Crypto … coffee

ST MARTINS IN THE FIELDS church is a prominent landmark located on the east side of London’s Trafalgar Square. This 18th century church, which first opened in 1724 and was designed by James Gibbs (1682-1754), hosts many concerts, mostly of classical music.

There is a large crypt beneath the church. Its vaulted brickwork ceilings are supported by sturdy masonry pillars. There are many gravestones flush with the floor. The floor is covered with tables and chairs, which are used by the many customers of the café which uses the crypt as its home. It is a pleasant place to while away the time of day.

The café serves food and drink. The coffee served there is slightly below average in quality and is priced a just little bit higher than average for London. Regardless of price or quality, the crypt provides a pleasant ambience to meet friends or simply to relax peacefully.

A house where music has been played for many centuries

Burgh House, Hampstead, London

Burgh House stands high above the southwest end of Well Walk in north London’s historic village of Hampstead. Here is a little bit about it, an extract from my new book about Hampstead:

“… Burgh House is entered from a steep side street called New End Square. The house, built in 1704, is close to the Hampstead Well Spa (see below). According to Bohm and Norrie, the House is named after its 10th owner, The Reverend Allatson Burgh (1769-1856), who was the vicar of St Lawrence Jewry in the City of London. Burgh, who was keener on music than looking after his parishioners, neglected both them and his house. Thomas Barratt wrote:

“Mr. Burgh was a rector in the city, and the composer of a work on church music, published by Longmans. Burgh House is depicted on five pieces of the Wedgwood service, made in 1774, for Catherine II., Empress of Russia.”

Between 1858 and 1884, Burgh House became the headquarters of the Royal East Middlesex Militia. After having been put to a variety of uses, the house became used as a cultural centre in 1979. It now contains a small art gallery, a café, a shop, and a Hampstead Museum. The Reverend Burgh would have been pleased to know that today his former home also hosts many fine concerts of classical music.

From the bottom of the garden of Burgh House, the ‘Wells Tavern’ pub can be seen dominating the view along the gently inclined Well Walk. Known as ‘The Green Man’ until 1850, when it was rebuilt and renamed the ‘Wells Tavern’, a pub has stood on his spot since at least 1762. The pub’s name reflects one of the reasons that Hampstead became popular in the 17th century.  Apart from enjoying clean air, people were attracted to the mineral water springs issuing chalybeate (iron-rich) water that were beginning to be exploited in Hampstead at that time…”

My book is called

“BENEATH A WIDE SKY: HAMPSTEAD AND ITS ENVIRONS”

YOU CAN BUY the paperback or ebook (Kindle) from Amazon:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09R2WRK92

Dusty no more: a town on the Thames

HENLEY-ON-THAMES is located at the Oxford end of a bridge across the River Thames, which separates the county of Oxfordshire from its neighbour Berkshire. Located on the old main road between London and Oxford, it retains much ‘olde-worlde’ charm. Its streets are lined with many buildings that were constructed in the 18th century and before. Some of these used to be coaching inns but are no longer. However, some of the hostelries that served wayfarers in times long ago are still serving thirsty and hungry customers today, for example: The Red Lion, where William III might have visited, now an upmarket restaurant; and The Catherine Wheel, now a branch of the Wetherspoons company. On a recent visit in April 2022, we enjoyed superb coffee at Pavilion on The Market Place, close to the Town Hall.

Beer lovers will not need reminding that Henley is the home of Brakspear & Sons, the brewery company. Founded in Henley in 1722, beer was brewed in the town since then, although some of the comapany’s products are now brewed elsewhere. Many of the brewery’s older buildings, now converted for new purposes, can be seen alongside New Street. The company’s offices are now located on Bull Courtyard off Bell Street.

The stone bridge across the river was built in 1788. It is the finishing place of the annual Henley Royal Regatta held in summer, ever since its inception in 1839. Near the bridge, stands Henley’s parish church of St Mary the Virgin, which has a 16th century tower. The exterior walls of the southeast corner of the church is an eye-catching chequerboard of alternating masonry and flint squares. The church’s interior has been much modified by the Victorians. The churchyard north of the church is surrounded mainly by almshouses. Immediately next to the north side of the church stands a two-storied, half-timbered building, the Chantry House, some of whose beams come from trees felled in 1461 (according to scientific dating methods). Between 1552 and 1778, this edifice housed a school. Since 1923, it has housed the Parish Rooms.

The churchyard is filled with many gravestones. One of them immediately attracts the visitor as it is surrounded by generous amounts of fresh flowers. It is a memorial to the singer Dusty Springfield (1939-1999), who died in Henley. In the 1990s, Dusty lived by the Thames at Hurley near Henley. While in the area, she suffered from several bouts of breast cancer, the cause of her demise. Her funeral at St Mary’s in Henley was attended by many of her fans and leading lights in the British popular music scene including Elvis Costello, Lulu and the Pet Shop Boys. According to her wishes, Dusty was cremated, and some of her ashes were scattered in Henley and the rest in Ireland.

