Spooked

Towards the beginning of the year, Adi and I were house hunting. While it is a most enticing prospect to find a house that you will want to live in and call yours, the search is exhausting. But this post not being about the house hunt, I will take you right away to Lambertville, a small town filled with antique stores by the Delaware river. It was one of those chilly February days when the wind pierced your bones and thoughts. It made you ache for home, to be wrapped up in a cosy throw with a book. But we were out. Following an early morning of property viewings, we took leave of the estate agent and I suggested to Adi that we step into Lambertville for a spot of browsing. We could do with some distraction.

Reaching town we grabbed cups of coffee, and cowering in the face of the cold, scurried into one of our favourite antique places in town. It is a big store with three levels filled with old junk, mostly European antiques sourced by the owner from his travels through Europe. Every time we enter the store, I feel like I am in a curiosity shop. I am filled with wonder at the kind of objects that existed once, and have now in this age been delegated to the status of mere curiosities. We were browsing, me rifling through pages of old books that begged to be taken home, when I overheard a woman comment to her companion as they were on their way out. “Where did the time go? I never realised it was so late,” she said. I smiled. Whoever enters the store falls through a rabbit hole.

Climbing the store’s creaky wooden stairs, we found that the store had curated a small museum-style experience. However, the difference was that one could buy items from the collection. My eyes were immediately drawn to a Victorian hallstand, dark mahogany and heavy of make, as most furniture from the yesteryears are. The hallstand had the patina of age. I spent time examining it, then proceeded to check the paraphernalia around. “Come on over,” I said, whispering and beckoning Adi to join me in checking out a small table that belonged to Arthur Conan Doyle. No ordinary piece this. We beheld a ouija table. Adi took a peek and grew pale. Having been exposed to a barrage of horror films over the years, he has been conditioned to my (bizarre, according to the man) fascination with eerie stories. For the sake of honesty, let’s say almost conditioned.

The table came with a note along (with a price tag of $7,500). It was bound to have a story given that it belonged to Dr. Doyle. He was a founding member of a research society in Hampshire and known for his fascination with spiritualism. Doyle collaborated with a fellow mystic in a research on poltergeists in Devon. When his son died of pneumonia in the mid 1900s, the bereaved author was even keener to believe in another realm of existence. He embarked on a collection of talking boards in an attempt to reconnect with his son. His daughter Jean, a British military officer, sold the talking boards to an English antique dealer, who in turn donated it to the Lambertville store for its museum.

“This is too creepy for words,” said Adi.

“But I am getting the hatstand, just so you know,” I told him seriously. One’s gotta rise to the occasion when one needs to needle the husband. And it almost always elicits a reaction most precious from my beloved.

Around the corner, Gothic memorabilia awaited us. For the most part, it was vampire-themed stuff. A plethora of long wooden trunks, beautifully made and kitted up with hinged lids, which opened to reveal wooden stakes and mallets, pistols and crucifixes, vials of garlic powder. Vampire hunting trunks. I wondered about it. Whoever might invest in them? Maybe ones off their rocker? But the truth is that travellers did purchase these trunks that were made in the 1800s for wealthy people on a voyage to Eastern Europe, specifically Transylvania, enthused by the myth of blood-sucking creatures after Bram Stoker published Dracula. One of the travelling vampire kits from the 1870s that we saw, belonged to the Spanish actor Carlos Villaria who played the role of vampire in Dracula, the 1931 version.

If that was not enough, we found more ouija boards, hand-carved, religious wooden sculptures of angels, stakes, holy water bottles, French vampire-hunting oak cabinets circa 1837, an alcove full of puppets with chains barring the way, even a chair that was used to perform exorcisms in Germany in the 1800s. Now all this was way too much for the husband to handle. At one point, he just gave up. He sat himself on a bench and refused to indulge me by looking at anything else in this small museum of strange objets d’art. For my part though I found it highly engaging, and am thinking I shall convince him to give it another go, another day. Wish me luck!

