Archive for the ‘london’ Category

And as the days hurtle on towards Autumn, my thoughts turn towards Whitechapel, Spitalfields, the Ten Bells, Jack the Ripper, dark London streets and fog swathed gaslights. It’s been this way since I was a melodramatic gothic teenager, caught up in the Jack the Ripper centenary of 1988 and has lingered ever since. Maybe this year I will even get cracking on that book about Mary Jane Kelly that I’ve been researching on and off for ages!

This can mean only one thing – time for another Gin and Whores party! An evening of corsetry, gin imbibing, flirtation, scandal and iniquity. We’ve held two so far and they were great successes, with loads of beautifully dressed sorts turning up to have lots of fun, eat cake and engage in gin fuelled debauchery.

This year, the Gin and Whores party will be hosted by myself and that louche fan of bohemian Victorian decadence Professor Simon Trafford and will be held sometime in the Autumn in an as yet to be decided venue in London – maybe even the Ten Bells itself!


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Through dreamlike installations, interactive theatre, intimate storytelling, soundscapes, haunting film projections and a series of clues hidden throughout the historic rooms, the stories of the palace and the princesses who once lived there – Mary, Anne, Caroline, Charlotte, Victoria, Margaret and Diana – are explored, revealing tales of love and hate, surprise and sadness, secrets and jealousy.”

There is a beautiful new exhibition at Kensington Palace in London, in which the state rooms have been transformed into a beautiful wonderland in order to evoke the often tragic stories of seven celebrated princesses who used to live at the Palace in the past. It opened in March and runs until February 2012, so there’s plenty of time to make a visit! I’m planning to go and see it next time I am in London, if anyone wants to come with me?

I’m particularly keen to see the dress that Vivienne Westwood designed ‘for’ Princess Charlotte, whose untimely death in childbirth, led to an immense crisis and the eventual succession of Queen Victoria.

Other princesses featured in the exhibition include: Mary II, Queen Anne, Queen Caroline (wife of George II), Queen Victoria, Princess Margaret and Princess Diana.

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So anyway, the whole point of my going to London last month was to meet up with my former university tutor, Mr Desmond Shawe-Taylor, who is now the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures.

Actually, I’ve just recalled that not only was Desmond my tutor at Nottingham, but he also interviewed me for my place on the course. At the time I was undecided between Bristol, York and Nottingham, but it was my interview with Desmond that made me decide on the spot that I wanted to go to Nottingham. I was already a fan of his work on Georgian art and I really looked forward to learning more about it from an expert.

It is Desmond that you have to thank for my love of Baroque religious art and for an appreciation of sculpture. The other tutors at Nottingham prefered a more factual, less flamboyant style in their essays – it was Desmond who taught me that writing about art history is boring without drama and flair and encouraged me to write about what I saw vividly and with vigour.

He left Nottingham in my second year to Director of Dulwich Picture Gallery and then later on became Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, which basically means that he is responsible for the Queen’s painting collection.

I was thrilled and excited when he offered to meet up in the wake of the opening of Victoria and Albert: Art and Love at the Queen’s Picture Gallery and had lots of questions planned. However, it didn’t quite work out that way and we ended up having an informal but fascinating conversation about art history instead.

First of all we talked about the exhibition about Victoria and Albert, which I had assumed was inspired by the film Young Victoria or at least was planned with it in mind, but it seems that it was just a happy coincidence that they happened so close together.

We talked about how the world is ready for another reinterpretation of the Victorians and this focus on the young Queen Victoria and the romance between her and Albert is a fresh new look at both the Queen and the period that she lived in, challenging the staid view that people tend to have both of the Victorians and also Victoria herself. The last big rethink about the Victorians seemed to involve focussing on their sex lives and debunking the myth that they were repressed and moralistic – now, it seems that it is time that we looked at the romantic Victorians.

There are cross overs as well between the Queen’s Gallery’s previous exhibition about conversation pieces and the new exhibition about Victoria and Albert: both are intrinsically focused on the contentment of happy domestic life, the intimate moments that until the eighteenth century had not been depicted so often in art. On one hand, we have the somewhat stiff but still affectionate family groups of the conversation pieces and on the other we have the visual evidence of the great love between Queen Victoria and her Albert.

The paintings of the royal couple with their children bear a definite relationship to the earlier paintings, most closely with those of George III, Queen Charlotte and their numerous children. It is clear that what is being depicted here is not just an idealised happy family life but also a very definite attempt at propaganda – on one hand there is George III, his wife and band of pop eyed children, painted at their leisure either seated before a dressing table or at their ease in a quintessentially English landscape, using a very English conceit to distance themselves both from their embarrassing Stuart ancestors and also the unpopular earlier Hanoverian kings and on the other, there is Victoria and Albert, dressed just like any other middle class family, openly showing their love and distancing themselves from Victoria’s family, which at the time comprised her degenerate uncles.

