Worlds apart

SOME ‘POSHER’ JEWISH people in west London tended to live around Bayswater. These prosperous members of the Jewish community arrived in Bayswater in the 19th century as the district began to be urbanised. Many of them had drifted westwards from Bloomsbury and the City (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol9/pp264-265). This migration placed them at an inconvenient distance from the synagogues they had been used to attending. So, in 1863, Bayswater Synagogue (at corner of Chichester Place and Harrow Road) was consecrated. This new place of worship was a branch of both the of the Great Synagogue (in the City north of Aldgate) and the New Synagogue (originally near Leadenhall Street, and then later in Great St Helens Street). Like so many Jewish buildings in mainland Europe, this synagogue was destroyed by the forces of Nazi Germany, during WW2.

New West London Synagogue

In 1879, an offshoot of the now demolished Bayswater Synagogue was consecrated in St Petersburg Place, a short distance from the main road known as Bayswater. This, The New West End Synagogue, is now one of the oldest surviving functioning synagogues in Great Britain. At first sight, you might easily be mistaken for thinking that the huge red brick building with Victorian gothic architectural features, a rose window, and twin bell towers, is a church. And maybe that was the intention of the community that commissioned the building. Upwardly mobile Jewish people in Victorian England might well have preferred not to advertise their religious beliefs too much in a society that then had many prejudices against Judaism and other non-Christian religions. The synagogue in St Petersburg Place looks no more exotic or out of place than the Church of St Matthew a few yards north on the same street. In fact, it is another building to the north of these two and within sight of them that is unashamedly exotic in appearance, Aghia Sofia, the Greek Orthodox cathedral on Moscow Road, which was consecrated only three years after the synagogue.

The desire of some Jewish people to ‘meld’ seamlessly with British ‘high society’ was not confined to England. Amos Elon writes about this in his inciteful book about the ‘emancipation’ of Jews in Germany, “The Pity of it All”, and what a dreadful fate it led to.   It is my impression that amongst the few Jewish people, mostly of British and German origin, living in Victorian South Africa, there was the belief that economic and social advancement was not hindered by being somewhat discreet about their religious beliefs. This changed during the final few decades of the 19th century when many Jewish people began arriving from parts of the former Russian Empire, many from what is now Lithuania. Often much poorer than their co-religionists, who were already well-established in South Africa, they were far less reticent about expressing their religious beliefs and critical of the ‘established’ Anglo-German Jewish community, who had, in their eyes, become rather too lax about Jewish religious observance.

Returning to Bayswater and its mainly prosperous Jewish families, we can now travel less than a mile northwest to reach the northern end of Kensington Park Road, close to Portobello Road, in nearby Notting Hill, to reach the site of another, now disused, synagogue. This building, still standing but now repurposed, was not designed to mislead the onlooker into believing it was a church.  As was the case in South Africa during the last few decades of the Victorian era, large numbers of Jewish people began arriving in London from Eastern Europe, and many of them settled in the crowded East End. In 1902, A Jewish Dispersion Committee, set up by the (Jewish) banker and philanthropist Sir Samuel Montagu (1832-1911), tried to attract some of these new arrivals to settle in areas away from the East End, like Notting Hill (www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/middx/vol1/pp149-151).

The former Notting Hill Synagogue at numbers 206/208 Kensington Park Road was opened in 1900 (www.jewishgen.org/jcr-uk/london/notting_fed/Index.htm), a little ahead of the formation of the above-mentioned committee. Presumably, it was worth opening because there must have been sufficient Jewish presence in the neighbourhood. By 1905, it had 281 members and ten years later, there were 250.  Its ritual was Ashkenazi Orthodox, the same as that at the New West End Synagogue, but the congregants were less wealthy than those who attended the latter. Many of them were market stallholders or artisans, such as tailors and shoemakers (http://www.ladbrokeassociation.info/Churchesandotherreligiousbuildings.htm#Synagogue). They lived in what were at the beginning of the 20th century far less salubrious dwellings than many of those, who worshipped in St Peterburg Place. Although I do not know for certain, I doubt there was much socialising between the Jewish communities of Bayswater and Notting Hill.

The Notting Hill Synagogue was housed in a former church hall. Its memorial stone dated the 27th of January 1900 was laid by Sir Samuel Montagu.  Although it was a discreet building externally, its interior with galleries for the women and girls was elaborate and attractive as can be seen in old photographs (www.jewishgen.org/jcr-uk/london/notting_fed/Photographs.htm). We have walked past it many times without realising it was once a place of worship until a friend told us recently about its former incarnation.

During WW2, the synagogue was severely damaged by a German bomb. It was restored and reconstructed. During the Notting Hill race riots in the late 1950’s, during the time that the fascist Oswald Mosely (1896-1980) was campaigning as a candidate in the election for the parliamentary seat of the local constituency, Kensington North, he set up his office close to the synagogue. On the 31st of January 1959, one of his supporters daubed the synagogue with the words used by the Nazis: “Juden raus”. Despite these traumatic events, the synagogue continued to thrive until the 1990s, when the size of the local Jewish population had declined.  Rabbi Pini Dunner (born 1970), who had been invited to help in performing the ritual in 1992, when the synagogue, under the leadership of its charismatic Stuart Schama, was falling into decline, wrote:

“Notting Hill Synagogue was nothing like any shul I had ever seen. The congregants consisted of a motley group of mainly octogenarian men, characters out of some East End Jewish sit-com, each with his own catchphrase, many of them not quite sure why they were there week after week.”

(https://rabbidunner.com/memories-of-stuart-schama/).

