THE TATE GALLERY has two branches in the picturesque fishing port of St Ives in Cornwall. The artworks displayed at Tate St Ives are contained in a building overlooking Porthmeor Beach, constructed between 1983 and 1993. It replaced a disused gasworks, but I feel that the gallery’s almost fascistic architecture neither does anything to enhance the town or to match the beauty of many of the items displayed within it. The other part of The Tate in St Ives is house and gardens of the sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975). A visit to her former home and its garden, filled with her sculptures, is a delightful experience.
Not far from the Tate St Ives, there is another ‘must-see’ attraction for lovers of modern and contemporary art. This is the Penwith Gallery on Back Road East. Less visited than the two Tate institutions in St Ives, the Penwith is the home of the Penwith Society of Arts, one of whose founders was Barbara Hepworth. The gallery contains one of the loveliest Hepworth sculptures that I have seen to date. Maybe I like it because it recalls the works of the Romanian born sculptor Constantin Brancusi (1876-1957), a sculptor whose works are much to my taste. To be frank, I am not a great lover of Hepworth’s sculpture and this piece in the Penwith is less typical of what I do not like about her work.
“The society was founded in 1949 by Barbara Hepworth,Ben Nicholson, Peter Lanyon, Bernard Leach, Sven Berlin and Wilhelmina Barns– Graham, amongst others. Later members have included Patrick Heron, Terry Frost and Henry Moore (honorary member). This association with so many progressive and influential artists has given the Penwith Society a unique place in British art history.
Today the society continues to play a central role in the thriving and vibrant St. Ives art community, exhibiting contemporary art from Cornwall and beyond.”
The gallery is housed in a former pilchard packing factory. Its ceiling is supported with roughly hewn granite pillars, painted white. Part of the ceiling is glass-covered, allowing natural light into the largest of the three main display areas. The rest of the ceiling does not transmit light.
The gallery displays an ever-changing collection of artworks, which are on sale. Created by members of the Society or artists, who have worked in the Society’s studios, they include sculptures, prints, paintings, and ceramics. Some of the works are figurative and many of them are abstract. Some are halfway between the two extremes. I have enjoyed abstract art since my childhood. This is probably because my mother, who was a sculptor who enjoyed creating abstract pieces. The lovely Hepworth piece that stands next to a fine photograph of its sculptor, and several other works, form part of the Penwith’s permanent collection. A small range of books and cards are available for visitors to purchase.
Every time I visit the Penwith, I enjoy the gallery’s spaces and the works displayed within them. Instead of being packed with pilchards, as it was in the past, and other tourists, as are the two Tate establishments, the Penwith is comfortably packed with pleasing works of art, which you can take home if you can afford them, and some of them are not excessively costly.
KING ALFRED RULED the West Saxons from 871 to c886 and king of the Anglo-Saxons from c886 to 899. He was known as ‘Alfred the Great’. Amongst his many achievements was encouraging education and proposing that primary education was taught in (Old) English, rather than Latin. Winchester was Alfred’s capital and the place where he was buried there for a while. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, his remains were removed to Hyde Abbey near Winchester. This was destroyed in 1538 during the Reformation. Despite this, his grave remained intact until 1788, when the land where he was interred was redeveloped to build a jail. Since then, the whereabouts of his remains is unknown.
Despite, the disappearance of his bones, King Alfred dominates the centre of Winchester in the form of a huge statue near to the city’s cathedral, rich in gothic features, and its Guildhall, which is richly adorned by Victorian gothic features. The statue was erected in 1899. A plaque at its base reads:
“To the founder of the kingdom and nation D. October DCCCI. Winchester and the English name MDCCCI”
DCCCCI, being Roman for 901 and MDCCCCI, being Roman for 1901.
The tall bronze statue was designed by Sir William Hamo Thornycroft (1850-1925), a sculpto who might have been unknown to me had I not become aware of him whilst walking near London’s Holland Park back in 2017. He was an important figure in the New Sculpture movement, whose members’ oeuvres bridged the gap between the neo-classical tradition, popular during the 19th century, and early modernist trends at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the next.
