At the beginning of July, I went down at West Dean to deliver a lecture to the Attingham Summer School made up of international, and many American, curators, architects and art historians, as well as people working for the National Trust and some of the great private collections, and they do an intensive course visiting great houses and collections both National Trust and privately owned.
They are always an excellent and interested audience, I enjoyed talking to scholars from India, America, Australia, the Netherlands, and wish I could follow their tour just more just for the benefit of their cross-fertilisation of ideas. Staying with my father and his wife in Guildford, on the way back, we discussed the article I had written for The Lady on the excellent restoration of the Watts Gallery, which lies only a few miles away, the gallery built by G.F.Watts “England’s Michelangelo”, the nineteenth century painter, in a shady woodland in Compton.
In London, a few days later, I was able to attend private view of Devotion by Design at the National Gallery, an excellent show of Italian altar paintings from before 1500, drawn almost exclusively from the gallery’s own collection. It is full of stunning treasures, including work by Piero della Francesca, Fra Filippo Lippi and Luca Signorelli. The gallery has been lit in an atmospheric gloom to suggest those medieval churches in Italy where these paintings came from – while the paintings themselves are lit carefully to show all the changes in style, technique and construction in this rich and changing period from the late middle ages to the early renaissance. During this period, the altarpainting developed from the complex and deeply venerated image with numerous saints and scenes from the life of Christ to the larger scale, single subject altar-painting of the renaissance. These were the most admired of works when the National Gallery collection was formed.
As we hurried away in the pouring rain, we admired the pluck of the youngsters camping out days before the Harry Potter premiere. I thought of them this morning as I rowed in an eight for two hours in the pouring rain. Well, it is England in July.
Best book read this month
fiction: John Buchan Greenmantle
non fiction: Sir Roy Strong Visions of England
Best meal: wedding anniversary supper at The Cambridge Chop House
Articles to note: James Birch collection of Christine Keeler in next month’s The Field
Best event: ordination of college friend Justin Gau at St Pauls Cathedral
A happy diversion from research and writing, Sophie and I attended a wedding party held in the Orangery at Blenheim Palace, for Dr Quinn Peeper and Michael Harrold, the friends who had been my hosts in New Orleans; both pianists of great ability, they played for the assembled congregation with terrific skill, which was pretty heroic at their own wedding celebration – although they did raise a laugh when they had to admit they had left some of their music in some distant castle they visited on their pre-wedding holiday tour. The blessing was given by Jane Shaw, Dean of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco who had been at Oxford with Dr Peeper.
After the service, there were drinks in the rose garden, and we talked to many of Quinn and Michael’s friends from New Orleans and other old friends of mine there including Jennie McCahey of the Royal Oak from New York, Robert Sackville-West from Knole, Sir Tatton Sykes and Alexander Chancellor. The whole wedding party is one of the most beautifully organised we have ever been to and we have a most interesting party at our table – many invitations to return to New Orleans. The excellent speeches were by Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill and Cindy Shaw-Stewart.
Best house visit: after Blenheim, Nymans, house, ruins and gardens in Sussex
Best buys: salvias for our garden, planted in the company of inquisitive robin
My recent travels have been enhanced by a visit to Chatsworth to work on research for a feature in Country Life and the opportunity to see the new exhibition space, just off the service room off the Great Dining Room, and to see the delightful exhibition curated by Hannah Obee, devoted to the character and the collecting of the 6th Duke, the son of the famous Georgiana and the Regency connoisseur who transforms the character and most importantly the comfort of the great house at Chatsworth. I am also lucky to spend some time looking at other aspects of the early nineteenth century Wyattville work to the house with director of collections, Matthew Hirst. At Chatsworth, there is always more to discover and more to understand. The exhibition includes a number of captivating portraits of the 6th Duke’s pet dogs, one of which used to travel in his coach when he visited Italy, and a collection of the menus he collected at famous banquets to show to his own cooks, as well as letters, paintings, jewels and bills – its well worth a detour between the Great Dining Room and the superlative Statue Gallery.
The following week I am in York, lecturing to the York Consortium of Craftsmen and women and Conservators, on “English Ruins” and am very well looked after by Peter Brown, who arranges for a tour to see, among other things, the new carved stone work on York minster, and also the conservation of the stained glass in the adjoining workshop, both of which are breathtaking in different ways – we are blessed that such skills exist in the modern age. My talk is at ‘The Merchant Adventurers Hall’ and I am given a very jolly dinner by the organisers and meet old friends including, Michael Stannicliffe, architect for York and St Pauls, and Dick Reid the carver, whose York workshop set such a high standard in carving for so many years. They also put me up for the night in Middlethorpe Hall, one of the HHH group, now owned by the National Trust – a really delightful place, I sink into an armchair and read about Elizabethan literature before going to bed, and feel as if I am in a well appointed private house.
Otherwise my researches for various projects have embraced eighteenth century lady gardeners, the abolition of the slave trade, the Boer war and the tastes of the Indian princes between the wars and much much more – I still find it difficult to believe some of the stories about the Maharajah of Alwar, deposed in 1933. Never, I am pleased to report, a dull moment.