Both exhibitions encompass a movement towards a very informal, middle class form of art. Before the conversation piece, portraiture was the preserve of the aristocracy and usually depicted nobility dressed in their finest clothes, posing self consciously, an arch smile hovering about their lips and the conversation pieces are the antithesis of this. They also chart the movement of the royal family towards a more intimate and informal way of life, reflecting their own wish to be more wholesome in an attempt to gain security and separate themselves from the bad behaviour of the past.

Desmond and I talked regretfully about the fact that these attempts were inevitably doomed to failure. George III and Queen Charlotte did their best to raise good, well behaved children who would be totally unlike their ancestors and instead managed to produce a brood who have gone down in history as a iniquitous rabble. Victoria and Albert had better luck, although their eldest son Prince Bertie could be classed as a definite failure.

We also touched on the burgeoning interest in German art and writing, with its more moral and sombre themes than that of France. It’s interesting that in the eighteenth century, France, Germany and England fed off each other culturally and yet retained their own distinct character. The main crux of this would seem to be the role of court culture at the time and the movement away from behemoths like Versailles towards the more culturally diverse and lively salons of Paris. At the same time, London was a centre for writers and artists while the court at Windsor (with the exception of Frances Burney, who loathed it) was stultified and dull.

Another interesting point was the difference in reactions to the various Germanic consorts at this time – we all know about Marie Antoinette’s shattered reputation in France, but how does this contrast with the way that Queen Charlotte, a German princess, was viewed in England and then, much later, how the Saxon Prince Albert was regarded by the subjects of his wife, Victoria.

It was a fascinating afternoon and so thank you, Desmond, if you read this, for being so kind and for the fabulous conversation! I took so much away with me and have been feeling very inspired ever since.

More posts about this:

Victoria and Albert: Art and Love.

The Conversation Piece: Scenes of Fashionable Life.

The Young Victoria.

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If you are in London or planning to make a trip there in the next month then I would definitely recommend a visit to the current exhibition on show at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. It’s running until 14th February so you still have a bit of time to get there.

The exhibition is ‘The Conversation Piece: Scenes of Fashionable Life’ and charts the development of the conversation piece as a genre of portraiture from the seventeenth century onwards, following the ever changing vagaries of fashion and, more crucially, the constantly evolving social conventions of a period that encompasses both the English Civil War and the French Revolution.

I’ve always been a massive fan of conversation pieces, appreciating them as a wealth of pictorial information about the everyday lives, aspirations and dramas of the middle and upper classes. I am always particularly enamoured with the tiny details: the stern face of a nanny as she holds a wailing infant, the flies settling on a bowl of fruit, the whisper of a flirtatious glance between the master of the house and his pretty ward.

This being an exhibition held in the Queen’s Gallery, the most interesting pieces are, of course those depicting members of royalty. Here we have a stiff and tiny Charles I, Henrietta Maria and their small son Charles, all looking equally pop eyed and sweetly doll like. There are also paintings of George III, his splendidly plain wife Charlotte and their numerous surprisingly good looking children. My favourite of these is the painting by Zoffany of Queen Charlotte at her dressing table, flanked by her two eldest sons in fancy dress.

Another favourite is Windsor Castle in Modern Times by Landseer, which depicts a young Queen Victoria with Prince Albert and their eldest daughter, the Princess Royal, surrounded by a rather repulsive pile of slaughtered birds. To modern sensibilities, it probably still seems overly stately and formal but the effect at the time must surely have been revolutionary as it depicted the young Queen as a ‘normal’, happy and blissfully content wife and mother, a fact underlined by the title which makes you immediately think of what horrors must have happened at Windsor Castle in Olden Times.

It is clear that both of these paintings, although undeniably charming are also in their own way, a form of propaganda, projecting an image of the royal family as ‘the perfect family’, carefree, loving, affectionate and, above all, normal. The Hanoverians were distinctly unpopular for much of their time in England and were often compared unfavourably with their Stuart predecessors with their exquisite tastes, turn for melodrama and luscious, lower class mistresses. Conversation piece pictures of George III and Queen Charlotte as normal parents, playing with their children and exchanging loving glances with their legally married spouse couldn’t have made more of a point about the contrast between the two than if they had written ‘THOSE STUARTS WERE A BIT FUN BUT AT LEAST I CAN GET MY OWN WIFE PREGNANT AND NOT SOMEONE ELSE’S’ in red ink all over the canvas.

In the same way, the Landseer image of Queen Victoria as a charmingly blushing, adoring little wife draws a line between the young monarch and her dissolute pack of uncles, their eccentric eurotrash wives and multitudes of illegitimate offspring, who were still causing problems well into her reign.