The synagogue then closed, and amalgamated with the Shepherd’s Bush, Fulham & District Synagogue. Since its closure, the synagogue has been used as a ‘health club’. Currently (March 2021), the building bears the name ‘Teresa Tarmey’, a company that supplies various treatments (www.teresatarmey.com/).

The transformation of the former synagogue into a trendy beauty salon reflects that of Notting Hill from a relatively impoverished area into a prosperous area with high property prices, which is beginning to make Bayswater seem less attractive in comparison. The synagogue in St Petersburg Place continues to thrive. One of my cousins, who lives many miles from it, told me that it was well worth travelling to because its congregation is vibrant and life-enhancing, which is good to know because the mainly residential area surrounding the synagogue is usually rather sleepy.

Honouring a Hindu hero in London

MI5 WORKS TO HELP protect our democracy in the UK. Its architecturally unflattering headquarters stand looming above the southern end of Vauxhall Bridge. A few yards downstream from it, and directly facing the main entrance of the Tate Britain across the river, there is a small grassy triangle close to the river. In the middle of the green space, there is a bust on a pedestal. The bust depicts a man with a moustache, who is wearing two chunky necklaces and what looks like a bejewelled turban. This is a monument to Basaveshvara, who lived between 1134 and 1168 (actually, these dates are not certain: he might have lived c1106-1167). A panel on the side of the pedestal notes that he was:

“Pioneer of Democracy and Social Reform”

Various people and organisations supported the creation of this monument to someone of historical importance but until now unknown to me and, I would guess, to many other people wandering past the bust. As one of the organisations involved in its creation was The Government of Karnataka (in southern India), I reached for my tattered copy of “A History of Karnataka” (edited by PB Desai), which I picked up in the wonderful Aladdin’s cave of a bookshop, Bookworm, in Church Street, Bangalore, a city which I visit often. It has 8 index entries for Basaveshwara, who is also known as ‘Basava’, ‘Basavanna’, and ‘Basavaraja’, all of these being transcripts from various Indian language alphabets.

Basaveshwar was born of Shaivite Brahmin parents at Bagevadi, which is now in the Bijapur district in the northern part of Karnataka. His name is derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Vrishabha’, the divine bull, Nandi, who carries the god Shiva. Early histories (the Puranas) described him as an incarnation of the god Shiva rather than a human being, but it is considered that he was certainly a real person. A devotee of Shiva, Basaveshwara was well-versed in both Kannada and Sanskrit learning. He was brought up in a social milieu in which people blindly adhered to the dogmas and rituals of Vedic Hinduism without bothering to understand the true spirit of religion. Desai wrote:

“Basava’s mind revolted against these ills and he decided to defy the existing order of things.”

After receiving the sacred thread, very roughly speaking a Hindu equivalent of the Jewish Bar-mitzvah or the Christian confirmation, Basaveshwara went to the Kudama Sangama, a temple complex at the confluence of the Rivers Krishna and Malaprabha. In 2011, long before I had ever heard of Basaveshwara, we stopped briefly at the Sangama on our way from Hospet to Bijapur (now named ‘Vijayapura’), both in Karnataka. When we were there, the rivers had dried up and we saw signs advising visitors to beware of crocodiles.  

Basaveshwara remained at the Sangama for about 12 years. In his time, as it is now, the Sangama was much visited by people from all walks of life. There, he met many scholars and learned men from all schools of Hindu belief. Eventually, Basaveshwara travelled to Mangalavada, the headquarters of Bijala II (c1130-c1167), the feudatory governor of the Kalachuri family (of the Chalukya dynasty). Soon, Basaveshwara became the Chief Treasurer of Bijala’s court. It was then that Basaveshwara:

“… started his new movement of religious and social reforms, treating all devotees of Siva [i.e. Shiva] as equal in all respects without the traditional distinctions of castes, communities and sects.” (Desai)

After about 20 years, BASAVESHWARA moved to Kalyana, the capital of Bijala, where his reformist ideas gained a great following. Bijala II, who had become suspicious of Basaveshwara, began crushing the movement inspired by Basaveshwara’s radical ideas that seriously threatened the traditional hierarchy that favoured the Brahmins, as well as advocating some hitherto unknown equality of men and women in spiritual aspects of life. For example, Basaveshwara sanctioned a marriage between the son of an ‘untouchable’ and the daughter of a Brahmin. Upset by this, Bijala sentenced the couple to death. Basaveshwara’s followers then plotted to assassinate Bijala, an act of which Basaveshwara disapproved. Realising that he could not restrain his angry followers, Basaveshwara retreated to Kudama Sangama, where he died. Bijala was murdered soon afterwards. Later, Basaveshwara became venerated as a (Hindu) saint.

Basaveshwara believed:

“…that every human being was equal, irrespective of caste and that all forms of manual labor was equally important.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basava).

These ideas sound familiar to those versed in the history of Mahatma Gandhi, who lived many centuries after Basaveshwara.  Yet, Basaveshwara is relatively unknown compared with Gandhi. Basaveshwara was certainly a reformer as is stated on the base of his bust near Vauxhall Bridge and his radical ideas were undoubtedly democratic when considered in relation to the time when he lived. So, it is quite appropriate that from his bust, there is a clear view of the Houses of Parliament, a home of democracy.

The bust on the embankment was erected by Dr Neeraj Patil, born in Karnataka, a member of the Labour Party and Mayor of the London Borough of Lambeth 2010-2011 and Dr Anagha Patil. It was unveiled in November 2015 by the current Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi. It is appropriate that Modi inaugurated this memorial as his parents were members of what was officially recognised a socially disadvantaged community, whose emancipation would surely have been approved by the reformer Basaveshwara.  And what is more, Modi is one of the first, if not the very first, of the Indian Prime Ministers, all democratically elected, who was not from a ‘high’ caste or social class such as Brahmin, Kayastha, and Rajput, and has completed at least one term of office. So, I feel that Basaveshwara does deserve a place within sight of the ‘Mother of Parliaments’.

