Philosopher’s stone and UFOs

A SCULPTED STONE stands in a small garden on the north side of All Saints Church in London’s Notting Hill. We have walked past it often during the various ‘lockdowns’ and over many years before these were deemed necessary, always remarking on its satisfying appearance but without questioning its significance. Yesterday, the 8th of March 2021, we entered the garden and examined the abstract stone artwork. It stands on a circular stone base inscribed with the words we had never noticed before:

“JOHN MICHELL 1933 _ 2009 WRITER GEOMETER NATURAL PHILOSOPHER”

By chance, the church was open, and we entered. There, we met one of its clerics and asked him whether the word ‘geometer’ meant anything to him. Like us, he had no idea about that or about Mitchell. My curiosity was aroused. There is plenty about John Michell on the Internet, but to a simple-minded chap like me, it is mostly rather weird, but that will not prevent me having a stab at trying to unravel why he was worth commemorating with a stone in Notting Hill.

Michell’s early life was conventional (www.john-michell-network.org/index.php/about-john-michell): educated at Eton and Trinity College Cambridge, where studied languages but missed examinations by oversleeping; trained as a Russian interpreter for the Royal Navy; painted and exhibited his works; and worked briefly as an estate agent and chartered surveyor.  In 1966, by which time he had moved into one of the properties he managed in Notting Hill, its basement became the London Free School, an alternative community action education project (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/London_Free_School). Around this time, Michell began publishing works on unidentified flying objects (‘UFOs’) and many other unexplained phenomena. His first book, “The Flying Saucer Vision”, published in 1967, was probably:

“… “the catalyst and helmsman” for the growing interest in UFOs among the hippie sector of the counter-culture.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Michell_(writer)).

This work introduced links between UFOs and ley lines, proposed by Alfred Watkins, (1855-1935), which some believe criss-cross the countryside and act as markers for extra-terrestrial spacecraft crewed by aliens who assisted human society early in the history of mankind. Along with two subsequent books, notably his “The View over Atlantis”, and other publications, Michell became an influential figure who believed in the:

“ “sacred geometry” of the Great Pyramid. Alfred Watkins’s ‘The Old Straight Track’ had come up with the concept of ley lines in 1925. John took it much further, believing that these alignments of traditional sites were a kind of feng shui of the landscape. They made up a sort of Druids’ transport system, he said, which harnessed a mysterious power that whisked large rocks across the countryside.” (www.theguardian.com/books/2009/may/06/john-michell-obituary)

As time went on, Michell delved deeper and deeper into phenomena like these. His knowledge of the hidden forces was used to help design the pyramid stage used at the Glastonbury Festival in 1971. It was because of him that Glastonbury an epicentre of New Age ideas and events (www.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/books/03michell.html).

Unfamiliar as many of his ideas and theories are Michell was a serious thinker:

“His approach uniquely combined the thought of Plato and of Charles Fort. Blending scholarship and deep intuition, John often returned to his favourite subjects: Platonic idealism, sacred geometry, ancient metrology, leys and alignments, megaliths, astro-archaeology, strange phenomena, simulacra, crop circles, UFOs, the Shakespeare authorship controversy, and the nature of human belief.” (www.john-michell-network.org/index.php/about-john-michell)

You have heard of Plato, but Charles Fort (1874-1932) might be less familiar. This self-taught American researcher and writer, a contrarian, specialised in discovering and considering the many examples of phenomena that defied explanation by conventional (accepted) scientific methods and theories. When Michel wrote an introduction to one of Fort’s books, “Lo!”, he remarked:

“Fort, of course, made no attempt at defining a world-view, but the evidence he uncovered gave him an ‘acceptance’ of reality as something far more magical and subtly organized than is considered proper today.” (quoted in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Fort).

Not being inclined to philosophy, it would be unwise for me to attempt to explain how Michell’s ideas display the influences of both Plato and Fort.

Michell felt it necessary to question orthodoxy. His book on the identity of the true author(s) of Shakespeare’s plays, “Who Wrote Shakespeare?” examined this question thoroughly but received mixed reviews. Several of his other publications questioned the commonly accepted archaeologists’ interpretations of their findings, suggesting that their refusal to take ideas about ley lines seriously was a grave error. In the 1980s, two academic archaeologists investigated his ideas and found that he had erroneously included natural rocks and monuments that were created far later than during the prehistoric era as markers for his supposed ley lines. When the replacement of feet and inches by the Metric metre was introduced, Michell objected strongly to the abandonment of a measurement that he believed dated back to earliest times and established an Anti-Metrication Board to oppose the change.

Michell had one son, Jason Goodwin, born in 1964. His mother was the writer Jocasta Innes (1934-2013), who was married twice to Richard B Goodwin. Jason, a Byzantine scholar, is a well-known, prize-winning author, whose books my wife has enjoyed greatly.

