Friday, 28 September 2018

Syon Park and stately homes

After admiring footage of the Great Conservatory in ITV Vanity Fair I did go and visit Syon Park, I went twice in fact. On my first visit the house was closed to the public, it is often hired out for weddings and photoshoots - if I could afford it I would indeed hire it for a photoshoot, it is ideal.  I was given a ticket for the Great Conservatory and the gardens, and advised to keep it because if I came back during the week they would give me an upgrade for the house. As an over sixty,  I got a concession, so it was not bad.
On that  first visit, on a glorious September afternoon, I chanced on only one other visitor coming away from the Great Conservatory. It was all for me to enjoy - honestly who goes round stately homes on a Monday afternoon, when the actual house is closed? Only nutters like me. But in fact I did the right thing. Viewing house and gardens on the same day is quite time consuming. The Great Conservatory was stunning and it was so nice to sit on a bench opposite the fountain  admiring the classical Cupid in the middle of it and soaking up the sun. The gardens are simply gorgeous.
Syon Park is only a few bus stops from Gunnersbury. It's quite secluded but it is accessible to vehicles and nearby there is a Hilton hotel - I did not check it out but I expect it's a standard Hilton, the plus point being that it is so close to Syon Park.  I wonder whether the hotel guests actually visit the house. There is also a Wyevale Garden Centre, built where the ancient barn was - Syon Park was originally an Abbey - and with a remnant of the ancient wall which is now the entrance to a cafe' /restaurant and facilities. The only snag is that Syon Park  is on many flights route to Heathrow so the noise of roaring engines can be quite distracting and a sharp reminder that this is the 21st century.
The house, redesigned by Adams in classical style, is the ancestral home of the Duke of Northumberland and one of the best preserved stately homes in England, with beautiful paintings, ceilings and varied  art works. A major point of attraction is the bedroom of Princess Victoria (who later became Queen Victoria). Her bed was actually rather small, but I guess a large bed was inappropriate for a young lady, not yet married.

 I saw the house on a thursday afternoon, again on a gloriously sunny day. There were more visitors about but the place was not crowded. The staff were keen to point out artworks and would answer questions. They normally have guided tours on a wednesday but I don't like joining a guided tour on a first visit, I like exploring on my own,  noticing things that I personally find striking. I can go back to Syon Park any time, it's not that I am here on a flying visit. So I might go on a winter day for example and join a tour then. It's not exactly round the corner from where I live, but not so far either. Like Kew Gardens.
England is known for its stately homes and the British have definitely learnt a thing or two about how to turn them into attractions, opening them up to the general public and making some money for their upkeep - something that is not necessarily the case in other countries.  Many of such homes have been taken over by the National Trust and membership of the Trust allows you to get fairly decent discounts on entry tickets. The stately homes - with their state rooms, hence the name - are historic buildings and their history is fascinating, often spanning centuries. Syon Park for example was a Bridgettine Abbey but it was totally destroyed and plundered by Henry the VIII following the break with Rome and later given to the Percy family who owns it to this day (mine is a very  potted history indeed, skipping all the juicy details, you can read about it on the website).

The appeal of stately homes is in their being other wordly, different from our everyday reality.  They signify splendour and are a definite marker of  privilege, whereas today we fancy that we are all equal.  For every lord and lady who lived there, there was an army of servants and various underlings doing menial jobs, including emptying their lordships and ladyships commode chairs. Yet as you visit, you feel a certain closeness to the former inhabitants of those rooms. You almost develop a sense of intimacy, as it hits you  that so and so drank his/her tea there, or leafed through those books on display, or paced those very corridors deep in thought. People, human beings like you and me, lived in those rooms, rested in those chairs and slept in those beds. They surrounded themselves with things they liked. It is a feeling  one does not get, not in the same way, when visiting a museum, where everything is removed from its original location, no matter how many labels there are to provide a context. The only museum that has ever given me the sense of rooms being lived is the amazing Sir John Soane's Museum, at one time his home, right in the heart of Bloomsbury. He was a collector  and the artwork he gathered is crowded in each and every room the way he placed it in there.  Priceless, in every sense.

Back to Syon Park: the American Indian princess Pocahontas, otherwise known as Lady Rebecca Rolfe, wife of tobacco planter John Rolfe, was a guest of the Percy family at Syon House in 1616. A photographic  exhibition inspired by Pocahontas , entitled 'Origins' , is currently on in the foyer, by the ticket kiosk.
So next time you are in London and have a few hours to spare visit Syon Park. Preferably on a weekday.

