Sunday, 28 October 2012

Keeping up with Madame Perregaux: Sensation! The Art of Painting - Wallace Collection, London

*** update 27/11/2012

The next Sensation event will take place on 3rd January, 2013 and will be a seasonal celebration of the Christmas story with Bridget Crowley describing some paintings.  The link is here  .  Telephone the Wallace on 020 7563 9577 or email

*** end of update

24th October, 2012
The Wallace Collection holds these Sensation events from time to time and my first experience of one was on the subject of Illuminated Manuscripts, which opened a window in subjects I would have thought fairly inaccessible.   It sparked an interest in many related topics and how they are interconnected.   

On this occasion, we gathered in the front of the entrance lobby and were guided down to the workshop area by Edwina Mileham and Jocelyn Clarke (Jos).  Although the session was from 1pm to 5pm we are encouraged to bring sandwiches, with the Wallace providing tea, coffee, chocolate biscuits and shortbread. I had spoken to Edwina prior to the workshop and learned that we would be mixing paint and that aprons would be provided. 

Edwina briefly introduced The Wallace Collection and the French pictures in the collection, saying we would be studying two works:  a portrait by Elisabeth-Louise Vigee Le Brun and a portrait by Jean-Baptiste Greuze.    Edwina also mentioned that Christoph Vogtherr, Director of the Collection, would be joining us to discuss art history in relation to the two pictures.

Vigee Le Brun’s portrait of Madame Perregaux is dated 1789 and has an interesting history, as does the painter herself.  Vigee Le Brun was the daughter of a painter and married into the art dealer trade, while keeping a position as a society painter of portraits.  She was well in with Marie Antoinette and had painted her in Vienna.  Vigee Le Brun had studied the techniques of the 17th Century artist Rubens and set out to paint a portrait with oil on wood rather than the follow the convention of her time, which was oil on canvas. 

The assembly of a wood panel had been quite a task of carpentry and in the time of Rubens the workshops of artists would have been full of workers engaged in carpentry, pigment preparation, manufacture of size, gesso and brushes.  All these steps were carried out by specialists of the time.  It was unusual, therefore, for a painting to be on wood as a cradle of 5 panels had to be assembled. 

The portrayal of the subject matter was also a bit of an anachronism.  Madame Perregaux is painted wearing Spanish costume of a century earlier, with predominantly black clothing set off with red highlights in the form of feathers in a hat and ribbons and piping on the dress.  White ruffs accentuate the face, and the body is framed with a curtain and a balustrade (probably not unlike the balustrade on the stairway in the Wallace Collection which came from the Banque de France).  The style of dress was familiar in the Spanish Netherlands or as part of Flemish Art. 

Jos described the painting of Madame Perregaux,  She is portrayed with a three quarter turning to the left of the painting.  Her left hand reaches towards curtains while her right hand holds on to a balustrade.  We had a discussion about the need for Vigee Le Brun to dress Madame Perregaux in a costume which was clearly of historic interest.  Christoph Vogtherr joined us and after finding where we had got to in the history of the painting, went on to describe the techniques used of the time. 

The Wallace Collection has had to relocate many of the paintings in the restoration programme of the Great Hall and we were given examples of how workshops and artists employed many skills in the production of a painting.  I hadn’t appreciated how long it took to make a painting in terms of allowing the oil to settle rather than dry out.  The number of layers in this painting is quite complex as the brush work involved in the drawing of the feathers and Madame’s hair is very fine.  We wondered about how often Madame would have actually sat for the painting.

Christoph then went on to introduce a painting by Greuze of Sophie Arnauld.  At first glance, this seemed very out of style until it was explained that the picture had been a sketch.  Artists in the 18th century would have made several sketches of their subject and it was important to get the face right in terms of the client’s wishes, with the other items such as the figure, dress and background being filled in at different times.  In the case of the Greuze painting, it had been bought and finished off years after Greuze.  On examination, the additions to this painting were removed revealing essentially the face of Sophie Arnauld without the conventional additions of the time. 

Christoph explained that much of the Wallace Collection has documentation regarding the sale documents and I asked how the Madame Perregaux came into the collection.  It turned out to have been sold by the family whose fortunes had declined and forced a sale.  Much of French art disappeared during the revolution and emerged in the sale rooms of the 19th century during the collecting period. 

Christoph also introduced the subject of different types of wood which were used in paintings.  Poplar wood is used in many Italian Renaissance paintings and in some cases has not aged well with considerable conservation interventions.  The northern European use of harder woods has made for more robust pictures, though painting surfaces can become abraded due to wear and tear of the wood through insect infestation, warping, lack of humidity control and temperature changes.  We were able to ask questions during Jos’s and Christoph’s explanations, and later in the workshop as they arose. 

