Sunday, 31 January 2010

Eating humble pie.

When I held my dinner party yesterday, the couple I had invited unexpectedly launched into a bitter row with both parties threatening to storm out of my flat. I found myself cast in the reluctant role of peacemaker. It reminded me of an incident years ago when I was still living in a bed-sit. My late friend rang me on the telephone in the communal hall to say that her boyfriend wanted to speak to me. I had never met him before, let alone spoken to him. I wondered what on earth he had to say to me. To my astonishment he asked if he and my friend could come around to my house, as they wanted my advice on their relationship. I was flummoxed as to why they would have chosen me but agreed. I could only think that they knew my mother was a psychotherapist and imagined I had somehow inherited her professional flair for counselling. I also thought that they felt they would be able to speak freely in front of me and that the other would be obliged to listen to their complaint in silence. I cannot recall anything about what they said or what I advised.

On Saturday night I had to force myself not to get involved. “I am not a therapist,”  I repeated and would only suggest that they seek impartial professional help together.
“He doesn’t empathise with me, “ wailed my friend. “Why can’t he wear his heart on his sleeve like I do and not be so reserved in public?
I had heard similar sentiments voiced by my women friends many times over the years, complaining that their male partners didn't understand them. This time was somewhat different as the feelings were expressed by a gay man.
The couple had calmed down before they left and expressed their profuse apologies for their joint behaviour, casting a pall over an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable evening. I was simply relieved neither had walked out without the other.  Nevertheless, I do not need a relationship counsellor myself to realise that the sturm und drang of modern relationships is one reason why I have remained resolutely single.

Let them eat (cup)cake.

My musings came to a sudden end on Thursday as I stopped to prepare my supper. I spent much of Friday and Saturday preparing for a dinner party. I made watercress and potato soup. I also hand baked two loaves of cardamom flavoured Finnish sweet bread and one loaf of a Finnish rye-bread and a batch of lemon cup cakes.I have got into the habit of baking Finnish loaves for guests to take home with them. A Moroccan lamb tagine and pomegranate, coriander and lemon couscous plus a cloudberry Swiss roll made with frozen cloudberries and cloudberry liqueur, bought from the Finnish Church in Rotherhithe, (Head in the cloud (berriescompleted my cooking marathon. Truly a feast fit for a king or at least one king in particular: George III. 

I referred earlier to the degree of consideration that King George III showed towards his royal servants at Kew. Instead of bathing within the pink walls of the Dutch House, he chose to take his bath in a room located within the separate kitchen complex. (It had to be Kew, wonderful Kew). This saved his servants having to trudge around with jugs of hot water from the kitchen to the royal apartments. Had they done so, their route would have been underground as there was once a subterranean passageway linking the two buildings. When Channel 4’s Time Team were carrying out an archaeological survey of the long vanished White House in 2003, they were allowed into the former kitchens and were shown the now blocked up passageway. The king’s actions might not have been wholly altruistic.

King George might have had access to some of the finest chiefs in Europe, although he was said to prefer simple dishes when dining alone with his family. The fact is, in general, he would have had dined far better at my table than he would have at Kew Palace. The reason for this is simple. The logistics of ferrying cooked dishes from the kitchens to the king’s dining room meant the food was usually tepid by the time it arrived. Perhaps the king preferred not to have lukewarm baths in addition to meals.  
 At Osborne House on the Isle of White, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had a Swiss chalet imported from Switzerland and set up in the grounds. Their children, both male and female, were encouraged to grow food in the vegetable patch and cook meals for themselves in the fully equipped kitchen of the Swiss Chalet. Queen Victoria’s grandfather, King George III was known as Farmer George due in part to his great interest in agriculture and his desire to lead a simpler life at his summer palace at Kew.
 In his biography “Monarch : The Life and Reign of Elizabeth II,” author Robert Lacey describes how the Duke of Edinburgh arranged for a vehicle to be modified to accommodate all the kitchen paraphernalia needed for him and the other members of the family to prepare cook and clear up after a barbecue. The present Queen of England has also been known to rope in her family and guests to help with the washing up after informal meals at Balmoral and Sandringham. However, even she might draw the line at inviting foreign dignitaries to snap on a pair of washing up gloves after a state banquet at Windsor Palace. If her husband’s barbecue lorry were to break down the Queen is qualified to fix it herself. During World War II, whilst in the Auxiliary Territorial Service,  the then Princess Elizabeth trained as a lorry driver and mechanic. Following in her footsteps both her daughter, Anne, and granddaughter, Zara, own Heavy Goods Vehicle licence. They use them to ferry horse boxes around the country.  Anne was said to have once opined that if she had not been born a royal princess she would have chosen a career as a lorry driver.

 The Monarch’s regal namesake Elizabeth I famously declared “If I were turned out of my realm in my petticoat, I would prosper anywhere in Christendom”. Whether Elizabeth I could have turned her hand to being a cook is open to question. Her father, Henry VIII left such matters to the professionals. For his own meals Henry employed a French chef called Peter the Sweet. The extant Tudor kitchens at Hampton Court were not used by Peter the Sweet. He would have prepared Henry’s meals in a special kitchen close to the King’s own quarters and the King would have dined in private in the privy Chamber. As to his courtiers, those of the rank of baron or above would have dined either in the Great Watching Chamber or in their own rooms. Everyone else dined in the Great Hall, which could seat 600 people at a time. In terms of staff canteens, the Great Hall has to rank as amongst the finest in the world.

