The GardenDespatches from The Satyrs’ Forest

Posts tagged as “museums”

Ushaw Hall

An ostentatiously-decorated main chapel, with intricate carved wooden benches and walls, painted ceilings, and stained glass windows

Ushaw Hall’s website plays coy about itself. You can learn that guide dogs are welcome, they’ll be exhibiting interactive “Humanimal” sculptures next month, and that they're very proud of the pun “Ushaw in”, but curiously little about what the place actually is (or was). I went anyway.

To spoil the fun, it’s an old Roman Catholic seminary that was turned into a museum when people stopped being religious enough to care. The entrance makes that well clear; walking up from the car park, the curious visitor is flanked by an ostentatious neo-Gothic chapel on their left and modernist student housing on their right. (The latter remains unmuseumified, too boring to make much out of.)

A dimly-lit photo of church corridors with vaulted arches, the plain white walls lined with pictures on one side and dresses on the other. A brass statue of a saint sits in a niche off to the right, and the floor is decorated with a checkerboard of worn white and red tiles.

Right from reception there’s an interesting historical tidbit with a bust of Abraham Lincoln himself, who a helpful volunteer told me once attended Ushaw before he decided a more secular political career was right for him. (It was that or boxing, i suppose.) Upstairs is the Presidents’ Hall, whither the stairway looked off-limits enough not to chance it — so never mind that, and let’s instead turn right.1 This takes us down a series of winding hallways with wibbly tiled floor — as of now, an exhibition has lined them with wedding dresses old and new, including replicas of those worn by the royal family, creepy mannequin heads and all.2 More importantly and more permanently, these are the chapels of Ushaw Hall.

A smaller chapel, every inch decorated with tiny details
I neglected to take pictures in this part, so this one’s © Ushaw themselves.

They are beautiful, and have seen better days. The paint peels from a dimly-lit mural in a nook i presume is for choirists. In others, light dances in vibrant oranges and blues through expository stained glass. The brightest of them all, seen here to the right, invites its visitors to pray for Ukraine in a solemn reminder of the times.

These smaller shrines have an intimacy to them that reflects the house’s hush-hush history. First exiled from England, the Catholics settled in the small town of Douai, in the north of France — only to be forced out again by the secular fervour of the French Revolution. Even then, they struggled to find welcome in a staunchly Protestant Georgian England, until a sympathetic aristocrat sold them land in Durham’s secluded hills. The hall itself was built with the façade of an unseeming terrace, only showing its religious nature to those within.

An elaborate tabernacle

Onwards, then, into the star of the show — the main chapel. Pews upon pews span the long gap between the entrance and the colossal tabernacle, behind which the walls are adorned with what first looks like simple ornament but reveals itself to be tightly-packed black-lettered Latin. You can tell it’s Catholic by the eagle in the middle, the Vatican having never quite given up its attachment to its Roman roots.

…Upstairs is the Presidents’ Hall, whither the stairway looked off-limits enough not to chance it — so never mind that, and let’s instead turn left. Winding at right angles around the central court we first arrive at the library, or what little you can access of it. Management and the university are promising big things… eventually… once they restore everything… and catalogue it… and… oh, sod this, let’s go to the café.

[One hot chocolate later…]

A wee bookshop with dark wooden shelves and religious posters
This is a wholly unrelated bookstore found elsewhere on church grounds. Behind the camera is a fireplace. Yes, i am kicking myself for not photographing that instead.

As we were. Further along we find find the mess hall, where aspiring clergy once ate in silence, with only the wet sopping of a hundred English breakfasts reverberating back and forth across the walls. These days it’s used for noisier conferences and school trips, fitted with identikit metal and plastic tables and seats which don’t do much to complement the nineteenth-century décor.

Some time later, past the temporary exhibition of inkjet printouts of old maps3, our trip comes full circle. As i walk home through the well-kempt garden and around the reedy old pond, i might not have been convinced by the seminary’s faith, but i have been convinced of their taste in interior decoration.

