Saturday, 30 April 2011

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.

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