Westminster Vespers

When the Bagni di Lucca head librarian ventured on her first trip to the UK last year it was recommended to her by an English music teacher who lives in the comune that to experience a supreme musical experience in that country she should attend evensong in one of its cathedrals.

Reaching our last full day in London we hadn’t yet  attended evensong but after visiting two newly opened exhibitions (Victorian sculpture and Victorian photography) at Tate Britain we found we were in time to participate in the vespers of Britain’s Roman Catholic mother church, Westminster cathedral.

Built by John Francis Bentley and completed in just ten years in 1902, Westminster cathedral demonstrates the architect’s deep understanding of Byzantine architecture. He’d studied St Mark’s basilica in Venice and also Constantinople’s Hagia Sofia. But Bentley’s unusual choice of the Byzantine style wasn’t just an aesthetic one: the brick construction could be quickly and more economically built than the prevailing neo-gothic style of the time and a wide nave implemented.

The only problem was decorating these vast expanses of three domes and buttresses, something that is is still ongoing. Using marble for the piers and mosaics for the ceilings there are only two parts of the cathedral brought to decorative fruition. These are the chapel of the Holy Sacrament and the Lady chapel where we attended vespers yesterday evening.

Interestingly, features have been borrowed from other Italian churches. The crypt, for example, is modelled on Milan’s San Ambrogio and the high altar baldacchino oddly reminded me of the one I’d seen at San Paolo Fuori le Mura in Rome last year.

From the start of its consecration Westminster cathedral has placed great emphasis on its choral tradition and, especially, the use of Gregorian plainchant and renaissance polyphony years before these were properly revalued in the Anglican church. Indeed, Stanford, a major Victorian composer, would suggest to his students to go to to the cathedral “to hear polyphony for a penny” (cost of a bus ride then!).

Although we might have been accused, in Alexander Pope’s words, ” to church repair not for the doctrine but for the music there”, we were happy to suffer the accusation. The singing of the vespers in the Lady chapel was superb and when, in the Magnificat, the plainchant gave way to six-part polyphony the effect was transcendent – so much so that we stayed on for the Mass which followed and included a sacred piece by Poulenc, though not the Gloria which, during Lent, is, of course, omitted from the Ordinary of the Mass.

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Italian churches and cathedrals do not lack inspired or even listenable choirs, for example the one we sing in at Ghivizzano, but for pure perfection, stylistic integrity, vocal homogeneity and heavenly beauty there is nothing to beat the best English cathedral choirs. Indeed, I would go one further and state that my personal preference is for Westminster cathedral choir with its warmer, less religiose, timbre. No wonder composers such as Vaughan-Williams, Britten and Tavener have written for it.

Vespers  and Mass at Westminster cathedral was for me a fitting conclusion to my little escapade to London. I’m sure I won’t wait so long to return to this ever-changing, ever fascinating world city.

Of Lightning and Glass Harmonicas

Towards the end of the last century a Georgian house in Craven street, by Charing cross station London was saved from dereliction after twenty year’s abandonment. After restoration it was opened to the public in 2006. Inside, the building is remarkable for having conserved the majority of its original architectural features intact. The floorboards, the staircase starting with three columns rising from each step and decorated with floral motifs on its side, the doors, the mouldings, the windows, which on the first floor descend down to floor level and are graced by shallow wrought iron balconies,  fully impart the feel, the smells, the genuine atmosphere of a  terraced house in a newly gentrified quarter of eighteenth century London.

Why all the attention paid to this house, just one among several others in this lovely terrace? It’s because it’s the only extant residence of one of the greatest founding fathers of the USA, Benjamin Franklin.

A supreme polymath, with interests ranging from journalism though physics, the arts, politics and philosophy, Franklin is a truly fascinating character to study. He influenced and was friends with such diverse people as Adam, Malthus, and Mirabeau. Without him the gulf stream would have never been properly explained and charted, Mozart would have never written his divine compositions for the glass harmonica, abolition of slavery would have never taken such a prominent place in American and world affairs, lightning conductors would never had been standard fixtures on buildings and so much else we, in the Western world, take for granted like freedom of speech (still so violently challenged as recent events sadly demonstrate) would not have been regarded as natural birthrights like the pursuit of happiness itself.

Benjamin Franklin lived in his Craven street dwelling for close on sixteen years and met and entertained the most illustrious figures of the English and Scottish enlightenment like Hume and Priestley, for example. How wonderful to have been part of those gatherings where such illuminism blossomed.

