Category Archives: Religion

Great Fire at the Museum of London

I’ve not yet seen the Museum of London’s new Fire! Fire! exhibition, but I did speak to curator Meriel Jeater for a preview in the current issue of World of Interiors.

Jeater told me that a section of the exhibition would look at the conspiracy theories about who started the fire. Some felt that such a devastating conflagration had to have some supernatural origin, so blamed a God angered by London’s heroic capacity for fornication and greed, and its execution of Charles I. Others blamed a more corporeal other in the form of the Catholics, with a Frenchman, the obviously disturbed Robert Hubert, helpfully confessing to arson.

He was hanged and for almost 100 years a plaque (pictured below) was on the wall at Pudding Lane claiming that “here by the permission of heaven, hell broke loose upon this Protestant city from the malicious hearts of barbarous papists”. It was eventually taken down because so many people were stopping to look it traffic could not pass. For years after, people continued to claim responsibility, such as one man who insisted who was inspired by the devil and would do so again, and a boy who said he started the fire with the help of his uncle.

original

The exhibition will feature this plaque, while also looking at the history of fire in London – a resident in 1170 insisted that the “only plagues of London are the immoderate drinking of fools and the frequency of fires” and there were half-a-dozen major fires in the 17th century before 1666. It will then cover how the fire spread and how it was tackled. Numerous artefacts recovered from rubble-filled cellars will go on display, along with contemporary letters by Londoners about the fire. Finally, the exhibition the reconstruction of London, looking at the various plans, the new building regulations and then the reality of how London was finally rebuilt. Illustrating all this will be lots and lots of maps. “It’s hard to get your head round it,” said Jeater. “You look at it and wonder how people coped, how London was put back together again.”

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Killing Joke at Trafalgar Square

I recently interviewed the four original – and current – members of Killing Joke for a feature in Uncut.  I met them one-by-one in and around Lancaster Gate and we discussed their extraordinary career, from Crowley-inspired magical rituals in Battersea to police raids in Notting Hill squats and recording sessions inside the Great Pyramid.

We also discussed one of their first major gigs, when they headlined a CND show at Trafalgar Square.

As guitarist Kevin “Geordie” Walker recalled: “My favourite gig was the CND rally at Trafalgar Square. 80,000 people and us playing on the steps of the National Gallery in 1980. Jaz told them ‘Margaret Thatcher has bought all these cruise missiles and all you can do is stand there with a fucking placard. You dserve what you are going to get. This one’s called “Wardance”.’ It kicked off. It was killer. We never got invited back and I’ve got my suspicion that’s why we never did Glastonbury cos it’s the same hippie crowd and they remember.”

You can listen to that performance here.

I’ve interviewed several bands over the years for Uncut, from Buzzcocks and Gun Club to Soundgarden and The Damned. I’ve never met any quite like Killing Joke.

London curiosities, from Don Saltero to Viktor Wynd

This weekend, the grandly titled Viktor Wynd Museum of Curiosities, Fine Art & Natural History opens at 11 Mare Street, Hackney. You may already know of Wynd’s whims. An intriguing dandy, Wynd is the founder of the Last Tuesday Society – a body that promotes the esoteric in lectures, salons and workshops – which included Wynd’s own huge collection of oddities and curiosities, acquired over a lifetime of inquisitive travelling and impulsive purchasing. Originally, these items were meant to be sold – Wynd is still a dealer in the weird, a middleman in this strange underworld of people that buy and sell the corpses of giant spider crabs and Javanese hen’s teeth –  but he found “it didn’t work as a shop and it isn’t fun selling stuff. I had to keep buying and you can never be sure what will sell, it’s an endless cycle. So I thought it would be more fun to make it into a museum.”

These curiosities are now going on display as the new museum. And curious they certainly are. On the shelves are two-headed lambs, tribal skulls, dodo bones, plastic toys, lion skeletons, radioactive scallops, Victorian dolls, surrealist art, an artificial foreskin, a cassette of a John Major speech on the subject of red tape, a Victorian mermaid, convict Charles Bronson’s sketches, feathers from extinct birds, a giant hairball from a cow’s stomach and jars of celebrity poo [“How did you persuade Kylie Minogue to poo in a jar for you?” I asked, when interviewing him for Eurostar; “I asked her very nicely,” he replied.]

Impeccably arranged cabinets contain delight after horror after delight, some labelled, others entirely mysterious, but all put together in a way that implies the art of the display, the way these things look on the shelves, is every bit as important as the items themselves.

poo

London has always appreciated the chance to gawp at a gruesome gallery like this. Wynd’s endeavor harks beck to the very first public museum to open in London at Don Saltero coffee shop in Cheyne Walk in 1695. Saltero, a barber, had previously been known as James Salter and worked for Hans Sloane, the collector who started what became the British Museum. Sloane reputedly gave some of his cast-offs to Saltero, who used them to attract custom to his coffee shop. In 1713, his catalogue boasted in terrible rhyme: “Monsters of all sorts here are seen, Strange things in nature, as they grew so; some  relics of the Sheba Queen, and fragments of the famed Bob Crusoe.”