I was roaming around Kensington taking photographs of buildings of interest prior to writing a piece about them when I spotted a plaque on a house in Melbury Road. Number 2a was Thornycroft’s studio, which was designed by his friend, the architect John Belcher (1841-1913).
Although I did not realise that they were created by Thornycroft before I wrote this today, I am familiar with two of his other creations: the statue of Oliver Cromwell outside The Houses of Parliament and “The Sower” at Kew Gardens. His Alfred statue is far larger than the other two.
I wonder what the great king would have thought if he knew that at his feet today, there is a short-term car park and that his capital’s cathedral now charges a fee for visitors to enter within it.
WHEN I WORKED AT MAIDENHEAD, I used to travel there by train from London Paddington. Many of the trains terminated at a station called Bedwyn, which serves Great Bedwyn. I visited this small town on the Kennet and Avon Canal for the first time only recently. While driving through the place, I noticed a building covered with gravestones and other ornamental carving. My curiosity was aroused.
The name ‘Bedwyn’ might have been derived from ‘Biedanheafde’, an Old English word meaning ‘head of the Bieda’, which referred to a stream in the area. In 675 AD, “The Anglo Saxon Chronicle” recorded the battle of ‘Bedanheafeford’ between Aescwine of Wessex and King Wulfhere of Mercia, which is supposed to have been fought near the present Great Bedwyn. The will of King Alfred the Great (c848-899) makes reference to Bedwyn. In short, Bedwyn has been a recognizable settlement for a long time.
Bedwyn’s combined post office and village shop can be found in a long, rectangular brick building on Church Street. The wall at the east end of the edifice carries a depiction of the Last Supper and above it, God on a throne, surrounded by saints and angels. These sculptural panels are in white and blue and somewhat resemble the kind of things produced by the Florentine sculptor Luca della Robia (1400-1482). Three gravestones are attached to the west facing end of the post office. A wooden gate next to this end of the building is labelled ‘Mason’s yard’. The front of the building, facing the street, is adorned with carved funerary monuments including gravestones, some of which bear humorous inscriptions.
The shop is attached to a house with a front door framed by a gothic revival porch. A carved panel in the porch reads: “Lloyd. Mason.” I asked some of the customers queuing up to enter the shop/post office if they knew anything about the curious decoration of the building. I was told that the place had once been the workshop of a stone mason who specialised in funerary items. My informant said that most of the carvings attached to the building were test pieces made by the stonemason’s apprentices; rejected or uncollected items; and offcuts.
Benjamin Lloyd (1765-1839), who died in Bedwyn, started his stonemasonry business in 1790 (www.mikehigginbottominterestingtimes.co.uk/?p=2825). He was responsible for some of the work done during the construction of the Kennet and Avon Canal, which began before he was born and was eventually completed in 1810. The company still exists. Now, it is run by John Lloyd, the seventh generation of the family to maintain the business (www.johnlloydofbedwyn.com/about-us). However, his premises have moved away from Bedwyn’s post office.
Benjamin Lloyd is buried alongside his wife Mary (1764-1827) in St Mary’s Church Burial Ground in Great Bedwyn. I do not know, but I would like to imagine, that their gravestone was made in the company Benjamin created.
MY LATE MOTHER worked in the Sculpture Department of London’s St Martins School of Art in the days when it was located on Charing Cross Road, near Foyles bookshop. Amongst her colleagues at St Martins were Sir Antony Caro (1924-2013) and one of his pupils, Phillip King (b 1934). Both of these artists helped my mother to learn sculptural metal welding techniques in the early 1960s.
THIS SCULPTURE, which is on display in a glade within the gardens of Houghton Hall in Norfolk, reminds me of the kind of work Caro produced, but this was by his ‘disciple’ Phillip King. I like it, but cannot explain why, but it might not be seen as beautiful by everyone. My mother was mainly involved in abstract composition. This might have helped me me to become appreciative of this kind of art. .
