Saturday, 30 April 2011

Osterley Park and House: Part Four

In this my final instalment on Osterley, until the renovations of the Great Staircase have been completed, I go from the ridiculous to the sublime. But I begin with the Etruscan Dressing Room. Robert Adams’s inspiration for this room came from the illustrated work “'Antiquités etrusques, grecques et romaines,”' which documented Sir William Hamilton’s singular collection of Etruscan, Grecian and Roman vases. Sir William later sold these vases to the British Museum, an act which would have earned him the undying appreciation of my friend, the Aviatrix. One of the highlights of her time working in the British Museum was that it afforded her regular access to the display cabinets featuring Greek and Roman antiquities, of which Sir William’s private collection constituted the core. Sir William was a diplomat who had been sent as a special envoy to the Court Of Naples, where he was able to indulge in his great passion for archaeology. Unfortunately his posting allowed his wife, Emma, to indulge in her great passion. There were three people in Sir William’s marriage; himself, his wife Emma and her lover Horatio Nelson. Were it not for the fact that a mere two centuries separates us, the Brimstone Butterfly would have been a near neighbour of the Hamiltons when they set up their ménage-a-trois in Nelson’s mansion, known as Merton Place. The latter was one of the first houses in England to have water closets. Despite Nelson’s legendary status in British history, there was no significant public clamour to save Merton Place from demolition in 1823. It might have been because of the changes in public sensibilities. As a result people did not wish to be reminded of Nelson’s far from conventional domestic arrangements.

Robert Adams drew the designs for the Etruscan Room and had the artist Pietro Maria Borgnis copy them onto paper which was then placed on a canvas before being attached to the walls and ceiling. The guide said that the walls and ceilings had been carefully restored after years of candlelight and smoke from the fireplace had damaged them. However, on one of the doors, a small area was left untouched to demonstrate the difference the restoration work had made. Horace Walpole, the builder of the gothic castle at Strawberry Hill, was most disparaging about the Etruscan Room  claiming that it “chills you : it is called the Etruscan, and is painted all over like Wedgwood's ware, with black and yellow small grotesques. Even the chairs are of painted wood. It would be a pretty waiting-room in a garden. I never saw such a profound tumble into the Bathos. It is [like] going out of a palace into a potter's field.”

In contrast to Horace Walpole, I liked the Etruscan Room. But then our tastes are very different as he was in raptures over the Tapestry Room. Writing to a friend in 1778 he declared “The first chamber, a drawing-room, not a large one, is the most superb and beautiful that can be conceived, and hung with Gobelin tapestry, and enriched by Adam in his best taste, except that he has stuck diminutive heads in bronze, no bigger than a half-crown, into the chimney-piece's hair”.  I have no idea what Walpole was referring to when he mentions the “chimney piece’s hair” but then the room when I saw it had subdued lighting to protect the Gobelin tapestries, specially commissioned for Osterley. The tapestries had motifs relating to the owners of Osterley woven into the fabric. Thus Mrs Child’s exotic collection of animals, such as a porcupine, is featured in the tapestry in much the same was as the Courtaulds celebrated their pet ring tailed lemur in the decoration at Eltham Palace.  The gilt chairs are also covered in tapestry from the Gobelin factory but this time using a design meant originally solely for Madame de Pompadour, the French king’s mistress.  I find such tapestries with their twee figures, overuse of garlands and the colour pink leaves me as cold as Horace Walpole felt when encountering the Etruscan Room for the first time.

