Accidental death of an architect

ELEGANT BELGRAVE SQUARE is but a stone’s throw from Hyde Park Corner. Many of its neo-classical buildings are home to diplomatic missions and their staff. As with many London squares, the centre of Belgrave Square contains a private garden. That at Belgrave Square is adorned with sculptures, mostly statues of eminent people. At each of its four corners, there is one. The people depicted at these four positions are Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460); Christopher Columbus (1451-1506); Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), the liberator of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama; and José San Martin (1778-1850), liberator of Argentina, Chile, and Peru. Almost facing San Martin on the north east corner of the square is a statue of Sir Robert Grosvenor, First Marquess of Westminster (1767-1845), upon whose estate Belgrave Square was built.

Elias George Basevi

On the eastern side of the square, close to the statue of Simon Bolivar and within the garden, there is a sculpture by Enzo Plazzotta (1921-1981), which was completed after his death by Mark Holloway. It is called “Homage to Leonardo. The Vitruvian Man”.

Interesting as all the above-mentioned are, the sculpture that intrigued me most is a bust of Elias George Basevi (1794-1845), who is described on his plinth as ‘architect’. I guessed that he was likely to have been involved in the design of Belgrave Square, and I was right. According to a plaque on the base of Grosvenor’s statue, he designed the neo-classical terraces surrounding the square for the Haldimand Syndicate, which was under the control of the brothers George (1781-1851) and William (1784-1862) Haldimand, of Swiss origin, sons of a banker born in Switzerland and an English mother. In 1825, William, a Member of Parliament:

“… negotiated successfully with the 2nd Earl Grosvenor, Seth Smith and William Cubitt for a 99-year lease on Belgrave Square, where he had 49 houses built: 16 to be owned by George Haldimand, 14 by himself, eight by Prevost, four by Smith and three by Cubitt…” (www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1820-1832/member/haldimand-william-1784-1862)

The Haldimands were related to Frederick Haldimand (1718-1791), who became Governor of Quebec in 1777. Thomas Cubitt (1788-1855), who was involved in creating the square, was a major Victorian property developer.

As for Basevi, at first, I thought that his surname sounded Italian. His family might have come from that country as its origins were Sephardic Jewish. The Basevi surname is particularly associated with Sephardic Jews in Verona (https://judaism_enc.enacademic.com/2089/BASEVI). His father, Joshua, usually known as ‘George’, was a London City merchant (www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/2616-basevi-george-joshua). Elias George’s aunt, George’s sister Maria (née Basevi), was married to Isaac D’Israeli, whose son was Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield (1804-1881), who was Prime Minister between 1874 and 1880. In 1810, Elias became a pupil of the great architect John Soane (1753-1837), who specialised in creating in the neo-classical style. According to the Dictionary of National Biography (‘DNB’) (https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/1615), from which I have gleaned much information about Elias, he:

“… also studied at the Royal Academy Schools, where Soane had recently been appointed professor of architecture. In 1815 he visited Paris with his brother, and on completion of his architectural training in 1816 he embarked on a three-year study tour of Italy and Greece, staying the longest in Rome and Athens, but also travelling extensively elsewhere in Italy and even visiting Constantinople.”

Regarding Belgrave Square, the DNB relates:

“Basevi designed and handled the construction of the terraced houses making up the four sides of the square (1825–40), though not the four detached villas at the corners. He treated the stuccoed terraces of eleven or twelve houses on each side as single palatial façades, giving each a central columnar portico and end pavilions in a similar manner to John Nash’s terraces in Regent’s Park … The financial success of this speculative development during an economically depressed period was due in large part to Basevi’s precise and scholarly attention to detail, not just in the design of the individual houses but also in the paving, street furniture, and composition of the square as a whole.”

Elias Basevi’s other projects included, to give just a few examples, St Thomas, Stockport, Cheshire (1822–5); work at several country houses; a building at Balliol College Oxford; Beechwood House and The Elms in Highgate; and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, whose construction was completed after his death. Beechwood House was built for the architect’s brother Nathaniel, a barrister, in 1840, who was married to a niece of Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850).

