Exploring the East End

My office is in the East End of London, right next to Brick Lane, famed for its curry houses. From there I can easily walk into the City, or to Spitalfield’s Market, or to any number of labyrinthine streets that snake their way behind the main thoroughfares and are filled with interesting independent shops. This week I decided to take a trip to Whitechapel on my lunchbreak, scene of many of Jack the Ripper’s murders. Nowadays the slums that would have filled the little streets and alleys running off the main High Street have been largely replaced by modern council estates, and there’s little left to enable today’s visitor to even begin to imagine what it must have been like to live here in the late 1800s, when families lived in overcrowded, poorly built houses, stretching higgledy piggledy amidst dark and dank streets piled with filth.

However, on Brady Street, behind modern day Whitechapel tube station, and sandwiched between a council estate and a secondary school, sits a historical gem that is hidden from view behind shoulder height brick walls. Behind these walls is a Jewish cemetery, opened in 1761, and filled with an amazing array of beautiful headstones in both Hebrew and English. The cemetery got quickly overcrowded and closed in 1858, having already expanded by piling 4ft of extra soil on top in the mid 1800s to allow for bodies to be buried on top of one another; as such, some headstones are laid back to back.

The cemetery’s most famous residents are Nathan and Hannah Rothschild. German-born Nathan founded the British banking dynasty of Rothschilds in the early 1800s, and next to him is buried Nathaniel, the third Baron Rothschild, who died in 1990. This exceptional recent burial was carried out in order to save the cemetery from destruction; as no burials had taken place for 100 years, the council was legally entitled to purchase the land, exhume the coffins, and redevelop it into whatever they wished. This would have been a great loss to Jewish history in London, and as such, Baron Rothschild wrote it into his will that he wished to be buried at Brady Street, ensuring it will not be threatened again until 2090.

It’s a beautiful and peaceful space; a lovely and special piece of history in an area that has largely been decimated of its heritage. On the way back to work, I also passed some amazing old Victorian buildings with trees growing out of them; they have been left to largely rot, which is a terrible shame. Another amazing piece of history is the Bell Foundry, founded in 1420 and still going today, manufacturing bells. The building is gorgeous and I hope to one day be able to get a sneaky peak at the workers in action. What I love about the East End is that there are so many layers of history and culture; it’s always been a place where immigrants have lived, and always been a place where the poor have clustered, but it is also a vibrant, fun and increasingly artistic centre that embraces those who are different and encourages diversity, innovation and change. It’s a wonderful place to work, and despite being a stone’s throw from the glass and metal skyscrapers of the Square Mile, take a wander down a side street and you can step back in time and imagine what London must have been like 400 years ago.

Home Sweet Home

London in the Autumn is mild and mellow. The morning air is a haze of mist, the late afternoon sunlight is rich and golden, the pavements are carpeted in gloriously crunchy piles of tawny coloured leaves, and a deliciously heady scent of woodsmoke mingled with damp, rich earth lingers in the air. Outside of my bedroom window is a large oak tree whose leaves are a beautiful mixture of green, gold and brown; it rustles softly throughout the night, and it fills my heart with a curious gladness as I lie in my new bedroom on a quiet, red brick Victorian side street in North London.
Autumn is my favourite season, as it heralds change and new beginnings. I have never stopped seeing September as the start of a new year, and I don’t think I ever will. This year change is afoot again; I’m in a new home, have a new job, and some exciting plans for the future are afoot. I feel on the cusp of a wonderful new phase in my life and I am full of delight every single day as I wend my way through the streets of London on my way to and from work.
Highgate is a glorious place to live; the streets are lined with beautiful, immaculate red brick Victorian terraces; there are magnificent views across London as it’s on such high ground; there are a plethora of beautiful parks to stroll in and rejoice in the beauty of Autumn; and there is a suburban peace and quiet that I love after having been regularly woken up at 3am by taxi drivers yelling and honking their horns at each other on the mean streets of Spanish Harlem.
In short, I’m glad to be back. I had a magnificent year in New York, but there’s no place like home. Victorian terraces, chimneypots, tea and crumpets, orderly queues, being told to ‘mind the gap’, cockney accents and black cabs: I love it all! Here’s to new adventures!

