MY GREAT GRANDFATHER Franz Ginsberg (1862-1936) was an industrialist and a politician in South Africa. One of his main industries was soapmaking. Many of his workers would have been black Africans, mostly living in poor conditions around his factory in King Williams Town (‘KWT’). While serving on the town council of KWT, he played an active role in establishing what he hoped would be a township with improved living conditions for some of the town’s black people (including his workers). Named after him, Ginsberg township, founded at the beginning of the 20th century, still exists.
A few years before my great grandfather established the township named after him, another soap maker, William Hesketh Lever (1851-1925) who was based in England, created what he hoped would be better living conditions for his workers. Far more grandiose and much more attractive than Ginsberg Township, Lever began building Port Sunlight (south of Birkenhead) in about 1887 (a year or two after Ginsberg began making soap). Lever’s model town provided his employees with salubrious dwellings in a well landscaped environment. However, they were subject to strict rules; Lever, who believed that discouraging immorality (e.g., gambling) led to a good workforce, was a benevolent paternalist.
Lever and his wife were avid collectors of artworks. These are housed in the purpose-built Lady Lever Art Gallery in the centre of Port Sunlight. This gallery, contained within an impressive French neo-classical style edifice, was designed by the Warrington based architects William Owen (1846-1910) and his son Seager Owen, and opened in 1922. It contains a fine range of artworks dating from early times (pre-Christian) to the early 20th century. It contains one of the largest and most important collections of Pre-Raphaelite artists’ works. With its spacious, airy galleries and well displayed exhibits, it is amongst my top ten British galleries and museums.
In one small gallery, which contains a sculpture of a reclining nude, two paintings hang close to each other but are separated by a neo-classical fireplace (an exhibit). One of them is by JMW Turner (1775-1851) and the other by his contemporary rival J Constable (1776-1837). It is interesting to see them almost side-by-side because it allows the viewer to compare their styles and what they try to convey in their paintings. The Turner painting depicts “The Falls of the Clyde”, and the Constable depicts “Cottage at Bergholt”. Neither of the paintings, both created in the age before photography, achieves the accuracy of, say, a photograph; both seem impressionistic, but the effects that the artists were attempting to have on the viewer are entirely different.
Turner’s paintings are often far more impressionistic than Constable’s. Although his subject matter is always at least almost discernible, I feel that Turner’s works are created to evoke both the artist’s and the viewer’s psychological and/or emotional reaction(s) to what was being depicted. In contrast, Constable’s painting techniques seem to have been designed to emphasise aspects of the scene he was painting to give the viewer the impression that he or she is looking at the very same view as that which attracted the artist. Constable regarded painting as being a branch of science. In a lecture he gave in 1836, he said:
“Painting is a science and should be pursued as an inquiry into the laws of nature. Why, may not landscape painting be considered a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments?”
Turner, in his almost abstract paintings such as the one at the Lady Lever, appeared to be wanting to stimulate the viewer’s emotions. In contrast, Constable tried to convey what he saw or felt was important in his subject matter. Without resorting to the almost photographic accuracy of, for example, both Canaletto and Vermeer, the two artist whose paintings hang almost next to each other in the Lady Lever successfully achieve their aims. For me, the avoidance of detailed accuracy of representation in both Turner’s and Constable’s paintings, enhances the impression of reality in my mind, something that photography cannot do to the same extent.
Even if you do not wish to compare Turner and Constable, I can strongly recommend a visit to the soap maker’s gallery in Port Sunlight. Finally, it is a pity that my great grandfather did not invest in great works of art!
A WIDE FOOTPATH runs south from Piccadilly along the eastern edge of Green Park. We have walked along this many times, but it was not until a few days ago that we noticed a small alleyway leading east from the footpath about 190 yards south of Piccadilly. This unmarked footway, which is barely wide enough for two people to pass each other, passes under a building and emerges opposite the Stafford Hotel on St James Place, a short cul-de-sac with a dogleg, which leads off St James Street. St James Place, whose construction began in 1694, is an attractive short street lined with many fine buildings, some of which I propose to describe. What made this lovely quiet road interesting for me was that several fascinating people have been associated with it. I will begin with a relatively recent inhabitant.
Number 9 was home to Sir Francis Chichester (1901-1972), who circumnavigated the world single-handedly in 1966/67. He lived here from 1944 to 1972. He sailed in his boat named Gypsy Moth IV. In 1929, Sir Francis attempted another exploit, to fly from New Zealand to Australia in his ‘plane, a de Havilland Gypsy Moth. He made the first ever flight from New Zealand to Australia. He was also the first person to land a ‘plane on both Norfolk and Lord Howe islands. If you want to see his historic boat, then you need to get down to Greenwich, where it is on display close to the much larger Cutty Sark.
