Friday, 15 January 2010

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?

1 comment:

  1. I have always been fascinated by the Bounty story. It's funny where it crops up! That's wonderful about the interview. Maybe there'll be a podcast or something that I could listen to? Good luck!


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