Rigg's Cabinet of Curiosities



Raphael: The Drawings : Ashmolean, Oxford

… intimate and exhilarating …

Raphael sketch

I don’t know about you but I often prefer sketches to finished paintings. They are more intimate, more approachable and, ultimately, more engaging than a finished work. The fragments, smudges and re-worked lines get me closer to the artist’s creativity than the varnished perfection of an oil or fresco. And I have, I confess, always found Raphael a little too perfect to love.  But I was bowled over by this exhibition. His virtuosity is breathtaking and his experimentation truly exhilarating.

The Ashmolean has brought together a stunning exhibition of 120 sketches. Fifty works come from their own collection, the largest and most important group of Raphael drawings in the world and loans from other international collections including the Louvre, the Uffizi and the Queen’s Private Collection.

There’s also a very good short film running through the different techniques and media used : charcoal, chalks, metal point and ink.

The show is crowded so to avoid shuffling along, try to go at the edge of a day. I would also recommend a tactic which works particularly well at the Ashmolean where visitors want to linger over the detail of every single picture. I walk straight through the exhibition to the last of the three rooms and work backwards. This final room is always the least crowded as gallery fatigue sets in for many people at the end of the second room … when they see the exit sign (and a coffee beckons).

Raphael: The Drawings at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford runs until 3 September 2017. The show will now be open on Monday 14 and Monday 21 August (the museum is not usually open on Mondays) as well as being open until 8pm on Friday 25 August and Saturday 2 September. Usual opening times for the Ashmolean are 10am to 5pm Tuesday to Sunday, and Bank Holidays. For further details about the museum and the exhibition, follow the link here to their own website.

Creating the Countryside: Compton Verney

… fascinating, amusing and thought provoking …

compton verney
Turquoise Bag in a Tree, Hilary Jack, 2016


My favourite gallery space, Compton Verney, has a fascinating exhibition running at the moment which would repay a couple of visits as there is so much to think about. Creating the Countryside: The Rural Idyll Past and Present explores the way in which we create and imagine the countryside, largely as a pastoral idyll very much removed from muddy reality. The Neo-Classical house of Compton Verney itself is set in a “perfect” landscape created by Capability Brown.

Verity Elson‘s thoughtful curation takes us from Gilpin‘s picturesque with a Claude glass through Frank Newbould‘s wartime lithographs of a mythic England to Sony‘s eerie video game of a Shropshire village c. 1984, Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture. Wandering around the rooms, it struck me that the most interesting, incisive modern works were by women, including Hilary Jack‘s Turquoise Bag in a Tree, 2016 (photo at the top of the blog).

I particularly enjoyed Rebecca Chesney‘s commentary on the rural idyll with her two works: Snapshot and Death by Denim. The former is a Farrow & Ball paint chart inspired by her time spent in the Brecon Beacons National Park. She has created some great names for shades such as Ewe 38, Twine Blue and Hedge.  The latter is a fictional collection of ephemera based around the tragic death of a lad wearing Italian denim walking gear.

Death by Denim, 2015, Rebecca Chesney

(If like me you are occasionally surrounded by Gore-tex bores, you will get the reference … ) Further details of the artist’s work can be found on her website here.

The exhibition runs until 18 June 2017 and is definitely worth a visit.  If you haven’t been to Compton Verney before, I urge you to go.   The exhibition space and park are a delight and make a great day out for both art fiends, nature lovers and families.  There’s a cafe, an adventure playground for children, and new boardwalks and pond dipping around the lake.  Click here to be directed to their website.

Vasa Museet, Stockholm

vasa museum

… brilliant museum built around a C17th war ship …

Well, I could have spent the whole day in the Vasa Museet. This Swedish museum houses the only almost fully intact c17th century ship that has ever been salvaged and it’s an extremely well laid out and thoughtful museum with plenty to see for the casual and more historically minded visitor. There are the finds cases describing life on board and a film detailing history of the modern salvage operation; and there are recreations of the colourful (even gaudy) wooden carvings decorating this Royal ship and contextual models and displays explaining the history surrounding the disaster.

