An artist in Germany, Norway, Scotland, Isle of Man, then Somerset

AN UNUSUAL CRUCIFIX hands within the church of St Mary in Bruton, Somerset. It is a sculpture typical of early 20th century German Expressionism, yet it was created in 1969, long after the heyday of this artistic trend. The creator of this religious sculpture was Ernst Blensdorf (1896-1976). He was born Ernst Müller in North Germany, but after his marriage to his first wife, Ilse Blensdorf, in 1923, he changed his surname to ‘Müller-Blensdorf’, then later to ‘Blensdorf’.

At first, Blensdorf became a seaman. After having been interned as an enemy alien by the British during WW1, Ernst travelled to Johannesburg in South Africa with a fellow internee. It was here that he made a table-top wood carving of an African village. On his return to Germany, this fine carving persuaded Ernst’s father that his son had a future as an artist and was willing to support him towards this aim. While in Africa, Ernst had seen African art first-hand and exposure to this certainly helped influenced his future creations.

After a brief spell at an art school in Barmen, he left to become apprenticed to a master joiner. By 1922, he had become a journeyman for a furniture company, which specialised in manufacturing luxury items. During this period, he was influenced by the Bauhaus artist Paul Klee and the sculptor Alexander Archipenko. The skill that Ernest acquired and developed whilst manufacturing wooden objects for the furniture company became useful as he moved from applied craftsmanship to artistic endeavours. In addition to other activities, he taught at the art school in Barmen during the 1920s. By the 1930s, he had become an established sculptor and had exhibited his works at various exhibitions in Germany, where he received both private and public commissions.

When the Nazis took power in Germany, Blensdorf became one of the first artists whose works were categorised as ‘degenerate’ by Hitler and his regime. This led to him losing his teaching post at Barmen and his studio being wrecked by the Nazi’s loutish followers. Ernst, his wife, and children, moved to Norway, where he was planning a giant peace monument to honour the Norwegian statesman and Nobel Peace prize winner Fridjtof Nansen. In Norway, he worked on this project and made a living creating and selling artistic ceramic works, alongside the Norwegian ceramicist Eilif Whist. 

When the Germans invaded Norway in spring 1940, Blensdorf and his children fled to Scotland. His wife, Ilse, remained behind, saying that she was a follower of Adolf Hitler. Following his arrival in the UK, Blensdorf was once again interned as an ‘enemy alien’. Along with many others, including a good number of men with artistic talent and German nationality, he was interned on the Isle of Man (from 1940 to 1941). His children were placed in a couple of orphanages. While interned, he, along with fellow artists, were allowed to satisfy their creative urges and even to sell their creations. Using whatever materials he could find during this period of scarcity, Blensdorf’s creative output was impressively large. For the first time in his life, he had plenty of time to undertake artistic work in the absence of anxieties such as he had experienced before arriving on the Isle of Man.

Blensdorf was released from internment in 1941. He went to live with an Austrian couple, the Schreiners, whom he had met in the internment camp. They lived in Charlton Musgrove in Somerset. With him, the Schreiners planned to set up an art school, but this failed for financial reasons. Ernst remained in Somerset. His first job was teaching pottery at a school in Bratton Seymour. It was here that he met his second wife, Jane Lawson. They married in 1942 and moved into a house near Wincanton, where they were joined by his children. Blensdorf taught in various schools in Somerset including the King’s School in Bruton.

In 1943, Blensdorf and his family bought a run-down 17th century house close to Bruton. Gradually, the house was restored and improved. It remained his home for the rest of his life. Although he exhibited often and in prestigious venues, Blensdorf never realised the great reputations that other artists, such as Henry Moore, Elizabeth Frink, Anthony Caro, and Barbara Hepworth, gained in the UK and beyond. For this reason, seeing his work for the first time during my first visit to the lovely Bruton Museum in July 2021, was a wonderful surprise and an exciting eye-opener.  In one corner of this small museum, there is a large glass cabinet that contains examples of Blensdorf’s sketches, ceramics, and sculptures. When I told the lady, who was looking after the museum, how much I liked what I had seen of his works, she told me about the crucifix in the local church, which fortunately I was able to see. She also sold me a copy of a well-illustrated catalogue of an exhibition of his works that was held some time ago in the Bruton Museum. It is from this publication that I have extracted much of the information above. Bruton is a gem of a town. Visiting its museum is a ‘must’ because not only does it allow you to ‘discover’ the works of Blensdorf but also to see a display of artefacts relating to the author John Steinbeck, who lived close to Bruton between March and September 1959 … but that is another story.

Born in Portugal, hanging in the Tate

THE TATE BRITAIN is currently hosting a wonderful exhibition of the works of Paula Rego, born 1935 in Lisbon, Portugal during the fascist dictatorship of Antonio Salazar (1889-1970), who was in office from 1932 to 1968.  Her father was anti-fascist and anglophile. He sent Paula to a finishing school in Kent (UK) when she was 16. Later, she enrolled to study painting at the Slade School of Fine Art, part of London’s University College. While she was studying there (from 1952 until 1956), she met her future husband, the painter Victor Willing (1928-1988). They married in 1959, following Victor’s divorce from his first wife. Paula and Victor lived between Portugal and the UK, finally settling in the latter in 1972.

Distributed within eleven rooms of the Tate Britain, Rego’s works are well displayed, some of them with informative panels placed beside them. Her paintings express her political (anti-fascist) and social consciousness, some of which is concerned with the ill-treatment of, and the indignities inflicted on, women, especially in the country where she was born.

Rego’s paintings are dramatic, colourful, powerful, and not lacking in a sense of humour. They are sometimes almost abstract, but the element of figurativeness is never completely absent.  Her paintings often lean towards surrealism.  Whether they are expressing subversion, or love, or depression, or pure fantasy, they are visually intriguing and cannot fail to engage the viewer. Throughout her works, which span several decades, the influence of her native land can be discerned, sometimes without difficulty, other times with the assistance of the informative labels by their side.

