Black and white housing

WHEN DRIVING HOME after leaving our vacuum cleaner for repair at a small shop in Ealing, we passed a tidy estate consisting of houses and blocks of flats, all decorated with mock half-timbering painted in black and white. Near to West Ealing Underground station, this housing colony is called Hanger Hill Garden Estate.

During the period between the two World Wars, much residential building work was undertaken in London’s suburbs. Often, estates were built with features that mimicked rusticity. The idea was that the commuters, who lived there, might imagine that they were enjoying a village atmosphere, without being far away from the inner city, where many of them worked. To create this illusion, house builders adorned their constructions with decorative features that were supposed to make them seem older and more traditional than they were. The use of mock half-timbering on external walls was a commonly used decorative trick designed to evoke suggestions of ‘ye olde England’.

At Hanger Hill Garden Estate, there is a uniformity of style, which makes the use of half-timbering eye-catching rather than suggestive of rustic traditions. Interestingly, the mock half-timbering does not extend to cover the dull, pebble-dashed rear walls of some of the blocks of flats. These surfaces are less easy to see from the roads than the mock half-timbering. Overall, the result is attractive. When I first saw this well-maintained estate with neat gardens, I thought of early 20th century garden suburbs rather than old country villages, which are often delightful because they lack uniformity in their layouts.

The opening of the branch of the Central Line, which runs from Shepherds Bush to Ealing Broadway, in 1920, and especially the opening of West Acton Station three years later, were the stimuli for the construction of residential estates in the area. In 1925, the first bit of land was acquired by Hanger Hill Garden Estate Ealing Limited. The estate was built between 1928 and about 1932. The buildings, flats and houses, were all designed by the architectural practice of Douglas Smith & Barley. The resulting layout has considerable uniformity, and is attractive without being monotonous. A good feature in the estate’s design is that the blocks of flats stand in spacious lawns.

The Residents Association’s website has a good history of the place (www.hhgera.com). It noted that in the 1930s:

“…times were clearly pleasant and peaceful ones for all the tenants on the Estate. Occupiers of some of the four-bedroomed houses employed a maid, the fourth bedroom having been designed with this in mind. Whilst all the houses and many of the flats had garages, only a small number of people on the Estate owned cars … These were the days when goods were delivered to the home. Tradesmen were not allowed to call at the front doors of the houses or flats, but had to call at back doors using the service roads. Bakers, butchers, fish salesmen and greengrocers all called weekly, some attending earlier in the day or week to take orders. In the parking bays behind the flats, vans from Harrods, Dickens & Jones and the like, were to be seen drawing up.”

However, life on the estate was not free from regulations:

“Tenancies of flats were refused to people who had young children. No animals were allowed to be kept in the flats … House tenants were allowed to hang out washing only on Mondays and Tuesdays; flat tenants were not permitted to hang out washing at all.”

Currently, so two friendly residents informed us, the estate is subject to strict conservation regulations. This is a good thing because it would be a shame to spoil the appearance of this charming and unusual enclave of residential accommodation in this part of west London.

READ more about west London in Adam Yamey’s book “BEYOND MARYLEBONE AND MAYFAIR: EXPLORING WEST LONDON”, which can be bought from Amazon https://www.amazon.co.uk/BEYOND-MARYLEBONE-MAYFAIR-EXPLORING-LONDON/dp/B0B7CR679W/

The Black Chapel in the park

EVERY SUMMER SINCE 2000 except for the year 2020, the Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens has hosted a special event. On each of these years between June and October, a temporary pavilion has been erected near to the original Serpentine Gallery (now known as Serpentine South). No two pavilions have looked the same. However, what they have in common is that each one of them is the first ever completed structure erected in England by the pavilion’s designer/architect.  

This year (2022), the pavilion, called “Black Chapel”, was designed by the American artist Theaster Gates (born in Chicago in 1973). In the past, we have seen exhibitions of his works hosted in the White Cube Galleries at both Masons Yard and in Bermondsey. Many of his exciting artworks have impressed us greatly. So, it was with high expectations that we went to see his pavilion.

At first sight, we were disappointed by the Black Chapel. It is a huge black cylinder with three apertures. Two of them are entrances and the third is a circular orifice in the centre of the tall structure’s circular, domed ceiling. A segment of the cylinder is walled off and serves as a café servery. Benches line the lower parts of the wall of the rest of the building. Seven large, flat rectangular, metallic paintings (or plates) are attached to a part of the internal wall, and there is a large bell just outside one of the pavilion’s two entrances.