Dusty was not the only music celebrity to have lived in Henley. A man we met outside his house in the town reminded us that the Beatle George Harrison (1943-2001) had also lived in the town. He also mentioned that Henley’s former MP, the present Prime Minister Boris Johnson, had attended meetings in his home, and that he could tell us a thing or two … but he did not!

Sherlock Holmes and Bela Bartok in South Kensington

With his back to the former entrance to the Piccadilly line station at South Kensington and standing at the corner of Pelham Street and Old Brompton Road, is a sculpture depicting the Hungarian composer Béla Bartók (1881-1945). He visited Britain at least sixteen times, often staying in London. To save money, he stayed with his friend the diplomat Sir Duncan Wilson at least twelve times between 1922 and 1937. Wilson owned a house (designed by Basevi) in South Kensington, number 7 Sydney Place, which is just south of Onslow Square. The sculpture, depicting the composer standing on what looks like a pile of fallen leaves, was created by Imre Varga (1923-2019) and unveiled on a traffic island in 2004. This, Varga’s fourth sculpture of the composer, was moved to its present location in 2011.

Bartok statue in South Kensington

Moving northwards, possibly passing the residential Onslow Squares, we reach Queensbury Place, which connects Harrington Road with the section of Cromwell Road that runs past the Natural History Museum. A 20th century brick and concrete building on Harrington Road is home to part of a French school, the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle de Londres. This educational institution for both French- and English-speaking children was created in 1915. After several changes of location, it moved into a building facing the Natural History Museum on Cromwell Road in about 1958. In 1980. the school was named after Charles de Gaulle.

At the east corner of Harrington Road and Queensbury Place, there is a French library. The southern half of the east side of Queensbury Place is occupied by the French Institute, whose building has an imaginatively decorated brickwork façade. This building houses cultural facilities including a library and an auditorium, which hosts the Ciné Lumière. There is also a café. It was designed by Patrice Bonnet (1879-1964) in the Art Deco style and ready for use in 1939. The edifice contains artworks by Sonia Delaunay and Auguste Rodin.

Facing the French Institute is number 16 Queensbury Place, home of The College of Psychic Studies. Founded in 1884, this organisation does the following (according to its website http://www.collegeofpsychicstudies.co.uk):

“The College of Psychic Studies offers courses, workshops and talks on all aspects of healing, self-development, spirituality, and psychic and mediumship training.”

The College moved into its current premises in 1925. A plaque attached to its building commemorates the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930). Apart from being a prolific author, he was President of the College from 1926 until 1930. The College’s website reveals much about his interest in spiritualism. He:

“… published his two volume History of Spiritualism and his novel, The Land of Mist, while he was the College’s President … [he] was tireless in helping the bereaved and spreading the word of spiritualism including urging people to join the Alliance and read the latest news in Light.”

Unlike Sherlock Holmes’s fictional address in Baker Street, this townhouse in South Kensington has a real connection with Holmes, at least with his creator.

Costly coffee, Handel, and Hendrix in London’s Mayfair

THERE ARE TWO entrances to Lancashire Court from Mayfair’s Brook Street. One of them, the closest to New Bond Street, is a cobbled lane leading down to a courtyard occupied by the back entrance of the Victoria’s Secret store and the outdoor tables of a restaurant called Hush Mayfair. The tables under delightfully decorated canopies looked enticing, and as we felt the need for some coffee, we sat down to enjoy small macchiatos (maybe more correctly, ‘macchiati’). The coffees were enjoyable but not exceptional. However, the bill that arrived after we had drunk our tiny coffees was far from unexceptional. We were charged just under £13 (US $17.46, INR 1300, or EUROS 15.25) for our two hot drinks. Just in case you are not familiar with the London café scene, today, November 2021, two macchiatos usually cost between £4 and £6.

Lancashire Court is a network of lanes and courtyards located behind the buildings on the southwest corner of the intersection of New Bond Street and Brook Street. It was once a part of London, the Conduit Mead Estate (www.ianvisits.co.uk/blog/2021/07/05/londons-alleys-lancashire-court-w1/, an informative web page), that followed the course of an old water conduit that ran through the area in a north/south direction (for a map of the district, see: www.bl.uk/onlinegallery/onlineex/crace/t/largeimage88092.html). From the 1730s until the 1970s, the buildings in Lancashire Court included many workshops, warehouses, and builder’s yards. In 1987, there was a plan to demolish the network of alleys and replace it with a new shopping complex, but this never materialised. Now, the old businesses have been replaced by ‘chic’ establishments including the place where we enjoyed our exorbitantly priced coffees.

Returning to Brook Street, the short section lying between the two entrances to Lancashire Court has two neighbouring houses, numbers 23 and 25, which have importance in the history of music in London. The composer of well-known works such as “The Messiah” and “The Water Music”, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), moved into what is now number 23 in the summer of 1723, and lived there until his death (https://handelhendrix.org/plan-your-visit/whats-here/handel-house/). In Handel’s time, Brook Street was known as ‘Lower Brook Street’. Handel’s home included a Music Room in which as many as 40 people would be accommodated to perform and listen to Handel’s latest creations.

