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A guest post by Roger Williams, LH Member.

1. Exterior

Sandycombe Lodge, the country house that JMW Turner built in 1813 in Twickenham behind Marble Hill, is now open to the public for the first time. It had been bought in a run-down state in 1947 by Professor Harold Livermore, an Hispanic scholar, and his wife Ann, who wrote about Spanish music, and they immediately began trying to restore what had been a small wartime factory. On his death in 2010, Professor Leverhulme bequeathed their house to the nation. Now, after a £2.4 million conservation effort, it has been brought back to what is believed to be as near as can be to Turner’s original home. This involved knocking down extensions, removing external white rendering and uncovering the initial decoration, including marbling on the stairway. The house was designed by Turner, but if some of the detailing echoes Sir John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, it is because the two were friends and contemporaries, Turner being appointed the Royal Academy’s Professor of Perspective just a year after Soane was made Professor of Architecture.

2.telescope

On first sight it is an unprepossessing, late-Georgian villa, with just two first-floor bedrooms. The larger one is at the back, facing Marble Hill House and the Thames, and although the view is now constricted by subsequent developments, a telescope has been installed (above) through which visitors can spy a re-created picture of the view Turner saw in his day.

3.Kitchen

In the basement is the kitchen and range (above), the domaine of Turner’s ‘Old Dad’ who looked after the house and garden until he was 80. His father had been a barber and wig-maker in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, where Turner was born on St George’s Day, 1775, and had tirelessly promoted and helped his only child. Turner’s mother had died in Bethlem Hospital nine years before Sandycombe Lodge was built, and William Sr continued to help in the running of Turner’s Gallery in Marylebone, hitching lifts into town for the 10-mile journey.

4.Eel pots

Nothing in the house is labelled, and visitors, in limited numbers, are shown around by knowledgeable guides such as Ken Osbourne, pictured here in the kitchen with fishing rod and eel trap. These and the late-Georgian items of furniture, such as the ‘Turkey’ rugs, have been hunted down by Catherine Parry-Wingfield, Chair of the Turner’s House Trust, who has been instrumental in creating the house-museum.

5. Turnerships

Prints on the walls include some from Turner’s teaching manual, the Liber Studorium, from Professor Livermore’s own collection, but there are no original artworks. Turner bequeathed his drawings and paintings to the nation, and these are now in changing displays in Richard Sterling’s 1986 Clore Wing of Tate Britain, while the Royal Academy has his fishing rods and paint boxes. Security issues mean these cannot be loaned, although, Parry-Wingfield is hopeful that this may one day happen.

The Tate also has custody of the model boats Turner owned and used as aids to his paintings. The Trust commissioned variations of two of them from model maker Kevin Thatcher to go on display in the sitting room . Many of these were originally made by French prisoners during the Napoleonic wars.

Turner was a keen fishermen, but the enormous pond he created, apparently almost the size of a football pitch and stocked with fish, has long since disappeared beneath urban housing. He sometimes went fishing with his friend Soane, both self-made men, both at times socially uneasy and irascible. But Turner enjoyed gatherings, too, and a cunning key in the door of a longcase clock in the dining room starts a recording of an account of a picnic enjoyed by Turner and his friends on Ham Common on the opposite side of the river.

Turner was also instrumental in starting the Royal Academy Dining Club’s annual river jaunts which began at Eel Pie House in Twickenham, not far from Sandycombe Lodge in 1818. Five years later Turner proposed they went to the Crown and Sceptre in Greenwich, which was famous for its whitebait dinners. The RA Dining Club’s annual Whitebait Dinner has continued ever since, now taking place during the Summer Exhibition under the enthusiastic eye of the RA’s current CEO, Charles Saumarez Smith, whose recent blog gives a report of this year’s outings and the riverside architecture seen en-route to Greenwich.

For details and opening hours, see http://turnershouse.org


Roger Williams’ latest book is Whitebait and the Thames Fisheries.

 

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Review: M: Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster, by Henry Hemming.