There is another building in St James Place, which associated with water transport. The elegant number 20, an 18th century building, has been the London Club House of the Royal Ocean Racing Club since 1942. The Club was founded in 1925. Between 1822 and 1857, the building housed the servants who worked in number 21, which was demolished during WW2 (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols29-30/pt1/pp511-541#h3-0019).
Not far from Chichester’s house is number 4. This is the house from which the short-lived Polish born pianist and composer, Frederick Chopin (1810-1849), departed to give his last public performance at the Guildhall on the 16th of November 1848 (www.chopin-society.org.uk/articles/chopin-britain.htm). It was held:
“… in aid of a Polish charity, came at the end of a difficult six-month British sojourn, which had included concerts in Manchester (one of the largest audiences he ever faced), Glasgow and Edinburgh… Finally back in London, the composer-pianist spent three weeks preparing for what turned out to be his final recital by sitting wrapped in his coat in front of the fire at St James’s Place, attended by London’s leading homeopath and the Royal Physician, a specialist in tuberculosis. A week after the concert, he was on his way home to Parisian exile and death the following year.” (www.londonremembers.com/memorials/frederic-chopin-st-james-s-place).
Before discussing the most curious inhabitant of St James Place, I will discuss one of its famous residents, the writer and politician Joseph Addison (1672-1719), who founded “The Spectator” magazine in 1711. According to Peter Cunningham in his “Handbook of London” (published in 1850), Addison was living in St James Place by 1710. I am sure that we did not see any memorial celebrating this on any of the buildings in the street. Cunningham wrote, quoting from another source:
“Addison’s chief companions before he married Lady Warwick (in 1716) were Steele, Budgell, Philips, Carey, Davenant, and Colonel Brett. He used to breakfast with one or other of them at his lodgings in St James Place …”
His companions listed above were probably sympathetic to Addison’s Whig politics. However, Cunningham gives no indication of Addison’s address. He frequented the St James Coffee House in nearby St James Street, as he recorded in issue number 104 of his “Spectator”:
“That I might begin as near the fountain head as possible I first of all called in at St. James’s, where I found the whole outwardroom in a Buzz of Politics. The Speculations were but very indifferent towards the Door, but grew finer as you advanced to the upper end of the room, and were so very much improved by a knot of Theorists who sate in the inner Room, within the steam of the Coffee Pot, that I there heard the whole Spanish Monarchy disposed of; and all the line of Bourbons provided for in less than a Quarter of an Hour.” (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vols29-30/pt1/pp459-471#h3-0014)
The coffee house was at number 87 St James Street. It was demolished to make way for a new building, erected 1904/05.
Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_James%27s_Place) lists many other notable residents of St James Place, including Oscar Wilde and Lord Randolph Henry Spencer-Churchill, but omits one very interesting person, William Huskisson (1770-1830), whose residence at number 28 is commemorated by a plaque. This records him as having been a ‘statesman’. He was that as well as a financier and several times a Member of Parliament. He lived in Paris between 1783 and 1792 and witnessed the French Revolution. Although he had an active political life, what makes him remarkable was the manner of his death.
Against the better judgement of his physician, Huskisson attended the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway on the 15th of September 1830. Thomas Creevey (1768-1838) related the story in a letter written to a Miss Ord on the 19th of September 1830:
“Jack Calcraft has been at the opening of the Liverpool railroad, and was an eye-witness of Huskisson’s horrible death. About nine or ten of the passengers in the Duke’s car had got out to look about them whilst the car stopt. Calcraft was one, Huskisson another, Esterhazy, Billy Holmes, Birch and others. When the other locomotive was seen coming up to pass them, there was a general shout from those within the Duke’s car to those without it, to get in. Both Holmes and Birch were unable to get up in time, but they stuck fast to its sides, and the other engine did not touch them. Esterhazy, being light, was pulled in by force. Huskisson was feeble in his legs, and appears to have lost his head, as he did his life. Calcraft tells me that Huskisson’s long confinement in St. George’s Chapel at the King’s funeral brought on a complaint that Taylor is so afraid of, and that made some severe surgical operation necessary, the effect of which had been, according to what he told Calcraft, to paralyse, as it were, one leg and thigh. This, no doubt, must have increased, if it did not create, his danger and [caused him to] lose his life.”
