Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, Part Two

Sir Winston Churchill by Arthur Pan

The most famous name associated with Blenheim in modern times is Winston Spencer Churchill, grandson of the seventh duke. He was born at Blenheim in 1874, son of Randolph Churchill (a second son) and his American wife, Jennie Jerome.

Jennie was staying at Blenheim when she went into labor and the baby arrived, typical of his later impatience, two weeks before his due date. Winston proposed to Clementine Hozier in the Blenheim garden folly known as the Temple of Diana.

Sir Winston and Lady Churchill are buried in the graveyard of St. Martin’s Church in the nearby village of Bladon.

As an archetypical English country house, Blenheim today is a museum of art and historical memorabilia, featuring such attractions as the victory dispatch the first duke wrote to Sarah on a restaurant menu, elaborate tapestries depicting his campaigns, ducal coronation robes, and the memorabilia of three centuries.

The gardens at Blenheim have been redesigned many times and currently reflect a variety of styles from formal, at left, to the rolling hills of Capability Brown’s tastes.

In the long library, there is a chart of the family’s genealogy, a familiar object in most English Stately Homes. However, instead of  just showing the family’s lineage back to William the Conqueror, this Spencer-Churchill (Marlborough) family traces its origins to Charlemagne.

Below, see the long library set up for a wedding.
Blenheim is one of many stately homes which can be rented for a lavish ceremony and reception.

As I mentioned in my first post on Blenheim, it is not a house designed for a family to live in. Wandering through the remarkable but sadly bleak trappings of Blenheim, one is struck by how much the first Duke of Wellington learned from Blenheim’s dominion over the entire Marlborough family. When offered a great Waterloo Palace as a gift from the nation after his victory over Napoleon (much as the first duke of Marlborough had been promised a great estate after his victory at Blenheim), Wellington proceeded cautiously. The Iron Duke knew what a burden Blenheim had been to its owners. What Wellington did, the story of Stratfield Saye, we will save for another blog post.

The Great Hall is 67 feet high with stone carvings by Grinling Gibbons. The arms on the stone arch are those of Queen Anne.  The ceiling,  painted in 1716 by Sir James Thornhill,  shows the Duke of Marlborough kneeling to Britannia.
The door leads into the saloon.

The Saloon is also known as the state dining room and is now used by the family once a year on Christmas Day. The magnificent ceiling was painted by Louis Laguerre. Various nations are represented in wall paintings, whilst the ceiling shows the 1st Duke in victorious progress but stayed by the hand of peace.

Another view of the saloon.

In the Green Writing Room, below, the Blenheim tapestry depicts the first Duke of Marlborough accepting the surrender of the enemy in 1704, the accomplishment for which he was honored with the dukedom and the estate.

                              A detail of the Battle of Blenheim tapestry.

The above tapestry showing Marlborough on the way to the battle hangs in the First State Room.

The Green Drawing Room, Red Drawing room and the Green Writing Room ceilings are the work of Nicholas Hawksmoor and the walls feature beautiful portraits of members of the family.  The tapestries are superb examples of the weaver’s art; ten Victory tapestries grace the walls of the State Rooms.
The Second State Room
The architects of Blenheim designed the house as a monument not as a family home, much to the disapproval of Sarah, first Duchess of Marlborough, who wanted a livable residence.  Continued maintenance of the estate has caused many generations of family to become the slaves of their legacy. The house is vast but the rooms, to me, almost seemed claustrophobic, crowded and anything but comfortable.
Nevertheless, it is worth a visit, even with the steep entrance fees.  But go soon, because it is ever more becoming a theme park. We will write about that in a future post on Blenheim, Part Three. 

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire – Part One

Blenheim Palace is one of England’s most famous buildings, a sprawling edifice of honey-colored stone surrounded by spacious parks. Residence of the Dukes of Marlborough, the palace is located in the village of Woodstock, near Oxford. Despite its beauty and idyllic grounds, I found an air of melancholy permeated the property.

