Monday, 1 August 2011

And how was your week?

Last week was one of the most bizarre of my life. It started on Monday morning with an almighty banging on my front door shortly before 9am.
“Who is it?” I asked gingerly through the closed door.
“Police” came back the reply.

I opened the door thinking it could be anyone claiming to be the police but then I saw three burly uniformed policemen in body armour standing on the landing.
“Can we come into your flat?” one of them asked.
I was hesitant. Fortunately, my flat was relatively tidy as my new neighbour and I had gone to the 18th century Clandon Park House the day before and I had made us both a light supper on our return. But on the other hand, I did not want the police traipsing all over my carpet in their outdoor shoes.
"What’s the matter? “ I asked, growing increasingly concerned that something terrible had happened. I have no next of kin as such so I knew they could not be calling me to tell me of a death in the family. Perhaps it was something to do with another resident in the house.
“Do you have windows at the front of the house?” the self-designated spokesman asked. When I replied that I did he asked if they could just take a look at them. Immediately I thought they wanted to use my windows for some kind of covert surveillance operation.
“Just let me get dressed, “I insisted. “I will only be a few minutes. “
I did not feel comfortable standing there in just my towelling dressing gown.
“If I can just stand by your kimono, the policeman asked, pointing to where my 19th century Japanese wedding kimono hung from the living room wall.
“Well okay," I agreed dubiously, thinking it an odd request.
Then the policeman explained that because I had a foil backing to the painted Chinese screens I had at my window they thought I was running a drugs’ farm. A drugs’ farm!
“But I put foil on the back to act as insulation; to keep the heat and the cold out," I declared, completely flabbergasted. A quick glance at my window sill showed I was growing lettuce, tomatoes, a cucumber, chilli peppers, Swiss chard, French Tarragon, mint and courgettes. Nary an illicit substance in sight. The whole idea I could be running a drugs farm was ridiculous. I have since discovered that people engaged in growing illicit plants use artificial light and keep the windows covered at all times. I have the screens down during the day and usually have the windows wide open during daylight hours being something of a fresh air freak. Nor do I run up a huge electricity bill. In fact quite the reverse, as I endeavour to keep my fuel bills as low as possible, especially during recent winters when the sheer cold forced the Brimstone Butterfly into a kind of hibernation, swaddled in her cocoon of quilts and hot water bottles. It beggars belief that they should have tried to raid my flat without first carrying out a few cursory checks. Some said later that I should not have let them in without a search warrant but it never occurred to me I could be a suspect. Their over the top response seems quite ridiculous in retrospect but at the time, thinking that something dreadful had happened and their refusal to allay my fears was quite upsetting, I think I have been the victim of a malicious anonymous tip-off  designed to waste the police’s time and my own. But of course the police are never going to admit what prompted them to act the way they did.

Later during the week I had two interviews at two separate locations for two different roles within half an hour of one another. I knew I would either be a quivering wreck or as cool as a cucumber. Luckily I was the latter but have yet to discover how they both went.

On Thursday, my friend’s short Indie film was shown at the Soho Curzon in London’s West End as part of the Soho Film Festival. The film we had made together earlier in the year has already been shown in Amsterdam, Spain, Moscow, Italy and England but this was the first time we had been able to go along and see a public screening in person.  I have been to the Curzon Soho on many occasions in the past so it was a strange sensation to think a film I was in would be screened there. Not having the top fashion houses on speed dial, I decided to wear a navy blue polka dot dress which a retro vibe, together with a denim jacket and a 1930s bejewelled cloche hat. I also wore a pair of battered white plimsolls. I hoped people would think them edgy rather than in need of a damn good clean.

