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The East Coast – and a happy chance to see The Peacock Room

November

Back to the United States to lecture for the Royal Oak Foundation on my new book on English Country House Interiors. I am very well looked after by the Royal Oak team, Jennie and Kristin especially, and am staying at the congenial Cosmopolitan Club – where the librarian is kind enough to let me practice my talk in their beautiful library. My lecture at Scandinavia House on Park Avenue to a lively audience, followed by a reception and then an enjoyable dinner hosted by the Yale Centre for British Art.
The weather this week is very bright and sunny, but there is a bit of a chill – but considering it was snowing last week, one can’t complain. I have a few free hours in the morning of the second day before catching the train to Philadelphia, and spent some time re-visiting the “period rooms” at the Metropolitan Museum, including the plasterwork from Kirtlington, where I lectured in 2009 and the dining room from Lansdowne House, designed by Robert Adam, there are a lot of good 18th-century French rooms too- but the studiolo from the Gubbio palace of Federico da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino.
In Philadelphia, I staying and lecture at the Union League, hosted by Jim Munday, and as I don’t have enough time to revisit the Museum of Fine Arts, visit the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, a wonderful robust nineteenth-century Gothic building only walking distance from the Union League. At Boston, I stay at the Union Club by the state capitol and lecturing at the Athenaeum, a really wonderful private library founded in 1807 and housed in an 1840s classical building designed by Edward Clarke Cabot; at the meal that evening, hosted privately in a very elegant town house only a few minutes walk from the capitol, meet many interesting people and am reintroduced to Judith Tankard who has just written a new book on the gardens of Gertrude Jekyll, mind you the conversation ranges very widely.
My last stop is in Washington, where I lecture at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. I have a few free hours on my last day and visit the Freer Institute to see the Peacock Room created by James Whistler for a London dining room, and also enjoy a few hours looking at the outstanding collections of the National Gallery, which is also one of the finest classical buildings in the city, designed by John Russell Pope – it also has a very good restaurant. It is really quite exciting to see the Capitol, the White House and the Lincoln Memorial, all the architectural icons of the United States.

Cheltenham Literary Festival and a chance to row

Down to Cheltenham Literary Festival to take part in a panel discussion on the Edwardian Country House with Lucinda Lambton and Dan Cruikshank. It is a most beautiful day and I am a little jealous of the race goers for the opening National Hunt event at Cheltenham race course, but am very well looked after by the Festival and given lunch in the writers room, one of a number of festive tents in Montpellier Gardens. We have a delightful audience of over a thousand, very enthusiastic with lots of good questions – how would these houses have smelt? was my favourite. I enjoy panels because you can’t prepare too hard and it is like a conversation between friends and creates interesting cross-currents. Dan talks about Marsh Court which is a wonderful Lutyens house and Lucinda Lambton about the extraordinary characters of this period – the eccentric millionaires, industrialists and dukes. I think the Edwardian country houses hold a special place in people’s imagination because it was the last era of luxury. On Saturday, up early for more novice rowing training, and arrive by the boathouse to see a glorious sun pouring through mist rising from the frost on Midsummer Common – what a sight!

september days and nights

Working hard on finishing one of my major current projects, a history of the 200-year-old gun making firm of Westley Richards & Co in Birmingham I come across a charming story in the memoirs of Stewart Granger the film star, who in the 1950s buys the guns first made by the firm for Count Potocki, a wealthy Polish landowner, who loses everything in the 1940s. Invited by an English Duke to go shooting in the 1950s, he goes to ask if he can borrow a pair of guns from Westley Richards to whom he had been a customer in the 1920s and 30s, and asks if he could possibly borrow a pair. The manager loans him the pair, and for no charge, adds the counts initials to the guns and his coat of arms to the gun case, so they don’t look like a loan. When the count is presented with his loan, he silently wept. It is one of many splendid stories associated with this august firm. I have thoroughly enjoyed delving deeply into this story over the past year.

I attend a drinks at Westminster Abbey hosted by the Dean, for the directors of the Royal Oak, an American charity which supports the English National Trust; the Dean’s speech reminds us of how many interesting events have passed in that room before. It was especially good to catch up with old US friends such as Ron Fleming and Anne Fairfax, and see National Trust folk as well. I also spend some time at Nymans where I am working with Oliver Caroe on a historical assessment of this most unusual building, especially interesting to me as the home of Oliver Messel’s parents, and quite an extraordinary and special garden. It is a place like no other, with wonderful plants and strong and colourful episodes of planting, after the fire in 47 only one wing of the house survived, the main south range is a ruined shell, and curiously evocative, especially in the early morning mist.

Scholars and saints: England in July

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

Wedding Party at Blenheim

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

The pleasures of Chatsworth

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.

Art, Architecture and a farewell to Pevsner . . for me

The past few weeks have passed in a haze of writing industry, working on two main book projects concurrently, one based in Birmingham and one in London. In April managed a launch for English Ruins in The Gallery at Cowcross Street, courtesy of Alan Baxter for which we installed a looped slide show of Paul’s wonderful pictures. I have to confess that I enjoyed the event hugely, although it was very do it yourself, a book launch marks the end point of a project, something more like a christening than a funeral – the truth is nothing gives me more pleasure than a gathering of friends.