We then had what I usually refer to as a Blue Peter moment where “something I prepared earlier” is passed round.  In this case it was a velvet hat with red plumes.  With little coaxing, I was able to model the said hat and pose in front of the picture itself for all to ‘see’. 
Professor Whitestick tries on a plumed velvet hat
thinking it was to do with the French Revolution! ;-)
We also passed round an intricate copy of the ruff worn by Madame Perregaux.  This has quite stiff (obviously starched) cotton with fine lace on the edges. 


Edwina had prepared an example of a wooden surface, with the cradle structure showing the supports for the panels to prevent the warping of the wood through age.  (Tennis rackets when made of wood were kept in a press or frame to prevent warping) The surface of the wood had to be treated with special materials in order to get a really flat surface.  We passed around this cradle and this gave us a sense of what actually goes on behind the apparent first layer of a picture that is the wood itself.

Examples of linen canvas were also passed around and the texture of some of these fabrics could show through the finished picture without preparation.  Linen had to be sized with proprietary size made of animal bones boiled to make a gelatine or even a basic glue. Samples of crystallised size were passed around and sniffed; not much of a smell if any was the consensus. 

Jos described the application of gesso and even gesso grosso (I am afraid two of the Scottish contingent let the side down with this). Gesso is commonly known as gypsum or calcium sulphate and is described as whitening though not itself a white pigment.  The use of gesso allows controlled application of paint rather than have the paint colour bleed into the wood itself.  Jos said that even today many artists take a lot of time in preparing their working surface long before the application of any oil paint.   Commercially bought canvases are often primed in advance.

Next, Edwina passed round paint in the form of a roll of colours - we were to mix a yellow ochre oil paint later – from samples she had got for us from L.Cornelissen & Son.  Jos went through a list of colours and sources which could have been around at the time of the painting by Vigee Le Brun. These included carmine from cochineal beetle, azurite, ochres or earths, copper based colours such as malachite, verdigris (a common name for a green pigment), Rose madder (Alizirin), lamp black, Prussian blue (discovered in the early 1700s), vermilion (made from mercury or cinnabar), lead and tin oxides. 

There was a side discussion on the use of cow urine in the preparation of some colours.  This practice continued with a well-known producer of photographic film keeping a herd of cows for that purpose.  As sizing a canvas involved applying gesso or animal glue to the empty canvas, often old pieces of parchment or vellum were boiled up, essentially producing gelatine.  At this point, discussion veered into gelatine production problems on account of mad cow disease and the use of gelatine in photographic film. 

Various brushes were handed round including some using string to bind the hog bristles to a wooden handle, and ferrule brushes where the hair is clamped with a metal ferrule to the handle.  We also used a glass muller to mix pigments in an oil film on a marble surface.  Describing a figure of 8, the pigment is evenly distributed into the linseed oil and can be gathered with a palette knife or even picked up with a brush.  We had great fun doing this with various consistencies, and using brushes we painted our own ‘wooden’ panels. 

Prof Whitestick wearing a straw hat is seated with a muller (feels like a 3 cm curling stone) on a board
 and holding a palette knife in his right hand
One of the group thought that for an artist to take all this care and preparation, it must have been terrifying using the first brush stroke on the surface, though of course we realised that in a workshop studio, the preparation would be done by the apprentices. 

In conclusion, we thoroughly enjoyed four hours of art history and learned so much by being in front of the pictures, trying to compare our reproduction with the original, listening to the description history and techniques of the time and passing around a model of Madame Perregaux’s hat with the feathers and the ruff.  In the workshop afterwards, we learned and were able to handle a lot more to do with the actual painting procedures of the time.  In this instance, the Wallace Collection not only gave an audio description but we had the real bonus of handling examples of the costume and trying out some of the painting and processing techniques.  This wasn’t just a case of what the painting is, but a good example of how the painting works with a bonus of what makes the painting work. 

Many thanks to Christoph, Edwina and Jos for an interesting afternoon.

Professor Whitestick standing outside the Mary Weston Studio
within the Wallace Collection



From a 1989 Wallace catalogue, Vigee Le Brun was said to have been “pleased with the likeness” in the Madame Perregaux portrait.  She was, however, dissatisfied with female dress of her own time and put all her efforts into making her paintings a little more ‘pittoresque’.  I had mentioned to Edwina about my visit to the Catherine the Great exhibition in Edinburgh during the summer and as Vigee Le Brun had spent sometime in St Petersburg, wondered if there was any mention of her in that catalogue.  Sure enough there was, I discovered when I got home. 
There was a painting titled “Daughters of the Emperor Paul I, the Grand Princesses Alexandra and Elena Pavlovna” dated 1796 (held in the State Hermitage Museum). However, according to the exhibition catalogue, Catherine the Great had not been impressed with the picture of her grandchildren, feeling that they looked like “pug dogs” or “repulsive little French peasant girls.” (p70)  Catherine ordered that the representation of the girls as “bacchantes” be removed, so that grapes were replaced with wreaths of flowers and bare arms were “concealed under their dresses.”  As the catalogue noted, Catherine the Great had rejected the baroque style at the start of her reign, and later also rejected any form of Sentimentalism and Romanticism.