In 1968, 209 years after Handel died, another musician moved into number 25, the house next door to number 23 Brook Street. Like Handel, the occupant of number 25 was a musical innovator. His name was Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970). According to a useful website (https://handelhendrix.org/plan-your-visit/whats-here/hendrix-flat/):

“The flat on the upper floors of 23 Brook Street was found by Jimi’s girlfriend Kathy Etchingham from an advert in one of the London evening newspapers in June 1968 while he was in New York. He moved in briefly in July before returning to the United States for an extensive tour. He spent some time decorating the flat to his own taste, including purchasing curtains and cushions from the nearby John Lewis department store, as well as ornaments and knickknacks from Portobello Road market and elsewhere. He told Kathy that this was ‘my first real home of my own’.

He returned to Brook Street in January 1969 and almost immediately launched into an exhaustive series of press and media interviews and photo shoots in the flat. On 4 January he made his infamous appearance on the BBC Happening for Lulu TV show, and gave his two Royal Albert Hall concerts in February. In March he was back in New York again and although Kathy remained at Brook Street for a while longer Jimi did not live there again.”

After Hendrix’s girlfriend left the flat, it was used as office space. In 2000, it was taken over by the Handel House Trust. By 2016, both Handel’s House and Hendrix’s flat became open to the public as a museum, which I have yet to visit. Sadly, since the onset of the covid19, the museum, now known as ‘Handel and Hendrix in London’ is only open occasionally and will open fully in March 2023.

The westernmost of the two Brook Street entrances to Lancashire Court is lined with an attractive mural made from ceramic tiles. Created in 2001 by Michael Czerwiǹski (with Ray Howell), it celebrates Handel’s residence in Brook Street. Amongst the many works he composed whilst living there, here is a very small selection of them: the opera “Rodelinda”; “The Messiah” and “Semele”; and “Music for the Royal Fireworks”.

Each of the two musicians of Brook Street did much to change the course of musical history. I wonder what each would have thought of the other, and which of them has the most listeners today. Whatever the answers, their names will live on in people’s minds far longer than that of both the place where we had costly coffee and the currently trendy Victoria Secret high-end but low-cut lingerie store.

Singing and socialism in an Essex town

THAXTED IS A PICTURESQUE small town in Essex, about six and a half miles northeast of Stansted Airport. Apart from its numerous quaint old buildings, the town has three notable landmarks: an old windmill, a 15th century guildhall, and a large parish church, which was built between 1340 and 1510 during the time when Thaxted was an important centre for the manufacturing cutlery. Also, Thaxted is home to an annual music festival, whose existence derives from the discovery of the town by a composer, Gustav Holst (1874-1934), creator of “The Planets” and many other musical compositions, who was on a walking tour in Essex during the winter of 1913.

Gustav Holst in Thaxted

Holst, who was born in Cheltenham, was living in London by 1913 and teaching music at St Pauls School for Girls in Hammersmith, James Allen’s Girls School in Dulwich, and Morley College for adults in Lambeth. At the same time, he was busy composing.

Holst had come to study at The Royal College of Music in London in 1893. Soon after arriving in London, he became acquainted with William Morris (1834-1896) and attended meetings at the latter’s house in Hammersmith, where he would have heard lectures on socialism given by George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) and others. Holst joined the Hammersmith Socialist Society (‘HSS’), which was led by Morris. Many of the socialists he met including Shaw were vegetarians, as was the composer Wagner, whom Holst greatly admired. As a student and a regular attender of meetings of the HSS, he became a vegetarian and at the same time developed a great interest in Hinduism (www.ivu.org/people/music/holst.html). He began studying Sanskrit at The School of Oriental and African Studies (https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-music/articles/holst-and-india) and several of his compositions bear Indian-sounding titles, such as “Savitri” and another opera called “Sita”, and songs based on the Rig Veda.

According to Nalini Ghuman:

“In contrast to the vague musical orientalism in vogue during the height of the British Empire, Holst’s hymns, with their bona fide Indian texts, subjects, and musical elements, have often seemed decidedly ‘un-Indian’ to the uninformed ear: ‘Sound firm impressions of the East from a sane Western perspective’ declared The Musical Times; ‘They do not suggest a point further East than Leicester-square’ (Daily Telegraph); after all, explained the Manchester Guardian ‘many real Eastern musical ideas are frankly ugly and uninteresting’. Their Indian musical roots have long been denied by the composer’s biographers.” (https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-music/articles/holst-and-india).

However, Ghuman points out in her article that Holst did incorporate elements of Indian music, including emulating Vedic chanting and a South Indian mode, the namanarayani. You would need to be a serious musician with specialist interest in Indian music to be aware of these features whilst listening to Holst’s Indian inspired compositions.

