Woman in Gold

Woman in gold filmBridport Arts Centre

Thursday 20 August 7.30pm

Tickets: £6/£5

Preview by Lawrence Hansen

Woman in Gold gives a potted history of an out-of-the-ordinary art crime in which the thieves are not people but countries – Germany and Austria.

The story starts in a Vienna enthralled by Secessionist art and architecture. Its first three players were Gustav Klimt (painter); Adele Bloch-Bauer (patroness of the avant-garde); and Adele’s husband Ferdinand (sugar magnate and supplier of the money). Klimt’s 1907 Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I was to become an icon of that time and place; she is the Woman in Gold.

The next player was Maria Bloch (the Bloch-Bauers’ niece and pet) who arrived in 1917. Although Austrian society was greatly reduced by the consequences of the First World War, the Bloch-Bauer family continued to keep its gilded place among Vienna’s haute bourgeoisie despite being Jewish. This situation changed abruptly with the Anschluss of 1938. Maria, her husband Fritz Altmann and her brother-in-law Bernard escaped penniless to America. The Germans then helped themselves to the family’s assets, including the famous portrait.

After the war Austria recovered most of the stolen artworks and returned them to their owners, but not the Woman in Gold and four other paintings which Ferdinand had bequeathed to Maria. The Austrian state claimed ownership of them as national treasures.

How the impecunious refugee took on the state and won is a sort of David and Goliath story, except that the only casualty was Austria’s reputation. The country’s intransigence had delayed justice for so long that the victim of the crime, Maria Altmann, might have died before restitution came. She was 89 when she got her paintings back but lived on for a further five years in terrific wealth: by the time they were handed over they were worth $325m. Helen Mirren plays Maria Altmann in the film, a fact that speaks for itself.

My night with Maria
Having read about Maria’s amazing success, I sent her a letter with a fond memory of her late husband Fritz whom I’d met in 1945. Her response was to invite me to “a Viennese dinner which I will cook for you”. This she did in 2008 in her home in the Cheviot Hills district of Los Angeles. I had been looking forward to her descriptions of society in pre-war Austria but she preferred to complain about Fritz’s philanderings in and around L.A. She ignored my wife, flirted outrageously and asked me to take her to the opera. LH

By |August 14th, 2015|Film, Lawrence Hansen|0 Comments

The Seaside Boarding House

Bringing some bling to Burton Bradstock

By Lawrence Hansen

There they sit on the clifftop behind Burton Bradstock – big white villas named Alpha and Omega by the Pitt Rivers family who built them in 1885-90 as summer homes (those were the days). After this promising start the buildings experienced a generally downhill century including spells as the Burton Cliff Hotel and as guest houses and retirement homes. Now Alpha has been reincarnated as the splendid new Seaside Boarding House while Omega serves as home to Juliet and Billy Bragg.
Seaside Boarding
The overall aesthetic of the Seaside Boarding House is restrained without being anal. It has a kind of Cape Cod poshness – no background music and no TVs (though they’ll bring one to your room). Mary-Lou Sturridge, the transforming fairy godmother, had in mind the lonely white houses in Edward Hopper’s paintings. The comparison is an approximate one: Hopper’s houses carry a very American kind of gloomy menace which is wholly absent in her up-beat pleasure dome.

It has been an expensive business and this is reflected in the rates for its eight bedrooms. But the prices in the restaurant and cocktail lounge are surprisingly moderate – martinis cost £8.50 and main courses are £14-£22. Even better, you can drop in at any time from 10am to 10pm for food and drink. The Seaside Guest House turns a remarkable trick: it is attractive to the metro glitterati yet equally welcoming to casual visits from local people.

The building fully exploits its terrific view south over Lyme Bay. All the rooms have it. A 30- metre-long terrace with tables is an especially good place to drink, eat and pose. (It can be glaringly bright there so don’t forget your shades.) The terrace is shared by the dining room and the cocktail lounge.

The south wall of the restaurant is a series of glass doors which open onto the terrace when weather permits. Glass doors form the interior wall as well and behind them is an interior events space which can seat 100 diners or up to 160 guests at a dance. It all sits there waiting for a balmy evening and a big party with all the doors thrown open.
Seaside Boarding 2
The cocktail lounge is an all-seasons place to be. The light from the sea is always a delight but especially when there’s a good storm. JMW Turner remarked that “there is no such thing as bad weather” even though he was often out of doors with his sketching pad getting wet. The worse the weather, the more it can be enjoyed from the Boarding House’s indoor comforts. It’s a way of blissing out – sitting there with cocktail to hand, reading an amusing book from the excellent library, and looking up from time to time to see what the Storm Fiend is up to. Calling all this a ‘boarding house’ with its connotations of smelly shabbiness is a coy trading ploy but a charming one.

Mary-Lou, who was co-founder of Soho’s famous Groucho Club in 1985 and then its boss until the sale in 2008, has brought her West End experience, her architects, and her financial backing (including that of her Groucho partner, Tony Mackintosh) to bear on the project. She has continued to run it herself since the opening in February.

The Alpha of yesteryear did however have its moments – as a dance venue (its event room has a sprung floor) and for various louche activities. But when she bought the place in 2008 she was landed with a big pile of shabby gentility complete with valences and floral-patterned bed sheets. After clearing these away she painted the salmon pink walls white.

While the building was still empty there was a pop-up cinema show of The Shining.

As the spooky Overlook Hotel appeared on the screen, a real little boy could be seen riding his tricycle down the corridor while this same scene was happening in the film…

So the Seaside Boarding House is a stylish business altogether – in process as well as outcome.

For more information on The Seaside Boarding House click here to visit their webpage.

By |August 1st, 2015|Lawrence Hansen, Where to Stay|1 Comment

Digging Long Bredy

Long BredyA glimpse through the lens of time

By Lawrence Hansen

This year Long Bredy added a new ingredient to its traditional summer fete: a pop-up archaeological dig. Over the weekend of July 25-26, Dr Peter Northover recruited residents to dig metre-square pits in parts of the village he had selected by electromagnetic survey. It seems that the houses and roadways have changed positions in the past 1000 years and he is making it his business to find out where and how. One tiny village – Kingston Russell – has disappeared from sight altogether.

Dr Northover’s study has the benefit of historical records. However, beyond this study is a history of unrecorded human occupation as evidenced by the area’s extensive earthworks – the tumuli, barrows and strip linchets interrupting the natural curves of the downs which enfold the village. A delegate from this period dropped in for the weekend: the skeleton of a man from the 1st Century AD found in Long Bredy’s Baglake Farm a few years ago. He was brought along by the forensic archaeologist Barry Fitzgerald who checked him out of the County Museum and laid him out on a table in the village hall.

Also on display was a large collection of coins dating from Roman times found at another local farm. Just last year three skeletons dating from 800 BC were found at Bottle Knapp Cottage when a hole was being dug for a septic tank. In this old part of England the past is all around us, but especially in Long Bredy.

By |July 28th, 2015|History, Lawrence Hansen|0 Comments