A la Ronde: A most unusual house with a most unusual history

Exterior view of A la Ronde, Devon

Exterior view of A la Ronde, Devon. © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

A la Ronde is an unusual house conceived of by rather unusual women, the genteel spinster cousins Jane and Mary Parminter. Discover their artistry and charity, and note that only unmarried female kinswomen could inherit their estate. Were Jane and Mary proto feminists?

Quirky and definitely idiosyncratic, A la Ronde radiates a sense of otherworldliness. There is probably no other house quite like it on earth. Resting humbly on a hillside not far from Exmouth in Devon, it’s certainly not a classically beautiful, commanding edifice. Indeed, the house just might befit the dwarf sized hobbit folk who inhabit J R R Tolkien’s children’s fantasy The Lord of the Rings.

It was the Misses Jane (1750-1811) and her cousin Mary Parminter (1767-1849) who gave rise to this extraordinary residence and its grounds upon which they also built a chapel, manse and almshouses. (Jane, incidentally, was Mary’s guardian for over a decade.) Jane was the daughter of a prosperous Devon merchant based in Lisbon, where he first owned a wine export business and later diversified into the cement manufacturing business after the great earthquake in Lisbon of 1755. Jane was brought up in Lisbon and in London. Mary came from a West Country family of landowners and wealthy merchants. When her father died in 1784, Jane and her sister, Elizabeth, Mary and a female companion, a Miss Colville, embarked on an extensive European tour. Elizabeth, alas, died upon the women’s return in 1795. It was likely that Jane’s married sister, Marianne Frend, encouraged the cousins to settle near her home in the fashionable sea bathing resort of Exmouth. Being independently wealthy, Jane and Mary could purchase some 20 acres of land in the region. Their site afforded lovely views overlooking Exmouth and the Exe Estuary.

The most distinguishing features of the house they created are its sixteen sides, linked circularly, and the conical roof (now tiled but originally thatched) with a white painted balcony and cupola atop. The fenestration of the house, originally and even now, is peculiar, too. What remains of the original are the red-bordered diamond shaped windows and the angled green shuttered sashes. Centred inside is an octagon shaped central hall, reaching up from the upper ground floor to the first floor. Originally the surrounding rooms were connected to each other by ante-rooms; now only some of the lobbies remain. The octagon’s walls are painted decoratively with a chevron pattern, most likely conceived of by the Parminters. In between the upper ground floor doors are Mary Parminter’s octagonal-shaped seats with triangular backs, topped with a small octagon shape.

The Octagon Room at A la Ronde, Devon.

The Octagon Hall, A la Ronde, Devon. © National Trust Images/David Garner

The Shell Gallery at A la Ronde, showing a zig-zag shell frieze above a clerestory of eight diamond-paned windows with shell encrusted recesses

The Shell Gallery at A la Ronde, showing a zig-zag shell frieze above a clerestory of eight diamond-paned windows with shell encrusted recesses. © National Trust Images/David Garner

Above the octagon is an extraordinary gallery. The outer wall, painstakingly created by the cousins, is covered with fantastical designs of shells, feathers, seaweed, sand, glass, quartz, quillwork and bones. The materials were gathered from neighbouring woods, fields and the seashore. The Parminter technique entailed sticking materials on card before this was attached to a plaster surface. Other materials were pressed into the lime putty skin that covered a coarser pink plaster before it set. A steep, narrow staircase leads to the gallery, along which there are window recesses, encrusted with decorations such as one finds on the gallery outer wall.

In the drawing room there is an impressive ‘Parminter’ feather frieze made from feathers culled from native game birds and stuck down in a series of concentric patters. In the library, the breakfront of the mahogany bookcase in the library looks as if it will burst with the cousins’ souvenirs: shells, beadwork, semi precious stones and votive statues vie for space on papered raked shelving. You might want to take home the cousins’ tiny 18th century bookcase holding a collection of miniature Regency school textbooks.

Some of the interesting additions added by later generations include, for example, a speaking tube in the library, with a whistle, linked to the lower ground floor kitchen. The wood and sealskin Inuit models on the chimneypiece in the music room were acquired in Canada by the father of the kinswoman, Ursula Tudor-Perkins. (The bedrooms, dressing rooms and bathrooms are on the second floor.)

The cousins’ decorative interests were shared by other middle and upper class men and women in the 18th and 19th centuries, who also created large and small-scale pictures and designs using unusual materials. Alexander Pope’s grotto, created in the early 18th century, near his Twickenham villa, was first finished with shells and pieces of ‘looking glass’ and later transformed into a ‘museum’ of mineralogy and mining, using ores, fossils, crystals, a stalagmite, flint, shells, Bristol and Cornish diamonds, marble, alabaster, snakestones and sponge stones and a section of the basalt Giant’s Causeway. At Goodwood House, near Chichester, there is a Shell House, with over 500,000 shells (the Shell Gallery at A la Ronde is believed to have about 25,000 shells), which was created over seventeen years by Sarah Lennox, the 2nd Duchess of Richmond, and her daughters, Caroline Fox and Emily Kildare. Shells fascinated the Duchess of Portland (1715-1785), who determined to collect examples of every known molluscan species; she managed to collect at least 20,000. Mary Delany, a very close friend of hers, is well known for her shell and needlework, as well as her botanical drawings. Thinking of the small scale, after collecting sea shells or buying packets of shells, many ‘genteel’ women would use them to create pictures of birds, animals and people or dress dolls, chandeliers, boxes and vases, picture and mirror frames. One would dip the back side of the shells in hot wax and attach them to the object being decorated.

