St Johns Wood and the Crimea

THROUGHOUT MY LIFE, I have been visiting or passing through St Johns Wood in north London. I have often noticed a street called Woronzow Road. It lies between Primrose Hill and St Johns Wood Underground Station. Whenever I have seen this road, I have wondered about the name ‘Woronzow’, but uncharacteristically I have always been too lazy to find out anything about it.

Recently, we visited Wilton House in Wiltshire, not far from the city of Salisbury. Home to the Herberts, the Earls of Pembroke, for many centuries, this is a wonderful place to visit, to see its gardens, the house itself and the outstanding collection of old master paintings within it. The decoration of the rooms that we saw is superb and is kept in good condition by the house’s present occupants, the family of the current, the 17th, Earl of Pembroke. It was whilst visiting this splendid country seat that my ears pricked up hearing the guide mention the name ‘Worontzow’.

In 1808, the widowed George Herbert (born 1759) remarried. His second wife was Catherine Woronzow (1783-1856). Her father was Semyon Romanovich Woronzow (1744-1832), Russian Ambassador to England from 1796-1806, who died in London and was buried in the Pembroke’s family vault. Catharine, who became Countess of Pembroke, did a great deal to improve Wilton House to create much of what we can see today. She is buried in the nearby church of St Mary and St Nicholas, which was built in a neo-Romanesque style between 1841 and 1844. It was built at the instigation of Catharine and her son Sidney Herbert, the 14th Earl of Pembroke (1810-1861).

Between October 1853 and February 1856, the last years of Catharine’s life, Britain was at war with Russia in what is known as The Crimean War. Between June 1859 and July 1861, Sidney Herbert was the Secretary for War in the British government. During the campaign, a supply route called the ‘Woronzow Road’, no doubt named in honour of Catherine’s noble Russian family, ran along the Crimean coast past Sebastopol. Thus, there was once a Woronzow Road in The Crimea. This was an important supply route for the British forces bringing much-needed material south from Alma and Calamita Bay towards Sebastopol. In the winter of 1854, the British lost control of this vital supply route and had to rely on goods reaching them by a far more difficult track,

One of Sidney Herbert’s great contributions to the war effort in the Crimea was his asking Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) to travel to Scutari (now, Üsküdar in Istanbul) with 38 volunteer nurses. She and her team helped to dramatically improve the treatment of the many soldiers who contracted diseases such as cholera and typhus whilst in the Crimea. Incidentally, Florence never visited the Crimea, but remained working in the Turkish city. Herbert and his wife had first met and become friendly with Florence Nightingale in Rome in about 1847.

Now let us return to St Johns Wood in London. Catherine’s father, Semyon Worontzow, lived in the district. The road, where he lived and whose name has intrigued me for decades, is now called ‘Woronzow Road’. It was named after him in 1843. It was not until 2002 that the Russians erected a monument to him on the thoroughfare named after him.

The elephant in the …

THE ELEPHANT IN the room is something about which we prefer not to speak. This is not the case for the herd of over one hundred elephants that can be found in London’s Green Park today. This is not a change in the creatures’ habitat caused by global warning, because the elephants are not real. They are life-size models of the creatures, constructed with strips of Lantana camara, an invasive weed that thrives in the tropics. Despite being made of strips of this woody material, each one is a fine representation of an elephant. From afar, the sculptures look quite lifelike. Some of the elephants have models of birds found in the UK perched on their backs.

The elephants, so we were informed by a helpful volunteer from Goa who is working for an organisation called Coexistence, are manufactured by local craftsmen living the district of Gudalur in the Nilgiri Hills of Tamil Nadu state in the south of India. By using the Lantana, the craftsmen not only create the models but also clear deleterious plants from their land.

Apart from looking great, the model pachyderms have arrived with a message. Known as the ‘Coexistence Herd’, the beasts have arrived:

“… at a unique moment in time when a global reduction in human activity has had a positive effect on wildlife. Elephants may be giants but they tread softly. This 100-strong herd reminds us that when we lighten our footprint, wildlife bounces back.” (https://elephant-family.org/coexistence/)⁠⁠

So, it seems that the herd has not arrived merely to enhance our enjoyment of Green Park but also to heighten our awareness of the desirability of humans living in harmony with the rest of the animal kingdom.

Green Park is not the only site in London where these elephants from India can be spotted. There are others currently on display at places such as Berkeley Square and St James Park. The elephants are all for sale. The proceeds of the sales:

“…will be directed to grass-roots organisations across India that allow people and wildlife to live together more peacefully.” (https://coexistence.org/elephant-shop/).

Whether or not you are concerned about the message that is supposed to be conveyed by these superb models of elephants, it unlikely that you will be disappointed by seeing them.

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.

Shifted to Somerset from London

EVERY YEAR SINCE 2000, excepting 2020, The Serpentine Gallery in London’s Kensington Gardens has erected a temporary summer pavilion. Each pavilion is designed by a different architect or group of architects. What they have in common is that their pavilion is the first of their designs to be constructed in London, or maybe the UK. They stand in front of the Serpentine Gallery during the summer months and into early autumn. They are always fascinating visually and always contain a café with seating. Over the years some of them have been used as event spaces.

