London’s majestic St Paul’s Cathedral has been the setting for two high-profile, moving events in recent times. A television audience of millions across the world watched in rapt awe as The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and Baroness Thatcher’s funeral reminded us that Britain is unparallelled in such events of pomp and dignity.
As the sun flooded Wren’s masterpiece, many will have remarked on the beauty of the surroundings, but only a handful will have known who really created the sumptuous mosaics that lit the space with gold. If the viewers had thought about them at all, the assumption would, undoubtedly, have been that the cathedral had always had them, their Byzantine design belying their age.
Wren had indeed intended for the interior to be filled with colour, but disapproving city fathers forced him out and changed his plans. It was not until 1891 that it was decided to clad the space and, fulfilling his life’s ambition, William Blake Richmond was awarded the commission. He poured his heart and soul into it for 13 long years, during which fashions changed and his master work was derided. He never got over the attack.
Hopefully, that we have long forgotten Richmond’s name will change with the arrival of A Victorian Eye, Rory Fellowes’s triumphant one-man play. Old and disillusioned, Richmond packs up his studio and shares his life’s story with us as he looks back to ‘the Ancients’, friends of his father, the famed portraitist George Richmond, such as William Blake, Ruskin and Samuel Palmer; to his own friends, from the pre-Raphaelites to Robert Louis Stevenson and the Edwardian ‘Souls’; and to love-Richmond had two wives who died tragically (Charlotte of consumption at 23 and Clara who was hit by a car).
Rory’s accomplished script is moving and poetic, with moments that genuinely bring you to tears, especially when the artist is describing the hole permanently missing from his soul after the death of his beloved Charlie. He also vividly describes the artistic process and Richmond’s belief that art is beauty. It is hard to hold an audience’s attention for just over an hour, especially in a studio setting where there is no hiding behind gimmicks, but I could happily have listened for some time longer. I look forward to more of Rory’s work and imagine that, all too soon, Lord Fellowes, Rory’s brother, will really have a competition on his hands to be the family’s foremost writer!
Rory is ably abetted by Nigel Dunbar’s charming performance. To perform close to the audience requires courage and, to do so alone, a special level of charm and talent. Luckily, Mr Dunbar possesses both in spades. He captured Richmond’s mercurial moods perfectly and made each of us feel as if he was speaking to us alone.
During the play, Richmond’s cluttered studio is packed away bit by bit, heightening the feeling that we are gradually losing something, and someone, of significance. Indeed, the artist could hardly have hoped for better advocates than all those involved in the production. At the end of the play, when the house lights came up, the spellbound audience remained quietly in their seats, surprised (and disappointed) to be returned to the 21st century.
Leaving the theatre, I wanted nothing more than to hail a taxi and go straight to St Paul’s to appreciate Sir William’s work. I advise you to give into the impulse too and, while you’re there, light a candle for Richmond as a belated tribute.
A Victorian Eye is at the Jermyn Street Theatre, SW1 (020-7287 2875) until August 17
In conjunction with the play, the Maas Gallery in Clifford Street W1 (020-7734 2302) has an exhibition about Sir William and his circle until August 1 (Monday-Friday, 10am-5.30pm)
* View some of Richmond’s paintings held in the National Collection, including some of his best-known portraits
Entry to St Paul’s Cathedral costs £16 for adults and, if you Gift Aid your admission fee, you’ll receive 12 months free admission to the cathedral. It’s open for sightseeing 8.30am-4pm, Monday to Saturday (020-7246 8357; www.stpauls.co.uk)
* Follow Country Life magazine on Twitter