Saturday, 28 April 2012

Metamorphosis: The last flight of the Brimstone Butterfly

The following is the last blog written by Caro before she died, which she asked us, her friends, to post for her.  We are glad so many of you appreciated this her Brimstone Butterfly blog.

The Brimstone Butterfly

To my dear friends and readers: may you all enjoy health and happiness, without which life is not worth a candle. As for me, alas “the bright day is done.” I take my final leave of you all with an excerpt from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.

Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have
Immortal longings in me: now no more
The juice of Egypt's grape shall moist this lip:
Yare, yare, good Iras; quick. Methinks I hear
Antony call; I see him rouse himself
To praise my noble act; I hear him mock
The luck of Caesar, which the gods give men
To excuse their after wrath: husband, I come:
Now to that name my courage prove my title!
I am fire and air; my other elements
I give to baser life. So; have you done?
Come then, and take the last warmth of my lips.
Farewell, kind Charmian; Iras, long farewell.

Kisses them. IRAS falls and dies

Have I the aspic in my lips? Dost fall?
If thou and nature can so gently part,
The stroke of death is as a lover's pinch,
Which hurts, and is desired. Dost thou lie still?
If thus thou vanishest, thou tell'st the world
It is not worth leave-taking.

Dissolve, thick cloud, and rain; that I may say,
The gods themselves do weep!

This proves me base:
If she first meet the curled Antony,
He'll make demand of her, and spend that kiss
Which is my heaven to have. Come, thou
mortal wretch,

To an asp, which she applies to her breast

With thy sharp teeth this knot intrinsicate
Of life at once untie: poor venomous fool
Be angry, and dispatch. O, couldst thou speak,
That I might hear thee call great Caesar ass

O eastern star!

Peace, peace!
Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,
That sucks the nurse asleep?

O, break! O, break!

As sweet as balm, as soft as air, as gentle,--
O Antony!--Nay, I will take thee too.

Applying another asp to her arm

What should I stay--


In this vile world? So, fare thee well.
Now boast thee, death, in thy possession lies
A lass unparallel'd. Downy windows, close;
And golden Phoebus never be beheld
Of eyes again so royal! Your crown's awry;
I'll mend it, and then play.

A note from Caro's friends: If you are feeling in need of talking about this to someone please contact the Samaritans on 08457 909090.  From outside UK: +44 8457 909090.           Befrienders Worldwide are available on

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Apsley House Part Two

Just in case it should slip any visitor’s mind what Wellington’s most famous exploit was, he had Wyatt build him the Waterloo Gallery. It is 90 feet in length and two storeys high. In the Duke’s time he insisted that the walls be hung with yellow damask as it constituted his favourite colour scheme, even though his lady love, Harriet Arbuthnot, tried without success to persuade him to use red damask instead. 

However she got her way as far as the gilded overdoors were concerned made, apparently, to her own design. The winged dragons reminded me of the oriental theme at the Royal Pavilion Brighton. There were three fireplaces in the room; one at each end and another in the centre of the room facing the windows. 

A pair of 9 feet high grey Siberian porphyry torchères was given to the 1st Duke by Tsar Nicholas I of Russia. The Tsar had intended them for his Winter Palace in St Petersburg. Perhaps, when they were finished he decided they didn’t quite go and so palmed them off on Wellington instead. Not to be outdone, King Charles John XIV of Sweden gave Wellington two huge vases made of Swedish porphyry. The Waterloo Gallery is a suitable palatial setting for such regal gifts, which took pride of place at the annual banquets. 8 concealed ventilation shafts were built into the ceiling to deal with the smoke from the numerous candles at the banquets. Mirrored panels were inserted into the inner side of the shutters so they could be drawn across the windows at night to reflect back the candlelight and keep out the prying eyes of the London mob. Large double height mirrors likewise helped maximise the light in the gallery. According to the guidebook, Arthur was seeking on a more modest scale to emulate Louis XIV’s Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. He made the gallery seem palatial in other respects by having full length portraits of English monarchs: the diminutive King Charles I is shown on horseback. Nearby stands Mary Tudor, who deservedly earned the soubriquet of Bloody Mary. By one door is a small portrait of Ana Dorotia by Peter Paul Rubens. Ana was the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II and is shown in the garbs of the nun she became. There are numerous Regency rose damask and gilt wood chairs set around the room but for the weary visitor there is thankfully some modern upholstered seating to sink into and admire the gallery from in comfort.

The Yellow Drawing Room retains Robert Adam’s white marble fireplace featuring a central panel of an eagle as well as acorns, leaves and flowers. Unlike the doors, door frame and door furniture, both the ceiling and frieze decorations lack Adam’s lighter touch. The windows overlook the lawn and the mature trees. I caught sight of a weather-beaten wooden see-saw and wondered how many generations of ducal children had used it.

