The spy in the pond

QUEENSMERE POND on Wimbledon is surrounded by woodland. It was dug in marshland to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. In the 1830s, the area was a popular duelling ground.

In 1984, the corpse of a former Soviet spy Boris Hatton was discovered in the pond. On the 1st of March 1984, The London “Times” newspaper reported:

“Mr Boris Hatton, formerly Baklanov, a former assassin with SMERSH, part of Soviet wartime military intelligence, may have committed suicide or he may have been murdered. Dr Paul Knapman. the coroner at a Westminster inquest, recorded an open verdict, saying ‘It is not impossible that there may be other sinister factors in view of his past’.

Mr Hatton, aged 59, the son of prominent Soviet Commu-nist Party member between the wars, had been a strong swimmer and never spoke of suicide, the court was told.His son Phillip, an accountant. of Westerham, Kent, said that his father defected after the Second World War because SMERSH, wanted him to assassinate dissidents against Communism which his conscience would not allow.”

For 10 years he worked as a researcher at The Daily Telegraph.”Well, I would never imagined that this had happened when I watched a swan with its cygnets swimming lazily by the edge of the lovely pond.

St Johns Wood and the Crimea

THROUGHOUT MY LIFE, I have been visiting or passing through St Johns Wood in north London. I have often noticed a street called Woronzow Road. It lies between Primrose Hill and St Johns Wood Underground Station. Whenever I have seen this road, I have wondered about the name ‘Woronzow’, but uncharacteristically I have always been too lazy to find out anything about it.

Recently, we visited Wilton House in Wiltshire, not far from the city of Salisbury. Home to the Herberts, the Earls of Pembroke, for many centuries, this is a wonderful place to visit, to see its gardens, the house itself and the outstanding collection of old master paintings within it. The decoration of the rooms that we saw is superb and is kept in good condition by the house’s present occupants, the family of the current, the 17th, Earl of Pembroke. It was whilst visiting this splendid country seat that my ears pricked up hearing the guide mention the name ‘Worontzow’.

In 1808, the widowed George Herbert (born 1759) remarried. His second wife was Catherine Woronzow (1783-1856). Her father was Semyon Romanovich Woronzow (1744-1832), Russian Ambassador to England from 1796-1806, who died in London and was buried in the Pembroke’s family vault. Catharine, who became Countess of Pembroke, did a great deal to improve Wilton House to create much of what we can see today. She is buried in the nearby church of St Mary and St Nicholas, which was built in a neo-Romanesque style between 1841 and 1844. It was built at the instigation of Catharine and her son Sidney Herbert, the 14th Earl of Pembroke (1810-1861).

Between October 1853 and February 1856, the last years of Catharine’s life, Britain was at war with Russia in what is known as The Crimean War. Between June 1859 and July 1861, Sidney Herbert was the Secretary for War in the British government. During the campaign, a supply route called the ‘Woronzow Road’, no doubt named in honour of Catherine’s noble Russian family, ran along the Crimean coast past Sebastopol. Thus, there was once a Woronzow Road in The Crimea. This was an important supply route for the British forces bringing much-needed material south from Alma and Calamita Bay towards Sebastopol. In the winter of 1854, the British lost control of this vital supply route and had to rely on goods reaching them by a far more difficult track,

One of Sidney Herbert’s great contributions to the war effort in the Crimea was his asking Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) to travel to Scutari (now, Üsküdar in Istanbul) with 38 volunteer nurses. She and her team helped to dramatically improve the treatment of the many soldiers who contracted diseases such as cholera and typhus whilst in the Crimea. Incidentally, Florence never visited the Crimea, but remained working in the Turkish city. Herbert and his wife had first met and become friendly with Florence Nightingale in Rome in about 1847.

Now let us return to St Johns Wood in London. Catherine’s father, Semyon Worontzow, lived in the district. The road, where he lived and whose name has intrigued me for decades, is now called ‘Woronzow Road’. It was named after him in 1843. It was not until 2002 that the Russians erected a monument to him on the thoroughfare named after him.