I sometimes ask friends what career path they would have liked to have pursued if financial and actual expertise or talent did not need to be taken into consideration. Thus one accountant of my acquaintance would have liked to have been a carpenter in another life. I used to fantasise about running a tea shop in a period building. I inadvertently put my foot in it two years ago when I went to Sutton House.
“I do envy you your job,“ I said to the woman who then ran the café in the Tudor building.
“Today’s my last day,“ she explained. “They have decided not to carry on selling hot meals here as there hasn’t been sufficient local lunchtime trade to make it viable. When they re-open again in spring they will limit refreshments to tea, coffee and cakes.”
Last December I enthused to the new woman in the tea room about the delicious smell of mulled wine that permeated the house. It came from a special pot on her counter-top.
“I am really fed up with that smell now, “she confided.

There is a select band of men and women who live my dream life. They are the costumed guides at places like Hampton Court Palace. They get paid for dressing up in period costume and gliding around the state apartments, authoritatively answering questions put to them by hoi polloi in the shape of tourists. An even smaller group dress up as cooks and recreate historically accurate meals. In Tudor times  only men tended to be employed in the kitchens. This could have been due to the intense heat of the kitchen fires, causing some of the servants to work in next to nothing or completely naked, much to Henry VIII’s disgust. He eventually issued orders forbidding his kitchen staff from roaming around the premises ‘naked, or in garments of such vileness as they do now.” Nevertheless, Henry did employ at least one woman in his kitchens to make 'subtleties', a role I could take on in any re-enactment. I know I was green with envy when the Eagle and I went along to Hampton Court one New Year’s Eve. Men dressed in period costumes in the Tudor kitchens were preparing a special feast of spit-roasted venison to eat together once the palace had closed for the night to visitors. To top it all, their sleeping quarters were located in the very place that was thought to have been Anne Boleyn’s private apartments. It knocked all my New Year’s Eves (Same Old New Year!) into a cocked hat (or should that be crown) by comparison.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

It had to be Kew, wonderful Kew.

If Marie-Antoinette wanted to escape the stifling formal atmosphere of the French Court she could retreat to the Arcadian delights of le Petit Trianon at Versailles. The palaces and follies at Kew served a similar function for the British royal family of the period. Although I have referred to the painting of Frederick, Prince of Wales, depicted outside the pink-walled palace (The Fifth Commandment, 24 January 2010) he never actually lived there. He lived in the so-called White House close by, which was later demolished by his son, George III. Nowadays,  Kew Palace is most closely associated with George III and his family.

The most famous of the follies is the Chinese Pagoda. This ten storey structure was completed in 1762. I once climbed the stairs to the top on a very hot day, whilst wearing a tightly laced corset. Corsets, even steel-boned ones, allow a surprising degree of movement. Exacting though it was, I am glad I took the rare opportunity to go inside the Pagoda, as prior to 2006 it had been closed to the public for many years. Regrettably, it has not re-opened again since the summer of 2006.

 Queen Charlotte's Cottage served as a summerhouse for the royal family. Given to the wife of George III as a wedding present it consists of a kitchen, in which servants could prepare food for the royal family, and a large room which now houses a collection of prints by the 18th century artist Hogarth pasted on to the walls, as was then the fashion.

The upper floor is reached by a curving staircase and consists of a large green picnic room, painted with flowers. It is thought that the Princess Elizabeth, known to be a talented artist in her own right, was responsible for painting the bamboo trellis of flowers, inspired no doubt by the many splendid botanical specimens to be found in the gardens. Unlike the Palladian splendour of le Petit Trianon, Queen Charlotte’s cottage has a more rustic air and is thatched. But its regal proportions and grand staircase would leave few in doubt that it was not the humble abode of the rural poor.

The Dutch House, or Kew Palace as it is now referred to, dates to 1631when  an English merchant called Samuel Fortrey built a mansion by the side of the Thames. Underneath the current house is the sturdy Tudor brick undercroft to the original Elizabethan mansion which once stood here. Normally closed to the public, I was fortunate to be able to explore the undercroft on my visit to the house last September. Though long disused, the well which supplied water to the Elizabethan house is still in situ. Unfortunately we could only look down into its depths by torchlight as the electric light bulb nearby had blown, so it was hard to get a sense of how deep it had been.  

Romantics like to think that Robert Dudley, perennial favourite of Queen Elizabeth I lived here and perhaps had trysts with his Monarch in the rooms above. There is no conclusive evidence to support this idea, although it is known that Dudley had a house in the vicinity.

Above the doorway of the Caroline period mansion are carved the initials of Samuel and his wife Catherine entwined in a lovers’ knot. This suggests that the original owners enjoyed a high degree of marital harmony. Until he was overwhelmed by his illness and subsequent personality change, the same could have been said of George III and his spouse, Queen Charlotte. For some of their children, the Palace did not hold such happy memories.

The ante room on the ground floor contains a life-size wax work of King George III made by Madame Tussaud. It was said by contemporaries to be a good likeness. To win the commission, Madame Tussaud no doubt played on her claim to have been intimately associated with the French Royal Family both in their lifetimes and more grimly, after their deaths when she made models of their decapitated heads for her wax work show. In Kate Berridge’s 2006 biography of Madame Tussaud, the author debunks some of the claims made by the impresario as being as far from an accurate depiction of reality as some of her  waxworks. The ante room also contains Tudor linenfold panelling of the type decorating several of the rooms in Ralph Sadlier’s Sutton House.  Some like to imagine that the panelling was taken from Robert Dudley’s former Elizabethan mansion at Kew, and therefore might have borne witness to his canoodling with his capricious royal mistress.

After the ante room, you enter what is now known as the King’s Library, although the myriad books owned by that great bibliophile, King George III, are long since gone. They formed part of the royal collection which his son, King George IV, donated to the nation and which in turn led to the establishment of the British Library. (The British Library Volume I: revised edition). George IV was not known to be as great a bibliophile as his father. This, despite the younger George’s penchant for engaging the services of a comely actress like Eliza Jane Chester, (whose dining room was tacked on to the poet John Keats’ House at Hampstead), to serve as his “reader” at Windsor Castle (A thing of beauty is a joy forever).