Regarding the Greuze painting, the 1989 Wallace Catalogue states that “Cleaned by Lank in 1988 when overpainting in the lower area (summarily indicating the folds of a dress) was removed.”

Thursday, 25 October 2012

House of Lords, UK Parliament - Reception for VocalEyes

17th October

I was invited by VocalEyes to a reception in the River Room of the House of Lords (The second chamber in the UK Parliament).  The River Room is part of the area of the Palace of Westminster with a connection to the House of Lords and the Lord Speaker. These apartments had reached some notoriety when under the control of Lord Irvine of Lairg, a former Lord Chancellor.  Lord Irvine had supervised the installation of some very expensive wallpaper in the River Room and which we were able to admire during the reception. 

Nowadays the holder of the Lord Chancellor is the head of the Justice Ministry and sits as a Cabinet Minister in the House of Commons.  The issue of “Lords Reform” is currently stuck in the stasis of the present coalition government and the membership is appointed (for life), with some residual aristocratic input of (blue blood) just under 100 being eligible for election from a pool of hereditaries. 

During the State Opening of Parliament the Queen arrives in her coach which enters via an opening of the Victoria Tower.  The Victoria Tower is at the opposite end of the Palace of Westminster from the Clock Tower and the famous bell, Big Ben.  I entered the Palace of Westminster through gate 10, which is Black Rod’s Pass Office.  Black Rod is always shown marching down the Lobby to the House of Commons where the door is slammed in his face.  This part of the building harks back to many customs and yes, anachronisms, in the constitution which has evolved.  I went through security and joined James White from Guide Dogs. 

James had just finished a gruelling 3 weeks at the political party organised conferences in England - someone has to do the lobbying.  We chatted about items of common interest such as their anti clutter campaign, noises for electric cars and shared space issues. We were soon joined by Toby Davey the deputy director of VocalEyes, our hosts for the evening.  I had met Toby at Sight Village last year and also a couple of times at the Wellcome Collection. (We are pictured in the Grand Staircase of the Wellcome Building - )

After a few more arrivals we were escorted through the courtyards inside the complex and entered the approach to the apartments.  We walked along the passage way within the Victoria Tower which can take a coach and horses in procession.  I was greeted by Marylou from VocalEyes and my name badge was pinned on.  We were led to a lift and escorted to the River Room by the verger of the chapel.  

We entered the River Room which is decorated by paintings and sculptures.  There is a view across the River Thames directly and with another window there is a view downstream of the Millenium Wheel.  I could make this out along with Westminster Bridge.  I touched a Nymph (made of marble) as Roz Chalmers described it. There is also a statue of Narcissus and Roz described him to me. 
Roz was scheduled to demonstrate audio description in practice to the guests, some peers, some funders (Arts Council of England), other museums with interests in audio description (The Imperial War Museum) and contributors to the London Beyond Sight project.  The room was filling up and the VocalEyes supporters were introduced to me by Roz and Louise Fryer, who quizzed me about my lunchtime talk at the Wellcome Collection on synesthesia.  (Louise is doing a PhD at Goldsmiths and was interested in mirror neurons)

We were served with drinks and canapés and I wore my new hat as my hands were full with cane and glass.  I prefer to stand at networking functions and if I did not know to whom I was talking, I simply asked.  I recognised some voices from the theatre so having met Andrew Holland a few times at the National Theatre, I could simply greet him on a prompt “it is Andrew”.  Context is everything and I recognised the voice of Shami Chakrabarti of Liberty, though I had to ask Julia Neuberger who she was again.  I knew I was speaking to a member of the House of Lords but which one? 

The speeches were started by Lord Harrison, who asked the Lord Speaker, Baroness d’Souza, to say a few words. Toby Davey then gave an eloquent speech on access to galleries, museums and heritage sites.  While access to some collections was excellent in some cases (Toby cited the Wellcome Collection as being an exemplar), others were sadly either inadequate or assumed something to touch was all that was required.  We have both had some instances of inappropriate action on someone seeing a person with an obvious sight disability. (In case you do not know me, I am not deaf and do not respond to hand waving or being told I can only be accommodated on the day for the visually impaired which I should have looked up on their website before risking life and limb to get there.) 

