Thursday, 31 March 2011

Drawing a veil over proceedings.

Yesterday I filmed my final footage with the Filmmaker at the London residence of the Brimstone Butterfly. The Filmmaker made a number of suggestions for how the shoot should go, some of which I agreed to and the more outrageous of which I quickly slapped down. Thus, given that I have no qualms about being seeing in public in a swimsuit and have worn corsets as outwear, I had no misgivings about being shown in a corset from above the waist. I chose a burgandy silk one which I had never worn before, although I often wear a similar one made in black silk. Consequently, I had forgotten that steel boned corsets like leather shoes need to be broken in. Moreover, trying to bend and put on a pair of boots proved not only difficult but quite painful as the stays presssed into my flesh. At least  I was not obliged to wear footwear indoors. For the shoot I had no objection to displaying the same amount of leg as I would show on the beach, especially as my legs happen to be one of best features. I might be on my last legs in more ways than one, but they are as fine a set of pins as any other to be seen tottering around on.

Knowing that the Filmmaker was going to intersperse footage of me with images of his earlier jaunt to China, I suggested that to complement the Oriental theme I wear my 19th century Japanese silk kimono that I had bought from Liberty’s years ago. Later, I wrapped my 1920s black and white silk Chinese shawl around the lower end of my corset to wear as a skirt. Both the kimono and the shawl were highlights of my own parody of the 1794 literary bestseller "Voyage autour of  ma chambre".  Atop my head I sported my 1920s style fascinator which I had first worn to a friend’s wedding in the country. On the eve of the wedding I had dashed into Selfridges desperate for a new hat or head piece.  Although I love hats by the likes of Stephen Jones and Philip Treacy they are way beyond my meagre purse. Fortunately my eyes had alighted upon a veiled fascinator for under £20.Those were the days before I discovered the cornucopia of vintage millinery that is E-bay.

One of the more bizarre requests by the Filmmaker was that I should run my fingers along a piece of duck flesh. Having established that I was to keep the meat I readily agreed, being used to handling raw duck meat prior to cooking it. By that time I was more than glad to be able to change back into my normal clothes as the room had become quite chilly. With my goose bumps from the cold my flesh bore more than a passing resemblance to the flesh of the fowl I now handled.

Satisfied with the footage the Filmmaker retreated to the lawns of Brimstone Butterfly Tower’s where I had espied a dead rat in an advanced stage of putrefaction, a subject that seemed perfect for the gothic tone of the film.

That left me free to finish preparing the same Nigella Seafood Thai Curry I had served when he had last visited. Normally, I like to ring the changes as far as cooking for guests is concerned but I am prepared to make an exception.

Earlier I made a swiss roll sponge which, once cooked, I had sprinkled with Grand Marnier and rolled up again to allow to cool. Later, I unwrapped the swiss roll, spread strawberry conserve over one surface and added a filling of strawberries, marinated in Grand Marnier, and whipped double cream. Having rolled the now bulging swiss roll up again, I dusted the surface with icing sugar. The swiss roll was left to chill in the fridge for half an hour whilst I prepared the Thai Jasmine rice and added the organic salmon and raw prawns to the curry to cook. As before, the Filmmaker insisted on photographing the food before we sat down to eat and as befitting his artistic soul he was not satisfied with merely recording a still life. Instead, he snapped away as I slowly sank a knife into part of the swiss roll, the cream oozing out as I did so.

The Filmmaker must finish editing yesterday’s footage for tomorrow’s deadline. He tells me that he will adding special effects. The completed film will be uploaded to Amsterdam to the organisation which first commissioned it. I shall miss my own premiere and have no chance to wear one of my vintage frocks and hats along the red carpet. Even worse, I failed to ensure my own official immortality as a siren of the silver screen by stating in the Census that my most recent employment was as a film-star. What an oversight that will prove for cultural historians of the early 21st century.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Location. location, location!

