Some Islamic figurative art in the Victoria and Albert Museum

THE VICTORIA AND Albert Museum (‘V&A’) in London’s South Kensington is one of my favourite museums. It contains a huge variety of exquisite artefacts. Some of them were obtained by fair means, and others, such as Tipu’s Tiger (an 18th century mechanical toy), by means that some might consider foul. I do not propose to write about the current discussions on the ethics of museum collections, but instead I will concentrate on some interesting tiles that arrived in the museum from Persia, where they were made during the Safavid Dynasty that was established in 1501 AD, and lasted until 1722.

The 36 tiles, arranged in 4 rows of 9, together depict a garden in which a lady is reclining with her 5 attractively dressed attendants around her, all wearing headgear: their uncovered faces are portrayed fully. This tiled panelling might have been originally made as part of an extensive architectural project in early 17th century Isfahan, the capital of the Safavid Dynasty. Other similar tiled panelling can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, so wrote Farshid Emami in his paper “All the City’s Courtesans: A Now-Lost Safavid Pavilion and Its Figural Tile Panels” (published in the Metropolitan Museum Journal in 2019). The panel is shaped so that it could be fitted beneath a window.

The Safavid Dynasty was Islamic. Unlike many other groups in the Islamic world, which discourage or forbid figurative representation, the Safavid rulers, who were great patrons of the arts, developed a dynastic artistic style in which the depiction of human figures played an important role. The tiles that are on display are a fine example of this. According to the V&A’s website (https://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O93167/tile-panel/) these tiles were:

“Bought from L.S. Myers, 6 Savile Row, for £275…”

Myers & Co, which flourished at the above-mentioned address in the 19th century, usually dealt with prints. “A Biographical Dictionary of Nineteenth Century Antique and Curiosity Dealers” by MW Westgarth (publ. 2009) revealed:

“Abraham Myers (born c1815/16) traded as a curiosity dealer in Old Bond Street and at New Bond Street, London, from the 1850s. Myers is listed as ‘antiquary dealer’ at 179 New Bond Street in Kelly’s Directory, 1878 and 1886 and at 6 Savile Row in 1886–91.”

So, assuming that LS Myers was associated with this firm, the tiling might well have been bought between 1886 and 1891.

Every visit to the V&A, which might take much of a lifetime to explore fully, is exciting because each time I visit the place, I discover something fascinating, which I had not noticed before. These tiles are no exception to this.

I have been gongoozling at London’s Little Venice today

I HAVE LEARNED a new word today. It can be used as both a noun and as a verb. The noun is ‘gongoozler’ and the verb is ‘to gongoozle’. I came across it used as a verb on an information panel by the south side of the water basin at Paddington’s Little Venice, where the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal enlarges to become a pond, from which the Regents Canal commences.

The word gongoozle might possibly derive from two words of Lincolnshire dialect: ‘gawn’ and ‘gooze’. Both these words mean to stare or gape. A ‘gawn’ can also mean a small freight-carrying boat such as a canal narrowboat.

Gongoozling usually refers to watching boats. And this is what we did today as we ambled lazily along the Paddington Arm and the shore of Little Venice. With the sun shining and a pleasant air temperature (about 21 degrees Celsius), this was an enjoyable way of passing time on a Sunday morning.

A Persian carpet and a Socialist

The Victoria and Albert Museum houses a huge, antique carpet from Ardibil (in Persia).It was made in about AD 1539, and is one of the oldest accurately dated carpets.

You will need to read my book “Beyond Marylebone and Mayfair: Exploring West London” to discover the link between this carpet and a Socialist activist, who lived in Hammersmith.

Buy your copy of my book at Lutyens & Rubinstein (Kensington Park Road) OR from Amazon (https://www.amazon.co.uk/BEYOND-MARYLEBONE…/dp/B0B7CR679W/)

Remembering an old friend in London’s Marylebone

MY FRIEND MICHAEL Jacobs (1952-2014) studied history of art at A Level (university entrance examinations) and then later at university. Later, he became a prolific author. When we were in our late teens, we used to visit Hampstead’s second-hand bookshops together. A few days ago (early September 2022), I was walking along Marylebone’s New Cavendish Street when I spotted something that reminded me of one of our bookshop visits in the late 1960s.

