Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

All, Amsterdam, Galleries, Museums, Rijksmuseum, Rijksmuseum

I better start by confessing that I have a humongous soft spot for Golden Age still-lifes and portraiture, otherwise you’ll wonder why I’m being so enthusiastic about depictions of half-cut blokes and messy dining tables.

So before I go on: the Rijksmuseum is a gallery of objects and art tracing the history of the Netherlands from the Middle Ages to the 20th Century in a gorgeous redbrick palace designed by Pierre Cuypers, who also designed Amsterdam Central Station.

I think the thing that excites me so much about ‘The Golden Age’ is that it’s the furthest point back in history that we get quasi-photographic glimpses into the lives and spaces of ordinary (or non-aristocratic) people. Painters such as Joachim Beuckelaer, Willem Claesz Heda, Floris Claesz van Dijk, Abraham Diepraam and Adriaen van Utrecht (pictured above) had the skill to capture light, shape, texture and colour to a degree that makes subjects appear three-dimensional and simultaneously layer in symbolism and social commentary.

What makes this period of time in the Netherlands even more astonishing is that this level of skill in the artistic community was commonplace – or at least accurately replicated in workshops – and the region’s general prosperity meant ordinary people could afford to buy art like this for their own home. You can see a whole new class of proud, intelligent, curious, commercial citizens emerge on the walls around you: their staring eyes, their revealing expressions, their carefully curated clothing and surroundings, the things that they celebrated and denigrated.

The café in the vast, bright Atrium of the museum looked fine, but the queue was apparently 45 minutes long due to the torrential rain outside when we visited so I can’t make the usual comments on cake. However, I’m sure it’ll be a perfectly good half-time pit stop (if you can get a seat) as the Rijksmuseum is too big to do in one go.

My favourite bits:

  • Jacob Conelisz van Oostsanen’s self-portrait (1533). The earliest known north Netherlandish self-portrait.
  • The Well-stocked Kitchen by Joachim Beuckelaer (1566). A cornucopia of colours and textures that gives you an idea of what was on the menu back then with a moralising scene in the background for good measure (yep – that’s Jesus.)
  • Abraham Diepraam’s The Tavern (1665) looks like the smell of ale, body odour and bad breath and an uncertainly good time.
  • The Merry Fiddler (1660-1680) looks like he’s been found in another corner of The Tavern, and 350 years on his ruddy nose, sallow skin and rough chin make him a familiar figure to anyone who’s ever seen a local pub band stop for a drink halfway through their set.

The scores:

Exhibits: 10/10. An entire national history told through art. I haven’t even mentioned Rembrandt’s The Night Watch!

Environment: 10/10. What you’d expect from the Dutch state museum. Impeccable design and excellently maintained.

Refreshments: N/A. They take coffee seriously there though, so I’m sure it’ll be good.

Cost and Location: 5/10. The one sticking point. It’s a hefty €17.50 for over 18s. However, right in the heart of the Museum District which has other major galleries nearby.

Overall Score: 7/10. The collection is worth every penny if you can spare them, but I will never understand why national collections are put behind a ticket barrier.

The links:

Main website: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en

Explore the exhibits online: https://www.rijksmuseum.nl/en/rijksstudio

Leeds City Museum, Leeds

All, Leeds City Museum, Museums, West Yorkshire

Leeds City Museum provides an interesting hour or two exploring a varied (if slightly disjointed) collection of exhibits, staying true to the multiculturalism of modern day Leeds. The museum is well set up for kids with plenty of activities, low-level exhibits and a recreation area so there are plenty of young families which gives the place a nice (but noisy!) buzz.

The museum follows a roughly chronological order starting on the top floor with a whistle-stop tour through ancient and medieval Leeds and Yorkshire. The bulk of the exhibits are naturally from the industrial revolution onwards, when production and prosperity exploded in Leeds. There’s also a colourful collection of modern exhibits documenting the stories of immigrants and particularly the Asian populations of the city.

The café on the ground floor offered very affordable stodge at under a fiver and an even cheaper kids menu. Decent cup of coffee too.

My favourite bits:

  • The Wolf and Twins mosaic, which depicted the tale of Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome in someone’s villa in Aldborough in the 4th century.
  • An 2,500 year old pipe (looks a recorder for beginners) found in Malham, carved from a sheep’s leg bone with visible teeth marks!
  • A glittering boiler from the 1880s, the same decade Taylor’s of Harrogate were starting out on their journey to take over the British tea business.
  • A gorgeous Syrian wall tile from the mid-1800s, the inscription reads: All that is on the face of the earth will perish, but the Face of your Lord, the Glorious, the Gracious, will forever remain.
  • A delicate palm-sized globe from 1825 – 1835 which was advertised as “a correct globe with the new discoveries” including Australia and the South Pacific Islands.
  • The mummified remains and facial reconstruction of Nesyamun, who lived and died in Thebes around 3,000 years ago. He was a priest in the Temple of Amun who looked after the sacrificial bulls.
  • A beautifully arranged bureau of butterflies, moths, fossils, Victorian stationery and a microscope in the Collectors Cabinet section of the museum.