According to the guidebook the Striped Drawing Room, with its red and white striped wall hangings and linked upholstered seating around the inner walls, might have been based on Napoleon’s tent room in Josephine’s Malmaison. For all that they were the greatest of enemies on the battlefield, Wellington comes across as something of a private admirer of Napoleon’s off it.  Dean Wyatt has opened up three separate rooms, one of which had served as a bedroom in Robert Adam’s time. There are no state bedrooms in Apsley House. With St James Palace and Buckingham Palace only a short carriage drive away, there was no need for the Duke to scrabble around for somewhere for royal visitors to sleep of an evening. His own private apartments, not on the tour, are apparently far more modest. I seem to recall hearing that in later years the Duke favoured a simple army camp bed for his sleeping arrangements.

The delightful mirrored octagon Passage seems an odd conceit to have in a small corridor leading to the Duke’s State Dining Room. It is hard to image Wellington’s fellow army officers checking their uniforms and mustachios were just so as they stepped into the dining room to partake of the annual Waterloo Banquet, whilst the Waterloo Gallery was being constructed.

I have to say I rather disliked the State Dining Room finding Dean Wyatt’s design far too heavy and oppressive for my tastes. Thankfully it forms part of Dean Wyatt’s extension to the house and so did not require him to desecrate a Robert Adam room to build it. The forbidding atmosphere was not helped by the lugubrious paintings of various European rulers, such as Tsar Alexander I and Louis XVIII of France, who owed their thrones in part to Wellington’s efforts on the battlefield. The extravagant silver gilt centrepiece on the dining table was presented to the Duke by the Portuguese. Even this was outshone by the Waterloo Shield and Standard Candelabra. Now kept under protective glass in the museum, it took pride of place at the annual Waterloo Banquet in the State Dining Room (until the Gallery was finished). The elaborate sideboard at one end of the dining room was built with a special stand for the shield to be placed in. The shield was presented to the Duke by merchants of the City of London and depicts Wellington surrounded by images of his most famous battles. The only feature in the room I did admire was the curved door by the sideboard leading to the service passage and back to the Piccadilly Drawing Room.

And so ends my visit to Apsley House and with its conclusion the Brimstone Butterfly is obliged to go into hibernation for a while. Whether you have been an occasional visitor or merely flitted in from time to time, thank-you for your company and encouragement and I hope you have derived as much pleasure from the Brimstone Butterfly’s wanderings and musings as I have had in writing them.
Caro Riikonen
8th February 2012     

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Apsley House Part One: In which the Brimstone Butterfly meets her Waterloo

When I was young I was quite green with envy when a work colleague announced that she and some fellow students were going to take tea with a Duchess at Apsley House, the ancestral mansion of the Dukes of Wellington which, unlike Spencer House in Green Park, is still very much a family home today. I felt a similar pang of jealousy when the celebrated chef Simon Hopkinson announced, after our radio broadcast, that he was off to spend the weekend as a house guest at Knole, the magnificent stately home in Kent. His kind gift of fresh bread rolls infused with truffle oil and a portion of glorious rice pudding made with Jersey cream proved some consolation. Much as I enjoy wandering around the state rooms, I love the unexpected glimpses into areas of a stately home rarely seen by the general public, such as Horace Walpole’s bedroom, which was still being renovated when the Aviatrix and I visited his Gothic villa at Strawberry Hill. I thought of my long forgotten colleague as I made my way from the Wellington Arch to Apsley House. (On the subject of the Wellington Arch, yesterday I granted a reader’s request that she might be allowed to include one of my photographs in her forthcoming book about Angels and the London Olympics). With regard to Apsley House, I wish I had had the presence of mind to ask my colleague about her visit as the ducal family apartments are not on the official tour.

The original mansion was built in the 1770s for Henry Bathurst, Lord Apsley. Given the size of Wellington’s ego, as witnessed in his truculent behaviour over his equally oversized statue on Wellington Arch, I am surprised he did not insist that the building’s name be changed to match his own. Bathurst had commissioned Robert Adam to build him a new townhouse by Hyde Park. The most celebrated architect of his generation Robert Adam also remodelled my beloved Kenwood House, Osterley House and Syon House amongst other commissions. In 1807 Apsley house was bought by one Richard Wellesley. Ten years later Richard sold the house to his younger brother Arthur, better known to posterity as the Duke of Wellington. Arthur promptly set about remodelling and extending the house drawing on the talents of Benjamin Dean Wyatt. Not only was he now a military hero, Wellington also had political ambitions and was for a time Prime Minister. However, his personal politics served to diminish his popularity with the general public. An advocate of the Catholic Reform Bill he was keen to ameliorate the sanctions placed on them in public life. On the other hand, Wellington was very much the reactionary when it came to Electoral reform, vehemently opposing changes which would have extended the suffrage to working class men. Indeed, it was a result of his political activity that Wellington gained the sobriquet of Iron Duke. It had nothing to do with his military prowess but everything to with the fact he had hastily installed iron shutters at Apsley House to protect his home from a vengeful mob. In the 1940s the then Duke handed the house over to English Heritage, with the stipulation that the family would retain use of the upper floors and parts of the basement.