Michell became a cult figure in Notting Hill, associated with the ‘local vibe’ and The Rolling Stones. He took members of the group to Stonehenge to scan the heavens for saucers (https://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/03/books/03michell.html). He smoked marijuana regularly, publicly encouraged the use of mind-altering drugs, and, surprisingly, his favourite newspaper was the right-wing oriented “The Telegraph”. At Notting Hill, he lived at number 11 Powis Gardens, within easy reach of All Saints Church, where the stone monument to his memory can be found. It was sculpted by John de Pauley, who explained (www.constructingtheuniverse.com/JM%20Memorial%20Sculpture.html):

“’The idea for the sculpture comes from Neolithic stone spheres. Their purpose remains a mystery. The geometrical construction is of a Platonic solid, 12 projecting tumescence making an icosahedron.”

Knowing this and a little about Michell, it seems an entirely suitable memorial to a bold and original thinker.

Finally, that word ‘geometer’: it is simply the name given to a mathematician, who studies geometry. One of Michell’s may paintings has the title “The Geometer’s Breakfast”.

A new arrival above the theatre

I HAVE NEVER SMOKED. Therefore, when smoking was banned in cinemas, I was not upset by this ruling. The Coronet cinema in Notting Hill Gate was one of the last cinemas in London to enforce the ban. Smokers sat upstairs in the circle and non-smokers sat downstairs in the stalls. Despite the smoking, it was a delight seeing films at the Coronet because the cinema was housed in what was once a theatre that first opened in 1898. The original interior décor, though in need of some restoration had been preserved.

The theatre was designed by the theatre architect William George Robert Sprague (1863 – 1933), who also designed the Novello and Aldwych theatres in London. Audiences at the Coronet were able to see famous actors such as Ellen Terry and Sarah Bernhardt on its stage. From 1923, the Coronet became used as a cinema, the screen being positioned in the theatre’s proscenium arch. In 2004, the Coronet was bought by Kensington Temple, who used it for prayer meetings. When not being used for religious purposes, films were screened there for public audiences as before.

In 2014, a fringe theatre group, The Print Room, which left its original premises in nearby Hereford Road, acquired the Coronet and began using it as a theatre once more. A new stage was constructed. It covers the area of the theatre where the stalls seats used to be. The audience sits in the steeply raked seats of the former circle seating area. Where the stalls used to be, has been converted to a quirkily decorated bar area. Because the bar is just beneath the stage, the bar is closed during performances to prevent noise from it being heard in the auditorium during a show. All of this has been done without changing what has been left of the place’s old internal décor.

The Coronet occupies a corner plot. Its exterior has neo-classical decorative features with pilasters, pediments etc. There is a dome high above the main entrance, which is located at the corner of Notting Hill Gate and Hillgate Street. For as long as I can remember (about 30 years), the lead-covered dome was unadorned.

The covid19 pandemic began closing London in about March 2020. The Print Room, like all other theatres in the country, closed. As it is close to shops that we use, we passed it regularly. During the summer, the theatre was covered with scaffolding whilst builders redecorated its exterior. By the end of summer, the scaffolding was removed.

Several weeks later, I could not believe my eyes. A statue had been placed on the top of the dome. The figure on the dome appears to be bound by ropes or cables and his or her face is covered by the sort of mask one might wear if one was a beekeeper. The figure is holding what looks like a large open book or an artist’s palette in its left hand, whilst pointing a pen or artist’s paintbrush into the distance with the right hand. Close examination of the sculpture reveals that at present the ropes are holding down a protective covering. I look forward to seeing what is being concealed.

I was curious about the sudden appearance of a statue on the dome. It turns out that when the Coronet was built, the dome did bear a statue (www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/CoronetTheatreNottingHillGate.htm). When it was taken down, I cannot discover, but it was more than 30 years ago. Planning to replace it began in September 2018 (www.rbkc.gov.uk/idoxWAM/doc/Revision%20Content-2133806.pdf?extension=.pdf&id=2133806&location=VOLUME2&contentType=application/pdf&pageCount=1). The planning document submitted by the Studio Indigo architectural practice reveals:

“Historical images and photos of the Coronet show that there was at some point a statue on top of the dome roof. The statue appeared to be of a life size human figure, the details of which were difficult to precise.

The proposals include for a life size bronze sculpture of the artist Gavin Turk as the famous English portrait artist [posing as] Sir Joshua Reynolds. The statue is based on the Alfred Drury sculpture which stands in the Anneberg Courtyard of Burlington House in the grounds of the Royal Academy, and is a design by contemporary artist Gavin Turk. The new statue celebrates the notional idea of a theatrical/cultural building which had a figure calling the people into the venue.”

Looking at old pictures of the Coronet, it seems that the new sculpture will not resemble the original. If the sculpture that now perches on the dome is by Gavin Turk, a leading British sculptor, it will be in good company. Not far away, there is an abstract sculpture by Antony Gormley on the roof of Holland Park school.  

Noticing that a statue had arrived on the dome of the Coronet hit me dramatically. I was very pleased to see it as it will enhance a theatre which is already remarkable for the high quality of its productions. Furthermore, it is heartening that the only remaining elegant edifice on Notting Hill Gate’s main thoroughfare, mostly ruined architecturally in the 1960s and 1970s, is being well-maintained and tastefully improved.