There were not many people around to watch the selection of winning films, which was hardly surprising given that they were being shown at noon on a weekday. I know I would have ordered a three line whip amongst my friends of it had been held in the evening or at the weekend. The Filmmaker turned up late. He was supposed to arrive a quarter of an hour before the actual screening. As it was he arrived with less than a minute to spare. Consequently, the only images I have of the screening is of a reflection I took of myself in the Ladies. Still, the good news is that the Filmmaker has found an Italian distributor and over the next few years we could receive royalties in the region of tens of millions of pounds. All right, that is a slight exaggeration: royalties of around ten quid between us.

After the screening we went to Maison Bertaux for coffee and I treated myself to a cream cake to take home with me. In my opinion this quaint French café and bakery in Greek Street is one of the finest patisseries in London. It has been baking fresh bread and cakes on the premises since the 19th century and I always try and buy a small cake or two from there whenever I am in the vicinity. I spent the rest of the afternoon in my more familiar guise of amateur historian and walked over to Hyde Park Corner and Apsley House to explore the Duke of Wellington’s former home. Given that I seemed to be facing my own personal Waterloo all week, what better place to visit than the home of the victor of Waterloo?

Syon House: Part Six. House and Gardens

At one time it was the height of fashion to paste prints directly onto the walls of a room. A fine example of this practice can be seen at Queen Charlotte’s Cottage at Kew, where a collection of prints by the 18th century artist Hogarth has been glued on to the walls of a ground floor chamber. Fashions change and the prints so lovingly pasted on to the walls of the Print Room at Syon House by one Duchess were unceremoniously removed by another Duke. Now only the name remains to remind visitors of how the room was once decorated.

The prints have been replaced by portraits of those associated with the house in one shape or other. They include Edward Seymour, who was both Lord Protector Somerset and uncle to the young Tudor king, Edward VI. Somerset built the original Tudor house at Syon which was subsequently remodelled by Robert Adam in the 18th century. As a key figure at the Tudor court, Somerset’s life was destined to be turbulent. Nor was his private life any less tumultuous. His first marriage was annulled. Believing his wife, Catherine Fillol, to have been unfaithful and her children sired by another, he cut her sons out of their inheritance and passed his estates and titles onto the children by his second wife, Anne Stanhope. Catherine had the last laugh. By 1750s Anne’s descendants had died out and the titles and estates finally reverted back to the descendants of Catherine Fillol. Edward’s portrait is placed between his two wives.
The Streatham Lady Jane

Next to the warring Seymour family is a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I sporting her usual disdainful expression. Above her is another portrait of a young Tudor woman who some claim to be of Queen Elizabeth whilst still a princess. Others say it is a portrait of Lady Jane Grey, who ruled England for 9 days in 1553 before being toppled and eventually executed by Queen Mary. Nowadays the only widely acknowledged image of Lady Jane Grey is a contemporary copy of a portrait painted during her lifetime. It was found in Streatham of all places, a suburb of London that no longer enjoys the finest reputation as a place for the arts. It was in Streatham that the Thrale family had a mansion in the 18th century. Their close friend the celebrated Dr Samuel Johnson was such a regular visitor he had his own permanent room in the Thrale’s country seat in what was then rural Streatham.
Lady Katherine Grey and son
Another portrait at Syon is of Jane’s younger sister, Lady Katherine Grey. Her life was in many respects as tragic as Jane’s. She had incurred the wrath of Queen Elizabeth I by having a son by the Lord Protector’s son, another Edward Seymour, whom she had married in secret. The two ended up in the Tower of London where Katherine became pregnant for a second time. As a potential heir to the throne and with her proven fecundity Katherine was seen as a direct threat to the unmarried Elizabeth. As a consequence Elizabeth had the hapless Katherine placed under permanent house arrest until her early death at the age of 27 and her children taken from her. To further squash any chance of Katherine or her children making a claim on the throne of England, Elizabeth Tudor had Katherine’s marriage annulled and her children declared illegitimate. Just like her contemporary Catherine Fillol, time worked Katherine Grey a form of posthumous revenge. Her descendant, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, would go on to marry the future King George VI and so give birth to the second Queen Elizabeth of that name.