It’s most likely, suggest most sources, that Jane conceived of and designed A la Ronde, as the inspiration for the quaint abode is believed to be the sumptuous, many sided, sixth century Byzantine Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, and its vaulted octagonal tower and splendid mosaics. The Parminter and Colville entourage would certainly have appreciated it during their tour. Others believe the house is the brainchild of a Commander John Lowder, a property developer who built Lansdowne Place in fashionable Bath, or possibly his young son, John Lowder, an aspiring architect. The actual ‘builder’ could probably have been either the father or the son; they both would have had the practical skills to undertake A la Ronde’s construction. Undoubtedly, Jane and Mary would have designed the interior. Could one imagine otherwise? The grounds, now simply landscaped, were originally elaborately landscaped and ornamented.

A quarter of a mile away from A la Ronde one finds the “facilities for private devotions,” as the Mary Parminter Charity, otherwise known as “Point of View”, describes the manse, chapel and almshouses, completed in 1811. The ‘complex’ is another example of the distinguishing interests of Jane and Mary Parminter. They determined that non-conformists would use the chapel for worship. (Mary’s grandfather and a cousin of hers had been dissenting preachers.) The Trust notes “although of non Jewish extraction, the two spinsters evinced a lively interest in the conversion of Jews to Christianity prior to their promised return to Palestine. This was their ‘point in view’ ”. Mary Parminter specified that the residence should be occupied by a “Minister of the Gospel…a Protestant Dissenter…” , four single approved women over fifty years of age should live in the apartments, and a schoolmistress should be appointed to teach six poor female children. A Jewess who has embraced Christianity shall be given preferential treatment, and “the children of Jewish parents shall in all cases be preferred”.

Nowadays the church, which holds services regularly, is associated with the United Reformed Church. The schoolroom is used as a vestry; there is a meeting room and a new kitchen; both male and female residents are housed in five bungalows on site.

Were Jane and Mary proto feminists? (The word was not in use during their time, and the movement was but a dot on the horizon.) It is quite likely that there would not have been a shortage of suitable men to marry in Jane and Mary’s social circle. Potential partners would have regarded the women’s independent wealth as an asset. So it’s likely that instead of choosing to live within a patriarchal domestic setting, they opted to enjoy a companionship between equals and engage in exceptionally individualistic craft and charitable work. Would their pursuits have been realisable in a traditional ‘Victorian’ domestic setting?


Furthermore, Mary’s will stipulated that the estate must be preserved intact, and that only unmarried kinswomen could inherit. Changes in the law allowed one heiress to break the trust and transfer the property to her brother, the Revd. Oswald Reichel, the only male owner the house has ever had. (Was she pressured to do so as she was unmarried and he had a wife who might bear children?) Reichel made several modernising changes; his marriage was childless. It was the ultimate heir Ursula Tudor Perkins who arranged for the National Trust to purchase the property; maintenance was cumbersome and costly.

Had Jane and Mary been living in the early 20th century, it’s conceivable that they might have supported the peaceful suffragists. One can see them establishing a worker’s guild, à la Mary Seton Watts, for women practising shell craft. “Votes for women” could have been written in shells.


Model of A la Ronde underneath a glass bell jar at A la Ronde, Devon © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel

Jenny Kingsley

For further information please visit:

https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/a-la-ronde – to find out about opening hours and facilities for A la Ronde.

For images of Hobbit abodes, refer to – http://www.bing.com/images/search?view=detailV2&ccid=kNetVkPF&id=FBC0C4639D1066816B703D4E0D1E457A9A537D5A&thid=OIP.kNetVkPFGOjWU_RSj8QVeQDIEs&q=lord+of+the+rings+hobbit+houses&simid=608041661424994384&selectedIndex=2&ajaxhist=0


Sounds of Dissonance: Focussing on gender imbalance in the world of classical music composers and conductors: men overwhelmingly outnumber women


Image courtesy (no restricted access) of the Music Division, The New York Public Library. “The Canadian journal of music” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1918-11. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/8e9c13f0-acec-0133-bc08-00505686a51c

Let us be frank with one another and avoid pretension. Most of you probably consider yourself artistically enlightened; you regularly attend and read about visual and performing arts events. Your liberal minded soul embraces equal opportunity of choice for everyone, regardless of a person’s gender, sexual preference, colour, race or religion. No biases poison your heart.

Still, although undoubtedly you could name quite a number of contemporary male classical music composers and conductors, you might struggle to recall just a few contemporary female classical music composers and conductors; and, even if you’re avowedly religious, you could be at a loss to suggest living female composers noted for writing liturgical music. Don’t feel embarrassed if you are now fumbling with the Internet. Indeed, in The Guardian’s 100 Most Inspiring Women of 2011, marking the 100th International Women’s Day, not one composer was listed. The one conductor noted was Marin Alsop.

Admittedly, you would be able to mention names effortlessly if you are working in the classical music business industry, or engaged as a performer, conductor or composer. Moreover, you’re probably acutely aware of gender imbalance in the classical music milieu, and that this issue does not cause as much alarm as it deserves to within this world and among members of the public.

