Monday, May 14, 2018

London 2018: Beatles Walking Tour, Little Venice, Paddington

On our first visit to London in 2000, we really enjoyed taking walking tours with the tour group London Walks, choosing the extremely popular “Jack the Ripper” Walk as well as a “Hidden London” walk .  The tours are 2 hours in length, at a cost of 10 pounds per person and are usually informative and entertaining.  If you plan to take more than two walks during your stay in London, it makes sense to purchase the discount pass where you pay 2 pounds extra for the first walk and then 2 pounds less for all subsequent walks.  The pass is good for 30 days for tourists.  We like the fact that you don’t need to pre-book for the walks and that they start and stop near tube stations.   On this trip, we have chosen three walks to take with this group—a Beatles tour and two tours around the Covent Garden area.  We originally planned a fourth walk that encompassed the areas of Hampstead and Highgate but realized that we would get a much more detailed tour of Highgate Cemetery from the cemetery itself and could only see the West part of the cemetery with that tour.

Our first walking tour was called the “Beatles Magical Mystery Tour”, visiting some of the important locations in London where the Beatles first made a name for themselves after arriving from their home town of Liverpool.  The tour would start at the Tottenham Court Road tube station and conclude at the Abbey Road recording studio where the Beatles recorded all their albums between 1962 and 1970, including the album named after the studio.  As the start and end points of the tour were nowhere near each other, we would need to take a tube ride in between to get to Abbey Road Studios.  Once there, it would be just a short walk away from an area known as “Little Venice”, so we thought that we would check it out after the tour.  Arriving at Tottenham Court Road Station, I was drawn to the colourful mosaic patterns that decorated the walls.

Our guide for the walk was Richard Porter, a life-long Beatles fan and expert on Beatlemania, who has met the group members on multiple occasions and has written a book about them.  The first stop was in Soho Square where Paul McCartney’s London Office “MPL” is found.  MPL stands for McCartney Productions Limited, not McCartney Paul & Linda as many have surmised.  McCartney’s company owns the rights to many songs and a few musicals including Annie and Grease, but ironically and despite repeated efforts, it does not own the publishing rights to the Beatles catalogue.  Next we visited Trident Records where “Hey Jude” was recorded.  Other artists who recorded here included David Bowie, The Rolling Stones and Queen.  We stopped in front of the entry to a gentlemen’s toilet on Broadwick St. in Soho where John Lennon participated in a sketch from the BBC Comedy Series “Not Only .. But Also” starring Peter Cook and Dudley Moore.  John played Dan, the doorman of a trendy nightclub, who charged the exorbitant amount of 5 pounds to use the facilities in the underground men’s lavatory.  John wore his trademark “granny glasses” for the first time, sparking a fashion trend.  Then we went to Carnaby Street which used to be a favourite location for musicians including the Beatles, Stones and Kinks to go shop for clothing before it became too touristy.  A large mural called “The Spirit of Soho” (1991) celebrates the historic venues and people associated with Soho, including Karl Marx, Handel, Isaac Newton and Casanova, who is depicted wearing an outfit reminiscent of the ones worn by the Beatles on their Sergeant Pepper album.

We were taken to the steps of the Palladium Theatre where the Beatles’ October 1963 performance on the show “Late Night At the Palladium” was watched by 18 million viewers and marked the start of “Beatlemania”.  Fans screamed and mobbed the group when they exited the theatre and the next day, for the first time, the Beatles ended up on the front page of every major newspaper.  As noted by the blue heritage plaque, next to the Palladium were the offices of Brian Epstein, manager of the Beatles.  It was here that John Lennon made the contentious and possibly taken out of context statement that “The Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ”.  We stood outside 3 Saville Road, formerly the site of the Beatles’ Apple Corps headquarters, where the band held the infamous “rooftop concert”, which ended up being their final public performance.  We were also shown the former location of Indica Gallery, where John Lennon first met Yoko Ono when he was invited to attend an exhibition of her conceptual art.  The gallery was partly owned by Peter Asher, the brother of Paul McCartney’s then girlfriend Jane Asher, and was named after Peter’s favourite brand of marijuana.

The highlight of the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour was the final stop to visit Abbey Road Studios (originally named EMI Studios), the location where the Beatles recorded almost all of their albums between 1962-1970.  It has become a tradition for visitors to write tributes to the Beatles on the wall in front of the building, which gets painted over every 3 months.  A sign pointing to the wall originally seems to be a warning against this graffiti, but is actually a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Beatles songs “Help” and “Get Back” which are highlighted in the sentences.  The Beatles named their 1969 album Abbey Road after the street that the studio resides on, and took the famous photo of the Fab Four walking across the nearby Zebra crosswalk that is used on the cover of the album.  Originally the album was to be named Everest but it was deemed too expensive to travel to Mount Everest for a cover shoot, so a more local setting was chosen.  The Abbey Road album cover became part of a weird “Paul is Dead” conspiracy theory that theorized that the procession was part of a funeral march.  The “clues” indicating that Paul was dead included his bare feet and the cigarette in his right hand, since he was left-handed.