The Victorian hall stand that Did Not have my husband’s attention.
Vampire hunting cabinets
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ouija table
A French vampire hunting trunk, circa 1880s.
More ouija tables
The vampire hunter’s preferred weaponry
Alcoves stuffed with puppets and dire warnings. Stay away.

Heavenly Bodies of The Met

We finally ended up at The Met. It had been on my mind for some time and it being a bank holiday when the sky was swollen for the most part with clouds, Adi gave in. And will you get this, for not one, but two consecutive days. That is the power of love (or, a rainy weekend). A fine museum can be a salve to the soul that seeks more. Up the classic steps of The Metropolitan Museum and we were inside its august portals and soon the senses were buzzing with the wealth of art inside the maze of chambers. We were swept up by burial masks and the art of the Incas wrought in gold, smooth and veined busts of Greek gods and goddesses in marble, ancient Mayan figurines and the works. Time sped by. It was a lesson loaded with geography and history, which I appreciated way more than I would have as a teenager. For then the purpose of life was to guzzle Mills & Boon romances in the back benches and yak endlessly on the landline.

Back inside The Met, we were surprised by a line-up of sumptuous and austere figures. Catholicism and fashion! Oh, why yes, images from the Met Gala earlier this spring came back in a flash. How could I forget? The eyes had goggled at the pageantry, and details like Kim Kardashian being unable to paint her face as a girl (deprived child) because she attended Catholic school, Rihanna walking into the gala in her gown of pearls and crystals, with an equally low-key mitre, and then the revelation of a mini skirt, lest you started questioning her sartorial statement…

Riveted by this unusual exhibition, the likes of which we have never seen, I did pop my head and hands through a press of bodies, to steal a handful of images. So here’s how faith and fashion colluded at The Met. And I can promise you, it ain’t the mendicant’s cuppa.

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Habit of the clergy. The soutane.

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Angelica by Dolce & Gabbana, in black wool crepe and buttons of gold.

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Thom Browne ensemble in black cashmere broadcloth, black mink and white Persian lamb (put me in mind of a ram with concave horns).

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Moschino’s black and white canvas. That headgear!

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Sheaths with Byzantine mosaic design

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Silk taffeta dress by Pierpaolo Piccioli for Valentino

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A Thierry Mugler ivory silk taffeta ensemble, accessorised with gold-painted feathers.

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Statuary vestment for the Virgin of El Rocio, ca. 1985, by Yves Saint Laurent. An affair in gold silk brocade, silk satin and metal Chantilly lace.

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Burred vision in gold and white. An evening look by John Galliano for Dior.

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Christian Lacroix wedding ensemble in silk brocade and tulle

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Sumptuous statuary vestment in blue silk jacquard and gold metal passementerie for the Madonna Della Grazie in Palagianello, Italy, by Riccardo Tisci.

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And Alexander McQueen’s evening look for the House of Givenchy.

The Blue Star of the Lower East Side

I ended up in China Town the other day. I was ambling along Eldridge Street in Manhattan when I spotted this old building that towered above me with its many Moorish arches. The promise of magnificence drew me in. The plaque declared it to be a synagogue that has been turned into a museum. A free museum.

Now free museums thrill me. I queued up for hours outside the Museo del Prado in Madrid one freezing day, and got caught in a downpour, but did it deter me? No sir. It just meant that I spent the next few days laid down with a solid fever. Yet I had bagged a free museum visit. It is the same reason I love London so. The best of its museums are free. Now that I have mentioned the word ‘free’ enough times to reveal my inner freebie loving self, I might as well get to the subject at hand.

I was in an orthodox synagogue, built in the 1880s by Ashkenazi Jews who were fleeing from the anti-semitism in Eastern Europe. Inside, I met an old lady showing a trio around. One of them was a boy. The lady introduced him to me as a rabbi-to-be. Startled he looked at her, and said, ‘Actually I am doing my BA.’ He had mentioned studying in a yeshiva to her, and she, it turns out, had added it up in her own mind as indicative of his grand religious plans for himself. The couple, possibly in their mid-60s, were visiting their son in New York from Minneapolis. We later had a long chat about their sojourns in the various parts of India. And then there was I.

