Wednesday 24 April 2024

Reclaiming Palestinian gardens in Battersea

The title is somewhat oblique: the gardens in question are those remembered and symbolised by Palestinian weavers in a treasure piece of embroidery which had fallen apart, due, I gather, to too much exposure to the sun. So when I learned through my friend Cally that a work colleague of her godson Sasha (wonderful human being) had set up a collaboration with traditional weavers in Beirut - where both of them lived and worked for a time I jumped at the chance of a repare. Back in November Cal and I went along to see Larissa von Planta showing her work and taking commissions on the top floor of a gallery in Dean Street. Most of the commissions were to add embroidery to existing garments, but Larissa was very much 'can do' re the cushion cover.

She was impressed with the provenance, Al-Inaash, known as the finest in Lebanon. We'd bought the design at a gathering with the Beirut Ladies Who Lunch, and having paid very little for fine Syrian work, were a bit taken aback by the price. But I'm glad we went for it. Larissa guaranteed to have the repair back from Beirut before Christmas - it was going to be a surprise present for J - but, as she later told me, wasn't satisfied with the work, sent it back and then did further work on the detail in London. She wouldn't take any more money for the extra labour. And I got to visit her in a part of London I didn't know, the area around Battersea Square. There's a splendid Dicksonia antarctica in her garden whiich formed a suitable backdrop to the presentation.

I decided to take the afternoon off and explore the area. So I took a bus down to the south side of Wandsworth Bridge and walked along the Thames Path from there (not a stretch I've done before). Even the unwieldy roundabout has had some rather splendid muralling, which includes a cubist version of my favourite bird, the goldfinch.

The luxury flats, despite their colourful names referencing the spice warehouses which had been here before, are characterless, and to judge from the folk walking along there, house Eurotrash/drugs trade folk when there's anyone there at all. But at least something has been done to reclam nature on the river side of the path

and there are plenty of unafraid ducks about.

A helicopter was coming in to land - noisy, expensive brute - which made me realise the heliport is on this side of the river. Quite a few folk had gathered to gape through the fence at whichever celebrity was landing; I moved on, enjoying the sem-glimpse from the north side

and various bridge views to offset the general tedium of the architecture. 

At last I came in sight of St Mary's, Battersea Parish Church, a place apart.

on a site occupied by a religious building as early as 800. Westminster Abbey was granted ownership and, the guidebook tells me, 'devoted the revenues from "Batricescie" to the support of the Convent Infirmary'. The present church of 1775-7 is more or less what we see now, and though there are many additions inside, not least since WW2 bombing, harmony rules.

The oldest glass is in the east window, its framework imitating the pointed opening of 1379. The panels painted by Bernard van Linge were inserted in 1631 by Sir John St John on his succession to the Lordship of the Manor. Pompously, it outlines his 'ancient and noble descent', with Henry VII, Margaret Beauchamp and Queen Elizabeth I marking connections to the House of Tudor.

To the left is a circular window with the holy Lamb, one of two made by James Pearson in 1796 (the Dove window's fragments were collected and added to new painting by Joan Howson in 1946).

Most interesting, perhaps, not least for the church's links to the great and good, are the four windows added between 1976 and 1982, designed and made by John Hayward of Edenbridge, Kent. If you walk clockwise, the first is to J M W Turner, who lived opposite for a time and took a boat over to the church to paint from there.

The church and the river feature in the bottom right hand corner. 

Next along celebrates the wedding in the church of William Blake and Catherine Butcher (featured in the double portrait bottom left).

The detail here is especially fine in referencing Blake's art and poetry (though of course it doesn't quote the 'signs of weakness, signs of woe' he detected on the London scene.

Less well known to me are military man Benedict Arnold, of dubious fame (I'll pass over him) and the botanist William Curtis, framed with a chapter of flowers from his book Flora Londoniensis.

To the left are the arms of the Society of Apothecaries, which can also be seen on the other side of the river atop the south gate of the Chelsea Physic Garden. It shows Apollo, the god of healing, victorious over the serpent of disease (I framed a postcard of it for a friend in hospital several years ago). The rhino is not so sound a symbol, given the mumbo-jumbo about its horn containing healing properties.

After coffee with Larissa and friend in nearby Battersea Square, I resumed my river walk. The modern build-up continues, but at least there's still a glimpse of Lots Road Power Station, whatever it's used for now, between the high-rises

and the slightly more distinguished new edifices on the south side are used for enticing-looking offices, one clearly for a firm of architects.

Familiar territory came into view beyond Battersea Bridge

and then I was back in the park, full of spring planting (looking across here to Albert Bridge).

The English Garden, never over-frequented, is getting better by the year. It's still early, but irises are flourishing,

the first pulsatilla I've seen in flower this year at the end of the pond,

 and a lilac, with peonies growing up fast.

More lilacs and others around the London Peace Pagoda (the dog was delightfully lively).

I always enjoy catching a sight of the ring-tailed lemurs through the fences of the Children's Zoo.

Then out past fern plantation

and over Chelsea Bridge, with Battersea Power Station - now a mecca of mammon - on one side and louring clouds on the other.

Finally on the north side, with plenty of spring foliage in front of Chelsea Hospital,

and up to Sloane Square tube. The kind of afternoon that keeps me in love with London.

