Tag Archives: museum

Three ways to be beside the seaside—in London, now!

Oh I do love to be beside the seaside—especially when it’s in London, in February. Well, if Margate and Hastings can open art galleries with urban style, why shouldn’t London steal some of their holiday fun?

Magnificent Obsessions, Barbican

Classic gem: one of photographer Martin Parr’s retro seaside postcards, on show at the Barbican Art Gallery.

Every seaside foray starts with a stroll along a breezy promenade. I let the blustery winds on the Barbican’s High Walk blow me to its art gallery’s Magnificent Obsessions exhibition where 14 artists’ private collections are on show. Magnum photographer Martin Parr’s trove of 1950s and 60s seaside postcards got me straight into the sun-and-sand mood. There were, of course, the cartoon images of busty blondes in polka dot bikinis scaring wimps with knotted handkerchiefs on their heads. But I most enjoyed the nostalgic scenes that Parr himself might have captured when working as a rookie photographer in a Butlin’s holiday camp.

Many of the postcards were of seemingly mundane scenes such as the new motorway service stations that drivers en route to Bognor would have sent to impress friends. Others showed hotel rooms with candlewick bedspreads—the ultimate in postwar style. As a collection they skewered a vanished era, of innocence lost and luxuries gained.

Parr’s sharp eye was just one highlight of an exhibition that ranged through Howard Hodgkin’s ravishing Indian paintings, Arman’s African masks and Edmund de Waal’s netsuke, including the hare with the amber eyes.

But soon I was off to seafront attraction number two: Swingers crazy golf.  This uproarious tee-party took place inside an abandoned printer’s warehouse near Old Street roundabout. Stepping inside I walked past the bar serving craft beers, the stalls cooking artisan street food and on to the nine-hole course. I grabbed my club from a wooden shack and tapped my ball up and under bridges, along teetering ledges, past miniature windmills and around swerving bends. I’m proud to have steered round the water hazard but confess to landing in a bunker twice.

Swingers crazy golf

A player circumvents the water hazard at Swingers crazy golf.

The last stop on my seaside jaunt was Novelty Automation, a witty take on the amusement arcade. This new “museum” of slot machines in Holborn is all screams and wry laughs. I slipped my tokens into “Micro Break”, and settled into a mechanical armchair that rocked and rattled as it took me on a simulated package holiday by a palm beach. At the adjacent machine, Is it Art?, I put my house keys before a model of Tate Director Nicholas Serota and was disappointed when he shook his head.

Novelty Automaton

Tim Hunkin’s Micro Break slot machine experience at Novelty Automation.

Novelty Automation

Place an object in front of a model of NIcholas Serota and he will tell you whether or not it’s art.

 

Novelty Automation

Sadly my keys did not make the grade.

These were just two of a clever collection of machines created by cartoonist and wacky engineer Tim Hunkin. Some I had enjoyed before, in his arcade on Southwold Pier. But with the many coastal capers going on all around, they now seem perfectly placed in their new home at London-on-Sea.

Magnificent Obsessions: The Artist as Collector, Barbican Art Gallery until 25 May; Swingers Crazy Golf is a pop up open until 26 February, then returning in September; Novelty Automation, 1a Princeton Street, London WC1A 4AX 

Butlin’s Bognor Regis postcard courtesy of Collection of Martin Parr.

 

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London Slant: What are London’s three most important ships? All aboard to explore!

Can you name London’s three most important ships? There’s Cutty Sark at Greenwich, of course, and HMS Belfast beside Tower Bridge. But what’s the third?

SS Robin, London

SS Robin, raised up on her pontoon dais.

Congratulations to all who immediately shouted SS Robin, whose crimson flanks catch the eye at east London’s Royal Victoria Dock, close by City Airport and ExCel. She completes London’s great seafaring trio—our only ships to be part of Britain’s National Historic Fleet, the nautical equivalent of a Grade I listed building.

SS Robin, London

SS Robin seen behind a light ship, adjacent to Millennium Mills, with City Airport as a noisy neighbour.

