Looking at Music

THE ESTORIC COLLECTION in London’s Highbury houses a fine permanent exhibition of modern Italian artworks, mainly creations of the so-called Futurists. In one of the galleries, I spotted the name of an artist who was born in a town, which I have visited, in the northeast of Italy: Gorizia. When the artist Anton Zoran Music (1909-2005) was born, Gorizia was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. After WW1, the town became part of the Kingdom of Italy within the region of Venezia-Giulia. Soon after WW2, the eastern part of the region became absorbed into the Yugoslav republic of Slovenia (now an independent state). When that happened, the border between Italy and Slovenia ran through the eastern part og the town, the part in what was then Yugoslavia (a country I visited often between 1973 and 1990) became named ‘Nova Gorica’. Most of Gorizia, an attractive old town, is on the Italian side of the border.

Slovenians still live on both sides of the border. Music, actually Anton Zoran Musič (pronounced mus-ich) was born into a Slovene-speaking family. Zoran, who went to schools in Maribor, studied art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb between 1930 and 1935. His first one-man exhibition (outside Yugoslavia) in Venice in 1943, where he had moved. Soon after this, he was arrested by the German Gestapo and then sent to Dachau concentration camp. After WW2, he moved to Ljubljana (in Yugoslavia), but soon shifted to Venice, where he lived (on and off) for the rest of his life. His career after the War was successful: he received several prestigious prizes for his artistic creations.

The Estorick displays five of Music’s paintings. They were created between 1951 and 1983 and illustrate his versatility as a painter. All the paintings hanging are between abstract and figurative in style, but slightly nearer the latter than the former. I had seen his paintings on previous visits to the Estorick, but until my most recent viewing of his art, I had not been aware of how many aspects of his life mesh with things that interest me.

Dwarfed by a cruise ship

DURING THE ELEVEN days we spent in Funchal, the capital of Madeira, the city was visited by two enormous cruise ships. Resembling huge blocks of flats (apartments, my North American friends!) floating on water, they arrived in the port at night, remained a whole day, and then departed the next evening.

When these vessels disgorge their cargos of tourists, the centre of Funchal becomes crowded; the queue t the cable-car grows longer; and the frequency at which toboggans slide down from the Monte increases.

The port at Funchal is designed to accommodate these ‘humungous’ people carriers, so their arrival does not have the same damaging effect (on buildings and the shoreline) as is created by them in Venice (Italy). Cruising in vessels of this size appeals to many but not to me.

The Apple of my eye in Regent Street

LONG BEFORE IT became the Apple Store on Regent Street in central London, I used to look at the colourful mosaics on its building’s façade. Running in a line along the top of the mosaics, which are above the four arches of the shopfront, are the names of several cities including St Petersburg. This used to intrigue me a lot in the years before Communist rule ended in Russia and the city was then called Leningrad.

The mosaics contain depictions of several coats-of-arms including and two lions, each resting a paw on an object. One of the lions has wings and rests its paw on an open book on whose pages are the words: “PAX TIBI MARCE ENVANGELISTA MEUS”. For, this creature is the lion of St Mark, symbol of Venice and its former empire. On both sides of the lion, there are depictions of streamers. One reads “DANDOLO” and the other “LOREDANO”. Both are the names of important patrician families in Venice. Two other crests also appear, one on each side of the winged lion and the two names. One is for the island of Murano and the other for the island of Burano. These two islands in the Lagoon of Venice, especially Murano, are known for their glassmaking activity.

The mosaics were originally installed when the Venetian glass-making company Salviati opened its store in this building, designed by GD Martin, on Regents Street in 1898. The business made both fine glassware and mosaics. Soon after the firm was founded in 1859, it began to be established in England. According to a company history (www.salviati.com/en/our-story/):

“It was also in London, on 21st December 1866, that the “Società Anonima per Azioni Salviati & C.” was established with the support of diplomat Sir Austen Henry Layard and historian William Drake.”

