Wednesday, June 3, 2009

National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Today, I restrained myself from visiting the birds in Valentines Park- though I did manage to sneak in a quick- and exciting- visit to the lake in St James’ Park in London. However, I will leave that adventure for another post. Instead, I will write of an afternoon spent with a very special friend, the artist Helen Ganly. We met on the steps of the Tate Britain, where as students we used to meet, approximately fifty years ago- she then being a student at the Slade and I at Chelsea Art School.

Helen had some research to do at the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, so from the Tate we set off by bus, armed with our various free bus passes- the advantages of advanced years! The great thing about being an artist is that you are not embarrassed by your age, being very aware that the most renowned artists produced their best work in their later years, the results of being enriched by a lifetime of experiences; artists never retire, they just- hopefully! - carry on learning and getting better.

Eventually we arrived at Greenwich. For those who don’t know Greenwich, the National Maritime Museum consists of three buildings: the Royal Observatory and the Queen’s House and the Maritime Galleries. To quote from their website: “together these constitute one museum working to illustrate... the importance of the sea, ships, time and the stars and their relationship with people”. The Observatory was originally designed by Christopher Wren (a keen astronomer) and is the site of the Greenwich Meridian Line, longitude 0, the basis of Greenwich Mean Time. In 1616 Inigo Jones was commissioned by Anne, wife of James 1, to design the supremely restrained, elegant, Palladian styled Queen’s House.

The building we were targeting was the Maritime Galleries:

Helen’s research involved sourcing a model- rather than a painting- of a 12th Century ship. Having previously made enquiries to the museum without getting a response, she had decided on a physical approach. On arrival- shortly before the museum closed-we learned that the expert Helen had been contacting was involved in arranging the transport of 3,000 model boats from Greenwich to Chatham! Perhaps he could be forgiven for his tardiness… The museum staff were wonderfully helpful, unearthing illustrations and descriptions on the Internet- but this all resulted in confirmation that there were no 12th Century models of ships in the museum. Apart from an early Egyptian Funeral boat, their earliest models date from the 16th Century. At least this was a positive, if disappointing, result.

Imagine our amazement and bewilderment at our next ironic discovery: on leaving the museum, we turned round for a last look at the building- and what should we see, flanking either side of the pediment, but two distinctive, 12th Century ships! Regardless of the fact that this building was originally part of the Greenwich Hospital School rather than a Maritime Museum, why, one wondered, in a building that proudly displayed two 12th Century ships on its facade, were there NO 12th CENTURY SHIPS INSIDE IT?


Wini said...

Hi Gillian, interesting post! I would like to visit that museum one day. Have you ever read Longitude by Dava Sobel? Its a fascinating read.


good to hear from you Wini, and I'll keep an eye open for Longitude which I have not read.