Friday, 14 October 2011

Dido Elizabeth Belle: Kenwood and Beyond

The Brimstone Butterfly’s  post about Dido Elizabeth Belle dating from December 2009 has proved to be a perennial favourite. Intrigued by the interest it occasioned, I have delved further into Dido’s story  and have drawn some rather different conclusions to the one’s I first entertained. Given time, I might    change my mind yet again as Dido Elizabeth Belle remains teasingly enigmatic.                                                                                

I earlier speculated as to whether Dido had been left cowering in Kenwood House, along with the rest of the Mansfield household, when an unsuccessful attempt was made to storm the place by the Gordon Rioters in 1780. The rioters, incensed at Parliamentary legislation which sought to reduce the punitive laws affecting Catholics, were bent on attacking the mansion of Lord Mansfield, Dido’s great uncle and the Lord Chief Justice of England.The rioters’ plans were thwarted by the quick thinking of the landlord of the Spaniard’s Inn, a still extant Elizabethan inn, in London's Highgate. The landlord persuaded the mob to avail themselves of ale or two at his hostelry sited but a short distance from Kenwood House. Whilst they quenched their thirst, the landlord secretly had word sent to the army, who were able to round-up the rioters before they could continue on their way.

More recently I discovered that Gordon rioters had also targeted Lord Mansfield‘s London townhouse with far more catastrophic results. In his memoirs Sir Nathaniel  Wraxall, who wrote so scathingly about William V of Orange, published an eye witness account of the attack on Lord Mansfield’s Bloomsbury home in 1780.

"I was personally present at many of the most tremendous effects of the popular fury on the memorable 7th of June, the night on which it attained its highest point. About nine o'clock on that evening, accompanied by three other gentlemen, who, as well as myself, were alarmed at the accounts brought in every moment of the outrages committed, and of the still greater acts of violence meditated, as soon as darkness should favour and facilitate their further progress, we set out from Portland Place, in order to view the scene. Having got into a hackney-coach, we drove to Bloomsbury Square, attracted to that spot by a rumour, generally spread, that Lord Mansfield's residence, situate at the north-east, was either already burnt, or destined for destruction. Hart Street and Great Russell Street presented each to the view, as we passed, large fires composed of furniture taken from the houses of magistrates, or other obnoxious individuals. Quitting the coach, we crossed the square, and had scarcely got under the wall of Bedford House, when we heard the door of Lord Mansfield's house burst open with violence. In a few minutes, all the contents of the apartments being precipitated from the windows, were piled up and wrapt in flames. A file of foot-soldiers arriving, drew up near the blazing pile, but without either attempting to quench the fire or to impede the mob, who were, indeed, far too numerous to admit of their being dispersed, or even intimidated, by a small detachment of infantry. The populace remained masters, while we, after surveying the spectacle for a short time, moved on into Holborn.”

Wraxall's description of the forces of law and order standing helplessly by as Londoners rioted and burned down buildings has uncanny parallels with recent events in the capital during the summer of 2011. It was whilst I was reading Sir Nathaniel Wraxall’s account in his memoirs of the rioting in 18th  century Bloomsbury that I came across his amusing anecdote about Dido’s contemporary, Charles, 11th Duke of Norfolk, who lived in St James’ Square. According to Wraxall the Duke was guilty of "carrying his neglect of his person so far that his servants were accustomed to avail themselves of his fits of intoxication for the purpose of washing him, and to strip him as they would a corpse in order to perform the necessary ablutions. Nor did he change his linen more frequently than he washed himself. One day he complained to Dudley North that he was a martyr to the rheumatism, and had ineffectually tried every remedy for its relief. 'Pray, my lord,' was North's reply, 'did you ever try a clean shirt?'"