Underneath many subsequent layers of paint on the walls of the King’s Library at Kew, can be found an original 17th century wall painting. The decision was taken by the curators at Kew only to expose a small part of the 17th century decoration. Nevertheless, the monotone  depiction of a classical female figure gives an inkling as to what the room might have looked like in its Stuart heyday.

Nowadays, visitors can sit in the Pages’ Waiting Room and watch a son et lumière presentation narrating the story of Kew Palace from the perspective of Queen Charlotte. Given their sons’ inability to father more than two legitimate heirs between them and one of them, the Princess Charlotte dying in child birth, Queen Charlotte and George III not only provided the nation with the heir and the spare but 11 other children who also survived into adulthood. Consequently, a good part of the narration focuses on the many royal children born to the royal couple.

When King George descended into madness, he was kept confined in a service wing that was accessed from this room. The service wing, other than the door leading to it, was demolished long ago. It contained perhaps too many unhappy memories for the royal family. It might also explain why the grander White House, the former royal residence immediately in front of the Dutch House, was demolished in the King’s own lifetime. It was in the White House that the King was first confined following the initial diagnosis of his madness. Channel 4’s Time Team, who first aroused my interest in Igtham Mote, (Ightham Mote) devoted an entire programme to the archaeology of the White House, when they were given permission to dig for its remains under the green lawns in front of the Dutch House in 2003.

The next main room on the tour of Kew Palace is the Dining Room. As I have yet to make my own dinner, this seems an appropriate moment to bring the tour in my mind’s eye for an end until another day.

Monday, 25 January 2010

De haut en bas (Revised September 2011)

When I was looking through the photographs I had taken within Kew Palace I was struck by the prominence given to the royal water closet. It was not original to the house but it was the kind of design that would have been used by the family of George III. Water closet is something of a misnomer because although the bowl could be flushed with water by pulling a handle in the seat, it did not use piped water. Therefore, some poor servant had to manually refill the cistern with fresh water and remove the contents caught in the receptacle below after every use. Fortunately there was more than one water closet available to use at any time.

In a closet underneath the great staircase at Ham House is a 19th century blue and white porcelain toilet bowl encased in wood with a brass and ivory handle to open the chute and flush away the contents of the bowl. The three brass taps of the marble washbasin bore the legend: hot, cold, soft. I am not sure if these facilities are still plumbed in and so would not counsel anyone  to use them.

At Hampton Court, King William III’s own, more primitive, close stool is also on display. A close stool was simply a padded box with a hole cut out of the top and a chamber pot within to collect the royal outpourings. In the King's Closet at  Knole was a similar close stool which once creaked under the weight of William's Stuart predecessors.

The White Tower at the Tower of London has garderobe shafts built into the stone walls, allowing the inhabitants to void their bowels into the moat below. At Sutton House, the remains of Ralph Sadlier’s own garderobe shaft can be seen in the closet adjacent to his first floor bed chamber, the sixteenth century equivalent of luxurious en-suite facilities.

Eastbury Manor House also has an extant garderobe as does Chenies Manor. At the latter one garde robe was designed to hide a priest hole. There is a debate as to whether the alcove in the Wolsey Closet at Hampton Court Palace, once served as a garderobe. Co-incidentally both the closet and the alcove are said to be haunted, not by Wolsey but by a dog and a “strange atmosphere”.  

At Hampton Court Henry VIII had a two storey House of Ease built at the front of the palace in 1534. It could comfortably seat 28 men at a time. With their more robust attitudes to such matters, there was no need for separate cubicles. Well into the 20th century, what is now the garage of a friend’s 18th century cottage was used as a two seat earth closet. As her own concession to the rather lax hygiene standards of the time, the 17th century French courtesan, Ninon de Lenclos installed tubs at her chateau for visitors to relieve themselves in and suggested that gentlemen play the gallant and help ladies to mount and use them.
Ninon de Lenclos

Human urine played such an important role in the manufacture of gunpowder during the 17th century that laws were passed in England allowing officers of the state to force their way into houses and dig up the earthen floors for the precious deposits left there by the occupants. At one point a law was passed by King Charles I requiring householders to "carefully keep in proper vessels all human urine throughout the year, and as much of that of beasts as can be saved." The laws relating to the activities of the salt-petre collection proved highly unpopular, the more so since they did not apply to “persons of quality.”

What are not on display in Kew Palace are bathrooms. Apparently George III preferred to take his bath in a room adjacent to the kitchens, located in a separate building to the palace and thereby sparing his servants from having to carry heavy jugs of water to and from the royal quarters.
The Bathroom at Ham House

I was somewhat disappointed the second time I visited the Duchess of Lauderdale's 17th century bathroom at Ham House. On the first occasion, I was not impressed with the bath itself, bearing as it did an uncanny resemblance to a mid-Victorian semi-enclosed bath and shower. The resemblance was not surprising as on my second visit I discovered that the bath and shower were indeed Victorian in origin. In the interim, the curators had decided to give visitors an idea of what the bathroom might have looked liked in the Duchess’s era. Instead of the marble plunge bath of my imagination, the Duchess would step into a wooden bath tub, the sides draped with muslin to protect her skin. Although her own bedroom on the floor above could be readily accessed by her private staircase, the Duchess had a special daybed set up in the bathroom, so that she could recline for some while after a bath, swaddled in warm towels, the better to recover from such rigorous  activity. Bathing it seems was a necessary but potentially hazardous undertaking.  During the Duchess's own lifetime, one of the mistresses of King Charles II would bathe in asses’ milk and afterwards, being of a charitable disposition, would have the contents of her bath poured into pitchers and given to the poor to drink.

