Bletchley Park revised bigger

Bletchley Park, Milton Keynes, MK3 6EB

A bright and sunny day in March saw us braving the roundabouts of Milton Keynes to Bletchley Park for a birthday outing. I must admit that, were it not for motherly duty, it would not have been my destination of choice…but it’s funny how your views can change.

Entrance is not cheap, but tickets are valid for a year and it’s impossible to see everything in a day. It promotes itself as the home of British codebreaking, maybe even the birthplace of modern information technology, and played a major role in World War Two, producing secret intelligence which had a direct and profound influence on the outcome of the conflict.

But it’s much more than that. For a start, the park itself is beautiful and the mansion worth a visit in isolation. It was there in late August 1938 that ‘Captain Ridley’s Shooting Party’ arrived, looking for all the world like a group of friends out for a relaxing weekend at a country house. In reality, they were members of MI6 and the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS), a secret team whose numbers included scholars turned codebreakers. Their mission: to scope out whether it would suit as a wartime base for intelligence activity, well away from London.

Their story, and the history of intelligence gathering in the years prior to WW1, is told in an exhibition in the Visitor Centre in Block C. If this sounds dry and tiresome, well it isn’t. The organisers focus on human interest stories to bring the work of codebreakers from MI1(b), MI1(d) and Room 40, to life.

Those from Room 40, for instance, a cramped room at the Admiralty, helped bring the US into the Second World War by deciphering the Zimmermann telegram, sent by the German Foreign Minister to the Ambassador in Mexico urging him to “make war together, make peace together”. In return for becoming a German ally, it promised the US states of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico as a prize after the war.

The codebreakers included such characters as Dillwyn ‘Dilly’ Knox, who relied on inspiration striking while in the bath (the bath features in the exhibition). This is surprisingly common, see Life in the slow lane. Knox’s love of poetry is also highlighted as it led him to cracking the code.

They featured, as might be expected, serving army and navy personnel, but they also attracted classicists, historians, and linguists, including Lytton Strachey’s brother Oliver. And against an overwhelming number of men, special mention should go to Claribel Spurling, who is said to be the only person to score 100% in what was viewed as an impossible test set for potential new recruits. She succeeded where many men from redbrick universities, who sent in vastly overblown accounts of their capabilities (we are shown a few for good measure), failed.

The Visitor Centre mixes old and new, with a current display on the vulnerabilities of the Internet, but a walk around the site has even more to offer. There are the Codebreaking Huts, where you can experience how it felt to work there during WW2, and Alan Turing’s wartime office. Further on, the museum in Block B includes Enigma machines, a reconstructed Turing-Welchman Bombe and many other items of interest.

All of which is interspersed with little gems like videos on how pigeons saved lives, in one case delivering a message back to base just before the bombers set out to target a village which was already in the hands of the Allies. A walk in the park, meanwhile, is rendered more atmospheric by recordings being played of action on the tennis courts, and picnicking, while in the National Museum of Computing, elsewhere on the site, sound artist Matt Parker has recorded and archived over 100 sounds from the historic collection of computers it contains.

Even by splitting up, the four of us managed only a fraction of what Bletchley Park contains and, dying for a cuppa, we met and collapsed in one of its many cafes. There, with the attention to detail evident elsewhere, we could travel back in time and sample recipes from a wartime era. Three of us were sufficiently restrained to sample just tea and cake, one of us fell for an original bread and butter pudding. Afterwards we three decided we had erred on the side of caution. We won’t make the same mistake again.

Asterics-e1425818413830Scroll down for reviews of Sir John Soane’s Museum and other delights.

Sir John Soane’s Museum, 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3BP. Admission free

Evening opening by candlelight - Sir Soane's Museum

Evening opening by candlelight – Sir Soane’s Museum

Tucked away on one side of Lincoln’s Inn Fields is an extraordinary house and museum. Its creator was Sir John Soane and the building houses the collections he arranged as ‘studies for my mind’. They remain as they were at the time of his death in 1837.

Soane was born in Berkshire in 1753, and studied architecture at the Royal Academy in London. At the age of 35 he was appointed ‘Architect and Surveyor’ to the Bank of England, and in 1792 he bought and rebuilt No. 12 Lincoln’s Inn Fields as a home for his family, to include an architectural office. In 1808 he bought No. 13, the house next door and rebuilt the rear part of it as an extension to No. 12, and in 1823 he bought and rebuilt No. 14. In 1833 Soane bequeathed his home to the nation by means of an Act of Parliament, with the proviso that it should be kept as near as possible in the state in which he would leave it. A major restoration project was completed in 2012.

