Self sacrifice remembered

GEORGE FREDERIC WATTS (1817-1904) was a sculptor and a painter. I first became acquainted with him and his work when I was writing my book about west London (“Beyond Marylebone and Mayfair: Exploring West London”). My interest in him increased when I was writing a book about the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879).  Between about 1850 and 1870, he lived with Thoby and Sara Prinsep’s family, about whom I have written in another book, in the now-demolished Little Holland House in Kensington. Not far from where he lived, there are two bronze statues by Watts: a portrait of Lord Holland in Holland Park, and the equestrian sculpture “Physical Energy” in Kensington Gardens.  While living with the Prinseps, Watts met Julia Cameron, who was Sara’s sister. Cameron lived at Freshwater on the Isle of Wight in a house that neighboured the property where the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson lived. Watts, who had helped the Prinseps rent Little Holland House, was a frequent visitor to Freshwater, where he met and socialised with both Tennyson and Cameron. Watts, who was briefly married to the actress Ellen Terry, painted Tennyson several times and was himself photographed by Cameron.  And Watts painted at least one portrait of Cameron – now in the National Portrait Gallery.

Apart from the numerous paintings and sculptures created by Watts, one of his most unusual works is neither a sculpture nor a painting – it is what one might describe as a precursor of Conceptual Art. Although attractive, the concept that it conveys – self-sacrifice – is more important than its appearance. Located in Postman’s Park, which extends from Aldersgate Street to King Edward Street, it is a memorial to ordinary people who lost their lives during peacetime whilst trying to save those of others. Created in 1898 but conceived by Watts in 1887, the work of art is called “Memorial to Heroic Self-Sacrifice”. It consists of a stretch of wall protected from the elements by a wooden loggia, which was designed by Ernest George who helped design the buildings at the Golders Green Crematorium. On the wall there are memorials to those who sacrificed their lives whilst rescuing others. Each memorial is made of ceramic tiles and records the name of the hero and a brief account of how he or she met their deaths. The first four memorials were designed and made by William de Morgan. Later, others were made by the Royal Doulton pottery. There is room for 120 memorials but by 1931, only 53 had been placed. In 2009, the Diocese of London permitted another memorial to be added.

Watts supervised this project. When he died, his widow, his second wife Mary, took over its supervision, but after a while she lost interest in it as she began concentrating on the management of the Watts Mortuary Chapel and the Watts Gallery – both near Compton in Surrey. The memorial is in Postman’s Park, which was formerly the graveyard of the nearby St Botolphs Aldersgate Church and is, I am guessing, maintained by the Church of England or a local authority.

The memorials are both fascinating and moving. Here are a few examples:

“Mary Rogers. Stewardess of the Stella. Mar 30 1899.Self sacrificed by giving up her life belt and voluntarily going down in the sinking ship.”

“Herbert Peter Cazaly. Stationer’s clerk. Who was drowned at Kew in endeavouring to save a man from drowning. April 21, 1889”

“Herbert Maconoghu. School boy from Wimbledon aged 13. His parents absent in India, lost his life in vainly trying to rescue his two school fellows who were drowned at Glovers Pool, Croyde, North Devon. August 28, 1882”

According to Wikipedia:

“Maconoghu was actually Herbert Moore McConaghey, the son of Matthew and Martha McConaghey, and he was born in Mynpoorie in India where Matthew was working as a settlement officer for the Imperial Civil Service,”

Standing amidst these memorials is a small sculpture depicting Watts. Its inscription reads:

“The Utmost for the Highest. In memoriam George Frederic Watts, who desiring to honour heroic self-sacrifice placed these records here.”

Luckily for us, Watts’s unusual creation has been kept in good condition. Since 1972, it has been a protected structure. Unlike most of the art made by Watts, the memorial in Postman’s Park was an idea created by him, rather than something he made with his own hands. I had seen the memorial several times in the past, but today, the 17th of May 2023, I took my wife to see it for the first time. A few weeks earlier, while visiting the Tate Britain, we had seen an art installation by Susan Hiller. It incorporated photographs of 41 of the memorials on Watts’s wall of memory in Postman’s Park. Having seen this, we wanted to see the original, and were not disappointed.

