Tag: Art

Embassy Tours – A Cultural Tourism Annual Event

Embassy Tours – A Cultural Tourism Annual Event

Foreign Embassy Tours

Every year at the beginning of May, Cultural Tourism DC hosts an event called “The Around the World Embassy Tour.”  I have been lucky enough to go in the past, and I went again this year.  I think it is probably one of the coolest free events I’ve ever been to, with the possible exception of the Ceremony of the Keys in London.

On May 6 of this year, 43 embassies representing countries in Africa, Asia, and South America opened their doors and invited the general public in to learn more about their culture and heritage.  The European Union embassies will follow suit and host an open house on May 13.

To give you a better idea of what it’s like, I took a lot of pictures.  Our first stop was the Embassy of Peru.

Peru

Inside, we got to see beautiful Peruvian hand crafted items, sample some Peruvian chocolate, and we got to see the ambassador’s office and conference room.  Peruvian food was available for purchase both inside and outside the embassy, including Pisco sours, empanadas, and Alfajores cookies.

embassy tours peru
Some of the handicrafts in the Peruvian embassy.

Then, outside the embassy, we experienced music and Latin dancing.

embassy tours peru dancers
The dancers outside the Peruvian embassy.

From there we walked up Massachusetts Avenue, aka Embassy Row, and marveled at the beautiful buildings now serving as embassies. The Colombian embassy was ROCKING. Loud party music and bright colorfully-clad dancers attracted everyone’s attention. It also had a line of people that went down the street and around the corner. Having already gotten a late start, we decided to visit the embassies that seemed to have little to no wait to enter. Otherwise, we would have probably only seen two!

The first one we happened upon was Indonesia.

Indonesia

I am not exaggerating when I say it’s the most beautiful house I have seen on this side of the Atlantic. When we walked in, the first thing we saw was the grand entrance.

embassy tours indonesia
The foyer of the Indonesian embassy

(I don’t know about you, but every time I see a place like this, I imagine myself in an evening gown and lots of diamonds, slowly gliding down the stairs to the tune of dramatic-yet-elegant music.  No?  I’m the only one?)

As it turns out, the building is also known as the Walsh Mansion, and it Dates to 1903. At that time, it was the most expensive residence in the city, with a construction cost of $835,000.  The original owner, a Thomas J Walsh, came to this county from Ireland without a penny to his name in 1869. Over the next 25 years, he built up a small fortune through his business pursuits, then lost nearly everything in the Panic of 1893.  In 1896, he took his family to Colorado, and purchased a mine that most thought was of no value. However, it wasn’t long before mine workers struck a massive vein of gold and silver, making Walsh a multi-millionaire.

Walsh’s daughter Evalyn married into the McLean family, which owned The Washington Post.  In 1910, her husband bought the Hope Diamond for her at a cost of $180,000 (that’s $4.6 million in today’s economy).  Over time, rumors developed that the Hope Diamond had a curse on it.  Evalyn Walsh McLean’s first son died in a car accident. Her husband ran off with another woman and eventually died in a sanitarium. The Washington Post went bankrupt, and eventually her daughter died of an overdose, and one of her grandsons died in the Vietnam war. Evalyn never believed the curse had anything to do with her misfortunes.

In 1952 the government of Indonesia purchased the mansion for use as an embassy. Thankfully, they have preserved the beauty of the historic home, including this very large and ornate organ:

embassy tours indonesia
Upper part of the massive pipe organ in the Indonesian embassy.

The pipe organ’s wind system and some of its pipes were located in the basement, making this a two-story pipe organ.  I don’t know what it sounds like, but based solely on its appearance, it is impressive!

The painted ceilings and crystal chandeliers are probably very much like they were before it became the Indonesian embassy.

Embassy tours Indonesia
A doll on the mantle in the Indonesian embassy

A small glassed in walkway connected the residence portion of the house with the offices, which were more modern.  As you enter the office area, you pass by a huge gold bird, the heraldic symbol of Indonesia.

embassy tours indonesia

Our next stop was going to be the Chilean embassy, but the line was incredibly long, so we wandered up the street a little farther and found a performer outside the Korean embassy.

Korea

Just above the heads of the people gathered around to watch, we could see a man walking a tightrope while making jokes via an interpreter. There was also this little statue:

embassy tours korea

This is a Dol Hareubang, which means Stone Grandfather.  They are from Jeju, a small volcanic island off the southern coast of Korea.  Dol Hareubang is a guardian deity, and the people of Jeju erect these statues to ward off danger and harm.

Right next door to Korea was the Kyrgyz Republic, or Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan

I’ll be honest.  I don’t know much about Kyrgyzstan, other than that it’s a relatively new country.  It was a very enlightening visit.  First, I learned that Kyrgyzstan shares a border with China. As we made our way through the embassy and looked at the displays, I learned that many people of Kyrgyzstan live in yurts.  We saw scarves and slippers and multiple other woolen items, beautifully made. But their talents do not end there. I thought this painting was just adorable:

Embassy tours Kyrgyzstan

They were also offering shots of a cognac from their country. Nearby, these lovely ladies in traditional native costumes greeted and posed for everyone.

Embassy tours Kyrgyzstan

Haiti

The Haitian embassy was all about art.  Every room we entered had beautiful, brightly colored paintings done by Haitian artists. The one hanging over the fireplace was especially striking.

Embassy tours haiti

And in the back of the house, just before we stepped outside, we saw a beautiful collection of bottles covered in sequins.  Then we exited the house and stepped out onto a gorgeous patio. The biggest wall had an arrangement of metal decorations that was pretty incredible.

Embassy tours Haiti patio

There were tin lanterns hanging all over the place, with designs of dragonflies, and other small animals.

By this time the event was coming to a close, so we started walking back toward the Metro station.  On the way, we passed a stunning display outside the Guatemalan embassy.

Embassy tours Guatemala

 

The white parts were rice, and we guessed that the colored bits were dyed sawdust.  From a distance, it looked like a rug.

After that, we followed the sound of music until we happened upon the embassy of the Dominican Republic.  There were people everywhere – some were in line for food but quite a few were dancing.  It was such an awesome display of living in the moment, anyone watching couldn’t help but smile.

I cannot recommend the Around the World Embassy Tour enough. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about other cultures and see some magnificent art and architecture.  If you’re ever in D.C. on a Saturday in early May, check it out!

60+ Washington DC Free Attractions

60+ Washington DC Free Attractions

Anyone who has been to Washington DC knows that it can be a pretty expensive city to visit.  Most studies rank it somewhere in the top ten list of the most expensive American cities. For someone who is making a non-DC salary and visiting the nation’s capital, the expense of everything can be daunting.

Fortunately, Washington DC free attractions are plentiful.  Here are over 60 places you can explore without paying for admission, listed by neighborhood:

The National Mall Area

Washington DC Free Attractions

  1. Abraham Lincoln Memorial
  2. World War II Memorial
  3. National Museum of American History
  4. National Air & Space Museum
  5. Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden – modern art
  6. National Museum of African Art
  7. National Museum of Natural History
  8. Smithsonian Castle
  9. Washington Monument – currently closed for elevator upgrade – check before you go
  10. National Archives
  11. National Gallery of Art
  12. Multiverse Light Sculpture between National Gallery East & West Buildings
  13. Freer Gallery – Asian art (closed until October 14, 2017)
  14. Sackler Gallery – Asian art
  15. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial
  16. Korean War Veterans Memorial
  17. Vietnam War Veterans Memorial
  18. Thomas Jefferson Memorial
  19. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
  20. American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial
  21. US Holocaust Memorial Museum – free but requires timed tickets March through August
  22. National Museum of the American Indian
  23. National Museum of African American History & Culture
  24. Albert Einstein Memorial
  25. Bureau of Engraving & Printing (free, but reservations required through September 1)
  26. National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden

 

Brookland Area

Washington DC free attractions in Brookland area

  1. Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
  2. Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America

 

Capitol Hill

Washington Dc free attractions capitol hill

  1. National Postal Museum
  2. Library of Congress
  3. US Capitol
  4. US Botanic Garden
  5. Folger Shakespeare Library
  6. Historic Congressional Cemetery

 

Capitol Riverfront

Washington DC Free attractions capitol riverfront

  1. Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
  2. National Museum of the US Navy
  3. Yards Park

 

Anacostia

Washington DC Free Attractions Anacostia

  1. Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens
  2. Anacostia Community Museum

 

Upper Northwest

Washington DC Free Attractions Upper Northwest

  1. National Cathedral

 

Georgetown

Washington DC Free ATtractions Georgetown

  1. C&O Canal Paths
  2. Old Stone House (the oldest home in DC)
  3. Theodore Roosevelt Island
  4. Rock Creek Park

 

Penn Quarter/Chinatown

Washington DC Free Attractions Penn Quarter Chinatown

  1. National Portrait Gallery
  2. Smithsonian American Art Museum
  3. Lunder Conservation Center
  4. Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site
  5. Archives of American Art Gallery

 

Dupont Circle

Washington DC Free Attractions Dupont Circle

  1. Anderson House

 

Woodley Park

Washington DC Free Attractions Woodley Park

  1. National Zoo

 

Foggy Bottom

Washington DC free attractions Foggy Bottom

  1. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts (free tour)
  2. Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center (free performances)

 

Downtown

Washington DC Free Attractions Donwtown

  1. White House Visitor Center
  2. White House tour (request through Congressional representative at least 3 months in advance)
  3. Renwick Gallery – American contemporary art

 

Shaw

Washington DC Free Attractions Shaw

  1. African American Civil War Memorial
  2. African American Civil War Museum

 

H Street NE

Washington DC Free Attractions H Street NE

  1. US National Arboretum
  2. National Bonsai & Penjing Museum – inside National Arboretum

 

Arlington, Virginia (technically not DC, but just across the river)

 

  1. US Air Force Memorial
  2. US Marine Corps Memorial (aka Statue of Iwo Jima)
  3. Arlington House, former home of Robert E Lee
  4. Arlington National Cemetery
  5. National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial

 

As you can see, there are plenty of Washington DC free must-see attractions… and a few that are a little off the beaten path.  With so many choices for things to see and do at no expense, Washington DC can be an affordable vacation destination after all.

 

The World in Miniature: Six Great Dollhouses from Around the Globe

The World in Miniature: Six Great Dollhouses from Around the Globe

It’s All in the Details

Ever since my childhood, I’ve been a little fascinated with dollhouses. There is something magical about seeing a slice of everyday life shrunk down into miniature. And the more details there are, the more magical it becomes. Here are five amazing dollhouses from around the world that are on my bucket list to see, plus one I’ve already seen.

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Russia’s Hermitage Museum

Russia’s Hermitage Museum

Six Things You May Not Know About the Hermitage Museum

The state Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, is one of the oldest and largest museums in the world. Catherine the Great founded the Hermitage in 1754 and it has been open to the public since 1852. In addition to its stunning architecture and beautiful works of art, the museum has a fascinating history. Here are six secrets of the Hermitage.

Secrets of the Hermitage #1: It’s really big.  Like huge.

It covers 765,567 square feet and contains over 1 million works of art, over 1 million numismatic objects, over 770,000 archaeological artifacts, and nearly 14,000 pieces of arms and armor. There are 2.7 million exhibits and displays in all. I’m thinking it’s probably not the sort of place you want to try and see in just a couple of hours.

Secrets of the Hermitage #2: It isn’t just a building.

The museum is actually a complex of many buildings, including the Winter Palace, which was the main residence of the Russian tsars.

hermitage-museum-st-petersburg-the-raphael-loggias
Interior of the State Hermitage Museum

Catherine expanded the museum beyond the palace to have additional buildings erected, creating the Hermitage Complex. The Russian rulers hosted all kinds of festivities in these buildings, which helped the Hermitage garner a reputation as not only a dwelling place for the Imperial family, but also as an important symbol and memorial to the imperial Russian state.

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Portrait of Catherine the Great by Fyodor Rokotov

Secrets of the Hermitage #3: Its initial pieces were art rejects.

The King of Prussia rejected the initial collection of artwork that started the Hermitage. The first pieces (225 or 317, there are differing accounts as to how many) obtained by Catherine the Great were assembled by an art dealer named Gotzkowsky. He put the collection together for Frederick II, King of Prussia, who was not impressed and did not want them. Frederick’s loss was Catherine’s gain: that collection included 13 works by Rembrandt.

Secrets of the Hermitage #4: Art can be addictive.

Catherine didn’t stop after that initial purchase. In her lifetime, she acquired 4,000 paintings from the old masters, 38,000 books, 10,000 engraved gems, 10,000 drawings, 16,000 coins and medals, and a natural history collection filling two galleries. Competitive art collecting was popular in European royal court culture at the time of her reign, and Catherine was an enthusiastic collector. Her art collection enabled her to gain European acknowledgment and acceptance, and to portray Russia as an enlightened society.

Secrets of the Hermitage #5: Special precautions were taken in WWII.

Art treasures from the museum were evacuated in World War II. Officials feared that the artwork would be lost in the event of an attack, so items from the collection were taken from the museum to the train station. Two trains then carried art treasures off into the Ural Mountains for safekeeping. It turned out to be the right call: two bombs and a number of shells hit the museum buildings during the siege. Once the war was over, the collections were returned unharmed.

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Protecting the art treasures from the State Hermitage Museum.

Secrets of the Hermitage #6:  Crazy cat … museum?

A population of about 50-60 cats lives in the basement of the Hermitage museum. In 1745, Elizabeth of Russia required cats in the palace in order to keep the mice at bay. In times past, the cats would freely roam through the galleries of the museum.  These days, however, they are only permitted in the basement or on the museum grounds. They have their own press secretary, Instagram account, and three caretakers.  You can even adopt a Hermitage cat!

cats-of-hermitage-st-petersburg

The Hermitage should definitely be one of your top five things to see in Russia – where else could you see such a vast collection of art in a lavish setting like a palace? Just be sure to allow plenty of time for your visit.

The address for The Hermitage Museum is 2 Palace Square in St. Petersburg.  You may purchase tickets up to 180 days in advance online in US dollars for $17.95 (one day) or $22.95 (two day). However, admission is free on the first Thursday of every month for all visitors, and it is free daily for students and children. Closed on Mondays, New Year’s Day, and May 9.