The 18th century denizens of Kenwood were made of sterner stuff than the Duchess of Lauderdale. Being more hardy souls, they plunged into the cold waters of the marble clad bathhouse. The austere bathhouse was restored in the latter part of the 20th century. The plunge pool is fed from local springs, rendering its water a brackish and rather unprepossessing reddish colour.

Henry VIII was known to be a fastidious man in terms of his personal hygiene. His daily ablutions were greatly helped by the fact that the original owner of Hampton Court, Cardinal Wolsey, had arranged for spring water to be piped into the palace from a distance of several miles. When I used to regularly take the bus to Kingston upon Thames, I would catch sight of one of the Cardinal’s remaining red brick Conduit Houses at Coombe Hill. A documentary a number of years proved that the water in the semi-ruined Conduit house was still as sweet as ever.

The Ancient Romans would have been appalled to think that more than a thousand years after they had withdrawn from Britain, even the wealthiest and highest in the land lacked the kind of bathing and latrine facilities and enclosed sewers to take away human waste that the Romans would have taken for granted.

Ring a ring a poesy.

"There is something my partner and I have wanted to ask you for several years now,” said the Eagle after we had finished the chocolate and Cointreau mousse I had made her for supper.
“You don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to. If you feel we’re being too intrusive for example.”
By now I was intrigued to know precisely what the question would be.
“Is that a wedding ring on your hand.?” enquired the Eagle
I looked at the simple gold band on the ring finger of my left hand. It might at first glance resemble a simple wedding band, but it is in fact a love token or poesy ring dating from the 1660s. Inside are inscribed the words: “The Love is all” and the goldsmith’s mark.
“Where did it come from?” asked the Eagle in tones of genuine curiosity.
“I bought it at an antique’s fair in Covent Garden and before that it was probably  ripped from off the hand of a plague victim,” I replied solemnly.

The Eagle’s remarks brought back memories of the film “Poltergeist” which I had watched at a friend’s house. The plot concerns the unsettling consequences for a family, who have inadvertently bought a house atop a former Indian burial site. Only after we had watched the film did my friend explain that her house had been built on top of a 17th century plague pit. I slept rather badly that night as I imagined the shades of 17th century plague victims, still dressed in their rotting shrouds, trying to get in. Thank Heavens, I did not own my antique ring at the time. It would have been my misfortune to have the original owner tap the glass of the bedroom window, whilst exclaiming indignantly: ”You do realise that’s my ring you’re wearing!”
My poesy ring has rescued me from potentially awkward romantic situations on more than one occasion. One night I was on my way home from the gym when a young man stopped me in the street.
“Do you know Sarah? he asked. “I am sure I saw you at a party with Sarah.”
“I don’t know anybody called Sarah,” I replied in genuine puzzlement.
“Really? I was sure I had seen you before. So,” he hesitated before continuing,” would you like to go out with me?”
It dawned on me that Sarah didn’t exist. Well if the young man had made use of an imaginary woman to strike up a conversation, I would make use of an imaginary man to end it.
“That’s very kind of you, “ I simpered. “But,” I said raising my be-ringed left hand to my neck, “I don’t think my husband would approve.”
“He is a very lucky man,” came the reply.
“Thank-you”, I said. I silently agreed that my imaginary husband was lucky to have me for a wife, just as the imaginary Sarah was extremely lucky to have me as a friend.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

The Fifth Commandment

On Friday night the Eagle came around for supper. Her career has taken flight in recent weeks. However she finds it hard to believe that anyone can genuinely be happy for her success, used as she is to a highly competitive and antagonistic working environment. I said I was only too pleased to hear good news for once, the more so since a number of my friends are not in the best of health at present. Besides, the Eagle and her partner are firm admirers of my culinary skills and have said they would be prepared to set me up in a tea shop if ever I decided on a change of career. At the rate the Eagle’s career is soaring, it won’t be long before she can afford to employ me as her personal chef.

We talked at length about family relationships. The Eagle finds my background fascinating, especially my relationship with my mother, whom she described as “barking,” an epithet she also applied to her own mama. She finds it astonishing that I am so forgiving about my late mother’s foibles. I certainly disapproved of my mother’s parenting skills or rather the lack of them. Fortunately, I was sufficiently well grounded to be able to fend for myself by the time I went to live with her on a permanent basis. We enjoyed a far more cordial relationship once I had left home. In the last year of her life I did what I could to ensure that her final months were as comfortable as possible. As a result, I was never subject to any sense of guilt following her untimely death. Whilst she was still alive, she would say things from time to time that were unnecessarily hurtful and provocative. Nevertheless, her friends later attested that she was always very proud of me. One of these insights proved a particular blessing in retrospect.
The day before my mother died, I had taken her along in her wheelchair to Clissold Park. Once the private pleasure grounds of a Georgian mansion, the park has been opened to the public for over a century, after a vigorous campaign by local Victorians to save it and the house from being redeveloped. The original 18th century house was built in the 1790s by Jonathan Hoare, the Quaker and prominent campaigner for the abolition of slavery. The mansion still retains it grand stone Doric portico. Part of the building has been turned into a café. There has long been talk of restoring the rest of the house, which is in a somewhat dilapidated state. Thankfully, a long battle by local residents in the 20th and 21st centuries has resulted in the mansion and grounds finally winning lottery funding for a wholesale programme of renovation.