Today I made my way to Hackney Wick in order to resume my career as an Indie film star. Before we started filming we stopped for refreshments at a nearby café. I was expecting a greasy spoon. Instead we went to the stylishly quirky Hackney Pearl:  a café cum wine bar cum neighbourhood art centre. As a noted connoisseur of gateaux I was pleased to see that they served delicious home made cakes. In order to release my inner muse I opted for a slice of carrot cake with my café au lait.  At one point I fell into conversation with the waiter. He told me of their plans for the future of the café which included opening up an art gallery. The locality it seems had already proved highly popular with many artists able to rent space in what would otherwise have remained empty industrial buildings. The Filmmaker later confided that he doubted if many such studios would survive the area’s regeneration in the lead up to the 2012 Olympic Games. By contrast the waiter was very keen on the changes. It would mean for example that the street outside would be closed to traffic, trees planted and the pavement extended, allowing him to place tables outside in fine weather. He asked if I lived nearby. I said I lived on the other side of the Thames in Wimbledon. I explained that my friend was an Independent filmmaker, who had been commissioned to make a short film for an arts festival in Amsterdam and that we were there to garner yet more footage.

I had imagined that Hackney Wick itself would be a bleak urban landscape filled with run down housing and industrial estates. That might have been true a number of years ago but the regeneration programme is changing all that. Now Hackney Wick enjoys a splendid view across to the new Olympic stadium at Stratford and boasts an attractive early 19th century canal complete with colourfully painted barges moored along the waterway. The Filmmaker took both footage and stills of me walking to and fro across the new bridge which spanned the cleaned-up canal. I took care to avoid the various cyclists and pedestrians who crept into shot. At least the Filmmaker was no longer concerned that we might get mugged as he had been a few days earlier.Mind you, he did display more of his highly dubious fascination with my footwear,  wishing to film my 1930s style shoes, which had become caked in mud from our jaunt by the Thames river on Tuesday.

After having spent some time by the canal we wandered around an old industrial estate until we found a semi-demolished wall daubed with graffiti. Low level plastic barriers had been replaced around the new paving. The Filmmaker wanted me to move the barrier but I demurred pointing out that if I was going to stand next to the wall I would enter the enclosed area from the opposite end, which had been left wide open. Thus, if we were challenged we could claim with a clear conscience that we had not realised the area was out of bounds, given that there was clear access to it. Just after the Filmmaker had started to set up his tripod he became convinced that a man in a fluorescent donkey jacket, seated in a car around the corner, was somehow connected to the street works. I thought it unlikely as there were no other workmen to be seen. Nonetheless, I elected to stand at a discreet distance away so that I could not be seen by the man in his car. As we were taking pictures the workman suddenly drove past  and parked his car by the part of barrier I had just walked through. He told us we were not supposed to be there as we could sue his firm if we sustained an injury. However, he good-naturedly allowed us to continue filming. I chivvied the Filmmaker on to be as quick as possible so we didn’t push our luck further.

Our next location was the bridge spanning the motorway. A middle aged man was standing on it, an open can in his hand. This time I was the one who was rather wary as I doubted if he was quaffing lashings and lashings of ginger beer, but he proved to be harmless enough.  Ignoring the man altogether, the Filmmaker decided he wanted to film Canary Wharf Tower framed by a circle formed by my fingers. Just another second he promised at one stage as I gamely tried to hold the difficult pose. Unlike a New York Minute a Hackney Wick Second lasts a very long time indeed.
Stone alcove from former London Bridge
Having been blessed with fine weather and the Filmmaker having run out of cash we made our way across to Victoria Park in the borough of Tower Hamlets. Ostensibly the idea was for me to purchase some ice-creams but we failed to find a booth selling any, although we did find a pair of stone alcoves which had been removed from the ancient London Bridge following its demolition and subsequent replacement in the 1830s. A large flock of black winged birds had settled on the grass near two goalposts. I am unsure as to whether they were rooks or not, but I did think they would make an interesting   backdrop for yet more footage if I walked slowly up to them until they took flight. The Filmmaker readily agreed.
Clissold Park
Victoria Park is pleasant enough and much have been a boon to generations of poor East Enders living nearby. Still, in my opinion it is no match for Clissold Park located in neighbouring Hackney. Clissold Park, though smaller, is the landscaped setting for a late 18th century mansion set within its boundaries. The mansion has miraculously survived on into the 21st century and in the last few years has secured funding to be renovated. 