Wednesday 17 April 2024

From Bernstein to Berlioz

No regrets that I postponed the Thursday Zoom-course move to France in favour of Bernstein and so many students' enthusiasm (as well as mine) for Maestro. I did wonder if I could sustain 10 classes on Lenny the composer without much ballast from his conducting and lecturing, but it turned out not only to be easy, but revelatory. I expected to renew my love and awe for the Platonic Serenade and Mass!, one of the great panoramic works of the 20th century; but there was so much more I didn't really know. Portions of all three symphonies and Songfest are of the highest order, but the real surprise was A Quiet Place, so much more than just an extension of the masterly Trouble in Tahiti.  This recording gave me much cause for reflection, 

but I want to see a production in the UK. Surely Opera North could build one around its already peerless staging of TiT? Family grief and the tensions around it are something we can all relate to, and Bernstein drew from a profound well after the death of Felicia. It needs a lot of patience and looking in to, but definitely worth it. I vowed that we'd devote four or five Mondays to it in a future Opera in Depth term. 

Operas we won't be covering in this Berlioz course - strictly concert works only, though La Damnation de Faust has often been staged. I'm not sure at this point if one term will be enough, but let's see. David Cairns' detailed study is obligatory reading, of couse, alongside the beautifully written Memoirs. I've only previously dipped in to Cairns's first volume with reference to select works, but I'm now going through it - there's some repetition but a real bringing to life of a vivid and far from chaotic personality.

We begin tomorrow (Thursday) afternoon, finding out how the future composer's singularly music-starved youth shaped the genius (his upbringing was far from all bad, though, and probably home education allowed his imagination to flourish). There's still time to join. Details below (click to enlarge).

Thursday 11 April 2024

Spendours and miseries of Henrietta Street

Advice for any first-time visitor to Dublin: skip the Book of Kells experience (10 Euros to see two pages when we went on an unsuccessful lottery-win trip as Dublin virgins) and, to find out about crucial, very different aspects of the city's identity, head for 14 Henrietta Street. This is not the 'Tenement House Museum', as it's sometimes advertised; it embraces the whole history of a Georgian street in North Dublin, from opulent commission through 100 to a building by 1911, on to the more humane divisions of the 1930s-70s, and to what the place is now. Frankly, the finest museum experience I can think of; it recently won an award from the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) for Shaffrey Architects' conservation and restoration work.

Luke Gardiner was the architect of Nos 13-15 in the 1740s; first residents were Lord Viscount Richard Molesworth and his second wife Mary.  The grand staircase, the first thing you see and then ascend, offers the opulent front of the five-floor house.

The guide - ours was excellent - begins the talk in the room on the first floor to the right, which is bare save for a fine model of the house in the centre

and finely restored cornicing. The firts two of four beautifully done films pertain to Molesworth family life. The fact that Lady Mary gave birth to two daughters in one of the back rooms overlooking the garden cues the biography of Bartholomew Mosse, for whom the fine bed in the room was made to order.

Mosse made himself unpopular with the medical establishment but got his way in founding a lying-in hospital, raising money impresario-wise as theatre manager and fashionable garden maker, and eventually opening the Rotunda Hospital, where the girl on the right being hugged by her mother was born.

Following the 1801 Acts of Union, the well-to-do retreated to Regency London, though the houses continued to be inhabited by legal practitioners (the fine King's Inns building designed by James Gandon is at the top of the street).

The Dublin Militia took over for a while until 1876, until after the Great Famine landlords starting carving up townhouses into multiple dwellings for the poor who had flooded into the city. As No. 14's website puts it,  

In 1876 Thomas Vance purchased Number 14 and installed 19 tenement flats of one, three and four rooms. Described in an Irish Times advert from 1877:

‘To be let to respectable families in a large house, Northside, recently papered, painted and filled up with every modern sanitary improvement, gas and wc on landings, Vartry Water, drying yard and a range with oven for each tenant; a large coachhouse, or workshop with apartments, to be let at the rere. Apply to the caretaker, 14 Henrietta St.’

,,, By 1911 number 14 was filled with 100 people while over 850 lived on the street. The census showed that it was a hive of industry – there were milliners, a dressmaker (tailoress!), French polishers, and bookbinders living and possibly working in the house.

As the advert suggests, there were more amenities than in many such tenement set-ups, but the packing- in of a whole family to a single room was very far from the situation in the purpose-built tenements of Scotland. One recent visitor remembers sleeping as a child on the floor in the corner of this basement room. The bed in the recreation is actually a luxury. 

The stairways and halls in this part of the building have been left more or less distressed, with some telling injunctions on the walls.

Life on the street itself could, nevertheless, be enriching from the social angle, and a film full of children's songs in another renovated room points that out.

Improvements stalled by the Great War and the 1916 uprising finally became a priority of the new Irish state, and from 1931 onwards the first Dublin city architect, Herbert Simms, planned new conditions. One of his blocks can be seen out of the back windows, 

and the deco curves are apparent on another model.

Simms also designed garden suburbs, but many of the older residents pined after the lost communities of tenement life. No. 14's last tenemenr residents left in 1979, The building decayed until Dublin City Council acquired it in 2000, renovating and restoring; the museum opened in 2018. Its final apartment shows the relative cosiness of the later years. Colin Farrell, a recent visitor, told our guide it was exactly as he remembered his nan's home.

Afterwards I wandered through the King's Inn grounds

and admired the row of cottages parallel to Henrietta Street, a quiet corner of North Dublin.

So much more to explore - people keep telling me Dublin's small, but it has thousands of interesting places to see and stories to tell.