Returning to his political leanings, major biographies of Holst tend not to focus much on his connections with socialism, but an informative article, “Gustav HoIst, William Morris and the Socialist Movement” by Andrew Heywood (Journal of the William Morris Society, vol 11, no. 4: 1996), shows that his involvement was far from inconsiderable. In addition to attending meetings of the HSS, Holst conducted its socialist choir, played the harmonium on the ‘official socialist’ cart, and was involved in the administration of the society. Heywood wrote that:

“In the light of his clear commitment to the socialist movement through 1896 it would seem likely that his involvement with the musical activity of the society did not stem from a lack of political commitment; rather it was an opportunity to serve the movement in a way which utilised his musical talents and interest.”

It was through the HSS that Gustav met his wife Isobel, who not only sang in the socialist choir but also, according to Heywood, was politically active in the society.

So, it was with a background of involvement with socialism that Holst walked into Thaxted in late 1913 and took such a great liking to the place that he rented a 17th century cottage there (actually, in Monk Street, 1 ½ miles from Thaxted) from its owner, the Jewish author Samuel Levy Bensusan (1872-1958). Thus began Holst’s several year’s association with the town. It was not long before he made the acquaintance of Thaxted’s vicar, Conrad le Despenser Roden Noel (1869-1942). After the cottage in Monk Street burnt down, Holst and his family lived in a house, The Manse (formerly known as ‘The Steps’), in the centre of Thaxted. Today, this is marked by a commemorative plaque.

Noel was not a run-of-the-mill country cleric. He was a Christian Socialist and a member of Social Democratic Federation, a founder member of the British Socialist Party, and for some time the Chairman of the Anti-Imperialist League, supporting the struggle for independence both in Ireland and India. Deeply committed to Christian socialism, social justice, and egalitarianism, Noel made sure that what went on in his parish church promoted these ideals. Noel’s biographer, Reg Groves, wrote that Conrad:

“…emphasised always that there was much more to making a new society than the acquisition of political power and the transfer of some property from the rich to the state, from one set of rulers to another. In this as in so many things, he was at one with the wisest of English socialists, William Morris, and much of what Morris said in prose and poetry and in the work of his hand, Noel tried to say in the group life he had developed at Thaxted”.

Noel and Holst shared socialist sympathies and more.

During Holst’s sojourn’s in Thaxted in between his heavy teaching and other musical commitments, he attended services led by Noel. It was after one of these held at Whitsun in 1915, that Holst, having heard the great potential of singers in the church, approached Noel and offered to give the choir the benefit of his professional skills as a trainer of vocalists. Noel, recognizing the splendid opportunity, soon had Holst become his church’s ‘master of music.’

Heywood explains that Holst’s:

“…first job was to train the choir for the church. Its members were drawn from the local population, and they achieved high standards with Holst. One member, Lily Harvey from the local sweet factory, was sent to London for professional training because of her exceptional vocal talents. In addition to his activities with the choir and playing the organ, Holst organised three major music festivals in Thaxted between 1916 and 1918.”

Lily was not the only person sent to London for musical training. The then young curate Jack Putterill, who was politically turbulent and played the organ, became one of Holst’s students at Morley College. Jack, who married Noel’s daughter, succeeded Noel as Vicar in 1942.

The festivals organised by Holst involved not only performers from Thaxted but also some of his students from Morley College and St Pauls as well as other musicians from outside the town. Each festival lasted several days, on each of which there were many hours of music making, both rehearsed concert pieces and much spontaneous music.

Holst not only helped make music in Thaxted but also composed there. The plaque on the The Manse, where he lived, is positioned on the outside of the wall of the room in which he composed. While living at Monk Street, he composed much of what was to become the well-known piece, “The Planets”. The “Jupiter” section of “The Planets” contains a tune or theme that Holst named “Thaxted” (you can listen to this familiar tune here: https://youtu.be/GdTpBSg7_8E). In 1921, “Thaxted” was used as the tune for the patriotic song “I vow to Thee, My Country”, whose words were written by the British diplomat Cecil Spring Rice (1859-1918). Holst also composed pieces specially for Thaxted and its people. These works include a special version of Byrd’s “Mass for Three Voices”, “Three Hymns for Thaxted” (later known as “Three Festival Choruses”), and a setting of the Cornish carol “Tomorrow shall be My Dancing Day” (hear it on https://youtu.be/Cz_0j__FDuc).

Although the last festival in Thaxted with which Holst was intimately involved was in 1918, he never lost touch with music making in the town, even after he moved from it to nearby Little Easton in 1925. Holst’s pupil Jack Putterill, an accomplished musician who was Thaxted’s assistant curate from 1925 to 1937 and its vicar from 1942 until 1973, helped keep the town’s musical life alive and vibrant. In the 1950s and 1960s, concerts with great orchestras such as The London Philharmonic and audiences in excess of 1000 were held in the parish church. In 1974, the hundredth anniversary of Holst’s birth, the first of what was eventually to become an annual music festival was held in Thaxted. By the 1980s, the Thaxted Festival had become a regular and respected part of the British musical calendar (www.thaxtedfestival.co.uk/).

