Saturday, 23 October 2010

Knole Part Two (Revised March 2011)

Upon leaving Sevenoaks station I had planned to walk through the town and make my way to Knole. My resolution faded the moment I espied the steep gradient of the hill. Consequently, I promptly turned on my heel and made my way back to the taxi rank so I could be ferried through the ancient deer park right up the West Front of the house, the latter having been erected by Henry VIII as part of his major redevelopment of Knole in the 1540s.

As the autumn sun was shining brightly I decided to take photographs of the herds of deer in the park. I steered well clear of the adult stag lying in the grass, which sported a fearsome set of antlers. I had heard tell that stags could be aggressive even towards humans in the mating season. I had no idea when the rutting season was, my knowledge of deer being limited to Bambi and the fact that I am rather partial to venison served with red currant jelly. I noticed that some of the deer were wagging their tails furiously. I thought it might be a sign, like dogs, that they were happy. Inside the house a guide disabused me. It seems they wag their tails to try and keep the flies at bay.

The Western Front with its central gatehouse is certainly imposing, which is only to be expected given Henry VIII’s rampant egotism. Passing under the Gatehouse I came into the Green Court. In front of me was another impressive gatehouse, although this had been built by Archbishop Bourchier. 

However, first I needed to made my along the quadrangle to the Visitor’s Centre. This building had originally been two-storey and, like its twin range across the green, had served as quarters for Henry VIII’s retinue. Later, the Tudor upper floor had been removed and the range turned into an orangery. Now it housed several nude male statues picked up by one of the former owners of Knole on his Grand Tour in the 18th century including two men wrestling and one of Perseus holding up the head of Medusa. This theme seemed to resonate through the centuries as it had also been the centrepiece of one of the fireplaces at Charlton House. The orangery also contained a cast-iron stove built by one Buzaclo in 1774 and formerly used to heat rooms within the main house. A clock on one wall was used by household staff in the 19th century whenever they clocked on or off work, a poignant reminder that a grand house such as Knole needed an army of servants to service it behind the scenes.

Returning to the Green Court I noticed two statues on the lush green sward: one of Venus and one of a gladiator, again both souvenirs brought back by the 3rd Duke when he came from his European jaunt.
I especially like the passageway beneath the gatehouse or Bourchier’s Tower as it is now known, with its stone beamed ceiling and a huge 19th century lantern. There were doors leading off from here but both closed to the public.

So I made my way to the Stone Courtyard, which once acted as a cistern for the house, with a huge water tank lying beneath the paving stones. It was only later that I realised how different generations had remodelled the tower and the courtyard. Thus the turret, clock and oriel window with its stone gothic tracery are all later additions to Bourchier’s gatehouse. That is why the West Front, Green Courtyard and Stone courtyard do not conform to a single style. But at least the different generations tended to add to existing buildings rather than simply demolish then and start afresh.

By the entrance to the house was a curious piece of brightly coloured ironwork which I later discovered was an old shop sign. As to what type of shop the sign signified, I am still none the wiser. I also noticed that the Jacobean plaster ceiling was a peculiar shade of grey. Apparently that was due to a form of vandalism by the Victorians trying to impose their own sense of improvements on the building. 
Inside the Great Hall the Victorians also stand accused of varnishing the carved wooden screen, thereby robbing future generations of the likely riotous colour scheme which the Jacobeans favoured. The Great Hall was remodelled in the 17th century. Consequently it has an ornate plasterwork ceiling rather than the hammer beam roof to be found at say Hampton Court Palace.

I was rather miffed that I had failed to spot the Tudor steel and brass fire dogs, which bear the initials and arms of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII. Sadly for Anne, she would never have visited Knole when it passed into Henry’s ownership as he had ensured that she had already passed out of this world only a few years earlier. Fortunately I did spy the facsimile of Virginia Woolf’s manuscript for her masterpiece “Orlando” at the back of the hall. As I have said before, Orlando is without doubt one of my favourite novels. Knole inspired the setting and her friend Vita Sackville-West inspired the hero of the Virginia Woolf classic.
I was amused to learn that the wall paintings adorning the Great Staircase were all based on earlier Continental prints of subjects, whose meaning would have been instantly apparent to an educated man of the 17th century, but meant little to this educated woman of the 21st century without first cribbing from the guidebook. Thus,  I simply admired the amount of work involved and found them far more palatable than the polychromatic ostentation of the Painted Hall at the Old Naval College. At one point I was alone on the stairs and so stood there for a few moments transfixed, the only sound I could hear was the ticking of a 17th century clock at the top of the staircase. I also noticed a carved wooden door which reminded me of the one in the summerhouse at Charlton House.
The Brown Gallery houses a collection of portraits from the 16th and 17th centuries. The usual suspects of Tudor and Stuart royal, political and social n’ere –do-wells were on display. I awarded myself brownie points for those portraits I could identify from the painting alone. There was also a collection of redundant royal furniture which one of the Sackville’s was allowed to help himself to as a perk of his job.

