A hill of memories

PRIMROSE HILL IN NORTH LONDON is a delightful place to take exercise. From its summit at 210 feet above sea-level, it is possible to enjoy a superb panorama of London if the weather permits. At its summit, a low concrete construction is inscribed with the words the poet William Blake (1757-1827) told the lawyer, diarist, and a founder of University College London, Henry Crabb Robinson (1775-1867):

“I have conversed with the spiritual Sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill”

In one of his poems, Blake wrote:

“The fields from Islington to Marybone,

To Primrose Hill and Saint John’s Wood,

Were builded over with pillars of gold,

And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.”

On a recent visit to Primrose Hill in January 2021, when the temperature was at the freezing point of water and London was covered by low cloud, we had no sight of the sun, spiritual or otherwise. Nevertheless, we had an enjoyable stroll that evoked many memories. One of these was when I studied at University College London. If I felt energetic, I used to walk the five or so miles to college from my home in Hampstead Garden Suburb. Part of my route was up and over Primrose Hill.

The gardens on the south side of Elsworthy Road back on to the northern base of the hill. It was on this road that my parents, newly married in 1948, lived briefly in a flat that they rented from the economist Ronald Coase (1910-2013). My mother told me that amongst the furniture in the flat there was a record player with a gigantic horn as its speaker. 46 years later, my father and my stepmother bought a house on the road. He lived there until he died last year.

Elsworthy Terrace, a cul-de-sac, leads from Elsworthy Road to Primrose Hill. The botanist and first female botanist to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, Agnes (née Robertson) Arber (1879-1960), lived at number 9 between 1890 and 1909, when she married the paleobotanist Edward Alexander Newell Arber (1870–1918). The Terrace leads to one of the many footpaths that form a crisscrossing network all over the grassy hill that has well-spaced trees of varying shapes and sizes. Plenty of these were covered with frost. Many of the paths meet at the treeless summit of the hill where, if you are lucky with the weather, you can enjoy a good view.

Primrose Hill, first opened to the public in 1842, was part of land appropriated for hunting by King Henry VIII. The earliest mention of its name was in the 15th century. In October 1678, the body of the anti-Catholic magistrate Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey (1621-1678) was found on Primrose Hill, marked with signs of strangulation and other bruises. The identity of his killer(s) remains a mystery. The hill was also the site of duels including one in about 1813 when the Italian patriot Ugo Foscolo (1778-1827) faced Mr Graham, the editor of the “Literary Museum”. The dispute that led to this was about his ‘Three Graces’:

“The Three Graces were his maidservants; two of them turned out to be prostitutes, and one of them ran off with his former translator. This led to a duel, whether in Regent’s Park or Primrose Hill is not clear; fortunately no blood was shed.” (www.regentsparklit.org.uk/authors_e_i.htm#Foscolo)

The southern edge of the hill is bounded by the Regents Canal, designed by John Nash (1752-1835), first used in about1816. We walked eastwards along the towpath from the elegant bridge number 10 to the point where the canal makes a right angle and heads under the Water Meeting road bridge and towards Camden Lock. This stretch of the canal has the London Zoo on both of its banks. On the north side of the canal, we passed the aviary designed by Lord Snowdon in 1964. One of Snowdon’s collaborators was Frank Newby, who was a colleague of my uncle Sven Rindl, a structural engineer at the Felix Samuely company.  On the opposite bank we passed the Giraffe House and the wild hunting dog’s enclosure, where we spotted several of these beasts prowling about. Moored at the corner where the canal changes direction, you cannot miss seeing an old-fashioned boat that looks as if it has sailed from China. This houses the ‘Feng Shang Princess’ floating Chinese restaurant, which was already built by the 1980s.

The Victorian gothic St Marks Church is flanked on two sides by the canal and on another by a short street, St Marks Square. The church, which is not particularly attractive, was consecrated in 1853, damaged during WW2, and rebuilt by 1957.  The northern edge of the church’s ground is on the southern side of Regents Park Road.

Heading west away from the church, we reach number 52 Regents Park Road. It was here that four of my good friends including the author and art historian Michael Jacobs (1952-2014) lived as ‘house-sitters’ for its then owner Rudi ‘G’ during the 1970s. The road flanks the north-eastern edge of Primrose Hill before curving eastwards and becoming an upmarket shopping street.