You can discover more about Julia Margaret Cameron, Tennyson, the Prinsep family, and Watts in my book “Between Two Islands: Julia Margaret Cameron and her Circle”, which is available from Amazon:

Where I watched my first ever movie

THE LAST TIME I watched a film at the Everyman cinema in London’s Hampstead was in the 1960s. In my book “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs”, which I published in 2022, I described the cinema and my recollections of it as follows:

“It was at the Everyman that I went to the cinema for the first time in my life. My parents, who were not regular cinemagoers, decided that the rather sad French film, “The Red Balloon” (first released in the UK in late 1956), was a suitable production to introduce me, a four-and-a-half-year-old, to the joys of cinema. My parents, who tended to avoid popular culture, probably selected the “Red Balloon”, an arty French film, because it was a little more recherché than the much more popular Disney films that appeared in the late 1950s. The cinema, which still exists, was, according to Christopher Wade, built in 1888 as a drill hall for The Hampstead Rifle Volunteers. Then, in 1919 its windows were bricked-in, and it became MacDermott’s Everyman Theatre. In 1933, it became a cinema. I saw many more films there in my childhood and adolescence. Every year, there used to be a festival of Marx Brothers films in the summer months. I loved these films and used to visit the Everyman on hot sunny afternoons when I was often the only person in the auditorium. In those days, the cinema’s auditorium had a strange smell that strongly resembled household gas. Indeed, there were gas lamps attached to the walls of the auditorium, but I am certain that I never saw them working. They might have there for use as emergency lighting in case there was an electricity supply failure. These were quite frequent during my childhood but never happened when I was at the Everyman.

The cinema is, I have been told, now a very luxurious place. The seats are comfortable and have tables beside them, at which waiting staff serve food and drinks. This is a far cry from what I can remember of the rather basic cinema in the 1960s. Back in those days, the Everyman, like the now long-gone Academy cinemas in Oxford Street, favoured screenings of ‘arty’ films rather than the more popular films that most cinemas showed. Now, the Everyman, formerly an art-house cinema, thrives by screening films that are most likely to attract full houses. That this is the case is yet more evidence to support the idea that Hampstead is not what it was. Many of the sort of people who might enjoy arty films that attract often small niche audiences, who used to live in Hampstead, can no longer afford to reside in the area.”

Today, the 16th of May 2023, my daughter took me to see a film at the Everyman (see picture). As already mentioned, the cinema is now quite ‘swish’. It had been re-designed late last year. Whereas once it had only one screen, now it has two. We saw our film, “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry”, screened in what was the original auditorium – Screen 1. The ceiling supported by tapering metal struts is how I remember it from at least 50 years ago. Otherwise, all has been changed. The smell of gas has gone. The seating is curious to say the least. It consists of well-upholstered armchairs and couches, all well separated from each other. In between them, there are tables, and metal wine cooler buckets are attached beside each of them. The upholstery materials are colourful and differ from seat to seat. For my taste, the aesthetics are not too successful. The screen is placed high enough so that it does not matter how tall a person sits in the seat in front of you. The acoustics were good. All in all, it was a pleasure revisiting the cinema in which I saw my first ‘movie’ sixty-six years ago.

My book about Hampstead is available from Amazon:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/BENEATH-WIDE-SKY-HAMPSTEAD-ENVIRONS/dp/B09R2WRK92/

Places called London

MANY YEARS AGO, I used to visit Yugoslavia frequently. I stayed with friends in both Sarajevo and Belgrade. During almost every stay in Belgrade, several friends and I used to travel to the town of Novi Sad to eat good Chinese food in a restaurant called Szećuan. We used to order, and consume everything on its menu. This food was washed down with copious amounts of alcohol.

After one if these boozy lunches, we began walking to the railway station and as we passed a pub called Bar London, my friend Miša said to me:
“It would be surrealist if you take us for a drink in this bar”.
We had one or more ‘for the road’, and then staggered towards the station.