The collections in the house served as a laboratory for Soane’s evolving ideas – incorporating architecture, sculpture and painting. The facades of the three houses were developed to resemble a palace façade, with the central projecting Portland stone of No. 13 flanked by the brick facades of Nos. 12 and 14. Inside is a veritable treasure trove. What I found particularly striking are how each of the spaces and rooms within the house has its own character and reflects different aspects of Soane’s personality. For example, Soane created a Monk’s Parlour – a suite of rooms for an imaginary monk, Padre Giovanni, whose tomb is apparently in the yard. However, inscribed on the headstone are the words ‘Alas, poor Fanny’. Buried in the tomb, in fact, is Mrs Soane’s dog. The ceiling of the Monk’s Parlour is composed of models for plaster ornaments designed by Soane for the Bank of England and other projects.

The basement crypt, which was constructed in the former wine cellars, was intended to be reminiscent of Roman burial chambers or catacombs. The Sepulchral Chamber contains the sarcophagus of King Seti I, which was discovered in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt.

The Colonnade and Dome contains treasures from antiquity, including a female torso from the Erectheion, a temple on the Acropolis, and a Roman theatrical mask. Marble statues and fragments of classical Greek and Roman busts, urns and other items reflect Soane’s classical education within the Renaissance tradition.

As you walk through the museum, there is evidence of how Soane worked on the design of a myriad of items, from buildings to interiors, staircases, clocks, glass and lighting. The Breakfast Room has a shallow canopy dome with concealed skylights and more than a hundred pieces of mirror, described by Soane as ‘a succession of those fanciful effects which constitute the poetry of architecture’. It is the most architecturally influential room in the house.

But the most famous room in the house has to be the Picture Room, where Soane designed a hanging system of movable walls to display 118 paintings. They include three Venetian scenes by Canaletto, including the view of the Riva degli Schiavoni. But most famous of all are the two series of pictures by Hogarth depicting A Rake’s Progress and An Election. These are the original paintings that Hogarth displayed in his studio to encourage the sale of sets of engravings. Having seen so many reproductions of these pictures, it is thrilling to see the originals.

Visiting this museum is a visual feast. Take time out to go there and marvel at the extraordinary talent and vision of a quite exceptional person.

Asterics-e1425818413830Contemporary Art at Chatsworth

St Barthlomew by Damien Hirst /Sandra Levy

St Barthlomew by Damien Hirst /Sandra Levy

Chatsworth House is a must-see.  Set in an estate of 35,000 acres on the banks of the river Derwent, it has been home to sixteen generations of the Cavendish family since 1549, and is of course the seat of the Duke of Devonshire.  It is of course impossible to talk of Chatsworth’s recent history without paying a brief homage to the extraordinary Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, who died in September 2014.  The youngest of the Mitford sisters, Debo loved the countryside, and is credited with reviving Chatsworth House and the estate after her husband inherited it on the death of his father.  Her taste was eclectic and a recent sale of her effects included a collection of Elvis Presley ephemera and a chick-shaped powder compact, reflecting her fondness for hens.

Thanks to Debo’s efforts, thousands of people in the last 60 years have been able to visit and enjoy Chatsworth, which has one of the foremost collections of paintings, sculptures, drawings, furniture and books in the country.

Guest reviewer Sandra Levy, an artist herself, gives us a tantalising glimpse into one aspect of the collection, the contemporary pieces:

Digital Portrait by Michael Craig-Martin/Sandra Levy

Digital Portrait by Michael Craig-Martin/Sandra Levy

On a recent visit to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, I was astonished to find a stunning collection of contemporary art dotted about amongst the antiques. I say ‘dotted about’ but actually they were beautifully placed – an installation of white cylindrical pots by Edmund de Waal glimmering against a dark mantelpiece,  a corridor of family portraits by Lucian Freud, a digital portrait by Michael Craig-Martin glowing in a dark hall and slowly changing its colours at random.

An exquisitely gilded statue of St Bartholomew, by Damien Hirst, is the centrepiece of the altar in the chapel, and an elegant, streamlined silver chaise longue stands nonchalantly at the foot of a dark red four-poster bed.