I was amused to see a small print of the 6th Duke of Somerset, nicknamed the “proud duke” because of his inordinate vanity, relegated to a very minor position by the side of the fireplace. How it would have pricked his pompous self-regard to be thus treated by posterity.

There were two ebony and pietra dura cabinets on display in the Print Room. Pietra dura refers to the art of applying cut and highly polished stones to create a decorative finish on an object. I am sure it is a highly skilled art form but the resulting effect has little appeal to me, not that I am ever likely to be in the position of handling let alone owning such a cabinet.

I am sure that certain rooms were closed when I first went to Syon as a result of the mayoral multitudes. This time I was able to see the Duchess’ Sitting Room. It is suitably grand with its ornate gilt mirror, 18th century armchairs and paintings but it did not strike me as being particularly cosy.

By contrast, the Green Drawing Room was blessed with the kind of chairs and squashy blue sofa I could imagine slouching in, as well as various period chairs which would oblige one to sit up straight. The former seating reflects the fact that the Green Drawing Room is still used by the present ducal family. The room also contains a grand piano for when the family fancy a sing-song together. I felt a sense of immense satisfaction when I correctly identified from a distance a portrait of William III above a door frame. The guide was only able to confirm the fact after searching through her extensive catalogue. At that moment the Brimstone Butterfly felt almost as smug as the Proud Duke.

The Private Dining Room, unlike the State Dining Room, is furnished with a dining table, Victorian in origin. Its ceiling, like that of the Green Drawing Room, was remodelled in the 19th century which is probably why I didn’t much care for it, preferring the infinitely more delicate and elegant Robert Adam ceilings I came across at Apsley House, home of the first Duke of Wellington and more of which anon.

Fed up with hordes of servants traipsing through the principal chambers in order to reach a specific room, the 3rd Duke of Northumberland added a service corridor to this part of the house in the 1830s. The corridor is now known as the Oak Passage on account of the Tudor wainscot panelling on display, thought to have come from another Percy family home.  The walls of the Oak Passage are crammed with paintings of kings and queens but my attention was caught by the portrait of the 17th century actress and courtesan Mary Davies.
Mary Davies after Sir Peter Lely

Mary Davies was one of the many mistresses of Charles II. She presented her royal lover with a daughter in 1673, who for some inexplicable reason was styled Lady Mary Tudor. Lady Mary’s papa had spent a good part of his life in exile following the execution of his own father, Charles I, and the establishment of a Commonwealth in England. He was determined never to be obliged to go on his “wanderings” again. His brother, James, lacked Charles’ well honed instinct for political survival. Consequently, within three years of his own accession to the throne, James was ousted and forced into permanent exile. His departure was to have disastrous consequences for two of Lady Mary’s sons. They joined the court in exile and became embroiled in various plots to restore the Stuarts to the throne. But, like their paternal great-grandfather, King Charles I, their efforts were doomed to end at the hands of the axe-man.

Lady Mary Tudor’s mother Mary, or Moll Davies, was a contemporary of Samuel Pepys and engaged in a ferocious rivalry with fellow actress Nell Gwynne for the king’s affections. Mary Davies would have been most gratified had she been able to take a peek in Samuel Pepys’ diary entry for the 7th March 1666. He wrote:

“saw “The English Princesse, or Richard the Third;” a most sad, melancholy play, and pretty good; but nothing eminent in it, as some tragedys are; only little Mis. Davis did dance a jig after the end of the play, and there telling the next day’s play; so that it come in by force only to please the company to see her dance in boy’s ‘clothes; and, the truth is, there is no comparison between Nell’s dancing the other day at the King’s house in boy’s clothes and this, this being infinitely beyond the other.”  

Mary Davies would have been less than pleased when Nell arranged for a strong laxative to be slipped into Mary’s drink shortly before she was due to entertain the king in private. Unfortunately for Mary it was not only a tremendous outpouring of love with which she showered her sovereign lord that night. Their relationship never recovered but the canny Mary was set up for life. 

I have very little interest in porcelain so it was not the huge 19th century vase from the Sèvres factory,  a personal gift from a King of France to the Nortumberlands, that caught my eye but the 18th century brown sedan chair with porters' poles attached. It still retained its original silk curtains.There was a time when the Brimstone Butterfly was sorely tempted to buy a similar sedan chair, which she had long admired in a local bric-a-brac shop. Were it not for the fact that the two poles would never have fitted inside my flat, I would be writing this whilst enthroned within my sedan chair.

As I made my way up the stone Principal Staircase I noticed that the lower part of the banisters had a distinct wobble.

On the upper floors a number of bedrooms were on display. One, along the Nursery Passage, was styled for an Edwardian gentleman, though a current member of the ducal family remembers it as a nusery. The other had featured in the film Gosford Park and was used as the bedroom of Kristin Scott-Thomas’ character, the fictional Lady Sylvia McCordle. The peach bed drapery, hangings and window curtains were all left behind by the film company. The ceilings of both bedrooms were in a state of disrepair on account of rainwater leaking in from the roof. The leads on the roof need to be replaced to prevent further damage. Around the corridor was a bathroom, compete with commode and roll top bath and other such paraphernalia.

Along a nearby corridor and up a small flight of stairs can be found the bedrooms used by Queen Victoria and her mother when Victoria was still a princess and the then Duchess of Northumberland acted as her governess. I rather liked the canopied beds, which have an elegance lacking in furnishings found later in Victoria’s reign. Both Victoria and her mother’s bedrooms looked out over the surrounding parkland. The other bedrooms overlooked the inner courtyard. A guide explained that the state rooms were designed to look outwards, whereas the private family rooms were designed not to be overlooked and thus afforded greater privacy.

My second tour of the house completed I returned down the Principal Staircase, wobbled the lower banister again and made my way out into the Great Hall, where I found the guides getting ready to close up the house for the day. They were not best pleased with one comment left in the visitors’ book. A man, styling himself as an expert on such matters, had written of his disgust that 19th century furniture had been displayed alongside  furniture from the 18th century in a room designed by Robert Adam. As well as being extremely rude, the foolish man failed to take into account the fact that Syon House is not a museum but still very much a family home. It would be absurd for them to preserve everything in aspic and pretend that changes had never been made to the house. Taken to its logical conclusion Syon House ought never to have been remodelled by Robert Adam in the 18th century as surely that was a scandalous betrayal of its Tudor origins.

One way or another I had spoken to all or nearly all of the guides on duty that day. They had been curious as to why I was taking such copious notes and walking around the rooms at such a remarkably slow pace. I love to soak up the atmosphere of a room, especially if I find myself, as I do from time to time, the only person present. I had already mentioned my blog to one or two of the guides as I made my progress around the mansion.  When I returned to the front desk to hand in my audio guide, the flesh and blood guides made me promise to mention them in my post. Although I cannot recall all their names, I would like to thank them for the time they spent chatting to me and sharing their considerable knowledge of Syon House.
By now it was too late for me to stroll around the gardens. Fortunately, I had been able to wander around them with the Aviatrix on my earlier visit and we had been favoured by excellent weather. The Great Conservatory was built for the 3rd Duke of Northumberland in the 1820s. It is a delightful structure of stone, iron and glass. It is now more often used to host functions such as receptions rather than operate as a working greenhouse. 

One of the pavilions contains a fishpond. I did not have time on either occasion to explore the other pavilion.
Outside the pavilion a giant wisteria was invading the terrace like some alien monster from a B movie. The gardens provide a charming contrast to the house and visitors would be wise to factor in a stroll around them on any visit to Syon House.
As I was looking through some old digital images today I came across a picture I had taken of Syon House from across the River Thames at Kew when the Aviatrix and I had last visited Kew Palace together. “We must pay a visit to Syon House at some stage,” she insisted. It has us taken us quite a number of years to achieve our ambition but the wait had been worth it.