Thursday, 31 January 2013

The Fairy Tale of Kensington Palace

As mentioned in a post last month, just prior to Christmas I made a visit to Kensington Palace. For the past few years, it has been under partial wraps as an extensive refurbishment was undertaken but it reopened just a few months ago.

Kensington Palace has been a royal residence since the 17th century, when King William III and Queen Mary II purchased an existing Jacobean mansion for an alternative to the official royal residence. Under their instruction, improvements were undertaken in various phases by Christopher Wren and Nicolas Hawksmoor, two of the period's most renowned architects. Since then, it has played host to various royal episodes and gone through alterations and redecorations both large and small.

It was only a couple of years ago that I discovered Kensington Palace. Sure, I had heard of it but the thought of visiting didn't particularly appeal to me. I assumed it would be a bit of a stuffy tourist attraction, crowded with people worshipping at the shrine of Princess Diana, who famously lived there.

However, during the refurbishment works, the palace took the marvellous step of transforming those reduced areas of the building that remained open into an "enchanted palace". The posters for this grabbed my attention and I decided to trot along to check it out. My mind was full of wonderful images and, though I rather feared it wouldn't be quite so good as I hoped, I thought it worth a look all the same.

And boy, was it worth a look! The set up was entirely... well... enchanting. It was exquisitely sinister and fairy-talesque. I was somewhat surprised at how dark and haunting they had made it and was pleased that they hadn't been deterred by the possibility that such an approach might traumatise the little kiddy-winks.

I spent hours in there, immersed in the wonderful atmosphere. At one point, I was asked by a steward if I was okay because I was floating backward and forwards in a delighted daze. I assured him, happily, that I was. His colleague said, "I think she's just enjoying herself, aren't you?". To which I responded, "yes, it's absolutely wonderful!"

Apart from enjoying the wonderful atmosphere and creative works on display, I also learnt lots about the stories of all the princesses and queens that had inhabited the palace over the years (I took around the children's activity sheet with me...). This was when I learnt about the fabulous, rebellious and chic Princess Margaret. And where I learnt of the tragic tale of Queen Charlotte, who died at 21 shortly after giving birth to a still-born baby boy. She was so beloved by the people of England that the nation came to a halt in mourning her and shops ran out of black cloth due to intense demand.

As a result of my visit, I joined up as a member of the Historic Royal Palaces for two years, so I could come back again and again, and go to their other properties at will. I also went on a couple of their adult education days - one at the Tower of London, where I got to climb up on scaffolding and learn about stone repairs, and one at Kensington Palace, where I got to learn about historic wallpaper and then do some screen printing inspired by the designs of papers they had uncovered during the restorations.

But back to my most recent visit! 

I was delighted to discover that they had kept up some of the spirit of the Enchanted Palace. A group called Coney have created installations which tell, in one series of State Apartments, the story of the Stuarts and Prince William, heir to the throne who died after his 11th birthday party and, in another series of State Apartment's, the "game of court" in the Georgian era. They also have some actors and story tellers wandering around - not of the awful tacky sort generally associated with historical re-enactment but, instead, rather wonderfully twisted and strange.

Modern props and artworks are combined with historical artifacts to create this wonderful world. So you can enjoy the quirky and humorous, and then admire museum items such as the clothes of courtiers and royalty from ages past.

An exhibition on Queen Victoria is also currently on display at the Palace. This traces her life from young queen, through her marriage, children, widowing and major public events both of her reign and in the life of the nation as a whole.

From major events such as the Great Exhibition in 1851, where modern engineering awed crowds with the creation of the Crystal Palace...

... to dolls, notebooks, slippers and Albert's... well... I can't even recall what that last item is, but it looks pretty wonderful!

So that's Kensington Palace! If you live in London or if you ever visit, I highly recommend getting lost in the wonder of a day-trip there.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Fabhatrix (Love Letter from Edinburgh)

After an incredibly mild Christmas and New Year, winter has come to London and snow has been falling these past few days. Aside from causing me to joyfully skip and dance in the snowfall, the sudden need to pull down my winter hats has spurred me on to write this long overdue post about Fabhatrix.