Aside from these tumultuous events arising from her great uncle’s position as Lord Chief Justice, Dido generally enjoyed a settled life within the Mansfield household. She had received an education that equipped her to act as Lord Mansfield’s amanuensis on at least one occasion. A letter Mansfield dictated to her and which she transcribed into her neat script survives today and was displayed at the exhibition on Slavery and Justice a few years back. According to the London Chronicle of 1788 Dido was also able to acquit herself well in company being possessed of all the requisite social graces expected of a young lady in 18th century English polite society.
Sir John Lindsay father of Dido Elizabeth Belle
The paper claimed in an obituary about her father, Admiral Sir John Lindsay, that Dido‘s “amiable disposition and accomplishments have gained her the highest respect from all his Lordship’s relations and visitants.”  There was one man who Dido singularly failed to impress with either her disposition or her looks. It is his account of their only encounter which has been seen as providing a definitive insight into Dido’s life at Kenwood. Yet I now believe it would be unsafe to regard Thomas Hutchinson’s words as being anything other than those of a highly partisan observer, who contemptuously dismisses Dido as a “Black.”
Hutchinson had first been invited to Kenwood on Sunday 17th July 1774,  some 6 weeks or so after he had been forced into political exile from America. The following day he was proudly writing to his friend Chief Justice Oliver about his visit and described the estate as “a most elegant place and the entertainment as elegant.” It must have been some small consolation to Hutchinson that he got to hobnob with the great and the good in England after the humiliation of his own home across the Atlantic being stormed by an angry mob before being burnt to the ground. Hutchinson and his family barely escaped with their lives, an experience the Mansfields would later endure themselves.

On August 29th 1779 Hutchinson was still in political exile. He would never return to America and within the year he would be dead. Perhaps his relative old age and bitterness occasioned his poisonous attitude towards Lord Mansfield’s charismatic ward, Dido Belle, or perhaps he was simply an oafish bore.

Of Lord Mansfield himself Hutchinson wrote gushingly in his diary that he at “74 or 5, has all the vivacity of 50. He gave me a particular acct. of his releasing two Blacks from slavery, since his being Chief Justice.” Hutchinson was equally admiring of the elderly Lady Mansfield who had “the powers of her mind still firm, without marks of decay.” He contrasted Lady Mansfield’s simple and becoming dress with that of her contemporary, whom he had seen at court,. Lady Say. He had observed  the latter’s “head as high dressed as the young Duchesses etc. What a carricature she looked like! How pleasing, because natural, Lady Mansfield’s appearance”.
Dido Belle and Elizabeth Murray on the terrace at Kenwood with the bridge in the background

The view from the Terrace at Kenwood towards the mock bridge. December 2010
Hutchinson then fixed his malign gaze towards Dido:
“A Black came in after dinner and sat with the ladies and after coffee, walked with the company in the gardens, one of the young ladies having her arm within the other. She had a very high cap and her wool was much frizzled in her neck, but not enough to answer the large curls now in fashion. She is neither handsome nor genteel — pert enough. I knew her history before, but My Lord mentioned it again. Sir John Lindsay having taken her mother prisoner in a Spanish vessel, brought her to England where she was delivered of this girl, of which she was then with child, and which was taken care of by Lord M., and has been educated by his family. He calls her Dido, which I suppose is all the name she has. He knows he has been reproached for showing fondness for her — I dare say not criminal. A few years ago there was a cause before his Lordship bro’t by a Black for recovery of his liberty. A Jamaica planter being asked what judgement his Ldship would give? “No doubt” he answered “He will be set free, for Lord Mansfield keeps a Black in his house which governs him and the whole family.” She is a sort of Superintendant over the dairy, poultry yard, etc, which we visited. And she was called upon by my Lord every minute for this thing and that, and shewed the greatest attention to everything he said”

Hutchinson’s description of Dido as being neither handsome nor genteel is not borne out by her portrait showing her large expressive eyes and captivating smile nor by the London Chronicle of 1788 enthusing over her “ amiable disposition and accomplishments.” Incidentally, the London Chronicle is believed to have been the first newspaper in Europe to publish the full text of the United States Declaration of Independence in August 1776, by which time Hutchinson's  political career in America had turned to ashes and he was reduced to being an increasingly irrelevant commentator on American affairs on behalf of the British Government.

