Despite being an unskilled musician, Troyte Griffith made a lasting impression on composer Edward Elgar, as Christopher Morley reports.
Most of the subjects of the portrait-gallery which makes up Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’ were musicians, some of them professionals (notably the organist of Hereford Cathedral), some of them gifted amateurs.
But another variation, ‘Troyte’, has as its subject someone who was, according to the music depicting him, endearingly maladroit in his attempts to master the piano, Exuberant timpani crash all over the place as the rest of the orchestra keep a tight, crisp ensemble, until everything collapses in a heap. Elgar himself described the music as referring to “some maladroit essays to play the pianoforte”. But for all the failure of Arthur Troyte Griffith’s attempts to master the instrument, he made a massive contribution to the cultural life of Malvern, capital of Elgarshire.
After education at Harrow School and Oriel College, Oxford, and the award of touring scholarships in architecture (his chosen profession), Troyte never bothered to apply for the highest qualifications of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Instead, after cutting his teeth at architects’ offices in London, he moved to Malvern in 1896, working for Nevinson and Newton, an architectural firm situated in the imposing Priory Gateway, just above the Abbey Hotel (Nevinson was the brother of Basil Nevinson, who was to become one of Troyte’s co-Variationees). Very soon Troyte became acquainted with Edward and Alice Elgar, assisting them in their various property transactions.
From this Priory Gateway office (which he eventually took over in 1908) Troyte designed many of the area’s most impressive edifices, of which perhaps the best-known is the Toposcope erected on the summit of the Worcestershire Beacon, high in the Malvern Hills. Though intended to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, this device which has been pored over by hundreds of thousands of hill-walkers was not, in fact, inaugurated until June 1899.
The Toposcope houses an ‘Indicator’, pointing out over 360 degrees and a 67-mile radius all the locations which can certainly be seen from here. Around the rim are engraved the names of places further away which can possibly be espied on a clear day. As Troyte himself wrote in a newspaper article printed in the ‘Malvern Gazette’, it was practically certain that 15 counties could be seen, but sightings of about seven others were less certain.
Probably the most spectacular of Troyte’s designs was that for All Saints Church at Lower Wyche, Malvern Wells, dressed in Malvern stone, and with the benefit of stained glass by Henry Payne of the Bromsgrove Guild. The church was enthusiastically reviewed in Brooks and Pevsner’s ‘The Buildings of England: Worcestershire’ (2007).
Troyte designed many domestic residences, some of them humbly functional, others more commanding, with wonderful interior layouts within their striking exteriors, and there were other achievements as well, including an elegant sun-lounge over the entrance-hall to the Montrose Hotel in Malvern’s Graham Road. But architecture was not the only way Arthur Troyte Griffith made his mark upon Malvern.
He was a founder-member of Malvern Chess Club, elected secretary and treasurer at its inaugural meeting on February 28, 1899, and continuing as a fierce and accomplished player (and sometime President), occasionally representing Worcestershire, until his death in 1942.
And today Troyte’s spirit lives on, not just as an ‘Enigma Variation’, not just as a knight of the chess-board, but also as one of the co-founders of the Malvern Concert Club Elgar spearheaded into existence in 1903 and still going strong, with enthusiastic audiences filling the town’s Forum Theatre once a month for most of the year.
The heart-warming link between Elgar and Troyte (“Ninepin”, as the composer affectionately nicknamed this rather gangling, lanky -- and with an uncanny resemblance to Robert Louis Stevenson -- individual pedalling around on his trusty bicycle) is preserved at the Church of St Wulstan, Little Malvern, where Edward and Alice Elgar are buried. Troyte selected the site for the grave, and designed the headstone.
Troyte’s life and work is meticulously and loving detailed in a new book by Jeremy M. Hardie, who himself lives in a Troyte-designed house in Malvern. A little hawkeyed editing is needed, but the volume itself is a delight, with its many photographs and sketches, the latter by Troyte himself. It provides an unexpected insight into one of the most endearing Enigma Variations.
* Troyte Griffith - Malvern Architect and Elgar’s Friend, by Jeremy M. Hardie, is published by Aspect Design (£12.90). Further details from Professor J.M. Hardie on 01684 573 907.