51egqtRjPEL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Maxwell Knight was a pioneer of 20th century espionage and counter-espionage who referred to himself as M; his section was known as M, and all his agents were designated M/1, M/2 and so on. Although it is not known whether he knew the Bond author, it seems most likely though currently unprovable that Ian Fleming’s character was named after him. The author addresses this in his final chapter, but it doesn’t really matter one way or the other: the “real” M’s story is remarkable in its own right.

Born in south London in 1900, Knight spent part of World War One in the navy reserve. He was first recruited as an agent – having been identified as a good candidate at an anti-Soviet right-wing rally – in 1923. He was initially tasked to infiltrate the British Fascisti, modelled on its Italian counterpart but at this time a very different creature from the Mosley organisation a decade later. With no training whatsoever, he took to the task like a duck to water, rising quickly in the organisation. An explanation for this might be that being right-wing himself, Knight was at home in this environment: there was little pretending to do. He became close friends with – among others – William Joyce, aka “Lord Haw-haw”. It is suggested, but not proved, that Knight may tipped off Joyce as World War Two loomed, allowing the traitor successfully to skip to Germany (the author injects an interesting point on the Friend v Country debate per EM Forster which had some currency at this time). This, however, was his only concession to the past, by this time having come a committed espionage boss against the Nazis.

This is the story of how initially, during the interwar years, Maxwell Knight built his own group of agents who committed domestic espionage against strongly pro-Soviet left-wing groups. He nurtured them, encouraged them, comforted them in their almost endlessly dull existences: being an agent is a stressful and lonely business. In particular, he proved what valuable spies women could be, running completely counter to the MI5 orthodoxy at the time. He used at least six of them, largely to great effect. But the whole organisation was yet tiny, and the author makes the point that in the Soviet v British espionage stakes it was like Manchester United versus Corinthian amateurs, even back then. Apart from the audacious kidnapping of a left-wing agitator on a Liverpool-bound train, most of the action throughout this book takes place in London.

All changed in the late 1930s when it was demonstrated without doubt that agent provocateurs in countries like Czechoslovakia proved great enablers in aid of Nazi invasion and that Britain potentially had no shortage of these too (as we know). M section under Knight turned to countering fifth column pro-German activity. His suggested solutions, including widespread internment, were severe indeed though ignored for some long time by the Home Office.

Among many, no doubt, we are told of a number of amazing missions: the capture of the Woolwich Arsenal spy ring in 1938 (they had been sending ordnance designs to Germany);  the unmasking of Tyler Kent, the spy within the US Embassy in 1940 which owing to America’s nominal neutrality and the implications of diplomatic immunity a) had to be handled most carefully and b) was referred to the very top of both governments’ relevant departments. All these missions were undertaken with a combination of patience, commonsense and unease. They are described with crackling suspense and in great detail.

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But what sort of man was M? You would argue that the job description demands that he must have been a bit of a strange one: unusual. And indeed he was. Maxwell Knight was an outsider. Though clearly good with people and a kind friend on a personal level, despite being twice married he lived largely alone, if we exclude the menagerie of wild animals he kept in his flat (perhaps these are two sides of the same coin). Despite belonging to many London clubs, he was not what they call “clubbable”. He was a big fan of jazz music and keen clarinettist. Both his marriages were almost certainly unconsummated, the problem lying on his side. With no evidence that he was bi- or homosexual, the author suggests he simply may have lacked the penchant.

Knight adored animals, particularly wild ones, many of which he kept at home, as mentioned. One of the most amazing things about this MI5 spymaster it that in the early 1960s he became known to millions of his fellow Britons as a radio and television presenter of various nature and environmental programmes, very much a proto-David Attenborough. Proper you-couldn’t-make-it-up territory.

This is a beautifully balanced biography of a complicated and interesting man. The derring-do and intrigue are wonderfully researched and described: fabulous true stories. But where the book really scores is the effort taken by the author to understand Maxwell Knight the man and through that prism explain how that shaped him and the things he did. Highly recommended.


M: MI5’s Greatest Spymaster (400pp, hardback) is published by Penguin Random House with a cover price of £20, but available at time of writing for substantially less if you’re quick!