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

I left the Victoria and Albert Museum as a member of staff for the last time yesterday. No longer will I be able to mysteriously disappear through doors marked ‘Staff Only’, or go behind the scenes and get sneak previews of exhibitions and new galleries. I’m going to miss it, enormously. It was an immense privilege to walk through galleries of sculpture on the way to a meeting; to be taken to attic store rooms lined with treasures; to be able to wander around before and after opening hours, and look and linger as long as I wanted to; to attend glamorous opening parties; and to have the company of colleagues passionate and knowledgable about their work, from whom I learned an awful lot. It was a magical one year and nine months, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone to work in a museum for a while – it’s an unforgettable experience!

I’m going to take you on a little ‘insider’s’ tour of the V&A now…my favourite gallery is the Cast Courts (or gallery 46a, to us!), which is the first picture at the top. These two galleries were purpose built in the 1870s to display the V&A’s now unrivalled collection of Victorian casts of famous world monuments. These casts, made of plaster and painted to resemble stone or iron or whatever the original monument was made from, are colossal in their size and include Michaelangelo’s David and Trajan’s Column (in the top picture – in two halves). The casts are mostly hollow and double up as useful storage receptacles – last time I popped my head into the space underneath the bottom half of Trajan’s Column, which looks like a big brick chimney from the inside, it was storing a massive gold Menorah!

Casts went out of fashion in the 20th century and all museums apart from the V&A and the Ashmolean in Oxford got rid of their collections. The sheer size of them makes them impractical to display, and technically, as they are not original works of art and merely copies, they are considered by many academics to be not worthy of being displayed as objects of architectural and design history in their own right. The V&A took a different attitude, however; the casts are an integral part of the V&A’s history as an art and design school, and as we had the space for them, the casts stayed. Now they are the most comprehensive collection of architectural casts anywhere in the world, and due to pollution and damage inflicted during both world wars, in some cases, the casts have provided vital evidence of original details and carving that has been lost over the past one hundred years from the originals. They are currently having a resurgence in importance in the art and architectural worlds, and there is nothing like them anywhere else. They are not widely known about, but they are so impressive in the flesh, and if you are ever in London, they are well worth a visit. Sadly, you can no longer access the gallery that runs along the top for health and safety reasons; I’ve been up there, and it’s an incredible view, though there are a lot of uncatalogued boxes of small casts up there so it’s probably best the public doesn’t see that bit!

Next up, is my favourite object. The painting above is a typical portrait of the Aesthetic period, and is by Sir William Blake Richmond. The sitter is Mrs Luke Ionides, born Elfrida Bird, wife of a wealthy Greek trading magnate and art patron. I adore everything about the Victorian period; the literature, the art, the design, the tastes, the history; and I especially love the Arts and Crafts movement. This painting is a perfect distillation of everything wonderful about Victorian Britain; sumptuous colours, ridiculous fashion, the interest in exoticism and the natural world, and the innovation and idealism practised by many. In the flesh, it is an absolute feast for the eyes. I used to go and just look at it on my lunch break, in awe of how lovely it is. It’s situated in the paintings galleries, which again, not a lot of people seem to know the V&A has. There is a magnificent collection of paintings on permanent show that are typical of the Victorian era; another favourite of mine is Rosetti’s The Day Dream.  The collection is well worth a look, and is a real hidden gem amongst the colossal range of the Museum’s holdings.

Finally, above is my favourite space in the V&A; the Morris room in the Museum cafe. There are three rooms that make up the cafe; the Morris, Gamble and Poynter rooms, all named after the men who designed them. They are beautiful rooms with tiled walls, stained glass and painted murals, all original survivals from the Victorian period when they were designed specifically as the first museum cafeteria in the world. William Morris’ design is stunning; it creates the effect of being in a forest glade, with the rich green walls and dappled light coming through the stained glass. Up close you can see the delicate paintwork on the walls, and the intricate ceiling design; it’s a perfect example of the decadence and earthiness of Morris’ designs. As a lover of everything Victorian, it is heaven in four walls to me. What could be a better place to sit down with a cup of tea and a slice of cake after a few hours wandering through the halls of magnificent objects?

I hope you enjoyed this whistlestop tour, and that it will encourage many of you who have never been before to take a trip to the beautiful Victoria and Albert Museum, otherwise known as the world’s greatest museum of art and design. I will leave you with a haunting poem from the sculpture that topped the grave of Countess Emily Georgiana of Winchelsea and Nottingham, and which I passed every day on my way to and from my office; she wrote it herself before she died to give her husband comfort once she was dead:

When the knell rung for the dying
soundeth for me
and my corpse coldly is lying
neath the green tree

When the turf strangers are heaping
covers my breast
Come not to gaze on me weeping
I am at rest

All my life coldly and sadly
The days have gone by
I who dreamed wildly and madly
am happy to die

Long since my heart has been breaking
Its pain is past
A time has been set to its aching
Peace comes at last.