The exhibition, which opened on the 7th of July 2021, will continue until the 24th of October 2021. So, there is plenty of time for you to enjoy this superb exhibition of the fabulous works of this fascinating artist. It is an exhibition that once again demonstrates that great art is often created as a reaction to an oppressive regime.

Some illustrious corpses

THE ARTIST CONSTABLE is one of the best-known people to have been interred in the cemetery of St John’s, the parish church of Hampstead. His grave is in the older part of the cemetery which surrounds the church. Across the road from the church and running along the east side of Holly Walk, there is an extension of the cemetery, the Additional Burial Ground, almost completely filled with the graves of people, who died in the 19th century and later. Apart from the graves covering the gently sloping cemetery, there is a pleasant, peaceful sitting area in its south eastern corner and an attractive columbarium (containing wall-mounted memorial plaques) in its north eastern corner. For several centuries, Hampstead has attracted residents from a wide variety of walks of life, and this is can be seen by wandering around the cemetery. Several of the many gravestones attracted my interest and aroused my curiosity about the lives of the people buried beneath or beside them. I have chosen a few to write about because they were clearly notable people, but individuals about whom I knew nothing.

Thomas Frederick Tout (1853-1929) lies buried close to the Labour politician Hugh Gaitskell (1906-1963) and the Austrian born actor Anton Walbrook (1896-1967), both of whom are better remembered than Tout, who is described as “historian” on his gravestone. Born in London, Tout specialised in the history of the mediaeval era. At first, after graduating at Oxford, he taught at the University of Lampeter in Wales, then later at what was to become the University of Manchester, where he introduced the idea, an innovation, of making final year history undergraduates produce a final year thesis based on study of original sources. Just before Tout retired in 1925, he moved to Hampstead where he and his wife lived at 3 Oakhill Park until his death.

Tout lies at the bottom end of the sloping cemetery, while another academic, Randolph Schwabe (1883-1948) is interred at the top end. Schwabe was born in Eccles near Manchester. His paternal grandfather was born in Germany and migrated to England. At the age of 14, Randolph enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art (University College London) and showed great skill in drawing, painting, and etching. During WW1, he was an official war artist. Following the end of the war, he taught fine art at both the Camberwell and Westminster schools of art. In 1930, he became the prestigious Slade Professor of Fine Art at University College and then Principal of the Slade School of Fine Art. When war broke out again in 1939, he became involved in official recording of the war, receiving a special commission to document the bomb damage to Coventry Cathedral. In addition to teaching, Schwabe was a prolific book illustrator. For health reasons, he moved to Helensburgh in Dunbartonshire, where he died whilst still Principal of the Slade. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered in the cemetery in Hampstead where a beautiful stone sculpture of a woman with bowed head, created by Alan Durst (1883-1970) commemorates him. Schwabe lived close to the cemetery in Church Row (no. 20).

Not far from Schwabe’s monument, there is an ensemble of gravestones remembering the lives of the Matthews family. Bert Matthews (1884-1974), a local rat catcher, was Hampstead’s Pearly King for 40 years (www.museumoflondon.org.uk/discover/six-things-you-never-knew-about-pearly-kings-queens). In 1905, Bert married Becky in Hampstead Parish Church (https://tombwithaview.org.uk/abg-people/bert-matthews/). They lived in Perrins court. Three years before his marriage, Bert became involved in charity work. Bert and his wife became Pearly King and Queen of Hampstead. The ‘Pearlies’ dress up occasionally in clothes that have been covered with mother-of-pearl buttons and so attired, they collect money for charity. Like royalty, the Pearly Kings and Queens hand on their titles to their offspring. Although dressing up in the pearly button covered costumes is part of the fun, the Pearlies are dedicated to raising money for good charitable causes. Three generations of the Matthews family are buried near to the Holly Walk edge of the cemetery, the bodies of three generations of Hampstead’s Pearly Kings and Queens lie together. To see the Pearlies of Hampstead, watch the video on www.britishpathe.com/video/pearly-kings.

Buried close to the working-class Pearly aristocrats, we find an ostentatious monument commemorating some other aristocrats, who would not have considered themselves working-class. It is in memory of three female members of the family of Frederick Ramon de Bertodano y Wilson, 8th Marquis de Moral (1871–1955). Born in Australia, Frederick went to England in 1895, where he trained as a lawyer. He served as an officer in the British Army in southern Africa during both the Matabele War (1896-1897) and the 2nd Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). Then, he returned to England in 1905 (https://campbell.ukzn.ac.za/?q=node/47011). In 1907, he married Lady Ida Elizabeth Dalzell (1876-1924), who is buried in the cemetery along with their daughter Marie Stephanie Stewart (1911-2009), née de Bertodano. Frederick Ramon is not buried in Hampstead but in Harare, Zimbabwe (www.geni.com/people/Fr%C3%A9d%C3%A9rik-Ramon-de-Bertodano-8th-Marquis-de-Moral/6000000012386542530). He retired to what was then Southern Rhodesia in 1947. I am not certain why this monument is in Hampstead. The only clue I have found is that Frederic was listed in 1906 as being a Fellow of The Royal Geographic Society living at 43 Belsize Square. However, this was before he married. Marie Stephanie’s brother Andrew was born in Hertfordshire in 1912. I would like to know more about this family’s connection to Hampstead.

The last of the graves of the many fascinating people, whose remains rest in the newer part of the cemetery of The Parish Church, records the deaths of the Llewellyn-Davies family. The barrister Arthur Llewellyn-Davies (1863-1907) married Sylvia Jocelyn Du Maurier (1866-1910), daughter of the cartoonist George Du Maurier, who is buried in the cemetery. They had five sons. After Arthur died, the family’s friend, the author JM Barrie (1860-1937) supported Sylvia and her boys financially. When she died, Barrie became one of the boys’ guardians (https://androom.home.xs4all.nl/biography/p008514.htm). Most readers will know that Barrie is famous for his book “Peter Pan” (first published 1911). Barrie’s inspiration for Peter Pan was Arthur and Sylvia’s son Peter (1897-1960), who is remembered along with his parents at the family grave in Hampstead. Michael Darling, another character in “Peter Pan” was based on Michael Llewellyn-Davies (1900-1921), who drowned when bathing at Oxford while he was an undergraduate student. You might be wondering about Peter Pan’s companion Wendy. It so happens that I have seen her grave, that of Margaret Henley (1888-1894), who is buried at Cockayne Hatley in Bedfordshire. Her father was a friend of JM Barrie, whom the small child Margaret referred as her “fwendy-wendy”. This caused Barrie to name his heroine Wendy.  The Du Maurier family is intimately associated with Hampstead. So, it is unsurprising to find the Llewellyn-Davies family memorial where it is.

