10 things you need to know about Amedeo Modigliani (from a talk at Bell House)

It seems everyone has seen, or has plans to go to, the Modigliani exhibition at the Tate Modern. On 15th March, Rosalind Whyte came to Bell House Dulwich to give an art history talk based on this exciting, and ever so popular exhibition. Along with almost 60 other people, I learnt loads about Modigliani’s life, his art, and the works on show at the Tate Modern.

Want to know a bit about Modigliani before you go to the Tate? Already been, but wish you’d paid more attention? Here’s a quick rundown of what I learnt at Bell House:


1)    Amedeo Modigliani had a tragically short life, blighted by ill health, and a rather intense alcohol addiction.


2)    The exhibition currently on at the Tate Modern includes around 100 works; 9 of which are sculptures, and 40 of which are from private collections (this means many have never been seen publicly in the UK before!)

3)    Looking at some of his portraits, it may seem there is a faint outline of another head in the lower part of the painting. Confused? When Modgliani first moved to Paris, he struggled financially and had little money to spare for materials. To remedy this, he sometimes used both sides of a canvas, or used the same side twice. 

4)    Talking of money troubles, Modigliani sometimes offered his paintings as payment at bars and pubs. As he never achieved much fame in his lifetime, these bartenders never accepted – a mistake they surely now regret!


5)    Modigliani actually wanted to be a sculptor, and often introduced himself as such. Indeed, some of his sculpture work is stunning.

6)    The pure simplicity of Amedeo Modigliani’s work has been said to make it easy to counterfeit. In 1984 some pesky students in Paris pretended they had found some of Modigliani’s work in a river. They fooled everyone, until they ‘fessed up and admitted they had forged it. 

7)    Modigliani worked incredibly quickly. He turned paintings round in a couple of days, or even a few hours; once he made a connection with a sitter, he liked to hold onto it, and paint while it lasted. Understandably, this whirr of activity created quite a mess of paint splattered everywhere!


8)    The eyes in many Modigliani paintings are fascinating – with one often being cross-hatched out. As a sort of mystical explanation for this, Modigliani said “because you look out at the world with one eye, and into yourself with the other.”

9)    In the exhibition at the Tate Modern, lots of clever curatorial devices are used to enhance the audience experience. Rosaline Whyte explained that one of these is the angle of the sculptures; they do not face you as you walk into the room, forcing you to walk around them, and truly experience them from all angles.

10) Picasso and Modigliani were good friends – both having commented on the other’s sense of style. When talking of his friend, Modigliani once said, “Picasso is always ten years ahead of us”. Speaking of which, be sure not to miss the next art history talk at Bell House Dulwich, focused on the Picasso: Love, Fame and Tragedy exhibition which has just opened at the Tate Modern. Tickets at: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/picasso-1932-love-fame-tragedy-tickets-42692794297


This talk was delivered by Rosalind Whyte, lecturer at the Tate Modern, Tate Britain and Royal Academy. It was organised and hosted by Bell House Dulwich, as part of the commitment to wider learning for all ages and backgrounds. 

Using your smartphone to make a short film - a hands-on course at Bell House

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A total mixture of people showed up on Saturday 24th February at Bell House, ranging in age from 20 to 65, to learn how to make films on the small camera in their pockets – which also doubles up as a mobile phone.  Some brought iPhones and others had android phones, but Cassius Rayner's course works for all these devices; particularly impressive considering there are over 200 different android phones on the market.  In just over 5 hours we learnt about light, focus, tracking and editing, and, best of all, we ended up making our own short film.  In a rather circular process, the film I made with my two team-mates was a film about a teddy arriving at Bell House to go on a film course.


The professional film-makers on the course were planning to make all sorts of short films - for charities, for businesses, and for interviews. Not everyone was a professional, and come came just for the sheer fun of doing something creative.  Cassius explained that making a good film is all about a compelling story, told in a way that's eye-catching and easy to follow, so when we were making our films, we focused on creating an interesting story. After shooting, we used a variety of different editing apps to create our finished product.