Messing about in the sun

I’ve had a lot of book reviews to catch up on of late so I haven’t had the opportunity to show you some pictures of other things I have been getting up to when I’m not reading or bemoaning the state of modern society! Another one of my London Tourist Days has come and gone, and so has a lovely sunny weekend involving adorable children and chocolate pavlova, so without further ado…

The intrepid Emma and I went on a tourist day the weekend before I swanned off to Greece, and we had a spectacular time. Emma lives in Hackney and so our day started with Vietnamese Chilled Coffee (made with condensed milk and DELICIOUS) at Broadway Market, followed by a pleasant stroll down the canal eating the previous night’s leftover pizza until we reached a bus stop that took us into the city. There were lots of lovely narrowboats down the canal, all of which appear to be permanently lived in by people preferring a gentler pace of life within the city. I had a brief moment of wishing I too had a narrow boat and could drift along gently through the byways of London rather than hurrying around on the highways, but I thought twice when Emma said, you can’t fit many books on a narrowboat. She’s not wrong.

Onwards…to the City!, where we planned to spend the morning at the newly revamped Museum of London. On our way we came across this rather incongruous looking Turkish Bathhouse, nestled in the churchyard of St Botolph’s and flanked on all sides by modern glass skyscrapers. It is now a decadent restaurant and entertainment venue – I shall have to drop in one night to find out more! We arrived at the Museum of London very excited, as the collections only went up to 1666 the last time we went. The new wing takes us from 1666 to the modern day, and to say it is spectacular is an understatement. Exploring the history of a city so old, diverse, sprawling and rich in culture and history as London is no easy task, but the Museum of London has really outdone itself. I felt like a little girl in a sweet shop, with so much delight in front of me at every corner! There is a Dickensian style Victorian Walk, where Victorian shop fronts have been reconstructed to show the type of wares available to the Victorian consumer – so much fun to pretend you are buying a corset and crinoline from a dressmaker’s! The front of a Lyon’s tea shop complete with fixtures and fittings has been installed, and I felt like a Dorothy Whipple heroine as I sat at one of the tea tables and imagined being served eggs and ham and a cup of tea on a rainy afternoon in 1930’s London. There was a tremendously moving documentary film playing about the effect of the Blitz on ordinary Londoners; I had to leave the room in tears at one point, as a now elderly woman described how she and her family had been saving their coupons for a special tea party for her sister, who was due to turn 21, but the night before her birthday their house was hit by a bomb, and even sixty years later she was choking back the tears as she said ‘but Mavis never made it to her party’. It really brought the reality of war home.

I particularly loved the section on the Suffragettes; the Museum has a fantastic collection of banners and other ephemera related to the movement and I felt so inspired by the photographs of these attractive, well dressed, well educated women who had risked everything to fight for the freedom to live an independent life. Finally, the Museum ends with a magnificent display of art work by present day Londoners, exploring their views of the city and what living here means to them. The bright, colourful, multicultural paintings and sculptures brought a lump to my throat as I thought of all the wonderful people living alongside each other that make London the amazing and vibrant city it is, despite the fires and floods and wars that have attempted to destroy it. Visiting the Museum made me proud to be a Londoner, born and bred, and I highly recommend you visit – it’s free!

After the Museum of London we wandered along to St Paul’s Cathedral, which we always enjoy visiting – when you’ve paid once, you get a whole year’s free entry on your ticket, so we like to make the most of it! As usual there were spectacular views across the city and I managed to spot quite a few landmarks, such as the Tate Modern.

After this, we headed off to the Fashion and Textile Museum. Neither of us had been before and I must say I was a bit disappointed as I thought they had a permanent collection as well as an exhibition space, but it’s just an exhibition space. No matter – we saw the fascinating ‘Very Sanderson: 150 years of British Interior Design’ exhibition, which, in exploring the archives of this famous textile company, also explored the ever changing taste in British interior design, from the Edwardian period to the present day. There were the most beautiful 1930’s chintzes juxtaposed with the bright, eye popping abstract prints of the 60’s and 70’s, as well as Victorian William Morris designs and 1980’s fussy florals.  Known for its quality and expense, it’s not just anybody who can afford to deck out their home in Sanderson, but nevertheless, I was enlightened and inspired by the attractive displays and the demonstration of how tastes have changed over time. What I found most interesting was how in the 1970’s and 80’s there was a desire to recreate Victorian and Edwardian interior design, demonstrating that in times of financial uncertainty, such as today, we tend to reach back to the past for our inspiration, finding within it that sweet blend of comforting nostalgia and security. According to Sanderson, currently chintzses and ‘vintage’ designs are back in, and the sleek, cold lines of modernist designs are out. This would again suggest a collective reaching for the comfort blanket of an idealised past, as our financial markets have taken a tumble and our job security sits on rocky ground. Our homes are our havens from the outside world, after all. The Museum’s new exhibition is Horrockses’ Fashions: Off the Peg style in the 40’s and 50’s, which I am desperate to see, especially as I managed to snag some beautiful reproduction Horrockses’ fabric used to make this dress from the V&A sample sale last week and I can’t wait to make something from it!

