Review: Stonehill House
Review by Kensington and Chelsea Magazine.
Charmian Hislop discusses one country retreat that nourishes the mind as much as the body. A country manor, an open fire and a selection of lectures on a superpower's most defining era – The Rise of the Russian Avant-Garde series at Stonehill House.
Russia in 1913 was poised on the brink of change. Tsar Nicholas II, celebrating 300 years of the Romanov dynasty, sat largely unchallenged on the throne, but fervent political views were beginning to be heard and Russia's sharply polarised society was diversifying, liberalising and broadening out.
Alongside the political tremors, Russia was witnessing a vibrant flourishing of the arts and sciences. Huge and important players were emerging, scientists such as Pavlov and Sikorsky, as were a dazzling list of composers, painters, dancers and poets: Rachmaninov, Pavlova, Chekhov, Akhmatova, Kandinsky, Mandelstam, Stanislavsky to name a few. Meanwhile in Paris, audiences rioted in response to the avant-garde music and choreography of The Rite of Spring composed by Igor Stravinsky for Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes.
The centenary of this extraordinary year, pivotal in the history of Russia and its last year of peace before the dark clouds of war and revolution descended, is celebrated in a series of Russian Days, hosted by Stonehill House, near Oxford, in February and March 2013.
Guest speaker is Rosamund Bartlett, writer, translator and lecturer, specialising in Russian and European cultural history. Her publications include Tolstoy: A Russian Life (Profile, 2010), Wagner and Russia (Cambridge UP) and Chekhov: Scenes from a Life (Free Press).
Under the heading of The Rise of the Russian Avant- Garde, Rosamund will lecture on The Roots of Russian Modernism, Modernist Moscow, Modernist St. Petersburg and 1913 – Annus Mirabilis of the Russian Avant-Garde.
Stonehill House offers cultural weekends with a difference: an opportunity to learn something new in a peaceful and beautiful environment, with good food and comfortable rooms. They are hosted by Anthea Norman- Taylor, who has been visiting Russia for over 25 years. "Sadly many people have a blinkered view of Russia" she says. "It's so rich in history, art and culture, but Russia struggles against other European cultures to gain attention and it's still the negatives, corruption and the oligarchs, that steal the headlines."
She has already successfully run weekends looking at the works of Boris Pasternak, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Tarkovsky and a selection of 20th Century Russian poets. "There exists a hugely rich mine of Russian literature, music and art yet to explore. I also plan a series next year on contemporary culture in Russia."
Less than an hour from Paddington, located just outside Abingdon in Oxfordshire, Stonehill House is a large family home set in several acres of gardens, woodland and meadows. The talks are held in the beautifully restored Grade II listed 17thC barn, made cosy with underfloor heating.
Guests can come for the day or make a weekend of it, staying in one of Stonehill's generously-sized rooms, in the house or adjoining cottage. The property is a unique marriage of original features and a carefully considered modern touch, with Russian contemporary art on the walls and a superb collection of Andrew Logan sculptures, many inspired by Russia.
After the talks, guests can gather in the large livingroom, retreat to the comfort of their bedroom, snuggle by the open fire or wander the grounds where scatterings of tables and chairs offer little pockets of tranquillity among the trees. Dinner, prepared on the premises by Stonehill's in-house chef, is served around the large sociable diningtable in the company of the guest speaker.
"It's not generally realised how close Russia is," says Anthea, "less than 3 hours by plane – and that there is this amazingly varied, vast country right on Europe's doorstep." Charmian Hislop is co-founder of The PA Club, of which Stonehill House is a Partner Member.
Review: Pasternak butters my parsnips
Review by Elise Valmorbida on 28th May 2012.
It's a glorious spell of early summer. I'm in Oxfordshire, somewhere near the ancient holy place of Abingdon. A giant mirrored sculpture of Pegasus, "the poet's wingèd steed", guards the entrance of Stonehill House. Songbirds and crows provide the soundtrack. I disappear into a barn with Pasternak.
Boris Pasternak, Russian-Jewish poet and author of Dr Zhivago, has enticed a motley crew of twelve or so from city and country. Should I confess now? I'm an ignoramus. I've come along because the organisers say that "no previous knowledge of the subject is required." And that's part of the pleasure for me. I'm retreating from the world of work and routine, to refresh my brain and my body. I'm here for a weekend of inspiration—culture, comfort and nature—just 45 minutes by train from London Paddington.
Boris's nephew Nicolas is our host for the day. Serene and eloquent, wise and welcoming, he leads us through the compelling story of his family. Medics and artists (sometimes both at once), survivors of Stalinism, Nazism, emigration, family separation, exile, scandal… this might be another Zhivago epic. And in a way it is. Boris the poet turned his hand to prose because he felt compelled to set down the events of his life, coinciding as it did with the turmoil of early 20th century history. "Only in Russia is poetry respected: it gets people killed," he wrote after yet another of his writer friends had 'disappeared'. From 1945, in the Soviet writers' village Peredelkino, he devoted more than ten years to writing his masterpiece.
It was destined for a forked fate: beyond Soviet borders, Pasternak's work won him the Nobel Laureate; at home, he was punished with exclusion, poverty and starvation—even after rejecting the prize. But he chose to live by intellectual honesty. When he handed the Zhivago manuscript over to a literary smuggler—the only route to publication—he identified it as the moment of his own execution.
Years later, Nicolas Pasternak-Slater guides us through his uncle's personal letters and telegrams. He is not just an expert Russian literary translator. He's also a close family member, with all the insight of the insider, interpreting coded language written to slip past Russian censors, solving puzzles only Pasternaks can solve. ("Your landlady's illness" is Nazism.) It's a privilege to be in the presence of this man, to chat and ask him questions, and then to meet his sister Anne at the Pasternak Museum in Oxford—still a family home, rarely open, intimate and quirky, packed with grandfather Leonid's beautiful paintings and family keepsakes. We have the place to ourselves.
Back at the farm, we're treated to a rare and fascinating documentary film—and afternoon tea with buttery orange drizzle cake hot from the oven. But this is not our first gourmet moment. Lunch, served in the shade of fruit trees, was scrumptious: a generous buffet of vegetarian platters with an Ottolenghi dash, chicken with watermelon and mango, just-baked apple frangipane tart, and fresh warm chocolate brownies.
In the evening, the day-people melt away, but some of us are 'residential', so we stay. For dinner, we start with cool crushed asparagus soup topped by a mound of burrata, and we finish with Eton Mess—if the food wasn't so delicious, we simply wouldn't stop talking. We're all feeling inspired.
By bedtime, I'm tired, but not too tired to appreciate purple carpets and natural linen. Everything is spotlessly clean. Pasternak, I remember randomly before falling asleep, is one of those absurd surnames given to Jews in Russia, to identify them as Jews. It means parsnip.
On Sunday morning we all meet for breakfast in the conservatory. The organic eggs are courtesy of assertive beetroot-loving chickens with Russian names. I explore the house and cottages. From multi-faceted Andrew Logan artworks to decorative details by Brenda Gratwicke, each corner, each space, is designed to delight and indulge. Not to mention the views...
In one direction, there's an old rose garden and new beehives. In another, there are the bolshie chickens and organic vegetable beds. Past a purple bench and a rabbit-proof gate, there's a water feature that is part decking, part pond. Anthea Taylor, owner-dreamer of Stonehill, tells me that this natural swimming pool is fed by fresh-running well water. "It cost a lot to build," she says. "But it's a balanced eco-system. It'll pay off over the years. Dive in whenever you want, you'll be the first to use it." Next thing you know, I'm in cool clear green water, surrounded by aquatic plants, informal gardens and trees full of birds. This is a haven. A weekend is not long enough.
Other cultural weekends coming up: Chekhov, Tarkovsky, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky… Come with an appetite and don't forget your swimming costume!