Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Marble Hill House Part One

Last weekend the Eagle and the Owl invited me around for supper. I noticed that the Eagle had a book by about Katherine Howard on her shelf and asked if I might borrow it to read. I also noted that she still has my copy of the Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir which she borrowed off me a number of years ago and has yet to return. Our mutual love of Tudor history saw us going along to Hampton Court one New Year’s Eve to see a costumed demonstration of the preparations for a royal feast in the original 16th century kitchens. I felt so envious of the cooks who got to stay in the Palace after dark, the more so when they explained that the rooms in question were thought to have once formed the apartments lived in by Anne Boleyn when she was first elevated to the position of royal favourite. The Eagle had dismissed Joanna Denny’s book on Katherine Howard as being a mere impulse buy at an airport. So I was pleased to discover that it was in fact a scholarly work that offered a fascinating insight into a young woman, whose own tragic life is usually overshadowed by that of her more famous and equally doomed cousin, Anne Boleyn.

Katherine Howard must be an even more distant relation by marriage to one Henrietta Howard, whose delightful 18th century house I visited yesterday at Marble Hill. Like Katherine, Henrietta had to endure an equally unhappy marriage to a heartless man. Fortunately for Henrietta, her marriage lead to an enforced stay in Hanover as her husband sought to escape his creditors in England having run through his own fortune and then hers. It was here that she began an affair with the future King George II of England. She returned to England on the accession of George’s father to the throne. By the time George succeeded in turn he had grown bored of Henrietta. It was said King George II only had mistresses because it was expected of him. His wife, Queen Caroline of Ansbach knew that if her husband discarded Henrietta, who was also one of her own ladies-in-waiting, there would always be someone else to take her place and that someone might prove less accommodating to Caroline, perhaps using her influence to dabble in court politics, an activity Henrietta had always shunned. Thus Queen Caroline sought to persuade Henrietta to stay on at court when she announced her intention in the 1720s to retire from public life and live quietly by the Thames. Henrietta was adamant. The King had given her a pay-off of what would now be deemed a small fortune. She was determined to invest this money in building a fashionable villa to retire to. Separated though not divorced from her husband, Henrietta was anxious that he should not learn of her windfall since by the laws of the time a married woman was not entitled to own property in her own right and therefore he could lay claim to it. In the event her estranged husband never seemed to have questioned how she was able to afford to commission such a splendid new house.

The resulting mansion is now known as Marble Hill House. Its design is heavily influenced by the Renaissance architect Palladio and the English born 17th century Inigo Jones, who was also responsible for the design of the Queen’s House at Greenwich and the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall. As with other former grand mansions such as Sutton House and Eastbury Manor House Marble House did succumb to what looked to be terminal neglect at one stage. Fortunately it too was saved in the early 20th century as a result of action by the local populace and local authorities. But by then the two storey servants’ wing has been buried underground. Unlike the empty rooms of Eastbury Manor House, Marble House has been renovated to a close proximity of what it might have looked like in Henrietta’s time, using a detailed inventory taken after her death here in 1767.

At ground level you now enter the house through what would have been the servants’ hall, now turned into a shop. From here you proceed past the narrow and vertiginous stone staircase to a stairwell containing a broad staircase in what was then exorbitantly expensive mahogany. On each tread I could see where brass stair rods had been placed in later centuries. The balustrades seemed on the cusp of moving away from the heavy baroque style favoured by a previous generations to the more elegant and light styles favoured by later generations. Before I ventured up the staircase I went into hall. It had a black and white chequered marble floor. Like the marble tiled one in my own kitchen the floor was looking distinctly worn in parts. It seems the 4 pillars in the centre of the hall were meant to echo the open squared courtyard of an Ancient Roman house. The hall also contained a number of contemporary riverside views of the house as well as various 18th century chairs, mirrors and a carved walnut and marble topped pier table. When Henrietta died it seemed she had been using the hall for card games and dining.

I then passed through to what is now referred to as the dining room, the walls of which are decorated in a modern version of an 18th century wall paper. In this room I was able to watch a short video presentation on Henrietta and her association with the house. I also took the opportunity to browse through swatches of similar wallpaper which I have no doubt would cost a small fortune to buy even today. All in all a very charming room.