The fact that the former Governor of  Massachusetts ’ comments regarding Dido are so churlish in the extreme, made me wonder whether Dido’s time in his company was deliberately kept to a minimum by her great uncle, who had known Hutchinson long enough by then to get the full measure of the man. Perhaps Dido was tactfully kept from dining with the others on that one occasion when Hutchinson was present. Lord Mansfield made Dido write letters to his friends on his behalf when he was ill and to refer to the fact that the letters were in her hand. Her presence within the bosom of the Mansfield family was therefore no secret in high society given that the London Chronicle also recognised her as being Sir John Lindsay’s natural daughter and lauded her character and charm. Moreover, being a “natural” daughter and a poor relative to boot, regardless of her skin colour, is it really surprising that Dido would have wished to make herself as agreeable as possible to the family which had taken her in. Furthermore, Hutchinson contradicts himself .On the one hand he describes Dido as being at Lord Mansfield’s beck and call and on the other he  repeats a  plantation owner’s gossip that she held the entire Mansfield family under her sway. It also seems strange that the London Chronicle was fully aware of who Dido’s father was but not Hutchinson. Admittedly Hutchinson did not live long enough to be aware of the provisions of Sir John Lindsay’s will in which he left £1,000 to be shared between “John and Elizabeth Lindsay, my reputed son and daughter.’ There is some dispute as to whether Elizabeth Lindsay was in fact Dido Elizabeth Belle, given that historians have yet to identify who exactly Lindsay’s son John was.

As a young woman Dido was paid a handsome allowance and given the post of superintendent of the dairy and poultry yard at Kenwood. I took photographs of the dairy last year not realising Dido’s link with the pretty white-washed buildings. The present interiors lacked the original fittings to be found at Ham House. The décor of the latter owes more to highly sentimental 18th century notions of pastoral life than what would be actually be found in the average dairy. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than at Syon House where the model dairy was placed next to the more prosaic and functional working dairy. There was nothing intrinsically demeaning about Dido’s role as the superintendent. Her title proves that the actual day-to-day work was carried out by underlings. At Syon House the Duke of Northumberland and his guests were content to watch a dairymaid going about her business. Across the Channel, at le Hameau de la reine, a rustic retreat was created for the French royal family in the parkland at Versailles. Marie-Antoinette and her ladies-in-waiting would play at being dairymaids in the exquisite dairy, in which even the milk was poured into dainty porcelain milk churns embossed with the Queen’s monogram and produced by Sèvres, the royal porcelain manufacturers.

In England, Marie Antoinette's contemporary Queen Charlotte was given a thatched cottage in the grounds of Kew Palace as a wedding present from her husband King George III. The cottage was a glorified summer house, allowing the royal family to have picnics or take tea there (all prepared by servants using the kitchen below) and pretend, if only for a short while, that they too were leading a simple country life. The royal rustic ideal was somewhat undermined by the paddock  full of kangaroos they kept just outside the cottage, not a sight usually encountered in the English countryside of the period.
When her childhood companion and cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, married George Finch Hatton in 1785. Dido remained behind at Kenwood to care for her ailing great uncle. Incidentally, Elizabeth’s son and heir, the 10th Earl of Winchilsea, achieved notoriety when he was challenged by the Duke of Wellington, then the Prime Minister, to one of the last duels in England.  The Duke had been stung to the quick by certain comments Finch-Hatton had made regarding the Duke’s support of Catholic Emancipation. The duel took place in Battersea Fields (now part of present day South London) in 1829. The Duke missed his target. He claimed it was deliberate but he was known for being a far better military strategist than shot. His rival fired into the air, probably deciding that it might be a blot too far on his family escutcheon to kill the victor of Waterloo. Finch-Hatton’s apology to the Duke for his former conduct, backed-up by a letter his seconds thoughtfully produced and to which Finch-Hatton had already signed his name, was accepted by Wellington and both departed the scene unscathed.  Another of Elizabeth’s descendants was Denys Finch Hatton, immortalised by Robert Redford in the film “Out of Africa”.
18th century print of St George's Hanover Square London
In March 1793 Lord Mansfield died at Kenwood. Later that same year Dido married under the name Elizabeth Belle. Perhaps her choice of name reflected a desire to create a new life for herself as a respectable middle class matron far away from the public gaze, instead of continuing her former existence as the exotic protégé of the Lord Chief Justice and as such known far beyond the confines of her Mansfield family home. Research by the professional genealogist Sarah Minney revealed that on 5 December 1793 she married John Davinier, a Frenchman and a Gentleman’s Steward at St George's, Hanover Square in London. It is a church with which I am well acquainted having attended several recitals given there by a choir the Partridge was once a member of.
The Steward's Room on ground floor of two storey brick building at end of colonnade