The external appearance of the house underwent a marked change when it was encased in honey coloured Bath stone in stark contrast to Robert Adam’s red brick. The interior of the house is now a curious mix of the original Robert Adam and the later Benjamin Dean Wyatt.
Harriette Wilson
The current entrance to the house forms part of the Wyatt extension. The walls and the two plaster columns are painted to resemble marble. A large scale picture dominated a wall: it depicts one of the annual banquets held in the Waterloo Gallery at Apsley House to celebrate the Duke’s famous military victory over Napoleon. The picture includes a small number of women hovering near the doorway. They were not permitted to dine with the menfolk but were permitted to take a peek at proceedings from the door. I doubt if the 1st Duchess of Wellington was present. Like that other great British hero of the era, Admiral Nelson, Wellington did not reciprocate the love of his long suffering wife Kitty and tried to keep her out of his day to day life as much as possible. Unlike Nelson, Wellington observed the outward proprieties and was reconciled with his spouse before she died. But in common with a great many other men of his class, Wellington had his mistresses, the most well known of which was the courtesan Harriette Wilson. After her career drew to end, Harriet strove to rebuild her fortunes by embarking on another as an author and blackmailer. Having written a detailed memoir of her life she informed her former armours that, in return for a specified pecuniary consideration, their names would be omitted from her long list of conquests. When the Duke of Wellington was presented with this proposal he was said to have retorted angrily: ”Publish and be damned”.  

On the left-hand side of the hall is the Wellington museum. Even in the first Duke’s time it was something of a popular tourist spot. A leather Regency porter’s chair takes pride of place near the door. The museum itself was in semi darkness when I saw it  to protect some of the more fragile objects on display. These included flags hanging from the ceiling which bear both Napoleon’s initials and a wreath of laurel leaves to denote his imperial status as an emperor.

Grateful European rulers heaped titles and precious gifts on the victorious Wellington, including the extraordinary Egyptian dining table centrepiece. A label said it was 6.7 metres in length. I doubt if the Duke would have approved of metric measurements, as opposed to imperial, being used in HIS home. The scale model of the Egyptian Temple complex at Luxor, rendered in porcelain bisque, was commissioned from the Sèvres factory as a present from a guilty Napoleon to his former wife Josephine, whom he had dumped for wife number two when Josephine proved to be barren.  Josephine turned down the extravagant present, perhaps deciding it was tad too flamboyant for a woman who was no longer an Empress.

There were other costly items on display including various dinner services and silverware but none captured my fancy as much as the Egyptian centrepiece and accompanying 86 piece dinner service. Part of my interest arose from having studied Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs (I failed miserably in my attempts to  translate any of the crisp hieroglyphs). Another reason for my interest was that I had paid a number of visits to the real Luxor in the past. The centrepiece service was based on how the temple complex would have looked in its ancient heyday, but much of it was still familiar to me.

The Robert Adam entrance hall leads off from Wyatt’s extension. A much smaller affair it served as a waiting room in Wellington’s time and deprived visitors to the museum of the opportunity of sneaking into other parts of the house unobserved. There are a number of antique busts on display as well as busts of George III, Prince Albert and Wellington himself, all of which are thought to have been placed there after Wellington’s time. The walls have been painted to imitate marble. The red and beige Minton tiles were introduced by the 2nd Duke. 

The backstairs descend to the lower floor, where the former kitchen and other service areas used to be housed. Last year I explored the kitchens within the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. The shelves were filled with an impressive collection of copper pots, pans and jelly moulds. Whilst I was there, I tried in vain to determine what the initials DWL, surmounted by a coronet, stood for. I discovered later that some of these copper utensils had belonged to the Duke of Wellington’s household at Apsley House. Others had come from the kitchens of the Dukes of Northumberland at Syon House.  As neither residence had opened up their former kitchens to the public, such utensils were deemed superfluous whereas, by contrast, the Regency kitchens at the Pavilion had been denuded of utensils in the 19th century when it ceased being a royal palace. A small room in the basement area at Apsley House contained a fireplace (how I long for a roaring open fireplace as I shiver in the unheated state garret at Brimstone Butterfly Towers) and various mementos relating to the 1st Duke of Wellington, including a pair of his eponymous boots and a hand painted travelling tea service with a leather carry case The Brimstone Butterfly’s cannot lay claim to such luxuries when she flits from place to place. A plastic bottle filled with water from the artisan wells at Brimstone Butterfly Towers represents the zenith of travelling in style for her.