The course was also full of tips and demonstrations of useful kit, from sliders to splitters, and microphones to tripods.  None of the smartphone add-ons are absolutely necessary, but it was surprising to see the range that's available. It was great to learn how affordable and cost-effective all the equipment is, and it really did make a difference to the quality of the filming.

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Whether you are serious about making short films or just want to have fun, this is the course for you - in a month's time Cassius will be running the same smartphone filmmaking course again. It costs £65, and in my opinion, is worth every penny.  The course on Saturday was sold out, and this one will be too very shortly! Sign up now before the tickets go! - http://www.mobilefilmmaking.com/workshops .  And if you work for a charity, then there is a specific course running on 27th April, teaching charity sector employees how to best use their smartphone to maximise filming for their charity in the age of social media: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/smartphone-filming-for-your-charity-tickets-43828741947


Fragment of an envelope

A fragment of an envelope: how much could it tell you about where it was found or who it belonged to?

Andrew McLynn, chief craftsman, is renovating the Bell House windows using traditional techniques to restore them to their original splendour. While taking apart one of the box sashes, Andrew found part of an envelope stuffed inside the window frame, probably by someone repairing the window who needed to fill the gap and picked up some nearby wastepaper.

Printed on it are the words:

needs you…
Now with
extra pages
and only 85p!
If undelivered, please return to
Games Workshop
27/29 Sunbeam Road, London NW10 6JP

(characters in italics are our interpolations due to letters being missing or illegible)

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We can see that the envelope was posted by Games Workshop and it would almost certainly have carried their in-house magazine, White Dwarf, which at the time covered fantasy and science fiction role-playing games, in particular ‘Advanced Dungeons & Dragons’ (referred to as AD&D on the magazine cover below). White Dwarf increased its cover price to 85p in April 1984 so our envelope would have been sent out after that as it refers to the cover price being ‘only 85p’.

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The envelope is addressed to A. Creed. He was a pupil at Dulwich College from 1984 to 1988. Boys at boarding at school would of course have their mail sent to their school address and it’s not surprising that one of them would want to read a magazine such as this one. Was Creed delighted to read his magazine on the day it arrived, or did he squirrel it away to enjoy at the weekend when he had more time? Perhaps he passed it around Bell House after he had read it, so that boys not lucky enough to have a subscription might also enjoy reading about the latest games.

We love finding fragments of history like this, and are very lucky to have our historian, Sharon O'Connor, around to investigate everything we find! Sharon has done SO much research on Bell House, and its residents, that we have two local history talks coming up based on her work. Events at Bell House have been selling out, so make sure you book soon before these tickets go!

"Study smarter, not harder" - Revision tips for dyslexic students

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Do you learn best by listening? By reading? By looking at colours? By moving around as you learn? For many people, especially dyslexic children, the answer to this question could be the key to unlocking the secret to the most effective revision techniques. As Caroline Bateman explained to a room full of parents at Bell House Dulwich, the answer for everyone is different. We should embrace this, and use our individual learning styles to help the revision process. 

“Study smarter, not harder”. This really was the theme running throughout Caroline’s talk, as she steered a group of parents with dyslexic children towards a set of techniques that could help with revision. The group was made up of parents who had children of varying ages, which made for great discussion, and opportunities to learn from each other. 

Instead of reinventing the wheel, Caroline showed us easy ways to transform existing resources into effective and, dare I say it, fun ways to revise. For example, take a PowerPoint presentation used in the classroom. A pupil can turn this into a quiz, so they can test themselves on information they have just learnt. This is a relatively low-tech way to use resources which are already there, and make them more interactive. Caroline underlined the importance of self-testing; it’s the best way for children and teenagers to truly engage their brains, and assess what they have truly absorbed. And a great way to incentivise revision!