You will have glimpsed Fabhatrix before on this blog. Like a friend of a friend who has caught your attention once or twice at a party and intrigued you, but to whom you have never had the chance to speak. This summer just gone, one of their creations appeared at the Chap Olympiad, a whole long half-year since you first caught wind of them on an autumn visit to Kew Gardens.

And now, the purpose of this post is to formally introduce you.

I first became aware of Fabhatrix when getting to know a workmate who is now one of my best friends here in London. Somehow, on one occasion or another, it came up in conversation that her mother was a milliner, with a hat shop in Edinburgh. I was enchanted by this fact - how wonderfully exotic to have a milliner in the family! I swore to myself, and to my friend, that I would visit the shop when I next had the good fortune to be in Edinburgh.

In September 2011, I found myself in Scotland to meet up with The Cat's parents, who were visiting from abroad. Fabhatrix was firmly on the 'must see' list. As it was around my birthday time, my mum had said I could buy a hat for myself as a birthday present from her. Which was rather a nice thought, my mum buying a hat for me made by my friend's mum.

But I was slightly nervous about visiting the shop... What if I just didn't like any of the hats in there? What would I say to my friend if I thought them all hideous? What would I say to her mother, who was expecting me at the shop?

But there was no fear of that!

The problem turned out to be having to select just one out of the wonderful selection. Fortunately I had some sense of what I wanted, which was a cloche, so that focused my attention a little and I ended up walking out with this little number:

Hastily snapped before catching a train from Edinburgh Waverley...

... Oh, yes, and this little number too. So much for choosing just one:

In rural Nottinghamshire over Christmas 2011

And that wasn't the last Fabhatrix hat given as a gift within my family. No, with my dad's 60th birthday that year, I wanted to get him something useful and fittingly dignified for a new sextarian. So I offered to replace his beanie with a tweed flatcap. With a family trip up to Edinburgh for Hogmanay 2011, it was the perfect chance to purchase his belated birthday cap. So back to Fabhatrix it was. The focus of their workshop is women's hats but we found something for my dad in the hand-picked selection of men's hats they source and sell.

Somehow, I don't have a close-up photo of his hat but here's a snap of him, behatted, walking down the street in Edinburgh with my mum. Oh yes, and while we were trying on hats for dad, Mum couldn't resist trying on a few herself and ended up walking out with one too!

Mum and Dad in their Fabhatrix hats

Mum outside the shop, on Edinburgh's Grassmarket

So, next time you're in Edinburgh, I absolutely urge you to make a visit. Or you can check out their more limited but terribly convenient online store, even if you have no hope of visiting Edinburgh now or anytime soon. Oh, and they do bespoke hats too, if you're feeling like being particularly fancy and commissioning something perfect for a special outfit.

And I just have to end by making absolutely clear that I'm not raving about Fabhatrix just because I'm a friend of the family that own and run it. Though I probably don't really need to clarify that because anyone can see for themselves that I'm just raving about them because they are so unarguably, well, fab!

Monday, 14 January 2013

A Photographer or Two's Eye on the City

Last Friday night, I went along with a friend to see the photography exhibition currently showing at the Tate Modern, which brings together the work of the American William Klein and Japanese Daido Moriyama. I have to confess to not having known of either of them prior to this visit (though some of Klein's work seemed vaguely familiar) but I'm so glad I went along because the exhibition was fantastic and I made some new discoveries.

It was off to a good start with a room screening a short film called Broadway by Light, which was a 1950s spectacular celebrating New York's neon signage. I love the pop artness of old school neon...

Screen shot from Klein's Broadway by Light (Image source)

In the next room, my friend and I both fell in love with, and stood momentarily mesmerised by this picture:

Evelyn, Isabella, Nina and Mirrors, for Vogue (Image source)

Isn't it wonderful? I absolutely love the composition of it, the backdrop, everything...

Like England's own David Bailey and Norman Parkinson, William Klein was breaking convention in the 1950s/1960s by taking his fashion models out of the safety of the studio and into edgy, urban settings.

We then watched a fascinating video in which the photographer himself talked through the process of selecting one photo over another, and what makes a photo work.

Mai 1968, Paris (Image source)

The selection process turned into an art form itself, as Klein found that marking up contact sheets with red pencil wasn't clear enough and that enamel paint was much more effective...