This iconic depiction of the four Beatles walking across the zebra crossing has become one of the most famous and most imitated/spoofed images in the history of popular music.  Homages of other foursomes include characters from the Simpsons, Marvel/DC superheroes, Star Trek, Pac Man, Star Wars, Tin Tin, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and more.  We were quite excited in anticipation of being able to walk across the zebra crossing ourselves at the end of our tour.  While we were at an art show in Toronto a few days prior to traveling to London, we spotted a graffiti rendering of beetles (the insects!) on the famous crossing and could not resist buying it as a “pre-trip souvenir”.  The tour guide warned us that it was actually dangerous to make this crossing since it was a busy intersection with lots of cars and buses coming from both directions.  You would think at least the locals would know to avoid this street by now.  This in no way deters any tourists, as we were told of people crossing naked or even lying down across the road.  Of course, Rich and I had to make this trek multiple times ourselves, and with the power of Photoshop, we were able to replicate our images from different photos to simulate a foursome on the crosswalk, both in regular and cartoon modes on our camera.

Little Venice is an area in just north of Central London where three branches of the Regent’s Canal traverse East, North-West and South-West, flowing from a small basin that is known as the “Little Venice Lagoon”.  While not on the scale of the actual canals of Venice, Italy (which we visited several years ago), parts of Regent’s Canal are lined with trees and houseboats and spanned by bridges, exuding a quaint charm similar to the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris.  It is thought that the poet Robert Browning coined the term “Little Venice”.  Boats that can be found on the canal include a puppet theatre boat,  floating shops and restaurants, a floating hotel and even a floating church called St. Peter’s Barge.

We thought it would be fun to have lunch on one of the floating restaurants and rest our feet before heading home.  Unfortunately we just missed the lunch period for the first boat that we tried, but we had success getting a table at the “Darcie Green”, a brightly coloured boat that is connected to a floating coffee and cocktail bar called the “May Green”.  Sharing a combined 50-meter upper deck overlooking the Grand Union Canal, the two boats were designed by British pop artist Sir Peter Blake.  With glass windows and round port holes on both sides of the boat, you could get a good view of either the canal or the other shops and restaurants along the boardwalk.

It was a bit breezy and chilly on the canal so we warmed up and perked up by sharing a “house-made” hot chocolate with our meal.  We each started with a spicy tuna tostada with avocado, yuzu cream made from the sour Japanese citrus yuzu fruit, and candied chili.  Then we shared a plate of crispy breaded calamari, courgettes and green beans with a sauce cheekily called the “Ribman’s Holy F*ck sauce) and a sashimi salad with pieces of sea bass, salmon and tuna sashimi combined with mixed greens, avocado, pickled ginger and a soy/sesame dressing.  This made for a nice lunch in a really cool setting.

At this point, we had followed along the south-west branch of the canal and ended up next to Paddington Tube Station which we would take to head home.  Of course, at a station called “Paddington” in London, we expected to see some sign of the fictional children’s book character Paddington Bear, and we were not disappointed.  A short distance away from the tube station entrance was a blue sculpture of Paddington holding his trademark briefcase and wearing the iconic hat and duffle coat.  This was one of four sculptures of Paddington that you can find on a scavenger hunt by following the “Pawprint Trail” around London. Also found in this area were sculptures (created 1998 and 2000) by Sean Henry of a pair of casually dressed men, one as if out for a stroll and the other just standing around enjoying the scenery.  A temporary exhibit from a series called “Collaborative Works” paired up painter Sinta Tantra, who paints on an architectural scale and sculptor Nick Hornby, who works in bronze and marble with the aid of 3-D modelling software.  The collaboration is a set of images representing schematic designs for new sculptures.  Had we arrived in this area at the beginning of the day, we would have explored more and found more sculptures and art to look at throughout Paddington Station and its surrounding streets.  But after a long day of walking, we had no more energy to wander and just headed home after our late lunch.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

London 2018: Brompton and Highgate Cemeteries, Hampton Heath, Kenwood House

My husband Rich and I have always found cemeteries to be fascinating and are lucky to have a beautiful one in Toronto which is just a block from our home.  In addition to sculptures, mausoleums, botanical gardens, fountains, walking and biking paths, the Mount Pleasant Cemetery is renowned for its collection of rare and distinct varieties of trees.  We search out and visit burial grounds in cities around the world, with our favourite being the iconic Père Lachaise in Paris, which has the most elaborate tomb sculptures that we have ever seen.  It is very interesting to note how cemeteries in different countries have unique personalities in terms of design, layout, landscaping and ornamentation (or lack thereof) of the tombs.  The more scenic cemeteries, such as Mount Pleasant and Père Lachaise, are as much public parks and gardens as well as open-air art galleries as they are grave yards.  While we were vacationing in Venice, we visited the San Michele Cemetery which is actually situated on an island and where many of the tombs are packed together in very tight spaces.  The Arlington Cemetery in Washington D.C. is a military cemetery which is quite sparse in terms of landscaping or ornamentation of gravestones.  However scanning the seemingly endless number of uniformed white headstones spanning row after row was a very touching experience.

