More from on the road

As I mentioned earlier, my wife and I took a trip to York and Durham. I’ve already written about going to the Yorkshire Museum to see their Vikings exhibit. While we were in Durham, we also dropped in to the museum in the Palace Green library.

We didn’t check out the main exhibit, but we did look at the archaeology gallery. It’s an archaeology gallery, for the most part. You know the drill: prehistory, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, etc., etc. But the really interesting thing about this one is the organising principle that runs through the display. It’s all about decay. There are lots of little sections that show how different materials decay and what they decay into. There’s even a cute decay mascot.


It’s Mouldy the Mould Spore, the sensational new character of 2017!

I thought it was really interesting to see archaeology presented as all about the process of decay, which, in a sense, I suppose it is.

Also we bought a robot, which is a thing we do.

More from on the road

Trip report: Anglesey Abbey

Anglesey Abbey, former country house of Lord Fairhaven, is one of those places near Cambridge that I’ve never been to because it’s not easy to get to on public transport. But with my wife’s family visiting, we thought it’d be nice to have a look at the house, take a stroll around the grounds, etc.

I don’t know why, but I have never been much of a stately-homes guy, despite the fact that places like Anglesey Abbey have lots of the stuff that I like about historic material culture.


Medieval things being reused as later things!


Desk envy!




Library envy!


Henry IV!


And the ever-popular thief-proof door.

Well-informed staff were on hand to answer questions and the house wasn’t too skewed in favour of imagining the luxurious life of Lord Fairhaven. The recommended tour also takes you through the kitchens and so on (where people were making cake according to period recipes) and the little imagine yourself notes on the room guides exhort you to imagine yourself not only as the people who lived in the house but as their staff, although there wasn’t a note that said Imagine yourself as … the labouring poor, suffering through the bleak depths of the Great Depression while Lord Fairhaven and his idle brood lived in swinish luxury or anything.

I think my favourite thing was this:


Ah, the last days of prewar elegance, when Britain’s elite would gather in the library, chatting about the hunt, sippin’ on gin and juice, laid back, with their minds on their money and their money on their minds.

Anyway, there are also gardens, and I understand that people like them, but I have never yet been too excited about plants in a place. There is also a second-hand bookshop, which has always been more my thing, and where I got some, er, second-hand books.

Trip report: Anglesey Abbey

Last holiday vignette, maybe

So we went to Villa Carlotta, a villa on the shore of Lake Como that was once a famous stop on the Grand Tour because of its collection of sculptures, engravings, cameos and so on. It also has botanical gardens if you like that kind of thing, which to be honest I don’t very much. Not that they’re not beautiful, but they just don’t fascinate me for more than the ten minutes or so we spent strolling around the grounds. The official tour can take up to 90, it seems.

But what of the house itself? Well, it’s definitely full of stuff. It’s got:

A spectacular facade! (And equally-spectacular views)
Painted ceilings!
Old-timey furniture!

It was fascinating, not because it made me think what life was like for the people who lived there — indeed, there was very little about their actual lives, something I don’t think you’d see in a similar British or American historical building — but because it made me think about the process of the grand tour. Indeed, visiting the place seems to me to have a lot of the Grand Tour still about it, a feeling that I can’t quite put my finger on. Call it …

… call it the aesthetic experience of being educated. The thing that makes you walk out of a stately home, museum or historical site with a little feeling of satisfaction, that sense of “well, that was educational!” This has to combine with some kind of aesthetic appreciation, or it doesn’t work — you look at some paintings, you look at some furniture, you learn a fact or two about Napoleon, and you gaze out across the sparkling water at the villas on the far shore. It’s lovely, and it produces a tremendous sense of satisfaction that a more explicitly educational experience wouldn’t.

I’m not criticising that, by the way; obviously I enjoy adding trivia to my storehouse and obviously I enjoy feeling like I’m learning something. But it’s interesting to see a place that focused so solely on that. Of course, in the Grand Tour, the tourist himself or his tutor would be expected to provide the context that made it all make sense.

Again, I’m not knocking education-as-entertainment. That’s basically my career goal, after all. It was just interesting.

Last holiday vignette, maybe

More notes in passing

Holiday continues! Thoughts continue to be in the form of brief notes!

