The gates were open to Marlborough House this morning, one of the more mysterious of the grand houses flanking the Mall. It was built for the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough with a stipulation by the Duchess that it should be ‘strong, plain, convenient and good’ (her use of language is a reflection of her detestation of Vanbrugh’s designs for Blenheim). Designed by Christopher Wren the younger with help from his father, the Duchess ended up supervising the construction herself. It was taken over by the Crown in 1817 and used in the 1850s for the so-called Museum of Manufactures (later the V&A) and the National Art Training School. Adapted in the 1860s by James Pennethorne as a residence for the then Prince of Wales, it now houses the Commonwealth Secretariat:-
We had the Schools Auction last night. Each year it gets bigger and better and smarter, with this year over 300 people all bidding for work in order to help the RA Schools and its students. Michael Craig-Martin spoke with great conviction about the importance of maintaining a system of free postgraduate education whereby a relatively small number of students can develop as artists by having studio space, access to workshops, and the active support and advice of practising artists, as well as each other.
We had a long day trip to Somerset for a meeting of the Royal Academy’s Trust, invited by Iwan Wirth, one of our Trustees. The renovation of Durslade Farm has been spectacularly successful (90,000 visitors). In between the March showers, we were able to enjoy the newly arrived Serpentine Pavilion by Smiljan Radiç:-
I thought I should know more about John Van Nost (or Ost) so looked him up in my elderly card index. There were two of them. John Van Nost the elder who came to London from Flanders, was foreman to Arnold Quellin, married his widow and took over the family firm. Following his death in 1710, his cousin, John Van Nost the younger, took over. They both specialised in supplying lead statues to country house gardens. Nost the younger supplied an equestrian statue of George I to Cannons, as well as to Grosvenor Square; a golden statue of the Duke of Chandos, the owner of Cannons; lead statues of History with a table & pen and Fame sounding a trumpet, which were arranged along the parapet; and lead statues in the pleasure grounds, including the statue of George II, which cannot date from before 1727, the date of the King’s accession. Nost the younger was described by George Vertue as having driven ‘on the business but never studied – nor did himself anything tolerable’. This may explain why his statue of George II is so bad.
In walking across Golden Square at lunch-time today, I noticed that the rather manky statue of George II was cleaner than usual. It’s unusual to see George II commemorated as he was not a particularly popular monarch and indeed some people think it is Charles II, who was. The answer seems to be that it was an anonymous statue designed by John van Nost for Cannons in Middlesex, sold at auction in 1747, bought by an anonymous bidder (apparently accidentally) who then presented it to Golden Square in 1753 in honour of the then King:-
I often pass Limehouse Town Hall, a slightly sorry remnant of nineteenth-century civic pomp, backing onto the churchyard of St. Anne’s. Built in 1879 to ‘do honour to the parish of Limehouse’, it was lavishly equipped and licenced for dancing. The site of a major speech by Lloyd George in defence of his 1909 ‘People’s Budget’ and of Attlee’s election victories, it was occupied by the National Museum of Labour History in the 1980s before it decamped to Manchester. It’s now used for bicycle maintenance and is on the Buildings at Risk register:-
I arranged last weekend to visit 31 Fournier Street as I was tipped off that it had a wonderful exhibition of textile designs. What I wasn’t told is that the house itself is an amazing survival of old Spitalfields with original panelling throughout discovered under old plasterboard by Rodney Archer when he bought the house in 1980 off an Indian taxi firm.
This is the overdoor and window surround on the street:-
We went to the first night of Madama Butterfly at Covent Garden last night. I had forgotten that it is the purest tear jerker from beginning to end, one long lament for the rottenness and treachery of men, particularly an American lieutenant, and the passionate fidelity of a woman, pre feminist of course, but still one gets the message in aria after aria of tragic magnificence, helped at the end by the appearance of their son. A wonderful untricksy production.
We went this evening to the launch of Caroline Lucas’s new book about the need to reform the way that parliament works, Honourable Friends ? Parliament and the Fight for Change. She spoke with force and conviction about how she has found the House of Commons impossibly dysfunctional owing to the arcane system whereby MPs are whipped through voting without knowing what they are voting about (she may be too polite to describe it thus in the book). Lots of Greens were there. I’m looking forward to reading her recommendations as to how it all might be reformed.
Two people have talked to me in the last week about the plan by the Daily Mail Trust to tear down Nick Grimshaw’s beautiful, spiky, nautical building which he designed for the Western Morning News in Plymouth in 1994. It obviously has problems in terms of current planning policy because the Lloyds Building in the City is the only recent building to have been Grade 1 listed. But it seems a pity if a building of such obvious quality should be demolished. Perhaps the Sunday Mail could launch a campaign to persuade Ed Vaizey to list it.