Close by is the Tudor church  immortalised by Edgar Allen Poe in his story William Wilson. Poe knew the area having spent part of his childhood boarding at the nearby Manor House school and so would have recognised Clissold Park as well as Sisters' Place, which he would have had to pass on his way from the church service back to his school. There used to be a 14th century mansion on the site of Sisters' Place, owned by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who some claim as being the true author behind Shakespeare's plays.
Sisters' Place, Stoke Newington

The streets around Clissold Park are graced with gems of late 17th and early 18th century architecture, when Hackney was a fashionable village. Its earlier fame as a desirable country retreat dates back to at least the Tudor period when a number of its inhabitants played key roles in British history.
Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox
One Tudor mansion, Brooke House sadly demolished in the mid-20th century, had been home to Henry Percy who could have changed the whole course of English history had he only been allowed to marry the woman he had first proposed to: one Anne Boleyn. Brooke House was also briefly tenanted by Margaret Douglas, the Countess of Lennox. The latter was a niece of Henry VIII through his sister Margaret. She was also mother to Henry, Lord Darnley who had married Mary, Queen of Scots. The unhappy marriage had produced a living male heir, James, who went on to succeed Queen Elizabeth I to the English throne as well as the Scottish.The Countess of Lennox died at Brooke House on March 7th 1578. Shortly before she passed away, the Earl of Leicester came a-calling and was closeted alone with her for several hours.After he had left, she suddenly fell prey to a fatal seizure leading to some to surmise that the Earl was implicated in her death, although why he would wish to kill her is not so apparent. 
Manor House School where Edgar Allen Poe once boarded as a schoolboy

Queen Elizabeth I is known to have visited the mansion which had once stood on the site of Edgar Allen Poe’s school (which was demolished in turn) close by Clissold Park. In Elizabeth's time is was owned by the Dudleys, kin of her erstwhile lover, Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. Anne Dudley, the daughter of Queen Elizabeth's hosts, went on to marry Sir Francis Popham. Sir Francis Popham's father, Sir John Popham, was one of the chief presiding judges at the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587 and he became Lord Chief Justice of England in 1592.
Sutton House
One of my favourite buildings in Hackney is a rare survivor from the Tudor period, Sutton House. The latter was built by Ralph Sadlier, the Tudor courtier. He served Henry VIII and his son Edward VI. As a Protestant he decided to withdraw from public life when the fanatical Catholic Queen Mary came to the throne only to return when her half sister, Elizabeth, was crowned queen. One of his last public duties  was to  sit in judgment, along with the likes of Sir John Popham, on Mary, Queen of Scots, at Fotheringay Castle in 1587.

We ended our day with some final footage by the semi-demolished wall, but this time steering well clear of the area behind the plastic barriers.  Pleased with the images we had captured we returned to Hackney Wick station. I later discovered that the latter has a unique if macabre place in English history; in 1864 it became the scene of the first ever murder carried out at a British railway station when Franz Muller murdered Thomas Briggs and threw his body from the train. Muller subsequently fled to New York but was eventually extradited back to England where he was found guilty of the crime and sentenced to death.

The Filmmaker will be shooting the final sequence of his cinematic masterpiece at the Brimstone Butterfly’s London mansion on Monday, where his star will also act as his catering crew and location manager. Strange to think that it was just a week ago today that he returned home, after having had lunch round my place, and first discovered that he had been commissioned to make the film. He really is on something of a roll artistically at the moment. Long may it continue!

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Tales from the Riverbank

Yesterday I spent a several hours shooting footage and stills with the Filmmaker alongside the pier at North Woolwich. The latter is across the road from the now defunct railway station, which had been our mutual first choice of location. I knew that the latter had been renovated and turned into a museum within the past few years. Unfortunately I had not realised it had subsequently been boarded up again and was inaccessible, as too was the replacement railway station sited but a few hundred yards from the original.

