Tuesday 19 December 2017

"Let's have music for Christmas...."

As we saw in the last blogpost, the Christmas season has arrived in Small Worlds and what better way to celebrate than with a little "Hausmusik"? (To my surprise I have just discovered that Hausmusik and House Music are false friends - I had never heard of the latter....).

But before the family, friends and staff can settle down to enjoy a home concert, there is of course the shopping to be done and Gosthwaites, although only a provincial department store, has not lagged behind in following the new fashion of decorating their windows for Christmas ......

As I have said before, Christmas is all about tradition so, as in any well-conducted household, the same foods and decorations are likely to reappear as our Victorian family, the Walmers, get ready to celebrate the festive season.   If you would like to remind yourself of previous years then you can find them here and here....

But each year it is good to focus on a slightly different aspect of the celebrations.   For some time, it has been the practice of the Walmers to invite their friend, Mrs Francis, a skilled harpist, to join them on Christmas Eve to indulge in a little joint music-making.   She is usually to be found in her music salon..... 

.....above the Dutch coffee shop (no, not that kind....).

Mrs Davies, the housekeeper, occasionally joins her there for some duets on her day off.

However on this occasion it is Papa, rather than his housekeeper, who comes to the forefront.  He has long fancied himself as a cellist of some ability and likes nothing better than to impress his women-folk with his skill...

The children are encouraged - indeed compelled - to provide an additional audience, but it is felt that they are too young to be in the same room as the grown-ups so they perch on the adjacent stairs from whence they can cast longing glances at the array of presents already set out beneath the Christmas tree. 

Miss Tilbury the governess, unlike the rest of the staff, is present in the drawing room but finds to her dismay that she is unfortunately placed should she need to hasten to quell dissension in the children's ranks. She is particularly worried about cheeky young Robin, seated right at the top and most likely to cause trouble....

The first item on the programme is a duet for harp and cello, Schubert's Ave Maria, to which all listen with great attention.

The servants have been invited to sit with Mrs Davies - her room handily opens off the drawing room. Since they cannot be seen by the family, Mrs Davies has brought up a decanter of sherry to share with the others. 

Knitted by the highly skilled Sheila Randall
Nanny spent some time choosing the baby's outfit for the occasion but in the end decided to leave him in his usual clothes since the change in routine would be enough to upset him unless she was very careful.

Cook refused the invitation to join the rest of the staff, saying she saw no reason to leave her comfortable chair in the cosy kitchen to be squashed up with Kitty and Nanny and in any case she could hear the noise perfectly well from downstairs.  She could relax peacefully, in the knowledge that all was in hand for Christmas dinner the next day.

After the Schubert, the children, now armed with songbooks, are allowed to sing some carols and everyone joins in lustily. 

They have to stay on the stairs however, unlike this delightful little Victorian group.

The evening ends with another duet played with verve and distinction by Papa and Mrs Francis and all go happily to bed, ready to enjoy the opening of the presents early next morning.

I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse of a Victorian Christmas in Small Worlds and I offer you my thanks for continuing to follow this blog into what is now its fifth year.   

I send you all good wishes for the season and the coming year - and I leave you with some very different cello music to send you on your way - eat your heart out, Papa.....

Thursday 7 December 2017

"All the world's a stage...."

And that of course applies to Small Worlds as well.   The pantomime season is well under way in England, and in the Czech Republic theatre companies are putting on special productions for children at this time of year.

So what could be more fitting than a little theatre to go into the Small Worlds window at the start of Advent?  

For many years I have been on the look-out for a small theatre to accommodate the string puppets lovingly restored by a Dutch friend way back in 2013 when Small Worlds first opened to the public.  

Last year I finally found one in a charity shop near home in the UK and it has been awaiting a redesign since then.   I didn't like the clunky red velvet curtains at all and since it is actually intended for glove puppets, it also needed some sort of stage.....   I later discovered it was from the Early Learning Centre and therefore quite expensive which made me even more pleased with my purchase.

When Lynda, who has in the past produced tiny liquorice allsorts, and ballet shoes,  came to visit me this summer, there were a number of skilled tasks awaiting her attention - here you see one of them...

To give her a gentle start I asked if she could make some curtains for the theatre whilst I altered the appearance of the wooden structure, and added a stage.   We chose a tasteful green for our colour scheme and were very pleased with the result.

Now it was up to me to produce a show.   I really wanted to use the string puppets but very quickly gave up on the idea since, unless one is actually performing with them,  it is impossible to find a reasonable way of making them stand up on stage without looking very foolish.  