The 64-gun warship Vasa sank on her maiden voyage in 1628. It was simply too tall and too unstable to withstand a powerful gust of wind. It capsized after only 1,300 metres. In a letter to King Gustavus II Adolphus, the Council of the Realm wrote …“she heeled right over and water gushed in through the gun ports until she slowly went to the bottom …”

I particularly liked the c17th salvage display showing the technique used to bring up the valuable guns. “The diver was entirely clad in leather and had double leather boots. He stood on a platform of lead hanging under the diving bell,” reported a fascinated Italian priest in 1663.

vasa museum diving bell

The recreations of the extraordinary sculptures decorating this royal ship were also fascinating.

seventeenth century sculpture

So, if you are considering a Nordic trip, pick Stockholm! It has a lovely old city centre with lots of Viking gold in the National Museum, great Swedish design, very friendly people – and the finest c17th century warship in the world.

For further information, here’s the link to the Vasa Museet website.

A Griffin, a Fire Demon and a Monster.

… C17th extravaganza …

ommegriffinThere’s a side to C17th Europe which fascinates me: the Courtly emphasis on masquing and processions.  These theatrical displays employed the finest painters, writers and architects, cost fabulous amounts and, being largely ephemeral, can only be caught via hasty sketches, terse descriptions and the occasional commissioned painting or engraving.

In London’s V&A we are lucky enough to have The Ommeganck in Brussels on 31 May 1615: The Triumph of Archduchess Isabella. It was commissioned by the Archduke Albert and Archduchess Isabella to celebrate an Ommegang. This was an important civic procession honouring Isabella as Queen of the procession and the scene shows the ten pageant cars that formed the most spectacular element of the parade.

These must have been the equivalent of the big budget movie extravaganzas of their time with fantastical beasts, special effects and royalty on display.

There’s huge unicorns and griffins made from wickerwork and painted canvas; special effects like this demon who holds a fire club, a fizzing hollow reed packed with charcoal and gunpowder;


and a scary backwards monster waving a bladder (?) to amuse the crowds.


The V&A has a marvellous interactive programme of the work where you can zoom in, roam around and read details about various elements of this large painting.  The work and the computer display can be found in the Europe 1600-1715 Galleries but can be overlooked as it’s in a low lit corner.

There’s another scene of this festival in the Prado.  It appears they got the boring religious procession whereas we’ve got the lighter side of the affair. Huzzah.

A dragon, a skull and a king from the Ashmolean.

The Ashmolean in Oxford is such a gem of a museum with wide ranging collections and an exciting schedule of temporary exhibitions.  It’s large enough to get lost in yet small enough to be friendly.  Since its renovation in 2009, the updated displays and thoughtful curation in the main galleries make it a pleasure for children as well as adults to browse around.  However I always seem to end up in the quieter, old style galleries of  “things in glass cabinets”.  Away from the crowds, you can find some wonderful pieces and here are three I would like to share …charles-ring

The museum has a very special finger ring collection.   Most of these were originally owned by C.D.E. Fortnum (of Fortnum and Mason) who presented over eight hundred to the Ashmolean and include this beautiful miniature of a rather world weary Charles I.

In the next gallery, there is a display of timepieces amongst which are a couple of small skull watch cases.  Popular the C17th, this one is inscribed with various Memento Mori latin phrases; my favourite, which I hadn’t come across before is : While you live, live to live.  The hinged lower jaw opens to reveal the dial. ash-skull

In the middle of a Renaissance picture gallery, and therefore easily missed, is a cabinet of old gaming boards including this gorgeous Italian piece from the c15th.  No explanation on how to play it though …gameboardash

I often think it would be great to produce a regularly changing “I-spy” booklet for museums to get people wandering about abit more … what do you think?

If you would like to know more about the Ashmolean, here’s their website.

The Coffin Works : Newman Bros.