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alexander_kerenskybWe all remember Kerensky from school, don’t we? He was the sandwich filler between Russia’s ancient Tsarist monarchy – overthrown early in 1917 – and the victory of the Bolsheviks in the so-called October Revolution (which occurred in early November). Alexander Kerensky (1881 – 1970), a lawyer by trade, was no less a revolutionary than Lenin et al but he differed – cruically – in his commitment to continued hostilities against Germany.

But when Russian soldiers deserted in their millions, the Kerensky regime collapsed and he went into exile early in 1918.

Remarkably, Kerensky outlived all his contemporaries by many decades, eventually dying in 1970. He had spent the intervening years mostly in France and the USA, where he was popular on the lecture circuit.

But even more bizarre than his longevity is that he came to be interred in Putney Vale Cemetery. For various reasons, the Russian Orthodox and Serbian Orthodox churches in New York refused to give Kerensky a funeral, so his remains wound up in Putney Vale – a non-denominational cemetery in south-west London.

Marking the centenary of the Russian revolution, a few of us visited Kerensky yesterday. His final resting place is modest.

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A guest post by Dr Wolfram Latsch.

The next time you find yourself on Leadenhall Street heading towards Aldgate, walk past Billiter Street and stay on the right side of the road. At No. 50 you will notice a narrow passageway. This is Fenchurch Buildings, and it connects Leadenhall and Fenchurch Streets. On Roque’s 1746 map of London this part of the passageway is called Sugarloaf Court. In the first half of the eighteenth century, you would have a view, on your right, of African House, the headquarters of the Royal African Company of England (RAC), which traded slaves across the Atlantic between 1660 and 1752.

In 1703, a sixteen year-old boy named James Phipps was signed up at African House to become a writer — an entry-level position — in the service of the RAC. He came from a prominent family of clothiers in Wiltshire. Phipps lived on the Gold Coast for twenty years, a remarkable longevity for a European living in Africa before the age of tropical medicine. He died at Cape Coast Castle, the African headquarters of the RAC, in 1723. He had risen to the position of governor and captain-general, becoming the highest-ranking RAC official in Africa, before being removed from his post among accusations of embezzlement and abuse of power.

James Phipps left his estate to his wife Catherine and their four children. Catherine Phipps was the daughter of an African woman and a Dutch soldier from Elmina, a fort not far from Cape Coast. James and Catherine’s children — Bridget, Susan, Henrietta and Thomas — were all of mixed race – they were ‘mulattos’ in the parlance of the time. In his will, James Phipps wanted Catherine to move to England to be with their children. This was an unusual request, since most white men did not think of their African partners as legal wives. James would provide generously for Catherine if she agreed to move: his estate was worth at least 1.7 million pounds in today’s money. But she refused to leave Africa and died in 1738, a prominent and independent businesswoman (and slave-owner) known at Cape Coast simply as ‘Mrs. Phipps’.

Had Catherine Phipps agreed to leave her home, she would probably have moved to London, and anyone with an interest in black British history would today know her name. Black women were a rarity in England in the early eighteenth century and independently wealthy black women were entirely unknown. As it is, Catherine Phipps is one of a very small number of eighteenth-century African women known to us by name.

James and Catherine’s daughters Bridget and Susan had left Africa around 1715 when they were maybe ten years old, to be educated in England, initially at the boarding school of a Mrs. Smith in Battersea. In May 1730, Bridget married Chauncy Townsend of Austin Friars, a London merchant and mining adventurer (and later an MP) in the Fleet Prison, a preferred location for clandestine marriages. Chauncy and Bridget Townsend had twelve children, including James, who was born in London and baptized at St Christopher-le-Stocks in February 1737.

James Townsend was first elected to parliament in 1767. In 1769 he was elected alderman of the City of London for Bishopsgate ward and sheriff of London, becoming one of the leaders of the Whig party in London. Townsend played a key role in the intrigue surrounding the electoral campaigns of the radical journalist John Wilkes in Middlesex and the City, turning from a supporter of Wilkes to one of his fiercest opponents. Townsend was elected Lord Mayor in 1772 in spite of Wilkes’s coming first in the polls, an event that created political turmoil in the City. A mob incensed by Townsend’s coup attacked Guildhall during the ball on Lord Mayor’s Day, and Townsend’s arms were erased from the church of St. Helen’s Bishopsgate.

