A surprise in Suffolk

I FEEL SURE THAT I visited Ickworth House in Suffolk at least 25 years ago. Apart from remembering the external appearance of its wonderful central rotunda, I could not recall anything else about it when we revisited it yesterday (13th of May 2023).

Ickworth House was built between 1795 and 1829 by the Hervey family, who became the marquesses of Bristol in 1467. Now maintained by the National Trust, it contains a remarkable collection of paintings. Unlike the often-indifferent paintings that can be found hanging in many English stately homes, Ickworth possesses many works by top-rated Western European artists of yesteryear. These were collected by the 4th Earl of Bristol and Bishop of Derry, Frederick Hervey (1730-1803), who inherited the fortune that allowed him to finance the construction of Ickworth. A frequent visitor to mainland Europe, he amassed a fine collection of art – both paintings and sculptures.

By Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Visitors to Ickworth can view a painted sketch by Velasquez, a portrait by Titian, five paintings by Johann Zoffany, a picture by Angelica Kauffmann, a sculpture by John Flaxman, and many other works by artists including Reynolds, Romney, and Gainsborough. And this is not all. There are also plenty of paintings by artists whose names are less familiar to me.

In one room there are two paintings by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842), who was court artist to Marie-Antoinette. One of them is an interesting self-portrait, in which the artist depicted herself painting a portrait of her daughter. She and her daughter fled from France after the arrest of the French royal family in 1789. She met Frederick Hervey, the Earl-Bishop, in Italy twice in 1790. Both in Rome and in Naples, she painted his portrait. The one painted in Naples hangs at Ickworth, facing her self-portrait.

We visited Ickworth yesterday as apart of a drive around Suffolk. As we had done no advance planning or research on the place, what we found inside – the amazing collection of artworks – was a delightful surprise.

Arrival and departure and the weather

UNDOUBTEDLY, MADEIRA IS a wonderful place to visit – a gem in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Unless you are travelling on a cruise liner or own your own seagoing boat, the only way to reach the place is by air. There is only one airport. This is on the coast east of Funchal. The runway is close to the sea and has sea close to each of its ends. The problem with the airport is that it is frequently affected by local wind conditions, which make both landing and taking off difficult, if not occasionally quite hazardous or even impossible. Only specially trained pilots can use this airport.

The air currents – mainly cross-winds – make landing a challenge. When we flew to Funchal in 2022, our ‘plane had to make two attempts because on the first approach, we were blown away from the runway towards the sea. We were told that this was not at all unusual. Sometimes, conditions are so bad that aircraft must be diverted to the Portuguese island of Porto Santo, which is across the sea about 35 miles northeast of Madeira. A couple whom we met in Funchal this May (2023) told us that they had visited Madeira by air eight times. On two of their trips, their in-bound flights were diverted to Porto Santo. On one of these occasions, they waited a few hours on the island before their flight continued to Funchal. On the other, they disembarked on Porto Santo, and had to continue to Madeira by ship.

If flying into Madeira has its difficulties, so does leaving the place. For, if a ‘plane cannot land, or is delayed by adverse winds, then those hoping to leave the island will also face problems including delays and cancelled flights. This year, our flight from Funchal to London was scheduled for Wednesday, the 10th of May. On the evening and during the night of Monday the 8th of May, Funchal was hit by strong winds. Flights were unable to land or take-off from Funchal for most of Tuesday. The couple I mentioned were due to fly to England on Monday evening. To our great surprise, we met them at Funchal’s airport on Wednesday afternoon. Their flight had been cancelled on Monday, and then again on Tuesday. Their airline, Jet2, had arranged for them to be put up in comfortable hotels for both Monday and Tuesday nights. In addition, they had been given vouchers to cover their meals. Other people we met at the airport had been less fortunate.

When we arrived at Funchal’s airport on the afternoon of the 10th of May, the check-in hall was full of people, many of them lying on thin mattresses that the airport had provided. Many of them had spent one or two nights sleeping on the floor, waiting for flights to replace those which they had had to miss because their ‘planes were unable to land. We spoke with several Ryanair passengers whose flights had been cancelled. They had either been offered only one night’s accommodation or none at all. Because their delays were due to weather rather than failings of the airline, Ryanair did not offer to accommodate or even feed their delayed passengers. They had been offered places on replacement flights, which were scheduled to leave several days after the 10th of May, or to try to get last-minute stand-by places on earlier flights. Many of the delayed passengers, who were uncertain when they could leave Madeira, had jobs to return to and/or connecting flights to catch. A young couple from Canada were particularly unfortunate. Their Ryanair flight had been cancelled, and they had to reach London to board a flight to Vancouver. They missed the flight to Canada. Because their tickets from Funchal to London were not connected with those to Canada, the transatlantic flight tickets from London were wasted and they had to pay for another flight a few days later. In addition, because they preferred to stay in a hotel rather than on the floor at Funchal’s airport, they managed to book “the last remaining hotel room in Funchal”, which set them back 400 Euros. Luckily for them, they managed to get standby tickets on the same Ryanair flight as ours. They had been told that had this not been possible, they would have been assigned seats to fly out on the 20th of May.  

