Saturday, 25 August 2007

And finally Henry Wellcome himself...

So now I moved onto an adjacent gallery housing some of the many art objects collected by Henry Wellcome during his lifetime. It was quite chilly in the gallery and that matched the creepy feeling I got when I looked at some of the exhibits. The first to catch my eye was a Chinese torture chair. It resembled a large, upright dining chair with arm rests but the arm rests were pointy blades, and the seat of the chair had blades on it as well. Next to that was a birthing chair which looked almost as bad as the torture chair but without the blades and next to that was a dentist's chair which, although very old, was recognisable as a dentist's chair I may have sat in myself.

Henry Wellcome was born in 1853 in Wisconsin and died in 1936 in London. He established the pharmaceutical company, Burroughs Wellcome & Company with his colleague, Silas Mainville Burroughs. Henry Wellcome was an entrepreneur, philanthropist, patron of science and a pioneer of aerial photography. He bought very widely anything to do with medicine and you can see some of it in this gallery. One of the glass cases which intrigued me was full of prosthetic limbs. There were arms and legs in all shapes and sizes with straps for keeping them in place and they were highly decorated in an attempt to match the real thing. I've no idea how comfortable they were to wear and it's hard to imagine they were anything like the ones made today.

The collection includes many small diagnostic dolls used by Chinese doctors and Japanese sex aids. I gawped at Napoleon's toothbrush and wondered if that was his only toothbrush or if he replaced them as often as we are urged to. I seem to remember that there was a pair of Florence Nightingale's slippers and a sample of George IIIs hair was somewhere but sadly I can't recall it. I do remember the oil paintings which included one of a woman giving birth and one large painting of a surgeon gazing towards a window while holding a woman's heart in his hand after he's completed a post mortem on her. At this point I felt a bit queasy and was ready to leave the building.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

Moving on

At this point we leave the beating heart thumping gently and ascend a metal spiral staircase to the next exhibition called Medicine Now. (I forgot to mention that all this is free to Joe public.) This exhibition contains human remains but it's nothing to worry about because when you see this exhibit it doesn't look like something you'd have a conversation with, or for that matter, share a cup of tea with - it just looks like a scientific illustration that just happens to be human shaped.

The human body, rather than medical implements, is at the heart (pardon the pun) of this exhibition. Near the entrance is a large transparent perspex model of a body with all the internal organs on display neatly decked out in different colours. There are labelled buttons on a board in front of this object and when you press, say 'Spleen' a little object lights up so you can see where it is in relation to 'Liver' or 'Lung' or 'Small intestine' which looked enormous to me and I could have spent quite a long time playing with this but my attention was diverted by a television screen. Here I was able to watch excerpts from programmes, dating from the 1960s up to the present day, about attitudes to medical problems. It began with a patronising discussion about children with Downs Syndrome which I found shocking and then covered all sorts of other things including, I think, cloning and Dollie the sheep.

When I felt in need of a sit down I plonked myself on a Sound Chair. When you do this a recording starts and I listened to one on malaria and another on obesity. Fortunately they also provide a written transcript of the text in case you can't hear everything. Following this I voluntarily stood in front of a camera which photographed my face and compared it with the previous 50 faces it had shot. Then the image of my face was distorted to make it fit the 'average' face and I looked even weirder than I normally do.

At one end of this exhibition there is a browsing area including something they call the Forum. This isn't a market place where people set the world to rights but a wall displaying visitors artwork. You are invited to choose a word or two printed on the back of a large card then turn the card over and write and draw about those words. I chose the word 'fever' and produced something that was fantastically dull but, unlike mine, a lot of the cards on display were really interesting and witty.

There were also plenty of pieces of artwork that artists had made in response to all things medical including a large, subtle piece that could have been mistaken for an embroidery but on closer inspection it became clear that it had been made from over-the-counter drugs and carved into the shapes of the parts of the body that particular pill was intended to help. Next to this was one of my favourite parts of the exhibition. You have to listen to it on headphones and it was a couple of minutes from a comedy sketch by a comedian who has MS and he was describing his neighbours reaction to his walking stick - it was very funny and I would like to have heard the whole thing.

More later ...

Wednesday, 15 August 2007


On Tuesday we took a short walk through Hackney to catch the number 30 bus. This time we were heading west towards Euston Square which is beyond Kings Cross! I enjoy this bus journey because you travel through different areas of London which have their own distinctive qualities.

After you've left Hackney, which is known for its diverse ethnic culture including Turkish and Vietnamese restaurants, you get to Dalston which is currently suffering from some urban blight but in its favour is home to the Vortex jazz club, where we tapped our feet to Clara and the Real Lowdown last Friday, and a Polish deli. Before long you're approaching expensive Islington. This used to be a working class district but now it helps to be a millionaire. Having turned left at Highbury Corner you find yourself in Upper Street which is almost exclusively filled with restaurants. This is a great place, of an evening, to sashay up and down the road showing off to everyone else who is showing off.