Enough of this morbid subject. Now, you need to visit this fascinating cemetery in Hampstead to discover more for yourself. And when you have had enough of looking at the resting places of illustrious corpses or their ashes, it is but a short walk along the attractive Church Row to reach the heart of Hampstead with its numerous cafés, where you can enjoy a life-restoring beverage.

Where judges might have walked

A SHORT STEEP STAIRCASE leads upwards from Hampstead’s Branch Hill to a tree-lined avenue called Judges Walk. This overlooks a steep northwest facing declivity or valley that falls away sharply from Whitestone Pond. This was once the head of a tributary of the River Brent, whose mouth is at the River Thames at Brentford. Today, apart from much mud, there is little obvious evidence of the tributary. Judges Walk has not always had that name. It has also been known as Prospect Walk on account of the views that may be obtained from it, which must have been better in the past than now because the vegetation lining the path might have been less dense.

In days gone by, Judges Walk was a popular place for promenading. The historian of Hampstead, Thomas Barratt (1841-1914), writing in 1912 noted:

“Judges’ Walk is naturally much resorted to for the beauty of its view and its splendid grove of limes and elms.”

Until 1745, when Church Row became a street lined with better-class houses and the parish church was being rebuilt, it became a more fashionable place to promenade than Judges Walk.

How did Judges Walk get its name? William Howitt, author of “The Northern Heights of London” (published in 1869) wrote:

“This avenue derives its name from the tradition that during the great plague of London the judges removed from Westminster, and held their courts in this very airy spot.”

This derivation has been questioned both by GE Mitton in “Hampstead and Marylebone” (published in 1902), who commented that:

“… derivations of this sort are very easy to make up and entirely unreliable”,

 and by Barratt, who wrote:

“If, as tradition asserts, the judges held their courts here in the time of the Plague, that is good enough ground for the title; but as no actual proof of this has hitherto been brought forward it is at least open to doubt.”

However, he did not totally discount a connection of the path’s name with the judiciary. He suggested that:

“…since so many judges have lived in this charming locality and been accustomed to take their walks up and down its famous avenue, it is only natural and in the fitness of things that it should be called Judges’ Walk.”

A more recent historian of Hampstead, Christopher Wade (1920-2015), noted in his book “The Streets of Hampstead” (published 1984) that Judges Walk acquired its present name in the early 20th century, having previously had a variety of names including ‘Prospect walk’, ‘King’s Bench Avenue’, and ‘Upper Terrace Avenue’.  Like others before him, he was doubtful about the Great Plague theory. He seemed to favour an idea that the pathway was named after the nearby Branch Hill Lodge (at the bottom of the staircase mentioned above), which was once known as ‘Judges’ Bench House’. A house, long-since demolished, on the site of the present Branch Hill Lodge, the former home of the founder of the store chain John Lewis, was redesigned in 1745 by the architect Henry Flitcroft (1697-1769) for the Master of the Rolls Sir Thomas Clarke (1703-1764). It was later occupied by at least other two senior members of the English justice system, Sir Thomas Parker (1695-1784) and then Alexander Wedderburn the Earl of Rosslyn (1733-1805) before he moved into his estate next to the present Rosslyn Hill.

Apart from the view from Judges Walk, which has been painted by the famous John Constable (1776-1837), who lived in Hampstead’s Well Walk, there is a building covered with wood cladding that can be seen be looking away from the declivity.  Entered from Windmill Hill, this house, whose foundations were laid in the late 18th century (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1379199), is currently named ‘Capo di Monte’, having previously been known as ‘Upper Terrace Cottage’ and ‘Siddons Cottage’. The actress Sarah Siddons (1755-1831) stayed there between 1804 and 1805. Barratt noted that the house:

“…was occupied by Woodburn the printseller ; also, in succession, by Copley Fielding the artist, and Edward Magrath, the first secretary of the Athenaeum Club.”

Years later it was home to the art historian Kenneth Clark (1903-1983) and even later of the broadcaster Marghanita Laski (1915-1988).  No doubt some of these residents of Capo di Monte strolled along Judges Walk to take the air and enjoy the view.

This vista, which we found to be somewhat obscured by the trees and bushes lining Judges Walk, even during winter when foliage is sparse, was described in a novel, “Interplay” (published 1908), written by the suffragette Beatrice Harraden (1864-1936), who was born in Hampstead:

“She sat in Judges’ Walk, and surveyed from there the stretches of wood and copse with their varying shades of green, relieved by delicate tones of red and enhanced in beauty by the sombreness of many trees which, even as ball-room belles, preferred to make a later and more consequential entrance into the scenes of splendour.”

The eastern end of Judges Walk is close to the reservoir on the top of which perches the small Hampstead observatory. Just east of this, and running along the west side of Heath Street, there is a small garden called Whitestone Garden.  I am do not know when this leafy spot, which contains a few benches and did not exist when I was a child in the 1960s, was created, but it is a welcome addition to Hampstead Heath.

In my retirement, I visit Hampstead frequently, and there is never a visit during which I fail to find something new (to me) of interest.  Judges Walk, along which I had never ventured until this year, is one of those many ‘discoveries’ that increase my fascination with this former village that has become surrounded by the relentless spreading of London.  