 

Saltero’s collection included such marvels as  a giant’s tooth, a necklace made of Job’s tears and Pontius Pilate’s wife’s chambermaid’s sister’s hat, which had been made in Bedford. It was, nonetheless, hugely popular and by 1760 the collection includes priceless artefacts like the Pope’s candle; a piece of the true Cross; the Four Evangelists’ heads cut on a cherry-stone; the King of Morocco’s tobacco-pipe; Mary Queen of Scots’ pincushion; Queen Elizabeth’s prayer-book; a pair of Nun’s stockings; Job’s ears, which grew on a tree and  a frog in a tobacco-stopper. Moreover, it had inspired other entrepreneurs, eager to educate the public in the wider mysteries of the world, to follow likewise. Among those following in Saltero’s wake was Mr Adams of the Royal Swan in Kingsland Road, not far from Wynd’s palace of the strange. In 1756 Mr Adams was exhibiting”the heart of the famous Bess Adams, that was hanged at Tyburn; Sir Walter Raleigh’s tobacco-pipe; Vicar of Bray’s clogs; teeth that grew in a fish’s belly; the very comb that Abraham combed his son Isaac and Jacob’s head with; Wat Tyler’s spurs and the key of the door of the Garden of Eden.”

Well then!

Wynd is an artist as well as a collector and showman, and his museum will double as a gallery, opening with a show devoted to early British Surrealists and including work by Austin Osman Spare, Leonora Carrington, Grace Pailthorpe and Reuben Mednikoff. His curiosities are also sprinkled with the occasional artistic embellishment, whether its sculptures donated by artist friends, his own drawings, fine work by the likes of Spare or Mervyn Peake, or more occultish fare, like “blood squeezed from a stone” or a box containing “some of the darkness that Moses brought upon the Egyptians”. These latter items are much like the imaginative exotica of Saltero and Adams, and also remind me a little of Yoko Ono, and her attempt to auction in London a ‘Vial of Genuine New York Tears’ and ‘Jar of Captured Cloud Formations over the Bronx’  to subsidise Norman Mailer’s Mayoral candidacy.

Wynd’s collection features a lot of dead things in jars – babies, dissected vaginas, stuffed animals, old bones, beetles, butterflies, intestinal worms – but he rejects the notion that it is simply a celebration of the macabre, a house of horrors designed to shock the straights. “Nobody’s ever been shocked,” he says. “If you are going to a curiosity museum you want to see dead babies, it’s what you expect. That isn’t what’s new, what’s new is the idea that dead babies and Furbies are equally attractive. It’s uncanny rather than macabre, it’s the juxtaposition of items, setting off thought processes.”

“I see putting everything together as an art,” says Wynd. “If you are a collector then the world is your tins of paint and the walls and cabinets are the canvas. Everything has to look right. It’s a way of trying to understand the world, but a world that has no meaning. It’s all the pretty things that show what an amazing place we live in. It’s also an attack on conventional aesthetic values, so we have a Furby, which is seen as completely valueless, sitting next to a rare and valuable skull of an extinct beast, sitting next to Chinese sex toys. I don’t recognise a distinction between high and low, it’s just if I like it. It also makes me laugh. I’m quite miserable and this place cheers me up.”

It’s not entirely clear how much Wynd enjoys his role as a collector. As he points out, most of us collect when we are children, but then grow out of it. The collector is in a state of permanent pre-adolescence, unable to move on, still fixated by those items that first caught his attention many years before. Wynd says that as a child his favourite places were the Natural History Museum and the Pitts-River Museum. In adulthood, he is still trying to locate that childish sense of awe and intellectual awakening.

He recalls being a student in Elephant And Castle and compulsively filling a garage with items he find on the streets – “I couldn’t pass a bin liner without opening it.” Later he moved to Paris and discovered that at the end of the month everybody’s rental contracts ended at the same time, and on these moving days treasures would be left outside every block of flats. “It was heaven.”

The problem, he says, is that a collection is “like a garden. It’s never going to be finished. It’s never done. It’s a psychological condition, it’s stupid, it’s pointless and causes endless worries.” It also gives us the Museum of Curiosities, for which London should be thankful. Go gawp, embrace the uncanny.

London’s Huguenots

I wrote this last year for Metropolitan magazine. The Huguenots of Spitalfields Festival runs from 9-20 July 2014. 