This memory was aroused by coming across the Restaurante Londres in central Funchal (Madeira). We ate dinner there. The food was excellent. For the first time in my life, I ate limpets. These aquatic snails were grilled in their shells with butter and garlic – they tasted wonderful. The other dishes we tried were so good that we have booked there again.

Returning to the past, if I recall correctly, there was also a restaurant or bar called London in central Belgrade, but oddly I never entered it.

It need not have happened

CONSTRUCTED IN 1974, it was 221 feet tall. It overshadowed the homes of many people including many of the wealthier inhabitants of West London’s Kensington. And I imagine that the wealthy inhabitants of the elegant crescents and other thoroughfares near it did not appreciate the views from their windows being spoiled by this Brutalist block of flats containing less well-off people, about whom they would rather not think. Between 2015 and 2016, the block was refurbished and made less of an eyesore by the addition of cladding – ostensibly to improve insulation – to its exterior.

On the afternoon of the 13th of June 2017, I was walking around North Kensington, taking photographs as usual. I stopped to take pictures of the recently built Kensington Leisure Centre and its near neighbour the Kensington Aldridge Academy – both are interesting examples of contemporary architecture. While I was taking these photos, I had my back to the tower block I have just described.  Had I looked at it then, I would have thought that it would have been of little interest to me. How wrong I was.

Just after midnight on the following day, a fire broke out in that tall block – Grenfell Tower – that edifice which overlooked the homes of the wealthy residents of Kensington. The fire spread rapidly because of the highly inflammable nature of the cladding used to make the tower more attractive to its neighbours. Seventy-two people died in the conflagration; many were injured; and all the surviving residents were not only badly scarred psychologically, but also lost their homes and possessions.

From wherever you looked in a large area around Grenfell, including from the homes of the prosperous residents of Holland Park and Notting Hill, one could see the horrifically charred tower block – a fear-inspiring eyesore – the result of local government officialdom ignoring repeated warnings about the already known potential fire hazards that the cladding presented and inadequate planning for escape during a fire. I felt – and I am not alone in thinking this – that the local council hardly cared for a few impecunious residents in a tower block. What was more important was to save money so as not to impose high local taxes on people who could have easily afforded to pay them.

Soon after the fire, the charred tower was covered with protective wrapping to assist forensic investigations and to contain debris, which might otherwise have flown away and dropped in the neighbourhood. It also removed from sight the scarred, charred remains of the building – a 24 hour a day reminder of the avoidable, tragic loss of life, which was not altogether disconnected with civic and possibly criminal negligence. The remains of the tower are still covered up.  Before the heart-rending remains of the conflagration were covered up, filmmaker Steve McQueen (born 1969 not far from Grenfell Tower) made a short film about the tower. It is currently on show at the Serpentine South Gallery in Hyde Park until the 10th of May.

The film is without words in its soundtrack and without any captions. It looks as if it might have been filmed with a drone or a camera held within a helicopter. It begins with a flight over beautiful countryside far beyond the edge of London. The camera moves above the scenes of rural serenity and slowly the city of London comes into view. We pass over London’s sprawling suburbs, and then the charred Grenfell Tower begins to be seen in the centre of the screen. The camera moves closer and closer to the blackened building, and then slowly circles around it many times. Each time the tower is slowly encircled, and the camera moves closer to it, more and more details of the destruction entered my consciousness, and my understanding of the horror of what had befallen Grenfell and its inhabitants gradually increased. As the camera moved around the wreck, you could catch glimpses of the parts of London surrounding it – the houses and flats of those who must have witnessed the fire, but were not affected by it, at least not physically. As the camera moved, one could see trains moving on nearby tracks and vehicles travelling along roads. I felt that I was witnessing life going on as usual at the same time as witnessing the horrors of a disaster. The absence of commentary added to the powerful impact that seeing these images of a lethal incineration simultaneously with scenes of normality made on me. There was a soundtrack, which consisted of recordings of everyday sounds – both natural and man-made. However, while the camera encircled the tower of death, there was no sound at all. I wondered whether this signified the fact that the victims, who had died, will no longer be able to enjoy the sounds of everyday life.