Since 1979, a Greek restaurant called Lemonia has been flourishing in Regents Park Road. Originally, this was housed in premises on the east side of Regents Park Road. Then, it moved to larger premises across the road in 1992. For a while, its original premises, remained part of the restaurant but renamed ‘Limonaki’. This has disappeared. The lady, who has become my wife, lived for a few months during the spring of 1983 in an avant-garde dwelling in Eglon Mews, close to the shops in Regents Park Road. It was then that she ‘discovered’ Lemonia, which became one of our favourite restaurants for several years. We held a few birthday parties there. Much later, when my father came to Elsworthy Road, he and my Greek stepmother became keen users of this friendly eatery. Nearby, is the independent Primrose Hill Books shop, a handy source of reading matter for the many local inhabitants with intellectual leanings, real or imagined.

These long-established businesses are in the midst of a good range of shops, offering a wide variety of goods. as well as cafés and restaurants and a pub. I can heartily recommend taking some physical exercise on Primrose Hill before acquiring something to stretch your mind at the bookshop (sadly not open at the moment), and taking refreshment in a pleasant, faintly Bohemian but distinctly bourgeois environment.

An almost secret garden

ONE COULD EASILY MISS it whilst walking around the Inner Circle at London’s Regent’s Park. Had I not noticed a couple of people emerging from the discreet gap in a fence, I would have dismissed this as one of the numerous private entrances on the outer circumference of the Inner Circle. The gap in the fencing is near the northernmost point on the circular road. A small notice, framed by vegetation, within the gap in the fencing gives a short history of The Garden of St John’s Lodge. Follow the pathway away from the road, take a left turn and walk between two manicured hedges and then turn right, and you enter a lovely formal garden replete with a pond, several sculptures, and a lawn that gives a fine view of one side of St John’s Lodge. Brave the slippery mud and explore the various separate parts of this almost secret garden. You will not be disappointed.

St John’s Lodge was the first ‘villa’ to be built in Regent’s Park. Completed between 1817 and 1818 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1277478), it was designed by John Raffield (1749-1828), who had worked for the Adam brothers before setting up his own architectural practice. It was later modified and enlarged both by Decimus Burton and Charles Barry. The house was built for the politician Charles Augustus Tulk (1786-1849).  Subsequent owners of the private residence have included Lord Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington (1769-1852) who served in India; John Crichton-Stuart, 3rd Marquess of Bute (‘Bute’;1847-1900), whose heart was buried at The Mount of Olives in Jerusalem; and Baron Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid (1778-1859). It was Wellesley who employed Decimus Burton to enlarge the house in 1831-32.

Goldsmid was a philanthropist and one of the leading personalities in the emancipation of British Jews. He made his fortune as a partner in the bullion brokers firm of Mocatta & Goldsmid (founded as ‘Mocatta Bullion’ in 1684), brokers for both The Bank of England and The East India Company. It was due partly to Goldsmid that my alma-mater, University College (London), was able to come into existence. Albert Hyamson, author of “A History of the Jews in England” wrote that:

“University College, London … was established in 1826, largely by the efforts and through the munificence of Isaac Lyon Goldsmid …”

Goldsmid paid for the land on which the university was later built.

In connection with Jewish emancipation, the online Jewish Encyclopaedia (www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6765-goldsmid) writes of Goldsmid:

“The main effort of his life was made in the cause of Jewish emancipation. He was the first English Jew who took up the question, and he enlisted in its advocacy the leading Whig statesmen of the time. Soon after the passing of the Act of 1829, which removed the civil disabilities of the Roman Catholics, he secured the powerful aid of Lord Holland, the Marquis of Lansdowne, the Duke of Sussex, and other eminent members of the Liberal party, and then induced Robert Grant to introduce in the House of Commons a similar measure for the Jews. During more than two years from the time when Jewish emancipation was first debated in Parliament, Goldsmid gave little heed to his ordinary business, devoting himself almost exclusively to the advancement of the cause.”

