Candace Allen, novelist, journalist and Board member of Chineke! – a classical music orchestra like no other – explores its birth and achievements


Chineke! Orchestra at the Proms 2017. Photograph by Mark Allen. Courtesy of Candace Allen

On 30 August 2017 at 10:15pm, less than two years after their first concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, seventy-five members of the Chineke! Orchestra — all but three of Black or Minority Ethnic (BME) origin — assembled on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall. The occasion was what the Guardian columnist Martin Kettle would describe as “arguably one of the most important concerts that the Proms have ever hosted”.

It was not the first time an orchestra of colour had appeared at the Proms. In 2007, the SimÓn Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela and their exuberant Latin-infused approach to performance had had the audience stomping and cheering in exultation at the concert’s close. The elite showcase of Venezuela’s El Sistema, a nation-wide programme of music education that had been initiated forty years previously by its visionary founder José Antonio Abreu, the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra was the decades-long distillation of hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan music students, Many of these students had been playing music together five to seven days a week for as long as fifteen years of their very young lives.

Chineke! is also the brainchild of a visionary, but a profoundly different phenomenon: the internationally renowned double bassist, Chi-chi Nwanoku, a vertiginous sprint. While growing up in England, as the eldest of five children of Nigerian-Irish parentage, Chi-chi displayed spirited pianistic musicality. Her passion though was athletics; she was competing at so high a level nationally that she had a berth to the Montreal Olympics squarely in her sights. But then a casual game of football ended her sprinting career catastrophically at the age of eighteen. Realising that the driven young woman in their charge desperately needed another goal, the Headmistress and music department chair of Chi-chi’s sixth-form encouraged her to focus on a musical career, but with an instrument somewhat less popular than the piano. They suggested the double bass.

Being markedly small in stature Chi-chi countered, “What are you talking about? Look at the double bass! Then look at me!” Their reply: “When has a challenge ever stopped you?” Two years after commencing study of the double bass, she was accepted to the Royal Academy of Music and upon completing her studies soon found herself in international demand. She went on to become a founding member and lead bassist of the Age of Enlightenment Orchestra for thirty years, joined the faculty of the Royal Academy, and was awarded an MBE for her services to music. The list goes on; but then in the autumn of 2014, while listening to a concert given by L’Orchestre Symphonique Kimbanguist, her damascene moment occurred.

Some months previously, during one of several conversations, then Minister of Culture Ed Vaizey had asked Chi-chi: “why is it that you’re the only person of colour I ever see on the concert stage?” Chi-chi did not have an answer. In truth she’d been so completely enveloped in the demands and joys of professional musicianship that she’d never given it much thought; and now here in the Southbank’s Royal Festival Hall was an audience enchanted by an African orchestra of fervent heart but, as its musicians were essentially and recently self-taught, of comparatively limited skills.

Why was the London classical audience and, more importantly, the vast and primarily untapped multi-ethnic contemporary audience in Britain not being served by a professional classical orchestra that embodied the diverse scope and appeal of the music she loved? Why weren’t more young people of colour resolving to take this demanding but oh so rewarding classical music path? Yes, there had been a reduction of music programmes these last years but, still, how could these young people imagine participating in a world that appeared hermetically sealed? Convinced that the talent to change these perceptions was out there, Chi-chi also realised that she was uniquely positioned to literally change the face of classical music in the UK. “My aim [was and] is,” she recalls, “ to create a space where BME musicians can walk on stage and know that they belong, in every sense of the word. If even one BME child feels that their colour is getting in the way of their musical ambitions, then I hope to inspire them, give them a platform, and show them that music, of whatever kind, is for all people.” And the time to begin was right then.

After a series of conversations that were, in the main, overwhelmingly supportive, in March 2015 came an offer-cum-challenge from the Southbank Centre’s Artistic Director, Jude Kelly, and Director of Music, Gillian Moore. If Chi-chi could assemble an orchestra, the Southbank had a date open six months hence.

The traditional classical music norm is to plan three to five years ahead, and this with entities that have already been established. With heroically Amazonian effort, fuelled by sheer will and no sleep, in a period during which she also premiered a double bass concerto and performed in two Glyndebourne operas, Chi-chi went from zero musicians to more than sixty. She assembled players of requisite ability from across the globe relying upon personal contact, trusted recommendation and social media. Convinced that a professional adult orchestra dealt with only one side of the problem she planted the first seeds of Chineke!’s educational efforts by assembling a Junior Orchestra as well. With the help of a tiny team (of which I was a passionate one) Chineke! went from zero funds to the high six figures necessary to finance its debut.

