Category Archives: Country Life Blog

The National Trust and a wedding

This week we were very busy with the final touches to the National Trust issue which I have been masterminding, but I think is a good meaty recipe for publication April 5, covering a large number of properties, with a delightful piece by Lucinda Lambton on curiosities and opinion pieces by Simon Jenkins and John Gummer. We are tremendously lucky to have the National Trust in this country, and it should be celebrated and also examined on a regular basis.

Have lunch with Roy Strong at the Garrick Club to discuss his new idea for raising the profile of remote churches that have adapted themselves to serving their communities as more than just parish churches. He is hot foot from the Abbey where they have been having the service of thanksgiving for the anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade.

On Friday I attend an evening wedding of academic friends being married in the glorious setting of King’s College Chapel. As I approached the chapel I was struck by the beauty of the space in between the chapel and the Gibbs’ building, which looks out across the Backs in the late spring sunshine, matched too by the beauty of looking down the nave and out the West Door opened at the end of the service for the couple to leave by. The couple were one half Italian, and the Dean mentioned that he couldn’t speak Italian but then read some of the service in Italian rather well, I later discovered he had trained as an opera singer.

A soloist sang from the organ gallery and the sensation was so electric in the fine vaulted interior, it felt as if we were in outer space. The reception was in some Kings’ Rooms hung with Bloomsbury group paintings, by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry, the latter have just the sort of greens that I had noted in the hazy view over the Backs.

Apsley House & Book shops

On Wednesday met up with Susan Jenkins, curator of Apsley House, that remarkable home of the Duke of Wellington, also known as No 1 London: it is a wonderful rich confection, curiously masculine and full of wonderful paintings. It is probably the best Regency interior you can visit in London. The family still have apartments there.

As we prepare to move our offices I find myself glancing at old volumes before they are packed away; there is so much to distract anyone with any curiosity.

I used to dream of being a book dealer, but I would have spent all my time reading and not sold much I expect. I am saddened by how many of the cranky old bookshops I loved as a boy have disappeared. What do people do on wet afternoons in town these days: get wet and spend too much money I expect. Thank goodness for our man on the Cambridge market stall. I got a great H.E.Bates last week, read it all by midnight!

To Winchester College and Barrington Court

On Monday to Barrington Court in Somerset, a little known National Trust house, but a real gem of an Elizabethan manor house, which was restored as a rich man’s dwelling in the 1920s after it had been used partly as a cider barn.

It has the most charming garden setting and the interiors are part furnished by the Stuart Interiors who do many historic reconstructions such at that we have featured on Edward I’s bedchamber at the Tower.

It was a long journey but I had the company of the expert Nicholas Cooper, and on the way back also fell into conversation with a charming young German lady architect who works in Cambridge and was designing a new church of all things.

I note with sadness the death of one of my heroes,
Sir John Smith
, founder of the Landmark Trust, who I was once lucky enough to travel around Palermo with. He was a very inspiring and rather original talker.

Also on Friday evening I visited my old school for the first time in 20 years responding to a request to give a 20 minutes careers talk; I am not sure I was top billing against the army (two men in uniform) and the city (two men in suits), but the boys were very polite and attentive and even asked some questions. It was interesting to see the old school again, looking very handsome in the spring sunshine. I was kindly shown some of the historic rooms by the Fellows Librarian, Geoff Day, including the new donation of a near complete run of Trollope novels, all autographed for his own son, being formally received on Friday. Trollope was a boy at Winchester College for three years, I doubt he had to suffer any ‘careers talks’.

Victorian spires and ‘starkitecture’

On Monday evening went to a very enjoyable and special party organised by Simon Jenkins to see the illumination of All Saints, Margaret Street; it’s a great Victorian church by Butterfield, tucked into a street off Regent Street, with a soaring spire.

