Oscar Wilde, a bishop, and an art dealer

DOVER STREET RUNS north from Piccadilly, not far from The Royal Academy. It is a thoroughfare we often visit because it contains several commercial art galleries that frequently put on interesting exhibitions. One of these is the London gallery of Thaddeus Ropac. Not only does this international art dealer have good exhibitions, but the house in which the works of art are displayed, 37 Dover Street, is an artwork itsef, an architectural treasure.

The architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner (1908-1983), whose writing I enjoy greatly, is a little dismissive of the buildings in Dover Street with one exception. In his “London Volume 1”, which was co-authored by Bridget Cherry, he wrote of this street:

“The only house which needs special attention is Ely House (No. 37)”

This is the building that is now home to Thaddeus Ropac. Ely House was built in the 1770s by the then Bishop of Ely, Edmund Keene (1714-1781), who was appointed to that post in January 1771. According to The Dictionary of National Biography (1885-1900 edition), Keene:

“… obtained in 1772 an act of parliament for alienating from the see, in consideration of the payment of 6,500l. [i.e., £6,500] and an annuity of 200l., the ancient palace in Holborn, and for purchasing, at a cost of 5,800l., the freehold of a house in Dover Street, Piccadilly, London. The present house on that site was built by him about 1776.”

Clearly, the bishop was not short of cash; he was married to Mary (née Andrews), daughter and sole heiress of Andrews of Edmonton, once a successful linen draper in Cheapside.

The architect of Ely House was Sir Robert Taylor (1714-1788). The building remained the London residence of the Bishops of Ely until the beginning of the 20th century. In 1909, the interior of Ely House was greatly modified by the Arts & Crafts architectural firm Smith and Brewer (https://ropac.net/news/245-galerie-thaddaeus-ropac-ely-house-london/), and it became the home of The Albermarle Club. This private members’ club, founded in 1874, was open to both men and women, and was first housed at 13 Albermarle Street. Known for its liberal views on women’s rights, it was in 1895 the site of an incident that led to the first trial of one of its members, the writer Oscar Wilde (www.back2stonewall.com/2021/02/gay-lgbt-history-feb-18-oscar-wilde-accused-sodomite.html). Because of the club’s connection with proceedings that led to Wilde’s downfall, it moved to 37 Dover Street to distance itself from Albermarle Street where these unfortunate events had occurred.

During WW2, Ely House became used by The American Red Cross Interstate Club. Later, it housed a private bank. When Pevsner and Cherry published their book in 1973, the house was being used by Oxford University Press. In Spring 2017, Thaddeus Ropac announced that they would open their London gallery in Ely House.

The exterior of Ely House might not have changed much since it was constructed. A medallion on the façade depicts a bishop’s mitre. The magnificent wrought iron railings topped with several models of lions was a 19th century addition based on the lions designed for The British Museum by the sculptor Alfred Stevens (1817-1875). The interior of Ely House would now be unrecognisable to Bishop Edmund Keene apart from a few decorative features that have been preserved. Furthermore, the artworks that are so beautifully displayed in the lovely, whitewashed rooms of the former Ely House would have seemed totally alien to the long-since departed bishop. Rarely, if ever, do the artworks displayed superbly in the gallery lack in visual interest and originality. What drew us to the gallery on the 9th of November 2021 was a small, intriguing collection of creations by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) in one room, and several rooms containing disturbingly lifelike, but not always life-sized, sculptures by Ron Mueck, an artist born in Australia in 1958, son of German-born toymakers.

Dover Street is part of a network of Mayfair thoroughfares containing commercial art galleries. Amongst them Thaddeus Ropac has the most beautiful premises and is worth seeing not only for its artworks but also as a fine example of London’s architectural heritage.

Ely to India and back

AT THE CORNER OF Lynn Road and St Marys Street in the cathedral city of Ely in Cambridgeshire, there is a shop selling used books and an assortment of ‘objets’, all in delightful disorder. This shop, with a fine view of the cathedral, ‘Cloisters’ by name, is across the road from The Lamb pub. Apart from being a lovely shop with an informative, genial owner, Barry Lonsdale, it was once home to an interesting but lesser-known military personality. His story is detailed by a blog writer named Michael Taylor (https://www.blogger.com/profile/12276420943738372719) and I have summarised it below.  

 Billett Genn (1827-1917) was a son of Billett Genn (senior), who died in 1872, and Margaret (née Austin (http://ginn-hertfordshire.blogspot.com/2014/06/). It is probable that they lived in the house that now contains the Cloisters shop. In 1841, young Billett became an indentured apprentice seaman, a seven-year contract. For reasons unknown, Billett returned to England before his seven-year term was completed. In 1846, he signed up as a trooper in the 3rd Kings Own Light Dragoons, another seven-year contract. The Dragoons had been stationed in India for several years, arriving there in 1837 (https://amp.blog.shops-net.com/10388944/1/3rd-the-kings-own-hussars.html) for the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842). Billett arrived in India in time to become actively involved in fighting against the Sikhs in the Punjab Campaign of 1848/49. Billett took part in various engagements including the Battle of Chillianwala in January 1849. This battle was one of the bloodiest during the 2nd Anglo-Sikh War (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Chillianwala), and one in which both the Sikhs and the East India Company claimed victory.