(quoted from “The Creevey papers; a selection from the correspondence & diaries of the late Thomas Creevey, M.P., born 1768 – died 1838. Edited by Sir Herbert Maxwell”)
Thus, Huskisson achieved the dubious distinction of becoming one of the first widely reported casualties in a railway accident. The ‘Duke’ mentioned above was the Duke of Wellington and the engine that caused Huskisson’s death was the “Rocket”, a pioneering locomotive designed by Robert Stephenson in 1829. I wonder why his demise was not noted on the commemorative plaque.
Huskisson’s former home has a superb front door flanked by iron lampstands each with its own conical torch flame snuffer. St James Place has plenty of fine 18th century buildings as well as some newer ones. These include the Stafford and Dukes Hotels, which are late 19th and early 20th century in appearance. Number 26 St James Place, a mid-twentieth century building, bears a Civic Trust Award. It is a block of flats built 1959/60 to the designs of the architect Denys Lasdun (1914-2001), who also designed the National Theatre on the South Bank. It replaced an 18th century house that was destroyed by bombing in WW2. Although not unpleasing, it stands in stark contrast to the far more elegant older buildings near it.
Even greater contrast to its surroundings is the building on the northern corner of St James Place and St James Street. This avant-garde metal-clad structure, the Target Building, designed by Rodney Gordon (1933-2008) and completed in 1984, is opposite William Evans gun shop and houses the Stern Pisarro art gallery on its ground floor. One of the galleries owners, Lélia Pissarro, is a great-granddaughter of the Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro (1830-1903). The gallery specialises in Impressionist art amongst other things. While on the subject of art galleries, it would be easy to walk past number 6 St James Place without noticing a small plate on its front door that says ‘Agnews Est 1817’. Between 1877 and 2013, this gallery, which deals in the highest quality works of fine art (e,g. Caravaggio, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Velasquez) was on Old Bond Street. Then, it relocated to number 6.
St James Place is only 180 yards in length, but as can be seen from the small selection of buildings I have chosen to describe, it is choc-full of historical associations. I am pleased that we discovered the tiny alley that led from Green Park to this fascinating cul-de-sac. And, finally, if you find that you are getting tired of staying at the Ritz Hotel, you would do well to book into one of the two hotels discreetly located in St James Place.
[PS I have not dealt with Spencer House because I hope to write about it in the future]
One of the great features of possessing a Tate Card (an annual season ticket) is that one can enter (with or without a companion) the regular special exhibitions without paying extra for tickets, which tend to be quite costly. What I particularly like is that if an exhibition does not meet one’s expectations, one can spend a short time viewing without worrying about having wasted, maybe, as much as £18 per person.
Recently, I visited the much-hyped special exhibition of works by the French painter Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) at the Tate Modern in London. Without the Tate Card, the two of us would have had to shell out £36 (about 30% of the cost of a Tate Card) to see what I thought was a tedious exhibition.
I like Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in general, but the Bonnard works left me cold (or at least lukewarm!). I cannot comment on the competence of their execution, but I found them short of visual excitement, almost boring compared with works of other artists painting during Bonnard’s lifetime. Consequently, we did not linger long in the exhibition. I may sound like a Philistine with my comments about the famous Bonnard, but it is only fair to write honestly about how the exhibition affected me. Incidentally, I noticed that many of the visitors at this show were more interested in chatting to each other than looking at Bonnard’s works. I saw one man sitting on a bench reading his newspaper rather than trying to enjoy Bonnard.
As we were still in the mood for looking at art, we decided to enter another special exhibition in the Tate Modern. Using our Tate Card, we saved up to £26 when we entered the exhibition of artworks by the American-born Dorothea Tanning (1910-2012). However, this is an exhibition that is well worth its entrance fee. Bonnard and Tanning’s working lives overlapped for a few years, but the American’s output made a far greater impression on me than the Frenchman’s.
The exhibition at the Tate Modern commences with paintings from Tanning’s surrealist phase. Her execution and composition sets her amongst the best of the surrealist artists. Each painting has subtlety, excitement, a sense of adventure, and creative freshness. As Tanning grew older, her works tended towards abstraction in an original way. In brief, Tanning was an artist whose visual language(s) really attract me. Her work has a freshness and impact that I found lacking in Bonnard.
In addition to paintings and designs for stage sets, the exhibition at the Tate includes some of rather weird soft fabric sculptures, which did not appeal to me quite as much as the framed works. However, they display another aspect of Tanning’s undoubted inventive talent.
I am glad we decided to visit the Bonnard, even though it disappointed me, because it got me to visit the Tate Modern after a long break (in India) and to discover the delights of Dorothea Tanning’s artistic output.
The photo is a detail of a work, “Endgame” , painted by Dorothea Tanning in 1944