Pianos and art deco in Mayfair

THE CORNER OF BROOK Street and Haunch of Venison Yard (in London’s Mayfair) is adorned with a fine building with a white Portland stone façade. It is built in the art deco style. The building, Greybrook House (28 Brook Street), was constructed in 1929 and designed by Sir John Burnet and Partners (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1392996). Burnet, born in Scotland, lived from 1857 to 1938.

Greybrook House was built to house the showrooms of the piano company, Bechstein, founded in 1853 by Friedrich Wilhelm Carl Bechstein (1826-1900). In 1901, the firm opened a concert hall, Bechstein Hall, on Wigmore Street. In 1917, the hall was renamed the Wigmore Hall and is still used today. The hall was next to Bechstein’s showrooms, which were closed in 1916 because of its German connection. In 1928, Bechstein’s, which had been closed during and after WW1, re-established itself in the UK, and commissioned the building of Greybrook House to be used for their new showrooms. In addition to showrooms, the new building included practice rooms and office space.

I am not sure when Bechstein left its Brook Street premises. However, I noticed that beside the entrance to the flats there is a beautifully carved calligraphic inscription that reads “Allied Ironfounders Ltd”. This company had its showroom in Greybrook House in the 1950s. Judging by a photograph I have seen on the Internet (www.ribapix.com/allied-ironfounders-showrooms-28-brook-street-mayfair-london-the-showrooms-entrance-with-the-brick-mural-men-of-iron-designed-by-trevor-tennant_riba25422#), it must have been quite exciting visually.

Currently, the ground floor of Greybrook House is occupied by Joseph, an upmarket clothing retailer. The upper floors have been converted into luxury flats by Fenton Whelan and Vanbrugh Prime Property. This was done recently.

The lovely art deco façade of Greybrook House remains unaltered. By chance, or who knows, maybe deliberately, Bechstein’s Brook Street showrooms were almost opposite the house where the composer George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) lived from 1723 until his death. Finally, the company that had its piano showrooms in Greybrook House is currently constructing a new set of showrooms and a small 100 seat concert hall back in Wigmore Street where their first London premises were located (www.rhinegold.co.uk/international_piano/c-bechstein-returns-to-londons-wigmore-street/).

They had no choice

ARMISTICE DAY IS celebrated annually on the 11th of November, the day that fighting came to an end in WW1. The day is to celebrate and:

“…remember all those who gave their lives in service to their country since 1914.” (https://www.britishlegion.org.uk/get-involved/remembrance/about-remembrance/armistice-day). It was not only humans who sacrificed their lives, either willingly or less willingly, but also animals, who had been employed in warfare. A monument on a wide traffic island in London’s Park Lane was constructed to remember these four-legged creatures who lost their lives prematurely during battles from which they were unlikely to gain any benefit.

Erected by The Animals in War Memorial Fund (www.animalsinwar.org.uk/) and unveiled in 2004, this dramatic monument consists of a semi-circular Portland stone wall with a gap near its centre. Two bronze horses laden with military equipment are depicted walking towards the gap. and beyond the gap, a bronze sculpture of a running dog can be seen. The western part of the concave side of the wall has bas-reliefs depicting, horses, elephants, and camels. The eastern side of the concavity bears several inscriptions including one with the words “They had no choice”. The convex surface of the wall bears stylised silhouettes of horses. The monument was designed by David Backhouse and was inspired by the book “Animals in War” by Jilly Cooper.

“They had no choice” is a poignantly appropriate sentence on a memorial to creatures who were taken into fields of battle innocent of their likely fate. Seeing this moving monument made me think that these same four words could easily be applied to the numerous Indian participants in WW1 and WW2 who were sent to Europe as ‘volunteers’ innocent of their horrendous destination by their rulers in the Princely States of India, who wished to please the British, whom they served. Had these unfortunate servicemen known what they were about to face, some of them might have objected. That option was not one that would ever been open to the slaughtered animals commemorated on Park Lane.

Oscar Wilde, a bishop, and an art dealer

DOVER STREET RUNS north from Piccadilly, not far from The Royal Academy. It is a thoroughfare we often visit because it contains several commercial art galleries that frequently put on interesting exhibitions. One of these is the London gallery of Thaddeus Ropac. Not only does this international art dealer have good exhibitions, but the house in which the works of art are displayed, 37 Dover Street, is an artwork itsef, an architectural treasure.

The architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner (1908-1983), whose writing I enjoy greatly, is a little dismissive of the buildings in Dover Street with one exception. In his “London Volume 1”, which was co-authored by Bridget Cherry, he wrote of this street:

“The only house which needs special attention is Ely House (No. 37)”

This is the building that is now home to Thaddeus Ropac. Ely House was built in the 1770s by the then Bishop of Ely, Edmund Keene (1714-1781), who was appointed to that post in January 1771. According to The Dictionary of National Biography (1885-1900 edition), Keene:

“… obtained in 1772 an act of parliament for alienating from the see, in consideration of the payment of 6,500l. [i.e., £6,500] and an annuity of 200l., the ancient palace in Holborn, and for purchasing, at a cost of 5,800l., the freehold of a house in Dover Street, Piccadilly, London. The present house on that site was built by him about 1776.”

Clearly, the bishop was not short of cash; he was married to Mary (née Andrews), daughter and sole heiress of Andrews of Edmonton, once a successful linen draper in Cheapside.

The architect of Ely House was Sir Robert Taylor (1714-1788). The building remained the London residence of the Bishops of Ely until the beginning of the 20th century. In 1909, the interior of Ely House was greatly modified by the Arts & Crafts architectural firm Smith and Brewer (https://ropac.net/news/245-galerie-thaddaeus-ropac-ely-house-london/), and it became the home of The Albermarle Club. This private members’ club, founded in 1874, was open to both men and women, and was first housed at 13 Albermarle Street. Known for its liberal views on women’s rights, it was in 1895 the site of an incident that led to the first trial of one of its members, the writer Oscar Wilde (www.back2stonewall.com/2021/02/gay-lgbt-history-feb-18-oscar-wilde-accused-sodomite.html). Because of the club’s connection with proceedings that led to Wilde’s downfall, it moved to 37 Dover Street to distance itself from Albermarle Street where these unfortunate events had occurred.

During WW2, Ely House became used by The American Red Cross Interstate Club. Later, it housed a private bank. When Pevsner and Cherry published their book in 1973, the house was being used by Oxford University Press. In Spring 2017, Thaddeus Ropac announced that they would open their London gallery in Ely House.

The exterior of Ely House might not have changed much since it was constructed. A medallion on the façade depicts a bishop’s mitre. The magnificent wrought iron railings topped with several models of lions was a 19th century addition based on the lions designed for The British Museum by the sculptor Alfred Stevens (1817-1875). The interior of Ely House would now be unrecognisable to Bishop Edmund Keene apart from a few decorative features that have been preserved. Furthermore, the artworks that are so beautifully displayed in the lovely, whitewashed rooms of the former Ely House would have seemed totally alien to the long-since departed bishop. Rarely, if ever, do the artworks displayed superbly in the gallery lack in visual interest and originality. What drew us to the gallery on the 9th of November 2021 was a small, intriguing collection of creations by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) in one room, and several rooms containing disturbingly lifelike, but not always life-sized, sculptures by Ron Mueck, an artist born in Australia in 1958, son of German-born toymakers.

Dover Street is part of a network of Mayfair thoroughfares containing commercial art galleries. Amongst them Thaddeus Ropac has the most beautiful premises and is worth seeing not only for its artworks but also as a fine example of London’s architectural heritage.

Gin and tonic by the pulpit

NAPOLEON BONAPARTE DIED in captivity on the tiny island of St Helena in the south Atlantic. While he was imprisoned on the island, Lieutenant General Sir Hudson Lowe (1769-1844) was the Governor of St Helena. He was buried at St Mark’s Church in North Audley Street in London’s Mayfair, where a commemorative plaque can be found by the main entrance. St Mark’s was built in the Greek Revival Style in 1825-28, designed by John Peter Gandy (1787-1850). In 1878, the church architect Arthur Blomfield (1829-1899) made considerable alterations to its interior including adding a timber vaulted ceiling over the nave.

During the 1950s and 1960s, the size of St Mark’s congregation diminished significantly. In 1974, the church was made redundant, and this is how it remained until 1994, when the church was used by The Commonwealth Christian Fellowship. It continued to serve this group until 2008. After that, it was used as a venue for occasional events. In about 2019 after a 5 million Pound restoration programme, the church underwent a surprising reincarnation.

