Monthly Archives: June 2008

Barrow, Books and dogs

On Wednesday meet up for tea with Julian Barrow one of my great heroes, a painter and a person who radiates such pleasure in his life and travels that it is always a pleasure to see him, I am writing the foreword to his next exhibition which is such an unbelievable honour I am almost overhwlemed, previous introducers include Mary Killen, Lord Norwich, Hugh Massingberd, Auberon Waugh and James Lees-Milne, what a dinner party that would have made. Also managed a lunch with furniture designer Thomas Messel at his club, to catch up on plans for a book we have in mind, and other excitements including the publication of our mutual friend Nicholas Mander’s book on The Country Houses of the Cotswolds, which I commissioned on behalf of the Aurum series, to be launched next week, a real gem of a book.

Otherwise have been chained to the more shadowy parts of the University studying the household of great houses in 13th to 16th centuries, all table napkins and saltfish for breakfast, read through the great Northumberland Household book, written c 1512, which deals with the complex detail of provisions and livery for the Earl of Northumberland’s household, among other things. Also reading 20th century stuff in the evening, from P.G.Wodehouse, who, son of colonial parents spent a great deal of time with his childless relations’s servants as a child; also reading Gathorne-Hardy’s book on the British nanny on Churchill’s relationship with nanny Everest.

Archie the Jack Russell is much calmer and more settled, I wonder if diet has something to do with it as we have given up on tinned food, although escapes from the garden, but only if he hears friendly voices; we try and fit in a good 20-30 minute walk at lunch time, which I find quite good for letting ideas mull round and round. PG Wodehouse always had Pekes, and Hardy had a dog called Wessex, in fact he had lots as I can remember seeing quite a big pet cemetery at Max Gate. Miranda the 9 year old has got the baking bug again and brownies and meringues pour forth, Georgia, 13, is about to hit party season after demanding exams; she takes an amazing interest in politics, much more than I ever did.

Irish lecture and banquet at Castletown

Another roller coaster week as I pull together the strands of my ‘servants’ book research which will interest the annual Irish historic houses conference at National University of Ireland in Maynooth. On Tuesday, en route to the London Library, I slip into Christies to see the sale of some of the finest furniture and paintings in the collection of the late Simon Sainsbury, a great connoisseur.

There were so many things of unbelievable quality and beauty, that must have looked so well in the lovely early Georgian house in Sussex were he lived (which I once glimpsed from the road), from the simply amazing Chinoiserie Kenure cabinet by Chippendale to paintings by Stanley Spencer. I particularly liked a very fine conversation piece family group by Arthur Devis, with a Palladian interior, a finely dressed family, with a view of a canal and a temple through the window, a tea service out, and a servant glimpsed through the door carrying the tea up the stairs, all in excellent detail.

At the end of the week to Ireland, everything delayed but managed to get lots of work done! Arrive very late to stay with old friends, who still have food and wine ready, (go to sleep reading the oddly enjoyable Towers of Trebizond). Off early to deliver lecture, which seems to go down reasonably well; lots of fun people there, including Dr Terence Dooley who runs the course and conference, Christopher Ridgway, the archivist from Castle Howard, Jeremy Williams the architect, Anne Hamilton from lovely Hamwood, one of the most charming smaller Georgian country houses, in nearby Co Meath, James Manningham-Buller from Co Down, as well as a number of enthusiastic young Irish Georgians, all recovering from celebrating 50 years.

It’s a great gathering and I learn a lot from other people there; the chapel at Maynooth is by Pugin, is also truly wonderful. The evening banquet is at Castletown, one of the greatest 18th century country houses of Ireland, saved from destruction by one of my great heroes, Desmond Guinness and the Irish Georgians, now celebrating their 50 years anniversary, the house is now in the care of the state; so very handsome, champagne in the saloon and the meal in the main hall. It’s a treat to be back in Ireland.

A surreal circus and a barn back in time

First thing on Saturday morning, Miranda and I go off to dog training classes, where Archie gets some approving nods for the first time in the whole course, which makes us feel quite emotional; he also gets asked to road test a new “chew toy” which we laughingly accept knowing that he has managed to chew through most of the toys we have bought him, and a few other things besides. Its amazing how enjoyable these sessions are, and mark important milestones in our early days of dog-ownership making us feel a little bit more in control. He’s a handsome puppy, and has a definite look of the kind of Cecil Aldin print I have encountered in so many country house looes.