An artist, an architect, and a baboon in north London

THE PAINTER GEORGE ROMNEY (1734-1802) moved to Hampstead in north London for health reasons near the end of the 18th century. His home on Holly Hill, originally named ‘Prospect House’ because of the views over London that could be seen from it, still stands today, even thouh it has been altered since Romney occupied it. During 1792, he made frequent visits to Hampstead and the following year he decided to move to the suburbs north of London. In June of that year, he took lodgings at a place he called ‘Pineapple Place’ near Kilburn. Dissatisfied with his Kilburn abode, and having been persuaded that it would be better to buy an existing building rather than to build from scratch, he bought the house on Holly Hill, an old house and its stables, in 1796. It is this building that bears a plaque commemorating his residence there. The Holly Hill house contained his studio, which was completed after the artist had spent £500 on alterations to his new home. While the alterations were being carried out, Romney lived in a building called The Mount on Heath Street, so the informative historian Barratt reveals in Volume 2 of his encyclopaedic history of Hampstead.

Romney’s house in Hampstead, London

The works that Romney had paid for resulted in the creation of:

“…strange new studio and dwelling-house … an odd and whimsical structure in which there was nothing like domestic arrangements. It had a very extensive picture and statue gallery …”

Barratt continues:

“At last Romney got rid of the builders and decorators, and all his town treasures —paintings, casts, statues, canvases, and what not—scores of cart-loads of them—were deposited in the new house and gallery, and the painter began to think that his higher aims were about to be attained.”

But this was not to be. His health failed and in January 1799, he shut up his Hampstead abode and travelled to Kendal. He returned to Holly Hill briefly but returned to Kendal after the 28th of April. He died in Kendal. His house in Hampstead was sold and by 1808, it contained ‘Assembly Rooms’ and three years later it became home to ‘The Constitutional Club’. Barratt revealed that the rooms in Romney’s house were:

“…For sixty years these rooms were practically the Town Hall of Hampstead and the centre of the town’s municipal life. The Hampstead Literary and Scientific Society, formed about 1833, met here, and many learned men at its invitation gave lectures in the rooms …”

In 1807, soon after Romney left Hampstead, the stables attached to his house became part of the nearby Hollybush Pub, after having been used as the catering wing for the Assembly Rooms (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1379069).

Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower, author of “George Romney” published in 1904, wrote of FRomney’s Hampstead dwelling:

“…externally the building, which is covered over with a kind of wooden boarding, has the appearance of a large stable; but within are some remains of the great gallery in which the artist placed his collection of casts, and handsome columns decorate this room; it is now a Conservative Club, and appears to be well attended by the residents of that portion of Hampstead. As a living house it must have been supremely uncomfortable; and one no longer has the advantage of the view over London from the upper windows from which Romney loved to look out and watch the distant dome of St. Paul’s lying in the Thames Valley below; the great city has crept up and around Holly Bush Hill, and crowded out the prospect which gave the great painter almost the last solace in his melancholy decline of life.”

Recently, I wrote an essay (see https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2021/04/29/artists-in-hampstead-londons-montmartre/) about some artists who lived in Hampstead and mentioned George Romney. Someone who read it wrote to me and reminded me that Romney’s former home was also the abode of another artist, the Welsh born architect Sir Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis (1883-1978), most famous for his creation of Portmeiron in western Wales. At about the same time as my correspondent mentioned Williams-Ellis, I found a copy of the architect’s autobiography, “The Architect Errant”, in a disused telephone box, now being used as a book exchange, in Madingley, Cambridgeshire. Although I have not yet read the whole book, I have found what he wrote about his time living in Romney’s former home in Holly Hill. He bought this building in 1929 and redesigned it considerably.

Clough left Chelsea for Hampstead.  He wrote of Hampstead and its proximity to the Heath:“It was this love of spaciousness that had propelled me first from South Eaton Place … to Hampstead where the desire for bracing air, a garden, and good schools for the children, were factors determining our choice.

From the edge of a plateau high above the dome of St Pauls we looked southwards from George Romney’s old house across the maze of London …”

The autobiography provided a description of Romney’s house as it was when Clough lived there:

“The fine old house, much altered and adapted to our curious habits, being far too large either for our needs or means, was proportionately delightful to inhabit, and with two ex-billiard rooms (it was once a club) at the disposal of the children, its size had compensations.”

