Ben Enwonwu #UnexpectedDiscovery

Ben Enwonwu’s Tutu (1974). Photograph: Ben Enwonwu / Bonhams Press Office

It’s an extraordinary experience, filtering through my mother’s personal archive. Many times, it has elicited a ‘what the…’ response from me. Why did she collect this or that?… What was she thinking of, when she put this or that at the back of a cupboard?…  How did she…?  Who was that…? What on earth is… this or that? If you’ve ever cleared-down the accumulation of a busy and engaged life, which, it’s fair to say, held the odd secret, you might relate to these feelings.

But every now and again, something rises to the surface which makes me stop and properly ponder.

Yesterday, I was listening to the BBC London News. There was a short piece on the recent discovery of a ‘lost’ artwork of considerable value, by the now renowned Nigerian artist and sculptor, Ben Enwonwu. It was fascinating, as this artwork had been gracing the walls of an apparently ‘ordinary’ North London flat for several years. You can read about its discovery, and the forthcoming auction here. The painting, dating from 1974, is of the Ife princess Adetutu Ademiluyi, known as Tutu.

What stuck out for me, was the artist’s name. You see, I recognised it. Not from being a connoisseur of art of any kind – I’m not!  I’d come across this name very recently. It took me a few minutes to locate what I was looking for amongst my mother’s profusion of paperwork and correspondence – the stuff she never threw away; an airmail envelope, containing three letters, two handwritten, one typed, along with a clipping from a newspaper. The sender of the letters – one Ben Enwonwu.

The two handwritten notes date from 1970, and it seems that Ben Enwonwu had noticed someone in a restaurant in London, who he believed to be my mother. He was not certain it was her, as it had apparently been some years since they were friends, and she was with a man he assumed to be her husband. So he had not approached her. He commented that she looked just the same as when he’d known her – an observation which would undoubtedly have delighted her. As he had only her maiden name and father’s address, to which he subsequently wrote, I assume their original acquaintance must have been prior to 1956.  My mother had apparently replied, and at some point had sent Ben a book relating to house purchase.  Whatever else happened between those two 1970 letters, and indeed after that, remains a mystery.

The third letter is from early 1978 and seems to have come as a result of my mother sending Ben Enwonwu a card, which had by then found its way to him in Nigeria. He updates her on the purchase and subsequent sale of that original house, and muses on how good it would be to live nearer to my mother. Well, I thought. Well, indeed.

It’s clear from this trio of notes that there was certainly a friendship, fondness and perhaps at one time, more, between my mother and Ben Enwonwu. It’s not insignificant that she kept his letters.

It’s an intriguing discovery on many levels, and it always delights me to see different facets of my mother’s life reflected in the accumulation of her paperwork, and I never judge what I find. But I’m a little wistful that we’re unlikely ever to know more of this unexpected friendship.

Meantime, the whereabouts of the other two of the trio of missing Tutu paintings remains a mystery. Disappointingly (from a purely financial perspective) all we have… is those letters.

 

 

Advertisements

Leipzig: A Pilgrimage

My brother and I recently took a trip to Leipzig, Germany, the city in which our mother was born, back in 1935.  You can read here about the challenges presented by her dual/mixed heritage (Jewish father, Catholic mother in 1930’s pre-Holocaust Germany), and the important role she carved for herself in later years, before her death last May.

We’d always intended to make a trip at some point, but the opportunity came sooner than we expected, with an invitation from Edition Peters (the music publishing company, and our erstwhile family business), who were about to celebrate the 150th anniversary of their renowned Green Series.  We were asked if we’d like to attend some of the week-long series of events, in which our mother would most certainly have actively participated.

Contemporary design meets an historic brand, to great effect

My heritage might be immersed in the world of classical music (not only were my grandfather and great-grandfather proprietors of one of the world’s foremost classical musical publishers, and friends of Edvard Grieg and other composers, but my father sung for years in the New Philharmonia Chorus), but I’m more of a generalist when it comes to music. My tastes run from Abba to Zucchero, via classical, jazz, soft rock, ambient electronica, R&B and whole lot more. Nevertheless, it was a privilege to share in these celebrations.  We enjoyed a violin and piano concert in the Mendelssohn Haus (onetime home of composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy), and attended an impressive Reception (including, of course, another delightful concert – this time, piano and voice).

There, we were introduced to Burkard Jung, Mayor of the City of Leipzig, who had written heartfelt and warmly appreciated letters to our mother when she fell ill. We met many more of our mother’s Leipzig friends – their close relationships formed over the 25 years during which our mother laboured unceasingly to re-establish her family’s name in the city’s cultural heritage, and through her talks, educate students on the Holocaust through her family’s traumatic story.  We watched the 20-minute film created by Edition Peters, to mark the 150th anniversary of the Grüne Reihe, and were immensely touched to see in its final shot, a photograph of our mother, and a commemoration of her life and contribution. It would have meant so much to her.