Today, many people like to have art explained to them. For me, it is my visceral reaction to an artwork that is more important than its intended meaning or the artist’s intentions. The ‘meaning’ of a work of art is, for me, secondary to the way I am affected by it. For those, who seek meaning in art, this is what the Serpentine’s website has to say about the pavilion:

“The structure, realised with the support of Adjaye Associates, references the bottle kilns of Stoke-on-Trent, the beehive kilns of the Western United States, San Pietro and the Roman tempiettos, and traditional African structures, such as the Musgum mud huts of Cameroon, and the Kasubi Tombs of Kampala, Uganda. The Pavilion’s circularity and volume echo the sacred forms of Hungarian round churches and the ring shouts, voodoo circles and roda de capoeira witnessed in the sacred practices of the African diaspora.”

Interesting as this might be, it neither increases nor diminishes my appreciation of the Black Chapel. Theaster Gates’s Black Chapel is less exciting visually than some of the past pavilions. Although our initial impressions of this seemingly simple structure were not particularly favourable, after spending a little time in it, the place grew on us and now we hope to visit it again.

A composer who lived by the River Thames

THE COMPOSER GUSTAV Holst (1874-1934) is best known for his orchestral suite “The Planets”, which was composed between 1914 and 1916. This work does not include the planet Pluto, which was only discovered in 1930. Son of a professional musician, Holst was born in Cheltenham (Gloucestershire). Between 1886 and 1891, he was a pupil at Cheltenham Grammar School, where at the age of 12 he composed his first piece, “Horatius” for an ensemble of strings, woodwind, brass, and percussion. From 1891, he studied counterpoint for several months with the organist of Merton College in Oxford. Next, Holst studied composition at the Royal College of Music (‘RCM’) in London’s Kensington.

After graduation at the RCM, Holst worked as a professional trombonist in the Carl Rosa Opera Company and the Scottish Orchestra. During this time, he continued composing and also became interested in translations of Sanskrit literature. Several of his compositions reflect his heartfelt interest in the “Rig Veda”, “Ramayana”, and the “Bhagavad Gita”, all of which struck a meaningful chord with him. In 1903, he accepted a teaching role at James Allen’s Girls’ School in Dulwich.  Two years later, he left Dulwich to become Director of Music at St Paul’s Girls School in Hammersmith, a position he retained until his death.

Gustav Holst lived here in Barnes

Between 1908 and 1913, Holst lived not too far from the school: at Barnes in a house facing the River Thames on a road called The Terrace. His daughter Imogen Holst (1907-1984), herself a composer, wrote a biography of her father (published 1938). In it she described the house in Barnes:

“… a beautiful bow-fronted brick house overlooking the river. He had a large music room on the top floor, and in the evenings the grey, muddy river would collect all the colours of the sky and shine with a magical light …”

However:

“It was an unhealthy house to live in, for at the spring tides the river overflowed into the streets, and often the floods would come in at the front door. He never felt really well there, and was perpetually suffering from a relaxed throat …”

Before moving to Barnes, Holst began to become interested in socialism, and having read some of the writings of William Morris (1834-1896), who had been living next to the Thames near Hammersmith in Kelmscott House since 1878. Imogen Holst wrote of her father’s interest in socialism:

“… [he] began to hear about Socialism, and after reading several books by William Morris he joined the Hammersmith Socialist Club and listened to Bernard Shaw’s lectures at Kelmscott House. Here he found a new sort of comradeship, and here he became aware of other ways of searching for beauty…. His socialism was never very active, and although he admired William Morris as a man, he found that the glamour of his romantic Mediaevalism soon wore off. But he remained in the club for the sake of good companionship, and in 1897 he accepted an invitation to conduct the Socialist Choir.”

He met his wife, Isobel (née Harrison), when she joined the choir as a new soprano, and they married several years later.

Holst travelled a great deal to places where the climate was better suited to his asthma. While visiting North Africa in 1908, he heard a street musician playing a repetitive tune on a flute in a street in Algeria. This haunted him and led to his composing a lovely orchestral suite “Beni Mora”, which is amongst my favourite pieces by Holst. I first heard this when a musical friend of mine, the late Roger Apps, played a recording of it for me in his home in Rainham (Kent).

