Mendelssohn Sundial

Restoration of the Mendelssohn sundial

The German composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847) first visited England in 1829 and wrote enthusiastically to a friend:

‘…through the iron fencework you can see to a broad empty green meadow, on which all sorts of cows are standing and chewing their cuds, and here and there is a tree, while in the distance they become more dense and turn into woods; on the horizon the white towers of Westminster soar up into the blue sky above the woods... On the street corners in thick black letters on the white walls – PICCADILLY – which is the name of the street, if anyone asks you; well I was there a half hour ago and have never seen anything more beautiful in my life.’

Over the next twenty years the composer developed a strong English following. Camberwell housed one of the largest German communities in Britain in the 19th century and German-born Henriette Benecke and her husband Frederick William lived with six children in one of the 18th century villas encircling Denmark Hill, number 168. The Beneckes were a musical family who held frequent soirées in their home and Mendelssohn’s wife Cecile was a niece of Henriette Benecke. Mendelssohn was due to perform in London in 1842 but the city was full of smog and seeking better air outside central London, the Mendelssohns arrived to stay with Henriette.

One spring day a picnic to Windsor Park was arranged but Mendelssohn stayed behind with the children and composed a ‘song without words’, which he named ‘Camberwell Green’. The piece was later renamed ‘Spring Song’ and published in the fifth book of Mendelssohn’s series of lyrical piano pieces Lieder ohne Worte, or Songs without Words. The children’s distractions as they try to play with Mendelssohn are believed to be represented in the song’s quaver rests and staccato notes.

When the 18th century villas were demolished to lay out the new Ruskin Park in 1906, a sundial with inscription was placed at the location of the Benecke’s house, paid for by the Benecke family. It commemorated Mendelssohn’s visit and composition with the words ‘Here stood the house where Mendelssohn wrote the Spring Song, 1842’. The bronze sundial was scored with a part-notation of the music. The terracotta base was decorated with Tudor roses.

The Mendelssohn sundial is now in very poor condition. The bronze sundial with its inscription is missing and the terracotta base has severe cracks and has been subject to poor-quality cement repairs. To restore this base, the surface cement or mortar from past repairs will be removed and missing material replaced with lime mortar. The conserved structure will be treated with a biocide and a replacement of the original bronze sundial will be created based on surviving records and images.

The sundial currently stands under heavy tree-cover (and thus out of the sun) and once restored it will be re-erected in the walled garden.

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