Greenwich

While going back over the hundreds of images we have collected so far on this trip I realized that I neglected to write about my trip down the Thames to Greenwich. As a fan if maritime history (and of Dava Sobel’s gripping history ‘Longitude’) I had to visit the Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory (at absolute 0 degrees longitude).

I was lucky that my rainy day visit coincided with an interesting exhibition detailing the history of exploration of the Northwest Passage. There were several items on show which were of interest to me. The exhibition detailed the whole saga of Franklin’s lost expedition (1845) and had examples of the interesting hybrid artifacts made by the Inuit from abandoned steel salvaged from the expedition.

There was also some extraordinary whale bone carvings. This is a scrimshander ‘staybusk’, often given by sailors to their sweethearts to be worn inside their corsets and so be kept close to the heart (and other sensitive body parts). Its about 1.5″ wide.

Staybusk detail - amazing!!

Staybusk detail - amazing!!

a tin of pemican (eating that would make anyone go crazy!!)

Pemican or starvation ? Always a hard decision!

Pemican or starvation ? Always a hard decision!

and a wonderful early swashbuckling portrait of my hero Lieutenant James Cook in his prime.

James Cook painted in 1775 by William Hodges

James Cook painted in 1775 by William Hodges

Dept. of Interesting Serendipity!!

Franklin’s first claim to fame was sailing with (his uncle) Matthew Flinders on the Investigator during the first circumnavigation of Australia in 1801. Also on board was the botanical illustrator Ferdinand Bauer who soon after his return to Sydney commissioned a writing desk for his brother in London.

I live for loops of connection like this!!
And it just goes on!

Franklin was subsequently governor of the Hobart colony, where the first cabinet in my Genius Loci series was made.

The young Matt Flinders sailed with the notorious Capt. William Bligh on his voyage to Tahiti for breadfruit following the Bounty fiasco. You should all know that Bligh was a brilliant seaman who is inappropriately maligned (and is incidentally also a blood relative of mine -my students should take note). Later Bligh became the governor if the New South Wales colony in 1806 – 150 years prior to my birth there. He was chucked out of that job too by a bunch of hoods in the so-called ‘Rum Rebellion’ (I’m sure he thought it rum too).

The Royal Observatory perched on a grassy knoll above the Maritime Museum was interesting too. The ancient azimuth instruments used in determining longitude at the observatory were intriguing. But the most extraordinary instruments on display were Harrison’s chronometers. I was amazed to see the actual instruments but dumfounded to see that they were running; with their springs and balanced counterweights doing their incredible dance. It wasn’t laid out in the display but the observatory’s website goes into some detail about Rupert Gould who restored the clocks in the early 19th Century with an obsession which cost him his wife and his health, reflecting the cost of the endeavor for Harrison the first time around.

The collection of oceangoing chronometers which were often maintained and now collected by the Royal Observatory was delicious.

Historic marine chronometers from all around the world

Historic marine chronometers from all around the world

The whole place, exhibits, stories and architecture is so wonderfully STEAMPUNK!!

Solar Observatory - Greenwich

Solar Observatory - Greenwich

David Nash – Icon

We just returned to London after a long day’s drive traversing the UK. We woke this morning in Blaenau Ffestiniog in northwestern Wales and hit London in the late afternoon (in time for a well-deserved pint of Guiness at our local the ‘Bird in Hand’).

We headed to Wales primarily to visit the studio of the world renowned artist David Nash. I’ve known David for 12 years and have worked with him on a number of occassions in California and at Penland Crafts Center in North Carolina. I’ve always wanted to see his studio converted from a huge old church in this frugal slate mining town imbedded in the stark but splendid Snowdonia National Park.