The cemeteries in London (and probably all of England?) prescribe to the “Garden Cemetery Movement” which dictates that cemeteries should be pretty places designed in a park-like setting.  For our visit to London, we had two cemeteries on our itinerary.  Brompton Cemetery just happened to be located directly across the street from our rental apartment, while the Highgate Cemetery was a half hour tube ride almost directly north of us.  Both of these cemeteries are part of a group of seven privately owned suburban cemeteries opened in the 19th Century (between 1832-1841) in order to alleviate overcrowding in the burial plots of local churches and parishes.  These 7 cemeteries (also including Kensal Green, West Norwood, Abney Park, Nunhead and Tower Hamlets) were dubbed “The Magnificent Seven”, after the 1960 Western film of the same name. It was decreed that these public cemeteries must accommodate all denominations including Anglicans and Dissenters

Open in 1840, the 39 acres comprising Brompton Cemetery sit on a long, narrow plot of land that spans just under one kilometer, running north-south along multiple city blocks.  It is one of Britain’s oldest and most distinguished cemeteries, hosting 35,000 monuments and over 200,000 burials.  Created by architect Benjamin Baud, Brompton almost feels like two separate grave yards.  A central “Grand Avenue” runs through the length of the cemetery, but the landscape changes significantly from the North to the South.   The land to the north (closest to our apartment) was designed as a garden cemetery with over 60 types of trees, plants, wildflowers, mushrooms and other vegetation, while the land to the south was built in the Neo-Classical style, highlighted by curved colonnades that form a “Great Circle” (inspired by Bernini’s Piazza in front of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome) that leads to a domed Anglican chapel at the Southern end.  Built beneath the colonnades were a series of catacombs with room for thousands of underground tombs but the idea did not catch on and only 500 spots were sold.  Movies filmed in the cemetery include Eastern Promises starring Viggo Mortensen, Sherlock Holmes with Jude Law and Robert Downey Jr. and Finding Neverland starring Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet.

The garden cemetery in the North seems to have been left to grow wild without human intervention, resulting in lush greenery and plants so overgrown that some tombs are almost totally covered.  Various species of birds, insects, butterflies, rodents and other wildlife inhabit this space.  A row of stately lime trees, found along the Grand Avenue, date back to 1846. Rumours are that Beatrix Potter, who lived in Brompton, might have named some of her characters from Peter Rabbit based on names on tombstones from the cemetery.

There are some ornate tombs and interesting burials found in the Brompton Cemetery, although nothing on the level of what is in Père Lachaise.  The chest tomb for wealthy ship owner and arts patron Frederick Leyland is made from Portland stone with a copper roof and floral copper patterns on the sides, while the wrought iron railings surrounding it are topped with designs of lilies.  The mausoleum of oil industrialist James McDonald features a decorative copper door flanked by stone sculptures of angels.  The Burnside memorial commemorates Iris Burnside, daughter of Canadian department store heiress Josephine Burnside (nee Eaton).  Iris died at the age of 20 in the sinking of the Lusitania during WWI.  The Lusitania was operated by the Cunard Ocean liners, whose Canadian founder Samuel Cunard is also buried in this cemetery.  Emmeline Pankhurst was a devoted suffragette who unfortunately died three weeks before the law was passed allowing women to vote.  This year marks the centenary of the triumph of the suffragettes and there were tributes to them in many of the museums that we visited on this trip.  John “Gentlemen” Jackson was a bare-knuckle fighter known for guarding King George IV during his coronation, and for teaching Lord Byron how to box.  His tomb is topped by the carving of a lion, which was paid for by his friends and admirers. John Wisden was considered one of the best cricket players of his day.

The family tomb and mausoleum of Dr. Benjamin Golding, founder of the Charing Cross Hospital is surrounded by ornate fencing and stone carved decorations that invoke the Art Nouveau style, even though he died decades before this style came into vogue.  We first heard of the name Marchesa Luisa Casati when we saw the famous painting of her by Augustus John at our local Art Gallery.  An Italian noblewoman, socialite, and fashion icon with an extravagant and flamboyant style, Casati spent her final years in poverty.  According to the biographical write-up about her on the cemetery website, Casati was buried with her embalmed Pekinese dog and one of her mourners was her former personal Venetian gondolier.  It is surprising to see how plain, innocuous and overgrown the grave of Sir Henry Cole has become, considering his importance in supporting the Great Exposition and the Victoria and Albert Museum and his reputation as the “most influential man in South Kensington”.   Perhaps the most interesting monument that we saw was in tribute to Victoria Cross recipient Reginald Warneford (nicknamed “Reckless Rex”) who became the first airman to shoot down a German airship in 1915 when he bombed a German Zeppelin, made an emergency landing in enemy territory and managed to fix his plane and return home.  Unfortunately he died 10 days later in an accidental plane crash.

En route to visiting Highgate Cemetery, we walked through the neighbouring Hampstead Heath, a 790 acre park in Northern London that hosts numerous ponds, fields, woods, parks, conservation areas, sports fields and green spaces.  The Heath sits on one of the highest points of the city, providing excellent views of the London from the Parliament Hill Viewpoint.  From here you can see the London Eye, Big Ben, The Shard and many other recognizable structures in the London skyline.

Highgate Cemetery comprises of an East and a West section divided by the long narrow road of Swain’s Lane.  Designed by architect Stephen Geary, the West section was initially open in 1839 with 15 acres dedicated for followers of the Church of England and 2 acres for Dissenters (Protestant Christians who had separated from the Church of England).  This area quickly filled up and by 1859,  a large parcel of land to the East of Swain Road was purchased, bringing the total area of the cemetery to 37 acres.  Today there are over 170,000 people buried and 53,000 graves found across the two sides of Highgate Cemetery, which is obviously still a very popular location with limited plots left, since purchases of new plots are restricted to those over 80 years of age, or who are terminally ill.  Both sides are available for touring although the West side is only accessible by taking a guided tour, while the East side can be viewed either by a self-guided or a guided tour.  The former Highgate Chapel is now used as the Visitors’ Centre.  We decided to take the guided tour of the West side but to wander around on our own on the East side.

