Russian London

The first picture that greets visitors to the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square is not an Old Master or an Impressionist painting. It does not even hang on a wall. Set into the floor of the first landing at the Portico Entrance is The Awakening of the Muses, a marble mosaic laid in 1933 by Russian artist Boris Anrep.

Between 1928 and 1933, the National Gallery commissioned Anrep to create two mosaic pavements in the vestibule of the Main Hall to illustrate The Labours of Life and The Pleasures of Life. In 1952, Anrep laid a third pavement, The Modern Virtues, in which “Compassion” is a portrait of his former lover, Anna Akhmatova, surrounded by the horrors of war.

Anna Akhmatova is blessed by an angel and the panel is dedicated to the victims of the Siege of Leningrad. She is looking towards another panel which depicts Anrep’s gravestone, linking his art and her poetry. The four colourful mosaics decorate the imposing staircase built by Sir John Taylor in 1887.

In 1954, Boris Anrep also created two mosaics of St Anne and St Patrick for the Cathedral of Christ the King in Mullingar in Ireland. Note the unconventional spelling of St Anne in the mosaic, which is written “Anna”. In addition, the saint’s image bears an uncanny resemblance to Akhmatova in her mid-twenties.

Anna Akhmatova wrote a poem about the Blitz in 1940 called To the Londoners. On 5 June 1965, she was awarded an honorary doctorate at Oxford University and arrived from Paris at Victoria Station in London on 2 June. During her time in London, she stayed in the President Hotel at 56 Guilford Street (just off Russell Square).

Finally allowed to travel outside Russia, Anna Akhmatova was able to catch up with old friends, such as Boris Anrep and Salomea Andronikova. Salomea had settled in London in 1947 and remained there until her death on 8 May 1982, at the age of 94, in a house which had been purchased for her by Sir Isaiah Berlin. In accordance with her last wishes, she was cremated and her ashes were scattered in Trafalgar Square.

On 10 June 1965, Anna Akhmatova was the guest of honour at a special reception held at Apsley House. Also known as “Number One, London”, it is the London townhouse of the dukes of Wellington. It stands alone at Hyde Park Corner, on the south-east corner of Hyde Park, facing south towards the busy traffic roundabout in the centre of which stands the Wellington Arch. Apsley House is a Grade I listed building and is sometimes referred to as the Wellington Museum. The house is open to the public as a museum and art gallery (the 9th Duke of Wellington retains the use of part of the building).

In May 1917, Anna Akhmatova’s first husband, Nikolai Gumilyov, was sent to the Macedonian (Salonika) Front via Sweden, Norway and England. During his time in London, he studied English and met the writer G. K. Chesterton, the poet W. B. Yeats and the painter and critic Roger Fry. Gumilyov stayed at the house of British author and journalist Carl Eric Bechhofer Roberts, who served in the Lancers in the First World War and later visited Soviet Russia himself. He was back in London on war work from 21 January to 4 April 1918, when he returned via Newcastle to Murmansk.

Marina Tsvetayeva visited London only once, between 10 and 25 March 1926. She stayed at 9 or 15 Torrington Square (next to Gordon Square in Bloomsbury) and wrote her impressions of London: «Лондон чудный. Чудная река, чудные деревья. Чудные дети, чудные собаки, чудные кошки, чудные камины и чудный Британский музей. Не чудный только холод, наносимый океаном».

Osip Mandelstam never visited London, although he studied literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris from April 1908, before leaving to attend the University of Heidelberg in Germany from 1909 to 1911. The city occurs in his poem Dombey and Son (1913 or 1914), which contains the following lines: «У Чарльза Диккенса спросите, / Что было в Лондоне тогда: / Контора Домби в старом Сити / И Темзы желтая вода...»