We might not agree on the respective merits of the Etruscan and Tapestry rooms, but both Horace Walpole and I are of one mind when it comes to the eight poster bed in the State Bedchamber. It is so ridiculously over the top, I could not help but smile at the sheer extravagance of it all. Horace describes the room and contents thus: 
“The next is a light plain green velvet bedchamber. The bed is of green satin richly embroidered with colours, and with eight columns; too theatric, and too like a modern head-dress, for round the outside of the dome are festoons of artificial flowers. What would Vitruvius think of a dome decorated by a milliner?” Horace Walpole, as an educated 18th century gentleman would have been familiar with the Roman architect Vitruvius, whose treatise on architecture “De architectura” was such an important source material for the likes of  Richard Boyle at Chiswick House, keen to model their own homes according to the architectural principles enshrined in the Classical world. There has been a suggestion that because Robert Adam was designing the bed at Osterley at the precise time he was also designing an elaborate box for the reigning King in a London theatre, perhaps he muddled up the two commissions. Or maybe he simply decided to adopt the same theme for both. Either way, the bed looks more suited to an Eastern potentate than an Etruscan nobleman. No wonder the Childs did not care to use the bed but preferred their own bedchambers on the floor above.

The South Corridor and Vestibule contain black and gold Chinese chairs and a folding screen. There is also a collection of porcelain including that staple of stately homes Sèvres china. I did wonder whether the benighted scullery maids art Osterley ever got to get their calloused hands on such delicate and inordinately expensive pieces.
 After the questionable taste on display in the State Bedchamber, the Entrance Hall came as something of a relief. The oval motif of the red and white inlaid Portland sandstone floor is echoed in the grey and white plaster ceiling. Although the hall has marble statues in niches, large vases on pedestals and elaborate wall and ceiling panels influenced by themes from the Classical world, the overall effect is one of restrained elegance thanks to the muted grey and white colour scheme. It seems the hall was more than a mere passageway to get to other parts of the house. It could also be used as a ballroom, a dining room or withdrawing room.

I have left my favourite room in the house until last. Surprisingly for what was essentially a masculine room, the Library has, to my mind, a very feminine touch. It has the same ornate decorative plaster ceilings and stucco work wall panels as found elsewhere in the house. But what gives the Library its unique charm is that it has all been painted, including the bookcases, in a soft white. This was a purely pragmatic response to make the best use of the limited light by having reflective surfaces. As a result the stuccowork and ceiling reminded me of the decorative icing on a traditional wedding cake. The books owned by the Childs have long gone but they have been replaced so that the book shelves here, unlike those at Strawberry Hill, are not empty. I was told by one of the guides that a hidden door in the library led to a plumbed in 19th century toilet and sink, an innovation that must have been welcome by the household servants, previously obliged to dispose of the less than fragrant contents of chamberpots everyday.   .

Having explored the house I made my way to the gardens at the back. The rear view of the stable block from the kitchen gardens reveals the great barn attached to it, which Sir Thomas Gresham used for storing produce from off his estate. 

There is a delightful Garden House, designed by Robert Adams which both served and continues to serve as a glasshouse to protect delicate specimens during the winter months. 

Unfortunately, the batteries in my digital camera gave up the ghost by the time I had reached the 1720s Temple of Pan so I decided to try taking images on my cheap and cheerful mobile phone instead, with mixed results. Nevertheless, the images do convey a sense of the little white stone Doric temple with is pale green walls and rococo plasterwork.

Having left the gardens I made my up the stairs by the Transparent Portico to look at the inner courtyard. I sat down on the wrought iron bench as I realised I had solved a personal mystery. For several years I had been intrigued by a photograph of the Cad of Kensington. I had never got around to asking him where it had been taken. Now as I looked up at the ceiling of the Portico I knew it had been taken at Osterley. The other great mystery was what I had done with the photograph which I fear will never be solved.

I was concerned that Osterley would prove a vast soulless place. Instead, I found a delightful mansion with some exquisite rooms. On a fine day it would make an excellent destination for a picnic after a stroll around the house and gardens.

Osterley Park and House: Part Three

Unfortunately the great staircase at Osterley was being redecorated when I went to the house. As a consequence, I was unable to ascend the stairs to view the rooms on the first floor. Thus, the delights of the Yellow Taffeta Bedchamber and Mr and Mrs Child’s respective bedrooms and dressing rooms remain unknown to me other than what I have gleaned from the guidebook. I have therefore refrained from including them in my personal tour of the house. Nevertheless, I hope to remedy the deficiency with a return visit as soon as possible. Scaffolding had been erected in the stairwell and the stair carpet and balustrades had been shrouded in a protective cover. It seems the wrought iron balusters with their classical honeysuckle design are identical to the ones Robert Adam designed for Kenwood House, which seems an opportune moment for me to show my clip of what I like to call the Blue Staircase at Kenwood. The open doorway at the beginning of the sequence marks the entrance to the Suffolk Collection of paintings. Regrettably, the public have not been able to gain access to these rooms for several years now owing to staff shortages. Although the wrought-iron balusters are identical, the friezes and stucco panels at Osterley are far more elaborate than those at Kenwood. I also admired the pendant oil lamps at Osterley, hanging from between the Corinthian marble columns.

Returning to the sequence of rooms I was able to perambulate at leisure, I shall begin with the Long Gallery, the windows of which overlook the gardens at the back of the house.

It is an exceeding elegant room designed in the 1750s not by Robert Adam but by one Matthew Hillyard. The latter, like Robert Boyle at Chiswick House before him, had been inspired by the great 17th century architect Inigo Jones and in particular the chapel King Charles I had commissioned him to build at Somerset House in London for Queen Henrietta-Maria. The Somerset House Hillyard knew was demolished several decades after he had designed the Long Gallery at Osterley. Others later added their own distinctive touches to the Long Gallery: William Chambers designed the fine white marble fireplaces and Robert Adams chose the pea-green wallpaper and designed the pier glass mirrors on the wall. With the restrained frieze work of stylised marigolds, the emblem of the Child family, the subtle colour of the wallpaper and the unadorned ceiling and uncarpeted floor, attention is inevitably drawn to the collection of paintings and the oriental artefacts, such as the tall Chinese vases and models of a pagoda and Chinese junks. Enjoyment of the latter’s exquisite craftsmanship was rather spoiled by the knowledge they were carved from elephant ivory.

Leading off from one end of the Long Gallery I came across a small closet. I thought it was empty and would have passed by it altogether, had not my sense of duty as the Brimstone Butterfly obliged me enter the room lest it concealed something of interest.. Only after I had walked through the door, glimpsing the ancient meadow through the sash window, did I realise that I had chanced upon a water closet placed within an alcove. I say water closet, but I could not tell whether it was plumbed in or whether it operated on the same principle as the one at Kew Palace, in which water from a cistern, continually refilled by a servant, could be drawn down by pulling a handle thereby flushing the contents of the toilet bowl into a receptacle below, which likewise was dependant upon a servant to manually empty it. The room lacked either a hand basin or taps which would suggest that nothing else was plumbed in.

In the Eating Room, only a folding screen afforded a modicum of modesty should the diners have need of the chamber pots, concealed within one of a pair of white painted and gilded pedestals. The other pedestal contained a mahogany pail used to hold water or ice. It is to be hoped that guests were not too sozzled to know which receptacle to use. I gather that the late Dennis Severs was infamous for having given a graphic demonstration of how 18th century gentlemen would openly pass water, when he gave guided tours of his own 18th century townhouse in London’s Spitalfields. After the restrained elegance of the Long Gallery, I found the Eating Room a tad too flamboyant for my tastes, though nowhere near as ostentatious as some of the state rooms at Ham House and Knole. From the red carpet on the floor to the motif of vines and ewers on the ceiling and the intricate designs on the stucco panelling, every available surface was covered in decoration of one form or another. It was the 18th century fashion not to have a dining table permanently set up in the Eating room. Instead, trestle tables were brought into the chamber when required. Even without a dining table, the busy décor gives the room a sense of being somewhat cluttered.

