diamond geezer

 Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Who knew Eel Pie Island had a museum?

That's Eel Pie Island, the ait in the Thames opposite Twickenham, an elongated enclave of boatyards, studios and reclusive housing. But fifty years ago it was a renowned musical hotspot, frequented by many famous names, and a place of bohemian legend. How fabulous to have a museum about the place.

In important news, it's not actually on Eel Pie Island. That's remains private, across its little footbridge, and visitors aren't generally welcome (next opportunity, 8th/9th December). Instead the museum's on Richmond Road, opposite the Civic Centre, at the rear of the ground floor of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce. Press the right doorbell, wait for someone to walk down a very long corridor, and you're in.

The main focus is music at the Eel Pie Island Hotel, whose ballroom started to be used for trad jazz nights in 1956. Under promoter Arthur Chisnall they grew in stature and attendance, aided by construction of the first bridge a year later. Acker Bilk, Ken Colyer and Lonnie Donnegan played here, not to mention Cyril Preston's Excelsior Jazz Band and Len Baldwin's Dauphin Street Six. A transition began in 1962 when Arthur introduced "Rock and Twist Night" on Wednesdays, with the Rolling Stones enjoying a five-month-long residency in the following year.

Other almost unknown faces at the time included Rod Stewart, Jeff Beck and Davie Jones (later Bowie). The weekend before I was born belonged to Long John Baldry and The Hoochie Coochie Men, and the week after to Alex Harvey and his Soul Band. The museum has a huge stash of the club's contracts so is able to display a gig by gig rollcall, both in the museum and online. As well as posters, and evocative black and white photos of hep cats on the dancefloor, there are also tiny Eelpiland passports used as membership cards and signed by 'Pan, Prince of Trads'.

The police closed the club in 1967, after which a more progressive series of nights kicked off including Hawkwind, Genesis and Deep Purple, even Brian May with a pre-Queen band called Smile. When a hippie commune moved in the atmosphere changed, and when they started dismantling the hotel for firewood in the winter of 1970, its days were numbered. Demolition work was hastened by a "mysterious fire", and before any further entertainment option could be considered the site had been snapped up for housing.

Other aspects of island life are covered, including a bit of history, and an in-depth look at the boatyards which proliferate and the many craft built there. A delightful alcove is devoted to Eel Pie resident Trevor Baylis, inventor of the clockwork radio, including bits of his childhood Meccano, some workbench and his battered leather armchair. Trevor sadly died in March, after an astonishing life, but lived long enough to visit the museum and give it his blessing.

Eel Pie Island Museum has a professionally amateur feel, its curators plainly devoted to keeping memories of the island alive. It's clear that their predilections favour music rather than history, as the record deck playing vinyl jazz or R&B plainly indicates. You almost get the feeling that this is a youth club for grown-up teenagers of the 1950s, indeed the opening hours (Thursday-Sunday, noon til six) seem better suited to a social drop-in than a profitable enterprise. But at £3, a visit is more than worth the money... and if you're a local music lover, £5 annual membership must be a bargain.

Within quarter of a mile is the Orleans House Gallery, another February 2018 opening, or in this case reopening. Based on the site of a Thames-side mansion from the same era as Marble Hill, it's been the borough of Richmond's arts hub for many years, but has just been impressively enlarged and refreshed. I hardly recognised the place. All that remains of the original house is the Octagon Room, dazzlingly restored (no doubt because it makes an excellent space for civil ceremonies and so brings in an income). It was rescued from demolition in 1926 by nextdoor neighbour Nellie Ionides, who liked to name her poodles after varieties of champagne, and who also donated 500 local landscapes to the collection.

The new West Gallery is sleek and clean, with an additional mezzanine and study centre upstairs. The current exhibition is Collection Curiosities, an excellent excuse to drag exhibits out of the archives which aren't normally displayed, including Sir Richard Burton's meteorite and a 35-panel bedspread embroidered with a Thamesside map by four local Townswomen Guilds in 1941. An inspired touch is the ability to comment on each piece by writing on a luggage label and sticking it on the wall alongside. "My late father made this. A very pleasant surprise to see it." reads one. Another, annotating the placid portrait of a bright young thing, says "He drank many a bottle of wine - I know, I served him!"

Don't forget the Stables Gallery outside - I nearly did, it's not well signposted - but 100 works by a talented local illustrator made the damp dash worthwhile. There ought to be a cafe nextdoor, but that's closed "pending the finalisation of the necessary permissions to advertise the opportunity". I couldn't depart without the lady on the front desk reminding me about the upcoming Richmond Literature Festival and the imminent opening of their Christmas shop. But when in Twickenham, the Orleans House Gallery is now well worth a nose.

Within quarter of a mile, another recent opening is Sandycombe House, the country home of the artist JMW Turner. His little villa was smart, because he designed it himself, but nothing overly grand. Today you can go on guided or self-guided tours for £6, but only if you pre-book, and I hadn't. But I did bump into the chair of the Turner’s House Trust leading a landscape walk to the top of Richmond Hill, sheltering beneath brollies and waterproofs in the trees beside Marble Hill House. That's the danger of pre-booking for you. But my word there's a lot that's new to see and do round here.

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