Every picture tells a story: this one records the time George Bernard Shaw met the young Harold Rubens. By the age of 10 Rubens was winning piano prizes and performing for example, in Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto with the Scottish Symphony Orchestra under conductor George Szell. But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the image is the woman by Shaw’s side, Rubens teacher Madame Maria Levinskaya. She was to form the character of “Madame Souzatzka” in a novel by Ruben’s booker prize winning sister (Bernice) which was made into a film in 1988 (by John Schlesinger). However, the characterisation is not entirely flattering being that the book shows Madame as a frustrated underperforming artist living through her more gifted students. Other information on her is patchy but we can find out snippets that hint at a more productive and interesting life, such as her organising charity concerts for troops in World War One or her fleeing from Russia after the fall of the Tsar. There is a touch of the exotic in these snippets and her appearance in the photograph, which almost resembles the image drawn of artistic 1920s women by writers like Evelyn Waugh and therefore lives up to her novelistic associations. [Rubens other sister Beryl was a viola player with the Welsh National Opera.]
As well as being a pianist Rubens would become a political activist. Although born in Wales he made South Africa his home for many years and he played a significant role in the anti-Apartheid movement, playing the piano loudly at meetings in his home to frustrate bugging devices and holding meetings in his gardens with Nelson Mandela to discuss strategy.
Photographs can lead you into discovering about peoples lives: and not just the most ‘famous’ persons in the print. This discovery gives context to the image and raises it above the ordinary into an object of interest.
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