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James Townsend (center) as alderman of the City of London (1769)
Source: National Portrait Gallery, NPG D19402

Today Townsend is known, if at all, for the part he played in the drama of Wilkes’s bid for the mayoralty. Local historians and visitors may also know Townsend as an owner of the estate that is now Bruce Castle Museum in Haringey. He died there in 1787 and was buried nearby at Old Church Tottenham in the mausoleum of his wife’s family, the Coleraines. Her inheritance had made him a wealthy man.

James Townsend was the descendant of a black woman from the Gold Coast, the grandson of a ‘mulatto’ and one-eighth African, the first black MP and the first black Lord Mayor of London. This part of his family’s history was either unknown, or it went unnoticed, or it was ignored. His story may prompt an interest in the unacknowledged and often forgotten black ancestry of many London families and their complicated connections to the Atlantic slave trade.


Dr. Wolfram Latsch teaches economics and international studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. A version of this article was published in Notes & Queries, December 2016, as ‘A Black Lord Mayor of London in the Eighteenth Century?’

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by Dr Helen Szamuely

This article was first published in London Historians Members’ Newsletter of April 2015.

The cavalier way in which TfL seems to have treated the Paolozzi mosaics in Tottenham Court Road station until someone noticed and called them to account is indicative of the low esteem that art form is held by many in this country. The spectacular mosaic floors in the National Gallery’s main entrance that combine traditional skill with modern themes are rarely glanced at by the many thousands of visitors who walk on them. On two of the mosaics, Cricket in The Pleasures of Life sequence in the East Vestibule and Exploring in The Labours of Life opposite it, the National Gallery has placed a large urn each, thus making it impossible to see them and drawing attention away from the work.

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Passing unnoticed. Anrep underfoot at the National Gallery, London.

In 2004 the National Gallery did publish a booklet by Lois Oliver, entitled Boris Anrep – The National Gallery Mosaics but that is now hard to find. Yet the spectacular work that should be seen by every visitor who happens to go in the main entrance is little known and its creator, the Russian artist Boris Anrep (1883 – 1969) even less so, though he is responsible for a number of other mosaics in London.

There is the Blake room in the Tate Gallery, the entrance to the Bank of England, the Blessed Sacrament Chapel in Westminster Cathedral and a number of works in the Greek Orthodox Saint Sophia Cathedral in Moscow Road, Bayswater. There is also a mosaic in the Notre Dame de France church in Leicester Place but that, curiously enough, was covered up by a screen decorated by Jean Cocteau four years after its creation.

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A phoenix in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, Westminster Cathedral.

Boris Anrep, who came from a Swedish-Lithuanian-Russian family, was born in 1883 in St Petersburg. His father was an eminent professor of forensic medicine and, later, a deputy in the Third Duma. His two sons were called after the first Russian saints, Boris and Gleb with the latter becoming a well known physiologist, a professor at Cambridge and in Cairo. Boris attended a school in Kharkov (now Kharkiv in Ukraine) and spent a year in Great Missenden in 1899 to learn English. He was intended for the law and became a student at the prestigious School of Jurisprudence at St Petersburg but around 1908 decided that the life of the poet and artist was preferable. By this stage he had become acquainted with a number of artists in Russia and decided to study in the West in Paris, at the Académie Julian, where he made friends with Henry Lamb and Augustus John, who introduced him to the rest of Bloomsbury Group. This connection became very important in Anrep’s social and artistic life. In 1910 – 11 Anrep and his wife Yuniya lived in Edinburgh where he continued to study art and began to complicate his life maritally and sexually.

In 1911 Helen Maitland, a close friend of Dorelia John and an ex-girlfriend of Henry Lamb became his mistress and the three of them lived mostly in Paris. Helen was to be the mother Anrep’s children, Anastasia and Igor, but did not marry Boris till 1918 when he finally divorced Yuniya. By this time he had acquired another mistress, Maroussia Volkova, his sister-in-law’s sister, and the domestic triangle repeated itself, this time in England. Astonishingly, it was not in Bloomsbury but in Hampstead that the Anrep menage settled but in 1926 Helen left Boris for Roger Fry and the former, after displaying rather strong signs of jealousy, departed for Paris with Maroussia and acquired another mistress, the artist Jeanne Beynal.