Guard dogs and Cruella de Vil

LARGE FIERCE LOOKING DOGS roam freely in the grounds of a huge mock Tudor house overlooking north London’s Hampstead Heath on the corner of West Heath Road and Platts Lane. Approach one of the metal gates designed to prevent an outsider from viewing the house properly and within seconds one of those dogs will meet you on the other side of the gates and bark menacingly. I did manage to peer through the railings and the shrubbery within them to catch a glimpse of a huge sculpture of a seated lion sitting close to the steps leading to the house’s front door. Several notices on the outer wall of the property read:
“DO NOT ENTER. LARGE DOGS MAY BE RUNNING FREE”.

I have often passed this house and wondered about it.

A plaque posted by the Hampstead Plaque Fund reads as follows:
“Francis Owen Salisbury (1874-1962) ‘Frank’. Artist. Mural and Portrait painter, recorder of scenes of magnificent pageantry and historic event. Stained glass artist. Lived here.”

Frank, born in Harpenden (Hertfordshire), was the son of a craftsman, who worked in plumbing, decorating, and was also an ironmonger. He was apprenticed to a stained-glass company when he was 15, and then entered Heatherley’s School of Art as a part-time student (www.19thcenturypaintings.com/artists/79-francis-%28%22frank%22%29-o.-salisbury/biography/). A skilled artist, Frank won a scholarship to the Royal Academy Schools, where he won two silver medals. Soon, he:

“…acquired a considerable reputation. He exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1899 to 1943 and his career as a portrait painter also flourished in the United States. His sitters include five presidents of the United States, five British prime ministers and many members of the British royal family, including the official coronation portraits of King George VI.” (https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp07514/francis-owen-frank-salisbury).

Frank painted more portraits of Winston Churchill than any other artist. His portrait of Franklin D Roosevelt is still the official portrait of this president hanging in the White House. He was the first person to paint a portrait of the young lady, who is now Queen Elizabeth II. He made portraits of many of the most famous and infamous personalities of the first half of the twentieth century. Frank’s skills were not confined to portraiture as the commemorative plaque reveals,

Frank was highly successful in the USA and by 1932, he was able to move into his impressive mock-Tudor mansion, Sarum Chase, overlooking Hampstead Heath. The house was designed by Frank’s nephew Vyvyan Salisbury (died c1982). Following Frank’s death, the property was bequeathed to the British Council of Churches, who soon sold the house and its contents. The house has since been used as a background for photo and film shoots. In Disney’s 1996 film of “The 101 Dalmations”, Sarum Chase was used as the exterior of Cruella de Vil’s home.

By 1974, the house was home to St Vedast’s School for Boys, part of the School of Economic Science, which has links with a branch of Hindu philosophy. In 2005, the building was sold and is now, or has been, the home of property developer and donor to Jewish charities.

So, there you have it. If I have aroused your curiosity, that is good but do not try to enter this heavily guarded premises as did a little dog called Chewy, who found its way through a hole in the fence and met his sudden end in the garden of Sarum Chase in September 2016 (https://www.hamhigh.co.uk/news/our-pomeranian-dog-died-after-being-bitten-by-wealthy-property-3531920).

Peel Street and paintings

WALKING ALONG A SHORT street in London’s Kensington recently, I observed things that I had never noticed before and was reminded of Tony ‘M’. When I was a student of dentistry at the University College Hospital Dental School, I first met Tony in the third year. In that year, we began to learn how to make crowns (‘caps’) for our patients. Instead of sending the work out to be done by technicians, we students had to learn the nitty gritty of fabricating crowns, mostly gold ones. We were assigned to one of three or four technician tutors. I was assigned to Tony’s group. Why visiting Peel Street in Kensington sparked me to think of Tony will be revealed later.

Peel Street in Notting Hill Gate lies in land that used to be known as ‘The Racks’. It was part of the extensive estate of Campden House, which was owned by the Phillimore family. In the early 19th century, the land was bought by John Punter and William Ward, who divided the land between them in 1823 after having agreed to lay out two roads: Peel Str and Campden Str. Peel Street lay in Punter’s share of the area. Although Punter retained several plots along Peel Street, the rest were sold to a variety of different people. Nearer the eastern end of the street several buildings were demolished between 1865 and 1875 during the construction of what is now the Circle Line. Though the tracks are underground, there are no buildings built above them. If you look through the gap on the north side of the road, you can see the rear of a brick building which fronts on Edge Street. Near the top of this place, some bricks have been made to project slightly and to spell the name ‘LESLIE’. The rear part of this L-shaped building is currently occupied by ‘The Spanish Education Office’. This building was flying Spanish and  EU flags. I have no idea about the significance of ‘Leslie’.

One of the houses on the south side of Peel Street used to be a pub. It still bears the lettering ‘Peel Arms’. It was probably in existence by 1889, but today it is a private dwelling. The pub’s clientele were probably mostly workers who toiled in the gravel pits that abounded in the neighbourhood. The pub is not far from the six-storey Camden Houses, brick-built blocks of flats erected in 1877-8 for labourers, some of whom might well have drunk at the Peel Arms. The blocks contain 125 separate flats. The entrances to the blocks have art nouveau features. The building were designed by the architect Edwyn Evans Cronk (1846-1919) for the National Dwellings Society Ltd. Cronk was born in Sevenoaks (Kent) and died in Redcliffe Square in South Kensington.

At the western end of Peel Street, there is another pub, The Windsor Castle. Unlike the Peel Arms, this is a working establishment, now popular with the locals, most of whom are not poorly paid labourers. It was originally built in about 1826 and then remodelled in 1933. The pub contains much of its original late Georgian building fabric and is a Grade II listed place. Although I have passed it often, I have never entered it or its reputedly fine garden. At the Eastern end of Peel Street, there is a wine bar, The Kensington Wine Rooms. When we were getting married, back in 1993, the premises were occupied by a branch of the Café Rouge restaurant chain. We held a pre-wedding dinner there. The premises now housing the wine bar once housed a pub, The Macaulay Arms.  It was listed as being in existence in the 1868 edition of “Allen’s West London Street Directory”. Thus, residents of Peel Street were only a few steps from three ‘drinking holes’.