Fortunately, the lovely mosaic has survived and has been kept in good condition. I have always marvelled at it when wandering along Regent Street, but I wonder how many people rushing into Apple’s attractive looking shop notice it.

Music by the River Thames

A ROW OF HOUSEBOATS is moored alongside the bank of the River Thames that runs past Cheyne Walk in London’s Chelsea. The floating dwellings are faced by Lindsey House, one of the oldest buildings in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Built in 1674 by Robert Bertie, 3rd Earl of Lindsey (1630-1701) on land that was once part of Thomas More’s riverside garden, it was remodelled by Count Nicolaus Zinzendorf (1700-1760) for London’s Moravian community in 1750. Five years later, the edifice was divided into separate dwellings. Today, they are numbered 96 to 101 Cheyne Walk. The American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) lived in number 96, and the engineers Sir Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849) and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) lived in number 98. My friends Kit and Sheridan lived in a ground floor flat in number 100.

Lindsey House, Chelsea, London

I first met Kit and Sheridan during one of our annual family holidays to Venice. Kit, who was a colleague of my father at the London School of Economics, and her husband Sheridan used to stay in the Pensione Seguso that was next door to the Pensione La Calcina, where John Ruskin (1819-1900) once stayed, and we always stayed in Venice. During one of our holidays when we stopped on the Fondamente Zattere to talk with Kit and Sheridan in Venice, they asked me whether I liked classical music. When I told them that I did, they said that they would invite me to their musical evenings held some Saturdays in their home. I attended quite a few of these during the second half of the 1960s.

On arrival at 100 Cheyne Walk, Kit used to welcome the guests by offering us coloured sugar-coated almonds, which she described as ‘stones of Venice’, an illusion to Ruskin’s book about Venice (“The Stones of Venice”), where the almonds had been purchased. After discarding coats, all of the guests, twenty to thirty in number, had to find somewhere to sit in the large, low-ceilinged living room. I was always directed by Kit to the same seat. She used to want me to sit next to the telephone. She always told me:

“If it rings during the music, dear, lift the receiver and say: ‘Sorry, we are having a party. Please ring again tomorrow’”

It never did ring, but I used to sit nervously in anticipation of having to perform my important duty.

Sheridan was a fine ‘cellist, who knew many professional musicians, all of them quite famous. He used to invite several musicians, anything from two to four, to perform a couple of chamber works with him. Kit knew what was to be performed at each soirée, but the invited musicians were not told until they arrived (at the same time as the audience). Without prior rehearsal, Kit and his musical guests performed chamber works, often by Brahms and Beethoven, beautifully and, except for Sheridan, from ‘scratch’. The acoustics of the 17th (or 18th) century living room were perfect for the music performed. These wonderful evenings engendered my enduring love of the chamber music of Brahms. During the music, Kit sat a few feet away from Sheridan on his right. Her eyes never wandered from him and she always smiled sweetly as he played. Whenever we saw them in Venice, they were always walking hand-in-hand like two lovers.

I believe that Kit and Sheridan married late in life. Sheridan told me once that he was pleased when he married, because as a married man he was able to perform a service, for which only married people were eligible at the time. He was at last able to become a marriage guidance counsellor.

Sheridan told me once that there was a lot of planning before putting on each musical evening. He ensured that none of his guest musicians ever played the same piece together more than once. Also, he tried to make sure that nobody in the audience ever heard the same combinations of pieces more than once. He did this by recording who had played what and who had heard what in a set of notebooks.

Two works were played at each soirée. During the interval, everyone stood up, many relieved to get off the not always comfortable seating provided. Kit served glasses of red wine and crackers with pieces of cheese that contained cumin seeds. Every soirée, the same refreshments were provided. 

A few of the musicians that I can remember hearing playing with Sheridan included the violinist Maria Lidka (1914-2013) and her son, a ‘cellist; individual players from the Amadeus Quartet; and once the pianist Louis Kentner (1905-1987). At the end of the evening when Kentner had played, Kit asked him to give me a lift part of the way back to north west London. He agreed, but as we drove together, I had a distinct feeling that this famous pianist was not at all keen about giving me a lift and said not a word to me during the short journey.