Noticing Basevi’s buildings in Highgate, I looked at John Lloyd’s “History, Topography, and Antiquities of Highgate”, published in 1888, and discovered more about Basevi. He wrote that the Basevi family had been prominent in the Anglo-Jewish community. One member of the family, Napthali, the grandfather of Benjamin Disraeli’s mother, was an early President of The Jewish Board of Deputies, which was involved in the struggle for the emancipation of the Jews. The Basevis moved away from the Jewish faith as did their kinsmen the Disraelis.

Elias Basevi married Frances Agneta Biscoe. They produced eight children, one of whom was given the name James Palladio Basevi (1832-1871), who became an officer in the Royal Engineers.

On a personal note, I attended Highgate School between 1965 and 1970. Some years later, I acquired a copy of the “Highgate School Register 1833-1988”. Today, I looked up ‘Basevi’ in the index of pupils and discovered that in March 1840, James Palladio Basevi joined the school. This son of the architect joined the school two years after the Reverend John Bradley Dyne (1809-1898) had become headmaster. Dyne was to raise the school’s reputation considerably.  Other Basevi family members attended the school were William Augustus Basevi (joined January 1841), George Henry Basevi (joined January 1842) Frederick Biscoe Basevi (joined April 1844), Charles Edward Basevi (joined June 1844). All of these fellows were sons of the architect of Belgrave Square. Why they went to Highgate School is a bit of a mystery. Part of the reason might have been that their uncle, Nathaniel, had his home at Beechwood, a short walk from the school. however, their father, the architect lived in central London. The historian Alan Palmer, who used to teach at the school, wrote that out of the 43 graduates of Dyne’s first ten years, only 16 came from homes near the school. His reputation as a headmaster was already excellent by the time that the first of the architect’s sons entered the school, which attracted boarders.

Elias, who became a Member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and a Fellow of both the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Society, ended his life in a frightening way. The DNB relates his tragic ending:

“He died on 16 October 1845, aged fifty-one, after falling through an opening in the floor of the old bell chamber of the west tower of Ely Cathedral while inspecting repairs. His remains were buried in Bishop Alcock’s chapel at the east end of the cathedral.”

The bust of Elias George Basevi is smaller than the other commemorative sculpture placed in and around Belgrave Square and easy to miss if you are walking around the square. I only noticed it because I was watching two people walking with their dogs within the square’s private garden. Had I not seen the bust, I might have never explored the life of this man whose family had connections with Highgate, where I attended secondary school.

Sun lover

MY MOTHER KEPT A SUN LOUNGER in the garden. It was propped up against a wall of our family home in northwest London. It was made of aluminium tubing and ‘upholstered’ with tautly stretched dark blue canvas. I will tell you why it was there and not in Canada.

Hel

My late mother, Helen (pictured above), was born in South Africa in 1920. Until 1947, I believe that it was quite possible that she might have spent her whole life there.

While living in Cape Town in 1947, she and her sister were invited to a party held by their stepfather’s relatives in the suburb of Parrow. Their hosts, Mr and Mrs Kupfer, had also invited two bachelors, Basil and his brother Ralph, whom they knew from the time when the Kupfers and the two unattached men and their parents lived in the small town of Tulbagh east of Cape Town.

By the end if the evening, Basil and Helen agreed to meet again. Not long after the party, Basil invited Helen to the cinema (bioscope in South African English). They met and talked so much that they never made it to the picture house. Almost immediately after this, they became engaged.

Soon after this, so my mother once told me, Basil informed her that they would not be able to meet again for a few weeks because he was too busy marking university students’ examination scripts. Also, he told her that was about to set sail for England, where he was taking up a teaching post at the London School of Economics (LSE). They agreed that given the imminence of his departure, Helen should follow Basil to London, and they would get married there. Basil departed for London.

Helen, who could not contain her excitement, sailed to Southampton in early 1948. She sat in the boat train to London dismayed by what she saw of England.  It was soon after WW2 had ended. She told me that the sight of rows of small houses all with chimneys emitting filthy smoke and the grey skies made her wonder why she had come to such a dismal place to marry a man she hardly knew. They married in mid-March 1948.