Back for lunch and then I take the girls, plus friend, to see the Cirque Surreal on Cambridge’s normally idyllic, Jesus Green, on that day heaving with people going to Strawberry Fair on Midsommer Common; actually the circus was one of the best I have ever been to, entirely made up of dancers, and acrobats and contortionists. I was struck by what an interesting dinner party they would all make; we were all transfixed and the girls bought felt bowlers as worn by the Charlie-Chaplin-lie clown and ‘maitre d’ figure, which they wore as we wove our way back through the field strewn with hippy drunks; which certainly had a surreal flavour.

Drove down south on a house research trip early in the week, and stop with friends to allow an early start; it was a beautiful evening, and I drive late so there is little traffic- sunny evening, green fields, Georgian townscapes, and unusually deserted roads, I just muse and listen to radio 3. Their house is hidden at the end of a long drive but as you pass through a stone wall and see the picturesque but dilapidated barn they are going to restore as a house and a wonderful ancient-seeming view of rolling Sussex landscape. I think they are very brave, and lucky too, it reminds me of the barns on my grandparents’ farm which were a kind of adventure-playground-paradise to me when I was young, but that my town reared children probably think is as unfamiliar as a pueblo hut.

To Belfast and the Cotswolds

I had a very early start last week catching an early morning plane to Belfast, tip-toeing out of the house so as not to wake the children or the dog. I went to the Public Record Office in the suburbs of that city, near a small station called Balmoral Halt, to read the typescript of the memoirs of Thomas Kilgallon, manservant to Sir Henry Gore-Booth, and later butler to Lissadell. It is a terrifically interesting document as first-hand memoirs by servants are few in number, but give a real insight into the complex and industrious communities that were the bedrock of country house life. I shall be using this material in a lecture in a couple of weeks. I also looked at the Lissadell day books which list who dined in the dining room and how many in the servants hall, day after day for decade after decade, a way of life that seemed unchanged from the early 19th century until the late 1930s. I was slightly grupmy to have spent all day indoors on this beautifuly day, but en route back I fell into a long and enjoyable conversation with someone called Corrie McCrum who had been researching her family history and had enjoyed a visit to the farm where they all came from, putting together memories that are all too easily lost; I felt glad that she had had a sun-filled day. The best history is both a conversationand a portrait.

On Tuesday I scooted down to Chavenage to conduct an interview for the Field magazine column on collecting I am writing at the moment. It was great to catch up with my friends there, despite the torrential rain. This is is still my beau ideal of the English country house, with three generations of one family cheek by jowl, and a feelign of open house for friends and visitors; the house was recently featured as the manor house in Lark Rise By Candleford on tv, which all helps , I think. For the column, see The Field next month.

New Travels

Last week, as an escape from researching my current book, and in its own way, a fact gathering mission, I was lucky enough to pay a visit to Boughton House, one of the most remarkable houses in Northamptonshire remodelled by Ralph, 1st Duke of Montagu, who had been an ambassador to Paris and was much influenced by French taste. The sun was shining and we inspected the digging and shaping of the canals, which are part of a process of recapturing something of the formal setting of this wonderful house, called by some the English Versailles, and still very much in private hands, now of the 10th Duke of Montagu and the 12th Duke of Queensberry.

Because they have larger estates in Scotland, the house also has a very complete set of grand apartments of the late 17th century, very little changed, with wonderful Mortlake tapestries, although the collection was much enriched in the early 20th century by the contents of the Montagus London house. I was very taken by the early 18th century Chinese tea house, which used to sit outside Montagu House in London.

There is in the nearby parish church at Warkton a very fine set of family monuments, including two fine sculptural groups by Roubiliac as fine as anything in England. One 19th century vicar is said to have re-ordered the church and cut off this handsome Classical chancel, arguing it was high time the parish started worshipping god and not the Montagus.

Our life at home in Cambridge, meanwhile, is turned upside down by the arrival of a new family member, “Archie” a new Jack Russell terrier, but he is great company and full of character. I only hope we don’t bore him too much. The girls are infatuated and we all attend training classes, at Crow Hall Farm near Soham, with a man called Charlie Carricoats. I think we are being trained as novice owners ourselves as much as the new dog.