Lockhead Lounge/Sandra Levy

Lockhead Lounge/Sandra Levy

And down by the lake, wasn’t that the same installation of tripod-like trees that I saw in the courtyard at the RA’s Summer Exhibition? Yes, it was, (and, reader, it looked so much better by the lake).

Some of these works have been bought, some are on loan and some commissioned by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, whose passion for art in every media, and generosity and enterprise in presenting it to the public deserve our deep gratitude…

Sandra Levy


The Full English and The Elizabethan Session

the full english2I have never thought of myself as much of a folk fan, though I don’t know why, because I loved Fairport Convention, John Martyn and Pentangle; when I heard Bellowhead playing in Hyde Park I thought they were terrific; and I rushed straight out and bought (well, stayed in and clicked on) the Inside Llewyn Davis CD the minute I’d seen the film. But my conversion has been sealed by two further CDs I can’t stop playing.

The first is The Full English, which, unlikely as it sounds, is the triumphant offshoot of an ongoing research project. The Full English is originally the name of the massive – and now online – archive of the English Folk Dance and Song Society (EFDSS), collected over the past 150 years by indefatigable enthusiasts including Vaughan Williams and Percy Grainger. Folk singer Fay Hield was commissioned by the EFDSS to create music drawing on the songs and tunes in the archive, and she gathered together singers and musicians from a variety of backgrounds to do so.

The result is an album of endless delights, from the sublime harmonies of the a capella first track ‘Awake, awake’ (about a faint-hearted lover who runs away for ever at the first onslaught from an irate father) to the exquisite pastoral scenes evoked in Vaughan Williams’s ‘Linden Lea’ – included as an example of folk-inspired classical music. (It was in fact while cruising for a version of Linden Lea on Spotify that I stumbled across the album, only to find that Mr Verity was well ahead of me, and had bought the CD some months before but failed to get this to register with me . . . )

The musicians are all virtuosi – on several instruments each – and include Seth Lakeman, Martin Simpson and Sam Sweeney, and the blend of their voices is thrilling. Nancy Kerr’s voice and diction are unique, seeming to contain authentic echoes of the past. I couldn’t begin to describe in words the way she pronounces ‘moon’, in the curious song ‘The Man in the Moon’, which captures some of the strangeness of last month’s red moon.

The Man in the Moon he must lead a queer life

With no one around him, not even a wife

No friends to console him, no children to kiss

No chance of him joining a party like this.

But he’s used to high life, all circles agree

That none move in such a high circle as he

And though nobles go up in their royal balloon

They’re not introduced to the Man in Moon.

Hear it for yourself here.

elizabethan session2A second EFDSS commission, this time in partnership with Folk by the Oak, who run an annual folk festival at Hatfield House, led to The Elizabethan Session, which I was lucky enough to get for my birthday. Eight leading folk musicians, including Nancy Kerr and Martin Simpson, immersed themselves in the myths, music and people of the Elizabethan age. Within the space of a week, inspired by Hatfield House, they wrote songs, premiered them and recorded them. Again, the results are extraordinary – new pieces that conjure all the squalor, intrigue and splendour of the past. ‘Elizabeth Spells Death’ dramatises Elizabeth I’s internal struggle as she signs the death warrant of Mary, Queen of Scots (on the actual document, her signature has been crossed out and then rewritten) and is truly chilling. ‘The Oak Casts his Shadow’, inspired by a bizarre recent theory that Elizabeth I was in fact a man, explores the war of the sexes through the imagery of the English countryside and the heavens, and is both written and sung by Nancy Kerr.

So I have to accept that I’m a fully paid up folk fiend now – but if you see me reaching for the bells and hankies, just stop me.


Edward Bawden and the Higgins, Bedford

Smithfield/Bedford Gallery/flickr

Smithfield/Bedford Gallery/flickr

For anyone who is tired of doing the blockbuster shuffle – you know, where you queue up behind a gaggle of visitors lost in their audio guides for your 15 seconds in front of a masterpiece – trips to smaller galleries come highly recommended.

The Higgins in Bedford, which was closed for many years for redevelopment, brings the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford Museum and the Bedford Gallery together into one space. On the art front, there are three small but perfectly formed exhibitions on at the moment.

