Or just come with me to view a selection of photos from this and previous years. Enjoy!
Though it has been a few years since I visited Holkham Hall, it remains one of my favorite English Country Houses and I have saved pictures from its Christmas festivities over the years. If I could visit during the holidays, I would--just to see what creative things they do with their decorations.
You can join Father Christmas for candlelight tours and other events at their website
Or just come with me to view a selection of photos from this and previous years. Enjoy!
I don't know about you, but I have all I can do to wrestle one tree! So this is really grand!
MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL.
Just to purge my grimies before the holidays REALLY arrive, I decided to write about a place I did not admire -- and why. Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire is one of Britain's most-visited country houses, and you know how I aspire to visit them all. It is extravagantly magnificent and filled with treasures. So why didn't I enjoy my visit to Blenheim?
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the great country houses, at least to me, is the families who lived in them. Blenheim Palace seems to have had more unhappiness than good cheer. I have not yet seen the film The Favourite, but two of the principal characters were concerned with the building of Blenheim: Queen Anne and Sarah Jennings Churchill, the first Duchess of Marlborough, below in a portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller, dated 1702, National Portrait Gallery, London.
Sarah was a close confidante of Queen Anne, and the wife of John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough. When the Duke was victorious over the French in the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, Anne proposed to build the Marlboroughs a great national monument as a Palace for their use in the royal manor of Woodstock in Oxfordshire. Thus began the long and often sad saga of the house ad family. Below, John Churchill, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, NPG.
While her husband was away leading British armies Sarah quarreled with everyone, the Queen and the architect John Van Brugh; Sarah wanted a livable home while the others wanted a Palace of Versailles for England. Angry, the Queen reneged on her payments, beginning several centuries of struggle for the Churchill family, later known as the Spencer-Churchills, to support the estate financially. Below, Queen Anne, after John Clostermann, 1702.
The Spencer-Churchills were not a particularly wealthy family and the requirements of court life and maintenance of Blenheim were a severe burden. Charles, the 9th duke (1871-1934) turned to an American alliance to rescue Blenheim from its debts. His marriage to Consuelo Vanderbilt was notoriously unhappy and ended in divorce after she provided bundles of money plus an heir and a spare. The portrait below was painted by John Singer Sargent in 1905.
The 9th duke's cousin was Winston Churchill (1874-1965), grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough, and also the son of an American heiress, Jennie Jerome, wife of Randolph Churchill. Below, Sir Winston photographed in 1941 by Yousuf Karsh of Ottawa. If Winston had been responsible for the care of Blenheim, how could he have saved the world in WWII?
So far I have not provided many reasons for disliking Blenheim, beyond the travails of its owners. Which, I believe, counts for a lot. I also found its appearance unwelcoming, harsh, and unfriendly both outside and in. Upon approaching the front entrance, it seems to be frowning at the visitor.
The corner turrets atop the towers are militaristic, supposed to be like bursting battle explosions. Though the front pediment is of Roman sternness, it seems Van Brugh and his associate Hawksmoor, could not stop adding baroque embellishments elsewhere. Or perhaps they had a fire sale at the stone curlicue dealer.
Above, the Green Writing-Room with the Battle of Blenheim tapestry.
The rooms are small, almost claustrophobic with their huge and overwhelming tapestries and little natural light. Rarely did a room look like you could relax with a cuppa and a good book without fearing that some army battalion would come marching upon you.
Obviously these State Rooms are not where the family could hideaway but one can easily see why Sarah wanted a less magisterial home.
The Long Library was altered from its original purpose as a picture gallery and though it is now furnished as a relatively comfortable sitting room, it still seems prickly to me. The family tree, displayed in the foreground of the picture. traces the family back to the 8th century Charlemagne, not (as usually in country houses) merely to 1066.
Though I do not like the house or the interiors, the pleasure park and gardens are brilliant. One of the triumphs of Lancelot "Capability" Brown, the grounds contain a lake, the brilliant bridge by Van Brugh, the Grand Cascade, the Victory Column, and much much more. Below, the Bridge.
I hope you have the opportunity to visit Blenheim, preferably during a season when the lawns are fully green. In the summer I first visited, here is how the grass looked. Maybe you will love it and I welcome the comments of anyone who wants to challenge my opinion of the place!
Though we often forget such ancient history in regard to Country Houses in Britain, the first ones we know of were actually from the period of Roman control beginning with the conquest in 43AD. The first Roman villa I visited was Chedworth, above, a National Trust property since the 1920's.
The Romans built in stone so like the wisest of The Three Pigs, their structures lasted for centuries, however knocked down, covered over or otherwise demolished they were. And they embellished their buildings with mosaics like these.
Above is an artist's rendition of the Chedworth villa in the fourth century from the Wikipedia site. In addition to a luxurious dwelling, it contained farm buildings, and their associated activities. Located in the Cotswold Hills in Gloucestershire, they probably raised sheep, a cash industry in Britain since time immemorial.
