The Baronet & the Playboy: Piano Portraits


Parry’s Shulbrede Tunes are illustrated by films of Shulbrede Priory and Parry’s family, including family photographs and watercolours, curated by the late the Honourable Laura Ponsonby, the composer’s great-grand-daughter, shown here in her garden discussing the films with David Owen Norris.

And here’s the Guardian cartoonist Martin Rowson at work on the films for Poulenc’s Les soirées de Nazelles.

The Programme: The Baronet & the Playboy
An hour of dazzling enchantment: the Essence of England and the Flamboyance of France

Francis Poulenc: Les soirées de Nazelles (1936)


The Acme of Distinction
Heart on Sleeve
Flippancy & Discretion
Train of Thought
Coaxing Charm
Pleased with Himself
A Taste for Misfortune
Old but Spry
Finale (a self-portrait of Poulenc)

In the darkly hectic Thirties, the composer Francis Poulenc would drive to the next château down the Loire from his own, for jovial evenings with the neighbour he called Auntie Liénard. He explained: ‘The variations that form the centre of this work were improvised at Nazelles during long country evenings where the author played at ‘portraits’ with friends gathered round the piano.’ We don’t know exactly who the variations represent (except for the Finale – that’s the man himself), but we have Poulenc’s evocative titles. Spurred on by them, Martin Rowson, cartoonist of the Guardian newspaper, has created marvellous characters, drawn on-the-spot as Norris played the music – a remarkable act of willed synaesthesia preserved on film.

‘Twenty minutes of brilliantissimo’, said Poulenc.

Sir Hubert Parry: Shulbrede Tunes (1914)


Parry wrote of this piece, in a letter:
Shulbrede Priory is a romantic place among the hills and oakwoods near the Sussex border. It is the place where my daughter Mrs. Ponsonby lives with her husband Arthur Ponsonby and her two children Elizabeth and Matthew. It is mainly the old Ecclesiastical building of the fourteenth century, with a vaulted hall and mysterious staircases and one splendid big room the “Prior’s Chamber”, with high pitched roof and great oak beams across and a grand old fireplace; and some delightfully quaint Elizabethan frescoes. All the personally named tunes are portraits. “Dolly” is Mrs. Ponsonby; she had to have two tunes as she has two distinct phases. Elizabeth is a lithe slip of a girl, very springy in her gait; Matthew a dear little boy of 10, of very enquiring turn of mind (that’s why he begins with a question) and a serious side, and great interest in country life and animals – “Father Playmate” is all sorts of delightful things – a great companion to the children as well as a great politician and deeply interested in Art and Music as well. Of course it’s a great place for children’s pranks and also for bogies and sprites – and the garden, with the old monks’ fishponds is adorable.

1. Shulbrede
2. Elizabeth
3. Dolly (No.1)
4. Bogies & Sprites that Gambol by Nights
5. Matthew
6. Prior’s Chamber by Firelight
7. Children’s Pranks
8. Dolly (No.2)
9. In the Garden – with Dew on the Grass
10. Father Playmate


David Owen Norris at Parry’s Hagspiel piano in the Prior’s Chamber at Shulbrede Priory

The first Baron Ponsonby of Shulbrede was the leader of the Labour Party in the House of Lords from 1931 to 1935. Elizabeth Ponsonby, his daughter, was prominent among the Bright Young Things of the 1920s, appearing, loosely disguised, in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Vile Bodies. Matthew and his son & grandson continued – and continue – to sit in the House of Lords in the Labour interest.

The accompanying film includes family photographs, watercolours by Arthur Ponsonby, extracts from his history of Shulbrede (the illuminations and calligraphy in his own hand) and scenes from the house and garden, including the firelit Prior’s Chamber, where Parry’s own Hagspiel grand piano now stands. David Owen Norris and the photographer Jacqui Hurst spent a magical day (September 25th 2013) at Shulbrede, from dawn (In the Garden – with Dew on the Grass) to dusk (Prior’s Chamber by Firelight). Grateful thanks to Laura Ponsonby and Kate & Ian Russell for their help and kindness.

Screen & projector are required

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