All Hallow’s Eve by Lamplight – Tower Hamlets Cemetery

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Hallowe’en is the perfect time to visit a cemetery; besides, I never did get to go on a proper tour of Tower Hamlets. So I was happy to book a place on the All Hallow’s Eve by Lamplight tour, run by the Cemetery Club.

Tower Hamlets Cemetery

We gathered at the entrance by the war memorial and collected some lanterns to take with us on our walk. And we needed them – there are no other lights in the cemetery, and even with the lanterns it was pretty dark. (I apologise for the poor quality of these photographs – I tried with and without flash and they were both pretty dire). Our guides escorted us round the cemetery, stopping at various points to tell us about various notable people buried here.

Towards the end of the tour we enjoyed some soul cakes of the kind eaten at Victorian Hallowe’en – they were baked to an original Victorian recipe and were yummy – spicy and delicious. We learned about nineteenth century Hallowe’en traditions and superstitions.

Finally, we were treated to an original Victorian music hall song, originally sung by Alexander Hurley, and based on a real event involving a strongman defeated by a daring rival.

Sadly I didn’t see any bats on the walk – perhaps because they were all frightened off by the fireworks. However it was a fascinating and atmospheric walk.

Tower Hamlets Cemetery

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Walker Art Gallery

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Walker Art Gallery

While I was in the Walker Art Gallery visiting the Mucha exhibition, I thought I might as well explore the place thoroughly. After all, it is host to one of the largest art collections in the country outside London. The collection dates from 1819, when the Liverpool Royal Institution came into possession of 37 works belonging to businessman William Roscoe, who had to sell his collection. Over the next few years the collection grew, and the building opened in 1877, named after its leading benefactor, Sir Andrew Barclay Walker.

There are two downstairs galleries, craft and design and sculpture, which are interesting to see. Upstairs are the majority of the works, mostly paintings, which are arranged in chronological order, from medieval and Renaissance art through to Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite and modern art. Highlights for me include the Pelican portrait of Elizabeth I and the large portrait of Henry VIII, as well as the painting of actor David Garrick as Richard III.

I’ve been to Liverpool twice before, only on brief flying visits so I’d never previously had a chance to visit. The Walker Art Gallery is a gem, though, and I’m glad I finally had the chance to check it out.

FACTS

Address: William Brown Street, Liverpool, L3 8EL

Website: liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/walker

Opening Hours: 10am-5pm daily

Price: Free

Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty – Walker Art Gallery

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Walker Art Gallery

I know in London we’re spoilt for choice when it comes to exhibitions but I still get cross when one that I want to see doesn’t make it to the capital. A case in point is Alphonse Mucha: In Quest of Beauty, which stopped at Bournemouth, Norwich and Glasgow before finally ending up at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. Mucha is my favourite artist, so there was no question of me missing out. To Liverpool I would have to go.

One coach trip later, and I was at the gallery in time for its opening at ten.

Exhibition entrance

The exhibition explored how “Mucha’s idea of beauty influenced his work. Mucha believed that beauty was the essence of art and was achieved by striking a balance between the internal, spiritual world and the external, material world. This principle informed his entire oeuvre, from his Art Nouveau posters and commercial works to his later works on the history of the Czech and Slavonic people.” [Mucha Foundation]

The exhibition contained posters, sketches and artefacts relating to Mucha and his career, which came to define Art Nouveau and the fin de siècle. It began with some examples of posters he designed for the actress Sarah Bernhardt (their friendship and artistic partnership lasted many years), including the earliest, Gismonda, followed by Hamlet and La Dame Aux Camélias (one of my earliest memories of Mucha’s work is a mirror with this poster on top displayed on the landing in my childhood home).

Examples of Mucha’s advertising posters follow: some of the earliest examples of the use of art in advertising. Most of the posters include familiar Mucha tropes: the stylised women, the long flowing hair, the ‘halo’ and the use of motifs from nature. Later Mucha created designs without a particular advertising focus: the seasons, the muses, the flowers. He also began to work on his Slav Epic, a work dedicated to his homeland which was seeking independence (and gained it in 1918).

It was incredible being able to see some of these original posters on display, especially bearing in mind that they were not designed to last: they were temporary adverts only, but their impact has endured. I was also fascinated by the photographs of Mucha in his studio, surrounded by his work.