KENSINGTON GARDENS CONTAINS numerous works of art, one of which is a large piece by Henry Moore (1898-1986), a sculptor who is highly regarded by many people. It is a large irregularly shaped arch made of travertine, which stands overlooking the Long Water, the part of the Serpentine lake within the confines of Kensington Gardens. Presented by the artist to the park in 1980, its shape is based on that of an animal bone. I am not wild about Moore’s works, but this piece looks wonderful in its setting on the eastern bank of the Long Water.
Today, 19th of May 2021, whilst walking in Kensington Gardens I saw a heron standing on the western bank of the Long Water almost framed by the Moore arch. After circumnavigating the lake, we reached the point on the eastern shore where the sculpture stands. Through the archway you can see the eastern façade of Kensington Palace. Along the line that connects the palace and the sculpture, you can see another sculpture, “Physical Energy” by George Frederick Watts (1817-1904). The three items on this axis form a kind of timeline: the 18th century palace, the 19th century sculpture by Watts, and the 20th century sculpture by Moore.
I have walked past the Moore sculpture too many times to count, but it was only today that I saw a heron perched on top of it. I have seen geese and pigeons perched on it in the past, but this was the first time I saw a heron using it as a doubtless superb vantage point to survey its surroundings. Apart from the fact that I find herons beautiful, its close association with the sculpture struck a certain curious chord in my mind. Maybe, it was something to do with the fact that the words ‘heron’ and ‘henry’ share so many letters in common (3 out of 5). Whatever the reason, it was pleasing to see nature and art intimately in touch with each other.
THE TOWER OF BABEL greeted anyone who climbed the staircase at my childhood home in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Well, actually it was a large engraving of the tower as imagined by Dolf Rieser (1898-1983). Dolf, who was born in King Williams Town in South Africa, was related to my mother’s grandmother Hedwig Ginsberg (née Rieser). My mother and Dolf were cousins. Even though they lived not far from us in north London, I saw little of Dolf and his family until about 1976 when I began studying dentistry. It was then that my uncle Sven, married to my mother’s sister, and his daughter told me that they were about to join the printmaking classes that Dolf held in his studio above his home in Sumatra Road, West Hampstead. As I liked drawing and painting, I signed up as well. The three of us attended the weekly evening classes that Dolf held on Tuesdays. Out of a class of on average six to eight students, three of us and the teacher were all closely related.
At the top of the stairs leading to the studio, there was a small colourful image created by the artist who is now very famous. It was a gift to Dolf given by the artist when both were living in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. Dolf, who had studied biology in Switzerland and was awarded a PhD in 1922 (https://dolfrieser.com/), began studying art in Munich in 1923, and then moved to Paris to study print-making in Atelier 17, the studio of the great surrealist painter and etcher Stanley Hayter (1901-1988) and the engraver Jozef Hecht (1891-1951).
In the compulsory half hour tea breaks during the classes, we used to sit with Dolf whilst he regaled us with tales about his life in Paris during the 1920s and 1930s. Every winter, he used to go to Switzerland to ski. He used to enter the railway station carrying his wooden skis, and Parisians would stop him to ask what they were. For, in those days, it might surprise you to learn, the average Frenchman was unfamiliar with skiing. Dolf used to visit the Café Les Deux Magots in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district of Paris, where he would enjoy the company of other artists. He told us that he often saw Pablo Picasso there, sitting at one of the tables. Dolf said that being a junior and relatively unknown artist at the time, he had to sit at a table near to Picasso’s, which was reserved for the ‘upper echelon’ of the artists community in the city. I cannot recall all that he told us, but much of it was both informative and highly entertaining, if not always entirely suitable for polite company. One bit of French that I learned from him during these entertaining intervals in the class was ‘poule de luxe’, which you can look up for yourself.
