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.