Category Archives: Art

Waterloo – couldn’t escape if I wanted to

While I was at the National Railway Museum last week, looking at the wonderful George Earl paintings, I also reminded myself of the splendour of Terence Cuneo’s giant view of London Waterloo station, painted in 1967.

Waterloo Station, Terence Cuneo, 1967 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

'Waterloo Station', Terence Cuneo, 1967 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

It’s quite a feat. Measuring 20 feet by 10 feet, it is Cuneo’s largest painting and was commissioned by the Science Museum for its then-new Land Transport gallery. Cuneo painted it in the gallery itself, surrounded by locomotives, cars and bikes all shrouded in protective sheeting prior to the opening.

The view is the same as that taken by artist Helen McKie for her pair of paintings of the station at war and at peace, made for publicity posters in 1948, also in the museum collections.

Waterloo Station - war, watercolour by Helen McKie, 1948 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

'Waterloo Station - war', watercolour by Helen McKie, 1948 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

Waterloo Station - peace, watercolour by Helen McKie, 1948 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

'Waterloo Station - peace', watercolour by Helen McKie, 1948 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

Across all these railway station views, by Earl, Cuneo, McKie and others, the detail is remarkable and makes them really valuable not just to art-lovers and railway enthusiasts but to historians keen to learn more about everyday life.

Waterloo station has changed quite a bit since then. Now electric trains ply the platforms. The Eurostar terminal has come and gone (it’s moved to St Pancras – now there’s a station to explore), and passengers can now speed directly to the thriving Docklands and east London on the Jubilee Line extension underground.

But some things stay the same. The station clock still keeps time, suspended over the concourse, favoured meeting point in the days before mobile phones replaced ‘when and where’ with ‘text me when you’re near’…

Waterloo station clock, 1993 (NRM / Science & Society)

Waterloo station clock, 1993 (NRM / Science & Society)

Coming south

Happy 2010, everyone! I spent New Year’s Eve in York with friends, so naturally I took the opportunity to call in to the National Railway Museum, as there were a few things I wanted to see (as well as reminding myself what a cool museum it is).

Just before Christmas, I described my journey north, from King’s Cross station all the way to South Shields. I showed you the NRM’s wonderful picture, Going North, King’s Cross Station, by George Earl, so I was thrilled to examine it in the flesh while there. I hadn’t seen it for a few years; it’s sumptuous, and worth a visit just by itself.

Going North, Kings Cross Station, by George Earl, 1893 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

'Going North, King's Cross Station', by George Earl, 1893 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

Going North was one of a pair painted by Earl in the 1890s. Its counterpart, Coming South, Perth Station, is on show too. They depicted the British establishment heading to the Scottish estates in August to hunt, and they’re exceedingly rich in detailed information about life at the height of the railway age.

Coming South, Perth Station, by George Earl, 1895 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

'Coming South, Perth Station', by George Earl, 1895 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

I also showed you previously this lovely poster of my home town:

South Shields railway poster (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

South Shields railway poster (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

While I was up there over Christmas, I tried to recreate the view, but this was the best I could manage (and I forgot my camera, so this a camera-phone shot). Somehow, the glamour seems to have faded just a little…

South Shields beach, 28 December 2009 (David Rooney)

South Shields beach, 28 December 2009 (David Rooney)

I made it back down south safely, but by the looks of things, I got here just in time. Be careful out there in the snow, won’t you?

Up, up and away!

Back in July last year, I kicked off this blog with a post about Louis Blériot’s historic crossing of the English Channel a century ago. Blériot’s journey is rightly considered a momentous event in aviation history, but it wasn’t the first flight across. That happened 225 years ago this week.

Whilst Blériot had a powered, heavier-than-air craft, on 7 January 1785, Jean-Pierre Blanchard and John Jeffries were the first people to cross the Channel in a balloon.

Oil painting of the first balloon crossing of the English Channel (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Oil painting of the first balloon crossing of the English Channel (Science Museum / Science & Society)

This is a wonderful pair of oil paintings by E. W. Cocks painted in about 1840. The first shows the balloon leaving Dover, whilst the second depicts the triumphant arrival in Calais.

Oil painting of the first balloon crossing of the English Channel (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Oil painting of the first balloon crossing of the English Channel (Science Museum / Science & Society)

If you look closely you can make out a paddle-steamer in the background of each picture. A bit of artistic licence, there. Whilst the first steamboat trials were indeed being carried out in the 1770s and 1780s, practical paddle-steamer services weren’t launched until the early nineteenth century (more on that at a later date).