Fire! Fire!

WALKING ALONG THE ALBERT Embankment upstream from Lambeth Bridge, most people’s eyes will probably be focussed on the River Thames and the lovely views of the Houses of Parliament, Millbank Tower, and the Tate Britain. However, it is worth turning your eyes inland in order not to miss a wonderful example of, in my uninformed opinion, art-deco or, if you are fussy about distinctions, art-moderne architecture, whose decorative façade faces the river. Just in case you were wondering how these styles of architecture from the same time period differ, deco lays emphasis on ‘verticality’ and moderne on ‘horizontality’ (http://theantiquesalmanac.com/chicvssleek.htm). Important as this distinction might be to connoisseurs, the building on Albert Embankment is worth at least a few minutes’ examination.

The building in question is the former London Fire Brigade Headquarters, still a functioning fire station. The structure is built of bands of bricks separated by thin horizontal lines of white stone that form the top and bottom frames of the lines of windows, each consisting of lattices of rectangular windowpanes which are wider than they are tall. These design features help define the building’s horizontal sleekness, which is why it is considered by at least one authority (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1392337)  to be ‘moderne’ rather than ‘deco’.  However, it was not this that first attracted us to the building but its decorative panels at various levels and dramatic doorways at ground level.

The doorways, which are wide enough to admit the passage of vehicles are closed with sets of folding doors, consisting of four panels, each of which has a brass window covering (grille) with a geometric design. Some of the building’s decorative panels depict firefighters at work. These are in bas-relief and made of a white coloured stone. These were made by Nicholas Babb (probably Stanley Nicholson Babb; 1873-1957). Other panels, at a higher level, adorn the central section of the façade. These are also bas-relief in white stone but  have backgrounds formed of gold coloured mosaic tiles.  Created by Gilbert Bayes (1872-1953), who studied alongside Babb at the Royal Academy, their subject matter is borrowed from ancient mythology.

The building itself was designed by EP Wheeler, architect to the London County Council. He was assisted by G Weald. Wheeler also designed the ‘horizontalist’ building on Charing Cross Road in 1939, which was the former home of St Martins School of Art (www.designcurial.com/news/foyles-war-4354398), where my mother worked as a sculptor during the 1960s. The Fire Brigade building was opened by King George VI and his wife on the 21st of July 1937, not a moment too soon, given what was in store for London soon afterwards: the WW2 Blitz, which put great strain on the Fire Brigade.

To the left of the façade, there is a yard in which stands a tall brick tower. This is the so-called ‘drill tower’, used for training firefighters. The building, in addition to having been the Brigade’s headquarters, was also a training centre. The rear of the building, which I have not yet seen, has three layers of balconies, from which members of the public used to be able to observe parades and displays of firefighting skills. Today, the edifice is still used as a fire station but not as the HQ of the Brigade, which is now in Union Street, Southwark.

I enjoy seeing art-deco (and ‘moderne’) architecture. While there are plenty of examples of this in London, which you can spot if you keep your ‘eyes peeled’, the greatest concentration of this style of building that I have seen is in central Bombay in India. Both the Marine Drive and the Oval Maidan in south Bombay are treasure troves for lovers of this style. So, as a lover of this style that broke away from traditional architectural styles in the 1920s and 1930s, I was delighted to have stumbled across the wonderful Brigade building on the Albert Embankment.           

In memoriam: do not pull it down

TEARING DOWN STATUES or defacing them is nothing new, as some might believe after hearing about dunking Edward Colston’s toppled statue into a river in Bristol.

Violette Szabo

When I visited Albania in 1984, I saw statues of Josef Stalin and the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha prominently placed in public spaces. Neither of these two gentlemen can be seriously considered to be God’s best gifts to humanity. Many of their actions caused great fear and suffering in both the former USSR and in Albania.

In 1991, Albania’s long (1944-1991) Communist regime crumbled ignominiously. In February 1991, citizens of Albania’s capital, Tirana, attached cables to a huge statue of Enver Hoxha, an admirer of Stalin, and pulled it down. Many of the police guarding the huge monument to repression assisted the people to cause this bronze statue to topple to the ground.

Years later, in 2016, we visited Albania. In the centre of Tirana, there is a national museum of art, which was present when I visited the city in 1984. Back then, and even in 2016, there was a good collection of fine works created in the Social Realism style, so popular amongst Communist regimes. After seeing the gallery in 2016, we happened to bump into one of the museum’s curators. I showed him a picture of a sculpture I had taken in 1984 and asked him if he recognised it. Without answering, he invited us to follow him to a yard at the rear of the gallery.

There, in the yard, stood the sculpture I had photographed in 1984. More interestingly, it was not alone. It stood next to a giant statue of Lenin and another one of Stalin and another large object wrapped in cloth tied down with ropes. The curator explained that these statues, although they depicted people whose ideas and actions had done much harm to the Albanian people, were valuable works of art, not simply because of their great scrap metal value but, more importantly, they helped record the country’s history. In addition, he explained that they were fine examples of their genre. The bundled-up object standing in that yard was, he explained, too sensitive to uncover as it would upset many people viewing it. It was part of an enormous statue of Enver Hoxha, who had not yet been forgiven by many Albanians. Clearly, Lenin and Stalin were thought to be less disturbing as they were not covered up, but sufficiently upsetting to be confined to a relatively unvisited yard behind the gallery open to the public.