There is a building on the northeast corner of New Cavendish Street and Wimpole Street, which caught my eye. As I passed it, I spotted a small plaque giving the architect’s details. It reads: “BANISTER FLETCHER & SONS ARCHITECTS AD 1912” Sir Banister Flight Fletcher (1866-1953) trained at London’s Kings College, University College, the Royal College of Art, the Architectural Association, and Paris’s École des Beaux-Arts. In 1889, he became a partner in the architectural firm founded by his father: Banister Fletcher & Sons. In addition to designing buildings, Banister Fletcher (and his father) wrote a book of great importance.

The book, “A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method”, which was first published in 1896, was republished several times during the 20th century. It was the standard reference work in English on the history of architecture.

Seeing the name Banister Fletcher on the building in Marylebone reminded me of an afternoon in Hampstead during the late 1960s. We were rummaging around the somewhat disorderly collection of books in Francis Norman’s bookshop in Perrins Lane when Michael discovered a copy of Banister Fletcher’s history of architecture, a book that was well-suited for the bookshelf of a student of the history of art. Michael bought it at an extremely reasonable price.

Until I spotted the building on New Cavendish, I had always associated the name Banister Fletcher with that afternoon with Michael in Hampstead. The building I saw is the first example of a structure that I have been able to associate with the author of the history purchased by my late friend.

Greek in north London’s Golders Green

IN THE EARLY 1960s, the first proper self-service supermarket opened on the corner of Golders Green Road and a small service road called Broadwalk Lane. I cannot recall the name of this store, but it was soon taken over by the Macfisheries company. Later, it became a supermarket where many imported foods, especially products from Israel, were sold. Now, it has become a Tesco Express.

Facing the supermarket (across Golders Green Road) is a gothic revival style church. It has been used by a Greek Orthodox (Christian) congregation since 1968. Now, the The Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Cross & St. Michael, it was constructed as the Church of England’s ‘St Michael’s Church’ in 1914 to the design of JT Lee. A clock tower, surmounted by a delicate cupola supported by thin columns, was added to the church in 1960. On one of its walls, there is a bas-relief of St Michael with one foot on a serpent. On the northeast corner of the church, there is a plaque listing people who died in WW1. Near this, there is a crucifix standing in the garden next to the church. Its design, typical of C of E crucifixes, predates the arrival of the Greek congregation.

Although the interior of the church maintains some of its original Cof E fittings, such as stained-glass windows, the font designed in a mock mediaeval style, and some wall mounted memorials in English, a great deal of effort has been made to create the atmosphere of a Greek Orthodox place of worship. The walls of the side aisles have been painted with religious scenes. There is a decorated iconostasis and several framed icons. Elaborate chandeliers hang above the nave. Despite the additions to convert the church for Greek Orthodox worship, the original gothic revival features of the building’s interior are evident, but harmonise well with the later additions.

A church near Madame Tussauds

I HAVE PASSED IT OFTEN while travelling along London’s busy Marylebone Road and admired its elegant neoclassical portico supported by six columns with Corinthian capitals, but never entered it until today (the 7th of September 2022). I am referring to the Church of St Marylebone, consecrated in 1817. One of its predecessors, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary was erected nearby in about 1400. It stood near the River Tyburn. The name Marylebone seems to be derived from a conjunction of the words Mary and ‘burn’ (from Tyburn, which began to have a bad reputation because of the much-used gallows close to its banks). This early church was replaced by another, constructed in 1740. It survived until it was demolished in 1949.  Nearby, the present larger church, which we see today, was constructed in 1817 on what was then the New Road, a by-pass on the northern edge London, and is now Marylebone Road. Its grand portico faces north, and the high altar and the colourfully decorated apse are in the south end of the building. The church, a typical example of a Regency interior with first-floor galleries, is tall and spacious.

Charles Dicken’s son was baptised in the church. The poet Robert Browning (1812-1889) married a fellow poet Elizabeth Barrett (1806-1861) in the church in 1846. And the composer John Stainer (1840-1901) composed his oratorio “The Crucifixion” specially for this church in 1887 when he was already a fellow of the Royal Academy of Music, which is across the main road facing the church.

The Methodist Charles Wesley (1707-1788), who lived nearby, asked to be buried in what was the churchyard of the older (1740) church. Where this edifice stood is now a peaceful open space, the Garden of Rest, next to Marylebone Lane (a few feet south of Marylebone Gardens). In this small space, there is a stone obelisk mounted on a pedestal. This commemorates the life of Charles Wesley and several members of his family.