David is consistently incredibly hard working, busy and perhaps even over-committed. He was preparing to head off to London and California after having just returned from installing a commission in Basel. But he spared an afternoon and gave us an inside view of his various studio/work places scattered around the village and took us to his 4 hectare living workshop in the woods downstream from the town. I really wanted to physically experience this space and to walk amongst and touch the living trees that David is collaborating with in the construction of these works which are rooted in the Welsh countryside. I love the fact that these works are immovable (we have to make the effort to go and see them and they will never appear at your local Museum of Modern Art), that they take decades to develop, that they require regular care and maintenance, that they don’t always behave the way David expects them too, and that in tending and responding to them David is constantly learning and growing himself.

Thank you David for sharing your time and your work space with us!

David's wonderful converted church studio nestled under an imposing pile of slate waste

David's wonderful converted church studio nestled under an imposing pile of slate waste

Inside the church - an ongoing ever changing retrospective

Inside the church - an ongoing ever changing retrospective

Works in the studio

Works in the studio

Works in the studio

Works in the studio

David's main work area - open air but under cover

David's main work area - open air but under cover

Recent works and winter firewood in the drying room

Recent works and winter firewood in the drying room

Keeping track

Keeping track

Ash dome

Ash dome


Artificial order meets artificial chaos in the Welsh countryside

Artificial order meets artificial chaos in the Welsh countryside

Richard La Trobe-Bateman

For the last few days we have had the pleasure of spending time with Richard and Mary La Trobe-Bateman at their beautiful home in Somerset.

Richard and Mary's 18thC stone house in Batcombe

Richard and Mary's 18thC stone house in Batcombe

I was here last 16 years ago on my first trip to the UK, when Richard kindly responded positively to my request to come and stay and work with him for a while. I was travelling to Japan and the UK studying traditional crafts and their post World War 2 trajectories in these two radically different but strangely akin ‘island cultures’. Both islands played pivotal roles in the war despite their limited sizes, populations and resources. Both countries were decimated by the war and lost almost a whole cadre of young men who would otherwise (probably) carried on living craft traditions. Both cultures were fundamentally changed by the war and took radically new cultural trajectories following the war. I was curious how the crafts had endured and been changed through this process.

Richard was a great person to spend time with and to bounce many of my ideas off. He is an arch modernist and helped me understand and appreciate the key tenets of modernism. He also helped me see the various value systems and concepts imbedded in modes of making.

He studied under David Pye at the Royal College of Art – the key analyst of the ‘nature of workmanship’. And many of Pye’s perspectives are now made manifest in Richard’s mature work. Richard made the prescient move in the early 70’s to escape London and acquire a little chunk of rural England while it was affordable and so ensure a professional lifetime of minimal overheads and almost unlimited workspace. David Nash (next post) followed the same trajectory into Wales as did Richard’s contemporary at RCA, the master steambent furniture designer, David Colwell.

When I visited Richard last time we worked together on one of his signature footbridges and he introduced me to the ‘unregulated’ rigor of making furniture from hand split ash billets with the wonderfully simple but nuanced system of froe and brake and drawnife/spokeshave and shaving horse. I won’t go into detail about this here but you can get a greater understanding through John (now Jennie) Alexander’s wonderful (but I think out of print?) book ‘Make a Chair from a Tree’. This time I worked briefly with Richard on a proposal model for a river footbridge for the nearby town of Frome.

What a pleasure to work again in a studio that was a familiar workplace 16 years ago!

Richard's studio

Richard's studio

Richard and the Frome bridge model

Richard and the Frome bridge model

A great old vice found on the property when Richard moved in.

A great old vice found on the property when Richard moved in.

Richard's bridge on exhibition at Harley Gallery, Whybeck near Nottingham

Richard's bridge on exhibition at Harley Gallery, Whybeck near Nottingham

Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew has been on my must see list since I worked as a ‘Technical Officer’ at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney. But it has taken me 20 years to get there. It was definitely worth the wait. The 47 or so hectares of rambling garden itself is a wonderful experience – especially after days of hiking the hard asphalt of London. But the buildings and plant collections are breathtaking.