In 1841, Goldsmid became the first Jewish person, who had not converted to Christianity, to become a Jewish baronet.  His son, Sir Francis Henry Goldsmid (1808-1878), worked with him for Jewish emancipation and was the first Jewish barrister in England, having been called to the Bar at Lincolns Inn.

Clearly, St John’s Lodge has had some noteworthy residents. Of these, it was Bute who commissioned the Scottish Arts and Crafts architect and landscape designer Robert Weir Schultz (1860-1951) create a garden “… fit for meditation”. Bute at St John’s Lodge, which he acquired in 1888, was one of Schultz’s first major clients (http://www.scottisharchitects.org.uk/architect_full.php?id=200199). Bute had taken an interest in Schultz’s studies, having financed his visit to the British School at Athens in the late 1880s. The garden was created in the early 1890s. It was refurbished and some of its original features restored in 1994, but it has been open to the public since 1928 (https://londongardenstrust.org/conservation/inventory/site-record/?ID=WST108).

Apart from its vegetation, the garden features sculptures, a pond, and a giant urn. The sculptures include “Goatherds daughter” by Charles L Hartwell (1873-1951); “Hylas and the Nymph” by Henry Pegram (1862-1937); an “Awakening” by Unus Safardiar (born 1968), commemorating Anne Lydia Evans (1929-99), a local medical practitioner. There are two stone piers, one on each side of a lawn, bordered by scalloped hedges,  leading up to the house. Each of these is topped with a stone cherub holding a fading painted stone shield, the coat-of-arms of Crichton-Stuart. These were made by William Goscombe John (1860-1952).

St John’s Lodge remained in private ownership until World War I, when it became a hospital for disabled officers and then became the HQ of St Dunstans (now known as ‘Blind Veterans UK’) with its workshops from 1921 to 1937. Then, it became the headquarters of the Institute of Archaeology from 1937 to 1959. In 1959 it was occupied by Bedford College (now ‘Regent’s University’).  It was vacated and since 1994, it has been leased for private residence to the Royal Family of Brunei.

Had I walked past the small passage leading off the Inner Circle,  I would have missed experiencing the almost hidden, delightful garden of St John’s Lodge, which is a building that has housed persons who have influenced the history of Britain significantly. We visited the garden in late December when few plants were in flower. We hope to return a few months later when not only the garden will be filled with blooms as will the nearby Queen Mary’s Rose Gardens within the Inner Circle.

Exhibitionism then and now

THE DIORAMA IN REGENTS Park is no more. However, the building on Park Square East (number 18), a protected edifice which housed it, still bears the word ‘Diorama’ prominently displayed. Designed by Morgan and Pugin, architects, and opened in 1823, this former London attraction, a mere 700 yards away from Madame Tussauds, a current attraction, was described in “Mogg’s New Picture of London and Visitor’s Guide to its Sights, 1844”

(quoted in www.victorianlondon.org/entertainment/diorama.htm) as follows:

“The Diorama, in Park Square, Regent’s Park, long an object of wonder and delight in Paris, was first opened in London, September 29, 1823. This is a very extraordinary and beautiful exhibition; it consists of two pictures that are alternately brought into view by a very ingenious mechanical contrivance; the interior resembling a theatre, consisting of one tier of boxes and a pit, being made to revolve upon a centre with the spectators, thus gradually withdraws one picture and introduces the other to the view. A judicious introduction of the light, and other contrivances, give increased effect to pictures beautifully painted, which, by a concentration of talent, completes an illusion that with perfect justice may be pronounced ‘the acme of art’.”

In 1844, the place was open from 10 am to 4 pm and the admission charge was steep for that era, two shillings (10p in today’s currency). The technology employed to create the show was invented by the Frenchmen Louis Daguerre (1757-1851), of photography fame, and Charles M Bouton (1781-1853). John Timbs in his “Curiosities of London” (published 1867) provided more details of the Diorama:

“The Diorama consisted of two pictures, eighty feet in length and forty feet in height, painted in solid and in transparency, arranged so as to exhibit changes of light and shade, and a variety of natural phenomena; the spectators being kept in comparative darkness, while the picture received a concentrated light from a ground-glass roof. The contrivance was partly optical, partly mechanical; and consisted in placing the pictures within the building so constructed, that the saloon containing the spectators revolved at intervals, and brought in succession the two distinct scenes into the field of view, without the necessity of the spectators removing from their seats; while the scenery itself remained stationary, and the light was distributed by transparent and movable blinds-some placed behind the picture, for intercepting and changing the colour of the rays of light, which passed through the semi-transparent parts. Similar blinds, above and in front of the picture were movable by cords, so as to distribute or direct the rays of light. The revolving motion given to the saloon was an arc of about 73º; and while the spectators were thus passing round, no person was permitted to go in or out. The revolution of the saloon was effected by means of a sector, or portion of a wheel, with teeth which worked in a series of wheels and pinions; one man, by turning a winch, moved the whole. The space between the saloon and each of the two pictures was occupied on either side by a partition, forming a kind of avenue, proportioned in width to the size of the picture. Without such a precaution, the eye of the spectator, being thirty or forty feet distant from the canvas, would, by anything intervening, have been estranged from the object.”

Although the Diorama was successful from a cultural viewpoint it was not commercially viable. By 1850, it had been sold. In 1852, the politician and engineer Sir Morton Peto (1809-1889) bought the building, and it was turned into a Baptist chapel (www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol5/pp262-286). More recently, its interior has been modernised and converted to be used for various purposes.

The former Diorama faces the south east corner of Regents Park, the English Garden, where once a year this area briefly becomes host to a contemporary cultural event: The Frieze Sculpture show. Various commercial galleries display works of art from their collections in the open air in this part of the public park. It is a show that we enjoy visiting and this year, 2020, was the third year running that we have attended.

This year, the show runs from the 5th to the 18th of October, a shorter time than in previous years because of the covid19 pandemic. Realistically, it could have been held for far longer given that it is in the open air and crowding is unlikely. The 2020 exhibition comprises 12 artworks selected by curator Clare Lilley (Director of Programme, Yorkshire Sculpture Park). The artists whose works can be seen are as follows: David Altmejd, Fabio Lattanzi Antinori, Gianpietro Carlesso, Eric Fischl, Patrick Goddard, Lubaina Himid, Kalliopi Lemos, Richard Long, Sarah Lucas, Gavin Turk, Rebecca Warren and Arne Quinze. Of these, I had heard of some of them and already seen some of their art.

Without attempting to describe the artworks, all of them were visually intriguing, well-executed, and most of them evoked light-hearted feelings to a greater or lesser extent. The visitors who were looking at them seemed to be enjoying what they were seeing. Both children and adults were having fun. A lot of selfies were being taken, especially next to the sculptures that featured free standing doorways by Lubaini Himid and another by Gavin Turk. Fabio Lattanzi Antinori’s “viewing room” also attracted many people. This simple electronic sculpture flashed up a series of ridiculous but amusing messages such as “Culture is £1.28” and “Raju is £0”, which together formed a curious critique of today’s cultural values. An artwork which was somewhat macabre and delightfully weird was a collection of latex rubber animal heads scattered around in the grass. Each head also incorporated a mirror. This collection, entitled “Humans-Animals-Monsters (2020)” was created by Patrick Goddard. So, when a viewer looks at one of the heads, he or she not only sees the animal or monster but also his or her own reflection.  One sculpture, which I liked but my wife and daughter did not, was a tower of twisted torn metal sheets created by Arne Quinze. One work, which I did not particularly like, but was popular with small children was a sculpture depicting an oversize sandwich, created by Sarah Lucas.  The other six artworks, although not insignificant visually, attracted me less than those I have just described.

In brief, although a far cry from the long-lost Diorama, the outdoor Frieze Sculpture show is great fun and worth visiting if you can. Interesting artworks are displayed in a lovely environment. Some of them seem in harmony with nature and others deliberately clash with it. I must confess that I have a great fondness for outdoor displays of sculpture. Maybe, this derives from my childhood when my mother used to create sculptural works and displayed some of them in the garden of our home in northwest London. Recently, apart from seeing the sculptures at Regents Park, I have enjoyed seeing artworks displayed outdoors at Salisbury Cathedral, Compton Verney House (in Warwickshire), and at Henry Moore’s former home near Much Hadham.