On 13 September 2015, after but five days of rehearsal – as opposed to the Bolívar Orchestra’s years and years – the Chineke! Orchestra took four- and five-star possession of the Queen Elizabeth Hall stage in a programme that established its additional brief of combining so-called core repertoire with lesser-known composers of colour. The success was repeated at its second concert, one year later. This earned Chineke! a second short-listing for the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Ensemble Award and designation as a Southbank Centre Associate Orchestra. In 2017, Chi-chi was named an OBE in the Queen’s birthday list, the Orchestra released its first recording to high acclaim and before its historic Proms debut, had concertized all over the UK with chamber ensemble performances in London, Ghent and Rome. All this was accomplished without the core Arts Council funding of more established orchestras; and Chineke! has only just begun.

In naming her foundation and orchestra Chi-chi chose to reference those she wished to bring centre stage. In her father’s Igbo language Chineke! is at once an exclamation of wonder and God’s embodiment of all good things. This could not be more apt.

© Candace Allen


Photograph by Sheila Rock, courtesy of Candace Allen

For more information about Chineke! and future concerts, please visit Learn more about Candace Allen at



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: – to find out about opening hours and facilities for A la Ronde.

For images of Hobbit abodes, refer to –

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.

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: (for reference) and the Ulster Museum in 2013

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

The Enterprising Artist Mary Seton Watts: Discovering the house, gallery, chapel and thriving potters’ guild she inspired over one hundred years ago in rural Surrey.

The Watts Chapel, Exterior, Budborough Hill, Compton, Surrey. C Watts Gallery – Artists’ Village

Mary Seton Watts is known for being the wife of the Victorian painter and sculptor George Frederic Watts and relatively little known for her accomplishments as a ceramicist, creator of a prosperous potters’ guild and an extraordinary mortuary chapel. Jenny Kingsley ventures to the Watts Gallery Artists’ Village in a picturesque region of Surrey to bring her legacy to light.

My days slip by without a scrap of artistic work being done. Why women fail in art is answered to myself ‘because of the little things in life’.

Ah, if we could but work fanatically in the light of our own 19th century thought … fight against immorality, seeing the injustice of recent social opinions, against the sacrifice of sacrificing women, against intemperance, against the desire for wealth, & the hideous inequality of distribution to living in at least the universal brotherhood! A return to our true balance, man with woman, both with nature, which means health, beauty, innocence.

Excerpts from The Diary of Mary Watts 1887 – 1904, Desna Greenhow (ed.), London, 2016

Until recently historians have overlooked Mary Seton Watts’s inspiring story of determination and talent. There is an entry about her husband, the painter and sculptor George Frederic Watts (1817 – 1904), ‘England’s Michelangelo’, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and in Oxford Art Online; Mary (1849 – 1938) is left out in the cold. Fortunately her accomplishments are attracting wide acclaim as the house, gallery and mortuary chapel she inspired have been restored, and her influence is warmly acknowledged and detailed in the exhibition space and during the tour of the house. The most notable publication for general interest about Mary was issued last year: The Diary of Mary Watts, edited by Desna Greenhow. Indeed, an entry about Mary for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is being written while I write.

Undoubtedly Mary was profoundly happy being married to George who was thirty-two years her senior (she was 36 and he was 69 when they wedded), and devoted to him throughout the seventeen years of their companionable union. Their marriage afforded Mary an enriching and enterprising artistic life, although George was the focal point of the couple’s time together. The frustrating ‘little things in life’ were but minutiae compared with the ‘big things’ Mary achieved once she married. The marriage sparked liberation rather than constraint. Even if Mary had lived in a world where women’s rights were not a battleground, she might not have blossomed so.

The couple’s bond was strengthened by their promotion of socially progressive reform. George and Mary Watts were advocates of the women’s suffrage movement, the campaign against restrictive clothing, and the trade union movement. They envisaged a civic and civilising role for art and design, one that could positively transform the lives of the disadvantaged. We see Mary’s passionate social perspective, a driving force for her altruistic projects, revealed in the second quotation above.

Indeed, the artistic work of both Mary and George reflected their humanitarian values. Mary used symbolic humanistic imagery from different cultures and religions for her ceramic designs. She was especially inspired by Celtic imagery and imagery from illuminated manuscripts, such as the Book of Kells and Lindisfarne Gospels. George Watts created allegorical images, with historical, religious and mythological references, which reflected disturbing contemporary issues, such as homelessness, famine, social inequality and the depersonalising effects of industrialisation. Contemporaries viewed him as a philosophical painter, a visionary, and considered his portraiture equally soulful; it was not stylised. Many of his subjects, such as Thomas Carlyle, Walter Crane, Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, John Stuart Mill, Canon Samuel Barnett (who with his wife, Henrietta, helped to improve the lives of the poor in Whitechapel, and establish the Whitechapel Art Gallery) and Josephine Butler (a prominent suffragist), were socially progressive.