Irene Lawford-Hinrichsen with the ‘Chronik’

We went to the Edition Peters offices, met all the staff, and had the opportunity to present a treasured book to them, which we had found in our mother’s effects. This book, a one-off, hand-typed, beautifully bound tome, chronicled the history of the company from 1800 to the 1930’s, and had been given to our grandfather as eldest son. He brought it with him when he emigrated to England from Germany in 1937, thus escaping the fate which befell so many of his immediate and extended family. It seemed more than appropriate that, with the company’s headquarters restored to Leipzig in recent years, and our great-grandfather’s name re-established alongside all of his many social and cultural endeavours, we should return this extraordinary ‘Chronik’ to its origin.

In our private time, my brother and I soaked up the modern-day city, with its traditional and its supremely modern architecture sitting side-by-side.

Thomaskirche Leipzig, resting place of J S Bach
Statue to the man himself
Leipzig University Library, an intriguing absence of symmetry
The Gewandhaus concert hall, Leipzig

We visited the family’s memorial stone at the Südfriedhof Cemetery – the stone which came into being as a result of our mother’s work.

Hinrichsen memorial stone, Südfriedhof Cemetery

It stands right by the central avenue.

Hinrichsen memorial stone, by the central avenue, Südfriedhof Cemetery

We found the 4 Stolpersteine outside Talstraße 10 (the family’s original home and location of the business, now once again home to the business) – yes, you guessed it, those cobbles were there for us to stumble upon as a result of our mother’s mission.

Hinrichsen Stolpersteine – we should have brought a cloth

We stood in what was once the family apartment in the same building, in the room restored to its original formal state and now housing an exhibition to honour Edvard Grieg.

On the afternoon when the weight of emotional tension twisted my gut and forced me to rest, my brother took a long walk across the city and found Hinrichsenstraße, the street renamed after our great-grandfather – yet another of the many projects brought about due to our mother’s tireless campaigning.

“Henri Hinrichsen: 1868-1942 (Auschwitz); Publisher, in 1900 took over the publisher C.F. Peters; Founder, City Councillor, Honorary Doctor, University of Leipzig” (My brother, chilled to the bone.)

The one thing we didn’t manage to do was visit the Musikinstrument Museum, where our mother had unveiled a bust to her grandfather back in 2012. Turns out that whereas everywhere in Leipzig still closes on a Sunday, the Musikinstrument Museum is just about the only place that opens on a Sunday… but stands closed to visitors on Mondays.

It was an extraordinary three days; reflective, and very heartwarming indeed. We met friends everywhere; we were hosted to a wonderful ‘traditional dinner’ by a group of our mother’s friends who had entertained her in the same way every time she visited for 20 years. We learned how much she was respected – and loved – by those with whom she connected in the city of her birth. We felt very proud – and just a little inadequate too, truth be told.

The ‘traditional dinner’ with new ‘old friends’

For both of us, the trip to Leipzig was far more than a tick-in-the-box, a part of the process of saying goodbye to our mother. It gave us valuable time and a place for reflection – together; it affirmed to us everything that our mother held so dear about family and her heritage – our heritage; it opened a window into her second home (I strongly suspect she felt more at home there in Leipzig than she did in London) and the close ties she enjoyed with friends and associates. And it has enabled us to push forward with what remains of the sorting-out of her life, with renewed love and understanding.

Now, it’s onward to 2018, and my sincerest hope that I can begin to re-establish my own life again, after this troubled and very sad year.

Friends and Writers – Another Year

Around this time last year I wrote about my group of writerly friends here.  One year on, we still meet every few weeks, and – up until now at least – still in the same creaky, low-ceilinged hotel bar which is the closest to a geographical centre-point between our homes.  Although this seems set to change; the barman is grumpy, the food is variable (although the name above the door suggests it should be excellent) and the gaggles of wedding guests a little too rowdy for us.  We’ve become reluctant to continue dropping £100 or so into their coffers each time we get together.

So it’s one year on, and over two years since the start of our little group, which came about, if you’re interested, as a result of us having endured the waste of a day at a thoroughly uninspiring short writing course.   Little of the framework of our gatherings has changed in this time.  We still discuss our work, especially our challenges, both literary and logistical.  We still share things we’ve learned and sources we’ve found useful.  We still occasionally read to one another and every now and again we try a writing exercise.  We drink lots of coffee (and water…) and we share a meal.  And we still natter on for hours about all kinds of everything.

Our writing has progressed by varying degrees over that time – work, family and other claims on our time and energy are the inevitable excuse.  Our friendship too has grown.

It’s an incredible thing, to make new friends.  People mostly have busy, diverse lives; we’re mostly reticent when it comes to engaging with strangers.  So it’s not easy to connect and open the door to a friendship even when there’s a shared interest or passion at the heart of things.  I think it’s great to have people with whom to share my novice writing experience and my clunky output.  But it’s even more special that I’m able to do this on a foundation of friendship.  Ladies, you know who you are – thank you!