The directory ( https://www.gutenberg.org/files/58160/58160-h/58160-h.htm) lists the residents of Peel Street in 1868 as follows:

“1 Upfold George, sweep/ 2 Arnold F., carpenter/ 3 Miles Frederick, painter/ 23 Mansell H., painter/ 26 Redman J., marine stores/ 28 Redman J., beer retailer/ 37 Taylor W., gardener/ 46 Lucas Wm. Grocer/ 53 Hobbs Mrs. general shop/ 55 Horskins Thos. Baker/ 63 Pollett —, bootmaker/ Harris W., greengrocer/ 67 Smart M., The George Brewery/ 69 Dunnett Mrs. dressmaker/ 77 Elson George, oilman/ 80 Evans H., gardener/ 82 Atwood Mrs, dressmaker/ 83 Salmon —, bootmaker”

Most of the inhabitants appear to have been tradesmen, merchants, and craftsmen, rather than labourers. This is probably because the list was compiled before the Campden Houses were built to house manual labourers and their families. Incidentally, there is still a greengrocer on Peel Street. Jack and Jessie’s excellent shop is opposite the Kensington Wine Rooms.

Peel Cottage stands almost at the corner of Peel Street and Campden Hill Road. It is next to number 118 Campden Hill Road (aka ‘West House’), a building on the corner of Peel street designed for the artist George Henry Boughton (1803-1905) in the late 1870s by Richard Norman Shaw (1831-1912). New Scotland Yard and Lowther Lodge (home of the Royal Geographical Society on Kensington Gore) were amongst the many other buildings designed by Shaw. Another artist, the landscape painter Matthew Ridley Corbet (1850-1902) lived at number 80 Peel Street, where once lived the gardener, H Evans.  

The entrance to Peel Cottage, which is dwarfed by its neighbours, is partially covered with ivy. It was seeing the blue, circular commemorative plaque on the wall next to its entrance that reminded me of my former teacher Tony M. The plaque informs the passer-by that the artist Sir William Russell Flint (1880-1969) lived in Peel Cottage from 1925 until his death. This brings me back to Tony M, about whom you must have thought I had forgotten already.

As a dental student, I spent many hours with Tony M as I struggled to make decent gold crowns that would fit my patients’ teeth in the conservation clinics of the Dental School. Each encounter with Tony involved a trip to the canteen in the school’s basement. Tony was unable to function without a fresh cup of the school’s barely mediocre coffee. Over cups of coffee, Tony used to encourage us when the clinical teachers made our lives miserable, help with our technical work, and chat. During one of our sessions together, Tony, knowing that art interested me, suggested that I visit Cottrell’s showrooms in nearby Charlotte Street (numbers 15-17) to see the fine collection of paintings that hung on its walls. Cottrell’s were an important supplier of dental equipment and materials. Today, although it has retained its original Victorian frontage, it is the premises of the Charlotte Street Hotel.

Dutifully and because I was curious, I visited Cottrell’s showroom and looked at the framed watercolours hanging on the walls of the two ground floor showrooms. The paintings were all works of the inhabitant of Peel Cottage, William Russell Flint.

Flint was born in Edinburgh. He studied at Daniel Stewart’s College and then Edinburgh Institution. Between 1900 and 1902, he worked as a medical illustrator in London. Later, he produced illustrations for books and “The Illustrated London News”. He was elected President of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours (now the Royal Watercolour Society, of which my wife’s cousin, Varsha Bhatia, is a member), a position he held from 1936 until 1956. He was knighted in 1947. Flint produced many well-executed, delicately tinted water-colour paintings. He often visited Spain, where he made plenty of images that often included sensuous portrayals of women in various stages of undress. It was some of these titillating paintings that Tony had sent me to see on the walls of Cottrell’s showroom.

It was in the late 1970s or early 1980s (before 1982, when I qualified) that Tony M encouraged me to pay a visit to Cottrell’s in Charlotte Street to widen my knowledge of the world of art. Many years have passed since then, but a memory of that brief glimpse of Flint’s paintings lingers in the back of my mind. Visiting Peel Street and seeing Flint’s home brought that all back to the forefront of my memory.

India to St Ives

ST IVES IN CORNWALL is chock full of art galleries apart from the better-known Tate St Ives (highly overrated), the Penwith, and the splendid Barbara Hepworth house. Many of these galleries are best bypassed because they contain artworks of pedestrian workmanship and often poor aesthetic qualities. Last year, we visited a mediocre exhibition in the Crypt Gallery below the St Ives Society of Artists, which is housed in a deconsecrated church. So, when we passed the gallery today, I was reluctant to enter until I spotted that the exhibition was entitled ‘Cornwall and India’. The artist whose works were on display is called Paul Wadsworth.

Born in East Anglia in 1964, Paul studied at the art school in Falmouth (Cornwall). He told us that he has made three lengthy visits to India. One trip was to Rajasthan, another to Goa, and a third to Kerala. While in India, he commissions lovely leather-bound books to be made in Pushkar (Rajasthan). He fills these with line drawings and painted sketches. These visual records become the basis for his paintings inspired by his observations of India. Some of his Indian paintings are completed in India and others in his studios in Cornwall. To my eye, Paul captures the essence of India well: its colours and vibrancy.

Some of the paintings on display were those inspired by India. Others that involve skilful application of paints with a palate knife depict the spirit of the landscape of Cornwall. These paintings, Paul explained, are not done from photographs or preliminary sketches, but straight from true life. Given how the sky often changes so quickly in Cornwall, the artist has done a great job of seizing the moment and recording it on canvas.

Circus is another subject that attracts Paul. Some of his vivid depictions of life in the circus arena were on display. Complementing these, his sketch books have many lovely images created whilst he spent time with Kathakali dancers in India. Some of these sketches have been translated into paintings.

Paul spent time with us, patiently answering our numerous questions as well as showing us his works. He has the gallery for three weeks, starting 20th September 2020 and has filled it not only with his artworks but also the materials that he uses to create his works of art. He has created an exhibition within what he will use as his temporary studio.