Blenheim Palace was a gift from the British nation and a grateful Queen Anne to John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, after his 1704 victory over the forces of Louis XIV. When Anne died before the house was finished, the royal purse closed. The Duke and his descendants have been paying for the Palace ever since. Blenheim was a nightmare to build and is a monstrosity to maintain. Take a look at this statement from the Blenheim education page: “The 11th Duke has devoted his life to the preservation of the Palace. He has had a difficult task of balancing the needs of the modern day visitor with the necessity of maintaining a World Heritage site. He said that ‘Although the Battle of Blenheim was won in 1704 the Battle for Blenheim continues in the unceasing struggle to maintain the structure of the building and to obtain the finance for the future.’”

Sarah, the first duchess, fought with architects John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor from the very beginning. She wanted a comfortable residence. They, after creating the baroque magnificence of Castle Howard, wanted a splendid national monument on the order of Versailles. The subsequent story of Blenheim is an indiscriminate mix of the acquisition and dispersal of great art, the antics of peculiar family members, the real and imagined obligations of the aristocracy, and curiosity of the public.

Though Sarah bore the duke six children, both sons and one daughter did not live to adulthood. The eldest of the three remaining daughters, Henrietta, became the 2nd Duchess of Marlborough in her own right. Sadly, her son did not survive her and the 3rd Duke of Marlborough was the son of her sister, Anne, wife of Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland. This is the connection to the Spencer family, ancestors of the late Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales.

above, tomb of the Duke and Duchess

and their sons

 


The fourth duke, who succeeded to the title in 1758 at age 19, was actually the first to make Blenheim his family’s principle residence. He found the place cold, forbidding and rundown, never properly completed. He assumed the great honor and burden of rejuvenating its grandeur and surrounding it with an appropriately sublime setting, a park designed by Lancelot “Capability” Brown. George III, on a visit in 1786, is reported to have said, “We have nothing to equal this!”

Family of the 4th Duke of Marlborough by Sir Joshua Reynolds

Never plump enough in the pocket, the fourth duke spent millions of pounds on the mansion and grounds. By the 1780’s, he was fading into reclusiveness, his obsession with the house nearing insanity. When Admiral Nelson visited in 1802, with Lord and Lady Hamilton, the duke refused to receive them. Upon the fourth duke’s death in 1817, his son succeeded.

George Charles Spencer-Churchill, formerly the Marquis of Blandford, lived an extravagant life as fifth duke, dissolute yet brilliant and eccentric, qualities that seem to run in the family. He revised Brown’s landscape and sold off non-entailed treasures to finance his high living, even charging visitors by the hour to shoot and fish on the property. The fifth duchess, Susan, daughter of the seventh Earl of Galloway, like her predecessors, sank into the same enslavement to the house. After years of near-bankruptcy, the fifth duke died in 1840, his duchess the next year. When the Duke of Wellington and his friend, diarist Harriet Arbuthnot, visited Blenheim in 1824, Mrs. Arbuthnot wrote, “The family of the great General is, however, gone sadly to decay, and are but a disgrace to the illustrious name of Churchill, which they have chosen this moment to resume. The present Duke is overloaded with debt, is very little better than a common swindler and lets everything about Blenheim. People may shoot and fish at so much per hour and it has required all the authority of a Court of Chancery to prevent his cutting down all the trees in the park.”


Thus, the pattern was established, dukes and duchesses sacrificing themselves and their families to a symbolic vision of Blenheim Palace more important than mere humans. Another famous victim was Consuelo Vanderbilt, who married the 9th duke in 1895, a social coup for her mother, but a lesser triumph for her father, who provided millions to restore and maintain Blenheim. Consuelo later divorced and eventually achieved happiness as Countess Balsan. Right, the 9th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough with their heir and spare, painted by John Singer Sargent in 1907.

