Tuesday, March 31, 2009

How To Turn Your Child Onto Museums, Guaranteed

I have devised a foolproof strategy on going to museums with children that I absolutely have to share with you. It will revolutionize your vacations, and I'm not kidding.

Just to recap, I have a seven year old boy whose passions run more to aliens and baseball than to medieval portraits or decorative art. No surprise there.

But Luca and I went to five museums in London, and aside from a slight miscalculation in the Textile Study Room at the V&A Museum (read my last post), he had the time of his life, as he will be the first to tell you.

How did I manage to pull off such a feat? Easy.

1. The moment you step foot inside a museum, head directly to the gift shop. If your child is normal, they will instantly start grabbing toys. Don't panic. Let them choose one or two. Tell them these will be their "prize."

2. Next, steer them to the postcard section. Let them pick out a bunch of postcards which feature artworks in the museum.

3. Hand your child his stack and announce that "the TREASURE HUNT begins now!" They must locate the work of art represented on the postcard and once they do, they can turn the card over to you. When the stack is gone, they have officially earned the prize they picked out earlier.

If they are old enough to read a museum map, all the better. Otherwise, the guards stationed in each gallery are more than happy to help with directions.

Important note: If there are some rooms/artworks that you specifically want to see, be sure to buy some postcards of your own and 'sneak' them into his pile.

I can't tell you how many stressed-out parents we passed trying to interest their sullen, foot-dragging children in the glories of [insert art history period here]. I wanted to grab them by the shoulders and say, "Look! Postcards! Treasure hunt! It works! We've been here for an hour and he's still smiling!"

Here are some of the postcards I now have from our various treasure hunts:

And here are two of the prizes Luca earned:

If anyone had told me that my son would be grabbing my elbow and shouting, "Mom! We need to find the Elizabethan Portrait Room!" I would have told them they seriously needed to 'up' their medication.

Let me know how it goes.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Hail Britannia, Part Four

Another day, another full agenda. Our trip was nearing its end, and I began moving in faster and faster motion. First on the itinerary was a brisk walk around the corner to the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was just going to be a quick visit today -- we were visiting only one room.
On the way in, I took a fancy to this lovely ornamental ironwork that bordered the museum...
...and was delighted to discover it repeated as a motif inside.

I handed Luca the museum map and and pointed to my favorite room. He accepted the challenge. I followed his little steps as he directed me past the ancient statuary...

...down the beautiful halls...
...and into the room that to me, is Christmas itself, the Textile Study Room. All of these enormous cabinets house the most precious embroideries in existence. And do you see all the brass handles? Give them a tug and out comes a framed treasure. Samplers, embroidered clothing, textile patterns, dating from the 1500's to the 1900's -- there is a selection of everything you can think of. Along the wall are tables so that you can prop them up and drool over them at your leisure.  

I love this little school handkerchief. I find its austerity quite modern.

At one point, I turned around and saw this amazing framed piece of fabric created by the Bloomsbury Group. I was overjoyed. It hadn't been displayed on my last visit.

I would totally upholster a pillow (or even a chair) in it today. Wouldn't you?

Next is the most heartbreaking work of embroidery I've ever seen.  Made around 1830 by a young woman named Elizabeth Parker, it's an autobiography in thread:  the story of her early life in domestic service and the horrible trials she underwent from various employers, nearly leading to suicide.
Some haunting extracts: 

"...Then I went to Fairleigh, [as] housemaid to Captain O., but they treated me with cruelty too horrible to mention....For trying to avoid the wicked design of my master I was thrown downstairs...I never told my friends what had happened to me...I acknowledge being guilty of that great sin of self-destruction....Day and night have I cried..." 

It ends abruptly with the words, "...what will become of my soul." Difficult as it was to tear myself away from it, I find it even harder to stop thinking about now.

I was also struck by this 18th century sampler because the little girl who embroidered it was only seven years old, the same age as Luca. I thought he would find it fascinating.

He didn't.  Strike one for Mommy.

So we hightailed it to the cafe, where his mood lifted enough to notice the incredible painted ceiling above us.

We both thought the orb lights were pretty amazing, too.

Then it was off to the National Portrait Gallery near Trafalgar Square.  Upon entering, Luca was handed this wonderful activity book, along with a handful of colored pencils.  He was thrilled and so was I.

Every room became an adventure...

...and an exciting chance to record history.

He was obsessed with this young man's frilly high-waisted outfit. I told him people used to dress like that, but he point-blank refused to believe me. "How do you know he wasn't going to a costume party?", he said.

