On Friday I went on long but fruitful train journey (changing at a misty Ely station) to Chesterfield and on by car to Chatsworth, preparing a new article. I spent a very interesting time with the curator, Hannah, and chatted to the Keeper, Charles Noble, and the archivist and Christine, the delightful lady in charge of the in house textiles team. Most amusingly I found myself in the archive reading room, occupying a seat only lately vacated by Roy Hattersley. I passed him in the courtyard and regretted not saying hello.
Chatsworth is one of the houses where your head becomes dizzy with the richness of it all, indeed I think it takes a day to recover from just seeing Chatsworth in the flesh for the first time. I had a very good time reading the advice of Duchess Evelyn to her successor in 1924, lots of works in hand for the new season. I noticed in the Chesterfield station waiting room that it is hung with 1920s oil paintings on loan from the Duke, what a nice thought, pity it is not a nicer room for them.
Also on Wednesday, attended a lecture at Christies (in aid of the John Cornforth Memorial Fund) by Sarah Troughton, half-sister to the late Duke of Atholl, now the resident of Blair Castle, where she grew up. Excellent lecture, introduced by the Earl of Dalkeith, and a great gathering of experts and country house owners (most of whom I would also think of experts) in the audience, Mrs Troughton showed a wonderful slide of a Zoffany portrait of her 18th century ancestors, Tim Knox pointing out that the animal depicted in the tree was a ring-tailed lemur, this being one of the first depictions of this animal in Britain I believe.
At the weekend I helped my daughter Miranda with her science homework, it took us hours. She turned out to be the only one in the whole class who handed it in at all, all about atoms and molecules (I was acknowledged in the homework). The mind boggles.
Mad drive on Friday through thick fog to see a Georgian house on the Essex coast. Well worth the risk, an absolute gem, with more recent works by Quinlan Terry. The owner supplied fresh oysters for lunch, picked up from the beach on his morning walk with the dogs and showed me the back stairs where hundreds upon hundreds of Country Life magazines were neatly piled like an installation in Tate Britain.
It was strangely nostalgic seeing covers of 10 -11 years ago when I began at Country Life, and pleasing to see how cherished our work is by loyal readers.
Trapped at home by snow on one day completed my account of the a lovely early Georgian house we had photographed with a fascinating collection as a record, before its sale last year. I am transported into the 1930s and a civilised band of curator-collectors who championed a taste for Georgian architecture and furniture, and in which authentic music and decoration all played a part.
In the evenings, and while recovering from flu I have been Ackroyd’s Albion: the origins of the English Imagination, a really brilliant tome that reads like butter. Highly recommended.
At the end of last week I travelled up to York to a conference on country house research, with a good spread of scholars, curators, archivists, including people from the National Trust and English Heritage. York University and some of the great houses open to the public have founded a very productive partnership to encourage research and understanding. People presented an interesting amount of material on researching houses, contents, estates, railway, while others presented on interpretation and public understanding of the past. I was very lucky to be invited to stay with Christopher Ridgway, the curator of Castle Howard, and my early morning walk vouchasafed a view across the frost, of the silhouette of Castle Howard against a red dawn, like a mirage from another world. The picturesque estate village seemed a restful and fine place.
I was in a very bad mood with London having been pushed around on a bus coming away from the Geffrye Museum last week and relieved of my wallet, with scores of library cards and receipts and pictures of my children, and no cash. However, I saw a glimpse of the most fashionable London last night at the opening of the William Kent house, restored by the Ritz: everything done to the finest standard. I had a chance to admire again the magnificent panorama of events in the life of William Kent painted by Mao Wen Biao, that is really one of the modern wonders of London.
Writing a preview of the Gilbert and George exhibition I find myself unexpectedly invited to lunch in the Tate’s smart restaurant with the artist duo themselves, and a chance to interview them direct. Rather surreally the sheafs of unbound catalogue essays I was carrying were caught by a terrific gust of wind and blown to blazes, I ran around picking them all up and managed to get most of them back. Gilbert and George are nattily attired in their matching suits and brightly coloured ties with giant ants on them and we feasted on pollock on risotto and discussed changing attitudes to their work and the transition to computer work.
They were amused to be being interviewed by Country Life and poured out their interest in architecture, especially Pugin, and furniture of the 19th and early 20th century. We discussed their walks around Liverpool Street and I reflect that in interests – tailored suits, historic architecture, collecting furniture – they have rather the profile of a Country Life reader. I promise to send them a copy of Clive Aslet’s article on the Grange, Pugin’s house that he built for himself. I am in awe of Gilbert and George’s work, powerful and consistent and scary as well. The preview appears in February 15, the day the exhibition opens.