At the end of the season, the pavilions are dismantled and are never seen again in Kensington Gardens. Some of them might be sold and others re-erected elsewhere, but until recently I have never seen one again.

A few years ago, a contemporary art gallery, Hauser and Wirth, which has a branch in London’s West End, bought a farm on the edge of Bruton in Somerset. They have used some of the farm buildings and constructed some new ones to accommodate another branch of their gallery. In addition to the exhibition spaces, there is a superb restaurant, an up-market farm shop, and a wonderful garden created by the Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf (born 1944).

The garden slopes upwards from the gallery. At the top of the slope, there is something that at first sight looks like a giant hamburger patty or the profile of an oversized bagel. I recognised it immediately as being one of the former summer pavilions that once stood next to The Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens. It is the 2014 Serpentine pavilion designed by Smiljan Radic (born 1965 in Santiago, Chile).

When I saw it in London in 2014, I was not overly impressed by it. However, seeing it at Hauser and Wirth in Somerset, it looks great. My description of it as an oversized bagel is not too far from the truth. It is, basically, an annular structure like a ring or a bagel, but it is far more interesting than that. Supported on rocks, the ring is not in one plane, but it undulates gradually. Irregularly shaped holes in its translucent skin provide intriguing views of Oudolf’s garden, which looks good in all seasons, and the surrounding hilly Somerset countryside.

A visit to Hauser and Wirth in Somerset makes a fine day out even if you have only a scant interest in contemporary art. The food served in the restaurant is of a high quality and not unreasonably priced. The buildings on the estate are lovely and the garden is hard to beat for its beauty.

Cows on the café

GUILAN IS A NEW cafe on the corner of Moscow Road and St Petersburgh Place in London’s Bayswater. I have walked past the building numerous times over the past more than 25 years, but until today I missed seeing something on the building.

Above the ground floor windows there are a number of sculpted heads of cattle. I had never noticed these before.

On looking at a map produced in the 1950s, I discovered that the building was then a dairy. An older map revealed that it was ‘The Aylesbury Dairy’. A search on the Internet informed me that this building was the head office of the company, which had another branch not far away. So,  the cattle heads are a souvenir of the building’s time as a dairy.

The new café in the former dairy is across the road from Aghia Sofia, a Greek Orthodox church. The cafe is elegant and serves good coffee and tasty pastries including a croissant flavoured with za’atar. I have no idea from which dairy the milk is supplied to Guilan, but you can be sure it is not the Aylesbury Dairy.

Eating ice cream in an old harbour

CHARLESTOWN IN CORNWALL should not be confused with the dance named after Charleston in South Carolina, as it is just south of the Cornish town of St Austell. The latter, named after a sixth century Cornish saint, St Austol, was first associated with the tin trade and then with the China clay industry, which burgeoned after the material was discovered in the area by William Cookworthy (1705-1780) in the 18th century.

In 1790, only nine families lived in the tiny seashore settlement of West Polmear, a fishing village just south of St Austell. A year later, much was to change in this little place. For, in 1791, Charles Rashleigh, a local landowner, began building a dock at West Polmear, using designs prepared by the engineer John Smeaton (1724-1792), who is regarded by many as ‘the father of civil engineering’. By 1799, a deep-water harbour with dock gates had been constructed. The water level in this dock was maintained by water that travelled in a ‘leat’ (artificial channel) from the Luxulyan Valley, some miles inland. The harbour was fortified against the French with gun batteries.

Named after nearby Mount Charles, the Charlestown harbour was used first for loading boats with copper for export, and then later with China clay, also for exportation. Charlestown prospered during the rapid expansion of the Chana clay industry that lasted until the start of WW1. By 1911, the former fishing village, by then Charlestown, had a population of almost 3200. Between the end of WW1 and the 1990s, Charlestown continued to be a port for exporting clay, but rival ports and the use of ships too large to be accommodated, led to its gradual decline. Now, the lovely, well-preserved 18th century harbour has become a tourist attraction and a home for a few picturesque tall ships. It is also used occasionally as a film set.

We visited Charlestown on a warm, sunny, late June afternoon. After exploring for a while, we homed in on an ice cream stall, a small hut with a pitched roof tiled with slates, located above the northern end of the dock. After queuing for what turned out to be first class ice cream, we sat at a table near the stall to enjoy what we had ordered. It was then that I noticed that some of the tables and chairs were standing on a vast cast-iron plate, which was covered with geometric patterns and some words, which I examined. My suspicion that this plate had once been part of a weighbridge was confirmed when I noticed the words: “20 tons.  Charles Ross Ltd. Makers. Sheffield”. I checked this with the ice cream seller in his stall. He told me that his stall had been the office of the officials who used the weighbridge and pointed out that there was another weighbridge nearby. I found this easily. Its metal plate bore the words: “Avery. Birmingham-England”, Avery being a well-known manufacturer of weighing machines. And the hut that used to be used by the officials now sells a range of snacks.

After eating our ice creams and examining the former weighbridge plates, a trivial thought flashed through my mind: by consuming ice cream at this stall, we were putting on weight at the weighbridge.