Friday, 3 February 2012

Going out in style!

Are there ever days in which you simply want to curl up into a ball and die? On a variation of such a theme, one Ghanaian woman has decreed that on her death she wishes to spend eternity with her corpse curled up into the foetal position and placed inside an egg-shaped coffin.
At the weekend I met up for a coffee with the Filmmaker on London’s Southbank. It seems our film is going to be shown in Milan again. I wonder if they will use the same trailer as before which featured, amongst other things, my good self in a steel boned crimson corset. There was a time when I was a frequent visitor to the Royal National Theatre on the Southbank, back in the days before it was granted its regal prefix. As we searched for somewhere to have a drink we realised that both the Royal Festival Hall and the Queen Elizabeth Hall were taking part in that weekend’s Festival for the Living. In reality the festival was about attitudes to death. The Filmmaker jokingly said that the festival was quintessentially English. I disagreed. Death has become a taboo subject. Modern homes would have little use for the wake-table in the Music Room at Spencer House. Few people die at home nowadays and even when they do the body is usually quickly whisked away by undertakers until the day of the funeral.

Many years ago I determined that I would have no funeral. My body will be cremated without ceremony. If I were to change my mind I would be tempted to call upon the services of the coffins makers of Ghana and in particular those who make elaborate coffins for the Ga people of Accra. Since the 1950s they have been inspired to create the most incredible coffins, which reflect an aspect of the deceased’s personality. One of the foremost proponents of such coffins is the Paa Joe workshop.  They made the coffins on display in the foyer at the Royal Festival Hall. I was somewhat relieved to discover that all the coffins had been specially commissioned by the Jack Bell Gallery as works of art in their own right: no-one would be taking up permanence residence in them after the exhibition had ended.
I later realised that the display of such funerary works of art was in keeping with the treatment of the stone memorial to Theodosia Louisa, Countess of Liverpool who had died almost two centuries before.Theodosia Louisa was the wife to the then Prime Minister when she died in the 1820s. Although she was buried elsewhere, it was decided to place the monument in All Saints church, Kingston where her husband had once been Lord Lieutenant.  In the 19th century her seated statue was so admired as a work of art it was for a while exhibited at Somerset House, immediately across the water from the present day Southbank complex.

The Ghanaian coffins are first made into a basic canoe shape using planks of local softwood. Then the craftsmen use various implements to fashion the coffins into the desired final shape. The whole process can take up to three months, requiring the deceased to be kept on ice at the undertakers in the meantime. This would explain why the tradition only really took off in the 1950s, when modern refrigeration made the delay to the burial feasible in lieu of the mummification techniques of the Ancient Egyptians. The Ga people believe both in reincarnation and in the ability of the dead to affect the well being of the living. Thus, it is important to give the deceased a fine send-off.
I could see how a body would fit inside the lion and the exotic fruit. I was less certain about the Rolls Royce or the other car. Still, if I should ever find myself a passenger in either of them at least I won't have to struggle with the seat belt or work out how to operate the door handle as I am sometimes wont to do.
The Rolls is a copy of a coffin made by the Paa Joe workshop for a client who was buried in the garden of their home. 
The egg shaped coffin is a replica of one made for a living Ghanaian woman who, it is to be hoped, will have a good few years left before she will ever require to use it. The shape of her coffin ties in with the Ga people’s notions of reincarnation and rebirth.
I did not see any note about the Viking boat but the cork and wine bottle opener was a pure flight of fancy by the gallery owners, who commissioned the coffins. In the past I have seen such coffins in the shape of aeroplanes and calculators. Mine would of course be in the form of a Brimstone Butterfly, fluttering away to that great blog in the sky.

The Brimstone Butterfly’s Spencer House: Part Two

At the top of the stairs our little party entered the Music Room.

Dominating one room was a portrait of Colonel Gray, who had John Vardy kicked out of his job at Spencer House to be replaced by James Stuart. Colonel Gray is looking rather pleased with himself in his scarlet turban.