Apart from the Festival and the house with the plaque in Thaxted, most souvenirs of Holst’s time in the town can be found within the cathedral-like parish church, which, incidentally, was once a candidate for becoming Essex’s cathedral (this honour was granted to the parish church in the centre of much larger Chelmsford). The church in Thaxted contains a photograph of Holst with singers and musicians at the Whitsuntide Festival held in 1916. Near this, there is some calligraphy with the words of “Tomorrow shall be My Dancing Day”. The church’s Lincoln organ built in 1821 by Henry Cephas Lincoln (who worked between c1810 and c1855) was played by Gustav Holst and has been recently restored. Not far from the organ is a cloth banner, sewn by Conrad Noel’s wife, which was used in the 1917 Whitsuntide Festival. It bears the words “The aim of music is the glory of God and pleasant recreation”. These words were written by the composer JS Bach (1685-1750) and were chosen for use on the banner by Holst. Near this banner, there is a bust of Holst’s friend and collaborator, Conrad Noel.

Both Holst and his student Putterill fell in love with Thaxted at first sight and were so strongly drawn to it that the town came to occupy important places in their hearts and minds. We first visited Thaxted in the early summer of 2020 soon after covid19 restrictions began to be relaxed sufficiently to permit travelling out of one’s immediate neighbourhood. Like Holst and Putterill, Thaxted made a special impression on us, so much so that we have visited it at least twice since our first encounter with it. Next year, we hope to be able to attend concert(s) at the Thaxted Festival inside a church that we have grown to love.       

Russian music with an Albanian conductor in a London church

THE ALBANIAN CONDUCTOR Olsi Qinami, who began studying music in Tirana (Albania), lives in London. He certainly knows how to get the best out of the orchestra he helped to found, the London City Philharmonic. On Saturday the 2nd of October 2021 he conducted the orchestra in a wonderful concert of music by three Russian composers, two of them from the 19th century and the other from the 20th. The musicians performed to a large and enthusiastic audience in the church of St James in Sussex Gardens, Paddington. Many of those present were Albanian speakers and amongst them the Albanian ambassador, Qirjako Qirko.

Olsi Qinami

The church, a fine example of Victorian gothic, was built to satisfy the spiritual requirements of the rapidly growing population of 19th century Paddington. Designed by George Edmund Street (1824-1881), the building was completed in 1882 on the site of an earlier, smaller church that was built in the neo-classical style in about 1841. Apart from being a highly successful example of gothic revival, the church is notable for having been that in which the unjustly vilified writer Oscar Wilde married Constance Lloyd in 1884. Despite being a large, spacious building, the church’s acoustics coped well with the orchestral music.

The concert opened with a spirited rendering of the “Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor” by Alexander Borodin. This piece holds a special place in my heart, as I will now explain. In the late 1950s, my parents bought or were gifted an LP entitled “Classical Music For People Who Don’t Know Anything About Classical Music”, which I played often in my childhood. Its cover has a sketch of four people in the living room of a very modern looking house, even by today’s standards. A lady, looking pleased with herself or the music or both, stands next to a gramophone player clutching a record cover (sleeve). Behind her, three people are seated in armchairs: one looks puzzled; another looks a bit bored; and the third has fallen asleep with a drinking glass resting on his armrest. One of the tracks on this LP was the “Polovtsian Dances”.

Borodin’s piece was followed by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky’s “Romeo and Juliet Overture”, with which I am less familiar than the “Polovtsian Dances”. Although this brief piece was nicely performed, it is unlikely to enter my list of favourite works by this composer in the near future.

After the interval, we were treated to an exciting and brilliantly performed rendering of the 5th Symphony by Dmitri Shostakovich. Olsi Qinami and the orchestra handled the constant alternation of the composer’s triumphant sounding sections of the symphony with its comparatively peaceful, lyrical sections with exquisite mastery.

Shostakovitch completed his 5th Symphony in 1937, soon after having been heavily criticised by Stalin for his opera “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, first performed in 1934. Had the Fifth Symphony not been so well received and liked by Stalin, the composer’s future might have become exceedingly grim. As Olsi Qinami pointed out in a brief speech before conducting the symphony, the piece, which was praised by the authorities, contains subtle musical messages expressing the composer’s criticism of the ruling regime. Whether or not one was able to detect these messages did not matter because the performance we heard was exciting, uplifting, and invigorating. In the last minutes of the symphony, I noticed one of the violinists breaking into a wonderful smile, no doubt because she and the rest of the orchestra had so successfully mastered this complex and difficult piece of music.

An odd thought occurred to me whilst listening to the Shostakovich piece. It was composed in 1937, when life for ordinary people in the USSR cannot have been at all easy. Although the situation here in the UK in 2021 is hardly comparable to that distant time in Russia, we are also going through times far more difficult than anyone has experienced since WW2, what with the covid 19 pandemic, Brexit-related problems, and shortages in shops and filling stations. It must have been a source of great solace for Soviet citizens to escape from their daily problems, if only for a few hours, by joining an audience at a concert of fine classical music. Well, that is how Olsi’s joyous concert felt for me as soon as he lifted his baton, and the orchestra began to play.