Anrep was responsible for the Russian section in the 1912 Second Post-Impressionist Exhibition but had, by then, decided that his interest lay in mosaics, particularly in bringing together the more traditional ideas and forms with more modern contents. In 1914 he created mosaics for the Crypt in Westminster Cathedral but his work was interrupted by the First World War during which he served with the Russian Imperial Guard in Galicia and had an affair with the great Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.

He returned to England in 1917 to be Military Secretary to the Russian Government Committee, went back once more in the autumn and left Russia for good as the Bolsheviks came to power.

In the next few years he created mosaics for private homes, mostly those of his friends and a few other clients. He started his habit of including portraits of people he knew into those mosaics, merging traditional patterns with ideas of the jazz age. In 1923 he was commissioned (his friend Maynard Keynes was helpful in getting him work) to create the floor of the Blake Room in the Tate Gallery and he used it to illustrate The Proverbs of Hell from The Marriage of Heaven of Hell. Although he now lived and worked in Paris, his major works were for England (and Scotland though, as a Russian, he might not have considered the difference important).

In 1927 he began the mosaics for the Bank of England, a huge labour that was interrupted by the Second World War and was not completed fully till 1946. In 1928 he created mosaics for the Greek Orthodox Church in Bayswater and the first of the floors for the National Gallery, The Labours of Life in the West Vestibule. Though the idea is a traditional one, the images are idiosyncratic and of the period. It is a pity Exploring, in which a zebra is being filmed, is now obscured by that urn. Science is once again relevant as it depicts a student looking at the diplodocus carnegii at the Natural History Museum.

The following year Anrep decorated the East Vestibule with The Pleasures of Life, an imaginative and non-judgemental view of various jolly events. Critics noted the presence of girls in short skirts and with bobbed hair.

The third floor, on the Half-Way Landing (all three were paid for almost entirely by Samuel Courtauld) was finished in 1933 and consists of a The Awakening of the Muses, with Apollo, Bacchus and eight of the Nine Muses represented by recognisable people, mostly from among Anrep’s friends in the Bloomsbury Group. He also added Greta Garbo as Melpomene (Muse of Tragedy) and an imaginary woman as Calliope (Muse of Heroic Poetry).

Boris and Maroussia escaped from Paris in 1940 and for the rest of the war they lived in Hampstead (with Boris, inevitably, starting another liaison with Maud Russell who was to pay for the last floor in the National Gallery) and he, apart from working on his mosaics, also transcribed Russian broadcasts. After the war he went back to Paris where he lived till 1965 with Maroussia dying in 1956. His last years were spent in Hyde Park Gardens with Maud Russell.

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Modern Virtues, featuring Churchill. National Gallery, London.

Anrep continued to work until almost his death and, unlike many other mosaicists, he created his own work, choosing the materials, making the designs, laying down the mosaics. In 1952 he finished the last of the National Gallery floors in the North Vestibule, The Modern Virtues, which includes people he knew in England and in Russia as well as public figures. Here we can find Margot Fonteyn, Loretta Young, Anna Akhmatova, Winston Churchill, Bertrand Russell, T. S. Eliot and others representing slightly unexpected virtues as well as a picture of a Christmas Pudding and of the artist’s last resting place.

There were private commissions but the last great work, completed when Anrep was nearly eighty, was the very fine Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in Westminster Cathedral which went back in style to the pre-Byzantine Roman mosaics, with little gold and far from the expected monumental sightless figures. They are full of colour, light and rhythm – another union between traditional and modern in subject and pattern.

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Snapshot of Boris Anrep, 1920, by Bloomsbury hostess Lady Ottoline Morrell. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Boris Anrep died in 1969. He had been a huge, in every sense of the word, figure on the English artistic scene, a man loved and admired by various friends and pupils. A keen tennis player who competed in the men’s doubles at Wimbledon in 1920, an excellent cook, a generous host and guest, one who could stand up to Augustus John in fisticuffs and who, quite astonishingly, excited the love of Lytton Strachey (One wonders what Boris made of that). He also left a mark in the history of public art of this country, which makes it rather sad that so little attention is paid to him. The only biography is by Annabel Farjeon (another writing Farjeon) who had married his son Igor. The manuscript is in the possession of the Anrep descendants but has never been published in English. It was translated into Russian and published in St Petersburg in 2003. Perhaps, it is time for a British publisher to have a look at it.