Rievaulx Abbey & Rievaulx Terrace

Rievaulx Abbey & Rievaulx Terrace

In doing my research for our UK vacation, I ran across a lot of abbey ruins: Whitby, Fountains, Rievaulx, Guisborough, St. Mary’s, Bolton, and Tynemouth, just to name a few.

Why so many? I’m so glad that you asked!

Well, Henry VIII had been married to Queen Katherine of Aragon for over 20 years. However, for all that time, Katherine had been unable to provide him with a male heir. When the lovely Anne Boleyn caught his eye, he decided to divorce Katherine and marry Anne instead. The Catholic Church refused to allow a divorce. Henry’s spiritual advisers found a Biblical loophole for him in Leviticus 20:21 – “If a man marries his brother’s wife, it is an act of impurity; he has dishonored his brother. They will be childless.” Katherine had previously been wed to Henry’s older brother, Arthur, who passed away at a young age.  Henry sought an annulment by claiming that his marriage to Katherine had never been valid.

The Catholic Church still said no, they would not dissolve the king’s marriage. Henry decided that if the church wouldn’t give him what he wanted, he would take it himself. So in 1531, he declared himself the Supreme Head of the Church in England. Prior to that time, the church functioned independently from the throne. By declaring himself Head of the Church, Henry VIII had a monopoly on all of the power in the land.

Henry ordered his investigators to evaluate the monasteries for necessary reform. Following reports of idleness, greed, and immorality, Parliament passed an act in 1536 to permit closing all monasteries with an income less than £200 (376 monasteries in total). Then, in 1539, larger monasteries were ordered to be dissolved – 645 in all. The monastery buildings were stripped of their doors, lead, timber, glass, art and literature, gold plate, silver, gold and jewelry. Livestock was seized. Land was sold to the wealthy. If buildings were not sold, they were used as quarries where individual stones were sold off to local builders. Truly, it’s a wonder that anything is left standing, yet there are monastery ruins all over Britain.

While I personally wouldn’t have minded visiting all of the monastery ruins within a 30 mile radius, I faced the all-too-familiar restrictions of time, money, and family members. So I resolved to visit just one and admire all the others from afar. The question was, which would be the best one to visit?

From the moment I first saw this breathtaking picture on Pinterest, I wanted to visit Rievaulx Abbey:

rievaulx abbey as seen from rievaulx terrace

But Fountains Abbey in Ripon – with the Studeley Water Gardens – sounded equally lovely. Rievaulx or Fountains? I can be pretty indecisive at times, and I was really having a hard time choosing one over the other. So I turned to my favorite Settler of Disputes, Google.

Other people had asked the same question, as it turned out, and many people had chimed in with a strong preference. The winner, with very few exceptions, was Fountains Abbey. I plugged Fountains Abbey into my itinerary and moved on to the deciding the next stop on our tour of northern England.

Except.  

As time passed, I felt a little resentful about not being able to see Rievaulx. As the date of our trip approached, the feelings grew. Until finally, I came to my senses and remembered my own advice to travelers:  don’t let conventional wisdom dictate what you do and see on your vacation.

I crossed off Fountains Abbey and replaced it with Rievaulx, and that’s where we went. Happily, I can say that I don’t regret it for a moment.

When approaching the Abbey, you drive through a great little town called Helmsley (more on that later), and you reach a fork in the road. One side leads to Rievaulx Terrace, the other to Rievaulx Abbey. Rievaulx Terrace provides amazing views of the Abbey (I got the shot above at Rievaulx Terrace). National Trust manages Rievaulx Terrace. English Heritage, on the other hand, manages the Abbey. It’s a bit inconvenient, having to go to two locations and pay two separate admission fees, but one could argue that you can’t fully appreciate the Abbey unless you see it from a distance, and hands down, the Terrace is the best place to do that.

We went to the Terrace first. I was there mainly just to take photographs, but it has some other interesting features as well. First, it’s important to note that the Terrace was built in 1758 for the specific purpose of showcasing the Abbey (and impressing guests, of course).

Guests would alight from their carriages at one end of the Terrace near the Doric Temple.  This structure resembles a scaled-down version of the mausoleum at Castle Howard, a few miles away. They would then walk about a half a mile across the lush green carpet of grass covering the promenade before reaching the Ionic Temple, inspired by the Temple of Fortuna Virilis in Rome. That temple was actually a banqueting house, with facilities for food preparation in the basement.