I became conscious of my ignorance – perhaps oblivion – when I went to a talk last year about a book called Sounds and Sweet Airs, which was presented by the author Anna Beer. The evening was organised by the UK Friends of the National Museum for Women in the Arts (of which I’m a steering committee member). The book focuses on eight historic female composers: Francesca Caccini (1587-1640), Barbara Strozzi (1619-1664), Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre (1675-1729), Marianna Martines (1744-1812), Fanny Hensel Mendelssohn (1805-1847), Clara Schumann (1819-1896), Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) and Elizabeth Maconchy, (1907-1994).

Beer was inspired to write the book because many historic women composers have been dismissed (‘surely a man must have written this’), overlooked, forgotten and undocumented. (Is this because most musical historians are men?) She wanted to reclaim these women from history.

Social structure and cultural mores prevented many musically talented women in the past from seriously studying music, and, even if they could engage in musical scholarship leading to composition and conducting, they were denied the space, whether this be in a castle, cathedral, or concert hall, the authority and the opportunity to publish. Beer’s work is a means of enlightenment. There was no hint of anger in her presentation; she means to pay homage to historic female composers and explore the circumstances enabling them to flourish. Beer makes us feel ashamedly conscious of the fact that many of us have never asked questions about why there is such a paucity of women composers on historical record.

My conscience was also pricked when I began copy editing the far from dry, verging on the whimsical, and educative musical notes for the church I attend in central London. The writer, Nicholas Riddle, a music scholar – who chooses the compositions in collaboration with the Director of Music (DOM), Rupert Gough – happens to be at the head of a highly successful classical music publishing company (Edition Peters). Neither Nicholas nor the DOM seem sexist; yet rarely does a mass setting or related work by a female composer appear in the church music diary; obviously, it’s not within the music diarists’ consciences to address this situation, and, even if the church chose to only include mass settings by women, the choice is limited, as there are far fewer female historical and contemporary liturgical music composers than male. Moreover, the nature of the Anglo-Catholic liturgy and the liturgical season also thin the repertoire. Still, there’s room for a change in direction.

The Christian church has never been a harbinger of feminism; historically, men filled the choirs, played the organ, directed the music and led the services. One could have found a harpsichord or clavichord in the drawing room, for the women to play, but never an organ. A woman would have to venture out of the domestic sphere to learn to play and practise the organ; inevitably the instructor would be male. Would her family encourage this endeavour?

Composer and Director of Music at Clare College, Cambridge, Graham Ross, notes that the “addition of female singers to our cathedral choirs and clergy is a (somewhat embarrassingly) recent phenomenon. In England, there has only really been a rebalancing of gender intake in the last 50 years in the Oxbridge Colleges, where perhaps a good proportion (thought not certainly all) of today’s liturgical composers have been educated”. In 2016, Ross appointed Eleanor Carter as Clare College’s first ever female organ scholar in its 700-year history. Of the 31 colleges at Cambridge, only seven have female DOMs.

Ideally, one would like to discover a published compilation of mass settings, liturgical and sacred music composed by women. This would increase the breadth of female role models in worship. There are an increasing number of women clerics ‘at the helm’; why not enable more compositions by women to be part of worship? Regardless, in a wider context, religious and secular, there are quite a number of widely acknowledged tomes noting women composers. (See below.)

Focusing on the ‘shortage’ of female role models in the educational and professional milieu of classical music composition and conducting reveals the extent to which women are under represented. The choice of reliable statistics is overwhelming. Visible role models are especially important to younger women who often lack the confidence to forge ahead against the odds.

According to a report by the Performing Rights Society (PRS) Foundation Women Make Music – Evaluation 2011-2016, “there are no compositions at any level in the music curriculum by women”. (The situation is meant to change.) At the Julliard School, of the five members of the composition faculty, one, Melinda Wagner, is female. At the Royal Academy of Music, out of eighteen members of the composition faculty, the one female is Tansy Davies, an Honorary Fellow. The head of conducting is a woman, Sian Edwards; another female staff member, out of seven, is Ruth Byrchmore. At the Royal College of Music, there are seventeen composition faculty members, only three of whom are female: Errolyn Wallen, the first black woman to have a work performed at the Proms, Alison Kaye and Enrica Sciandone. At the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, there are no women listed on the seven member composition faculty list. At the Conservatoire national supèrieur de musique et de danse de Paris (CNSNDP), out of thirty faculty members in the ‘joint’ composition and conducting department, there are three female members: Catherine Briere, Coralie Fayolle and Marie-Jeanne Serero, the latter two are composers.

Each year, since 1989, the organisation Women in Music has carried out a BBC Proms Survey. (The Proms is the largest music festival in the world.) One wishes one could find the figures incredulous. For example, this year, 7.5 % of the living composers whose work is featured are women. Of the conductors, 11 % are women. In 2006, the Proms didn’t include any women composers or women conductors. At a recent conference of the Association of British Orchestras (ABO) in January, James Murphy, the managing director of the Southbank Sinfonia, gave a speech exploring why there are so few women conductors on show. He notes that of 61 full member orchestras in the ABO, collectively having over 100 titled roles for conductors, four of these positions are held by women. Just over five per cent of the British artist managers with five or more conductors on their books are women. Last year the Southbank Sinfonia invited an equal number of male and female conductors to conduct. Why can’t other major orchestras follow its lead?

