Northampton Shoe & Art Gallery

It is open to debate, but I once heard a pub quiz question, ” Which is the only piece of British clothing that secret agent James Bond wears? The answer was, “His shoes” The quizmaster went on to tell his audience that author Ian Fleming had written in his novels that James Bond always wore high quality crafted leather shoes, made in Northampton! There is no question that James Bond has an association with the Northampton shoe industry today because since Daniel Craig starred as the iconic British secret agent in Sky Fall, Northampton shoemaker, Crockett & Jones, with a history spanning over 140 years, has provided the shoes that featured in Skyfall & Spectre & are on his feet during the current Bond film, No Time to Die!

The Northampton Shoe and Art Gallery closed for four years, four months and twenty one days after a major £6.7 million redevelopment and refurbishment project, the work had already been delayed by two years after asbestos was discovered in the buildings structure, then the Coronavirus pandemic forced the museum to open much later than already anticipated. The Museum has more than doubled in size since work began in 2018. It will be a “focal point” in the town’s Cultural Quarter, which includes the NN Contemporary Art Gallery, the Royal and Derngate Theatre, 78 Derngate and the Vulcan Works which are expected to open sometime in October.

Northampton Museum and Art Gallery frontage street view

Visitors will enter a £6.7m museum refurbishment funded by the controversial sale of a 4,000-year-old Egyptian statue. The Egyptian Sekhemka statue, was sold for £16m by the now-defunct Northampton Borough Council in 2014. The sale of the Sekhemka statue attracted criticism, and even a change in the code of ethics issued to museums. Told the council made about £8m from the sale! The museum had its accreditation withdrawn, leaving it ineligible for some grants, after the sale, but the new council has said it now has provisional accreditation from the Arts Council after reapplying and can apply for full accreditation now the museum has once again opened.

My first impressions were how light and spacious it was, the main atrium and reception area reflecting the history, heritage, and modernity of the building. A welcome addition is the new café with a small outside terrace for those warm sunny days! The shop is much better arranged and larger, there is a new `selling gallery` and a new shoe gallery highlighting the museums “internationally important” shoe collection and a taste of the town’s shoemaking heritage.

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The new permanent shoe gallery is a delight! Previously visited the museum and was often disappointed, particularly when as a local schoolteacher, I had several excited young people to entertain, educate and motivate! The exhibition spaces were dark, poorly labelled and did not show off the collection at its best. Now, the space is bright, vibrant, and spacious with a range of different perspectives in which to view the collection. The gallery highlights the depth and breadth of the collection by asking questions and prompting the viewer to use the resources provided to answer the questions for themselves! “Why do we wear the shoes we do? How are the shoes designed, manufactured, and sold?

It is the largest collections of shoes and shoe heritage in the world with 15,000 pairs in the collection and can now proudly demonstrate and reflect that in this beautifully arranged space. The earliest shoes date as far back as 300BC, Queen Victoria’s wedding shoes, Elton John’s tommy boots from the film “Tommy” and the iconic Red Boots from the film “Kinky Boots”, which was set in Northampton, are some of the most famous & familiar foot wear on display. Lots of people from Northampton have contributed shoes to the exhibition, so it is very much the towns own shoe Museum!

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Ah! Now the little pottery shoes, they’re good luck, you see. You know, like Whitby has lucky glass ducks, Northampton has lucky pottery shoes.

Ms Cobb speaking to Lola – Kinky Boots

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The museum not only features shoes but also galleries of artworks and an entertaining and educational history of the town. The story of the town is in the two longer standing galleries charting the History and development of the town over two periods, Gallery 1 looks at 4000BC – 1675AD and Gallery 2 from 1675 to the present day.

The History galleries are still very much unchanged, having undergone a light refurbishment as part of the redevelopment but new displays include lacemaking, wartime manufacture and post – war development of the town. Divided into two galleries, the display passes chronologically through time, charting the history of the town from the stone age, Civil War, Great Fire through to the rebuilding of the town and modern age.