Both Trafalgar and Parliament Squares in London contain statues that might cause offense to those whose knowledge of history is more than superficial, yet their actions have not always been 100% reprehensible. Fortunately for these monuments, many of the kind of people who might be inclined to topple statues do not usually read much detailed history.

There are some statues or monuments, which remember people, whose actions cannot rationally be called into question. One of these is that of Edward Jenner (1749-1823), whose work formed the foundation of something on which we are currently becoming extremely dependent: vaccination. Only someone out of his or her mind would consider pulling down or defacing his statue.

Recently, when strolling along an embankment, I spotted a monument close to the River Thames outside Lambeth Palace. Erected in 2009, it commemorates the Special Operations Executive (‘SOE’), whose covert activities in no little way helped to bring about the defeat of Nazi Germany’s forces during WW2. The plinth with metal commemorative plaques is topped with the head of a woman with high cheekbones, a serious, determined face, and luxuriant curly hair, tied back. She stares out across the River Thames toward the Houses of Parliament. The bust depicts Violette Reine Elizabeth Szabo (1921-1945), whose actions behind enemy lines in France were designed to sabotage German military activity. She was one of many women including Noor Inayat Khan (1914-1944), of Indian aristocratic heritage, who risked and lost their lives to assist in the defeat of a repressive regime.

SOE was staffed by both men and women of many nationalities, and their bravery is recorded on this simple memorial outside Lambeth Palace.  Although simple in design, the expression depicted in the face of Violette Szabo gave me a feeling of the great determination of those brave souls who gave up their lives in horrific circumstances. They did so in the hope, fulfilled, that we could enjoy life in Britain and elsewhere without having to bear the burden of inhumane dictatorial rule.  

Unlike Stalin and Hoxha, statues of the purely benevolent such as Jenner and Szabo should be allowed to stand undisturbed for ever, well, at least, so long as they can survive London’s ever-changing weather conditions and pollution.

Where there are dolphins

I HAVE NEVER VISITED MOSCOW, but I imagine that the huge, rather forbidding looking apartment block on Grosvenor Road facing the River Thames, would not look out of place in the Russian city. Covering seven and a half acres of land, built with twelve million bricks and almost seven thousand external window units, and containing at least twelve hundred flats, this mammoth building complex, which has been home to many of the famous and infamous, was completed in late 1936. This enormous residential complex is called Dolphin Square.

Maps surveyed in 1869 and 1913 reveal that the land on which Dolphin Square was built, which is west of St Georges Square, used to be the site of the several long buildings that together made up the Royal Army Clothing Department and its storage depots. Before that, the land was occupied by the work premises of the developer and builder Thomas Cubitt (1788-1855), who built much of Belgravia and Pimlico. A few years after his death, the army leased the site and the depot stood there until 1933, when the lease reverted to the Duke of Westminster (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Army_Clothing_Depot).

An American firm, Fred F French Companies, bought the freehold of the former army clothing compound, and then, discovering it had insufficient funds to develop it, sold it on to Richard Costain Ltd. Costain commissioned the architect Stanley Gordon Jeeves (1888-1964), whose other works include the now demolished Earls Court Exhibition Centre and the still standing large, art-deco Latimer Court at Hammersmith, to design the residential complex that exists today. Writing soon after it opened, the writer AP Herbert (1890-1971) wrote a book extolling the virtues of Dolphin Square. He wrote that it is:

“…a city of 1,250 flats, each enjoying at the same time most of the advantages of the separate house and the big communal dwelling place …”

Commenting on the fact that the complex included a restaurant, he wrote:

“…fortunate wives will not have enough to do. A little drudgery is good for wives, perhaps. The Dolphin lady may be spoiled.” (quotes from www.theundergroundmap.com/article.html?id=2792)

From outside the building, Dolphin Square looks monolithic and forbidding. However, on entering the huge courtyard within it, this impression changes. For, the courtyard contains a lovely garden, which was designed by Robert Sudell in about 1937 (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1455668). Though much modified since then, the formal garden retains much of the original design concept including an axial avenue lined with chestnut trees. Appropriately, the middle of the garden is adorned with a fountain with three sculpted dolphins. Created by the sculptor James Butler (born 1931), this was placed in 1987 to replace an earlier fountain. This pleasant garden would be one good reason to entice me to live in this extraordinarily massive complex. 

As mentioned already, Dolphin Square offers its residents a restaurant. It also contains an arcade of shops, a café, a gymnasium, a swimming pool, a laundrette, underground parking, a bar, a brasserie, a hotel, a tennis court, and more. And all of this is within a short walk of Westminster and the Houses of Parliament. This proximity to the centre of government means that many MPs have made use of Dolphin Square as their London ‘pads’.