This is a fairly small exhibition, and perhaps not worth travelling from London and back in a day unless you’re a really big fan. I absolutely love Mucha, though, and for me it was totally worth it to see these beautiful designs.

Harry Potter: A History Of Magic – British Library

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I booked my exhibition ticket for Harry Potter: A History of Magic back in April, and it’s just as well, as many dates for this groundbreaking exhibition are already sold out. It’s the first British Library exhibition to focus on the work of a living author, and I couldn’t imagine a better subject. The exhibition will fascinate any Harry Potter fan, but there’s much here to interest those who have never read a word about the famous boy wizard.

J.K. Rowling took inspiration from myths, legends and history to write about the magic in her books, and the exhibition looks at how magic as it has been seen in our world helped to inspire her. It’s divided up into sections based on the subjects Harry studies at Hogwarts: Potions, Divination, Charms, Care of Magical Creatures, and so on, and there is also a section on alchemy, relating to the Philosopher’s Stone which is so important in the first book.

We see many rare books and historical artefacts: the Ripley Scroll, purporting to explain how to make the philosopher’s stone, alongside Nicholas Flamel’s gravestone (apparently discovered being used as a chopping board in Paris). The Potions section has rare books describing the various potions and their antidotes – there is also a bezoar displayed – and Herbology displays a copy of Culpeper’s Herbal, of which Rowling had her own copy that she used to refer to when writing the books. We see a cauldron and a broomstick from the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, and possibly my favourite exhibit of all: the ‘Invisibility Cloak’.

Throughout the exhibition, illustrations by Jim Kay bring the characters to life, and we also see sketches by Rowling, which are fascinating as they show the characters as she originally imagined them. My favourite parts were the handwritten or typed early drafts of various chapters, showing the Harry Potter stories as they might have existed, and offering insights into how Rowling changed and adapted her stories.

I loved this exhibition – it runs until February, so there’s plenty of time to see it, but I definitely recommend booking in advance.

Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia – British Museum

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This exhibition at the British Museum intrigued me: I’d never heard of the Scythians, but I’ve always been interested in Siberia. Scythians: Warriors of Ancient Siberia is a co-exhibition with the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, and many of the artefacts in the exhibition are on loan from that museum.

The Scythians were a nomadic group of tribes who endured for about 600 years, around 600BC, herding cattle and goats on the steppe, and the exhibition sheds light on their lives and culture. There is an abundance of beautiful jewellery, including belt buckles and neck ornaments depicting scenes mixing real animals with mythical ones which, experts have theorised, point to their religion and culture. Their warrior culture is alluded to by the prevalence of helmets and head ornaments, hugely elaborate and detailed. The Scythians spanned southern Siberia from west to east and evidence suggests they had contact with other groups from Africa, Europe and China. For several centuries, the only record of the Scythians came from the writings of Herodotus, who travelled in the area around 440BC. Many of these artefacts were later dug up by archaeologists sponsored by Peter the Great, who ordered them to be sent to St Petersburg for his new museum. As a result, they are well organised and well-catalogued, and some of the original eighteenth-century drawings of the ornaments are on display beside the originals. On the walls of the exhibition are quotations from contemporaries, including Herodotus, about the Scythians: their fearsomeness in battle, their wild drinking. As the Scythians themselves did not have a written culture, these ornaments and other excavated artefacts take on an even greater significance.

What really took my breath away were the wonderfully preserved things that by rights should have disintegrated long ago, saved by their preservation in Siberia’s permafrost. These include fleeces, squirrel fur coats, even a pair of boots, as well as the tattooed skin of a Scythian warrior on which the marks still show up clearly. A giant coffin, constructed of wood, looks as though it was built yesterday, and one bag, containing food to accompany a deceased chief to the afterlife, has yielded lumps of preserved cheese.

Most of the artefacts on display are from wealthier people, which is not surprising since these are more likely to have been preserved. However, there are some objects relating to more ordinary Scythians, including weapons, ornaments and cooking equipment. Several preserved heads have been found, enabling scientists to try and reconstruct the face of a Scythian.

What could have been another run-of-the-mill exhibition about an ancient people is brought to vivid life by the beauty of the incredibly well-preserved objects on display. I was fascinated by it and loved learning more about this ancient society.