Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Along the Thames to Walpole's castle

From Richmond

to Strawberry Hill House to see Horace Walpole's collection reunited in neo-Gothic surroundings

was the first of our excursions on what turned out to be a four-day staycation (had been planning to visit friends on the Greek island of Spetses, but prices for flights to Athens had gone through the roof). Having read my Arts Desk colleague Sarah Kent on the new exhibition, and with happy memories of what happened when Houghton Hall's dispersed collection - much of it sold by Horace's unbalanced nephew to Catherine the Great - came home, I thought it would make a jolly day out.

The weather helped - the most serene, sharp and perfect of Autumn days; we ate our lunch on a bench by the river at Richmond, and this was the view above our heads. Then we crossed the noble bridge and walked parallel to Ham House on the other side. It's hidden by trees, but that only makes the perspective with not a building in sight the more naturally beautiful.

Various trees framed the river at low tide

with sundry old boats and barges glinting through the leaves.

Architecturally, it's a string of pearls. While the river near home has grand houses along Chiswick Mall, none is as fine as Marble Hill House, the Palladian villa commissioned by Henrietta Howard, mistress of the then-future George II, and completed in 1729.

Until you reach the church at Twickenham,

the fine houses and grounds accumulate.

This is more like the Chiswick legacy, a home for an admiral.

No time, alas, to pause for homage to Pope at the church, but onwards to our exhibition slot at Strawberry Hill. Unfortunately the Thames Path goes inwards, along a busy road, but once at Walpole's retreat, the rusticity is resumed, with only the planes roaring overhead on their way to or from Heathrow to break the illusion.

In 1750, having rented a 'little play-thing-house' known as Strawberry Hill Shot, Horace Walpole (1717-97) wrote to his distant cousin and long-term correspondent Sir Horace Mann, 'I am going to build a little Gothic castle...If you can pick me up any fragments of old painted glass, arms or anything, I shall be excessively obliged to you' (I'm working my way through the somewhat disordered and patchy Everyman collection of his letters). The project grew, like Topsy, with additions made up to 1772, a combination - as now it still seems - of gallery and cosy home, full of 'gloomth' (Walpole's own portmanteau word): 'I did not mean to make my house so Gothic as to exclude convenience, and modern refinements in luxury'. With 'battlements for a roof', as he found authorised in Deuteronomy, Walpole made sure that the south facade would be 'the only side...at all regular'.

I had to photograph its upper half only, because in the first of many annoyances about the exhibition, and the general management of a house admittedly well restored, a tea-room marquee currently blots out an unobstructed view of the south front. From this point on, with no photography permitted within the house, I look elsewhere, including Strawberry Hill House's current management, for images. I trust 'fair use' applies for the diverse sources.

Walpole thought the hall and staircase 'the most particular and chief beauty of the castle'. But that was before John Chute designed the Library with details copied from Gothic tombs in Canterbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, illustrated here in 1781 by Edward Edwards

and then the Gallery, with its fan vaulting modelled on Henry VII's chapel, also in Westminster Abbey. 'Gilders, carvers, upholsterers and picture-cleaners are labouring at their several forges, and I do not love to trust a hammer or a brush without my own supervisal,' Walpole wrote in July 1763, a month before the gallery was completed.

The collection comes nowhere near the masterpieces of Houghton Hall (many now in St Petersburg's Hermitage), but the ensemble is fine. Printing, including 3D for a Gibbons frame, has been useful to fill in some of the gaps.

One gets the sense that Walpole was more interested in human idiosyncrasy as represented by the portrait than by great paintings (or maybe he couldn't afford those, though he did buy a superb Van Dyck double portrait for a remarkably low price). There are wonderful miniatures, though the bad exhibition lighting, poor throughout the house, prevents one from seeing them properly. Walpole didn't rate Hilliard as highly as the Olivers, but nonetheless this, of Sir Francis Drake, is a gem of the cabinet.

Noted is a penchant for beautiful young men, not least this boy as shepherd by Peter Lely

and Walpole's features were delicate. I love the portraits Rosalba Carriera painted of him and his cousin Francis Seymour Conway, Earl of Hertford, whom he met on his Grand Tour.

His Strawberry Hill parties were a byword in extravagance, though he seems to have been torn between his curiosity about people and the need for a quiet, solitary life. The festino for a party including many French visitors in May 1769 is briefly described in a celebrated letter: 'At the gates of the castle I received them, dressed in the cravat of Gibbons's carving,

and a pair of gloves embroidered to the elbows that had belonged to James I.'

