Tuesday, 27 April 2010

I’m looking at the (wo)man in the mirror.

On my final full day in Highgate the Partridge and I decided to go to Kenwood; she  to take photographs of the Heath and I  to wander around Kenwood House. The latter was open to the general public but the place  swarmed with staff; a couple of maintenance men worked on fixing the broken light bracket atop one of the entrance hall fireplaces, whilst others moved fixtures and fittings from the Orangery. A notice affixed to the Orangery door proclaimed the room was closed as the exhibition was in the process of a “breakdown.” How I sympathised . Being in the public eye can be so exhausting.

In the music room, I observed that the square piano was a John Broadwood dating from the late 18th century. Whenever I stay in Highgate I play on a grand piano manufactured by the same company in 1910. I spent some time looking at a painting on the Music Room wall. By Sir Joshua Reynolds, it depicted a 3 year old George (later better known as Beau) Brummell and his 5 year old brother. Normally I am quite indifferent to the depiction of winsome blonde and ruddy cheeked infants. However last year I read a fascinating account of the Beau in Ian Kelly’s biography:” Beau Brummell: the ultimate dandy.”  It chronicles Brummell’s life from birth to his ascent to the apex of fashionable 18th century society, where he was feted as being the most stylish man of his generation. Even the so-called “First Gentleman of Europe”, the Prince Regent, later George IV, was not above copying the Beau’s elegant mode of dressing. Nowadays, people often equate dandies with men in flamboyant clothes. Nothing could be further from Brummell’s own tastes. His personal dress code was in direct opposition to the brightly coloured attire of his sartorial rivals: the Macaronies. Their vibrant silks and satins, ornate powdered wigs, face paint and patches and heavy perfumes (the better to conceal their less than fragrant body odour) were simply a more masculine version of the flamboyant clothes worn by fashionable women of the period. The Beau championed sober colours, superbly tailored and in the finest of cloths to enhance his figure. Even more radically, he would insist on taking several baths a day, making daily bathing suddenly fashionable amongst the upper classes, who sought to emulate him in every way. His extravagant lifestyle was maintained on credit and the patronage of the Prince Regent. The two were inextricably linked. When he fell from royal favour, his creditors closed in on him and Brummell was ultimately forced to flee to France rather than end up in a debtor’s jail. Finding himself cast from royal favour, Brummell retaliated at a society reception by loudly posing  the following question:
“Alvanley, who's your fat friend?”
Brummell knew full well that the “fat friend” in question was the Prince Regent. Moreover the Prince’s ballooning weight was always a matter of great mortification to the heir to the throne. He had even resorted to corsets to try and regain a more becoming physique, with little success. Brummell by contrast was a natural athlete and cricketer, whose sporting prowess provided a perfect figure upon which to showcase his elegant and close fitting clothing.

The Beau’s life  ended tragically as he descended into madness. He spent his final years confined to a French lunatic asylum. He was fortunate that the asylum had adopted  a far more humane regime for the inmates than had been prevalent in previous generations. None the less, even they could not save that most fastidious and stylish of men from the truly devastating physical and mental effects as his mind and body succumbed to the terrible ravages of syphilis. Consequently, hindsight gives poignancy to the picture of the carefree and radiant young Beau at Kenwood House.
The blue staircase was cordoned off. A sign on the wall tantalising still advertises the Suffolk Collection although I doubt if it is ever open to the public these days. I was fortunate to have seen it as many times as I did.

The Deal Staircase could still be walked up. From it I glimpsed the entrance to either a flat or offices. I love the fact they have incorporated a proper 18th century front door to these apartments, together with a brass knocker and fanlight. The staircase leads to the miniatures and buckles room and also contains the Hull Grundy collection of jewellery. Mrs Anne Hull Grundy’s Jewish family had been forced to flee Nazi Germany and had settled in Hampstead. Thus it was that Anne became familiar with Kenwood House. In the notes to the collection she explains that she was struck by how empty the house seemed when she went there in her youth and was determined to rectify this when she had a chance. I especially loved the gold (pinchbeck?) chatelaine. Another definition of chatelaine, aside from referring to the lady of a castle, relates to the small lengths of chains which hung from a woman’s belt and from which she could attach keys or small items of domestic equipment, such as scissors.  

I then raced through the remaining rooms. For the first time I realised that the ornate 18th century library designed by Robert Adams for Lord Mansfield was filled with early 20th and late 19th century books; no doubt part of a job lot of books, which could be bought by the yard for such a contingency. Another snippet of information I gleaned was that bringing food from the kitchen to the dining room was quite a palaver and involved crossing part of a courtyard. I had lunched in the kitchens in the past and so knew it was set at some distance from the main house. Nonetheless it had not occurred to me before that the cooked food would have been exposed to the elements. If Lord Mansfield’s hot dishes reached his table cold, at least he could still boast that he dined like a King of England; George III in fact when the latter was in residence at Kew Palace.Kitchens at Kew Palace Conscious of the passage of time, I went to join the Partridge in the grounds, where she failed to recognise me, despite looking twice straight in my direction. Perhaps the fact I was not wearing one of my trademark hats confused her. I decided to join her in taking more photographs of the heath. I rather liked the one she took of me emerging from the camellias like some latter day Marguerite Gautier, although unlike the heroine of   Dumas “La Dame aux camellias” it is unlikely, given my sturdy constitution, that anyone would assume that I was dying of consumption although they might think I had a touch of jaundice judging by the strange yellow complexion the photograph has given me. No one would ever mistake me for a trained singer if I chanced to warble a few arias from La Traviata, the opera based on Marguerite’s life and one of my favourites.

We made our way over to the 18th century ornamental dairy, which in its heyday would have rivalled even Marie Antoinette’s model farm at Versailles. Disappointingly the buildings retain their rustic charm only from afar. Close to, the white-washed buildings are empty and I saw little sign of the tiled floors and cow stalls I had read about. But there was an interesting little mirrored hall which I photographed. When I examined it later I was disconcerted to discover that the ghostly image captured of me was more akin to a naïve water colour than a photograph.

We then made our way to the brewery café, where I had pork sausages and potatoes and the Partridge had a slice of vegetarian pie with a salad sealed in a plastic bag from the fridge of all things. It goes without saying that I also bought a cream cake. The Partridge took some photographs oblivious to the fact that one of the younger members of the Redgrave theatrical dynasty was sitting directly opposite us. I fervently hoped she didn’t think we were trying to capture her image for the tabloids.

Having walked back to Highgate I offered to make supper. I had intended to make a vegetarian lasagne but the online order had managed to substitute a ready made beef lasagne for my requested lasagne sheets. So I made a ratatouille instead and served it with brown rice. For dessert we had stewed rhubarb from the garden, which was then whisked smooth in a blender. People helped themselves to double cream from a small jug. My only regret was that there were not any ripe fresh rhubarb stalks left over for me to bring back to Wimbledon. Hey ho, I must make do with the shop bought ones this evening.