Like Brompton Cemetery, Highgate was designed in as a garden cemetery full of trees, shrubbery, plants and wildflowers, acting as a haven for birds and small animals.  It is considered a nature reserve where the flora has been allowed to grow freely without human intervention.  Once again, we saw tombs that were so covered with overgrown greenery that the headstones were barely visible.  We learned on our guided tour that the Cemetery is not responsible for the maintenance of the graves.  This responsibility lies with the grave owners, so after a few generations, some of the older graves no longer have active visitors willing to continue the upkeep.  Having the forest grow wild around old Gothic tombs just adds to the atmosphere and mystique of this fabulous burial space.  We saw several black cats roaming around the cemetery which seemed very appropriate given the setting.  In the late 1960s to early 1970s, there was even a media sensation when it was proclaimed by a pair of vampire hunters that Highgate Cemetery was haunted by a vampire and its victims, leading to a mass vampire hunt in March 1970.

On the East side, the most famous as well as the largest tomb belongs to Karl Marx, the German philosopher and revolutionary socialist who wrote the Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital, anti-capitalist works that formed the basis of “Marxism”.  Topped by a giant bronze bust of his head, Marx’s tomb bears the inscription “Workers of All Lands Unite”.  His wife and other members of his family are also buried in this tomb.  Other noted interments include English novelist and poet George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans) who wrote “The Mill and the Floss”, Douglas Adams of “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” fame, whose grave is decorated with a box of pens, sculptor Anna Mahler (daughter of composer Gustav Mahler) whose grave is marked presumably by one of her sculptures, and the self-designed headstone by painter and print-maker Patrick Caufield which whimsically spells out the word DEAD.

There were many other beautiful “tombstones” scattered throughout the cemetery dating from the Victorian era through to current day.  It was interesting to note how the style of grave markers have changed over the years, and how much text used to be etched on the tombstones compared to modern day.  In the 19th Century, it was not unusual for a man’s entire resume to be listed, or a detailed description of how the deceased passed away.  In one tomb was a very sad tale of two brothers who drowned with 5 of their school mates in 1868.  Many of the recent markers are just small black slabs that contain the name, year of birth and year of death of the deceased.  One of the most interesting modern tombstones is shaped like a Penguin book cover with the title “The Final Chapter” written on the “spine” and the word “PARTNER” etched on the front to memorialize the passing of 34-year-old Jim Stanford Horn.

Designed as a Victorian garden, the West Cemetery is home to the most impressive architectural features of Highgate Cemetery.  At the time that Highgate Cemetery was designed, shortly after the Napoleonic Wars in Egypt, Victorian Londoners were obsessed with the culture and art of ancient Egypt.  This resulted in the creation of a set of Egyptian-styled catacombs with a gateway flanked by a pair of massive obelisks that led to “Egyptian Avenue”.  Catering to the wealthiest families, sixteen brick-lined vaults, each with shelves for 12 coffins, were built into a moss-covered hillside.  Cast iron doors to the vaults were installed with extra holes at the top for ventilation purposes to reduce the smell from the decaying bodies.  The circular grass-covered terrace above the tombs is called the “Circle of Lebanon”, with the tombs denoted as the “Terrace Catacombs”.  At the centre of the terrace is a massive Cedar of Lebanon tree that pre-dated the building of the cemetery and was part of the original property upon which the cemetery was built.  Our guide took us into one of the catacombs, but photos were not allowed inside.  We were told that the bodies stored in lead-lined coffins were inserted into recesses feet first, so that the head of the deceased would be closest to his visitors.  The terrace catacombs provided more security from grave robbers than the plots found outside.  However if such a plot was desired, the catacombs were used as temporary holding places until a permanent plot was chosen.

By the 1870s, the Egyptian craze had passed.  When architect Thomas Porter built a new ring of catacombs encircling the original Egyptian styled terrace catacombs, the new vaults were created in Neo-Classical style with the triangular pediments.  Included in these new vaults was a Columbarium where urns containing cremated remains could be stored.  Around the same time as the new catacombs, wealthy businessman and newspaper baron Julius Beer commissioned a grand mausoleum to house the remains of his beloved daughter Ada who died at age 8.  Inside the vault is a touching sculpture depicting Ada being lifted to heaven by an angel.  Beer wanted to own the largest mausoleum situated in the best location at the top of the hill and even paid for the stairs of the Circle of Lebanon to be moved to accommodate this.  Julius Beer was also interred here along with his wife, son and brother.

The West side of Highgate boasts some notable names including Highgate designer Stephen Geary, actress Jean Simmons, painter Lucien Freud, Catherine Dickens (wife of Charles) and more recently actor Bob Hoskins and pop star George Michaels.  Unfortunately none of these graves were on the guided tour, which concentrated more on historical aspects of the cemetery.  As we walked around, the guide pointed out repeated motifs and symbols found on the tombs.  There were more Egyptian patterns including a Egyptian winged solar disk and many obelisks.  Upside torches refer to a life cut short, broken columns represent a break from earthly existence to transition to heavenly life, three stepped tombs reference Hope, Faith and Charity, upside-down urns let the spirit escape and wreathes indicating victory in death.  The symbol HIS is a monogram representing Jesus Christ but in some cases, the letters are overlaid in such a way that it looks like a dollar sign.

