The first excursion of the New Year was a rather special one; we headed for That London to see two exhibitions, just a few yards apart. One, at the Science Museum, was entitled Cosmonauts and commemorates the Soviet and Russian space programme. The other, across the road at the Victoria & Albert Museum, was of photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron; of which, more later.
In a strange echo of the Cold War era, cultural relationships between Russia and the UK are an ongoing source of wonder and interest even when the political climate is rather frostier than might be hoped for. This year is actually UK-Russian Year of Culture, which is not an event that has particularly set the world alight. But the Science Museum took the opportunity to approach contacts in Russia to see about mounting an exhibition to mark Russia’s contribution to space research. Hence Cosmonauts.
We travelled down on Saturday lunch-time and checked into a hotel in Kensington with some pretensions to be up-market. It was certainly far from the worst hotel I’ve ever stayed in, and indeed the staff did a number of things that made me think quite highly of the place. The thing was, though, that due to the strangeness of London’s ground plan, although the hotel was only half a mile from the museums as the crow flies, the distance on foot was nearer a mile and a quarter due to the street layout; using the Tube would have not been much better, as it would either have meant waiting for a Circle Line train or using the District and having to change and double back on yourself – plus South Kensington Tube station is a bit of a stretch away from the museums. So we opted for Shanks’ Pony. At least this gave me an opportunity to do something I’ve rarely done, and that was to see chunks of the West End of London on the ground. Most of my travelling to the capital has involved either Central London or East London and further out. I have little experience with the West End; indeed, other than a trip into town from Slough when my sister lived there in the early 1970s and a visit to the Science Museum in the early 1990s, I’ve not been around that part of London at all since I was a child. My previous visit to the V&A was when I was a student, back in the late 1970s.
The area around Exhibition Road was absolutely heaving by the time we got to the Science Museum for our booked entry to Cosmonauts at 3:30. London is now a year-round destination for tourists, and it showed; either independent travellers or coach parties were filling up the pavement outside the Natural History Museum, and the queue to get into that snaked all across the forecourt. The crowds thinned a little as we got further up Exhibition Road towards the Science Museum, but the museum itself was very busy; but there was no queue for Cosmonauts and we were able to go straight in.
The exhibition starts with a general background section, setting the scene of the work of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who formulated many of the ideas for spaceflight in the late 1890s; then looking at the work of Russian space enthusiasts who were doing spare-time development of rocketry as hobbyists, rather like Robert Goddard in the USA was doing at about the same time. At the same time, others were looking at rocketry and space as a means of political activism and spreading Marxism to other, less enlightened societies who (it might be presumed) were out there in the cosmos. This was reflected in early Soviet films of the era, such as Aelita, Queen of Mars and others, which reflected similar thinking in Germany with Fritz Lang’s Die Frau im Mond and the enthusiasms of Hermann Oberth (but without the overtly political subtext); but in the Soviet Union, this became embodied in a movement known as ‘Cosmism’ which looked forward to the new Soviet destiny in the stars, until Stalin’s purges and the Great Patriotic War mostly put a stop to this.
One of the victims of the purges was Sergei Korolev, a rocketry enthusiast and engineer with the Tupolev aeronautical design bureau. He was arrested in 1938 for alleged misdirection of official funds (which he was actually diverting into unofficial rocketry research!) and sentenced to six years imprisonment, including time spent in the Gulags. He was eventually transferred to CKB-29, one of the specialist Gulags which employed professional aircraft designers as forced intellectual labourers. CKB-29 was responsible for producing some of the more successful bomber designs of the Soviet air forces, including the Tupolev Tu-2 and the Petlyakov Pe-2. Eventually, in 1944, Korolev was one of a number of designers who were released from CKB-29 under special decree and were released back to civilian life as aeronautical engineers. Korolev resumed work in rocketry, this time officially, and so was in the right place to be drafted in to evaluate materials recovered from the German rocket base at Peenemünde. From there, Korolev went on to become the “Chief Designer of Rockets” at the specialist design bureau OKB-1; he was never named publicly in his lifetime as a security measure, and his name only became known in the era of glasnost.