As Sheridan grew older, he became increasingly frail and began looking gaunt. During the last few concerts I attended, I noticed that he covered his hands with woollen fingerless gloves. Maybe, he had a circulation problem. Sheridan died in 1991. Kit lived on another seven years. I believe that the last time I spoke to her was just after I married in late 1993, but she showed little interest in my news. 

Whereas back in the 1960s, when I used to attend the musical evenings at Lindsey House, one could walk from the street to the front door, today this is impossible without being able to unlock a gate leading into the grounds of the house. Currently owned by the National Trust and rented to tenants, Lindsey House is rarely opened to the public. Fortunately, we did once manage to attend one of these openings, but all seemed to have changed since I last listened to chamber music being played close to the river.

Examining the past

ON 13th AUGUST 2020, MANY YOUNGSTERS in England received the results of the state’s university admission examinations. This year of plague and social distancing, 2020, the results have not been determined by the students themselves writing examination papers but by a clumsy, somewhat arbitrary, algorithm that takes various factors other than a student’s own ability into account. Things were quite different last year and back in 1970 when I sat the A-Level examinations required for admission to university.

BLOG EXAM

Back then, as now, universities offered places to potential students subject to achieving or exceeding certain grades at A-Level. The place that was my first choice amongst the six universities I chose was University College London (‘UCL’). In ‘my time’, UCL invited potential students for extensive interviewing. I was invited to spend a whole day at the Physiology Department. During that day, I was interviewed at least three times by different people and met both members of the academic staff as well as students already embarked on their courses of study.

Several days later, I received a letter from UCL offering me a place on the BSc course providing I achieved three E grades at A-Level. The top grade at A-Level was A, the lowest pass grade was E. At first, I was not sure whether to be pleased that all I needed was just to pass my three A-Level examinations. Was that the best that they thought I could manage? No, it was not. In those days, if UCL liked a candidate at interview, they took the strain off the candidate by not expecting high grades. Thee Es was normal for most subjects except medicine and dentistry when 3 Cs were required.  These days, candidates to places like UCL would be expected to get 3 A grades or something awfully close to this. Well, having been offered a place subject to my attaining at least 3 E grades and being neurotic by nature, I began to worry. What if I could not manage the three Es?

I became obsessed by examination papers to such an extent that I used to use my father’s typewriter to compose examination questions that I hoped would never appear in front of me in the examination hall. Whether or not composing these impossible questions was a kind of self-therapy or simply an opportunity to enjoy using the typewriter, I cannot tell, but it did me no harm. At the very least, It gave me short breaks in what for me was long hours trying to understand what I was studying.

My three A-Level subjects were Biology, Physical Science (a mixture of chemistry and physics), and mathematics. I found that all of them were most interesting and not too taxing. When I was at school, it was possible to opt to attempt supplementary papers in the subjects chosen for A-Level. These papers were known as ‘S-Levels’ and were designed to test a candidate’s deeper understanding of a subject. I chose to do S-Level papers in biology and mathematics. The biology S-Level paper was enjoyable. I was able to show off what I had learnt from reading around the subject. One of the questions was something to do with discussing the origins of life on earth. Well, in addition to various then current theories I decided to include what is described in the first chapter of the Old Testament. I passed that S-Level. The mathematics S-Level paper was a quite different ‘cup of tea’. Even though I had attended special classes to learn the mathematics that was required, I was stumped. For the first 30 minutes of the three-hour paper, I just stared at the questions. There was not one that I could even begin to tackle. So, after 20 minutes, I walked out of the examination room, leaving a blank script on my desk.

I can remember where I was when I received the A-Level results in August 1970. I was in Italy with my parents and sister on one of our annual visits to that country. We were in Venice, staying, as we always did, at the Pensione La Calcina, where many decades earlier the eminent John Ruskin(1819-1900) used to reside when visiting the island. The establishment’s façade is on the Fondamente Zattere across the water (of the Giudecca Canal) from the famous Santissimo Redentore church (completed 1592) designed by the architect Andrea Palladio.