We were lucky. By the 10th of May, the weather had calmed, and flights were back to more or less normal.  Our flight was delayed by one and a half hours because the ‘plane which was to take us to London had to circle many times before being permitted to land at Funchal.

So, much as I would highly recommend spending time on the beautiful island of Madeira, you must understand that because of the vagaries of the weather far out in the Atlantic, you should be prepared to spend less or more time than you planned on the island. Finally, in an age when tourist travel has become almost as reliable as clockwork, it is fascinating to find a place where, as in centuries long past, travelling is subject to the same factors that affected voyagers of yesteryear.

Apologising for the weather

I praised Ryanair after our flight from Stansted to Funchal in late April 2023. The return flight to Stansted (in May 2023) was delayed because of weather conditions at Funchal’s airport. This was not the airline’s fault. However, I regret to say that the Portuguese airport staff at Funchal handled this delay badly and rudely.

The flight back to London was as good as can be expected on a budget airline. Despite not being responsible for meteorological conditions, the pilot could not stop apologising for the delay.

English Church in Madeira

THE FIRST RECORDED Anglican service in Madeira was held on a British ship passing by in 1774. Randomly occurring services were officiated by chaplains of passing ships until about 1807 when some British soldiers were stationed on Madeira as part of the war against Napoleon. Thereafter, the British garrison’s chaplain held services for British residents in the island’s British consulate.

In 1813, a plot of land was purchased close to the already established English Cemetery. The land is where the English Church stands today. Designed by Henry Veitch, the church was completed by 1822.

From the outside, the domed neoclassical building does not much resemble a church. Square in plan, inside it contains two concentric circles of supporting pillars. The top of the dome is above the central point of the church’s floor. The interior of the church is simple but elegant. Veitch, who was a freemason, might have been influenced by freemasonry in his choice of design, or possibly by the round style of temples favoured by the former Knights Templar.

When the church was built, it was attended by members of Madeira’s British residents, who numbered about 700 in 1822. Currently, there are only about 70 British residents. It was not until William Reid opened his hotel in the 1890s that the flood of tourists from Britain and elsewhere began in earnest.

Currently, the English Church, set in its lovely gardens, hosts many musical events – classical and otherwise.

Imported from India

IN THE FIFTEENTH century, the Portuguese made an important set of discoveries, which were kept a closely guarded secret. These discoveries brought great wealth to Portugal. The Portuguese navigators found routes from Portugal to India via the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape of Good Hope. By using these, they were able to transport spices and other valuable commodities from Asia to Portugal directly. Prior to the discovery of this sea route, goods from India and further east arrived in Europe via Egypt and the former Ottoman Empire. This overland route undoubtedly added various middle-man costs to the goods.

Once the Portuguese began sailing in the Indian Ocean, they successfully created a monopoly over trading in this area. However, after a period of uninterrupted use of the Indian Ocean, competition arrived in the form of mainly Dutch and British trading vessels.

Mother of pearl bowls from India

Madeira was one of the places that the early Portuguese ships called in at during their voyages. This was brought home to me during a visit to Funchal’s superb Museum of Sacred Art. In two of its rooms we saw religious artefacts – sculptures and two mother of pearl bowls – which were labelled as having come from India. There were others that came from ‘Portuguese Asia’. One item, a beautiful inlaid tortoise shell box, came from Japan.

Unlike the religious sculptures we have seen in old Portuguese churches in Goa, which often feature Indian looking faces, those in the museum had European facial appearances. An exception is a 16th century carved panel depicting St Francis Xavier asleep on the Island of Shangchuang. He is accompanied by two saints – one Indian and the other Chinese.

Seeing these beautiful old sculptures and other objects, which were made in Asia and then brought to Madeira, helped make the history of Portugal’s former pioneering navigational achievements a little more vivid for me.

Franco and Franco in Funchal

MOST VISITORS TO central Funchal in Madeira will pass, and probably notice, a bronze statue high up on a square based plinth outside the Bank of Portugal and the Golden Gate Grand Café. It depicts Joao Goncalves Zarco, who began the Portuguese settlement of Madeira in the 15th century. Very few people who pass this statue will know that it was created by a Madeiran sculptor, Francisco Franco (1885-1955). His older brother Henrique Franco (1883-1961) is one of Madeira’s most famous painters.

Both brothers studied at the Lisbon School of Fine Arts. They also spent time in Paris. Henrique returned to Madeira where he painted many of his pictures. Many of them are of Madeirans and scenes of the island. His paintings are beautifully executed and visually pleasing. Although the influence of Cezanne can be detected, Henrique did not seem to have affected by the innovative trends that were occurring in Western art during the 20th century.

Francisco visited Mussolini’s Italy in the 1920s and was impressed by the way that the state produced sculptures, which promoted the ethos and aims of the regime. He returned to Portugal, and began creating sculptural works that boosted the image of his country. Many of his important works were created for the Salazar government, which began in 1932.

