Become a Friend of the Swindon Museumand Art Gallery

For only £15 a year, you can become a Friend and receive links to our Zoom talks. To become a Friend or find out more about us, go to the website

Sunday 31 December 2023

Latest on Swindon Museum and Art Gallery Opening

Swindon Museum and Art Gallery closed on 18 March 2020 because of Covid restrictions, and in July 2021 it was announced that all art and museum collections would be put into storage until the Art Pavilion was built in the Cultural Quarter with access to Collections through Art on Tour and Museums without Walls. The Friends objected to this as can be seen by reading blog posts from June 2021; it meant waiting at least 10 years before we would have a museum and art gallery in Swindon. Following an outcry from the Friends about the lack of physical space for a museum and art gallery in Swindon, a proposal was made to convert the first floor of the Civic Offices in Euclid St into Swindon MAG, and now it seems that four years on from the initial closure, it may open this spring on the first floor of the Civic Offices.
There have been various collages of photos on social media and on the council's website of work continuing at the Civic Offices.
The Art Deco fireplace will be kept
Photo of ceiling above. Below a Facebook post from Councillor Strinkovsky, Cabinet member for Heritage, Art and Culture who has got the work underway posted just before Christmas.
I like to include Advertiser articles as well, there have been two on the opening date. The most recent published on 28 December is sounding very positive: 
Museum opening soon 

This article published a month earlier is less accurate, it has Apsley House reclassified as a Regency building rather than a Georgian one and the Civic Offices as built in the 1920s rather than the 1930s. It is also suggested the Friends and some Labour councillors were opposed using the Civic Offices which wasn't the case: Museum open in spring 

We eagerly await the opening of Swindon MAG, it will be wonderful to have this facility back again with added advantages of accessibility and 40% more exhibition space than before.

2023 AGM on 6 December

 We held our Friend's AGM on Wednesday 6 December at 7pm at Artsite in Theatre Square.

It was well attended and we were fortunate to have Cabinet Member for Heritage, Art and Culture, Marina Strinkovsky to give us an update on the conversion of the first floor of the Civic Offices into Swindon Museum and Art Gallery, and a possible opening time as Spring 2024.

We looked at a summary of our activities in 2023; we've had some excellent speakers, some of the talks held via Zoom have been recorded and can be viewed via the website. All talks are also written up and appear in this blog, so you can find them all here. We visited Kelmscott for a guided tour this year, and also took a coach to St. Barbe, Lymington and saw the Parallel Lives exhibition co curated by Dr Gill Clarke. 

The members of the committee remain the same for next year as they have been for this year which provides stability, but with 3 posts on the committee: Chair, Vice Chair and Membership Secretary becoming vacant next year, we need to recruit more members onto the committee. Please get in touch if this interests you, even if you are not currently a member. To read the chair's report and minutes of the 2022 AGM, please click on the link in the pages section along the right hand side.

In November we were very sorry to hear of the death of Lady Vanetta Joffe. Vanetta was an enthusiastic member of the committee for many years and also Swindon Open Studios organiser, her move to Bristol and closure of the museum and art gallery, meant she was less involved in the Friends.

I have included the photograph of Vanetta which appears in the chair's statement, and I'll include this photograph I came across recently. Vanetta is in her garden in Liddington showing me an extremely floriferous foxglove

Thank you to all those who are reading this and for your continued support of the Friends of Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. I hope 2024 is the year we have a museum and gallery again.

Stonehenge in the Twentieth Century

 We were very pleased to welcome Dr Susan Greaney for our November Zoom talk when we learned a lot more about Stonehenge through an amazing photographic archive. An archaeologist currently based at Exeter University, Dr Greaney has worked for English Heritage as senior properties historian. The talk was mainly focused on the changes to Stonehenge during the twentieth century with a potted history before that.

Stonehenge was built in stages between 3000-1500 BC, there are 93 stones, some as high as 4metres and weighing 25 tons. Its purpose may have been worship or astrological observation. There are many more bits of information about Stonehenge on the English Heritage blog post and their website.

William Stukely became involved with Stonehenge when he found a solstice alignment in 1723. And from the 1860s people came to visit at solstice, and in the 1970 there were free festivals at the site, and until 1978 there was free access to the stones.

