Steampunk inspiration and resources

The City of London

Victoria and Albert Museum Part 2: The Clothes

The primary reason I wanted to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum was because I heard about the amazing displays of fashion through the ages. There is a really great circular gallery with men’s and women’s clothing, and right now there is also an exhibit on wedding dresses, though that has an extra charge where the rest of the museum is free. It would be a great place to do research for costumes, both to get visual inspiration as well as great background info. My best pictures were mostly of dresses, but there are lots of great suits, boots and hats for the menfolk as well.


Victoria and Albert Museum Part 1: Incredible Iron

Some people might think the V&A is not up their alley if they hear the focus is on ‘decorative arts,’ but believe me when I tell you this is not a place where you are going to be inundated with doilies and end tables. Personally, I love the decorative arts because these are the objects that people really did touch, see and experience in their everyday lives, including architectural features. In addition to the fabulous clothing and sumptuous household goods, there is an amazing gallery of just samples of ironwork.

There are still lots of examples of wrought and cast all over London (which will get their own post soon), but these items have often been painted and repainted so many times that the delicacy and detail that can be achieved when working in metal has been totally obliterated. This is not so at the museum, where everything from window grates to railings to candlesticks have been preserved for posterity. If you are a fan of metal, you should definitely make sure you stop by the Victoria and Albert Museum if you are visiting or living in London.

Here is sampling of what I saw when I visited.


Want to Learn About Jack the Ripper? Skip the Tour.

On display at the Museum of London

On display at the Museum of London

My original plan had been to sample at least two Ripper Tours while in London, but after running into 6 other tour groups on my maiden voyage, I decided it wasn’t necessary. The groups ranged from 12 members to more like 40, and they all (unsurprisingly) were stopping at the same places. One group was headed up by a vintage bobby, my guide was in waistcoat and hat, and others were dressed in normal street clothes.

I knew there would be at least a couple other groups around but this was nuts, especially considering there was hardly anything to see. That area of London had suffered a great deal during the London Blitz of WWII, so there weren’t really any historic buildings left standing, so the tour meant walking through a long street lined with curry restaurants and maneuvering around construction zones. By about 30 minutes in, the Mister and I were joking that we should have just stopped at the beginning for curry instead.

I was on a tour using what they called “Ripper Vision” and some large historical photographs to try to enhance the experience, but it still fell flat for me. Ripper Vision consisted of a handheld projector that the guide used to show photos of the victims and newspaper stories from the Ripper days, but he couldn’t keep the projector steady so I ended up actually feeling sea sick from all the jerking around and had to look away. The guide was well-versed in Ripper lore, but without any real sites that still looked like they did during the Victorian era, it definitely could have been a lecture in a hall and saved my feet the trouble.

If you want to learn about Jack, I’d say get a book. I’ll be writing a Jack the Ripper Steampunk Sourcebook article for my ezine which will be available around Christmas time, and will not only look at the history and mystery surrounding the murders, but also Jack’s appearances and role in Steampunk so far.

Have you ever read any Steampunk fiction or seen any good movies that featured Jack the Ripper? Do tell!


The Cutty Sark and the English Tea Trade

The Cutty Sark MuseumIt is common knowledge that the Brits love their tea, but it is less common knowledge how this love affair all began. If you are looking for a fun way to explore that history, you should try visiting the good ship Cutty Sark near the waterfront in Greenwich.

The ship itself wasn’t built until 1869, but tea first came to the UK two centuries earlier. Here is a timeline from the Cutty Sark’s exhibits.

Timeline of Tea

IMG_0640In its heyday, The Cutty Sark was one of the most impressive vessels on the sea, and especially well-suited for transporting tea. The copper hull was not only beautiful, but was especially good at keeping sea water out of the cargo hold. It also had an amazing carrying capacity and was one of the fastest ships on the water.

In fact, it engaged in a historic race in 1872 against another transport called The Thermopylae. Both ships left Shanghai at the same time, and the Cutty Sark took an early lead. Unfortunately, she lost her rudder and had to stop for repairs. The Thermopylae ended up making it to England a full week before The Cutty Sark. This was the only time that both ships left from the same port at the same time, but the Cutty Sark later set a record for reaching Sydney in just 73 days.

I loved visiting the exhibits on the inside, especially the first floor where the interior and the displays were made out of tea crates. There is another gallery the next floor up that has interactive features and videos to help you get into the mindset of a sailor on the ship over its long history. I was also lucky enough to have the perfect weather to explore the deck, which has been restored to its former and shiny glory.