Apart from politicians, including Harold Wilson, William Hague, David Steele, and many others, Dolphin Square has been home to people of fame and notoriety. According to an article in Wikipedia, some of these include Oswald Mosley and his wife Diana Mitford; the novelist Radclyffe Hall; Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies; the comedian Bud Flanagan; the spy John Vassall; and the tennis player Rod Laver. Princess Anne lived in Dolphin Square briefly in 1993, General de Gaulle based his Free French Government in part of the Square in WW2, and Sarah, daughter of Sir Winston Churchill, was:

“…evicted from the square for hurling gin bottles out of her window.” (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33785352).

It seems that a fascinating book about the residents of Dolphin Square is waiting to be written.

I had passed Dolphin Square plenty of times before entering its garden recently, but until now I had no idea that this far from attractive building was home to such a fascinating range of people nor that it contained such a fine garden. Just as one should not judge a book by its cover, it is a mistake to judge Dolphin Square from its exterior.

Little Nell and the British Empire

Here’s poor lil’ Nell

  With a fresh fish under each arm

Crazed, scarred, and cracking

CAN YOU BELIEVE that although we have walked through London’s Hyde Park so many times (in order to take exercise as is recommended by our great leader, a biographer of Winston Churchill, and his government) that there are still many things in it for us to discover? Walking in the southwest corner of the park recently, we saw four man-made items that caught our interest.

An octagonal Victorian bandstand, which was built in 1869 and stood in Kensington Gardens, was moved to its current location in Hyde Park not far from Hyde Park Corner in 1886 (www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/hyde-park/). It is said that this bandstand has good acoustics; I have yet to hear music played here. In the 1890s, concerts were held at the bandstand three times a week. Currently, in normal times, that is when there is no pandemic, the bandstand is used occasionally for concerts and other events as well as becoming part of the annual Winter Wonderland fairground held in Hyde Park.

The bandstand, which was/is often used by military bands, is about 100 feet northwest of a black coloured bronze equestrian statue depicting St George slaying a mammoth dragon. Its coiled, scale covered body, my wife considered accurately, resembles a haphazard pile of discarded lorry tyres. The stone base is surrounded by a frieze depicting cavalrymen in action. The equestrian sculpture stands in front of a low wall which bears the names of cavalry regiments involved in WW1. The monument, though erected before WW2, also those involved those:

“… in the war / 1939-1945 / and on active service thereafter.”

The monument, The Cavalry Memorial, which used to stand nearer Park Lane was unveiled in 1924 by Field Marshal, The Earl of Ypres (formerly Sir John French; 1852-1925) and the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VIII, who reigned for 11 month). The knight on the horse was modelled on:

“…a 1454 effigy of the Earl of Warwick, mounted on horseback holding an uplifted sword, and the horse on a C15 century engraving by Albrecht Dürer.” (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1278118).

The sculptor was Captain Adrian Jones (1845-1938). Jones was an army veterinary surgeon between 1867 and 1890. He took up painting and sculpting after he retired, specialising in depicting animals. His best-known work, created in 1912, is not far from the cavalry monument: it is the Quadriga that adorns the top of the Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner.

The cavalry monument is a mere 200 yards north by north-east of a modest memorial to a fairly recent tragedy that stands beside the South Carriage Drive. It remembers the eleven soldiers who were killed by a bomb planted by IRA terrorists near this spot on the 20th of July 1982.

Returning to a path that leads north from a spot between the Cavalry Memorial and the bandstand, you will quickly reach a small art-nouveau structure. Formerly a fountain, this is a depiction of an almost naked girl wearing a hat and holding a fish under each of her arms. We asked a gardener working nearby if he knew anything about this curious garden sculpture. He informed us that it was a sculpture of Little Nell, a character in “The Old Curiosity Shop” by Charles Dickens and that it used to stand in Hyde Park’s Rose Garden.

The sculpture, created by William Robert Colton (1867-1921) has been variously known as the ‘Memorial Fountain’, ‘The Mermaid Fountain’, ‘The Colton Memorial’, and, much later, as ‘Little Nell’ (www.victorianweb.org/sculpture/colton/7.html). It is not clear why Colton’s sculpture should be associated with Dicken’s character, Nell.  What we see today is a concrete cast of the original that was made in 1897. It looks as if it could do with a lot of tender love and care as it seems to be crazed, cracked and scarred.

Colton created various public sculptures in London, but his work is found further afield. I read (www.speel.me.uk/sculpt/coltonwr.htm) that:

“Important in his career was a series of Indian portraits in the mid-1900s, including statues and busts of the Maharajah of Mysore and the Dewan of Mysore, and a monument to J. Tata, including allegorical figures, for Bombay.”

I have probably seen some of his Indian works both in Mysore and Bangalore but took little notice of them. A website (http://mysore.ind.in/chamaraja-circle) extolling the virtues of Mysore reveals:

“The French born celebrated sculptor of the time, William Robert Colton was commissioned to execute a statue in memorial of the maharaja. He is the same sculptor who executed many famous sculpture in India including the statue of Sir K Seshadri Iyer, at Cubbon Park in Bangalore, who was the Dewan of Mysore State from 1883 to 1901. Also the 8 bronze tigers of Mysore Palace too are the works of Colton.