After passing beneath the grand portico supported by two columns topped with ionic capitals, one enters the church’s large vestibule. Since 2019, this has become a marketplace selling upmarket Italian delicatessen goods. Entering the body of the church is rather like taking part in a Fellini film. The floor of the nave is filled with tables and chairs and people drinking and dining. The side aisles, north and south, contain several kitchens, preparing and serving a wide variety of foods, from Turkish to Thai. On the north side of the chancel, just behind the neo-gothic stone pulpit, there is a gin bar, and facing it on the south side of the chancel, there is another bar providing alcoholic refreshments. Look upwards and you can admire the splendid timber roof supports. The wide gallery surrounding the nave at the first-floor level is home to more food stalls, each offering tempting looking fare at not unreasonable prices, especially by local Mayfair standards.

In 2019, the church became home to a branch of Mercato Metropolitano, whose first venture was converting a 150,000 square foot disused railway station in Milan during the 2015 World Expo in that Italian city. The idea of the company was:

“The development of the first Mercato Metropolitano was carefully planned to retain the site’s original appearance, which nurtured the local community’s affection for a special part of their urban history.”

 (https://www.mercatometropolitano.com/mmarketplace/#the-mercato-story).

And this is what has been done at the former St Mark’s in Mayfair. Many of the church’s fittings (for example, the tiled floors, the stained glass, the monuments, the pulpit, and the sacred paintings at the east end of the chancel) have been preserved. Entering the church is like entering the scene of a lively gargantuan feast. Seeing the large number of customers on a weekday lunchtime demonstrates that Mercato Metropolitano have successfully created a great place to meet, eat, and drink. It is highly original and exciting, both visually and gastronomically.

In Chapter 21 (verses 12-13) of the Gospel according to Matthew, we learn that:

“…Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.”

I just cannot help wondering, as many of you might also be doing, what The Good Lord would have made of what can now be seen inside the Church of St Mark’s in Mayfair.

Singing and socialism in an Essex town

THAXTED IS A PICTURESQUE small town in Essex, about six and a half miles northeast of Stansted Airport. Apart from its numerous quaint old buildings, the town has three notable landmarks: an old windmill, a 15th century guildhall, and a large parish church, which was built between 1340 and 1510 during the time when Thaxted was an important centre for the manufacturing cutlery. Also, Thaxted is home to an annual music festival, whose existence derives from the discovery of the town by a composer, Gustav Holst (1874-1934), creator of “The Planets” and many other musical compositions, who was on a walking tour in Essex during the winter of 1913.

Gustav Holst in Thaxted

Holst, who was born in Cheltenham, was living in London by 1913 and teaching music at St Pauls School for Girls in Hammersmith, James Allen’s Girls School in Dulwich, and Morley College for adults in Lambeth. At the same time, he was busy composing.

Holst had come to study at The Royal College of Music in London in 1893. Soon after arriving in London, he became acquainted with William Morris (1834-1896) and attended meetings at the latter’s house in Hammersmith, where he would have heard lectures on socialism given by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and others. Holst joined the Hammersmith Socialist Society (‘HSS’), which was led by Morris. Many of the socialists he met including Shaw were vegetarians, as was the composer Wagner, whom Holst greatly admired. As a student and a regular attender of meetings of the HSS, he became a vegetarian and at the same time developed a great interest in Hinduism (www.ivu.org/people/music/holst.html). He began studying Sanskrit at The School of Oriental and African Studies (https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-music/articles/holst-and-india) and several of his compositions bear Indian-sounding titles, such as “Savitri” and another opera called “Sita”, and songs based on the Rig Veda.

According to Nalini Ghuman:

“In contrast to the vague musical orientalism in vogue during the height of the British Empire, Holst’s hymns, with their bona fide Indian texts, subjects, and musical elements, have often seemed decidedly ‘un-Indian’ to the uninformed ear: ‘Sound firm impressions of the East from a sane Western perspective’ declared The Musical Times; ‘They do not suggest a point further East than Leicester-square’ (Daily Telegraph); after all, explained the Manchester Guardian ‘many real Eastern musical ideas are frankly ugly and uninteresting’. Their Indian musical roots have long been denied by the composer’s biographers.” (https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-music/articles/holst-and-india).

However, Ghuman points out in her article that Holst did incorporate elements of Indian music, including emulating Vedic chanting and a South Indian mode, the namanarayani. You would need to be a serious musician with specialist interest in Indian music to be aware of these features whilst listening to Holst’s Indian inspired compositions.