The scores:

Exhibits: 5/10. A very wide range, a little piecemeal and very few showstoppers.

Environment: 5/10. Décor tired and functional with the odd child’s tantrum in earshot.

Refreshments: 6/10. Cheap, filling, unexciting.

Cost & Location: 9/10. At the top of town in the city’s cultural quarter and free.

Overall Score: 6/10. A great local museum, but in need of a refresh.

The links:

Wellcome Collection’s ‘Smoke and Mirrors: The Psychology of Magic’, London

All, London, Museums, Wellcome Collection

The curators of ‘Smoke and Mirrors’ have pulled together a well-balanced mix of cheerily innocent and deeply sinister objects to explore the phenomenon of magic.

This is a short trip through the history of bent truths and humanity’s (successful?) attempts to connect, explore and communicate with the supernatural whilst trying to explain why we are so enthralled by the impossible and the dead.

The relatively no-nonsense open plan cafe in the foyer gives you the chance to reflect on the blurry edges of reality over a pot of tea.

My favourite bits:

  • A homemade and very, very creepy 20th century Ouija board covered in scratches. Even creepier: they used to sell these in children’s toy shops(!) in the 1800s…
  • A selection of magic wands from the 1920-50s. Apparently these had a variety of functions but they all look the same to me. I guess that’s the point.
  • The legendary Tommy Cooper’s iconic fez and a hilarious clip of his ‘disappearing egg’ trick.
  • The classic watch-me-saw-a-glamorous-assistant-in-half-but-not-really box, complete with a very nasty looking two-man saw.
  • A smartly presented monochrome frame-by-frame gallery of a classic cigarette trick. I still couldn’t work out how he did it!

The scores:

Exhibits: 6/10. Some nice highlights but ‘magic’ items felt a bit flat when on display.

Environment: 6/10. The Wellcome’s temporary space is, understandably, a blank canvas.

Refreshments: 6/10. Simple canteen with plenty of seats.

Cost & Location: 10/10. Free and very close to Euston and Euston Square stations.

Overall Score: 7/10.

The links:

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

All, Ashmolean Museum, Museums, Oxfordshire

The world’s first public museum maintains a wonderful scope and range of exhibits within its warrens of gorgeous Regency architecture on Oxford’s Beaumont Street. The Ashmolean’s pedigree makes it a must-visit for any museum fan and its roots as a private collection are apparent in its diversity and depth, making for a slightly discombobulating experience.

You can recuperate in the caverns of the redbrick basement cafe which serves outrageously small scones and a lovely selection of local juices and beers, or you can make the ascent to the open air top floor restaurant which has a pricey menu and is disappointingly enclosed which limits views out across the city.

My favourite bits:

  • The iron band used to detain Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, one of Henry VIII’s closest advisors and a Reformation figurehead, when he was imprisoned in Oxford (pictured).
  • A 13th century ‘puzzle jug’ (pictured), a pub game where you had to get your ale by carefully twisting and pouring without it coming out of the hidden orifices.
  • Wucius Wong’s Autumn Feelings, an elegant and abstract piece of calligraphic art.
  • A large 17th century tapestry of unknown European origin, depicting A Musical Party in extraordinary detail (pictured).
  • John Rose’s gorgeously carpentered viol, made in the 17th century, with a delicate woman’s head atop the pegbox (pictured).
  • A 15th century Italian chessboard carved from bone, wood and horn (pictured). The first of MANY chessboards to feature on this blog, I assure you!
  • The porcelain gallery, a kaleidoscopic experience created with the use of glass casing throughout to create a dizzying maze of colourful plates, bowls, jugs and trinkets (pictured).
  • A trio of windows into real life in the Netherlands in the 17th century, David Tenier the Younger’s A Distillery with an Elderly Man Buying Gin and The Foot Doctor and Cornelis Bega’s The Blind Fiddler with the nigh-on photographic detail and use of light that I adore (pictured).

The scores:

Exhibits: 9/10. A true treasure trove which justifies its pedigree.

Environment: 7/10. Beautiful architecture but rooftop’s a bit of a shame.

Refreshments: 7/10. Pricey but nice to have genuinely local produce available.

Cost & Location: 10/10. Free entry and slap-bang in the city centre.

Overall Score: 8/10.

The links: