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Lunch at the Four Seasons with: Louise Nicholson

Published by The New York Sun on 2006-06-30

Louise Nicholson makes "useful cakes."

Steady on, the reporter said to the celebrated British art historian, author, film maker, travel entrepreneur, conservationist, and gadfly, who now lives in New York. Cakes are designed to be edible - so what's this "useful" stuff?

"I started making those cakes while I was at Edinburgh University," Ms. Nicholson said. "I became known for my thematic cakes. I would bake them to mark some event or cause."

One time that she made a thematic cake was when two architectural historians - both friends of hers - decided to get married. Not only were their personalities different, so were their fields of study. Ms. Nicholson's cake aimed to be a metaphor for marriage - sugar, cream, honey, you get the picture - and also a conceptual representation of the twinning of disparate disciplines.

"So I created a cake with two facades - one Gothic, the other classical," Ms. Nicholson said, fairly bursting with excitement as she recounted the story. "That's it, you see - that said it all."

That also suggested a prodigious creativity. Depicting two historical manses surely hadn't been in any conventional book of recipes?

"Indeed not," Ms. Nicholson said. She seemed to be on a roll, and was already preparing to narrate another story of culinary grit.

"Not long after university, I worked for the Victorian Society in London. This was at a time when greedy developers were buying up beautiful old homes, tearing them down, and building ugly housing blocks," Ms. Nicholson said. "The disease became infectious. The good folks at London's Natural History Museum decided that they would tear down a fourth of those magnificent buildings. Can you imagine - a fourth of those beautiful buildings going to developers! That was unacceptable."

Ms. Nicholson, by now well into developing a reputation as an urban conservationist, had become adept at expressing outrage. There had been a time when she was so incensed over the demolition of a dramatic Art Deco building in West London, the Hoover, that she stood in front of a bulldozer, refusing to budge unless the developer relented. He did, and the building still stands.

"I wasn't about to give up the fight for the Natural History Museum," she said. "So we organized a press breakfast, and made sure everybody came."

Everybody came at least partly because they anticipated a creative stunt on Ms. Nicholson's part. They weren't disappointed.

"I made this huge lemon cake in the shape of the Natural History Museum. When the press and television cameras arrived, the comedian Spike Milligan chopped off a quarter of that huge cake. We then sliced it into 12 pieces - one for each member of the museum," Ms. Nicholson said.

Each piece was elaborately wrapped and dispatched to each board member.

It was a stunning bit of theater, and it captured the public imagination. Pressure mounted against the museum's plan to lop off a fourth of its architectural assets. The board relented.

"The cake saved the museum," Ms. Nicholson said. "It was a very useful cake indeed."

The episode reinforced her reputation for taking flinty stands on behalf of conservation. It also validated her decision to strike out on her own and not accept a life scenario that had been suggested by her father Joseph Nicholson, a London lawyer living in leafy Surrey. The youngest of five children, Ms. Nicholson had been expected to get married to a banker or lawyer, raise children, and lead a quiet life in the suburbs of London.

"I knew - I absolutely knew - that the ticket to my freedom was education," Ms. Nicholson said. "Hence, Edinburgh University and a master's degree with honors in art history, with enormous encouragement from my mother Eve. Hence, the Victorian Society and conservation."

Hence, Christie's, the fabled auction house in London. There was an opening in the Indian and Islamic art section.

"I barely knew where India was on the map," Ms. Nicholson said in typical British understatement - especially noteworthy in view of the fact that India was the British Empire's jewel in the crown for some 250 years until 1947. "But I breezed into this job. And I knew at once that India was my destination."

Her timing was exquisite. General scholarship concerning the Indian Subcontinent was coming into its own after long years when study had been dominated by unheralded specialists. Her ebullient personality and canny people skills were an asset in winning the trust of "gloriously eccentric Indian scholars," as she puts it.

"There was a huge generosity on their part that really helped me," Ms. Nicholson said.

The combination of that generosity and her own scholarly diligence yielded great dividends: Ms. Nicholson came to be regarded as one of Britain's most authoritative figures on Indian art.

Then her bicycle got stolen. A second bicycle disappeared. And a third.

"I was having great intellectual fun, but I was appallingly paid," Ms. Nicholson said. "It was so bad that when your bicycle was stolen, you had to walk home."

Her next stop was The Times, the London newspaper then edited by Sir Harold Evans, the legendary discoverer and nurturer of journalistic and literary talent.

Sir Harold assigned Ms. Nicholson to write about arts and culture. Once again deploying her creativity, Ms. Nicholson expanded that brief to writing about events that people could attend.

"I believed that art, architecture, gardens, parks, sculpture, and natural beauty - all these are for everybody," she said. "I set about debunking the elitism of art. I wanted to enable everyone to enjoy all the arts."

Soon she was writing landmark guide books on London and India, which became so popular that they are still sought in book stores around the world.

Then Ms. Nicholson entered the travel business. Now, 20 years later, she still leads groups to India four or five times a year, offering insights and educating participants in art and architectural history.

She also helped produce an acclaimed television series, "The Great Moghuls," based on the classic work by Bamber Gascoigne. Among her creative contributions was staging a full wedding in the western Indian city of Udaipur.

"My reward in all this is when I see the mind of a client open like a lotus blossom, yearning to drink in all they can about India's culture," Ms. Nicholson said.

She's now seeking rewards in New York. Her husband, Nicholas Wapshott, was transferred by The Times from London (he's currently national and foreign editor of the New York Sun). Ms. Nicholson secured a monthly commission from the prestigious London-based art magazine, Apollo; she has also continued her travel business and her book writing. And she founded a charity for Indian children, Save-A-Child.

"But the conservationist in me hasn't gone away," Ms. Nicholson said. "I look around New York and all over India, and see how many buildings need love and care."

There's this cake that she's making.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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