Roz Chalmers then described the skills of an audio describer by demonstrating these through an example, in this case by describing an object from the British Museum African collection.  The object label gave context but I had no idea what it looked like, let alone how it worked.  A playback with Louise Fryer made the object appear to me as a two headed dog with a carved fur effect etc.  

It was time to continue ‘working’ the River Room and I was soon talking to Judy Dixey, the executive director of VocalEyes.  Judy had promoted the concept of London Beyond Sight and I was aware of it through both twitter and my local visually impaired group.  For more details of London Beyond Sight go to

Next, I was introduced to Lord Harrison and Lord (Earl) Howe.  We were chatting about the Olympics and Paralympic legacy and like many disabled people I expressed the view that with huge funding and sponsorship, many disabled people can achieve their potential.  Unfortunately not all of us can run 100 metres.  I steered the conversation to the cultural Olympic legacy and audio description in particular and asked Lord Howe to describe his tie, which he did quite well. 

The introductions continued and I met Vidar Hjardeng who recently stepped down as the chair of VocalEyes.  Both Judy and Vidar can be heard on an audio CD about London beyond sight.  Soon it was time to go and Marylou escorted me back to Westminster Underground making sure I was on the correct platform. 

Some of the people I spoke to and was introduced to were as follows:

Shami Chakrabarti
Roz Chalmers
Neil Darlison from Arts Council England
Toby Davey, Deputy Director of VocalEyes
Judy Dixey
Michael Elwyn
Louise Fryer
Lord Harrison of Chester
Vidar Hjardeng
Lord Howe
Marcel Jenkins
Marylou Lousvet, Chair of VocalEyes
Julia Neuberger
James White of Guide Dogs
Many thanks to VocalEyes for adding me to their guest list.  I have since added two of the London Beyond Sight audio descriptions to my Waterloo Sunset post ( Both audio and text files on the site are useful in adding that piece of appropriate description for many London landmarks.  Judy Dixey would like to extend the concept of London Beyond Sight to other geographic spots and I think personally some Science Beyond Sight should be within reach if enough enlightened people can be found to do it.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Superhuman, Rabies and Synaesthesia: Wellcome Collection

14th October


The Thing Is...Mad dogs bite Englishmen


Speaker: Dr Sara Pennell, Senior Lecturer early modern British History, University of Roehampton. 

Facilitator: Nils Fietje, Medical Humanities Adviser, Wellcome Trust.

I was booked in for a description by Orla O’Donell on the subject of rabies.  I was a little early and the foyer seemed busy.  The guard at the entrance said the Superhuman exhibition was closing, so I checked in with the desk and entered the exhibition space which was, in fact, also quite busy.

At the beginning there is a small statue of an angelic aspect and a large projection of a person with wings.  I could make out the figure of someone flying and guessed it was Icarus.  The various exhibits on show could be recognised in some form and the video items of sporting events and parachute jumps were recognisable though,  of course, I was lacking much of the context. I could make out a few items such as an advert for Lucozade, I think “Daley Can” for an energy drink and a parachute jump.  I thought it best to get some help and returned to the desk. 

At the desk, I met Orla who arranged for some objects to be left out while we discussed prosthetics, IVF, drugs used to enhance performance in sport.  There was an example of a prosthetic big toe for the right foot which was found on an Egyptian Mummy.  I was able to handle a prosthetic left hand for a woman and was surprised that people seem to want a “younger” false hand when their original other limb has aged.  There was a tempered steel corset forming a 22 inch waist for a woman in the early 1900s and an original chest expander was on the tray.  A stab vest made of Kevlar as issued to London’s Metropolitan Police was also on show and which I could touch.  (I had been hearing about the chemistry of Kevlar a few days before at the Royal Society of Chemistry -
We went upstairs for a description of a leper clapper, some models of mosquitoes and a display of counterfeit anti-malarial drugs. 

In the Wellcome Library, I had a sneak peek of the mystery object, which had to do with Rabies and a cure dating to the mid-1700s.  This cure had been handwritten and taken from a book of potions written by Sir George Cobb who claimed to have brought the cure back from Tonquin in Asia.  The cure involved mixing natural and prepared cinnabar (mercury sulphide) with musk.  This was to be taken after being bitten by a dog. 