Dolf’s lofty studio had several large tables where we worked on our copper and zinc plates. At one end of the studio there was a raised platform, a gallery, on which there was a couch or bed. The tables were surrounded with a great assortment of stuff, both works of art by Dolf and the plethora of materials and equipment need to make prints, not only on paper but also on plastic and silk, techniques he developed. There was a table with large shallow trays containing nitric acid in which plates of zinc prepared for etching were bathed. The acid in the trays was of variable concentration, unknown even to Dolf, who used to periodically chuck in unmeasured dollops of concentrated acid from brown glass Winchester bottles whenever he felt (rather than knowing for sure) it might be necessary. Often, he did not tell us when he was about to strengthen the liquid. This could prove difficult if someone were trying to make small delicate adjustments to his or her zinc plate. Occasionally, one or other of us would shout, dismayed:
“Oh, Dolf, you didn’t say you were adding acid. Now, see: the acid has eaten deeper than I was expecting.”
But the ever-ingenious Dolf usually always had a way of remedying what looked to be disastrous at first sight. Today, I doubt that the studio would have passed health and safety rules. There were no extractor fans above the acid baths to remove the toxic fumes emitted when a plate was in the acid. This did not bother any of us.
One end of the studio near the acid baths was dominated by a large, hand operated printing press. The etched or engraved plate was placed on a soft woollen cloth, after having been inked up. A sheet of damp paper was placed over the plate, and this was covered by another cloth. Then, Dolf or one of us turned the large wheel that drove the plate between a pair of metal rollers that applied high pressure to the dampened paper, driving it into the ink-filled grooves on the etched or hand-engraved plates. When Dolf turned the large wheel, always moving his body rhythmically, he often used to say in Swiss German:
This referred to a slightly lewd joke he often told us. It went like this. Two Swiss peasants come to Zurich, where they decided to employ the services of a prostitute for the first time in their lives. To save money, they agreed that only one of them should pay for the experience. When the chosen one had finished with the prostitute, he joined his friend, who asked him how it was. The other fellow replied that it was quite pleasant, adding: “Aber die Bewegung is immer die glierchen.”
Printing was always a messy business. To remove the ink from one’s hands, we used a petroleum-based jelly often used by motor mechanics, which Dolf kept in his studio. Removing the ink from one’s hands was easier than removing the lacquer that was painted on to zinc plates to prevent acid from reaching parts that were not to be etched. To explain, a zinc plate is covered with lacquer, which is then removed with tools of varying sharpness to expose parts of the plates which the artist requires to be etched. This is of course an oversimplification. Dolf who was very inventive showed us many other techniques for producing etched plates. It is likely that his early training in science helped him to develop interesting new ways in printmaking. Dolf maintained an interest in science, as is exemplified by his book “Art and Science”, published in 1972. Its opening words are:
“Art and science are generally considered totally different disciplines. The aim of this book is to draw attention to some of the qualities they share.”
Dolf was a superb teacher. Although the students in our classes were of mixed ability, he brought out the best in each and every one of us. I found that he was particularly good on critiquing composition. The compositions and ideas embodied in his own creations were mostly superb. He used to look at one’s work, immediately understand what we were trying to achieve, and to nudge us gently and constructively in such a way that we ended up with what we were hoping to produce and express.
Once, he held an exhibition of our, his students’, work in his studio and asked us to invite our friends. At the end of the evening, Dolf had sold several of his own prints, but none of us managed to sell any that we had created. Dolf told us off, saying that none of us had worked hard enough, if at all, on getting our friends to buy our works.
After Dolf’s wife died, he continued the classes, but used to be reluctant to see us leave at the end of the evening. I liked Dolf so much that I was always sad when the classes came to an end. However, after he became a widower, we used to follow the classes by walking with him to a Turkish restaurant nearby in Willesden, where we all enjoyed a late supper with him.
