Foundling Museum: Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens exhibition

Not that you should need an excuse to visit, but now is a great time to drop by Bloomsbury’s Foundling Museum while it holds its fabulous exhibition on the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. I’ve written about the gardens before – the somewhat decadent playground that provided a vast range of entertainment for Londoners (including royalty, aristocracy and pickpockets) for almost 200 years from its opening in 1661. If you share my fascination with the gardens, or would like to learn more, I highly recommend a visit – the free exhibition guide is worth the admission price alone.

The Foundling Museum houses the collection of the former Foundling Hospital – its building was the hospital’s former London headquarters – a charity established in 1739 by Thomas Coram to assist parents (mostly mothers at this time) who could not take care of their own children. In the early eighteenth century in London this was sadly quite a few, with around 1,000 babies per year being abandoned. Not surprisingly, many of the exhibits covering this era are quite poignant ones, such as the huge list of foundlings’ names listed on one wall and the small tokens that mothers would leave with their babies in the hope of identifying them later should circumstances change.

The Museum is also home to the award-winning Gerald Coke Handel Collection and an ornate Court Room that has been described as one of the finest examples of an eighteenth century Rococo interior. It also has a claim to being London’s first public art gallery, as a donation by Hogarth of one of his own paintings in 1740 encouraged others to follow suit, creating a collection that was put on public display in the ‘Picture Room’ in 1857.

The Triumph of Pleasure: Vauxhall Gardens 1729-1786 is curated by David Coke (son of Gerald) who co-authored the recent impressive tome on the gardens’ history published by Yale University Press. His expertise on the subject matter shines through in the exhibition’s texts, which contain some fascinating snippets as well as the historical round up that you would expect from such an exhibition. For example, did you know that the mean slices of food served up at the gardens led to the term ‘Vauxhally’ becoming a colloquialism for ‘extreme thinness’? The exhibition is divided into sections focusing on themes such as Tastes and Smells, Sights, Sounds and Feelings –  a truly sensory list of topics that seem fitting for gardens that attracted tens of thousands of pleasure seekers per night at their height, and ones that allow for an examination of its diverse delights.

Canaletto’s ‘The Grand Walk, Vauxhall Gardens, London’ c.1751 is on display. (Credit: private collection).

The scale model of the gardens, produced by Lucy Askew in 1984 for the V&A Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens exhibition of that year, is a real highlight. Seeing the gardens in this form allows the visitor to appreciate the true scale of their several acres and the lush foliage of their trees and the darks walks. As one would expect, the exhibition includes a large number of paintings and illustrations of the pleasure gardens, but it is a particular treat to see one by Francis Hayman that once graced the interior of one of the legendary supper boxes. Amazingly as many as 15 of these survived – nothing short of a miracle given that they were left outside for four months of the year. It’s also a surprise to see two photographs of the gardens (towards the end of their run) at the culmination of the exhibition – a very modern medium and not one you normally expect to see gardens of this era represented in. It almost felt like having seen a ghost.

And in case you were wondering what the connection was between a foundling hospital and a decadent pleasure garden, there is a small section on the first floor devoted to just this topic. In brief, Handel and Hogarth were governors and benefactors of the hospital as well as leading lights behind the music and art that entertained revellers at Vauxhall. There is even an eighteenth century Chinese porcelain punchbowl on display that features the gardens on one side and the hospital on the other. And in one final, telling, connection the punchbowl is displayed next to a season pass to the gardens, which one mother left behind as the token for her child.

The exhibition runs until 9th September (closed Mondays), entry is £7.50 or £5 concession. For more information visit the Foundling Museum’s website.


Book review: Thames Path in London

It seems fitting that the Londonphile’s first book review features two of my very favourite things: London (naturally) and the Thames. As many Londonphiles out there would undoubtedly be aware, there is already a guidebook that leads us down the Thames Path. But Phoebe Clapham’s new publication – Thames Path in London – is unique in that it focuses on the areas within London, starting at Hampton Court and taking us all the way downriver to Crayford Ness, on the Thames Path Extension. That’s 50 miles (or 80kms if you prefer) of good guidance!