Referring to Romney’s picture gallery, Clough added:

“For myself I had taken the immense old picture gallery as my studio, and I did not hesitate to play up to the magnanimity of its proportions in my embellishments … my wife was surprised and a little shocked at my choosing to work in what she not unjustly called my ‘ballroom’…”

He noted that Romney’s former home was “… splendid for large parties…”, and he held many of them. For example, Clough hosted:

“… dances every so often, a show by Ballet Rambert, David Low drawing large cartoons and selling them for charity. We also gave a party to meet the Russian Ambassador, M Maisky, who made a speech from the gallery balcony …”

The balcony can be seen clearly in a photograph on the RIBA website (www.architecture.com/image-library/RIBApix/image-information/poster/romneys-house-hollybush-hill-hampstead-london-romneys-studio/posterid/RIBA71050.html).

Ivan Mikhailovich Maisky (1884-1975) was the Soviet Ambassador to the Court of St James from 1932 until 1943. Unfortunately, the party referred to above does not get a mention in Maisky’s diary (as edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky), which is perhaps not surprising in view of the huge number of events an ambassador is obliged to attend. A year before Maisky became the ambassador:

“… Clough Williams-Ellis, went to the Soviet Union. His wife, Amabel, a children’s author with strong Communist sympathies, had been an earlier visitor and she contrived an invitation for her husband …” (https://radar.brookes.ac.uk/radar/file/dcce31a4-4cef-4e89-a90c-9dd76c950c42/1/fulltext.pdf).

Rather oddly, Clough does not mention this trip in his autobiography.

Clough wrote that the South African-born scientist Sir Solly Zuckerman (1904-1993), who was studying primate behaviour:

“… wished one of his research baboons on us, as he wanted to study its reactions to ‘bright, intelligent young society’. He was then writing his rather ambiguously entitled book “The Sexual Life of Primates” – so Betsy had quarters on the flat roof at the top of the house for several months.”

The book referred to above was probably “The Social Life of Monkeys and Apes”, published in 1932. Betsy’s stay in Romney’s old house was not entirely successful. It was not:

“… the social success that we had hoped, unresponsive and dirty, we bade our little lodger farewell without regrets. The experience may have been good for Betsy, but I don’t think our children benefitted markedly from the association.”

Clough and his family left Hampstead for Wales at the outset of WW2, keeping a London ‘pied-a-terre’ in Carlton Mews, now demolished. His and Romney’s house in Holly Hill, an edifice altered for Romney by Samuel Bunce (died 1802), has since been used as the studio for an architect’s firm, Hancock Associates, in the 1970s (information from Beth Portwood) and other purposes. In 2012, the architect’s firm ‘6a’ worked on the building to modernise its interior and restore it to a single family dwelling as it had been when Romney acquired it (www.6a.co.uk/projects/more/romneys-house).

The house stands amongst a small cluster of buildings near Fenton House and this charming ensemble makes me think that externally little has changed since these houses were built in the 18th century.

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.

Pelicans in the park

I HAVE BEEN FORTUNATE to have lived in parts of London close to large green open spaces. When I was at secondary school in Highgate (north London), I could walk there from my home in Hampstead Garden Suburb, hardly needing to walk along streets. It was a short distance from my house to the grassy Hampstead Heath Extension. From there, I crossed a road to enter the wooded part of Hampstead Heath through which I walked to the Spaniards Inn. Then a few hundred yards of pavement followed before I entered the pleasant landscaped grounds of Kenwood House. Walking through this lovely park brought me to within a few hundred yards of my senior school.

When I was a student at University College London (‘UCL’), I was able to walk there through green areas most of the way from my family home. By walking the length of Hampstead Heath Extension, and then strolling southwards across the eastern part of Hampstead Heath, I reached South End Green. From there, I had to tramp the streets towards Primrose Hill, where once again my feet were on grass instead of paving stones. Primrose Hill led straight to Regents Park and from that splendid open space, it was a short walk along pavements to UCL.

