Tuesday 23 April 2013

Transported Back in Time

The Museum of Liverpool
This weekend, I spent a couple of hours in The Museum of Liverpool viewing the Liverpool Overhead Railway (LOR) exhibition. The centrepiece of the exhibition is a beautifully restored carriage – all that remains of Liverpool’s elevated railway, the first in the world. The LOR was opened in 1893 to service the docks and its carriages were divided into three, a First Class compartment being sandwiched between two Third Class.

In the exhibition, two of the compartments are ‘peopled’ with lifesize-models; so realistic that I did a ‘double-take’ when I first saw them. Visitors to the museum have access to one of the Third Class compartments and it was while sitting in this that I was transported back to my schooldays.

I attended Childwall Valley High School for Girls (1950-54) and the school was divided into four ‘Houses’ – Gladstone, Langton, Huskisson and Sandon, the names of four of the docks along the railway. We wore small, coloured badges on our uniform – blue, green, yellow or red – to denote which House we belonged to. I’m embarrassed to admit that after all these years I can’t remember which was which, perhaps someone out there remembers? Worse still, I can’t remember which House I was in!

I do remember being taken on the 13-mile LOR round trip with the school. As schoolchildren, we all knew who Mr Gladstone and Mr Huskisson were, but I never knew if the other two docks were also named after prominent gentlemen. Today was an opportunity to find out. Thanks to the very helpful Maria and Tom at the museum’s information desk, I now know that Mr Langton was a member of the Dock Commission and a former Chairman of the Bank of Liverpool. Sandon Dock was named after Sandon Half-Tide Dock, but unfortunately I still don’t know whether there was a Mr Sandon.

The LOR wasn’t just used for workers and school trips, it was a popular day out for families at weekends – you could even get a special ticket for your dog.

The overhead railway was affectionately known as The Dockers’ Umbrella since walking beneath its elevated track gave protection from the weather. A less congenial nickname was The Pneumonia Express as the windows of the carriages were open in all weathers to disperse the smoke and the smell of the workmen’s clothes. Sitting in the carriage today I also spotted a sign that I remember being displayed on all forms of public transport in my childhood – ‘Spitting Prohibited’.  

Due to the prohibitive cost of repairs necessary to keep the LOR running safely, it was closed on 30th December 1956 and demolished in September 1957. At the time, I was working in an office nearby and I can remember the general feeling of regret that such an integral part of the city scene was vanishing. It was also in 1957 that the city lost its trams – the first street tramway in Europe had opened in Birkenhead in 1860 – I still have my ticket from Liverpool’s last tram journey.

If you want to be transported back to the 1920s when in Liverpool, you should call in at the Sapphire Lounge in Bold Street; comfortable armchairs, attractive lighting and d├ęcor – and a ‘flapper’ to serve you coffee and cake in the afternoon! Take a trip downstairs and you’ll discover a secret; a door disguised as a bookcase leads you to Dillinger’s speakeasy where in the evenings cocktails are served in china cups – or so I’ve been told! Check it out on www.sapphirelounge.co.uk.

Monday 15 April 2013

Every Picture Tells A Story - Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

The Walker Art Gallery
Figures issued by the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions show that in 2012 National Museums Liverpool attracted a total of 3.3m visits, making it the most popular outside London and its most successful year to date.

The Walker Art Gallery is part of National Museums Liverpool. I’m lucky enough to live within a 40 minute train ride from this gallery and visit it regularly. The building itself is stunning – Liverpool also has the highest number of listed buildings outside London!

Sometimes I’m drawn by a particular exhibition; last year’s ‘Rolf Harris: Can you tell what it is yet?’ drew huge crowds and was mainly responsible for an increase in visitor numbers of 40%. However, I often drop into the gallery when I’m in the city simply to visit a couple of my favourite paintings; paintings that evoke a personal response.

The first of these is ‘Fantine’ by Margaret Hall, painted in 1886. A large painting, it hangs on the gallery’s magnificent staircase and my attraction to it pre-dates the popularity of the stage musical and latest film version of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I have a framed postcard of this painting hanging on my own, very ordinary, staircase because it reminds me of my grandmother. It’s not a physical resemblance, my grandmother was Spanish; it’s the look in Fantine’s eyes, a look that foretells tragedy.

