Tyntesfield, in Wraxall, Somerset: the house built on the proceeds of guano sales, and now the subject of a fascinating NADFAS lecture…

Picasso, The Potteries & Patricia

9th September 2011

Taking your clothes off was always likely to attract attention, says Kathy Miller… but Picasso's models would probably be surprised to know that their naked poses are still drawing the crowds decades later – to packed village halls across the UK for a lecture entitled Picasso's Women.

Similarly, the 19th century entrepreneur who sold bird poo from Latin America to the English potteries could hardly have suspected that, one day, the opulent Somerset house he built with his money would be the subject of a lecture delivered to respectable Home Counties audiences, under the title From Guano to Victorian High Gothic.

The link between Picasso's mistresses and a purveyor of bird dirt may not be immediately obvious, but they both feature in two of a number of hundreds of lectures enjoyed each week by thousands of people up and down the country, courtesy of NADFAS: the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies.

NADFAS is currently in its 43rd year and boasts 350 local groups across Britain, each of which meets once a month for an afternoon or evening lecture, and usually once a quarter for a day trip to a place of cultural or artistic interest – an exhibition, say, or a stately home.

Lectures usually last an hour and are beautifully illustrated with digital images. They can be on subjects as diverse as the original Olympic games, the work of the Catalan Spanish architect Gaudi, how children are depicted in Victorian Christmas cards, Russian iconography or the sculptures of Henry Moore.

If my own experience as a long time member of Chorleywood NADFAS is anything to go by, the lectures provide an oasis of (child-free) calm in an otherwise busy schedule. Even subjects that didn't immediately leap out at me from the programme (the paintings chosen for the interior of the Titanic, for example) have rarely disappointed.

Almost without exception, the speakers are highly entertaining, often amusing and sometimes eccentric and, above all, they pitch their talks at a level that appeals to everyone. Typically university academics or museum curators, they are all experts in their field, whose enthusiasm for their subject just spills over. I always come away glad that I made the effort to go and grateful for having learned something.

Ninety per cent of lecturers are rated outstanding or excellent by members and they can usually be relied upon to do their homework and include information about the area they are visiting if they can. For example, two Chorleywood houses featured in a lecture on Voysey, one of the chief exponents of arts and crafts architecture, while Watford and Garston came into a lecture on heraldry and the making of coats of arms.

For Chorleywood members, it is a considerable source of pride that NADFAS was founded by a former Chorleywood resident, Patricia Fay.

A dental nurse before she married, Patricia Fay wanted something to do once her two daughters started school. In 1968, she founded the Chiltern Antiques Group, which proved so popular at its first meeting in Chenies Manor, that it simply grew and grew – so much so that the organisation into which it developed now has 90,000 members in the UK alone, with sister societies in Australia and New Zealand and among the British ex-pat communities in Spain and Gibraltar. NADFAS members also work as volunteer guides at several stately homes and buildings of interest, including, locally, Moor Park Mansion and Chenies Manor.

Patricia Fay's daughter Rachel, who lives in Chiswick, remembers her late mother as “a strong and colourful personality”, who would have been proud of the way NADFAS has developed.

“My mother was a great organiser. She had the ability to get the right people on board and wasn't afraid to approach people. She would go to the top brass at the V & A and had the ability to get influential people to support her efforts.”

According to Rachel Fay, today's NADFAS remains faithful to the ideals cherished by her mother. “NADFAS has survived because it has a very good blend of the social and the intellectually stimulating and because it's a 'bottom-up' organisation, driven by the local societies.”

Her sentiments are echoed by Liz Simpson, current president of the Chorleywood branch and a member for 27 years, who stresses that NADFAS is not at all elitist, and is a great place for friendship.

“One summer we had a private tour of Highgrove, Prince Charles's residence,” recalls Liz. “We have also visited the Countess of Rosebery's house near Edinburgh. There is no way she would have let us around her private apartments if we hadn't been from NADFAS… It gives you access to places that other people cannot reach, often on a day when a house or museum is closed to the public. We call it the Heineken factor!”

Margaret Czekalowska, who is the current chairman of the Chorleywood branch, joined around 20 years ago, when, she recalls, she was being 'swamped by her children and wanting to broaden her horizons.'

She says: “It's wonderful to have such stimulating lectures right on your doorstep. There's something for everyone, it makes us aware of our cultural heritage and it's nice to go to a museum or art gallery and know something about it already.”

Recent excursions offered by the Chorleywood branch have included a three-day visit to the museums and cathedrals of Liverpool and Salford, and guided tours of Eton College and the Garrick Club.

It was Patricia Fay's wish that above all, NADFAS 'should be fun' and that it should 'open doors' for people's interest.

Most memorable perhaps are the anecdotes that lecturers keep up their sleeves. Did you know, for instance, that the Queen wears a two-stringed pearl necklace for state occasions and three strings at other times – and do you know why?

No, neither did I, but thanks to a NADFAS lecture on royal jewels entitled Pearls Before Swine, I do now*.

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