Since marrying over 27 years ago, we have lived close to the northwest corner of Kensington Gardens. We are about three to four minutes’ walk away from the gardens depending on whether the pedestrian traffic lights are in our favour or not. We can traverse Kensington Gardens, passing close to the so-called Round Pond and then reaching The Serpentine Lake, where maybe one might stop for a coffee at the café by the Lido on the Serpentine. From there, it is not a long distance to the southeast corner of Hyde Park, which is next to Hyde Park Corner, a small green space ringed by busy roads. After crossing Hyde Park Corner, maybe having walked beneath Wellington Arch, which is surmounted by a metal quadriga, one road needs traversing before entering Green Park, which lives up to its name with its expanses of lawn and rows of mature trees. If you wish, you can walk along the northern fringe of Green Park to reach the eastern third of Piccadilly, and then you have arrived in the heart of the West End hardly having stepped upon the pavements lining busy streets.

After walking east through Green Park, one reaches the Mall and the front of Buckingham Palace. Cross the Mall and then you are in St James Park. By crossing this beautiful green space, you will soon reach Parliament Square and beyond it the Thames and the South Bank area.

Let us linger awhile in St James Park. The feature that endears me to this London Park is the St James Park Lake and its rich assortment of waterfowl. The park was established by King Henry VII on marshland watered by the now no longer visible Tyburn River, which runs in underground conduits. The lake, probably designed by the French landscape designer André Mollet (d. before 16 June 1665), began life as a canal dug for King Charles II. The king used it for swimming in the summer and for skating when it froze in the winter (a rare occurrence nowadays, thanks to the so-called ‘global warming’ that many believe is occurring).

There is a pedestrian bridge across the water, two islands, and a fountain, in the lake. A wide variety of ducks, swans, geese, herons, cormorants (or shags), and other birds congregate in and around the water. This is nothing peculiar. You can see the same in The Round Pond, the Serpentine Lake, and many other water bodies that are dotted liberally across Greater London. However, St James Park offers one kind of bird that you will not find anywhere else in London except at the Zoo. The park is home to a small population of pelicans. These creatures are often hard to see as they usually perch on the islands in the lake, but yesterday, the 11th of October 2020, at least three of them were walking fearlessly (it seemed) along the edge of the lake close to admiring visitors including my wife and me.

In 1664, during the reign (1660-1685) of King Charles II of England, Scotland and Ireland, pelicans were first introduced into St James Park. These distinctive long billed birds, which symbolise the Passion of Jesus and the Eucharist in Christian symbolism, were gifts of the Russian Ambassador, who knew that the king appreciated exotic waterfowl. Charles was presented with two grey or Dalmatian pelicans (Pelicanus crispus). Sadly, they did not breed successfully, and the park needed to be replenished with new specimens occasionally. An article in the online version of “Country Life” (www.countrylife.co.uk/out-and-about/dogs/st-jamess-park-pelicans-sparked-cold-war-stand-off-russia-usa-171954), published in January 2018, reveals:

“The Russian Embassy’s custom of occasionally presenting new pelicans continued during and after the Soviet era and other organisations – such as the City of Prague in 2013 – have also added to the birds’ numbers.”

However, a diplomatic incident erupted in the 1960s, when:

“… London’s Royal Parks accepted some American pelicans for the lake in St James’s Park … According to Foreign Office tradition, the presence of the American pelicans resulted from a Cold War rivalry between the American and Soviet Embassies. One day, a newly accredited US Ambassador called on the Foreign Secretary, whose office overlooks the lake. He noticed the pelicans and was informed about their history and origin.

Determined not to be upstaged by the Soviet Ambassador, his opposite number announced that he, too, would be presenting some pelicans – American ones – to grace the lake, an offer that the Royal Parks management accepted gratefully.

When the American pelicans duly arrived, they were, predictably, not friendly to their Russian counterparts. Indeed, rather mysteriously, they failed to flourish and seemed miserable. The US Embassy suspected the Soviet Embassy of harming the American pelicans – which the Russians denied – and relations between the embassies became glacial.”

That incident is something that we did not see recorded on any of the numerous informative signs placed near the perimeter of the lake.

Londoners are most fortunate to have so many green spaces often within easy walking distance from their homes. Many other great cities of the world do have significantly large public green spaces, for example Central Park in New York, Cubbon Park in Bangalore, the Bois de Boulogne in Paris, and Kalemegdan in Belgrade, but few have so many as liberally distributed across their areas as does London. Being within walking distance of both Kensington Gardens and Holland Park during our recent severe month’s long ‘lockdown’ helped raise our spirits during this bleak period. Not only was the walking we did good for our spirits, but it gradually increased the distance that we can walk comfortably before becoming physically fatigued. Even when eventually the pandemic of covid19 dies down, we might well think twice about taking public transport now that we know how pleasant it is to walk instead.