Inside it is splendidly sepulchral. I used to visit this church a bit when I was a student in London and was amazed by how many of Simon’s friends admitted to never have been inside it before. Had a long conversation with Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London who thinks that church officials are much more positive about the historic churches in their hands than they used to be. He also explains how much money is made available for church repairs in Germany and Sweden. It is rather amusing seeing how dark the nave is, where drinks are being held, means that guests circulate before pouncing on a familiar shadow.

It is interesting how important the issue of “place” and “place-making” is becoming at the moment. This week I have been to two discussion lunches where this is the main topic; it is a response of course to the volume of new building which we notice going up on all sides. I hear a new phrase at one lunch: “markitecture” which I think refers to buildings designed by grand names of the profession to get permission, and then sold on to others execute, often in diluted form. Another phrase used to describe an imbalance in London’s development, particularly in the region of tall buildings, is “starkitecture”. I am starting a glossary, do send in any you hear.

For the love of historic buildings

A week ago I enjoyed a day’s conference on the arts hosted by Lord Salisbury. A healthy gathering of heritage fanatics like myself, and some interested parliamentarians, such as Ed Vaizey the smiling but sparky Tory MP for Wantage, presumably the son of the distinguished writer Marina Vaizey. I note on his weblog that Blair is to make a major speech on the arts next week, on March 6 at the Tate Gallery, perhaps trying to leave some other legacy before he expires politically? It was an interesting event held in an inspiring piece historic house that must have seen so many important political conversations in its time. There is no doubt the future of our towns and cities and the historic buildings within them is a pressing issue today.

Next was a visit to our gifted illustrator-friend Matthew Rice to discuss his next features for the magazine. As you would imagine, his house is a charming old rectory, filled with china and paintings, and children and dogs. After a long discussion in his office, back to the house for supper with Emma, his wife, and discover Matthew is also a rather good cook. He is off to India with his father, a theatre designer, to see if they can find the house in which his father was born in Simla. Stop the night with them before heading off early to Lowestoft to do my research into Somerleyton Hall for our East Anglia issue, although am nearly a nervous wreck after driving through Norwich and round the one way system in Lowestoft in the rain! After gathering wits, carry on out to see the model village built by Peto, still as picturesque as ever.

On Thursday to the launch for Inigo Jones, the book Giles Worsley finished just before his death in 2006. It was held in the Portico Room of Somerset House where he had been a trustee, and speeches by Brian Allen of the Mellon Centre, Sir Marcus Worlsey, Bt, Giles’s father, and Michael Hall, Editor of Apollo, and formerly Country Life’s Architectural Editor. Giles was, and is, such a loss, and I still feel very much in his shadow. It takes some courage to tackle the architecture of the great Jones.

Preparing an article on Chatsworth

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.

Georgian gem in Essex

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.

Red dawn at Castle Howard

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.

Lunch with Gilbert and George

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.

Diary of a Curious House Guest

Well Christmas has zoomed past in a flash of parties, carol singing, pantomimes and the like. We did two main services very child orientated, one a full crib blessing service with candles, processions and children’s orchestra at Little St Mary’s in Cambridge. It is a very beautiful and memorable service. Some old gent, a visitor from Holland, in the row in front of us sat crying his eyes out for the whole event. The second was a carol concert in St Francis’ Church in Littleton, the estate church for Loseley Park, built as a school in the 1840s, where we sang carols and were visited in the church by sheep and donkeys before walking in the dark to sing carols in a farmyard. I was asked to read the lesson at the last moment, as the local squire was called away, not something I have done for while. My father and his wife are mulled wine monitors which they do rather well, and the guiding spirit is the local shepherd Chloe Dancey who said: “This service is just right and simple, how things should be in the country”.

Back to work this week, and a visit to a vast Jacobean country house undergoing a major restoration, my article will appear in early February. It was a huge old pile, but in the major rooms evidence of brilliant repair work that warms the heart. Which was fortunate as it was bitterly cold. Standing on the roof, looking at the 17th century timbers, my hands too cold to write, I did briefly think; this is heaven.