Curious to see why SS Robin merits this acclaim, I hopped on the Docklands Light Railway to explore. I found her nestling in the shadow of Millennium Mills, a grand but abandoned early 20th century factory which, like the former steam coaster herself, is part of a wharf landscape now being revived.

Visitors can tour the ship with its expert project leaders and roam the decks, opening doors and peeking into the innards, to view restoration work in progress. Soon she will open as a museum ship that showcases both her beauty and the colourful story of her life on the high seas.

SS Robin was built in 1890 at the famous Thames Ironworks shipyard on London’s River Lea, just a mile from where she currently resides. Her first adventures took her around Britain and Northern France as she carried cargo including grain, coal, steel and granite to build Scotland’s Caledonian Canal.  In 1900 she sailed off to work in Spain where she changed her name to Maria and continued “in steam” until 1974.

When SS Robin then returned to the UK for preservation a difficult choice eventually had to be made: should she be kept intact or should much of her original structure be replaced to maintain her seaworthiness? When I got up close to the wonderfully battered sheets of steel that make up her bow, it was clear that the decision to take her out of the water was correct. Every joint and rivet spoke of great Victorian engineering and every pitted surface of a life well lived.

SS Robin, London

Fabulous flanks: the crimson body of SS Robin close up, all pitted steel and beautiful rivet work.

SS Robin now sits in grandeur, raised up on her own pontoon vessel. I marvelled at her propeller and coal/oil-fired engine room—and how the 12-strong crew survived endless days in cramped quarters and exposure to the elements out on the upper deck. But, just as the craft herself remains the only complete steamship still in existence, endurance is the name of SS Robin’s game.

Read more about SS Robin‘s fascinating history and sign up for tours, with proceeds going to fund the continuing restoration project to turn this national treasure into a heritage, community and education centre. Other activities in the area include walking over Royal Victoria Dock Bridge and a trip on the Emirates Air Line—both offering great views.

London Slant: Hunting down surreal animals in Paris

Did you know that most museums in Paris are free on the first Sunday of the month? Remember this when planning your next budget cultural weekend. Plus there’s no queuing at ticket desks, which means more time to track down off-piste treats.

I began my pursuit of the unexpected at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (Museum of Hunting and Nature). Now, a place with this name wouldn’t normally get my guns firing. But “freedom Sunday” encouraged me to try it out.

It’s an old-established collection in a 17th-century residence; I’d envisaged wood-panelled walls, antique pictures and stuffed animals beneath glass domes. I wasn’t wrong (although it’s had a fresh and funky makeover), but what hit me as I stepped inside was its joyful family atmosphere. As I ventured into the shadowy Room of the Wild Boar a grandfather was eagerly asking a child “Are you afraid?” Both were clearly relishing the bristly creature facing them down.

Un aigle et une colombe se transforment l]un dans l'autre

A dazzling installation: an eagle and a dove become one another

I continued to a side room with a ceiling covered in owl heads and wings. Then I discovered a stag that had been turned into bagpipes. An adjacent video showed how the carcass could be inflated to play a wailing lament when pressed. I watched as a mother had to drag her two transfixed offspring away and on to the Room of the Unicorn (or was it the Wolf?).

A stairwell was illuminated by flickering candelabra. Stuffed panthers were poised to pounce out of the gloom. A delight in the natural world was balanced by glimpses of a darker side, both its threatening recesses and how humans menace it in return.

Migratory bird machine Paris

A machine made of feathers for meditating on migratory birds

Part of the eccentricity derived from a temporary exhibition, Art Orienté Objet, of strange animal artworks inserted throughout the museum’s permanent display. Inspired by the weird world of Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, they focused on unexpected aspects of the relationship between animals, nature and man.

If you visit Paris before the exhibition closes do drop by. It’s just behind the Pompidou Centre, among quirky boutiques, cafes and townhouses with notable residents (I saw the name Renzo Piano on a door). But the museum’s collection of art and artefacts is fascinating in itself. And no doubt there’ll soon be another offbeat exhibition to plumb the more macabre realms of our natural world.

Art Orienté Objet by Marion Laval-Jeantet & Benoît Mangin, until 2 March.  Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, 62 rue des Archives – 75003 Paris.

Photographs by Nicolas Hoffmann