January Thoughts

Cambridge looks pretty good in the snow, but the pavements get alarmingly icy after a while. But it is curious how attractive it makes everything look, different cleaner, more unified. The melting of the snow has left all the fields around Cambridge very wet and the Cam fairly high.

I have been working on my forthcoming book The English Country House Drawing Room, which I am enjoying hugely, tracing the elusive origins of this important room type in inventories and other sources; the book will also include a selection of important drawing rooms in English country houses newly photographed.

Another project took me to the research department of the Imperial War Museum reading the correspondence of a first war officer Lt Col Herbert Trevor, who wrote regular letters home to his parents, Sir Francis and Lady Trevor, I am looking for the references to his home, but am immensely moved by the evidence of a life of full of action, promise and a sense of courage, dreadfully wasted when he is killed in 1917.

One of the threads I followed was the story of the horses he took out from Oxfordshire, and whose health and condition are frequently referred to until they were both killed by the same shell. His parents send out two dogs, who find life at the front quite hard, but are useful ratters. One is smuggled out in a general’s kit bag; much care is taken in trying to get the dogs home.

The handwriting gets increasingly looser as the young officer becomes more and more tired by endless trench warfare, and then a last note to his parents, I am well; then the notice of his death in action. What a terrible waste it all seems nearly a hundred years later. There is something very personal about the letters; it is a privilege to read them. I feel humbled.

Best Play: saw Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville with Sam West and Anna Friel, hugely enjoyed.

Recent articles: The Liberal Use of Colour: the history of the National Liberal Club and Anyone for Drinks in the Library, both in Country Life magazine.

New Book: pleased to announce the publication of Moggerhanger Park, which I have co-edited with Jane Brown with essays by a group of distinguished authors on the history of this important Sir John Soane designed house

New York, Philly and Milwaukee

Much public speaking in recent weeks, including contributing to the Attingham Trust’s 60 anniversary conference, in which I raised the issue of the future of the sector of historic house museums in local authority ownership, many worrying stories around, and yet I think these include some very important houses and collections and collectively are a major player; a week later I contributed to a debate on “preservation v modernization” at the Battle of Ideas at the Barbican; the latter an especially lively debate, the audience, young and London biased overwhelming not enthusiastic for preservation – at least they said they weren’t; mind you the one person who put his hand for preservation was one of the youngest in the room.

To New York and Philadelphia to lecture for the Royal Oak, on country houses and country sports, a historical review which I hope helped identify the intense identification of these sports and landownership itself, then in terms of how they influence art, architecture and landscape of the English country house. Mid town Manhattan, back to normal after the hurricane, but met some who had seen the devastation on Coney Island etc, include my own cousin who works with the poorest families of the Bronx. I then flew up to Milwaukee I lectured on the English country house, the history of interiors and the story of Kenwood House, at the Milwaukee Museum of Art, in their splendid new building by Calatrava, looking out over Lake Michigan. I visited the extraordinary Ten Chimneys, the preserved home of two Broadway actors, Lynne Fontaine and Alfred Lunt, each room like a stage set of a Noel Coward play – a very amusing and well cared for place.

Best Books Read:
Hugh and Mirabel Cecil, In Search of Rex Whistler
John Fletcher, Gardens of Earthly Deer Park: the history of deer parks

Best Exhibitions
William de Morgan at the Watts Gallery & Hollywood Costume at the V&A, & Bernini terracotta sculptures and the Roentgens furniture at at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, and the Lost Prince at The National Portrait Gallery; also enjoyed the Hollywood Costume.

