country houses courses

I am thrilled to be asked to contribute again this year to the new MA in country house studies for the University of Buckingham established by Adrian Tinniswood, whose new book the Long Weekend about country house life between the wars has been such a success. The course reminds me of how much pleasure the study of country houses has given me over the years and how rich the territory is for historians of architecture, design and society, and I was hugely impressed by the range of interest and experience of those who I lectured and supervised last year.
I was also reminded of the interest in dining and presentation last night hearing a wonderful talk on Regency dining at Moggerhanger House last night by Philippa Glanville, formerly of the V&A, a great silver expert, who brings the subject to life with insight and humour. This was one of the annual Soane lectures held at the house which explores some aspect of the architecture and design of the period. We marvelled at the elaboration of the settings laid out in illustrations of the dining room at Attingham, and illustrations of dinners at Apsley House and the Brighton Pavilion. We held the lecture in the handsome Eating Room at Moggerhanger designed by Sir John Soane, which is the best room in the house by far, and so warm we could keep the windows open to the lawn, Philippa reminded us that in the period an entertainment could easily have included further entertainments in the garden, including dancing: I think we had better include that with the lecture next time.

Farewell to a Brilliant Photographer

Recently, we said farewell to an important person in my life, the photographer Paul Barker, who I have worked with for twenty years. A gentle, patient Yorkshire, a farmer’s son, who began in fashion photography, and moved through photographing the Yorkshire landscape, into working on houses and interiors for Country Life, where we first came to work together in 1995. He was diagnosed with cancer only a short time ago, and died within a few weeks.

Paul was a master of his craft, had a wonderful eye, and worked unbelievably hard to get the best pictures possible. He took brilliantly to getting the best out of potentially rather dark and sombre castles and manor houses, and gradually became one of the most admired and reliable of the regular photographers, chronicling the English country house – as well as palaces in Spain and Italy, and country houses in the USA and Russia.

When I went self-employed in late 2007, as well as continuing to write for Country Life, I embarked on a series of books with Paul as photographer, English Ruins, 2011 published by Merrell, English Country House Interiors, 2011, published for Rizzoli of New York, for which he made some of the most beautiful photographs ever seen of houses such as Chatsworth, Castle Howard and Waddesdon; then followed The Drawing Room, published by Rizzoli, in 2013, The Country House Ideal about new country houses published by Merrell, in 2015, and in November 2015, he had just completed the photography for a big new illustrated work The Country Houses of Robert Adam, which will be published early in 2017 – he was much in demand for other projects, and we had many more ideas to run. He had also taken all the colour pictures in my book on John Vanbrugh published by Aurum Press, and on two other slim volumes we worked on together, A Cotswold Gem in Stone, and The House That Silk Built. In every case he was a delight to work with, full of energy, fun and kind-heartedness; there was a fundamental generosity in his spirit that came across in his work.
Thus I feel his loss very keenly, especially deeply on behalf of his wife Tracey and their son George, to both of whom he was quite simply devoted, and of his extended family. But I will miss him as a colleague and friend, who shared a passion for the historic country houses and landscapes, which are some of the glories of the world.

A lively crew of curators, Attingham and Moggerhanger

It was a delight to meet up with the Attingham Summer School again, this time at Moggerhanger House, designed by Soane in two phases, 1790-1793 and 1806-1812. The weather was fine, and the house, one of Soane’s masterpieces, glowed in the sunshine like a villa in the Mediterranean, and the scholars, curators from America, Europe and elsewhere, populated the rooms with enthusiasm, enjoying the long axis, and carefully judged neo-classical decoration, as well as the story of the £7 million restoration.

As a trustee for some years, I have been helping with a slow but steady improvement in the fittings and furnishings. Recently a neo-Soane mirror designed by George Carter has been installed in the drawing room, which transforms the light of the space. Some pictures bought in the Albert Richardson sale have also been hung to great effect. The recent gift of a series of Thornton family pictures, largely engraved, have also been recently hung and help give a connection to the patron family.

When we have a large interested tour group such as this, I really feel how well the house was designed and built for the reception of company and seems to come alive when full of people. Helen Dorey of the Sir John Soane’s Museum, gave an excellent lecture – on the career and interests of Soane. The lecture was given in the columned dining room – with coffee and tea. I enjoyed giving the group a whistle stop tour of house and gardens, supported by our house guides and new head gardener, and then back to the house for a dinner in the double drawing room, all beautifully laid up and set out by the Moggerhanger team, after which the Countess of Erroll, chairman of trustees spoke of the long campaign of restoration and recovery.

