THE BIENNALE IN Venice was first held in 1895. The original international bi-annual art exhibition was contained in public gardens at the Eastern end of the city of Venice in the Castello district.
Initially, there was a Central Pavilion, opened in 1894. Later, various participating countries built national pavilions, the first being Belgium in 1907. The latest is the Australian pavilion, built only a few years ago.
The national pavilions reflect both the politics and architectural styles prevailing at the time they were built. Therefore, they are at least as interesting as the artworks that take up temporary residence within them at each exhibition.
I will discuss two of the pavilions in this short essay, and hope to write about some of the others at a later date.
The Russian pavilion bears the date 1914 and several double-headed eagles. It was constructed before the 1917 Revolution, and has some traditional Russian architectural features.
Next to the Belgian pavilion, stands the Spanish one. First constructed in 1933, its facade was replaced by a modern brick one in 1952.
Both the Spanish and the Russian pavilions appear to be empty, but for quite different reasons. For the 2022 Biennale, the artist Ignasi Aballi (born 1958 in Barcelona) has left the pavilion empty but shifted its internal walls in an attempt to correct a discrepancy between its original architectural plan and what ended up being constructed. The result is an empty pavilion with a strange internal layout. It was at first disconcerting to discover a pavilion empty of artworks, but soon it became pleasurable to see the strange vistas and connections between neighbouring rooms.
The Russian pavilion, unlike the Spanish, is closed. But it is also devoid of exhibits. Russia was not invited to the Biennale this year. The reason for this was Mr Putin’s unwise decision to invade his neibour, Ukraine.
Here is an excerpt from my new book about Hampstead in north London:
For many centuries, Hampstead has been the haunt of people involved in creative pursuits. So, it was no surprise that the former Express Dairy opposite Louis (patisserie) had at least one interesting cultural connection. In February 1916, the Bolshevik revolutionary Maxim Litvinov (1856-1951) proposed to his future wife Ivy Low in the café inside that branch of Express Dairy. Ivy, a novelist, was born, please note, in 1889 (she died in 1977). At the time he became acquainted with Ivy, Litvinov was with Lenin in London. Ivy did occasional typing for Maxim, and it was not long before they were attracted to one another. Passionate about cinema, he took her to watch films with him and one day he ‘popped the question’ in the Express Dairy. After they married, they lived in Hampstead until the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in October 1917. They did not return to Russia immediately because in January 1918 Maxim Litvinoff was made First Proletarian Envoy to the Court of St. James’s.
According to Zinovy Sheinis in his biography of Maxim first published in 1988, Maxim often went to Hampstead to meet his friends the Klyshkos, who lived on Hampstead High Street. Nikolai Klyshko (1880-1937) was a Bolshevik revolutionary of Polish parentage, who had settled in London and was a fluent Russian speaker. For a brief period, Litvinov lived in Hampstead with Klyshko and his English wife. Sheinis wrote about Maxim’s meeting with Ivy:
“They had met at a friend’s house. Then at a gathering of the Fabian Society. Litvinov was impressed by her knowledge of Tolstoy and Chekhov. Putting on weight, red-haired, of average height, well-mannered, and not very talkative, he made a big impression on the young writer. Her mother, the daughter of a colonel in the British Army, naturally wanted a different match for her daughter and certainly did not want to see her married to an insecure emigre from Russia. As for his religious background, Ivy Lowe simply never gave it a thought. She was herself from a family of Hungarian Jews who had taken part in the Kossuth uprising; in her girlhood she had been a Protestant, then had been converted to Catholicism. The choice of religion was her private affair and concerned no one else.”
After their marriage, they lived in a house, owned by Belgian refugees, in Hampstead’s South Hill Park (number 86). While there, Sheinis related:
“Friends sometimes gathered there in the evenings to discuss the political news; then an argument would flare up, developing into a fierce squabble. It always seemed to Ivy that her husband and his guests would any moment start flinging chairs at one another. At the very height of the dispute, when it was almost at boiling-point, she would leave the kitchen, go into the room, and announce that tea or coffee was ready. The disputants would calm down and drink their tea in peace.”
He also wrote that Ivy:
“… was not interested in and did not understand the political activities of her husband and his friends. To her, it was an alien world. In London, after the October Revolution, she asked her husband if he knew Lenin. Maxim replied that he had known Lenin for a long time. But she had no idea that letters from Lenin were coming to their house and that her flat was the headquarters of Bolshevik emigres.”
Later, they lived in a tiny house in West Hampstead. After that, Litvinov, having become a Soviet diplomat, moved from Hampstead. Despite not being officially accredited by the British, Sheinis noted:
“The Litvinovs were even invited to receptions. Though Soviet Russia was not yet recognised, its powerful influence reached standoffish London, Ivy Litvinova recollected.”
By 1921, the Litvinovs with their two young children, at least one of whom was born in Hampstead, settled in Moscow. Although Litvinov held high governmental posts in the Soviet Union and outside it (as a Soviet diplomat), he and Ivy, like so many other citizens in Stalin’s Russia, were constantly in fear of being arrested and/or killed.