Just like David Sharp’s Thames Path guide – published in the same series by Aurum Press – Clapham’s tome contains top notch Ordnance Survey maps. A yellow line is superimposed onto these maps to clearly demarcate the Thames Path (which as fellow Thames-lovers would know, can be surprisingly meandering in places). It is further designed for ease of use by having each of the eight sections that the path is divided into begin and end near a station. Practical tips on essentials such as eating and drinking are also provided at the start.

One of the best aspects of Thames Path in London is the semi-regular break-out sections featuring information on various historical sites, events and themes found along (or in) the Thames. These vary from the well-known (Tower Bridge and London Bridge) to more esoteric themes such as Arcadian Thames and the pleasure gardens of a bygone age. Not only are they interesting and well-researched but they serve to break up the constant direction-giving necessitated by such a guide. Clapham’s book is also interspersed with historical images – including illustrations, photographs and paintings – ensuring a publication that goes above and beyond the call of the average functional guide, and one which helps to bring to life the fascinating (and often lost) history found along the Thames.

Although the guide has no index – as is also the case with Sharp’s guide – the main map at the front shows how the full route is divided up into the eight sections, and the main areas included in each of these. It’s tricky writing a guide to a path that is found on both sides of the river for much of its duration. The guide gets around this by dividing the text up into the North Bank and South Bank according to colour (purple and green respectively, just so you know). Two substantial circular walks diverting off the path (in Richmond and Limehouse), written exclusively for this publication, are also included.

You will certainly be in safe hands following Clapham’s directions along what is the section of the Thames Path most densely packed with sights, history and, well, just about everything really. And as the publishers note, it will also come in handy for anyone attempting to follow the Jubilee flotilla on foot in June!

Thames Path in London, by Phoebe Clapham, will be published by Aurum Press this Thursday 24 May. RRP is £12.99, but thanks to Aurum I have one copy to give away to a lucky Londonphile follower out there.

WIN A COPY: Twitter followers can tweet me via @londonphile to enter; Facebook followers can add their name to the list I will create on New followers are welcome to join in too! Competition closes 5pm Tuesday 29th May. A winner will be selected randomly and contacted directly.

Balfron Tower

You could easily be excused for mistaking – as many people do – Erno Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower for its (slightly) taller, and certainly more famous, younger sibling the Trellick Tower. Balfron Tower essentially became Goldfinger’s dry run for West London’s Trellick, and the two share a number of distinctive features. National Trust’s 2 Willow Road, Goldfinger’s Hampstead home, organised a tour to Balfron last week, so the Londonphile headed off to visit another of London’s brutalist gems.

Balfron was Goldfinger’s first foray into large scale social housing. He’d long had a hankering to design taller buildings, and at 27-storeys Balfron must have really hit the spot. So high was it in fact that for years it was exceedingly popular with pirate radio stations and other illicit communicators, who would place radio masts on its rooftop. Designed in 1963 and built between 1965 and 1967, it forms part of the Brownfield Estate in East London’s Poplar. This is something of a Goldfinger fan’s vision of heaven, composed as it is of not one but two of the architect’s buildings (Balfron and Carradale House) and a third (Glenkerry House) designed slightly later by his studio. All three were named after Scottish villages, in what was apparently a homage to the area’s Scottish connections. The long, low form of Carradale House is currently under wraps (quite literally) as it is being refurbished.

Glenkerry House

Balfron is about to undergo a similar refurbishment and is currently – and somewhat controversially – slowly being “decanted” of its residents by its management group, Poplar HARCA. In the meantime, a number of artists had been invited to live and work in Balfron. One of these artists, Simon Terrill, also created an installation featuring Balfron Tower – now on show at 2 Willow Road – and organised our visit to flat 122 on the 21st floor, whose former residents had left behind more than a little of the detritus of their lives (in addition to leaving on the heating).