Robert Adam designed the elegant staircase which Wyatt later extended. I can well imagine the Brimstone Butterfly flouncing up the steps in a Regency ballgown. Given that the frieze work near the domed skylight features the letter W for Wellington that at least must date from the 19th century. The present ducal family have apartments at the top of the house, where I imagine my colleague partook of tea with the duchess.
What cannot be missed in the hallway is the gigantic nude marble statue of Napoleon in the guise of Mars, the Peacemaker. One has to wonder quite what Napoleon was thinking of when he commissioned Antonio Canova to produce the work. No one would ever have mistaken the god like body of the statue for Napoleon’s own distinctly short and stocky build.  It seems even Napoleon eventually became embarrassed by the statue and had it covered up. In his hand the statue of Napoleon holds a small statue of the winged goddess of victory Nike. Napoleon’s own fabled string of victories was finally ended by Wellington on the battlefield of Waterloo. The Canova statue is a most singular trophy of war. It was bought by the British Government and the Prince Regent presented it to Wellington. I find it odd that Wellington would wish to gaze upon a gigantic nude statue of his foremost enemy every time he ascended or descended his stairs. On the other hand it did mean that no visitor could be left in any doubt as to precisely who the statue represented and why it had ended up in the London townhouse.

The Piccadilly Drawing Room ranks as one of most favourite rooms in the house, probably because it so clearly shows the influence of Robert Adam in the delicate white and gilt ceiling, frieze and elegant marble fireplace. I love the yellow striped watered silk and satin walls and the crystal chandelier. From this room Wellington would have been able to admire his oversized equestrian statue, which he fought to keep on top of the Wellington Arch during his life time. Once he died, the statue was dismantled and carted off to the army town of Aldershot, later to be replaced by the spectacular Quadriga (my picture of which is now destined to be immortalised in print).
The Portico Drawing Room, which was also the family dining room, takes its name from the Portico added by Benjamin Dean Wyatt when he encased Robert Adam’s redbrick mansion in Bath stone. The white marble Robert Adam chimney piece features a Grecian sphinx in its central panel alongside a bas-relief of a seated goddess Psyche and a winged Cupid. The ceiling features Grecian vases, sphinxes, and small boys frolicking with mythical and not so mythical creatures, including stags. The latter were heraldic beasts of the Bathurst family who had first built Apsley House. There were two huge gilt pier windows at other end of the room, placed there to reflect as much light as possible when remodelling by Wyatt led to the removal of certain windows. Paintings in this room included a  (thankfully fully clothed) portrait of Napoleon and his sometime empress, Josephine and Charles Arbuthnot. The Duke had a long standing crush on the latter’s wife, Harriet, who he regarded as a close friend. After Harriet’s death Wellington invited her widower to live with him at Apsley House.

I shall return to the subject of Apsley House anon.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Going out in style!

Are there ever days in which you simply want to curl up into a ball and die? On a variation of such a theme, one Ghanaian woman has decreed that on her death she wishes to spend eternity with her corpse curled up into the foetal position and placed inside an egg-shaped coffin.
At the weekend I met up for a coffee with the Filmmaker on London’s Southbank. It seems our film is going to be shown in Milan again. I wonder if they will use the same trailer as before which featured, amongst other things, my good self in a steel boned crimson corset. There was a time when I was a frequent visitor to the Royal National Theatre on the Southbank, back in the days before it was granted its regal prefix. As we searched for somewhere to have a drink we realised that both the Royal Festival Hall and the Queen Elizabeth Hall were taking part in that weekend’s Festival for the Living. In reality the festival was about attitudes to death. The Filmmaker jokingly said that the festival was quintessentially English. I disagreed. Death has become a taboo subject. Modern homes would have little use for the wake-table in the Music Room at Spencer House. Few people die at home nowadays and even when they do the body is usually quickly whisked away by undertakers until the day of the funeral.

Many years ago I determined that I would have no funeral. My body will be cremated without ceremony. If I were to change my mind I would be tempted to call upon the services of the coffins makers of Ghana and in particular those who make elaborate coffins for the Ga people of Accra. Since the 1950s they have been inspired to create the most incredible coffins, which reflect an aspect of the deceased’s personality. One of the foremost proponents of such coffins is the Paa Joe workshop.  They made the coffins on display in the foyer at the Royal Festival Hall. I was somewhat relieved to discover that all the coffins had been specially commissioned by the Jack Bell Gallery as works of art in their own right: no-one would be taking up permanence residence in them after the exhibition had ended.
I later realised that the display of such funerary works of art was in keeping with the treatment of the stone memorial to Theodosia Louisa, Countess of Liverpool who had died almost two centuries before.Theodosia Louisa was the wife to the then Prime Minister when she died in the 1820s. Although she was buried elsewhere, it was decided to place the monument in All Saints church, Kingston where her husband had once been Lord Lieutenant.  In the 19th century her seated statue was so admired as a work of art it was for a while exhibited at Somerset House, immediately across the water from the present day Southbank complex.

