Friday, October 12, 2012

Our Boys

I was surprised to learn that out of the 6 ladies who showed up for Theater Day this week, 3 of them had never seen Les Miserables.  Shocking!  Fortunately for me, the other two women had seen it several times, so they decided to come with me to see a play they'd never heard of while the rest of the group took advantage of the half-price matinee tickets for Les Miz.

Actually, I didn't know much about the play myself, but having seen the ads for it, I was excited to find it listed at the half-price ticket booth.  Our Boys is about six soldiers in a military hospital in the mid-80's.  What?  That doesn't sound like something I'd want to see?  Fair enough, but let me tell you who is in it: Laurence Fox!  Never heard of him?  He plays police detective James Hathaway in the TV series Lewis.  And surely you know Matthew Lewis!  Yes, you do.  He was Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter movies.  Yes, that chubby, awkward kid who ended up being cuter than all his male costars by the final movie.
The intimate Duchess Theatre
The Duchess Theatre is one of the smaller ones in the West End, and our seats were right in the center of the third row.  Sweet!  (Especially so when Laurence Fox stripped down to his undies, and one of the other cute male characters had a hospital gown malfunction.)  All three of us ended up really enjoying the play, which was a mix of comedy and tragedy, and not at all predictable.  Both Mary and Barbara, the two ladies who joined me, said they may even see it again with their husbands.
With Mary and Barbara outside the Lyceum Theatre
Our Boys closes on December 15, so if you're in London, don't procrastinate!  And if you see hordes of teenage girls standing outside the stage door of the Duchess Theatre with cameras and Sharpies at the ready, you can blame that on Neville Longbottom and James Hathaway...

Saturday, October 6, 2012

A Hunting Expedition

It's not easy to motivate me to be up and out of the house by 6:15 am, but the opportunity to visit the largest antiques fair in Europe proved to be a strong enough incentive.  The Newark Antiques & Collectors Fair is held several times a year about two hours north of London. 

A group of about 30 women from the AWC boarded a bus in Kensington at 7 am Thursday morning and headed out for a full day of bargain-hunting.  We were well-armed with tote bags, tape measures, shopping trolleys, and of course snacks and drinks for the ride home.  As we passed a small aviation museum on the way in, the bus driver warned us, "Don't buy an old airplane.  It won't fit on the bus on the way back!"  Uh, OK...

I was astonished that they would hold an antiques fair outdoors in England, but we were blessed with lovely weather -- blue skies and sunshine are a rare treat! I'm not sure what this area is generally used for, but it reminded me of a county fairground.
Which one should I get?
I sent this photo to Josh to ask whether he would prefer the 10-foot-tall gold amazon, or the animatronic hip-hop teddy bear.  Sadly, I did not get a response, so I didn't buy either one.

With approximately 2500 stalls, there truly was a little something for everyone.  People were selling furniture, rugs, art, ceramics, glassware, china, silver, jewelry, clothing, and just about anything else that someone might collect.  Most of them were set up outdoors...
This horse would look nice in the garden...
But there were also several large pavilions where vendors selling more expensive or delicate items had tables set up.
Just one of several indoor shopping areas.
There were also a few food trucks and cafes scattered around; and since we are Americans, we were invited to take a break in the Overseas Buyers Lounge, where they had tea, coffee, fruit, and biscuits.  Even though we were there for 6 hours, we had a lot of ground to cover, so it was nice to be able to grab a bite on the go. 

I didn't take many photos because I didn't think the vendors would appreciate it, but I had to get a photo of this. Too bad the bus driver warned me not to buy it, because it would have made a great anniversary gift for Josh...
Old airplane for sale, in terrible condition...
So now that you know what I DIDN'T buy, here's what I brought home with me...  I bought these three little dishes from three different vendors.  The blue floral one in the back is ceramic, and the one with the yellow and pink chrysanthemums is cloisonne.  The bowl in the foreground is ceramic wrapped in pewter, and is very similar to one I bought in Richmond, VA several years ago, which is wrapped in brass.  That one is full of British coins, so I filled this one with American coins.
My Asian collection (coins not included)
My best find were two pieces of Moorcroft pottery.  (Can you tell I have a thing for ceramics?)  Moorcroft is a brand of art pottery that has been made in England for over 100 years.  The antique pieces sell for over £1000, and the new ones generally cost at least £150, so I wasn't really expecting to find any bargains here, but I did stop to admire the pieces I saw for sale.  Towards the end of the day, I came across a guy selling some cute ceramic items, and was about to ask about the price of something when I noticed an assortment of Moorcroft in the back of his stall.  Factory seconds! 