Up to 400,000 French people have settled in London in recent years, but this is not the first time the French have moved to London in great numbers. While today’s arrivals come willingly, with passports, bank accounts and mobile phones, those of 1685 were in reluctant flight, arriving with next to nothing. Calling themselves the réfugiés, these Huguenots – the persecuted French Protestant minority – were the world’s first self-described refugees, coming by the thousand to seek sanctuary in London. An adolescent boy with three siblings, including a baby unable to walk. A teenage girl disguised as a man. Husbands without wives. Children without parents. Houses and jobs left behind. They came hidden in salt barrels, pregnant, shoeless and with diamonds sewn into their cloaks. But like many of their modern counterparts, these French arrivals were young and ambitious, bringing with them a sense of adventure and enterprise, ready to transform the city they now called home.

Hogarth’s Huguenots

 

‘Britain owes a great but barely acknowledged debt to the Huguenots,’ writes historian Lucy Inglis in Georgian London of the biggest French invasion since 1066. The Huguenots brought with them exotic food like oxtail soup, caraway seeds and pickles, new ideas about industry and banking, brilliance in textiles, watchmaking, horticulture and medicine, and enough numbers – as many as 40,000 – to transform the geography of London, pushing it west into the ‘French Quarter’ of Soho, allowing London to become one of the great multinational capitals of the world. Inglis expands on this in conversation. ‘They were real self-starters, that’s what I admire about them, the way they arrived with nothing and just got on with it. A lot of them were very young. They arrived in London and began to make a splash straight away.’

This was the first serious test of London’s toleration of outsiders, and the city took it well, with just a few grumbles about the whiff from the garlic sausages that the Huguenots hung to dry outside their windows. Otherwise, the Huguenots were a sober presence. For decades, the Huguenots had been tyrannised by France’s Catholic majority until a vague equality was established with the Edict of Nantes in 1598. When this was revoked by Louis XIV in 1685, Protestantism was effectively outlawed. Hundreds of thousands of Huguenots ignored a ban on emigration and fled France in their search for religious freedom.

Many settled in the new district of Soho, where Huguenot craftsmen could be close to the gentry of Westminster. Soho’s French character lingered for centuries – even now you can dine at L’Escargot, get cake from Maison Bertaux or pernod from The French House. In 1720, 40% of Soho’s residents were French speakers and one contemporary noted the area ‘so greatly abounds with French that it is an easy matter for a stranger to imagine himself in France’. French currency was accepted by London Huguenots into the 1720s and as late as 1924 a London guidebook would comment, ‘In Soho you may see Frenchwomen shopping exactly as they do in France, bareheaded, as no Englishwomen would.’ Scandalous!

Huguenot church, Soho Square

 

Just as many of today’s London French work in and around the City, when the Huguenots arrived, most headed to the long-established French Church on Threadneedle Street. London already had a small population of wealthy Huguenots – among them John Houblon, the first Governor of the Bank of England – and they, observing Louis’s despotic behaviour from afar, had been expecting the exiles. A soup kitchen was already established and accommodation secured for pregnant women. New arrivals had often become separated from their spouses so posted their details on a huge board outside the church. ‘It’s a horrible analogy,’ says Inglis. ‘But it was like the aftermath of 9/11.’

The Huguenots descended on a city on the rise. ‘Daniel Defoe wrote about the corruption of luxury, the way people could suddenly afford luxury goods,’ says Inglis. ‘But the Huguenots were plain people, they didn’t wear wigs, perfume or make-up, they had a real dignity and that meant they appeared trustworthy. As a people they were very upright in their business and to a city that was booming, this was quite welcome.’

Not every Englishman responded to this in quite the right way. One was accused of kidnapping an English girl named Christian Streeter, raping her and then having her hair cut ‘in the French way’, such was the appeal of the short-cropped French women on London’s streets. He was eventually acquitted. For the most part, though, the French presence was accepted, even as they set about revolutionising the silk business.

‘The wealthier ones went to Soho and the rest went to Spitalfields and Shoreditch, where they began to set up business as weavers, establishing a factory system and employing a lot of people,’ explains Inglis. ‘They had a massive influence on the earliest part of the Industrial Revolution.’ So many Huguenot weavers left France that the country went from being an exporter of silk to an importer in a few years. Silk was used for clothes, furnishing and wall coverings, and the Huguenots produce huge amounts of the material. The stunning patterns created by one Huguenot designer, James Leman, are now in the V&A Museum. Another weaving family were the Courtaulds, who later founded the Courtauld Insitutute of Art in Somerset House. The weavers, with the fine eye for style of many Huguenots, erected grand-looking houses, most notably along Fournier Street, one of which is now occupied by the artists Gilbert & George.

James Leman textiles

 

Another London artist, William Hogarth, was still able to reference the Huguenots as a stylish, sober but alien presence in his 1737 etching Noon, completed more than 50 years after their arrival and Inglis notes that ‘until the 1730s they almost exclusively married within the community.’ By 1780, however, the Huguenots were integrated into the London landscape, even adopting English names – Dubois becoming Wood, Roussel become Russell – the first of many groups of refugees who arrived in London with a bang, and then slowly became absorbed into the city’s heaving, evolving mass having altered it for ever.

Georgian London by Lucy Inglis (Penguin) is out now in paperback.