After my parents ‘tied the knot’, Basil chose to leave LSE to take up an academic post at McGill University in Montreal. Helen and Basil ‘upped sticks’ and emigrated to Canada in about 1950. The move was not a great success. The climate in Montreal was harsh. My mother told me that for most of the nine months they remained there, it was bitterly cold. She related that they had a flat that overlooked a cemetery. For a few months, the frozen ground was so hard that graves could not be dug. Coffins had to be stacked up above ground until the ground was soft enough to be dug. Helen bought a fur coat. It was made of soft brown fur that I can still remember. In 1950, stores in Montreal were well heated. Customers left their fur coats near the shops’ entrances whilst they were inside shopping.

It was not only the climate that was difficult in Montreal. My father found the atmosphere in the university was awkward to say the least. There was great antagonism between the francophone and anglophone academics. This created an environment that reminded him of the racially divided one he had happily left behind in his native South Africa.

The adverse conditions in Montreal, both social and meteorological, and the offer of another job at LSE, caused my parents to return to London (UK, not Ontario!). They put down a deposit on a detached house in Hampstead Garden Suburb. It was a part of London where many other LSE academics lived. These included: Sir Lionel Robbins and Sir Arnold Plant, and later Professors J Durbin, I Lakatos, P Cohen, and J Watkins and many others.

My parents’ bedroom in the Suburb contained some very well-made wardrobes, which they had had made for their flat in Montreal and brought to London. That they had gone to the trouble of having bespoke cupboards built in Montreal suggests that they had planned to stay much longer than a few months in Montreal.

My mother could never get used to how little light there was in England compared to what she had been used to in South Africa. Every interior wall in our house was painted white, to reflect as much of the little daylight that there was. In contravention of the strict conservation area planning rules that were, and still are, in place in the Suburb, she made alterations to some of the south facing windows in our house during the 1960s. The original windows consisted of a latticework of small panes. She replaced these with large single panes, which allowed far more daylight to enter the house. Even though our neighbours were always asked to remove unauthorised modifications to their houses, the frowned-upon modified windows were still in place more than three decades later. Now, finally, I see that they have been restored to their original, officially approved design.

My mother died in 1980. Between her arrival in London and her death, there was less sunshine in the city than there is nowadays. Had she lived longer than her six decades, I believe that she would have approved of the warmer, sunnier climate that London enjoys now.  When she was at home and the sun happened to shine through a gap in the clouds, she would stop whatever she was doing and rush outside into our garden. She would lie on the sun lounger and enjoy feeling the sun’s rays on her face even if only for a few minutes. As soon as the sun disappeared behind the clouds, she would leave the lounger and prop it up against the wall of the house ready for the next opportunity to enjoy what she so missed after leaving South Africa. Had my parents remained in Canada, I wonder whether she would have kept a sun lounger at the ready outside her home there. Also, if they had not returned to London, I would have been born a Canadian instead of a ‘Brit’.

Seven streams

Seven

At first, I was daunted at the prospect of watching a seven hour drama at London’s National Theatre. Then, remembering that I had endured an eleven hour bus journey in Gujarat and several long intercontinental flights, I decided that sitting comfortably at the theatre for seven hours including intervals would not be too bad, and I was right.

The play we watched, “The Seven Streams of the River Ota”, by Canadian playwright Robert Lepage (born 1957 in Quebec,), is divided into seven acts or installments. I found five of those installments to be highly enjoyable. The other two were less good in my humble opinion.

The River Ota runs through the Japanese city of Hiroshima, unfortunately famous for being the first civilian target of an atomic bomb in 1945. One of the main characters in the play by Lepage is a woman who was blinded, as a small child, by the atomic bomb blast’s flash. Each of the seven acts of the drama is linked to her or to characters connected with her directly or indirectly. Therefore, although the play’s plot is quite complicated, there is an easily discernible thread that runs through it.