Still, what a remarkable experience it must have been for the two men. The journey from England to France took about four-and-a-half hours, and came just over a year after Joseph and Etienne Montgolfier demonstrated the world’s first balloon flight in 1783. This model of the Montgolfier balloon is on show in our Flight gallery:

Model of the Montgolfier balloon used in 1783 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Model of the Montgolfier balloon used in 1783 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Ballooning became quite a craze, and spawned a whole new market in ballooniana – snuff boxes, fans, bowls and umbrella tops. More about our fine collection of these trickets another time…

Going north

It’s Christmas Eve tomorrow, and I’ll be off to the homestead in South Shields for a few days of rest, reading and relaxation. But I’ve got to get there first. Here’s how I imagine my journey will pan out:

It’s an early start at King’s Cross station

Going North, Kings Cross Station, 1893 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

'Going North, King's Cross Station', 1893 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

…before I clamber aboard my fast train heading north on the east coast main line.

London & North Eastern Railway locomotive Mallard, 1938 (National Railway Museum / Science & Society)

London & North Eastern Railway locomotive 'Mallard', 1938 (National Railway Museum / Science & Society)

With luck, I’ll arrive into the glorious Newcastle Central station three hours later…

Interior of the Central Railway Station, Newcastle, 1850 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

'Interior of the Central Railway Station, Newcastle', 1850 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

…and onwards to South Shields, where I was born and brought up.

South Shields LNER poster (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

'South Shields' LNER poster (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

I’ll probably give the open air bathing pool a miss this year, but I’m sure I’ll find time to tread the golden sands during marine promenades (or maybe I’ll just curl up cosy with a book).

Do I have too romantic a vision for my Christmas excursion? I hope not. But one thing’s for sure: I’ll be far away from broadband and blogging software, so I’ve pre-recorded some festive posts and cued them up ready to be released (as if by digital magic) while I’m away. Do check back, if you feel like it, on Christmas Day, the following Monday and Wednesday, and on New Year’s Day. Normal service resumes on Monday the 4th.

Season’s greetings, dear readers!

Don’t lose your compass

The wonderful caricature of a windswept midwife by Thomas Rowlandson in my last post got me browsing through other prints by this famous artist. They’re a great window into the past.

Sea monster devouring a fleet of ships, Thomas Rowlandson, 1811 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Sea monster devouring a fleet of ships, Thomas Rowlandson, 1811 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The caption of this one states, ‘Lose their compass, their ship slips between the teeth of a fish unknown in this part of the world’. Not what you want to happen, really, when out for a sail.

It was one of Rowlandson’s wonderful images to accompany the tall tales of German baron Karl Munchhausen, who fought for the Russian military against the Turks in the eighteenth century. This was a busy time for sailors, with seafaring nations taking to the water with great vigour to trade, explore and fight (often in the same voyage).

We’ve hundreds of exquisite model ships in our collections, mostly on display in our shipping galleries. If you are looking for a contemplative escape from the pressures of the day, they’re well worth a visit if you’re nearby.

Model of a 50-gun warship, 1730s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Model of a 50-gun warship, 1730s (Science Museum / Science & Society)

This is one of the many eighteenth-century models of British wooden warships we’ve got. The detail is exquisite, and the story of the Georgian navy is fascinating. Naval historian N.A.M. Rodger’s book, ‘The wooden world’, is superb, if you’re interested.

Mariners compass, eighteenth century (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Mariner's compass, eighteenth century (Science Museum / Science & Society)

But what about that pesky lost compass, in Rowlandson’s print? Well, perhaps it is forever lost, but fear not. You will be pleased to learn that others from this period have survived. Here’s one. We’ve lots. Bon voyage!

A notice for all non-penguins

Having written last week about my singular inability to ice-skate, my eye was drawn today to this poster in the National Railway Museum’s collection:

BR safety poster, 1995 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

BR safety poster, 1995 (NRM / Pictorial Collection / Science & Society)

The caption reads ‘Watch your step on our platforms this winter… Leave the skating to the profesionals’. Wise words. Having said that, if I saw a briefcase-carrying penguin skating along the platforms at London Bridge station, I think slips and falls would be the last things on my mind…

Is this a stitch-up?

Museum objects are not always what they seem, as this intriguing embroidery – currently on display in our Cosmos & Culture exhibition  – shows.

Embroidered illustration of an astrologers prediction. Credit: Science Museum

Embroidered illustration of an astrologer's prediction. Credit: Science Museum

The label on the frame says that it shows an astrologer forecasting the birth of a child to King Charles I and his Queen, Henrietta Maria. It’s also been suggested that the face rising from the frames is a tad beardy for a newborn and that the scene may forecast Charles’s execution.

The astrologer is surrounded by a circle of planetary and Zodiac symbols, with knowledge symbolized by astronomical and mathematical instruments. More arcane practices are hinted at by the crocodile (often found hanging in apothecaries’ and alchemists’ shops), and a cat, the symbol of witchcraft.