Utopia and Worlds End

THE AUTHOR OF “Utopia”, which was published in Latin in 1516, Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), had a house in London’s Chelsea. It was not far from Henry VIII’s manor house on what is now Cheyne Walk. The land in which More’s house was built was bounded to the north by what was, and still is, the Kings Road, to the south by the River Thames and between the still extant Milman Street and Old Church Street.

The house that was ‘L’ shaped in plan (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol4/pt2/pp18-27) when More used it as his out-of-town dwelling between 1520 and 1535, when he was arrested there and taken to the Tower of London. His arrest was in connection with trying to upset the marriage plans of his neighbour in Chelsea, King Henry VIII. More lived at Beaufort, to which he loved to escape from London and from the Court, and to spend time with his family and to write. It was here that he entertained many friends, among whom were the scholar Erasmus and the artist Holbein.

After Thomas More’s execution and the death of Henry VIII, King Edward VI granted Beaufort House to William Pawlet, 1st Marquis of Winchester (c1484-1572). Then, it passed through the hands of the Dacre family to William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520-1598), and next to his son, Sir Robert Cecil (1563-1612). Cecil sold it to Henry (Clinton) Fiennes, Earl of Lincoln (1539-1616). The house and its grounds continued to move through different owners until it came into the possession of the physician and founder of the British Museum, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) in 1738.

Sloane demolished Beaufort House in 1740 to “…strip it for parts…”, so wrote James Delbourgo in “Collecting the World”, his recent biography of Sloane. The demolition work was executed by a Quaker, Edmund Howard (1710-1798; detailed biography: https://ahsoc.contentfiles.net/media/assets/file/Edmund_Howard_by_J_Nye_SF.pdf). He was Sloane’s gardener in Chelsea. During the demolition, he was often in dispute with Sloane over money.. Howard observed that:

“… the receiving of money was to Sir Hans Sloane more pleasing than parting with it.”

Little remains of what Sloane demolished apart from a few brick walls. However, one fine relic, an elegant neo-classical gateway designed by Inigo Jones, was sold to Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (1694-1753) and placed near his Chiswick House.

The northwest corner of Thomas More’s Chelsea estate is a peaceful walled garden, which can be entered from Kings Road. Some of these walls are the Tudor brickwork from More’s time at Beaufort House. The north side of the almost square plot is occupied by a line of small buildings belonging to the Moravian Church Fetter Lane Congregation (Chelsea). These buildings, which include the curate’s house, a tiny chapel, and a meeting hall, once a church, face a large square patch of lawn with four fig trees in its centre. Closer examination of the lawn reveals that it contains numerous square gravestones that lie flush with the mowed grass. This is the Moravian Burial Ground.

Protestant missionaries from Moravia (now in the Czech Republic) founded a church in Fetter Lane in the City of London in 1742. The missionaries were hoping to travel to the British colonies to carry the Gospel to people out there, notably slaves. However, they realised that there was plenty for them to do in England and worked alongside British missionaries like the Wesleyans. The church in Fetter Lane survived until WW2 when it was destroyed by bombing. In the 1960s, the congregation moved to its present site.

The burial ground was established in the former stable yard of Beaufort House and the first burial was done in 1751. About 400 people have been buried in this cemetery. Amongst them was Henry, the 73rd Count of Reuss, brother-in-law of Nicolaus Ludwig Zinzendorf (1700-1760). It was the latter who leased Lindsey House in Chelsea, built on the estate of Sir Thomas More, and used it between 1749 and 1755 as his base for missionary work in England. Zinzendorf was extremely critical of slavery (www.zinzendorf.com/).

At the south edge of the burial lawn, there is a stone pergola and an elaborately carved wooden bench backrest. Both were created by the sculptors Ernest (1874-1951) and Mary Gillick (1881-1965), who leased the site of the Moravian cemetery between 1914 and 1964 (https://londongardenstrust.org/conservation/inventory/site-record/?ID=KAC100). Mary designed the effigy of Elizabeth II used on coinage in the United Kingdom from 1953 to 1970. The long wooden bench is decorated with painted shields, showing the coats-of-arms of all the owners of Beaufort House and its estate from More to Sloane. It also has a brief history of Beaufort House carved into it.

From the oasis that is the Moravian Church’s ground, it is but a short walk west along Kings Road to the large Worlds End Distillery pub, which was already present in the 17th century.  The present pub was built in 1897. It is: “… a public house in the gin-palace genre …” (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1391649).

As for the name ‘Worlds End’, this might not be as apocalyptic as it first appears because ‘end’ often used to mean ‘field’ in archaic English. Regarding the ‘World’ part of the name, Edward Walford wrote in about 1880:

“In the King’s Road, near Milman Street, is an inn styled “The World’s End.” The old tavern… was a noted house of entertainment in the reign of Charles II …The house was probably called ‘The World’s End’ on account of its then considerable distance from London, and the bad and dangerous state of the roads and pathways leading to it.”

The posh ‘Sloanes’* of Chelsea might regard Worlds End as truly the end of their part of the world because west of it the shops and dwellings on Kings Road seem far less opulent than those on the stretch between the pub and Sloane Square. At Worlds End, the ‘Sloanes’’ utopian world transforms into unglamorous routine inner-city life. Should ‘Sloanes’ carelessly stray as far west as Worlds End, they would have crossed over to the ‘wrong side of the tracks’.

[* a ‘Sloane’ is a fashionable  upper middle- or upper-class, often young, person, especially one living in London and particularly in Chelsea; most definitely not Bohemian, but extremely bourgeois.]