In addition, celebratory verses were printed on the Strawberry Hill press, their distribution inaugurated by 'French horns and clarionets'. 'In the evening we walked, had tea, coffee, and lemonade in the Gallery, which was illuminated with a thousand, or thirty candles, I forget which, and played at whisk and loo till midnight. Then there was a cold supper, and at one the company returned to town, saluted by fifty nightingales, who, as tenants of the manor, came to do honour to their lord...'

On the feminine side there is exquisite beauty in the collection's signature painting of the Ladies Waldegrave by Reynolds

and on the other hand - an odd purchase - Hogarth's portrait of the triple murderer Sarah Malcolm in her cell before execution. Hogarth made a fortune out of prints of this subject.

After that, some air. I can't say I entirely enjoyed the experience: the volunteer guides in every room just would not let you alone with your catalogue. I like to talk to them, but only if I have something to ask; these ones would collar you and insist you look at this or that. Way too intrusive. I only got away with private viewing in the bigger rooms where they were already having rather banal-sounding conversations with other members of the public.

And so, into the garden, which is no longer what Walpole wanted, something 'riant, and the gaiety of nature' in opposition to 'the gloomth of abbeys and cathedrals' imprinted on the house; a garden, he insisted, could not be Gothic. The lawns run into the territory of the adjoining St Mary's College, once part of the University of London, now St Mary's University. Its buildings look more like a hospital with a bit of grass in front, though the shell bench in what Walpole called his 'perfect Paphos' remains (or is it a copy? Anyway, the paint is peeling).

J took me on an excursion of his own not too happy former haunts, the cries of the sporty reminding us that this is the demesne of rugger buggers. The chapel, though, is interesting, in extreme contrast to the house. Built in 1962-3 above the university library, its brick model is Albi Cathedral. The Sutherlandesque reredos is in fact by Constance Stubbs

and  I like the glass by by the studios of  Gabriel Loire, master glazier of Chartres Cathedral. This is the west window.

After a brief glimpse at Walpole's Chapel in the Woods, with poor Victorian muralling by way of overlay, we made our way back. Kew was a familiar destination for the next bright autumn afternoon, and what remains most vividly with me is the autumnal smells rising from the ground in the bosky groves. Out in the sunlight it was once again warm, and the delights began with the temple ensemble just inside the Victoria Gate.

I'd already admired the renovated Temperate House and the new dragons on the Pagoda on an October visit, and J was suitably impressed. We took a spin around the upper walkway, where the harmony between glass and iron above

and greenery from Australasia below

was most apparent. If the great height of many of the plants in the pre-renovated building has now been much reduced, the sense of light and space is overwhelmingly impressive.

Then to the pagoda

and its guardians.

The lower denizens are carved in cedar, like these three above and below; those higher up were achieved by more 3D printing.

On to the Japanese landscape around the Chokushi-Mon (Japanese Gateway), with live denizens this time. The purple berries behind them belong to Callicarpa japonica.

The ailing but content other half then made his way back to the cafe while I took a semi-ritual route, down to the great red oak by the river opposite Syon House, tantalisingly labelled Quercus X benderi Q. coccinea x Q. rubra,

enjoyed the deciduous firs by the lake

and the beech grove

before discovering rather two many mechanics being set up for the annual, moneymaking festival of light and heading back to the Victoria Gate via the Palm House, always vividly lit at sunset - no artificial lighting can surpass this -

and the view across to what's now called 'Museum No. 1'. Such resources on the doorstep.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

Captain George Nice, survivor

Nothing new to report about my paternal grandfather, George Nice born George King*, since the revelatory day at my cousin Diana's back in 2014 when I saw photographs of him for the first time, and the consequent revelations about his origins from a lady in Colchester. Yet every 11/11 I want to remember him, with some sadness at this proud, lonely figure standing to attention with a banner on many Armistice Day commemorations, as he is above in the front line towards the left. He fought throughout the War in the dragoon guards, and survived it. We know, albeit not in detail, that mustard gas poisoning left him an invalid, with who knows what impact on the adolescent years of my father, so often melancholy in my memories of him (though Diana and his goddaughter Sara remember him further back as a happy, laughing person).

Here, again, then, is the Croix de Guerre, the reverse side this time, which he was awarded (I repeat this ritually from The History of the 5th Dragoon Guards, remarking on the events of 7 April 1918 in Fampoux field to the east of Athies) 'for his gallantry in reconnoitring under heavy rifle and machine gun fire to try and find a route for the regiment to make a further advance in the direction of Greenland Hill.' I feel fortunate that ever since 2014 I have much of a more specific nature by which to remember him.