At one point we fell into conversation with a plain clothes police officer, who was enjoying a crafty cigarette or two away from the nearby police station. The Filmmaker somewhat tactlessly asked how safe the area was. I interjected that I felt perfectly safe and the Filmmaker quickly added that he came from Stratford. Both the by now mollified police officer and the Filmmaker agreed that Stratford had a far worse reputation for crime than the local vicinity. I teased the Filmmaker later that it was a jolly good thing he had failed to mention he had meant perennial tourist favourite Stratford-upon-Avon and not its gritty urban counterpart, also called  Stratford but found in one of the most deprived parts of London. I was surprised at how concerned the Filmmaker was for our safety. Each time someone approached us he would warily assess their potential for danger. Perhaps he saw himself as a Knight in shining armour to my defenceless maiden. For my part, I saw myself as Joan of Arc, more than ready to take on the English hordes in single combat. But if the worst had come to the worst we could always have legged it, discretion being the greater part of valour.

I suggested that as the tide was out we take advantage of the fact and shoot some footage along the shingle foreshore by the derelict pier. At one point the Filmmaker toyed with the idea of trying to get up onto the pier itself, but I warned that the planks of wood forming the walkway were known to be rotten and I was not risking life and limb. As it was, whilst we were filming we noticed that the tide was coming in at quite an alarming rate. Luckily, we were able to get quite a lot of filming done prior to retreating to the safety of the pier steps before the water could begin to lap at our feet.

I then suggested we shoot some footage with me standing on the lower steps as the sun had come out causing the surface of the water to sparkle beguilingly. As I looked out to sea, or at least across the River Thames, I imagined myself as a second Meryl Streep, wistfully awaiting the return of the eponymous French Lieutenant. The mood was greatly helped by the antique black hat I wore with its silk flowers and spotted veil, dating from 1910. My attention was suddenly caught by what I took to be a sculpture of a huge black bird on a little iron platform in the river. Then I realised it was a living bird: a cormorant. Compared to the seagulls nearby it seemed huge. The cormorant began to hold its wings out to catch the heat of the sun. The Filmmaker said it reminded him of a bat when it did that. I told him to quickly film the bird which he did and then I suggested I would pose, holding my arms out as if in imitation. The Filmmaker accepted my idea with alacrity but I soon began to doubt the wisdom of striking such a pose as I began to feel more than a little dizzy on the concrete steps, which were both narrow and half covered with algae making them rather treacherous to boot. My balance was also affected by the fact that a virus had caused my hearing to be even more reduced than usual. Consequently all sound was muffled. Heroically I stuck it out. Less heroically, I scrambled up the steps on my hands and knees when the tide began to creep up the stairs. 

Back on the embankment, the Filmmaker decided to shoot my hand twisted into a claw like pose  as I stood looking out across the water, which was very difficult to hold for any length of time. I also had to wander along the riverside which I found quite difficult to do as I can become very self conscious when walking, especially as my shoes, made from an original 1930s design, had often proved uncomfortable in the past when worn for extended periods outside. For once they caused me no problems as I gamely perambulated back and forth along the walkway.    

I was glad I had chosen to wear my antique hat with the veil. The breeze caused it to flutter around my face, giving added movement and texture as the camera moved around my face. It also added to the theme of the film with its undertones of death and funerals. In reality the brightly coloured silk flowers meant the hat would never have been worn at an Edwardian funeral. However, I do own a Victorian hat box made to house the large mourning millinery worn by women in the 19th century.

We probably spent close to two and a half hours filming before returning to the King George V railway station and making our way to Greenwich. As we were so close to the Queen’s House, Greenwich I told the Filmmaker that in my guise of the Brimstone Butterfly I could not afford to miss the opportunity of filming the exterior again, especially as I had only managed to capture the front of the house when I had last been there in the winter. Now I had the chance to film the thoroughfare under the house which had once been a public right of way and later linked the house by arcades to 19th century buildings on either side. I also took footage of the back of the house where I had had my photograph taken as a schoolgirl. This time I forgot I had a companion with me as I filmed and it his dulcet tones along with mine that constitute the unwitting soundtrack.

Having earlier bought me some coconut ice at an old fashioned sweet shop in the market square, the Filmmaker then took me to a Chinese restaurant for fried noodles and duck before we made our way home. Well, he has to keep the Talent sweet somehow.   

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Hat trick.

I am going to become a film star. Perhaps I should qualify that. I am going to star in an Independent film…a very short independent film. I landed the role not so much through the casting couch but through the casting dinner table. My friend, the Filmmaker, came around for lunch during the week and I made him a Nigella Lawson Thai Seafood Curry. I used Thai Red Curry paste instead of yellow and a butternut squash rather than pumpkin. I followed it with a baked apricot cheesecake. Tonight the Partridge is coming around for supper and I have just finished preparing a puff pastry curried fish pie, which I shall follow with pancakes and cream served with cloudberries soaked in cloudberry liqueur. I am also in the act of baking her some Finnish Nissua loaves (sweet white bread flavoured with cardamom) to take home to her family as well as some lemon cupcakes. I might also make some butternut squash soup flavoured with fresh orange juice and grated ginger if I have time. I made the pancakes in a batch on Wednesday and froze them, taking out four from the freezer to use today. I always batch cook pancakes as I seem to have problems getting the first few pancakes to keep their shape and not break in two as I flip them over with a spatula. I like to add two tablespoons of Grand Marnier to the batter mixture and then later reheat the cooked and defrosted pancakes in butter and more liqueur. For someone who is all but teetotal I do not stint on the alcohol when it comes to home cooking but at least I don’t take crafty nips from the bottle as I do so.

My friend who came a-calling on Friday is a very talented filmmaker and photographer. He studied film-making at university and won an award for his documentary on street children in third world countries.  He has not being as prolific as he would have liked to have been in recent years. Fortunately he has now rediscovered a renewed enthusiasm for his art. His photography was highly commended in a recent international photography competition in London and his films have appeared at film festivals in the UK and currently in New York. It seems that he has been asked to produce a short film for an international film festival to be held in Amsterdam. As he has to shoot it next week he has asked if I would star in it along with some of my vintage hats. In the past he has expressed a keenness to shoot my collection of corsets with me modelling them. But he has quite rightly thought I would say no if he suggested that as a subject matter for next week. If I ever do decide to allow a film to be made about my corsets I would insist on final editorial approval before I allowed it to be screened in public.

The mouth watering pictures of the Thai seafood curry and the baked apricot cheesecake were taken by him. I have a very eclectic collection of crockery and cutlery. My crockery ranges from the mid-19th century to the latter decades of the 20th century. Most of my cutlery is either 19th century or else early 20th century. By mixing and matching I am able to eat off antique china and cutlery without breaking the bank or breaking off a friendship if a guest at Brimstone Butterfly Towers happened to break a piece.

Given that the Filmmaker was so keen to photograph my food I thought it an ideal opportunity to persuade him to take a picture of me feet shod in a pair of vertiginous high heels so I could use it to illustrate an earlier post. They are the kind of shoes I would never wear in public lest I become a fallen woman in every sense of the word. If I am going to trip over in them and fall to the ground like a felled tree, I insist on having soft furnishings to land upon. I went to retrieve my high heels after the Filmmaker asked if he could photograph my ankle high faux leopard skin furry slippers. I have a sneaking suspicion the latter will end up on some foot fetish site as they seem to have mysteriously vanished from the images he sent me. They look absurd but they kept my feet warm over an otherwise biting cold winter and frost bitten tootsies are never in vogue.   

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Strawberry Hill Part Three

When we visited Strawberry Hill, the Aviatrix bought me as copy of Horace Walpole’s “The castle of Otranto” from the little shop there as an early Christmas present. Last week I read it in a single sitting. It is regarded as the first gothic novel in the English language and is worth perusing for that reason alone. Walpole believed he was creating a new kind of genre which mixed the fantastical with modern realism. I think most modern readers would find the magical elements distinctly absurd: a son and heir is crushed to death beneath a huge helmet which is conveyed by supernatural means from its normal resting place adorning a tomb in another part of the castle. Count Manfred’s desire to rid himself of his ageing wife, now that their only son has died, has echoes of Henry VIII. Like Henry, Count Manfred wishes to dissolve his marriage on the grounds that his wife was pre-contracted to another man, making their subsequent union invalid. Also, like the Tudor king, Count Manfred is convinced that God has shown his displeasure at the marriage by failing to endow it with healthy male heirs. He does have a daughter, Matilda, but she is to Manfred as the Princess Mary was to Henry VIII. In other words, Manfred dismisses all thoughts of his daughter inheriting the throne and claims that his actions are prompted by a concern for his people and the need to ensure that he is succeeded by a male heir. If it were not for that consideration Manfred piously declares, as did Henry, then he would have been more than contend to remain bound to his first wife. Curiously,  like Henry Tudor, Manfred’s pangs of conscience concerning the validity of his marriage reach a peak of intensity when a comely young maiden steps into view. But Isabella, once destined to be his late son’s bride, is no Anne Boleyn or Catherine of Aragon for that matter. She has no intention of marrying the father now that the son is dead. Throw into the mix a handsome and brave young man, who turns out to be of noble birth, the murder of a beautiful and innocent young maiden and various unworldly events and you have the plot in a nutshell. It is pure bunkum but constitutes a jolly good read.

Having left the ground floor Great Parlour, we proceeded up the staircase. The walls of the latter were lined with grey wallpaper, especially commissioned by Walpole and inspired by the tomb of King Henry’s elder brother Prince Arthur. That is why I think the similarity between Manfred’s and King Henry VIII’s matrimonial aspirations is more than merely coincidental.

Passing through the empty Armoury we ventured into the Gothic Library. This is without doubt one of the most impressive rooms in the house. The Gothic Library was inspired by drawings of the medieval St Pauls' Cathedral by the Bohemian artist Wenceslaus Hollar, who ended his days in abject poverty. How ironic then that the largest collection of his etchings and drawings should now belong to one of the richest women in the world; namely,the Queen of England. Many of Hollar's drawings and etchings can now be found at Windsor Castle. Hollar's medieval St Paul's Catherdral fell victim to the Great Fire of London in 1666 and was replaced by Sir Christopher Wren's masterpiece. Although the delicate tracery of the gothic arched bookcases had needed to be repaired, we were told that did not hold true for the painted ceiling, with its heraldic shields and helmets. The guide swung open the hinged upper part of one of the bookcases to demonstrate how the books would have been accessed from the shelves behind. Given his status in English Literature I am sad to report that the shelves are bereft of books. Horace Walpole had an extensive collection being both a writer and a publisher. At one time he even had had a printing press set up in the grounds of the estate. It seems unlikely that the shelves will ever be filled again unless, as at Ham House, the trustees of Strawberry Hill are likewise left the entire collection of an antiquarian bookseller. 

The dramatic chimneypiece echoed, in both style and scale, the bookcases around it as did the two wooden doors, one of which was semi-glazed.  I noticed that some of the stained glass in the windows had to date from the end of the 17th century or later as they depicted both Charles I and his son, King Charles II. The guide explained that where appropriate antique glass could not be found, the roundels were set with modern clear glass.

The Holbein Chamber was originally named after the Holbein prints found in the room. There is an ornate arched pierce work screen that divides the room and a modern replica of a traditional x-shaped chair as found in all the best medieval homes. At the apex to the central arch of the screen is a man’s head in profile sporting a rather natty hat. The nose looks too pronounced to be that of Walpole himself.

The fireplace boasts yet another elaborate chimneypiece, this time inset with its own mirror. According to Horace Walpole the paper- mâché ceiling is based on the one adorning the Queen’s Dressing Room at Windsor Castle. The mind boggles as to how Horace Walpole became so well acquainted with such an intimate part of the Queen’s private suite of rooms in the royal palace. On reflection, given his own spotless reputation as far as the ladies or indeed gentlemen were concerned, Horace might well have been gleaned his knowledge first-hand from Henrietta Howard. In her youth she had been a lady-in-waiting to the queen and a mistress of the reigning king. The wages of sin enabled her to build the elegant neo-Palladian mansion at Marble Hill.

The Gallery was grandest and therefore principal room where Walpole entertained his guests. It is almost blinding in its sumptuous colour scheme after the sober and restrained colours of the hall and staircase. The walls have recently been relined with crimson Norwich damask and the white paper-mâché ceiling restored and re-gilded. It seems that when the modern restoration was being carried out in the Gallery, they discovered some comments written by Victorian workmen hidden under the panelling. They complained of the bitter cold and the fact they were not allowed to light fires to warm themselves by.