After supper had concluded, the ladies would leave the men in the Eating Room whilst they retired to the sanctity of the Drawing Room. Mrs Child has insisted that Robert Adam ensure a suitable distance between the Eating Room and her Drawing Room, so that her female guests might be spared the boisterous behaviour and speech of the menfolk as the latter imbibed fine wines and spirits whilst the ladies partook of the more genteel beverages of tea, coffee and chocolate. The old gold silk damask wall hangings were placed there in the late 19th century. They completely undermined Robert Adam’s original desire for a pale green colour scheme with gold accents picked out in the frieze work and elsewhere. For the design of the ceiling Adam modified an illustration he had found of a sunburst decorating the marble soffits in the ancient Temple of the Sun at Palmyra. The illustration came from Robert Wood’s book “The ruins of Palmyra” in which the author meticulously documented the ruins from the Classical world in modern day Syria.

The walls of the Breakfast Room have faded to a mellow yellow from their original vivid hues. Although the chamber is styled the Breakfast Room, there are musical motifs in the frieze above the door, suggesting that it might also have served as a music room. There is a poignant tale attached to the 18th century harpsichord on display. When the owner died, her grieving husband asked if it might be sent to him as a memento of his late wife, constituting as it did one of her favourite possessions. It was later returned to Osterley by the couple’s daughter.

I have yet more rooms to explore at Osterley, including one of the most exquisite rooms I have ever encountered, a subject I shall return to anon.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Osterley Park and House: Part Two.

Though I have but scant interest in matters equestrian, I could tell that the stable block at Osterley Park, when viewed from the side and rear elevations, was built on far too grand a scale simply to accommodate horses, albeit those belonging to a Tudor queen and her peripatetic court. In the past, the stables incorporated a huge barn to store agricultural produce, a dairy (though I doubt one as elegant as that at Ham House) a brewhouse and a laundry. 

One range of stabling survives on into the 21st century although it contains a small collection of carriages and early fire fighting equipment rather than living, breathing quadrupeds. The café, ticket office and gift shops have also been stabled here. 

The interior of the current stables, with its striking neo-classical arches, pillars and herringbone pattern tiled floor, dates from the early 18th century, when the Child family added the central clock tower.

Robert Adam expected contemporary visitors to enter the mansion having first climbed up the steep steps by the Transparent Portico. Present day visitors use the more modest entrance at the side of the house. Covering the headphones to my audio guide with my redoubtable straw hat, now so ancient it must be deemed vintage, I made my way through what would have been the service corridors. 

Misreading the label to the chamber I confused coal with Child and was momentarily alarmed to think young children had been kept in such dark and dank subterranean pens. A second glance reassured me that it was only coal that had been stored here.

I was on safer ground in the Pastry Room, equipped with the paraphernalia to make sweet and savoury pastries. There was a lead lined sink for washing and a marble topped counter to roll out the pastry on. An apocryphal story relates how an English duke was appalled to learn that a cost cutting exercise would deprive him of a pastry chef. “Mightn’t a man be allowed a biscuit?” he is supposed to have exclaimed in anguish.

The main kitchen came equipped with a 1920s range, an 18th century bread oven and a mid-Victorian pastry oven, the original open fire cooking hearth having long being replaced. 

A wooden contraption, which reminded me of a sledge, stood in an alcove. I now think it must have been the wooden rack used to carry ice from the ice-house or slabs of meat to the kitchen. The marble pestle and mortar brought to mind the far larger one in the kitchens at Hampton Court. Unlike in Henry VIII’s palace, a female cook ruled the 18th century kitchens at Osterley.

Three narrow steps led into the small scullery where the crockery and glass was washed by hand by maids who had no access to running water, hot or otherwise. The stone steps have been worn down through overuse. I imagine the scullery maids were pretty run down too byt the end of their working day. Sad to tell the Servants’ Hall was closed to visitors as Osterley didn’t have enough stewards to be able to open it up on the day I visited, which only goes to show that you really cannot get the staff these days! That was a pity because, judging by the picture in the guidebook, it looks rather impressive with its black and white flagstone floor, its vaulted ceiling, stone columns and large marble fireplace. It seems odd that the empty servants’ hall was closed but the furnished rooms belonging to the Steward and his wife were open for visitors to freely stroll around.   