Other than Britten's War Requiem, I can't think of a more powerful commemoration in musical terms than his (pacifist) teacher Frank Bridge's Oration. After 1918, the gateway of international modernism was open to this underrated figure, a truly international British composer. Appropriate that the soloist should be a German of true Mensch status, Alban Gerhardt.

*Though the indefatigable Josie Holford - see comments - has now added this:

'His half brother Henry Thomas Nice died on July 27th 1917. He was serving as a private with the 15th Battalion of the Royal welsh Fusiliers – London Welsh – the same battalion as David Jones of In Parenthesis. This was just before the start of Passchendaele.

'He is memorialized on the Menin Gate'.

So there was loss there too. As I've mentioned before, my grandfather was actually a King, the illegitimate son of a chamber maid who married a Mr Nice several years later; the boy later chose to take his stepfather's name. So we are not in fact Nices at all.

Friday, 9 November 2018

An audience with Siegfried

I'll admit I had my doubts about interviewing Heldentenor Stefan Vinke for the Wagner Society. I'd only heard a touch-and-go tenor solo in Mahler's Eighth at the Proms; I asked the keen young organiser, Henry Kennedy, if I could wait and see until I'd reviewed the Royal Opera Siegfried in the recent revival of Keith Warner's Ring cycle. After all, it would be ungallant and embarrassing to be sitting there with him if I'd written anything adverse.

My doubts were more than banished: this was easily the best Siegfried I've heard after Jerusalem's in Kupfer's Bayreuth Ring. A colleague whispered in my ear at the end of Act One, 'I shouldn't be saying this to another critic, but that was sensational, wasn't it?' - and it was. Though at the beginning of Act Two he was recovering from an allergy attack in the interval, Vinke had all the extraordinary stamina needed to come out sounding fresh as a daisy in the final duet with Nina Stemme's  Brünnhilde- indeed, it's the only time I've heard that with both singers sounding equally good. Talk  photos courtesy of the Wagner Society's Ben Tomlin - I'll spare you the ones of me gesticulating, but I rather like them for once - while the images of the Royal Opera Ring are by Bill Cooper.

Unsurprisingly, given his well-acted characterisation, Vinke turned out to be a supremely intelligent and engaging person. Which leading Wagner singer isn't? Well, both he and Stemme the following week in Stockholm could mention one exception each to the general rule of collegial Wagner singers (though they didn't name names, and I didn't press). But they both agreed that, yes, supportiveness and team spirit were paramount in Wagnerworld.

How I wish this interview had been recorded, since all he had to say was fascinating and often very funny (Wagnerians need a sense of humour too - look at Birgit Nilsson)  It turned out that, though the splendid idea of Siegfried's kissing Mime on the top of the head before rushing out into the forest in Act 1 was Warner's, the likable characterisation was one with which Vinke was in agreement. He certainly doesn't see the young hero as brute or born killer, more wild child who has the intuition and intelligence to learn from his experiences in a way we should find touching.

If a director wants a different view, then he expects to be told why, as he was by Graham Vick, whose ability to listen, think over and return to explain, one way or the other, he very much admires. It was clear he had no respect for Frank Castorf at Bayreuth, who could never come up with a convincing justification for his random ideas. We listened to Vinke in the end of the forging sequence on the Seattle recording, complete with rhythmically accurate hammering - not possible, he said, at Kirill Petrenko's fast tempo in Germany - and he reacted by acting a lot of it out while listening: critical, but not unduly so, of what he'd achieved there. I can't embed it but it's here, and worth a listen.

Vinke loves working with the top Mime of our time, Gerhard Siegel, who's also sung Siegfried, and will listen to his suggestions; at one point. Siegel asked why he was wearing himself out with so much stuff before a big entry, advising him to save himself a bit, which he did.

Conductors: he made an interesting comparison between Antonio Pappano, who marks out key points but allows singers some freedom in between before everything comes back in line, and Kirill Petrenko, who controls more bar by bar, note by note: he prefers the former, but respects both approaches.

Trained in organ studies and choral music, Vinke has a firm favourite in the concert repertoire - Elgar's The Dream of Gerontius, which following its heyday when Strauss commended Elgar as 'the first English progressivist' at the 1902 Lower Rhine Festival in Dusseldorf, still meets with resistance in Germany (so do the symphonies; so does Sibelius, so Elgar's in good company). Still on the list? The Emperor in Die Frau ohne Schatten, coming soon, and the time when he can sing Loge, Siegmund and Siegfried in a single Ring cycle (two of the three are imminent). Lively responses to some interesting questions, and then he was off on a rainy Saturday afternoon to indulge his kids in shopping down Neal Street. Great guy.