PS: If you wish, you can watch the pelicans feeding in the lake on:  http://www.ipernity.com/doc/adam/50409682

Russian in Russell Square

RUSSELL SQUARE IN London’s Bloomsbury was laid out in 1804 following the demolition of Bedford House. Russell was the surname of the Dukes and Earls of Bedford. Its garden is a pleasant place to relax and contains fountains as well as a lovely café where Italian food is available. The garden was redesigned in 200-2001 by Camden Council, but retains features of the layout of the original garden created by Humphrey Repton (1752-1818) in about 1801.  Visitors to the square cannot but help noticing a huge, flamboyant hotel facing its eastern side. This is the Kimpton Fitzroy Hotel, which was known as the ‘Russell Hotel’ until 2018.

The hotel faced with terracotta coloured stone, which bears the date 1898 on its exuberant façade, was opened in 1900. It was designed by Charles Fitzroy Doll (1850-1929), who designed the dining room on the ill-fated liner, ‘The Titanic’. His design for the building was inspired by the Château de Madrid near Paris (France). The hotel is a remarkably eye-catching building covered with decorative features. A terrace framed by arches and slender pillars runs around the first floor of the edifice. This terrace is decorated by a series of roundish three-dimensional bas-relief coats-of-arms that are best seen with either binoculars or through the zoom lens of a camera. These have caught my eye on many occasions as some of them contain crests that include the mythical/heraldic double-headed eagle, a ‘creature’ that interests me greatly.

The coats-of-arms are of countries that existed in 1898. The double-headed eagle crests contain images of St George slaying a dragon. This suggests to me that these crests represent Imperial Russia rather than Austria-Hungary.  I was able to identify some of the other crests, such as those of the Kingdom of Italy, Portugal, USA, and France. Some of the others represent countries that I am not able to identify.

In 1994, the hotel hosted a meeting that led to the formation of the Russell Group of research universities. More recently, in late 2011, I attended a reunion dinner of alumni of the now defunct University College Hospital Dental School. It was the thirtieth anniversary of my class’s graduation. My memories of the hotel’s interior were of somewhat gloomy but impressive public rooms with much dark marble or similar stonework. The food served at the costly (overpriced) reunion dinner was unremarkable. What struck me was how much some of my fellow students, who were younger than me, had aged. What did not stroke me until some years after that evening was that the exterior of the building which I had entered was studded with double-headed eagles.

Unlike flags that can be easily removed or changed according to what happens to countries, the bas-relief crests on the hotel cannot be changed so easily without damaging the buildings structure. So the Kimpton Fitzroy, once the Russell, bears a curious history of nations some of which have changed considerably since 1898. What amuses me is that the Russian double-headed eagle, which gave way to the hammer and sickle in 1917, survived the Russian Revolution and is now Russia’s symbol once more. It is lucky that the hotel’s management did not attempt to remove it.

Maxim and Ivy: to Russia with love

MEIR HENOCH WALLACH-FINKELSTEIN (1876-1951) is better known as Maxim Maximovich Litvinov. A Bolshevik revolutionary, he became an important Soviet diplomat. In 1930, Stalin appointed him People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs. Earlier on, shortly after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Maxim was sent to London as the Soviet government’s plenipotentiary representative in Great Britain. While in London, he met and married the writer Ivy (née Low; 1889-1977). I have recently discovered that their lives partially overlapped with mine, not temporally but geographically.

BLOG IVY 5

Ivy was living in London’s Hampstead when she and Maxim were courting. They had met in about 1918 at the home of Dr David Eder (1865-1936), a Zionist socialist and a pioneer of psychoanalysis in Britain. David, whom Ivy regarded as a father figure, and his family lived in Golders Green (actually, in Hampstead Garden Suburb at 103 Hampstead Way, not far from our family home).  According to Ivy’s biographer John Carswell (in his book “The Exile: Ivy Litvinov”):

“Over tea in the Express Dairy in Heath Street where they often met, Ivy helped Maxim to improve his English – throughout her life she adored improving people’s English – and she did more: she guided him in reading English literature.”