“I paint ideas, not things…my intention is not so much to paint pictures which shall please the eye, as to suggest great thoughts which shall … arouse all that is best and noblest in humanity,” revealed George Watts.

Mary (nee Fraser-Tytler) was born in 1849 into a literary family, identified with the Scottish intelligentsia, which assuredly nurtured her social views. She grew up on her family’s estate in the Scottish Highlands, at Aldourie Castle, Loch Ness (a baronial edifice now available for holiday letting!). Her father was a civil servant. She attended the National Art Training School in South Kensington (which was later called the Royal College of Art) where the curriculum emphasised design and decorative arts rather than fine art. There she enrolled in a clay modelling class, taught by the established sculptor Aimé-Jules Dalou, whose large public masterpieces can be seen in Paris. The course had a significant influence on her later work as a decorative designer; Mary eventually made her ‘mark’ in clay. Later, Mary attended the Slade School of Art. (At the time, women were only allowed access to draped male nudes in drawing classes!)

After her formal training, Mary rented a studio in London where she could practise portraiture. She also began teaching clay modelling classes at a boys’ club in Whitechapel. This experience encouraged Mary’s developing interest in the teaching of craft skills to the ‘working classes’ and her involvement with the Home Arts and Industries Association (HAIA). The Association aimed to teach classes in rural crafts, such as wood carving, basket weaving and book binding, to ‘working class’ people in rural communities, so that these handicrafts would not die out, and they could provide enjoyable and employable occupation – a sharp contrast to dehumanising factory life.

For many years Mary Fraser-Tytler and George Watts enjoyed a ‘student teacher’ relationship before they courted and later married in 1886. They had met in 1870 when Mary visited Little Holland House, George Watts’ home in Kensington. (George had been married briefly to the actress Ellen Terry.) The introduction was strengthened through the couple’s shared connections to the Isle of Wight, where George kept a house, and Mary had friends and family relations; their circles overlapped. Mary recalled that ‘Signor’ (as referred to by his friends) had a most courteous manner, evocative of chivalric days.

Once wed, the couple honeymooned in Egypt, Turkey and Greece. The rich range of cultures she encountered and their differing symbolic languages captivated Mary. Her interest proved to be a foundation for her artistic endeavours on the estate the Watts would eventually establish in a quintessentially English village in the rolling hills of Surrey. The idea of living in the fresh air, in a rural community, greatly appealed to the Wattses for the sake of George’s health. Friends living in the village of Compton encouraged them to build a house near them, which the Wattses did, starting in 1890. The house (with studios), which was named Limnerslease, from “limner” meaning artist and “lessen” meaning to glean, was designed by Sir Ernest George. He was highly regarded for his country houses that reflected the local vernacular. His practice was referred to as “the Eton of offices”. Lutyens was one of his pupils.

When we tour the house with Desna Greenhow, we see the truly unique series of white low relief gesso panels Mary created for the ceiling in the entrance Hall and the ceiling in the adjoining Anson Red Room on the ground floor. In the Hall are five panels representing different spiritual cultures: Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism and those of ancient Assyria and Egypt. The symbols in the Anson Red Room are meant to suggest the joy of work. Imagery includes an Egyptian winged sun, bees, butterflies, birds, corn sheaves and grapes, symbolising energy, industry and the fruits of labour. Unfortunately, Mary Watts’s panelling for the alcove or ‘niche’, where she would read to the slightly deaf George in the evenings, has disappeared; the alcove is now unadorned. (It was meant to help amplify Mary’s voice.) The couple especially enjoyed the work of Rudyard Kipling and Jane Austen; Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and Gaskell’s Cranford also appealed. They read about religious philosophy and scientific discovery. The Pall Mall Magazine was a favourite.

In 1895 the local Parish Council purchased land for a new cemetery on the edge of Compton village. The graveyard surrounding the village church of St Nicholas was becoming quite full. The Wattses decided to finance the building of a mortuary chapel for the cemetery, determining that its creation would involve the community. In her biography of her husband, Mary wrote, “so that by this means a special and personal interest in the new graveyard would be acquired by the workers”.

The Grade I listed Watts Chapel is Mary’s masterpiece. The fact that Mary Watts was not a trained architect did not mean that she could not dictate its architectural form, a small single cell space, a circle, intersected with the cross of faith, purposely reminiscent of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. A local architect advised her about structural details and the use of local materials. The chapel looks as if it is a neo-Byzantine cathedral built for Lilliputians.