While our tour did not include visits to any famous current people, we were shown some very interesting tombs with great back-stories, mostly from people that have been dead for over a century.  James Selby (1844-1888) was a celebrated coachman renowned for his fast driving.  Shortly before his death, he won a £1000  bet that he could drive from London to Brighton and back in less than 8 hours.  Using 8 teams of horses, he achieved this feat, covering 108 miles in 7 hours and 50 minutes.  His tomb is decorated with a coachman’s horn and whip, and upside-down horseshoes on the posts.  George Wombell (1777-1850) was a famous menagerie exhibitor whose exotic animals included elephants, giraffes, a gorilla, monkeys, ostriches, a kangaroo, zebras and two lions, a tame one named Nero and a wild one named Wallace.  When Wombell’s elephant died at one county fair, he used it as a promotional opportunity, billing it as “The Only Dead Elephant at the Fair”, besting his rival who boasted of owning the only live elephant.  Atop Wombell’s tomb is a sculpture of Nero.  Thomas Sayers (1826-1865) was a bare-knuckle boxer who won all but one of his fights.  His final fight lasted forty rounds and over two hours, and the two opponents had to be separated before they killed one another.  That fight was declared a draw.  By the time Sayers died, his wife and son had left him so his faithful bullmastiff ironically named Lion was his closest mourner.  A stone sculpture of the dog guards Sayers’ tomb.  The mausoleum of Robert Goldhammer (-2014), former director Dunkin Donuts UK, features an ornate door decorated with pomegranates symbolizing death and resurrection.  It is the first new mausoleum to be built in Highgate for 90 years.

An ornate Neo-Gothic monument marks the tomb of the Mears family who ran the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, responsible for making such famous bells as Big Ben and the US Liberty Bell.  We were shown a tomb with a horse carving on top of the pillar and the guide asked us to guess the family occupation of the deceased.  The sculpture of a horse sits atop the grave of John Atcheler (?-1853), reputed to be the horse slaughter (or knacker) for Queen Victoria.  Adam Worth (1844-1902) was a German-American Jew and a career criminal who was said to be the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s criminal mastermind James Moriarty.  Worth was involved in bank robberies, a diamond heist, ran an illegal gambling joint, and stole a famous Thomas Gainsborough painting, amongst other crimes.  Upon his death, Worth was buried in a mass pauper’s grave in Highgate under the name Henry J. Raymond, a pseudonym he used in many of his scams and capers.   In 1997, the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation paid for a modest headstone for Worth, which included his alias and the phrase “The Napoleon of Crime”.  This is a turn of phrase that Arthur Conan Doyle used to describe Moriarty, and which Andrew Lloyd Webber borrowed to describe “Macavity the Mystery Cat” in his musical Cats.  The only recent grave that we visited was that of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko (1962-2006) who defected to the United Kingdom and was subsequently murdered when exposed to radioactive polonium-210, a rare and highly toxic substance, likely administered by his former secret service agency FSB.  There was a photo of Litvinenko leaning against his tombstone and some branches on the tree next to the grave were chopped off, symbolizing a life prematurely cut short.

At the northern end of Hampstead Heath is Kenwood House and Estate, which was first built in the 17th Century and had various owners before it was purchased in 1925 by Edward Cecil Guinness, 1st Earl of Ivegah.  When he died 2 years later in 1927, the Earl bequeathed the house and property to the British people, including his art collection of Old Masters and British paintings.  Because of this bequest, admission to Kenwood House and its grounds is free to the public. The estate spans 50 acres and includes multiple landscaped gardens as well as works by noted sculptors such as Henry Moore.  Kenwood is a fine example of a country house with magnificent vistas and landscaping designed by Humphry Repton in the 1790s in a style that has come to be known as “English Landscape-Garden”.  Perhaps the most impressive part of the grounds are the gardens with the large concentration of vibrant and colourful giant flower bushes.

Through the centuries, each subsequent owner commissioned renovations, additions and redecorations to the home, resulting in an orangerie, an Ionic portico at the entrance, bedrooms in the attic, a grand staircase and great hall, library, drawing room, parlour, music room, elegant dining room and a service wing with kitchens.  On the second floor is a small museum room displaying a collection of shoe buckles, jewelry and portrait miniatures.  Several British movies have been filmed at the Kenwood Estate including Notting Hill starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, and Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet and once again Hugh Grant.

The most elaborate room in the house is the Neoclassical library designed by Robert Adams between 1767-70 as part of the remodeling of the Mansion and affectionately known as “The Adams Room”.  Recently restored to its original glory, the library includes Corinthian columns, a curved ceiling with decorative inlays surrounding paintings, marble busts including one of Lord Mansfield (former owner of Kenwood), and shelves full of antique books with an old-fashioned rolling ladder to reach the upper shelves.  If you look carefully though, some of the “books” are actually just fake spines glued together to look like the real thing.  When asked about this, the docent indicated that many of Earl’s real books were burned in a fire in his previous lodgings