Wednesday, 7 November 2018

Guest post from a victorious canvasser

I'm so proud of Susan Scheid, my good friend from the blogging world - yes, true friendship is possible here and we've met up on this side of the pond. She's been canvassing tirelessly for 41 year-old lawyer and first-time campaigner Antonio Delgado, who's just been elected as Democrat for New York's 19th Congressional District with a narrow (49.8% to 47.6) win over one-term Republican Rep. John Faso. That's Delgado above above applauding staff member Kirstin Horn in the first of three photos supplied by Sue. Sue has been sending regular bulletins about the campaign, but preferred to keep her wonderful blog, Prufrock's Dilemma, clear of politics. So this morning I asked her if she'd let me run one of her missives over here, and she said yes. 

So here it is, the last before the election, from 3 November. Sue pictured centre below between Kirstin (right) and Kirstin's mother.

Today marked the start of GOTV canvassing. The goal is to canvass every single person who has said s/he would vote for, or was leaning toward voting for, Antonio Delgado, and then to make sure, on election day, that every single supporter gets out to vote.

Last weekend, which marked the last round of canvassing before the final GOTV sprint, the Delgado campaign canvassed 40,000 doors—the most doors canvassed by ANY Congressional campaign IN THE COUNTRY. This weekend, from early reports, volunteers came out to canvass in droves. My launch site had over 100 volunteers show up; in nearby Pawling there were close to 250. That’s only 2 of almost 40 launch sites in the district—and these two sites are in a deep red area of the district.

Here are some vignettes from the canvassing trail today:

W (42 M D) reported that he, his wife, and their son will all be voting Democratic down the line. He’s got a rock solid, clear, specific voting plan: “We’re dropping off our dog for surgery at 7:30AM, then we’re going straight from there to vote.”

C (73 F D): I spotted, on the way to the door, that both cars in the driveway had bumper stickers saying 'Vote as if your life depended on it.'  I’m suspecting they’d been put their by C’s daughter, as C said, 'My daughter would be very upset if we didn’t get out to vote. Thank you for your work.'

C (66 F D): C was the mom of another mother-daughter team. When she answered, she said, 'Oh, we’re just on our way out to canvass!' Her daughter came up beside her, beaming. 'I’m so excited to be going canvassing! How is it going? What’s it like?' I let her know I was sure she’d have a good time, then C chimed in and said, 'Oh, we’ve got to get going! We don’t want to be late!' And out the door they went, just behind me, both brimming with excitement.

J (56 F D): J told me she’d been canvassed recently by some young men supporting Delgado, and she was thrilled to see them out there. She wasn’t sure they were even old enough to vote (pictured below, Delgado with volunteers, many if not all of whom are still too young to vote), yet there they were—because they know it’s about their futures. She urged me to speak with her next-door neighbor. 'He isn’t home, but she is—they’re elderly, and such nice people.'

Ordinarily, as J’s neighbors weren’t on my list - and because at GOTV time, particularly, efficiency is paramount - I wouldn’t stop at an unlisted door. I made an exception in this case, as I figured the neighbors would be chatting, and I wouldn’t want J to think I’d ignored her. Well, the neighbor was just as J had said, and then some: 'We’re both registered Republicans, but we’re only voting for Democrats right now. We have got to get Trump out. I keep trying to tell my neighbors who voted for him how disastrous this is. But, you know, some people are just stupid.' (When I got back to the launch site, I reported the address so these two votes could be added for 11/6 GOTV.)

I (43 F D): As I drove up, a little boy stood in the window, arms crossed, looking me over with a stern face. His Grandma, I’m pretty sure she was, answered the door. 'I‘s out for a walk. But I’ll be sure to give her your literature'. She was smiling, and as I turned to go she said, 'Good luck.' I smiled back and said, 'Yes, we all need good luck now, don’t we?' As I got in the car, preparing to go, the little boy took up his station again to watch me from the window . . . only this time, he was smiling.

And then there was P (63 M D), who said, simply, 'I’m a Delgado guy.'

Throughout this campaign, absolutely nothing has been left to chance. Now that the final push is upon us, no one is letting up one bit. On the contrary, the extraordinarily hard work by the Delgado campaign and its legion of committed volunteers gives new meaning to the phrase 'pulling out all the stops.'

This will likely be the last 'Notes' I’ll have a chance to send out. I dedicate it to the magnificent Delgado campaign staff, with grateful thanks for all they do and are. They have and continue to inspire and ably guide us on a daily basis. As Antonio has said, and they are each living proof of it: 'If we have anything to say about this, we’ll win.'

And they did. Hall-e-lu!

Meanwhile in an alternative universe, known as friendly neighbours of Putin, Borat goes tamponing with the mid-terms: