Karen Liebreich MBE, Director of Abundance London
Profile by Bridget Osborne
April 2018 (Updated 2019)
Dr Karen Liebreich MBE is so bloody prolific, I’m not really sure where to start. A doctor of History from Cambridge, fluent in four languages (five if you count just being able to read Spanish fluently) with a diploma in Horticulture, she just has ideas and does them, be it a public mural, a historic kitchen garden or a book exposing the paedophilic history of the Catholic Church.
I suppose the Chiswick Timeline is as good a place to start as any, as that is her most recent eye-catching achievement. She and designer Sarah Cruz, who together set up Abundance London (I’ll come on to that) decided that the grubby, poster strewn brickwork of the railway bridge on Turnham Green Terrace needed cheering up and set about researching, designing, funding and project managing a historic timeline of Chiswick in maps and works by local artists. Four years later they opened it, in January 2018, to public delight, with a street party involving live music, street food and interactive art projects.
Most people are fairly linear in their career; one thing tends to lead to another. Karen not so much. Her trajectory is more that of a compass in an electrical storm. Most people would have been happy with her first career: ‘Responsable des activités culturelles’, French Institute, London. ‘Ran theatre/cinema, art gallery, lectures etc. 1985-1988’. Or indeed her second: TV researcher and producer 1989-2001, which included producing The Royal Navy, three 60 minute documentaries for The History Channel (USA), presented by Prince Andrew.
As well as the day job and raising two well rounded and successful children with husband Consultant Nephrologist Professor Jeremy Levy, Karen started writing books in the nineties, first of all with the BBC: Doing Business in Eastern Europe (BBC Books, 1991) and The Complete Skier: A Practical Guide for Skiers of all levels (BBC Books, 1993), helped no doubt by the fact that she and Jeremy are expert skiers and her brother is an Olympic skier. Then UneXplained: Spine-tingling tales from real places in Britain and Ireland (children’s stories – Macmillan, May 1997) and The London Baby Directory: An A-Z of everything for pregnant women, babies & under-5s, which became a flourishing business as an annual publication with an accompanying website, branching out into seven local directories, which she sold and which continues under new owners.
In 2004 she published a scholarly work, the result of years of research which she started in Florence at the age of 21 in the archives of an order of the Catholic Church known as the Piarists, as well as in the Vatican and the newly-opened Inquisition archives in pursuit of her doctoral thesis. Months of studying crumbling documents in dusty boxes written in seventeenth century Italian led her to ask why the Piarist order had been suddenly closed down by the Pope in 1646 with no explanation. The answer is an eerie echo of the contemporary abuse scandals which have rocked the Catholic Church. An order established to house and educate poor children became an enabler for leading priests to sexually abuse children and for the scandal to be covered up. ‘Karen Liebriech’s meticulous scholarship brings the whole sorry episode to light’ says Karen Armstrong, former RC nun and author of books on comparative religion. It is a ‘brilliantly accessible book … a piece of investigative writing that is relentless in its search for the truth.’ “The story that Liebreich can now unravel is as racy and full of machinations as The Name of the Rose” Guardian.
Another of her books, The Letter in the Bottle (Atlantic Books 2010) is a detective story of another kind. She found a bottle in the shape of a tear drop washed up on the Kent coast with a letter inside it written in French from a mother grieving for her lost child Maurice. Amazingly she found both mother and what happened to the child and the book is the story of how she found them and what happened next.
It should come as no surprise then that Karen writes for Private Eye or that her book The Black Page (McHugh Publications 2017) is based on interviews with Nazi Film-makers. The subjects of her books differ widely but there’s a common theme here of investigation and historical research and a desire to shine a light on evil and wrong doing. The Black Page offers a last chance to hear from key figures from the Nazi film industry; never before published interviews with those at the heart of Goebbels’ propaganda machine – the Nazi ‘Marilyn Monroe’, Lilli Marlene’s composer, Leni Riefenstahl’s cameraman, Goebbels’ secretary, and many more.
Then there’s Karen Liebreich the horticulturalist, a whole other persona who pops up around 2003 with a diploma in horticulture from Capel Manor College which specialises in studies based on the land, and Karen Liebreich the community crusader who founded the Chiswick House Kitchen Garden. More than a thousand children and young people work in the gardens each year, growing and eating healthy food and learning about plant science, horticulture and minibeasts. Around 40 regular volunteers keep it in order and sell the produce. The creative vision and organisational energy was provided by Karen. Having set it up and been a director and trustee for eight years, she moved on to set up Abundance London with Sarah Cruz, an award-winning charitable organisation which puts together people who have excess fruit in their gardens needing to be picked and pickers from local schools, harvesting the produce and making sure it doesn’t go to waste.
Karen’s interests in horticulture and in community activism in fact go way back. Her first community project was setting up a garden at the end of the road from her home in Ealing when she was 15. She asked neighbours for spare plants to reclaim a bit of public land and the garden developed from there. She considered studying landscape gardening at university, but went off the idea when they wanted her to go away and work as a gardener for five years first. She contented herself with an allotment and when she’d finished travelling and working abroad for long periods, then she gave horticulture and its applied community benefits her full attention.
She has been a trustee of Hammersmith Community Garden Association, a successful grassroots group which runs two small local parks, a couple of greenhouses, a large school farm on the White City Estate, and educational programmes in schools, and she has also been a trustee of Dukes Meadows.
Abundance London led to Cultivate London, an innovative charity using horticulture to train unemployed young people, using vacant spaces awaiting development, and to the refurbishment of the Salopian Garden, a National Trust property which was transformed in 2016 from an overgrown and abandoned wilderness to a beautiful garden with fruit trees, a herb garden, flower garden, vegetable beds, bee hives and a wood-fired cob oven. Another project which offered work and training for young people.
And so to the Chiswick Timeline, which was to have been a green, living wall and only became a vitreous enamel mural when Transport for London turned the initial idea down. The MBE was awarded in 2013 for Services to Horticulture and Education, but Karen is not resting on her laurels, or her Orange Pippins or her Maxstoke Nibbler pears. There’s always another project in the offing …
Not one to let the grass grow, Karen has redesigned the ‘piazza’ at Turnham Green Terrace, organising new benches, bike racks and planting and a community art work, the ‘W4th Plinth’ (which isn’t a plinth at all, but a two dimensional art work unveiled at the piazza launch party in September 2019).
Read more about the development of the piazza at Turnham Green Terrace here.
Read more about the Chiswick Timeline here.
See Karen’s piece on Black Page in the London Review of Books: lrb.co.uk