But most impressive of all was Ivegah’s collection of paintings including works by masters such as Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt Van Rijn, Anthony Van Dyck, Thomas Gainsborough J.M.W. Turner, Frans Hals, and Joshua Reynolds.  The most famous pieces were Rembrandt’s oil on canvas self portrait “Portrait of an Artist” (1665), painted later in life when he was impoverished and alone and Vermeer’s Guitar Player (1672) depicting a young girl, possibly his daughter in midst of playing her instrument.  Paintings hung on the opposite ends of the music room give interesting contrast to portrait styles of two major portrait artists of the 16th Century.  Thomas Gainsborough put his subjects in natural, realistic landscape settings, often depicting them with dogs that symbolize faithfulness and loyalty, as shown in his serene portrait of Lady Brisco in a white dress taking a walk in the countryside with a dog by her side (1776).  By contrast, Joshua Reynolds painted in the “Grand Style”, an idealized style derived from Classical art, portraying his subjects as Greek Gods and Goddesses in dramatic stances.  His painting of Lady Sophia Musters (1785) depicts her as Hebe, the Greek goddess of youth, standing on Mount Olympus with the wind rustling through her clothing and hair.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

London 2018: Eltham Palace, Art Deco Fair

When Rich and I were researching places to visit as part of our “Off the Beaten Path” tour of London, we looked for obscure but interesting sites that were still within easy transit access, but might not make the list that the typical tourist would visit.  Rich hit the jackpot when he discovered Eltham Palace, a magical destination so little known that even some locals we spoke to had never heard of it.  It was so far from Central London that we had to take the Tube followed by a Rail service to get there.  Luckily the transit systems in London are so well integrated that this was not much different than transferring tube stations, except that we had to pay a separate fare for the Rail service in addition to the Tube service.  So the one-way trip cost us each 4.9 pounds as opposed to the usual 2.4 pounds required to get to Central London.

Located in the Greenwich district in South-East London, Eltham Palace was originally built as a Medieval palace that featured a Great (Banquet) Hall, many gardens and a moat that surrounded the property.  Eltham was used as a royal residence between the 14th-16th centuries by a series of monarchs including Edward II, Edward VI and Henry VIII before it fell out of favour and languished in disrepair for several centuries.  In the 17th and 18th Centuries, the property was used as a farm and the Great Hall was converted into a barn.  A movement to save and restore the Great Hall took place through the 19th Century.  Today you can still see ruins from the original castle, but the Great Hall, as well as a small part of the moat and the 15th Century stone bridge crossing it, are the main features that remain from the Tudor heyday.

In 1933, textile millionaires Stephen and Virginia Courtauld leased the estate and built a new house on the property, which incorporated the Great Hall of the original palace.  While the exterior of the house was designed to complement the Great Hall, using red brick and yellow stone patterns inspired by Hampton Court Palace, the Courtaulds decorated the interior in the Moderne style (which later became known as Art Deco) that was in vogue in the 1930s.  The result is an interesting juxtaposition of Medieval and 20th Century styles that is also reflected in the designs of the 19 acres of gardens.  Walking around the grounds of the palace, you would not suspect the surprise that is in store for you when you step inside. The Courtaulds moved out in 1944, passing the lease to the Royal Army Educational Corps, who stayed until 1992.  The foundation English Heritage took over in 1995 and spent years restoring the property, its interiors and the grounds/gardens to reflect the period of the Courtaulds’ stay, including creating reproductions or replicas of the furniture and artwork.

We purposely timed our visit to correspond with the annual Art Deco Fair, which takes place on the grounds of Eltham Palace for two days in May. This was advertised as a large sale of vintage Art Deco-period items, and we were hoping to find a small affordable piece to bring home as a souvenir.  We arrived right at opening time and decided to wander through the fair first before it got too crowded, and then take the tour of the Palace.  Half of the stalls for the fair were set up in the 100-feet-long Great Hall, which was built in the 1470s for King Edward IV, who used it for hosting court dinners, receptions and other forms of entertaining.  It features an elaborate oak hammer-bean roof, the third largest in England.  When the Courtaulds restored the Great Hall in the 1930s, they added stained glass windows depicting the badges of Edward IV, electric torches, heated flooring and a minstrel’s gallery overlooking the hall, where musicians could play during dances and parties held in the room.  Today, the Great Hall is rented out for weddings, receptions and special events like the Art Deco Fair.

The second half of the fair occupied a large white tent that was temporarily set up on the grounds next to the Great Hall.  We were really impressed by the variety and quality of items on sale.  There was jewelry, clothing, furniture, art, books, sculptures, ceramics, glass, cookware, clocks, lamps and much more.  In addition, there was a smaller tent offering snacks for sale and a table where you could buy a cup of strawberry wine infused with fresh strawberries and cucumber.  On a relatively hot day, this sounded like just the ticket and we were able to enjoy our drink while sitting on one of the wicker benches set out on the beautiful Eltham Palace grounds.  I had never tried strawberry wine before and rather enjoyed it, since it tasted more like fruit punch than wine.

As Rich and I browsed through the stalls looking at the items on sale, we each saw some pieces that we liked, but which did not interest the other one of us as much.  Rich was drawn to a stainless steel cocktail shaker with a bright red handle that looked like a coffee pot and a swanky clock with a stepped form and geometric lines and patterns.  I have always wanted an Art Deco sculpture but most of the ones I saw were too big or too expensive.  I finally spotted one that might have fit my criteria, but before I could ask about it, another couple swooped in and bought it on the spot.  This was just as well, since I wasn’t sure it would have been Rich’s cup of tea anyways.