A Russian cathedral and a Palladian villa

IN NORMAL TIMES, we would be setting off for a long stay in India around this period of the year, late October, or early November. We would hire a cab to take us to Heathrow Airport, which is best accessed from our home via the A4 and then the M4. The route to the airport passes a sign for the entrance to Chiswick House, which is about three and a third miles from our home as the crow flies. On the way back from Heathrow on our return from India we pass a church tower adorned with a deep blue coloured onion-shaped dome decorated with gold stars about a mile and a half further west from the Chiswick House turning. Until today, the 11th of November 2020, neither my wife nor I have ever visited these two places.

During our current ‘lockdown’, entering Chiswick House is forbidden, but wandering around its grounds is permitted. And, what a treat they offer. The house, completed in 1729, was built in neo-Palladian style. It was designed by, and built for, Richard Boyle (1694-1753), an Anglo-Irishman who was an aristocrat (3rd Earl of Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork) and an accomplished architect. Burlington demolished the Jacobean mansion, the former home of an Earl of Somerset, that he had inherited from his father and replaced it with what we see today (minus some newer additions). Horace Walpole wrote that Burlington’s creation:

“… the idea of which is borrowed from a well-known villa of Palladio (that of the Marquis Capra at Vicenza), is a model of taste, though not without faults, some of which are occasioned by too strict adherence to rules and symmetry…”

Yet, these faults, which were apparent to Walpole, do not disturb our enjoyment of the exterior of the building today. John Summerson, author of “Georgian London”, regarded the villa at Chiswick as being “very magnificent” and pointed out that its plan is close to that of Palladio’s Villa Rotonda near Vicenza.

Following the death of its builder and then his widow, Chiswick House was owned by the 4th and then 5th Dukes of Devonshire. In 1806, the politician Charles Fox died in the house and twenty-one years later, the Prime Minister Lord Canning also expired within its walls. The house fell into decline in the 19th century. After 1892, it was used as a lunatic asylum, and then in 1929, the 9th Duke of Devonshire sold it to Middlesex County Council, who used it as a fire station for a while. During WW2, one of two wings that had been added to the house was hit by a German V2 rocket. In 1956, the two wings that were not part of the Palladian villa were demolished and eventually the fine house designed by Boyle became maintained by English Heritage and accessible to visitors.

The gardens of Chiswick House are not overly large, but they are magnificent. The grounds are full of sculptures, picturesque kiosks, garden follies including sculpted columns and a classical temple, long avenues of trees and hedges. The centrepiece of the grounds is a long stretch of water. It has a waterfall at one end and a beautiful masonry bridge crossing it further downstream. The designers of the gardens, Burlington and the celebrated landscaper William Kent (c1685-1748), are supposed to evoke the gardens of Ancient Rome. It was Kent who designed the waterfall, having been inspired by Italian garden decorative features.  The grounds, though compact, are richly varied with different vistas around every corner. The elegant bridge crossing the water body was commissioned by Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire (1757-1806), wife of the 5th Duke of Devonshire, and built in 1774 to the designs of James Wyatt (1746-1813), a rival of the great architect Robert Adam. Even under the grey skies that accompanied us today, the gardens at Chiswick House are very uplifting.

There is a café a few yards from the Palladian-style building. Its architecture is a complete contrast to the older building but a successful one. Built in a simple but effective contemporary style with stone colonnades between 2006 and 2010, and designed by Caruso St John Architects, this is the most elegant ‘stately home’ refreshment centre that I have seen so far. From the tables placed outside this superb example of modern architecture, one can enjoy beverages and snacks whilst admiring the fine 18th century house close by.

It did not take more than a few minutes to drive from Chiswick House to the building with the blue onion-shaped dome, The Cathedral of the Dormition of the Most Holy Mother of God and Holy Royal Martyrs in London (‘the Dormition’, for short) in Harvard Road. We have seen the dome on countless occasions but never the simple white coloured church to which it is attached. We parked in the small carpark next to a Victorian house where the clergy lives and hoped against hope, because most churches are closed these days, that the Russian Orthodox church would be open. And it was.

The church was built in an ancient Russian style in 1999 and contrasts with other Orthodox cathedrals in London such as the Serbian, Greek, and Romanian, which are housed in churches that were originally not used by Orthodox Christians. It was by no means the first Russian Orthodox church in London. That honour goes to a Russian church dedicated to the ‘Dormition’ that was built in 1716 and attached to the Russian Embassy in London. The Russian church moved premises several times, ending up at St Stephens Church in Emperor’s Gate off Gloucester Road. This church was leased from the Scottish Presbyterian Church. When the lease expired in 1989, it was decided to build a new church in Russian style, and this is what we visited in Harvard Road.

A monument close to one of the church’s entrances reads both in Russian and in English:

“In memory of the Holy Royal Martyrs tormented and slain by the Bolsheviks in Ekaterinburg on the 4th of July 1918.”

This is the first monument of this kind that I have seen. We entered the church through doors beneath a tower with several large bells. We were greeted by a priest whose command of English was good enough to answer our questions. This kindly man allowed us to look around and to take photographs.

The interior of the church is a complete contrast to its plain white exterior. Every surface of the walls and ceiling is decorated with frescos. A large circular lamp holder is suspended beneath the dome in whose roof there is a portrait of the Pantocrator. The panels of the iconostasis were beautifully painted in that ageless style typical of eastern Orthodox church painting. They were painted in about 2008 by craftsmen from Russia, who based their creations on the Moscow style of the 15th and 16th centuries.

