AT ABOUT FIVE in the morning, a taxi dropped us off at the Madras Gymkhana Club in Chennai. It was late February 1994, and we had just disembarked from an overnight train from Bangalore. We were going to rest at the Club before taking a flight to Colombo in Sri Lanka.
Today, the 8th of January 2023, we revisited the Gymkhana Club, and seeing the place reminded me of a strange experience we had there back in February 1994. The Club, which was founded in 1884, has as its main building an edifice gifted by the Rajah of Venkatanagiri in 1886. Compared with the Madras Club, south of it, its architecture is far less refined.
When we got out of our taxi before daybreak in February 1994, we entered the main building, which was unlit at such an early hour. The night watchman at the reception desk asked us to sit in some armchairs near the entrance until the morning receptionist arrived. After sitting for a while in the hot, humid reception area, the sun began to rise and the Club’s interior began to become visible slowly.
I noticed that we were sitting close to a very large room. As the light improved, I saw that the room was filled with tables. The tables were covered with napkins, cutlery, and plates of unfinished food. Alongside the tables, there were bodies lying on the floor. Soon after dawn, these bodies came to life. They belonged to the Club’s staff – waiters and so on. These people then proceeded to clear up the remains of the previous night’s banquet. Maybe, they had finished too late at night to make it worthwhile to return to their homes for a few hours.
Seeing these people lying in the gloomy light of daybreak and then coming back to life was a memorable experience. Visiting the Gymkhana Club today, 29 years later, evoked this memory powerfully.
Our brief visit to the Club today was quite different. The place seemed far from sleepy, and we received a warm welcome.
UNTIL WE WENT to Southend (in Essex) in February 2022, it was not the first place to spring to mind when thinking about art galleries. To my mind, Southend was mainly associated with its spectacular pier, which is over one mile in length. Now, to the pier I will add the Beecroft Art Gallery to the good reasons for visiting Southend.
The gallery has been housed in a distinctive 20th century building on Victoria Avenue since 2014. Its current home was formerly Southend’s Central Library. The edifice was designed by Borough Architect R Horwell and opened in 1974. Prior to moving there, the gallery was housed in a large Edwardian house on Station Road in nearby Westcliffe-on-Sea.
The permanent collection of art in the gallery was donated to the town in 1952 by a local collector, a solicitor called Walter Beecroft, who worked in Leigh-on-Sea. His paintings ranged from the 17th century to the late 19th, and a few from the 20th. A selection of these was on display in the first-floor gallery of the Beecroft when we visited. Newer additions, mainly on long-term loan, to the gallery’s collection were hung alongside examples donated by Beecroft.
We went to the Beecroft to see a temporary exhibition of 20th century artists from London’s East End. It was excellently curated. I will write about this in the future. There were also temporary exhibitions of Pakistani wedding outfits and feminism during the covid19 lockdown. The basement of the Beecroft is currently dedicated to the history of jazz.
All in all, the Beecroft Gallery is well worth visiting. The quality of the exhibitions we saw there puts to shame a few of the better-known art galleries in London.
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.
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.
“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.
‘PIERRE’ IS A FRIEND of my father. He and his American wife Bobbie lived on the outskirts of Paris with their lively intelligent children. I went to stay with them over Christmas when I was about 16. After a rough crossing of the English Channel and a long train journey, I arrived at the station near where they lived. Pierre met me there and whilst driving me home told me that he had a high temperature. He disappeared leaving me at the front door, where the family’s unruly dog wrapped his jaws around one of my wrists.
Bobbie greeted me, and then took me into the kitchen. I was tired and completely unprepared for what I was to experience. The work surfaces in Bobbie’s kitchen were higher than my shoulders. I felt as if I had shrunk. I wondered whether the rough sea voyage had affected me in some strange way. But this was not the case. Bobbie, who was tall, explained to me that she had had the kitchen constructed in such a way that she would not need to bend her back whilst working in it. My hands could hardly reach the work surfaces, but her energetic children had no difficulty; they climbed up onto them and ran along them with great agility. As Bobbie showed me around the rest of the house, we passed a bedroom where Pierre was shivering feverishly in bed under his sheets and blankets. I wondered whether he was going to be fit enough to embark on the trip to the French Alps that we were supposed to be making on the next day.
On the day after I arrived, Pierre was still extremely unwell. A doctor visited him that morning and gave him some medicine. At 3 pm that late December day, we decided to set off on our more than 400-mile journey. The journey began badly. After driving a few miles along an autoroute, Pierre realised that we were on the wrong motorway. We drove in reverse at hair-raising speed back along the way we had come until we reached the motorway junction where we had chosen the incorrect road, and then we joined the correct highway. At about midnight, we stopped for dinner at a motorway restaurant near to Bourg-en-Bresse. Then, we drove upwards into the Alps.
After passing through Albertville at about 2 am, we drew near to our destination Méribel-les-Allues. Then, we lost our way. The place to which we were heading was one of several settlements that made up the locality known as Méribel. By now, Pierre, who was driving and still unwell, was becoming exhausted. He and Bobbie began arguing. The children were fast asleep. As we drove around aimlessly along the dark winding snow lined alpine roads, I realised that we were going around in circles. However, I did not want to risk my hosts’ ire by suggesting this. After a little thought, I volunteered as tactfully as possible:
“I believe that when we go around this bend, we will pass the Hotel de La Poste again.”
