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. 

A trick of the mind

Last year I spent a good part of a week hunting in vain for my spare pair of glasses, which had sat tantalising in full view on my bookshelf all along. I have now come across a method for finding such pesky things. The trick is to describe aloud the missing object. Thus yesterday evening I declared out loud that I was looking for a purple oblong shaped object. As if by magic my eyes suddenly alighted upon the aubergine, perched inside the door of my fridge. Yet prior to my incantation I could not for the life of me spot where the missing vegetable had vanished to. I have transcribed all this to print lest it too vanishes from my mind.

A Finnish Family at war (Revised June 2011)

I have very few personal photographs on display at home. However I am rather fond of one showing a group of carefree schoolgirls in the Finnish province of Karjala (Karelia in English)  in the 1930s, one of whom is my grandmother (she is standing to the immediate left in the front row). By the end of the decade she was married with her first child and her country was at war with Russia. Although I met with my grandmother on a number of occasions, both in England and abroad, I never knew what she was really liked. I had only my mother’s distinctly partisan opinion of her and it was not very flattering to say the least. Nonetheless I treasure another portrait that I have of my grandmother, her thick dark hair cropped into a bob like a flapper from the Jazz Age.

My grandfather too remained something of an enigma for me until after he had died. The last time I was in Finland I was told that he was deemed the storyteller of the family and it was then I discovered a tale I had never heard before, but which apparently had passed into family legend. What was even more remarkable was that the story concerned myself. When I was born my grandfather was determined to  make his way from Finland to England to greet his very first grandchild. He took a boat to England and then a train to London from the port. Somehow he made his way to the Whittington Hospital in North London  where I had been born. Incredibly he did not speak a word of English and relied upon a simple hand written message, provided by a school teacher friend who was fluent in English, to ask strangers for directions to his final destination.

Whilst he was still alive, but after my grandmother’s death, I asked him to send me copies of  family pictures. A number arrived. One is of an apprehensive little boy looking for all the world like a Finnish Little Lord Fauntleroy. He is my grandfather Veikko. Another photograph was dated 1875 and showed my great grandparents clutching their new born daughter, my great-grandmother Helena-Sophia after whom I was named. (It always amazes me that the Partridge’s maternal great-grandfather was born in 1840, siring a second family at a relatively old age). There seems to be nothing amiss with this early photograph of my great-grandmother and her own parents. It is true that her parents look  a little stiff and awkward, hardly surprising given the sheer concentration required to maintain their poses for so long. Helen-Sophia is but a blur as she wriggles free from her mother’s grasp. It was not until I went to Finland and was perusing through another relative’s collection of pictures that I realised that my 1875 photograph had been doctored. The original showed Helena-Sophia’s elder sister, then a small girl of around five years old. It seems at some stage in the 1940s another relative had had the young girl airbrushed from the photograph through spite.I never forgave that same relative for telling my mother, as she lay dying that she should confess her sins or she would burn in Hell. My mother was not especially religious but faced with imminent death could cause even the most stout hearted to falter. Besides, we were Lutheran and as such the confessional did not play an important role in our Church. Indeed one of my direct ancestors was a Protestant priest from around the time that the Tudor  church of St Mary's, which I had loved as a child and which had featured in a short story "William Wilson" by Edgar Allan Poe, inspired by his own time spent as a schoolboy in the parish, was built.

It was a vicar from the same church who led the service at my mother's funeral. This vicar was far more urbane than the vicar of Poe's story, the latter based on his own fearsome headmaster. After I had spoken with him over the phone the vicar described to the congregation my mother's great love for the church. In reality she had simply admired the 16th century building from the park as she went jogging near by. Like me, she was not drawn to the far larger church across the road which had been built in the 19th century  to accommodate the much larger congregation. Consequently, my beloved little church was rarely open for me to steal a peek inside at the interior. Thankfully it is to have a new life as an arts' centre, which will enable it's singular charm to be enjoyed by far more people.

Sometimes I find family pictures troubling. I know I always found it disconcerting that my picture alone was missing from the walls of the house I grew up in. Even images of  family pets took precedence over me.  By contrast my grandparents carefully hoarded all the photographs they had received of me over the years. Going through them brought back so many memories. For years I was convinced I had worn a bright pink organza dress as a toddler. There in my grandparents’ photo album was the proof. Unfortunately I have managed to lose most of my own pictures from my youth but they remain pin sharp in my memory. 

At Marble Hill House the guidebook relates how one man wrote in his will that he wanted the portraits of his parents destroyed if no other members of the family wanted them as he “did not like to have family pictures exposed in a broker’s shop.” There is something equally sad about seeing old photograph albums for sale at antique fairs  the names of those pictured often lost to history. That is not a fear I need have for my own as other relatives have shown themselves to be keen to add them to the family archive for future generations to enjoy. I also have a copy of my family tree drawn up by a kinswoman. On it I see that my date of birth is incorrect making me younger than I really am. I wonder if future generations will be intrigued to discover as much about me as I once was to glean information about our common ancestors.
One of the reasons I took time off to study Finnish was to enable me to forge a greater connection to my family. After studying the language for several terms I chanced upon a photograph of my grandfather in uniform. He had written something on the back. I translated it (with more than a little help from my teacher) and realised he had been stationed in Viipuri in 1935 in the equivalent of the Finnish army engineer corps. The date was significant. Between 1935 and 1939 Finland mobilised its army for a potential attack from the Soviet Union. At the end of  November 1939 Stalin launched an unprovoked invasion into Finland. One of the key targets for his generals was the city of Viipuri where my grandfather had been stationed in 1935.

On one of my earliest visits to Southside House Wimbledon the guide had described the Finnish Army’s response to Stalin’s aggression as capitulation. The Winter War was no Dunkirk. Despite being overwhelmed by superior numbers and artillery the Finns were able to steadfastly repel the invading Soviet forces for a number of months as opposed to the two weeks Stalin’s generals had optimistically forecasted. Finland was eventually forced to yield territory and make crippling reparations. And so it was that my grandmother was born in Karjala  in Finland  and yet if you look at the map today her birthplace is in Russia.


When I wrote this post I never thought a member of my family would ever read it. The Brimstone Butterfly is a rare species even in its own native habitat. But today, thanks to the internet my aunt got in contact with me again so I gave her a link to this post. She said she was so struck by the remarkable likeness between my grandfather and her son, his only other grandchild, that she was moved to tears.It seems she had never seen these pictures before.