At home with Adam

IN CASE YOU ARE WONDERING, this piece is not all about me, Adam Robert Yamey. My father, a well-known economist, was all for calling me ‘Adam Smith Yamey’, in honour of the famous Scottish economist and author of “The Wealth of Nations”, Adam Smith (1723-1790), but my mother was against this. My ‘Robert’ might have been chosen because my mother had a brother called Robert, but maybe they chose the name because they knew about a more celebrated Robert, the Scottish  architect and Adam Smith’s contemporary, Robert Adam (1728-1792). Lately, we have visited two buildings whose appearances owe much to Adam the architect. One is Osterley House, west of London, and the other Kenwood House in north London.

Ceiling of Etruscan Room at Osterley

According to a mine of information, “Handbook to the Environs of London” by James Thorne (published in 1876), the manor of ‘Osterlee’ belonged to John de Osterlee in the reign of Edward I (lived 1239-1307). Through the years it moved through the hands of men such as John Somerseth (died 1454), Henry Marquis of Exeter (1498-1538), Edward Seymour (Protector Somerset 1500-1552), Augustin Thaier, and then Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579).

Gresham was, according to Thorne, was “… the prince of merchants”. An able financier, he worked on behalf of King Edward VI, Queen Mary I, and Queen Elizabeth I, and was also the founder of the Royal Exchange in London. In 1857, the economist Henry Dunning Macleod, used Thomas’s surname to name a law of economics, namely ‘bad money drives out good’.  By 1577, Gresham enclosed Osterley Park and constructed a magnificent mansion. Although there are no surviving images of this building, its architectural style can be imagined by looking at the Tudor stable block (c1560) that stands next to the present Osterley House.

After Gresham’s death, the building began to decline even while his widow, Anne (née Ferneley), continued to dwell in it. After her death in 1596 at the age of 75, Osterley House and its grounds were owned by a series of people until about 1713, when the banker Sir Francis Child (1642-1713) bought the property.

Sir Francis left the place to his sons Robert (1674-1721), Francis (1684-1740), and Samuel (1693- 1752). It was the latter’s son, the third Francis Child (1735-1763), who engaged the fashionable architect Robert Adam to make improvements to Osterley House. His was employed in the 1760s to modernise Gresham’s house. The most obvious of Adam’s works can be seen before you enter the house, the neo-classical portico supported by two rows of six Ionic columns that evokes memories of the Propylaeum of the Parthenon in Athens, which Adam might well have known about after his Grand Tour of Europe undertaken between 1755 and 1757, which, incidentally, included a visit to the ruins at Split (now in Croatia). The portico joins two wings of the building that Child inherited.

In addition to the magnificent portico that contrasts with the Tudor brickwork of the rest of the building,  Adam redesigned the entire interior of the building, creating a series of beautifully decorated rooms, most of which have eye-catching ornate ceilings. One room, which does not have a decorated ceiling is the Long Gallery which was used to house some of the large collection of paintings that used to hang in the Child’s London home, which they sold in 1767. Most of these artworks were removed from the house when Lord Jersey gifted the house to the National Trust in 1949, and then lost in a fire. They have been replaced by other fine paintings. Many of the chairs and sofas and other furnishings in the Long Gallery (and other rooms) were designed by Robert Adam, who took great interest in every detail of what he created. The absence of ceiling decorations, it was explained to us, was intentional; the ceiling was left unadorned so that viewers of the paintings were not distracted by decorative features above them. In the other rooms, the ceilings rival other aspects for the viewer’s attention.  From the grand entrance hall onwards, the visitor is faced with a series of rooms that compete for his or her admiration. Amongst these marvels of interior decoration, I was particularly impressed by the Drawing Room that drew inspiration from the Temple of the Sun at Palmyra (destroyed by ISIS in 2009), the Tapestry Room, and the delicately decorated Etruscan Dressing Room. I have singled out these rooms, but the others are also magnificent. Adam’s creations make a visit to Osterley Park a breath-takingly exciting visual experience.

As the crow flies, Kenwood House is ten miles northeast of Osterley House, or about 15 miles by road. Osterley House was completely remodelled by Robert Adam. Beneath his modifications, its structure is basically the Tudor mansion that the Child family purchased. The situation is different at Kenwood.