‘I am curious,’ asked this cordial old guide, ‘what brought you here today?’ This is the part where I come up with a memorable answer. Boy, I aced it. ‘Oh you see, I love visiting museums, and I was passing by, so I popped in.’ Having stunned them thus, I followed around in her footsteps, as she led us up wooden steps and antiquated wooden balustrades, past stained glass windows, the early evening light filtering in in a surfeit of colours.

Inside the main sanctuary, the senses exploded with the celestial quality of the vision that lay before us. A circular stained glass window in ethereal blues towered above us. It was the heroine of the old synagogue, this rose glass window of seemingly gossamer loveliness. I am not religious, as I have often stated, but I am swept away when the architecture of a place of prayer uplifts the soul. To make us believe that there are exalted things and beings, that there is a larger design at work.

This rose glass window, said to weigh 6000 pounds, depicts the six-pointed Star of David. Within it floats a plethora of five-pointed stars. The concept was that it should reflect the night sky by opening up to it. The main dome and the other ceiling domes, framed by rows of moorish arches, are studded similarly with glinting golden stars.

The woman who was showing us around had sat in the pews of the synagogue, as a child on a field trip from school, and she recollected its decrepit state at the time. ‘It was in the ’80s when I never could have imagined that it could look like this,’ she mused, as she pointed to a few photo canvases stacked along the pews. They were evidence that the synagogue had fallen into disrepair, its walls peeling off, the dome in a shambles. Membership dwindled with time as former members moved out of Eldridge Street into quarters like Brooklyn and Borough Park and then came the Great Depression bringing devastation in its wake. Pigeons took up residence in the synagogue till it was decided that it simply could not be allowed to fade away. Renovations began in the ’80s and the result was before us. There was something old about it, something new, and in between was that vast blue window that took your breath away.

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The Orthodox synagogue of Khal Adath Jeshrun on Eldridge Street with its stained glass windows and moorish arches. 

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The rose glass window towers above the main sanctuary where the congregation assembles on Fridays and Saturdays for services.

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There are stars everywhere you look and then there is the wonderful Moorish Revival architecture

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Elegant brass and glass chandelier

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Back to the Oculus from where I had to catch the train home. I cannot help taking multiple shots of this Calatrava ribbed structure that always makes me gawp.

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The white wings of The Oculus are for me a beloved part of the cityscape

Sardinia’s Wild Heart Beats in Barbagia

The isolated mien of the island of Sardinia is compounded by its insistence on keeping to itself and shying away from mainland Italy. The Sardinians do not repose faith in Rome. Their grouse is that they have been sidelined, rather monstrously. A politician who doubles up as a tour guide, the vivacious Enza, told us about the political climate of her country as she drove us in her trusty old car through the winding mountainous roads of Barbagia. I was enamoured of that dramatic landscape. Villages with their bevy of granite houses and terracotta roofs sat comfortably in valleys that seemed to have been scooped out of limestone mountains. Swathes of green pastures were dotted by ponies and prehistoric stone towers, herds of cows ambled along the roads as if they were out for a stroll, and often rows of wine and myrtle orchards showed up, standing upon modest patches of land. Myrtle, the aromatic berry that stains your fingers a deep purple if you squish it, and which the Sardinians use to make a fine liqueur called Mirto.

In this primitive part of the country that derives its name from Cicero — the Roman orator had dubbed it the ‘land of barbarians’ because the Romans had tough luck here — the mountain people cleave to the Sardinian language even while it is slowly being replaced by Italian elsewhere on the island. Here where they make their living from the land, where milk and sheep’s cheese are staple diet, where gnarled olive trees add character to the craggy surroundings, where bandits still rule strong in villages like Orgosolo, and where shepherds chant songs around fires, it is not unnatural that carnivals exist and that they are a window into times past when pagan rituals were a way of life.