Below are two images which Orla has kindly sent me and a friend has attempted to decipher the handwriting.  This transcription is readable in my screenreader:

 An infallible cure of the bite of a mad dog...
Credit:Wellcome Library, London

Text of image:

An infallible Cure for the bite of a Mad Dog brought from Tonquin by Sir George Cobb Bart (Baronet)

Take 24 Grains of Native Cinnabar, 24 Grains of Factitious Cinnabar and 15 Grains of Musk, Grind all these together into an exceeding fine Powder, and put it into a small tea cup of Arrack, Rum or Brandy.  Let it be well mix’d and give it the Person as soon as possible after the Bite: a second Dose of the same must be repeated 30 Days after, and a third may be taken in 20 Days more.  But if the symptoms of Madness appear on the Person they must take one of the above Doses immediately and a second in an Hour after, and if wanted a third must be given in an Hour afterwards.  The above recipe (?) is calculated for a full grown Person, but must be given to Children in smaller quantities, in proportion to their Ages – the medicine has been given to hundreds with success and Sir George Cobb has himself cured two persons who had the symptoms of the Madness upon them.  If in the Madness they can’t take it in Liquid ...

 An infallible cure of the bite of a mad dog...
Credit:Wellcome Library, London

Text of Image

... Liquid, make it up into a Bolus with Honey.  After the two first Doses, let it be repeated every three or four till the Patient be recovered.  This Repetition not to be omitted unless necessary.  Take all imaginable care that the Musk be genuine – There Recipes may be had of Will.   Frederick Bookville (?) in Bath by whom was lately published the Care of a Person at Bath who was bit by a Mad Dog, had the Hydrophobia and cured by the above Medicine …

Attitudes and hysteria on much feared illnesses were discussed. There were records of mad dogs entering the countryside of Uxbridge, bringing the dogs nearer to the city of London via the Oxford Road (current A40).  I commented that this fear persisted in the 1960s when a rabies scare erupted and put Camberley on the map. (It is on the A30 south west of London)  (We know now that foxes and bats can carry this disease and are known vectors.) 

Rabies is a disease from which death follows if untreated, though cases in the West European area are rare.  In the 1970s I can remember signs in German forest walks declaring an area to be “Tollwut Gebiet” that is a Rabies Area.

There was an interesting example of other rabies outbreaks and cures and statements of how many who had hydrophobia were put out of their misery using feather pillows.

I discussed with Sara the use of mercury compounds in the treatment of syphylis.  This was portrayed in a series of paintings by Hogarth in Marriage a la Mode.  We wondered if there were any artworks illustrating rabies, dogs and the cure.

17th October


Packed Lunch: Synaesthesia

Speaker: Michael Banissy, a cognitive neuroscientist at Goldsmiths, University of London

I attended  my first “Packed Lunch” event within the Wellcome Collection.  These events are held on Wednesdays once a month and there is no need to book.  Catherine Walker from the Wellcome visitor services had alerted me to a talk on synesthesia which was scheduled so I turned up in a suit plus new hat (I was going to a reception at the House of Lords later). 

This was very interesting and there was a good attendance.  The format is 30 minutes of conversation led discussion on a topic, very much on radio terms (podworld) so there are no graphics to worry about.  The talk was led by Dr Michael Banissy from Goldsmiths.  His research interests are on mirror touch synesthesia. 

Approximately 1.4% of the population have the synesthesia phenomenon, where senses are mapped differently and the brain fires neurons in such a way as some people feel pain when watching another being touched or hit.  There is some degree of cognitive empathy involved and I asked about the visual impaired cases of synesthesia.  Currently students and those visiting the Science Museum are encouraged to take a test on synesthesia. 

In the audience were found two (men) who could relate colours to different days of the week.

After 15 minutes of questions the lunch hour is drawing to a close and some of the audience go back to work, but further questioning is encouraged.  At the end of the event I was met by Catherine Walker who asked me how I had got on. 

The Wellcome Collection set a fine example of making their facilities accessible to as many as possible.  In my mind they have certainly set a standard in access for visually impaired people which other science museums may well care to emulate. It is not always a question of funding.  A person who is scientific is by nature curious and will ask questions: e.g. my post on John Gough the blind scientist from  over 200 years ago. ( 

Many thanks to Orla and Catherine for their assistance.

Blind Chemist: Royal Society of Chemistry: Green Chemistry and Light Materials Chemistry

The Royal Society of Chemistry continues with a well attended series of public lectures and I have been to two so far.  While these all advance the case for chemistry these events are as jargon free as possible and the two speakers have a record of communication and publications.  Their experience in “The Real World” is also apparent.

From Waste to Wealth using Green Chemistry by Professor James H Clark

27th September, 2012

Green Chemistry

The term Green Chemistry has been in use for some time and embodies all those aspects of chemistry which put into practice chemical answers to problems such as sustainability, resources, energy, efficiency and basically all environmental problems (real or imagined).  The idea is to avoid some chemical pathways in favour of biotechnology.  In this regard the movement is less concerned with “end of pipe” or even “remediation”. 