In 1900 one of the stones fell down, Wiltshire Council were concerned that something needed to be done to preserve and protect the site, and in 1901 it was declared a Stone Age monument and attempts were made to fill around the base of the stones with concrete to prevent them falling over. In 1905 the first Druid ceremony is thought to have taken place:

In 1906 there was debate about the right of way across the site as seen in the aerial photograph below which shows Stonehenge looking very hemmed in by roads and footpaths
 In 1915, Cecil Chubb who had gone to an auction to buy some dining room chairs came away from the auction having bought Stonehenge for £6600 and gave it to the nation in 1918 when an entrance fee was charged for the privilege of looking round the stones with money raised going to the Red Cross and local residents were not to be charged for visiting.
We were shown lots of photographs taken over the years which give a superb idea of what the stones looked like when they were being secured in place, and who was working on the stones. The photograph above shows what the area to the south of Stonehenge was like in 1937, car use was increasing and by 1935, there were 15000 visitors to Stonehenge. There's an AA box on the right, and the old cafe can be seen on the right of the photo, built in 1917, it was thought to be a 'cheap flashy little building' and it was demolished in 1938 along with the caretaker's cottages. The road sign may have said Exeter left and Andover right, and the sign on the left says 'Fork left for Exeter'.
Thank you once again Dr Susan Greaney for our last talk of 2023. Details of all 2024 talks available soon, our first talk is on 25 January by Michael Gray called 'Repairing an Oxford College'.

Friday 29 December 2023

The Croc is Back

 Our much loved croc or rather gharial has been repaired, restored and generally given a tidying up and is now back in Swindon. It is currently in storage but will be displayed soon we hope. In the before and after photos below you can see the restored teeth and the rather convincing eye and on the right, Cllr Marina Strinkovsky, the Cabinet Member for Culture, Art and Heritage admiring the gharial.

Here's the press release info from 5 November:

Swindon’s 100-year-old crocodile is back from its makeover and looking better than ever.
The much-loved, 15-foot gharial recently went off to be restored by specialist natural sciences conservator Simon Moore, following damage and natural wear and tear to the creature.
Originally a hunting trophy, the Gharial’s first known owner was Major Morton Hiles, who lived in India between 1916 and 1922.
Hiles later lived in Warminster and gave the gharial to Warminster School. In 1931, the school’s vicar offered the specimen to Swindon Museum, as they needed more classroom space.  
Work included:
• Replacing teeth with scrap ivory to restore the original look
• Replacing the old plastic eyes with new, more realistic glass eyes
• Restoring claws on the feet
• Adding back missing pieces of the tail
The restoration was funded from the regular collections care and conservation budget held by the museums team.
Gharials are currently a critically endangered species, with experts estimating that there are fewer than 1,500 left alive in the wild.

Tuesday 26 December 2023

Richard Osgood MBE Operation Nightingale

 We were incredibly fortunate to have Richard Osgood as our speaker in October via Zoom. He gave us many examples of the therapeutic role played by archaeology in the lives of ex service personnel. There's a good synopsis of Richard's career here

I took some photos of Richard's slides during the talks and there's an unedited recording of his talk which you can see if you click on that link. I'll write down a few of my notes for the record. 

Richard joined the MOD in 2004, and has been their senior archaeologist for over 10 years; he and his team look after 770 scheduled monuments including 10 world heritage sites. With veterans of conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2011, Richard realised that PTSD as a result of conflict was not considered when his father served in WW2, but the wounds are real despite being hidden. Operation Nightingale is the name given to the exercise.

Richard started by telling us about the archaeology of a Burrow Island in Portsmouth Harbour, also called Rat Island.

It looks very scenic from a distance
above you can just see the holes where the bodies were slotted into the ground
above and below some of the skeletons they found

There's a sign warning people that it's MOD land  below

The island is reached by a small causeway twice a day at low tide, and between 2-5 May 2017 the holes in eroded cliffs were examined in an operation known as Exercise Magwitch. The holes in the cliffs are burial sites where the bodies were stacked on each other, It is thought the skeletons are those of the up to 7000 prisoners held in ship hulks in Portsmouth Harbour between 1796- 1814. They could have been French identified by their naval buttons and French graffiti and were maybe prisoners of war, mostly they were male. It's fascinating to see how a face can be built from the skeleton as suggested below:

In May this year, I first caught up with Richard Osgood who was leading an excavation at a football field in Aldbourne which is where the Band of Brothers were stationed during WW2. Richard was involved in the first one of these in 2019 at documented by Wiltshire Museum. Crisp packets and silk stockings are among artefacts found at the site, there are also memorable dog tags from two members of Easy Company, Richard A Blake and Carl Fenstermaker. There is a youtube video about this which you can access by clicking on the links on this X post, I hope.

Below is an example of artefacts found in Aldbourne:
On Salisbury Plain in 2012-14 Operation Nightingale excavated 100 burials of men and women many of which are at Devizes Museum now. DNA has been examined to find out if they are related. 7th Century decorative grave goods have been discovered and a Bronze age pin 2700 years old, seen in an archaeologists hand below

Below is a reconstruction of a bronze Age hut
and here's a 6th Century bucket made of yew, currently in Devizes Museum
Getting together outside doing archaeology is a great way of making friends

I'll finish with a plug for Richard Osgood' book: 'Broken Pots Mending Lives: the Archaeology of Operation Nightingale.
At least I thought that was the end of the post, but after writing it, I went to watch Digging for Britain with Alice Roberts who was looking at WW11 artefacts, and towards the end of the programme, there's Richard Osgood talking about the Aldbourne site and the importance of it at the end of the war when Easy Company were stationed there for 6 months leaving behind a wealth of interesting artefacts, Here's the link to the programme, and here are some photos taken from the tv:

The final one is with Richard Osgood and Alice Roberts.

