Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, then Strawberry Hill House

Weekend in London in Anna and Gareth’s flat in St Margaret’s, between Twickenham and Richmond. They were on holiday so we cat-sat. Cat seemed to lurve me. Don’t know why, it was Philosopher that looked after him. He insisted on lying on my chest and licking/biting my face at 4am. No, fools, the cat, not Philosopher…..
     On Friday we went up to the V and A to the Shoes: Pleasure and Pain exhibition.  Sadly more pain than pleasure, the place was heaving. Why don’t they manage visitor numbers in these major exhibitions better? What’s the point of timed entry if you can barely glimpse the contents of the cases through a sea of bodies?  And it was so hot – have they never heard of air-con?  And dark. According to Jess Cartner-Morley, the dark signifies eroticism:

     ‘The themes of the show are transformation, status and seduction. That
these are all linked, and     that sexuality is imprinted through their core
like a stick of rock, is suggested by the decor: in a boudoir’s half
light, areas are semi-divided by velvet curtains falling in thick
crimson folds.’

      I suppose a press person strolling around the preview, glass of fizz in hand, might appreciate that particular design concept, but not the rest of us, crushed in a mass of humanity.
      As a life-long lover and collector of shoes, what did I think? Not much, to be honest. The tiered displays of shoes in glass cases felt sterile, and it was hard to read the labels because of the crowds. A bit tame, too. ‘An exhibition for beginners,’ sniffed Philosopher.
      There was more eroticism on show in the recent TV documentary about Christian Louboutin. Well, at least I wasn’t tottering round in his 5″ stilettos. I don’t know why high heels are still so inflammatory in gender political terms. Surely feminism is about having choices, and we can pretty much choose whatever footwear we like. If we had been Chinese women with forcibly bound feet then we’d have something to worry about.

A bit sterile?

      But I digress. Really? A life-long love of shoes? As a solitary little girl, I do remember being drawn to the two little companions in the Start-Rite advertisement. Presumably that illustration is based on the picture of ‘The Cat who walked by himself’ by Rudyard Kipling.

     The next day, having had enough of crowds, we decided to stay local and walk along the river to Strawberry Hill House, which neither of us had ever visited. It was semi-derelict when I was in London, and  restoration has been underway since 2004. 
     It was a lovely sunny day, and the Thames was looking particularly leafy and sparkly. We stopped for coffee by Twickenham Church, and then passed Eel Pie Island. I went to a party there in the early 70s, wearing a new Biba dress and fearsome cream suede platforms, all in the hope of snaring the too-hip-it-hurt man from work who had invited me. I don’t think he spoke to me all night.

Beautiful trees on the bank of the Thames
Looking up -river to Eel Pie Island
A willow-tree curtain

     Strawberry Hill House is the eighteenth-century gothic fantasy castle/house created by wealthy Horace Walpole, son of Sir Robert Walpole. All that remains of his extensive ‘collection’ that once filled the house are pieces of old painted and stained glass, preserved in the house windows.  The house is now largely unfurnished, apart from some strange stuffed people and sculptures. I liked the poodles, modeled on a painting of three society ladies.
    We followed Walpole’s suggested tour of the house, using his own guide-book, reproduced for visitors. The man sounds a complete nightmare, arrogant, egotistical and always falling out with people. To return to the cat theme, Walpole owned Selima, the cat immortalised in Gray’s ‘Ode to a Favourite cat, drowned in a tub of Gold Fishes.’ The tub, actually a very large chinese pot, was once displayed at Strawberry Hill.
     It was all interesting and curious, and we were glad we went. On the way back we stopped at a nearby pub named after Alexander Pope. Pope had a huge grotto built underneath his house. It is still there, and is currently being restored. Now, that I would like to see….

Waldegrave poodles – Laura Ford



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