My grandparents, my father’s parents, were born in Lithuania when it was still part of the Russian Empire. I wonder whether it was this fact or, more likely, because he had passed away a few days earlier that made us mention his recent demise (at the age of 101) to the priest. On hearing this, he disappeared through a door in the iconostasis and returned with a candle, which he lit and gave us to place in a holder in front of the painted icons on the sacred screen. When we had done this and stood prayerfully, he gave us a small white card and asked us to write my father’s name and dates on it, so that the congregation could pray for his soul on his death anniversaries.  We were moved by the kindness of this man who had only just met us, a man whose ancestors might have regarded members of my ancestors’ religion with far less sympathy, or none at all.

We drove home having experienced two wonderful things, the beauty of Chiswick House and the unexpected kindness of a complete stranger.

With the Mormons

IN JANUARY1995, we drove from Phoenix (Arizona) to San Diego (California) via Yuma (Arizona). Between Yuma and our destination, we traversed the Anza-Borrego Desert east of San Diego. We made a detour to see Box Canyon in that area. After we had finally arrived in San Diego, we had an interesting experience.

Box Canyon

On our way to San Diego, we stopped in the desert at a couple of roadside information signs placed overlooking a rough track in a chasm beneath the road along which we were driving. This was part of the road along which migrants from the eastern part of the USA made their way by foot, on horseback, or in wagons, to the ‘promised’ land of California. According to the sign beside the road, in 1825 Lieutenant Santiago Arguello of the San Diego Presidio (1791-1862), a Spaniard, discovered this pass through the mountains whilst chasing horse thieves. Later, the American frontiersman Kit Carson (1809-1868), the US General Kearny (1794-1848), and gold-seekers, travelled along the route Arguello had discovered. By 1847, a road suitable for wagons had been built through the chasm by members of The Mormon Battalion. Commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Philip St George Cooke (1809-1895), these hardy men used hand tools to prepare the thoroughfare.

The Mormon Battalion, which existed in the 1840s, was the only US battalion ever to consist solely of members of one particular religious group. All the members were volunteers and they helped to open up the Southwest of what was to become part of the USA. Apart from being involved in various battles, they also constructed the road, whose remnants we saw on our way to San Diego.

Soon after our arrival in San Diego, we stumbled upon a building related to what we had seen at Box Canyon. It was The San Diego Mormon Battalion Historic Site. Having just seen the result of Battalion’s heroic feat of labour, we felt compelled to enter the building. We were greeted amicably and warmly by an Elder, who was immaculately dressed in formal attire. Politely, he asked us if we would like to see the diorama that explained the history of the battalion and its role in opening up the west. We wanted to see this and were led into a room with chairs set out as in an auditorium in front of a large diorama.

The lights were dimmed and then our host explained what was depicted in the diorama as different parts of it were illuminated one after another. He told us the history, the details of which I cannot recall. After the ‘show’ was over, the lights went up and the Elder asked us politely whether we would like to see something else, rather special. We were game for that and he led us into a neighbouring room.

Our host invited us to sit in comfortable chairs in front of a large pair of curtains just like those hiding a theatre’s stage. Then, he pressed a button on the wall and the curtains began to part slowly and silently. They opened to reveal a huge painting in pale shades depicting a religious scene showing Jesus in heaven surrounded by pink clouds and light-skinned angels. Proudly, he informed us:

“This is a genu-wine oil painting all the way from Salt Lake City.”

After we had made politely appreciative remarks, he said to us:

“Now, if you have a moment, I would like to show you something else.”

My wife was against this, but my curiosity was fired up. He led us to another room, which contained glass display cases. They contained metal plates covered with illegible writing. Our host explained:

“Here are the tablets that our founder Joseph Smith discovered back in 1823”

Joseph Smith (1805-1844) was the founder of the Mormon religion. In 1823, so the Mormons believe, an angel directed Smith to a spot where he discovered the gold plates on which the texts of The Book of Mormon were inscribed. Our guide in San Diego was quick to explain that (unlike the oil painting we had just seen) these plates in San Diego were faithful copies of the originals, which after Smith had transcribed them, were re-buried and never seen again.

When I expressed my genuine interest in what we had been shown, the Elder offered to show us even more but my wife, who was beginning to worry that I might be about to be converted to Mormonism, said that we had to leave as we were running out of time. There was no fear of my adopting a new religion, but I was interested to know what further delights were on offer. Our host asked us where we were from, and we told him: London. He said:

“Leave me your address and I can arrange for someone to get in touch with you at home in London.”

My wife said:

“Thank you, give us your address and we can contact you.”

And with that, we exchanged polite farewells with our Elder.

My apparent interest in what we had been shown reminded my wife of her father, whom I grew to know well. Like me, he was interested in a variety of things. Once, he and I attended a trade exhibition in Bangalore (India), where he lived. We approached a stall promoting the sale of concrete beams used for constructing large buildings. Daddy engaged the representatives in conversation, asking many of the sensible questions that builders might well ask. The ‘reps’ answered enthusiastically and informatively. As this proceeded, I began to get worried that Daddy was about to buy a concrete beam for which he had no need at all. Just when he reached the point that both the reps and I expected him to write out a cheque, he shook their hands and thanked them politely before moving on to another stall.  

When we were in San Diego, I had not yet got to know of Daddy’s behaviour as described above and wondered why my wife had become so concerned at the Mormon institution. After years of accompanying my delightful father-in-law to many trade fairs and exhibitions, I now understand the cause for her concern.

Near the shops: a chapel in Kensington

HIGH STREET KENSINGTON is not amongst my favourite London thoroughfares, but streets leading off it take one to places of considerable interest. One of these, Allen Street, offers a view of a building that outshines many of its close neighbours. But, before we reach this short side street, here are a few words about High Street Ken.