The display then changed to tell the story of the early Sputniks, including the series that started with Sputnik-2, which launched the dog Laika into orbit. Unfortunately, Laika perished through heat exhaustion; later launches with animals on board were able to successfully recover them, paving the way for human spaceflight. This ultimately resulted in Yuri Gagarin’s 1961 flight, though as ever compromises had to be made; for example, as the capsule shell used for the Vostok missions was based on an existing spy satellite which was never intended to be retrieved, the Soviets arranged that the returning cosmonaut had to eject from the capsule at about 7 kilometers’ altitude as there was no provision for any sort of arrested landing. Only when the Voshkod series of missions were launched, which shoe-horned three cosmonauts into the same size capsule (meaning that there was no longer any room for the ejection seats) did it become necessary to develop an add-on module for braking rockets.
The Voshkod-1 capsule (left), and Valentina Tereshkova’s Vostok-6 (right), which she piloted in 1963 to become the first woman in space, are on display in the exhibition. The one-seat Vostok is very clearly roomier than the equivalent Mercury capsules that put the first Americans into space. Both these and the Soyuz return capsule shown later in the exhibition show the scars of re-entry. It is also possible to get quite close up to them and see the engineering involved, which owes as much to industrial and submarine design as they do to aeronautical engineering. There are other, smaller exhibits relating to Gagarin, Tereshkova and to Alexei Leonov, who as well as being a cosmonaut and the first person to carry out a spacewalk, was (and still is) an accomplished artist and who was encouraged to take his sketching and watercolor materials into space.
The stars (as it were) of the show are the full-size engineering models of the Soviet Moon lander and the Lunakhod-2 Moon rover. The Moon lander would have accommodated one cosmonaut only; it was intended that Gagarin should be the first man on the Moon, but after his death in an aircraft training accident, Leonov was moved up to number one slot for that honour. However, the failure of the N-1 heavy launcher, followed by the success of the American Apollo programme, put a stop to Soviet lunar ambitions. Instead, they concentrated on establishing a permanent presence in space with the Salyut and Mir space stations, which are direct predecessors of today’s International Space Station. The exhibition has many artifacts from that period illustrating life aboard these space stations.
The Soviet Bloc was the only alternate reality that we have ever had access to; and the space programme was its highest and possibly noblest achievement.
The following day, we went back to the other side of the road and the Victoria & Albert Museum to see a display of photographs by the pioneer photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Taking up photography in the 1860s, she made a series of portraits capturing both her own and her neighbours’ servants (posing to reconstruct classical or Biblical scenes), her neighbours themselves, and – through the contacts those fairly high-placed neighbours provided – many of the leading figures of the day such as the poet Tennyson, the astronomer John Herschel and Charles Darwin amongst many others. She developed many of the techniques of portrait photography, working with the difficult wet collodion process (which involved coating glass plates with a photographic emulsion, exposing them in the camera whilst they were still wet, and developing them immediately). Naturally, these images are of great interest for their age and rarity, as well as the famous individuals she photographed. She was also a fairly accomplished self-publicist, and worked very hard to get her pictures into the then-new South Kensington museum, enlisting artist friends to promote her work and exploiting contacts to try to get more famous sitters for her pictures. The V&A was able to mount this exhibition without the need to borrow many pictures from other sources,such was her assiduousness in getting her work bought for the nation, even though some contemporary critics dismissed some of her staged pictures as trite and artificial.
As the V&A could mount this exhibition using their own resources, that meant that they didn’t have to make any sort of charge to see it. Yet the numbers of people viewing it were as nothing compared to the crowds queuing for what must have seemed like hours (after paying £14) to see an exhibition of Indian fabrics. And the rest of the museum was equally packed; we were able to get to see some of the Japanese collection (the V&A has a good collection of netsuke, the exquisite little Japanese carvings that helped gentlemen keep their purses – imro – safely tucked into their belts) as well as some of the Renaissance European collection. There was an especially fine inlaid cabinet on show which was built by two craftsmen in the German city of Würzburg in the 1550s; they left a note concealed inside the cabinet, which basically said “This cabinet was made during a hard winter, and there is no meat in Würzburg, just cabbage and turnips and we want to be somewhere else.”. The V&A is in itself a spectacular building and is worth seeing for that alone.