Mary’s designs for the imaginatively patterned external terracotta carvings are drawn from Christian iconography and imagery predating Christianity. One attribute, for example, is the circular ‘path’ around the chapel, a frieze featuring imagery symbolising human attributes such as truth (an owl and scales), hope (see the peacock), light (an eagle, for instance) and love (see the pelican). The symbol of the Tree of Life is repeated on the buttresses and bordered with columns patterned with ‘running water’ signifying the river of life. A local carpenter carved the entrance doors; a local blacksmith made the hinges. Villagers, many of whom were unemployed agricultural workers, helped to make the terracotta tiles covering the walls of the chapel. Mary trained them at evening classes, which she held in her studio. When the structure and exterior decoration were finished in 1898, the chapel was consecrated.

During the next six years, Mary worked on the relief work and painting for the interior of the chapel. This work is detailed and Mary did much of it herself. There is a display at Limnerslease showing how the mouldings for the interior were created. The base consisted of chicken wire, sacking hemp and rough plaster, which was covered with gesso, a mixture of fine plaster and animal glue, and raked with a comb to create texture. Hatting felt, sewing tape, and more layers of gesso helped to build up the design. Finally, the panels were painted and gilded with gold leaf. There is painting on smooth gesso as well.

The decorative scheme is presented in four panels. We see seraphs and angels, and a golden girdle – a band – circling around the chapel decorated with emblems of the Trinity, Celtic motifs. The Tree of Life is rooted below and grows through the band, spreading its branches up towards the heavens above. Over the altar is a painting by George Watts entitled The All Pervading. The interior is very colourful, dazzling.

After the exterior of the chapel was completed, Mary determined to harness the modelling skills of the villagers, so that they should not be forgotten. This endeavour would have an enterprising and civic value. She started a pottery, which would produce sundials, gravestones, wall plaques, garden pots, balustrades and ornaments. Cottages were built for the workers. The Compton Potter’s Art Guild, as the pottery eventually was named, closed in 1956. Liberty of London became one of its regular customers. The store sold a brooch based on one of Mary’s chapel motifs. Gertrude Jekyll used some of the Compton pots in her garden designs. The Royal Botanical and Royal Horticultural Societies awarded medals to the pottery for its products, which were also exhibited at international industrial fairs, such as the St Louis World’s Fair, 1904.

In 1902, George and Mary bought a three-acre site nearby on which they built a gallery, in the Arts and Crafts tradition, to display Watts’ pictures and sculpture for public viewing. Part of the building was also used as a hostel for the pottery apprentices.

Mary’s productive life continued to flourish after her husband died in 1904. She continued managing and designing for the pottery alongside running the Watts Gallery. She wrote The Annals of an Artist’s Life about George Watts and a detailed account of the chapel decoration, The Word in the Pattern: A Key to the Symbols on the Walls of the Chapel at Compton.

After Mary’s death in 1938, most of the contents of the house were sold. During the Second World War, the house was used by Ardente, a company manufacturing naval radar and sonar equipment. Later, after the Second World War, the house was divided into three and each part was sold. In 2011, all three parts of the house came onto the market, and the Watts Gallery Trust was able to acquire each part and gradually begin a programme of restoration. From a long sleep the Artists’ village has gradually awakened. An extensive outreach programme ensures that what Mary created still has firm and productive community links, as Mary would have wished. When you visit, you will see that George Watts was also married to a great visionary artist.

Jenny Kingsley

For further information about Watts Gallery Artists’ Village, please refer to You can visit the Gallery, house (guided tours only), studios, chapel, cemetery and visitors’ centre, which features temporary exhibitions. (It was converted from its former use as part of the pottery.) The teashop serves delicious teas and light lunches.

Read The Diary of Mary Watts 1887 – 1904, edited by Desna Greenhow, Lund Humphries, London 2016. Mary called her diary ‘Fatima’. She writes clearly and in a relaxed and warm-hearted manner. We learn about major figures in the late nineteenth century who were socially progressive, and associated with the Arts and Crafts movement and the nature of their friendships with the Watts. We enjoy commentary about the Wattes’ intimate moments with each other, and how they progressed with their work. Dr Greenhow has extracted the most revealing passages including helpful and well-written annotations and introductions to chapters.

