Friday, 25 August 2017

The Garden Museum, Lambeth

My journey to London yesterday was delayed by 45 minutes and so rather than plough across to see Leighton House in Chelsea as planned I stayed in the vicinity of Waterloo and went to the Garden Museum at Lambeth, which I've wanted to visit for some time but never got round to. The Museum has only just reopened this year after a major refurbishment and is determined to recoup some of its costs with a really quite steep entrance charge, but I braced myself and found it, well, worthwhile for someone who likes museums. Gardens are at a premium in Lambeth (although the Archbishop of Canterbury next door has an extensive one) so you might wonder what the museum is doing here. The church of St Mary in which it is set is the resting-place of John Tradescant, 16th-17th century gardener, collector and naturalist: his house was just round the corner and housed his 'Ark', the first 'museum' open to the public in Britain. Much of his collection was snapped up by Elias Ashmole and so is housed at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, but some of it is here. An enthusiast came to visit his tomb in the 1970s, was shocked by the state of the derelict church, set up a Trust to buy it, and eventually the Museum opened in 1987.

I've said before that the refurbished Ashmolean is one of the most beautiful and exhilarating museum spaces I've ever seen: on a smaller scale, the Garden Museum is now another. The fact that it's set in a church building complete with monuments, stained glass, and even a highly-unusual marble immersion font dating from the early 1900s, adds a spectacular quality which the swooping staircases and mezzanines of the display spaces emphasise. The displays themselves are done with enormous flair and some of the collection really is delightful.

For a few more of the Queen's pounds sterling you can scale the church tower and survey the cityscape from a hundred feet or so up, peeking into the Archbishop's windows and observing workmen on the buildings around having their tea.

Finally in a courtyard - an island of the old graveyard - formed by the dramatic glazing of the new museum café is the tomb of the Tradescants. It's been reconstructed over the centuries, but the carvings apparently follow closely the designs commissioned by John Tradescant the Elder's widow. Naturalist he may have been, but did he really believe in a beast like this?

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