I study Ford Madox Brown’s ‘Waiting: An English fireside of 1854-55’, for the same reason. Despite knowing it’s a topical painting about a wife waiting for her husband’s return from the Crimean War, I can visualise my grandmother, in Spain almost half a century later, as she nursed her sick son. The painting intrigues me; the position of the child on its mother’s lap looks unnatural and the red glow reflected on its gown makes me think of blood and death rather than hearth and home. A small painting, only 30.5 x 20cm, yet it has a big impact on me.

Another favourite is John Lee’s ‘Sweethearts and Wives’. Although this Liverpool dockside scene was painted in 1860, my imagination can make the leap forward to my own family’s connection with the seaport. My Spanish grandfather was a merchant seaman who sailed out of Liverpool and there must have been countless emotional partings with his wife and children. My husband also spent a short time in the Royal Navy, so I have experienced watching a ship sail out of port with a loved one aboard.

Frederick Cotman’s ‘One of the Family’ (1880) is a favourite of the whole family. Many years ago my late mother-in-law fell in love with this painting. We bought a large print from the gallery, had it framed, and it took pride of place on her dining room wall until her death. Sadly, it now languishes in our loft; we don’t have the space to hang the print but our family have forbidden us to dispose of it!

To enjoy visiting art galleries, I believe it isn’t essential to be knowledgeable about old masters or modern innovators; understand different techniques; or discuss the motivation behind the paintings; although these can certainly be an important part of the experience. But art appreciation can also be on a purely personal level, without being an expert you can love a certain painting because it ‘speaks to you’, as these do to me.

Tuesday 2 April 2013

Titanic and Beryl Bainbridge exhibitions in Liverpool

I've just spent a ‘Titanic’ couple of days! I’m reading Beryl Bainbridge’s Every Man for Himself, so took the opportunity of visiting an exhibition at Merseyside Maritime Museum, ‘Titanic & Liverpool. The Untold Story’. Well worth a visit, so try to catch it before it closes on 21 April. I spent a couple of hours reading details about the ship, its crew and passengers, looking at photographs, watching old film clips, looking at articles brought up from the seabed, and reading original letters. The latter were perhaps the most poignant part of the exhibition. There were a couple of letters sent by a crew member to his motherless children just before he set sail. He wasn’t one of the survivors. Neither was a steward whose young daughter, May, had written her very first letter to her beloved ‘Dada’ – the ship sailed before it reached him and it was ‘returned to sender’. Last year’s street theatre spectacular, ‘Liverpool’s Titanic Girl’, which mesmerised the city over a period of three days, was based on this letter.

After refuelling on coffee and cake – there’s a world of choice for eating and drinking at the Albert Dock complex – we strolled across to the Museum of Liverpool. Whatever the visitor’s personal view on the exterior of this building – a marvel of modern architecture, or a blot on the landscape in a previously iconic waterfront scene – its contents cannot be faulted. Impossible to do it justice in a full day and we only had a couple of hours, but I was concentrating on the Skylight Gallery and its exhibition of Beryl Bainbridge’s paintings. No – I didn’t know she was a painter either! The exhibition is entitled ‘Artwork by Dame Beryl Bainbridge’, and is also due to close soon.

Beryl’s paintings are heavily autobiographical, like her novels. She said she wrote to remember her life, to make sense of it, and many of her stories are based on her own experiences, with an added plot – usually a murder. In the paintings, family and friends often appear, even in those based on events and people in history; one depicts her dancing with Napoleon!

Art appreciation is always subjective, so my personal reaction to Dame Bainbridge’s paintings is unimportant here, but two paintings in particular completed my Titanic-themed day: ‘Boarding the Titanic’, and ‘The Titanic and Lifeboat’. The latter is unusual in that the faces of the people in the lifeboat are a collage of images cut from books and magazines. Among these are Mickey Rooney, Dr Johnson, and Hitler as a child – the first two are easy to spot, but I couldn’t find Hitler!

I arrived home with sore feet and a bad back, but the ‘characters’ in Every Man for Himself, Captain Smith; Bruce Ismay; Lord and Lady Duff Gordon; Thomas Andrews; the crew and the high society passengers, were no longer just names from history. The book and the exhibitions all combined to bring them back to life once more.