Professor James Clark of York University cited the term “Devil’s tool kit”.  There are shades of the Devil’s Element often thrown at chlorine and indeed Prof Clark had an illustration of so deemed green elements and the non-green elements such as Chromium, Bromine and Fluorine.  Regarding resources, the supply of elements such as Tantalum was quoted with the extraction process.  (One could also add the production of titanium dioxide where huge quantities of intermediate processes have to use such Devil’s Tool Kits.  The concept of green chemistry has grown and may well evolve. 

As a brand “Green Chemistry” is seriously proclaimed by any CEO in a company who wants to keep their job.  Public scrutiny of all companies in the periphery of chemical activity ensures that for the time being issues such as sustainability are at the forefront for the long term benefit of the company.  The public have every right to question some chemical and pharmaceutical scandals in the past. 

Resource Intelligence

This term is used so that in addition to resources being used wisely – sustainability in terms of exploitation and recycling – there has to be an evaluation of alternative sources of raw materials from what would be considered waste products.  These include coffee bean waste, pulp and peel from oranges, rice straw, cocoa pods and even banana skins.

The war of the “soda pops” continues with each brand trying to outdo the other regarding the “green” credentials of the product itself.  The packaging may well be sustainable but is the product beneficial? (Discuss)

Sponsors of the event were GSK who had undertaken a project to cut down on solvent consumption.  GSK have consumer products in their portfolio with such brands as Horlicks and Ribena. 

There is also a specialist publication from the Royal Society of Chemistry called Green Chemistry.  More information is available on:

For more details of Professor Clark and York University visit:

Our Light Materials by Professor Howard Colquhoun

11th October, 2012

Professor Howard Colquhoun from University of Reading gave a lecture illustrating the chemistry and history of many materials which have begun to take the place of iron in terms of progression from stone, bronze and iron age civilisations.   Polymers is a term for many monomers with the monomers being simple hydrocarbons.  Carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen are the elements forming molecules then polymeric structures which can challenge steel in terms of hardness, ductility, tensile strength and weight

This lecture looked at the chemistry behind some ordinary items and Professor Colquhoun introduced a plastic bag (polyethylene).  Being of a certain age and background, I still refer to C2H4 as ethylene though ethane is preferred.  Shorthand for the polymer is PE and my own hip implant has a bit of HDPE in it, according to the surgeon. The HDPE stands for High Density Poly Ethylene in trivial terms. We then moved on to other polymers going through Nylon, Kevlar and Carbon Fibres.  Professor Colquhoun carefully ran through the structure of these advanced polymers with illustrations. 

Structure, molecular bonds and repetitions of bonding patterns can be identified by the latest research in nanotechnology.  There was a lively discussion with mainly technical questions being asked though someone asked about the recycling capability of advanced composite structures.  Planes for example have as much as 70% non metal structures in the airframes.  The engines still require metal.

During the after talk discussion over coffee, I entered a discussion between an nmr researcher and a mass spectrometrist.  Being a sporting chemist, I sided with the nmr researcher who turned out to have done N15 nmr work at Queen Mary.  We had both been trained on the HA100 from Varian.  The old joke that physics discovered nmr to give the chemists something to play with has a resonance, so to speak. We soon went totally jargonista with Nuclear Overhauser Effect, satellites, spin tickling and decoupling.  Fascinating!

This talk should be available to listen to and view, but at the time of posting is not yet available. 

Forthcoming lecture: Performance Science in Olympic and Paralympic Sport

Speaker:  Scott Drawer, Head of Research and Innovation, UK Sport
Date & Time: 6th November, 2012 6:30-8:30 pm
Venue: Chemistry Centre, Burlington House, London W1J 0BA

Thursday, 18 October 2012

One Man, Two Guvnors: Theatre Royal Haymarket- London

13th October 2012

With the audio CD from the National Theatre fresh in my mind, I attended a touch tour and performance of One Man, Two Guvnors ( at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London.  This was a transfer to London’s West End and is a popular show.  My cousins from Australia and London had gone and encouraged me to attend an audio described version.  The show is written by Richard Bean and is loosely based on Carlo Goldoni’s play One Servant, Two Masters. 

The Haymarket is one of London’s oldest theatres and has many interesting features.  The only play I can remember seeing there years ago was George Bernard Shaw’s The Millionairess starring Penelope Keith.  I had treated my parents to circle seats and we were surprised to hear the National Anthem being played.  In those days it was unusual and it turned out that a junior member of the Firm (British Royal Family), Princess Alexandra, was attending.

On this occasion we were treated to the National Theatre’s Reuben Lane greeting us in front of the theatre, taking “Front of House” extremely seriously.  Once the group had gathered, we entered the auditorium and waited for access to the stage and set.  Roz Chalmers, who had recorded the audio CD guide, and Bridget Crowley were doing the description. 

