For our seventh birthday evening on October 16th, it was hard to think of a more appropriate speaker than Robin Laurance, the leading photojournalist, talking about fascinating and imaginative birthday presents which have been given down the years, including those handed to the rich and famous.
Robin’s talk was based on his book, called Just What I Always Wanted, which examines interesting birthday presents – given on every day of the year. Some defy belief, such as Queen Victoria handing over Mount Kilimanjaro to her grandson, who was to become Kaiser Wilhelm II, the last German emperor, after he complained that his grandmother had at two landmark mountains in Africa, whereas he had none.
Other gifts were more mundane – although no less impressive – such as Carole Lombard giving a penis-warmer to her husband and fellow Hollywood star, Clark Gable. Robin mischievously told us he had visited Wootton Stores to see if such equipment was stocked – but none was for sale.
For some people, such as Winston Churchill, birthday presents were sometimes a mixed blessing, said Robin. Doubtless he would have approved of the 75 bottles of brandy given by Joseph Stalin to mark his 75th birthday – but both he and his wife, Clementine, were far less impressed at the portrait by Graham Sutherland, commissioned by both houses of Houses of Parliament to mark his 80th birthday. Churchill’s private detective, Edmund Murray, was asked to destroy it, but he was a keen amateur artist and refused to carry out the deed. And so it was left to another member of staff to remove the portrait in the dead of night and burn it. Sutherland, not surprisingly, was unimpressed.
Other gifts to statesmen, although well-intentioned, often triggered various problems, added Robin, such as the glorious Turkmenistan stallion, worth £30,000, given to former Prime Minister, John Major as a 50th birthday present. Sadly, the PM did not ride and the Life Guards tuned down the animal for being “too frisky” - and so it spent its days on a stud farm in Wales where, happily, it went on to sire 37 foals.
Other gifts have been more shocking - such as the Smith & Wesson revolver given to a teenage boy for his 14th birthday. He went on to develop a major shooting school, where the armaments resembled a small army, including the world’s most powerful machine-guns and even a small canon – with this disquieting collection all stemming from that rather menacing teenage birthday present.
As a far more elegant present, Robin told us how Peter Ustinov’s second wife – Suzanne Cloutier - bought him a magnificent and rare Hispano-Suiza car, with its vast 12-cyclinder engine. Sadly, it was stolen on the night the Berlin Wall came down and Ustinov sent private detectives to scour eastern Europe to find it. Finally, they traced it to the yard of a French haulage contractor, but the courts decided that the owner had bought it in good faith – and so it had to stay with the contractor.
Not doing things by half, the North Koreans built a vast and ornate building for all the birthday presents given to the country’s leader, Kim Il Sung, who assumed power in 1948. Robin told us it became customary for other world leaders to send him gifts – Stalin and Mao sent him railway carriages; Gorbachev a glass vase decorated with the Red Star; Yasser Arafat offered a model of a mosque in mother of pearl; and Daniel Ortega and his Sandanistas sent a stuffed and grinning alligator sitting upright and holding a circular tray with six goblets. Julius Nyerere dispatched a zebra (although nobody knows where the animal finished up); and Saddam Hussein sent some extravagant silver coconuts.
However, one of the widest-travelled birthday gifts must have been a six-octave piano made for Ludwig van Beethoven by the English company, Broadwood, using Spanish mahogany – and with Beethoven’s name inlaid in ebony above the keys.
It was to be a present for Beethoven’s 48th birthday in 1818. The completed instrument was loaded on to a ship in London and transported down the Thames and across the Bay of Biscay, round the Rock of Gibraltar and up the Adriatic to the city of Trieste.
It was then put on a cart and hauled over the Alps to Modling, Beethovens’s home town near Vienna. The journey had taken many months and the instrument had not travelled well, although fortunately an English pianist was on hand to repair it.
It was delivered to Beethoven, who, by then, was profoundly deaf. He promised to send Broadwood “the fruits of the first moments of inspiration I spend on it” – but the company never heard from the maestro and the piano later passed into the hands of Franz Liszt. The instruments now sits (silently) in a museum in Budapest.
As well as being an eminent photographer, working for most of the leading newspapers and magazine, Robin has donated his time and expertise to the Wootton Talks over the past seven years, taking portraits of many of our speakers.
Following his talk on birthday presents, Robin photographed a sumptuous birthday cake, made by Ann Day and depicting the village hall in all its detail. Needless to say, hardly a crumb was left.
"Robin's talk on gifts was the perfect theme for the seventh birthday of the incomparable Wootton Talks. It was a mix of the hilarious and disturbing - but all delivered with a measured delivery, devoid of judgement, which provided exactly the right tone for the evening. Yet another terrific event in Wootton. Here's to the next seven years...at least!" - Barry Williams, Chipping Norton