There was a quick detour to St. Martin-in-the-Fields, where Luca did this brass rubbing of a bear...
...and a dash to Hatchard's, the oldest bookseller in London (or close to it)...

...where the sales clerks dress jauntily in shirt and tie and are erudite beyond all telling.  The oh-so-elegant shop boasts what I consider to be the most well-edited five floors of books in London.  The Queen has given it her Royal Seal of Approval, so you know you're in good hands.

Finally, it was next door to the mother of all grocery purveyors, Fortnum and Mason.

I tremble every time I cross the threshold.

Everything they sell is heartstoppingly delicious. And the red carpet has me at hello.

I feverishly scanned the store until I spotted my Holy Grail: the jam section.

There, in all its glory, were pots and pots of my beloved rose petal jam, along with about fifty other mouthwatering selections.  I loaded up my metal basket as quickly as I could, as ever since my jam post, I have been inundated with requests to bring some back.  (One pot is for you, dear readers.  I'll let you know when it arrives.)

I also purchased some biscuits...

...and Gentleman's Relish, a highly touted concoction of anchovies and spices. (I asked the salesman what it tasted like and he replied, "Fishy and salty." That was good enough for me.)

Their food hampers have been world-renowned for hundreds of years and justly so. One day I vow to order myself one.

After Fortnum's, Luca and I returned to the hotel, met up with The Divine Italian and hailed a black cab to Barnes, a posh suburb south of the Thames, where Luca was having his first international sleepover and Piero and I were having our first night off.

We had been invited to join four friends for dinner at one of the most long-standing private clubs in London, The Chelsea Arts Club. 
Founded by James McNeil Whistler in 1899, it's been a central gathering place for revolutionaries, bohemians, and intellectuals for over 100 years.

Imagine a place where everyone resembles Lucien Freud, David Hockney or Sir Ian McKellan and the women are all wild-eyed and passionate and you'll start to get the idea. Everywhere I turned, I was greeted by a wild shock of hair, a lilac velvet smoking jacket or a silk foulard flung carelessly around someone's neck.  Those were the men. The women were intense and lovely with lashings of red lipstick and fervent gazes.

We had a delicious meal that went on for hours, the kind of dinner where laughter gives way to more bottles of wine being opened and you hope that it never ends. At one point, we all noticed that the wait staff had cleaned the entire restaurant except our table. On the way out, I snuck this single photo. 
I'm kind of loving a dark painted wall right now. With candlelight and gold accents, I think it's terribly glamorous.  On the wall are paintings of previous members enjoying themselves in the very room we were in.  Lovely.

After that, we all repaired to The Gore for a post-prandial cocktail.  (Please don't ask how I felt the next morning.)

We had one more day in London and I went camera-free, so I'm afraid we've reached the last of my photos. We went to the park, we browsed, we dallied, and on our last night we all had dinner at Shoreditch House in the East End with some expat friends and their too-too adorable three year old twins. As we drove back to the hotel, we pressed our noses to the window to take in every last beautiful sight.

That's all she wrote.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hail Britannia, Part Three

Tube stop:  Russell Square

Destination: Coram's Fields / Persephone Books

I was struck by these tiles at Russell Square, and it turns out that Leslie Green, the fellow who designed the Gloucester Tube station (mentioned in my first "Hail Britannia" post) designed this one as well. He cleverly gave each station its own distinctive color scheme and tiling pattern to make it quickly recognizable to commuters. So smart.

Exiting the station, Luca and I stopped at a street corner to figure out how to get to Lamb's Conduit Street. As I was puzzling over my map, a voice called out to me and I turned to see a gentleman with his head out a window.
"Excuse me.  Can I possibly assist you with directions?" he enquired.  I was so touched. He was like a Dickens character come to life: twinkling eyes, cheery demeanor, kindly smile. When I asked him if I could take his photo, he giggled and said, "Am I going to be famous now?"  It's memories like this that I file away for a rainy day.  I never found out his name, but he is forever known to me as "Mr. Cheeryble", one of the benevolent characters from "Nicholas Nickleby."

Luca and I had one important stop to make before I took him on my pilgrimage to Persephone Books:  Coram's Fields.

Located on the grounds of an 18th century foundling hospital for abandoned children, it boasts seven acres of grass, trees, climbing structures, wading pools and a petting zoo. 

I knew that before I could expect Luca to keep his limbs still inside the teeny-tiny Persephone Books, I needed him to run/climb/swing off some of that boy energy.

He did. Over and over and over again.