Even before the covid19 pandemic, High Street Kensington has been declining in importance as a centre of retailing activity. The retailing boom that made the street into a rival of, for example Oxford and Regents Streets, began in the mid-1860s. Prior to that:

“…most trading and manufacturing activity around Kensington High Street was on a small and local scale. An exception must be made of the Catholic candle-making business owned successively by the Wheble, Kendall, Tucker and Smith families from about 1765 until 1908. Its founder was James Wheble (1729–1801), scion of a prominent recusant family in Winchester. By 1766 at the latest Wheble was based in Kensington, and within a few years occupied miscellaneous properties on the present Barkers site, both in the High Street and on the west side of Young Street, where a warehouse was rated in his name from 1772 onwards.” (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol42/pp77-98).

This mention of candle making interested me because my great grandfather Franz Ginsberg (1862-1936) established a factory making candles in King Williams Town in South Africa in the 1880s.

From the late 19th century until a few years ago, High Street Ken was a healthily flourishing retail centre. In its heyday, it boasted of three large department stores, Pontings, Barkers, and Derry & Toms. The impressive buildings that housed the latter two still stand and are fine examples of art deco architecture. They are located close to the Underground station, which has been in service since the late 1860s.

In recent years, the advent of on-line shopping, high rents, and the proximity of the Westfield mall at Shepherds Bush (opened 2008), which has good parking, have all conspired to make High Street Ken less appealing to shoppers. Consequently, at any one time a large proportion of shops remain empty awaiting new tenants. Sadly, what was once (especially in the 1960s and ‘70s) a bustling high street with trendy shops like Biba and the ‘funky’ Kensington Market, has become slightly dreary.

Various short streets lead off the south side of the high street. One of them, Young Street, leads to Kensington Square, which is well worth visiting to explore its exciting range of houses dating back to the 18th century and earlier (see https://londonadam.travellerspoint.com/41/). Another road, Allan Street, west of the station, leads south from the high street. This street was a quiet cul-de-sac until 1852 when it was extended southwards. After that date, many more buildings were erected along it including the extensive Wynnstay Gardens, luxurious mansion flats, which was constructed between 1883 and 1885 on a site previously owned by Thomas Newland Allen (1811-1899), who was born at Chalfont St Giles (https://www.captaincooksociety.com/home/detail/chalfont-st-giles-buckinghamshire). A monument to Captain Cook, the explorer, stands on the estate where Allen was born.

Wynnstay Gardens is not a particularly attractive set of buildings. However, south of it and on the other side of Allen Street, there is a lovely neo-classical building just south of Adam and Eve Mews, which runs along its northern boundary. For many years, I had noticed it from a distance when wandering along High Street Ken, but it was only yesterday that I decided to take a closer look at this church.

Currently called the ‘Kensington United Reformed Church’, it was originally named ‘The Kensington Chapel’. Built in 1854-55 and designed by Andrew Trimen (1810-1868), it replaced the Hornton Street Chapel (north of the High Street), which was built 1794-95 (https://www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol42/pp386-394#h2-0005). Trimen was a prolific architect and also published a book in 1849, “Church and Chapel Architecture with an account of the Hebrew Church. 1,000 authenticated mouldings”, which was (https://manchestervictorianarchitects.org.uk/architects/andrew-trimen):

“… the first major publication to consider non-conformist architecture.”

The church, clad in ochre coloured Bath stone, and its impressive pillared portico,  is an elegant addition to an otherwise undistinguished street.  Its corner stone recalls that the church replaced the one in Hornton Street and that it was laid by the Reverend John Stoughton on the 26th of June 1854. If you walk along Adam and Eve Mews, you will notice a pair of doors at the east end of the north wall of the church. Above them are the words ‘Lecture Hall’. According to a plan of the original building, this led into a ‘schoolroom’ (built 1856) attached to the east of the church. This was used to accommodate ‘British’ and ‘Sunday’ schools.

John Stoughton officiated first at the Hornton Street Chapel, starting in 1843, and then in the new building in Allen Street until he retired in 1875. His congregation was far from uninteresting as this quote from John Stoughton’s book “Congregationalism in the Court Suburb” (published in 1883) reveals:

“It may be mentioned that Kensington, on many accounts, has long been a favourite place of residence for artists and literary men, and a few of these became some occasional, others regular hearers [i.e. members of the congregation]  … Curious characters at different periods, it may be added would come into the vestry to have a little chat; a gentleman during the Crimean War gravely proposed to the preacher of peace a clever scheme for blowing up Sebastopol; and at another time one of clerical appearance repeated, with extraordinary rapidity, long passages out of the Greek Testament.”

Stoughton was such a popular preacher that by 1871, none of the 1000 sitting places in the chapel would be left unoccupied.

The chapel was damaged by bombing in 1940 and only repaired in 1952-53. Today, the building stands in all its glory and hosts regular religious services for its Congregationalist congregation (it is an autonomous protestant church, which governs its own affairs), but parts of it are now used for non-ecclesiastical purposes. Next time you wander along High Street Ken, make the short detour to see what I consider one of the finer buildings in the area alongside the unusual looking Armenian Church in nearby Iverna Gardens.

An unusual feature

AN ELDERLY LADY WALKING with the help of a walking frame beckoned to us just after we had  walked around the Church of St Mary in the village of Guilden Morden near Royston in Cambridgeshire.  As with so many country churches we have visited since the onset of the covid19 pandemic, we had found that the church was locked up. However, the lady, who had called us over, was holding a large old-fashioned key and asked us whether we would like to see inside the church. I am so glad that we accepted her offer because she pointed out something that is very rarely found in English churches: a double rood screen.