Painted contact sheet (Image source)

The exhibition also explored Klein's abstract art beginnings and his transition into photography.

Vertical Diamonds (Image source)

Dorothy blowing smoke rings (Image source)

This was also the section in which I learnt that Mondrian, famous for his contribution to the De Stijl movement, with his primary colour blocking, geometric paintings, began life painting rural scenes... I've still so much to learn about art... But that's rather an invigorating and exciting thought, knowing that there's endless things to discover. I got home and looked up Mondrian's early work on the interwebs and sure enough:

One of Mondrian's earlier works (Image source)

The exhibition then segued into Moriyama's work. Generally, I preferred the section on Klein but the Moriyama half also had a lot to offer. 

Hippie Crime by Moriyama (Image source)

Although, much of his work centred on people, snapped in street scenes, he also concentrated a lot on objects, spotting and focusing in on minor details in the environment (both urban and natural) to create wonderfully textured, almost abstract photographs, picking up lines and light and shadow.

I couldn't help but think how overwhelming the beauty of the world must be if you are constantly looking at it in the way he must be doing, in order to spot so many gem-like, rich details. I sometimes engage in the world on that level and it makes me feel like my head might explode, wanting to absorb and retain all the beauty and detail. To constantly be engaged like that must be wonderful but exhausting!

Not seen in the exhibition but I couldn't resist... Echos of Gatsby, and the eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg, anyone?
(Image source)

My favourite part of the Moriyama section was a room covered in polaroids, which made up a scene of a room interior, shot piece by piece and panelled together. I can't quite explain it, nor can I find a good picture of it to share with you. You'll just have to believe me that it had a wonderful effect.

We finished up the exhibition watching short films in which each of the photographers was interviewed. In the film on Moriyama, he talked about how he loves the intensity of the city and the whirl of humanity, that he is addicted to the city and couldn't photograph without it. Reading about fellow blogger, Kelly-Marie's recent relocation to the seaside, where she quoted a beautiful extract from Anais Nin, made me momentarily resent the city... but this exhibition reminded me again why I adore it and thrive on it.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Meet Architectural Historian Barbie!

A new colleague arrived for her first day in the office today and has been assigned the desk next to me. Having been there a couple of hours, she said to me, "I can't help but notice you have a Barbie on your desk".

"Oh, that's Architect Barbie," I responded, and passed her over.

This made me realise that I never got around to introducing her to my readers. So, without further ado, meet Architect Barbie!

Isn't she amazing! She has a hard hat and drawing roll with blueprints. And awesome glasses. I'm not sure how well her high-heeled boots and skirt would go down on a work site though...

I read about her in the architectural press ages ago, when she was released. When I graduated from my Building Conservation course last year, my mum and I thought this would be a highly appropriate gift. I took her into work to show her off and my workmates insisted she stayed. So now she lives at my desk.

We did discuss how we might transform her into Architectural Historian Barbie with a few additional props and some wee changes to her outfit, but haven't got very far yet. She has a mini version of English Heritage's "Conservation Principles" now but she definitely needs more work. I want to get her some tweed, that's for sure. All architectural historians should own some tweed. And we thought we could age some of her drawings to look like they've come out of archives. Rip them up a bit, take them for a dip in some tea to yellow them up. (Did you ever used to do that as a kid? I used to burn the edges to make pirate maps...)

I would ask for your suggestions on how to make her look like more of historian but I think it's a bit of a niche corner of geekery! Well, if she does gain some tweed or a crumbling ruin to reside in, I will keep you posted anyway.

Do you have any quirky things you keep at your desk or workplace? After five years, my desk is littered with bits and bobs. I could almost devote a post to it...

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Birthday treasures

In my recent Boxing Day post, I shared my Christmas outfit, which centred around the amazing white crocheted dress my grandmother made for me. This dress was the granting of a wish, written about in a post some time ago, but which had been around for as long as I've loved the movie, To Sir, With Love.

Hearing about my desire for a crocheted dress, she dug out her collection of old patterns. Together, my grandma, my mum and I decided that this style was the closest match to what I was after, especially if it was altered to leave the cuffs off.