McQueen’s film is a sophisticated and solemn memorial to an event that could easily have been avoided. Without a soundtrack or explanations, the viewer is left to ponder the tragedy in his or her own way.

A versatile contemporary artist

YESTERDAY, WE ADMIRED paintings created by the Great Masters of European art, which hang on the walls of the rooms of 18th century Kenwood House in north London. Today, the 12th of April 2023, we enjoyed artworks of a completely different nature within the almost spartan spaces of the White Cube Gallery in Bermondsey Street. Currently, three artists’ works are on display. Three areas in the gallery are dedicated to one of them – Marguerite Humeau. She was born in 1986 in France, and received her MA from the Royal College of Art in London – the city in which she now lives and works.

Humeau creates works in a wide variety of materials. She also makes video art, one example of which was on show in the smallest of the three spaces. A larger room contained panels made with one or more ceramic tiles. The glazed surfaces of these tiles are not flat but contain hand-sculpted three-dimensional features including textural variations and curvy striations, which protrude from the flattish background surface.

The largest room of the show must be seen to believed. Entering is like setting foot on an alien planet inhabited by weird organic shapes that suggested to me plants, fungi, and insects, but all of them greatly magnified. These shapes are sculptures created by Humeau. Some of them were emitting musical sounds. I found the sculptures both intriguing because of their allusions to biological structures and also quite satisfying visually. As to what led to their creation, the gallery’s website (https://whitecube.com/artists/artist/Marguerite_Humeau) explained:
“The artist was inspired by eusocial insects such as ants, termites and bees, whose complex cooperative societies enable them to build huge structures and to cultivate other organisms in symbiotic relationships. Reflecting on the ants shepherding their aphids and the termites tending their fungus gardens, Humeau found an equivalent in the place yeast has assumed in human societies, as the essential ingredient of bread and beer around which our human collective has gathered. Contemplating the probability of our imminent, self-inflicted extinction as a species, Humeau sees insect societies as both the inheritors of our ravaged environment, and a prompt to consider how interdependence and cooperation might offer a means to avert our fate.”
Fair enough; but even if the works are portents of a gloomy future, my spirits were uplifted by seeing them. The exhibition continues until the 14th of May 2023. If you plan to visit it, save a bit of time for the interesting and attractive, abstract paintings and sculptures by Samuel Ross (born 1991 in London), which are on show in another of the gallery’s spaces.

The thing that amazes me is that even though the paintings by the Great Masters, who painted many centuries ago and which we saw 24 hours ago at Kenwood are immensely satisfying visually, seeing the artworks by Marguerite Humeau today was an equally enjoyable experience. I wonder what it is that happens in the brain to produce the same amount of enjoyment from seeing such widely differing artistic creations.

Caught in the act midair

TO CAPTURE A DETAILED IMAGE of a hawk attacking a bird in mid-air using photography would require a decent camera with a good lens and a high shutter speed. Yet, in about 1832 – long before cameras with high shutter speeds existed – the painter Edward Landseer (1802-1873) depicted a hawk attacking another bird high above the ground. He did not use photography. He created his picture on canvas with his paintbrushes and oil paints. His painting, “Hawking in the Olden Time”, hand in north London’s Kenwood House where I saw it today, the 11th of April 2023.

Clearly, Landseer’s image is a painting, but it contains as much detail as a reasonably good photograph. It must have taken him very much longer to execute than the fraction of a second that the event – the attack, which he captured on canvas, lasted in real life. Was his visual memory so good that he was able to hold a detailed memory of that instant in his head whilst he painted it? Although I doubt it, that possibility cannot be ruled out.

