Our Top 10 London Museum Objects
While all the Footprints of London Guides agree that they prefer to be talking about London history outside on the street, they love London museums too (many are guides at museums too). Here are 10 of the teams favourite objects in the collections of London Museums.
1 Prince Frederick’s Barge in the National Maritime Museum
Among my favourite museum objects is Prince Frederick’s barge at the National Maritime Museum Greenwich. The largest object on regular display at the museum, it symbolises extravagance, elegance and elitism while embodying exquisite craftsmanship.
Sir Paul Pinder’s House at the V&A which I love – partly because of it’s size, and partly because it reminds me of William Shakespeare – he would have known the building (newly built) as he walked into the City to and from Shoreditch (and indeed, Footprints of London covers the same route on our Shakespeare in Shoreditch walk).
3 Models of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at the Museum of the Order of St John
Four paintings by Joseph Highmore in Tate Britain – a selection from a series of 12 illustrations Highmore created in 1743 to tell the story of Samuel Richardson’s novel ‘Pamela or Virtue Rewarded’.
Highmore (1692 – 1780) was a British painter whose name is sometimes linked with Hogarth’s as one of the initiators of a British school of narrative painting (his work is, however, considered less boisterous and satirical and more refined – so nothing like Hogarth really then!)
Published in 1740 ‘Pamela’ was considered the first real English novel and was a best seller at the time, going into 5 printings (the ‘50 Shades of Grey’ of its day?)
Pamela is a beautiful 15 year old maidservant who catches the eye of the son of the house. She repulses his attempts to seduce her and her virtue wins out as the would be rake recognises her goodness and proposes marriage instead. (Then poor Pamela just has to deal with the disapproval of all her bridegroom’s friends and relations). The title says it all and the novel had a huge influence on the way women were portrayed in novels for years to come – if girls are good then they get the ring.
Richardson had a printing establishment in Dorset Court near Salisbury Court (off Fleet Street) where it is said he employed Oliver Goldmsith as a proof reader. Highmore and Richardson were friends and the artists painted several portraits of author.
I always think of the series as an early graphic novel and talk about them during my Print and the Press : Exploring Fleet Street walk.
6 Foundling Tokens at the Foundling Museum
The Foundling Museum in Brunswick Square is slightly off the beaten track, but well-worth any detour. It recounts the stories of the children taken in by the Foundling Hospital (properly known as The Hospital for the Education and Maintenance of Exposed and Deserted Young Children) which was established by Capt Thomas Coram in 1741. Coram was not a wealthy man, but he worked tirelessly for nearly 20 years to obtain a charter from the King and raise sufficient funds to open the hospital.
It quickly became apparent that most of the hundreds of babies abandoned on the streets of London each year were not unloved, but given up out of poverty and despair and a lottery system was developed to select the lucky babies from among the vast numbers brought to the hospital by desperate mothers. When the babies were admitted the hospital kept a record of any “particular writing” or “peculiar thing” that was left with the child, as an identifier in case the child was later claimed. These objects have become known as “tokens” because they were seen as tokens of love. At the time of the child’s admission these letters or tokens were carefully sealed in small packets with records of the child’s number and date of admission – but many of the tokens were removed in the 1850s and 1860s and put on display and it has taken painstaking work to trace their original owners.
Many of the identifiers were written items, or items that could be divided in half – with one half kept by the parent. But one of the most poignant tokens is a hazelnut – an item with no monetary value, the only thing that the child’s mother was able to leave as an identifier. The child who was left with this token has not yet been identified.
The Foundling Museum works with contemporary artists and has a range of changing exhibitions. This picture is of a sculpture by Tracey Emin which captures the feeling of loss and desolation of the grieving mothers – look for it on the railing outside the Museum, close to the statue of Thomas Coram.
Jenni Bowley is a founder member and course director of the Camden Tour Guides Association. Please contact her for information on the Foundling Museum or on walks around the Borough of Camden. Her next walk is Walking the Hidden River Fleet on March 29th
7 Selfridges Lift Door – Museum of London
The bust of Lenin was designed to be the centrepiece of a memorial designed by the modernist architect Berthold Lubetkin the architect of a number of buildings for Finsbury Borough Council. The memorial in Holford Square – looking across at the location of the house where Lenin once lived, was built in 1942 when Britain and Russia were allies in World War Two. The bust proved highly controversial after the war though, and was vandalised so had to be moved to Islington Town Hall. Here it was again attacked, being covered in red paint. There is also a legend that Lubetkin buried the bust in Holford Square after being told to rename one of his buildings Bevin Court rather than Lenin Court, this seems unlikely since the bust is now on permanent display in Islington Museum
Jiff is working with Islington Museum on a new walk looking at Berthold Lubetkin
9 John Harrison Marine Chronometers at the Royal Observatory
Here is an object with a real global impact. Sailors had struggled with the problem of calculating longitude for centuries. By the 16th century it was realised that if the precise time could be known the longitudinal position could be calculated from the relative positions of the Moon and Mars. However existing clocks were large and relied upon a pendulum that would not work on a ship at sea. In 1714 the British government announced a prize for the first clock that would work at sea. Clockmaker John Harrison made solving this problem his whole life’s work, despite facing opposition from the established clockmakers. You can find out more about the story at a new gallery opening in March at the Royal Observatory Greenwich Solving this problem made navigation much more easy, opening up long global trade routes – if you want to see an object that begins globalisation go and see Harrison’s chronometers!
10 A Rakes Progress at the Sir John Soane Museum
William Hogarth (1697 – 1764) was born in Smithfield he painted the murals in the north wing of St Bartholomew’s Hospital as well as several narrative painting series’ – The Harlot’s Progress, Marriage a la Mode and The Rake’s Progress. This last tile is housed in the Sir John Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields – which is practically an exhibit in itself. Eccentric doesn’t even begin to describe the place and if you go there simply to see the Hogarth paintings you can end up feeling a bit like Alice when she fell down the rabbit hole. Navigating the stairs and corridors filled with all the things John Soane collected over the years you ask directions and are told to go the Picture room. If, like me, you are expecting something on the lines of a normal gallery, then you probably walk round in a circle and have to ask again.
Once you realise it’s that little room with quite a few people already inside, you squeeze yourself in, hopefully in time to witness the Soane guide open the cupboard. The series of paintings is not displayed on the wall it is hidden away and the official description of this intriguing storage space is ‘movable planes’ – I still think of it as a cupboard.
The guide then runs through the story of young Tom Rakewell who inherits a fortune when his father dies. He then manages to spend it in ways that offer Hogarth the opportunity to satirise practically every walk of 18th C London life – ending up a pauper in Bedlam
I talk about Hogarth in my Smithfield walk – The Market and the Monastery