The Red Drawing Room
In a future blog, I will take you on a tour of Blenheim and tell more of the story of how a family has had the lives of generations absolutely dominated by the care and maintenance of a home that is also almost a national monument.  Imagine needing a new roof!

The London and Waterloo Tour – Victoria and Albert: Art in Love at the Queen's Gallery

Victoria and I are looking forward to the Victoria and Albert: Art in Love exhibit at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. The Exhibition features 400 items from The Royal Collection including gifts exchanged by Victoria and Albert such as drawings, paintings, sculpture, furniture, musical scores and jewellery and encompasses their mutual love of music and art. The display also touches upon Prince Albert’s work on ‘The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations in 1851’ as well Queen Victoria in the years after Albert’s death in 1861.

Works by the couple’s favorite artist, Franz Xaver Winterhalter, are on display, as are photographs taken of the Royal couple. A German painter first recommended to Queen Victoria by Louise, Queen of the Belgians, Winterhalter came to England in 1842 and subsequently worked regularly for the queen and her family over the next two decades. Winterhalter was granted the largest number of royal commissions and produced numerous formal portraits, including the one pictured above, which Queen Victoria commissioned in 1843 as a surprise for her husband’s 24th birthday. The artist presents the Queen in an intimate pose, leaning against a red cushion with her hair half unravelled from its fashionable knot.

Winterhalter (at left) was born in the Grand Duchy of Baden in 1805. He excelled at painting and drawing as a teen and went to Munich where he studied at the Academy of Arts. By the late 1830’s he drew attention as a painter of royal subjects. He traveled and painted in almost every court of Europe until the last few years of his life. Though art critics were never very enthusiastic about his work, his portraits were well executed and conveniently flattering.

Costumes are also displayed in the exhibit, including Queen Victoria’s costume for the 1851 Stuart Ball  designed by French artist Eugène Lami. The French silk gown is rich in lace and brocade.
You can take a really in-depth video tour of the exhibition here and/or visit the Royal Collection website.

Winterhalter’s The First of May 1851, at right,  shows the Duke of Wellington presenting a casket to his one-year-old godson, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, who is supported by Queen Victoria. Behind these figures and forming the apex of a pyramidal composition is Prince Albert, half looking over his shoulder towards the Crystal Palace in the left background. Both the Duke of Wellington and Prince Albert are dressed in the uniform of Field Marshal and wear the Order of the Garter. The painting derives its title from the fact that both the Duke of Wellington and Prince Arthur were born on 1 May, which was also the date of the inauguration of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park.

 The painting was commissioned by Queen Victoria, but Winterhalter clearly encountered some difficulties in devising an appropriate composition. In the queen’s words, he ‘did not seem to know how to carry it out’ and it was Prince Albert ‘with his wonderful knowledge and taste’ who gave Winterhalter the idea of using a casket, instead of the gold cup the Duke had actually presented to the child. The painting hangs at the Duke’s country home, Stratfield Saye.

Above, Victoria and Albert with their children in 1846, Buckingham Palace

The London and Waterloo Tour – The Grenadier Pub

Let me preface this post by saying that it may be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever written due to the fact that I had the most chilling experience of my life at the Grenadier Pub. Read on. . . .

Tucked away down London’s exclusive Wilton Mews, on the corner of Old Barrack Yard, the patriotic Grenadier pub is painted red, white and blue and boasts a red sentry box that serves as a nod to the property’s military history. Reputedly, the Duke of Wellington’s Grenadier Guards used it as their mess. Inside it is small, dark and cozy, the  paneled walls covered with military and Wellington memorabilia. Reputedly, the pub’s upper floors were once used as the officers’ mess of a nearby barracks, whilst its cellar was pressed into service as a drinking and gambling lair for the common soldiers.

