Village Hall Talks at Wootton-By-Woodstock

The project was conceived to raise funds to renovate the village hall in Wootton-by-Woodstock, which was built almost entirely from timber over eighty years ago. Few who have attended the talks would disagree that the evenings have been an engaging mixture of serious insight and comedic observation and we think we are catering for the current thirst for live events in smaller venues.

The Drew Gardner Talk

The Drew Gardner Talk
For many people, an intriguing fantasy is contemplating how famous figures from the past would look and behave if they suddenly reappeared today. For his project, called The Descendants, Drew had not quite brought these people back to life, but he produced the next best thing – transforming descendants to resemble their forebears in famous portraits, and with astonishing results. Drew told us at our 70th talk on December 12th that he performed badly at school, although he has always been fascinated with history. And it was this passion which led him to recreating portraits of some of the most iconic historical figures.

Using precise genealogy, the first step, of course, was to track down related people. The process could then begin to recreate the famous portraits (paintings and photographs) with painstaking attention to the smallest detail. This ranged from sourcing period costumes and props to recreating backgrounds, before carefully analysing the lighting on each portrait and patiently reproducing it using the latest techniques.

The end-results that Drew showed us often showed a startling resemblance to their forebears. One striking example was Helen Pankhurst, the great granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, the political activist and leader of the suffragette movement, who helped women in Britain win the right to vote. Drew ran a video which recorded Helen's transformation in the studio, using hair-stylists, costumiers and lighting technicians – producing a striking (and quite moving) resemblance to the original photograph of Emmeline.

Drew pointed out that original paintings of iconic figures often contained key revelations, such as a burned-down candle in the background of a Napoleon portrait – indicating that he had been working into the night on matters of state. This was just one of the details recreated in the contemporary photograph of the living descendant – Hugo de Salis, who works in PR in London. Drew confided that it had required five pairs of socks to recreate the trouser-bulge in the original Napoleon portrait – but this was simply because the original artist had exaggerated grossly the emperor’s anatomy.

Producing an accurate background is just as exacting as work on the sitter – as seen when Drew wanted to reproduce the enormous chains in Robert Howlett’s celebrated 1857 photograph of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the great engineer responsible for building dockyards, the Great Western Railway and steamships. A major oil company was happy for Drew to use chains it used to tether oil rigs in northern Scotland, but they would be laid on the ground in a zig-zag formation – wrapping them round, as seen in the Brunel portrait, would be impossible because of the sheer weight. In the end, a blacksmith provided a scaled-down version of the chains and these were used as the back-drop. And like with the other portraits, Drew highlighted the amount of effort that went into recreating detail in the clothing, including the precise configuration of creases in the trousers of the descendant, Isambard Thomas.

Drew was particularly proud of the photograph of Charles Bush, the descendant of Oliver Cromwell, who works for an agricultural company in Australia and was flown over to the UK for the shoot. In the original painting (its location is top-secret due to its rarity), Cromwell is not wearing military equipment, but a distinctive chain which, after lengthy research, turned out to be of Swedish provenance – possibly in a bid to attract Scandanavian money. Metal-workers carefully reproduced the chain and hair-stylists also went to great lengths to recreate Cromwell’s hair after pictures of Charles’s own head and hair were sent from Australia.

Other adept sleuthing was also needed to recreate the portrait of Geronimo, the Bedonkohe Apache Indian chief. As a commission for National Geographic magazine, Drew tracked down his great grandson, Robert Geronimo, in New Mexico, who, it transpired, was rather more weighty than his courageous forebear. It was possible to source copies of the original clothing in Hollywood but the biggest problem was finding an authentic rifle similar to the one Geronimo is holding in the 19th Century portrait. However, with the help of the Internet, Drew managed to acquire one, on loan, for $2,000 for the studio sitting (ironically, it has emerged that the original sitting – far from being in the open desert, as was long thought – also took place in a studio).