Then I found something that we got excited about.  It was a beautiful eight piece gilded coffee set decorated with in green, blue and beige geometric shapes and lines, with a pearly lustre sheen on the inside of the cups, creamer and sugar bowl.  The set was created by Crown Devon Fieldings circa 1930s.  Negotiating with the vendor, we were able to agree on a reduced price if we could pay cash, which we luckily brought enough of, in hopes of making a purchase.  We were just about to leave the sale when Rich caught sight of something else in another stall that he fell instantly in love with.  It was an Art Nouveau-styled vase circa 1920, elegantly decorated with leaves and flowers, that was designed and signed by R.Dean who produced worked for Thomas Forester.  Debating for a bit about whether it was extravagant for us to make two purchases, we decided that if the vendor would lower his asking price to match the money that we had left, we would buy it.  If not, it would not be meant to be.  The antique dealer gave us his best price and we stepped aside to count our remaining cash.  We found that we were short by 2 pounds and would have had enough if we hadn’t bought the strawberry wine drink!  Holding all the money we had left in my hands, I approached the vendor and asked if that would be good enough.  Luckily he accepted so we are the happy owners of both these items.  We still had to worry about how we would get all these fragile pieces home unscathed in our carry-on bags, but we would figure that out later.  Now with literally no more money in our wallets, (luckily we had pre-paid Oyster cards for the transit home), we quickly took our leave of the fair and proceeded to tour the palace with the Medieval exterior and Art Deco interior.

The most stunning and dramatic room in Eltham Palace is the Grand Entrance, created by Swedish designer Rolf Engströmer.  This is where the Courtaulds would welcome their guests and serve them cocktails. The walls of this magnificent room are made from blackbean veneer (an Australian wood), decorated with marquetry featuring figures of a Viking and a Roman soldier guarding either side of the entrance.  These figures are set against background scenes from Venice, Florence and Stockholm, favourite cities that the Courtaulds visited in their travels.  A round, glass-domed light feature studded with glass bricks sits directly above a circular geometrically-patterned rug around which streamlined, unadorned furniture including couches, arm chairs, and tables are positioned.  The overall effect is absolutely breathtaking.  Around the room are exits leading to other parts of the ground floor including the dining room, as well as two sets of stairs accessing the first floor.

The Dining Room is another highlight in the house, displaying a mixture of modern design and classical features. It is designed by the Italian Peter Malacrida, who also created the look and feel for many other rooms in the house. Art Deco inspired Greek motif is evident throughout the room, including gilded spiral Greek key patterns embossed on the doors and fireplace, as well as the edges of the side tables.  The massive black laquered doors are also decorated with gilded images of animals and birds that could be found in the London Zoo.  The furniture was designed with clean lines and an absence of applied decoration.  This includes the long, sleek walnut and maple dining table that can seat up to 14 people and the matching dining chairs covered with pink leather upholstery.  The central ceiling recess is covered with aluminum leaf with concealed lighting underneath that creates a metallic shimmering effect.

The Courtaulds incorporated modern technology (for the times) in Eltham Palace including the use of electricity throughout the house, an electric fireplace in the dining room with imitation burning logs, an internal telephone systems, central vacuum system in the basement, synchronized electric clocks, and a loudspeaker system.

Several other rooms were found on the ground floor.  Unlike the previous Art Deco-styled rooms, the Italian Drawing Room (also designed by Peter Malacrida) is decorated in Italian Renaissance style with its orange and ochre walls, classical marble mantle for the fireplace, decorative ceiling beams, Persian rugs, wall panels carved with reliefs of goddesses with fauns, ornate metal grill work on the doorways leading to the terrace, and small lighted recesses for displaying art work and ceramics.  This is the room was where the Courtaulds and their guests would relax after dinner and where  Stephen Courtauld’s collection of Italian Renaissance paintings and ceramics was kept. While all of the original art works have been taken away long ago, several reproductions of paintings hang on the walls while built-in shelves hold replica ceramic plates.  This room, along with the Dining Room and Grand Entrance can be rented out for cocktail parties and receptions.  The Boudoir was designed specifically for Virginia Courtauld and features an early example of built-in furniture.  A wide 3-seater sofa is nestled into a wooden built-in unit consisting of multi-tiered end tables on either side and a long wooden bookcase spanning the length of the couch and both end tables.  On the other side of the room, a protruded wall with the fireplace built into it is covered by a large leather map depicting Eltham Palace and the surrounding estate.  The wall also features a camouflaged door leading to Stephen’s library.
Accessed from the Boudoir is a small room that the Courtaulds called the “Map Room” where the couple drew maps of the Middle East, Europe and South America in order to plan their holidays.  The maps were recently discovered behind some peeling wallpaper and conservators contracted by English Heritage have been working carefully to restore and preserve the maps.  In the process of uncovering the maps, the conservators noticed some decorative images drawn beside the maps, probably painted by Virginia either in anticipation of or to capture memories of their travels.  The conservation work continues and it will be very exciting once it is all done. 

Taking one of the staircases up to the first floor where the bedrooms are located, we were directed into an ornate room where we would watch a five minute introductory video about Eltham Palace and the Courtaulds.  Formerly the bedroom of the “Venetian Suite”, the room is covered with elaborate 18th Century gilded paneling with a fake bookshelf and books painted onto some of the panels including a camouflaged door.  By contrast, the en suite bathroom of this classically decorated room is instead decorated in 1930s style including green checkered Vitrolite tiles, a porcelain bathtub and even a bidet.