Even in its previous decline, the park was still a delight when my mother and I last visited it together.
“You are far too private,” my mother grumbled as we drank coffee together on the terrace. Normally, I would have shrugged off such criticisms but her death less than 24 hours later would have imbued her words with a far greater significance than they would otherwise merit. Then I received two letters. One was from my mother, written only days before her death and posted by a friend of hers, in which she praised my qualities as a daughter. The other was from another friend of my mother’s. I had only met the latter once before when I was a child. I recall that she had lived in a farmhouse, one that still formed the heart of a working farm. Consequently it was untidy and functional rather than the luxurious pristine show-house many similar buildings have been transformed into today by their wealthy occupants. Oblivious to the interior of the farm house, I only had eyes for a large doll’s house that was on display. In her letter, the farmer’s wife deeply regretted the fact that she arrived back in England too late to be able to attend my mother’s funeral. She then reminisced about her earliest memories of my mother. She said my mother had always been great fun and extremely sociable, but from the very beginning had tended to compartmentalise her life and was inclined to be very secretive about parts of it, even to those closest to her.
“The cheek of it!” I thought half in indignation and half in amusement as I remembered my mother’s last words to me.”

Whatever the ups and downs of the relationship with my mother, it never reached the depths of animosity shown by the Hanoverian royal family towards one another. As I recalled earlier(Making a grand entrance (hall),  the death of Frederick the 18th century Prince of Wales occasioned a droll epigram by the 19th century novelist William Makepeace Thackeray. The novelist viewed the Prince as the best of a bad lot. His own mother, Queen Caroline, regarded her son and heir as "the greatest ass, and the greatest liar, and the greatest canaille, and the greatest beast, in the whole world, and I most heartily wish he was out of it." His father, King George II had heartily detested his own father King George I. The sustained ill will between King George I’s son and grandson might have stemmed in part from the fact that Frederick spent much of his childhood apart from his own parents. Even imminent death did little to mitigate the hostility. Frederick was not allowed to visit his mother’s deathbed in 1737. Legend has it that his dying mother opined at the news: "At least I shall have one comfort in having my eyes eternally closed - I shall never see that monster again."
If Frederick wanted to get away from parental bickering, he could escape to his beloved Kew, where he did much to establish a collection of rare and exotic plants which would form the core of today’s Botanical Gardens. In a painting by the artist Philipe Mercier circa 1733 and now to be found in the National Portrait Gallery, whose restaurant I am somewhat partial to, (Dim Sum) Frederick is depicted alongside his sisters making music together. In the background is the pink 17th century Dutch House or Kew Palace as it is known today. I intend to return to the subject of my own wanderings around Kew Palace later .

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Til death do us part.

Effigy of Sir Ralph Sadleir

I related the extraordinary story of how the father of an elderly neighbour, had left England under a cloud in the 1930s. (The British Library Volume II ). She did not know it at the time, as her father had severed all ties with his English family, but he had gone on to remarry and raise a second family in the United States. In time he vanished from their lives too, at which point he decided to re-establish contact with his family back in England. Whilst he was alive, neither family knew of the existence of the other. It was only after she had been surfing the internet to discover more about her family tree, that my neighbour unearthed the truth. Although she was able to correspond for a while with the children of her half-siblings, eventually the Americans stopped writing altogether. Several of them had forged prominent careers in the US armed services. It might have dawned on them that they did not relish the prospect of being associated with a grandfather, who had appeared in court on child abuse charges, although he was later exonerated, and had probably bigamously married their grandmother, who he had later abandoned.

The story of a man abandoning his family, leaving his spouse forever unsure as to whether she is a wife or a widow, resonates down the centuries. A favourite film of mine from the 1980s is “Le retour de Martin Guerre (1982), in which Gérard Depardieu plays the eponymous hero, who returns to his village a changed man, after having being away fighting as a soldier for years. Gradually suspicions emerge as to his true identity, culminating in a trial to establish once and for all whether or not he is indeed Martin Guerre. One of my favourite scenes from the film occurs at the very beginning. In an unrelated incident, (other than it is witnessed by the presiding judge of a trial occurring later in the film) a condemned man is on the gallows awaiting execution for crimes of a sexual natural. Alongside him is his accomplice, a donkey, who has also been sentenced to death for bestiality. Just as the hangman is about to affix the noose around the man’s neck, a horseman gallops into view. He is allowed to pass through the watching multitude as he carries a letter of pardon. The officials read it and allow the reprieved and wholly exonerated prisoner to be released and escorted off the scaffold. They then proceed to execute the man.

In his film “The Hour of the Pig” Colin Firth plays a lawyer in medieval France, who is called on to defend a pig accused of murder. Despite many difficulties he manages to temporarily save the pig’s bacon, although the pig’s owners only want it saved so it can be eaten. If the pig is found guilty of murder, then its flesh would be consumed by fire and turned to ashes as part of the judicial punishment. This quirky little film was made just a few years before Colin Firth emerged soaking wet from his lake at Pemberley. Robed in the less than flattering clothes of the medieval period, compared to those of the more dashing Fitzwilliam Darcy, Colin Firth nevertheless cuts a very sexy figure, especially when he throws his garments aside, as he is wont to do with some alacrity.

In his novel, “Le Colonel Chabert” Honoré de Balzac wrote his own version of a supposedly dead man returning to his wife, who has remarried and had children in the intervening period. She faces social ruin if the Colonel’s claims were to be proved true as her second husband threatens to repudiate her and their children if she was not really a widow when she married him. This too was made into a film starring the seemingly ubiquitous (in terms of French cinema of the time) Gérard Depardieu. His wife was played by the French actress Fanny Ardant. Mandip was much struck by my apparent resemblance to the lead actress. So I was not best pleased when one reviewer recently compared Ardant to a beautiful Colonel Gaddafi! Fanny Ardant also played Mary of Guise in the Cate Blanchette film “Elizabeth. “ As mother of Mary Queen of Scots, who went on to marry Lord Darnley, Mary of Guise would have been related by marriage to Darnley’s mother, the Countess of Lennox, who later died at Brooke House in Hackney.(“Pastime with good company,” 15th January 2010). Neither was to know it, but an earlier resident of Hackney played a key role in the fate of their daughter and daughter-in-law respectively. Ralph Sadlier’s final public duty was to act as one of the judges at the trial of Mary Queen of Scots in 1586.