A display at the entrance to the pub informs us that “18 Wilton Row was built circa 1720 as the home to The 1st Regiment of Foot Guards regiment and famously known as the Duke of Wellington’s Officers Mess. Originally named The Guardsman as a Licensed Premises in 1818, and frequented by King George IV, the Grenadier enjoys a fine reputation for good food and beer.” From the same display we also find out that the 1st Regiment of Foot Guards was created in 1656, and that 1st Guards were renamed by Royal Proclamation as the ‘Grenadier Regiment of Foot Guards’ because of their heroic actions against French Grenadiers at Waterloo in 1815. Continuing the Wellington connection, directly outside in the old Barrack Yard at the side of the pub is what is reputed to be the remaining stone of the Duke’s mounting block, whilst an archway down the nearby alley forms part of his stables.

Here, a young subaltern is said to have once been caught cheating at cards, and his comrades punished him with such a savage beating that he died from his injuries.

The Grenadier is said to be one of the most haunted places in London. People who have worked there have quit after supernatural run-ins with a solemn, silent spectre reportedly seen moving slowly across the low-ceilinged rooms. Objects either disappear or else are mysteriously moved overnight. Unseen hands rattle tables and chairs, and a strange, icy chill has been known to hang in the air, sometimes for days on end. A ghostly face floats in an upstairs window and – the most common tale – the sentry box out front is haunted by the ghost of the dead subaltern.

So . . . a few years ago I was at the Grenadier with Sue Ellen Welfonder (Bozzy) and three other women whom I won’t name because I haven’t seen them in years and have no idea whether or not they want to be associated with the following story. I don’t talk about it myself, as it makes one seem as odd as those who claim to have been abducted by aliens or to have seen the Loch Ness Monster and Big Foot. We, Reader, saw ghosts. Not a ghost, but a circle of ghosts. Regency soldier ghosts, no less.

The five of us could see that the alley beside the Pub led back to a yard with stable doors and a row of quaint single story houses along one wall. Very atmospheric, very historic . . . very tempting. What was back there? we asked. Let’s go look! we answered. What. A. Mistake. As you can see by the photo, a sort of alley runs beside the Pub and opens up at the end to the doors to what is reputed to have been Wellington’s stable.

We walked down the alley to the end, where the car is visible in the photo below. There was a car parked in the very same spot on the night in question. We got to the end of the alley and saw . . . . . a ring of ten to twelve men – soldiers, whose red coats had been thrown in a pile atop the cobbles. They wore breeches and boots and white shirts. They stood in a circle in the space between the front of the car and the stable doors – surrounding a man who was on his knees at the center of the circle, his face already bloody and bruised from the beating that had already been going on for some time (centuries?). These men were pissed off. Even taking into account the fact that cheating at cards was a much more serious offence then than it is today, their anger was beyond anything justified by such an offence.


We watched them as though we were watching a film that was being played at half strength. That’s the only way I can describe it. The scene was playing out before our eyes, in the bricked space between the car and the black stable doors, the men utterly oblivious to our presence. The film ran for a minute, probably less in hindsight, and then flickered out. Except this film had something extra – this one had been filmed in “emotion-vision.” As we watched the ghostly events, each one of us could actually feel the anger and the venom that was being directed towards the poor schmuck on his knees in the middle of the circle. In fact, I think the strength of that collective emotion was more overwhelming to us than the fact that we’d actually just seen ghosts. The experience was so shocking, so life altering that I will be forever grateful that I was in the company of others when it happened or else I’d truly doubt whether it had all taken place. Bozzy has reminded me that these events happened on Saturday, August 3, 1996, though September is supposed to be the month for the most ghostly occurrences at the Grenadier. Now you see why I call Sue Ellen “my Boswell” for she documents my life – in words and pictures – as thoroughly as Boswell did for Dr. Johnson.