The two new art galleries were of huge interest to me! The galleries will host a programme of changing in – house exhibitions from the museums own collection and regular touring exhibitions. The Christopher Fiddes retrospective was fascinating. A former Northamptonshire Art school teacher, who has been painting for over 60 years, the exhibition provided a selection of his work across the five themes most dominant over his career. I particularly enjoyed, “ Brexit means Brexit” The British exit from the European Union depicted as a maritime scene where the fragile raft of Great Britain is having its ropes cut loose from the ornate & grand Europa! Aboard the raft are proud Brexiteers standing tall whilst worried figures crouch below them. “ Flash Girls on Happy Hour” finds Fiddes commentating on the effects of excessive drinking amongst young women in Northampton town centre. Although an imagined street in Northampton, nowhere has neon like that, the outline of All Saints Church is visible beyond the exuberant girls, police officers and neon lights.

“There’s an eclectic mix of images, stories, objects, paintings, and it’s really a celebration of everything Northampton from the past and the present. One of the really big parts of the exhibition is the people from Northampton” which includes comedian & television personality Alan Carr, whose father Graham managed Northampton Town and former Northampton MP Spencer Perceval, the only British prime minister to have been assassinated, when he was killed in 1812″

Louise Hannam-Jones – History Curator – Northampton Shoe & Art Gallery

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“We are Northampton” is a celebration of the town’s rich heritage and its people exploring the town through its diverse buildings, neighbourhoods, events such as the Carnival, sporting clubs such as the Saints & Cobblers and its people, both past and present! Effective use has been made of Video art and installations, I particularly enjoyed cycling the carnival course along Abington Park! The exhibition is very much about local people too! The image of Alaric Neville, Managing Director of Phipps NBC outside the restored 1884 Albion Brewery, Kingswell Street, Northampton reflects this admirably. Alaric always had a keen interest in History, he had been an Archaeologist in his first job. In 2014 he and his brother Quentin set about restoring the 1884 Albion Brewery so that their father could once again enjoy his favourite tipple!

“Now it feels like we have made a lot more people happy and bought back a little bit of the old Northampton character & pride”

Alaric Neville, Managing Director of Phipps NBC
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I loved the small model of The White Elephant public House having spent several evenings in there watching local town bands such as The Tempest, Groovy Underwear and Nation 3, during the early eighties. What I didn’t know was how it got its name! The White Elephant was at one time called The Kingsley Park Hotel but once horse racing discontinued on the Racecourse it changed its name, as it was now a White Elephant!

The White Elephant

During the 1960s the town’s population was set to double as part of the government’s New Towns Act. But as new estates welcomed thousands of families from London and from across the country the old town centre underwent radical changes which locals feared was stripping away its cultural & historical identity. In September a new show `60 Miles by Road or Rail` will take place at the Royal & Derngate which further explores Northampton’s extraordinary past, present and future, with inputs from the people of the town.

I enjoyed my visit to the Museum enormously, it is well worth a visit. Would like to see the Museum & Cultural Quarter better signposted around town so that more people can find it! If you have been in the past you really should visit again because you will have a different experience. Gone are the dark shoe cabinets and cramped spaces of the old museum, this is a vibrant fun shoe museum which will entertain and brighten your day and if you love shoes, it’s worth making a pilgrimage! The shoes on display are varied, unusual, beautifully crafted, bizarre, unusual, colourful, unique and the stories behind them all are even more fascinating! This is a shoe museum with Art on the walls by artists living today! Young people of all ages will find something of interest in the Museum. With free entry at the door, it’s a fantastic way to pass a few hours with the children and better still you are free to take pictures also with plenty of opportunities for those essential selfies!

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Blue Suede Shoes – Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes – Goody Two Shoes – These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ – Old Brown Shoe – The Red Shoes – Eleanor put your boots on! – Hi Heel Sneakers – Crocodile Shoes – Shoes without Heels

NOTICE: Some of the photographs were taken from the Museum Facebook page. If you would like credit for your photograph please let me know who you are!

Credit: Paul O’Leary @Doctoro74