Genn was discharged and sent back to London in 1853, having been awarded the Punjab Campaign Medal. He returned to Ely where he became a schoolteacher in the city’s Needham School for poor boys. In 1867, he married Victoria Haylock. They produced seven children. Billett and Margaret lived at number 1 Lynn Road, which now contains the Cloisters shop. Margaret died in 1913 and Billett four years later. He was the last member of a family that had lived in Ely continuously for over 300 years. He was given a full military funeral.

Billett Genn was, at the time of his death, the last survivor of the Punjab Campaign (www.cambstimes.co.uk/news/the-story-of-remarkable-ely-man-billett-genn-is-retold-4887142). An unobtrusive plaque affixed to the wall of the shop commemorates this fact. We had come to Ely mainly to see its truly remarkable cathedral, which surpassed all expectation, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover this city’s far from well-known connection with distant Punjab.

PS: The Genn family also owned The Lamb pub at some time

Reform and destruction in an English cathedral

SPLIT IN FORMER Yugoslavia, now in Croatia, is a city that developed in the ruins of a great establishment, the Roman Diocletian’s Palace. Likewise with the city of Ely in Cambridgeshire: it developed within the remains of another great establishment, the large Abbey of Ely, which was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1539. By 1541, after having its charter renewed by the king, its then bishop, Thomas Goodrich (1494-1554), instigated an orgy of iconoclasm, to which I will return soon.

In 1975, I visited the city of Prizren in the former Yugoslavia, now in Kosovo (Kosova). I was impressed by what I saw in one of the place’s fine mediaeval churches. The caretaker showed me that the frescos on the walls inside the building were badly damaged, but only up to a certain height above the ground, Above this, they were as intact as one could hope for paintings of that age. He explained to me that many centuries ago, the Ottoman soldiers were ordered to destroy the figurative images depicted on the walls. They used the tips of their spears to do the job, but they only destroyed what they could reach from the ground (i.e., without using ladders). Sadly, the iconoclasts working under the orders of Henry VIII and Bishop Goodrich were more diligent in their destructive activities.

Under Goodrich’s orders, first the shrines to Anglo-Saxon saints were mutilated. Then, the vandals attacked all the stained glass and many of the statues in the cathedral, before getting to work on the large Lady Chapel on the north side of the body of the church.

The spacious, airy, light-filled, Lady Chapel is at first glance a magnificent example of 14th century gothic architecture, which was created in 1321. The excellent article in Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ely_Cathedral) describes an important and interesting aspect of the chapel:

“Below the window line, and running round three sides of the chapel is an arcade of richly decorated ‘nodding ogees’, with Purbeck marble pillars, creating scooped out seating booths. There are three arches per bay plus a grander one for each main pillar, each with a projecting pointed arch covering a subdividing column topped by a statue of a bishop or king. Above each arch is a pair of spandrels containing carved scenes which create a cycle of 93 carved relief sculptures of the life and miracles of the Virgin Mary. The carvings and sculptures would all have been painted.”

When we entered the Lady Chapel, we were in so much awe of its beauty that we did not at first notice something, which a church official soon pointed out to us. In each of the booths or alcoves lining the walls, the statues are either missing their heads or their faces have ben erased crudely. The deliberate damage to these statues was ordered by Bishop Thomas Goodrich. He also removed some of the larger statues that once adorned this fine chapel. It was seeing this destruction that reminded me of my trip to Prizren so long ago.

After looking at the Lady Chapel, we explored other parts of the cathedral, where I found other examples of statues that had lost either their faces or their heads. The iconoclasm that occurred in the so-called Reformation, which began in the 1530s, can be seen in many English churches, especially with regard to the acres of stained glass that were wantonly destroyed during that period of religious reform. Maybe, this destructive era should also be known as the ‘de-formation’. Some valuable examples of the pre-Reformation stained-glass can be seen in Ely Cathedral’s fascinating Stained-Glass Museum, which is well worth visiting. Incidentally, apart from European stained glass from across the centuries, the museum has recently acquired a fine example of stained glass from the USA, depicting a black African American.

Although I have concentrated on aspects of destruction, there is plenty of Ely Cathedral left for the visitor to enjoy, including fine gothic and pre-gothic (Norman) architecture. Many mediaeval and Tudor buildings that were once part of the abbey still exist and are now part of the daily life of modern Ely, just as some parts of Diocletian’s Palace in Split are still in use today. Some of these buildings in Ely are used by Kings School Ely, which was one of about 12 schools founded by Henry VIII. These few schools were the only part realised of a more ambitious plan to build many more schools and other new establishments.

We spent a whole day in Ely but could easily have stayed longer without being able to see all of its attractions. Prior to our departure for the city, a friend had told us that it was an unlikeable place not worth visiting. We discovered how wrong he was.