 


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A selection of Boris Anrep mosaics in our Flickr gallery. 

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by Dr Helen Szamuely

Alexander_Konstantinovich_Benckendorff225Ten men are buried in the Crypt of Westminster Cathedral, which can be visited by special permission: nine cardinals and one “civilian” the last Imperial Russian Ambassador, Count Alexander Konstantinovich Benckendorff (1849 – 1917), who had taken up his ambassadorial position in 1902 and held it to his death. As it happens he was the great nephew of the Countess, later Princess Lieven, wife of the nineteenth century Russian ambassador, whose own diplomatic activity is generally better known than her husband’s. Count Alexander was, unusually for a Russian official even of Baltic background, a Roman Catholic, having been brought up by his German mother Princess Louise de Croy. Through his own and his wife’s eminent Russian family the Shuvalovs, he was related to most of the Russian and a good part of European aristocracy. On the one hand this made life and career relatively smooth, on the other hand, it became a tragedy as public opinion hardened just before the First World War and during it. To take one example, the German ambassador to London in the summer of 1914, Prince Lichnowsky, the son of Countess Marie de Croy, was Benckendorff’s first cousin. The drive towards the war and Lichnowsky’s enforced departure (as a matter of fact, he opposed German policy) was a personal tragedy for these two men.

Benckendorff remains a divisive figure in Russian historiography, just as he was a divisive figure in his lifetime. He has been accused on not knowing any Russian, which is not true, and of being more anxious to promote the British point of view in Russia than the Russian in Britain, which has some basis in truth. His first languages were French and German but he did speak Russian and wrote to his children in that language. Diplomatic correspondence across the Russian corps was, in any case, conducted in French.

Having grown up in Europe, he was anxious to become a Russian landowner and acquired an estate in Sosnovka, spending every summer there with his family until 1914. His sons were sent to Russia to finish their education. The younger, Petr, joined the army fought in the Russo-Japanese war, re-enlisted in 1914 and was killed in 1915. The older, Constantine, went into the navy and survived not only the First World War but the Revolution, civil war and a stint in the Red Navy. In 1922 he married the harpist Maria Korchinska and in 1923 they came to England. As he said in his memoirs, Half a Life, they could not have known that they would never see their homeland again. Their sister, married Jasper Nicholas Ridley. Both marriages produced fairly eminent offspring.

Count Benckendorff was obsessed with the need for an Anglo-Russian Agreement and pursued this policy (backed by the French ambassador to London, Paul Cambon, often beyond his instructions from the Imperisal government. His friendship with the Empress Maria Fyodorovna gave him a special entrée to the British court and allowed him to communicate directly with King Edward VII, something that the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs found frustrating as they felt that Benckendorff was ready to accept any British policy whether it was directly good for Russia or not.

The need for that agreement, in his view, was based on three main reasons: he feared Russia falling under German domination, he thought that only an Anglo-Russian agreement would stabilize the situation and keep peace between the two countries in Asia and Europe and, he hoped that it would promote liberal, Western ideas in Russia. One can argue whether the Anglo-Russian Accord of 1907, Count Benckendorff’s cherished plan for which he worked so hard contributed to the move towards the First World War or not but that is where Europe ended up much to his discontent. Not only were his hopes dashed but, to a great extent, the war was a personal tragedy for him, his family, his entire circle.

