Thursday July 12 2018

During the open season at the Red House the Britten-Pears Foundation’s Archive is open to the public. Once a month we select a box of interesting items from our collection to show drop in visitors, known affectionately as the Box of Delights. Anyone is welcome to see this box in the Archive between 1pm and 5pm, Tuesdays – Fridays.

The Britten-Pears Foundation’s Archive is the biggest free-standing composer’s archive in the world. We hold almost all of Benjamin Britten’s manuscripts; his and Peter Pears’ extensive letter collection; even thousands of domestic receipts showing how they ran their day-to-day lives.

In amongst the collections, though, we have some more… unexpected items. For this month’s Box of Delights, the theme is ‘Blimey! Look what’s here!’ – and we’ve selected four items in our collection that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to find.

Fragments from Alexander Pushkin’s tomb

Yes. We hold two small wooden fragments from the tomb of Alexander Pushkin, the Russian poet, playwright and novelist.

We think that Britten and Pears picked them up in 1965 when they visited the church where Pushkin was buried. We know about this trip from Peter Pears’ diaries but, alas, he doesn’t spell out that they engaged in any tomb-related vandalism. It was during this trip that Britten composed the song-cycle The Poet’s Echo, a setting of several Pushkin poems; he had the chance to perform one of them in Pushkin’s former home.

Imogen Holst’s pen nibs

Imogen Holst, the composer, teacher, conductor and writer, was a good friend of Britten and Pears. In the 1950s she moved to Aldeburgh to work as Britten’s assistant: she was to have a lasting impact not only on Britten but on the Aldeburgh Festival, of which she was artistic director for nearly twenty years.

Holst’s personal papers are now cared for by the Britten-Pears Foundation, and provide a fascinating insight into the life of the talented musician. More surprisingly, though, the Archive looks after all of Holst’s household belongings – from her batons to her colander.

From this unusual collection we have selected a small box of pen nibs, some still containing ink. A composer in her own right, she also worked for a time as Britten’s music assistant, writing out fair copies of his compositions. It’s likely these pen nibs were used to create many of the items in our collection, both her own manuscripts and Britten’s.

Britten’s wallet and a miniature portrait

You’d expected to find Britten’s paperwork here in the archive, but we have some additional objects that tell stories about his life. We’ve picked two for the Box of Delights.

The first is a miniature portrait of Britten as a child. Artificially coloured at the time, it is a remarkably clear picture of a very young Britten – though the image itself is over 100 years old. It was made by his aunt Sarah Hockey – or ‘Aunt Queenie’, as she was known.

The second is Britten’s wallet, the item he used until his death in 1976. Most unexpectedly, it contains Britten’s Barclaycard, complete with his distinctive signature.

These two items come from utterly distinct periods of time: a very early portrait from the beginning of the 20th century, and a plastic bank card which looks remarkably similar to those we use today. They illustrate not only the personal life of England’s most famous composer, but also the remarkable historical changes that occurred during his lifetime.

The Box of Delights is available for anyone to view in the Britten-Pears Foundation’s Archive between 1pm and 5pm, Tuesdays – Fridays.