Having a few hours spare one afternoon, my fiancée and I decided to visit the Cobbe Collection of keyboard instruments at Hatchlands Park, near Guildford in Surrey. Visiting the collection has been on my to-do list for as long as I can remember.
It comprises the largest collection of its type, with 42 keyboard instruments from the 17th century to the present. As well as historical instruments, such as Charles II’s virginals from the Palace of Whitehall (a remarkable survival: nearly all its contents were destroyed by fire in 1698), the collection includes many instruments that belonged to famous composers. We saw pianos owned by Mahler, Elgar, Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven and Mozart. There is a fortepiano owned by JC Bach, known as the English Bach.
The greatest historical curiosity, though, is the Erard piano said to have been made for Marie Antoinette. This, even more than Charles II’s virginals, is a wondrous survival – if it is authentic. There, for me, is physical history’s most enticing aspect: this object is imbued with an aura depending on a supposition, perhaps supported by documentation, perhaps only by anecdote. The historian’s task is to examine as deeply as possible the truth behind the supposition and be unafraid to puncture the bubble of mythology surrounding people and objects. After all, it is still an excellent example of an early piano, regardless of whether it was touched by those delicate Austrian fingers.
Hatchlands itself, a Grade I listed red brick block by Stiff Leadbetter, has immaculate Robert Adam interiors with a nautical theme suitable to the character and career of the man who commissioned them. Admiral Edward Boscawen is most notable for having signed the order to execute Admiral John Byng in 1757, after Byng refused to engage the French fleet at the Battle of Minorca in 1756.
This merciless dispensation of military justice lead to Voltaire’s famous remark in Candide: “Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres” (“In this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others”).
Pour encourager les autres has become something of a glib phrase, used of everything from a public dressing down for serious misdemeanours to admonishments of an altogether lighter kind. I wonder how many people know the rather sombre story behind those words, and whether they would use them so lightly if they did.
One great benefit of National Trust membership, beside the opportunity to visit country houses on a whim, is access to the second-hand bookshops so many of them now contain. We first noticed this at Polesden Lacey, not far from Hatchlands, which was the scene of our early courtship. While I was showing off some undoubtedly arcane and trivial fact about Mrs Ronnie Greville’s jewellery as we wandered round the gardens, my fiancée spotted a shed, outside which stood a bookshelf. She cut my anecdote short and dragged me over to explore.
What a treasure trove we found. Piles of diaries, memoirs, biographies and mid-century novels along the Nancy Mitford line; this was my heaven on earth. The only thing that stopped me buying the lot was lack of folding money, these shops being run on a cash basis. Clearly the idea has caught on, for it’s a rare National Trust house that doesn’t have one now.
Hatchlands served up its own bounty in a spotless set of Proust in individual volumes, with exquisite line illustrations by Philippe Jullian. I know there are newer, perhaps more literally faithful, translations than the CK Scott Moncrieff version, but for me none can match that first attempt.
It beats the rest because it captures not only the meaning but the spirit of the original in a manner so clever as to make one forget it’s a translation. In this, it is akin to Anthea Bell’s translations of Zweig or EV Rieu’s of Homer. In an ideal world, with an ideal education system, these translations would only be an adjunct to our enjoyment of the originals. That being far from the case, how glad we should be that people such as Scott Moncrieff, Bell and Rieu spent their lives making the work of others enjoyable for the rest of us.
We spent last weekend at a wedding. Nothing so unusual about that, at this time of year. This wedding, however, was at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, in Mayfair.
Though in communion with the Catholic Church and paying obeisance to the Pope as we do, the Ukrainians use the Byzantine Rite and have a very different nuptial liturgy. This culminates in the crowning of the bride and groom as symbols of their being joined in the sacrament of marriage which Christ ordained to be a royal state, then processing three times around the tetrapod (a table before the altar).
Having had the honour of being best man, I had a front row view of this solemn yet joyful moment of consecration. Seeing the bride and groom at the altar, crowned in the sacrament of marriage, wreathed in love and happiness, I felt again the privilege of belonging to our Church in all its catholic glory.
David Oldroyd-Bolt is a writer, pianist and communications consultant