I am truly glad that I entered the Crypt Gallery despite initial misgivings. If I had not, I would have missed out a highly enjoyable collection of good quality, well-executed art and meeting Paul, its affable creator.

The artist and the reformer: Cranach and Luther

IT IS ALWAYS FUN TO MAKE new discoveries. Yesterday, we braved incessant rain and the mist on the motorway to drive to Compton Verney House in Warwickshire, the county where William Shakespeare was born. Our main reason for visiting this lovely 18th century house was to see a special exhibition devoted to the works of the German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder (c 1472-1553). He was born in Kronach in the then predominantly Roman Catholic Holy Roman Empire. He was an extraordinarily successful painter. Also, he was a prosperous businessman: he had his own printing business and was also an apothecary. Cranach painted religious as well as mythological subjects in addition to court (and other) portraits.

Cranach became the court painter for the electors of Saxony in the town of Wittenberg. The electors in Wittenberg were supporters of Martin Luther (1483-1546), a professor of theology (at the University of Wittenberg) who rejected Roman Catholicism and became a ‘father’ of Protestantism. When Luther arrived in Wittenberg in October 1512, Lucas Cranach was already running a prosperous workshop (studio) in the town. Cranach made a portrait (engraving?) of Luther in 1520, which shows the reformer in priest’s garb with his head shaved to create a tonsure. This picture of Luther, when he was still an Augustinian monk, was not on display at Compton Verney. However, one room of the exhibition is dedicated to prints (designed by Lucas) and pamphlets (written by Martin) produced on Cranach’s presses. These works were all produced to promote Luther’s then revolutionary ideas.

Cranach’s courtly patrons in Wittenberg were supporters of Luther and Protestantism. The British historian, an expert on the Reformation, Andrew Pettegree wrote (in “Apollo”, 15th October 2016):

“From the beginning Cranach was a firm and important supporter of the Reformation. This was a relationship of mutual respect, mutual affection and mutual benefit. Cranach provided the Reformation with some of its most memorable images…”

Cranach became one of Luther’s important allies:

“… not merely because of his artistic talents. By this point he was one of Wittenberg’s leading citizens, firmly established among the city’s ruling elite. He would play a crucial role in this regard when Luther was absent from Wittenberg in 1521, and over-enthusiastic supporters, led by Andreas Karlstadt, pressed for radical changes to the order of worship that Luther would not have approved. Cranach, civic leader and artistic entrepreneur, was one of the rocks on which the Wittenberg Reformation was built. He also had the managerial skills and resources to conceive a solution to the problem that might otherwise have stopped the Reformation in its tracks: how to build a mass movement from a small place with extremely limited infrastructure.”

Part of that solution was Cranach’s high-quality printing works that were able to produce large editions of publications either written by Luther or by authors promoting his cause. The exhibition at Compton Verney has several examples of Cranach’s printed pro-Luther propaganda tracts and prints on display.  In one of them, facing pages depict the contrast between Protestantism and Catholicism. For example, an image of the pure Christ rising towards Heaven faces an image of the corrupt Pope burning in Hell. For those not able to read, this was a graphic illustration of Luther’s objections to Catholicism.

In 1521, Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X. Four years later, Luther, the erstwhile priest who had taken the vows of celibacy, decided to marry. His bride was Katherine von Bora (1499-1552), a nun who had fled to Wittenberg from a convent near the town of Grimma along with eight other nuns. Luther had undertaken to find them husbands or to find families for them to join so that they could enjoy ‘normal’ lives. At first, Katherine joined the household of Luther’s friend Lucas Cranach (the Elder). Luther tried hard to find her a husband. His friends tried hard to get Luther to marry. In the end, he married Katherine. Lucas Cranach was one of a few close friends who were present when Martin and Katherine took their wedding vows. Luther’s Roman Catholic enemies were quick to claim (according to Richard Marius in his “Martin Luther”) that:

“… all Luther ever wanted was sex, and since he had married a former nun, it seemed he had now lived out yet another of the bawdy stories told of nuns and monks lusting for one another…”

Popular legend of the time predicted that the Antichrist would be born to a monk and a nun, but Erasmus (1466-1536) wrote in connection with this:

“How many thousands of Antichrists had the world already known!”

Katherine and Martin produced six children.  Cranach married Barbara Brengbier. They had several children including Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586), the painter, one of whose works is displayed in the exhibition at Compton Verney. In 1517, Luther stood as a godfather to the last of Cranach’s children. Later, when Luther married, Cranach became godfather to some of his children.

Before visiting Compton Verney, I was already familiar with the fine paintings of Lucas Cranach the Elder, but I had no inkling of Cranach’s close connection with Martin Luther and the promotion of Protestantism. Also, I did not know that Cranach had had other business interests apart from producing works of art. I came away from the splendid exhibition at Compton Verney pleased to have had my eyes opened to an important episode of history about which I was only dimly aware.

Travelling to Compton Verney on a rainy day fulfilled what Mark Twain wrote in his 1869 book “Innocents Abroad”:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

In other words, travel broadens the mind. Our journey to Compton Verney did, despite inclement weather conditions, did precisely that.

A familiar face

THE SCULPTOR ELIZABETH FRINK (1930-1993) was a close friend of my late mother, who was also a sculptor. I do not know how they met at first, but they remained close friends. ‘Liz’ Frink, as I knew her when I was a child, was a regular visitor to our family home in northwest London. After my mother died in 1980, I never saw Liz again. She was born in Suffolk (where one of her pieces stands in the garden of the cathedral of Bury St Edmunds), studied at both Guildford and Chelsea schools of art, and died in Dorset (at Blandford Forum, which is a few miles southwest of Salisbury).