Boris Pasternak’s father, Impressionist painter Leonid Pasternak, took refuge from the Nazis in London in 1938, moving to Oxford after the death of his wife in 1939. Leonid Pasternak died in Oxford and was buried at Wolvercote Cemetery in 1945. Sir Isaiah Berlin, Prince Dmitry Obolensky and writer J. R. R. Tolkien are also buried at Wolvercote Cemetery, which is located at Banbury Road to the north of the city of Oxford.

In June 1919, Vladimir Nabokov came to rest for a short time at 55 Stanhope Gardens in South Kensington after a long journey of emigration from Russia via the Crimea, Turkey, Greece and France. The Nabokov family arrived in England on 27 May 1919, pulling into the port of Southampton on a ship that had departed from Le Havre. The young Vladimir had just turned twenty. His father Vladimir rented the home for the whole family at Stanhope Gardens in early June, although they soon moved to another place nearby at 6 Elm Park Gardens.

Nabokov’s first stay in London was short. By 1 October 1919, he was already enrolled at Trinity College in Cambridge. After studying at Cambridge, he joined his family in Berlin in 1922 (where his father was shot on 28 March 1922). In 1937, Nabokov left Germany for France. From 20 February to 1 March 1937, while on a networking trip to London, he stayed at the apartment of Maria Tsetlin in Notting Hill (15 Princes House at 52 Kensington Park Road).

In 1939, Nabokov was back in London in search of employment. He stayed with Evgeny Sablins from 1 April to 16 April at 5 Brechin Place in Kensington and with Michael and Maria Tsetlin from 17 April to the end of the month at 47 Grove End Gardens. He was in London again from 31 May to 14 June 1939, staying with Vera Haskell at 22 Hornton Street in South Kensington.

In May 1940, the Nabokov family fled from France to the United States. Nabokov did not return to London until 28 October 1959, when he visited the city for the British publication of Lolita and stayed at the Stafford Hotel at 16-18 St James’s Place. On 5 November, a party was held with several hundred guests in the Ritz Hotel at 150 Piccadilly Square to celebrate the publication of Lolita, which the government had just decided it would not ban.

On the advice of various friends and colleagues, including Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vladimir Solovyov travelled to Britain in 1875 to study religious and mystical literature. He moved into lodgings at 39 Great Russell Street (behind the British Museum and now home to the “Scottish Collection”). On 13 July, he wrote that his rooms were “quite gloomy”, but that he was “enjoying seeing the London smog through the open window”.

On 12 July 1875,Solovyov registered at the reading room of the British Museum, where he spent most of his time working in the library. His work went well, until it was famously interrupted by his vision of Sophia, the personification of divine wisdom. Twenty years later, he described the vision in the poem Three Encounters: “My dream took me to the British Museum / And my dream was no misdirection / Shall I ever forget that blessed half-year? // ʻTo Egypt go!’ – a voice within proclaimed.”

The British Museum is close to Gordon Square, where British economist John Maynard Keynes installed Lydia Lopokova in spring 1923, in a flat just a few doors away from his own house. The Russian ballerina occupied rooms below Vanessa Bell at 50 Gordon Square and joined in the collective meals and parties of the Bloomsbury Group held at 46 Gordon Square. Virginia Woolf used Lopokova as the basis for Lucrezia “Rezia” Smith, Septimus’ Italian wife, in Mrs Dalloway (1925).

Another Russian dancer, Tamara Karsavina, lived at 4 Kingly Street in Soho (just off Regent Street and now Shampers Wine Bar and Restaurant) and 8 Frognal in Camden, where there is now a memorial plate (Tube station: Finchley Road).

Vaslav Nijinsky spent his last years in the coastal town of Rustington in Sussex. His funeral was held on 14 April 1950 in the Roman Catholic church of St James at 22 George Street, which is not far from Oxford Street. He was buried at East Finchley Cemetery (until recently called St Marylebone Cemetery) in East End Road (Tube station: Finchley Central or Finchley East), until his body was moved by Serge Lifar to Montmartre Cemetery in Paris in 1953.