Best Meal Out:
Mele and Pere in Soho

cocktails at the ritz to winning my blades in the Cambridge Bumps

July
On July 4, we celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary with a cocktail at the Ritz and supper at the Wolseley. It doesn’t seem 20 years at all – life has been so full.
On the first weekend of July I contributed to a panel in a conference on amateur theatricals convened by Professor Judith Hawley of Royal Holloway at the London hq of the University of Notre Dame; I am very interested in the different ways in which country houses were used for entertainment and creativity in their history – the day ended with a performance of one of the late Georgian romantic comedies popular in the Regency country house. Papers were wide ranging and scholarly and one of the most surprising was given by Dr Hugh Denard about using digital imaging to recreate the private theatricals performed in an ancient Roman villa.
The following week I had the great excitement of rowing in the Cambridge Town Bumps for the first time in a crew under the aegis of the Champion of the Thames Club, we were the very modest novice-and-new-recruits crew, the 9th Men’s Boat; we have been rowing together as an eight only since Easter (three of us complete novices), but have enjoyed having a goal, and the good offices of Oliver Harwood and David Levien as coaches; we chose the name Automaton in honour of our Greek stroke and our hope that we can row like a robot; we earn a place after our first timed race, and are entered in the Bumps with a new cox, Jane Risdall; we begin at the bottom of the bottom Men’s Division: I am happy to say that we bumped each night, “earned our blades” and on the last day rowed as the sandwich boat in the next division, and bumped again, five bumps in a row something of a club record. This has been one of the proudest achievements of my life – I was not much of a sportsman as a child, too much of a day dreamer and always the last to be picked for teams; I can never thank our coaches or my fellow crew members enough. Our gallant men’s captain, Gez Wynn Story supported us through the week and made a video for anyone who might be amused to see it – this shows the fourth bump which is what you need to do, to “earn our blades”.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pagQnf3MJ58&feature=youtu.be

celebrating our crew's first Bump

Winning Our Blades Cambridge Town Bumps 2012

A Comedy of Errors in Farsi

June
June began with a surprising diversion as we were invited to see an all-Afghani Farsi-version of Comedy of Errors performed in the old Palace at Hatfield; simple scene descriptions were projected on the wall so us non-Farsi speakers could follow the plot, which was acted with real power and wit. It was sad to read how the theatrical group, who had performed in the Globe Theatre’s cultural Olympiad, had experienced persecution in Afghanistan because men and women act together on the stage, which is apparently frowned on by extremists. We laughed a lot at the semi-pantomime elements in this most complex of Shakespeare’s comedies – although I naturally did not follow all the jokes that the Farsi speakers in the room did. This was a really extraordinary experience and I was pleased to have dragged the teenage daughters and some other friends who have travelled in the Middle East. This was a month of theatre, as I also went to see my step-brother Hugo Wilson directing an amateur performance of An Ideal Husband in the Compton Village Hall, a curiously potent play about trust and reputation in politics; it’s a very wordy play but I think the cast kept the spirit of the story alive, with its curious mix of tragedy and comedy; a play I had never seen before and thoroughly enjoyed.
Best Exhibitions Seen: The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, and Dickens and the Artists at the Watts Gallery, Compton, Surrey
Much enjoyed: the spectacle of the Royal Wedding, elegant and unforgettable British ritual, and amused by the couple taking the title the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge

Matters of May

May

One of the highlights of May was attending the retirement event for Brian Allen of the Paul Mellon Centre in London, held at the Royal Academy, a gathering of the art and architectural history world in the “Fine Rooms” at Burlington House; Brian Allen has been the godfather of British art studies for decades and everyone in the room seems to have been touched by his discerning support. In the same fortnight I also managed to get to the launch of Todd Longstaffe-Gowan’s new book published by Yale University Press on historic London squares, and catch up with many old friends including Mark Girouard, Simon Bradley, Michael Hall and others.

Much of this month has been devoted to research and writing but travels in May included a visit to Cliveden, the handsome Italianate mansion built in the mid nineteenth century to designs of Sir Charles Barry, and also the former home of the Astors, owned by the National Trust and for some time a grand hotel, now in new management; the view from the terrace is still quite stupendous. When Harold Macmillan was told by a journalist what he thought of Cliveden becoming a hotel said, “it always was, dear boy.” This was a month for great Victorians and I also had a tour of the National Liberal Club designed by the Alfred Waterhouse, which has some wonderfully preserved and evocative interiors, with numerous busts of Gladstone peering down quizzically in almost every room.

I have been immensely proud of my daughters over the past few weeks, the oldest ploughing her way through AS-levels, and the youngest exhibiting a beautiful collage portrait of my late mother in her school scholarship art event, the first in the new art school with was opened by Anthony Green RA – her design for the logo for the new art school was also chosen.

Best Book Read: Collected Works of Saki

Best Exhibition: Picasso and Modern British, Tate Britain, exploring Picasso’s impact on Duncan Grant, Graham Sutherland, Ben Nicholson, Henry Moore at others.

Best Pub visited: The Falkland Arms at Great Tew in Oxfordshire

May

Easter and beyond

Later April, down to Dorset for the annual bucket and spade. I wake early to work on my current book project, a history of a remarkable London house and find that I am absorbed in that other world quite easily despite the distance.