The Ghanaian coffins are first made into a basic canoe shape using planks of local softwood. Then the craftsmen use various implements to fashion the coffins into the desired final shape. The whole process can take up to three months, requiring the deceased to be kept on ice at the undertakers in the meantime. This would explain why the tradition only really took off in the 1950s, when modern refrigeration made the delay to the burial feasible in lieu of the mummification techniques of the Ancient Egyptians. The Ga people believe both in reincarnation and in the ability of the dead to affect the well being of the living. Thus, it is important to give the deceased a fine send-off.
I could see how a body would fit inside the lion and the exotic fruit. I was less certain about the Rolls Royce or the other car. Still, if I should ever find myself a passenger in either of them at least I won't have to struggle with the seat belt or work out how to operate the door handle as I am sometimes wont to do.
The Rolls is a copy of a coffin made by the Paa Joe workshop for a client who was buried in the garden of their home. 
The egg shaped coffin is a replica of one made for a living Ghanaian woman who, it is to be hoped, will have a good few years left before she will ever require to use it. The shape of her coffin ties in with the Ga people’s notions of reincarnation and rebirth.
I did not see any note about the Viking boat but the cork and wine bottle opener was a pure flight of fancy by the gallery owners, who commissioned the coffins. In the past I have seen such coffins in the shape of aeroplanes and calculators. Mine would of course be in the form of a Brimstone Butterfly, fluttering away to that great blog in the sky.

The Brimstone Butterfly’s Spencer House: Part Two

At the top of the stairs our little party entered the Music Room.

Dominating one room was a portrait of Colonel Gray, who had John Vardy kicked out of his job at Spencer House to be replaced by James Stuart. Colonel Gray is looking rather pleased with himself in his scarlet turban.

I had thought the chairs covered with checked gingham must be an anachronism but it seems they were to be found in houses of the period. The highly polished table now used for dining was once used as a wake table, bearing the coffin of a recently deceased resident before burial. In view of the table’s intriguing past I wonder whether the current caterers at Spencer House ever serve ‘Death by chocolate’ in the room.  As in Lady Howard’s bedchamber at Marble Hill House, a fake door had been added for the sake of symmetry.
Lady Spencer’s Room, to which the ladies would retire, overlooks both the street and the park. In her time the red damask walls were actually green. Arthur Young was in ecstasies about the room declaring “scarce anything can be more beautiful than the mosaic ceiling. “ I beg to disagree. The room left me cold. Having robbed poor John Vardy of the right to complete the decoration of Spencer House, James Stuart completed the interior at such a slow pace he never got around to filling in the roundels in the ceiling with classical paintings. The only paintings of interest in the room from my perspective were those by Sir James Thornhill and then only because he had decorated the Painted Hall at Greenwich.
The Great Room served as both a ballroom and an art gallery. The green and white compartmented ceiling with its gilt medallions reminded me of the Red Drawing Room at Syon House. It is based on the Temple of Concord and Victory in Rome. The ceiling features 4 bronzed plaster medallions featuring Venus flanked by Hymen and Cupid, Bacchus, the Three Graces and Apollo as well as Spencer griffins, panthers and lions. The guide pointed out that in one medallion Spencer griffins are pulling triumphal chariots, one with its tail up and the other down reflecting the family's changing fortunes. I particularly liked the doors whose architraves were based on those at the Erechtheum, an ancient Greek temple. It seems the Corinthian columns were added in the 1920s. The 18th century floorboards had to be replaced with 20th century oak ones and the modern carpet is a reproduction of a 17th century original.
The final state room on the tour was the Painted Room dedicated to conjugal love and drawing heavily on symbols of connubial bliss. Here is Arthur Young’s description of the room, which is as pertinent today as it was in 1768. Besides, he probably tarried for far longer than I was permitted although the key features he alights upon were the exact same that our guide pointed out:
“On one side is a bow window ornamented with the most exquisitely carved and gilt pillars you can conceive. The walls and ceiling are painted in compartments by Mr Stuart in the most beautiful taste. Even the very scrolls and festoons of the slightest sort which are run between the square and circular compartments are executed with the minutest elegance. The ground of the whole is green and the general effect more pleasing than is easily conceived. Nothing can be lighter or more beautiful than the chimney piece. The frieze contains a most exquisite painting representing a clandestine marriage which, without variety or glare of colours, has all the harmony of their utmost power. Nothing can be finer than the drapery, which is designed with the justest taste displaying the form of every limb through it in a most beautiful manner. The soft expression of the naked and the beauty of the heads are very great. I should observe that two of the small compartments of the wall are landscapes, let into it with no other than the painted frame of the divisions. One represents a water fall and the other a bridge over a stream, both fine. The frames of the tables, sofas, stands &c &c are all carved and gilt in the same taste as the other ornaments of the room all with a profusion of richness but with the utmost elegance. Remember to observe the peacock's feathers over one of the glasses, the turtles on a wreath of flowers and the magpies on bunches of grapes. The looking glass window is a piece of taste and has a happy effect.”
I too admired the window inset with mirrored glass. The Clandestine Marriage Young refers to is a panel in the original 18th century fireplace copied from an ancient  Roman painting. Other paintings were inspired by discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum.  The room with its apse and furniture reminded me of the Library at Kenwood House. It seems the latter, though original to Spencer House, had found itself at Kenwood for a spell. Perhaps I recognised it. Of all the rooms on the upper floor this was the only one I really liked. I could have happily spent hours in Vardy’s Ante Room or the Palm Room. The fact he was denied the opportunity to decorate the upper floors in the Ancient Roman style was a tragedy, a Greek tragedy one could say.