(All photos were taken by me)

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Vanity Fair and Syon Park

I did promise I'd discuss Vanity Fair and here I am. The ITV series starring Olivia Cooke is underway and so far it seems to have captured rather well Rebecca Sharp who is a very complex character. Will she continue to be likeable, as the series unfolds? Thackeray was always ambivalent about her.
I do not regard Becky Sharp as a feminist character, it is highly incongruous to think of her as a feminist, though she can be and has been  read in a feminist key. She was created by a 19th century man as a comic character, Thackeray envisioned her as an anti-hero, the female equivalent of Barry Lyndon, the subject of another one of his novels. She is mostly a type, an adventuress, an ambitious and unscrupulous woman and a  manipulator.  Thackeray even hints at her as a possible murderess, just as we are never quite sure of her adultery.  No character is ever black and white, in Vanity Fair. Thackeray loves his Becky and makes her perform an  uncharacteristic act of unselfishness, when she finally brings together Dobbin and Amelia by revealing George Osborne's shallowness.
 Talking of ambivalence, I too am somewhat ambivalent about newer interpretations of Becky as a strong role model, a self made woman who uses what in the 19th century was the only way women would advance: marriage, sex and manipulation. Becky is lively and highly motivated, intelligent, indeed, sharp, as she has been aptly named, but terribly  vain too, cruel and abusive - her behaviour to her son is abominable. She is not the kind of woman one would really like to have as a friend, though in her own way she loves Amelia with whom she has been friends from their schooldays. Amelia is her opposite,   the Victorian  'angel of the house' and a rather boring little woman, pathologically obsessed with her husband George Osborne, a cad, whom she worships and who dies early on in the novel, one of the thousands who fell  at the battle of Waterloo.

The film Vanity Fair by Mira Nair (2004) completely reinvented Becky, glossing over her dislike for her son, turning her into a much softer version of herself and giving a happy ending to the story - Becky teams up with  Joseph Sedley, Amelia's rich brother,  and goes to India, which is not what happens in the novel at all, where she indeed teams up with Joseph but in Belgium and eats up his fortune and possibly has a hand in speeding up his death, from which she benefits financially.
Nair magnified all references to India that are present in the novel, giving it a postcolonial and postfeminist slant. Reese Witherspoon who starred in the  film was a delightful Becky, with a hint  of southern belle à la Scarlett O'Hara, though her diction was impeccably English, thanks to her coach.
Olivia Cooke  is lively and brings out Becky's sexiness. She is a girl who wants to have fun. Rawdon, her gambling aristocratic husband comes across, in Nair's film, and also in the ITV series,  as less stupid than what Thackeray makes him out to be, a little more articulate and feeling.
 Thackeray's novel is a penetrating and unrelenting satire of his contemporary Victorian society. With due changes, it is still relevant today, as class, appearances and social climbing  have not ceased to  matter, only we do it in a different way.  Thackeray tells us “This is Vanity Fair. A world where everyone is striving for what is not worth having.” And this is , essentially, the enduring message of the book and what makes it  relevant.

The Great Conservatory at Syon Park where much of the ITV/Amazon  series was filmed. Image from Syon Park website

I have re-read this classic novel and am eagerly watching the series.  One of the highlights of the series for me was to discover Syon Park,  where much of the filming has taken place. It's also wonderful to walk around Russell Square, Warren Street, and other places mentioned in the novel and feel somewhat transported back in time.
Syon Park is really worth a visit and I plan to go at the weekend.

Friday, 7 September 2018

Books, books, books

Ever since I took up dressmaking I have been ‘reading’ more fiction. How is that possible? Easy peasy. I listen to audiobooks. I will not bore you with details of my unsteady progress in the art of making clothes, I am still getting acquainted with my sewing machine, often addressing it directly and swearing profusely - I never knew I had internalised such a complex vocabulary of profanities, they seem to gush out of their own accord when I get really angry, like when I nearly stitched my own finger!  It’s a bit touch and go, though I have managed two simple skirts which I will probably never wear and a totally useless pinafore made out of some embroidered scrap of fabric.
Anyway as I try to stitch seams there is nothing more pleasing than listening to a wonderful tale narrated by a skilled actor.
And so it is that I have been listening to Circe (2018) by Madeline Miller and Vanity Fair, by Thackeray - the new ITV series sent me straight back to the book, one of my very favourites.
Circe  is a great take on the ancient Greek myths, from a female perspective  though I  would not call it feminist, as some reviewers have done.  Circe, daughter of the god Helios, is not as beautiful as her sisters and sounds like a mortal, with a voice that   the gods despise. But she has a special gift, she is adept at pharmakeia, the science of herbs and plants, hence magic and witchcraft, which even the gods fear.  
The story of the Minotaur, of Jason and the tragic Medea, are retold sensitively and with newer twists by Circe - the book is narrated in the first person. But the most interesting part of the novel is taken up by  Circe's relationship with Odysseus who stayed with her for many years while trying to return to Ithaca and then that very difficult myth cycle whose main actors are  Telemachus, son of  Odysseus, Penelope, wife of Odysseus, and Telegonus, son of Odysseus and Circe, whom Odysseus never knew of having fathered.  The myth sees Telegonus, brought up by Circe on Aeaea, her secluded island, go to Ithaca in search of his father, Odysseus, whom he had never met. When in Ithaca he accidentally kills Odysseus, who does not recognise him,  and then goes back to Aeaea, taking both Telemachus and Penelope with him.  Circe gives them immortality and subsequently marries Telemachus, whereas Telegonus marries Penelope.  Greek mythology is full of incest tales, Hera and Zeus were brother and sister as well as husband and wife.  