Information for visitors

  • Admission: £10 per adult, £6 per child, free for under-fives
  • Address: Ushaw Historic House, Chapels & Gardens; Ushaw Moor; Durham DH7 9RH
  • Accessibility: An accessible entrance is available, and the gardens have paths suitable for wheelchairs.
  • Arriving there: Accessible by car along the A167, and the 52 bus also intermittently stops.

A dispatch from Barnard Castle

A shot looking up at an old Georgian palace with glass trees in the foreground

Hello. I’ve been to the Bowes Museum. I thought i might tell you about it.

Housed in a gloriously incongruous French mansion in the small town of Barnard Castle1, it was built to house the art collections of the noble Bowes-Lyons — a family lucky enough to count the Queen Mother herself among their members.

Its collection lies largely parallel to the “main” visual arts: ceramics, fashion, textiles, furniture, and other such things which must account for function as much as form. Most of it plunges headfirst into the latter, a bit frilly even for my often anti-modernist tastes, but i did like this caduceus-adorned wooden cabinet:

A dark wooden cabinet whose middle is adorned with a beautiful embossed caduceus

The star of the show here is the Silver Swan, a gorgeous eighteenth-century automaton which preens and sways on a bed of glass water. Unfortunately, it’s broken, and the closest you’ll get to see it is its dismembered corpse awaiting restoration, so [raspberry noise]. You can, however, see their exhibition on its legacy, which houses a wonderful collection of modern animatronics made by crafters and tinkerers from all over the world, like this 10/10 pianist:

There are a few items which don’t fit into the above. They’ve managed to snag some real Goyas, Canalettos, and El Grecos. (Los Grecos?) They even have Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, somehow — i assume it’s on loan from London?

Information for visitors

  • Admission: £15.50 for an annual membership; £13.50 for locals — don’t be fooled by the eye-watering £18 day ticket for shmucks!
  • Address: The Bowes Museum, Newgate, Barnard Castle, DL12 8NP
  • Accessibility: The museum has an accessible entrance and a lift serving all three floors.
  • Getting there: Bus network’s fucked at the minute. Sorry.

Arts and crafts: tidbits from Manchester

In a gallery hangs a large landscape painting depicting the Gods and Goddesses of the classical world
I included this photo to show that the gallery still makes plenty of room for the “old masters” — but, to be honest with you, it sums up everything i dislike about some renaissance and baroque art. Just a huddled mass of mythological figures, with no life, no colour, no attention paid to the greater picture. Sad!

Manchester is not particularly renowned as a home for the aristocracy or patrons of the high arts, so i was pleased to discover upon a visit that the Manchester Art Gallery is one of the finest of its kind.

The Mag (as nobody calls it)’s success lies not in the size of its collection — it’s no larger than my local, the Laing — but in its presentation. Like many museums, its curators have lately been making efforts to diversify their collections and make them more relatable to the average yoof of today. It’s a process that can often come off as haphazard and rushed1, but the team at the Mag have pulled it off with care and respect.

A painting of a black woman covered in coal laying on a cloth-covered black table, as if deceased
Berni Searle, In Wake Of, 2014.

Newer works are dotted in each gallery in such a way that they complement, rather than denigrate, the greats of old. A visa rejection letter from a group of Pakistani artists hangs alongside Victorian paintings of eastern caravans; where a gallery about protest and revolution could have added some shrewd, vapid letterpress and called it a day, the museum’s curators have instead chosen to incorporate a thoughtful self-portrait by a South African painter, made in the wake of the Marikana massacre.2

A portrait of a dashingly handsome Shakespearean actor

The captions accompanying each artwork face a similarly complicated task. Be too conservative and you’ll disappear up your own arse into a world of romanticist masturbation; be too reactionary and you’ll come off as cloyingly didactic, engaging in pseudohistoric iconoclasm for iconoclasm’s sake. The Mag hit a stroke of genius here: after a brief description in the typical style, the captions adorning prominent works also include conversations and thoughts from a variety of perspectives, be it historians, curators, or the artists themselves. It’s a brilliant way to further inform the visitor without beating them over the head with one opinion, alienating them with arcane academese, or leaving out unsavoury histories.