It was this side of Franklin’s life that was vividly brought to life for us yesterday when we attended a historical re-enactment with an actor playing the role of Mary “Polly” Stevenson, his landlady’s daughter who married another lodger, William Hewson, a doctor who set up an anatomical laboratory in the house and who  formerly worked with Hunter (see my previous post on the Hunterian museum). In fact, when the house was being restored bones were found in its garden initiating a murder enquiry by the metropolitan police before forensic investigation and archaeological deduction referred them back to the anatomist’s discarded specimens!

The performance received our full marks for its multi-media presentation. In the voiceovers I even recognised the voice of an old friend of mine playing, among other parts, those of John Stanley, the blind organist, and the dying William Pitt. So not only does David travel across the world but he travels across time as well!

The amazing thing about the show was that it took place in an empty house. Although in the USA there are significant relics belonging to the great man, in his London house nothing remains of his furniture or belongings. So why fake up interiors as has been so unsuitably done in several other famous people’s homes? (In Florence, for example, Dante the poet’s house is a fantasian reconstruction. Far better, and of the same restoration philosophy as Franklin’s house is Modigliani’s in Livorno where nothing remains belonging to the artist but where the emphasis is on the “feel” of the domestic environment where he passed his earlier years, which is truly awesome.

Our visit to Benjamin Franklin’s house reinforced our belief that it is London’s smaller museums, and especially those relating to former famous residents, that can offer some of the capital’s most rewarding museal experiences.

And we haven’t even started describing the other amazing (and often ghostly) residences we visited on our excursion to the United kingdom…

Of Giants and Dwarves

One of the world’s tallest ever men,  Charles Byrne, 8 foot 2 inches tall and known as the Irish giant had wished to be buried at sea when he died aged 22 in 1783. An eminent surgeon, however, had other ideas and bought his body for his collection. We gazed upon the giant’s colossal skeleton, placed next to one of the smallest human’s remains at the awesome Hunterian museum at Britain’s royal college of surgeons in Lincoln’s inn fields, London.

John Hunter, born in Long Calderwood, Scotland in 1728, was one of those persons of the enlightenment who did so much to help better humanity in both ideas and practical living – in this case medical science. He did much to progress knowledge in venereal diseases, the lymphatic system, inflammation and the growth of bones and teeth.

Hunter and Byrne were the subjects a novel by Hilary Mantel (one of my favourite, and certainly one of Britain’s major contemporary authors   – she’s already won the Booker price twice, her “Wolf Hall” is scoring a major success on world TV and the last part of her trilogy on the rise of Thomas Cromwell is due out this year). It’s “The giant O’Brien” in which the shadier sides of John Hunter, including suspicions of dubious body-snatching practises and controlled death of pregnant women for medical dissection, are hinted at.

imageTo come to a more pleasant side of life I was pleased to note that after her husband’s death Mrs Hunter, a poet of no mean reputation in her time, formed a friendship (some say a love match) with Joseph Haydn during one of his famous trips arranged by Salomon to London who set several of her verses to music including this one:

My mother bids me bind my hair

With bands of rosy hue,

Tie up my sleeves with ribbons rare,

And lace my bodice blue.


Hunter was an inveterate collector and although, unfortunately, much of his huge collection was destroyed when the building housing it was bombed in WWII, enough remains to fascinate, tease or even squirm.

The museum, which has been beautifully presented since my last visit there some years ago, has been brought up to date with many new exhibits. Two particularly fascinated me. One was on the rapid evolution of plastic surgery. Hunter was a pioneer in the treatment of war wounds but it required the great war to develop ways of treating the horrific wounds more powerful weapons inflicted. Unpleasant photographs of facial injuries showed the progress from initial wearing of face masks to sophisticated cranial reconstructions and skin grafts. Happy marriage pictures showed that many patients were now able to lead near normal lives and attract spouses.

This led me to realise that the too often unsung heroes of war are the medical teams who bravely step into the field to try to save the lives of those who are victims of man’s paramount stupidity to man.

Four videos showed fascinating insights into today’s surgical techniques. I was particularly taken by the one on brain surgery to remove a tumour. The precision of handling a medical version of a Black and Decker to drill holes through the skull to remove pressure, and the subsequent intervention, made engrossing watching.

This is a museum I would recommend to anyone even if they do not intend to make a career as brain surgeons. Indeed, during our visit, a group of art students from nearby st Martin’s school of art, under the guidance of their teacher, were engaged in sketching some of the most unusual formaldehyde exhibits of freaks from the human and animal world. Damien Hirst eat your heart out…

What the Dickens….

The houses where illustrious people lived make for me, if they are open to the public, some the most fascinating museums. Victor Hugo’s house in Paris, Dvorak’s mansion in Prague, Beethoven’s house in Bonn come to mind as some of the more interesting of these places. London has its fair share of such houses as a reader pointed out when he referred me to the site at Londonshh.org.

