Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Marble Hill House Part Two and Orleans House Gallery

Lady Suffolk’s bedroom is immediately adjacent to the Great Room. As befits her status as a Countess and the builder of the house it is the largest bedchamber in the mansion. Regrettably I failed to pay sufficient attention to the fireplace, which I later discovered had come from the very same street a childhood friend had lived in and dated from the same period as her own family home. I do not know whether Henrietta Howard’s original bed would have had curtains all around it. I quite like the idea of lying in a four poster and drawing all the bed curtains shut to make a little room within another; although, having said that, it might not have been a wise a thing to do in the days of candlelight. The pillars though impressive are not practical. I imagine it would have been quite a struggle for a servant to wriggle between them and the end of the bed if they wanted to reach furniture set back against the wall. We do not know for certain how Lady Suffolk would have arranged the furniture in her own time although the inventory taken upon her death does list green silk damask on the walls and bed hangings. By her japanned cabinet hangs a painting by the artist Francis Hayman. It depicts an aristocratic woman spinning wool.  Horace Walpole, the 4th Earl of Oxford and a close friend and neighbour of Henrietta’s described the artist’s work as ‘easily distinguishable by the large noses and shambling legs of his figures.’ Having read that acerbic comment with some amusement I went back to view the painting once more and it was true that the sitter’s nose would have given Cyrano de Bergerac’s a run for his money.

A Miss Henrietta Hotham occupied the smaller bedroom next door, which is now thought to have originally been a dressing room. Henrietta Howard née Hotham was her great aunt. Henrietta Hotham acted as a companion to the elderly Lady Suffolk, then in her 80s despite Miss Hotham still being little more than a child herself. The lobby to Miss Hotham’s room contains a long case clock signed William Kemp of London. My interest was piqued when I read in the guidebook that William Kemp hailed from Highgate.

From the lobby I crossed the hall to the only other chamber which was still furnished as a bedroom today. The first thought that came to mind when I stepped into the Damask Bedchamber was that it looked as if it might have belonged to a  lady of ill-repute thanks to the crimson silk flocked wallpaper and scarlet damask bed hangings. In fact it was very likely to have belonged to Henrietta’s second husband George Berkeley, whom she was free to marry upon the death of her first in 1733. The bed itself has quite a colourful history of its own having been a star attraction at the Governor’s Palace in Colonial Williamsburg before being returned to its native England. The chimney breast displayed a small collection of blue and white porcelain from Kenwood House and some 21st century reproductions from China, which explains why some of the pieces bore an uncanny resemblance to ones I had bought in the past from the High Street.

Somewhat incongruously I suddenly noticed that my lower leg was reflected in the adjustable antique shaving mirror as I sat in the window seat. I am of an age and disposition where I willingly partake of any opportunity to seat myself and observe a room at leisure from a more comfortable vantage point. If I am especially lucky I occasionally find myself completely alone, which adds a certain frisson to the atmosphere. From my perch I overhead the woman on duty explaining that the room contained a false door added simply for symmetry. Apparently it opens up on to a blank brick wall, a feature to be found by the great staircase at Kensington Palace.

The final room, known as the Dressing Room contains a series of paintings including one of Henrietta Howard herself in her pink silk gown with a silhouette and a tiny waist, which can only be achieved by a tightly laced corset as well I know.

When I was in one of the bedchambers I was stuck by the sudden thought that there must be another floor to the house, given the cacophony coming from the creaking floorboards above. Such a storey could not be reached from the mahogany staircase.  The woman on duty had to unlock a side door to the stairwell of the stone staircase I had first observed upon entering the house. The treads were incredibly narrow and steep unlike the broad generous sweep of the mahogany staircase. I clung gingerly to the ironwork balustrade as I climbed to the top. The third floor contains the 18th century equivalent of a traditional Long Gallery. Again there were various pictures on display as well as a collection of 18th century crockery, emblazoned with family crests.  As I walked across the floorboards they creaked incredibly loudly. I hasten to add that the same discordant sound effects were not generated exclusively by my perambulations around the gallery. There were a number of other smaller rooms on the top floor which probably served as garrets for the servants being devoid of fireplaces. In the 17th century the Duchess of Lauderdale at nearby Ham House likewise spared herself the expense of installing and maintaining fireplaces for the lower ranks of servants. Thus they roasted in their small narrow rooms in summer and froze in the depths of winter.