Balfron is entered via a concrete bridge – which has been compared to a drawbridge – to the distinctive separate service tower. This detached tower was to become a favourite design element of Goldfinger’s and one which he used again at Carradale (but placed in the middle of the building) and at Trellick (also to one side, but at a 90 degree angle). This service tower contains “all the noisy stuff”, including stairs, rubbish chutes and the two lifts that service the entire structure. One family were moving out when we visited – item by item in one of these narrow lifts; happily, Goldfinger later included an extra lift when designing Trellick. The boiler room can be seen jutting out at the very top of Balfron’s service tower (with its metal boilers reaching for the sky). Balfron has often been compared to a fortress and  – like its brutalist counterpart the Barbican Estate – contains a number of martial and castle references.

The service tower is attached to the main section of the building by seven walkways. This means that lifts do not service each floor, and entry to the flats is via every third floor. So for example, you would travel to the 12th floor to access floors 11, 12 and 13. This feature is also repeated at Carradale and Trellick. The lift foyers contain narrow rectangular windows – which have been likened to arrow slits – that create the interesting pattern on the outside of the tower and afford tantalising glimpses of Balfron’s spectacular views. The flats themselves also have three styles of entry; you might encounter a staircase going up or down immediately upon entering, or you might just enter directly on that level. Those with a staircase down to the flats, like the one we visited, once had a door in one of the bedrooms that led directly to the fire escape (these are now kept locked).

Goldfinger and his wife Ursula rather famously left the leafy confines of Hampstead and moved into Balfron for two months in 1968, primarily for Goldfinger to get feedback on his design from other residents and to give it a test run for himself. They even paid rent! They held parties in their flat – number 130 on the 25th floor – during which Goldfinger would ply his neighbours in the sky with champagne while eliciting their views on Balfron. This feedback was then applied to his design for the Trellick Tower.

Just one of the superb views – possibly to be encroached upon by the new towers in front.

The rooms within the Balfron flats (in number 122 a kitchen, lounge, two bedrooms and bathroom) are quite small and narrow. Not many of the original features survive in number 122 – with the exception of the all-metal light switches and the built-in window boxes – making the interior nothing much to write home about. But the beauty of Balfron is in its exterior, which Simon Terrill likened to a sculpture – although beauty is obviously very much the wrong term for this reinforced concrete jungle. Goldfinger’s colleague James Dunnett spoke of “delicate sense of terror” when referring to Balfron, which seems a far better phrase to apply to it.

P.S. Dear Poplar HARCA,
I have turned down some of the heaters, but I think the one in the kitchen is still on.

Original metal light switch

Should you wish to visit Balfron’s exterior the closest station is Langdon Park on the DLR line. Balfron Tower is often open as part of the Open House Weekend.

2 Willow Road
2 Willow Road are also holding a series of lates on the last Thursday of each month until October (except August). The 25th October late will feature Simon Terrill talking about his Balfron Project. 6.30-9pm, £9.

Simon Terrill

Door entry phone, thought not to be original.

The Leaning Tower of Rotherhithe

It stands in supreme isolation, alone along this little stretch of the river, like a mouth with but a single tooth. How many travellers along the Thames must have wondered about this funny, narrow little building in Rotherhithe? In fact, the Leaning Tower of Rotherhithe – as it is apparently known locally – was one of several buildings in the area owned by Braithwaite & Dean, a barge company. They were a lighterage firm – lighters being flat-bottomed barges – and their lightermen moved goods between ships and quays (not to be confused with watermen, who carried passengers). This building was their office – and already tilting back in those days – where lightermen would pull up in their boats to collect their wages.

Once this whole stretch of the riverside was covered with buildings, mostly related to shipping, with a few public houses thrown in for good measure. You can see a Museum of London photograph of the area (commissioned by the Port of London Authority as part of their ten-mile panoramic documentation of the river) from 1937 here. The buildings to the west of our leaning tower were purchased in 1939 by Bermondsey Council, who planned to demolish them to build a garden. The Blitz then finished off any work that they had begun to this end.