He spend[sic] some three months in Mysore during 1912 for the preliminary study for making the statue of Chamaraja Wodeyar. The statue was executed in white Italian marble in England … In the statue the maharaja is portrayed in standing posture in military uniform.

Though Colton was famous for executing lifelike sculptures, one glitch was the in the appearance of the face of the maharaja. There was not much resemblance between face of the maharaja and the face of the statue. When the statue finally arrived in Mysore in 1918, the queen the late maharaja Chamaraja Wodeyar was not happy with this aspect.”

Colton, whose father was an architect, was born in Paris, but was taken to England when he was three years old. He studied art first at the Lambeth School of Art and then at the Royal Academy.

Three of the items, which I have described, have connections with Britain’s former empire. Some of the cavalrymen remembered on the Cavalry Memorial, fought in not only in WW1 but also in Egypt, South Africa, and British India. Several major cavalry units were based in India and included soldiers of Indian origin. The other item with an association with part of the former British Empire is the small lady with two fishes, created by an artist who has sculpted some notable Indians. The bandstand near these two park features is typically Victorian and octagonal, and not markedly different in appearance from one that stands in Cubbon Park in Bangalore (India). And all of these are but a few minutes leisurely stroll from Apsley house, the former home of Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852), who fought in India in the late 18th century.

Accidental death of an architect

ELEGANT BELGRAVE SQUARE is but a stone’s throw from Hyde Park Corner. Many of its neo-classical buildings are home to diplomatic missions and their staff. As with many London squares, the centre of Belgrave Square contains a private garden. That at Belgrave Square is adorned with sculptures, mostly statues of eminent people. At each of its four corners, there is one. The people depicted at these four positions are Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460); Christopher Columbus (1451-1506); Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), the liberator of Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama; and José San Martin (1778-1850), liberator of Argentina, Chile, and Peru. Almost facing San Martin on the north east corner of the square is a statue of Sir Robert Grosvenor, First Marquess of Westminster (1767-1845), upon whose estate Belgrave Square was built.

Elias George Basevi

On the eastern side of the square, close to the statue of Simon Bolivar and within the garden, there is a sculpture by Enzo Plazzotta (1921-1981), which was completed after his death by Mark Holloway. It is called “Homage to Leonardo. The Vitruvian Man”.

Interesting as all the above-mentioned are, the sculpture that intrigued me most is a bust of Elias George Basevi (1794-1845), who is described on his plinth as ‘architect’. I guessed that he was likely to have been involved in the design of Belgrave Square, and I was right. According to a plaque on the base of Grosvenor’s statue, he designed the neo-classical terraces surrounding the square for the Haldimand Syndicate, which was under the control of the brothers George (1781-1851) and William (1784-1862) Haldimand, of Swiss origin, sons of a banker born in Switzerland and an English mother. In 1825, William, a Member of Parliament:

“… negotiated successfully with the 2nd Earl Grosvenor, Seth Smith and William Cubitt for a 99-year lease on Belgrave Square, where he had 49 houses built: 16 to be owned by George Haldimand, 14 by himself, eight by Prevost, four by Smith and three by Cubitt…” (www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1820-1832/member/haldimand-william-1784-1862)

The Haldimands were related to Frederick Haldimand (1718-1791), who became Governor of Quebec in 1777. Thomas Cubitt (1788-1855), who was involved in creating the square, was a major Victorian property developer.

As for Basevi, at first, I thought that his surname sounded Italian. His family might have come from that country as its origins were Sephardic Jewish. The Basevi surname is particularly associated with Sephardic Jews in Verona (https://judaism_enc.enacademic.com/2089/BASEVI). His father, Joshua, usually known as ‘George’, was a London City merchant (www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/2616-basevi-george-joshua). Elias George’s aunt, George’s sister Maria (née Basevi), was married to Isaac D’Israeli, whose son was Benjamin Disraeli, Earl of Beaconsfield (1804-1881), who was Prime Minister between 1874 and 1880. In 1810, Elias became a pupil of the great architect John Soane (1753-1837), who specialised in creating in the neo-classical style. According to the Dictionary of National Biography (‘DNB’) (https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/1615), from which I have gleaned much information about Elias, he:

“… also studied at the Royal Academy Schools, where Soane had recently been appointed professor of architecture. In 1815 he visited Paris with his brother, and on completion of his architectural training in 1816 he embarked on a three-year study tour of Italy and Greece, staying the longest in Rome and Athens, but also travelling extensively elsewhere in Italy and even visiting Constantinople.”

Regarding Belgrave Square, the DNB relates:

“Basevi designed and handled the construction of the terraced houses making up the four sides of the square (1825–40), though not the four detached villas at the corners. He treated the stuccoed terraces of eleven or twelve houses on each side as single palatial façades, giving each a central columnar portico and end pavilions in a similar manner to John Nash’s terraces in Regent’s Park … The financial success of this speculative development during an economically depressed period was due in large part to Basevi’s precise and scholarly attention to detail, not just in the design of the individual houses but also in the paving, street furniture, and composition of the square as a whole.”