A keen walker, Gustav and Isobel went rambling in England. On one of these outings, they visited Thaxted in northern Essex, where they bought one cottage (and then moved to another), in which Gustav spent as much time as possible. I will describe his musical associations with Thaxted in far greater detail in the future. Suffice it to say that some parts of “The Planets” suite were composed there.

In 1913, St Pauls School opened a new music wing, in which Holst was given a large soundproof room for his composing work. That same year, mainly for health-related reasons, he and his family moved from the house in Barnes to a house in Brook Green close to the school.

Holst’s former home in Barnes is still standing and marked with a commemorative plaque. Despite its once unhealthy features, it is now a highly desirable residence. In December 2021, it was on the market with a price tag of £3.5 million (www.countrylife.co.uk/property/the-thames-side-home-of-the-composer-gustav-holst-is-up-for-sale-a-true-gem-in-one-of-londons-most-desirable-villages-236144).

PS: Dame Ninette de Valois (1898-2001), founder of the Royal Ballet, also lived on The Terrace, not far from Holst’s former home.

The stuff of dreams: an exhibition of Surrealist art

MOST NIGHTS I HAVE several dreams, all very vivid and in technicolour, often with a soundtrack. However, when I awake, I might only remember the outlines of one of them, if any at all. Much Surrealist art, often paintings, drawings, photographic images, or cinematographic sequences, depicts dreams. Whether these are the dreams that an artist has actually experienced, or they are creations that attempt to recreate the often weird ‘atmospheres’ that are produced in dreamers’ brains during slumber, it matters not because many of the Surrealist artists produce works that have the distorted realism typical of many dreams, which most viewers will recognise.

By Salvador Dali

Until the 29th of August 2022, there is an excellent exhibition of works created by Surrealist artists. Called “Beyond Borders”, it does not confine itself to well-known western artists such as Salvador Dali, De Chirico, Dorothea Tanning, Leonora Carrington, and so on, it introduces the viewer to Surrealists from as far afield as Japan, Latin America, and Africa, as well some pieces by artists who are new to me (and I suspect to many other visitors to the Tate). Most of the exhibits were paintings, graphic and cinematographic art; there were relatively few sculptures.   Well-known artists’ works are displayed alongside those of artists who are not widely recognised in this country, but deserve to be. Some might question the way that the curator (s) chose to group the artworks, but not being an art historian, this did not disturb me in the slightest. One new thing I learned from glancing at the informative notices amongst the exhibits is that Surrealist images were occasionally used by artists to convey politically subversive messaging. This reminds me of some strange (not necessarily Surreal) films that were made in parts of Europe when they were behind the so-called ‘Iron Curtain’: their oddity was supposed to disguise criticisms of the regime in power by baffling the strict but unimaginative censors.   

Overall, the exhibition provides a richly varied series of visual experiences. Wandering through the exhibition was a delight for my wife and me, and we shall try to visit the show again before it closes.

Third time lucky at the theatre

DURING JULY AND early August (2022), we visited theatres three times. First was a performance of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” at the Shakespeare Globe Theatre by the Thames near Southwark Bridge. The seats were far from comfortable, and the production was not among the best I have seen. Next, we watched a play (in comfortable seats) at the Young Vic in Waterloo. Neither the play, “Chasing Hares”, nor the acting was up to the usual high standard that we have enjoyed in the past at that theatre. After these two disappointments, it was with some trepidation that we made our way to the Bridge Theatre, which is next to Tower Bridge and faces the Tower of London across the Thames.

At the Bridge Theatre

The Bridge Theatre, housed in a 21st century building, was opened in October 2017. It was developed by Nick Starr and Nicholas Hytner, who is both a theatre and film director. His productions at the National Theatre, where he was artistic director for several years, were wonderful. With comfortable seats and good sightlines from every seat (even those designated as ‘restricted view’), the Bridge is an excellently designed theatre. Not only are its stage and auditorium optimal, but also is the spacious foyer, from which there are good views across the Thames towards the Tower and the new skyscrapers in the City of London.

The play we saw at the Bridge on the 4th of August was “The Southbury Child” by Alex Jennings. Filled with humour, this work raises several serious questions. One of them is whether the Church of England should be authoritarian or whether it should be a democratic organisation responsive to the needs and wishes of its congregation. To avoid giving away its excellent plot, all I will say is that the play is highly enjoyable.

We have now seen 5 plays at the Bridge and not one of them was disappointing. In fact, they were all above average in quality. So maybe it was not a case of ‘third time lucky’ when after two poor performances elsewhere recently, we went to the Bridge.