In 1755, the lawyer and politician William Murray (1705-1793), who was to become First Earl of Mansfield, bought Kenwood House. In 1764, he commissioned Robert Adam to remodel the house, giving him freedom to do it however he wished. Adam did the following (as quoted in www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/kenwood/history-stories-kenwood/history/):

“… addition of a new entrance on the north front in 1764, which created the existing full-height giant pedimented portico … modernised the existing interiors, notably the entrance hall (1773), Great Stairs and antechamber, and built a new ‘Great Room’ or library (1767–9) for entertaining. The ground-floor rooms on the south front all received Adam’s new decorative schemes. These social spaces for the family included a drawing room, parlour and ‘My Lord’s Dressing Room’ … designed the south front elevation in 1764, but changed it in 1768 in order to insert attic-storey bedrooms.”

So, he added to the existing building rather than working within its original ‘footprint’. The ‘pièce de résistance’ of Adam’s work at Kenwood is without doubt the Library. It must be seen to be believed. Reluctantly, because I was really impressed by his creations at Osterley, this library exceeds the splendour of all the rooms at Osterley.  The South façade of Kenwood is also a successful modification of the building, more effective aesthetically than the portico added to the north side of the house.

Seeing Adam’s Library at Kenwood House is just one of the good reasons to visit the place. The other attractions include the wonderful gardens and the collection of masterpieces of British and European painters that are on display. Including works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Bols, Turner, Guardi, Reynolds, and many more celebrated artists, the paintings are part of the collection of the Irish businessman and philanthropist, Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Iveagh (1847-1927), which he left to the nation following his death.

Those enamoured by the works of Robert Adam must visit the two houses already described, which are open to the public. There is another place in London, Home House in Portman Square, once the home of Sir Anthony Blunt and the Courtauld Institute and now a private members’ club (Home House Club), whose Adam interiors, which I have seen, are also spectacular examples of his creative powers. If you are not fortunate enough to know a member of this club, you will have to satisfy yourself by visiting Kenwood and Osterley Houses, but you will not be disappointed.

Seduced by style

DURING VARIOUS VISITS TO AHMEDABAD, we have often driven past the Ahmed Shah Masjid, but never visited this venerable mosque. Close to the great Bhadra Fort and built in about 1414 AD by Ahmed Shah, the founder of Ahmedabad, this is the oldest extant mosque in the city. Today, we entered this exquisite mosque and its garden and discovered a perfect example of Indo-Islamic architecture.

When this mosque, and many others built in western India up to at least a century later, was constructed its creators incorporated many design features that can be seen in Hindu and Jain temples that were constructed centuries before believers of Islam entered/invaded India.

The grounds of the Ahmed Shah Masjid are entered through a small stone pavilion. The step inside it is just like the entrance steps to Hindu and Jain temples in that it includes a centrally located semicircular projection.

The patterning on the exterior stonework of the mosque and the many pillars within it would not look out of place on pre Islamic places of worship in India. However, the presence of figurative carving found in Hindu and Jain temples is completely absent in mosques. One small exception, which I saw at the Ahmed Shah Masjid and others in Ahmedabad, are carvings of trees, the Tree of Life.

The Ahmed Shah mosque and many other medieval mosques in Gujarat are topped with numerous domes. Seen from the outside of the mosques, they do not look exceptional, but viewed from within, the influence of Hindu/Jain temple architecture is obvious.

The domes are usually supported by 8 pillars arranged as a regular octagon. Neighbouring pillars support horizontal lintels, which together form an octagon. The dome rests on these lintels. The internal surfaces of the domes, when seen from below, consist of a series of concentric rings that decrease in circumference as they approach the top of the dome. The stonework of the rings can be either plain or elaborately ornamented. The design of these domes and their supporting supporting pillar systems are identical to what can be seen in Indian temples built long before Islam arrived in India.

Unlike the non-Muslim temples that inspired their design, medieval mosques contain features that are unique to mosques, such as elaborately decorated mihrabs, niches in the wall of the that worshippers face when they pray.

The Ahmed Shah mosque has an elevated internal chamber, where the king could pray separated from the rest of the congregation.