I had thought the chairs covered with checked gingham must be an anachronism but it seems they were to be found in houses of the period. The highly polished table now used for dining was once used as a wake table, bearing the coffin of a recently deceased resident before burial. In view of the table’s intriguing past I wonder whether the current caterers at Spencer House ever serve ‘Death by chocolate’ in the room.  As in Lady Howard’s bedchamber at Marble Hill House, a fake door had been added for the sake of symmetry.
Lady Spencer’s Room, to which the ladies would retire, overlooks both the street and the park. In her time the red damask walls were actually green. Arthur Young was in ecstasies about the room declaring “scarce anything can be more beautiful than the mosaic ceiling. “ I beg to disagree. The room left me cold. Having robbed poor John Vardy of the right to complete the decoration of Spencer House, James Stuart completed the interior at such a slow pace he never got around to filling in the roundels in the ceiling with classical paintings. The only paintings of interest in the room from my perspective were those by Sir James Thornhill and then only because he had decorated the Painted Hall at Greenwich.
The Great Room served as both a ballroom and an art gallery. The green and white compartmented ceiling with its gilt medallions reminded me of the Red Drawing Room at Syon House. It is based on the Temple of Concord and Victory in Rome. The ceiling features 4 bronzed plaster medallions featuring Venus flanked by Hymen and Cupid, Bacchus, the Three Graces and Apollo as well as Spencer griffins, panthers and lions. The guide pointed out that in one medallion Spencer griffins are pulling triumphal chariots, one with its tail up and the other down reflecting the family's changing fortunes. I particularly liked the doors whose architraves were based on those at the Erechtheum, an ancient Greek temple. It seems the Corinthian columns were added in the 1920s. The 18th century floorboards had to be replaced with 20th century oak ones and the modern carpet is a reproduction of a 17th century original.
The final state room on the tour was the Painted Room dedicated to conjugal love and drawing heavily on symbols of connubial bliss. Here is Arthur Young’s description of the room, which is as pertinent today as it was in 1768. Besides, he probably tarried for far longer than I was permitted although the key features he alights upon were the exact same that our guide pointed out:
“On one side is a bow window ornamented with the most exquisitely carved and gilt pillars you can conceive. The walls and ceiling are painted in compartments by Mr Stuart in the most beautiful taste. Even the very scrolls and festoons of the slightest sort which are run between the square and circular compartments are executed with the minutest elegance. The ground of the whole is green and the general effect more pleasing than is easily conceived. Nothing can be lighter or more beautiful than the chimney piece. The frieze contains a most exquisite painting representing a clandestine marriage which, without variety or glare of colours, has all the harmony of their utmost power. Nothing can be finer than the drapery, which is designed with the justest taste displaying the form of every limb through it in a most beautiful manner. The soft expression of the naked and the beauty of the heads are very great. I should observe that two of the small compartments of the wall are landscapes, let into it with no other than the painted frame of the divisions. One represents a water fall and the other a bridge over a stream, both fine. The frames of the tables, sofas, stands &c &c are all carved and gilt in the same taste as the other ornaments of the room all with a profusion of richness but with the utmost elegance. Remember to observe the peacock's feathers over one of the glasses, the turtles on a wreath of flowers and the magpies on bunches of grapes. The looking glass window is a piece of taste and has a happy effect.”
I too admired the window inset with mirrored glass. The Clandestine Marriage Young refers to is a panel in the original 18th century fireplace copied from an ancient  Roman painting. Other paintings were inspired by discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum.  The room with its apse and furniture reminded me of the Library at Kenwood House. It seems the latter, though original to Spencer House, had found itself at Kenwood for a spell. Perhaps I recognised it. Of all the rooms on the upper floor this was the only one I really liked. I could have happily spent hours in Vardy’s Ante Room or the Palm Room. The fact he was denied the opportunity to decorate the upper floors in the Ancient Roman style was a tragedy, a Greek tragedy one could say.

The Painted Room ended the tour of Spencer House. Outside on the Terrace and visible from the street was one final artwork. The statue of a man and his shoes titled  The Man Who Gives Fire, is a life-size bronze by the Belgian artist Jan Fabre. Different works of art have been exhibited here over the past few years. I am not sure either John Vardy or James Smith would have approved, as the statue fails to conform to the heroic demeanour of statues from the antique world. However, given the propensity to gild statues in the18th century, it might well have found favour amongst the original denizens of Spencer House on that basis alone.

Thus, ends what is likely to be my final visit of the winter season to a stately home. I plan next to relate a visit in the summer to Apsley House, the London home of the Dukes of Wellington, where the clash between tastes in interior design is even more pronounced than at Spencer House.