The underground artist

THE BRITISH SCULPTOR Henry Moore (1898-1968) moved to London’s Hampstead district in 1929. Between that year and 1940 he lived in Parkhill Road, close to the Mall Studios, where the great sculptor Barbara Hepworth had her home and workshop. Many of Moore’s other close neighbours were in the forefront of the modern art world of the years between the two world wars. Not far away, the designer Jack Pritchard (1899-1992) and his family lived in Belsize Park Gardens, having moved there from Hampstead’s Platts Lane.

By Henry Moore, 1941

Quoting from my book “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs”:

“In 1929, he [Pritchard] and the Canadian architect Wells Coates (1895-1958) formed the company, Isokon, whose aim was to build Modernist style residential accommodation. Pritchard and his wife, a psychiatrist, Molly (1900-1985), commissioned Coates to build a block of flats in Lawn Road on a site that they owned. Its design was to be based on the then revolutionary new communal housing projects that they had visited in Germany, including at the influential Bauhaus in Dessau.”

The modernist building, now known as the Isokon, still stands on Lawn Road, which is close to Parkhill Road. It is still used as a block of flats. Completed in 1934, the building included communal areas including a restaurant and a bar called The Isobar where (to quote from my book again):

“… exhibitions were held in the Isobar and, according to an on-line article in ‘The Modern House Journal’ these were attended by artists including Adrian Stokes, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and Naum Gabo. The article also noted that this refreshment area was frequented by modernist architects such as Erich Mendelsohn, Serge Chermayeff and, Wells Coates, as well as by left-wing politicians.”

The Lawn Road Flats (the Isokon) was an early British example of a ferro-concrete building with a steel frame. This made it far more resistant to being damaged by bombs than its many brick-built neighbours. In fact, the only damage it suffered during WW2 was a few broken windowpanes. Various people, including the author Agatha Christie, moved into the Isokon to seek protection from the Blitz. Another person doing the same was Henry Moore, who moved there in 1941.

Many people, who were not lucky enough to be able to live in a relatively bomb-proof edifice, sought shelter from the bombs by spending nights on the platforms of Underground stations such as Belsize Park and Hampstead, all of which are far beneath the ground. Henry Moore created a series of dramatic drawing of the people taking shelter on Underground station platforms. It is quite possible that while living in Hampstead, he visited the stations mentioned above to find subjects for his drawings, which provide a vivid record of the terrible times when London was under attack from the air.

Recently, whilst visiting the Tate Britain art gallery, which houses a great deal of British art, I saw two of Moore’s Underground drawings, both dated 1941, and several of his sculptures. The drawings are not accurate depictions of what the artist saw, but they illustrate his reactions to what he witnessed, and as such they emphasise the atmosphere of those fearful times.  Although there is no doubt that Moore was a great artist, on the whole I prefer the works of his contemporary and sometime neighbour in Hampstead: Barbara Hepworth.

Beyond London’s West End: the story of west London

BEFORE THE YEAR 1800, the West End was truly the western end of London. West of Mayfair and Marylebone, there was countryside: woods, fields, private parks, farms, stately homes, villages, and highwaymen. After the beginning of the 19th century, the countryside began to disappear as villages grew and coalesced and the city of London expanded relentlessly westward. What had been rural Middlesex gradually became the west London we know today.  My new book, illustrated with photographs and maps, explores the past, present, and future of many places, which became absorbed into what is now west London: that is London west of Park Lane and the section of Edgware Road south of Kilburn. Some of the places described will be familiar to many people (e.g., Paddington, Kensington, Fulham, and Chelsea). Other locations will be less known by most people (e.g., Acton, Walham Green, Crane Park, Harmondsworth, and Hayes). Many people have seen the places included in my book when they have looked out of the windows of aircraft descending towards the runways at Heathrow, and many of them will have passed some of these places as they travel from Heathrow to their homes or hotels. My book invites people to begin exploring west London – a part of the metropolis less often on tourists’ itineraries than other areas. “Beyond Marylebone and Mayfair: Exploring West London” is aimed at both the keen walker (or cyclist) and the armchair traveller.  