By the end of 1916 the news coming out of Russia disturbed Count Benckendorff even more. The war was becoming vrey unpopular, there were disturbances, revolutionary activity, shortages. Would Russia be able to continue fighting? Would she collapse under pressure? These questions clouded his last weeks. An early victim of the Spanish influenza that was to devastate Europe and the world, Count Alexander Benckendorff died in early 1917 and caused a diplomatic furore after his death. He had worshipped in Westminster Cathedral and had requested that he should be buried there. His reuqest was reinforced by the Tsar, Nicholas II, but rejected by the Cathedral, who pointed out that only cardinals are buried in the Cathedral’s crypt. The Count’s Requiem in the Cathedral was attended by member of both Royal families but the question of the burial was finally solved by Kind Edward Vii intervening with Cardinal Bourne. He pointed out that Russia, Britain’s staunch ally was having many difficulties and needed support. An agreement to bury Count Benckendorff in the Cathedral crypt would be such support; permission was granted.

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Final resting place: the crypt beneath Westminster Cathedral.

Nathalie Ridley, the Count’s daughter, commissioned Eric Gill to carve a memorial slab,which was installed in 1939 and can still be seen. In simple elegant writing it says in English and Latin, the latter provided by Mgr Ronald Knox:

 

Count Alexander Philip Constantine Ludovic Benckendorff,
Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotenitary
from the Emperor of Russia to the Court of St James.
August 1 1849 – January 11 1917.
May he rest in peace.

The new Russian government has an ambivalent attitude to the country’s history, both Imperial and Soviet. Nevertheless, the Russian Embassy now holds a Diplomats’ Day on February 10 and wreaths are laid on the graves of all ambassadors and chargés d’affaires who happen to be buried in Britain. A ceremony in Westminster Cathedral crypt ends with red, white and blue flowers decorating the gravestone of Count Alexander Konstantinovich Benckendorff, last Imperial Russian Amanssador and the only non-cardinal buried in the crypt of Westminster Cathedral.


This article was published in London Historians Members’ newsletter April 2017, less than two days before the author passed away in Charing Cross Hospital on 5 April. We shall publish other articles by Dr Szamuely about London-based Russians during the coming weeks. 

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hs240We were extremely saddened earlier this week to lose a Founder Member and great supporter of London Historians, Helen Szamuely.  Following a year or so of a serious medical condition which she kept mostly to herself, Helen died peacefully early on Wednesday morning, aged 66, which is no age at all.

We had less that two days previously just published an excellent article by Helen in our Members’ newsletter for April. It was about Count Alexander Benckendorff, a Russian diplomat, who a hundred years ago became the first and only layman to be buried in the crypt of Westminster Cathedral.

Helen was born in Moscow to Hungarian and Russian parents during the Soviet period. She spent some of her early years in Hungary where her parents’ flat in Budapest was something of a magnet for intellectual dissidents. They witnessed directly the brutal suppression of the 1956 uprising. Arriving in England aged 14, she spent the rest of her life in Britain standing up for liberty, self-determination and related causes.

Helen achieved a First in History and Russian at University of Leeds, going on to obtain her DPhil at Oxford.

Dr Samuely was a writer for many magazines, blogs, newsletters, mainly on topics of history, politics and literature. Among the lucky publications of her output are included the New Statesman, History Today and, of course, ourselves – London Historians.

Helen was brave, funny, clever, argumentative, incisive, wonderful company and a true friend. Fiercely independent, she possessed a razor-sharp intellect which some found daunting while others – like me – found exhilarating. When you engaged with her – particularly in matters of politics and history – it was best to bring your A game.

Helen enjoyed cooking, loved cats and for some reason represented herself on social media as a machine-gun toting squirrel which somehow seemed wholly appropriate. She was a keen consumer of detective fiction. Unsurprisingly, Helen was an avid scholar of Russian literature, particularly poetry, much of which she translated into English. She was an active supporter of Pushkin House in London.

I recommend you look up Helen on Facebook and read the entries from the past five days more fully to appreciate the great esteem in which she was held.

Helen supported London Historians frequently with her presence at our events, unannounced if not unexpected. She wrote some wonderful articles for our Members’ newsletter, mainly about Russians in London – exiles, diplomats, artists and Tsars. We shall republish these in the coming weeks for a wider audience to enjoy.

Helen is a great loss to not only to us at London Historians, but all her friends in many, many walks of life. Most of all, though, to daughter Katharine to whom we extend our deepest condolences.

Dr Helen Szamuely. Born 25.06.1950, Moscow. Died 05.04.2017, London.

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