Today, the building that used to house the Express Dairy in Heath Street is a branch of the Tesco supermarket empire. However, the building still bears the name ‘Express Dairy’ and the date 1889, the year that Ivy was born.

Ivy’s biographer John Carswell (1918-1997) was the son of one of Ivy’s closest friends, the writer and journalist Catherine Carswell (1879-1946). Ivy met Catherine, a close friend of the writer DH Lawrence who lived in Hampstead, after she had written a favourable review of Ivy’s novel “Growing Pains”, which was published in 1913. Catherine lived in Hampstead at Holly Mount. To be close to her friend, Ivy moved to Hampstead. John, who was born at Hollybush House in Holly Hill, met Ivy several times and has written a good account of her life. It reads well and is extremely informative not only about Ivy but also about her husband.

Ivy and Maxim moved to Russia with their two young children in about 1920 and lived there, with small occasional breaks, until the late 1950s. One of these breaks was when Maxim was appointed Soviet Ambassador to the USA between 1941 and 1943. Her stay in the USSR was also punctuated by short holidays abroad. Living in the USSR, Ivy continued her writing as well as teaching English. Long before he died, Maxim fell out of favour with Stalin and lived in fear of arrest and probable execution. However, he died of natural causes in 1951, just in time to miss Stalin’s last great, but unfulfilled, plan, the anti-Semitic ‘Doctors’ Plot’. On his deathbed, he said to Ivy:

“Englishwoman, go home”.

It was not until 1960 that Ivy did return to England.  But, in 1961, she returned to the USSR, where she remained a pensioned widow until July 1972, when she returned to the UK. She settled in Hove, where she lived the rest of her life. Until her dying day, Ivy wrote, published, and was actively involved with the literary world.

Long before her last visit to England, Ivy had made brief visits. In July 1930, Maxim was appointed People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs. Soon after his promotion Ivy accompanied him to Geneva. That same winter, the Litvinovs paid a visit to London. John Carswell, then twelve years old, recalled:

“She took me to a Christmas show of which even the name now escapes me; but what is still vivid is the tall, dominating, fur-coated figure sweeping me across the wintry promenade outside the Golders Green Hippodrome, to a torrent of commentary.”

Reading about Carswell’s memory of Ivy taking him to a Christmas show at the Hippodrome reminded me of seeing pantomimes at this same theatre when I was about John’s age or maybe a year or two less. until the mid-1960s, the Hippodrome (built as a 3000-seat music hall in 1913) was a very active repertory theatre, where many plays that would eventually end up in the West End were premiered. In addition to plays, operas and Christmas pantomimes were staged there. In the 1960s, it became a BBC television studio, and lately it has become a venue for Islamic meetings. Like Carswell, I cannot remember what shows I saw there as a child, but I do remember being impressed by the size and fittings (seats arranged in galleries, boxes, and the vast stage) of the Hippodrome. It was as least as impressive as the grandest of West End theatres.

I enjoyed reading Carswell’s biography not only because it provided some insight into what life was like in the Soviet Union during Stalin’s rule but also because it introduced me to the life of an intriguing woman writer whose love for Maxim led her to spend a large part of her life in the USSR. Another thing that appealed to me is that Carswell provided me with new aspects of the history of Hampstead, a part of London which I know well and where I grew up. It is with some reluctance that I will return this enjoyable biography to our local public library.

 

 

 

 

Polish or Russian

BLOG HOOP 1l Eagle Lodge

 

THE DOUBLE-HEADED EAGLE, the symbol of Albania, has fascinated me ever since I first became interested in the country in about 1967. This much-employed imaginary creature, whose origins go back at least 3000 years before the birth of Christ, is not only the national symbol of tiny Albania but also of Imperial, and now modern, Russia. A year or so ago, I was walking along Golders Green Road in northwest London, one of my childhood haunts, when I saw something I had never noticed before. It was a block of flats on which I spotted a large sculpture of a double-headed eagle. The building is appropriately named ‘Eagle Lodge’.

According to Pam Fox, author of “The Jewish Community of Golders Green” a detailed and fascinating book published in 2016, Eagle Lodge was one of a number of mansion blocks built on the sites of former large villas with extensive grounds that used to line Golders Green Road. Next to the mention of ‘Eagle Lodge’, Ms Fox refers to her endnote number 1, which reads:

“It was designed by a Polish architect who carved the Polish eagle onto its façade, giving the block its name.”

