Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Sir John Soane

I did my Pop Up Festival event today at the Sir John Soane's Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields in London. I bumped into my old friend Will Hill on the train and we had a long talk about illustration and illustrators in the early eighties.

Thanks to Dylan for asking me to take part in the event and for the educational department at the museum for being to welcoming. Thanks to Natalie Hamilton for turning up from Bloomsbury and good to see Daniel Hahn there. Thanks too to the staff and students of City of London Academy, Islington.

It was a warm and sunny day in London and I arrived at the museum early so that I could have a look round and get some feel for how the children I would be working with could use the material that they were going to see.

I am ashamed to say that this was my first visit to Sir John Soane's amazing house and collection. Friends had raved about it when I lived in London, but when you live in a place there's always tomorrow isn't there? In the end I moved out to Norfolk having never been. Now I'm in Cambridge and a little closer to London, this will certainly not be my last visit.

Photographs of the interior make it seem much bigger than it is and also seem to suggest a museum - or something like the plaster cast galleries at the V&A. But it isn't like that at all. It is very much a house, crammed with stuff. The first rooms are fairly restrained, but as you move on, you find yourself almost edging sideways past cabinets and statues, plaster casts and columns. It is extraordinary. It is like climbing inside a display cabinet.

The museum is worth visiting for the Painting Room alone. I walked in there oblivious to the multi-layered nature of this tiny room and I feel as though it would spoil it to tell you too much about it save to say that it has Hogarth's Election series of paintings, plus all the original paintings for The Rake's Progress.

Anyway - after I had looked round I went to the room where I was going to be working. The children were Year 7 students. They took a little while to get going - it was hot and they'd just eaten lunch - but by the time we had finished, the room was a pretty lively place, buzzing with lots of very good ideas.

I talked a little about what I did and how I had come to do it. I spoke a little about fear and phobias and then read then The Black Ship from Tales of Terror from the Black Ship, the book that the school had been sent to tie in with this event. It is hard to read a creepy story at mid-day in a hot and sunny room, but I'm used to that. It is difficult to create the mood. A cabin on a becalmed sailing ship at night was not available, sadly.

Afterwards we talked a little about the museum - which the children had not yet seen - and I tried to get them to understand the idea that the house and its contents was like the imagination of Sir John Soane made visible to us. Walking round those rooms was like walking inside his head. Then we tried to write a creepy story using the idea of a school visit to the house.

It took a little bit of a shove to get them started but there was the making of a good story - a novel even! - by the time they left to look round the museum. The best notion was that of someone being sucked into one of the painting. The character would not just end up in the painting, but would be swapped with one of the children. This interloper would then be accepted into the midst of the group and would return with them to their school.

That idea could spark off all kinds of stories. Who was the person taken out of the painting. Why they there? Were they another victim of an evil force or were they some sort of evil force in themselves. What would they do now that they were out? And what would become of the person in the painting? Sadly we did not have time to go any further.

But I like to think they might have looked at those Hogarths a little more intently than they might have done before.

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