In the spring of 2014 an American singer-songwriter visited the ancestral home of Lord Byron, witnessed the structural and material damage that is and has been present within the house for some time and set out to put it right. What began as a simple unexpected rendezvous, really did end in true love…
Welcome to the show…
I had been in talks with events organiser Mike Sheehan about attending the new up and coming Robin Hood Folk Festival which I had heard was to be held in the sensational grounds of Newstead Abbey (Ancestral home of Poet Lord Byron). I was very keen to learn more about the event as I am a local freelance writer with a deep love for both music and Newstead Abbey.
Obviously, I was very honored and highly excited when Mike invited me to a charity concert which was to be performed a few nights previous to the festival by the iconic American folk musician and singer/song writer: Eric Andersen, whose work over the past year has been inspired by (as spoken by Lady Caroline Lamb) the mad, bad and dangerous to know: George Gordon Byron.
On the evening of the concert my intention upon arrival was to take in the general ambiance of my surroundings and perhaps get some shots of the house and gardens. As usual when I arrive at this particular venue, I was not disappointed, for I was greeted by the sight of the magnificent historical building that is Newstead Abbey.
I feel particularly grateful that I got to witness the Abbey at such a perfect time of day. The setting sun and fading day light made the early evening sky an ideal backdrop for what was to be a unique and awe-inspiring evening.
I stepped inside the reception room where I was kindly greeted by a Newstead Abbey tour guide who led me through the cloisters. As we made our way around the atmospheric and almost eerie covered walk through which led to the quaint and somewhat concealed chapel, I was pleasantly surprised to see a piece of art work hanging along the wall named “Swags and Tails” by the exceptionally talented artist: Kashif Nadim Chaudry.
Chaudry’s work was on display at the Abbey as part of: “The Dreaming House” exhibition which comprises of contemporary art textile collections by numerous artists such as:Grayson Perry, Debbie Lawson and Sally Morfill; all of which have been created from themes that are present in Byron’s writing such as: childhood, memory, the supernatural, romanticism, ruin and decay.
The canapé and champagne reception which was served just outside the chapel was a wonderful touch and set the scene for the evening perfectly. It gave everyone a chance to mingle and talk about their reasons for attending this very special one-off event.
A friendly couple from Nottingham named Christie and Martin, were telling me how they have previously attended other folk festivals local to Nottinghamshire, but thought that the line up at the Robin Hood Festival was unlike any they had seen before; therefore they were extremely excited for the up and coming weekend. Christie told me of how she had discovered her love of folk music around 15 years ago and had been very keen to acquire tickets for Andersen’s concert, which would for them be a great start to a weekend packed full of their favourite music, foods from around the world, fun activities and like minded people.
Once we had adequately sampled the champagne and appetizers (which may I point out were delicious); we were given a talk by Jonathan Brown who played the part of Byron wonderfully. He gave us a full insight into Byron’s sordid life which was most certainly one full of turmoil and reckless behaviour. Growing debt and rumour of his apparent affair with his half-sister Augusta Leigh (among others, both male and female) along with his separation from fleeing wife Annabella, who considered the poet to be insane; all contributed to his departure from England in April 1816.
George Gordon Byron experienced many times of strife during his lifetime (often showing this and himself almost completely in his work). He was continuously striving for a life of importance, which almost always led him into times of hardship. His life both bad and good, did in fact enable him to leave behind some of the most influential, dramatic, flamboyant, deepest and darkest poetry ever written; making him a leading figure in the romantic movement.
The House in all its glory…
The second part of the evening was a tour of the house and wow what a wonderful addition to the night this was. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as did all of the guests. Whilst walking around the home of the famous poet, we were accompanied by various tour guides who told us of many a ghost story and indulged us in historical information regarding the house that over the years has served as a home to both the poet and at one point his mother.
I also got to witness the beauty of the sadly damaged golden screens, which along with a leaking roof were the reason behind Andersen’s idea to perform the concert and became his inspiration for the new Robin Hood Festival.
During the tour of the house we were joined by Andersen’s son who proved to be of great entertainment and kept us all in high spirits with his comical behavior and eccentric personality; showing what a great and down to earth family the Andersen’s really are. Among Byron’s possessions, we were also able to view more art work as part of “The Dreaming House” exhibition which I mentioned previously.
I have to say that being able to see Claire’s “Coming Out Dress” which was worn by Grayson Perry in 2000 during a performance where he merged his private female persona with his artwork, was one of the highlights of the evening; especially when I learned all about the meaning behind this elaborate party frock. The dress has on it many appliquéd digital embroideries which were actually produced by a firm in Nottingham.
A special concert for a special cause..
As the evening drew on, it was time to take our seats in the Great Hall for what would be one of the most intimate and heart-warming concerts I have ever had the pleasure of attending. The set began with an opening introduction by independent writer and literary scholar Ian Mcfayden, who gave us a thorough insight into the world and works of Byron. He also told us of Andersen’s relentless study of Byron’s poetry, biographies and letters over the past year since paying a visit too and falling head over heels in love with the Abbey in 2014.
The room as spoken by Eric himself: “was much like being in/playing from the inside of a cello ” and I couldn’t agree with him more. The tasteful decor, beautiful furnishings, soft lighting and grand oak panels and carved wood work, were all simply divine. It was the most surreal experience I have had in a long time.
To add to the sheer enjoyment of it all, Eric was wonderfully friendly, charming and comical. He sang, played the guitar and mouth organ and was accompanied by his two band members who are both established musicians in their own right – Michele Grazich on violin and Giorgio Curcetti on Oud. The three of them played in tandem against a back drop of portraits of both Eric and Byron that had been skillfully painted by artist Oliver Jordan.
As Andersen who has written songs for the likes of: Johny Cash, Bob Dylan and Judy Collins; began his set, I was pleasantly surprised to hear that he had combined Byron’s poetry with his own music, which made for numerous perfectly composed pieces. Throughout the concert I learned that this extremely talented gentleman has a real emotional attachment with Byron, which was further confirmed during his performances of: There be None of Beauty’s Daughters, She Walks in Beauty, When We Two Parted, Childe Harold’s Farewell and Farewell to a Lady; among many more.
My favourite performance of the night has to have been one of the first songs that Andersen ever performed “Come To My Bedside My Darling”. Along with the rest of the audience, I was simply captivated from start to finish.
Andersen’s endearment for the Abbey is in everything he has done in preparation for the concert and for the festival; from writing the lyrics to composing the music and performing the songs. As I managed to grab two minutes with Eric during the break, his adoration shone through in the words he spoke about his passion for helping to generate funds in order to restore a building, which just like Byron, has over time experienced some degree of hardship and suffering.
I think its safe to say that the night was an unforgettable one of which I feel very lucky to have witnessed. I truly believe that every person who attended that evening went away feeling completely different from when they first stepped through that grand front door; which for one night only led them into a world of romantic prose, eccentrism and creativity.