The Round room leading off the Gallery has a gilded ceiling, though less ornate than the Gallery, and the same crimson damask lining the walls. For some inexplicable reason I cannot recall seeing the scagliola (coloured and highly polished imitation marble) chimneypiece based on the tomb of Edward the Confessor on Westminster Abbey. Ham House boasts a striking scagliola chimneypiece in the Queen’s Closet built for Charles II’s wife, Catherine of Braganza.  

The final grand room on display was the Tribune. This jewel like room with its domed roof and gilded plasterwork from floor to ceiling served a similar purpose to the Green Closet at Ham House  Walpole’s displayed his most valuable pictures and other treasured possessions within its walls. Apparently the door to this room had a small grill inset so that the less exalted visitor could only stare longingly through it to the wonders on display beyond, they being deemed unworthy to set foot into the Tribune itself.  

The Great North Bedchamber was not open when we toured the villa in December 2010. However, using my credentials as the Brimstone Butterfly, amateur historian extraordinaire, and the Aviatrix’s as a putative guide, we persuaded one of the staff to let us take a peek past the closed door. The room was filled with scaffolding and it was clear there was still a lot of work to be done. It is to be hoped that this room will be finished by the time the villa re-opens its doors on 2nd April 2011.

There is a little narrow passageway leading to the Gallery. When I looked through my images later, I realised I had captured the Aviatrix inadvertently playing peek-a-boo as she tried to remain out of view. 

Having been through the villa twice, we made our way to the ground floor and the museum room. This had been the servants’ hall in Walpole’s time but now displays a range of items related to Horace Walpole and later owners of the house. Across the way from it is the café. I captured a member of staff up on a step ladder busy cleaning the windows of the café in the little video footage I took of the exterior of the house..

In December 2010 it was clear that the restoration programme at Strawberry Hill was still very much a work in progress. We were told that there were plans to commission replicas of some of the furniture Horace Walpole used. In light of that news, I was rather pleased that I had the chance to wander around the empty but newly decorated chambers. It will be fascinating to see how the house will look when the restoration is finally complete. A member of staff told me that they were pleased at the numbers of people that had come along to the preview days last winter. It is to be hoped that even more people will take the opportunity to view this extravagant jewel of a Gothic castle at Strawberry Hill when it reopens again for the season in April 2011.

More details of opening times can be found at the Strawberry Hill website

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Strawberry Hill Part Two

Given the deluge that met us on our tour of Eltham Palace a matter of mere weeks earlier, the Aviatrix and I counted ourselves fortunate that our jaunt to Strawberry Hill was on a fine December’s day. Arriving in front of the perimeter wall we could glimpse the round turret of the gothic castle, leading us to erroneously assume that the brown crenulated walls were also part of the original villa. In reality they had been added in the 19th century by the Victorian political hostess Frances, Lady Waldegrave. Her additions all but receded from view as we walked along the gravel path sweeping up to the front of the house. It was soon apparent that, unlike at Chiswick House, not only does the building disregard classical strictures governing proportion, it also plays fast and loose with the idioms of medieval architecture too. But then Horace Walpole was not a purist about such matters and regarded his mansion as being a “plaything house.”

We decided to examine the exterior of the house in more detail, lest the weather change whilst we were indoors. We spied a half opened door in an arched gateway which led to a small enclosed courtyard. This had served as the front entrance in the 18th century. Today, the house is accessed through the little shop at the side. As we continued to perambulate the exterior we saw clear signs that the renovations were not quite complete, with scaffolding still in place and one newly painted room a jumble of cardboard boxes.

The view of the house from the back gardens was stunning. Lady Waldegrave’s gothic themed extension in plain stone, with its heraldic shields and statues in niches, complemented the whitewashed round tower and walls of Walpole’s villa. Only the whitewashed buildings were open to the public, the rest continuing to form part of the Roman Catholic St Mary’s Teacher Training College.

I particularly liked the wrought iron staircase with its decorative feature of intertwining leafs leading up to the Round Tower. It was only later that I realised the foilage and fruit represented strawberries.The semi-glazed door at the top of the iron steps was locked. One aspect of the gardens we were not able to appreciate was the Shell chair, which was a specially commissioned modern replica of Walpole’s original. As with the statue of Bacchus at Ham House, the Shell chair had been covered up to protect it over the winter months.