Mrs Bunce was married to Edward Bunce, the 18th century steward, and apparently provided him with administrative support. Her room echoes her husband’s in that both have dark wooden panelling and large marble fireplaces. In one of the cupboards in Mrs Bunce’s room I found what I took to be wig stands. Also on the service floor were the locked Jersey Galleries. I can find no reference to them in the guidebook so must assume they are no longer in use. Another room was given over to a small exhibition on Osterley during World War Two.

Next to this was a small kitchen. It had an iron range and a flagstone floor but why it was so far apart from the main kitchens I cannot tell.  Nearby, I came across an unlocked door in the corridor which led up an exceedingly narrow flight of stone steps. I switched on the light and ventured up the stairs, adopting the policy that unless somewhere is locked or has a sign forbidding entry, then I will take a peek. The stairs led to a dumb waiter. I heard a voice calling after me.“It’s a dead end” a man said. I descended the stairs, mission accomplished. “Someone should lock that door,“ grumbled a woman steward and muttered that people ought not to open closed doors, which is rather an odd philosophy, given that visitors are often told to close the doors behind them, as they pass from room to room in other stately homes. Such was the case at Chenies.

I discovered yet another unlocked door which, this time, led up to the ground floor and the Etruscan room. But the way was barred by rope so I returned to the basement. The basement door must make the loudest creaking noise I have ever encountered.

Luckily there were no closed or creaking doors to contend with as I entered the beer cellar and the wine cellar respectively. In the corridor outside, the red brick of the original Tudor mansion built by Sir Thomas Gresham was exposed where the whitewash had faded away.

I was very surprised to discover that the Strong Room still contains an impressive collection of 17th century and later gold and silver plate. Further along the corridor was a glass case containing the room labels used to identify which bell had been rung to summon servants. It seems Osterley House was one of the first mansions in England to use bells to summon servants, rather than keeping them waiting outside every room on the off-chance of being needed. I heard no bells, but nonetheless I answered the summons to explore the upper floor of the house, a subject I shall return to anon. 

Monday, 25 April 2011

Osterley Park and House: Part One.

The Brimstone Butterfly finally made her way to Osterley Park a few weeks ago. I had toyed with the idea of paying a visit there all last year but I had been put off by the thought of the sheer scale of the place. I harboured the erroneous impression that it had ceased to be lived in as a family home from the early 19th century onwards.  Thus, I envisaged a vast empty edifice, denuded of all furnishings. In reality although it had ceased to be a principal residence it remained very much in family hands up until the end of the second world war. Towards the latter part of the 19th century, Osterley become something of a pleasure palace as the setting for extravagant weekend end house parties.

According to Daniel Lysons in his Environs of London published in 1810 Osterley Manor had been owned for a short while by the abbess and convent at Syon in the 1530s. The suppression of the monasteries under Henry VIII meant that the property fell to the crown and from thence into a sequence of private hands until bought by Sir Thomas Gresham, the Elizabethan courtier and financier. Gresham had managed that rare feat of successfully serving under King Edward VI and his two half sisters, the Catholic Mary and the Protestant Elizabeth. Such was Gresham’s skill as a financial whiz kid he built up an impressive personal fortune which made him one of the richest men in the country. It also enabled him to found the Royal Exchange in the heart of the City of London and replace the existing  farmhouse at Osterley with a splendid new residence fit for a queen. Indeed, Queen Elizabeth came a-calling twice, the first time  in 1578, a year after building work at Osterley had been completed. Legend has it that Queen Elizabeth I suggested in passing that a courtyard in front of the house would be significantly improved by the addition of a wall, Gresham secretly made arrangements for the work to be carried out overnight, a feat which greatly impressed the queen and her court when they came across the completed wall in the morning.