WHILE AWAITING TAKE-OFF from Lisbon’s main airport, our aeroplane was ‘parked’ beside the largest aircraft I have ever seen. Operated by Maximus Air Cargo company, its nose was pointing upwards towards the sky. It was being loaded with freight through an enormous aperture at its front end. The aeroplane was so large that it dwarfed the numerous workers around it and the forklift trucks being used to load its cargo. Even the Airbus 320 craft standing nearby seemed tiny in comparison. As we had to wait for what seemed like ages before we taxied to the runway for take-off, I had plenty of time to stare at it and to take photographs through the window next to my seat. My curiosity increased when I observed that the ‘plane had its make written on the raised section of its nose: Antonov 124-100.
The Antonov aircraft were built mainly during the years that the Soviet Union was in existence. The company that built these freight carrying ‘planes is named after the aircraft designer Oleg Konstantinovich Antonov (1906-1984). Born in the Moscow region, he was the son of a civil engineer. From 1923 onwards, he was deeply involved in aircraft engineering and design. By 1938, he was the leading designer in the aircraft plant headed up by AS Yakovlev (www.antonov.com/en/biography). And in May 1946, he headed up his own aircraft design plant, based in Novosibirsk. By 1948, ‘planes designed by Antonov and his team were being manufactured in Kiev (Kyiv in what is now Ukraine). In 1952, Antonov and his design bureau moved to Kiev. Antonov’s team began designing the AN 124 heavy transport aircraft in the early 1970s. The AN 124’s maiden flight was in 1982, but the vehicle only became known to the world at large when it was exhibited at the Paris Air Show in 1985. The AN 124s were produced at two factories: one in Ulyanovsk (now in Russia) and the other at Kiev (now in Ukraine). One special feature of the AN 24’s design is that its landing gear with 24 wheels is designed both for landing on rough terrain and to enable the ‘plane to kneel down so that its front entrance can be lowered to make loading and unloading easier. About 55 of the AN 124 craft were built between 1982 and 2004. According the uk.flightaware.com website, the AN 124 (registration UR-ZYD), which we saw on the 17th of June 2022 had flown from Leipzig to Lisbon that day and was about to fly on to Cairo (Egypt). It flew to Kigali (Rwanda) from Cairo on the 18th of June. Another website ( www.planespotters.net/airframe/antonov-an-124-ur-zyd-maximus-air-cargo/ejn4jx) revealed that UR-ZYD was built just over 18 years ago, in about 2013/14, making it one of the last to be built.
Maximus Air Cargo, which operates the AN 124, which I saw, is an Abu Dhabi based company, which specialises in transporting larger than usual objects. The company owns one Antonov 124-100, about which its website (www.maximus-air.com/fleet/antonov-124-100) noted:
“The heaviest of the heavyweight cargo lifters. It has a unique self-contained multiple winch and overhead crane system capable of self loading / unloading 120 tonne from front or rear. Can carry 21x Toyota Land Cruisers or 4 x Mi 17 MTV Helicopters without breaking a sweat.”
The aircraft’s maximum range is 6710 nautical miles (‘nm’), but when it is carrying its maximal pay load (120,000 Kg), this reduces to 2420 nm.
I had heard of the Antonov aircraft before, but the example I saw in Lisbon is the first I have seen ‘in the flesh’. I found that seeing this giant was very exciting.
MANY MARKET PLACES in English and Scottish towns have what is called a ‘market cross’. These are often elaborate and ornate structures. One definition of such a building is (according to Wikipedia): “… a structure used to mark a market square in market towns”. Some of them include crosses (of the Christian variety), others do not. A market cross can range in design from a simple cross or obelisk to a significant structure, sometimes serving as a covered shelter.
The market cross in Swaffham, Norfolk, is in the form of a circular shelter topped with a lead covered dome supported by eight plain columns with Doric capitals. The dome is surmounted by a statue of the Roman goddess of corn and agriculture, Ceres. She is depicted holding in her left hand a cornucopia filled with vegetables, and in her right a bundle of heads of corn. This market cross with its statue that harks back to pre-Christian religion does not contain or otherwise display the cross associated with Christianity.
The market cross is a distinctive and attractive feature in the centre of Swaffham’s large, triangular marketplace. Also known as the Butter Cross, it was designed by a Mr Wyatt, who might possibly have been the architect James Wyatt (1746-1813), who specialised in both neo-classical and gothic revival styles. It was completed in 1783 for the politician George Walpole, 3rd Earl of Orford (1730-1791), grandson of Sir Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Orford (1676-1745), who became Britain’s first prime minister. George Walpole, founder of The Swaffham Coursing Club (i.e., hare coursing) in 1776, the first such club in England, was extremely extravagant. To raise money, this decadent and bankrupt fellow sold his grandfather’s collection of 204 old master paintings, which used to hang in Houghton Hall (Norfolk), to Catherine the Great of Russia in 1778. The sale was arranged by James Christie, founder of Christie’s auction house and raised £40,555. Seventy of these paintings were returned briefly to Houghton Hall for a temporary exhibition held there in 2013 (www.tretyakovgallerymagazine.com/articles/%E2%84%964-2013-41/walpole-paintings-houghton-hall-brief-homecoming).