More examples of built-in furniture can be found in the master bedrooms of the Courtaulds.  Virginia’s bedroom is set in a round space that is said to be inspired by a classical circular temple, with curving sliding doors that lead into the hallway and the en suite bathroom.  The bed is attached to a unit consisting of two protruding columns or pilasters, decorated with inlay designs and sconces, with small night stands attached to each pilaster and a narrow ledge spanning the back of the bed. On the other side of the rounded space are two arm chairs and an electric fireplace with a marble mantle.  One of the most magnificent rooms in the palace is Virginia’s exotic, oppulent Art Deco ensuite bathroom, one of the original interiors to survive from the 1930s.  The recess wall overlooking the bathtub is lined with oynx and gold mosaic tiles, while the marble tub has gold-plated taps, a lion head for a spout, and a ledge containing the statue of the goddess Psyche.

Virginia (nicknamed Ginie) installed a giant walk-in closet to house her large collection of clothing, shoes, jewelry, purses, hats, gloves and other accessories.  The interiors of the closets were lined with cedar to keep moths away.  Samples (reproductions?) of Ginie’s wardrobe were made available for tourists to try on.  I could have spent all day modeling the beautiful attire if Rich would have allowed me and if other people were not waiting for their turn.  As it was, Rich indulged me while I put together a couple of ensembles, although I couldn’t fit into the dainty shoes and the running shoes that I was wearing rather ruined the overall look.  Still, it was fun!

Stephen’s Bedroom is much more reserved and masculine than Virginia’s with wood paneling being the dominant feature of three of the four walls.  The fourth wall was covered with specially designed wallpaper depicting scenes from Kew Gardens, a botanical garden in southwest London that houses one of the largest and most diverse botanical collections in the world.  The design is a reflection of Stephen’s love for gardening.  A hidden door, blended into the wallpaper, leads to Virginia’s bedroom.  Stephen’s bedroom also features a walk-in closet, built-in side tables and a what looks like a built-in trophy case that incorporates a small fireplace.  His bathroom, while less ostentatious than his wife’s, is still quite beautiful with its blue tiles on the walls and green tiles on the floor.

One of the most unusual aspects of the house are the rooms devoted to the Courtauld’s beloved pet Mah-Jongg, a ring-tailed lemur that Stephen bought at Harrods Pet Department for Ginie as a wedding present in 1923.  They even featured their pet in their official portrait that is hanging in the Principal Landing of Eltham Palace.  Mah-Jongg lived a life of luxury with his own heated sleeping quarters that had walls painted with scenes of a Madagascan Forest, presumably the lemur’s native habitat, a bamboo ladder leading down to the flower room, and his own deck chair.  The Courtauld’s let Mah-Jongg run loose and he was known to bite the dinner guests.  Mah-Jongg’s image is represented in various places within the place including a fresco in the basement and a carving in the Great Hall.

After touring the gorgeous interiors of Eltham Palace, we set out to explore the grounds.  We had to hurry because the skies were darkening and rain was coming.  From the terrace, we looked back at the pretty façade of the house, and admired the ring of purple wisteria cascading over the classical pergola.  Looking across the moat, we saw the beautiful rock garden that remains as it was from the 1930s when the Courtaulds designed it.

We descended the stone steps of the terrace and walked to the end of the moat so that we could cross to the other side and look back to get a better view of the entire estate.  Eltham Palace has been used to film many movies and TV shows including Bright Young Things, Brideshead Revisited, and Antiques Roadshow.  Continuing along the grounds, we saw some remaining ruins of the old Medieval walls.

Circling the grounds of Eltham Palace, we came across the rose garden with the sunken pond as well as a few other formal “garden rooms” that the Courtaulds designed, building on the existing design and structure of mature trees and shrubs, but added ornamental plantations, shrubberies and specimen trees.  As part of the restoration of Eltham Palace, English Heritage has tried to maintain and promote the garden designs originally created in the 1930s.  While no longer in existence, during the Courtaulds’ stay at Eltham Palace, there used to be a swimming pool and tennis courts on the property.

Just as we made our way completely around the perimeter of the property, the skies opened and it started to pour so we decided it was time to head home.  We were pleased with our well-timed excursion to Eltham Palace and our purchases from the Art Deco Fair.  We had seen so much in the house that it never occurred to us that there might have been more that we missed.  But as I was doing a bit of additional research to write this blog, I realized that we had walked past stairs leading to the basement where there was a Billiards Room and a play area that used to be the Courtaulds’ former luxury Wartime Bunker.  I found an online floor plan of the palace that clearly showed the basement rooms as well as the stairway access to them.  We were actually standing right next to the spot but did not see the stairs.  I found some photos online detailing what we had missed, including the fresco depicting Mah-Jongg in the Billiards Room and what has been described as one of the must luxurious privately owned war bunkers in London.  Apparently there was a larder, a stocked bar, sound system and beds for extended stays.  The bunker was both bomb-proof and gas-proof.  There was supposed to be a free audio guide to accompany you through the tour of Eltham Palace, but we were not offered one, possibly because everyone was busy with the fair.  So it was too bad that we did not get to see all the rooms of the Palace, but this was such an amazing and unexpected experience that it quickly became the highlight of our London Off the Beaten Path tour and remained our favourite day, even upon reflection at the end of our three week tri.