We had just eaten lunch at the pensione and were taking the air on the waterfront prior to retiring indoors for a siesta when Signorina Steiner, the manageress, came rushing up to us with a telegram. My parents opened it to discover that my aunt in London had sent my A-Level results, which to my great relief were way in excess of the minimum required to gain admission to UCL.

If I had not managed to attain even 3 E grades, I would certainly not have expected to be admitted to any university. I would have had to accept the result and might well have decided to re-sit the examinations a few months later. As far as I am aware, in my day, there was no appealing to have papers re-marked as has become normal in the last twenty or thirty years. During recent times, it is not unusual for someone who is not satisfied with a grade to have his or her examination papers re-marked. Often, the revised grade is higher than the original, but things can go less favourably for the candidate.

This year, when young people have not been able to attend school since March and have not been awarded A-Level grades based on final papers written under strict examination  conditions, they have been awarded grades based largely on statistics (generated by what appears to be a poorly conceived algorithm) rather than individual ability. Many students have been awarded grades well below what they and their teachers expected. Thank heavens that there are appeal procedures in place.

I remember how much of a nail-biting experience it was waiting for my A-Level results back in 1970. This year, it was far worse for candidates. Not only did they not know on what basis their grades would be estimated, but also many of them will have to remain anxious for even longer whilst their appeals are being considered.

From Europe to Asia

I NEVER IMAGINED THAT I WOULD SEE THE VENETIAN WINGED LION of St Mark in Bhuj (Kutch, western India), but I did. A carving of this well known symbol of a once powerful European empire stands at the entrance to the Aina Mahal (Palace of Mirrors) in Bhuj, which was built during the reign of Maharao Lakhpatji that lasted from 1752 to 1761.

In 1742, Ram Singh Malam, aged about 16 left his native town of Okhi in Saurashtra (Kathiawad), now a part of Gujarat, and set out to sea. His boat was shipwrecked and he was rescued by passing Dutch vessel, which took him to Holland. Ram Singh remained in the Netherlands until about 1760.

During his stay in Holland, Ram Singh Malam learnt various skills including: clockmaking, mirror making, glass making, ship building, cannon manufacturing, tile making, enamelling, tool making, and more. When he returned to Saurashtra, he offered his skills to various local rulers, but to no avail. Then, he travelled to the Kingdom of Kutch, where his knowledge was recognised and employed by its ruler, Lakhpatji. The latter was so pleased with the technical advances that Ram Singh had imported from Holland that he was sent back to that country two more times. During his trips to Europe, Ram Singh also visited Austria and the Republic of Venice. No doubt the Lion of Venice sculpted in Kutch and placed at the Aina Mahal was designed after Ram Singh had been to Venice.

The Aina Mahal contains tiles and mirrors that were made using the knowledge acquired by Ram Singh. Statues that decorate both the inside and the outside of the Aina Mahal and the adjoining Rani Mahal depict men wearing European clothes, such as Ram Singh would have seen people wearing in 18th century Europe.

In 2001, Bhuj was struck by a huge earthquake, which caused much damage to both the Aina Mahal and the Rani Mahal. Their neighbour, the 19th century Victorian Gothic Prag Mahal, suffered considerably less damage.

The former curator and archivist at the Prag Mahal, a keen researcher of the history of Kutch, is Mr Pramod Jethi. He told us that after the earthquake the Dutch government were apparently considering assisting in the restoration of the damaged Aina Mahal palace, provided that documentary evidence was provided to prove that Ram Singh Malam had really been staying in Holland. Apparently, despite many accounts by various writers that he did spend years in Holland, this did not constitute evidence that would satisfy the Dutch.