We were introduced to Chris the company manager and Owain Arthur who plays the central character Frances. Owain is the only obvious Welsh voice on the set and his character was carefully explained with the aid of a spare suit.  This checked suit is important as the production has two suits each for the character and his understudy.  In fact Owain had been the understudy and had taken over the role in his own right for the London run. 

Owain “sweats buckets” with a lot of acrobatic moves and dashing about, so fixing his voice and shape is helpful in following the dialogue.  His jacket (coat) is quite heavy though the trousers (pants) seemed lighter.  Other costumes were brought on and we passed around a policeman’s tunic and helmet as well as a dress worn by the character Pauline in the Beverley Sisters routine.

I explored the set which gave a perspective of a terrace stretching down to the promenade in Brighton, 1963.  This is a trick of the set wings and panels.  The stage is quite steep and an idea of the rake can be gained from backstage gazing out to the auditorium, circle and gallery. 

I was joined by Chris who discussed lighting and I asked how much an actor saw of the audience when playing.  Chris said that on making an entrance there is limited visibility beyond the floodlighting.  The theatre has to apply non slip paint to the stage as the gradient is so steep.  Many theatres have gradually been refitted to a flat surface which can be more multi purpose friendly.  This means that dancers have fewer problems and of course allows ice skaters and roller skaters to move about predictably. The Theatre Royal is, however, ideal for presenting a play like Goldoni’s, which is in the commedia dell’arte tradition. 

The panels were hand painted and I could detect stashes of props.  There is a seaside cut out of WG Grace (cricketer) with a hole for the face of someone to have a picture taken.  WG Grace must have been quite tall and while I am 5 feet 11 and Chris is 6 feet 1, WG Grace was that bit taller (hint).  The bleached blonde wig in a beehive with other wigs was on show.  The hair is human and these cost about £450 each with each actor having a personal wig.  Music features in the show and a steel drum and set of car horns was tried out. 

Owain talked more about his part and explained the nature of the play hinting at some audience participation and some element of improvisation, pantomime, vaudeville and music hall. Somehow we got talking about pyrotechnics.  I had spoken about following Hedda Gabler at the Old Vic when she burns a manuscript in a stove on stage.  With an assumed wink, Owain said that we may get a bit of that when he cooked.  However, it was time to make our own stage exits, collect our headsets from Susan and have a coffee and sandwich in a nearby café. 

Later, and back at the theatre, we were taken to our seats and Susan came round to check the headsets for live notes and the band The Craze - not Krays, something that my screenreader would not have picked up but which was “pointed out” in audio cd sent beforehand.  The Craze play in interludes and provide music cues for scene changes.  I kept the headsets on for most of the show.  I would have missed a lot of the acrobats and tricks such as the antics of the elderly waiter played by Martin Barrass.  The descriptions were played as live and though the show runs to some script a lot of judgement is necessary for the describers in when to interject and when to stay silent. 

In the show itself there are few puns or even innuendo.  Times have changed from the 1960s double meaning, smuggled lines (Round the Horne, Benny Hill  and Carry On) and though political correctness is still part of our self censorship culture, there are some interesting references.  Look out for references to Parkhurst or even Woolworths .  This genre relies on the comedian’s art of going off script in a controlled way and is a common feature of an oral tradition from Homer (Greek poet not Simpson) to the late Max (I wanna tell you a story) Bygraves.   

The programme notes comment on Venetian commedia dell’arte and its decline. It certainly had an influence in both opera seria and opera buffa.  One only has to consider the Richard Strauss opera Ariadne auf Naxos and imagine some scheduler combining the One Man Two Governors with Verdi’s Requiem.  I am sure Owain Arthur could fit the bill as Zerbinetta in the Richard Strauss canon- the other Strauss and his Fledermaus with Arthur in the role of Orlovsky would be so passé. 

The extent of audience participation is a mystery.  I was sitting next to a member of the audience who offered a tsatziki sandwich to Owain.  There was some banter but the man did not return after the interval.  (Was he given the concrete overcoat during the break?) Some of my fellow audience were amazed at the scene where a member of the audience was handled on stage. (She was hidden behind the cut out of WG Grace.)

This was a very funny and entertaining show.  The music was of its time and on hearing someone behind me mention Hank Marvin, I thought of the Shadows and asked if one of the guitarists was wearing glasses.  He was. 