The remarkable marquis

WE WERE FORTUNATE that we met a lady who unlocked (specially for us) the parish church of Saint John the Baptist with Our Lady and Saint Laurence in Thaxted, Essex. It was during our recent visit to the town in April 2021, when many churches tended to be kept closed most of the time. We were even luckier because this kind lady spent time with us, showing us the many interesting features within the building. Amongst these she pointed out: a cupboard colourfully painted with an Italian baroque design; an unusual lectern, also richly coloured; a decorative corona suspended from the ceiling of a southern aisle, and another above a figure next to the high altar. She told us that all these objects were made by the Marquis d’Oisy (1880-1959), who used to live in a cottage near Thaxted, an interesting man. My curiosity about the Marquis was aroused and after returning home, I looked for something about him on the Internet and found an informative article about the fellow, written by Julian Litten and published in “Saffron Walden Historical Journal”, issue number 24, Autumn 2012. Mr Litten has also recently published a book about the Marquis, which I have not yet seen.

A painted corona by the Marquis d’Oisy in Thaxted Church

The 37-year-old Marquis arrived in Essex in the summer of 1917. He settled in Plegdon Green, which is close to the present Stansted Airport and just over 4 miles south west of Thaxted. He lived out the rest of his life in Plegdon. He called himself ‘Amand Edouard Ambroise Marie Lowis Etienne Phillipe d’Sant Andre Tournay, Marquis d’Oisy’, and claimed to have been born in Rio de Janeiro. However, the so-called Marquis was neither an aristocrat nor born in South America.

It is most likely that the Marquis was born in Bath (England). Julian Litten’s research suggests that most likely the Marquis was born ‘Ambrose E Merchant’ the son of Ambrose C Merchant, a gasfitter, and his wife Alice Merchant (née Thomas) in Bath. When he grew up, the Marquis often used the name ‘Ambrose Thomas’.  

By 1901, Ambrose Thomas (aka the Marquis) was living at Caldey Priory (near Tenby in Wales) where he was a Benedictine Monk. In 1902, he left the Order and most probably worked as a navvy, digging the Northern Line tunnels for the Underground Electric Railways Company of London. He did not keep this job for long.  Until 1915, when he was working for a church furnishers’ company, Louis Grossé, as a vestment maker at St Saviours Church in London’s Hoxton, his life remains a mystery. It is not impossible that he spent some of the time learning the artistic skills that he was employ later in life.

The cottage that the Marquis moved into in 1917 was part of the estate at Plegdon owned by the silent-film screen actress Irene Rook, whom he could possibly have met if, as Litten suggested, he might have had some employment designing or manufacturing theatrical sets for films. By then, the Marquis was producing decorative wares such as the things he made, which we admired in the church in Thaxted. Litten suggested that Ambrose Thomas might have adopted the seemingly posh name Marquis d’Oisy whilst working at Louis Grossé but cannot be certain of this.

During WW1, there was a shortage of work for the Grossé company. This was probably the reason that the Marquis left in 1917 and came to live rent-free in Irene Rook’s cottage. It is likely that Irene Rook had bought things made by the Marquis and felt sorry for him when he faced unemployment in 1917. On arrival in Plegdon, Litten noted:

“At first, the locals were afeared of him, some even taking him to be a spy, attributing his exotic apparel of long cloak and floppy-brimmed hat as being more French than English. With money being in very short supply, he kept a cow tethered on the green for the sake of its milk, as well as a goat, and he grew edible flowers, fruits and herbs to keep the cost of his groceries down. He also kept two elegant greyhounds, and always slept in the open, whatever the weather, on the first-floor balcony of his cottage. Now that in itself points towards the probability of him having TB.”

Few of those who knew him well after he moved to Essex found it easy to believe that Ambrose was truly aristocratic. The film director Basil Dean (1888-1978), who lived near him, wrote of the Marquis:

“Lady Warwick used to say he came not from any foreign land but from the East End of London. He was a strange creature altogether, very tall and thin, emaciated almost, with a squeaky voice and a chin beard; and obvious homosexual … artist-antiquarian, vegetarian, and decorator – extraordinary of cottage replacements of period furniture to Lady Warwick. We owed to him much of our knowledge of Little Easton Manor’s history, all of our discovery of its foundations, and enthusiastic guidance along the path of its restoration. A passionate student of peasant ways – a folk-artist, you might say …”

The Marquis worked with Conrad Noel (1869-1942), the left-wing vicar of Thaxted (between 1910 and his death), known as the ‘Red Vicar’, about whom I will write in the near future. In 1923, he began making some of the objects that we saw in the church, beginning with the vestment cupboard he decorated with the Italianate motifs. Noel helped the Marquis by commissioning him to paint and/or create the following items as listed by Litten:

“…the lectern, the niche and statue of St Lawrence, the decorative carving on the reredos in the Becket Chapel, and commissioning two painted pewter coronas for the Lady Chapel and one for the statue of Our Lady as well as a band of identical cresting for the High Altar …”

We were shown some of these items by the lady who kindly let us enter the spacious, light-filled Perpendicular-style church, which was mostly built between the 14th and 16th centuries.