The Painted Room ended the tour of Spencer House. Outside on the Terrace and visible from the street was one final artwork. The statue of a man and his shoes titled  The Man Who Gives Fire, is a life-size bronze by the Belgian artist Jan Fabre. Different works of art have been exhibited here over the past few years. I am not sure either John Vardy or James Smith would have approved, as the statue fails to conform to the heroic demeanour of statues from the antique world. However, given the propensity to gild statues in the18th century, it might well have found favour amongst the original denizens of Spencer House on that basis alone.

Thus, ends what is likely to be my final visit of the winter season to a stately home. I plan next to relate a visit in the summer to Apsley House, the London home of the Dukes of Wellington, where the clash between tastes in interior design is even more pronounced than at Spencer House.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

The Brimstone Butterfly’s Spencer House: Part one

This post has been brought to you courtesy of a certain friend. They know who they are. Thank you. 

For some reason I had not realised until fairly recently that the general public could visit the 18th century splendours of Spence House close by London’s Green Park and a mere stone’s throw from the Tudor palace of St James. The fact that the mansion is open during the winter months is a boon when so many other stately homes are closed for the season.  The 1st Earl Spencer began work on his new mansion in 1756. The exterior and the ground floor interior were designed by John Vardy, an acolyte of William Kent whose work can be seen at Kensington Palace, Hampton Court and Chiswick House. Following in Kent’s footsteps Vardy drew heavily on Ancient Rome for his designs at Spencer House. That proved to be his undoing. Two years into the project, the Earl was persuaded by his close friend, Colonel Gray, to dump Vardy and commission James 'Athenian' Stuart to complete the upper floors in the Greek revival style.

The Earl had wanted his town house to stand as a monument to marital bliss. At the age of 21 he married his sweetheart in private. The guide at Spencer House was at pains to point out that a public ceremony had been planned but that the bride was getting cold feet; hence the clandestine marriage. The wedding ceremony was held on the same day that the Earl came into his majority and gained control of two large fortunes, one of which was from his great grandmother, Sarah Churchill, who built nearby Marlborough House in the opening decades of the 18th century.  
The happiness of the 1st Earl’s own marriage did not prove an enduring template for some of the Spencer women who followed him. One such woman became famous for her beauty, her fashionable clothes and for the fact that there were “three people in this marriage”: the young bride, her older husband and his married mistress. In the 18th century Georgiana Spencer, daughter of the first Earl, had to share her husband and her home with his mistress. In the 20th century her kinswoman Diana, Princess of Wales, was not inclined to participate in a ménage à trios and her marriage notoriously ended in divorce. Unlike Georgiana, Diana had not been raised at Spencer House, the family having leased out the property in the 19th century. During World War Two the Spencers removed key architectural pieces, such as doors, chair rails, architrave s and fireplaces, and stored them at Althorp, their ancestral estate in Northampton where Diana was later buried. This spared the items from bomb damage but it had an unexpected consequence when such pieces were incorporated into the fabric of Althorp. In the 1980s Lord Rothschild, whose company leased offices in the house, decided to fund a major restoration of Spencer House and open up the state rooms to the general public. Unfortunately, original pieces sent to Althorp for safe keeping could not be reinstated. After the war Althorp was granted grade one listed building status. As a consequence, anything in situ at the time of the listing had to remain at Althorp. Even the fact they had been originally designed for Spencer House was not deemed a compelling enough argument for their return. However, a solution was found in the commissioning of new pieces from master craftsmen, who were often able to go to the source material to perfect their copies. Expense did not seem to be an issue which is why, for example, the replica fireplaces are so magnificent and in an entirely different class altogether to the modern replicas at the Queen’s House, Greenwich and Marble Hill House.
Arthur Young
When I realised I would be obliged to go around the house on a timed tour and not wander at leisure, I decided to abandon my usual modus operandi and tried to discover as much about Spencer House as possible in advance, so I would know what to look out for. In my endeavours I was greatly helped by Arthur Young who wrote “A six weeks tour through the southern counties of England and Wales,” first published in 1768. Arthur was very taken with Spencer House declaring in his book: “I do not apprehend there is a house in Europe of its size better worth the view of the curious in architecture and the fitting up and furnishing great houses than Lord Spencers in St James's Place Nothing can be more pleasingly elegant than the park front which is ornamented to an high degree and yet not with profusion I know not in England a more beautiful piece of architecture Nor is the sitting up and furniture of the rooms inferior to the beauties of the outside.”