We started at the banqueting house and the guide gave us a brief introduction to the property and its history. The interior consisted only of one large room, with the central table still set as if for a meal. It also featured elaborate ceiling paintings and ornate furniture.

rievaulx-terrace-banqueting-house abbey

From there, we strolled down the promenade. There were art installations along the way, which I thought were a bit out of place (very modern) and also completely unnecessary. When you have such a spectacular view, why bother with a statue of a horse made from wire?

wire-horse-sculpture at rievaulx terrace

I happily snapped pictures of the Abbey at each opening in the vegetation. The one at the top is by far my favorite as you can see most of the Abbey as well as the surrounding hillsides, sheep in a field, and the red roofs of some nearby houses. I just wish it had been a bit sunnier when we were there.

Finishing at the Terrace, we drove down to the Abbey. Oddly, you can’t see much of it from the car park and visitor center. But once you pay for your admission and go out onto the grounds, it dominates the scene.

Cistercian monks built Rievaulx Abbey in 1132.  The monks were ingenious in matters of farming and industry, and prospered there during the 12th and 13th centuries. In fact, Rievaulx Abbey became one of the greatest and wealthiest in England, with 140 monks and many more lay brothers.

However, they went through a rough spell in the late 13th to mid-14th century – sheep got mange, people got the Plague, and debts on their building projects began to build up. By 1381, there were only fourteen choir monks, three lay brothers and the abbot. By the 15th century, the monks were no longer the austere pious men from the early days of the Abbey. They had become privileged and self-indulgent.

Henry VIII order the destruction of Rievaulx Abbey in 1538. At that time the grounds held 72 buildings occupied by an abbot and 21 monks, attended by 102 servants, and an income of £351 a year. Henry ordered the buildings rendered uninhabitable and stripped of valuables such as lead. Today, all that remains are the stone walls.

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rievaulx-abbey-6

rievaulx abbey 1.jpg

In addition to the massive ruins, you can tour a wonderful museum that contains some remnants of the Abbey. From gargoyles to stained glass fragments, they are on display in the museum, along with interesting information about the history of the Abbey.

rievaulx-abbey-stained glass fragments

rievaulx-abbey-gargoyle head museum

rievaulx-abbey-statues museum

There is so much history and beauty at this site – I highly recommend it for anyone with an appreciation of architecture or history. (Maybe I’ll visit Fountains Abbey the next time I’m in Yorkshire!)

Rievaulx Terrace is near the town of Helmsley, Yorkshire YO62 5LJ. It is open seasonally, so check to make sure it will be open when planning your visit.

Rievaulx Abbey is also close to Helmsley, with a postcode of YO62 5LB. Telephone 01439 798228. Days & hours vary by season, so check the website or call when planning your visit.

A Still Life Drama… Whatever That Means

A Still Life Drama… Whatever That Means

The Problem with Monday Evenings

On our most recent trip to the UK, we found ourselves with odd chunks of time to fill in London. Sunday evening, Monday evening, and Tuesday morning. American Airlines took care of Tuesday morning by changing our 2:25 pm flight to an 11:00 am flight. On Sunday evening, we rode the London Eye. Monday evening turned out to be a bit more problematic.

You see, we were going to the Warner Brother Studio Tour Harry Potter experience in Leavesden on Monday, and estimated our return to London at about 4:30 pm. Most museums close at 5:00 or 5:30, and by the time we rode the tube to get there, we would have very little time to actually see anything. I was very excited when I found out that Dennis Severs house was open on Monday evenings, and booked a reservation.

dennis-severs-house-exterior london

 

About Dennis Severs’ House

If you haven’t heard of Dennis Severs House, I will try to explain in as straightforward, unbiased manner as possible.

The house is (according to its creator, Dennis Severs) a “still-life drama” – an imagination of what life would have been like inside for a family of Huguenot silk weavers. Mr. Severs recreated the rooms of the house as a time capsule in the style of former centuries, adding components that make the rooms appear lived-in, as if the inhabitants of the house have just stepped out a few minutes before you arrived.

There is no gift shop, and there are only a few rules.

  1. Do not touch anything in the house
  2. Turn off your cell phone
  3. Do not talk, to yourself or to others.  You must complete the tour in silence.

Rule #3 proved somewhat more difficult than I would have expected, because I kept wanting to ask WHY?  First and foremost, why can’t we talk? But also, why is each room so different from the one before?  Why did Severs choose these time periods?  Why Huguenots? Why silk weavers?  Why, why, why?

That being said, I did manage to hold my tongue for the entirety of the tour, save one barely audible whisper to my daughter when we got close to the end to see if her thoughts were tracking with mine. More on that later. Here’s how the tour went down.

Just before entering, we received instructions about The Rules.  We were warned that candlelight was the only illumination in the house.  Thankfully, it was early in the evening, and some additional light entered in through the windows.