I was obliged to go and see the Cult of Beauty exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in order to see some Whistler drawings relevant to one of my projects, and was impressed by the richness and interest of the show, although for my money Whistler emerges as the star, for his restraint and sense of colour, but the exhibition presents some superb paintings and furniture, and a suit like the one worn by Oscar Wilde.

I also have just published a piece in The Lady on the re-opening of The Watts Gallery, the late Victorian artists’ purpose built gallery in the woods near Compton, near Guildford, which I have known for 30 years – its been very well restored, and a new exhibition gallery created. My father and I used to ride on a circuit which ended on the sandy track by the gallery Watts created, not inappropriately because the great Victorian artist built his house down here to take up riding for his health. The main galleries returned to their 19th century atmosphere. In Country Life I wrote on the exhibition of two enormous canvases by Carl Laubin, showing all the works of Vanbrugh composed into scenes in the manner of a capriccio as if by Canaletto – genius.

Last Monday I said farewell to the committee of trustees of the Pevsner Architectural Guides Trust, on which I have served for four years, and which supports the publication by Yale University Press of the revisions of the Pevsner Guides, which is now to be funded by a new arrangement with a foundation (announcement to follow), which will see the revision of the whole series through to the end, which is really wonderful news, there are about twenty volumes in need of revision. Chairman Simon Jenkins proposed the toast to Pevsner and we thanked Gavin Watson for his devoted secretaryship, another emotional moment in a way. These books are solid gold, Pevsner was an inspired genius and the present revising editors, industrious, witty and wise.

Three cheers for the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge

As the great day approached, we decided to call round two other families for a lunch in the garden and a shared tv watching moment to take in the royal wedding and were very pleased it didn’t rain. We set the sitting room up with seats in rows – trying in light-hearted mode to set up a version of the old photograph of families gathered round the old tv set for the coronation, we found the atmosphere of an awe-struck audience came naturally however. We were certainly captivated, charmed and fascinated by the whole spectacle, pageantry and sense of history on display – curious to think it was being watched by some many millions around the world. I would have like to have watched people arriving more and found out who everyone was, but I was a bit busy with the champagne at that point. While I thought the BBC coverage good, I am told by a good friend that the Skytv commentator Alastair Bruce spoke with great knowledge and authority – that was rather missing from the BBC line up.

The architecture of the abbey was magnificent, elevating and a ‘national’ shrine. There is always something cheering about a wedding, but add the elegance of the bride, the uniforms, music and carefully orchestrated ceremony, and something undoubtedly moving occurred. It made all the grown-ups of our party think wistfully of our own weddings, nearly two decades ago now, and otherwise we devoted the rest of that sun-filled day to a long lunch for a dozen in the garden and party games – the daughters had made bunting from old curtains and we found some union jacks in the local co-op and one larger one in our own garden shed, so we felt we had entered the spirit and enjoyed ourselves. Us Cambridge dwellers gave the couple an extra champagne toast all round to celebrate their new title – very English, very smart and young. As we walked the dog in the evening, we came across some street parties still in party mode at 10pm!

Texas days

Next to Houston, where I stay with the Koenig family – Mr Koenig a lawyer and Mrs Koenig who had lived in, and studied at, Oxford (Oxford connections have been more frequent than Cambridge on this trip, I wonder why?). As they sing in a church choir on Sunday mornings, a charming friend of theirs, an artist originally from Spain, takes me on a tour of Rice University, where I get a chance to see the building designed by John Outram with its extraordinary ceiling and then on to the Menil Gallery and the Rothko chapel, both remarkable. I am particularly interested in the room which has the objects from the studios of surreal painters. I go to set up in the Museum of Fine Arts at Houston, and see only a fraction of their wonderful collection. I have been given a tremendous room for this talk, which is filled to capacity of over 300 and with a screen that blows my images up to the size of a house.

A lively reception on the terrace in the sunshine, some 40 books sold and signed (and would have sold more if they had been easier to get hold of apparently!) and many interesting questions and observations. Off the next day to Austin, the capital of Texas, where I am given a lunch at the Headliners Club by Mr Braziel, which has wonderful views all around the city and surrounding state, and a tour of the city by an expert geologist, Dr Peter Rose, who explains both Texas history (including a tour of the State Capitol) and the surrounding geology. Then given a chance to rest at the house of my kind hosts the Braziels (a house built for Lyndon Johnson no less) before the evening talk – where the guests are piped in with bagpipes.

Breakfast the next day on delicious pancakes and am given a present of a new book Empire of the Summer Moon, which is a riveting account of the last Comanche leader and I can see being a great film. On to Fort Worth, where the Maddoxes, taken me on a tour of the main modern art gallery designed by Renzo Piano (wonderful Warhol on the stairs) where we have an excellent lunch, and am given a tour of the Kimball Art Museum, by deputy director Malcolm Warner, who I had met at a Millais conference many years ago. The collection is of the highest quality (El Greco to Raeburn) and so very interesting to see the building too, which is being extended, designed by Louis Kahn. My final stop is a night in Dallas, where I give a final talk (on classical interiors) to the Institute of Classical Architecture arranged by my hostess, Lynn Muse, in the elegant hall of the Muse mansion, a breath-taking neo-Palladian masterpiece by Quinlan Terry. From there – to the airport and back to blighty.