Of Sir Thomas’s mansion only the exterior of the stable blocks remain little altered from his time. Their turreted staircases reminded me of those at Eastbury Manor House.  By the close of the 16th century both Gresham and his wife had died and the parklands  had fallen into decay according to the Elizabethan topographer and historian John Norden, who wrote of Osterley in 1596:
“a faire and stately building of bricke. It standeth in a parke  well-wooded and garnished with manie faire ponds,  which afforded not only fish and fowle, as swanes and other water foule, but also great use for milles, as paper milles, oyle milles, and corne milles, all of which are now decayed. (a corne mill excepted.) In the same parke was a very faire heronrie, for the increase and preservation whereof sundrie allurements were devised and set up, fallen all to ruin.”

Swams were very much in evidence on my visit to Osterley. I was enthralled by the way one swan in particular was determined to give no quarter to a Canadian goose, who had the temerity to  try and swim on what was clearly Swan Lake.

Osterley Park and House subsequently passed through various hands until it ended up in the Child family and through the female line to the last owners, the Earls of Jersey, who bequeathed Osterley Park and its contents to the National Trust in 1949. 

Like Sir Thomas Gresham the Child family had had made their money through banking and trade and like him they were keen to flaunt their fabulous wealth. Thus, in the 1760s the Child family began the process of remodelling Osterley, calling upon the talents of one of the foremost architects of the period, Robert Adams. Incidentally, Sarah Jodrell the widow of Robert Child, who had done so much along with his elder brother Francis to transform Osterley, had married the Right Honourable Francis, Lord Ducie upon Robert’s death. This Lord Ducie must surely be related to the same Sir William Ducie, who had lived at Charlton House in the 17th century.

The neo-classcial Osterley closely followed the footprint of Gresham’s earlier mansion, in that it retained a red brick exterior, enclosed courtyard and four turrets. Nevertheless, there was one sunning difference between the Georgian and Elizabethan façade in the guise of  the so-called “transparent portico. “ Adams had wanted to pull down the East façade. The Childs did not. The transparent portico was an inspired compromise, affording as it did a view through the portico to the enclosed courtyard beyond, whilst at the same time bringing to mind the buildings of Imperial Rome and Greece. Like Richard Boyle at Chiswick House a few decades earlier, Adams has been on the Grand Tour of Europe. His subsequent work was heavily influenced by the architecture of the classical world he had witnessed, albeit most of which had been in ruins. Unlike Boyle who relied upon William Kent to perform such a role, Robert Adams was as keen to design the interior as well as the exterior at Osterley. His eye for detail extended to the very bell pulls themselves. Horace Walpole, who  chose to design the antithesis of a neo-classical villa at Strawberry Hill,  gave the completed mansion a mixed review. ( I have just discovered that Daniel Lysons, who wrote the history of Osterley which I referred to earlier,  was encouraged in his endeavours by Horace Walpole, who appointed Lysons as his family chaplain). In 1778  Horace Walpole gave his own critique of thework at Osterley writing:

“ The first chamber, a drawing-room, not a large one, is the most superb and beautiful that can be conceived, and hung with Gobelin tapestry, and enriched by Adam in his best taste, except that he has stuck diminutive heads in bronze, no bigger than a half-crown, into the  chimney-piece's hair. The next is a light plain green velvet bedchamber. The bed is of green satin richly embroidered with colours, and with eight columns ; too theatric, and too like a modern head-dress, for round the outside of the dome are festoons of artificial flowers. What  would Vitruvius think of a dome decorated by a milliner?  The last chamber, after these two proud rooms, chills you : it is called the Etniscan, and is painted all over like Wedgwood's ware, with black and yellow small grotesques. Even the chairs are of painted wood. It would be a pretty waiting-room in a garden. I never saw such a profound tumble into the Bathos. It is going out of a palace into a potter's field. Tapestry, carpets, glass, velvet, satin, are all attributes of winter. There could be no excuse for such a cold termination, but its containing a cold bath next to  the bedchamber: — and it is called taste to join these incongruities ! I hope I have put you into a passion.”

As to whether I share Walpole’s opinions regarding the interior that shall become apparent when I resume my tour of Osterley Park anon.