A prince among painters and a painter among princes

I was very privileged in January this year to attend a reception at Clarence House to launch the new appeal to acquire Limnerslease, the country house designed and built in 1890-91 for the great Victorian painter, G.F.Watts. The studio wing has already been acquired by the Watts Gallery Trust with HLF and CHF support and there is now a limited time to raise a £1 million needed to secure the rest of the house for the admirable Watts Gallery operation, which also manages the extraordinary Watts chapel designed and decorated by his wife G.F.Watts.

I have known and loved this gallery since I was 18, as it close to the home of my father and his wife, just the other side of Compton, My father and I used to ride here sometimes on frosty mornings along the sandy track of the Pilgrim’s Way, where Watts himself used to ride out for exercise. I enjoyed tours with the curator then Richard Jeffries who had been assistant to Wilfrid Blunt, the brother of the art historian and spy, Anthony. Later on I used to take the Victorian Society Summer School (US curators and art historians) on visits there – before lemonade on the terrace in my parents’ garden.

The revival of the Watts Gallery’s reputation, activity and energy in recent years under the directorship of Perdita Hunt, is inspiring. The gallery has been beautifully restored and new exhibition galleries have been created; it has become a lively centre for the study and interpretation of Victorian art. The Studios Project is well underway, but the acquisition of the house is not yet certain, and as I write another £900,000 must be raised by the January, is an absolute must.

It was the desire to build a sylvan retreat in this well-wooded country that is the start of the whole story. G.F.Watts wife Mary designed and executed the decoration of the main rooms, and they entertained many leading writers and artists here. That was the beginning of the story of this extraordinary ‘artist’s village’, house, studio, gallery, which originally also housed a potters’ guild who lived on site.

Clarence House is located on Pall Mall, and is a most elegant place, which had been the home of HM The Queen Mother and since her death, has been the home of HRH the Prince of Wales who is the patron of the Limnerslease Appeal – which combines his love of arts, landscape and community. There were many donors and supporters present, and I especially enjoyed catching up with the artist Alexander Creswell and his wife Mary. Alexander recently occupied the Watts Studio as an artist in residence. I was deeply honoured to be presented to HRH Prince Charles who was especially keen that I also go and visit the restoration of Dumfries House. The whole event was wonderfully well orchestrated and after a buffet lunch, the presentations to HRH, Prince Charles gave a stirring speech and disappeared upstairs. I stepped out into the winter sunshine feeling very hopeful for this unusual and special project: fingers crossed for one million pounds to be raised by next January. To know more see

A special tour round Sicily

The highlight of my autumn months was certainly a delightful trip to Sicily as I had been engaged to be a lecturer for Academic Arrangements Abroad onboard Sea Cloud II, a wonderful three masted barque built about 10 years ago, on the model of the original 1930s Sea Cloud. The guests were drawn from the Friends of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Friends of the Smithsonian and members of the Royal Oak and were a wonderfully warm bunch with an enormous enthusiasm for knowledge and good company. The company would emerge from the well-run luxury of the boat to long tours of the cities of Palermo and Syracuse, the ancient sites of Segesta and Agrigento.
I was invited to lecture by the Royal Oak, the US supporters of the National Trust, and my fellow lecturer was Barbara Drake Boehm, curator of medieval art at the Cloisters in New York, who gave two especially inspiring lectures on mosaic decoration and King Roger of Sicily. I lectured on British travellers: firstly, the 1790 tour of Sir Richard Colt Hoare in Sicily, illustrated with images of his own sketches of the famous sites which is kept at his home in Stourhead, and secondly, on the many British architects who travelled to Sicily in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century especially to study the ancient Doric temple sites, Soane, Cockerell and Smirke among others, visiting very much the same sites we were visiting on the cruise.
Being on the boat was a really amazing experience, especially the period under sail, watching the well-drilled deck hands at work, looking at sails against the blue skies. The hospitality on the boat was really memorable, and the food and wine of the very best. The tour manager, Tom, is a talented pianist and entertained the guests every evening on deck or in the saloon. I especially enjoyed the tour of the Palazzo Gangi with the Princess Carine Vanni Mantegna. I also shall never forget sailing into Valetta at dawn, recalling my late grandfather’s service on the Malta convoy.