Also on permanent view is the De Morgan Collection, a collection of ceramics and oil paintings by Evelyn Pickering De Morgan and her husband William Frend De Morgan. They were one of the most influential artistic couples of the Arts and Crafts Movement. Evelyn was also, in common with Mary Watts, a pioneering female artist and one of the first women to attend the Slade School of Art. Her parents insisted that she had to be chaperoned! Her work was widely exhibited and compared to that of George Watts; it also revealed personalized, allegorical interpretations of mythological, religious and moral themes, sometimes from the woman’s perspective. The colours and patterns of Islamic pottery inspired William; he re discovered the art of lustre decoration. He was a good source of advice for Mary about running her pottery. For a while he contributed to William Morris’s decorative enterprise. William was also a novelist! (See also

Of course, one learns much about George Watts while visiting this most inspiring setting; appreciating Mary entails knowing about one of the major sources of her artistic enlightenment and development, her husband. Unlike Mary he was not born into a privileged family. His father was a pianoforte maker and tuner. His family life has been described as “strict sabbatarian and evangelical”. His talent for drawing emerged when he was very young and was encouraged by his father. When he was ten he joined the studio of the draughtsman and sculptor William Behnes, a family friend. Eventually he began to earn money with portraiture, a source of funds that continued throughout this life. His interest in spiritually meaningful art inspired him to try large-scale history painting, and, in time, work imbued with social realism, such as The Irish Famine. He did receive commissions for creating spiritual paintings and murals. Watts was the first British artist to have a solo exhibition of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ruskin described him as one of the five “geniuses…I have known”.

Former President Barack Obama’s favourite painting is believed to be Hope by George Watts. It supposedly encouraged Obama on his path towards the White House. He learned about the painting when was listening to a sermon by the Reverend Jeremiah White, his controversial former pastor. The painting was the focus of the sermon. It depicts a hunched and blindfolded ragged young woman who sits atop a globe, plucking a single string on her wooden lyre. She still has the “audacity to hope” believed the priest. The words formed part of a rousing electoral speech by Obama and inspired the title of his book, The Audacity of Hope.

Terrains of the Body: Photography from NMWA, an exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery of contemporary work created by women artists from all over the world.

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Detail from On Guard from the Turbulent series, by Shirin Neshat, 1996. Gelatin silver print with ink, 11 x 14 in (28 x 36 cm). Gift of The Tony Podesta Collection. C Shirin Neshat.

Jenny Kingsley explores the forthcoming exhibition (18 January – 16 April 2017) at the Whitechapel Gallery of photography from NMWA and the history of each iconic establishment.

In downtown Washington DC, close to the White House, is a rather majestic looking building, which is the home of the National Museum for Women in the Arts (NMWA), the only museum in the world dedicated to displaying and cultivating an awareness of artwork by historic and contemporary women artists. Ironically, this imposing Renaissance Revival edifice originally served as a Masonic temple, the headquarters of the Freemasons; the change of use might be anathema to this bastion of male supremacy!

Yet the establishment of the museum was achieved by someone whom you might consider to be the perfect wife for a Mason – demure, elegantly dressed and exquisitely coiffed – an epitome of white-gloved graciousness, Mrs. Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, who was inspired by chance, in the early 1970s. While she and her late husband, Wally, were travelling in Europe, they were struck by the beauty and ingenuity of still life paintings by the Flemish artist Clara Peeters (c1594 – 1657).

Mrs Holladay wanted to know more about the artist but could find little information about her except that she was revered in her time. One intriguing aspect about Peteers was that she would sometimes depict a self-portrait in the reflective surfaces of objects in her still lifes.

During her research, Mrs Holladay was shocked to discover that no women artists were noted in the then current edition of H.W. Janson’s History of Art, the standard American art history reference work. Were women artists being left out of the artistic landscape just because of their gender, she wondered? Although by no means a feminist, Mrs. Holladay determined to “draw attention to this neglected body of art through the ages, one that had been ignored by the critics and scholars of the history of art, the arbiters of intellectual taste for several generations”.

When the museum opened in 1987, the Holladay collection was its core. Now the museum holds over 4,700 works of varied artistic genre, dating from the 16th century to the present and created by more than 1000 female artists.

To further the mission globally, the museum welcomes members from all over the world. International committees, such as the charity UK Friends of NMWA, strive to increase awareness about the museum and women artists of the past and present in their own regions.

In honour of the museum’s thirtieth anniversary and the tenth anniversary of UK Friends of NMWA, the charity is sponsoring an exhibition of photography by contemporary women artists from the NMWA collection at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. This marks the first time that such a sizeable body of photographic work from the museum will be shown in Europe. One could say that the partnership between the museum, UK Friends of NMWA and the Whitechapel is cleverly matched, for the partners share an interest in breaking and nourishing fresh artistic ground.