However, Drew told us his most challenging assignment was when he tracked down two of the descendants of Lisa Gherardini, the woman sitting in Leonardo’s masterpiece, the Mona Lisa. They were sisters, both princesses from the Strozzi dynasty and living on a magnificent estate near San Gimignano, in Tuscany. For the shoot, Drew and his team went to estate to photograph the two women in the villa’s celebrated wine cellar, having already spent countless hours reproducing the silk dresses and embroidery featured in the Leonardo portrait. He also commissioned a copy of the original back-drop, painted by a celebrated Italian artist. To secure their agreement for the project, the sisters – Natalia Guicciardini Strozzi, and her sister, Irina – insisted they were both photographed, albeit separately. Also commissioned was a copy of the chair the Mona Lisa is sitting on – although, as Drew joked, it was made in the un-Tuscan location of High Wycombe.

Other sitters featured in the talk were Tom Wontner, the descendant of William Wordsworth (based on a rare portrait of the poet when young); Jeremy Clyde, the great, great, great grandson of the 1st Duke of Wellington; William John Raglan Horatio Tribe, the descendant of Horatio Nelson; and the recreation of a photograph of Charles Dickens at the height of his fame, with his great, great grandson, Gerald Charles Dickens.

Over 100 people attended this Christmas talk, with mulled-wine and mine-pies served at the end of the evening. And a sumptuous fruit-cake was also baked to mark our 70th evening, with everybody also enjoying the tangible benefit of the new heating system on a very cold night.

“Drew’s project was brilliantly impressive - not only in the original concept, but also in the amount of work needed to produce the final portraits, including tracking down the descendants and then building up the various layers with a remarkable eye for detail. His talk was an absolute revelation and often generated the uncanny feeling that these famous people had actually been brought back to life – Keith Burns, Witney

Richard Ovenden

Friday January 9th 2015

Richard was appointed as the 25th Bodley’s Librarian, in Oxford, last February, having worked at the library since 2003. As executive head of the Bodleian Libraries, he is the steward of more than 11 million printed items, in addition to 50,000 e-journals and a vast quantity of other material.

Richard has been at the forefront of the Bodleian’s efforts to acquire the personal archive of William Fox Talbot – considered the godfather of photography - in order to preserve one of the world’s most important collections and to encourage research in and around it at Oxford University.

The Bodleian’s appeal to raise £2.2 million to purchase the archive was launched in December 2012 and a large grant of £1.2 million from the National Heritage Memorial Fund gave the appeal a vital boost. With a recent gift of £200,000 from the Art Fund, along with donations from numerous other individuals and charitable trusts, the Bodleian managed to reach the final total in August 2014 and successfully secured the collection.

In spring 2014, sixteen images by leading contemporary photographers were donated for sale at Sotheby’s to support the campaign. They included Hiroshi Sugimoto, the New-York based Japanese photographer and architect; Miles Aldridge and John Swannell, the fashion photographers; Nadav Kander, London based photographer, artist and director, known for his portraiture and landscapes; Candida Ho?fer, internationally-renowned photographer from Germany; Massimo Vitali, Italian photographer; and Martin Parr, award-winning British documentary photographer, film-maker and photojournalist.

Richard has worked as a professional librarian since 1985 and served on the staff of Durham University Library, the House of Lords Library, the National Library of Scotland (as Deputy Head of the Rare Books Section), the University of Edinburgh, as Director of Collections, and since 2003 at the Bodleian Libraries - first as Keeper of Special Collections and then, from 2011, as Deputy Librarian.

On his appointment as Bodley’s Librarian, Richard emphasied that the Bodleian stands at the heart of the university, working in partnership with all of the academic disciplines and supporting international scholars, as well as the people of Oxford and throughout the world who access the Bodleian digitally or visit its exhibitions.

If you are interested in attending this talk or would like to reserve a ticket please Contact us

Lucy Hughes-Hallett

Friday February 6th 2015

Lucy is a cultural historian and author of The Pike, the smash-hit biography of the debauched Italian poet, daredevil and fascist Gabriele D’Annuzio, which won universal and unequivocal praise from reviewers and was garlanded with awards.

Last year, the book won the Samuel Johnson Prize and it was also given the 2013 Costa Book Award for biography, the Duff Cooper Prize, as well as being shortlisted for the Paddy Power Political biography of the Year. The Pike recounts how, in September 1919, D’Annunzio, a successful poet and occasional politician, declared himself Commandante of the city of Fiume in modern-day Croatia.