… a delightful slice of manufacturing history …

newmanbros-025-1-469x1024When Joyce Green, the last owner, shut the door on “the Coffin Works” in 1998, her dearest wish was for the place to become a museum and, after a 15 year campaign to save it, you can now wander around this virtually untouched factory and imagine what it would have been like to work here.

The enthusiastic and informative guide explained in the Stamp Room that the factory didn’t make actually make coffins at all but the furniture, the metal fittings, which decorated the wooden boxes.  He demonstrated how the metal was stamped and cut into shape with bench and drop presses whilst we marvelled at the dust, noise and total lack of any safety guards.

Upstairs in the Shroud Room, the lines of sewing machines were still left waiting for the women who made the “frillings” for the inside of the coffins and samples of the silk shrouds were laid out on display, including a rather natty one in the claret and blue Aston Villa football club.img_1877

With their telegraphic address as “Shroud, Birmingham”, Newman Brothers was a leader in its field in the c19th and c20th and provided coffin furniture for famous people such as Winston Churchill; however the business slowly declined due to the increasing use of plastic furniture and changing tastes in funerals.

To me, the most delightful room of all was Joyce Green’s office.   This woman started out as an office junior in 1947, methodically bought up all the shares and eventually owned the business – a remarkable achievement for the time.  She was obviously a tremendous character and it’s because of her vision, we can stroll around this factory today.img_1881

Newman Brothers is in the Jewellery Quarter, Birmingham and further details of opening times and exhibitions can be found at their website here.

The Pen Museum

… quirky little gem of a museum …

pen-museumA quirky little gem of Birmingham’s industrial history, the Pen museum is a small museum in the Jewellery Quarter run by volunteers.  It is about to re-launch after a Heritage Lottery grant,  however when I visited as many  exhibits as possible seemed to be crammed into one room.  It gave the impression of a rather dusty but fascinating sweet shop.img_1870

Based in a former pen factory , the museum celebrates the pen trade during the 1800s, and the lives of the manufacturers and workers whose expertise placed Birmingham at the centre of this worldwide trade.  A guide showed us how a steel “pen” (the nib) was made: stamped, cut and rolled using traditional machinery.  During my visit I learnt that in the 19th Century, 75% of everything written across the world was with a ‘Birmingham’ pen.  At one time, there were around 100 factories in the Jewellery Quarter area. The development of the steel pen reduced the cost of writing and enabled the spread of literacy throughout the world.

The museum also houses a range of objects associated with the pen trade and the history of writing, including inkwells, escritoires and period retail packaging from all over the world.nibpacket

Well worth an hour of your time.  For further information about the museum and news of their re-launch, visit their website here :


Baddesley Clinton

BC2.. gorgeous moated house set in beautiful gardens …

Baddesley Clinton is one of my top ten National Trust houses. The charm of this small Warwickshire site is matched by the enthusiasm of its volunteers and the strange and wonderful stories it holds.

Largely built in the c16th, Baddesley Clinton is a gorgeous moated house set in beautiful gardens; it boasts several great priest holes, a magnificent Elizabethan fireplace and an attendant willing to tell you all about the murder and the ghostly blood stains on the floor …  Great for children and history buffs alike with a lovely cafe and second hand book shop (yay!)


If you want to know more, the National Trust’s page about the house is here.

Erasmus Darwin House

A charming museum that carries a delightful punch …

To celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Lunar Society, I popped into one of my favourite little museums of the Midlands: Erasmus Darwin House opposite Lichfield Cathedral. Erasmus was the grandfather of Charles anda successful doctor, scientist and poet.  This free museum, set in his private house, has a suitably eclectic and very hands-on approach to this c18th polymath.IMG_1460

There’s the Inventions Room where you can play with his Speaking Machine and Canal Lift; the Study with its Evolution Game and a working microscope; and the Exhibition Room where you can dress up as a Georgian.  Great for children and curious adults alike.

For more information about the museum and the events it is running, click HERE.



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