Places of Memory

In London there are many “houses of memory”, as the Italians like to call them. It’s possible to visit buildings where such shining constellations of humankind as Benjamin Franklin, Sigmund Freud, John Keats, Samuel Johnson, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, Handel and many others lived, loved and created.

Some of these houses belong to that great conservation society, the National Trust. Others are private trusts and some are in the care of the local councils. They are all worth visiting, whether one agrees with the ideas of the person who lived there or not, since they give an excellent idea of London life at particular moments of history.

On my last visit to London I visited several of these places.

The address “No.1 London” was all that was required for posts to be directed to the Duke of Wellington’s residence at Apsley house. As an acolyte of Napoleon I was not too keen in admitting myself to the “Iron Duke’s” house, especially as he took a very reactionary line against liberal movements.

The subway approaches to No.1 gave us the flavour of what was coming.

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Happily, the house contains wonders independent of the Duke’s ideas. Its collection of paintings is simply superb and displayed in magnificently decorated rooms.

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Furthermore, on that occasion, there was an interesting demonstration of Regency army fire power and battle tactics together with tales from the front by a re-enacting detachment of the British army of the time and “camp-women”.

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Considering that such re-enactment societies flourish in France and most countries affected by “Boney’s” empire aims, (including the province of Lucca), it will be an amazing concentration of latter-day soldiers who will congregate on the field of Waterloo next year to celebrate the two-hundredth anniversary of a battle which, in Arthur Wellesley’s own words, was  “a damn close-run thing.”

I’ve mentioned another place, Lord Leighton’s, (the distinguished Victorian society painter), house near Holland Park in my post at http://longoio.wordpress.com/2013/09/17/pearl-of-the-east/. This purpose-built residence-cum-studio has been recently restored and opened to the public. I remember it fondly as the venue for several concerts I attended before my exile, including those given by the now sadly-defunct Società Dante Alighieri, (especially Gilbert Rowland’s dextrous Scarlatti recital and, most memorably, the evocation of life at the house in the company of such eccentric luminaries as Sir Richard Burton – played by friend and actor David Reid)

What a re-evocation of the social life and times of fin-de-siècle Leighton House – that occult corner of oriental domesticity at Holland Park London – in a never-to.be forgotten tableau vivant where whole canvases were evoked by half-naked houries and narghiles breathing opium in mosaicked and fountain-trickled halls!

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I evoked that evening at Leighton House in Burton’s company with the following words:

 

A sultan’s couch in Kensington

awakens cold desire

and tiles around the marble pool

reflect deep blue-eyed fire.

 

Above lace balconies withdraw

behind dusk’s harem veil

while dreams float on an unknown sea

as argosies set sail.

 

The evening party now retires

and ancient tales are told

of dusky djinns and desert towns

and she who’ll not grow old

 

Dim stairs escape to music’s room

where arcane songs are heard

from her whose melting voice is like

a paradise-born bird.

 

The night perfumes a garden’s hair

and soaks fruit lips with wine;

beyond cooled earth new worlds release

galactic starlights’ shine.

 

Her body, like a gold sheet’s draped

upon a coralled bed;

her skin with sunset marble’s tinged

and whispers the unsaid.

 

Then past the leaves high casements seek

an argent summer moon

as paintbrush strokes upon the cloth

a soft and flaming June

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 What a pity that this tenderly passionate canvas was sold for a plate of potage when such artists were considered out-of-fashion. What would it cost to buy it back from the Puerto-Rican government today!

The third place of memory was probably the most poignant one I have ever visited. In the company of my wife, we explored the hidden hilltop alleys of Hampstead to reach the church of Saint St Mary’s, the first Roman Catholic church to be built there after the English Reformation . Founded by the Abbé Jean-Jacques Morel, a refugee from the French Revolution, the church was completed in 1816.

The appearance of this building in the centre of a characteristic Georgian terrace is delightfully surprising, crowned with its bell-cote built in 1852 when an act of parliament first allowed Catholic churches to ring their bells. The church was closed, but fortunately a lad we met outside turned out to be the verger and kindly opened the door for us which led into a simple but noble interior decorated in the apse by fin-de-siècle mosaics and a painting of the Assumption of the Virgin.

But what was the memory evoked by this place? Why would we have wanted to visit this church? The clue is given in the following photograph.

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It is the place where my wife was baptised in that coldest of winters in the year which would later bring the Olympic games for a second time to the UK. It was the first time she’d been there since that auspicious day.

Near Saint Mary’s we encountered another place of memory which we’d never suspected existed: the old Hampstead cemetery, one of the very few in London to remain in its original state of delicious decay. Among the notables who have found their last resting place here are the great labour politician, Hugh Gaitskell, the brilliant artist and writer, Gerald du Maurier, (whose grand-daughter was “Rebecca” author Daphne) and, best of all, John Constable, whose paintings are the quintessence of the English landscape.

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What better way to say goodbye to London than visiting this place?