Ralph Sadlier had little time for the Scots even those of royal lineage. When he was sent as ambassador to Scotland in 1544 he was not impressed by the locals and wrote: ”Under the sun live not more beastly and unreasonable people than be here”. He might have amended that when he discovered that the supposedly dead husband of his wife, Helen Barre, had suddenly turned up very much alive and seemingly bent on making a nuisance of himself.

When Ralph Sadlier first met Helen Barre, he might well have thought it advantageous to align himself with a cousin of his powerful political master, Thomas Cromwell, who was then the chief minister of Henry VIII. Helen Barre must have been equally delighted at the prospect of marrying a courtier, whose star was clearly in the ascendancy. Furthermore, having been deserted along with her two young children by a first husband, subsequently presumed to have died in Ireland, she brought little in the way of a dowry to make her an attractive proposition for a potential spouse.

It was widely believed that Mary Queen of Scots conspired in the death of her troublesome second husband, Lord Darnley in 1567, leaving her free to marry her lover, Lord Bothwell, some 3 months later. Ralph Sadleir did not resort to such drastic measures when Helen Barre’s first husband reappeared in her life in 1544. By that time the mansion at Hackney, Sutton House,  was home to Ralph Sadleir’s growing family of 7 children. All would have been declared illegitimate if Ralph’s marriage was found to be invalid. At that point, he had been knighted and was a prominent member of Henry’s council of state. He could have allowed the law to take its course and walk away from Helen and their children and been free to marry some heiress. There are various possibilities as to why he did not choose to do this. He knew all too well the vicissitudes of personal fortune. He had seen how Helen’s cousin, Thomas Cromwell, once the most powerful man under the King, suffered a traitor’s death at Tyburn. Despite being made Earl of Essex, the humble origins of a commoner like Thomas Cromwell meant he would never be afforded the aristocratic privilege of being beheaded on Tower Hill. Ralph himself had been sent in chains to the Tower in the turmoil following Cromwell’s downfall. His wife had stayed loyal to him then and he stayed loyal to her now. Somehow he was able to secure a special Act of Parliament annulling Helen’s first marriage. That would have meant the children of her second marriage to him were spared the shame of illegitimacy. By contrast, I wonder what the consequences were for the children of Helen’s first marriage.

The last time I visited Finland in summer I stayed with relatives. One family had a three year old daughter. I knew I would never be able to understand what she said or vice versa. Consequently, when I went into the sitting room where she was playing on the carpet with a pile of toys, I plonked myself in the corner and played with her toy garage. Eventually she came over to join me. I asked her mother if her daughter could have some of the white organic chocolate in my handbag. The mother agreed to her daughter’s delight. Some time later, I discovered from her grandmother that the little girl had been taken ill and was been rushed to hospital. Fortunately she made a full recovery but had been asking for Tallow. Apparently that was how she pronounced my name. When her grandmother asked her to tell her more about “Tallow”, her granddaughter described me as being “the other little girl.” Being well over six feet tall in high heels, it is a long time since anyone has described me as a little girl. Still, I am not averse to playing with objects meant for children on occasion. Thus, I was happy to see that Sutton House had an oak chest full of Tudor hats and headdresses to try on in the panelled parlour as well as glove puppets of Tudor characters such as Henry VIII. The man’s velvet cap was too small for me but the padded lady’s headdress fitted perfectly. I wonder if Ralph Sadlier’s children had as much fun playing with the toys in Sutton House as I did.

Friday, 15 January 2010

“Pastime with good company, I love, and shall until I die”.(Revised October 2011)

During the 1950s there was a great cull of stately homes in England as they became too large for their impoverished owners to maintain. From my personal perspective I am most saddened by the demolition of Brooke House in 1954. This ancient mansion, once the home of Tudor royalty, ended it days as a private asylum before sustaining substantial damage from aerial bombardment during the Second World War, causing a decision to be made to demolish it a decade later. It was not just its great age that sparked my interest in a place which can now only ever be visited through the imagination. It was also the fact that the thwarted love affair of its one-time owner inadvertently changed the course of English history forever.

In his diary of the 25th June 1666 Samuel Pepys wrote: "Mrs. Pen carried us to two gardens at Hackney (which I every day grow more and more in love with) Mr. Drake's one, where the garden is good, and house and the prospect admirable; the other my Lord Brooke's, where the gardens are much better, but the house not so good, nor the prospect good at all. But the gardens are excellent; & here I first saw oranges grow: some green, some half, some a quarter, and some full ripe, on the same tree, and one fruit of the same tree do come a year or two after the other. I pulled off
a little one by stealth (the man being mightily curious of them) and ate it, and it was just as other little green small oranges are: as big as half the end of my little finger. Here were also great variety of other exotique plants, and several labarinths, and a pretty aviary."

My own thwarted love affair with Brooke House began a century earlier when it was owned by Henry Percy otherwise known as the 6th Earl of Northumberland. On his deathbed Henry bequeathed Brooke House to the reigning monarch, Henry VIII, an extraordinary decision in view of how closely these two men’s lives were intertwined by their mutual passion for one woman.

As was the custom, the sons of the nobility were often sent to live and serve in the households of other great noblemen in order to forge alliances and gain a greater understanding of courtly manners and ritual. Henry Percy was no exception to the rule. The household he ended up in was not that of some high born aristocrat. Nevertheless it was owned by the second most powerful man in the realm after the King of England. Some privately thought that the magnificence of Cardinal Wolsey’s establishment surpassed that of even Henry Tudor.