The last time I saw Dolf was when he was lying in a hospital bed near the end of his life. Even in hospital, he was in reasonably high spirits, telling his visitors stories and jokes. His house in Sumatra Road still stands. I do not know whether his wonderful studio is still being used to create works of art, but it is with Dolf and his students that I will remember it.
Finally, having read the above, I hope that you will not get the wrong idea when I invite you to “come up and see my etchings”. Many years ago, a young lady did accept this invitation when I made it; she is now my wife.
JUST AS MONTMARTRE in Paris attracted artists, particularly painters, so did Hampstead in north London. Best known amongst these were John Constable (1776-1837) and Sir George Romney (1734-1802), who both resided in Hampstead. Constable lived in various parts of Hampstead including Well Walk and Lower Terrace. Reynolds had a fine house on Holly Hill. Since the 18th century, many painters and sculptors have either worked and/or lived in Hampstead.
Although I have visited Hampstead often over a period of more than six decades, it was only yesterday in April 2021 that I first noticed what looks like a small industrial unit with two sloping roofs each with large skylights along one side of Well Road. This is not what it looks like but was formerly artists’ work places, named Well Mount Studios. A commemorative plaque affixed to the building records that the painter Mark Gertler (1891-1939) lived here. I first became aware of this artist when visiting an exhibition at Dulwich Art Gallery in 2013 (www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/about/press-media/press-releases/dulwich-picture-gallery-presents-nash-nevinson-spencer-gertler-carrington-bomberg-a-crisis-of-brilliance/) in which pictures painted by artists who had studied at London’s Slade School of Art were displayed. Amongst these artists was Dora Carrington (1893-1932), whose brief sexual relationship with Gertler was the inspiration for a novel, “Mendel”, by Gilbert Cannan. Gertler painted Cannan in about 1916.
Gertler lived at several other addresses in Hampstead in addition to Well Road: The Vale of Health, 13a Rudall Crescent, and 53 Haverstock Hill (https://rosemaryhallart.wordpress.com/2014/07/06/artists-in-hampstead-part-iii/). His parents were poor Jewish immigrants. Gertler was born in London’s Spitalfields in 1891. Soon after that, his parents and the family returned to Austria-Hungary in 1892, settling in Przemyśl in Austria-Hungary (now in Poland). Then, in 1896, the family returned to London. Mark displayed great artistic talent as a child and in 1906, after leaving school, he studied art first at the Regents Street Polytechnic and then, at the recommendation of the artist Sir William Rothenstein (1872-1945), who lived in Hampstead between 1902 and 1912, he entered The Slade. Rothenstein lived at 12 Church Row, where he painted “Mother and Child” in 1903 (www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/rothenstein-mother-and-child-t05075).
While at the Slade, Mark was a contemporary of artists including Paul Nash, Edward Wadsworth, C. R. W. Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, Isaac Rosenberg, and Morris Goldstein (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Gertler_(artist)). During his time at the Slade, he met and became infatuated with Dora Carrington.
Mark moved to Hampstead in late 1914. According to Caroline Maclean in her book about the Hampstead Modernists, “Circles & Squares”, Mark moved into the studios near New End, i.e. Well Mount Studios, in 1915, and painted his well-known “Merry-Go-Round” in 1916. This painting that is in the collection held by the Tate Gallery was inspired by a special funfair that was held on Hampstead Heath in 1915 on behalf of wounded soldiers and sailors (www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/gertler-merry-go-round-t03846). The painting is believed to reflect that artist’s reaction to war. He was a conscientious objector. He had written to his patron, the art collector Edward Marsh (1852-1953):
“’I am I believe what you call a “passivist”. I don’t know exactly what that means, but I just hate the war”.
Gertler contracted tuberculosis in 1920. He married Marjorie Greatorex Hodgkinson ten years later and they had a son in 1932. Both he and his wife suffered bad health and Mark’s mental stability deteriorated during the 1930s. Tragically, he committed suicide in 1939 in his studio which was by then at 5 Grove Terrace, Highgate Road (near Parliament Hill Fields), London (https://artuk.org/discover/stories/the-genius-of-the-place-mark-gertler).