What fuels bias against women composers and conductors coming to the fore are unyielding perceptions about the natures of men and women. A woman may grow up in a bias free home, but once she steps across the threshold, bias strikes as fast as a throbbing pulse. Riddle eloquently expresses this reality:

“People often see the composer as male by default, and so use male pronouns in general discussions about the art of music. It’s a battle still only half won, but ground is gradually being claimed. The same applies to conductors and directors of music. The world of music is still at the stage that companies were some years ago, when the unspoken thesis was that women would be too ‘weak’ as managers, or would lack ambition, or drive, or the capacity to take difficult decisions. Many aspects of musical performance are still obsessed with the fact that a composer, a conductor, or a director of music is in some sense ‘in control’, and unconsciously feel it’s somehow unwomanly to be exerting such control, or – for those with real problems in this area – some men just can’t reconcile the idea that they might from time to time be subservient in any sense to a woman and, as long as there are more of these men in charge, they consciously or unconsciously militate against this.”

In light of Riddle’s comments, I think of a Women’s Conducting Masterclass with Marin Alsop, which took place in January. Those attending had the chance to conduct the BBC Concert Orchestra in varied repertoire and conduct in a public performance. One of the participants, Natalia Raspopova, Assistant Conductor with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, reputedly commented, “generally speaking, women need to think much more about projecting power – perhaps that’s more natural to men”. In the past, notes the Guardian newspaper, Marin Alsop has suggested, “the challenges for women seem to be projecting strength unapologetically. Society interprets women’s gestures very differently, so that if women are exuding an aura of extreme confidence that can be deemed off putting, whereas it’s desirous for men”.

Unfortunately, it seems as though women need to feel entitled to take power. A composition has a kind of silent power, for conductors, musicians and singers are compelled to follow its direction, and still there are people all over the world, including women, who feel uneasy about women leading. Can we learn to be ‘gender neutral’ in the realm of classical music composing and conducting?

Initiatives encouraging women composers and conductors to come to and stay at the fore are very much a twenty first century phenomenon. In 2015 the Dallas Opera launched the Linda and Mitch Hart Institute for Women Conductors, an annual programme for six selected participants of a week long schedule of classes and coaching with renowned conductors, seminars about advancing one’s career prospects and opportunities to conduct the Dallas Opera Orchestra, and participate in a public concert. Women Conductors@Morley was founded in 2014 to offer courses for young women, aged 16-19, and full time students who wish to begin training, and also courses for female conductors to help them develop their technique. The Taki Concordia Fellowship, founded by Alsop in 2002, aims to “promote, present, and encourage talented women conductors at the beginning of their careers”. In 2016, the London Oriana Choir launched a venture for promoting British female composers called five15. This program involves commissioning five works from five emerging women composers over five years, which the choir will perform in the UK and abroad. A festival, competition, anthology, album and workshops are also part of the initiative.

Humankind has been creating music for centuries; how we direct and play with sound is part of people’s cultural, political and social identity. If the “custodians of classical music”, to use Murphy’s words, don’t give women the same opportunities bestowed upon men to conduct and compose for the public, to enhance our civilized identity, frankly, we’re “going to look like cave men”. Amen.

Jenny Kingsley ©

Useful links and discoveries:





http://www.prsformusicfoundation.com/funding/women-make-music-2/ – this supports projects by women songwriters, composers, artists, bands and performers who are writing their own music.

For reference – Aaron Cohen’s International Encyclopaedia of Women Composers (1987), noting over 6000 women; The New Grove Dictionary of Women Composers (1994), in which there are 875 listings; The Pandora Guide to Women Composers: Britain and the United States, 1629 to the Present by Sophie Fuller (1995); Women Composers: Music Through the Ages, volume 1 and volumes following, Martha F Schleifer and Sylvia Glickman, G K Hall and Company, 1996 onwards.

Naming and faming, for a brief start:

Historic female composers – before 1700 many of the women who published music were nuns living in convents such as Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) and Lucrezia Orsina Vizzana (1590-1662). Other names to note are Louise Farrenc (1804-75), Cécille Chaminade (1857-1944), Ethel Smyth (1858-1844), Amy Beach (1867-1944), Rebecca Clarke (1886-1979), Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-53), Imogen Holst (1907-1984), and Minna Keal (1909-1999), who was 80 years old when her first orchestral work was performed at the Proms in 1889.

Projects highlighting historic women composers:



Contemporary female classical music composers, who also write liturgical music – Kerry Andrew (b. 1978), Sally Beamish (b. 1956), Judith Bingham (b.1952), Charlotte Bray (b. 1982), Maija Einfelde (b.1939), Cheryl Frances-Hoad (b.1980), Jennifer Higdon (b.1962), Hanna Kendall (b.1984), Joanna Marsh (b.1970), Cecilia McDowall (b.1951), Roxanna Panufnik (b.1968), Karin Rehnqvist (b.1957), Agneta Sköld (b.1947), Judith Weir (b.1954), Ellen Taafe Zwilich (b. 1939).

Contemporary female conductors – Elim Chan (b.1986), Han-Na Chang (b.1982), Sian Edwards (b.1959), Laurence Equilbey (b.1962), JoAnn Faletta (b.1954), Alice Farnham (b.1939), Jane Glover (b.1949), Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla (b.1986), Susanna Mälkki (b.1969), Odaline de la Martinez (b.1949), Alondra de la Parra (b.1980), Simone Young (b. 1961).