A rood screen is often found in late mediaeval churches. Commonly made of wood and often ornate, the screens separate the nave where the congregation assembles from the chancel where the choir sings and the clergy officiate near to the high altar. The rood screen at St Mary’s in Guilden Morden, whose construction began in the 12th or 13th centuries, consists of two parallel screens on either side of a central passage leading between the chancel and the nave. It is decorated with some paintings of saints and on each side of the passage, there are small enclosures large enough for several congregants to sit during a service.

The lady, who pointed out the special nature of the rood screen, told us that in the past, the lord of one manor sat with family members in the ‘cubicle’ on one side of the central passageway and the lord of another manor sat in the cubicle on the other side. She told us that when she was a small child in the village, she had seen the local aristocrats occupying the rather cramped-looking booths between the parallel screens.

The website www.english-church-architecture.net doubts the church’s claim  that the double-rood screen is an original feature of the church. It quotes the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, who:

“… declared it to be reassembled from the original rood screen and one or more parclose screens, to form “a double rood-screen, i.e. with a kind of pew left and right of a central passageway.  Three designs are represented, two very similar and clearly not too late in the fourteenth century, the third, early Perp.”  In fact, the early Perpendicular work forms the back of the screen and the re-used sections of parclose screens, if that is what they are, appear to have been built up against it on the side towards the nave.”

Whatever its history, neither my wife nor I had ever seen anything quite like that in British churches … and we have visited quite a few of them.

Before leaving the church and the kind old lady, I spotted the baptismal font that looks far older than the church. Our new friend thought it predated the present church. According http://www.british-history.ac.uk, the font’s basin is 12th century and the pillars supporting it are later.

Before we left the church and the lady locked it up, I asked her about the name Guilden Morden. She believed that it might mean something like ‘golden moor’. She was not far off the truth, which is that the name is derived from the Old English ‘Gylden More Dun’, meaning ‘Golden’ (rich or productive) ‘Moor Hill’.

Once again, a trip out of London into the countryside has proved to be not only refreshing but also enjoyable. England, from which we have always travelled abroad during the years before the current pandemic, is proving to be at least as interesting as the many far more exotic destinations we have been enjoying over the years.

The artist and the reformer: Cranach and Luther

IT IS ALWAYS FUN TO MAKE new discoveries. Yesterday, we braved incessant rain and the mist on the motorway to drive to Compton Verney House in Warwickshire, the county where William Shakespeare was born. Our main reason for visiting this lovely 18th century house was to see a special exhibition devoted to the works of the German artist Lucas Cranach the Elder (c 1472-1553). He was born in Kronach in the then predominantly Roman Catholic Holy Roman Empire. He was an extraordinarily successful painter. Also, he was a prosperous businessman: he had his own printing business and was also an apothecary. Cranach painted religious as well as mythological subjects in addition to court (and other) portraits.

Cranach became the court painter for the electors of Saxony in the town of Wittenberg. The electors in Wittenberg were supporters of Martin Luther (1483-1546), a professor of theology (at the University of Wittenberg) who rejected Roman Catholicism and became a ‘father’ of Protestantism. When Luther arrived in Wittenberg in October 1512, Lucas Cranach was already running a prosperous workshop (studio) in the town. Cranach made a portrait (engraving?) of Luther in 1520, which shows the reformer in priest’s garb with his head shaved to create a tonsure. This picture of Luther, when he was still an Augustinian monk, was not on display at Compton Verney. However, one room of the exhibition is dedicated to prints (designed by Lucas) and pamphlets (written by Martin) produced on Cranach’s presses. These works were all produced to promote Luther’s then revolutionary ideas.

Cranach’s courtly patrons in Wittenberg were supporters of Luther and Protestantism. The British historian, an expert on the Reformation, Andrew Pettegree wrote (in “Apollo”, 15th October 2016):

“From the beginning Cranach was a firm and important supporter of the Reformation. This was a relationship of mutual respect, mutual affection and mutual benefit. Cranach provided the Reformation with some of its most memorable images…”

Cranach became one of Luther’s important allies:

“… not merely because of his artistic talents. By this point he was one of Wittenberg’s leading citizens, firmly established among the city’s ruling elite. He would play a crucial role in this regard when Luther was absent from Wittenberg in 1521, and over-enthusiastic supporters, led by Andreas Karlstadt, pressed for radical changes to the order of worship that Luther would not have approved. Cranach, civic leader and artistic entrepreneur, was one of the rocks on which the Wittenberg Reformation was built. He also had the managerial skills and resources to conceive a solution to the problem that might otherwise have stopped the Reformation in its tracks: how to build a mass movement from a small place with extremely limited infrastructure.”

Part of that solution was Cranach’s high-quality printing works that were able to produce large editions of publications either written by Luther or by authors promoting his cause. The exhibition at Compton Verney has several examples of Cranach’s printed pro-Luther propaganda tracts and prints on display.  In one of them, facing pages depict the contrast between Protestantism and Catholicism. For example, an image of the pure Christ rising towards Heaven faces an image of the corrupt Pope burning in Hell. For those not able to read, this was a graphic illustration of Luther’s objections to Catholicism.