Anyway, I am very annoyed that I will probably miss the exhibition, especially as it s curated by one of my university tutors, Desmond Shawe-Taylor, but you should definitely go if you get the chance. I am going to content myself with a copy of the exhibition catalogue.

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Looming like an uncomfortably angular white wedding cake over the ramshackle stained Victorian buildings that surround it, Christ Church in Spitalfields looks utterly incongruous.


It is hard to describe the unsettling atmosphere that surrounds it produced partially by its location at the very heart of the Ripper murders of 1888 but also by the oddly unbalanced appearance when you peer up at it.


Fans of Peter Ackroyd will of course remember it from his masterpiece (in my opinion) Hawksmoor, in which history is subverted and a modern day policeman Nicholas Hawksmoor is on the trail of a series of murders with links to the works of the seventeent century architect Nicholas Dyer,who is a fictional reworking of the real architect of Christ Church, Nicholas Hawksmoor. Still with me? It’s as confusing as hell but well worth a read.


Hawksmoor is the architect of six London churches, dubbed by me ‘The Creepy Churches’ because they all share the same overly orderly approach to geometric design and the same brooding sense of menace. They were commissioned in 1711 as part of the Act of Parliament ‘Commission for Building Fifty New Churches’, of which only twelve churches in total were ever fully realised.


The Commission was quite forward thinking – it was an attempt to replace the churches lost in the Great Fire and also to provide a spiritual focus for the several new communities that were springing up around the historic city as it expanded and consumed the surrounding villages and towns. Christ Church was designed to provide a church for the huge Huguenot (French protestants that had been hounded out of their own country) community that had settled in the Whitechapel area and made it a centre for the production of the Spitalfields Silk so beloved on the continent.


Christ Church was built between 1714 and 1724 and its startling plainess and austerity must have come as a huge cultural shock to a generation who were more used to the Baroque excesses that were so prevalent in contemporary architecture, although it also marks a turning point in taste as the Baroque gave way to the Palladian influenced style of buildings like Marble Hill House in Twickenham.


From Hell fans will of course recognise it as the church that looms forbidding and temple like over the churning, debauched streets of 1888 Whitechapel with the Ten Bells next door, tramps and whores sleeping in the once orderly churchyard and a warren of foul alleyways running around it.


Nowadays, it has had the benefit of a sympathetic restoration programme and is now open again for worship and as a venue for hire. The Ten Bells is still next door but is now an overly noisy, faintly bohemian East End boozer with a bad reputation, just like so many others. The alleyways are no longer frightening but instead are a useful means of getting to the curry heaven that is Brick Lane that lies behind.


Ah, I miss Whitechapel. My family come from the East End of London – my great grandfather was a manager at Truman’s on Brick Lane and took part in the Battle of Cable Street in October 1936 and my grandmother was always very proud of the fact that she and the rest of her family had been born within the all important range of the Bow bells (like most East End families we undoubtedly come from hot headed immigrant stock, either Irish or Italian) and I feel like on many levels it is my spiritual home. Maybe one day I will get to move back again but in the meantime I can plan more gin fuelled, cackling nights out on Commercial Street.

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As the days begin to shorten and Autumn rushes upon us with its promise of crimson sunsets, foggy evenings and the damp crackle of leaves underfoot, I find my thoughts turning away from Versailles and floating away to Whitechapel and my other big interest, Jack the Ripper.


Now, I am aware that this is lowering the rather rococo tone of my blog somewhat but hear me out. I don’t know precisely when or why I became fascinated with Jack the Ripper but can definitely state that I was a little Ripperologist in training at just fourteen, possibly thanks to the rather bizarre ‘Hey let’s rather inappropriately celebrate the centenary of a series of really quite ghastly murders’ that occured in late 1988, the high point of which was the rather dreary serial starring Michael Caine and Jane ‘Ubiquitous’ Seymour.


I’m sure that I was interested long before this though. I distinctly remember visiting relatives in the East End as a little girl and feeling a thrill of excitement when the underground train passed through Whitechapel, pressing my face up against the cold, metallic smelling, dirty window so that I could stare upwards at the grim Victorian buildings that loom over the station.


Much later on I would get a boyfriend in Wapping and force him to walk with me through horrible Shadwell and up to Whitechapel. We went into the Ten Bells for celebratory gin and as we stood by the door I either felt or imagined a pair of cold hands encircling my waist, even though no one was standing near us. This freaked me out enough to send us back out into the cold, to seek comfort in a curry house in Brick Lane.


I have spent many happy hours in Whitechapel since then, drinking gin in the gloomy warmth of the Victorian pubs, staggering up the long, still grim streets, soaking up the lively atmosphere and spicy scent of Brick Lane and harassing the Jack the Ripper tours that wend through the damp streets every evening.