Although I doubt that Ms Fox’s book attracts many Polish nationalist readers, this footnote would certainly upset them. The Polish eagle used heraldically or as a symbol has only one head. Having been subjected to domination by the Russians for many years, to confuse the single-headed eagle of Poland with the double headed version used by their Russian neighbours would not go down too well amongst the Polish fraternity.

As for the “Polish architect”, there is another problem. Eagle Lodge was, according to the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, designed by MV Braikevitch and built 1935-37. Mikhail Vasilievich Braikevitch (1874-1940) was a Russian engineer and art collector born in the Ukraine. I found an interesting pamphlet published by the London Borough of Barnet, which contains the district of Golders Green. Titled “The 1917 Revolution & Barnet’s Russian Heritage”, it says:

“Possibly the most interesting Russian resident was Mikhail Vladimirovitch Braikevitch of Woodstock Avenue. He had been an important engineer in the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, was the mayor of Odessa before the war, and had been a member of the interim government, who ran Russia between February 1917 and the October Revolution. Remarkable as all these things are, it was his art collection which was most important. Having settled in England, he started to collect works of art smuggled out of Russia from fellow refugees – both in London and Paris – and amassed one of the best collections of Russian art outside of Russia itself. On his death in 1940, he left the collection to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, but we can imagine an ordinary house in Golders Green with some of the greatest works of Russian art on the walls.”

It was at Braikevitch’s suggestion and following a visit to his home in Golders Green that the undeservedly lesser known but remarkable Russian composer Nicolas Medtner (1880-1951), a contemporary of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin, shifted from Paris to London in 1935.  The composer and his family settled into a new home on Wentworth Road in Golders Green.

Braikevitch, like Medtner, was buried at Hendon Cemetery and Crematorium, not far from Golders Green.  The architect’s funeral was held at St Philip’s Russian church, Buckingham Palace Road, London. So, all things considered, it is highly likely that the architect of the rather unappealing looking Eagle Lodge with its double-headed eagle was not Polish, and that the bird with two heads has nothing to do with Poland as erroneously suggested by Ms Fox in her end note.  

Military disasters

IT IS ALWAYS PLEASING to read about a subject that is new to me. A friend gave me a copy of “Fall of the Double Eagle” by John Schindler. It deals with the conflict between Austria Hungary (‘AH’) and its enemies Russia and Serbia at the beginning of WW1.

BLOG book

Schindler’s book is clearly written and engaging. It reveals a tale of truly lethal incompetence, that of the military leaders of AH during their pointless attacks on Galicia and Serbia. These were confrontations whose aim appeared to be to satisfy the egos of the arrogant leaders of AH’s military.

With the exception of skilful use of radio interception of Russian signals, everything else that the leaders of AH’s military laid their hands on led to the unnecessary deaths and injuries of a horrendously large number of brave and loyal soldiers. These soldiers, drawn from all of the numerous ethnic groups in the AH Empire, were united in their loyalty to their Habsburg rulers and very brave in battle. However, the incompetence of their superiors rendered their bravery pointless and in most cases their actions resembled those of lemmings running towards a lethal ending.

Despite knowledge of recent examples of modern warfare, the Anglo-Boer War, the Russo-Japanese War, the Balkan Wars, the AH high command made little or no attempt to update military equipment and tactics/strategies. Schindler describes this well, and also the unwillingness of the AH government to invest money on bringing the military up to date. Consequently, when the AH armies came into conflict with the Russians and Serbians, courage and bravery were futile in the face of superior artillery and tactics.

What Schindler describes brilliantly in his book is a tragic epic of incompetence. The military leaders of AH should have had, but did not appear to have had, very bad consciences in the light of the number of fatalities caused by their negligence.

Reading Schindler’s fascinating compendium of official arrogance, refusing to learn from experience, and lack of foresight, during the first years of WW1, made me have worrying thoughts about what is going on around us today during the current pandemic.

I recommend Schindler’s book to anyone interested in WW1 and/or the importance of competent planning by governments.

PS: The inclusion of some maps might have been helpful to assist the reader in following the exciting descriptions of some of the campaigns described.