If any one writer epitomizes London, especially Victorian London, then it’s Charles Dickens. So many of the capital’s areas are mentioned in his books although, clearly, so many have also changed through the years. But the inns of court are still there eating up people’s resources in interminable cases as in “Bleak House”,  the same churches still clang their bells on Sundays which happily are no longer as lugubrious as those described in “Little Dorrit”,  the same river flows through the metropolis with its still frequent cargo of unrecognized bodies, as mentioned in “Our Mutual Friend” and among the city’s inhabitants there still exist an extraordinary number of eccentric characters worthy of description by a Dickensian pen.

Dickens experienced everything from poverty to riches in that city which he knew so well and where he would go on ten and more miles daily walks. A visit to his house at 48 Doughty street, between Gray’s inn of court and the old Foundling hospital (which counted Handel among its benefactors), is an absolute must for lovers of his works.

Doughty street is one of the best preserved Georgian terraces in the metropolis and Dickens was rightly proud when he could afford to live in it between 1835 and 1840. It was here that he wrote Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, where he passed the only really happy years with his wife, Catherine, (they separated later on), where two further children, Kate and Mary, were born, bringing the offspring to five, but sadly , too, where his real love , Mary, his wife’s sister who lived with the family and helped it out, died in his arms in 1837.

Through a multi-million pound grant the author’s house has been beautifully restored and brought back to New life. Completed in 2012 at the same time as the Kensington palace project it is in my opinion a far more successful revamping. As the curator told me “if Dickens walked in here one day he would be very pleased to recognize so much of his house had remained the same as he remembered it.” (We could not really have thought the same if Queen Victoria returned to her rooms in Kensington Palace.).

From the basement kitchen, through the dining and reception rooms up to the bedrooms and beyond to the nursery and the servants’ rooms one’s itinerary through the house is utterly engrossing. One truly feels that Charles Dickens is looking over one’s shoulder! How amazing it would have been to have joined in one of his convivial dinners or accompanied him on one of his London walks!

It’s such a shame that Dickens died when not yet sixty. How would he have concluded that unfinished novel “the mystery of Edwin Drood”, I wonder.


Kensington Palace : Revamped or Vamp?

It was a bright but very cold afternoon when we visited Kensington palace yesterday. The wind was strong, stirring the gardens’ round pond into stormy wavelets. The swans and ducks, however, remained unperturbed and detected us as a soft target when we brought out some biscuits.

The palace was originally a private house which King William and Queen Mary bought when they replaced James II as monarchs of the United Kingdom after the glorious revolution of 1688. William was asthmatic, could not abide living in the royal palace at Whitehall and was attracted to the healthy air of the (then) village of Kensington.

With the help of Sir Christopher Wren the original mansion was extended and turned into its present appearance. Unlike so many Italian /and French royal residences Kensington palace retains an essentially domestic feel without any overblown pomposity or glamorous decorations about it. Even William Kent’s charming trompe d’oeuil grand

staircase doesn’t have an orgy of gods and goddesses flying over it but, instead, contemporary representations of society including a portrait of the painter’s favourite mistress!

The palace remained the main royal residency until King George II moved the court to Buckingham Palace. It was then somewhat neglected, damaged during World War II, became the temporary home of the museum of London, and most recently had twelve million pounds spent on a revamping opened in time for Queen Elizabeth II’s diamond jubilee in 2012.

I detected many sad moments in the palace’s history: the death of William’s beloved Mary from smallpox at the age of only 32 in 1694 (for whose funeral Purcell wrote his elegaic masterpiece).

Here’s something I wrote about the sad demise  – Purcell was to die the following year aged just 36.


Unsmiling, crusty, you hardly spoke

and when you did the accent was too thick;

unpopular saviour, the people loved

your Queen and when she died something did pass

for always in the palace gardens,

the swan-crowned river and the kingdom’s fields,

for you were always mentioned together

and how could only half a person reign?

Yet in the midnight of your inner room

upon the heavenly ceiling there she lies:

a Venus to your Mars, disarms you quite

and with her lips and breasts, opens a smile

on the wall of your face while ducks and drakes

touch beaks upon the flowering pergola

Then there were the constant miscarriages and infant mortalities of successor Queen Anne (all ninenteen of them), George II’s grief at the death of his beloved Caroline in 1737 ( “remarry” were her deathbed words to him. “Never”, he replied, “I’ll keep mistresses instead.”); the lonely childhood of Alexandrina Victoria, later to become Britain’s (to date) longest serving monarch, brought up under her mother’s and courtier Conroy’s repressive “Kensington system” whereby she had not a minute to call her own and was kept separate from other children; the equally lonely life of the late Princess of Wales surrounded by the “men in grey” and a real sense of imprisonment like a bird in a guided cage…

Let us hope that the spell will now be broken, despite the ghost stories one of the keepers told us, and we look forwards to the promised new royal arrival this spring with anticipation.