  • The hits keep coming, assuming that by hits you mean Romanesque churches — as I do. Today, while wandering around Como itself, we stumbled across a neat little 11th-century church, although sadly it was closed and we couldn’t go in. And this church was not on the historic city maps, even though it was well within the area they covered. It was just so minor compared to the city’s other historic churches, I guess, that it was not included. Crazy.
  • Speaking of the less-mapped parts of medieval Como, we also came across a series of buildings that showed a rebuilding history like you wouldn’t believe. I did a certain amount of architectural history in my MA, and I can tell you want some of the scars on this architectural Frankenstein mean, but to make sense of its history? You’d need an expert. And again, no signs, no nothing, because compared to a lot of the other stuff there this is nothing.2016-06-29 15.34.202016-06-29 15.34.48
  • The Roman baths close at 2 PM on a weekday, which seems crazy to me but what do I know?
More notes in passing

Some brief thoughts while away from home

So, as I mentioned last time, I am in Italy, and I will probably not do a complete blog post until I return. However, here are a few quick notes about things I’ve been seeing:

  • They have some Romanesque churches up in this piece, or perhaps I should say Romanesque-Lombard. I always like to check out an 11th or 12th century church when I see one, and in Britain that’s pretty rare; Cambridge has only a few, and I feel like I know them pretty well. But here they’re everywhere; I think I’ve seen half a dozen so far.
Check out that blind arcading. 
  • There was quite a lot of partisan action in the area during WWII — it’s right around here that Mussolini was killed — and there are little memorial plaques to partisans everywhere. There’s a walking trail of notable partisan events, although I haven’t followed it, merely happened on some of its signs. One of the most notable is Teresio Olivelli, a partisan fighter who died in a concentration camp and who, if my Italian is right, they’re trying to get made into a saint. As I understand it, he’s currently “venerable,” which means that the church recognises that he was a person of exceptional (“heroic”) virtue and permits people to pray to him for intercession and see what happens. The statue of him I saw was under a plaque on the side of San Lorenzo church, commemorating its completion in 1934 and therefore giving a nod to Mussolini. Which is a bit awkward, but I like it. History is awkward sometimes.


  • I could say something about historical expectations in church architecture and how even the more recent ones around here are sort of generally old-timey, although whether that’s for reasons of ideological symbolism or just aesthetic consistency I couldn’t say. Or both; indeed, aesthetic consistency can be an indicator of ideology.

Anyway, that’s just a few things I’ve noticed and a little thinking out loud. More later.

Some brief thoughts while away from home

Mini trip report: San Francisco airport (really!)

There’s a museum in San Francisco International Airport, with exhibits all around the different terminals. A library too, but I gather it’s mostly history-of-aviation stuff and I didn’t go to that. The part of it that I visited was right between check-in and the security line for international departures. It’s not huge; about a dozen or so small cases. But it’s legit!

The exhibit on when we went was Egyptian Revival: an Everlasting Allurewhich is about, you guessed it, Egyptian Revival art. I’ve always been fascinated by the way popular culture interprets the past, as you’ll know if this isn’t the first post by me you’ve read (and if it is, welcome!), so this was really interesting. The exhibit covers a couple of different eras of fashionable Egyptian stuff, including the late 19th century and the post-King-Tut 20s, with some things being a little later. Is there a word for that kind of faux-Egyptian art, as though one were to say Chinoiserie? I have no idea.

Anyway, highlights included:

Scarab humidor -- eternal life for your cigars!
Scarab humidor — eternal life for your cigars!

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I never see Egyptian Revival stuff at vintage fairs or whatever, but maybe it’s because I’m not looking hard enough. Possibly someone’s missing a trick. Get on it, Etsy.

I think the attribution on this exhibit card is backward, but the cover looks amazing.
I think the attribution on this exhibit card is backward, but the cover looks amazing.
Not the Steve Martin one.
Not the Steve Martin one.
Because why not.
Because why not.
Hollywood history *and* popular occultism? Be still my heart.
Hollywood history *and* popular occultism? Be still my heart.
Your one-stop shop for making your house look like a tomb!
Your one-stop shop for making your house look like a tomb!
Cigarette cases, inkwells, and ... I forget.
Cigarette cases, inkwells, and … I forget.
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And of course bling.

2015-03-20 00.51.52So yeah! That was an exhibit that I would actually have gone to see at a museum, only free (which is not as universal in the US as it is here) and conveniently located between dropping off our bags and taking off our shoes. A fitting end to the journey.

Mini trip report: San Francisco airport (really!)

Trip report: Rengstorff house

Another historic house visit! This one is the Rengstorff House, the oldest house in Mountain View, California. Unlike the Ainsley House, this one was in use long after Henry Rengstorff and his family lived there. It was used as a rental property, damaged in a fire and abandoned for a while. So this is an exercise in restoration rather than preservation. The differences are pretty obvious, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

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The building’s been restored to showcase both the history of the Rengstorff family and Mountain View in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. The decor is nice: the wallpaper in particular is great.

There's a different local-nature-themed frieze pattern in each room.
There’s a different local-nature-themed frieze pattern in each room.

