The Blue Plaques Project

This is a sample from the (In)Equal Temperament Project’s Blue Plaques walking tour, consisting of original research and original sound art/musical responses to it. Please read the research for each piece before listening to it; they are designed that way.

The ubiquitous ‘Blue Plaques’ of English Heritage first began appearing in 1866. Until 1986, the plaques were erected by mostly local councils and later governing bodies of the City of London. Until the 2010s, the selection board was mostly white men associated in some wat the English Heritage. There have been various critiques of the scheme, its motivations and its notable and ongoing ‘exceptions’ to history. There are, for instance, significantly less women than men commemorated, with an even greater disparity between white and people of colour. This research focuses on the lives of cis-women, all white, and this is due to several factors:

  • This project was designed as a walking tour that could be completed during the 2020/2021 pandemic restrictions. The tour had to be near public transport hubs, in a central location, in areas where close proximity to other persons can be avoided. 
  • These plaques’ locations can be accessed by mobility impaired audiences.
  • The plaques had to represent the variety of ‘access problems’ which researching the lives of women (even fairly well-off, white, famous women) presents.
  • For continuity, the plaques had to have some conceivable overlap of chronology – this being the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth century. It is not impossible that all six of the individuals mentioned may have traversed the route of the walking tour on the same day.
  • Without access to council records during the pandemic, research has been restricted to online resources – which are still largely focused on white, English-speaking individuals.

This research focuses not specifically on the lives’ of these individuals, but rather the historiography of their remembrance. Even well-off, famous white women are subject to simplified and sanitised renditions of their legacy by popular culture and print in a manner few of their contemporary male plaque-rs are. Despite the radical difference in the course of these women’s lives, their biographies are consistently defined in relation to others (most often men, such as Thorndike, Terry, and Travers) and, when remembered, grossly oversimplified (Travers and Woolf). In the case where notable men of a contemporary legacy do not exist on plaques themselves, these women’s legacies are left to fade (Astafieva and McCarthy).

Piece number 1: The Pheasant Princess (0:00 – 1:44)

Seraphina Astafieva (1876-1934) (Name in Russian: Serafima Aleksandrovna Astafieva)

Blue Plaque: Princess Seraphine Astafieva 1876-1934 ballet dancer lived and taught here (152 King’s Road, Chelsea). Erected in 1968 by the Greater London Council, this is the only recorded Blue Plaque for Astafieva. There is no biography attached to her English Heritage entry.

Archives including Correspondence included in Ekstrom Collection: Diaghilev and Stravinsky Foundation in the V&A Theatre and Performance Collections 

According to Russian-language sources Seraphina was born to the family of Alexander Astafiev in Imperial Russia. English language sources call him ‘Prince’ and her ‘Princess’ but Russian sources dispute that there is any royal connection in her immediate family. It is unclear when she received the title ‘Princess’ (probably informally) as she apparently did not teach in this name. According to Russian sources she was a grand-niece of Leo Tolstoy and there are unsubstantiated claims that it was Tolstoy that advised Serafina to attend ballet school to ‘recover from an illness’. (However, this is also the story of one of her notable pupils Alicia Markova, so it should be borne in mind that the stories may have become conflated. It is unclear whether sending poorly female children to dance school was a notable practice in the late nineteenth- /mid-twentieth centuries). In 1895 (age 19), Serafina graduated the Petersburg Theater School from a course in drama and was a soloist of the Mariinsky theatre until 1905. In 1896 she married dancer and choreographer Joseph Kshesinsky, brother of fellow dancer Matilda Kshesinsky, another prima ballerina with the Mariinsky theatre. The couple had one son, Vyacheslav, in 1898 and divorced at some point after this. According the memoirs of Matilda Kshesinsky, Astafieva married a Konstantin Grevs (bio unclear) ‘very unsuccessfully and soon divorced’. From 1909 to 1911 Astafieva performed with the Diaghilev’s Russian Ballet in leading roles for Cleopatra (choreographed by Mikhail Fokine, 1909, composer unclear), Scheherazade (Rimsky-Korsakov), and Blue God (composer unclear). According to most sources she was a notable ballet teacher, who used her own home as a studio (at 152 King’s St) from 1914 onward. Dancers who mention her in their teaching pedigree include Alicia Markova (1910-2004), Anton Dolin (1904-1983), Margot Fonteyn (1919-1991). 