Inside the hearts of London


I have been lucky enough to have enjoyed an association with two great London institutions this year both of which experiences have been a great privilege. Firstly, I have been working on an advisory project at St Paul’s Cathedral, with the Surveyor Oliver Caroe and his colleagues. Our research has been focused on the history of the spaces above the aisles and nave. One of the most interesting aspects for me has been the long history of public visiting of the roofs and viewing platforms of the dome, as if Wren wanted people to enjoy the drama and wonder of this great church, built to the glory of God, from the very start. The upper spaces of the cathedral include the famous galleried library at the top of the geometric staircase, and on the north side is the ‘Trophy Room’ which contains the famous 1673-74 Great Model, first displayed in this room by 1709, although moved from this space in the nineteenth century and only returned relatively recently.
In July I also ran a course at the Victoria and Albert Museum on ‘English Country House Design and Decoration’, with a very enthusiastic assembly including many professional designers. I was supported by the V&A’s Joanna Banham and other old friends lecturing including Nicholas Cooper, Caroline Knight, Steve Parissien, Alan Powers and Wendy Andrews: we covered four centuries over the four weeks. After morning lectures and lunch enjoyed touring the relevant British Galleries with smaller groups. It was especially good to reconnect with the wonderful collections of the V&A: I am amazed by the consistent high quality of the objects on display since the re-presentation of these galleries – although I am more of a Melville House state bed man that a Great Bed of Ware man myself.

Top book recommendartion for the history of English design: Osbert Lancaster Here of All Places! Very funny, but curiously clever too.

Most enjoyable book on St Paul’s Cathedral, James Campbell’s Building St Paul’s published by Thames & Hudson, 2008

March week in the United States from coast to coast

Arrived Saturday in NYC, had a walk in Central Park went to the Met to see the Carpeaux exhibition and another exhibition on early photography of Paris. I was particularly charmed by the terracotta models Carpeaux made while working out his sculptural ideas. On the Sunday, I was off to Los Angeles, where I was put up in the UCLA Guest House, and spend some time in the ‘big’ Getty looking at the collections, especially good paintings and sculpture, and with wonderful views to the Pacific ocean, a new building by Richard Meier.

On Monday, we enjoyed an earthquake at 6.30am! Only 4.5. After another visit to the Getty Research Institute, I return to prepare for my lecture and then walk around the campus looking at handsome 1920s buildings inspired by Romanesque church and monastery in Bologna. I give my lecture on how field sports shaped the English country house, at the Faculty Centre – the audience includes some who have heard me lecture on the Attingham Summer School. We have supper at the Nappa Valley Grill. On the Tuesday, we were off to San Diego in the morning, so close to the Mexico border, and more views of the Pacific. We are put up in the Westgate; a 1970s hotel furnished liberally in its public spaces with French antiques so has a Ritz-y atmosphere. The talk, this time on my interiors book, is in La Jolla (pronounced ‘Hoya’) a very smart sea-front suburb, and is in an interior design studio there, called Seaside Home, a very good crowd, of around 70.

On Wednesday, I am off to San Francisco, after a flight where I was luckily on the right hand side of the plane and got a wonderful view over the coastline from San Diego to San Francisco, including the mountains and plains above, and saw Malibu, Hollywood, Pasadena, Palo Alto and so on. On arrival, I whisked off to Filoli, an excellent country house of a Lutyens type, built 1915 for the Bourns and designed by the architect Polk; lavish Hidcote-like gardens in full bloom, owing to recent rain. We have a nice salad lunch in the restaurant, and tour the house and garden, a brilliant evocation of an English house, but with unmistakable early twentieth century flavour – the Bourns also owned Muckross Abbey estate in Ireland. There are fine portraits by Orpen and some very good furniture, if not all original to the house. The audience for my field sports lecture is about 100 in number includes a friend Octavia from England, who has accompanied a friend of hers called Jack Ryder. Octavia and her friend Jack joins us for supper at the famous Wayfarers’ Tavern and then kindly insists on driving us all up to a viewing platform to see the city by night from above, laid out like a carpet of stars.

Thursday, Octavia kindly comes to pick me up and drive me around San Francisco, to see the Presidio, to get a good view of the bridge, to see some of the grander nineteenth century mansions, as well as the Palace of the Fine Arts, to airport and then fly back to New York City.

Friday, after breakfast meeting on Lafayette Street, taxi to the Rizzoli office on Park Avenue South, where I sign 200 Country House Interiors books and to see the final colour proofs of my next book. Then off on to the train to Tarrytown on the Hudson River. Picked up at the station, and taken to Tarrytown House estate, which has two historic mansions and a modern hotel on the plot, overlooking the Hudson River, for the Jane Austen Society of New York conference. Tea in the Biddle mansion, snooze, supper, followed by my lecture at 9pm, on architecture of the age if Austen, from the humblest cottage to the aristocratic mansion.

