Sunday, 6 October 2013

Grumpy heads north

Last week I enjoyed a splendid long weekend in North East England, visiting some stately homes and museums, and cycling in the Pennines. 
Gallery ceiling
Picture: Harewood House
First stop was Harewood House, with its stupendous Robert Adam interiors (partly done over by Charles Barry in the nineteenth century). I know the house well - I've even looked at Adam's original designs at the Soane Museum - but nothing prepares you for the experience of walking through these wondrous rooms. The Chippendale here is some of the best furniture ever made - the Diana & Minerva commode, the great mirrors, the state bed. Chippendale's library desk was sold in the 1960s and is now at Temple Newsam, a nearby museum with an encyclopaedic collection of English furniture. It looks great at Temple Newsam, but it's a shame they don't lend it back to be seen in the room it was designed for.

Many of the old masters at Harewood were collected in the twentieth century, at a time when many English stately homes were selling off their treasures. There are some duds, and some of the best were sold off in the later twentieth century (including Titian's The Death of Actaeon in the National Gallery), but fine things remain - although the portrait claimed as a Titian is clearly no such thing. Virtually the entire ground floor is open to visitors, but the upper floors are private. That makes me wish there was a more substantial guide book with fuller details about the rest, as the plans for the upper floor were more carefully thought out and more grand than in many great houses of that time. 

I was impressed by the organisation and display at Harewood - far better than the ghastly National Trust. Barriers are regrettable, but clearly necessary when you see how badly some visitors behave in old houses. The room stewards were excellent. Highly commended, and well worth taking a full day to see it properly. 
Picture: Landmark Trust
Picture: Landmark Trust
Mrs Grumpy and I stayed at the Banqueting House at Gibside, a magnificent eighteenth century garden building owned by the Landmark Trust. It was designed by Daniel Garrett, who assisted Lord Burlington. There's a grand drawing room (left), and a small bedroom with outstanding plasterwork on the walls. The setting is amazing, with a view down to a pond with a colony of Great Crested Newts.

A descendant of the builder of our holiday cottage founded the Bowes Museum, which was next on my itinerary. 

Picture: Bowes Museum
The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle is an incongruous French chateau rising above a small provincial town, making quite a contrast to the Georgian gothic banqueting house.

The collection is a charming mix of paintings, furniture, decorative arts and archaeological finds from different times and places and of very mixed quality. Well-known pictures by great masters like Sassetta and El Greco are hung with some mediocre wall-fillers. The dense display makes a tremendous impression, and even some of the minor works are interesting. There's a feeble copy of Raphael's La Perla that's worth seeing because it gives a good sense of the background scenes that are now much darkened in the original. There's also some good furniture including an English cabinet incorporating a superb Boulle marquetry panel and a wonderful Thomas Hope bookcase.

Despite these riches, I was disappointed by the Bowes. Their greatest painting - a Goya prison scene - was on loan ('somewhere in Italy' a guard grunted at me before demanding to see my ticket). The main exhibition was of a well-known fashion designer. It's bad enough that a museum prostitutes itself to promote a major fashion house. Worse is that the loud pop music accompanying the exhibition blasts into the picture gallery above, ruining the experience.

The wall text is weak and sometimes inaccurate. Here's what it says about the copy of La Perla:
This painting is a copy of Raphael's La Perla, which is now in the Prado, Madrid. The original picture belonged to Charles I who considered it to be one of Raphael's finest paintings and the pearl of his collection. The King and his adviser, Diego Velazquez's, admiration for this work may explain why it has been repeatedly copied and reproduced.
Philip IV of Spain called it La Perla. Charles I would surely have called it The Pearl!

Other exhibits were badly displayed. The French fountain mask below is mounted with big modern industrial bolts protected with poor-quality glass giving off a nasty glare.

Picture: MS
Picture: MS
The Bowes has a big 'social media' presence and has sent out 4,500 tweets, but can't get its wall text right. It holds great works of art, but it promotes frivolous fashion shows. It has some splendid large picture galleries, but it ruins them with blaring pop music. This museum has the wrong priorities. It has betrayed its founders and it cheats its patrons.

The trip was timed to coincide with a cycling event in the Pennines, superbly organised by Wiggle. Ernest Hemingway said "it is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them." There was much sweating, and much coasting last Sunday. I attribute my mediocre performance entirely to the two punctures I suffered, and not at all to my own unfitness.  


  1. I read your post about your 'Trip up North' with interest and was pleased to see that The Bowes Museum featured in your itinerary.

    The numerous bills and fashion plates in our Archive tell us that our founder, Joséphine Bowes, was an avid follower of the latest fashions and customer at the leading fashion houses in Paris. In fact, both John and Joséphine collected a wide range of 'antique' textiles first to furnish their homes, and then as part of their growing collection for The Bowes Museum. In buying for the Museum, they chose to represent all textile techniques and all the European centres of production, from the 15th to 19th centuries.

    With this in mind, we believe Joséphine, especially, would have loved the idea of her Museum housing an exhibition celebrating 60 years of the well known women's fashion and textiles label, 'Laura Ashley' and perhaps more importantly recognising the unique history of the woman behind the brand, whose quiet but determined character, allowed her, with no formal design training, to realise a vision and style much loved by many women in the 70s and later.

    Alison Nicholson
    Digital Communications Officer
    The Bowes Museum

  2. Thank you for your comment Alison. Completely agree that fashion exhibitions fit nicely in the Bowes tradition, and I have no objection at all to museums exhibition fashion and textiles (the Textile Museum in Washington is a favourite of mine). But Laura Ashley is also a business operating in a competitive marketplace, and I'm concerned by the blurred lines between museums and commerce in these cases. I also thought the loud 'muzak' pushed the exhibition closer to commerce, making it more like a shop than a museum retrospective. And I found it really distracting in the picture galleries upstairs.

  3. Hi Michael, glad to hear you're a fan of textile museums!

    We have tried to choose the music carefully to create evocative feelings of the particular period in time that the dresses were in fashion, and to help visitors to reminisce about their own personal memories from the 70s. However, it is not intended to be audible anywhere else but the exhibition gallery. I do apologise if it affected your enjoyment in the picture galleries. I will check the volume, as a consequence.

    The choice to stage an exhibition is taken on curatorial grounds alone. We wouldn’t want to exclude certain designers from our exhibitions just because they were still trading, but to clarify on this occasion, there was no commercial support from, or involvement with, the company Laura Ashley in staging the show.

    Thanks for your comments, and I hope you visit us again one day.

    Best wishes, Alison