Monday 6 November 2023

Friends' Visit to Kelmscott Manor

 A group of the Friends visited Kelmscott Manor last week; our visit included a drink and biscuit on arrival, a guided tour followed by lunch. It has fairly recently been upgraded and restored and the house appears in good condition with in places wallpaper recreated using traditional William Morris techniques. The furniture and decorative items have been placed where they would have been when Morris lived there, it does feel quite authentic, although because no one knew what would have been in the kitchen, it's empty!! The interiors are beautiful and so is the garden. Our guide went into great detail about each of the rooms and was able to answer questions, because of his thoroughness, there was a slight feel of being a bit rushed, but it kept us on our toes and made me want to go back and look more carefully at things.

I took photos and will start with the outside where it's so beautiful and it's easy to see why Morris loved it so much and kept going back there, although even now, it feels quite remote.

The front door and path going up to it are so delightful, it's hard not to photograph them
and in a corner of the garden opposite the front door is a covered small summerhouse where I imagine people would meet, although it is not very private
I have taken some of the views inside the house where often the lighting was quite subdued, and looking at photos in the guidebook helped me see the true colours
Here's another view of a brighter room
This corner cabinet holds lots of Iznik plates and tiles which apparently were an inspiration for Morris
and below the fabulous painting 'The Blue Silk Dress' by Rosetti; a portrait of Jane Morris. According to the wonderful Kelmscott guidebook, Rosetti composed a Latin verse which connects the idealisation of love with the making of art.
Finally it's well worth having a look at the river which runs along the edge of the garden very close to the house
You will notice there are many stone slabs used as fencing around Kelmscott village, and here they were used to make a herb filled planter.
Thank you to the guides and all those people who made our trip on 18 October such a wonderful day out. We had a lovely time and would recommend the guided tour.

Thursday 26 October 2023

Parallel Lives: Eight Women Artists

 Dr Gill Clarke talked about the eight women artists who feature in this fascinating exhibition she co curated with Steve Marshal at St.Barbe's in Lymington. What is so interesting is that all eight women artists were born within 20 years of each other, and their lives span the twentieth century. A Barnes coach is taking a group of us to Lymington on 28 October, if you click on the Barnes' link you could book to come for £25. There are 70 works in the exhibition celebrating the lives of 8 artists.

Let's start with Enid Marx, a wood engraver who went to Eric Ravilious after hours in college because it was thought she couldn't draw. Paul Nash also tutored her. Enid held teaching posts, was a royal designer for industry and the first female wood engraver to receive a title. She is probably best known for her linocut with pastel colouring titled 'Wally Dogs'

Enid Marx designed fabrics for London Underground as seen below:

She also produced posters for the underground and stamps in the 1960s
Gertrude Hermes was engaged in sculpting and wood engraving, 'Thorn Apple' is a wood engraving of hers:
Evelyn Dunbar was the only salaried female war artist; 40 of her paintings are in existence. I am including the painting of her family garden painted between 1929-37.The tower you can just about see on top of the house in the distance is where her studio was situated. The house is now a B&B and the garden has been built on.
In the exhibition there are also paintings like the Canning Demonstration from 1940 illustrating what happened when you had a glut of fruit. The war paintings also show women's land army dairy training.
Ithell Colquhoun's work was shaped by surrealism and the occult. She also admired the work of Salvador Dali whose exhibition she saw in 1936. Nasturtiums seen below is produced using sepia ink and watercolour.
Wilhelmina Barns-Graham 1912-2004 was brought up in  St.Andrews in Scotland, and was fascinated by the natural world. This striking work from 1981 depicts St.Andrews' Bay:
She studied at Edinburgh College of Art and gained a post graduate scholarship where it was suggested she go to St.Ives 
 'Island Sheds' produced in St.Ives appears to have been influenced by Alfred Wallis (1855-1942)
Wilhelmina produced abstract work in her final decade and was given an OBE in 2001.
Her great friend Margaret Mellis also lived in St.Ives and attracted lots of other artists to settle down there. This is a great photo of Wilhelmina in her studio:
Prunella Clough although she lived in London all her life, often depicted fishing and fishermen because she often stayed in Southwold where her parents often went on holiday and then her Mother bought a holiday home there.
Barbara Jones was interested in follies and grottos. She produced The Fairground for the Recording Britain school series.

Our eighth artist featured in the St.Barbe exhibition is Monica Poole a wood engraver interested in plant forms, she later made linocuts and taught both disciplines.

There is so much more to these 8 artists than I have covered here, and I'm not sure I've read my notes correctly. To watch the recording of Dr Gill Clarke's talk please check out the website.
I'm very much looking forward to visiting the exhibition on Saturday when a group of us are going on a Barnes' coach trip to Lymington.