Beyond Our Wen

Anne Gardom finds some serendipital treasures outside London

London is far from being the only place with galleries and museums. This country has a rich, diverse and often odd heritage of museums and art galleries – some were endowed by City Fathers, some are great national collections, and others the fruits of one man’s interest and some are museums of gathered history. They are all well worth exploring. Here are three examples I have visited recently.

The American Museum, Bath

On the outskirts of Bath stands the handsome eighteenth century building of Claverton Manor. It has an excellent display of rooms showing the American way of life from Colonial times until the middle of the nineteenth century. The museum concentrates on the beginning of a settled life in the towns and farming communities that gave impetus to the furniture-making, glass and china industries. Many skilled craftsmen crossed the Atlantic. The wealthy American middle class, making fortunes in the New World, were generous patrons, and the French, German and English furniture-makers flourished, making carved and inlaid furniture out of local wood. Their work is sophisticated and beautiful, as was the glass and china that was manufactured locally.

These are displayed in a sequence of furnished rooms – there is a room showing Shaker furniture (now fashionable and much sought-after); other rooms show the increasing elegance and sophistication of colonial society. Perhaps one of the most unexpected is a bedroom from a Louisiana cotton plantation mansion of the 1860s – dark red patterned wallpaper in a high-ceilinged room, huge dark furniture, a claustrophobic bed, with muslin curtains shrouding the windows against the heat. There is a lovely tavern in a local eighteenth-century farmhouse (quite a usual combination), friendly, cluttered and welcoming.

One of the glories of the museum is the collection of American quilts. Quilting was a social activity for women in colonial times, a creative outlet with many elaborate and beautiful designs being made, and, of course, it used scraps and pieces of valuable fabrics too small to be useful elsewhere. The resource and creativity of Colonial women is very moving. You marvel at their exquisite tiny stitches and intricate designs.

In the grounds there is an arboretum, and herb-garden, and a delightful box-scented reconstruction of George Washington’s garden at Mount Vernon, surrounded by white palings and planted with period flowers. A small summerhouse has a charming collection of brightly painted bandboxes in which American women kept their possessions at a time when cupboards and closets were not plentiful.

Though the Indian artefacts and jewellery are interesting and well-documented and the life of the cowboys and pioneers is touched on, the main interest of this museum is its display of how the settlers lived, and the new industries they created.

The Cecil Higgins Museum, Bedford

This museum is the result of one man’s love and labour. The Higgins family owned a successful brewery, now the Bedford Museum, and the Higgins Museum is housed in the handsome Victorian house close by, which was built by his grandfather, and left by Cecil Higgins, with his collection, to the citizens of Bedford

The museum has an exceptional collection of British watercolours. As these are fragile and are never displayed for long, the exhibitions change every six months. They are beautifully hung in a purpose-built gallery, with useful information and magnifying-glasses available. It is very exciting to be able to look at Turner, Blake, Rowlandson and Gilray for as long and as closely as you like.

The main part of the house has been furnished as the home of a well-to-do Victorian family There are clothes, boots, toys, buttonhooks, alarmingly lethal chemical fire-extinguishers, a delightful nursery and a varied selection of grand contemporary and earlier furniture and pictures – a convincing mixture of inherited and newly acquired possessions. William Burgess was an architect of the high Victorian Gothic style and his bedroom has been reconstructed here. The ceiling is dark green scattered with golden stars, the catafalque of a bed and huge cupboards alive with mediaeval figures and lively animals on a gold and red background.

Bedford was a busy lacemaking centre and much fine lace is on display, both British and European with explanations of their history and design.

Cecil Higgins had a special love for glass and china and bought pieces of outstanding quality. The displays are breathtaking – Chelsea, Stafford, Meissen, Art Nouveau, William de Morgan china, mediaeval slipware, and glass – engraved glass, painted glass, coloured glass, slender Jacobite wine glasses with spun twists in their stems, early glass from the pioneering Ravenscroft works, lovely innovative glass from Whitefriars who were making exquisite pieces at the turn of this century. It is a treasure trove of beautiful things and a place to learn more about them.

The Empire Museum, Bristol

This is housed in part of Brunel’s splendid Temple Meads Railway Station, and is devoted to five hundred years of the British Empire. The initial video display makes the point that the Empire has affected and influenced all of us, and still does, in our vocabulary, our eating habits and the people among whom we live, as well as in sport and literature. The Commonwealth is the successor of the British Empire, which itself sprang from the East India Company and the Hudson Bay Company.

It is a fascinating story – and not all of it glorious. Slavery was the foundation of many great fortunes and between 1640 and 1806 we sent four million slaves across the Atlantic, mainly to the sugar plantations. The experiences of Australian aborigines and native African populations do not make comfortable reading.

It is, however, an exciting and magnificent part of our history, with its own heroes and villains. There is a huge archive of photographs, writing, poetry, newspapers, and oral memories. A splendid series of photographs shows the arrival of the railways with Indian workmen and European overseers standing proudly by their achievements. Recorded voices of people tell you about growing up on a tea plantation, about the lives of young married women in India, about the loneliness of young men in the Indian Colonial Service, posted far from home – all memories of a life that no longer exists. There are ciné shots of the Great Durbar, with decorated elephants and Indian Rajahs in magnificent jewels and gold-encrusted clothes.

Conflict and control, a world-wide network of trade and industry, of medicine and missionaries, were summed up in the iconic figure of Queen Victoria, and the plethora of buildings, towns, hotels and railway stations named after her. This big and complex exhibition gives us a chance to learn more about our own history and how it is linked to the histories of people all over the world.

The American Museum: Tel: (01225) 460503 
Open: March–November 2–5pm. Adults £6; Senior Citizens £5.50

The Empire Museum: Tel: (0117) 925 4980
Open every day 10am–5pm. Adults £3; Concessions £1.50. Prices subject to change

The Cecil Higgins Art Gallery: Tel: (01234) 211222
Open 11am–5pm, Tuesday to Saturday Adults £2.10; Senior Citizens Free

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