Anyone, who arrived in Holland on a Dutch ship in the 18th century must surely be recorded in a ship’s records or registered in the books kept by Dutch port authorities. However, it is likely that quite a few ships arrived in Holland at the time that Ram Singh disembarked there. Dutch ships sailing in the vicinity of Gujarat were most probably connected with the Dutch East India Company. If someone has the enthusiasm and energy to search through the Company’s records, maybe the evidence that the Dutch government requires will be found. Regardless of whether or not the Dutch government can be satisfied, it is clear that Ram Singh was a very remarkable man who greatly advanced technology in Kutch and brought the winged lion of St Mark to India.

A suitcase of memories

Memories of childhood. Here is the introduction to a travel book, “CHARLIE CHAPLIN WAVED TO ME”, which I published several years ago:

charlie

The attic of my parents’ house in north London contained a number of old Revelation suitcases. These were plastered with ageing colourful paper stickers bearing the names of shipping lines and also of places such as: Cape Town, Southampton, Harwich, New York, Montreal, and Rotterdam. Had they been animate and able to speak, what tales they would have been able to tell!

If, as a child, I had become a suitcase, I too would have been covered with an exotic assortment of stickers including some of those mentioned above. But, I did not become a piece of baggage, and the stickers that I carry are not made of paper. Instead, they are memories stuck in various compartments of my brain. Unlike the inanimate objects in the attic in the eaves of our house, I am able to speak: to divulge my impressions of the places that I visited in my childhood; to describe the remarkable people I met in those places; and to reveal the unusual experiences that resulted from travelling with my learned father and my talented mother.

This book contains my memories of the holidays and trips that I took with my parents, mostly during the first eighteen years of my life. They are worth relating because they differed markedly from the kinds of holidays that most people took during the 1960s and 1970s. Rather than exposing their children to the sun on the beach, my parents preferred to expose my sister and me to cultural experiences that, they hoped, would benefit us in the future. This was due to my father’s great interest in the history of art, which resulted from my mother being an artist. Whereas now I appreciate what they did for me then, I did not always do so at the time.

Please join me now as I examine the stickers in my memory – the souvenirs of many years gone past. Let them reveal to you how interesting school holidays can be even if they only include the rarest of glimpses of the sea and an almost total absence of ‘child-friendly’ activities.

These memories of my childhood travels are illustrated with photographs, all of which were taken by me or with one of my own cameras unless otherwise stated. I was given my first simple camera when I was about 6 or 7 years old. It was not given to me by my parents, who never took photographs, but by my uncle Sven who was a keen photographer. His grandfather had been a pioneer of professional photography, as I will describe below. I will begin my narrative by choosing a label that could have been pasted on to my suitcase of reminiscences during the late 1950s or any time in the 1960s. It bears the name “Soho”. I have chosen it amongst all of the others because it provides a good introduction to my mother, who affected so much of what we did as a family and what will be related in this book.

 

CHARLIE CHAPLIN WAVED TO ME

(ISBN: 9781291845051)

is available at:

Amazon, bookdepository.com, lulu.com , and on Kindle

Slow down

taxi

My late mother lost two front teeth in a car crash in South Africa during the 1930s. Ever since then, she was both a nervous driver and an apprehensive passenger.

In the early 1960s, my mother was one of the first drivers in the UK to have seat belts installed in our car, which, like all other cars at the time, was sold without seat belts.

When I used to go on holidays with my parents, we used taxis wherever we were: water taxis in Venice and automobiles elsewhere. The places we visited most often were Italy and Greece. In both places, drivers manoeuvred at higher speeds than in the UK and far more adventurously. I remember one occasion in Milan (Italy) in the 1960s where our taxi driver drove along the tram lines on the wrong side of the road, so that trams headed straight towards us. And, in Athens (Greece), if a driver saw a space on the road some hundred yards ahead, he would take all kinds of risks to reach it. In all the years that I travelled with my parents in taxis we were only involved in one accident – no injuries, fortunately.

Well, all this dangerous dashing about in dare-devil taxis did not do anything positive for my mother’s nerves. Consequently, wherever we went she made sure that she knew how to say ‘slow down’ in the local language. Whenever I am being driven in India, where traffic is very exciting to say the least, I often think that had my mother experienced it, she would have died of fright. Oh, by the way, the Hindustani word for ‘slow down’ is ‘aasthe‘.