After that, it was just a couple of hundred yards to my favorite publisher in London. You all know about Persephone Books, right? They reprint forgotten classics by twentieth century (mostly women) writers. In their words, "Persephone Books are guaranteed to be readable, thought-provoking and impossible to forget."

Their titles include novels, short stories, diaries and cookery books, all beautifully designed with a clear typeface, dove-grey jacket, "fabric" endpaper and matching bookmark. 

I have purchased about eight titles so far, mostly online. But nothing compares to visiting the shop. The books are lovingly arranged on the shelves with their stunning endpapers on colorful display.  
If you can't drop everything and rush here right away, their website is a wonderful substitute until you can.  It features a complete online catalog, author bios, book reviews, archived issues of their Quarterly magazine, as well as a fortnightly letter from the publisher. 

Tube stop: Oxford Circus

Destination: Liberty and Company

Yes, I know I've blogged about this store recently, but I haven't actually been there in a year and I desperately wanted to see what fabulous new wares they were offering.  

Come inside with me.

Just inside the front door, this zebra stopped me in my tracks. I love the juxtaposition of the taxidermy with the soft textiles and that wall of art, all in white frames. It's romantic and edgy at the same time: Colette meets Isak Dinesen.

On the next floor up, we were greeted by a Busby Berkeley row of mannequins wearing an assemblage of spring couture. The ceiling above them goes up four storeys, and I was bound and determined not to rest until I'd explored every square inch.

Up another floor, and I spotted this delightful display of Penguin ware. Mugs, notebooks, every accessory an inveterate booklover needs. To me, there is inspiration in everything: here, I found the cobalt blue wall against all the orange refreshingly upbeat. 

Are you gasping yet? I was when I saw this cozy nook. I love the unabashed irreverence in grouping all these diverse textile patterns together. It's "Gardens Gone Wild."
If you can imagine, this is a quilt comforter from this season's new homewares line. It's a printed illustration of the Liberty storefront. Opened up, it makes quite a statement and it was so, so soft. Silk, I think. Silk-ish, anyway.

Keep climbing with me. We have now reached the Haberdashery floor. They were about to begin a knitting session at that round table when I approached. I used to haunt this section when I lived here and go home with bags of embroidery floss in gorgeous hues that would set my head spinning.  

Here's a sampling of Liberty prints from their renowned line. The entire floor was bulging with them, but I didn't want anyone to faint from overstimulation, so I offer you just a small dose here. Oh, the colors! Oh, the possibilities!

I was struck by this wonderful version of their peacock print fabric on this mannequin. I find the colorway to be extremely modern although the pattern is firmly rooted in tradition. Again, it's the visual tension between new and old that makes it work for me.

We're on the top floor now. Look around. In front of you is this grouping of "royalist" pillows, all of them made from vintage textiles. Love. But then you knew I would.

I own a suzani exactly like this that I bought on Ebay. Currently, it's just lying at the foot of my bed like a jetlagged dilettante. I love that instead of upholstering the entire chair, the designer used strategically placed pieces of fabric. Even the accent pillow is part of the pattern.

Here's another chair that uses pieces of ikat fabric to create a bold statement. You can find ikats on Ebay for reasonable prices. I also happen to have a serious crush on all of Robert Kime's ikat patterns. They are costly, but if you upholster a chair in this fashion, you wouldn't need endless yardage.

Liberty never fails to have a couple cheeky pieces that completely shake up your definitions of what furniture should be. Luca was obsessed with this pencil eraser chair. 
It was surprisingly comfortable.

Along one side of the top floor are multiple little ateliers, showcasing fabrics and decorative items for the home.  You can step up into a delightful little room and get down to brass tacks...or furnishing fabrics, as the case may be. 

Now you're standing with me looking down into the four-storey atrium. It's like a miniature city below you, isn't it? As if someone has peeled back the walls of a fabulous organism housing only beauty and joy.

After all this excitement, Luca suggested we repair to the ground floor tearoom to partake of some liquid refreshment.  (His actual words may have been "Mom, I'm thirsty.")

His tea was milky and weak. Mine was lemony and strong.  There were two or three (or four) sugary-type treats ingested as well.  

The tearoom chairs were upholstered in this Liberty peacock pattern. Again, it's the fearless pattern that gets me every time.  

Our heads spinning with design inspiration (well, mine anyway; Luca's was immersed in "Beast Quest 2"), we emerged onto Regent Street and were greeted by a high-gloss London night.

My little man strode ahead of me, completely at ease in this bustling metropolis...
...wearing his newfound confidence like a Savile Row suit. 


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