What of the twelve million pound palace refurbishment/revamping (executed with private funds)? Strong disagreements are bound to ensue, especially between visitors who remember the former palace arrangement and as as occurred between me and my wife, who found the new results “clinical”.  Praise for the restoration of the formal gardens, the revaluation of queen Victoria’s statue sculpted by that most artistic of her daughters, princess Louise, which is now surrounded by a little moat. Praise for some of the hands-on “experiences”, including the gaming room with eighteenth century card and board tables (surely something Bagni di Lucca could fruitfully emulate). Certainly a lot of the former fustiness has been swept away. But doesn’t  a certain degree of fustiness bring its own peculiar charm to many museums?

Some doubts remain, therefor, about other features. The royal hand-writings on the wall were sometimes difficult to read; other features, like the spread-out sofa from which one could read sovereign promises on the ceiling, were bordering dangerously on the gimmicky; the metal portico affixed to the east facade clearly arose the wrath of the local civic society.

Most concerningly of all, however, is that if a museum is converted into a state of the art “experience” then technological innovation and stylistic perception change so rapidly today that what may seem cool now can become quite dated in just a short space of time.

This point was brought out in the very intriguing royal fashion exhibition where some classic examples of the Queen’s couturiers, from Norman Hartnell to Hardy Amies, were on display. These beautifully crafted dresses, dating back to the fifties, looked so much more wearable today than several of the weird “glamour” and “exotique” creations other royal members (sadly no longer with us) sported during their world tours.

I thought of the story of another royal palace, the Queen’s house in Greenwich, closed for many years in the nineties when yet another revamping took place and where the King’s and Queen’s apartments were recreated with no expenses spared: all gone now, stripped back to what is truly essential in representing the spirit of the place. Will the same thing ever happen to Kensington palace I wonder?

Chinese Laundry?

If the Chinese new year is the year of the sheep  then in London it was definitely the year of Welsh sheep since we were buffeted by strong winds and freezing rain at the celebrations in Trafalgar square yesterday.


No matter, the national portrait gallery offered temporary respite from the weather and a fascinating collection of portraits. I particularly fell for Boldini’s portrait of Lady Colin Campbell.

The Chinese community put on a brave show in the square’s pavilion and the quartet of lute (Pipa) players was particularly good.

We returned in further tempestuous weather through Chinatown but not before entering into yet another world, the French church with its moving frescoes of the crucifixion by Jean Cocteau which he painted in 1960. What’s remarkable about these frescoes is what’s not shown…for instance Christ himself…

I don’t know if rain is a good omen in China… there was certainly a lot of it around in London yesterday!


A Loving Spoonful

On a visit last month to a friend who lives near Castelnuovo Di Garfagnana I was presented by him with a hand-carved spoon with my initial carved on it. This item he’d crafted with just a simple knife during a couple of hours chat.

I was flattered by my friend’s folk-gift and said  I could not possibly use it to stir my next onion soup. The chestnut spoon, in fact, now lies on my mantelpiece as a token of a long-standing friendship.

I thought nothing more about handmade wooden spoons until I visited Wales last week when I was reminded of the great Welsh tradition of making love-spoons. These intricately carved objects were clearly not used in the kitchen but were made as tokens of affection. The degree of intricacy would give an indication of the proficiency of the suitor in handiwork and, hence, his ability to support a new family.

Furthermore, the spoon would include designs symbolizing aspects of love: a cross for faithfulness,   bells for a marriage proposal, a padlock for a life of security, a horseshoe for good luck…

The earliest surviving Welsh love spoons date back to the seventeenth century but the tradition of carving them goes back much further than that. Other northern countries, especially Scandinavia, apparently have the same custom.

Why a spoon? Perhaps it’s because a happy marriage starts as much in the kitchen as it does in the bedroom and also because a spoon helps to blend things together since a successful marriage is as much a blending of two individuals as it is a compromise between them.

These thoughts came to mind when I looked at some Welsh love spoons for sale at the lake Vyrnwy  visitor centre.


I don’t know if any modern Welsh youth still indulge in this charming custom. I think less quaint evidence of the suitor’s ability to support a new family may be now asked by today’s lasses but the Welsh love-spoon clearly works a magical mixture for today’s tourist industry and many are, indeed, beautifully crafted and a delight to purchase.