I ended up buying a "Moon Valley" vase and a "Dames Pansy" bowl (both dated 2010), each with a teeny tiny flaw in the glaze, for a fraction of the "Best Quality" price.  And, being the expert haggler that I am, I convinced the guy to take an additional £25 off the price and throw in the other small item (which I bought as a gift for someone who might read this) essentially for free. 
The trophies from my successful bargain-hunting expedition
If I had bought these two items in perfect condition at a shop, they would have cost about $890!  (And there's no way I'd ever spend that much money.)  Yes, I still ended up spending more than I originally intended to, but I think I got a great deal!

We had fun sharing our finds (and our drinks and snacks) on the bus on the way home.  Some of the other ladies even bought furniture -- mostly small items like bar stools and a chair.  At least they were guaranteed a seat on the Tube on the way home!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Dressing Downton

What could top a tour of Highclere Castle?  Not much, but to continue on my Downton Abbey high, I attended a talk last week at the Victoria & Albert Museum by Susannah Buxton, the costume designer for seasons 1 and 2 of the popular TV series.

Ms. Buxton was joined by a V&A curator from the Fashion department, who discussed some of the parallels between the Crawley sisters of Downton Abbey and their real-life contemporary, wealthy socialite Heather Firbank, whose considerable wardrobe was donated to the museum after her death.
V&A fashion curator (left) and Susannah Buxton (right), discuss the fictional
Crawley sisters (photo, left) and Heather Firbank (photo, right)
I've never really thought much about where all the costumes come from in the costume dramas that are so popular on British TV (and often exported to the US), but it's much more complicated than I imagined.  First of all, Ms. Buxton had a fairly modest budget of about £20,000 per episode ($32,200), which sounds like a lot of money until you consider that it includes not only the main characters -- whose clothing must reflect their wealth and status -- but all the servants and extras.  Some costumes were rented from local costume houses, others came from costume shops in Paris, and some were custom-made.

Also, because the series covers a period of several years, the costumes must reflect the changes in fashion that were going on at the time.  Lady Cora, as an American with a generous dress allowance, would probably wear more daring fashions than some of her British contemporaries, while the Dowager Countess would likely be more comfortable wearing the more conservative clothing of her generation.  As the years progress, hemlines creep up and waistlines drop down in the dresses worn by the three sisters, so they can't just keep wearing the same costumes over and over.

We also learned that each character had their own color palette.  So Edith is often seen in oranges and greens, while Sybil frequently wears shades of blue and purple, and Mary dresses in reds, greys, and black.   All of Lord Grantham's clothes were custom-made for him, since that would have been the case in real life, as were Lady Violet's (the Dowager Countess).

In some cases, a costume was built around a single period component that Ms. Buxton particularly liked, such as a hat or jacket, in order to create a coordinating ensemble.  In the case of the red dress below worn by Lady Cora, she found the red embroidered silk fabric for the bodice and designed the rest of the dress around it.  She must really like this dress, because I think she's worn it two or three times.
(Yes, I took this photo of the TV)
Cousin Isobel's beaded jacket came from a costume house in Paris, and has also made more than one appearance during the course of the show.  I probably wouldn't have noticed that if I hadn't gone to the lecture...
Didn't you just wear that at Christmas?
Ironically, of the more expensive costumes is the simple pink cotton dress worn by the kitchen maid, Daisy.  Since she wears the same thing every day, they decided it would be worth the investment to purchase the vintage Edwardian dress, which had never been worn.  It is the only completely original costume worn by a member of the cast.

As I watched the next episode (no spoilers, I promise!) with Josh, I drove the poor man crazy by constantly pausing the show and pointing out details about both the rooms in the house ("All the paintings in the dining room belong to the house, and are portraits of the previous Earls and their families.") and the costumes ("They had a hard time convincing the tailor to make Lord Grantham's suit with the sloping shoulders that were common during that period.").  I suspect he'll come up with an excuse to skip watching it with me this week...