When I set out at the weekend I was determined to see whether Arthur Young’s fulsome praises still held water. The Tube took me to the entrance of Green Park. I was determined to take some exterior shots of the house from the park before dusk as I had already ascertained that the gardens were closed to the public during the winter. Whether by accident or design I was able to find breaks in the shrubbery by the park fencing through which to view the exterior of the house. I discovered afterwards that Spencer House originally opened directly onto Green Park. Later, the Crown allowed the surrounding town houses to lease land from the royal park to form private gardens.

Three distinctly weather-beaten statues grace the roof of the façade directly facing the park. They represent Ceres the goddess of fertility flanked on one side by Flora, a lesser goddess but also of fertility on her other side by Bacchus, the original hard living party boy.
I took a short cut between two buildings to get to the side of the house facing the street. It is no longer possible to take a picture which incorporates the whole of this façade. Rather annoyingly, an adjacent 20th century block of flats gets in the way. The location of the block alone makes these flats very expensive. Apparently one recently sold for £13.5 million. Personally, I would rather have had the money than the flat, not that I will ever be in the fortunate position of having to choose between those two stupendous options. Nevertheless, I was able to capture the Venetian window which lights the main staircase and the warm honey tones of this façade which was in contrast to the white stucco of the front overlooking the park.
I bought my ticket in the Entrance Hall. The latter is dominated by an oversized marble bust of Lucius Verus who, until his death, jointly ruled Ancient Rome alongside the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Unlike Marcus, Lucius was deemed a pretty mediocre emperor. If Lucius had been more like his co-ruler then perhaps the fictionalMaximus Decimus Meridius. Commander of the Armies of the North. General of the Felix Legions” might have been a loyal servant to him as well as to “the true Emperor, Marcus Aurelius.” A bas relief of the latter’s father, the Emperor Antoninus Pius, hung above the fireplace. Its dusty condition occasioned the guide to declare that she longed to take a duster to it. The eponymous cinematic Gladiator might well have recognised the sacrificial instruments as well as the beribboned skulls of oxen represented in the   Doric frieze. The latter was inspired by the Temple of Jupiter the Thunderer and the tomb of Cecilia Metella, the latter a Roman matron and daughter of a Consul.
I found myself with a quarter of an hour to spare before the tour was scheduled to start and so descended down a stairwell lined with 18th century prints to make use of the facilities below. A statue of a young Roman woman stood on a pedestal by the wash basins. Or perhaps she was a former cloakroom attendant who had been turned to stone.

