diamond geezer

 Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Let's take a look at three exhibitions currently underway in London...

Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion

Two Temple Place (28th January – 23rd April) [free] [closed Tuesday]

This is the sixth year that the Bulldog Trust has opened up Two Temple Place for an exhibition assembled from local collections around the country. This time they've gone to Sussex and selected a hundred-or-so items which illustrate creativity in the county in the early 20th century. Maybe it was the Downs, or perhaps the coastal air, but something here attracted well- and less-well-known names from the world of art and inspired a characteristically modern slant on their work.

The Bloomsbury Group had roots here, their members writing and/or painting with a distinctively bohemian slant. The De La Warr Pavilion graced the seafront at Bexhill, a pre-construction scale model of which is one of the highlights upstairs. Surrealist Edward James was based at West Dean and sponsored Salvador Dali to create, amongst other things, a red sofa in the shape of lips - seen here at the foot of the stairs. And Eric Gill was one of those to be found at Ditchling, hence some of his erotic sculptures are on display in the Lower Gallery for your perusal, and to scare more prudish visitors.

I particularly enjoyed this year's exhibition and would put it on a par with 2015's Lancashire-themed showcase (perhaps I just love a good regional focus). But the building was also as busy as I've ever seen it, so I feel I ought to go round again when things are a bit quieter. Or, as the exhibition intends, I should be inspired to go and visit the nine contributory institutions in Sussex, from the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester to the Jerwood in Hastings. A special website sussexmodern.co.uk lists them all, with a more useful (less blocky) version here. Oh, and next year's theme at 2TP is jazz, so there's something else to look forward to.

Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line
British Library (4th November – 1st March) [£12]

Whilst some nipped out and reviewed this exhibition when it opened, it's my job to remind you it's almost at an end. The British Library has dug into its not inconsiderable archive and pulled out a fantastic variety of cartographic treasures, less for their beauty or value and more for the story they tell. The 20th century was a time of often turbulent change, and many of the maps chosen depict a world in transition, or at war, or rebuilding after conflict. Although the exhibition is themed room by room, what shines through is an inspired curatorial selection, with every map having some fresh perspective to offer rather than simply more of the same.

From the trenches at Ypres to Midwest women's suffrage, and from postwar Berlin demarcation to North Sea oilfield carve-ups, a full social and economic history is being told. Yes Harry Beck's initial sketch for the tube map is here, but the exhibition has a refreshingly national and global spread, so London gets no special treatment and you're just as likely to see representation of Sunderland town centre or the outskirts of Glasgow, even a forest on the Vietnam border. Look out too for three of Sir John Betjeman's Ordnance Survey maps, with his scribblings on the cover, and JRR Tolkien's graph paper sketchmap which ensured his tales of Mordor had an underlying spatial rationale.

A few electronic maps get the nod, plus the odd aerial tile, but the vast majority of those on show are painstakingly hand-compiled and works of art in themselves. I was struck going round by how much of my early understanding of the world was based on a few maps in school atlases, whereas today's children have digital maps zoom-in-able to coffee shop level. There's also so much more to be read from a detailed map on a large sheet of paper than a scrolling online summary, which helps to explain how I spent two hours walking round and poring over the most intricate details.

There's not much time left to see the exhibition for yourself, barely one week, and only one weekend... which is likely to be rather busy. That said, none of the half-hourly segments between now and next Wednesday are yet sold out, if you don't mind jostling for a look at these treasures with dozens of others. One good thing about the last week is that the book of the exhibition is going cheap - at least 20% off the paperback - should you be tempted to take away a permanent illustrated reminder. If you can't get here in time, the new Maps section on the British Library's website may act as a welcome taster. But ideally you'll want to have enjoyed this inspiringly geography-tastic exposition in person, sheet by sheet, symbol by symbol, line by line.

Museum of London Docklands (10th February – 3rd September) [free]

Meanwhile, trains meet history. Crossrail isn't just a transport link, it's a pair of 13 mile holes cut through the soil under central London, plus a number of stations acting as sampling points along the way. Archaeologists were on hand at sensitive sites to make sense of what came out of the substrata, and made some eclectic and astonishing discoveries. A representative selection of what they found is now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, in their downstairs exhibition gallery (behind the main desk, turn left at the counter dispensing cakes and coffee).

It's not a huge space, but big enough, and I spent over half an hour zigzagging around the screens and labelled cases. All of the finds are laid out by station, kicking off with the tunnel portals and shafts on the eastern forks of the new railway. At Plumstead a Bronze Age axe was unearthed, at Canary Wharf one of the largest chunks of amber ever found in the UK, and at Pudding Mill the remains of medieval fish weirs on the River Lea. The worksite at Stepney Green proved an almost direct hit on a moated Tudor manor house, and four tonnes of resurrected bricks have been gifted to English Heritage to assist with period restoration elsewhere.

Liverpool Street proved the richest site, not unexpectedly given its City location, with the deepest finds a pair of 2nd century Roman wooden gates laid flat as a platform over the River Walbrook. On top of this layer came rubbish dumped in medieval Moorfields Marsh, and above that the burial ground of Bedlam Hospital, which archaeologists had been expecting to find on site. In total over 3000 skeletons were respectfully exhumed, including those from a plague pit which should finally provide epidemiologists with an sample of 1665's deadly virus. Meanwhile a grout shaft at Farringdon unearthed two dozen victims of the Black Death... which is something to try not to think about as you speed through on a train next year.

Not all the discoveries were so old, or as gruesome. The demolition of the Astoria at Tottenham Court Road revealed a vault full of discarded pottery from the Crosse and Blackwell pickle factory previously on the site, and at Bond Street they found one of the channels from the lost river Tyburn. Step up to Royal Oak, however, and the bones of bison and a reindeer were uncovered, preserved by the permafrost of a previous Ice Age. You can uncover more about each station's treasures in the index here.

The whole series of excavations reads like a timeline of London, linear but jumbled into unchronological order, and would merit an exhibition several times the size. Throw in some videos showing how certain bits of the new railway were built and there is a sense of Crossrail patting themselves on the back for how well they've done. Nevertheless this is a fascinating display, already justifiably popular, and demonstrates how much can be learned when archaeology and engineering go hand in hand. If the subject interests you, a £10 heavily-illustrated book is available, and several more scholarly tomes have been published looking into the individual discoveries. Ian can tell you more.

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