidating when you're acting like a local.

Before visiting I googled the artwork to check whether it was on display.  You see I did do some homework, and this page on the website indicates "On display: G35/od" - I assumed the letters and numbers were some kind of room designation.  Not wanting to have to deal with the map again, I approached the information desk for directions, only to be told that it wasn't in fact on display.  Dejectedly I suggested that perhaps the website should be updated to say as much upon which the clerk showed me this page which does indeed show that it is "not on display". Being me I trapsed up to the Japan gallery to check anyway only to find a sign on the wall explaining its absence.

Needless to say, I've emailed the collections database department at the museum for an explanation.  Looking now, the acquisition details are different in each entry which suggests the British Museum actually owns two copies of the print but that doesn't explain why one of them is listed as being on display when it appears neither of them are.  I'll rewrite and complete this paragraph when I get a response.

Art of the State:
Leighton House Museum.

Art A couple of days before visiting Leighton House Museum, Dr. Bendor Grosvenor noted on Twitter that one of its paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby, which had been featured in a season two episode of Britain's Lost Masterpieces had been put up for sale.  As is noted there, it was actually bequeathed to Royal Kensington Borough Council who now run the museum and had decided to put it on display there and it was their decision to sell the work, which will fetch a couple of hundred grand.  This nevertheless shows the increasingly precarious position local art collections are in.  Presumably the bequest was made on the understanding that it would be on view to the public and now it'll doubtless return to private hands.

Leighton House, as the name suggests, was the home of the painter Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton, and is a rare for the period example of a purpose built home and studio.  Designed by George Aitchison for whom this was his most notable work and taking thirty years to complete, it's best known for its Qa'a, a reception room with a high golden dome and islamic influenced tiling and mosaics.  It is indeed spectacular and I was desperate to sit and take it all in, but none of the chairs in the building appear to be for sitting on, with pine cones on top of all of them detering the visitor.  The rest of the building is constructed around this fancy, the most remarkable effort being the huge studio space now doubles as an education and events space.

Accessibility of the Collection.

The museum is open daily from 10am to 5.30pm; last entry at 5pm.  But despite being a council run building there is an entry charge of £9 for adults, £7 concession.  Fortunately I had my National Art Collection card so received free entry.  Word of warning.  Apparently, it's always very busy with school visits.  When I first wandered in there was what seemed like the entire year of a junior school in and a bit later an A-Level class, both of which were pretty noisy and given how small the building is, pretty disruptive to the concentration.  In the end I left and came back a couple of hours later, after they'd gone.  If you're someone like me who's becoming increasingly tricky in a crowd (see future entry on the British Museum), I'd phone and check first, especially if you have to pay the full entrance fee.

Collection Spotlight.

Much of the work on display is by Leighton himself and of these I have a soft spot for Corinna of Tanagra. But let's focus on this portrait of a girl by Emilie Isabel Barrington.  It's one of two works by Barrington in the Leighton House collection which have been brought out on display as part of an imminent refurbishment and extension plan (the rest of the reserve collection are going into storage).  Except they're also the only two works in the Art UK's database.  Barrington's wikipedia page mentions her work as a biographer and columnist, but nothing of her work as an artist.  So how did these two beautiful works happen and what was her connection to Leighton and the house?

This useful blog post from the Friends of Leighton House site has a number of answers:
"Mrs Barrington lived with her husband in Melbury Road [round the back of Leighton House -- Ed.] with the Thornycroft family of sculptors on one side and G.F. Watts on the other. She befriended many of the artists living nearby. Her devotion to Watts (who gave her painting lessons) and habit of dropping in on him unannounced, became an irritant to Watts’ second wife Mary, contributing to the couple’s decision to establish a second home at Compton in Surrey.

"Following Leighton’s death and with his home facing an uncertain future, she was behind the move to establish the house as a centre for the arts in Kensington. In 1906 she published a substantial biography of Leighton which remains an invaluable source and a number of the works by Leighton on display in the house were presented by her. Having fallen out with a committee of the great and good established to secure its future, she financed and ran the house more or less single-handedly until its transfer to the council at the end of the 1920s."
So it was George Watts who gave her painting lessons and its because of her that we have a Leighton House Museum now. Frankly she sounds like she deserves her own biography, although that seems unlikely since her key works are only in print because of the British Library's duplication service (although the Internet Archive has her Watts book).  There are plans for a new wing include a display commemorating Barrington's contribution.  Hopefully this will also include some conservation work on her painting - as you can see from the photograph, the surface has a gash out of it on the bottom right. 

Art of the Stare:
Mayor's Parlour.

Art If Geoff and Vicki on All The Stations have awkward stations, then it's inevitable in my rip-off project that I'm going to come across some awkward venues. The Mayor's Parlour in Kensington Town Hall, a lovely (yes lovely) brutalist edifice designed by Sir Basil Spence (an architect perhaps best known for Coventry Cathedral) in the late 60s and finally opened in 1976 (ten days after his death).  The building resembles a kind of alien embassy with its geometric wall structure and spacious yet intimate interior, with a hallway on the ground floor large enough to host events.  The blog of the Kensington Central Library's local history department has a series of photographs showing the construction of the building from foundations upwards.

Accessibility of Collection.

Well. After wandering aimlessly around the ground floor of the town hall, which is also on the Art UK list but doesn't merit its own blog post due to having only two paintings listed in the database and neither on display, I stumbled upon a reception. Sheepishly I asked the the clerk if the "Mayor's Parlour" was open to the public, she smiled and said yes, there was a meeting on at that moment, but I was welcome to go and take a look, pointing me towards stairs up to the first floor.  Slightly bewildered, I wandered upwards and through some thick oak doors found some interconnected corridors.

Along one of these I could see the meeting room, where there was indeed a meeting happening and next to this another door.  I glanced in.  This was the Mayor's Parlour which turned out to be a literal private office.  Tea making facilities, large impressive desk and lots of books.  Is this what the desk clerk meant?  There were just a couple of paintings hung up and the rest stacked against a wall near the door, one of which had a Royal Academy label on the back.  I did not touch anything and decided to make my retreat.  So no, I would not consider this to be an accessible collection.

Collection Spotlight.

Henry Pether was following in the family business. His father, Abraham Pether was an English landscape painter, recognised for his skill in depicting moonlit scenes, to the point that for a while he was known as "Moonlight" Pether. He was also an inventor, constructing telescopes and microscopes and lecturing in electricity utilising machines of his own construction.  He was also the father of nine children and was barely able to sell his paintings fast enough to fit their demands, so when he fell ill and was unable to work, he fell into poverty.  Eventually his wife went into business selling pencils. 

Both of Abraham's sons Sebastian and Henry became landscape artists who also became known for their moonlit landscapes of which Chelsea by Moonlight (c. 1850) is a great example.  Henry himself had a busy life which you can read about in this database of Southampton history which included a poor investment in a railway leading to a period in debtor's prison, owning patents on machines for producing the tiles used in mosaics and for ornamental bricks and throughout all of that he continued to paint.  The Art UK website has forty-three paintings by him.