Odysseus and Circe Etruscan vase, Museum of Parma, Italy

Madeline Miller does not dwell on the marriage of Penelope and Telegonus, turning instead Penelope into an apprentice witch,  still a mortal, on Aeae.  And it seems that by taking  Telemachus - a man well over thirty when he and Circe meet - as her lover and partner Circe, who is an immortal divinity and therefore forever young, also chooses to take on mortality. So in Miller's retelling, Circes swaps her divine immortality for human mortality; the other three continue to be mortals.
Overall, it's a clever way of handling a very difficult subject, as to our contemporary sensibilities incest is unacceptable, turning the tale into one that speaks to us today.  Miller's Circe is, predictably, an exemplary single mother, a goddess who is always more like a woman than a goddess - in contrast, her sister Pasiphae is depicted as a capricious and heartless creature, quite unbelievable as a character.  But it's just a tale, there are no gods, we know that gods symbolise our fears and terrors and Miller is a consummate storyteller.
There were times when the prose was a little too purplish for my liking but  I enjoyed listening to the story of Circe and a retelling of the Odyssey in which Odysseus is revealed in all his faults and cunning. Miller includes the stories of Odysseus after his return to Ithaca, and in her depiction he seems to be a returning soldier suffering from PTSD.
As for Vanity Fair, I will write about it in a subsequent post. I am still listening to it and of course, I am watching the series.  A very modern tale, that's what I will say for now. 

Sunday, 2 September 2018

The bane of audioguides

I found myself doing touristy things in London, after a visit from relatives who were really bent on doing the royal courts tour - Tower of London, Windsor, Hampton Court and of course Westminster Abbey. I accompanied them, it would have been rude not to and even enjoyed a boat trip to Greenwich though it was too late in the day to visit Cutty Sark, a personal favourite.  
I have done the London attractions ad nauseam throughout my very lengthy stay but some of these I had not seen in years, decades even. Alas, the weather was not kind, so Hampton Court was a bit of a disaster - no one wants to wander in the maze when it rains. But the gallery was fabulous and it had my favourite painting, a self portrait by the wonderful Artemisia Gentileschi.

Artemisia Gentileschi 'Self portrait as allegory of painting'

My companions were quite addicted to audioguides, I took them when their price was included in the ticket but then promptly switched them off, quickly  growing tired of them.
I dislike audioguides. I know that some museums go out of their way to provide a quality visitor experience through their audioguides - for example the British Museum for the Defining Beauty exhibition (2015) had a recorded conversation among experts and artists in connection with specific exhibits, but by and large I am one of those who believe there should be as little distance as possible between you and the art work you are viewing. your experience of it is paramount. 
Audioguides make you lazy. First, if you go to  an exhibition with someone it's nice to be able to comment on what you see. It does not have to be a clever remark or a display of erudition. If you are  glued to your audioguide there is no chance of conversation. Personally, I much prefer to go to exhibitions on my own first, and then maybe with someone else on a second or third visit. I like savouring my first encounter with the exhibits.  It's the result of years spent in museums doing research, when I was still involved with art as a researcher. 
With audioguides, of course, you are basically told what to see and in what order, which again I dislike tremendously because I like stopping by what catches my attention and then , with the aid of curatorial labels, a little prior knowledge acquired through reading before venturing to the gallery or location,  and a catalogue ( which I like, I am a sucker for catalogues) I engage in creating a narrative of my own. 
Audioguides turn you into a passive consumer of art and culture, whereas no reliance on audioguides forces you to be more active, more engaged.
Some of my best  experiences have been  in museums where even the curatorial labels were rather mysterious, relaying as little information as possible about the artefact on display. It forced me to question and patch things together and it made me really alert and inquisitive.
Why do we go to museums and visit attractions? it's a question that has been bugging me  for a while. Is it to say 'I have been there' and post a picture on instagram?  Some visitors, having bought a pass to see as many attractions as possible, run from sight to sight to try and recoup the money. I don't think it even matters to them what they are seeing. 

As I was writing this, I got some images through WhatsApp from my son who is spending in Kiev his last day of his tour of Russia and bordering countries . He is, like me, a fan of Bulgakov (I adore Master and Margarita) and has been to visit his house, where  The White Guard is  set in, sending me an image of the original typescript of Master and Margarita and telling me under the image "This is the original". Of course you can also see my son's shadow as he takes the picture, as the original draft  is protected by glass. At first I thought "Damn, you have ruined the picture". Then I thought that actually by having his shadow on it he has created a rather unique picture. He truly sent me a record of his own experience of Bulgakov's house.
I am trying not to be envious. Russia is the first foreign country I ever visited, when it was still USSR. I learnt Russian and spoke it to a reasonable standard, but my son beat me to it, learning Russian in school to a high standard and then travelling a few times to Russia and acquiring fluency.
So now I am thinking I am not to be outdone and my next trip will have to be to Moscow and then Kiev.
Poka poka.