The Cellar

We entered the house and were directed to the cellar.  There we found a dark room with a crater in the ground and an explanation about the Spitalfields area, which was named for St Mary Spital, established in 1197 to treat lepers. (Notice the similarity to the word hospital?)

dennis-severs-house-cellar london

I had no background knowledge on the area when we visited, but in trying to gain a better understanding of the house after our visit, I read up on it. In doing so, I learned that Spitalfields was historically associated with Huguenot refugees from 1685 onward, and that many of the refugees were silk weavers by trade. They settled in the Spitalfields area (then outside London) to avoid the restrictive legislation of the City of London guilds.

The Kitchen

Our next stop was the kitchen. It was rustic and cozy… a nice change from the dankness of the leprosy crater next door.

dennis-severs-house-kitchen london

 

The Eating Parlour

Back upstairs we went to the ground floor. We were motioned away from one room (the grand finale, as it turns out) and directed to the other. It was the “Eating Parlour,” which according to the house’s web site, is in the Baroque period, and a study in contrasts.

dennis-severs-house-eating parlour london

Notice the bright white objects and how they contrast with the darker colors of the room? It is supposed to signify politics in the era following the English Civil War – Catholic or Protestant, Whig or Tory – King George or King James, etc. A note in the room alluded to the fact that the next generation, located upstairs, lived more extravagantly.

Sadly, this detail went right over my head. As an American, I haven’t learned enough about the English Civil War to pick up on these nuances or understand the significance in the time period. However, it was a lovely room, and I enjoyed the sounds and smells that made it so realistic.

When we finished looking around the Eating Parlour, a guide motioned us upstairs. A huge multi-tiered display of fruit stood on the landing. According to the house’s web site, we were entering the Georgian era, and their placement on what English call the first floor (we Americans would call it the second floor) is symbolic of being more noble and refined. Everything seemed delicate and expensive. We even skirted carefully around the fruit display for fear of knocking it over.

The Smoking Room

The first room on this floor was the Smoking Room. Essentially, it was the Man Cave of that era, symbolized quite well by the William Hogarth painting on the wall “A Midnight Modern Conversation”:

rsz_william_hogarth_-_a_midnight_modern_conversation at dennis severs house london

We failed to pay much attention to the painting until we read a note on the table. It told us that the room replicated the one in the painting, complete with overturned chair.

dennis-severs-house-room-with-painting london

This room, according to the web site, symbolizes the practical disadvantages of all-male extremes. In this room (and all the others), there is a great amount of attention to detail.

dennis-severs-house-details london

 

The Withdrawing Room

Moving on, we entered the Withdrawing Room.

dennis severs house withdrawing room london

In contrast to the Man Cave next door, this room contains a female presence. Evidence of etiquette and gentility abounds.

Up once more we climbed the stairs. We entered the more intimate areas of the house – the bedrooms. According to the web site, this is the meaning behind the bedrooms:

Now “I think” should develop into “I feel”, and the colours in the Chamber and Boudoir are the pastel hues of sea and sky – to lift the imagination and inspire it on. So intimate – femininity, family, children’s toys and humour – as well as evidence of ‘a passion for’ – ephemera, oriental porcelain and flowers. The idea being to warm cold Reason so that you might look down on the same primitive and brutal world from which you once rose to see it as ‘picturesque’. In doing so you enter the back door to the romantic age from 1780 – 1837.

They were lovely rooms, and I especially enjoyed looking at the woman’s vanity table. But I didn’t get any deeper meaning from it, and this is where I started becoming frustrated. All the way through the house we had seen notes that were telling us to look deeper, to find the connections, to experience the setting before us, etc. I was beginning to feel that I must have missed something because I didn’t see much of a deeper meaning, regardless of how well done the rooms were.

The Upper Floor

That nagging sense of confusion exploded into a complete sense of bewilderment when we went to the uppermost floor. Hanging in the stairwell area were multiple lines of laundry hanging to dry. The paint on the walls was chipped and peeling.

rsz_dennis_severs_house_top_floor_laundry london

Shabbiness and squalor continued into the final room.  A huge bed dominated one side of the room, its once luxurious velvet curtains frayed and faded, its covers rumpled and unkempt. Beside it was a threadbare chair with a lumpy cushion seat.

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In one corner of the room opposite the bed was a desk, quill pens, books and papers. Forever in love with books and papers and writing instruments, I felt a great attraction to that corner of the room. I found the rest of it, however, revolting, and half expected a rat to scurry across the floor at any moment.

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What you can’t see in this photo is a note implying that you are standing in Ebenezer Scrooge’s room from A Christmas Carol. That totally blew my mind, but not in a good way. I was (sort of) buying into the whole presumption that this was the house of 17th/18th century Huguenot silk weavers. So what does Dickens have to do with that? If you know, please clue me in. If you’re as confused as I am, this is what the web site says:

However, on the Top Floor, now stripped of any prettiness and filled with lodgers, what good are Reason and Romance on their own? You are 100 years old; you are wise. And with harder times and the Spitalfields silk trade sweating towards its collapse – a visitor joins with an age to reach more deeply – through sentiment to the Soul. A sense of angst is necessary to understanding the house’s next generation of Early-Victorian reformers.