Having seen all that I wanted I descended the stone staircase to the ground floor and walked across the park to the stable block which houses a café. Having bought a cappuccino and a slice of Victoria cake I was determined to bag one of only two winged armchairs to sit upon. A small girl of around 3 or 4 had seated herself in one of them already.
“Is this seat taken?” I politely asked, knowing full well that the rest of her family were all grouped around a larger table across the way. The little girl said that it wasn’t but that she was sitting in the winged armchair because she was cold. She wanted to know if I felt cold and then she wanted to know my name. She was quite excited to be told it was Caroline as she had 3 friends who shared the same name. Her own it transpired was Florence. Given her white blond hair and piercing blue eyes I thought perhaps she might have an exotic Scandinavian name instead. I said that the Prime Minister had just had a little baby daughter called Florence but the allusion seemed beyond her.
Then it was time for her to rejoin her family as they left the café. She bid me goodbye with a huge smile on her face. Another much younger girl came up to me as her father walked nearby and likewise smiled broadly. Small children and animals have always been drawn to me I will always remember a three old cousin describing me to her grandmother as” the other little girl”, despite the fact that I was a number of years older than her own mother and towered over six foot tall in my high heels.

There was still time for me to cross the park and make my way to the nearby Orleans House Gallery. The octagonal building and stables are all that remains of the original 17th century riverside mansion. The redbrick octagonal room is decorated inside with baroque gilded plasterwork. It served as the backdrop for a banquet given in honour of Queen Caroline and her children in 1721, the same Queen for whom Henrietta Howard had served as a lady-in-waiting. Nowadays the high ceiling pretty room with its ornate marble fireplace hosts wedding and commitment ceremonies. The modern block leading into the house is used as a contemporary exhibition space. The main installation featured a dinner table formed of empty boxed files and place settings for named guests, all of whom had some connection to the neighbourhood over the past 400 years. Naturally Henrietta Howard’s name appeared as did those of her friends Horace Walpole and the celebrated English poet and man of letters Alexander Pope. Although I cannot establish a direct link between Henrietta Howard and Kenwood House, Alexander Pope was a mutual friend of hers and Lord Mansfield who built Kenwood Howard several decades after Henrietta completed her own villa at Marble Hill.

The Octagonal building is named Orleans House after Louis-Phillip the last King of France, who lived in the since demolished mansion, whilst in exile.

Before he had settled in England Louis had travelled as far a field as Scandinavia. During his sojourn in Finland in 1795 he befriended a Lutheran rector and his wife. King-in-waiting or no-king–in-waiting, I doubt that the couple were best pleased when the rector’s unwed sister-in-law Beata Caisa Wahlbom gave birth to a son named Erik shortly after Louis had left the country for good. It is not known what later befall Beata’s royal son.

In the grounds of Orleans House I came across an ironwork sculpture of a group of women set against a wall. I could not find anything to indicate who might have been the artist behind the artwork but I rather liked it. The stable block had an interactive installation which seemed to be fun for young children to engage with. I saw a little girl earnestly working on a piece of “art” with her mother using, multi-coloured beading. I was not so impressed by the artwork created by adults displayed on the walls.

On my way to and from the railway station my attention was caught by the Crown Inn. I loved the ornate decorative features adorning a ground floor window and the doorframe, as well as the huge glass and ironwork lamp suspended from the upper storey. If the Twickenham Museum’s website is to be believed Louis Philippe might well have sunk the odd pint or two in this very inn as they claim he was friends with its innkeeper, or perhaps like me he just wanted another chance to admire its striking architectural features. 

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