I do wonder how Dido and Davinier met. Was it at Kenwood? A former Steward's Room there now serves as a café. Although the estate offices were built after Dido's time, a steward would have been required to handle Lord Mansfield's extensive affairs at Kenwood in the capacity of an estate manager. Did such business bring John Davinier to the house? Dido married him within months of Lord Manfield's death. According to the accounts of the time, she had proved indispensable to Mansfield in his final years. Consequently, ties of affection and duty might well have made it all but impossible for Dido to leave Kenwood for a married life whilst he was still alive. Mansfield's death left her free in more senses than one. Despite Dido having been raised in his household from infancy, Lord Mansfield was taking no chances and had stipulated in his will that “I assert to Dido her freedom” lest any seek to enslave her on account of her black mother. Legacies from her great uncle, great aunt and and her father meant she brought a dowry to the marriage. That, combined with the money her husband earned as Gentleman's Steward meant they could afford to live in their own house, staffed by a number of servants. Her position in her new home was unassailable. Dido could now call upon others "every minute for this thing and that" and be shown "the greatest attention to everything" she said.

The Daviniers went on to have at least three children, including twin brothers Charles and John and a third sibling William Thomas. Dido’s last known descendant was Harold Davinier. Ironically, the latter died under the apartheid regime of 1970s South Africa. He was classified as white and therefore, unlike his bewitching ancestress, would no doubt have passed muster with the boorish Thomas Hutchinson. The 18th  century Daviniers set up home in a house in Ranelagh Street, now known as Ebury Street, in London’s Pimlico. Dido’s neighbours in the 1790s included at number 12 Charles Wilkin, the English miniature painter and engraver. Ranelagh, later Ebury Street, has always attracted a rather Bohemian set from the Victorian Poet laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson to Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond. Other celebrated writers have included George Moore and actors such as  Dame Edith Evans and Michael Caine. Exiled from her beloved Knole, Vita Sackville West and her husband also set up home here. Unfortunately, Dido’s own house did not survive redevelopment in later decades.

It is again thanks to the sterling efforts of Sarah Minney that we know that Dido died in July 1804 around the age of 43. (The exhibition on her life at Kenwood had stated that she had been baptised in 1761).  Her funeral was held at St George's, the same church in which she had married and in which her children had been baptised. Her earthly remains were buried at St George's Fields near the present day Bayswater Road. The graves were all exhumed and the remains reburied elsewhere in the 1960s when the graveyard was redeveloped. Consequently, Dido has no known grave, unlike her father, Sir John Lindsay, and her great uncle, Lord Mansfield, both of whom were interred in Westminster Abbey. Yet Dido has achieved a posthumous fame that has eclipsed that of her father. Indeed, there is a certain pleasing symmetry that in 1788, Sir John Lindsay ‘s obituary drew attention to the fact that he was both an Admiral of the Red and Dido’s father and today, over two hundred years later, place his name into a search engine and those are still deemed the two key fact about his life.

The Brimstone Butterfly’s Open House London 2011: Marlborough House. September 2011.

Marlborough House was built for the 1st Duke and Duchess of Marlborough. John Churchill had carved out a name for himself on the battlefields of Europe sending the reign of the Sun King Louis XIV of France into a terminal eclipse. His wife Sarah had fought her way to the forefront of the English Court by becoming the confident and intimate (her enemies contended rather too intimate) of the ruling monarch and her girlhood friend, Queen Anne. But then Sarah’s husband had also occasioned ribald gossip when he had been plain John Churchill. According to legend, Charles II had caught the young man in a compromising position with the king’s chief mistress, Barbara Castlemaine. Instead of being angry the king is supposed to have declared: "You are a rascal, but I forgive you because you do it to get your bread." It was well known in court circles that Barbara Castlemaine was paying the young man handsomely for his nightly manoeuvres. He embodied the maxim that all was fair in love and war.  

Compared to the monstrous Bleinheim Palace, Marlborough House was built on a more modest scale with Dutch red bricks. But then the former, until Sarah antagonised Queen Anne once too often, was paid for by the nation in thanks for the Duke’s impressive victories on the Continent. By contrast, the cost of Marlborough House was met from the Churchills’ own purse. Sarah was reluctant to spend more than was necessary for building work if she was footing the bill herself. The original house was only two storeys in height and as such was smaller than Clandon Park.  