The Palm House is a wonder of Victorian engineering and the 250 year old cycad and other huge and ancient palms are cultural treasures.

Palm House

Palm House

The impetus to spend time at Kew on this trip though was an introduction to the keeper of the Economic Botany  collection in the Herbarium – Mark Nesbitt. Mark kindly took time out of his busy schedule to give me a guided tour of the collection. One piece I really wanted to see and which I hope to use as the basis for a future work was Ferdinand Bauer’s writing desk which he gave to his botanical illustrator brother Franz.

Ferdinand Bauer was a superb illustrator/explorer and his paintings (prepared under extraordinary conditions) entertain the eye and boggle the mind.

Banksia coccinea

Banksia coccinea

The writing desk he presented to his brother when he returned from Australia was made around 1804 and is perhaps the earliest piece of Australian colonial furniture sent back to England. It is made of endemic woods (Eucalyptus, Callitris and Casuarina – also called ‘she-oak’ as it is not up to being a ‘real’ oak) by one of the very few cabinetmakers (perhaps Thomas Williams) operating in the young colony of Sydney.

Bauer Desk

Bauer Desk

Mark showed me many other treasures in the collection including a series of wood panels from Japan of undetermined provenance. Each panel is a delicate painting of a tree species painted directly on the wood of that tree surrounded by a frame made from small limbs of the tree displaying the nature of the bark. Interesting and unique!

Diospyrus kaki - Japanese persimmon

Diospyrus kaki - Japanese persimmon

The collection also contains a richly inlaid wooden table top created in New Zealand by Anton Seuffert with native woods and depicting birds and plants endemic to New Zealand.

Seuffert table top

Seuffert table top

The collection also boasts some extraordinary single boards of wood from all over the British empire. I loved the various labels used through the history of this board that was sent to England by Ferdinand von Mueller (the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne and the man noted for introducing the Tasmanian Bluegum (Eucalyptus globulus) to California) for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886.

kew2

The final gem that Mark shared with me was a superb Maori cloak woven from the stem fibers of Celmisia semicordata, an alpine daisy found on the South Island of New Zealand. Apparently even the collecting of the daisies was a highly regulated ceremonial act and the cloak itself must have been a very potent garment when it was created in the 1850’s. Today maori weavers are very interested in the cloak for its own sake as an important cultural object and because it embodies lost techniques which can be revivified by contemporary craftspeople.

Thank you Mark for an inspiring and eye opening afternoon!

Maori cloak

Maori cloak

The Natural History Museum

London’s Natural History Museum in South Kensington is a smorgasboard. I visited on the opening day of the new additions to the museum’s Darwin Center. The new hi-tech and very interactive science interpretation center dubbed ‘the cocoon’ from it’s bloblike form is amazing. It houses some great interpretive displays on the history and current research work of the museum most of which are interactive large scale digital displays packed with videos of museum staff scientists explaining and showing what they do. There are portals opening into the rest of the Darwin Center where you can see genuine lab-coated boffins slaving away over electron microscopes and there are even rooms within the cocoon where scientists work and are available for discussions by intercom. At each display you can swipe your own personal keycard which then archives your interests and then permits access to related materials from the museum’s website when you log on from your own laptop. Very slick!! It’s wonderful to see science revealed as a process of discovery carried on by people rather than a body of relatively archane knowledge handed down from on high.

My main interest though was mostly in the ‘old’ museum. The building itself (designed by Alfred Waterhouse and built between 1873 and 1880) is an extaordinary artifact with it’s menagerie of terracotta critters imbedded in the Romanesque-style architecture – extinct creatures on the east wing, extant on the west.

Terracotta critters

Terracotta critters

Inside the stuffed animals in the mammal section are deliciously moth- eaten. I loved the brush tailed possum with it’s bleached red fur (like a cheap dye job fading out) and it’s rodent like buck teeth.

"What's up, doc?"

"What's up, doc?"