On reaching the Angel, Islington (which has a revolting piece of public art at the N1 centre) you turn right into Pentonville Road. There is a prison of the same name but there's no sign of it in this part of the road. From here its downhill to Kings Cross, one of our mainline stations and then the bus carries on past the British Library arriving at Euston Station, another mainline station. This is where you get off and walk a short distance to an imposing building which houses the Wellcome Collection.

This was my first visit and, being rather ignorant, I was just vaguely aware of Wellcome being associated with medicine and drugs. Little did I know that it also owns a staggering collection of art, much of which relates to medicine and there, in the foyer, was a hanging sculpture of a body by none other than Antony Gormley.

So we start with The Heart exhibition which is on for another month. You begin in Egypt where you learn that the heart was seen 'as the centre of intellect, character and emotion'. Moving on you are introduced to Galen (129 - 200 CE) who was an ancient Greek physician and philosopher whose ideas about the workings of the heart endured for more than a thousand years. Then, and this really amazed me, there were a few anatomical drawings of the heart by Leonardo da Vinci, no less, and these have been lent by Her Majesty the Queen. So those pretty much knocked me out and I ought to go back and have another look at them. Then you learn about William Harvey (1578 - 1657) who graduated from the University of Padua in Italy. He was a great fan of dissection and the results of his many experiments to do with the heart and circulation of blood, when published, challenged Galen's well established model.

At this point I went and sat in a small cinema which was showing a film about heart operations conducted at Papworth hospital in Cambridgeshire with a sound track of Billy Graham, the preacher, sermonising about the siginificance of blood and the heart in the bible. Since I am rather squeamish and didn't have a cushion to hide behind I got up and left when the surgeons were firing up the electric saw so I never did find out what happened to the patient.

And this, dear reader, is where we leave the 'heart' for two more exhibitions which I'll cover in my next post.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Another day, another walk

On Friday evening three of us decided it would be nice to take a walk together on the following day, Saturday. The temperature was cool when we made the decision but come the next morning it was a different story and the weather was forecast to be about the hottest it's been this summer. True, we haven't had a glorious English summer this year but I still think that 30° C is hot for walking - others no doubt will disagree.

One of our party was keen to meet early in the morning so we could be out for the whole day but there was shopping to be bought and chores to be done so we compromised and met at around noon at Hackney Wick station. Our plan was to amble roughly north along the Lea Valley Park as far as Springfield Park, which is a distance of about three miles, with no particular plans in mind after that. We hadn't done this walk for over a year and were curious to know how the area may have changed in the mean time. This is because part of the Lea Valley Park is being incorporated into the 2012 Olympic site and this will change the area's appearance. However the only change we could see were blue hoardings that have been erected on the east side of part of the tow path restricting, but not impeding, the movement of cyclists and walkers for a short distance.

So far, so good. No sign then of the Olympics spoiling our weekend pursuits at least for the time being. Our walk took on a pleasant pace and we paused every so often to look at something, or pick a berry, or take a swig of water and there were few other people around to d
isturb the peace. At some point I remarked on the sight, on the opposite bank, of a partly submerged canal boat still tied at one end to a post on the canal side. My companions didn't find the sight of a sunken boat remarkable, and, while I would have liked to have stared at it for longer wondering who had left it in that state, they kept on walking.

So with Hackney Marsh to our right, which is apparently to be turned into a coach park for the Olympics and no longer available for football matches, our destination for lunch was not far off. First of all we had to pass the Middlesex filter beds and nature reserve. We recommended visiting this on our return to our friend but in the event did not go back that way and so the opportunity on this occasion was lost.

Here we crossed Cow Bridge and got onto the west side of the canal and headed to the Princess of Wales pub for lunch. I always find this pub a slightly depressing place because it is full of photos of Dia
na but today we chose to sit outside and so didn't have to look at them. While we were waiting for our food we looked over the canal to a recently restored building which has an air of a Lutyens country house about it. Far from being the home of an affluent industrialist it is the office from where Thames Water authority are coordinating the upgrading of our leaking Victorian water mains which will take who knows how long to accomplish. There is another pub next door to the Princess of Wales which has a nautical theme and I think we should try it on our next visit. There is a chance that the food might be better than the lunch we had which looked nice enough but didn't taste of anything much.

So on to Sprin
gfield Park which we reached by continuing along the canal and it's entrance is just past the Anchor and Hope pub. The park used to have some rather elegant villas in it and one remains with a café in it. There are formal gardens in it where a wedding party were having their photographs taken and acres and acres of lawn where people were sunbathing and picnicing. The park is on a hill so you can get a good view of the Walthamstow Marshes and since most of London is so flat it's nice to get above sea level occasionally and this is where I chose to sit and do this drawing.