Having at last visited this fascinating mosque, I would reccomend all visitors to Ahmedabad to visit it first before exploring the other wonderful 15th and 16th century mosques that enrich the city.

The Ahmed Shah Masjid is a fine example of how conquerors can be conquered by the culture of those whom they have invaded. Just as the Muslims were bewitched by the wonders of Indian culture, so were the British many years later, as well exemplified by the Brighton Pavilion.

Mini on steroids

MINIS

 

In 1973, the economist EF Schumacher coined the phrase ‘small is beautiful‘. But, is small always beautiful?

The Mini, made by the British Motor Corporation, was first available for drivers to purchase in 1959. This compact, low-priced car, designed by Alec Issigonis, remained popular until 1986 when production ceased. I was not upset by this as the original Mini was extremely uncomfortable to sit in. Small the car was, but beautiful it was not.

In 1994, the German car manufacturer, BMW, bought the right to make cars bearing the trade name ‘Mini’. Models made from the year 2000 onwards faintly resemble the old-style Mini models, but contain many more up-to-date features. However, the BMW models look like bloated versions of the original versions. The new models look like Minis on steroids. They are not so small, and definitely not so beautiful.

 

The picture of the blue, old style Mini, was sourced from Flickr via Wikipedia

Arab or Norman, Hindu or Muslim…

The Normans took over Sicily from its Arab rulers. The early mediaeval church architecture adopted by the Norman builders shows the influence of Arab design.

In Gujarat (India), the Muslim invaders began building mosques in the style of local Hindu temples, just as the Normans built in the way that they found when they arrived in Sicily.

Drama by the river: the Bridge Theatre

On Saturday the 29th September 2018, we had a wonderful evening at London’s recently opened Bridge Theatre. It is located on the south bank of the River Thames, a stone’s throw from the world famous ‘icon’ of London, Tower Bridge. From the glass front of the theatre’s foyer, there are superb views of: the new high-rise buildings in the City (including the ‘Gherkin’); the White Tower and the walls of the Tower of London; and Tower Bridge, which is beautifully illuminated at night.

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The Bridge Theatre opened for its first show in October 2017. The theatre is the brainchild of Nick Starr, of the former National Theatre, and the renowned theatre director Nicholas Hytner. Both of these two Nicks have been long involved with London’s National Theatre. Their creation, the Bridge, is an improved version of the facilities offered by the now ageing National Theatre on the Southbank. Excellent as the National Theatre is, the Bridge seems to have been designed to avoid some of the defects of the former. The newer theatre, which can seat 900 audience members, was designed by S Tompkins and R Watts of Haworth Tompkins Architects.

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Doorways in the wide glass façade give access to a vast foyer, well-illuminated by a myriad of lamps with curious shades that look like large translucent handkerchiefs. Ample tables and chairs are available for people to sit in the foyer, enjoying excellent food and drinks from the counters lining one side of the space.

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When you order food, you are handed a small flat, square receiver that looks like a drinks mat. When your food is ready, lights on the receiver flash alarmingly. The flashing object must be taken to a counter where your freshly prepared food is waiting for you. Despite the size of the foyer and its large capacity, it never felt crowded or noisy. It is a well-designed space.

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The cloakroom and toilet facilities are easily accessible, not hidden in odd places as they are in the National Theatre.

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The auditorium is large, but not too large to be without intimacy. No seat is excessively far from the very wide stage. Sightlines are either excellent or more than satisfactory. We had ‘restricted view’ seats, which we bought at the last moment. They were as good as many ‘full view’ seats in older theatres. The acoustics are excellent. We were seated quite far from the stage, but had no difficulty hearing every word. The play we saw, “Allelujah” by Alan Bennett, was well-staged, well-acted, and well-written. In short, it was highly enjoyable. Set in an ageing National Health Service (‘NHS’) hospital facing imminent closure, most of the actors play either the roles of geriatric patients or those of hospital staff and management. The plot is about the plight of the aged and the plight of the ageing NHS system in today’s profit-oriented, economically declining Britain.

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Our visit to the Bridge Theatre was enjoyable and uplifting. I cannot wait to see another performance there.

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