A relatively early 20th century artistic arrival in Hampstead, Gertler was followed by a host of other 20th century artists from all over Britain and elsewhere. These included well-known creators such as Barbara Hepworth, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore, Roland Penrose, Lee Miller, and many others. When I was at the Hall School at Swiss Cottage between 1960 and 1965, one of my fellow pupils was a son of the graphic designer Frederick Henri Kay Henrion (1914-1990) and his wife the sculptor Daphne Hardy Henrion (1917-2003), who was once a close friend of the writer Arthur Koestler (1905-1983). The Henrions lived in Pond Street for twenty years from about 1946 onwards. They had two sons, one of whom attended The Hall with me. I do not recall his first name because at that school everyone addressed each other by their surnames.
Far less well-known than any of the above-mentioned artists was my mother’s cousin Dolf Rieser (1898-1983; https://dolfrieser.com/biography/). Dolf, a fine etcher and engraver, lived in Sumatra Road, West Hampstead. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I used to attend his inspiring classes in the large studio in his house. Some examples of his prolific output are in important collections such as the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Imperial War Museum, both in London. Apart from being a great judge of composition, my relative Dolf was highly inventive as his son Richard noted:
“Dolf was innovative, experimenting with plaster prints, silk scarf prints for Liberty’s, printing on leather, printing on plastic paper to be laminated table-tops and on fibre glass to create translucent panels. He even designed for the whole side of a building a ‘print’ to be sand blasted into the concrete, at a university Witwatersrand in the form of a Bushman cave painting. Dolf worked with a plastics expert, Richard Wood, to develop the laminated hand made prints and the prints on fibre glass. The prints went off to the factory to be laminated, but the fibre glass he rolled onto the plate which had been inked with specially prepared plastic pigments, then had resin spread on and then another layer of fibre glass. The resin warmed up and emitted a sweet smell, like honey, and when it was set it could be peeled off the plate. A light could be put behind to give a translucent image.” (https://dolfrieser.com/a-personal-memory/)
Working in Dolf’s studio once a week for a few years helped made me feel like I was involved in the Hampstead art scene at least a little bit.
During my childhood in the 1950s and 1960s, when we often visited Hampstead, there used to be an annual summer fair of local artists’ works held on the wide pavement of Heath Street near to Whitestone Pond. Most of these artists were far less well-known than the likes of Gertler or even my relative Dolf Rieser, but seeing the exhibition helped to imprint Hampstead’s rich association with visual art firmly in my then young mind.
LIKE ROME, HAMPSTEAD in north London perches on several hills. A short street, Holly Walk, leads uphill from Hampstead Parish Church towards the summit of Mount Vernon, one of Hampstead’s ‘peaks’. On the southern corner of Holly Walk and the short cul-de-sac Holly Berry Lane, there stands a house, number 9 Holly Walk, that bears the name ‘The Watch House’. It was from this building, constructed in the early 19th century (c1830), that during the 1830s (1830-1834), members of Hampstead’s newly established Police Force set out on patrol and night watch. The Regency era Windsor lantern attached to the Holly Berry Lane façade is of antiquarian interest (https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/photos/item/IOE01/15703/07). The main entrance to the building was the doorway in Holly Berry Lane; it is surmounted by a bas-relief of a lion’s head. By 1834, the police had moved to the bottom of Holly Hill opposite where the Underground Station stands now.
door to the former police house with its entrance on Holly Berry Lane is a
house in which the composer Sir William Walton (1902-1983) lived in about 1939,
although I am not sure exactly when. Walton used to visit Hampstead in the 1920s
while he was composing Façade (first performed 1923), a musical setting of
poetry by Edith Sitwell (1887-1964), who was living at Greenhill, a block of
flats on Hampstead High Street. Later in life, she lived in Keats Grove.