The high points for me inside the museum were the pickled specimens in the Darwin Center and the venerable blue whale replica.

The preserved specimens are exquisite and jewel like. I was touched by the peaceful slumber of the bear foetus and intrigued by the squid specimen extracted from the belly of a sperm whale.

NHM4

Squid from the belly of a sperm whale

Squid from the belly of a sperm whale

The blue whale which dominates the huge hall of mammals was built in 1937 by the museum’s technical assistant and taxidermist Percy Stammwitz, who built it as if it was a ship. The building crew would take tea in the belly of the whale. It’s so impressive to stand beside (even this somewhat caricatured simulacrum of) the largest animal that has ever lived on this planet.

The Blue Whale in the Whale Hall

The Blue Whale in the Whale Hall

Whale under construction

Whale under construction

London (week 2)

Our second week in London was incredibly densely packed. I feel like I need two weeks alone in a cottage in Somerset to process the images, experiences and thoughts.

This was more of a research week for me as I had the chance to visit the Natural History Museum (South Kensington), the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory (in Greenwich), Sir John Soane’s Museum and the Hunterian Museum (Lincoln’s Inn Fields) and finally the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.

I was chasing several diverse but interconnected obsessions simultaneously – the history of collecting and the evolution of museums, the enlightenment pursuit of a rational view of the world through scientific observation, the European exploration of the South Pacific, the early history of furniture making in the Australian colony, the history of Antarctic exploration and the technologies employed by the early explorers, the early drawings and writings from the Antarctic and finally our changing perception of whales and the histories of whaling.

London is the perfect city in which to conduct this research but my limited time here is only really sufficient to unearth further avenues of exploration. I’ll try to provide a taste of what I found and provide some of the links I hope to pursue myself in the next few entries.

One tidbit which I want to share here though is the Evelyn tables from the Hunterian. They are large wooden boards with the dried remains of painstaking dissections mounted to or more strictly dried onto them. Slightly creepy but also exquisite – like a macabre japanese byobu screen.
evelyntables1

London (week 1)

London has certainly changed a lot since I was last here in 1993. The wealth of the city is apparent in the new buildings and bustling crowds but also in the cleanliness of the underground and the invisibility of the homeless. We’ve spent our first week in the museums and walking the streets for hours and hours.

We’ve settled into a routine of being home (in a sweet little flat in Hammersmith) for 12 hours per day (mostly sleeping!) and then out on the streets for the other 12.

The highlights so far include the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), the Serpentine Gallery(Jeff Koons), the ICA (great bar, boring art), the Tate Modern, the Design Museum, Whitechapel Gallery and the White Cube. Non-art attractions have included St. James Park (giant indifferent pelicans), the Kensington Gardens, the Houses of Parliament (great tongue in cheek guided tour), the replica of Drake’s Golden Hinde (the thought of living and working on this thing for years is frightening!), the Burrough Markets (pickled samphire with fish and chips) and Lord Roger’s bookend monuments to modernism the Lloyds building and ’30 St. Mary Axe’ (the former looking resplendent in its greying stainless steel and the latter sounding like a heroine from a William Gibson novel).

And running through it all the Thames.

In short, we’ve been resonsible tourists.

From a design perspective the two highlights have been the ‘Telling Tales’ exhibition at the V&A and ‘Super Contemporary’ at the Design Museum.

Read more at
Telling Tales

Read more at
Super Contemporary

Take-off eve

Well. It’s the day before we fly to the UK. Everything at home is organized. Now it’s time to decide what I will need to wear two weeks from today while hiking the hills of North Wales or strolling the canals of Amsterdam late at night.

I should take –
1 pair of jeans
1 white t-shirt
A light jacket
A small toiletries bag
A change of underwear and socks
Swimsuit
Day pack
Wallet
Passport
iPhone
CREDIT CARD

But instead I’m taking all this. At least it fits easily in a smallish ‘swiss army’ carry-on.

Next post SFO!!