We also discussed a range of practical tips which are beautifully simple to implement. For example, fitting school folders with a small plastic wallet containing coloured pens, glue, hole-punch, and post-it notes. This saves time when revision rolls around, and kids know exactly where to find all their revision stationery. Seeing such an organised, well-equipped file made lots of us in the room at Bell House wish we had these tips when doing our own school exams!

At the end of the two hour session, all the parents left Bell House feeling reassured that revision is not impossible, and armed with a new portfolio of revision techniques to try with their children. Due to the fantastic response from this evening, Caroline Bateman will be repeating her talk at Bell House Dulwich on 20th March. Please visit bellhouse.co.uk/events for more information, or get tickets at: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/parents-discover-how-to-support-your-childs-revision-tickets-43018171509

How to make films on your smartphone - seminar at Bell House

"The whole globe could become citizen film-makers" declared Cassius Rayner, as he spoke at Bell House about the power of using smartphones to create short films.  He's been impressed by what's happening in America, and in the film industry generally, where smart phones are enabling surprisingly high quality film-making.  A driving force for this is lower costs, and Cassius describes this as “accessible and affordable film-making".  For example, a rig to mount a smartphone with a good quality microphone and tripod could cost under £100. The group of us tried out various gadgets, attachments, lenses, and pistol-grip devices. Everyone loved the gimbal which keeps the smartphone steady, even when you are moving around.

  Testing the Smooth-Q Gimbal

Testing the Smooth-Q Gimbal

  Practical demonstration of equipment

Practical demonstration of equipment

Our group was a very mixed bunch with film-makers, photographers, charity publicists, a video-based start-up and people who are making the Bell House films. We watched clips that Cassius had made, and he demonstrated the techniques he uses. We also learnt how to fix the focus of the smartphone, how to increase the exposure and how best to get close-up pictures. Audio is critical, and a range of microphones were demonstrated. The main filming app Cassius personally uses is FilmicPro, which he demonstrated to the group. There are several other great filmmaking apps available of which a few were shown. Finally, we considered three editing app options recommended by Cassius.

One big advantage of making a film on your iPhone or Android smartphone is that when you go out filming in the street people don't ask what you are doing. Taking photos on smartphones is so common that people barely notice, whereas if you were using traditional equipment you can attract unwanted attention, “Smartphone filmmaking offers so much freedom to explore”. This medium is so exciting, it prompted Steven Soderbergh to come out of retirement and make a totally smartphone-based film, "Unsane" – to be released in March 2018.  Even film-makers using traditional methods are now often using smartphones to do a low cost dry-run.  The quality of smartphone films and amount of cost saving kits available is making the success of smartphone filming inevitable.

"Corporates are not up to speed with this yet, so I've mainly been working with charities, but once they see the quality they don't worry at all," says Cassius Rayner, a pioneer in teaching how to make the most of the camera in your pocket.  Cassius was demonstrating the attractions of his smartphone film-making workshops which are being held on Saturday 24th Feb and Saturday 24th March - these can be booked online.  These workshops will run from 10.30 to 4pm on Saturdays at Bell House and really teach you how to make your smartphone work for you.  For details please email info@bellhouse.co.uk 

  Cassius Rayner, multi-award winning filmmaker

Cassius Rayner, multi-award winning filmmaker

Bee-keeping: an introduction

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The Queen Bee's behaviour may seem the ultimate in promiscuous, as she can mate with large numbers of drones.  Many of the drones in a hive don't even get the chance to mate but those that do have their genitalia torn off in the process and then die.  Having taken the drone's sperm off him the queen bee stores it in a special pouch and uses it later for when she lays eggs.  Life expectancies are different too - the queen lives for about 4 years, whereas drones live for a few months at best, and worker bees in the summer only last for about 6 weeks.  I learnt all this in the introduction to bee-keeping at Bell House Dulwich where Philip Nicholson was leading the course.