Returning to his political leanings, major biographies of Holst tend not to focus much on his connections with socialism, but an informative article, “Gustav HoIst, William Morris and the Socialist Movement” by Andrew Heywood (Journal of the William Morris Society, vol 11, no. 4: 1996), shows that his involvement was far from inconsiderable. In addition to attending meetings of the HSS, Holst conducted its socialist choir, played the harmonium on the ‘official socialist’ cart, and was involved in the administration of the society. Heywood wrote that:

“In the light of his clear commitment to the socialist movement through 1896 it would seem likely that his involvement with the musical activity of the society did not stem from a lack of political commitment; rather it was an opportunity to serve the movement in a way which utilised his musical talents and interest.”

It was through the HSS that Gustav met his wife Isobel, who not only sang in the socialist choir but also, according to Heywood, was politically active in the society.

So, it was with a background of involvement with socialism that Holst walked into Thaxted in late 1913 and took such a great liking to the place that he rented a 17th century cottage there (actually, in Monk Street, 1 ½ miles from Thaxted) from its owner, the Jewish author Samuel Levy Bensusan (1872-1958). Thus began Holst’s several year’s association with the town. It was not long before he made the acquaintance of Thaxted’s vicar, Conrad le Despenser Roden Noel (1869-1942). After the cottage in Monk Street burnt down, Holst and his family lived in a house, The Manse (formerly known as ‘The Steps’), in the centre of Thaxted. Today, this is marked by a commemorative plaque.

Noel was not a run-of-the-mill country cleric. He was a Christian Socialist and a member of Social Democratic Federation, a founder member of the British Socialist Party, and for some time the Chairman of the Anti-Imperialist League, supporting the struggle for independence both in Ireland and India. Deeply committed to Christian socialism, social justice, and egalitarianism, Noel made sure that what went on in his parish church promoted these ideals. Noel’s biographer, Reg Groves, wrote that Conrad:

“…emphasised always that there was much more to making a new society than the acquisition of political power and the transfer of some property from the rich to the state, from one set of rulers to another. In this as in so many things, he was at one with the wisest of English socialists, William Morris, and much of what Morris said in prose and poetry and in the work of his hand, Noel tried to say in the group life he had developed at Thaxted”.

Noel and Holst shared socialist sympathies and more.

During Holst’s sojourn’s in Thaxted in between his heavy teaching and other musical commitments, he attended services led by Noel. It was after one of these held at Whitsun in 1915, that Holst, having heard the great potential of singers in the church, approached Noel and offered to give the choir the benefit of his professional skills as a trainer of vocalists. Noel, recognizing the splendid opportunity, soon had Holst become his church’s ‘master of music.’

Heywood explains that Holst’s:

“…first job was to train the choir for the church. Its members were drawn from the local population, and they achieved high standards with Holst. One member, Lily Harvey from the local sweet factory, was sent to London for professional training because of her exceptional vocal talents. In addition to his activities with the choir and playing the organ, Holst organised three major music festivals in Thaxted between 1916 and 1918.”

Lily was not the only person sent to London for musical training. The then young curate Jack Putterill, who was politically turbulent and played the organ, became one of Holst’s students at Morley College. Jack, who married Noel’s daughter, succeeded Noel as Vicar in 1942.

The festivals organised by Holst involved not only performers from Thaxted but also some of his students from Morley College and St Pauls as well as other musicians from outside the town. Each festival lasted several days, on each of which there were many hours of music making, both rehearsed concert pieces and much spontaneous music.

Holst not only helped make music in Thaxted but also composed there. The plaque on the The Manse, where he lived, is positioned on the outside of the wall of the room in which he composed. While living at Monk Street, he composed much of what was to become the well-known piece, “The Planets”. The “Jupiter” section of “The Planets” contains a tune or theme that Holst named “Thaxted” (you can listen to this familiar tune here: https://youtu.be/GdTpBSg7_8E). In 1921, “Thaxted” was used as the tune for the patriotic song “I vow to Thee, My Country”, whose words were written by the British diplomat Cecil Spring Rice (1859-1918). Holst also composed pieces specially for Thaxted and its people. These works include a special version of Byrd’s “Mass for Three Voices”, “Three Hymns for Thaxted” (later known as “Three Festival Choruses”), and a setting of the Cornish carol “Tomorrow shall be My Dancing Day” (hear it on https://youtu.be/Cz_0j__FDuc).

Although the last festival in Thaxted with which Holst was intimately involved was in 1918, he never lost touch with music making in the town, even after he moved from it to nearby Little Easton in 1925. Holst’s pupil Jack Putterill, an accomplished musician who was Thaxted’s assistant curate from 1925 to 1937 and its vicar from 1942 until 1973, helped keep the town’s musical life alive and vibrant. In the 1950s and 1960s, concerts with great orchestras such as The London Philharmonic and audiences in excess of 1000 were held in the parish church. In 1974, the hundredth anniversary of Holst’s birth, the first of what was eventually to become an annual music festival was held in Thaxted. By the 1980s, the Thaxted Festival had become a regular and respected part of the British musical calendar (www.thaxtedfestival.co.uk/).

