Sunday, 6 December 2009

“Clothes make the man”.

Southside House by Wimbledon Common is now closed for the winter. However that does not prevent me exploring again some of its treasures in my mine’s eye. To gain access to the house you walk around the side, past the little fountain covered with sea-shells and to the rear of the house up a set of rather steep stairs and  into a generously proportioned room, where visitors can leave their coats and bags. 

This room hints at the kind of people who once lived here. The walls were painted by one son to resemble stonework. Around the room are paintings by another son, who trained at a leading London art school. The artistic leanings of the family are evident from the start. So are their aristocratic connections. On either side of the inner doorway hang full length portraits in oil of seventeenth century cavaliers.

Close by is a child’s wooden rocking horse, which it was claimed once belonged to the daughter of Lord Nelson and his mistress Emma Hamilton. It came into the present owners’ hands through a forced sale of Emma’s belongings, when she faced bankruptcy in the early 19th century.(This has since been discredited as being utter nonsense as the family only bought the house in the 1930s and Hilda, the formidable matriarch was the daughter of a self made Victorian businessman).

Through a narrow passageway are later reproductions of seventeenth century family portraits. Like Emma Hamilton, the family faced its own perilous financial disaster in the past, resulting in the auctioning off of paintings in the 18th century, many of which were snapped up on behalf of Catherine the Great of Russia.

On the ground floor a new room has been opened up to display the impossibly tiny couture outfits worn by the Victorian heiress Hilda in the 19th and early 20th century. She might have had the proportions of a child even without the assistance of a tightly laced corset, but the impression given by modern day guides is that she had the reputation of being a formidable woman. The pop star Gwen Stefani was said to have been so taken with some of the late Hilda’s exquisite accessories when she was in the house on a photo shoot, she begged to be allowed to model them. Her request had to be politely declined because of their great age and general fragility.

In the corridor and above the doorway is a print of one of the most extraordinary people of the eighteenth century, the French diplomat and spy Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d'Éon de Beaumont, more commonly known as the Chevalier d'Éon, who had once sought sanctuary with the family when he was in England. As a schoolgirl, I had read an account of the Chevalier’s life. To this day I am still unsure whether he was a transvestite or a transsexual or whether his latter years spent living as a woman were a source of great delight or personal humiliation. The Chevalier was to all and extent and purposes born the male heir to family estates in France. It was later claimed that he was in fact born a girl-child and that his own parents connived in the deceit that she was  a boy, in order to ensure that certain property remained in their hands and did not pass on to another male heir. If that were indeed the case, the subterfuge was a complete triumph. There were no rumours that the Chevalier was anything other than male until he found himself on a diplomatic mission to the Russian court of the Empress Catherine. Someone at the French embassy seems to have hit upon the startling idea of sending a male diplomat to court in the guise of his own supposed sister, the better to inveigle his way into Catherine’s confidences. The Chevalier was chosen and his legend began. His disguise proved so effective, he was later sent back to the court as himself, in his usual male attire. All this would have proved an intriguing footnote to history. What happened next was even more incredible.

The Chevalier became a captain of dragoons in the French army and fought with distinction in the Seven Years War (As an aside, I have always wondered as to what people called the Seven Years War, the Thirty Years War and the Hundred Years War whilst they were still fighting them, since they had no idea when, if ever in the case of the latter, they would end). Back in civilian life, the Chevalier resumed his diplomatic career, this time at the court of St James in London. It was here that rumours about the Chevalier’s supposed sex became so frenzied fabulous sums were gambled on the subject. One such bet became the subject of a court case held at the Guildhall  in which the defendant was represented by a certain Lord Mansfield (who at the time of the trial in 1777 would have been living at my beloved Kenwood House, which he had remodelled by Robert Adam a few years earlier). Having argued with the French ambassador in London but holding on to compromising material against the French government, the Chevalier was able to secure a pension from the French court on the strict understanding that henceforth he would be regarded as being a woman and must dress accordingly. It is hard to determine whether the Chevalier actively campaigned for the right to be regarded as a woman or whether it was a peculiar form of revenge imposed by the French authorities, incensed that they had been blackmailed into agreeing to the pension. Whether through choice or through coercion the Chevalier spent the remainder of his life dressed as a woman. His subsequent request to resume his military career in the dragoons and enlist with the French army was refused and he stayed in London until his death in 1810. His post mortem convinced the authorities of the time that he had always been male. The Chevalier’s strange life was the subject of a recent 24 part Japanese anime television series, which conflates the story of his supposedly adopting the persona of a woman to access Catherine the Great’s inner circle to the idea that he possessed a real sister who dies and her soul enters his body.

It would be intriguing to know whether James Barry’ own life was in any way influenced by that of the Chevalier. James trained as a surgeon in Edinburgh and rose to the rank of Inspector General in charge of British military hospitals. When he died in 1865, it was discovered that he was in fact female. The actress Natascha McElhone was scheduled to begin work on a film based on Barry’s life earlier this year, with Pierce Brosnan playing her secret lover. I will be keen to see the film should it ever be released, but it is going to require all her skills as an actress for Natascha to convince anyone that she is a man. The idea that the real James Barry would have risked exposure by conducting a secret love affair with a peer of the realm seems equally implausible. 

Pierce Brosnan was said to have visited Southside House shortly before I last went there. You can also see a photograph of the actor Colin Firth, striking a pose in a yellow silk upholstered armchair in the drawing room. To get there you must first pass through the breakfast room. I was somewhat excited when I came across the latter’s embossed 17th century leather wall hangings. Although much faded and somewhat dilapidated they reminded me of an entry I had just read in Samuel Pepys’s diary. On Monday 8 October 1660 Pepys talks about his plans to buy the highly prized “gilded leather” for his dining room. Southside House gave me an inkling of what Samuel Pepys’s own leather wall hangings would have looked like.By the side of the fireplace hangs a full length portrait painted when the artist, who was living at Southside House, was just 16. Technically it is a remarkable painting by one so young. Down the steps into the dining, there are more family paintings from earlier periods. My favourite is of a young woman in 17th century costume, wearing a scalloped edged silk dress. The sheer effort and skill that must have gone into making that gown, and all of it by hand, is breath-taking. Also pictured is the 18th century black sheep of the family, whose political intriguing cost him a fortune and ownership of many pictures which ended up in the Hermitage in St Petersburg. It was a pity the family did not come into contact with the Chevalier d’Eon earlier, when he might have been in a position of influence to persuade Catherine the Great to return some of their squandered inheritance back to them.

There is yet more to see in the house and grounds and I shall return to this subject on another occasion.