We come to Dorset every year, the same house, the same beach. We usually catch up with some good friends who live down here, and often bump into other friends too. I especially enjoy catching up with architect Stuart Martin and his portrait painter wife, Binny Matthews, and we admire the handsome long room which they have added to their remote farmhouse, with a light-filled painting studio above. I hugely admire Binny’s paintings, which I first saw at Castle Drogo many years ago, where she painted the last Drewe to live in the house.

When down in Ringstead, we spend most of time down on the beach, walking the cliffs or playing lawn cricket with the nephews and niece, and am pleased to catch up with one of my godsons who lives down in Devon. Easter service is up on the cliff as every year, and despite some rain it clears up for the Sunday morning. The rain is a pain! Working on the London house book when we get back and investigating the bombing of central London in 1940, and the extraordinary story of the refugees from Nazism who were interned in 1939/1940 – not a great chapter in English history.

Recent Highlights:

Best Fun: Rowing strokeside with the Champs Rowing Club – especially as the weather improves!

Best Pub Visit: I was very lucky to be able to spend a night at the King John’s Inn in Tollard Royal, elegant and comfortable, with a really excellent menu and wine list; the pub is hung with black and white sporting photographs by Charlie Sainsbury-Plaice who also took the photographs for my collecting column in The Field. Service is down to a fine art here, and the pub is popular with local shooting parties (which explains occasional sightings of pop stars here)
Look out for: My feature on Loseley Park, Country Life, May 20 issue.
My next public lecture is on English Ruins, and is on the evening of June 20 at the Little Shop of Horrors in Hoxton, see link for Hendrick’s lecture series

Hampshire days and a nod to Austen

Blog

A Hampshire theme emerged recently on my research travels, with more than one visit to one of the areas of my youth, including a trip to Chawton near Alton to see the Jane Austen House Museum and Chawton House, the manor house owned by Jane Austen’s brother, Edward Knight; I was lucky enough to be there on a glorious sunny afternoon and enjoyed a tour of the house Jane Austen shared with her sister, mother and friend Martha Lloyd, the security of which allowed her to resume her writing (thronged with visitors from the US). We used to glimpse Chawton on the drive back to school when I was a teenager.

The pale, stone manor house and the church form a very English picture and are only a few minutes walk away from the cottage museum. This is open less to the public, although there are regular tours and I enjoyed a detailed personal tour of the house which is owned by a trust and the home of a centre devoted to early women’s writing, which has carried out an exemplary restoration.

I was back to the same county a week later giving a talk to the National Trust Winchester Association on the interior decoration of great country houses from Hatfield onwards; there was a very enthusiastic audience and also a chance to meet up with some old friends who live nearby, and who provided wonderful hospitality, also as it happened in a romantic old rectory.

This month, I was also honoured to be asked to be President of the Friends of Croome Park in Worcestershire, the Capability Brown landscape which is now owned by the National Trust. The trust has also recently taken on a long lease of the mansion house too, designed by Brown around an older house, Adam added some fine ceilings and the Tapestry Room long in the Metropolitan Museum in new York. My visit last week was also blessed with glorious fine weather, although it had the effect of blurring the outline of the Malvern Hills, thus spoiling the effect for which Mr Brown so earnestly strove.

Recent Highlights:

Most inspiring charity work encountered: fundraising and welfare work for “the Rifles, Care for Casualties”: www.careforcasualties.org.uk,
supporting British Army riflemen and their families, especially those who have suffered casualties, injuries or stress in the Afghanistan campaign.

Best Lecture Heard: Lord Edward Manners on Haddon Hall Derbyshire, part of the John Cornforth Memorial Lecture series held at Christies; a through and amusing account of this wonderful and complex country house.

Best TV documentary: BBC Four on Ashile Gorky, very beautiful and thoughtful programme made by his grand-daughter Cosima, who I knew when she was 12 in Tuscany in 1984.

Best Book Read: Jose Saramago, Blindness, recommended by a Fellow of Queens, a riveting Dantesque and Orwellian story.

Look out for:

After dinner speech on “Travels Round Country Houses” at the AGM, evensong, reception and dinner for the Order of St Etheldreda, the Friends of Ely Cathedral; Friday March 30, from 5.30.

my forthcoming feature on Loseley Park in Country Life in the May 20 issue.