The Back Parlour

Having completed that room, it was time to journey back to the ground floor and enter the grand finale room. It is the back parlour, decked out in regalia to signify the beginning of the Victorian era.

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I was so thankful not to end the tour on the creepy upstairs derelict room! Once we finished looking around in the back parlour, we stepped out onto the London street, looked at each other, and said, “What the heck WAS that?” before bursting out in laughter.

So, Should You Go?

Here’s my take. If you enjoy historical reenactment and fantasize about how cool it would be to go back in time, you would probably enjoy touring this house. If you hated literature classes that had you analyze the writings of an author and presume to know why he chose to say that the bird in the tree was a canary instead of a mockingbird – and what deeper, philosophical meaning that choice implied – you should probably pass on seeing this place.

Me? I’m somewhere in the middle of those two camps. I certainly appreciate the attention to detail and the thoroughness of the scenes. However, I resented the implication that if I didn’t get all of the connections, I was (as the Brits say) thick.

I think there should have been some more background information provided prior to the tour.  It would have been especially helpful for the non-British who don’t know about Huguenot refugees, the silk trade, or the English Civil War.

Your mileage, of course, may vary. If you’ve been to Dennis Severs’ house, please let me know what you thought of it by commenting below!

Dennis Severs House is located at 18 Folgate Street, Spitalfields, London, E1 6BX. Telephone:+44 (0) 20 7247 4013. The house holds tours at various times on selected days of the week.  Consult the web site or call when planning your visit.  

The Royal Armouries Museum – Leeds

The Royal Armouries Museum – Leeds

True confession: my husband and I met through participation in a medieval reenactment group.  He even has his own suit of armor! So when I was planning our vacation in the Yorkshire area of England, the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds was a must-see.

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It is an impressive building – five floors in all. The museum has two sides: tournament (armor and weapons for sport) and war (armor and weapons on the battlefield).

The symbol for the museum, which you will see on many signs and banners as you approach the building, appears to be a ram. But once inside, you learn that it is actually a remarkably odd 16th century piece known as “The Horned Helmet.”

Horned helmet at Royal Armouries Museum Leeds
Emperor Maximilian I’s armorer made the helmet in the 16th century. The Emperor presented it as a gift to King Henry VIII. Apparently there was a suit of armor that went with it. It the helmet is all that remains. I can only imagine what the suit must have looked like!

Horned Helmet at Royal Armouries Museum Leeds
Yikes.

One of the most striking displays that I saw when we first arrived was a diorama of the Battle of Pavia (1525).  The historical significance of this battle escaped me – either I had never heard of it, or I had long since forgotten. Regardless, I found it fascinating that one side was mounted on horseback, fighting with swords, whereas the other side was on foot and armed with guns. Guess which side won!

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It may seem strange to say it, but there were some really beautiful arms and armor there. I thought the black armor was especially striking (and intimidating).

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Some armor was handsomely engraved with beautiful, intricate designs.

Engraved Breastplate armor at Royal Armouries Museum Leeds
It was sobering to see these two suits of armor, made for boys aged 8 and 10.

Armor for two boys at Royal Armouries Museum Leeds
There was also “The Lion Armour,” from the mid-16th century. It is damascene armor, with inlays of gold and a dozen embossed lion’s heads.

Lion Armor Damascene Royal Armouries Museum Leeds

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Unfortunately, the helmet was not there when we visited.  From what I saw of it on the brief film they were showing, though, it is a beauty! It looks as though a lion is roaring at its wearer’s foe.

We also saw a special exhibit on gold items from a Staffordshire hoard. Saxon men decorated their weapons with gold, and often garnet stones as well.

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The collection is so vast, the stairwells even displayed weapons and armor:

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The museum covers a time period from the early Middle Ages up through the present. Several areas were temporarily closed when we were there; we did not get to tour the Asian section or the modern warfare section, nor did we get to try the Crossbow Firing Range.  However, there was still a lot to see and enjoy.  I highly recommend this as a stop for history buffs and, in particular, military history enthusiasts.

The Royal Armouries Museum is at Armouries Drive, Leeds, LS10 1LT. Open daily 10:00 am to 5:00 pm.   Admission is free.

Intrigued?  Here are some books I recommend to learn more:

The White Horses of Britain

The White Horses of Britain

There are nearly 60 carvings of giant horses, men and other animals in the British landscape. These figures are typically made in chalk and limestone areas.  The figures therefore appear white, which contrasts with the darker surrounding soil or grass.

The most famous of these horses is the Uffington White Horse, which is both the oldest and the largest. It has graced that hillside in Oxfordshire for at least 2000 years, perhaps as many as 3000 years, and it is a whopping 360 feet long.