There are a few pieces of furniture from the original place, but mostly it’s all various different artefacts from the period, with displays about the specific history of Mountain View and the family (including Dave Brubeck, who turns out to be the original Rengstorff’s great-great-nephew). So the house is full of furniture and art and items that are from the era when Henry Rengstorff was living there, although not necessarily the actual items that were there. That’s the case for many if not most historic houses, I’d imagine. It does raise the old issue of the talismanic status of historic buildings — given that the Rengstorff House has been so completely renovated (and had things like public restrooms and a modern kitchen added), to what extent can we really say it’s the same house?

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“It is good to be zealously affected always in a good thing.” It doesn’t sound good, I have to say.

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This was a brief post-lunch trip — free guided tours are available on Tuesdays and Wednesdays — but definitely an interesting one. I’ve always had this sort of prejudice that California history isn’t interesting, since it is definitionally post-medieval history and therefore sucks. But actually I’ve been finding these looks at the early modern society of familiar places really interesting. I’ve been driving along Rengstorff Avenue forever and never knew who Rengstorff himself was. It may be that if you’re not me, the idea of people transporting huge loads of grain around the narrow waterways that fringed the San Francisco Bay in “scow schooners” isn’t fascinating, but that sort of thing interests me, so hey.

It’s almost time to leave California, but I’ve got a load of books and other materials acquired here that should give me a few additional blog posts for the coming week or two. After that, things may get a little more sporadic, but hopefully I won’t go back to my infrequent posting schedule of earlier months.

Trip report: Rengstorff house

Trip report: Campbell, California

The goal of treating the place I’m from as though I were a tourist continues! The most recent stop on this itinerary was the Campbell Historical Museum, located in the old firehouse in Historic Downtown Campbell (TM), together with the nearby Ainsley House, former retirement residence of fruit canning magnate J. C. Ainsley. I lived in Campbell for a year and never went to either of these places — I couldn’t even have told you what the Ainsley house was, despite having been in the adjacent Campbell Public Library at least once a week every week I lived there.

The Historical Museum is titchy!
It has recreated grocery store shelves!
And a 1921 electric car!
And a cool Oddfellow’s Hall door with a staring divine eye!



Caaaaaaanned gooooods!
Caaaaaaanned gooooods!

It’s a museum, it’s historical, and it’s in Campbell. It’s basically one big room, and it costs $2 to go in, which is 1/3 less than the Pez museum. Clearly a key point for the economy-minded California history enthusiast. It’s mainly aimed at helping young people appreciate what life was like in old-timey Campbell, so there’s a lot of emphasis on domestic life and also the economics and technology of fruit growing, drying and canning.

The Ainsley houses costs $6 per adult (about £4), which includes a fact-filled guided tour. Our docent was really friendly and knowledgeable.

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The roof of the house is supposed to look like a thatched roof, but with shingles. It’s completely bizarre looking and was recently recreated at the cost of $250,000.
The paneling in the foyer is awesome, as are the pointy arches. It’s all very arts-and-crafts-y.
Life was good in the fruit-canning tycoon world.
The clanking machinery for this refrigerator was down in the basement to minimise noise. This was a pretty early refrigerator (as opposed to an icebox).


The maid’s quarters.
Apparently one of the grandchildren got a little enthusiastic while making a fire.
I really like this -- this is Ainsley's radio, on which he pencilled in the positions for his favourite radio stations.
I really like this — this is Ainsley’s radio, on which he pencilled in the positions for his favourite radio stations.
The pointed arches are even in the bathroom.

The house is so well-preserved (it really is in remarkable shape) because the Ainsleys only lived in it for a short time; after he died in ’37, she moved out and died shortly thereafter, and so the house remained in the family but wasn’t inhabited. That’s how you want to keep your historical houses historic. There are a few reconstructed bits and pieces, but quite a lot of it is original and the guide is good about pointing out which is which.

In any event, there’s a heady vibe of nostalgia around the Ainsley house, the kind of thing that makes you want to be the sort of person who wears high collars and gazes nobly into the middle distance, contemplating his many hard-won achievements. Kind of boringly, though. If I had a fruit-canning fortune I like to think that I’d do all the paternalistic things that Ainsley did for his employers, with the housing and the child care and so on, but after that I think I could find something more fun to do than fish and play golf. Of course, maybe they don’t mention the booze-fuelled orgies in the guided tour.

Anyway, it’s an odd and splendid house, and it’s even more odd and splendid that they actually picked the thing up in one piece and moved it to its present site; there’s a video of that in the visitor’s centre and it’s really impressive.

Trip report: Campbell, California