It is unclear whether the description in English sources to her as a ‘character dancer’ is meant to imply that she was less trained or ‘perfect’ a dancer as others. Dilon (see below) describes her as ‘a fine dancer in her own right’ whereas the language in her former sister-in-law’s memoirs in notably disparaging. It appears that most of the information about Astafieva comes from the biographies of Matilda Kshesinsky (her first husband’s sister), and an anecdote describing a soiree event in 1923 during which Astafieva’s notable pupil Alicia Markova (born Lillian Alicia Marks) received her ‘Russified’ name (written by the dancer know as Anton Dolin, born Patrick Kay, another pupil of Astafieva). This 1953 biography of Markova may be the first mention of the title ‘Princess’ for Astafieva as Dolin describes Astafieva as ‘being the daughter of Prince Alexander Astafiev, a grand-niece of Count Tolstoy’.

Composer’s note:

Astafieva would have spent most of her life in a ballet studio, with the annoying hum that’s always in the background of those places, the sound of feet and shoes on a worn wooden floor, and the never-ending clapping to keep everyone in time. Despite being far more than just a teacher, she is not remembered for everything she was. She is hidden in a studio, labelled on a plaque, known through her students. In other words, she is a woman.

Piece number 2: Maid, Mother and Crone (1:45 – 4:11)

P. L. Travers 1899-1996 (Birth name Helen Lyndon Goff)

Blue Plaque: P. L. Travers 1899-1996 author of Mary Poppins lived and worked here 1946-1962 (50 Smith St, Chelsea). Though Travers’ lived in various London locations, there is only one known Blue Plaque for her.

The biography of P.L. Travers is succinctly described by the Encyclopaedia Britannica article by Richard Pollardy. It should be noted, however, that though Pollardy acknowledges that narrative of Travers’ life is complicated to follow given how often she re-invented her own biography, he does not explain which sources he has chosen to seen as authoritative and why (this is, of course, due to restrictions in the Britannica writing style, but not entirely). Born in Maryborough, Queensland Australian on 9 August 1899 as Helen Lyndon Goff, Travers’ is most well known as the creator of the character Mary Poppins. Through various iterations of her biography created in recent years, including the 2013 biopic Saving Mr. Banks, the ‘facts’ of Travers’ life continue to questioned, re-interpreted, and erased with astonishing frequency for someone who died just shy of the millennium (in Chelsea, London, 23 April 1996). Little is known of her mother’s history, and her father (whose first name Travers’ took as stage-, and later, pen-name, Pamela Lyndon Travers), famously passed himself off as an Irish farmer, being in reality a disgraced English bank clerk before immigrating to Australia.

Travers first jobs were in Sydney variously as a cashier, playwright, actor and writer. She worked and travelled with a company of Shakespearean actors in Australia and New Zealand before moving to England in 1924. She published the first of her Mary Poppins books in 1926, but it must be noted, had considerable publication record before and after the publication of these volumes including poetry, journalism and treatise on mythology. In 1940 she moved to the US and lived with and researched the Navajo, Hopi, and Pueblo people, before returning to the UK after the war. Her contemporary legacy is most known for her association with Walt Disney, who produced the Academy Award winning film 1964 Mary Poppins. Travers signed the deal for a movie in 1961 but, as is well known, did not see the film as reflective of her works. Aspects of her decision to continue working with Disney over the three years of production are often derisive of her character, and are similar instance of erasure of autonomy in P. L. Travers’ legacy, another being, what would perhaps be termed today, her bisexuality. Given that P. L. Travers incredibly familiar with the famous Bloomsbury Set and various notable English and Irish writers of the twentieth century, it is frustrating that her legacy is often overshadowed by the Disney depiction of her character, and her other life interests derided.

In her 2006 monograph Mary Poppins, She Wrote: The Life of P. L. Travers, the Sydney Morning Herald writer Valerie Lawson makes considerably effort to structure her analysis of various private papers around Travers’ own belief that the ‘life of a woman’ has three discernable stages – that of maid, mother and crone. This, she argues, is tied significantly to various life decisions of Travers, including her decision to adopt a child (from the acquaintances of one of her associates, W.B. Yeats), to claim to be his birth mother, though there is a decidedly incredulous and even sarcastic tone to Lawson’s many pages of descriptions of Travers’ spiritual searches. These included Buddhist meditation, patronage of several Gurus and, controversially, the Russian philosopher (some may say cult leader) George Gurdjieff. Travers is known to have been associated with Rope, a lesbian group associated with Gurdjieff’s teachings, however, yet again, Lawson glibly erases much of the potential complexity of Travers’ romantic life, describing same-sex relations as ‘probably’ just a ‘close relationship’ or at the most ‘not conclusive’. 

Composer’s note:

In Travers’ own words, life is separated into the three stages of maid, mother and crone. In how she is remembered, her story has drifted further and further from the original, until it is hardly recognisable. The emotional reality of this was the inspiration for this piece. 

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