The Government Art Collection (GAC): A passport to cultural diplomacy


The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, The New York Public Library. Edwin Foley, 1910-11. “The “king’s room,” Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk. The property of Sir Henry Paston Bedinfield. With its furniture and accessories re-arranged to show its court cupboard, “thrown” chair, linenfold panelling, bedstead, and other appointments.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed March 21, 2017. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e4-6d65-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

The 14,000 works of art in the Government Art Collection (GAC) are silent ambassadors, helping to enhance the nation’s image in the eyes of the beholder. Jenny Kingsley enjoyed a public tour of the Collection.

“The GAC is an unsung and too little known national asset…I don’t miss anything really about public office, certainly not the official cars or the Residences or the titles (been there, done that, got the T shirt). But I do rather miss the chance to raid the contents of the GAC. Now that was a rare privilege, and I am grateful for it and to those who over the years have made the GAC possible; the curators, the artists, and not, of course, forgetting the dear tax payers. The ultimate public private partnership has created something really rather special.”

Recollection of The Rt Hon the Lord Boateng, 2017, formerly the High Commissioner to South Africa, 2005 – 2009.

The Government Art Collection (GAC) is a curious British artistic phenomenon. It does not live in a museum or gallery. Its home, just off the congested, far from picturesque, Tottenham Court Road, is rather unassuming: possibly a smartened up warehouse. The appearance and location, though, are misleading. They belie the great role that the GAC plays in promoting diplomacy, as its stock in trade helps to highlight British art, culture and history, enhance the nation’s global image.

Moreover, those who are not being ‘courted’ can share its treasures. Free public tours take place regularly. I recently attended one organised by the UK Friends of NMWA (National Museum of Women in the Arts). We learned about the history and purpose of the GAC; and we visited the conservation and restoration workshop and the storage areas, where we were encouraged to pull out the sliding panels holding pictures.

The GAC provides artwork for government buildings, in more than 420 locations all over the world. The artwork is displayed in the embassies, high commissions, consulates, official residences and ministerial offices situated in capitals and regional areas, in the public areas, including corridors and entrance halls, not private bedrooms! (The Houses of Parliament operate a separate art collection). Usually two-thirds of the stock is out on loan. The Collection encompasses some 14,000 artworks: paintings, watercolours, drawings, prints, photographs, textiles, videos, mixed media and historic government silver. The current budget is £200,000.

With artwork dating from the 16th century to the present, the GAC is not just a selection of the famous and the great by the famous and the great. It’s an eclectic range – quirky, definitely not thematic or ‘movement’ orientated. The artists whose work is held must be British or have strong British connections. Some work is included because of its subject matter, such as Andy Warhol’s screenprints of the Queen. The eighteenth century artist Peter Tillemans was born in Antwerp, but he settled in Britain, so his engravings of Greenwich and oil painting of Richmond, Surrey, are included in the Collection. Indeed, Tillemans is considered a founder of the English school of sporting painting. The GAC also lends artwork to public exhibitions, if the security and environmental conditions are adequate. One such example is a painting from the period when Joan Eardley was living in a tenement in Glasgow, on loan to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art for the exhibition of Eardley’s work, A Sense of Place.

Artwork is purchased from auction houses, commercial galleries, dealers and artists, with the approval of the Advisory Committee, the members of which are not paid. Five are ex officio, for example Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, and Penny Johnson, Director of the GAC. ‘Independent’ Advisory Committee members include the artist and Director of the Slade School of Fine Art Susan Collins. The GAC has fifteen members of staff.

The Collection was started officially in 1898, when the Office, later Ministry, of Works assumed responsibility for the art on display in government buildings at home, and the Treasury allocated funding for purchasing more artwork. In 1935, funding increased in order to purchase work for buildings abroad, and the Overseas Picture Committee was established. It included the directors of the National Gallery, Tate and National Portrait Gallery. The Foreign Secretary at the time, Sir John Simon, warned against buying modern art as its display might lead to “undesirable controversy”. (Until this time ambassadors were expected to ‘furnish’ their own residences.)

After the Second World War, it was agreed that some modern art should be purchased. One such initiative took place in in 1949 when the Ministry of Works commissioned five paintings by John Piper for the new British embassy in Rio. Donations, bequests and subscription funds continued to enable the collection to expand. In the 1960s, there was a determined effort to acquire contemporary prints by living artists. Number 10 Downing Street was considered a prime location for exhibiting these works; they reflected a modern image of Britain. Harold Wilson welcomed the ‘new’. In 1979, artists were commissioned to create site-specific work for embassies; for instance, Ian Hamilton Finlay was asked to make a sundial for the ambassador’s residential garden in Bonn. In 1981, when Margaret Thatcher arrived at No 10, she graced its walls with historic landscapes and portraits; and the collection was officially titled as the Government Art Collection. Her successor, John Major, requested modern art; New Labour followed Major’s lead. In 1997, the GAC came under the auspices of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

In 2001, the GAC website was launched. Throughout 2011 and 2012, the Whitechapel Gallery presented an innovative series of displays about the GAC. (The Director, Iwona Blazwick, is a member of the Advisory Committee of the GAC.) One exhibition featured a selection of over 70 works, in a kaleidoscope of colours, chosen from the GAC by the artist Cornelia Parker. The exhibition was titled after the phrase used to remember the colours of the rainbow: “Richard of York Gave Battle in Vain”. Martin Creed’s neon sculpture Things in yellow certainly fit the bill. For another exhibition, the historian and broadcaster Simon Schama selected artwork from the GAC expressing the idea of travel, and places where the British have had a presence. One of Schama’s choices was Howard Hodgkin’s Mud on the Nile.