The Whitechapel Gallery is housed in an attractive art nouveau building joined, since 2009, with its next-door neighbour, once a Victorian library. The Whitechapel was the first art gallery built to showcase modern and contemporary art, and to bring great art to the people of East London, an area that at the time of the gallery’s foundation in 1901 was known for its overcrowded slums with many immigrants, breweries, slaughterhouses and Jack the Ripper murders. The founder of the gallery was Samuel Barnett, a local vicar, social reformer and philanthropist.

Local life in the twenty-first century still retains a vibrant, multicultural atmosphere, although gentrification is spreading rapidly. Many galleries, artists’ workshops, fashionable shops and restaurants are being established. Property prices are on the rise. Showcasing American art is part of the gallery’s history. For example, it held the first major exhibition in Britain of Jackson’s Pollock’s work, and it has also showcased the paintings of Mark Rothko, Ralph Rauschenberg, Helen Frankenthaler and Joseph Cornell. The Whitechapel has presented work by the renowned and controversial photographer Nan Goldin, and the pioneering sculpture with neon by Keith Sonnier. This year the gallery mounted an exhibition of paintings, furniture and ceramics by Mary Heilmann.

The Whitechapel is renowned for its ‘firsts’. In 1939, the gallery exhibited Picasso’s Guernica, marking the painting’s only presentation in Britain. The gallery was also the first art institution in Britain to display the work of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo (1982) and mount major shows of the work of Gilbert & George and Richard Long (1971). Alas, the gallery does not have a permanent art collection – acting instead as a kunsthalle – although it has archives of photographs, correspondence and ephemera relating to its history.

Terrains of the Body features photographs and a video by 17 well-known contemporary artists from all over the world, which are part of NMWA’s collection. The global context is encouraging in terms of addressing gender imbalance in the field of photography, as it indicates that there are women photographers from all five continents whose work is gaining recognition.

One could suggest that ‘terrains’ refer to the physicality of body as a photographic means of expressing feelings, qualities or narratives, be they social or political perspectives. On the whole, the images are cleverly contrived, staged, far from spontaneous. Regardless of one’s experience of photography, one is instinctively intrigued by the originality of each contribution, its unconventional way of presenting the female body as a means of expression. Some of the photographers incorporate self-portraiture in their images – as Clara Peeters did over four hundred years ago.

Images by Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra (born in 1959) portray adolescent girls looking slightly self-conscious; their poses are stiff and their limbs constrained. One image is set against a calm sea, another a garden. They bring to mind the purity and apprehensiveness of adolescence, and Dijkstra’s ability to catch an honest portrait when the sitter’s guard is down.

Both Brazilian Adriana Varejão (born in1964) and Iranian Shirin Neshat (born in 1957) use tattooed body parts as metaphors for highlighting disturbing political and social histories. The photograph On Guard shows Neshat’s hands clasping a microphone. On the print she has inscribed Farsi poetry on one of the hands. The image evokes dichotomies in Iranian society: communication and silence, and freedom and expression.

The most acclaimed photographic work of South Korean Nikki S Lee (born in 1970) is her series of ‘projects’, each one focusing on an American sub culture, such as mid-westerners, tourists, the elderly, yuppies, and the hip hop. Each project reveals Lee in snapshot images, posing with people whom she identifies as part of the subculture. She transforms herself physically – with makeup, dress and postures – in order to ‘fit in’. Lee is drawn to see herself in other “people’s shoes”.

Mexican Daniela Rossell (born in 1973) depicts the wealth of another sub culture – the rich and famous of her native country (among whom she grew up). This sub culture – a rarefied social phenomenon – is not commonly documented visually. Rossell’s Medusa features a youngish woman wearing a diaphanous, long green dress, sprawled over a double bed; her auburn coloured hair is arranged in segments over the sheets as if each part was a serpent. She appears oblivious to the ‘baby’ encased in a ‘Moses’ basket placed beside her. Some view Rossell’s images as posters of corruption.

Although disparities concerning gender within the commercial realm of art are slowly diminishing, they still exist. Terrains of the Body helps to address the imbalance, and fosters new ways of looking at the world, encouraging us to contemplate intellectually and emotionally through the physicality of the female body. Its fresh approach complements the pioneering efforts of both the National Museum of Women in the Arts and the Whitechapel Gallery. I am looking forward to more exhibitions in Britain of work from Washington’s bastion of women’s art.