It was whilst in the service of Cardinal Wolsey that Henry Percy began the doomed love affair that would blight his life until his dying day. He had fallen madly in love with one of Catherine of Aragon’s ladies in waiting, the Lady Anne Boleyn. Unfortunately, Anne had also caught the eye of the King and Cardinal Wolsey publicly upbraided Lord Percy for his infatuation and the young man was forced to relinquish any matrimonial hopes he might have harboured towards Anne.

By a twist of fate, Percy found himself involved in arranging for the arrest of Cardinal Wolsey on a charge of High Treason in 1530. His hatred for Wolsey was no doubt intensified by a deeply unhappy marriage to Mary Talbot, the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury. Mary Talbot had been intended for Percy from an early age and certainly well before he ever came into contact with Anne Boleyn. Mary was jealous of her husband’s former regard for Anne and tried to use it as a pretext for dissolving her own marriage, claiming that Lord Percy had a pre-contract with Anne Boleyn, rendering any subsequent marriage invalid. Mary’s accusations were publicly discredited for if Anne had a pre-contract with Percy then she could not legally marry the King and few were going to argue that point in 1532, at a time when Henry Tudor was still infatuated with Anne, who became his wife in November of the same year.

The last bitter twist in their triangular love affair occurred in 1536 when Henry Tudor had Anne placed on trial for High Treason. One of the members of the jury was Henry Percy. However, whether through illness or sheer emotion, he had to withdraw early from the proceedings. He died little more than a year after Anne at Brooke House, a lonely embittered man who had quarrelled with his family and his wife to such an extent that he sought his revenge by leaving his entire property to King Henry VIII, knowing full well that the latter’s rapacious propensities meant he would never decline such a bequest.

Brooke House was the setting for  a reconciliation between Henry VIII and his daughter Princess Mary in 1536. The royal connection continued when it was rented out in the 1570s to the Countess of Lennox, grandmother of the future King James I of England and later sold in 1578 to Anne Boleyn’s nephew by her sister Mary. When Anne Boleyn’s nephew and therefore Queen Elizabeth’s first cousin lay dying, the Queen came to his sick bed. She brought with her the letters patent for the Earldom of Wiltshire, which he had failed to secure on several other occasions, prompting him to gently chide:  "Madam, seeing you counted me not worthy of this honour whilst I was living, I count myself unworthy of it now I am dying."

Sisters' Place

Some scholars, including David Starkey, would argue that England’s premier Elizabethan playwright died at Brooke House in 1604. Not William Shakespeare but the aristocrat they contend actually wrote the plays: Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. There is a set of early Georgian houses known as Sisters’ Place, built on the site of one of the Earl’s other mansions in Hackney. I recall catching the end of a documentary about these houses, one of which apparently had poltergeist activity, resulting in an inner window pane constantly breaking for no apparent reason.

Two hundred years after Elizabeth I came to the throne, Brooke House was turned into a private asylum. None of the inmates could have matched the insane decision of Hackney Council to allow Brooke House to be demolished in 1954. Heartbreakingly, it could have been saved. Poignantly, at Sutton House, built by Ralph Sadlier during Henry VIII’s reign, there is a print of Brooke House in the red dining room, being almost all that remains of one of the greatest jewels of Hackney’s Tudor past.  

Revised October 2011.
In the above I lamented the fact that Brooke House was demolished by Hackney Council in the 1950s. It was small consolation that they had commissioned a comprehensive architectural survey of the site immediately prior to demolition. To my delight I later came across a copy of this survey online. I was fascinated to read the detailed report. Amongst other gems it contains a large number of old drawings of Brooke House, several of which I have never seen before. Some show fragments of wall paintings that would have decorated the medieval chapel, including an image of the man who had endowed the original chapel praying to St Peter. I like to think that it was an image Anne Boleyn’s first great love, Henry Percy, would have been familiar with when he owned the house. In addition, there are photographs showing Brooke House both before and after it had sustained substantial bomb damage during World War II. The authors of the report claim in the frontispiece that the building could not have been saved. In view of the fact that it was Hackney Council who paid for their survey, they could hardly criticise their paymasters’ philistine actions.
Brooke House

Video killed the radio star!

 As I have said before, I rarely have my telephone switched on during the day to avoid the inevitable cold calling and the even more annoying automatic dialled numbers, which hang up on you the moment you pick up the handset. Yesterday I realised someone had left me a message. When checked my voicemail I discovered that a producer from one of the most popular radio stations in the UK had read my article in the Guardian newspaper (The Word of Literature ) and wondered if I would be interested in talking to them about it. My first thought was panic. How do I get into shape again after the excesses of Christmas?  Then I breathed a sigh of relief as I realised that it was talk-radio and not television or other visual media. So I shall be ringing them tomorrow to find out what they have in mind. Perhaps I do have the perfect face for radio after all.

Making a grand entrance (hall).

When I last wrote about Southside House in Wimbledon, I had only walked as far as the breakfast room in my mind’s eye.
I had mentioned in passing the adjacent dining room and its fine collection of family portraits. The dining room has a very grand and ornate stone fireplace, quite out of keeping with the rest of the house in terms of its apparent date and scale. However it is a foretaste of the changes made by the family to the interior of the house in the 20th century. Nowhere is this more evident than in the second entrance hall.

Now a single dwelling, the building was originally divided into two separate houses with an entrance hall on either side of what is currently the breakfast room. During the Second World War, Southside House was badly bombed. The family decided to rebuild it themselves without resorting to public funding, thereby allowing themselves free rein to restore it as they saw fit. Their imagination took full flight in the second hall. It was recreated as a double height baroque hall, with an open galleried upper landing, a ceiling painted with imitation baroque frescos and the walls partially painted to resemble stone.