My lecture on Ruins, June 20 at the Little Shop of Horrors in Hoxton, see link for Hendrick’s lecture series

Cumbria, Freud and a night on the Cam

February 2012

A ‘heads-down-with-books’ sort of month, but a few delicious excursions, too. At the beginning of the month, I went up to Whitehaven to lecture on Oliver Messel, a long train journey in the company of Sarah Woodcock the theatre expert; Messel designed the charming Rosehill Theatre, for Sir Nicholas Sekers, the silk manufacturer – it opened in 1959 and the current enterprising director of the theatre, Richard Elder has organised a splendid exhibition of designs by Oliver on loan from the Victoria and Albert Museum.

There was a very jolly launch party with a good number present, including a number who could remember the glamorous performances at Rosehill in the 1960s. Local design students had come dressed in costumes inspired by his drawings. The lectures on the following day, went very well, and I enjoyed the long slow train journey home down the coastline to Lancaster, snow on the fields and storms out to sea.

After a morning’s research at the National Gallery, a couple of weeks back, I enjoyed a visit to the National Portrait Gallery to see the Lucian Freud exhibition, an excellent show curated by Sarah Howgate – who also curated the excellent Hockney portraits exhibition I reviewed some years ago. I became rather interested in Freud’s depiction of space, the rooms are shown as timeless, raw, and stripped back just as the people are.

On a more outdoor note, I was also very privileged to have my first chance to do some rowing with a more experienced rowing eight this month, it was one evening and in fact, after dark, which on a still spring night seemed entirely surreal. It was quite a challenge as I am still learning technique and especially endurance, (not sure if I will be asked to sub again!) but an unforgettable experience, quite difficult to describe in words.

Best Book Read this month: Arnold Bennett, Buried Alive

Best Exhibition: Lucian Freud at the National Portrait Gallery

Best Lectures heard: Paul Crossley, Slade Lectures on the Gothic Cathedral

Recent articles to note:

“Bricks and Mortar Link to Immortal Link”, a feature on Dickens and the English Country House, Country Life, February 22, 2012, pp.48-43

& an interview with Dr Michael Darby, beetle collector, in The Field March issue, last of my column in that magazine.

da Vinci, Dickens and Snow

Working on projects in Winchester and then near Tisbury, so stayed the night with old friends Olly and Camilla Akers-Douglas in their beautifully restored farmhouse; Camilla is a writer and editor, who I have known for years, and Olly is a talented landscape painter newly associated with the Portland Gallery. He has a splendid remote studio carved out of a large barn

Back via London, so I was able to visit the celebrated Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery, which brought together so many interesting paintings and important preparatory drawings and demonstrated the technical and intellectual depth of Leonardo as a painter. It focuses especially on his role as a court painter to the Duke of Milan and how this gave him the freedom to concentrate on his art. This wonderful exhibition was expertly curated by Luke Syson – he has now just moved to the Metroplitan Museum of Art In New York.

I also recently visited Rockingham Castle in preparation for a feature that I am writing for Country Life, to be published in february It was a splendidly wintry day, which seemed rather fitting for this picturesque old house. Rockingham has a dramatic 14th-century gatehouse, but once you pass through the gate the house you see is mostly as rebuilt in 16th century – with parts remodelled by Salvin in the mid 19th century. I am interested in Charles Dickens’ visits here, the amateur dramatics and readings, and the inspiration he drew from the house and garden when creating Chesney Wold, the seat of the Dedlocks in Bleak House. This was a house that he loved, and he was close to Richard and Lavinia Watson who were his hosts.

Cambridge has been looking very lovely in the snow, although it did all come down very quickly in a huge storm while we were all out to supper on Saturday with my father and stepmother at Loch Fyne opposite The Fitzwilliam Museum. I had spent the day contributing to a study day on Oliver Messel at the Victoria and Albert Museum which had all the contributors speaking; Stephen Calloway very good on the Bright Young Things, Sarah Woodcock on his theatre and Keith Lodwick on his film set and costume design. I very much enjoyed the event and there was an excellent showing of young theatre design students.

Best Books Read this month:
Claire Tomalin Charles Dickens: A Life
John Martin Robinson Felling the Ancient Oaks

Best Lecture heard: Paul Crossley, Slade Lectures

Important date: January 28th, is Archie the Jack Russell’s 4th birthday

Recent articles:

Feature on country house theatres and amateur theatricals, Country Life, in December 7, 2011
Interview with Chris Cole, compass collector in the The Field magazine, February 2012 issue, and interview with Dr Michael Darby, beetle collector, in The Field March issue
Interview with Lady Emma Barnard about life at Parham, in Sussex, The Lady, Jan 27, 2012

January 2012