Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Westminster Cathedral’

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.

ignoring anrep

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.

phoenix450

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.

defiance450

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.

NPG Ax140452; Boris von Anrep by Lady Ottoline Morrell

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.

 


DSC08032b

A selection of Boris Anrep mosaics in our Flickr gallery. 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

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.

DSC07809_500

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. 

Read Full Post »