This past weekend was spent in the garden, and it was a scorcher. Out came the paddling pool and the sunloungers, and we all had great fun splashing around. It was my sister’s 31st birthday and she requested not just any birthday cake, but a chocolate pavlova. Nigella came up trumps as usual, and my sous chef Georgie and I used this recipe to make it, though I halved the ingredients as I didn’t need one that big. It was absolutely delicious and went down a treat with the raspberries my brother’s girlfriend and I went to pick at nearby Stonepitt’s Farm especially for the purpose.

And I couldn’t leave you without photos of my little treasures. They get cuter every day!

A thoroughly lovely day!

Well, for those of us not trapped somewhere we don’t want to be by Volcanic Ash, hasn’t it been just a thoroughly lovely day?! It certainly has been here in London, where the skies have been a glorious cornflower blue and the sun has been shining down on us. My dear friend Emma and I, who have been inseparable since surviving university digs together from the age of 18, regularly spend Saturdays together having ‘tourist days’ in London, where we make the effort to go to areas of London we don’t habitually visit, or to museums and other sights of interest that would normally pass us by. We had planned one for today, and we couldn’t have been more blessed with the weather!

Today we stayed South of the river, travelling from Emma’s flat in Hackney to Cheyne Row in Chelsea, where we visited the absolutely wonderful Carlyle’s House, home of the famous Victorian couple of letters, Thomas and Jane Carlyle, which has been virtually untouched since their deaths and is now owned by the National Trust. Today Cheyne Row is a blissfully quiet, peaceful street of early Victorian terraces just off the King’s Road, and it would cost you several million pounds to live down it. However, back in the Carlyle’s day, it was an undesirable street outside of the heart of London that was populated with shops and warehouses and was considered to be damp and unhealthy due to its proximity to the river. The pair were not wealthy, and as such their house is fairly sparsely furnished and not showy or cluttered as I had expected. It felt cosy, intimate, and lived in, and I especially was touched by the very personal objects, such as Carlyle’s pen, that remain in situ. It is quite rare to find homes untouched since the Victorian age these days and I absolutely loved experiencing the ambience and decoration of a home of that era. I don’t know much about the Carlyle’s, but I have Thea Holme’s biography of the pair, The Carlyle’s At Home, published by Persephone, so I shall be reading that for Persephone Reading Week now.

After spending some time roaming through the house and relaxing in the pretty walled garden, we headed off to Brixton, where we ate superb pizzas with capers, olives and anchovies at Franco Manca, a well known pizza restaurant that cooks pizza the Naples way. We queued for about 20 minutes to the sounds of Caribbean music pumping out of the surrounding market shops and salivating at the sight of all these wonderful pizzas being devoured by the eager diners. I am something of a pizza obsessive and so I was nearly wetting myself with excitement by the time mine arrived; needless to say it was absolutely delicious and if you ever find yourself in the proximity of Brixton, I urge you to pay a visit!

Fed and watered, we then hopped on a bus to Vauxhall, where we came across the most gorgeous island of yellow tulips on our brief walk from the bus stop to the Tate. We popped into the Tate to see my favourite painting; Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, by Singer Sargeant, and then had a little lie down outside in the sun. It was just the most lovely afternoon and we couldn’t have had more fun if we’d tried.

Oh, and last night I saw Julie and Julia, at long last, which I absolutely adored. Meryl Streep is officially the most wonderful actress on earth and I just loved her portrayal of Julia Child, who came across as such a lively, warm hearted and joyful person. I would have loved to have known her; she seemed to have such a boundless enthusiasm for life and that is the quality I most aspire to cultivating in myself. I am now having absurd thoughts of cooking my own way through Julia Child’s cook book. All that butter…all that cream…