Shepherded by Enza and her cousin Giampaola to a museum in the town of Nuoro, we were introduced to the traditional black ensemble of men and women. The Museum of Sardinian Life and Popular Traditions turned out to be a small affair but packed with details that transported us to another world. I was repulsed, and at the same time, strangely drawn in by the theatrics of the carnival costumes. People in older times surely knew how to work their imagination.

Men dressed in sheepskins, cow bells and ominous-looking masks, enacting the eternal battle between good and evil. In the agrarian culture of Barbagia, it made sense that the carnivals had their roots in Greek rites dedicated to Dionysus, the god of vegetation. They signified the end of winter, and invoked the gods to bless the land with fertility. People indulged in sacrifices and orgies. They dressed like animals and danced wildly after drinking plenty of wine.

Emerging from the confines of an old world recreated within the museum, we found the town of Nuoro to be quietly photogenic. It sat at the foot of Mount Ortobene. Atop it stood a statue of Christ the Redeemer, as if keeping a careful watch upon the life of the few thousand inhabitants of Nuoro who live around its narrow streets in traditional stone houses. Because it was furiously cold that March, the usual windy conditions on the island exacerbated by the northwest wind called the Mistral that blows in from France, we winded up in a small café in Nuoro. I look back upon that moment and smile at one of those apparently trivial memories. Nothing earth shattering. Just four girls chattering over a cup of coffee each and the beginnings of a lovely friendship.

 

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Nuraghe, ancient towers belonging to the mysterious Nuragic civilisation 

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Nuraghe and chapel

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Orchards around Barbagia

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Myrtle

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Myrtle berries

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The Museum of Sardinian Life and Popular Traditions

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Fragrant rosemary shrubs

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Traditional costumes of women in the villages of Sardinia

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Dolls in traditional gear

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A child’s garb

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Mamuthones (men in black) and Issohadore (fellow in red) from the village of Mamoiada. The origins of these masked figures are unknown. The Mamuthones, in their vests of dark sheep fur and copper bells and grotesque wooden masks with giant hooks for noses, command a spooky presence. It is almost as if they are checked by the presence of the Issohadores in their red tunic, embroidered shawl and black bandolier. They walk together in processions that end at bonfires in the village that has had the Mamuthones and Issohadores for as long as it can remember.

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Boes and Merdules from a carnival in the town of Ottana.  The men in their white sheepskins, accessorised with plenty of cowbells, wear two kinds of masks. The Boes wear ox-like masks and the Merdules those of old, deformed men. These were part of rituals, meant to protect man against evil spirits. The Merdule served as reminders to man – to overcome his baser instincts and retain his human identity.

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Thurpos (meaning blind or crippled). In Orotelli, a town in Barbagia, men with their faces painted black and dressed in black overcoats, cowbells dangling from shoulder straps, roam the streets during its agrarian carnival. They are allegorical figures representing the triumph of the weak over the powerful, the eternal tussle between farmers and landowners.

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The Mamuthone in profile

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Streets of Nuoro

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Bums, Beauties, Boy Scouts and Sentimental Rockwell

Two old biddies man the desk at the entrance to the Norman Rockwell museum. Shivering and nattering for it was a cold morning, the morning after it had rained incessantly the day before, and you know how it always feels colder inside these old buildings sans heating.

Down Route 4, a two-lane highway snakes its way through Rutland marking its way through the green mountains that lead you to Killington. On the sidelines of that scenic route dotted by its plethora of old and colourful houses, you spot a signage with foliage creeping up its feet announcing the presence of the museum. Rockwell lived an hour from here in the ‘heart of the shires’ in between the towns of Manchester and Bennington, in a small community called Arlington that sits upon the banks of the river Batten Kill. Southwestern Vermont, to be not so precise. ‘Now my pictures grew out of the world around me, the everyday life of my neighbors,’ Rockwell had remarked upon his move to the quiet town.