By 1817 the ducal family had sold the lease to the Crown, leading to a succession of royal personages occupying the house for well over a century. The tragic Princess Caroline, the only child of George IV, was the first to move in with her Belgian husband Prince Leopold. Queen Adelaide the widow of George’s brother and successor, King William IV was the next resident. The future King Edward VII set up home there when he reached his majority. When he became monarch he passed the house on to his son, the future King George V, and the latter’s wife Mary. Three queens and one prince, Prince Leopold husband to Princess Caroline who died in childbirth, spent the long years of their widowhood here. Sarah Churchill had set the pattern, remaining at Marlborough House for a further 22 years after her husband’s death in 1722.

Despite the royal connection Marlborough House retained its original name. But that is hardly surprising as the house contains two principal staircases and a saloon, whose stunning wall paintings commemorate three of the 1st Duke’s most celebrated Continental victories.

In 1959 Marlborough House became the International Headquarters of the Commonwealth of which Queen Elizabeth II is the titular head. Although they did sell tea and biscuits in the grounds Marlborough House does not have to pay its way in quite the same manner as other stately homes I have visited. Consequently, there were no glossy guidebooks or picture postcards on sale and strictly no photography allowed inside the house. Thus, the interior images are all taken from the 360 degree virtual tour on their website. This explains the distorted perspective in some of them. For example, on the Ramillies Staircase the poignant depiction of a redcoat soldier’s demise looks instead as if it is a scene lifted from Gulliver’s Travels.

As I approached the house I saw a small a plaque on an outer wall dedicated to Queen Mary, who had first came to live here as a young bride and returned as a widow. But perhaps her worst memories of Marlborough House came from a night in 1936. Having dined there earlier her eldest son, Edward VIII, came to her private apartments to announce he was going to abdicate the throne in order to marry the twice divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson.

 Before I went in to the grounds of Marlborough I decided not to miss the opportunity to take exterior shots of the early 17th century Queen’s Chapel. It was built in the 1620s by Inigo Jones, the court architect who had also built the Queen’s House at Greenwich and the Banqueting House at Whitehall. The Queen’s Chapel was commissioned on behalf of Henrietta-Maria, the Catholic wife of King Charles I, so that she could hear mass in private whenever she was at the Palace of St James. What is left of the rest of the Tudor palace complex is now to be found across the road from the chapel.

Henry VIII first built his red brick palace with its turreted gatehouse in the 1530s.  Despite various fires and changes in architectural styles, St James continued to be lived in by reigning monarchs for almost 400 years until Queen Victoria decided to make Buckingham Palace her principal London residence.

Behind the stained glass windows of the Chapel Royal would have laid the coffin of Diana, Princess of Wales. I remember passing by the Chapel Royal in a taxi shortly before her funeral. It struck me that given the huge crowds who were then thronging the grounds of Kensington Palace it was odd that no-one kept vigil by St James where her body actually lay. Or perhaps they never realised she was there as the palace is not open to the general public, unlike other royal residences.

Entering through the main gates of Marlborough House I presented my black shoulder bag to the guard on duty for inspection. He seemed a little preoccupied.
“I was just daydreaming about lunch and the guy who’s supposed to be here isn’t”, he grumbled, before adding darkly. “That’s just like him!”

The Entrance Vestibule and the Grand Corridor were added in the 19th century as part of the general refurbishment of the mansion to provide appropriate accommodation for the future King Edward VII and his Danish bride Alexandra. There are two marble busts of the royal couple set in niches within the Grand Corridor. I was unable to linger in the Entrance Vestibule because of the large numbers of people wishing to enter the house. However, I did just have time to note the white stucco ceiling, the 19th century timber wall panelling and the ornate clock in its stone frame set high above the entrance door before I hurried up the white marble steps into the Grand Corridor. There were mirrored double doors at either end. The grey and white marble floor, the white panelling and the 5 oval sky lights made the room light and airy and proved a distinct contrast to the Baroque flamboyance of the Bleinheim Saloon.