As well as his work at Thaxted church, the Marquis did extensive restoration work at Basil Dean’s Little Easton Manor and organised many folkloric pageants both in Essex and in London. Notable amongst the pageants was one organised near Thaxted in 1926 to raise money for the English Folk Dance Society who were trying to build their London headquarters in what was to become Cecil Sharp House (in London’s Regents Park Road). Music for this occasion was provided by the wife of the composer Gustav Holst, herself a composer, Imogen Holst (1907-1984). Gustav had strong associations with Thaxted and Conrad Noel, about which I plan to write. The largest event, arranged by the Marquis, was held at Hatfield House in 1936. With a cast of 600 and lasting 3 hours, the Marquis designed the costumes. The composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was amongst the audience. In addition to these activities, the Marquis created painted furniture for Heals in London and Sayles in Cambridge.

Irene Rook died in 1958 and left the cottage at Plegdon to the Marquis, who was by then a very far from wealthy man. Desperately short of money, he sold the cottage for a pittance in January 1959. Suffering from prostate cancer, he was put up by his former man servant Bernard Keel in his cottage at Takely, just south of the present Stansted Airport. He died in December 1959.

I have attempted to summarise what is known about the Marquis but omitted many of the fascinating details about this remarkable man’s life, which has been well-researched by Julian Litten, whose book “The Mystery of Marquis D’oisy” was published in late 2015. Had it not been for the superb tour given us by the kind lady who admitted us to the church in Thaxted, we would have most probably remained completely ignorant of the marvellous Marquis.

Pets and musical instruments in north London

CLAVICHORDS, HARPSICHICHORDS, VIRGINALS, and other historical musical instruments can be viewed whilst walking through the rooms of Fenton House in Hampstead. When I first visited the house in the second half of the 1960s, anyone could touch the keyboards of these antique instruments even if they had not the faintest idea how to play them. Some visitors with musical skills used to play music on them. Nowadays, visitors are not permitted to touch the instruments without special permission from the management of this house maintained by the National Trust.

Built in about 1693 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1378648), Fenton House is named after Philip Robertson Fenton, a wealthy Riga merchant who exported goods to the UK. He bought it in 1793. Prior to getting its current name Fenton House was known as Ostend, then Clock House. Members of the Fenton family lived there until about 1835. Later residents included a Mrs Selwyn, and, according to Baratt, a historian of Hampstead, also:

“…Mr. Vaughan Davis; Thomas Turner, Treasurer of Guy’s Hospital and the Hon. Mrs. Margaret Murray, afterwards Baroness Gray in her own right, and great-aunt of the sixth Lord Mansfield. Lady Abercrombie also resided in this mansion for a time. Both Baroness Gray and Lady Abercrombie had been ladies-in-waiting to Queen Victoria, and her Majesty visited them on different occasions at Fenton House.”

Lady Binning, widow of Brigadier-General George Baillie-Hamilton (1856-1917), whom she married in 1892, bequeathed Fenton House to the National Trust in 1952, the year of her death.

The musical instruments within the house were collected by Major George Henry Benton Fletcher (1866-1944), who had a varied career including social work; archaeology; art and book illustrating; and soldiering. His collection of keyboard instruments was housed in various locations including Old Devonshire House in Holborn, where he lived until it was destroyed by the Luftwaffe in 1941. Fortunately, his collection of musical instruments was saved because he had evacuated them to Gloucestershire earlier. In 1937, he had donated his house and the collection to the National Trust on the condition that he could live there for the rest of his life. His collection of musical instruments was moved to Fenton House in 1952.

At present (April 2021), visitors cannot enter the house, but are able to see the small but lovely gardens. The rear gardens are on two levels, the lower of these includes a small orchard. The upper level is a lawn surrounded by flower beds. At one end of the lawn, there is a sculpture of a standing figure holding a long, slender staff in his right hand and dressed in what looks like 18th century attire.

In one of the flowerbeds, I noticed three small carved stones that look like small tombstones. Two of these have become almost submerged in the soil. The third has the following carved on it:
“ BE??? 1933-1944”, the question marks being letters that were too indistinct to read. The stones reminded me of the small gravestones that I have seen in the pet cemetery on the edge of London’s Hyde Park. The volunteers working at the house confirmed that these stones mark burial sites of pets, who resided at Fenton House. The stone with a visible inscription most probably commemorates a pet owned by Lady Katharine Binning (née Salting), who bought the house in 1936 (https://alondoninheritance.com/london-buildings/fenton-house-hampstead/). As for the other two stones, without digging them up, which would not find favour with the National Trust, we cannot know when they were placed, or by whom. As they are the same design and material as the one inscribed stone, maybe it would be safe to guess that they mark the burial places of other pets owned by Lady Binning.