At the course I met a mix of people - an allotment holder hoping to get bees installed on their allotment,  a bee-keeper from India who is planning to set up an apiary in Forest Hill, and one young woman wanting to join the bee-keepers at Bell House as "apprentice bee-keeper number 3".  

Philip used exhibits and slides to explain the life of the bee, the bee-keeping year, diseases of the hive and how to deal with swarming.  Occasional swarms, by the way, are quite normal and are an inevitable aspect of bee-keeping as the bees try to set up new colonies.  In looking at pests and diseases, Philip told us how to counter the Varroa mite, wax moth, chalk brood, wasps and bigger animals such as mice and woodpeckers.


Apart from being a terrific hobby, bee-keeping is a contribution to the environmental through pollination of flowers and trees.  For most bee-keepers a major objective is to make honey: we were told how to take off "supers" laden with honey, remove the wax capping, centrifuge out the honey and put it into jars.  Proving how productive bee-keeping is, Philip gave attendees a jar of honey which he (and his bees) have made in Kent, but next year I hope he may be able to supply honey made at Bell House in Dulwich.

If you want to know more, please email beekeepers@bellhouse.co.uk.

The Wrights Move to Dulwich

After their marriage, Thomas and Ann Wright set up home near London Bridge, close to Thomas’s business. They had three children, though only their daughter Ann survived childhood. They decided to move south, joining the exodus of families from the City which was becoming a place of business and manufacture rather than residency. The rapid improvement in roads and the building of Westminster and Blackfriars bridges enabled Thomas to commute much more easily and Dulwich, with its country air and spa at Dulwich Wells, provided an attractive alternative to the city. Commuting was a novelty as shown in this poem by Robert Lloyd written in 1757, just ten years before the Wrights moved to Bell House:

Some three or four miles out of town,
(An hour’s ride will bring you down),
He fixes on his choice abode,
Nor half a furlong from the road:
And so convenient does it lay
The stages pass it ev’ry day:
And then so snug, so mighty pretty,
To have a house so near the city!

In 1767 Thomas built Bell House and a year later replaced two ancient cottages nearby with what is now Pickwick Cottage. The eponymous bell is inscribed with the date 1770 so must have been installed a little after the house was built. In 1783 Thomas leased three more fields and the use of the mill pond on Dulwich Common with the ‘right to take fish out...by angling and no other method’. The gardens stretched to what is now the lake in Dulwich Park and also included part of Frank Dixon Close. The Wrights continued making improvements such as planting trees including perhaps the beautiful medlar tree which still stands outside the kitchen window. 

Lease of Bell House showing extent of garden. Source: Dulwich College

Matt rebuilds a wall

If you’ve passed Bell House recently don’t be alarmed. We are not demolishing the beautiful Georgian wall that divides the house from College Road. Part of the wall, damaged in the past, needs repairing and we are taking the opportunity to widen the entrance to allow access for emergency vehicles. Matt is undertaking the repairs and Bell House photographer Sue Robinson has taken a closer look.

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Matt has carefully dismantled the wall, brick by brick, and given each brick a unique code. This careful system will allow him to reinstate the bricks in their original positions, including the blind arch.


Matt has tried to save as many of the original bricks as possible but unfortunately, due to past repairs with cement mortar, many are unusable. Matt explained that mortar is the sacrificial element in masonry, it should always be weaker than the material it is binding. Cement mortar can trap moisture within the brick, causing crumbling or ‘spalling’.


When Matt begins rebuilding next week (weather permitting), he will be pointing the Georgian bricks with a traditional lime mortar as it allows the brickwork a certain amount of flexibility, helping to protect them from damage. He has sourced some recycled bricks to replace those too damaged to use and will reinstate the wall including the blind arch, so that it has the same integrity as before. Soon the wall will look pretty much as it did originally. Next time you are passing, see if you can see the join.

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Photographs by Sue Robinson