Despite not having crocheted in quite some time, she whipped this up in less than two months to be ready for my birthday, back in September. And apparently she really enjoyed making a return to crocheting, which made me even more pleased than I would have already been, knowing that her kind gift to me was a happy experience for her too.

Here I am, in my fabulous dress, with my amazing birthday cake (made by a gifted cake-making friend) on my birthday. I need to get some better shots of me in the dress but, for now, this one will have to suffice, in which I have allowed one of the sleeves to twist around...

But that's not all the handcrafting that went into my birthday. No, while my grandmother was working away with her crochet hooks, my dearest mother was putting her knitting needles to making me a beautiful cardigan.

Like my grandmother, she pulled out an old pattern book and, after some debate, we decided on 'Skyline' in a rusty pink colour.

And here I am, wearing the beautiful creation, whilst eating rainbow jelly and ice cream. Look how pretty and perfectly stitched is it! I was so impressed when I finally got to see it on my birthday.

I'm such a privileged lady. Think how special I felt in the lead-up to my birthday, knowing that these two were both lovingly creating gifts for me.

'That's a gorgeous cardigan', I hear you say, 'but wait, what's with that backdrop...?'

Oh, yes, that's just my birthday bouncy castle! You're never too old...

And here's a better picture of my cardigan, with the lovely maker. 

'Gee, Miss Marie, where do you get your dress style from?' I know, I know... But we don't always coordinate. Just every now and then...

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Musical Resolution

Happy New Year, dear readers! Hope you all had a fabulous time seeing out 2012 and seeing in 2013.

I've actually found myself with a New Year's resolution this year. I haven't bothered with one for years and years. But, this New Year's Eve, an incident occurred to inspire me to make a pledge...

1983: Love Cats, The Cure (Image source)

So, I ended up opting for a pretty quiet New Year's Eve. To help with the countdown, however, I decided to compose a party soundtrack, counting down (or up) from the beginning of the 1980s, when I was born.

1984: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, Cyndi Lauper (Image source)

It was compiled in a quite quick and dirty fashion. I just opened up Wikipedia and looked up the singles that made the charts each year, picking out one that was suitably upbeat and had played some part in my life.

1987: Sweet Child o' Mine, Guns 'n' Roses (Image source)

I wasn't being a perfectionist about the actual release date or anything like that. So long as a song was in the charts in the year it represented, that was fine by me...

1992: Motocycle Emptiness, Manic Street Preachers (Image source)

I wasn't agonising over making sure all my favourite bands found a place in there. I wasn't bothering to think beyond the charts or pull out obscure releases.  It was just a party soundtrack, after all.

1994: Girls and Boys, Blur (Image source)

It was actually quite a fascinating exercise, to see what led on from what, where there was a sudden shake-up and contrast...

1997: Breathe, The Prodigy (Image source)

But as I progressed further on, coming into the noughties, I began to get a little bit anxious...

2001: Last Nite, The Strokes (Image source

'Hang on a second', I thought to myself. 'These chart lists are becoming less and less saturated with songs I love... or even know...' There was a sense of relief every time I spotted something with which I genuinely had any affinity...

2007: Rehab, Amy Winehouse (Image source)

I managed to squeeze something out of 2010 but then it dried up. The problem is, I've been spending the last few years discovering new music, but new music to me, not genuinely new...

2012: Ummmm...
Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy, The Andrews Sisters??? (Image source)

So, feeling incredibly humbled and out of the loop, I swore to myself that I would pay more attention to new music this year. Even if I write most of it off, I want to at least know what's going on out there. Even if I end up just going for things with a retro twist, like electro swing and modern close harmony groups such as the Puppini Sisters (hey, maybe I do know something!), at least I'll be informed.

After all, I always say that, even though I love all my classic music, vintage clothes and historic architecture, I love living now, in the twenty-first century. We have such rich pickings to choose from as we root around in the past, finding and keeping our favourite aspects from each decade. So, true to my seeking out the best of every time and era, I should weave more modern music into my listening, interspersed with Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra...

Does anyone else have any New Year's resolutions? Or does anyone else feel they should make a pledge to become a little more au fait with the modern world...?