In a book about the GAC, Art, Power and Diplomacy, Government Art Collection, The Untold Story, published in 2011, Johnson explains “that we are at our busiest after the election of a new government…Works of art can signify the arrival of a new incumbent much more readily than other changes that ministers may want to introduce. Ministers usually choose their works by visiting the GAC, where we will have pre-selected a number of works from the Collection… based on our knowledge of the Collection, the architecture and scale of the minister’s office and what might be appropriate to reflect their portfolio of work…Interpretive material is also provided for locations, so that all recipients are knowledgeable about the works of art and can pass this information on to their visitors.” Some of the more generic work, Johnson notes, might move around frequently, while works bought for a specific location move less often. One former diplomat informed me that artwork could not be re-positioned without permission from the GAC.

Understandably, one may not always warm to the artwork on display upon arrival at a new posting. There may be practical reasons why paintings are where they are. With a glint in his eye, one former diplomat told me about a few of his amusing experiences in light of these situations. He remembered asking for a “lovely Lowry, fresh out of No 10”.  But, alas, he was told that the air in the capital where he was serving was too dry to risk good pictures; he would have to make do with what he had inherited in the residence.  He also recalled  “some very valuable and splendidly mislabeled 18th century pictures in Ankara of an Ambassador’s visit to the Court of the Sultan in Istanbul. Recent research had suggested that the Ambassador and the painter were Dutch, but we had originally claimed the Ambassador as British and never altered the labels”. My friend confessed that in another posting, there was a “large and very gloomy Jacobean portrait of a lady dominating the main hall”. Having failed to persuade the GAC to replace it, he had “hung a Venetian carnival mask on a fishing line just in front of the face to cheer it up without touching or damaging the painting. It made a very good icebreaker as a result, and no harm was ever done”. Maybe we could use this man’s mischievous sense of humour in our troubled times?

For Lord Boateng, the works of art from the GAC can certainly be both icebreakers and peacemakers. He told me that when he was the High Commissioner to South Africa there was a “beautiful oil painting of the burial place of Cecil Rhodes delivered without a name tag (by an ever diplomatic curator) to our residence in Pretoria. It provided a welcome distraction to my Zimbabwean visitors during some tense negotiations. There were people at the table who were on opposite sides of a long running argument but despite the lack of attribution immediately recognized the place and appreciated the respect shown not to that old rogue but to one of the most beautiful places on Earth. This represented not just my appreciation of the natural wonders of their country but the importance of Zimbabwe’s past and present to both the UK and South Africa. The picture said that far more eloquently than any words of mine”.

Many people ask why should taxpayers’ money be used to buy art? Paul Boateng’s words reveal how pictures can justify their space on the walls. If an image sparks good will among nations, those with whom we trade and make peace, the money should earn us interest in more ways than one. If you make me smile, I’m more likely to buy your goods.

Jenny Kingsley (© Jenny Kingsley)

Women artists and the GAC

The tour I attended was organised by the charity UK Friends of NMWA (I am a committee member), which highlights the work of historic and contemporary women artists. Understandably we were sensitive about there being far fewer women artists whose work features in the GAC, than male artists whose work is part of the GAC. (We had the idea that there were 540 women artists represented.) However, this situation is changing rapidly. Indeed, one of the independent advisors, Iwona Blazwick, confirms that “there is a commitment to acquiring the best art being created by women today; and slowly but surely the Collection will come to be truly representative”.

Indeed, Nicky Hodge, as the GAC Curator, Information and Research, Modern and Contemporary, commented to me that the disparity is something the GAC has actively chosen to address. “While artists are chosen on merit rather than on the basis of their gender, we see this policy of promoting women artists as an across the board, holistic approach to equality in the arts generally, looking not only at the number of women artists in the collection but women in the sector more broadly.”

Hodge shares the following statistics… “From 2000-2009, the GAC acquired a quarter as many works by women as by men. From 2010-2014, the GAC acquired a third as many works by female artists as male artists. From  2014 to the present, the GAC acquired approximately equal numbers of works by female and male artists.” She emphasizes the work that the Information and Research curatorial team do with public engagement (talks, tours) and online to make women artists more visible (features on the website, Twitter, etc). The team also works with higher education institutions (such as London Metropolitan and Goldsmiths University) to develop educational projects that promote gender equality in the arts.

It would be hard to refute the fact that the GAC is right on track.

For more information about tours and the GAC, please visit:


For information about the past exhibitions exploring the GAC at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, please visit:


These displays also travelled to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in 2012:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-birmingham-20362949 (for reference) and the Ulster Museum in 2013 http://www.culturenorthernireland.org/features/visual-arts/video-government-art-collection-ulster-museum.

Enjoy reading Art, Power, Diplomacy, Government Art Collection, The Untold Story, Scala Publishers Ltd in association with the GAC, London 2011.

Fashion with Compassion

Pupils at Shokoh School. Image courtesy of Pop Up 38

Pupils at Shokoh School. Image courtesy of Pop Up 38.

In Afghanistan, women are discouraged from higher education, but times are changing, as Jenny Kingsley discovers when she visits Pop Up 38, a shop selling vintage and contemporary clothes to raise funds for a co educational school in this struggling nation.