Elias Basevi’s other projects included, to give just a few examples, St Thomas, Stockport, Cheshire (1822–5); work at several country houses; a building at Balliol College Oxford; Beechwood House and The Elms in Highgate; and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, whose construction was completed after his death. Beechwood House was built for the architect’s brother Nathaniel, a barrister, in 1840, who was married to a niece of Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850).

Noticing Basevi’s buildings in Highgate, I looked at John Lloyd’s “History, Topography, and Antiquities of Highgate”, published in 1888, and discovered more about Basevi. He wrote that the Basevi family had been prominent in the Anglo-Jewish community. One member of the family, Napthali, the grandfather of Benjamin Disraeli’s mother, was an early President of The Jewish Board of Deputies, which was involved in the struggle for the emancipation of the Jews. The Basevis moved away from the Jewish faith as did their kinsmen the Disraelis.

Elias Basevi married Frances Agneta Biscoe. They produced eight children, one of whom was given the name James Palladio Basevi (1832-1871), who became an officer in the Royal Engineers.

On a personal note, I attended Highgate School between 1965 and 1970. Some years later, I acquired a copy of the “Highgate School Register 1833-1988”. Today, I looked up ‘Basevi’ in the index of pupils and discovered that in March 1840, James Palladio Basevi joined the school. This son of the architect joined the school two years after the Reverend John Bradley Dyne (1809-1898) had become headmaster. Dyne was to raise the school’s reputation considerably.  Other Basevi family members attended the school were William Augustus Basevi (joined January 1841), George Henry Basevi (joined January 1842) Frederick Biscoe Basevi (joined April 1844), Charles Edward Basevi (joined June 1844). All of these fellows were sons of the architect of Belgrave Square. Why they went to Highgate School is a bit of a mystery. Part of the reason might have been that their uncle, Nathaniel, had his home at Beechwood, a short walk from the school. however, their father, the architect lived in central London. The historian Alan Palmer, who used to teach at the school, wrote that out of the 43 graduates of Dyne’s first ten years, only 16 came from homes near the school. His reputation as a headmaster was already excellent by the time that the first of the architect’s sons entered the school, which attracted boarders.

Elias, who became a Member of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and a Fellow of both the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Society, ended his life in a frightening way. The DNB relates his tragic ending:

“He died on 16 October 1845, aged fifty-one, after falling through an opening in the floor of the old bell chamber of the west tower of Ely Cathedral while inspecting repairs. His remains were buried in Bishop Alcock’s chapel at the east end of the cathedral.”

The bust of Elias George Basevi is smaller than the other commemorative sculpture placed in and around Belgrave Square and easy to miss if you are walking around the square. I only noticed it because I was watching two people walking with their dogs within the square’s private garden. Had I not seen the bust, I might have never explored the life of this man whose family had connections with Highgate, where I attended secondary school.

An almost secret garden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bust among the books

A WHITE STONE BUST depicting a man wearing a jacket and a waistcoat is perched on a pile of books carved in the same material and stands on a marble pedestal in the centre of the open access bookshelves in the public lending library on Hornton Street in London’s Kensington. His face has copious mutton-chop sideburns but neither moustache nor beard. The person depicted is James Heywood (1810-1897), who founded the first public library in Kensington in about 1870. His sculptural portrait in the library was created by Middlesex born James Adams-Acton (1830-1910), some of whose other busts include representations of Emperor Caesar Augustus, John Wesley, and ‘Pharaoh’s daughter’ (www.artuk.org/discover/artists/adams-acton-john-18301910).

Heywood, who was born in Manchester, was a man of many achievements (www.gracesguide.co.uk/James_Heywood). Son of the banker Nathaniel Heywood, James studied at the universities of both Edinburgh and Geneva before joining the family bank at Manchester. On inheriting a large sum from his uncle, he left the bank and matriculated at Trinity College Cambridge in 1829, where he continued to study but did not graduate. In 1838, he was admitted to the Inner Temple in London, where he was called to the Bar but did not practise as a barrister. In that same year, James became a founder member of the Manchester Geological Society. The next year, he was one of the founders of the Manchester Athenaeum, which provided reading rooms and lectures.

Heywood’s interests also included statistics as can be seen from the citation that was presented in 1839, when he was a successful candidate for Fellowship of the prestigious Royal Society  (https://catalogues.royalsociety.org/CalmView/Record.aspx?src=CalmView.Catalog&id=EC%2f1839%2f08&pos=6).:

“James Heywood, Esq of Trinity College, Cambridge, residing at 17 Cork Street, London, Barrister of the Inner Temple, author of a Report on the Geology of the Coal District of South Lancashire, published in the Transactions of the British Association, & also of a Report on the state of the population in Miles Platting, Manchester, published in the Journal of the Statistical Society of London; a gentleman much attached to science, being desirous of becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society, we the undersigned, do, from our personal knowledge, recommend him as deserving of that honor, & as likely to be a useful & valuable member.”