The side door to the Grenadier Pub is now kept locked and access to the alley was blocked when I was there last (too right, mate!) and I have to admit that I really only gave getting to the exact site where we’d seen the ghosts a half hearted effort. You might now only be able to gain entry to the stable yard from the street behind. I suppose seeing ghosts is much like childbirth – the true horror of the experience abates with time and fourteen years have passed. Therefore, I’ve promised my eager-to-see-a-ghost daughter we’d go back to the Grenadier when we’re in London in June and so Brooke, Victoria and myself will be stopping by one evening for dinner.  And you can bet that I’ll be hoisting a few drinks before I even attempt to visit the alley again. I’ll report back on what we find. Or, with luck, don’t find. I say – Where’s the ghost of Arthur Wellesley when you need him?

London and Waterloo Tour – Apsley House

One of the very first stops Victoria and I will be making together is a visit to Apsley House, the Duke of Wellington’s London home.  Apsley House is, of course, the place from which we took the name for this blog. The house became familiarly known as Number One, London as it was the first house after the Knightsbridge toll gates that travelers passed upon entering London.

Apsley House, originally a red brick building, was built between 1781-1787 by neo-classical architect Robert Adam for Baron Apsley, later the second Earl Bathurst. It was purchased by Marquess Wellesley, elder brother to Arthur Wellesley, in 1807, with financial difficulties following soon after. Needing a base of operations and residence in London, and seeking to ease his brother’s financial burdens, the ever practical Duke purchased the house in 1817.
Wellington settled upon architect Benjamin Wyatt to carry out restorations to Apsley House. Wyatt  expanded Apsley by two bays, and built the Waterloo Gallery for the Duke’s paintings and refaced the house with Bath stone. Wellington presided over the redecoration of Apsley House’s interiors in Regency fashion and hosted annual Waterloo Banquets to commemorate his victory of 1815, entertaining fellow officers from his campaigns in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo.

The house was used for entertaining on a grand scale, and Wellington’s great dinner and dessert services are on display. The Sèvres Egyptian Service was commissioned by Napoleon for his Empress Josephine. The vast silver Portuguese Service, with an 8 metre long centrepiece, adorned the table at the annual Waterloo Banquet, a great event at which the Duke entertained officers who had served under him at Waterloo and in the Peninsular War.

From 1992-1995 Apsley House was restored to its former glory as the private palace of the ‘Iron Duke’. Apsley House is the last great London town-house with collections largely intact and family still in residence.

The first Duke of Wellington possessed a collection of art and fine furnishings perhaps unrivalled by any contemporary.  After the Duke’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo, grateful nations and private citizens showered Wellington with gifts of thanks, including a fine Sevres porcelain service from Louis XVIII of France, and superlative Portuguese silver.

There are also 200 paintings from the royal collection of the Kings of Spain that Wellington recovered from Joseph Bonaparte after the Battle of Vitoria in 1813. After King Ferdinand VII was reinstated as monarch, he asked Wellington to keep the paintings as a gift of thanks. The Duke, no fool he, agreed. Among these paintings are works by Goya, Velasquez, Correggio, and Rubens.

Front and centre upon entering Apsley is Antonio Canova’s huge statue of Napoleon, portrayed as an ancient Greek athlete. The sword carried by Wellington at Waterloo is on display in the Plate and china Room, as well as the sword of his great foe Napoleon.

I suppose I should come clean and confess that the last time I was at Apsley House I set off the alarms. Really. It was in the Waterloo Chamber. I was looking at the 8 metre long silver centerpiece on the table and simply could not believe my eyes. The entire thing was coated in a layer of dust. My eyes must be deceiving me, thought I, as I wiped a fingertip across one of the figures. Well, not only was there, indeed, dust on my finger, but the alarms began sounding and by the time a guard entered the room, I’d turned my back and was studying the full length portrait of George IV. No matter that I was the only person in the room, I simply acted as though nothing at all had happened. And as far as I’m concerned, it hadn’t. Hopefully, they feel the same and will let me back in this June.   Kristine