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Wednesday, 30 December 2009

A dedicated follower of fashion.



I never willingly forgo an opportunity to visit my beloved Kenwood House and Christmas was no exception. Thus, I offered to act as navigator to a friend’s aunt, as the latter wanted to buy a present from the English Heritage shop located within the house itself. As her husband was waiting patiently in their car outside to drive us back again, our time was extremely limited. The shop is to be found within one of my favourite rooms, just off the main entrance hall. With its cream ceramic stoves at each end and Georgian windows, I have always been partial to that room. It would make a delightful drawing room and I can imagine keeping myself warm and cosy by the ceramic stoves in wintertime. I also had a quick peek at the Music Room, the Orangery, where another temporary shop had been set up, and finally one of the principal staircases, known as the Deal staircase. Fortunately, I was able to return by myself the following day and could wander around at leisure.

Inside the shop I examined the ceramic stoves more closely and realised they had marble or stone mantle-pieces. The vestibule contained a number of Georgian paintings including several by Francois Boucher.  I generally find his work far too sentimental for my own tastes. However, he did paint several images of his illustrious patron, Madame de Pompadour, one of which is housed at the Wallace Collection, where I was able to purchase a fridge magnet based on this picture.

The Music Room at Kenwood contained a harp. I wondered whether the harpist Marisa Robles had played on it when I attended a concert of hers at the house, infamous in my memory for the fact that my alarm clock had inadvertently gone off during her recital. (Head in the Cloudberries, 21st December 2009) I noticed a portrait of my erstwhile neighbour Emma Hamilton, looking suitably angelic as she posed as if at prayers. With her compliant husband Sir William Hamilton and her lover, Horatio Nelson forming a ménage à trois, Emma was not renowned for leading a saintly life of quiet contemplation. The housekeeper’s room is immediately adjacent to the Orangery, followed in sequence by Lady Mansfield’s Dressing Room, the Breakfast Room and Lord Mansfield’s own Dressing Room. With the exception of the Library just beyond Lord Mansfield’s Dressing Room, none of the rooms are furnished as they might have looked during the house’s heyday. Instead, the public rooms now serve as a grand setting for the house’s collection of Fine Art. Major works by artists such as Rembrandt, Franz Hals, Vermeer, Rubens and Gainsborough grace the walls. The Library retains its original 18th century frescos, based on classical wall paintings found at Pompeii. The circular small hall leading to the dining room, has a floor covering made of painted and varnished sail cloth, an early precursor to linoleum.

The Deal Staircase, named after its softwood origins, leads to a small room housing a collection of miniatures, belt buckles and jewellery. Gratifying though it must be to have future generations gaze upon your likeliness, I wonder if some of the sitters would have been quite so pleased to discover that their names have been lost in time. In Ancient Egypt, your enemies might well contrive to obliterate all trace of your name after death and thereby consign you to certain oblivion.

I have always assumed that the miniatures’ room once served as a bedroom. It contains what I believe to be an original built-in wardrobe and a simple marble fireplace. In my fantasy world it would serve as my bedroom, with the shop acting as my drawing room. Rather than the Deal staircase, I would prefer the other staircase leading off from the main entrance hall. This second staircase has elegant ironwork balustrades. It is usually closed to the pubic, but at one time you could walk up it to view the Suffolk Collection. In addition to the Jacobean and Stuart pictures, it was in the upper rooms that I witnessed the ghostly manifestations. (The Stately Ghosts of England, 19th October 2009)
“This time, open the door!“ I urged silently but to no avail. Had the ghost managed to open a locked door, it would have been far more impressive than simply slamming an open one shut.

For anyone interested in the elaborate and extravagant court costume from predominantly the 17th century, the collection is an absolute joy. I once asked a costumed guide at Ham House, who wore a gown based on late 17th century designs, how on earth she kept it clean without resorting to the exorbitant cost of dry cleaning: Fuller’s earth, came the reply.  I related this tale to a woman dressed in Tudor costume at Hampton Court palace. She explained that because of the extensive undergarments that high status men and women would have worn, it was the body linen that was likely to get grubby and these could be readily washed by hand. The foremost Regency dandy Beau Brummell, who had lived in a grace and favour apartment at Hampton Court as a child, would not have approved of how the men in the Suffolk Collection were dressed. Their colourful and flamboyant clothes, though highly fashionable for their period, were the antithesis of his own highly refined opinion as to how a gentleman should dress himself. Richard Sackville 

Several portraits from the Suffolk Collection made a particularly strong impression on me:
  • The double portraits of Anne and Diana Cecil, two Jacobean sisters, dressed in identical elaborate gowns. Disconcertingly, they appear to be adult but in fact were only 12 years old when their portraits were painted. Anne Cecil Diana Cecil
  • Catherine Sedley, made Countess of Dorchester by her lover, King James II. Theorising as to why she had caught the Sovereign’s eye, Catherine famously declared: "It cannot be my beauty for he must see I have none, and it cannot be my wit, for he has not enough to know I have any."Catherine Sedley 
  • Elizabeth Howard, Countess of Banbury, whose sons and heirs from her first aristocratic marriage were said to have been sired by her second husband.Elizabeth Howard
  • Silks gowns slashed to show the costly undergarments underneath. Far less offensive in my view than the present day affectation of the wealthy to sport artfully placed rips and tears in their denim.
  • The charming portrait of the three eldest children of Charles I painted in their early childhood.  Eldest children of Charles I
  • Catherine of Braganza, the barren queen of King Charles II. Like her namesake, Catherine Sedley, the Queen was not blessed with great beauty. I sometimes wish someone had taken Catherine and Anne of Cleves in hand before they arrived at the English court, where their looks and fashions were much mocked. Still, Catherine grew to love her philandering husband, who steadfastly rejected the urgings of his ministers to divorce her and Anne of Cleves had perhaps the happiest fate of all Henry VIII’s wives, being granted a handsome divorce settlement  and out-living him to boot.Catherine of Braganza
  • The John Singer Sargent portrait of the American heiress, Margaret Hyde, who married into English aristocracy. Looking at her portrait, I thought Margaret came across as somewhat shy and vulnerable. I have since discovered she was as tough as old boots! Her father was the fabulously wealthy Levi Zeigler Leiter, one of the founders of the famed Marshall Field’s department store in Chicago. When Leiter died in 1904, the intricacies of his will were such that his children spent 8 years battling one another in court, with Margaret, now Countess of Suffolk, attempting to remove her brother Joseph from his role as executor of her father’s will. It came out in the court papers of the time that her brother had once bought FIFTY pairs of silk socks. I m not sure whether Beau Brummell would have approved. As for the gentlemen of the Suffolk Collection, they would have speculated as to why he had stopped at a mere fifty. 
  • Margaret Hyde