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Walking Madonna

Early in August (2020), we drove from London to Devon via Salisbury. There were two reasons that we chose the less direct route through the city of Salisbury. One was to avoid the motorway system as much as possible and to travel along roads that pass through lovely countryside. The other was to visit Salisbury, especially its cathedral and enclosed environs (the ‘Cathedral Close’). The cathedral, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture built mainly between 1220 and 1320, is worthy of a visit, or as the Michelin “Guides Vert” say in French, ‘vaut le détour’. The splendid architecture was one reason for our latest visit but not the main one. We had come to see an exhibition called “Celebrating 800 Years of Spirit and Endeavour”.

The exhibition consists of 20 works of art, mainly sculptural, displayed within the cathedral and outside it in the Cathedral Close. These works are in addition to the cathedral’s permanent collection of 9 sculptures. My favourites amongst the temporary works were pieces created by: Conrad Shawcross, Danny Lane, Subodh Gupta, Antony Gormley, Tony Cragg, Lynn Chadwick, Daniel Chadwick, and Grayson Perry.

I was intrigued by an electronic sculpture, ‘The Reader’. made in 2015 by an artist named Stanza (born 1962). It depicts a standing man reading a book. The book glows regularly and as it does, LED bulbs in different parts of his body glow for a few moments. The artwork attempts to show, quite successfully, how reading can affect the body and feelings of the reader.

Several of the artworks in the cathedral’s permanent collection particularly impressed me. One of these is a small stone carving by Emily Young, which stands in the cloisters. Also, in the cloisters, there is a large coloured sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, which recalled the works of the Dutch artist Piet Mondrian, a good friend of hers. It is called ‘Construction (Crucifixion’). Generally, I am not enthusiastic about her works, but this one, which is so different from most of her other creations, pleased me greatly.

There is another wonderful part of the permanent collection within the nave of the cathedral. This is a large baptismal font by William Pye. Installed in 2008, this huge vessel is filled to the brim with water which flows from it via four spouts. The surface of the water is perfectly smooth and acts as a mirror in which the architecture of the cathedral is reflected beautifully. It is truly a reflective piece in more than one sense of the adjective.

Outside the cathedral, there is a fine stone carving in white marble, ‘Angels Harmony’, by Helaine Blumenfeld. To me, it seemed to depict drapes being blown around in the wind. I liked this, but what really caught my eye was a rather dreary looking cast bronze sculpture, ‘Walking Madonna’. This life-size piece was made in 1981 by ‘our’ former family friend Liz Frink. At first, I glanced at it quickly, and then, for no special reason, I took a closer look. I experienced a strange feeling of ‘déja vu’ when I looked at the Madonna’s face. For a moment, I felt as if I was looking at Liz Frink’s face. As mentioned already, it is over 40 years since I last saw her. Yet, I had the feeling that I recognised her face. I have since learned that Frink often included her long jawline in the faces she sculpted, but it was not that which gave me the fleeting feeling of recognition. Instead, it was the nose and mouth on the depiction of the Madonna that sparked that momentary sensation that I was looking into Frink’s face. I have since compared photographs of the sculptor with those I took of the work on the lawns outside the cathedral. Comparing them, one cannot entirely rule out the possibility that Liz Frink was influenced by her own face when creating the ‘Walking Madonna’.

Whether or not Frink intended her sculpture to include her own face is up to the viewer, but in any case, I can strongly recommend a visit to Salisbury Cathedral before the enjoyable sculpture exhibition is dismantled.

Clive in India

I AM NOW IN CALCUTTA. Last time I came here, for miles and miles along the railway lines and at stations, there were starving people. Now there is not a sign of famine – it has been organised with the ability of genius…” 

Thus, wrote Clive Branson (1907-1944) from Bengal on the 11th of November 1944. Later in the same letter, this British soldier in India added:

“… it is reported that in the week ending November 5th, 267 deaths occurred in Chandpur town and in the 53 unions (groups of villages), on an average more than 200 in each. The report states ‘Almost all the dead bodies were thrown into the ‘khal’ and paddy fields – to be devoured by dogs, jackals and vultures – as there was no man available to bury or burn those corpses.”

A few lines later, he adds:

The point is that out in the villages people can starve to death without anyone knowing about it, while on the basis of the falling mortality rate in Calcutta Amery will no doubt claim that the famine is over.”

‘Amery’ to whom Branson referred was Leo Amery (1873-1955), who was Secretary of State for India during WW2. The famine was that which decimated many Indians in Bengal and other parts of India.

clive

Writing on the 28th of August 1943, Branson suggested that the famine was to some large extent man-made rather than the result of natural disasters:

But the fact is there is enough food in India now …”

A major cause of the famine he suggested it was:

“… the hoarders, the big grain merchants, the landlords and the bureaucrats who have engineered the famine …”

And, on the 14th September 1943, Branson wrote:

The thing that stands out a mile is that the Government showed no signs of weakness when it came to the arrest of the Congress in glaring contrast  to its utter helplessness (??) (or should we call it co-operation, tie-up) in the face of the grain profiteers (and in a similar situation – the cloth merchants – the coalowners, re employment of women underground).”

These quotes, damning indictments of the situation Clive Branson observed whilst serving in India come from a book, “British Soldier in India”. It contains the letters that Clive wrote from India to his wife in England and was published in 1944 by ‘The Communist Party, London’. The slender volume contains an introduction written by Harry Pollitt (1890-1960), who was General Secretary of The Communist Party of Great Britain from 1941 to 1956. I came across the book while reading an excellent book about the 1943 Bengal famine, “Churchill’s Secret War” by Madhusree Mukherjee, and ordered a copy.

Clive was born in Ahmednagar (India), son of an army officer. Ironically, most of his time in India during WW2 was spent in the town where he was born. He trained to be a painter at The Slade School of Art (part of University College London) and became a prolific and talented artist. Some of his works are housed in London’s Tate Gallery. From the age of 20, Clive became interested in Communism and joined the Communist Party in 1932. Pollitt wrote of him:

He was one of those who endear themselves to all who came in contact with them … he was able to inspire others to hate poverty and fight to remove it, to hate ugliness and see beauty … He was not only a brilliant speaker and organiser, but also did more than his share of what is sometimes called “the donkey work”. Nothing was too much for him …”

During the Spanish Civil War, Clive both recruited for, and from 1938 fought with, The International Brigade. In March 1938, he was taken prisoner by Franco’s Nationalist forces and interned in San Pedro de Cardeña concentration camp, where he painted and sketched the camp and many of its inmates. These artworks are currently stored in the Marx Memorial Library in London’s Clerkenwell Square. Pollitt reports that a fellow prisoner said of Clive:

In any difficult time, Clive was always cheery, putting forward what we should do … He was one of the most popular and most respected among the British prisoners.”