Jenny Kingsley (© Jenny Kingsley)

For further exploration…

Guerrilla Girls: Is it even worse in Europe? Appropriately timed for display is the exhibition (until 5 March 2017) at the Whitechapel Gallery exploring diversity in arts organisations. It was created by the Guerrilla Girls, a group of anonymous feminist activists established in 1985. Each member takes the name of a woman artist from the past as a pseudonym; and she hides her identity in public under a gorilla mask. The women produce posters, banners, stickers and billboards, and partake in public projects exposing sexism in the arts. The Guerrilla Girls believe they have made a ‘difference’ because as a subject they are part of gender studies curriculum and thousands of copies of their art history book have been sold all over the world. The exhibition features posters of statistics gleaned from a 2016 survey of 383 arts establishments across Europe conducted by the Guerrilla Girls.

Whtechapel Gallery Home Page

Wilhelmina Cole Holladay, A Museum of Their Own: National Museum for Women in the Arts, Abbeville Press, 2008

Naomi Rosenblum, A History of Women Photographers, Abbeville Press, 2010

The Whitechapel Art Gallery Centenary Review (1901 – 2001), Whitechapel Art Gallery, 2001

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 or call 07967 805097.


The Other Dickens: Discovering Catherine, an exhibition at the Charles Dickens Museum in Bloomsbury.


The young Catherine Dickens. Image © Charles Dickens Museum.

Jenny Kingsley visits an exhibition on Catherine Dickens, which runs until the 20 November 2016 at the Charles Dickens Museum in London. 

The memory of Catherine Dickens, the wife of the distinguished Charles, hides in the shadows of her great husband; her accomplishments are miniscule compared with his. Yet Catherine merits a place in history in light of the companionship the couple shared together when they lived as husband and wife. She was a loyal, supportive friend, the ‘model Victorian wife’, managing a welcoming, congenial household and all the while bearing ten children.

“As they grew into their marriage, [Catherine] held Dickens’ confidence, discussed his work, and very capably oversaw the housekeeping and social duties,” believed Dickens scholar Michael Slater (as noted by Susan Rossi-Wilcox in Dinner for Dickens).

“Mrs Dickens is a good specimen of a truly English woman; tall, large, and well developed, with a fine healthy colour, and an air of frankness, cheerfulness and reliability. A friend whispered to me that she was as observing and fond of humour as her husband,” remarked Harriet Beecher Stowe recollecting when she and her husband dined with the Dickens at their home.

Alas, when Charles left Catherine, after 22 years of marriage, for his young mistress, Ellen Ternan, he deliberately cast his wife in an unflattering light. No longer would Catherine play the supportive role Dickens had reputedly praised. Moreover, in league with Dickens, as Rossi-Wilcox suggests, “loyalists pounced on any evidence that would make Catherine appear as an albatross around the genius’s neck, and from whom he finally had to free himself. She has been faulted for being an incompetent homemaker, a lacklustre companion, and a poor mother by many, including Dickens himself ’’.

Undoubtedly, the unappealing picture Dickens sketched helped to save his reputation and justify his betrayal. The great and the good tend to ‘get away with murder’ because we stand in awe of their accomplishments.

The Other Dickens: Discovering Catherine, an exhibition at the Charles Dickens Museum, corrects the displeasing image of this “good specimen of a truly English woman” (actually Catherine was Scottish by birth, but Stowe was not to know). It sets the biographical record straight; it debunks the myth.

The exhibition is curated by Professor Lillian Nayder, Professor of English at Bates College, Lewiston, Maine, and based on her 2011 biography of Catherine, The Other Dickens. As Nayder explains: “when Charles and Catherine separated, he characterised her as an unnatural mother who shirked her maternal duties”. He had the connecting door between their bedroom and his dressing room boarded shut, so that he would have his own bedroom, and then formally separated from her, announcing in a newspaper advertisement in June 1858 that “some domestic trouble of mine of long standing” has been resolved.

“The break,” believes Nayder, “was a classic mid-life crisis. He was remarkably youthful still, and she had had 10 children and several miscarriages. It was a terrible thing. Several of the men in their circle had quietly maintained mistresses, but forcing his wife out of her home [Catherine agreed to leave the family home in London at Tavistock House to live in Gloucester Crescent] was an extraordinary act which Charles then had to do everything to justify in public and maintain his own reputation. She never defended herself, never wrote or said a word against him in public… his claims are readily disproven by Catherine’s behaviour, by the evident affection between her and her children and by Dickens’s own statements to the contrary about his wife”.

Dickens also promoted the publication of Catherine’s cookbook What Shall We Have for Dinner? – a collection of menus and recipes, some lavish and some quite practical with leftovers as ingredients. Several editions were published. The contributions reveal Catherine’s Scottish culinary heritage, and her taste for European and North American dishes, which was inspired by the couple’s travels abroad.