So, by 1839, Heywood was residing in London. In addition to his scientific work, he was involved in politics. Between 1847 and 1857 he represented the constituency of Lancaster Northern. He was a member of the Whig/Liberal Party. In 1859, he moved to Kensington (Kensington Palace Gardens), where in about 1870 he established Kensington’s first free public library at Notting Hill Gate. Heywood was a Unitarian. His home in Kensington was close to the current location of a Unitarian church, which was only established on this site in 1887. However, before that, in 1867, the Unitarians began meeting in Kensington at Sir Isaac Newton’s old home, now demolished, in Church Lane. The history of the Kensington Unitarians, found at  www.kensington-unitarians.org.uk/images/EssexChurchInKensington_forInternet.pdf reveals that:

“The congregation was growing under the Chairmanship of James Heywood, MA, FRS, MP, ‘one of Kensington’s most distinguished citizens’…”

The church moved to its present site near the Mall Tavern in the 1880s.

The free library, which Heywood created in Kensington and was opened on the 15th of August 1874, was located at ‘106, High Street, Notting Hill”, according to “The Catalogue of Mr James Heywood’s Free Public Library”, published in 1879 (and viewable on Google Books). The ‘High Street’ is now named ‘Notting Hill Gate’. If the numbering was the same then as it is today, then 106 would have been on the north side of the street just west of Pembridge Road, roughly between where Tescos and Mark and Spencers Simply Food stores stand currently. Today, the Notting Hill Gate branch of Kensington’s public libraries stands on the corner of Pembridge Road and Pembridge Square.

Heywood’s library was open seven days a week and before receiving a book, an applicant had to fill in a form with the following wording:

“I REQUEST TO READ

Name of books ….

Date …. Signature of applicant .…”

Reading books in the library was free of charge but borrowing them required a monthly payment of sixpence (2.5 p) and one penny (about 0.5 p) per book borrowed. The catalogue included a very respectable variety of books and periodicals. I was pleased to note that there was a book about Albania, “Travels in Albania and Other Provinces of Turkey” by Lord Broughton, Baron John Cam Hobhouse Broughton (1786-1869), who accompanied Lord Byron on his trip through the Balkans at the beginning of the 19th century.

Given his important contribution to the development of public libraries in Kensington, it is entirely appropriate that James Heywood is commemorated in the main branch of the library system of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. It is also worth noting that like his pioneering establishment in Notting Hill High Street, the library is not entirely free for borrowers. Although books may be borrowed free of charge, other items including DVDs can only be borrowed after making a payment.

Oliver Cromwell in Essex

YOU CAN NO LONGER ENJOY a tankard of ale at the Sun Inn in the Essex town of Saffron Walden. However, you can still enjoy the fine pargetting (moulded sculptured plasterwork) that adorns it.

The building that housed the former Sun Inn was built in the 15th century. Late in the 16th or early in the 17th century, an upper floor was added. Indeed, one of the gables with fine pargetting bears the date 1676. This might have been the date when the present pargetting was created or when the upper floor was added, or even both. The former inn has an opening that allowed wagons and other traffic to enter the yard behind it.

The pargetting is described well in a website (www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/essex/vol1/pp228-260) as follows:
“… in the middle bay are two late 17th-century panels in plaster, one with a design of foliage and birds, and the other with a stocking; in the S.W. gable is a design of the same date in plaster, which consists of a circular panel divided into twelve segments; on each side is the figure of a man in a long coat, knee-breeches and high-heeled shoes; one figure holds a sword and buckler, the other a long club.”

One of the panels, that with the man with a sword and the other with a long club, respectively represent Thomas Hickathrift and the Wisbech giant (https://heritagerecords.nationaltrust.org.uk/HBSMR/MonRecord.aspx?uid=MNA108635). Thomas (‘Tom’) Hickathrift was a mythical East Anglian giant-killer, a giant of a man, whose exploits included slaying the Wisbech Giant.

Today (late 2020), the group of beautifully decorated houses that includes the former Sun Inn is empty. The ground floor of part of the building bears a shop sign ‘Lankester Antiques & Books’. Run by Paul Lankester of Thaxted in Essex, the shop closed after 48 years of business in July 2015. Another sign near it reads ‘The 14th century Old Sun Inn. Oliver Cromwell’s Headquarters 1647’. In 1647, when Cromwell’s New Model Army had won the first civil war for the Parliamentarians, they gathered in Saffron Walden. For various reasons the war weary army was becoming dissatisfied. Cromwell and his officers arrived in Saffron Walden on the 2nd of May 1647 to try to satisfy the troops’ various demands and to deal with their grievances (www.saffronwaldenreporter.co.uk/news/a-lasting-place-in-history-1-377880). He was unable to do so and returned to London after staying in the town for 19 days. 

Although the town has many other attractions, seeing this old building with its exquisite external decorations is on its own an excellent reason to pay a visit to Saffron Walden.