Apart from the Festival and the house with the plaque in Thaxted, most souvenirs of Holst’s time in the town can be found within the cathedral-like parish church, which, incidentally, was once a candidate for becoming Essex’s cathedral (this honour was granted to the parish church in the centre of much larger Chelmsford). The church in Thaxted contains a photograph of Holst with singers and musicians at the Whitsuntide Festival held in 1916. Near this, there is some calligraphy with the words of “Tomorrow shall be My Dancing Day”. The church’s Lincoln organ built in 1821 by Henry Cephas Lincoln (who worked between c1810 and c1855) was played by Gustav Holst and has been recently restored. Not far from the organ is a cloth banner, sewn by Conrad Noel’s wife, which was used in the 1917 Whitsuntide Festival. It bears the words “The aim of music is the glory of God and pleasant recreation”. These words were written by the composer JS Bach (1685-1750) and were chosen for use on the banner by Holst. Near this banner, there is a bust of Holst’s friend and collaborator, Conrad Noel.

Both Holst and his student Putterill fell in love with Thaxted at first sight and were so strongly drawn to it that the town came to occupy important places in their hearts and minds. We first visited Thaxted in the early summer of 2020 soon after covid19 restrictions began to be relaxed sufficiently to permit travelling out of one’s immediate neighbourhood. Like Holst and Putterill, Thaxted made a special impression on us, so much so that we have visited it at least twice since our first encounter with it. Next year, we hope to be able to attend concert(s) at the Thaxted Festival inside a church that we have grown to love.       

A small cinematic survivor

THE COUNTY OF Essex is traversed by numerous rivers (http://essexrivershub.org.uk/), one of which is the Crouch. This lies south of the Blackwater and north of the Thames. The small town of Burnham-on-Crouch with its picturesque river front and much-favoured by yacht owners lies on the north bank of the estuary of the Crouch, about five miles from the North Sea. So near London, the town feels so far away from the metropolis – another world. Once home to several boat-building yards and various factories, Burnham appears to have become a centre for leisure activities. If you are staying in the town and have had your fill of pubs, cafés, and bistros, there is also a small cinema that shows the latest films.

The Rio cinema, despite its name, is not on the river front, but not far from it. Its decorative façade and foyer are backed by a shed like building with a corrugated iron roof, which contains the auditorium and screen, which I was not able to enter as we visited Burnham one early morning. The cinema has a long history (http://burnhamrio.co.uk/history.php), which I will summarise.

Burnham’s first cinema, The Electric, opened in 1910, making Burnham-on-Crouch one of the first towns in England to have a cinema. In 1931, this ran into problems when a rival, a purpose-built cinema, The Princess, was opened. The Electric closed and the larger Princess thrived. In the late 1960s, its name was changed to its present one, The Rio.

Burnham-on-Crouch is one of the towns and villages in the Dengie Peninsula, which until quite recently was a relatively impoverished part of Essex. During The Great Depression when money was scarce and people lived literally ‘from hand to mouth’, they had little or no money to buy cinema tickets. In those difficult times, the cinema was prepared to accept goods instead of money for tickets. The history relates:

“A Jam Jar would get you admission for the Saturday morning picture shows. Something as uncommon as an orange would admit a whole family midweek…”

Things have changed in the Dengie Peninsula. Today, many of its inhabitants and visitors are:

“… fat merchant bankers, Hooray Henrys, Minor Celebs and eastern Europe nouveau rich.”

The Rio was one of the last cinemas in England to have a gas-powered emergency lighting system. Reading this reminded me of my visits to The Everyman Cinema in Hampstead during the 1960s. I saw many films there. My enduring memory of the auditorium was that it always smelled of leaking gas. I now wonder whether The Everyman, like The Rio, also had a gas-powered backup lighting system.

The Rio in Burnham has survived two of its rivals, The Flicks in nearby South Woodham Ferrers and The Empire in Maldon, also not far away. The latter, which was housed in an Art Deco building, has sadly been demolished. The Rio’s website makes it clear that the 280 seat cinema is not in the Art Deco style. I am not quite sure which architectural style, if any, can lay claim to it. However, next time we visit Burnham, we will make sure that we watch a screening at the long-lived Rio.