Close to Madame Tussauds and the Royal Academy of Music and neighbouring one of London’s more enjoyable shopping areas – Marylebone High Street, stands the lovely church of St Marylebone, which as I discovered today, merits a visit.

What! Why? Is there no Calcutta on the map?

VINCENZO MARIA CORONELLI (1650-1718) who was most likely born in Venice (Italy) was not only a Franciscan friar but also a cartographer. Recently, I spotted one of his maps hanging in a frame in a friend’s home. It is a beautiful work of art, bearing the title (translated from French): “Maritime route from Brest to Siam and from Siam to Brest”. It was made between 1685 and 1686, based on information provided to Coronelli by six Jesuit priests sent out to the Indies by the King of France. Coronelli, based in The Republic of Venice, drew the map.

I was particularly interested to see what of modern India is represented on the map. On the coast of “Guzararatte ou Cambaje” (i.e. Gujarat or Cambay), the Island of Diu, then a Portuguese settlement, is marked, as are “Surate” (Surat) and “Bombaim” and “Chaul” (also  Portuguese settlements). Further south, Goa is marked, and yet further south along the west coast, we can see Calicut and Cochin. On the east coast of India, we can see “Fort S. Thomé” and “Mahapur”, being old names for a place immediately south of Chennai and Mahabalipuram respectively.

The map becomes more interesting when you look at the “Bouches du Gange” (the mouths of the Ganges). Coronelli draws a complex collection of island’s that depict  the Ganges delta, but where one would expect to find Calcutta (Kolkata) on modern maps, there is only a small inset town plan of a place called “Louvo”. This is not a place in India but in modern Thailand (once known as ‘Siam’): its modern name is Lopburi.

The reason that Calcutta is not marked on Coronelli’s map is simple: the place with that name did not exist when the Jesuit priests reported back to Coronelli. Had they made their survey only a little later, they would have been able to report its existence because in August 1686 Job Charnock (c1630-c1692/3) established a trading post (‘factory’) on the River Hooghly, and that became known as Calcutta.  I have visited his grave and mausoleum in central Kolkata.

A French corner in London

A COLOURFUL FABRIC artwork, a tapestry, by the artist Sonia Delaunay (1885-1979) hangs on a wall overlooking the grand staircase at the Institut français (‘IF’) in London’s South Kensington. Born in Odessa (Russian Empire) as Sarah Elievna Shtern, she spent most of her working life in Paris (France) after having studied art in both Russia and Germany.

Sonia Delaunay at Institut Francais in London

The stairs lead from the ground floor to the first. It is at this level that the IF’s main and biggest cinema, the Ciné Lumière 1, is located. This airy cinema has rows of comfortable seats each with enough legroom to satisfy even the tallest person. We had come (on the 3rd of September 2022) to watch a Spanish film called “Official Competition”, starring amongst others Penelope Cruz. Frankly, I found this much-hyped film dull, disappointing, and somewhat puerile. The plot revolves around filmmaking and competing egos. The audience is treated to too much philosophising (actually, navel contemplating) about acting and moviemaking, the content of which would be considered almost infantile by high school children.  However, the cinema’s comfortable seating made watching the film almost bearable. In the past, we have seen far better films at the Lumière, to which we will return to see other films in the future.

Apart from the poor film, the visit to the IF was fun. It was great seeing the Delaunay and we enjoyed cool drinks in the pleasant Café Tangerine on the ground floor.

A pretty perambulation

LONDON’S KENSINGTON GARDENS is bounded to the north by Bayswater Road and to the south by Kensington Gore (overlooked by the Royal Albert Hall and the Albert Memorial), which becomes Kensington Road.  Within the park and running almost parallel with its southern boundary is the South Flower Walk (also known as The Flower Walk). The Northern Flower Walk, which runs near and parallel to Bayswater Road was once used by royalty. According to a document published on the Royal Parks website, this was:

“… a delicious and appealing place to stroll for the monarch on the way to … the site of the Bayswater ‘Breakfasting House’…”

The breakfasting house no longer exists. I am not sure whether the South Flower Walk can boast of such an illustrious past. However, when it is in full bloom, it outdoes its northern counterpart in colourfulness and variety of its flora.

Although the whole of Kensington Gardens makes for a pleasant place to stroll, a walk along the South Flower Walk provides and exceedingly pretty perambulation.