Until our second visit to Funchal, I had never heard of the Franco brothers. Today, the 8th of May 2023, we visited a small museum in Funchal. It contains a fine collection of the works of both brothers. The museum contains many fine paintings by Henrique and sculptures by his brother, including a bust of Portugal’s former dictator Salazar. A video showing in the museum seems to suggest that far from being hostile to the Salazar dictatorship, Francisco was happy to create sculptures for it and its institutions.

Francisco attended an industrial school in Funchal. Its building is next to the museum. Over its main entrance is a carved stone sculptural frieze created by Francisco. The edifice now houses the Escola Secundaria de Francisco Franco, which opened in about 1976. Within its entrance lobby, we saw a bas-relief depicting the sculptor.

Although it is not one of Funchal’s main tourist attractions, the Museu Henrique e Francisco Franco deserves to be better-known.

Mahatma on Madeira

UNTIL AIR TRAVEL really ‘took off’, travelling between South Africa and London involved a long sea voyage, either via the Suez Canal or via the Atlantic Ocean. Boats carrying passengers up and down the Atlantic often called in at Funchal in Madeira. Aged three, I travelled with my parents to South Africa by sea. I have seen a photograph of me dressed in a toga made from a sheet from our cabin. I was taking part in a fancy dress party to celebrate crossing the Equator.

Many years before that – in 1906 – a barrister, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, travelled by ship from London to South Africa. He was on his way back to South Africa, having petitioned young Winston Churchill, then Under Secretary of State for the Colonies, against the Black Act – a law promoting racial segregation. Apparently, when his ship docked in Funchal, the future Mahatma received news that his efforts had been successful, but this news turned out to be false.

On the 5th of September 2019, a bust of Gandhi was unveiled on the seafront in Funchal, close to the harbour where liners dock today. The bust, which unusually shows Gandhi without his characteristic round lens spectacles, was sculpted by Ram Vanaji Sutar (born 1925 in Gondur, Maharashtra). Sutar is also the sculptor of the massive Statue of Unity, depicting Sardar Vallabhai Patel in Gujarat. Beneath the bust there is a quotation incorrectly attributed to Gandhi; it was actually said or written by the Dutch American pacifist AJ Muste (1885-1967). The artwork was unveiled by HE Miguel Albuquerque, President of the Regional Government of Madeira and HE Nandini Singla, Ambassador of India to Portugal. It celebrates the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth.

I am grateful to our friend Claus for telling us about the bust, which is not easily visible despite its position so near the waterfront: it is partially hidden by plants.

Over the years, I have visited Porbandar where the Mahatma was born; Rajkot where he went to school; Bhavnagar where he went to college; West Kensington where he lodged when studying for the Bar; Mumbai where he attempted to work as a lawyer; and the Gujarat Club in Ahmedabad where he first met Vallabhai Patel, and also set up his ashrams. So seeing him on Funchal has added to my attempts to follow in his footsteps.

Islets on the island

MANY PEOPLE VISIT Madeira to improve their health or to retire. Some of these people die on the island and are buried there. Today (5th of May 2023), we took a look at the small English Cemetery in central Funchal. This well tended burial ground, founded in 1770, contains graves of British and some Portuguese people – Protestants mainly. In addition, there are graves of men and women born outside Portugal in places including Germany, Finland, Romania, USA, Holland, Sweden, and Poland.

One of the Americans buried in the cemetery is Harry C Stone “Late Captain Cavalry USA”. His simple yet moving gravestone bears the date 1972 and the words:
“He believed in God”

Three graves particularly intrigued me. One of them marks the burial place of Lady Sarah Bonetta Davies (née Forbes). She was born in Ogun State in 1843 and died in Funchal in 1880. The gravestone informs that she was: “Princess of the Egbada Omoba people, West Africa. God-daughter of HM Queen Victoria.”
She was born an aristocratic member of the Egbada clan of the Yoruba people and was enslaved by King Ghezo of Dahomey, who ‘gifted’ her to Captain Frederick Forbes of the British Royal Navy. She became a god-daughter of Queen Victoria, and later married the Nigerian businessman James Pinson Labulo Davies of Lagos in West Africa. She died of tuberculosis in Funchal.

Another black African, George Oruigbiji Pepple, also lies buried in the cemetery. Between 1866 and 1883, he was the King of Bonny which was a small state in the Niger River delta. He was deposed in 1883 and restored to the throne in 1887. Why he was buried in Funchal , I have not yet discovered.

The third grave that interested me greatly is that of Paul Langerhans (1847-1888). This German pathologist and physiologist is best known for his discovery of the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. Although he was unaware of the function of these distinctive cells, they have been named in his honour as The Islets of Langerhans.

Langerhans came to Madeira in 1875, having contracted tuberculosis. He recovered a little, researched marine worms, and practised medicine. In 1885, he married the widow of one of his patients. They lived together until his death. According to his wishes, he was buried in the English Cemetery in Funchal.

The cemetery is a lovely place to visit. It has plenty of flowers and is peaceful. On a future visit to Madeira, I would like to spend more time investigating the biographies of those whose remains lie there.