On Saturday, lavish buffet breakfast, followed by my lecture on Regency servants, at 9am. I then listen to the lecture on Regency diet and lunch with the crew, include Mr Roberts from Kentucky who lectures on Regency medicine with his wife, who are both elegantly dressed for the part – I feel I have missed a trick here. I am lucky enough to able to join the tour of Sunnyside, the Tarrytown home of Washington Irving, a cult writer of the early to mid nineteenth century, an early nineteenth century figure, but more of a contemporary of Dickens than Austen, charming little lodge overlooking the river; his writing room has all his original furniture and books. We are led round by a guide in a hoop skirt and bonnet, which is all rather mesmerising. After tea, I am driven to the airport. And so back home.

White Tie to Warm Pastries

I recently enjoyed an evening event at the magnificent mansion house in city, designed by George Dance the Elder, completed in 1758. This was a great privilege as I had never been before. A grand Palladian building with all the entertaining rooms on the first and second floors. The first floor originally had a roofless courtyard (later covered to form the Salon) and the great Egyptian Hall, used for the grandest dinner, is a vast space. The second floor has a ballroom as well as the private apartments of the Lord Mayor. I was very much impressed by the extraordinary quality of the eighteenth-century stucco decoration, and the very high quality of the many Dutch Old Master paintings of the Harold Samuel Art Collection.
I also went to the opening of Alec Cobbe’s current exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a splendid display of beguiling designs and paintings by Mr Cobbe made over the past 40 years. I was especially interested in his drawn up proposals for rehanging picture collections in great historic houses. Mr Cobbe has generously donated his working archive to the V&A.
It was also especially pleasing to be able to take a party of Cambridge University Masters students around Moggerhanger House. I found they were equally interested in the work of John Soane and the Regency house, as in the great rescue project of recent times, including the landscape. The team at Moggerhanger looked after us well, and the students were very game as we marched around in the cold, but welcomed warm pastries and tea in the old servants’ hall and a chance to sit down and look at some slides in the Eating Room. I felt the house and the great efforts of all those involved in the restoration was rewarded by the intelligent interest of this impressive group of postgraduate students.

Best Book read recently: Stoner by John Williams
Best Film: Twelve Years a Slave, moving and challenging film but made with wonderful visual poetry that made the cruelty of slavery all the more upsetting
Best Meal: Sunday lunch at the Haymakers

Thinking about fine church monuments

This week I was delighted to speak to the Mausoleum and Monuments Trust at the Sir John Soane’s Museum, a delightful crowd. After drinks in the old kitchen we assembled in the seminar room, hung densely with paintings, and I lectured on the country house and English church monuments, “Death and Glory”; and we went on a visual tour of some of my favourite monuments, the 5th Earl of Exeter’s monument by Monnot, at St Martin’s in Stamford, the commissioning of the monument seems like the crowning moment of his collecting for the great house at Burghley; I compared the cost of that great sculptured monument to the oil portraits commissioned by the Earl, nearly forty times more, in fact. The composition was influential in other monuments, including Scheemaker’s monument to the Henry Petty, the Earl Shelburne. We also looked at the great Roubiliac monuments at Warkton, for the 2nd Duke of Montagu and his Duchess.

The best example of the connection between the ambition to build and furnish great country houses in the continental spirit, and how that influenced the decoration of family chapels and monuments, is illustrated by the surviving mausoleum chapel attached to the church at St Lawrence, Little Stanmore in Middlesex, built for the 1st Duke of Chandos, whose architects and decorative artists created one of the finest early 18th century church interiors, the Duke asking that the interior of the chapel equal the quality of the rooms of his new house (sadly demolished only ten years ); the fittings of his private chapel in the house were sold to the 2nd Lord Foley and used to decorate the church at Great Witley (which houses Rysbrack’s monument to 1st Lord Foley and his family). Sometimes one does see fine monuments out of scale with their architectural contexts, such as the Furnese monument, in All Saint’s, Waldershare in Kent. I looked at the famous mausoleum designed by James Wyatt for the 1st Lord Yarborough, to his wife, Sophia, who died young; her figure was sculpted by Nollekens, an artists who had helped him form his collection of ancient and modern sculpture. I also briefly traced the progress of the Gothic revival in the eighteenth century in the monument for Lord and Lady Milton, sculpted by Agostino Carlini, with a tomb-base designed by Adam. The 1840s Gothic Revival tomb to Lady de Mauley, flanked by angels, in the church at Hatherop Castle in Gloucestershire.