I have been on a couple of Jack the Ripper tours but don’t really need them any more as the streets of Whitechapel are now so familiar to me that sometimes I fly there in my dreams and wander them either as my modern day self or, terrifyingly in Victorian garb where a faceless, dreadful unknown chases me down the cobbled alleyways.


This is a picture of me standing against the amazing original tile work at the back of the Ten Bells on Commercial Street, where Mary Kelly used to drink. It is a noisy, busy trendy type of place now.

from hell graham

Of particular fascination is the dreary service road, White’s Row which is sandwiched between a hideous multi storey car park and a row of garages and storage bays. This nasty little street is always empty and eerie at night with the sound of distant revelry fading to nothing as you slowly walking down it, your eyes fixed on the Victorian buildings at the far end. In Victorian times it was the site of Dover Street, which was said to be the worst street in London: a grim, heaving, ugly mass of poverty, want, destitution and misery.


Number 13 Miller’s Court, the horrible home of Mary Jane Kelly, the Ripper’s last victim was located at the end of a narrow alleyway leading off Dorset Street, just one of hundreds of mean little dwellings rented out to the indigent citizens of the area. You can’t see where Miller’s Court used to stand, other than a slight dip in the pavement edging where the entrance was once located but there is something in the atmosphere of White’s Row, something nasty and wrong that still pervades the air so that even though you can’t see the houses and their unfortunate inhabitants, you can still feel them.

I don’t know why Jack the Ripper fascinates me so much, or indeed is of interest to so many other people. Would he be so interesting if the case was solved, I wonder? There is something about the Ripper that makes amateur Sherlock Holmes of us all as each of us wonder if we will be the one to finally solve the riddle and received the ultimate accolade.


There is something both romantically compelling and also sinister about the setting too – Victorian London, a city at the height of its Imperial and industrial powers where the gulf between rich and poor has never been greater. We Ripperologists thrill to the imagery of the gas lit cobbled streets with swirls of thick fog, the cries of the flower girls, the rumble of carriages and the garishly dressed, rouged and painted whores who stand on street corners and accost passersby. It might not strictly have been anything like that in real life but I for one am unwilling to relinquish the mental imagery that the mere mention of Jack the Ripper conjurs up in my mind, complete with the swish of his cloak as he vanishes swiftly into the fog.


Luckily for us, this lush mental imagery has been an inspiration to writers, artists and film makers as well. The most notable example being the amazing graphic novel From Hell by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, which is one of the most fabulous, moving and powerful pieces of writing that I have ever encountered. The film version starring Johnny Depp and an excorable Heather Graham is much maligned and criticised but I actually rather enjoy it despite the ridiculous ‘action’ sequences the and bizarrely sanitized appearance and character of Mary Kelly (she was a prostitute, get over it). Mind you I would watch anything with Robbie Coltrane in is so am probably biased.


Those of us in the UK were also treated to the television series Whitechapel earlier this year, a modern day take on the Ripper murders starring the frankly gorgeous Rupert Penry-Jones with a copycat killer cutting a literal swathe through the dank streets and crack dens of East End London. It could have been a load of schmaltzy, embarrassing nonsense but by employing an edgy soundtrack, flashy editing and a cracking and suspenseful script, it managed to lift itself head and shoulders above most crime drama.


Thanks to my interest in Jack the Ripper I have enjoyed many, many insalubrious gin, tequila and curry soaked evenings in Whitechapel (special mention here goes to my friend Tish and our drunken competing to ‘touch the pavement’ where the entrance to Miller’s Court once lay and also to Sarah for lying down on the spot that Catherine Eddowes was discovered and arranging herself in the same position whereupon an entire gleeful Jack the Ripper tour group took photographs), a bizarre evening at the cinema on the release night of From Hell, a frankly surreal but highly entertaining visit to the London Dungeon dressed up as a Victorian Prostitute, a couple of weird afternoons spent wandering around a St Patrick’s Catholic cemetery in Leytonstone in search of Mary Kelly’s grave (we reverently placed a bottle of gin there amongst the flowers) and even thrown a couple of amazing ‘Gin and Whores’ fancy dress parties in London. It’s probably not entirely sympathetic or appropriate but I am sure that most other Ripperologists can share much the shame experiences.


One day I would like to live in Whitechapel, in a lovely Victorian flat with windows that overlook the Jack the Ripper tour route. I want to be able to sit there with my windows flung open and smile to myself as they pause outside and gasp at the tour guides monologue. In the meantime, I visit whenever I can and make the most of the unusual atmosphere.



If you are interested in reading more about Dorset Street, then I recommend The Worst Street in London by Fiona Rule, which is a study of the area.


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