Beyond Marylebone and Mayfair: Exploring West London is available as a paperback from Amazon here:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/BEYOND-MARYLEBONE-MAYFAIR-EXPLORING-LONDON/dp/B0B7CR679W/:

Painting in the Mall

BETWEEN HAMPSTEAD AND Belsize Park, there is a narrow footpath running north from Tasker Road. One side of it is lined with a terrace of low buildings known as Mall Studios. Built in 1872 by Thomas Battersby, they were designed as artists’ studios. Each of them contained small waiting rooms; costume rooms; and a lobby. Each studio had three skylights and large north facing windows to capture the kind of light favoured by many artists. Following the advice of the artist Walter Sickert, who had lived there, the artist John Cecil Stephenson (1889-1965) settled into number 6, Mall Studios in March 1919.  It was to remain his home until he died. In 1927, Barbara Hepworth became his neighbour in number 7, and at around that time, the influential art critic and writer Herbert Read moved into number 3. Nearby, Parkhill Road became home (for various lengths of time) to other artists including Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Naum Gabo, Piet Mondrian, Hans Erni, and other artists who have since become famous.

By John Cecil Stephenson

Whether it was the proximity of his artistic neighbours, who were pioneers of 20th century modernist art, or something else in his artistic evolution, Stephenson departed from his previous ‘straightforward’ portraiture and landscape painting and created works characteristic of what is now known as the ‘Modernist’ style. Although some of his works created after the late 1920s are to some extent figurative, most of his output was mainly abstract and constructivist. During WW1, Stephenson left London’s Slade School of Art temporarily to work in munition factories in Bishop Auckland (County Durham), the town where he was born. His experiences of working with industrial machinery and observing the efficiency and speed of the mechanised production processes is reflected in some of the paintings he produced later.

Stephenson, son of a grocer, was less well known than his neighbours. He produced art that bears favourable comparison to the works produced by them. Until the 18th of September 2022, there is a wonderful small exhibition of his works in a gallery within Hampstead’s charming Burgh House. The catalogue, edited by Sacha Llewellyn, Paul Liss, and George Richards, not only contains a fine collection of photographs of the exhibits but also provides a superb introduction – better than others I have seen – to the story of the pioneering role of Hampstead in the evolution of modern art in England. Burgh House, which contains several rooms comprising a museum of the history of Hampstead, also hosts excellent exhibitions such as the current survey of Stephenson’s works. Its well illuminated Peggy Jay Gallery provides a space for contemporary artists, many of them local, to display their works. Beneath the two storeys of cultural experiences, the basement of Burgh House is home to a pleasant café where anything from a cup of coffee to a wholesome meal can be obtained. And amongst the interesting range of books in the small bookshop, you can find copies of my book “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs” on sale (if they have run out, tell them to ask me for more, and then get your copy from Amazon).

A well hidden treasure and a film from Iran

FROM THE STREET, the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill Gate does not look like much from the aesthetic viewpoint. However, although the box-like building containing the cinema is typical of unexciting 1960s architecture, the auditorium is a real treasure. Its beautifully decorated interior was converted in 1911 from a former Italian restaurant, which had been designed in 1861 by William Hancock. The ceiling is adorned with plaster mouldings depicting fruits and foliage. The dull exterior housing this lovely auditorium contains in addition to the cinema, the foyer, and offices. It was built in 1962 by the architects Douton and Hurst. Unlike the walls and ceiling, the seating in the cinema is modern and comfortable. One small problem is that there is not much of a rake so that if you are unlucky enough to have someone tall in front of your seat, your view of the screen might be obstructed if you do not lean to the left or right.

To celebrate the 1st of August (2022), we watched a prize-winning film made in Iran in 2021. Its title (in English) is “Hit the Road”, and it is a ‘road movie’. Its four main actors, who are the characters making a long journey across Iran, are superbly credible. Although it portrays the stunning landscapes of Iran beautifully, there is much more to it. Subtly and intelligently, it reveals how delicately the filmmakers view the sophisticated nature of Iranian life and culture. It is easy to make the mistake of viewing Iran solely as a menace and threat to western civilisation. This film and others that I have seen, which were made in Iran after the downfall of the Shah’s regime, might occasionally have aspects critical of the current status quo, but they also demonstrate that the great cultural heritage for which Persia has been known for many centuries persists today. “Hit the Road” does allude delicately at several problems that plague Iran today, but so gently are these allusions made that they were either missed or ignored by the censors in the country where the film was made.

“Hit the Road” should not be missed. If you are in London, why not see it at the Gate, and before the lights dim enjoy the well-conserved early 20th century décor of the auditorium.