PS: If you cannot get to Regents Park, the exhibition is on-line for a while at: https://viewingroom.frieze.com/viewing-room/

See a short video made by me at the exhibition by clicking here:https://youtu.be/Hg1IfB4jR9U

A tingle down my spine

 

I enjoy exploring historical places. Well, I know that everywhere has a history, but what I mean is places which contain tangible remnants of their history like the Regency buildings designed by John Nash, built at the beginning of the 19th century around Regents Park in London. They were built when the future George IV was Regent.

Well, there is nothing surprising about these beautiful buildings. That is what I thought until my wife spotted the street lamp posts next to some of the buildings. Each of their bases has a symbol for King George IV. Seeing such mundane objects that must have been in daily use since so long ago sent a tingle down my spine.

The same thing happened to me once when I was driving along a ring road around Munich and I passed a direction sign pointing to Dachau.

Gift of a Parsi gentleman

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There is a decorative drinking fountain on the Broadwalk in London’s Regent’s Park. The fountain looks like a typical Victorian gothic structure, which it is. Closer examination reveals bas-relief panels that depict: a bull standing by a palm tree; a lion next to a palm tree; and the head of a man wearing an oriental hat. This fountain would not look out of place in Bombay, which is full of structural souvenirs of the Victorian era. This should not surprise you when you learn that the fountain was a gift of Sir Cowasjee Jehangir Readymoney (1812-78) from Bombay.

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Cowasjee, who was born in Bombay, received little education before becoming a warehouse clerk in Duncan, Gibb & Co. in that city. In 1837, he moved into a more lucrative job. Nine years later, he opened his own business. In 1866, he became a Commissioner of Income Tax in Bombay. Later he became a Justice of the Peace.

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Readymoney lived up to his name, becoming very wealthy. He invested huge amounts of money into a wide variety of good causes including social housing (similar to that erected by Peabody in the UK) in Bombay, The University of Bombay and an Indian Institute in London. A year after being made a member of the Order of the Star of India in 1871, he was made a Knight Bachelor of the UK. These honours were awarded to recognise his great philanthropic contributions.

FOUNT 5 Jehangir himself

The fountain in Regent’s Park, which no longer issues water, was erected in 1869, nine years before Readymoney’s death. His main residence was in Bombay’s Malabar Hill district.

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The tests of time and taste

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Is it fair to juxtapose works of modern or contemporary art with great masterpieces, which have stood the test of time?

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We were fortunate to have been given (by our daughter) complimentary tickets to the 2018 Frieze Masters exhibition held in Regents Park. It is part of a larger art fair, Frieze, held in London annually.

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The Frieze Masters show contains stalls set up by art dealers, displaying only works made no later than the year 2000 AD. I must admit that I was expecting to see works of art only made during the 19th and 20th centuries. To my great delight, the artworks on display were made anytime between ancient times (several centuries BC) and 2000 AD.

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Although the more recently made (i.e. 20th century) artworks are of the highest quality, they are often on display close to artworks made many centuries earlier. Some of the gallery stalls contain a mix of modern art and much older works. Placing some 20th century works (e.g. Calder) near to older classical works (e.g. Brueghel and Cranach) is not fair to the newer works.

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The older artworks, which have stood the test of time and satisfied the tastes of many generations of viewers, make the nearby contemporary works seem weak in comparison. This is not always the case. Some small sculptures by Barbara Hepworth seemed very comfortable next to their far more venerable neighbours. Also, to my surprise some ancient classical carvings stood harmoniously close to some abstract art works made in the second half of the 20th century.

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The older works of art on display have been treasured for many centuries. Probably, what we see today is the best of what was produced long ago. Even at the time when they were made, their excellence must have been obvious when seen beside other works, now lost and long-forgotten, which were created at the same time.

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I question how many of the more recent (19th and, especially, 20th century) works of art, which I saw at Frieze Masters, will still attract both interest and high prices in, say, fifty or a hundred years’ time. And, I also ask myself how many of the newer works will be able to evoke the feelings of aesthetic wonder that, say, a Brueghel or a Cycladic sculpture have been able to do for so many centuries.  

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