An American in a gondola

When I was young, before I was about 17, I used to visit Venice annually with my parents. We used to stay in a pensione called ‘La Calcina’. As breakfast and one meal were included in the room price, we used to take lunch in the dining room of La Calcina. Every year, we sat with other regular visitors, whom we got to know gradually. One of them was a somewhat silent American gentleman…

 

On the Canale Grande_500

 

The Calcina’s neighbour, the Pensione Il Seguso, was located on a corner where a narrow side canal met the wide Giudecca Canal. One morning, we were waiting outside the Calcina, trying to decide what to do. It was a bit later than usual, which is possibly the reason that we spotted something we had never seen before. A gondola with green upholstery and other identically coloured cloth drapes appeared from along the side canal and drew to a standstill at the corner near where we were standing. The gondolier was dressed in a livery the same colour as the upholstery and the drapes. After a short delay, the American, who used to sit silently with us at lunch, left the main entrance of the Calcina and boarded the gondola. The gondolier set his vessel in motion. His American passenger sat reading his newspaper whilst he was rowed across the Giudecca Canal. We watched them disappearing along a canal that passed through the Giudecca Island towards the wide open lagoon beyond the island. Naturally, our curiosity was aroused.

That lunch time, the American sat down in his usual place. My mother could no longer contain herself. She asked the American about what we had witnessed that morning. He explained that the gondolier was the grandson of his late mother’s personal gondolier. Whenever he visited Venice, he would hire this same grandson for the duration of his visit. Every morning, he was picked up just as we had observed, and was rowed out into the midst of the lagoon. When they arrived there, he and his gondolier exchanged roles. The American had mastered the art of rowing a gondola, and took his daily exercise by ‘gondoling’ around the lagoon for an hour or so.

The American introduced himself. My father, a knowledgable amateur historian of art, was most excited to discover that our American lunch time companion was William Milliken, a former Director of the Cleveland Museum of Art in Cleveland, Ohio, and a famous historian of mediaeval art.

Later Miss Steiner, a humourless late middle-aged Austrian who managed the Pensione Calcina, told us that Mr Milliken stayed at the Calcina every year during the month in which his mother had died. He stayed in the room that she used to occupy during her visits to the Calcina. Whilst he stayed there, Miss Steiner informed us, the room was always filled with his mother’s favourite flowers, and furnished with the very same furniture that she used to use whilst she was a guest at the pensione.

 

Mr Milliken died in 1978, at least ten years after I last met him. About twenty years later, I bought a second-hand copy of his book, “Unfamiliar Venice”. This wonderfully illustrated and almost poetically written book, which was published in 1967, describes the magic of Venice beautifully, but makes no mention at all of any of the things we learnt about our solitary American neighbour in the dining room of the Pensione Calcina.

 

 

Venice observed

 

Venice is a special place in many ways. This meeting place of oriental and occidental art is bathed in light of a special quality. Maybe this is due to the fact that there is so much water reflecting the daylight and thereby increasing its intensity. Maybe, it is something else, but whatever it is, part of the beauty of Venice is its lovely light.

Artists have long been attracted to portraying Venice. Canaletto portrayed the city almost photographically in his paintings.  Guardi captures the city brilliantly by using an almost impressionistic technique. Ruskin captured the beauty of the Venetian architecture scholarly yet attractively. Other artists such as Manet, Monet, Moran, and Turner have also portrayed some of the ‘essence’ of Venice’s attractiveness.

Yesterday, I visited an exhibition of new paintings inspired by Venice by the British contemporary artist Joe Tilson (born 1928). Each of his deceptively simple canvases capture several aspects of what makes Venice attractive for me. Architectural details, coloured patterning like tiles or brickwork, and moonlit skies  conspire to evoke the special light an appearance of Venice. His painting is both simple and subtle, and above all visually satisfying.

 

The exhibition is at Marlborough Fine Art, 6 Albermarle Street, London W1S 4BY until 18th May 2019