As I stood in front of the picture, pondering about it, another theory entered my head. During the nineteenth century, the art of taxidermy had reached a high degree of development. For example, the British ornithologist John Hancock (1808-1890) was an accomplished taxidermist. One of his works, “The Struggle with the Quarry”, which is in the Hancock Museum (in Newcastle upon Tyne) consists of one stuffed bird attacking another, and at first glance makes one think of Landseer’s painting. Although this was created after Landseer made his painting, the art of taxidermy had already begun to be perfected by taxidermists such as Louis Dufresne (1752-1832). So, when I was standing in front of the painting at Kenwood and thinking that Landseer might well have used a work of taxidermy as a model for his picture, I might not have been mistaken.

Kenwood House contains one of London’s best collections of old master paintings outside the city’s major public art galleries. Each time I visit it, I discover something that I had not noticed before. I am sure that I had seen the painting by Landseer, but it was not until today that I gave it more than a passing glance. Today, while walking around the house with some friends who had never been there before, we stopped in front of the painting of mid-air carnage and wondered how this image had been created before modern photography had been invented. Maybe, what I have written provides the answer.

Revealing the soul. Alice Neel.

DESCRIBED AS THE FIRST living artist to have had a retrospective exhibition in the Soviet Union, the American painter Alice Neel (1900-1984), there is a superb exhibition of her art at the Barbican Centre in the City of London until the 21st of May 2023. Alice, who was born in a small town in Pennsylvania, led a colourful life – and by this, I am not referring only to her paintings. Politically, she was leftward leaning. In 1935, she joined the US Communist Party and remained a member throughout the McCarthy era and after it. She participated actively in anti-fascist activity before WW2. Some of the portraits she painted were of Marxists and members of the US Communist Party. Maybe, it was this political activity that got her, her family, and her paintings invited to Moscow in 1981. She was a Communist but objected to the bureaucracy associated with the Party. In late life, when she was asked about her political views, she replied that she was “an anarchic humanist.”

During the Great Depression that hit the USA in 1929, President Franklin Delaney Roosevelt initiated the New Deal programme to deal with the unemployment crisis. In 1933, as part of this the Public Works Art Project was set up, and Alice joined it immediately. She was paid US $26.88 per week to produce a painting every six weeks. Her works done for this organisation and its successor, the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Association, depicted urban scenes of adversity and social injustices. These paintings were her own brand of Socialist realism. I liked what was on display.

Alice remained a figurative artist throughout her life and throughout the period when most of her fellow American artists were moving away from the figurative and increasingly towards the abstract. The highlights of the exhibition are her portraits, some of them of subjects who have removed their clothing. In all of her portraits, she gets beneath her subjects’ clothing or external appearance and portrays not what a conventional portraitist depicts, but the personalities of her subjects as she understood them. The results were not always liked by her subjects, but the viewer can get much more of an idea of what the people would have been like had we been lucky enough to meet them. Like the Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879), Alice’s portraits are not a slavish reproductions of nature but a wonderful attempt to portray what lies beneath the surface – the subject’s soul and character. She once said:


“As for people who want flattering pictures of themselves, even if I wanted to do them, I wouldn’t know what flattery is. To me, as Keats said, beauty is truth, truth beauty … I paint to reveal the struggle, tragedy, and joy of life.”

Included at the Barbican’s exhibition, there is a documentary film about Alice made by Nancy Baer. Alice was filmed in various situations, and comes across as a delightful person. Some of the scenes in the documentary show her at work on a portrait. What impressed me when watching these scenes in her studio was her ability to create straight from life unwaveringly. She looked at her subject and without faltering painted elements of the portrait that did not need adjusting. Her eye-brain-hand coordination looked to be superb.

Returning to the Moscow exhibition, the “Morning Star” newspaper (https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/c/rebel-cause), which praised the exhibition, pointed out:


“…a wall text incorrectly refers to Neel’s 1981 Moscow exhibition as being by the “first living artist to have a retrospective in the Soviet Union,” whereas many artists including Yuri Petrov-Vodkin, Alexander Deyneka, Pablo Picasso and Fernand Leger had exhibited there from the 1930s onwards.”


They may well be right, but whether the artists mentioned were showing a few of their works rather than a retrospective covering their whole output until the date of the exhibition, is a question I cannot answer. In any case, it was no mean achievement to have been both invited to exhibit in Moscow during the Cold War and to have been elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (in 1976).