across Holly Walk opposite the former police station, there is a large,
detached building called Moreton House. This was built in 1894-1896 in what the
architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner describes as “… the style of a
Jacobean manor house.” The house originally had extensive terraced gardens, but
these are now covered with late 20th century houses. It was designed by Thomas Garner (1839-1906). Its
first owner was the art historian and collector Frederick E Sidney, about whom
I have discovered only a little. His
motto, which can be found in various places in Moreton House was “God is in Al
and in Al thinges”. A Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, he was born before 1855
and died in 1932. In 1903, he published a travel book called “Anglican
innocents in Spain”. In 1937, after his death, Christies auctioned his
collection of ancient and modern pictures and drawings. The proceeds of this
sale were given to the beneficiaries of his will. Apart from the information
that he had a Torpedo model Rolls Royce Silver Ghost made for him in 1914, I
can discover little more about Mr Sidney. It seems that currently Moreton House
is divided into luxury flats.
three buildings I have described are within a few feet of each other. They are
close to the Catholic church on Holly Walk and the cemetery next to it. There
is so much history in such a small area, as is the case for the rest of
Hampstead. This is one of many things that endears me to the small hill town
that has been absorbed into the metropolis of London without losing too much of
its unique character.
MUCH OF MOTCOMB Street in London’s Belgravia is now pedestrianised. It is lined with nineteenth century buildings that house shops and food outlets, mostly aimed at wealthy customers. Here, you can find the shops of Christian Loubertin, Ottolenghi, Nicola Donati, Marie Chantal, Maison Corthay, to mention but a few you might know. It is probably safe to say that this is not much of a street for bargain hunters, but to be fair, it does boast a newsagent and a large branch of the Waitrose supermarket chain.
“… a cow-keeper, a saddler, two tailors, a plumber, a wheelwright, a grocer and two sellers of asses’ milk (thought to be beneficial to health and used in nearby hospitals).”
The ‘Alfred Tennyson’ pub stands on the corner of Motcomb and Kinnerton Streets. It was formerly known as ‘The Pantechnicon’. The reason for its earlier name becomes obvious if you walk away from it westwards along Motcomb Street. Opposite Waitrose and by far the most imposing building in the street is a neo-classical façade supported by ten sturdy pillars with Doric capitals. As impressive as many of the great neoclassical façades in central London, such as that of the National Gallery, these pillars support a slab on which the word ‘PANTECHNICON’ is boldly displayed.
The Pantechnicon was built as commercial premises in about 1830-34 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1223569) for the property developer Seth Smith (1791-1860), most probably designed by the architect and civil engineer Joseph Jopling (1788-1867; http://farnham.attfield.de/fam1012.html). The Pantechnicon was enormous. Covering two acres, it stretched backwards (north) from Motcomb street and was surrounded by the backs of many of the houses lining the east side of Lowndes Square and the west side of Kinnerton Street. When it was completed, it was originally:
“… a bazaar, and was established principally for the sale of carriages and household furniture. There was also a ‘wine department’, consisting of a range of dry vaults for the reception and display of wines; and the bazaar contained likewise a ‘toy department.’” (www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol5/pp1-14).
By 1850, when Peter Cunningham published his “Handbook of London”, things had changed. It had become a repository, where you:
“… may send the whole contents of an extensive house – furniture, wine, pictures, even jewellery; and the utmost care will be taken of them, at a comparatively reasonable charge …”
Cunningham lists these charges in detail and later added reassuringly:
“The building is well ventilated, and considered fireproof; but the risk (if any) of accidents by fire, civil commotion, or otherwise, will attach to the owners of the property sent to the Pantechnicon to be warehoused.”
Incidentally, the owners of the Pantechnicon designed a new form of removal van. Its innovation was a movable rear ramp that aided the loading of heavy or bulky objects. Originally, horse-drawn, these became known as ‘Pantechnicons’, a word often applied to motorised removal trucks in use today. And just in case you are wondering, the word ‘pantechnicon’ is derived from two Greek words, ‘pan’ and ‘techne’, meaning ‘all arts’, and was coined to describe wide range of goods that were available to buy in the bazaar in Motcomb Street.