The only piece of furniture I was bent on seeing was the celebrated red velvet Knole settee dating from the early 17th century and the prototype of many a modern sofa today. It is now to be found in the small museum devoted to fragile furnishings and consequently kept under glass and in a strictly controlled environment. Apparently it was designed to be a chair of state. I must say that it does not look half as comfortable as my own chair of state enscounced at Brimstone Butterfly Towers, though my own lacks the canopy of state under which the former would once have been placed.(Alas I spoke too soon as several months ago one of the iron bars supporting the frame has broken leaving my sofa as run down and decrepit as its owner).

Lady Betty Germain was one houseguest who could always be assured of a warm welcome in early 18th century Knole. She had her own suite of rooms across the way from the opulent Spangle bedchamber. Her needlework embroidery survives in the bed-hangings in her bedchamber and her name is associated with the blue and white porcelain china collection in the so-called Lady Betty Germain’s China Closet. Having an extremely small and very modest collection of blue and white china myself, I was interested to see the one at Knole. But the real attraction of the room was the picture of a red-headed beauty, thought to be of Ninon de Lenclos, the 17th century French courtesan, whose concerns for the bodily comforts of her guests extended way beyond the simply sexual.
Lady Betty more than repaid her Sackville hosts’ generosity in kind when she left her late husband’s vast and ancient mansion at Drayton in Northamptonshire to their youngest son, on the understanding that he would adopt her husband’s family name. This new heir was more than happy to comply. Being the third son, his chances of inheriting Knole were as slim as a female Sackville’s. Hence, being known by another name must have been a small price to pay for inheriting a house as grand in its way and even more ancient than Knole.  Today, Drayton House only accepts groups of visitors who write in advance for admission and pay a minimum of £120. Therefore it is likely to remain unknown to the Brimstone Butterfly other than from an old print of the exterior. 

The Spangle Bedchamber is named after the silver sequins embroidered upon a crimson satin background. When it came to ostentation, the rich of the 17th century were as brash as any other era before or since for flaunting its wealth. It is now thought that the hangings may have been originally belonged to the royal household. One wonders whether they were aware of quite how much stuff was ending up at Knole. Or were they so extravagant, they threw beautiful items away the moment they grew bored with them?

In the Spangle Dressing Room as well as in Lady Betty’s apartment are some delightful dummy boards, or silent companions.  They are to scale full length cut out portraits of men and women painted on to boards. One of the guides thought them rather creepy but I contended that one of a young girl had a very sweet smile and was not in the least intimidating.

The Museum Room formed part of the Venetian Ambassador’s dressing room. I have said in the past how Southside House was taken to task for elaborating on family traditions not backed up by actual evidence. That is no less true of Knole. According to the guide, the dates for when the Venetian Ambassador was supposed to have come a-calling simply do not stand up to close scrutiny. But here at least was the Knole settee, a modern version of which adorns my own state apartments at Brimstone Butterfly Towers.The so called Venetians Ambassador’s bedroom contains the James II bed, whichthe king was forced to leave behind in Whitehall, when he went into exile for the final time in his life.
The Billiard Room is notable for the fact that the cues are curved ended rather than straight as the idea was to push the billiard bills rather than striking them. If I showed the same degree of dexterity with billiards as with Victorian skittles, I would be hopeless with straight or curved cues.

The Leicester Gallery is a reminder of the brief period when Knole belonged to Queen Elizabeth’s perennial favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and showcases yet more of the period furniture chucked out of the royal palaces by the spendrift Stuart monarchs.

Knole is a vast house and I have still more state rooms to perambulate in my mind’s eye, including one, which like the 17th century diary John Evelyn before me, struck me with a singularly oppressive air. I shall return to the subject anon.