A lit up colourful glass tapestry marked with traditional Ghanaian patterns
Someone, please, tell me what this painting is called. I have to know.

Other highlights on the lower floors include a portrait of the early black tragedian Ira Aldridge (the very first work in the museum’s collection, which rather surprised me coming from the people of 1858), a Ghanaian tapestry that i was surprised to learn was actually made of glass, and a lovely painting of an industrial scene lit by hazy fog whose name — to current me’s infuriation — i neglected to include in the photo, taken from an angle so inconvenient that reverse image search returns nothing of relevance. Past me is a bastard and i’m killing him when i get the chance.

Upstairs sit the gallery’s temporary exhibitions. The most prominently advertised was on the topic of the history of men’s fashion, something i regrettably could not get myself to muster up any interest in. I’m sure it’s quite interesting if that’s your sort of thing. The other (smaller) exhibition sits in a surprisingly grand hall which, from what i can tell, normally houses the museum’s pottery galleries, and it’s about tea. No wait come back i sw—

An all-black, marbled tea set

I jest, but there really is some fascinating stuff in there. The room’s cabinets are packed with advertisements, old jugs, and all sorts of other things detailing how hot drinks have shaped Britain and the world over the years — from sparking conversation to funding colonisation. But there was one thing that stuck out to me the most. A newly-created work of art, perhaps meant to inspire some thought or another in the viewer, but that our whole group agreed could only be described as one thing:

A collection of tea stoppers, hung on ropes in such a way that they really quite resemble a dreamcatcher made of buttplugs
Buttplug dreamcatcher.

PS: I had to ask what the abbreviation “dbl” (“double”) on the signs for upcoming trams meant. My poor exurban soul simply could not comprehend the idea of a transit system that consistently ran so punctually — i had been thinking it stood for something like “delayed by late”.

PPS: This was meant to be the last post in the series, but my rambling about the gallery got so out of hand that i thought i’d spin off its intended complement into its own part. Tune in next week3 for one last dispatch from Affleck’s Palace.

Lady Waterford Hall

I don't know how some people do it, posting almost every day. I suppose my life just isn’t interesting enough for this sort of thing!

Anyway. I was going to write up a full post about a recent jaunt to Lady Waterford Hall, but my memory is awful and i’m not sure that it would be very interesting. Instead, here are some photos from the trip:

The inside of a small church hall, the upper heights of its walls covered in glorious paintings of Biblical scenes, the lower halves painted white and covered in smaller, framed paintings. The floor is riddled with chairs, information stands, cabinets, and other such auxiliaries. In the back of the shot, two people browse the store shelves, while two others work at the reception desk.
Pointing towards the gift shop.
A pre-Raphaelite painting on a wooden panel adorns the walls of the previously depicted church hall. On it, a golden-haired boy in a tunic holding a staff, David the Shepherd, stands proud, herding his flock of sheep as mountains recede in the background. He is depicted within a triangular frame, the top two edges inscribed with Biblical verse, the bottom edge blaring, in all capital letters, "David. The. Shepherd." Around the frame, two more portraits are inscribed in smaller circles, while the rest is painted with bright green leaves and vines.
A framed painting from the gallery. A blonde-haired student in a red shirt hunches over a vast tome resting on piles of yet more books, his head illuminated only by a lamp as he writes. Over him, in the grim darkness, watches the Grim Reaper, toyingly placing a halo above his heat. In the top left corner, the only other source of light streams in, a view of a dark cityscape at midnight.
“The Student”. This photo’s a bit more potato-y than the rest, because it was behind a glossy frame…

(If you’d like to visit, admission is free with a suggested donation of £3, and the place is wheelchair-accessible.)