Visiting Saltram House with Victoria

Now that I am almost on my way to England, I will post about one of my favorite house visits from past trips. Saltram House is near Plymouth in Devon.

Saltram’s first records indicate the Bagg family built a large Tudor house on the site in the 16th century. After the Civil War, the Carteret family acquired the property and did some remodeling before Parliament allowed them to sell a Crown-granted property to George Parker in 1712.

His daughter-in-law, Lady Catherine Parker and her husband John rebuilt sections of the house and filled their addition with decorations in the rococo style. The architect and artisans are unknown though Lady Catherine herself is said to have been the primary designer.  Right, a portrait of Mrs. John Parker by Sir Joshua Reynolds, c. 1770-72.
     
A central staircase with a glass ceiling was created from the traditional Tudor courtyard in the center of the squarish house.
Enclosing the courtyard was a relatively new idea at the time, providing bright light to the center of the house and allowing for a grand staircase. In the photo from the 1995 film of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, Fanny Dashwood peers down at Elinor and Edward, and she thoroughly disapproves of the budding romance.

John II, who became Lord Boringdon in 1784, brought in Robert Adam to re-design unfinished rooms, particularly the Saloon, even now virtually unchanged from the master’s touch. Lord Boringdon was a close friend of Sir Joshua Reynolds, who assisted in the acquisition of Saltram’s fine collection of art, including ten of Reynolds’ works.  Several paintings by Angelica Kauffman also hang at Saltram. She often worked closely with Robert Adam.

Left is a self-portrait of Ms. Kaufmann from Saltram.

Also from this period is the design of the gardens, woods and lawns, which today shield the property from the invasion of modern-day Plymouth. Except for a few spots in which young trees replace some old ones lost in storms, the visitor would never know she strolled in the center of a suburban/
industrial environment. Below, snowdrops in early spring at Saltram.

John Parker III, at age 16, became Lord Boringdon upon the death of his father in 1788; he was named first Earl of Morley in 1815. After some years on the Grand Tour, he followed his forefathers by representing the area in Parliament and as a leader in local affairs. But his costly engineering properties for the surrounding region brought debts requiring the family to let the house from 1861 to 1894.

The third Earl, also a politician and statesman, and his son lived at Saltram until 1951 when the house, its contents and 290 acres of park were given to the nation in lieu of death taxes and taken over by the National Trust.

As I already mentioned, Saltram house played the Role of the Norland estate in the 1995 film Sense and Sensibility, adapted by Emma Thompson, which is superior, in my opinion, to later versions.

The Red Velvet Drawing Room, from which Elinor weepily watches Marianne playing the pianoforte in the Saloon and is comforted by Edward, has several noteworthy features. Many of the gilded chairs retain their original red velvet seats. The guidebook compliments the care of the housekeepers, who kept extra covers in place when the family was not entertaining. An old inventory lists a red and white feather duster as part of the room’s furnishings, and indicates that at least one of the Countesses dusted her precious porcelains herself. A pierced gilded fillet surrounds the fireplace and doors, running horizontally along the chair rail, quite evident in the film. While very elegant, this is a comfortable room that would put its occupants at their ease.

The saloon was used for balls, concerts and receptions, a necessary feature of great country houses. Its Adam-designed formality is as grand as the family rooms are intimate. Walls are covered in pale blue damask, as is the suite of eighteen armchairs and two sofas by Chippendale. Several of Adam’s intricately-detailed drawings for the woodwork, mirrors and fittings hang in the hallway and many others are in Sir John Soane’s Museum in London. Joseph Rose executed the elegant ceiling plasterwork and was paid 434 pounds in 1772. As so often in Adam rooms, the roundels featuring the goddesses Diana and Venus, were painted by Antonio Zucchi and Angelica
Kauffmann. The two elaborate 19th century chandeliers now hanging in the saloon were tied out of view for the film.

The first Countess of Morley wrote of a ball at Saltram in 1810, “We lighted it by putting a quantity of candles over the doors, the places in which they were fixed being concealed by large wreaths and festoons of leaves and flowers beautiful to behold…round the room we had two rows of seats affording comfortable anchorage for about 200 persons.”

Of interest to the modern visitor is the Great Kitchen containing an open range dating from 1810. A collection of more than 600 copper pans and utensils is on display. In 1788, the kitchen staff included a cook, kitchen maid, scullery maid and still-room maid, in addition to other indoor servants: a governess, the housekeeper, two housemaids and the butler’s staff of an underbutler, two footmen and a brewer. In 1811, each bedroom was provided with a copper can of hot water at least twice a day.

The grounds contain several gardens, an orangery (right), follies, stables and a chapel. Parts of the estate are being preserved as wildflower and wildlife habitats. While wandering the lawns admiring the view of the river Plym or the sheep and cattle across the ha-ha, only the faint sounds of the nearby motorway might remind the visitor of the 21st century. But a careful reading of the guide book reveals that the ha-ha was constructed in 1963; until then, the cattle grazed right up to the buildings. And, as always in NT properties, the temptations of the well-stocked gift shop and the delights of the tea room are features I love, though they weren’t available to early 19th century guests.

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, Part Three

How could a family keep up a house and estate this large? Such a question plagues the families who have the responsibility of great houses, though probably just a few with a property near this size. Many houses have been presented to the National Trust, but the Trust requires that properties given to them be accompanied by a large endowment for their maintenance and operation.  Public funds are available to houses based on their historical significance, their degree of need, and the necessity of opening to visitors (which in itself involves many expenses for washrooms, parking, guarding, refreshments, repairs, etc. etc.).

Blenheim Palace attracts many visitors in itself, but never enough paying customers just to see the house and gardens. So, like many other stately homes in Britain, the estate is now a business, home to all sorts of  events.

John Spencer-Churchill, 84, the 11th Duke of Marlborough, and his 4th wife, Her Grace Lily, Duchess of Marlborough 

The Blenheim Horse Trials are justly famous, but only one of many sporting events held on the grounds. To amuse the children, the 11th duke began a railway, a maze, the Butterfly House, an adventure playground and the Churchill Exhibition.

The estate is the venue for all sorts of concerts, fairs, sporting events  and can be hired for weddings.

Bike Blenheim is one of many  charity events. Or attend one of the flower festivals, antique or craft shows, art exhbitions, and more.

Sad to say, but apparently true, the historical and cultural treasures of the great country estates with their incredible gardens — all these riches are not enough to attract sufficient numbers of paying customers to meet the bills.  One has only to think of how many stately homes are now part of schools and colleges, hotels,
country clubs, or worst of all, demolished. In the latter category are hundreds of once thriving estates dating from the time when owning land was the key to wealth.

One more opportunity for earning money is to serve as the setting for movies and television programs.  You have seen parts of Blenheim Palace and its grounds in scenes from many films, such as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, The Young Victoria, The Oxford Murders, and currently filming, a version of Gulliver’s Travels.

The Blenheim Railway
David Littlejohn wrote a book called The Fate of the English Country House in 1997.  If you are interested in this complicated set of issues (private fortunes vs. public support, national heritage vs. contemporary welfare, etc. etc.), find a copy of Littlejohn’s book. You’ll never tour quite the same way again.

Or go to this website for the story of 1,776 demolished country houses. It’s a sad story.

But aren’t we lucky that so many wonderful estates remain for us to visit. We’ll blog about more soon.

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!

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