A large bequest of the work of Edward Bawden (1903–1989) forms the core of the Higgins collection, and the current exhibition (till January 2016) focuses on his book illustrations, but their permanent collection includes examples of his other work, such as wallpaper, government publicity and commercial stationery. I guarantee you will have at least one Bawden illustration among your books, on the cover of an old Penguin, perhaps (Iris Murdoch’s The Flight from the Enchanter, anyone?).

Midnight snack/Bedford Gallery/flickr

Midnight snack/Bedford Gallery/flickr

His technique is distinctive yet versatile, embracing strong lines and simple graphics in his black and white linocuts, but featuring a more fluid style with a vibrant palette in his colour illustrations. Whether it’s a business card or a book cover, his images are infused with wit and a very personal perspective. His London linocuts find the beauty in workaday scenes of markets and stations, highlighting the supporting structures of these urban landscapes.

Elsewhere the complex, which comprises ex-brewery buildings, the Higgins family private residence and a club house for 1840s Whigs, houses an impressive collection of ceramics and glass and a local history display, but most remarkable is the collection of furniture designed by William Burges, the architect of Cardiff Castle and Castell Coch. William Burges knew what he liked, what he liked was totally over the top, and he just went for it, with the help of some highly skilled craftsmen and women. Somehow this phantasmagoria of medievalism, classical mythology and arts-and-crafts, interpreted through outrageous overdecoration, works.

So if you’re after a gallery visit where you can linger as long as you like over whatever takes your fancy, head for the Higgins.

Asterics-e1425818413830The Hardman House, Liverpool

E. Chambre Hardman's house/Katielips/flickr

E. Chambre Hardman’s house/Katielips/flickr

Behind the elegant façade of a Georgian house in Liverpool, you’ll find a small museum showcasing the lives and work of two remarkable photographers.The house at 59 Rodney Street was both the home and the photographic studio of Edward and Margaret Chambré Hardman, and its restoration as a National Trust property open to the public took many years of negotiation and preparation.

Edward was the son of an amateur photographer and took up photography himself as a child – he even pursued his hobby while serving in the Himalayas during World War I. After returning from Central Asia he and a fellow officer set up a photographic studio in Liverpool, and Edward recruited Margaret Mills as his assistant.

Margaret left after three years to train formally as a photographer, but she and Edward wrote to each other frequently. It wasn’t until she announced her engagement to someone else that Edward woke up to what he was about to lose. He declared his love for her in a telegram from Barcelona and they married in 1933.

Their house in Rodney Street is decidedly a house of two halves. The ground floor is entirely what you’d expect from the premises of a successful portrait photographer (Edward photographed Ivor Novello, Patricia Routledge, Margot Fonteyn, and many other luminaries in his day). There is a spacious comfortable waiting room; somewhere to get changed into your Sunday best; and, of course, a studio that provided an appropriate backdrop for those who wanted to present themselves at their best.

But what the Hardmans were really interested in was photographing the landscape and the urban environment. They had little interest in domesticity for its own sake and the rest of their house reflects this.

The National Trust has lovingly recreated their kitchen – a space entirely untouched by notions of decluttering. Prints are festooned across the room, pegged up on lines to dry (alongside the odd pair of stockings); piles of newspapers rise up around their armchairs. The two-ring gas burner is quite adequate for their needs: they lived off boiled eggs. Why waste time cooking when what you really want to do is be off on your bikes, exploring new photographic subjects? Clearly a dame, Margaret saw absolutely no obligation to take up the role of housewife alongside those of professional photographer, studio manager and darkroom printer.

And the darkroom was where they preferred to be, once the last clients had gone. Edward’s distinctive style of photography is down to his painstaking – even painterly – retouching of his images, and the displays in the museum give an insight into his techniques and effects.

The Birth of the Ark Royal is perhaps his most famous photograph, showing the aircraft carrier looming over Liverpool’s streets while under construction at Cammell Laird (in this photo he has even retouched the schoolboy’s socks to make them the same height!), but those featured on the National Trust website include stunning city views of Liverpool, open-skied landscapes, scenes from all over the world, and even a few of those ‘society’ portraits.

The Hardmans’ professional and personal partnership emerges vividly from this wonderful house. I could almost see them sitting in their armchairs, discussing the day’s prints or planning their next excursion into the countryside while their eggs bubble gently in the pan.


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