His intention was to establish a utopia based on his fascist and artistic ideals - and it proved the dramatic pinnacle to an outrageous career. D’Annunzio became a national hero and his evolution from idealist romantic to radical right-wing revolutionary is seen as a political parable. His ideological journey, culminating in the failure of the Fiume project, reflects the political turbulence of early 20th-century Europe and the emergence of fascism.

In The Pike, Lucy addresses the cult of nationalism and the origins of political extremism – and at the centre of the book stands the charismatic D’Annunzio - a figure as deplorable as he is fascinating.


Sunday Times - Hughes-Hallett has a great talent for encapsulating an era or an attitude …The fact that almost 700 pages flew by bears testimony to how pleasurable and readable those pages were.

Francis Wheen, Daily Mail - This is a magnificent portrait of a preposterous character … D’Annunzio was deplorable, brilliant, ludicrous, tragic but above all irresistible, as hundreds of women could testify. His biographer has done him full justice.

Daily Telegraph - Hughes-Hallett chooses not to judge, taking the position that disapproval is not an interesting response. Instead she teases apart the man from his self-made myth… She is never seduced by her subject, repeatedly reminding us of his fundamental lack of empathy, something elegantly encapsulated by the cover image itself: D’Annunzio mirrored, frozen in self-admiration.

Lucy is also the author of Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions, which won both the Fawcett Prize and the Emily Toth Award. She also wrote the highly-praised Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen. Lucy has written book reviews for all the major newspapers, in particular The Sunday Times. She is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

If you are interested in attending this talk or would like to reserve a ticket please Contact us

Matthew Engel

Friday March 6th 2015

Matthew is leading journalist and author, renowned for his wit and perception, He worked on The Guardian newspaper for 24 years as both Cricket Correspondent and Feature Writer, before moving to the Financial Times, where he covers major stories, including the forthcoming General Election.

Matthew has written several well-received books and edited 12 of the 151 editions of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, the Bible of cricket.
His books include Tickle the Public, a much-praised history of the popular press, Extracts from the Red Notebooks and Eleven Minutes Late. In 2014, he also edited The Highlights - an anthology of the work of the late Frank Keating, the doyen of sports writers on The Guardian.

For Matthew’s talk in Wootton, his subject will be his latest book, called Engel’s England. It is a celebration of the remarkable and continuing distinctiveness of every part of England and is the product of a three-year journey through 39 counties and one capital - an average of just over one a month. “I never had a dull day, and I never met a county I didn’t love,” he says.

In 2010-11, Matthew was appointed Visiting Professor of Media at Oxford University, a post previously held by a succession of broadcasting stars and sponsored by Rupert Murdoch’s company, News International. This involved four lectures entitled “Please, mister, can we have our ball back? Sport, the media, and the people”.

The final lecture was a nuanced assessment of the extent of Rupert Murdoch’s then seemingly boundless power within sport. A few months later the phone-hacking scandal burst into public consciousness; his disgraced paper the News of the World closed down; and, amid much embarrassment, Matthew says Oxford University quietly failed to appoint anybody else to the media chair.

Matthew lives in Herefordshire with his wife, Hilary, daughter, Vika, and a lot of animals. His son, Laurie, died of cancer in 2005, aged 13. Since then, the LINK Laurie Engel Fund has raised £1.2million in his memory, first to build a new Teenage Cancer Trust unit, which opened to acclaim in 2010, and now to create a new ward that will enable the pre-teens to enjoy similar facilities. Of the thousands of articles Matthew has written, he says the best-remembered by far is the story of Laurie’s illness.

Matthew says that one of his ambitions is to see Northamptonshire win the Cricket County Championship. Or, failing that, for Northampton Town to return to the top division of English football, which they reached for a single season in 1965-66, before being relegated, rather unluckily. That year, they drew with Manchester United and Arsenal, and beat the then-mighty Leeds and Aston Villa, all of which Matthew saw, without quite believing it.

If you are interested in attending this talk or would like to reserve a ticket please Contact us


OX20 1DZ

John Lloyd & John Mitchinson Talk, Summer 2009

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