 


The Burlington Arcade

IMG_0570While I was in the Piccadilly area for the market I also did some serious window shopping. There are so many lovely stores and window displays in this posh neighborhood! I didn’t really have anything in mind, but as soon as I spied the Burlington Arcade I had to take a stroll down this lovely little pedestrian thoroughfare. I am not sure if it was all the shiny watches glinting at me from across the street, or the top-hatted man in the portico, but I had a feeling I would find something relevant there for my Steampunk wanderings.

I was surprised when I entered to find a high ceiling complete with beautiful skylights hidden behind the curving façade. The natural light was great for looking at the new and vintage jewelry and watches, but terrible for taking pictures due to the glare on the almost unbroken string of glass display cases that line the lane, which means I don’t have much to illustrate this post. So here is a little history instead. (Adapted from http://www.burlington-arcade.co.uk/the-arcade)

Lord George Cavendish was a prominent politician during the late 1700s and early 1800s, and he had a garbage problem. Ruffians were always throwing trash like oyster shells and other refuse over the wall to the grounds of Burlington House where he lived, so he decided to finance the building of a shopping arcade to fill the alleyway. Officially, his reasoning was to offer “gratification to the public” as well as “work to industrious females” but really he was just tired of all the rubbish. When it opened in 1820 only 4 of the 47 leaseholders were women, but the prevailing convention at the time was to address even male shopkeepers as “madame”, so I guess he sort of kept his word.

Victoria CrossThere are several shops of note that still have their polished doors open to the public even now. For instance, Hancocks is a fabulous jewelry store, and back in 1856 was commissioned to design the Victoria Cross, the highest award given in the commonwealth military.

If you are in the Piccadilly area, I would definitely suggest a stroll down this historical pedestrian street.

 


More Clockwork Treasures from the Royal Observatory

One of the biggest leaps forward in human history was when we started to use the movements of the stars, sun and moon to tell time. And as far as we know, we are the only animals that do. You may find yourself noticing a slight bend in space and time as you approach the Observatory, or perhaps it was just the long trek up the steep hill that made the minutes seem like hours!

Eventually, humans invented machines to keep track of the units in which we divided the world and some would argue that these machines now rule our lives. But no matter how you feel about clocks and schedules, you can’t deny the ingenuity and skill that has gone into inventing, improving and crafting timepieces. And if you are a steampunk fan, you probably can’t get enough of the shiny gears and complex mechanisms that had their heyday in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Prime Meridian GlobeThe Royal Observatory (also called the Greenwich Observatory) is the home of the Prime Meridian line, and the site for calculating Greenwich Mean Time since the 19th Century. This means that even more than anywhere else it has been imperative that they keep accurate time, and they celebrate this history in their exhibits. After I was done at the Longitude Punk’d galleries, I took a stroll through the rest of the Observatory and I found amazing machines for seeing the stars and terrific time-keepers. I had accidentally used up a lot of my battery during the first half of the day at Longitude Punk’d and the Cutty Sark, but even with a full battery I don’t know if I would have been able to fit all of the beautiful pocket watches, nautical devices and astrolabes onto my memory card anyway!

Here’s a sampling of what there is to see in the history galleries.

In addition to the Observatory, you can also visit the Astronomy Center for free. There are lots of exhibits there for amateur astronomers, as well as London’s only planetarium.

Have you ever visited the Royal Observatory or Astronomy Center? Did you have a favorite part?


Fortnum and Mason

One of the defining parts of the Industrial Revolution was the rise of ready-made fashions and pre-packaged foodstuffs, and on the forefront of the trend was the posh department store, Fortnum and Mason. When the first steam-powered factories were just starting the churn out their wares F&M was already in business, and it continues to be a mainstay of the stores on Piccadilly today.

Beautiful crystal chandeliers provide light all over the store

Beautiful crystal chandeliers provide light all over the store

They made a splash at the Great Exhibition in 1851 where they won first prize for their imported delectable desserts and dried fruits. In addition, when Henry Heinz (best known nowadays for ketchup) wanted to market his canned baked beans in the UK, he took his wares there. Within a few years, baked beans had become an important part of the British diet.

In literature, F&M are best known for their picnic hampers and several Victorian authors including Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins made mention of their characters enjoying a luxurious feast. I am also reading The Difference Engine right now, and the day after snapping shots of the whimsical window displays below I read a passage where the protagonist passed by this prestigious store on his way to buy a wedding gift for his sister. Today, you can still visit and stroll through the heaps of lovely packages tied with bright ribbons and peruse the fanciful fudge of the dessert counter.

As with many luxury goods stores, the prices are steeper for things such as tea and cookies than at a normal grocer, but the ambience alone is worth a stop in at the store, or at least a meander by the window displays!