I then returned to the Morning Room to watch a short film about the house. The Morning Room had a coved ceiling, plaster and timber wall panelling, 6 panel mahogany wooden doors with egg and dart architraves above them, a plain white marble fireplace and Georgian small panelled shutters. Of particular interest to me were the bronze pendant and table lamps and the elaborate gilt door furnishings, fashioned into the letter S for Spencer with a miniature head of Bacchus at the centre. I failed to notice the portraits of King Charles II and his brother James on the wall. Much of what I saw were specially commissioned replicas or else brought to the house from elsewhere, either on loan or purchased as part of the restoration project. To my relief, just as the video ended a young Australian woman came into the Morning Room to join me.It meant I could scribble notes to my hearty's content without feeling obliged to retain a constant eye contact with the guide.
Our guide, Jenny, led us into the Ante Room, which had once formed the Little Eating Parlour for the newly married 1st Earl Spencer and his wife. Henry Holland, one of the men involved in the design of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, made further alterations to Spencer House when it became the property of the 2nd Earl. One such change was the insertion of double doors leading off into the Vestibule. There had been doors before but they were far smaller and positioned within the alcoves flanking the double doors. In the 1st Earl’s time the arrangement would have allowed a permanent sideboard to be placed below the splendid apse, based upon one in the Temple of Venus. Above the marble topped pier table by the other wall was a painting by the 17th century Italian artist Pietro da Cortona. For some reason a reclining marble statue of Venus had been shoved underneath the same table. By the window was a 1740s mahogany knee-hole writing table, which we were informed was a very important piece of furniture, but my attention was fixed on the beautiful mid-18th century oval gilt mirror, but then beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Around the room was a set of 5 mahogany chairs upholstered in red fabric. They had been specially made for Spencer House but over the centuries had been dispersed elsewhere. The restoration project enabled their welcome return.
Henry Holland also made changes to what is now the Library, such as widening the sash windows so that one could step out onto the terrace beyond and enjoy the view across Green Park. The Library steps possess the singular ability to be converted into a table and back again, or so we were told.The green upholstered chairs and sofas all date from the Regency period. Of the prints around the room, one was of my erstwhile neighbour Admiral Lord Nelson who, it seems, was a frequent visitor to Spencer House. I admired the ebony and gilt clock above the fireplace with its seated winged goddess diligently reading a manuscript. The fireplace in this room, as in most of the other state rooms at Spencer House, is a stunning 20th century replica made by the stone and wood carver, Dick Reid. The talented Mr Reid retired in 2004 but his legacy continues on in those he taught and in the spectacular commissioned works he produced.
The fireplace in the Dining Room is another masterpiece from the workshops of Dick Reid. The polished scagliola columns made to imitate Sienna marble reminded me of similar columns in the Ante Room at Syon House. The ceiling was based on Inigo Jones’s compartmented ceiling at the Banqueting House in Whitehall but minus Ruben’s paintings commemorating the Stuart dynasty.  The frieze of sacrificial oxen heads and cupids holding garlands was inspired by the Temple of Fortuna Virilis in Rome. 
Set against the wall at either end of the Dining Room is a pair of console tables designed by John Vardy for Spencer House. Winged lions at the base of the table hold vines, heavy with grapes, in their mouths. A mask of Apollo decorates the centre. As with the red chairs in the Ante Room, the tables were only returned to Spencer House in the 1980s. The appearance of these tables was once rendered even more magnificent  by the addition of wine buckets made of solid gold. The unusual glass chandelier was commissioned by King George III as a gift for an Indian prince; hence the storm shades to protect the candles.

In one of the windows overlooking Green Park is a contemporary 18th century political satire in marble showing the infant Hercules, in the guise of William Pitt the Younger, strangling two snakes, with the heads of his political foes Charles James Fox and Lord North. No doubt it occasioned much merriment in the past but now looks distinctly creepy, like some prop from a horror film.  
When King Charles II invited John Webb to build him a new palace at Greenwich, Webb was only able to complete a single building before the death of his sovereign prematurely ended his commission. Webb’s King Charles Court is currently home to the Trinity College of Music. I had no idea what plans Webb had for the interior until I went to Spencer House. The so-called Palm Room, where the 1st Earl entertained his male cronies, draws on John Webb’s designs for King Charles’s proposed bedroom at Greenwich. The palm trees were symbols of marital fertility. The libidinous Charles was able to sire plenty of children but not alas a single legitimate heir. The Palm Room at Spencer House has a nude statue of Venus at its centre. Given King Charles’s reputation as a womaniser, he probably had more than his fair share of naked women taking centre stage in his various bedchambers. The gilded frieze of winged griffins (a Spencer heraldic beast) is taken from the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina, also known as the Emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife. The Regency lantern purchased for the restored room continues the palm tree motif. The master carver Ben Bacon was commissioned to produce the sofas and chairs in the late 20th century. The original of the replica fireplace is to be found in the Marlborough Room at Althorp. The side tables incorporate authentic 2nd century Roman mosaics in the top and a palm tree design for the base.

We passed through a jib door in the Palm Room and along the service corridor leading to the main staircase. The latter was somewhat plain after the riotous Palm Room but nevertheless pleasingly elegant. The bottom half of the stair hall reflects Vardy’s taste for the style of Ancient Rome. A statue of a centaur sits at the base of the stairwell. The Ancient Greeks . thought centaurs represented unbridled passions. I have no idea whether the Ancient Romans thought the same.
 The upper part of the staircase reflects James Stuart’s preference for the Ancient Greek. The treads are of stone and the walls painted to resemble stone. The sheet metal balustrades have been painted to give the optical illusions of garlands. James Stuart wanted the barrel vaulted ceiling to give the impression that visitors were inside an ancient Grecian temple. The average Ancient Greek would have been hard pressed to have seen anything on a par with the huge 18th century Venetian lantern suspended from the ceiling. It has gilded statuettes of naked men around the top and lions at the base. It seems this enormous lantern was once one of several placed around the Doge’s state barge. It is amazing the barge was able to keep afloat under what looks to be a considerable weight. The top of the staircase leads to the state rooms decorated by James Smith to which I shall return anon.