Like many other Russian dancers, Princess Seraphine Astafieva performed at the Mariinsky Theatre and then with Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. In 1913, she moved to London, where she died in 1934. She opened her own ballet school in London and lived and taught at 152 King’s Road, where there is also a memorial plate (the address is roughly between the Saatchi Gallery and Chelsea Old Town Hall).

Anna Pavlova lived at Ivy House in Hampstead (94-96 North End Road). This was where she rehearsed and taught with many of the stars of the day and it is still a ballet school today. Anna Pavlova died in 1931 and her ashes were buried in an urn alongside two swan figurines in Golders Green Crematorium and Mausoleum at 62 Hoop Lane behind Hampstead Golf Course (Tube station: Golders Green).

Mstislav Dobuzhinsky designed the sets and costumes for performances of Josef Bayer’s ballet Die Puppenfee by the Anna Pavlova Ballet Company in London in 1914. He lived in London from 1935 to 1937, creating a series of urbanscapes and portraits of Russian ballet dancers. He also designed sets at Sadler’s Wells Theatre, which were lost in a fire in 1939.

During his time in London, Dobuzhinsky stayed in the Pushkin Club at 24 Kensington Park Gardens in Notting Hill (Tube stations: Holland Park or Notting Hill Gate), where he read lectures and held several exhibitions. After his death, an evening in his memory was held there, where his friend Tamara Karsavina performed.

In 1949, Marc Chagall designed murals for the Watergate Theatre, which existed in London from 1949 to 1956 at 29 Buckingham Gate (behind MacDonald’s on the Strand). In 1950, Chagall started work on two studies for the projected murals – The Dance and the Circus and The Blue Circus (now in the Tate Gallery). The building was later demolished as part of the Strand Improvement Scheme (the company moved to the Comedy Theatre in Panton Street in 1956).

Alexander Brullov visited London in 1827 (and painted a watercolour portrait of Sir Walter Scott in Paris in 1827). Hovhannes Aivazovsky held an exhibition in Pall Mall, which was attended by John Everett Millais and the Prince of Wales in 1881. Pavel Tchelitchew had a one-man show at the Claridge Gallery in London in 1928. Naum Gabo lived in London from 1936 to 1946 and had a studio in Hampstead.

Alexander Kerensky emigrated to France in 1918 and the United States in 1940. He died in New York in 1970, but was refused burial by the local Russian and Serbian Orthodox Churches. So his body was flown to London and he was buried at Putney Vale Cemetery. The cemetery is located at Stag Lane, on the edge of Wimbledon Common, where the nearest Tube station is Southfields on the District Line.

Count Mikhail Sumarokov-Elston was the leading Russian tennis player before the revolution and was a cousin of Prince Felix Yussupov, murderer of Grigory Rasputin. He moved to London from Nice in 1937 and headed the Anglo-Russian Sports Club at The Lindens on Hartington Road in Chiswick. He is buried at Chiswick New Cemetery, which is open every day of the year at 22 Staveley Gardens.

Chiswick New Cemetery has several Russian graves and is best reached by travelling to Chiswick station (Zone 2) and then walking back down the lane running alongside the railway track. South West Trains depart from Waterloo Station (in the direction of Windsor & Eton). They take twenty-four minutes to reach Chiswick and leave at 13 and 49 minutes past the hour, calling on the way at Vauxhall, Queenstown Road, Clapham Junction, Wandsworth Town, Putney, Barnes and Barnes Bridge. Trains from Chiswick back to Waterloo leave at 17 and 47 minutes past the hour.

Chiswick has a Russian chapel belonging to the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad at 57 Harvard Road. The nearby Chiswick House and Gardens are a Neoclassical estate similar to Pavlovsk outside St Petersburg. The gardens are open every day from 7 am until dusk, all year round, and there is no charge for visiting the grounds or the conservatory. Chiswick House is open from Sundays to Wednesdays and on bank holidays from 10 am to 6 pm (entry costs £7.20).

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