“ …the event was perhaps the single largest episode of destruction of art and furnishings in the Victorian era … It is difficult to assess the value of the objects lost. Because people had such faith in the Pantechnicon, they under-insured their valuables—or found ways to avoid insuring them altogether. For example, one family hid their jewels in their furniture. The cost of insuring a headboard was significantly less than insuring jewels—but jewels hidden inside were (ostensibly) safe all the same. (Tricky!) However, it is known for certain that the fire destroyed the MP Sir Richard Wallace’s painting collection, worth £150,000; and the MP Sir Seymour Fitzgerald’s art collection, worth £200,000, which included many portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds and paintings by other masters including J.M.W. Turner. Contemporary accounts estimated the total value upon the destroyed items at £2,000,000 (approximately £220,000,000 or $280,000,000 today).”
Luckily for us, many of Wallace’s works were not involved in the fire as can be seen by visiting the Wallace Collection in his former home in Manchester Square.
Today, only the façade of the Pantechnicon remains standing. Located opposite a modern ‘bazaar’, Waitrose, it conceals a lovely public space behind it, which contains benches and a few artworks, and is lined by Halkins Arcade. A modern building attached to the old façade houses restaurants, bars and other businesses, some of which can be entered from the Arcade.
It worth making a visit to Motcomb Street not only to see the impressive remnant of the Pantechnicon but also because the short pedestrian-friendly street has become a particularly pleasant place to linger.
HERE IS SOMETHING WORTH seeing if you can. It is on display at the Tate Britain until the 31st of January 2021 and you need not enter the gallery building to see it. Originally created to celebrate Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Light, in late 2020, this is a wonderfully joyous celebration of both Indian and British culture in light and colour.
The artist Chila Kumari Singh Burman was born in Bootle, near Liverpool, daughter of Punjabi Hindu parents. She graduated at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1982 after having also studied at Southport College of Art and Leeds Polytechnic.
Burman has temporarily transformed the main (Thames facing) entrance of the Tate Britain, its staircase and pillared portico into a pleasing and often humorous riot of colour that makes many references to her upbringing and India’s culture and mythology. To do this, she has made use of coloured lights, neon tubing lights, coloured photographs, and decorative printed coloured paper. The Tate’s website (https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/chila-kumari-singh-burman) describes Burman’s installation, “Remembering a Brave New World” as follows:
“This magnificent installation, remembering a brave new world, combines Hindu mythology, Bollywood imagery, colonial history and personal memories. Inspired by the artist’s childhood visits to the Blackpool illuminations and her family’s ice-cream van, Burman covers the façade of Tate Britain with vinyl, bling and lights. She changes the figure of Britannia, a symbol of British imperialism, into Kali, the Hindu goddess of liberation and power. The many illuminated deities, shapes and words are joined by Lakshmibai, the Rani (queen) of Jhansi. Lakshmibai was a fierce female warrior in India’s resistance to British colonial rule in the 19th century.”
This description provides a fair summary of what is to be seen. It does not mention the entertainingly decorated autorickshaw (three-wheeler) that was on display in the vestibule of the gallery when we visited. The doorways are also worth examining because they are lined with images taken from the Amar Chitra Katha’s comic books that are published in India to teach Indian children about both Hindu mythology and Indian history. Our daughter, whose background, is both Indian and European, used to enjoy reading these. Despite what the Tate has written, the artwork does not come across as polemical or anti-British, at least not to me. On the contrary, the artist appears to be enjoying her joint cultural heritage: both British and Indian. My wife said of the installation:
“If this is multi-culturalism, let’s have more and more of it!”
However, words are quite insufficient to describe the visual impact of this wonderful spectacle. It has to be seen to be believed and enjoyed. We saw it during daylight when it can be enjoyed in fine detail, but I imagine that seeing it after dark would also be quite magical.