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Another white horse in Osmington measures 323 feet and includes a figure riding it. The rider is probably King George III, who was the reigning monarch at the time of its creation in 1808 and measures. Osmington is near the southern coast of England, in Dorset.

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The Kilburn White Horse is in the North York Moors National Park in Yorkshire. Created in 1857, it is 318 feet long and covers more than an acre and a half of land.

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In Southeast England there is the Folkestone White Horse, overlooking the English end of the Channel Tunnel (or “Chunnel”) in Kent. It is the newest addition in the White Horse family, and as such, the most controversial. Environmental groups opposed the project, which first sough approval in 1998 but did not receive it until 2002. The Folkestone White Horse is 267 feet long.

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Another hill figure known as the Cherhill White Horse, located in Wiltshire, dates from the late 18th century. It measures 220 feet.

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Also in Wiltshire is the Westbury, or Bratton Downs, White Horse. First cut in the mid-1700s, it is the oldest white horse in Wiltshire. People as far away as 16 miles in every direction are able to see the 180 foot figure.

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These are just a few of the hill figures in Britain. In addition to horses, hill figures include swans, rabbits, men (including one that’s semi-pornographic in Dorset), and a donkey. They each have their own history and story, so they’re worth checking out if you’re near one.

Finally, if you would like to learn more about the hill figures of Britain, check out these great books:

A Must See Painting at London's National Gallery

A Must See Painting at London's National Gallery

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If you visit the National Gallery in London, there is a remarkable painting that you should make a point of seeing.  It is The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger, dated 1533.

ambassadors by holbein

At first glance, it seems to be a fairly typical painting of two Tudor-era men, although they are dressed very differently.  The man on the left is dressed in secular clothing, while the man on the right is dressed in clerical garb.

In between them are an assortment of objects, including two globes (one of earth, the other a celestial globe), a quadrant, a portable sundial, an astronomical instrument called a torquetum, open books, a lute with a broken string, and a hymn book.  Hidden behind the folds of the drapes is a crucifix.

There has been much discussion over the years as to whether the juxtaposition of the items in this portrait represent a unification of the Church and capitalism or conflicts between secular and religious authorities.

Perhaps even more interesting than the array of objects and their potential symbolism, however, is the object on the floor at the bottom of the table.  It doesn’t look like much straight on, but when you move to the right of the painting, you can see that it is a skull. This is an excellent example of anamorphosis – a distorted projection or perspective requiring the viewer to use special devices or occupy a specific vantage point (or both) to reconstitute the image.  Watch the skull come into focus here:

The anamorphic perspective was an invention of the early Renaissance.  Perhaps Holbein was showing off his talent at this then-new technique.  Perhaps he wanted to startle people who walked up the stairs past the painting.  Perhaps he wanted to encourage contemplation of life and inevitable death, for the inclusion of a skull is a memento mori, literally a reminder that we all must die.

Whatever the artist’s intentions, the painting is exceptionally well done and full of fascinating details.  If you’re in London, do be sure to check it out.  It’s located in Room 4.

If you’re not likely to get to London any time soon, click here for an interactive image that allows you to get a close up look at different parts of the painting… just click on the area you would like to see in greater detail.

The National Gallery is located in Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 5DN, United Kingdom. Telephone +44 (0)20 7747 2885. Admission is free. The museum is open daily from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm (10-9 on Fridays).  Closed December 24-26 and January 1.

The Baltimore Museum of Art

The Baltimore Museum of Art

A lot of people might wonder, “Why bother going to an art museum in Baltimore when the Smithsonian has so many superb art museums just a little over an hour away?”  Those people would probably be surprised to learn that the Baltimore Museum of Art has quite a lot to offer.

The museum has an internationally renowned collection of over 90,000 pieces of art that spans centuries; from early Byzantine to current Contemporary.  That’s a far cry from its founding in 1914 when it had only one painting – Mischief by William-Sergeant Kendall. Part of those 90,000 items is the largest holding of works by Henri Matisse in the world.

When I visited, I was quite taken with the Antioch Mosaics. In the 1930s, the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA) joined the Musées Nationaux de France, Worcester Art Museum, and Princeton University during the excavations of the ancient city of Antioch (now known as Antakya in southeastern Turkey). During these excavations, 300 mosaic pavements dating from the 2nd to 6th centuries were found. The BMA received 34 of the finest mosaics from the excavation, most of which are on display.

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But as I stated above, the museum’s collections span many centuries.  There was also Edgar Degas’ Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen, which I loved:

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And, for the fan of modern art, you will enjoy the collection of work by Andy Warhol, including the massive Hearts:

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The Baltimore Museum of Art is located at 10 Art Museum Dr, Baltimore, MD 21218. Telephone 443-573-1700.  Admission is free.  The museum is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays.  Hours vary by day for the remainder of the week, so check the website or call when planning your visit.

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