To the east of the building stood what has been described as ‘a once absurdly picturesque row of largely wooden tenements…seedy in the extreme but vibrantly populated in the 1950s by a bohemian set of artists and writers’. Lord Snowdon lived along this row in a former coal store and is said to have met with Princess Margaret here, as well as hosting celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich and Noel Coward (who entertained him on the piano in his studio flat). In around 1960 he lent his room to John Betjeman (as you do) when his house burnt down.

Betjeman described his time here as ‘the most restful few months I had ever spent in London’, during which he enjoyed the ‘tremendous view’, including that of ‘the wharves and Georgian brick buildings of Wapping’ across the way. He moved the bed to the river-side of the room, going ‘to sleep to the solacing sounds of water’. At low tide he would listen to the sound of the waves rippling over the pebbles below, and described how at high tide ‘after a tug had passed the water made a plopping sound right against my bedroom wall as thought I were in a ship’s hold’. Until the Thames Barrier was built this whole area was of course subject to the risk of flooding; Braithwaite & Dean’s offices were flooded in 1953.

The remains of Edward III’s manor house nearby.

Despite a campaign by both Betjeman and Snowdon, the rather romantic-sounding row of buildings to the east was also pulled down by the local council after being condemned as a health hazard during the 1960s. It’s not known exactly why this particular structure was allowed to remain. It is not of any particular architectural value, though perhaps it was its brickwork that saved it, as many of the other buildings were wooden so arguably less sound structures. The King’s Stairs Gardens were then created here, and contain the remains of what is thought to be King Edward III’s manor house, circa 1353, uncovered by a Museum of London dig in the 1980s. Braithwaite & Dean stayed on in the leaning tower until the early 1990s, and it is now a (very) private residence.

The house is located at the very end of Fulford Street (you can’t miss it!), roughly equidistant between Bermondsey tube station and Rotherhithe overground station. The photograph taken from across the river was shot (with a zoom lens) from Wapping’s Waterside Gardens.

Prince Albert’s Model Cottages

Ever wondered why there is a house in Kennington Park bearing the inscription ‘Model Houses for Families Erected by HRH Prince Albert’? This 2-storey structure was actually one of what has become known as Prince Albert’s Model Cottages or the Prince Consort Model Lodge. Built by the Society for Improving the Conditions of the Labouring Classes (SICLC) – whose name pretty much speaks for itself and of whom Prince Albert was president – for display at the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park.

The cottage was placed outside of the exhibition’s Crystal Palace so that all could enter for free – and over 250,000 people did so. After the exhibition it was dismantled and re-assembled on the edge of Kennington Park in 1853. At this point, the park was yet to open to the public (after Kennington Common had been fenced off in 1852 following the massive gathering of Chartists seeking electoral reforms there in 1848), and the cottage was the only publicly accessible part. This all changed the following year, when Kennington Park became South London’s first public park in 1854. The gardens around the house were laid out in 1861.

The back of the house - with the added porch.

The back of the house – with the added porch.

The model cottages were designed by Henry Roberts to house four families, with two flats on each level. He envisioned that the cottages would provide suitable accommodation for people from “the class of mechanical and manufacturing operatives who usually reside in towns or in their immediate vicinity”. Each family was designated a living room, kitchen/scullery, three bedrooms and a toilet – but no bathroom, as was still generally the case in houses built in the U.K. at this time.

Source: ‘Plans and Suggestions for Dwellings Adapted to the Working Classes, Including the Model Houses for Families’ (London: the Society for Improving the Condition of the Labouring Classes).

The open staircase provided access to the flats on the upper level – this has since been enclosed, and the doors on the left-hand side side bricked in. A porch had also been added to the back of the cottage when it was moved to Kennington. Along the front of the house, mosaic tiles on the cornices spell out Victoria and Albert’s initials intertwined (and the date 1851), whilst the brickwork on either side of the cottage also features a similar pattern. The house has been the headquarters of Trees for Cities since 2003.

Prince Albert’s Model Cottage is located along the Kennington Park Road side of Kennington Park, between Oval and Kennington tube stations.