Butler House is a handsome, late Victorian villa that sits at the junction of The Drive and Nightingale Road in Rickmansworth. Just over 10 years ago it was converted into three flats, its stables became a bijou house, and two detached properties suddenly sprouted at the bottom of its garden.
The development was not well-received locally. However, the protest might have been louder if it had been more widely known that Butler House was a meeting place for some of the country’s most distinguished musicians and composers in the 1930s.
In those pre-war years Nightingale Corner, as it was then called, was home to Hubert Foss, the pianist and composer who founded the Oxford University Press music department, and his wife, Dora, a professional singer.
As the authors of London: A Musical Gazetteer (2005) recount, Arnold Bax, Benjamin Britten, Vaughan Williams, Constant Lambert and Ernest John Moeran (sometimes described as ‘Britain’s greatest lost composer’) all came to dine with the Fosses. The then youthful William Walton was also a regular visitor.
“We loved Willie’s visits,” Dora Foss later said. “We spent hours listening to his playing of whatever the current composition was … and Hubert discussed, advised and encouraged him.
“We sat long over meals while Willie regaled us with current gossip and comments on friends and foes alike. How we laughed!”
One day Walton indicated that he was keen to get to know Arnold Bax better. “We invited them to dine with us quietly without any other guests,” Dora Foss recalled. “Arnold left by the last train and Willie stayed on with us for a day or two.”
There appears to be no photographic record of the composers’ meeting. The book, however, includes a touchingly happy photograph of the then 29-year-old Walton with other dinner guests in the back garden of Butler House in 1931, the year that saw the first performance of his still popular cantata, Belshazzar’s Feast.
London: A Musical Gazetteer, by Lewis and Susan Foreman, Yale University Press, paperback, £18.99
Contribution by - David Budge