I then proceeded to the equally delightful Breakfast parlour. The trellis design wallpaper on this room dates to when the house was rented by Maria Fitzherbert between 1795 and 1796. Maria’s dalliances with the future King George IV were said to have ended in a secret marriage a decade earlier in 1785. Despite having gone through a wedding ceremony of sorts with Maria, the then impecunious Prince of Wales, later King George IV, chose to ignore the fact when he married his official wife Caroline in 1795 in exchange for Parliament’s help in dealing with his massive personal debts. A small table had been set out for the lady of the house to indulge in a dish of tea with her friends. The blue and white porcelain on the table was echoed by the blue and white vases on the chimney breast. A quick glance at the guide book told me that some of these had come from my beloved Kenwood House, also run by English Heritage. The room was broken up by a number of small arches and the ceilings were edged with a plasterwork design which was new to me.

Having rested in the window seat I returned through the hall to the foot of the staircase. Its broad tread made it a pleasure to ascend and would have posed no problem either for 18th century ladies to walk gracefully up and down it despite the wide panniers beneath their silk court dress. It leads into to the Great Room. When I had last been at Kensington Palace I had been shocked to see the gilded statues in the room containing the huge timepiece which had been a present to Queen Caroline and assumed it, like the rest of the rooms had been specially styled for the exhibition. I was wrong. The Great Room at Marble Hill house also contained more than its fair shared of gilding. I spoke to the woman on duty, who explained that she normally worked in an office behind the scenes and had been dragooned in to helping out in the public areas. Consequently her knowledge of the house was a little rusty but she felt that the gilding would have looked very different when softened by candlelight, giving the impression of opulence rather than gaudiness.

In one corner stood a black and gold Chinese screen, the different panels of which at one stage were destined to be cut up into coffee tables until someone realised that the screen had belonged to Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk, as she became on the elevation of her estranged husband to the Earldom. There is also a card table set out for a game. I noticed that the cards seem to have little musical scores written on the backs of them. Facing opposite the carved marble fireplace is an ornate pier table, one of four originally commissioned by Henrietta for the Great Room and which were purloined by a tenant of the house in the late 19th century and found its way to Australia. On the walls are copies of Van Dyck’s full length paintings of King Charles I and his wife, Henrietta Maria respectively. I immediately recognised the portrait of the dwarf and one-time royal favourite Jeffrey Hudson alongside the Queen. Jeffrey had made his first appearance before the royal couple by stepping out of a baked pie. Part of his appeal was doubtless the fact that he made even the rather small monarchs appear tall by comparison. Hudson went on to lead a colourful life including being kidnapped by pirates and enduring a number of years as a slave before being able to return to England. In the intervening years his King had been executed and he himself had grown and so no longer even had his uniquely small size to recommend him for royal patronage. The ornate crystal glass chandelier date from the 1960s and was made in Murano, a Venetian island famous for centuries for its glassworks. According to the guidebook the 1960s candelabra was based on the original 18th century design commissioned for the house by Henrietta Howard. The woman on duty was not willing to confirm if this was the case or whether it was actually a 1960s chandelier based on a late 20th century design. She was far more ready to confirm that with one or two exceptions, the fireplace surrounds in the house were 20th century replicas installed by the Greater London Council when they had last owned the property after the originals had been stolen.

Afterwards, whilst I was reading the guidebook on the train home, I discovered that the 18th century fireplace in Lady Suffolk’s bedchamber although of the correct period had been taken from another Georgian house, following its demolition in 1954. I realised that the house had been by Clapton Common. I had a friend whose family had lived in a flat in one of the surviving Georgian terraced houses along there. I had been so envious of her lantern light stairwell which still featured bas relief plaster carvings around the edge. I was even more jealous of the unknown man next door who owned the entire Georgian house and was said to be a millionaire, at a time when the very term millionaire was uttered in a hushed reverential tone.

I shall return to my tour of the house anon and will also relate my visit to Orleans House next door, former home of the last King of France.