About this blog

The expat has returned from voluntary exile and finds herself with a new domain to discover: London.


Saturday, 30 October 2010

Dial Arch: Regeneration and Rioja in Woolwich

When looking for an inviting pub in South East London, Woolwich doesn't exactly spring to mind. The slightly quaint, villagey atmosphere of Greenwich perhaps, but further east? Forget it, unless you like your boozers rough and ready. All that could be about to change, however, as Woolwich's regeneration process has spawned its first success: the Dial Arch pub.

Situated in the Royal Arsenal Riverside development, which also contains some swanky-looking apartments, the vast Dial Arch is set in the former gatehouse of the old arsenal, a building which dates back to 1720. As it's much bigger than your average pub, there's a risk that weeknights could see the sleek interior sparsely populated, but the wealth of offers on, err, offer seem to have helped Young's Brewery avoid that hurdle. With pizza and Peroni for £8.50 on Monday, Real Ale on Tuesday and wine night on Wednesday, locals are certainly never short of a reason to drop in. Those behind the Dial Arch are clearly trying to make a community hub of their enterprise, evident in the community noticeboard, the Sunday pub quiz and the many reasons to linger, such as free WiFi and a supply of board games.

Although the Dial Arch is a damn sight smarter than many pubs in the area (and, seeing as it only opened in summer 2010, many pubs), it manages to fall just the right side of 'gastro': it's definitely still a pub, with comfy sofas and leather-seated booths, and a separate area for more formal dining. On the menu are pub favourites such as fish and chips and sausages and mash, as well as more Mediterranean dishes such as risotto and of course, pizza. With slightly grating military-influenced names such as Private and Brigadier, Dial Arch is one of the new generation of London pubs that do pizza - and it's pretty good, too, washed down with a glass of reasonably-priced Rioja and followed by a game of Scrabble. Dial Arch, you almost make me wish I lived in Woolwich. Almost.
  • Dial Arch is at Royal Arsenal Riverside, Woolwich SE18 6GH. Nearest DLR/train station: Woolwich Arsenal.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

A V & A visit with a difference

As I may have mentioned, I don't exactly know what I'm doing when it comes to art. I'm never sure how long you're supposed to spend staring at each gallery exhibit, and all too often find my interest wandering because of a lack of knowledge about the painter or the period. Audioguides help, but walking around with a piece of plastic clamped to your ear isn't the most elegant way to proceed - and nor can you ask it questions (well, not unless you want to create the impression of having a screw or two loose). For the clueless like me to get the most out of a gallery, no plastic required, a knowledgeable guide is the way to go.

London's Victoria & Albert (V & A) Museum was originally set up as a museum dedicated to manufacture, as Context Travel's Kevin explained to me and my fellow tour attendee. Standing on the steps of the grand Victorian building in South Kensington, art historian Kevin told us that the V & A was established to house the treasures obtained for the Great Exhibition in 1851. It has since moved beyond manufacture to become London's foremost art and design museum, with a vast permanent collection ranging from architecture to furniture, fashion and jewellery and spanning the globe. As only so much of the V & A can be covered in a two-hour visit, our guide had chosen the theme of 'Reinventing the past' in order to present us with a coherent selection of highlights. Making sure to gauge our familiarity with the museum and our art knowledge before beginning (fortunately the other participant was also at 'zero' level), Kevin adapted the tour to our interests.

Our first port of call was the temporary exhibition 'Raphael: Cartoons and Tapestries for the Sistine Chapel' (free, until 17 October), which builds on the museum's own collection of Raphael's cartoons by uniting 4 of them with their corresponding tapestries for the first time. I must confess that when Kevin mentioned cartoons, I was expecting some pencil scrawls of comic book figures, but these cartoons are actually full-scale images used to create another artwork: in this case, grand tapestries depicting the Acts of St Peter and St Paul, the founders of the early Church. The cartoons were often drawn by assistants rather than the masters themselves, but it's thought that the 'Draught of Fishes' was largely the work of Raphael's own hand. The cartoons are reversals of the final product: if Jesus is gazing benevolently at his flock on the right hand side in the cartoon, he'll be gazing benevolently from the left in the finished tapestry. I also learned that we 'read' pictures the same way as we do text: from left to right. Other changes are introduced by the weavers too, most notably to the colour schemes. This particular set of wallcoverings were commissioned in 1515 by Pope Leo X to cover the lower walls of the Sistine Chapel, and feature representations of the ancient world, a time that particularly fascinated Raphael. Although they perhaps weren't the kind of works I would normally have lingered over, Kevin's analysis allowed me to engage far more than I otherwise would have, giving them a sense of purpose and history.

Stepping back in time, the Medieval and Renaissance Europe gallery, which opened earlier in 2010, was significantly quieter than the bustling Raphael room. Here, we were able to get up close to some religious artefacts, including the 'Thomas Becket casket', an elaborate enamel-work reliquary embellished with pictures from the life of the saint. The religious wars destroyed many such examples of Limoges enamel, but this incredibly detailed number remains entirely intact. Also of interest was a sample from the V & A's extensive collection of stained glass, which came from Sainte-Chapelle in Paris: the detailed window section shows how King Louis IX attempted to reinvent world history by putting himself at its centre, as well as another example of a tapestry. Showing how artists continually draw on the past, this French wallcovering featured a depiction of the Trojan War (ever a popular trope in art and literature) - with all the participants looking very much like fifteenth century French folk.

Our varied intinerary swept on to sculpture, with Kevin explaining how Italian Renaissance sculptors reinvented the past for the modern ideal by reworking ancient sculpture styles. These sculptures were surprisingly lifelike, with nothing idealised: bulging eyes, warts and all - if a patron had it, it was represented in stone. Antonio Rossellino's bust of Dr. Giovanni Chellini was one big-nosed example: I've always wondered what these truthful portrayals did for a sculptor's salary, but given that Dr. Chellini was a repeat customer, Rossellino's lack of flattery clearly wasn't an issue for the nosy doc. From sculpture we moved into the era of mass production, when manufacturing processes changed, and both domestic items such as dinner services and even religious items such as alterpieces were produced in bulk. The plates and cups fared significantly better than the altarpieces however: some of the German examples featured big-headed figurines on the verge of caricature, but as ever, the Italian examples were more refined. The museum even houses a chapel that was transported stone-by-stone from the Florence Church of Santa Chiara and reassembled, adding an element of escapism to the visit.

Our final stop was the Islamic Middle East gallery, which centres around the Ardabil carpet. Bigger than your average living room, this elaborate depiction of the garden of paradise holds the title for the oldest dated carpet in the world, not to mention one of the largest. Kevin showed us around the manageably-sized collection, explaining that Islamic art often draws on Roman styles and technique. Although calligraphy is a key element in Islamic art works, Iranian paintings and decorative objects frequently feature people and animals, marking it out from the rest of the Muslim world. Apparently, this can partly be explained by Chinese influence, as some of the collection's vases and bowls demonstrate.

In two hours, we may have only delved into a small number of the museum's galleries, but the 'edited highlights' approach allows for far more detailed exploration than an attempt to tackle the entire collection. Having an expert plan a themed route through the museum and fill us in on the history and significance of the objects under discussion meant that I got much more out of the visit than my usual map-guided wandering. Although not the most cost-effective way to visit, a Context walk is certainly the most time-effective way to explore key sections of the museum in depth, with the bonus of being able to tailor the tour to specific interests or art knowledge levels.

  • Context Travel's 'Victoria and Albert Museum: Art and Design on a Grand Scale' walk lasts 2 hours and costs £45. For details and dates, click here.