According to a brief history of Swaffham by David C Butler, the market cross in Swaffham was known as the Butter Cross because trading in butter was carried out beneath its dome. In the 18th century, large amounts of locally produced butter were sent to London, where it and other butter from the district was known as ‘Cambridge Butter’.
Restored in 1984, the eye-catching domed structure is, according to David Butler, now a designated scheduled ancient monument. However, it appears to have been ‘de-scheduled’ and re-designated as a ‘listed building’ (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1269570). I am unsure what to make of this, but that need not bother you should you happen to pass through Swaffham, the childhood home of Howard Carter, the discoverer of the grave of Tutankhamun, and the birthplace of Admiral Sir Arthur Knyvet Wilson (1842-1921), a hero of the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882. Should you wish to sit and contemplate the decadent earl’s contribution to Swaffham, I suggest you have a refreshment at an outside table next to a café named after the Ancient Egyptian king discovered by Carter.
THE MARXIST SOCIETY of the University of East Anglia had just held a meeting around it, so we were told by someone working in the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts on the university campus in Norwich. The object around which the political gathering was held is a 35 feet high model of a structure that was never built full size. The Russian architect Vladimir Tatlin (1885-1953) had planned to build a futuristic tower in Petrograd (aka ‘Leningrad’ and ‘St Petersburgh’), an example of Constructivism. The tower, which was to have been 1300 feet high, was planned to celebrate and house The Comintern (3rd International). Hoping to rival Paris’s Eiffel Tower and to symbolise the modernity of Soviet Russia, the tower was never built.
Sometime, back in the early 1970s, it was decided to construct a model of the Tatlin Tower near the Hayward Gallery on London’s South Bank. This was not a simple task because the structure is complex, and proper detailed blueprints were unavailable. To make a model of the Tatlin Tower that was faithful to the designer’s original idea, and which would not topple over, the services of a structural engineer were required. My uncle Sven, who worked for the firm of Felix Samuely and Partners, proved to be the man for the job. Working with the project’s director, Jeremy Dixon, my uncle had to unravel the plans of the structure using photographs of a 17-foot model of the tower that Tatlin had created in 1920 and a few existing images of plans that Tatlin had prepared. There were inconsistencies between Tatlin’s plans and the model produced in 1920. In 1971, Dixon:
“…built small models in balsawood to get it right, and he worked with Sven Rindl of consulting engineer Felix J Samuely & Partners, who generated detailed freehand drawings as they talked” (quoted from “Blueprint”, December 2011)
Dixon wrote about this in Sven’s obituary as follows:
“I particularly remember working with him on the reconstruction of the remarkable tower that Vladimir Tatlin produced as a monument to the Third International, the communist organisation founded in 1919, for the Art in Revolution exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1971. The project required us to go back to first principles to reinvent its extraordinary geometry and structure.
Sven would sit listening and commenting during our complex voyage of discovery, and at the same time he would be drawing. These drawings would be remarkable, elegant, three-dimensional sketches straight off the sketch pad, finished and complete. They were graphic works of art as well as documentation of engineering ideas.”
The model was built with timber inside the Hayward Gallery before being exhibited outside it in 1971 as part of an exhibition called “Art in Revolution: Soviet Art and Design since 1917”.
Forty years later in 2011, another model of the Tatlin Tower was produced, this time made of a more durable material, steel. Once again, the project was overseen by Jeremy Dixon. The completed model was first displayed in the courtyard of London’s Royal Academy. In an advance notice of the project (www.architectsjournal.co.uk/archive/ra-unveils-tatlins-tower), my uncle, who had died in 2007, was given a prominent mention:
“The 10.5m high steel structure in the Annenberg Courtyard was designed by architects Jeremy Dixon of Dixon Jones Architects, Christopher Cross, Christopher Woodward and engineer Sven Rindl. The tower will form part of the Royal Academy’s forthcoming exhibition, Building the Revolution: Soviet Art and Architecture 1915-1935 which opens on 29 October 2011.”
I remember going to view the model and then seeing a small exhibition about it and its construction. The exhibition, which was held inside the Royal Academy, included images of some of the beautifully drawn plans and diagrams created by my uncle.
The steel model of the Tatlin Tower, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 2011, has been lent to the Sainsbury Centre by the academy. Painted in red, this model of an experiment in futuristic architecture stands outside and close to the magnificent building that houses the Centre. The edifice, which is now over 40 years old, but looks like new, was designed by the architects Norman Foster and Wendy Cheesman.
We had no idea that there was a model of Tatlin’s tower next to the Sainsbury Centre when we visited it in September 2021. My wife and I were pleased to see this reminder of a much-missed relative whom we both loved dearly.
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.
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.
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.
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 …”
“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 …”
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:
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.
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.
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.