Her Cakes Have Kept Buildings Standing

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Louise Nicholson bakes “useful cakes.”

Cakes are designed to be edible and delicious – so what’s this “useful” stuff?

“I started making those cakes while I was at Edinburgh University,” the celebrated British art historian, author, filmmaker, travel entrepreneur, conservationist, and gadfly said. “I became known for my thematic cakes. I would bake them to mark some event or cause.”

One time, Ms. Nicholson made a thematic cake was when two architectural historian friends decided to get married. Because their personalities and fields of study were different, Ms. Nicholson’s wanted the cake to be a metaphor for marriage (sugar, cream, honey, etc.) 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. “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, 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.”

By now well into developing a reputation as an urban conservationist, Ms. Nicholson had become adept at expressing outrage. Once, when she was so incensed over the proposed demolition of a dramatic Art Deco building in West London, the Hoover, 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 did come, at least partly because they anticipated a creative stunt from Ms. Nicholson. 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 a 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 quarter 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 the conventional life scenario that had been suggested by her father, Joseph Nicholson, a London lawyer living in leafy Surrey.

“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, where 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 because India was the jewel in the British Empire’s 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. Her ebullient personality and canny people skills were an asset in winning the trust of “gloriously eccentric Indian scholars,” as she puts it.

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. 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 guidebooks on London and India. Then Ms. Nicholson entered the travel business. Twenty 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, where her husband, Nicholas Wapshott, was transferred by the Times (he’s currently national and foreign editor of The New York Sun). Ms. Nicholson secured a monthly commission from a prestigious London-based art magazine, Apollo; she also has 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.”

Other cakes in the making.

The New York Sun

© 2023 The New York Sun Company, LLC. All rights reserved.

Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. The material on this site is protected by copyright law and may not be reproduced, distributed, transmitted, cached or otherwise used.

The New York Sun

Sign in or  Create a free account

By continuing you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use