A bust of King Charles I sits on top of the doorway leading through to the breakfast room. The royalist theme is continued with a full length oil painting of the 19th century Queen of Serbia, Natalija Obrenović.
 She developed a close friendship with the family after her eldest son, Crown Prince Alexander fell in love with the young Hilda Pennington-Mellor at the fashionable resort of Biarritz. Deeming herself to be a commoner and therefore by her own admission unfit to marry a future king, Hilda turned down Alexander’s proposal of marriage. Of course, it could have been that Hilda preferred not to get embroiled in the Byzantine political intrigues that dominated the Serbia of the period. Alexander’s own mother and father were at loggerheads with one another, leading to an acrimonious divorce as they fought for the hearts and minds of the Serbian people and their eldest son.

Alexander went on to marry one of his mother’s ladies-in-waiting, much to the Queen’s consternation as she considered this new rival for her son’s affection, Draga Mašin, thoroughly unsuitable. In “Kings and queens I have known” by Hélène Vacaresco, the author describes Draga as being of middle stature and rather plain looking except for her eyes, which “spoke of an oriental houri’s power” Equally damning was the fact that Draga was not of noble birth, was already a widow when she first met Alexander and was almost 15 years his senior. Perhaps that was why Queen Natalija retained a fondness for Hilda, who had not presumed to marry above her station in life. Poor Draga aroused animosity both in Serbia and abroad. The gossips had a field day when her French and Russian doctors disagreed as to whether or not she was expecting a chid in 1901. Her husband, Alexander, certainly thought so and had even amended the Serbian law of succession so that a female could inherit the throne in the event that his wife gave birth to a princess rather than a prince. She gave birth to neither and it was eventually established that Draga had never been pregnant. Her enemies accused her of blatant deception. Others said she was suffering from a phantom pregnancy.                                          
The family trust which runs Southside House also owns Hellens Manor in Much Marcle, Herefordshire. Queen Mary I once stayed there as a child. Following her marriage to Philip of Spain, in 1554 Queen Mary believed herself to be pregnant and countless preparations were made for the safe delivery of the future heir to the throne. 10 months later Queen Mary was forced to concede that she was not with child. Within four years she was dead of natural causes. Within two years of her own phantom pregnancy. Queen Draga was also dead, although in her case, she was murdered alongside her husband in a military coup d'état. Hellens

Along from the entrance hall is an ante-chamber containing 18th century wall hangings. Those who could afford it would hang tapestries made of wool and silk. Those who wanted to emulate their richer contemporaries chose to have classical scenes painted onto canvas instead. As they were regarded as a cheap substitute, such wall hangings were usually discarded when they became threadbare, making them exceedingly rare today. Also still intact is the original powder closet but without the unfortunate child enclosed inside to powder a gentleman’s wig, as the owner of said wig poked his head through a special circular opening. The gentleman would protect his face and eyes with a special mask. The child had no such protection from the toxic white lead powder he would have been forced to inhale.

The music room has two chandeliers made to hang from the wall as opposed to the ceiling. They came from the family’s former home in Biarritz. There is also a portrait of Hilda Pennington Mellor as a young child, which her parents allowed to be used by commercial manufacturers to endorse their product, in much the same way that Sir John Everett Millais painting of his grandson, Willliam Milbourne James, was used by Pears to sell soap. The flaxen haired moppet in the Millais painting grew up to become an Admiral in the British Navy.

On the upper floor of the house is a study, which can be briefly glimpsed as the actor Martin Clunes’ study in his television version of "Goodbye Mr Chips", and a tiny chapel built and consecrated in the latter half of the 20th century.

Also on this floor is the royal bedchamber. Nowadays, King Edward VII is said to have stayed in it. On an earlier occasion I was told that it was named after a visit paid by Frederick, Prince of Wales in the 18th century. Frederick, son of King George II and father to George III, died of a burst abscess on his lungs in 1751. William Makepeace Thackeray, the author of one of my favourite novels “Vanity Fair” penned the following epigram on the Prince’s death. The latter was written from the comparative safety of the 19th century:

"Here lies poor Fred who was alive and is dead,
Had it been his father I had much rather,
Had it been his sister nobody would have missed her,
Had it been his brother, still better than another,
Had it been the whole generation, so much better for the nation,
But since it is Fred who was alive and is dead,
There is no more to be said!"

In the royal bed-chamber is a cabinet containing, amongst other curiosities, an unassuming pearl necklace said to have been owned by another tragic European Queen, Marie-Antoinette. Part of Marie-Antoinette’s downfall has been attributed to a diamond necklace, which was the centrepiece of a notorious fraud trial. Jeanne, the Countess de la Motte, along with her co-conspirators duped Cardinal de Rohan into believing that he was buying a fabulously expensive diamond necklace on behalf of the French Queen. Instead the fraudsters whisked it abroad to be broken down and sold off. When the jeweller who sold the item to the Cardinal demanded his money and was fobbed off, he went to the palace to demand recompense. Like Queen Draga, Marie-Antoinette had many enemies who wanted to believe she was embroiled in the scheme and used this incident to further blacken her name even though at the time, either through pragmatism or personal choice, Marie-Antoinette had long abandoned the opulent jewellery of her flaunting extravagant past. The hapless Jeanne was whipped, branded as a thief and sentenced to life imprisonment. Nevertheless, both Jeanne and her husband were able to escape prison and flee to England, where she died in 1791. Jeanne lies buried in an unmarked grave at the church of St Mary’s, just outside the gates of Lambeth Palace. I took the opportunity to visit the burial grounds and the church when Lambeth Palace last held its open day. St Mary’s now houses a gardening museum inspired by the famous horticulturalist Tradescant family, who are also buried in a tomb in the graveyard, alongside their equally illustrious eternal neighbour Admiral Bligh of Mutiny on the Bounty fame. I wonder whether it was Admiral James or Admiral Bligh who found it harder to live down their unwanted early fame?