Once again, I must admit my ignorance: Alice Neel was an artist who was new to me. However, I am pleased that she is now on my radar. I can strongly recommend visiting the exhibition at the Barbican for an exciting visual feast.

Tokenhouse Yard

ST MARGARET LOTHBURY CHURCH stands on Lothbury, facing the north side of the Bank of England. It is, so the rector told us, the only one of the churches designed after the Great Fire of London (1666) by Christopher Wren, which did not suffer damage during WW2. It contains some beautifully crafted wooden features including a choir screen originally erected in the Church of All Hallows the Great (demolished 1894) in about 1683. In a side chapel, my wife spotted a gravestone that aroused our interest.

The black grave stone is to commemorate the Barnes family. The name at the top of the carved inscription is “James Barnes Jnr” of Tokenhouse Yard, who died in 1830. Other members of the family, who died later than him are listed below his name. What interested us was James’s address. Tokenhouse Yard, which is just under 100 yards in length, still exists and runs in a northerly direction beginning a few feet away from the west end of St Margaret’s church.

Tokenhouse Yard was laid out by the economist Sir William Petty (1623-1687) during the reign of King Charles I on land which had been occupied by the house and garden of the Earl of Arundel. Petty was, in addition to being an economist, a physician, physicist, philosopher, and one of the first members of the Royal Society. According to an online history of London (www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol1/pp513-515) the Yard:


“… derived its name from an old house which was once the office for the delivery of farthing pocketpieces, or tokens, issued for several centuries by many London tradesmen. Copper coinage, with very few exceptions, was unauthorised in England till 1672.”


Daniel Defoe (c1660-1731), who was a child when the Great Plague broke out in London in 1665, later wrote that he remembered terrible sounds and scenes in the then densely populated, and probably somewhat squalid Tokenhouse Yard, many of whose inhabitants were infected. As it was during the worst days of our recent covid19 pandemic, back in 1665 there was nobody out in Tokenhouse Yard. He wrote:


“Passing through Tokenhouse Yard, in Lothbury, of a sudden a casement violently opened just over my head, and a woman gave three frightful screeches, and then cried, ‘Oh! death, death, death!’ in a most inimitable tone, which struck me with horror, and a chilliness in my very blood. There was nobody to be seen in the whole street, neither did any other window open, for people had no curiosity now in any case, nor could anybody help one another. Just in Bell Alley, on the right hand of the passage, there was a more terrible cry than that, though it was not so directed out at the window; but the whole family was in a terrible fright, and I could hear women and children run screaming about the rooms like distracted; when a garret window opened, and somebody from a window on the other side the alley called and asked, ‘What is the matter?’ upon which, from the first window it was answered, ‘Ay, ay, quite dead and cold!’ This person was a merchant, and a deputy-alderman, and very rich.”

Today, few, if any, people live in Tokenhouse Yard. It is now lined with office buildings, some quite elegant. At the north end of the Yard, there is a large decorative terracotta coloured Victorian edifice – number 12, named Token House. This was built for Huth’s Bank in 1872 to the designs of EA Gruning, a German immigrant. The bank was founded by another German – Frederick Huth (1777-1864). Today, the building houses offices.

An archway in the façade of Token House is the entrance to a covered alleyway – effectively a tunnel – that leads to Telegraph Street. This is so-named because it was near the building housing the Electric and International Telegraph Company (founded in 1855). Of interest, if you happen to be in the area, there is a nice coffee house, Ravello, on this street.

The Fire of London destroyed many buildings in 1666. Although these were replaced by newer ones, many of which have been demolished since, the conflagration did not destroy the medieval street layout of pre-Fire London. Thus, today we can enjoy the quaint narrow streets of yesteryear even though many of them, including Tokenhouse Yard and Telegraph Street (formerly the eastern part of ‘Great Bell Alley’) are lined with buildings constructed after Queen Victoria ascended to the Throne. The archaic network of streets in the old City of London add charm to what otherwise would have become a far less interesting urban area.