The exhibition showcases rarely seen exhibits concerning Catherine’s life, including personal items and letters, with well written informative panels. Excerpts from her last will and testament are written on the hallway walls. Some exhibits are featured in a special exhibitions room while others are placed in the permanent display rooms, which focus on Charles Dickens and the family. The Dickens family lived in the museum’s Georgian terraced house, 48 Doughty Street, from 1837 until 1839.

Among the displays is a handkerchief, which belonged to Catherine and may have been used to administer chloroform to her when she gave birth to her son Henry in 1849. Chloroform was a controversial subject at the time, being new to midwifery. The anaesthetic was also criticised on biblical grounds because it was believed that “pain in childbirth was part of Godly punishment for women”. It was Charles who insisted that chloroform be given to Catherine: “it spared her all the pain”.

We see Catherine’s own photographs of the Dickens’ children. Katey, Catherine’s second daughter, felt strongly that her mother had been ill regarded by her father. When Catherine was dying she gave Katey the letters she had received from Charles; she deposited them with the British Museum as her mother had wished. Catherine bequeathed the turquoise snake bracelet of hers on display to Katey. (Charles burned all of Catherine’s letters to him).

In one glass case there is a miniature of Charles Dickens on ivory with a lock of his hair pasted on the back, which Charles gave to Catherine upon their engagement. She in turn gave him the gold chain purse we see. The tortoise shell card case, placed nearby, with mother of pearl inlay, was Charles’s present to Catherine upon marriage.

Catherine was born in 1815 into an intellectual and cultured Scottish family living in Edinburgh. She was the eldest of ten children. Her father George practised as a lawyer and was the son of a prosperous Berwickshire farmer. George was a friend and confidante of Sir Walter Scott. In 1834, the family moved permanently to London where George worked as music critic; he is credited with several major books on music including Memoirs of the Opera in Italy, Germany and England.

George Hogarth and Charles Dickens became friends when they were both working on the Evening Chronicle, where George was co-editor. Charles met Catherine when he was invited to the Hogarth family home in Fulham. We know that Catherine was an avid reader, a good piano player and highly skilled in needlework. Catherine and Charles eventually started courting and the couple were married in 1836 at St Luke’s Church in Chelsea. From this day onwards, their initially contented married life was filled with social and literary engagements at home and abroad and the concerns of a busy and growing family household, all of which complemented, rather than hindered, the ever developing literary career of the great man.

During her marriage and thereafter Catherine enjoyed the company of the wives of her husband’s male friends, such as Nelly Lemon, the wife of Mark, the editor of Punch. She also befriended aspiring women writers and artists such as Abby Hutchinson, a well-regarded American singer. After the couple separated, Catherine continued to called herself Mrs Charles Dickens and follow her husband’s writing career. She wrote to his publishers asking for monthly instalments of his new novels.

We sense Catherine’s physical presence by listening to a series of six audio recordings placed throughout the house. Sound artist Felicity Ford created the sound trail. The middle class Scottish accent of Rachel Moffat, the voice actor who portrays Catherine, is quite convincing. We hear extracts of texts penned and read by Catherine, be they letters, recipes or children’s poetry, and music composed by her friends and her father. We listen to Catherine breathing, sniffling, turning pages, writing with an ink pen, counting out the squares of a needlepoint canvas and noting colours, such as honeysuckle yellow. Children chatting, birds chirping, clocks ticking, rain falling and horses’ hooves walking upon cobblestones evoke the sounds of Catherine’s every day. In the kitchen we hear metal upon metal, spoons mixing the batter for Eve’s Pudding.

The exhibition grants Catherine her own place in history. It rightly sheds light on her and also what life was like for many married middle class Victorian women who were Lady This or Mrs That but rarely Ms. In our time, Catherine would not be so accommodating; she might capitalise on his fame and become a celebrity chef.

Article by Jenny Kingsley.

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The house is decorated and furnished as the Dickens home might have looked, with memorabilia relating to Charles Dickens’ professional and personal life. Next door, in the adjoining house, are a gift shop and a pleasant café. Refer also to Lillian Nayder’s The Other Dickens – A Life of Catherine Dickens, Cornell University Press, 2011, and Dinner for Dickens – The Culinary History of Mrs. Charles Dickens’ Menu Books by Susan M Rossi-Wilcox, Prospect Books, 2005. This book includes a transcript of the 1852 edition of What Shall We Have For Dinner? by ‘Lady Maria Clutterbuck’, together with additional recipes in the appendix to the 1854 edition. The book was attributed to Lady Maria Clutterbuck, a pseudonym for Catherine, though the preface by Lady Clutterbuck in the 1852 edition is considered to have been written by Charles Dickens.