I dithered for a while about what to present - I had grandiose ideas of a scene from Dickens' Christmas Carol, intending to stand copies of the book in both English and Czech, alongside the theatre.   I went as far as investing in a very nice-looking copy in English which more friends brought over to Bavorov later in the summer.

I had thought that they, also skilled seamstresses, might dress the dolls for the Christmas dinner scene in Bob Crachitt's house but we very soon established a)a lack of suitable dolls to clothe and b)not enough time during their short stay.   So that's an idea for another year....

I usefully remembered that I had a Czech paper theatre of very much the same proportions as the new one, and that it had sets of scenery illustrating various fairy tales.

One of them was Hansel and Gretel (Pernikova Chaloupka or Jeníček a Mařenka in Czech) so we settled on that. 

The back drop fitted almost perfectly and just required a little extending which was skilfully done by Jill with the aid of some watercolours.

She also cut out and constructed the little gingerbread house which I planned to tile and cover in sweets.

I had some mini Petit Beurre biscuits which I thought would make ideal roof tiles.   Ha ha....

Looking for a suitable glue that would hold them without turning them into mush, and trying to use them as properly laid roof tiles took up many minutes, much swearing, and some time spent wondering why we were not blessed with two pairs of hands. Then came a final realisation that I would have to give up the idea as I had envisaged it - too many "tiles" had crashed off the roof in bits and in any case a fully tiled roof would have been too heavy for the paper cottage to support.

In the end, I had to be content with a less interesting solution.  
The revoltingly scented sweets were much easier to manage. 

I thought the theatre would benefit from some musical attendants so these two were pressed into service....

None of the puppets, other than 
the witch, were suitable to take their places on the stage so I hunted around in the box of mini dolls. I unearthed several in Czech national costume but unfortunately all were female.   Step forward Jill, this time for a transformation scene.   

Result, the second Gretel became Hansel. Would you have guessed this was once a little girl?

The witch needed no work, other than to find a way of making her stand up (crooked, not straight, was the best we could do!)....... 
.....but one of the two cats had to be turned black.

Incidentally, black cats are considered unlucky in the Czech Republic, a fact that led to some confusion in my early days there when I was trying, unsuccessfully, to find a black cat greetings card for my daughter.  "But why," said one shop assistant after I had enquired in many shops for one "do you want to wish your daughter bad luck?"

So cottage ready, cast in the wings, all that was needed was to set the scene and get the show on the road.

On the road means in this case transporting the theatre, which has an unfortunate tendency to open out, dropping stage, cast and scenery onto the floor, along the corridor from The Stables and into the window ready to greet Advent.   I am already back in England so, happily from my point of view, this task has fallen to my good friend Jana and has been successfully accomplished - thank you so much Jana!  (I can see you!)

There will be one more seasonal post from me this year so I will hold my Christmas and New Year wishes for another couple of weeks....in the meantime, thank you for visiting the Small Worlds blog and enjoy the show!

I have just had an email from Jana, who put the theatre into the window.   She had been trying to take some better photos, without success, but she also wrote this: 

"I have a nice picture for you. I have caught a group of nursery school children looking at the window today. They liked it and they say hello to you!"

And here they all are.....

Sunday 15 October 2017

"I'm a train...."

This post has followed fairly rapidly on the last - if you missed that one in the rush then you can find it here.   I needed something to put myself into the right mood for writing this latest post - this did the trick for me (and brought back many happy memories)!

When I first opened Small Worlds five years ago I invited a local class of ten year olds to visit and give me some feedback on what they might like to see in the museum.  The girls all said "some horses" and the boys "something for us".  I obliged very quickly with a couple of breadbins 

but since then have done nothing more to appeal specifically to boys, other than having many vintage cars standing around, including an array of Jaguars (although I understand the correct collective noun is a shadow....).
And before someone shouts at me - yes, I know girls love cars and trains - as a child I had a huge collection of Dinky toys, bought as they went back into production after the war,  (oh where are they now?) and also a Hornby train set. 

Often boys visiting Small Worlds surprise me by how fascinated they are by the houses, engaging in depth at what is happening in them and how some of the effects are created.  It does bother them dreadfully if houses are without staircases though.

On my way back to England in 2015 I visited a Bavarian flea market with "the doll people". On one stall, I saw an intriguing clock tower emerging from a battered cardboard box. Further investigation revealed several dirty buildings to match, with the sign "Stuttgart" on one of them. Naturally I grabbed the entire box.

