A visit to the last great country-house work by Vanbrugh, Grimsthorpe Castle, is a revelation in the real playfulness of this great virtuoso of English architecture. The great hall is a space that feels part inside, part outside, the front court has an extraordinary sense of perspective or even false perspective, and the strong towers at either end of the main front impart such a feeling of strength. I have only really known this great house from photographs, and one walk around the outside in the rain.
Vanbrugh occupied my imagination throughout the weekend, notwithstanding that both days are spent at home, with the girls raking leaves and cooking endless meals and receiving text messages from my father on a great cruise down the Amazon with his wife. Miranda, aged 8, improvises a pudding for Sunday lunch which she has encountered in a story about life in ancient Rome, cut fruit, covered in oats and honey cooked in the oven; a great success. We make a jelly for supper, and I ask for an old fashioned jelly mould for Christmas – what would I give for one in the form of Grimsthorpe.
This week I visited a very fine house which we plan to feature next year. I noticed that they had several paintings by a good friend of mine, John Maddison; I mentioned my friendship to the owners who chuckled because while they loved his pictures, they had never actually met him. I have two very small but delectable still-lifes by him, of a mug on a dresser and an earthernware jug. They have a Buddhist serenity and are very reminiscent of the work of William Nicholson.
A few days later, I had a visit at home from another friend, another artist as it happened, who asked me about John’s pictures, I mentioned the Maddison’s name and he said: “but I know him through the Norfolk Churches Trust, I didn’t even know he painted”. It struck me as funny that there are so many different ways of knowing a person, by name, or though the things they do, and sometimes we don’t connect up all these different sides of a person, any more than we connect up all the different views of our face in the mirror with the dread reality of what we must really look like.
My London-Cambridge commute vouchsafed a good chat the other day with a distinguished professor who told me he had been in conversation the evening before with a lady who had had first hand experience of Lutyens’ embassy in Washington (see November 23 issue to come) and the Viceroy’s Palace in the 1930s. I adore such links. The lady was apparently pretty sharp about the deficiencies of the Washington Embassy’s lack of privacy, a keynote of diplomacy in her view.
But Lutyens will always be rather a hero of mine, not least because we spring from the same West Surrey soil. The first building I ever consciously noticed as “architect-designed” was the Tilford Village Institute, where my mother acted in amateur dramatics and in front of which my father played an annual cricket match. His genius with evoking the best of English traditional architecture in a single house, which looks as if it has been dropped down by some watercolour-obsessed god, is breath-taking, although sometimes the plans don’t quite live up to the promise of the approach.
Monday last, a visit to Goodwood and am blown away by the autumn colours, then am in the office rest of week seeing through the architecture and restoration number, which has come together well in my opinion (they stir up such interesting people these special issues).
At the end of the week I take a train to Dorchester to deliver a talk at the Dorset County Museum, on ‘The Country House Today’ (with some special reference to Dorset houses) to the Art Fund of Dorset, a very well-informed audience full of architects, Country Life readers and country house owners, even specialist furniture makers come up to chat. Its a charming museum, with a long 19th century hall, like a mission church, with a balcony and fancy ironwork, and numerous objects, Romneys and ship models, dolls houses and Roman mosaics in a pleasing mix.
Afterwards I am invited to a splendidly hospitable dinner party in one of Dorset most Romantic manor houses, Wolfteon, home of Capt Nigel and Mrs Thimbleby, huge roaring fires and candlelight make for a great atmosphere. Everyone seems to be on a committee for something, historic churches, gardens and so on, or an expert on china or military history, so the conversation ranges widely from swimming at Ringstead Bay in November to the tragedy of the old Shaftesbury family home in Dorset.
I stay the night at Bellamont with the Sykeses and read a memoir of the late Lord Egremont in bed, which describes a great scene between his young bride-to-be and the grumpy uncle from whom he inherited; his bride-to-be admired the view of the lake from the windows of Petworth House, to which the old curmudgeon replied along the lines of: ‘Young lady when one day your future husband inherits all this, he will also become the owner of half of Derwentwater and all of Bassenthwaite. They are lakes, what you are looking at is a pond!” Old grump.