In 1521, Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X. Four years later, Luther, the erstwhile priest who had taken the vows of celibacy, decided to marry. His bride was Katherine von Bora (1499-1552), a nun who had fled to Wittenberg from a convent near the town of Grimma along with eight other nuns. Luther had undertaken to find them husbands or to find families for them to join so that they could enjoy ‘normal’ lives. At first, Katherine joined the household of Luther’s friend Lucas Cranach (the Elder). Luther tried hard to find her a husband. His friends tried hard to get Luther to marry. In the end, he married Katherine. Lucas Cranach was one of a few close friends who were present when Martin and Katherine took their wedding vows. Luther’s Roman Catholic enemies were quick to claim (according to Richard Marius in his “Martin Luther”) that:

“… all Luther ever wanted was sex, and since he had married a former nun, it seemed he had now lived out yet another of the bawdy stories told of nuns and monks lusting for one another…”

Popular legend of the time predicted that the Antichrist would be born to a monk and a nun, but Erasmus (1466-1536) wrote in connection with this:

“How many thousands of Antichrists had the world already known!”

Katherine and Martin produced six children.  Cranach married Barbara Brengbier. They had several children including Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586), the painter, one of whose works is displayed in the exhibition at Compton Verney. In 1517, Luther stood as a godfather to the last of Cranach’s children. Later, when Luther married, Cranach became godfather to some of his children.

Before visiting Compton Verney, I was already familiar with the fine paintings of Lucas Cranach the Elder, but I had no inkling of Cranach’s close connection with Martin Luther and the promotion of Protestantism. Also, I did not know that Cranach had had other business interests apart from producing works of art. I came away from the splendid exhibition at Compton Verney pleased to have had my eyes opened to an important episode of history about which I was only dimly aware.

Travelling to Compton Verney on a rainy day fulfilled what Mark Twain wrote in his 1869 book “Innocents Abroad”:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

In other words, travel broadens the mind. Our journey to Compton Verney did, despite inclement weather conditions, did precisely that.

Preaching prejudice

BLOG XMAS St Georges Day_1024

 

MORE THAN THIRTY YEARS have passed since I spent Christmas very enjoyably with my good friends, ‘X’ and his wife ‘Y’. After breakfast on the morning of Christmas Day, all of us except the housekeeper, who considered that most churches were not sufficiently devout for her to attend, used to set off for the pretty church in the nearby village of ‘H’. Some of the party, including Y, travelled by car but I joined X and some others, who preferred to tramp the mile or so across the countryside that separated the house from the small hill-top church. We occupied more than two complete bench-like pews in the small, crowded edifice.

The service was traditional with Christmas carols. When it came to the singing of “Come all ye faithful”, X sung it loudly in Latin whilst all around him the rest of the congregation were singing it in English. Like him, I was introduced at private school to the Latin version, which commences with the words “Adeste fideles…”. Once, when Y was bemoaning the use of English instead of Latin in church services, someone pointed out to her that unlike the rest of the congregation, she was in no position to complain because she only attended church at Christmas and for christenings, weddings, and funerals.

The Christmas morning service at H, which was held for families with young children, included a sermon. The vicar of H started his sermon something like this:

“Christmas is a happy time of the year for everyone apart from the Jews. However, there is one exception. And that exception is Lord Sieff, the Chairman of the Marks and Spencer’s retailing firm.”

I was horrified by this and sat fuming throughout the rest of the service. When it was over, we shuffled towards the door where the vicar was receiving greetings from those who had attended. One by one people wished him ‘Merry Christmas’ and hoped that he would enjoy his Christmas meal. When I reached him, I refused to shake his outstretched hand. I said:

“Even if I had not been born Jewish, I would have found the beginning of your sermon to be in the worst of taste.”

The cleric did not reply, but Y, who heard me say this, told me afterwards that I had said the right thing.

Writing this many years after that memorable Christmas service, I cannot imagine what was going through the vicar’s head when he composed the sermon. If a man of the church, which encourages brotherly love between all men, can say those words about Lord Sieff and the Jewish people to his congregation and, more recently, a prominent cosmopolitan, expensively educated personality in British politics has characterised black Africans as “‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’”, gay men as “bumboys”, and women wearing hijab as “looking like letter boxes”,  is it surprising that so many people in Britain harbour prejudice in their hearts, even if they do not always express their feelings openly?

Eye and brain

MEMORIES TRIGGERED BY A PHOTOGRAPH RECENTLY TAKEN NEAR OUR HOME

I first met Catherine during the final year of my BSc in 1973. She was teaching mammalian reproductive physiology. After that, I met her again in 1977 when I began studying dentistry and also attended weekly etching and engraving classes taught by my mother’s cousin Dolf #Rieser. Catherine was another of Dolf’s pupils, and one of his best. I stopped attending these classes on 1982, when I moved to Kent.

Occasionally, I visited Catherine and her husband Brian in a street near where this picture was taken, a street close to our flat.

In about 1994, when Lopa and I had been married a few months, we ‘bumped’ into Catherine in a street quite by chance. We invited her and Brian to dinner. Thus began a close friendship between them and us.

Soon after our daughter was born, we had major building work done in our small flat. Catherine and Brian kindly let us stay at tjeir place for a few weeks.

Catherine employed an elderly lady called Bridie to do ironing several days a week. Bridie and our young daughter fell in love with each other. Catherine suggested that Bridie would probably be a good babysitter for our little one.

Although Bridie was well into her eighties, she was alert and very sprightly. When our daughter was old enough to attend school, Bridie would often collect her and look after her at home until we returned from work.

Bridie was (is??) a committed Roman Catholic. Our daughter, even when a toddler, took a great interest in matters theological. One day, Bridie told our daughter that if you are good in life, then you will go to heaven when you die. To which our daughter, who has an Indian mother, replied:
“Well, us Indians never die, Bridie. We just keep coming back again.”
This indicated an early appreciation of the concept of reincarnation.

Sadly, both Brian and Catherine are no more than memories now. However, whenever we walk in the streets near where they used to live, we remember them vividly. Dolf Rieser left this life long before ourvtwo friends. As for Bridie, we have no idea. If she is still around, she would have passed her hundredth birthday long ago.