At that point I knew nothing about Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof (main station), and had no opportunity to research it further.   But later in my journey towards the UK I stayed with friends in Dordrecht, Holland, and it was in a small museum there that I saw with great excitement a beautiful model station that reminded me of my box contents,  and read that it was a Märklin model of Stuttgart HBF. 
At this point I became very intrigued by what was clearly an iconic building and did some reading up about it.  It was built between 1914 and 1928, as a result of an architectural competition held in 1910 and won by the architects  Paul Bonatz and Friedrich Eugen Scholer with their plans under the ambitious title of  umbilicus sueviae - the Navel of Swabia.   It is regarded as one of the most significant buildings of its time and recent plans to modernise caused a furore.

Although my buildings are but a fairly crude and incomplete representation of the original, I decided to make them the main focus of a window display and looked around Small Worlds for as many railway related items as I could find.   The result was an eclectic assortment of railwayania that I suspected would be very hard to blend into a coherent window display!   I decided at once to completely ignore the question of scale - this was going to be an Alice in Wonderland version of the world of trains.

I had thought, before I researched the station, that some of the buildings were sheds for the engines.   That is not the case however, they are part of the station building itself.  I had therefore no sheds but I had collected several engines without tracks to go into what I had thought were sheds - so what now?   

At some point I had acquired a grey metal construction 
and I realised that the arched sides would lend themselves to holding my three or four engines.  The roof did not look quite right,  so friend Sheila and I set about finding an alternative.   We thought that a flat glass roof, covered by chicken wire, might work.  Reluctant to ruin the present roof by cutting the wire just in case it might come in useful sometime (ideas, anybody?) we took some wire off the giant roll that we had acquired for Butterfly to make the Gosthwaites lift (you can see how she did that at the very end of this link) and attempted to flatten it under the heavy art books I have. However, when we removed the books the next day, the wire sprang back up . 
At this point we realised that actually the rounded shape was far better since it echoed that of the station roofs.

The engines that were going into the shed would of course need some track so I dismantled a bamboo place mat and constructed some to fit each of the different engines - I am pleased to say that they all run smoothly on their tracks!

The windows in the station buildings were glass and many were broken and needed replacing.  Initially I played around with the idea of stained "glass" windows, using some designs from one of the wonderful Dover publications but that was before I realised the importance of the Stuttgart main station as an iconic piece of brutalist architecture.   In the end I settled for a very simple grid pattern which a friend enlarged and copied onto greaseproof paper.  (It's called butter paper over here which of course makes perfect sense). 

Sheila then nobly cut and stuck the windows into the many spaces and got beautifully sticky in the process.   

(She is the perfect person to fit the windows since she works with stained glass in the full-size world. This beautiful window made by her is in the doorway between my bedroom and the guest room....) 

In the meantime, Jill was finishing off the tracks that I had made...

Stuttgart HBF famously boasts a clock tower with a Mercedes Star on top.   I cannot rise to the star but I do have a working clock, thanks to my German clockmaker friend, Thomas, with whom I had left the tower back in 2015.  He cleaned and restored the clock and it is delightful to hear it  ticking away now in the window of Small Worlds.

After Jill and Sheila had headed back to the UK, having done sterling work on this (and something else, to be revealed later), I gathered up all the railway related jigsaws I could find, and also everything to do with Thomas the Tank Engine, popular in the Czech Republic as mašinka Tomáš, (if you want to practise your Czech and need a translation it is here) that I had, and set it all out on the table exactly as I planned to put it in the window 

When I came to do that though , I discovered that it would not fit as I had wanted and the jigsaws had to go, at least as a group.   I had wanted them like that so that they could be easily removed by my friend Jana when she puts the Christmas offering into the window in early December.   As it is, Thomas will have to retire at that point.

Anyway I realised that in fact the jigsaws worked much better as a backdrop and when I spotted the Guards parading through Waterloo Station in one of them, I added a lone soldier to stand guard through the winter....

Once again I apologise for the quality of the photos taken from outside - it is even worse now that we have new windows. The thicker double glazing distorts everything even more than before.  But for what it's worth here is the display in its final form (remember you can click on each photo to enlarge it...).

I have been interested to note how many men have stopped to look in the window this time.  And when I went this evening to try (unsuccessfully) for some better photos, I was enchanted to see a two year old boy in his sister's arms, shouting his delight at mašinka Tomáš!

Small Worlds officially closed in mid-September but we do try to open for the Farmers' Markets which happen about five times a year in Bavorov.   One was yesterday and we had nearly 40 visitors which was a delightful way to end the season.   There will be two more before Christmas, and Veronika and Jana will kindly open Small Worlds.  

I am off there now to set up the Christmas scenes; it feels very strange to be doing that whilst the sun is blazing down on the beautiful autumn scene I look out at whilst sitting at my computer, but needs must as I head back to the UK very soon. 

Thank you for joining me on my short railway journey and I hope to see you again nearer Christmas.