I look forward to entering Fenton House when covid19 regulations are relaxed in the future. From what I remember of earlier visits, its rooms are filled with interesting exhibits in addition to the lovely old musical instruments.

Music by the River Thames

A ROW OF HOUSEBOATS is moored alongside the bank of the River Thames that runs past Cheyne Walk in London’s Chelsea. The floating dwellings are faced by Lindsey House, one of the oldest buildings in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Built in 1674 by Robert Bertie, 3rd Earl of Lindsey (1630-1701) on land that was once part of Thomas More’s riverside garden, it was remodelled by Count Nicolaus Zinzendorf (1700-1760) for London’s Moravian community in 1750. Five years later, the edifice was divided into separate dwellings. Today, they are numbered 96 to 101 Cheyne Walk. The American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) lived in number 96, and the engineers Sir Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849) and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) lived in number 98. My friends Kit and Sheridan lived in a ground floor flat in number 100.

Lindsey House, Chelsea, London

I first met Kit and Sheridan during one of our annual family holidays to Venice. Kit, who was a colleague of my father at the London School of Economics, and her husband Sheridan used to stay in the Pensione Seguso that was next door to the Pensione La Calcina, where John Ruskin (1819-1900) once stayed, and we always stayed in Venice. During one of our holidays when we stopped on the Fondamente Zattere to talk with Kit and Sheridan in Venice, they asked me whether I liked classical music. When I told them that I did, they said that they would invite me to their musical evenings held some Saturdays in their home. I attended quite a few of these during the second half of the 1960s.

On arrival at 100 Cheyne Walk, Kit used to welcome the guests by offering us coloured sugar-coated almonds, which she described as ‘stones of Venice’, an illusion to Ruskin’s book about Venice (“The Stones of Venice”), where the almonds had been purchased. After discarding coats, all of the guests, twenty to thirty in number, had to find somewhere to sit in the large, low-ceilinged living room. I was always directed by Kit to the same seat. She used to want me to sit next to the telephone. She always told me:

“If it rings during the music, dear, lift the receiver and say: ‘Sorry, we are having a party. Please ring again tomorrow’”

It never did ring, but I used to sit nervously in anticipation of having to perform my important duty.

Sheridan was a fine ‘cellist, who knew many professional musicians, all of them quite famous. He used to invite several musicians, anything from two to four, to perform a couple of chamber works with him. Kit knew what was to be performed at each soirée, but the invited musicians were not told until they arrived (at the same time as the audience). Without prior rehearsal, Kit and his musical guests performed chamber works, often by Brahms and Beethoven, beautifully and, except for Sheridan, from ‘scratch’. The acoustics of the 17th (or 18th) century living room were perfect for the music performed. These wonderful evenings engendered my enduring love of the chamber music of Brahms. During the music, Kit sat a few feet away from Sheridan on his right. Her eyes never wandered from him and she always smiled sweetly as he played. Whenever we saw them in Venice, they were always walking hand-in-hand like two lovers.

I believe that Kit and Sheridan married late in life. Sheridan told me once that he was pleased when he married, because as a married man he was able to perform a service, for which only married people were eligible at the time. He was at last able to become a marriage guidance counsellor.

Sheridan told me once that there was a lot of planning before putting on each musical evening. He ensured that none of his guest musicians ever played the same piece together more than once. Also, he tried to make sure that nobody in the audience ever heard the same combinations of pieces more than once. He did this by recording who had played what and who had heard what in a set of notebooks.

Two works were played at each soirée. During the interval, everyone stood up, many relieved to get off the not always comfortable seating provided. Kit served glasses of red wine and crackers with pieces of cheese that contained cumin seeds. Every soirée, the same refreshments were provided. 

A few of the musicians that I can remember hearing playing with Sheridan included the violinist Maria Lidka (1914-2013) and her son, a ‘cellist; individual players from the Amadeus Quartet; and once the pianist Louis Kentner (1905-1987). At the end of the evening when Kentner had played, Kit asked him to give me a lift part of the way back to north west London. He agreed, but as we drove together, I had a distinct feeling that this famous pianist was not at all keen about giving me a lift and said not a word to me during the short journey.

As Sheridan grew older, he became increasingly frail and began looking gaunt. During the last few concerts I attended, I noticed that he covered his hands with woollen fingerless gloves. Maybe, he had a circulation problem. Sheridan died in 1991. Kit lived on another seven years. I believe that the last time I spoke to her was just after I married in late 1993, but she showed little interest in my news. 

Whereas back in the 1960s, when I used to attend the musical evenings at Lindsey House, one could walk from the street to the front door, today this is impossible without being able to unlock a gate leading into the grounds of the house. Currently owned by the National Trust and rented to tenants, Lindsey House is rarely opened to the public. Fortunately, we did once manage to attend one of these openings, but all seemed to have changed since I last listened to chamber music being played close to the river.