Rockwell is possibly the best known of all the artists that America would have sprung upon the world in the 20th century. The native New Yorker who was born in the late 1800s to a family that in his own words was ‘substantial, well to do, character and fortunes founded on three generations of wealth’ – Rockwell had an epiphany early on about his calling in life. He drew and drew because it took his mind off his ‘narrow shoulders, long neck, and pigeon toes’. By the age of 18, he had a full-time job of illustrating for magazines. Boy scouts and covers for the Saturday Evening Posts were probably the most important themes that his artwork revolved around in the initial years.

When this New Yorker moved to Vermont did it mean that he started painting the brilliant autumnal colours of the New England vista that unfurled before his eyes, before his very windows? Nah. It was the mid-40s when he had made the move, the crucial WWII years during which the artist painted his iconic work ‘Four Freedoms’ based upon the ideals of freedom. To speak, to worship, liberation from fear, from want. Yet he portrayed them through the common man. His neighbours. Their rituals. Scenes from an average American life and the great American dream. Those are the scenes that wooed me as I walked in ultra-slow motion through the two wings of the building, chuckling with the man and his subjects, for even though there is humour in spades there, it is gentle. For sneers do not melt the butter and empathy with your subjects can only endear you to the reader/viewer.

And then Adi, who within half an hour had zoned out, wanting to break out already into the arms of the day that was slowly brightening up under the rays of a reluctant sun. In museums, they should reserve a room for those who want to nap or take a break, don’t you think? I would safely deposit Adi there and spend hours basking in the glow of art till my brain hollers for a break. Till I start to feel the pricking of, as Emily Dickinson so aptly wrote, ‘a Funeral, in my Brain’. Adi had at any rate got there before me. But then the fates conspired with my husband. A busload of Russian tourists took over the museum and they refused to give way. Loquacious. Loud. Funeral in the brain alright. Scuttle. Unwillingly.

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Scouting is Outing. Original oil painting for ‘Boy Scout’ calendar, 1968.

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Fireman. Original oil painting for ‘Post’ cover, May 27, 1944.

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The Tattoo Artist. Original oil painting for ‘Post’ cover, March 4, 1944.

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Still Good. Original oil painting for advertisement for Interwoven socks, 1927.

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Triple Self-Portrait. Original oil painting for ‘Post’ cover, February 13, 1960.

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Thanksgiving (The Glutton). Original oil painting for ‘Life’ cover, November 22, 1923.

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Homecoming G.I. Original oil painting for ‘Post’ cover, May 26, 1945.

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Shall this museum, a small repository of Rockwellian memories, survive the passage of time? You see it is up for sale, and on the agenda of a father and son duo from Vermont eyeing it is a dispensary doling out medical marijuana. Life is a tale told by an idiot and you know the bard is never wrong.

A Day at Horniman

Sparkling sunny weekends are a rarity in our part of the world. If the week shall go in a sunny, breezy mode, Friday rolls in and the clouds declare their presence, often not in a I-am-billowy-and-pretty-just-like-that way. The weekend did start on a cracking note and the sun did power its way through Sunday. So the British have declared summer. Over the last two days, men have been spotted in speedos atop caravans, women have been noted to drive in bikinis and others have been sitting in barely-there-shorts in the backyards.

On Friday, quite early in the morning I had work in London – which meant I had the whole day to myself after. I made my way to the Horniman Museum. The fact that it was free added a spring to my step. But what I had overestimated was my power to get lost. I Will get lost. No matter how many years I have been living in a country. My teenage years in Calcutta were spent regularly landing up in odd places and an irate father coming to the rescue. Once after a date, I took the wrong bus and reached another part of Calcutta quite late at night. I was invited by an old man to his terrace home – when I look back I am astounded at my calibre for silliness. I did go up to the terrace with him and make an SOS call to the parents (who could not believe their ears). As it happened, it was new year’s eve, and my uncle and his family were visiting us from London. The whole family came to get me back home. Suffice it to say that the evening is etched in my memory.