At times the drama is witty and humorous and at others tragic. However, throughout the performance, the subject matter is both sensitive and moving. The ingeniously crafted play touches on all kinds of important historical events that affected Japan and the Japanese between 1945 and the late 1990s when the play was written. It also makes reference to Theresienstadt, one of the Nazi concentration camps. At first, I was not sure of the relevance of this scene set in the camp, but afterwards it dawned on me. It was an important background to one of the characters, who plays a major role in the latter parts of the play.

Another of the play’s myriad of topics reflects the playwright’s origin, Quebec. There are some very entertaining scenes in which the characters speak in Canadian French (with its particular accent) such as would be heard in Quebec. At times, Lepage makes use of the play to poke fun at cultural rivalry between the Canadian French and the French in France. He also makes reference to Canada’s objection to French nuclear tests that were being carried out in the Pacific between 1966 and 1996. And, nuclear tests relate directly to the main theme of the play, the atomic bomb exploded at Hiroshima.

Without going into detail about the very complicated plot, let me say that this play was highly fascinating, well acted by members of Lepage’s theatre ensemble Ex Machina, and the sets were superb. Sadly, this long play is only being given a short run at the National Theatre. Its final performance, viral microbes permitting, will be on the 22nd March 2020.

As for my initial fears about sitting for seven hours in the theatre, these were unrealised. The time shot past, so intriguing was the play. Lepage’s play was for me as exciting as at least two other epic length dramas I have enjoyed: “Angels in America” by Tony Kushner, and “The Coast of Utopia” by Tom Stoppard.

Hooked on rugs

burke

 

I would never have thought that I would have enjoyed reading a book about rug-making cottage industry in Nova Scotia, but I have. Recently, a Canadian friend brought me a book that focusses on hooked rugs and their promotion by a lady called Lillian Burke (1879-1952), who was born in the USA.

Just in case you (like me before reading the book) have no idea what comprises a hooked rug, let me explain by quoting from Wikipedia: “Rug hooking is … where rugs are made by pulling loops of  yarn or fabric through a stiff woven base such as burlap, linen, or rug warp. The loops are pulled through the backing material by using a crotchet-type hook mounted in a handle (usually wood) for leverage.” 

Edward Langille’s book discusses in detail Lillian Burke’s significant involvement with the hooked rug manufacture carried out by housewives in small settlements in the remote Cape Breton district of Nova Scotia. Ms Burke, who was born in Washington DC, was  highly acccomplished in teaching, music, and art. During both world wars, she helped pioneer what is now known as ‘occupational therapy’. She was a highly-regarded teacher. It was this skill that brought her into contact with the family of Alexander Graham Bell, the scientist and inventor of telephony. The Bells employed Lilian Burke as a tutor for their offspring. She developed a lasting friendship with the extended family, who owned a country retreat in the region of Nova Scotia where hooked rug making was a prevalent occupation of the local housewives.

Langille describes how Ms Burke helped to develop what had been a local craft into a viable money-making venture. Using her highly developed artistic skills, she helped the housewives produce rugs with artistically sophisticated designs that made them appealing to fashionable interior decorators in the USA (mainly). 

Traditionally, the housewives of Cape Breton wove their rugs with scraps of  coloured material. Ms Burke designed the patterns and the housewives did the ‘hooking’. She encouraged them to begin using locally-produced wool which they had dyed. One thing that particularly interested me was that Ms Burke showed the ladies how to use knots and paper masking to dye a skein of wool in varying colours, so that a single thread of wool would vary in colour along its length. This technique is used in Patan in Gujarat (Western India) to produce the silk threads with patterns of varying colour, which are used to produce the highly valuable woven Patola textiles. I would be curious to know whether Ms Burke had been aware of this century’s old method of dyeing.

Langille’s book is a remarkable, well-written, and readable biography of a remarkable woman, who is probably hardly known outside of Nova Scotia and beyond a few enthusiasts of hooked rug making. She deserves to be better known, especially in the light of what Langille’s book reveals about her dedication to the development of rehabilitation and occupational therapy. Professor Langille’s detailed and carefully researched book may well help give Lilian Burke the wider recognition she deserves.

REVIEW BY AUTHOR OF “IDEAS, BOMBS, and BULLETS”, about Indian patriots in London between 1905 and 1910

 

ISBN: 9781926448404