One is not likely to find an enterprise that is quite like Pop Up 38. Its history, raison d’etre and colourful tapestry of stock in trade are a tribute to female entrepreneurship, artistic talent and faith in humanity. In every square foot of merchandise there is a strong sense of compassion.

The story of the venture begins with Dr Howard Fyfe Harper who was born in New Zealand in 1930. After attending Auckland Grammar School, Harper tried his hand in the building and menswear trades before becoming a bible study student. At the age of 23 he sailed to Pakistan as a missionary. There he determined to train as a doctor when he realised that there was a desperate need for professional medical care in Central Asia. Harper was particularly appalled by the severe shortage of treatment for the leprosy patients in light of the horrific deformities they endured. In England, he prepared for his exams and gained relevant experience while also studying Islamic law and Urdu.

In 1960, Harper married Monika, a German nurse and Second World War refugee. Monika had worked at London’ renowned Moorfields Eye Hospital. She inspired her husband to specialise in eye surgery. The couple had three daughters, Naomi, Faith and Joy. The Harpers mainly lived in Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan where Harper worked as a hospital eye surgeon and ophthalmologist, established eye camps, wrote textbooks and trained local doctors. In Afghanistan he established the Noor Eye Hospital. For about fifteen years the family was based in Kent so their daughters could attend secondary school and experience western culture.

The Harpers firmly believed in the life enhancing value of education and wished especially to leave an educational legacy to the people of Afghanistan, notably the displaced Hazara peoples for whom they nurtured a special affection. When a Hazara elder offered Harper a piece of land in 2008 upon which to build a school, Harper began raising funds for its construction and development; in the meanwhile the school prospered in rented accommodation. Alas, Harper did not live long enough to see his dream fully realised. After battling with liver cancer, Harper died in 2011, aged 80. He is honoured by both New Zealand and Afghanistan with awards for exemplary humanitarian service; and he was one of the first foreigners to hold an Afghani passport. In 2010, Faith Goldberg, his second daughter, who is also a doctor, published From Kabul with Love, an account of Harper’s extraordinary life, based on correspondence between him and Monika with his father.

After her father’s death, Naomi Brons-Harper, his first-born, determined to fulfill her father’s dream. With two good friends, Natalie Tubeilah-Hall and Leigh Sullivan, Naomi established Pop Up 38 in the vibrant King’s Cross area of London as a means of raising funds for the school. All three women have an extensive background in fashion and design; Leigh is also an artist and Natalie has worked as an investment banker for a leading merchant bank, so the partners certainly have the expertise to succeed. The shop sells a mixture of designer samples and vintage clothing; the traditional Afghan dresses and jewellery are especially intriguing.

The nature of the stock changes frequently. In the next several months, when you visit you could find clothes designed and donated by Ella Moss, Free People and Splendid, all unquestionably trendy labels.

You will also discover colourful and dazzling jewellery designed by Philippa Kunisch; some pieces are very delicate while others are more forceful and bold, using larger stones grouped together in concentrated patterns. One of her commissions was a collection for the William Blake exhibition at Tate Britain in 2000 and 2001. Her jewellery has also appeared in British films, where it is worn by actresses such as Emma Watson, Joanna Lumley, Isabella Rossellini and Charlotte Rampling. Philippa graduated in Theatre Design from Central Saint Martin’s, after which she then designed sets and costumes for theatre, and later formed her own theatre company. When, over twenty years ago, Kunisch designed a few pieces of jewellery for herself, she felt inspired to design for the public.

Pop Up 38 also has its own fashion label featuring clothes and clutch bags created by a graduate of the London College of Fashion. Brightly coloured bunting is also on sale.

Word about the opening of POP UP 38 in 2012 spread quickly and profits from the sales, together with the prize money Harper received from his New Zealand award enabled the school to open its own premises on the outskirts of Kabul in 2012. The school is registered as a non-profit charity known as Lapis Lazuli Schools; the name of the school is Shokoh School. Floors have gradually been added, more equipment has been obtained, and the number of staff and pupils has increased since then.

Now in 2016, there are 620 pupils, aged from 5 – 18 years old; girls over the age of fourteen are taught on one floor, without boys. There are male and female teachers. The school hours are from 8.30 am until 3 pm; this is a note worthy factor as many schools in Afghanistan are only open for half a day or one sex is taught in the morning while the other is taught in the afternoon.

Shokoh School provides a hot lunch and mini buses for transport to and from home, which is especially important for the girls as many of them would be too intimidated to make their own way to and from school. An increasing number of pupils progress to university and winning scholarships. The school teaches the Afghan syllabus to pupils aged 5 to 16. Pupils also learn English; Farsi is their native language. The curriculum also features IGCSE courses in English, mathematics and science in conjunction with Cambridge University’s International Examinations programme, which includes A Levels.

Naomi Brons-Harper says that the children do not fully appreciate the value of play and the visual and performing arts. How can these subjects be fertile paths towards positions in academia, the civil service, business and finance, or qualifying subjects for studying to be a doctor or lawyer? Painting like an Impressionist will not lead to the presidency. It is hard to find art, music and drama teachers. However, the students do receive art and recorder lessons once a week, and they participate in weekly assemblies where they perform plays they have written in front of an audience of parents. And they do love acting, Naomi comments. Ironically applied art – the realm of fashion design – is the prime means of raising funds for the school.