We ended our tour with the extraordinary marble monument to Lord Curzon and his wife in the parish church at Kedleston in Derbyshire, one of the last generation of life size recumbent effigies, sculpted by Bertram Mackenna, a monument which reveals much about Curzon’s artistic interest and sense of destiny. It was a pleasure to be at the Sir John Soane’s Museum, and to see old friends, and meet new people, the questions from the audience were pertinent and raised interesting points, such as did the early printed guidebooks for country houses incude references to the family monuments.

Best New Book: a great month for new books, The new book devoted to William Kent is a masterpiece, also received James Peill’s interesting The English Country House following on his The Irish Country House; also attended the Cambridge launch of James Campbell’s magisterial Libraries: A World History

Best Play Seen: One Man ,Two Guvnors at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket,a birthday treat for the family, most amusing

Autumn thoughts on fine drinking in literature

The smartest drinks in fiction

Jeremy Musson considers the importance of fine drinking in fiction for bringing grand houses to life

Wine, punches and cocktails play an important in our vision of the life in grand houses – nowhere is this more important than in fiction. It is the references to food and drink, which make the great novel to life, the glamour of the life of the wealthy, are made vivid by suggestive references to taste and pleasure. Thomas Love Peacock in his extraordinary book, Nightmare Abbey, has a character call for his servant to bring him “port and a pistol”, so that he can do away with himself, only to have him change his mind and call for a “boiled fowl and madeira, two of the classic fortified wines which characterize the country house fare of the eighteenth century.

Dickens was the great master of the telling gustatory moment, with endless well savoured descriptions of meals and convivial drinking parties, there are over ninety references to brandy in Pickwick Papers alone, to special clarets in Bleak House, and the endless impromptu punches mixed by Mr Micawber in David Copperfield. Sherlock Holmes was a connoisseur of wine, and Commander James Bond has his signature dry martini, “shaken not stirred”.

In American fiction, the two genuine cocktails mentioned by Scott Fitzgerald in Great Gatsby catch the attention. In one scene Daisy sends her husband Tom to go and ‘make us a cold drink” on what is clearly an unbearably hot day; Tom returns with “four gin rickeys that clicked full of ice. Gatsby took his drink. “They certainly look cold” . . We drank in long, greedy swallows”. The reader’s imagination is hooked by the sensory nature of the reference. The only other cocktail which is mentioned is a mint juleep, which also gets a lively mention in P.G.Wodehouse, were its apparent innocence could lead to unexpected consequences.

Wodehouse is the master of the suggestive hints of upper class drinking. His most famous is the concoction is the morning after cocktail mixed up by Jeeves for Wooster, which sounds like a very lively Bloody Mary, which is known as “the Corpse Reviver”, although Jeeves admits it has never actually been tried on a corpse. At another point, when Wooster cant face dinner in a room full of people who think he is mad, Jeeves tactfully suggests that he should fortify himself for the ordeal, ‘How?’ squeals Wooster, Jeeves replies: “There are always cocktails, Sir, Shall I pour you another?”

Nancy Mitford conjurs up the life of the English country house in the 1930s, when champagne is still being poured out by footmen – now that is luxury. But for me, there is no drinking scene to beat the indolent joy of Charles Ryder and Lord Sebastian Flyte staying at Brideshead, when the butler shows them the cellars: “One day we went down to the cellars with Wilcox and saw the empty bays. Which had once held a vast store of wine; one transept only was used now” Wilcox the dutiful butler observes: “A lot of the old wine wants drinking up” and the two young men are happy to oblige: “Wilcox welcomed our interest” and brought them bottles from every bin: “We would sit. In the Painted Parlour with three bottles open on the table and three glasses before each of us; Sebastian had found a book on wine-tasting, and we followed its instructions in detail”, and as the bottles emptied their descriptions become more lyrical and splendidly absurd:

“… It is a little, shy wine like a gazelle.”

“Like a leprechaun.”

“Dappled, in a tapestry meadow.”

“Like a flute by still water.”

After which they would the leave the candlelit room to sit under the stars by the great fountain. It is a wonderfully written poem to pleasure, which captures the ease of youth, the joys of fine wine drunk in a fine interior, wine that has been selected and preserved and brought to the table by a connoisseur who knows and cares about wine. Above all it is about the pleasure of enjoying fine wine in good company – and perhaps just a little too much. The scene was brilliantly and faithfully recreated in the famous Granada TV series of Brideshead Revisited, see,