As is our wont, we naturally gravitated to the bookshop for a good browse (on our way to a cream tea). The V&A bookshop is a trove of highly attractive books on art and design, and other things as well. This includes remnants of the books and catalogues from previous special exhibitions, and I was struck by some of the material still on sale from the 2012 V&A exhibition of the life and work of David Bowie – including the limited edition, hand-made and cased book made by and for Bowie himself, a mere snip at £650. Thus it was that David Bowie came back onto my radar – not that he’d ever occupied a prominent place on it – just a day before the surprise announcement of his death on 11th January 2016.
I say that Bowie wasn’t on my radar; well, perhaps that’s a bit unfair. What I really mean to say is that, unlike perhaps the vast majority of my generation, I have hardly ever followed rock and pop music. There’s a number of reasons for this. My sister is eight years older than me, and so she was bringing pop music into the house when I was still a child, during the ‘Summer of Love’. I have a distinct recollection of putting Let’s go to San Francisco by the Flowerpot Men and Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys on my Christmas list in the year they came out; and, rather unusually, my parents flatly refused this request. What I didn’t appreciate then was that they were probably concerned over my getting into something that they didn’t understand and – being of the essentially pre-war generation – may even have been afraid of, and that was the whole hippie youth culture thing that my sister, with her own job and own income was just getting into herself. My parents’ only sources of information about this would have been the popular newspapers of the day, with their distinctly establishment view of the new and radical.
I’ve never been one for outright confrontation; I prefer the more subtle approach, and I think I always have. So my act of teenage rebellion wasn’t to kick against my parents’ views on popular music; instead, I seem to have taken what they liked – which included orchestral music – and crank the volume on that up to eleven. In this, I was aided and abetted by my music teacher at the grammar school I went to in 1969. That was a young teacher by the name of Mr Large. His approach was not just to teach us the basics of music theory (which I only vaguely understood), but also to introduce the children to the world of classical music, going way beyond Saturday-afternoon or Sunday-morning local bandstand renditions of popular overtures like Tchaikovsky’s 1812 or Rossini’s William Tell, into the more rarefied areas of Richard Strauss or more complex pieces of Sibeilius or Wagner. After two years, Mr Large left us. It was said that he was going to work for the BBC, producing television films of classical music and opera; though it may have been that he was being confused with the established classical music producer and director Brian Large – though from what I have seen, “my” Mr Large and Brian Large would be about the same age. Perhaps they were related?
For whatever reason, I embraced classical music with the fervour of the real fan, and it has never left me. I gravitated to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the music of Wagner, Anton Bruckner, Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Dmitri Shostakovich. (Not too much of this is easy listening, you understand.) Over the following forty years, I have continued to explore classical music, discovering first the rest of the Romantic repertoire, then chamber and instrumental music, and finally realising that the masters of the ‘classical’ period – Haydn and Mozart in particular – were not just purveyors of pretty tunes, but did express real feelings and artistic insight within the more formal musical language of their times. Two things evaded me – Italian opera and the serialism of the Second Viennese School (Berg, Schoenberg, Webern) – this latter I’m still trying to understand how to listen to after all this time.
And so there was no room in my musical life for rock and pop. It wasn’t that I disliked it; but it was way down on my list of priorities.
But then in the 1980s, I became aware of the new American minimalist composers, such as Richard Adams, Steve Reich and in particular the work of Phillip Glass, which I took to very strongly. And when Glass started writing symphonies in the middle 1990s, his first symphony was based on themes from David Bowie’s album Low. He returned to Bowie with the Third Symphony, similarly based on Heroes. And so I began to listen out for David Bowie’s music, as well as seeing his acting performances in The man who fell to Earth and more recently in his cameo as Nikola Tesla in Anthony Nolan’s film of Christopher Priest’s novel The Prestige.
So Bowie’s death, though not something that upset me in the way that Iain Banks’ or Graham Joyce’s did, does have some significance for me. And it shows me that we should celebrate and mark creatives wherever we find them, whether they are visionary engineers aiming to do the impossible, or people who take up new technologies to create works perhaps only recognised as art years after their passing, to musicians working in a range of different fields. It is perhaps our creativity that marks out what is good and unique about us as a species; and we should embrace and rejoice in that creativity whilever we can and wherever we find it. And that is what last weekend was all about.