The school is widely admired throughout the country for its high level of academic achievement and standards. The fee for each pupil is £450 British pounds sterling per annum; it covers tuition, books, uniform, lunch and transport. About 160 pupils are fully supported.

Lapis lazuli is one of the most coveted stones in use since ancient times. Its deep shimmering blue is believed to symbolise honour, wisdom, friendship and truth. It is thought to have a healing effect. The best raw stones are said to come from northeast Afghanistan. Lapis lazuli is a national treasure as undoubtedly is the school.

Article by Jenny Kingsley.

For further information about Pop Up 38 concerning location and opening hours, please visit popupshop38@gmail.com or call 07967 805097.


Lotte Laserstein (1898 – 1993) – An Artist Lost and Found.


Lotte Laserstein, Self Portrait, 1950. Private Collection.

One of the first women to study art at the Berlin Academy, and a painter who favoured female models for their ability to holding long and difficult poses, we consider the life and legacy of the German – Swedish artist Lotte Laserstein. 

Lotte Laserstein was born in eastern Prussia on 28th November 1898. From the age of eleven she was determined to be an artist. In 1921, her wish was granted when she gained admission to the prestigious Berlin Academy of Arts. She studied there for six years under the painter-etcher Professor Erich Wolfsfeld, becoming his master pupil during her last two years. Through Wolfsfeld, Laserstein inherited the German realist tradition, which stretched from the nineteenth century artists Adolph Menzel and Wilhelm Leibl back as far as Hans Holbein. In 1925, Laserstein met Traute Rose, who would become a lifelong friend and favourite model, featuring in many of her paintings.

After graduating from the Academy in 1927, Laserstein opened her first studio and private school of painting. Quickly making a name for herself, she participated in more than twenty exhibitions and performed well in various competitions. In 1928, the City of Berlin purchased her painting Im Gasthaus (In the Tavern) which portrayed a ‘neue Frau’, or ‘new’ woman, sitting alone at a restaurant table with her hair bobbed in the fashionable masculine style of the day. In 1930, Laserstein produced her masterwork, Abend über Potsdam (Evening over Potsdam), which portrayed a group of friends, including Traute, sitting at table on a terrace overlooking the city. By 1931, Laserstein had her own one-woman show at Galerie Gurlitt.

From 1933 onwards, however, Laserstein’s public profile as an artist entered a period of decline. Declared three-quarters Jewish by the National Socialists, she was no longer able to exhibit in Berlin, and her memberships to art associations terminated. Even the purchase of paints and materials became troublesome. Finally, in 1935, the same year during which the Nuremburg laws came into force, Laserstein was forced to close her school of painting.

By the end of 1937, just as the Nazi regime officially drew the line between art that was ‘racially pure’ and art that was ‘degenerate’, Laserstein was offered a large exhibition at Stockholm’s Galerie Moderne. It was an occasion which provided the artist with a unforeseen opportunity to take many of her paintings and drawings out of Germany. Although the exhibition was not a financial success, Laserstein skill as a portrait painter did not go unnoticed. By March 1938 she had delivered twelve portraits, and in the following years, Laserstein continued to find success as a portraitist and painter of landscapes. And yet it was through her many striking self-portraits that Laserstein regained her true artistic freedom.

In 1954, Laserstein moved to Kalmar on the southeast coast. Some thirty two years later, during the summer of 1986, the English art dealer Caroline Stroude, who was researching for an exhibition on Wolfsfeld decided to visit his former master pupil in Kalmar. Upon seeing Laserstein huge collection of works drawn from her most productive period in the twenties and thirties, Stroude resolved to also devote a special exhibition to Laserstein. In 1987, this decision led to concurrent exhibitions at both Agnew’s and the Belgrave Gallery in London. The exhibitions proved such a success that Agnew’s decided to mount another exhibition in 1990, at which Laserstein’s works were shown together with those of Erich Wolfsfeld and her own pupil, Gottfried Meyer.

Laserstein died in Kalmar on 21st January 1993 at the age of 94. In the autumn of that same year Agnew’s held their third and final exhibition of her works, but that was not to be the end of Laserstein’s story. In fact, in 2003 / 2004, Das Verborgene Museum, in collaboration with Stadtmuseum Berlin, mounted a large retrospective of Laserstein’s works at the Ephraim-Palais Museum. The comprehensive German / English catalogue was compiled by the art historian Anna-Carola Krauße, who had made her own discovery of the artist in 1989. Suffice to say, the Berlin retrospective not only re-acquainted the German public with this ‘lost’ artist and her works, but it also established Laserstein reputation as one of the Weimar Republic’s outstanding woman painters.

In June of 2012, Laserstein’s painting Im Gasthaus turned up at an auction in Munich. Rather than being destroyed during the war, as Laserstein had formerly believed, the artwork had been declared degenerate. As such, it still had its own ‘entartete Kunst’ number (EK14607) inscribed on the back. Soon afterwards, it was sold to a private bidder. Next, in the same year, Laserstein’s Abend über Potsdam, which had been in the hands of a Private Collector since 1987, was sold at Sotheby’s to Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie for a reported sum of £350,000. Both paintings subsequently featured in the exhibition Vienna – Berlin: The Art of Two Cities, held at the Berlinischen Galerie in 2013 / 2014 and at the Belvedere, Vienna, in 2014. Laserstein had, and has at last taken pride of place among the ranks of the most important artists of her generation.