This room was a riot of gilding, tapestries and wall and ceiling paintings. Given the military theme of the wall paintings, commemorating the 1st Duke’s defining victory at Bleinheim (now Blindheim in present day Southern Germany) in August 1704 against the combined Bavarian and French armies, it seemed rather incongruous that on the lower walls of the double height room were hung 5 large tapestries of peasants dancing around a maypole and generally cavorting and enjoying themselves. Although the white and pink marble fireplace did feature emblems of war, the dates 28th April 1863 carved into the wooden overmantle and 4th April 1903 inscribed at the base of the gilt and wood mirror, had nothing to do with battles but everything to do with the arrival of various members of the British royal family, who made Marlborough House their London home namely the future Edward VII and Queen Alexandra and the future King George V and Queen Mary respectively. Rather curiously, Mary had originally been engaged to Edward’s elder brother, Albert Victor but the latter had succumbed to influenza and died before the nuptials could take place. After a suitable period of mourning for the elder brother, Mary agreed to marry the younger sibling the following year. Poor Albert Victor, if it wasn’t bad enough losing his life and putative bride to his younger brother, he also lost his posthumous reputation, being accused of all manner of vices culminating  in being portrayed in fiction as a vampire and on film as that most infamous of all 19th century serial killers: Jack the Ripper.

The Bleinheim Saloon contains marble busts of King George V and Queen Mary whilst they were still Prince and Princess of Wales. Incidentally, Mandip and I saw footage from the 1911 Delhi Durbar in which George and Mary were proclaimed Emperor and Empress of India when we visited an exhibition on the Maharajas: Splendour of India's Royal Courts at the Victoria and Albert museum a while back. I admired the royal couple’s fortitude. They were shown walking around under a blazing Indian sun in full ceremonial robes and with long ermine trimmed velvet trains, thereby regally prefiguring the Noël Coward song: Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.

I left the Bleinheim Saloon to enter the hallway containing the Ramillies Staircase. Whereas the woodwork, hand rails and panelling date from the 1860s, the wall paintings were commissioned by the Churchills in the 1700s. They were executed by the appropriately named Frenchman, Louis Laguerre (la guerre being French for the war). They commemorate another resounding defeat for Laguerre’s native countrymen at the hands of Marlborough. Other paintings bear the legend Antwerp, Louvain, Brussels and depict soldiers off the battlefield being drilled or army provisions landing at a dock. There were also paintings in monochrome of classical images and emblems of war such as Hercules brandishing his club.

Not being a military historian of 18th century warfare it was not until later that I was able to understand the meaning of certain events in the paintings. In one, Marlborough is shown on horseback. Near him lie three corpses: two in the red colours of his own army and one apparently an enemy soldier. I had thought at the time that Marlborough was ignoring the fatalities as literally cannon fodder. I was wrong. One of the redcoats lying prone on the ground, his wig having falling off, is a Colonel Bringfield. He was helping the Duke back on his horse when he was slain. Perhaps mindful of the late Colonel’s family, the artist represents the Colonel’s fatal injuries as being a small bullet hole to the head. In reality the poor Colonel’s head was blown off his shoulders by a cannonball. It is Bringfield whose corpse seems to be on a scale with that of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver in the photograph. In his 2 volume Selected Epitaphs published in 1755 William Toldervy describes the memorial tablet left by the Colonel’s widow, Clemence, in Westminster Abbey. On it she states that her late husband James had been an aide de camp to Queen Anne’s husband, Prince George of Denmark as well as a Gentleman of the Horse to the Duke. James Bringfield was 50 years old when, in the somewhat bizarre words of the memorial, “he had his head fatally shot off by a Cannon-Ball.” Methinks having your head blown off is rarely going to prove anything other than fatal especially if the injuries are on a par with the contemporary engraving of Bringfield’s demise.

To my mind it looks as if high ranking enemy officers are suing for peace as they doff their hats and look rather cravenly in Marlborough’s direction. But he has other matter on his mind as it seems the battle is still furiously being fought elsewhere with the armies engaged in close combat.  Another vignette shows redcoats stripping enemy corpses, looting enemy baggage trains and swigging down plundered wine. I later read that such tactics were deliberately employed by Marlborough as a way of goading his enemies into action.