It took me two hours to get to Forest Hill from Baker’s Street by tube and overground trains (when it should have taken me all of 50 minutes). I do not know where I went wrong except that I did get on and off a few trains and stand at stations where I should not have. In the meantime, the person who was getting steadily worked up through watsapp was the husband. He had visions of massive charges on the card because of all the overground trains I was changing.

But I did reach Horniman. I have proof of meeting the in-house walrus.

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Walking beneath the cherry blossoms of Forest Hill take away the sting of goofing up.

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Beneath bowers of cherry blossoms who can be woeful for long.

Our Walrus is an unusual taxidermy specimen, it appears stretched and ‘over stuffed’ as it lacks the skin folds characteristic of a walrus in the wild. Over one hundred years ago, only a few people had ever seen a live walrus, so it is hardly surprising that ours does not look true to life.

The name Horniman is owed a great deal to by tea lovers. Today it is owned by Douwe Egberts but the founder of the eponymously named Horniman’s Tea was a trader called John Horniman. He had started the tea trading business in the small but beautiful Isle of Wight in 1826 and had also changed the concept of selling of loose leaf teas which were often adulterated with dust and hedge clippings by unscrupulous sellers (horrendous, right?). He sealed his packages of tea thus ensuring that authentic tea leaves reached the customers sans the extra ingredients. Even our much-touted philosopher of profoundness, Nietzsche, deemed Horniman’s to be his preferred brand of tea. Who likes the great outdoors (apart from the leaves) in his tea? Well, the great majority clearly gave John a thumbs up, so his company did become the largest tea trading company in the world by 1891.

The museum however was not his idea. It was his son Frederick’s brainchild.

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Portrait of Frederick John Horniman

Thanks to the country’s passion for tea, Frederick had enough moolah to indulge his passion for collecting. Everything from natural history to musical instruments and cultural artefacts. This museum of his has a sum total of about 350,000 objects. As a tea lover how could I not see what tea had wrought?

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Meet the walrus of Horniman’s. He is a celebrity, okay? He was possibly sourced from the area around Hudson Bay in Canada. Queen Victoria too had visited our tooth-some friend.

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If he looks unnaturally fat, blame it on the taxidermist. He/she overstuffed him. So there are no folds on his skin.

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Meet the three long-eared owls. I took to them. I mean, just look at them. Especially the look of the third fellow on the extreme right.

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Look at that beak of the Crowned Horn Bill. Solid as a curved piece of wood, you think?

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Iridiscence. Beetles and bugs.

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Scarlet Ibis

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A Central American beauty. 

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Merman. ‘WHAT’, did you say? In the early 18th-19th centuries, mermen were brought by sailors to Europe. They were believed to be real for centuries, inhabiting the oceans around Asia, till it was discovered that they were indeed products of man’s genius for imagination. They were found to have been the head and torso of a monkey put together with the tail of a fish. Man is a genius. Fraudulent ones, more so.

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Golden-headed Trogon

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Philosophising orang-utan. He has the stance and stick of a hermit.

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Be kind to my special friend, the red-howler monkey. He belongs in the treetops of Brazil. I am sure he thought, ‘Oh no, am I in the Blighty?’ and that priceless expression was thus frozen.

Lest you think that strange stuffed animals is all you shall get to see, there is also the wonderful park and greenery around you on a fine summer’s day.

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Horniman gardens

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Views of London’s skyline (you can just about make out the silhouette of The Shard on the horizon)

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Conservatory at the Horniman Museum

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When you leave the museum, you might just be rewarded by a Mr. Whippy.

So, the question is that if you are in London, should you or should you not head over to Horniman’s. I would say give it a go if you feel like turning into a child all over again. And do remember me if you meet the walrus and the red howler monkey.