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A few weeks ago I mentioned that I was going to visit the Museum of London, Docklands and the V&A.  This I did last weekend.

I wanted to visit the two as for the former it was the penultimate weekend of the ‘Georgian Frost Fair’ exhibition, whilst for the latter it was the first weekend of the ‘William Kent’ exhibition.

Georgian Frost Fair

I arrived at Canary Wharf and made my way down towards the River Thames only so that I could take a picture of the Shard – an impressive piece of structural engineering which although I was quite a distance from was still massive.  I then made my way to the museum which is housed in old dockside warehouses at West India Quay – it’s quite strange to see such an old building surrounded by modern office blocks but I’m pleased that they have retained the warehouse as a reminder of our maritime and mercantile history.

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The statue outside the museum is of Robert Milligan (1746-1809) who was a merchant and ship-owner who was a major driving force behind the construction of West India Quays.

The museum is free to enter and I was advised that photos can be taken inside providing the flash isn’t used.

I was also told that, despite the prominence on their website, that it wasn’t actually an exhibition but a sole display case just to the right of the cash desk.  You can imagine I was more than slightly disappointed.  The case which was not particularly large held half a dozen items and was pushed ‘into a corner’ near the entrance to the bar.  Given the distance I had travelled (I live in York) this didn’t best please me – the exhibits themselves were not particularly outstanding either being Cruickshank cartoons of a fair, the remains of a cake purchased at a fair a couple of original notices.

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I did decide that having arrived at the museum I would look around and must stay that it is a very interesting location.  Needless to say I was only interested in the earliest history of the docklands (the time when the Thames had Legal Quays, the development of Billingsgate, slavery) but the museum also covers Victorian weighing stations, the Blitz and the modern plans for the area.

The museum has an array of ephemera including the following newspaper cutting about the Legal Quays in 1768:

“On Monday Evening, a Man with a Leather Apron on, and a Child’s coffin on his head, was stopped on Tower-hill by a Custom-house officer, who found in the Coffin foreign lace to the value of 200l”

– there is no comment about what happened to the man and relates to a later part of the display about Patrick Colquhoun, magistrate, who wrote, at the end of the eighteenth century, A Treatise on the Commerce and Police of the River Thames in which he claimed that £500,000 had been stolen from ships docked in London and that some 18,500 people were involved in the criminal activity.  This lead to formation of a marine police force with the police station being at 259 Wapping New-stairs.  For more information see Thames Police Museum.

There are also many portraits including of the nineteen year old Prince Lee Boo and the violinist George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower.

Along with these works of art there are portraits of the slave owner William Mitchell Esq who was Chairman of the West India Doc Com in the 1820s and who, with his brothers, Rowland Samuel, was one of the biggest plantation owners in the West Indies.  This is just one part of a permanent exhibition on “London, Sugar and Slavery”.

Despite my disappointment at the Georgian Frost Fair ‘exhibition’ not being what I had expected I think that the journey out to Docklands was well-worth it and would recommend anyone who had an interest either in the eighteenth century or, generally, about the River Thames to also take the time to visit.

William Kent Exhibition, Victoria and Albert Museum

After I left the museum I travelled to South Kensington (a rather nightmarish journey, even for those of us used to the tube system, because of the works being undertaken on several parts of the network at the same time) to take in the exhibition on William Kent at the Victoria and Albert Museum.   As I arrived early (I had a booked ticket) and because I haven’t visited the museum in years I decided to visit some of the other rooms dedicated to my preferred period of history.

I am often overcome by the amazing craftsmanship and imagination that went into producing all manner of items and here are a selection of items that captured my attention:

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Thomas Hope furniture

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Painted plaster ceiling

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Weather vane

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Swivel chair from India

… and I could hardly miss the fashion displays!

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Turning to the William Kent (1685-1748) exhibition which is the first time that there has been an attempt to explore the full range of Kent’s talent

When I first stepped through the closed doors I was greeted by a wave of baroque music and a very friendly member of staff.  There being no other visitors in evidence at that time we chatted for a while before I turned my attention to taking note of as many of the display items as possible (taking photos is not allowed).

The first case contains among other items a letter concerning the art of science and design by Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury and allows an exploration of Kent’s ten years of travelling around Italy – for more information see The British School at Rome.  This was a very important time in Kent’s life as it allowed him to see, first hand, the classical designs which were to later be seen in his own architectural offerings.  This part of the display also has a copy of Fabbriche Antiche disegnate da Andrea Palladio which was published by the Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington in 1730.  Kent travelled back from Italy with this principal supporter and (as James Curl has described him) greater arbiter of taste of the early Georgian age.  The exhibition also has on display a letter from Kent to Burlington (from 1745) which contains information about commission and some personal gossip which I found both charming and informative.

Some of Kent’s detailed sketches produced whilst in Italy are hung near the beginning of the exhibition including Palace of the Sun, Cleopatra Dissolving a Pearl and Tivoli all produced between 1709 and 1720.

Kent already had commissions for a number of ceiling designs but as the exhibition shows he was more than interior designer.  There are examples of the furniture he designed, the paintings he produced and, above all else, the architectural and garden designs he imagined (not all were completed).

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The above image is shown at the exhibition:
The Gallery, Chiswick House, William Henry Hunt, 1828, watercolour. © Devonshire Collection, Chatsworth. Reproduced by permission of the Chatsworth Settlement Trustees

The list of sites Kent worked on is amazing and highlighted by a silent film show towards the end of the exhibition.  These included:

the gardens at Alexander Pope’s Twickenham Villa (1730) – now lost

the Treasury, London (1733-07)

Horse Guards, London (1750-09)

the interiors at Chiswick House (1727-29)

Houghton Hall, Norfolk (1726-31)

the garden buildings at Stowe House, Buckinghamshire

Raynham Hall, Norfolk

Holkham Hall, Norfolk (completed 1764)

Lady Isabella Finch’s house at 44 Berkeley Square, London

22 Arlington Street, London (for the Prime Minister, Henry Pelham)

Kent’s designs are the epitome of the Georgian Age and I loved every minute of the exhibition ,,, if I had one complaint it was that I wish there had been even more of it!

At the conclusion of the exhibition there are two quotations.  I particularly liked

“The rooms were fitted up by Mr Kent and consequently there is a great deal of gilding”  Lord Oxford

I would definitely recommend this exhibition, which runs until 13 July 2014, and would love to go again.

For more information about William Kent see:

William Kent: Architect, Designer, Opportunist by Tom Mowl

William Kent:  Designing Georgian Britain by Susan Weber

Georgian Architecture by James Curl

Riba website:  Palladio and Britain

Historic Royal Palaces website:  Kensington Palace

follow William Kent on Twitter – a witty diary by the man himself!

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