Covent Garden is currently “doing” Wagner’s Ring Cycle …

Monday, 15 October 2012

Ceramic Tiles: Yellow Stove of von Schroffenburg, V&A, London

My first visit to the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) had been delayed on account of my hip replacement surgery.  The V&A is located in the South Kensington area and faces Cromwell Road (main entrance) with a side entrance on Exhibition Road (Shared Space).  Having initially established email contact and being on the V&A mailing list by email, I had spoken with Suzana and we discussed programmes and the best way of getting to the museum.  There are several entrances to the museum and I have worked out 2 of them. 
On arrival at South Kensington Underground station, the staff asked me if I needed any help and I was taken to the tunnel entrance of the V&A.  The London Underground staff commented that they are used to helping visually impaired visitors through the maze of the tunnel system.  At the security entrance to the V&A the guard called for an escort for me and one arrived to guide me to the information desk. 
I discussed various areas of interest that I had and mentioned Renaissance Art and design.  David, one of their volunteers, took me round the new Medieval and Renaissance Galleries and we discussed Giambologna and Donatello sculpture in addition to some reliquaries.  David introduced me to several floors, and I then went to the gift shop and got a postcard.  I wandered around and got more directions to the main bookshop and was helped in some book ideas for follow up.
My second visit was in following up some objects I had visited at the Royal Academy Bronze exhibition.  At the desk I was able to make enquiries about a ceramic tile touch tour I had booked and a workshop in ceramics for the visually impaired or (bps).  On this occasion Graham, another volunteer, searched some items in the database and took me round the smaller Renaissance bronze items such as door knockers (fascinating) and wrote down the relevant V&A numbers for pieces that I found particularly interesting, such as:
Thetis by Giovanni Bolgna – Museum No. 7628-1861
Pacing Horse – Museum No. A148-1910
The Chellini Madonna – Museum No. A1-1976
Donatello Reliefs – Room 64a

(note: for screenreaders, the V&A references are quite long)
The Virgin and Child with four angels: The Chellini Madonna
(gilded bronze, c1450)

There is a story attached to the Chellini Madonna which David had explained on my first visit and Graham found again for me.  There is a glass copy of this roundel which can be touched.  It seems like a very large glass ash-tray.  The reference number system works as the handwritten notes were deciphered by a sighted friend and the relevant pages were located on the museum’s website.  The story was indeed the one which I had been told.  In two visits, I’m beginning to understand both the museum system and how the website works. 
Graham is doing a course in Criminology at the Open University and as I had completed a level 3 course at the OU, we compared notes about lifelong learning and how good (and bad) some institutions could be. 
On this occasion I left by the Cromwell Road exit and turned left and got on a bus (it turned out to be a 74) which I took as far as Knightsbridge underground station and then took the tube to my next destination. 
On the 9th of October I arrived very early for the ceramic tile touch tour and Merry Spence, another volunteer, checked my booking for the workshop and gave me the ticket then and there.  Merry took me to a sunny spot in a courtyard and I had a coffee.  She came back to pick me up and introduced me to Elizabeth Hamilton, our guide for the ceramic tiles. There were two attendees that I recognised as regulars from other events, while others were new “faces”. 
The tour started with some tiles from Spain illustrating the craftsmanship of tile decoration, clay handling and the pigment process (both reduction and oxidation kilns).  We came across some old friends such as Manganese Dioxide which is applied as a resist in painting the colours on to the biscuit before the final firing.  Tin glaze and Lead glaze were described and examples of crazing were found. 
We worked our way through tiles from Delft, London and Bristol and I asked if some of the tiles had been worked with a cartoon in mind, as the painting of each tile was so precise in assembling a grand array.  One of the tile assemblies resembled a Dutch painting of a ship by Willem van de Velde.  There was also a wash basin fitted out with ceramic tiles with niches. 
We gradually worked our way to the stoves on the upper floor and included a bottle green stove from Ravensburg in Germany and the Yellow stove of Josef Konrad von Schroffenburg taken from the Bishops Palace in Regensburg. 
Ravensburg stove
lead-glazed earthenware stove tiles
(c 1450, maker unknown)

Yellow Stove of von Schroffenburg
These stoves stand around 3 metres high and we discussed how they worked, a mix of radiation of heat as well as some convection in the way the air flows have been built.  The Ravensburg item was much plainer than the Regensburg one, which was very highly decorated with mouldings of animals, heraldry, tassels.  Elizabeth described the stove from the top and we could touch the surface features according to our reach.
Elizabeth wrote down the museum reference and a sighted friend found the image of the stove.  (
Most of us climbed up the stairs but got the lift back down. 
This was a very informative tour of the museum ceramic tiles.  The group had previously covered Islamic tiles and the technology evolution neatly dovetails with my visiting the Wemyss ware workshop in Ceres in the summer as well as some ceramics in the Wallace Collection.  Another window into another subject. 
Many thanks to the V&A, their volunteers and the touch tour programme they have developed.