And, sure enough, we did. My hosts realised that we were in fact going around and around the same roads, and soon after that, we reached our destination at last. It was a holiday colony owned by the ministry for which Pierre worked.
I was accommodated in a dormitory for young men and my friends shared a family room. The place where we were staying was for the exclusive use of employees of the ministry and their close families. So, soon after I arrived, some of the others in my dormitory asked me why I spoke English rather than French and also why the woman with whom I dined and spent time spoke ‘American’. Atypically for me, I rapidly improvised an answer that seemed to satisfy them. I told them that Bobbie was my aunt from Canada and that she spoke both French and ‘American’.
Some years later, Bobbie came to visit us in my parents’ home in London. It was a hot summer’s evening. She was expected to join us for dinner at a particular time but arrived about an hour and a half late. When my mother went to open the front door for her, we all heard a long sigh and then we could hear Bobbie asking whether she could use my parents’ bedroom before joining us. When she arrived at the table, she presented my mother with a gift from Paris. It was a box of instant soup powder. The sachet containing the powder had been torn open. Bobbie explained that she had opened it to check whether it contained exactly what she wanted to give us. Then, she apologised to my mother for losing the other gift that she had brought for her.
She told us that to avoid injuring her bad back by carrying heavy baggage she had worn all of the clothes that she was going to need for her short stay in England, wearing layer upon layer. While she was travelling on the Underground to reach our home, she had begun to feel unbearably hot. So, she un-wrapped my mother’s other present, a bottle of perfume spray with a bulb for pumping it. At this point I must tell you that, at the time, London was the target of many IRA bombs, and the public had been told to be vigilant. So, when the passengers sitting near to Bobbie saw what looked a bit like a hand grenade, the squeezable bulb attached to the perfume bottle, they moved away from her. She told us that seeing this, she panicked and threw the perfume spray away from her, and it had broken on the floor.
After dinner that evening, she and I set off in a car, which she had been lent. It belonged to a man whom she had asked us to invite for dinner with her that evening. He drove us to where he lived in London and left us his car. Then, Bobbie began driving the two of us towards Brighton, where the rest of her family were staying in a borrowed house. As soon as we got onto the motorway just south of London, we were engulfed in dense fog. It was then that Bobbie admitted that she was wearing the wrong glasses for driving. It was after midnight and I had not yet learnt to drive. So, I was unable to take over the driving. She asked me to keep an eye out for the line on the left side of the carriageway, and to tell her whenever we began to stray from it. Fortunately, when we reached Brighton, the fog had lifted, and we arrived at our destination intact.
I have lost touch with Bobbie and her family, whose identity I hope has been disguised adequately, but I still remember them fondly and should they recognise themselves, I hope that they will not mind me relating these memories of the many good times I enjoyed with them.
After getting off the train at Folkestone Central station in Kent, you might wonder why you had bothered to travel there. The way from the station to the town centre is far from preposessing.
Until 2001, trains used to run along a branch-line through the centre of Folkestone along its pier to Folkestone Harbour Station, where passengers could embark on one of the many regular cross-Channel ferries shuttling between Britain and France. Between 2001 and 2009, special tour trains like the Simplon-Orient Express used the station. In 2014, the line was closed. With the opening of the Channel Tunnel and the closure of Folkestone Harbour Station and the line leading to it, Folkestone declined in importance. Knowing this, I expected the town to be very depressing, but a recent visit proved me to be completely wrong.
You might be wondering what prompted us to visit this formerly important seaport. What caught our eyes was an article about how Folkestone has become a town of art filled with open-air sculptures and other artworks. It has what one of its publicity brochures describes as “The UK’s largest urban contemporary art exhibition“. And, most of the art on display is permanently resident in the town. The works are by a large range of artists including,amongst the better-known: Yoko Ono, Tracy Emin, Cornelia Parker, and Antony Gormley. The artworks are to be found in locations all over the town, but are in their greatest concentrations within the picturesque historic centre and along the attractive sea front.
The long pier along which trains used to run and the disused platforms of Folkestone Harbour Station (see illustration) have been beautifully restored and have become a wonderful leisure area with lovely walkways, artworks, and a variety of refreshment stalls. The restoration has been done very sensitively and beautifully.
The centre of Folkestone is, unlike the area surrounding it, full of life and ‘buzz’. There are many art galleries and eateries as well as a contemporary art centre, the Folkestone Quarterhouse. The Quarterhouse is well worth entering if only to see Ben Allen’s spectacular The Clearing (an architectural installation that has to be seen to be believed) on the building’s first floor.
What we particularly liked about Folkestone is that despite being chock-full of art, it does not feel pretentious. It is a place that people can enjoy the joys of the seaside (nice beaches and fine sea front) as well as, if you feel in the mood, the delights of contemporary art in charming settings. We spent about six hours in Folkestone. Next visit, we will stay there for a couple of nights.