From the little shop I purchased a number of lead pencils topped with miniatures in metal of suits of armour or knights’ helmets. They would prove to be stylish Christmas presents I reasoned.  I then went with the Aviatrix into what Walpole styled his Beauty Room on the ground floor before beginning the tour in earnest. The Beauty Room is now referred to as the Discovery Room as it shows the various stages of renovation carried out elsewhere in the house. Thus, the walls were shown stripped back to their late 17th century wooden panelling, indicating that this had once formed part of the small cottage Walpole had bought and expanded into his gothic castle. Along the top of the fireplace a small strip had been left untouched to show what the rest would have looked like, before being restored to its present condition. In a closet and with the aid of a carefully positioned mirror, could be glimpsed rare 19th century wallpaper still extant. Even though greatly faded, it was clear it must have been a charming sight when first placed upon the walls in the Victorian era. Through security glass could be viewed the system of pulleys which would have enabled Lady Waldegrave to summon a servant to her presence. A similar system was found in recent years at Brimstone Butterfly Towers. If that had been renovated others could have summoned the Brimstone Butterfly from her garret in what was once the servants’ quarters. One curious feature I discovered later is that the windows were apparently designed to slide back into the walls to give the impression of being on a balcony. A singular delight I failed to observe altogether was the extant anaglypta paper covering the ceiling dating from the decade “that taste forgot,” the 1970s.

Having viewed the Beauty Room, we made our way to the hall, where we sat down on benches and donned the obligatory plastic bootees. Before ascending the staircase we went into the Great Parlour on the ground floor where Walpole had dined. I was instantly struck by the vivid colour of the purple wallpaper, which had been lain horizontally according to the 18th century fashion. The cream chimneypiece was redolent of the spires on medieval cathedrals. Inset into the bay window were examples of the antique stained glass which constitute one of the chief glories of the house.

I vividly recall my disappointment upon first visiting Sainte Chapelle in Paris after having heard so much about its interior. The richly decorated columns supporting the low vaulted ceiling were brightly coloured enough, but nothing like the glorious interior I had anticipated. Unknowingly I had inadvertently stumbled upon the lower chapel. Only when I made my way to the upper chapel with its stunning stained glass windows and soaring ceilings did I begin to understand why Sainte Chapelle had won such a reputation for its magnificence. In a similar vein, Walpole had meant the hall and stairwell at Strawberry Hill to serve as a gloomy contrast to the glorious colours in the upper chambers. Perhaps the staircase was gloomier in Walpole’s time. But then he did not have a modern day Health and Safety Executive to contend with. The walls of the staircase had been lined with paper commissioned by Walpole and inspired by the chantry of Prince Arthur at Worcester Cathedral. Prince Arthur was the boy who would be king if he had not popped his clogs at 16 in 1502 allowing his younger brother, Henry VIII to ascend the throne of England. Efforts are now being made to reveal and preserve as much as possible of Walpole’s grey wallpaper, hidden beneath modern layers. What cannot be saved will be faithfully reproduced when funding permits.

As we ascended the stairs the gothic lantern threw pleasingly evocative shadows on the wallpaper. Modern replicas of antelopes (a heraldic beast found in the crest of the Earls of Orford)  holding heraldic shields stand guard on the balustrades just as they would have done in Walpole’s time.

The little galleried triple arched landing at the top of the stairs used to be known as the Armoury and Indian weaponry such as spears, bows and lances were displayed as well as a suit of armour thought by Walpole to have belonged to Francois I of France. The latter had indulged with Henry VIII in that ultimate example of little boys showing off to one another, the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Now, only the heraldic shields above the doors hint at its previous role. 
 There is another landing but access to it is barred to the general public.

Inset into the ceiling of the stairwell are four rather charming trefoil windows. The lower image, taken by the Aviatrix, shows the elaborate chimneys mimicking Elizabethan originals.  And so ends the second part of my tour of Strawberry Hill. I shall return to my exploration of the upper chambers of the mansion anon.