At the top of the Ramillies staircase I was able to walk down the three steep steps to the gallery in the Bleinheim Saloon. The paintings on the upper part of the saloon show the victorious Duke accepting the surrender of the French armies. There were also scenes depicting Grenadiers crossing the River Nebel prior to battle, the poor foot soldiers up to their necks in the water. But my attention was caught by the ceiling paintings by the Italian artist Orazio Gentileschi. They had once graced the ceiling of the Great Hall at the Queen’s House in Greenwich. Shamefully, they were not only removed from their purpose built home, they were also cut down to size to fit the smaller ceilings at Marlborough House. They depict Peace surrounded by the 9 muses, the 4 Arts and the Liberal Arts. Much as I found the paintings of keen interest, I was more than a little daunted by the low rail of the balcony. It was roped off but I did not think it prudent to step too close to the edge to get a better view with so many people passing along the Gallery.

From the Gallery I stepped into the hall containing the  Malplaquet Staircase.It was only later that I realised why the upper walls of the third storey, which had been painted to resemble marble, seemed so out of character with the rest of the staircase. The third floor had been added long after the staircase had been built. There were yet more scenes of corpses being looted, this time by women. Other paintings had shown even living prisoners being forced to remove all their clothing. One painting reminded me of a scene from Indian Jones where he is faced with a sword wielding assassin. Indian Jones simply shoots the man in a fit of exasperation at the other’s stupidity. In the painting, two men on horseback are duelling to the death, one with a cocked pistol and the other a sword.

The Wren Room was named after Sir Christopher Wren who had designed St Paul’s Cathedral. He had been commissioned by Sarah Churchill to build Marlborough House. At some stage the two of them had quarrelled and the indefatigable Sarah promptly decided that she was more than capable of completing the work herself, which she proceeded to do. I have no idea what the symbolism of the rams’ skulls in the ornate plaster ceiling or on the marble fireplace was meant to signify, if anything. After the polychromatic imagery of the previous rooms it felt quite strange to be in such an understated room. It had been used as a private Dining Room by the Churchills.

What is now known as the Delegate’s Lounge was fashioned out of a large drawing room and a state bedchamber. The room also contained Sarah’s closet and the servants’ stairs. There were two beautiful white marble fireplaces at either end of the room. The central panel of one seemed to depict the god Hermes as a small child with a fellow companion. Nearby sits Neptune on a rock and the children seem oblivious to the imperilled ships sailing on the choppy seas near a castle perched high on a cliff top. The central panel of the other fireplace seemed to show two men from the classical world trying to determine who had the largest weapon of war. It was in this room that Edward VIII had dined and no doubt drained the odd glass of alcohol before making his way up to his mother’s private apartments to give her the unwelcome news that he intended to abdicate in order to marry Mrs Simpson.

The Churchill’s State Drawing Room has been transformed into the Main Conference Room for the Commonwealth Secretariat and portraits of past Secretary Generals lined the room. I liked this room the least having developed an aversion to an overabundance of gilding as a decorative feature.

The last time Sarah Churchill was in the Green Drawing Room the walls were hung with black velvet and she lay in her coffin before  being taken to Blenheim Palace to lie in the grand tomb she had had erected within the chapel there. The room contains a portrait of a woman in red velvet who might be Sarah or her daughter. Opinions on the matter are divided. Having read biographies of Sarah, I retain something of a soft spot for her as she, along with Admiral Lord Nelson, was once a near neighbour of mine, were it not for the small fact of the centuries dividing us. No respecter of person or of rank the incorrigible Sarah remained querulous until the end of her life. Just as her friendship with Queen Anne had come to an abrupt end as a result of her high handed behaviour, so too did her friendship with Queen Caroline of Ansbach, whose perfume is said to still linger in her former rooms at Hampton Court. Caroline never forgave Sarah for refusing to allow the royal coach to take a short cut over her estate at Wimbledon.

The Great Dining Room seems rather small. A film was playing on a loop showing a youthful Queen Elizabeth II talking with the late Indira Ghandi whilst on a royal tour of India in 1983. For the past 60 years the Queen alone has remained the one constant presence in the life of the Commonwealth of which she is head.

I had now come to the end of my tour of the house so made my way out into the grounds. There were flags ranged all along one wall, presumably representing the different nations making up the Commonwealth.  Also in the grounds was a small thatched summerhouse which could be rotated to keep Queen Mary out of the glare of the sun. Inside there was a modern barbecue and what looked suspiciously like a crushed can of beer, neither of which are believed to have belonged to Queen Mary. Then again, perhaps the old queen liked to barbecue the odd hamburger and to swig back the beer on the sly as she pondered on just how close she had been to becoming the wife of Jack the Ripper.