Clive, a true patriot and ardent anti-fascist, joined the Royal Armoured Corps during WW2 and was posted to India where he arrived in May 1942, the month that he sent his first letter published in the book. Pollitt accurately notes that Clive’s letters from India:

“… will make you angry and they will make you sad. They will make you see new colours and shades, an unimaginable suffering and a truly heroic grandeur, extraordinary nobility and equally extraordinary bestiality. It is a vivid and many-sided picture which Clive wanted to record in painting, and which we may be sure he would have executed with feeling and sincerity...”

Reading Clive’s letters today, 76 years after they were composed, still evoked a sense of anger because of the awful things he saw as well as a sense of wonder because of his very evident love and admiration of India and its people.

Whenever he was able, Clive mixed with Indians from all strata of society and delighted in their company.  While in Ahmednagar, Clive was introduced to an Indian artist. At this person’s house, he:

“… did a drawing for 1½ hours of his little niece aged 10. I did it in indelible pencil and ink – this is the medium I shall do most of my work in as it is more lasting – does not smudge – than ordinary pencil. But how difficult are Indian clothes – I shall have to do a lot of careful observation and drawing before I shall know what to do technically’ The Indian just sat and watched me working. He speaks English quite well, and knows a number of famous Indian painters – he himself went to the Bombay School of Art…”

This was noted in a letter dated 13th of April 1943. Several months later, in mid-September, Clive was invited to lunch with his artist friend. I loved his description of the occasion, which was new to him but typically Indian:

We sat on wooden seats about 2 ins. off the ground. The meal was in a room just off the kitchen. Of course we had taken off our boots etc. Each had a large silver plate with the various ingredients put around the edge. A small bowl of what they call butter-milk took the place of water. A pattern, done with vermilion and white powder had been drawn on the ground. In front of me was placed a little silver stand in which a stick of incense burned. Nana’s elder daughter also ate with us. The whole affair was very civilised and friendly.”

In general, Clive was enamoured of all of the Indians he encountered, both those from sophisticated and also humble backgrounds. He was horrified at the way that the British and their government treated them. This is a significant feature of what he conveyed in his letters. Also, the failure and apparent unwillingness of the British to address the terrible famine concerned and upset him greatly. He communicates this eloquently and powerfully in his writing.

One of Clive’s many observations struck a personal chord. It concerns the bookshops that Clive visited in India in search of reading material. In a letter written from Bombay in September 1942, he noted:

I have said a lot about going to bookshops, but I have never mentioned something which hits you in the face about the general trend of literature: 1. Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ is on sale prominently at every bookstall …”

Seeing copies of “Mein Kampf” openly on sale in most bookshops in India is something that has always surprised me since my first visit to India in 1994.

As a Communist, Clive’s political views are not concealed in his letters. He showed little or no sympathy for the policies of Gandhi and the All India Congress. On the 10th of March 1943, he wrote:

How stupid Gandhi’s fast looks compared to the grandeur of a handful of Indian peasants and workers uniting to demand their human rights!  No wonder the Viceroy corresponds with Gandhi and sends the police after the people.”

As for the Muslim League in Bengal:

The net result of the League’s scheme is to launch the peasants against the little men and leave the big bastards to control the famine via the black market – such is the first practical application of the policy of Jinnah.” (letter dated 19th June 1943)

Also, as a staunch anti-fascist, he regarded Subhas Chandra Bose as contemptible because he had chosen to fight alongside the Japanese, who were allies of fascist Germany. During his stay in India, Clive met and discussed matters with members of the Indian Communist Party. This is described in the letters and was not removed by the censors. In addition, his harsh but justifiable criticism of Britain’s mishandling of the famine in India passed the censors’ scrutiny and reached his wife’s letter box intact.

Clive was constantly upset by seeing examples of British racism in India. He mentions this often in his letters. The most eloquent example appears in a letter written on the 29th of November 1943:

I am sitting on the grass outside a long army hut. Not far away is an African negro … reading a book. Five minutes ago a B.O.R. [British other rank] came up, stopped, and said to him, ‘Can you read?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘What’s the book? Miss Blandish?’ ‘No, Pygmalion.’ I had to record this – whole books could not present the present world situation better.”

(I imagine that the B.O.R. was referring to “ No Orchids for Miss Blandish”, a  raunchy thriller by James Hadley Chase)

In the same letter, Clive noted that the British Conservative MP, Ferris:

“… has made a study of Indian affairs, and has delivered himself of the profound judgement that India is not ready for self-government. I wonder how many whiskies and sodas it took to produce such an original conclusion.”

Sadly, Clive did not live long enough to see India becoming independent in 1947. He was killed in action early in 1944 “…commanding an M3 Lee tank of B Squadron, 25th Dragoons. He was hit a glancing but fatal blow on the back of the head by a Japanese anti-tank shell near Point 315 at the end of the Battle of the Admin Box.” (source: Wikipedia).

Clive’s letters provide a moving collection of well-described observations of India, a country in which many of its citizens were enduring a plight at least as bad as that of people suffering in Nazi occupied Europe. They were under the control of the British, who were fighting to defeat Nazi tyranny. The British were under the leadership of Winston Churchill, who is reported (by his close colleague Leo Amery) to have said:

I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”

Here are two short videos well worth watching in connection with what I have written:

https://youtu.be/QI6qg1ERmGE

(Pathé Newsreel with scenes of the famine. Commentary in Punjabi, but images are very powerful)

https://youtu.be/fUjtxHFGUrg

(An Indian historian/author/politician gives a fresh view of Churchill)