Snap shot - the crocodile is in the embroiderys top right corner

Snap shot - the crocodile is in the embroidery's top right corner. Credit: Science Museum

The label dates the work to 1621. But when our eagle-eyed conservator noticed that the netting on the Queen’s dress looks suspiciously machine-made, we started digging deeper. And the more we looked, the odder this object seemed.

Fishy net - the Queens dress looks too modern. Credit: Science Museum

Fishy net - the Queen's dress looks too modern. Credit: Science Museum

The embroidery has 22 sequins, all of regular shape and glued rather than sewn on. This suggests they were added in the 19th or 20th centuries rather than the 1620s. Of course, the netting and sequins could be later additions or repairs made to a 17th century object. But the style of the embroidery itself suggests otherwise.

Charles I is shown wearing a ruff and petticoat breeches  – dapper no doubt, but around 30 years ahead of the fashions of the 1620s. His face is painted, very unusual for an embroidery of this period.

And a final clanger for the 1621 date: Charles and Henrietta Maria didn’t marry until 1625.

The font on the label suggests it was added around the 1930s, before the object came to the Science Museum. Wishful thinking by a collector? Or deception by a seller trying to get a better price?

We’re intrigued to find out more … and maybe our Cosmic Collections competition will throw up some new information about this and other objects in our astronomy exhibition.

These are a few of my favourite skulls

November 2 is the Day of the Dead, a colourful Mexican festival where people remember friends and family members who have died. A perfect day to have a look at some of our objects which represent the dead …

First off there are death masks, used both to commemorate the famous and the criminal. This death mask of Benjamin Disraeli was taken six hours after he died in 1881.

Wax death mask of Benjamin Disraeli,

Wax death mask of Benjamin Disraeli

We’ve also got some slightly gruesome anatomical models

Wax model of a female human head

Wax model of a female human head

Such models would normally be made as educational tools, but were also part of the strong aesthetic tradition which linked art and anatomy

We also have a whole range of vanitas figures and memento mori – reminding the living of the transience of life and the inevitability of death. Snakes and frogs are  a common feature of such figures, and I’m told that the use of the frog reflects the dramatic changes of form it goes through during its life cycle, making it a potent symbol of change and renewal.   

Ivory model of a skull and a human head

Ivory model of a skull and a human head

Finally, some encourage a sense of fatalistic humour about the end of life:

Ivory model of a human skull with moving parts

Ivory model of a human skull with moving parts

Yes, the tongue pokes out and the eyes roll up.  What more could you ask for in a memento mori?

The old is new again

I’m just back from a conference in Dresden. The Deutsches Hygiene-Museum, home to the wonderful transparent man (and woman), hosted a conference looking at wax moulages.

Moulages are based on casts taken directly from patients, which are then moulded in wax to present case studies of particular diseases, especially dermatological conditions. Each one has its own medical and cultural story to tell, at once a medical specimen, an individual’s history as a patient, and cultural artefact.

 

These examples are from our collection, and were part of a touring anatomical show in the 1920s.  These ‘before and after’ waxes show the effects of Salvarsan, the ‘magic bullet’ which was the first effective treatment for syphilis.

One of the great things about the conference was the sense that all kinds of people are getting interested in moulages again. The Charité Museum in Berlin is working on a project documenting moulage collections, while the Hôpital St Louis has its collections online. But also at the conference were people reviving the craft skills and not only preserving but making new moulages. Dermatologists use them to teach students about once common diseases which are now rare and you can even buy bleeding moulages for casualty simulations. Or perhaps Hallowe’en…

It’s great to see the value of items that for while looks like they might be considered as historical ‘curiosities’ being recognised again.

Taking Aluna

Before people used chronometers for maritime navigation there was another way. It was called the lunar-distance method, or ’taking a lunar’:

Taking a lunar distance, 1891 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

'Taking a lunar distance', 1891 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

This was all about observing the moon’s position at night compared to certain reference stars, and then doing a whole lot of arithmetic. The key gadget was the sextant, which measured angular distance. Here’s one from our extensive collection:

Sextant by Casella (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Sextant by Casella (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Using the moon to help solve an earthly problem led to countless lives being saved at sea and, indirectly, to the huge changes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in trade, travel and mobility.

In the twenty-first century we’re faced with the consequences of those changes, and one way to help make sense of it all is to think longer-term. This is where looking at the moon comes back into the story. One of the musicians at last month’s ‘Longplayer’ performance was the inspirational Laura Williams:

Laura Williams of Aluna at Longplayer Live (David Rooney)

Laura Williams of 'Aluna' at Longplayer Live (David Rooney)

Laura is building a monumental lunar clock called ‘Aluna’, to help prompt further conversations about the future and our place in it. She’s got a stellar cast of patrons, endorsers and supporters who think what she’s doing is really important, and I think so too.

On Wednesday, Laura was made a Freeman of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers, joining a body founded in 1631 – truly a long-term project. I’ve said it before: we need Aluna, and projects like it. Here’s to their long future!