Below, mosaics from the Bignor Roman Villa in West Sussex, another well developed site for studying the Romano-British culture which stretched over four centuries, a very long time.
Medusa, above, and a Dolphin, below.
The Bignor Roman villa has impressive mosaics and some reconstructions of what Roman houses may have looked like nearly two thousand years ago.
The Fishbourne Roman Palace, also in West Sussex, is the largest Roman residence yet discovered in Britain, as well as being among the earliest; it dates from about 75 AD.
It has been extensively examined, and shows all the attributes the Romans developed to create central heating, running water and other conveniences forgotten for centuries thereafter.
Many other Roman sites can be visited throughout Britain. In addition to the villas, many Roman artifacts--statues, tools, jewelry and others--are in museums across the country.
There are Roman remains from the Channel coast north to Hadrian's Wall and its associated forts, erected across Britain east-west to protect from invasion by the fierce Scots.
I just can't leave this topic without a mention of a few of my other favorite Roman remnants in Britain. For example, below, fragments of the Roman Wall in London.
Photo above: By John Winfield, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3186845
Below, the Roman-style columns of the British Museum, a treasure trove of Roman artifacts -- among a few other cultures!!
Below, a Mithraic altar, coins, and a wonderful book, all from the British Museum. Click on the photos for larger versions.
Last year, I visited the remains of the Roman Amphitheater discovered during the rebuilding of the Guildhall Art Museum in the City of London.
And perhaps the most famous of the Roman remains, the bathing facilities in Bath.
Bath's Aqua Sulis was a tourist center many centuries ago, as it is today.
Above, Sulis Minerva, the goddess who united the Celtic goddess Sulis with the Roman deity Minerva, representing the healing powers of the hot springs.
I am here to endorse those healing powers -- I definitely felt better after trying out the Thermae Bath pools in modern-day Bath, A true delight! Those Romans were very clever to take the local springs and use them so wisely!
Haddon Hall near Bakewell in Derbyshire is a fine example of a medieval house which grew into a Tudor estate and has been "virtually unchanged" since the 17th century. Unlike so many country houses, which are remodeled with almost each generation, Haddon has retained it essential early features.
Haddon Hall became the property of the Manners family, Dukes of Rutland, by the marriage of Dorothy Vernon (daughter of Sir George Vernon ) to John Manners in 1563. The Manner family home is Belvoir Castle, and like many families with several estates, they tended to stay there, leaving Haddon uninhabited for the most part
This was a common pattern, leaving a wife's estate in limbo while entering family activities at the husband's properties. The unintended consequence is the fine condition of some early homes which were inherited by women.
Above, my pictures from a recent visit, showing the fine restoration of the rooms carried on by Lord Edward Manners, brother of the current 11th Duke of Rutland.
Cothele sits on the Tamar River, the boundary between Devon and Cornwall. Like Haddon, it is a medieval-cum-Tudor house which retains its early features. The property came into the Edgecumbe faimly -- who owned it until after World War II -- when Richard Edgecumbe married the heiress Hilaria de Cothele in 1353. The National Trust took over in 1947.
Beautiful gardens are terraced down the hillside, essentially a Victorian creation.
Wisteria seems to enhance every building it accompanies. Perhaps it is at its loveliest upon gray stone walls and lead-paned windows. No one has noted the age of this example, but one can assume it is very, very old.
The Great Hall at Cothele is similar to the Great Halls in all ancient country houses, the area where the community dined together, played, worked, even slept in the earliest houses. Traditionally the three doors in the screen wall led to the kitchen, the buttery, and the pantry.
Among the most admired and unique features of Cothele is the collection of tapestries from the 16th and 17th centuries. Observers have attributed the fine condition o the hangings to "benign neglect" since the family maintained the house while living elsewhere most of the time.
Like so many ancient estates, Cothele was an agricultural community and home to dozens of families who occupied the tenant farms and businesses such as the mill (above right) and the shipping center on the river (left).
I recently attended a lecture by Jeremy Musson, whose many books are a constant source of delight, if a bit too heavy to carry around. However, I toted one home anyway.
I photographed Mr. Musson in 2012 at the Milwaukee Art Museum where I listened to him talk about one of his previous books (which I also bought of course) English Country House Interiors.
Mr. Musson wrote for many years for Country Life magazine and visited a large percentage of the country houses in Britain. In his new volume he partners with David Cannadine in their volume for Rizzoli and the Royal Oak Society, American affiliate of Britain's National Trust.
Mr. Cannadine's essay opening the volume explains the significance of the 1985-86 exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C. As a serendipitous coincidence, we toured this exhibition, and its catalogue has long been one of my prize possessions. I have gone on in the subsequent decades to study and visit as many Stately Homes as I can, not only in Britain but also in the U.S. and on my travels elsewhere.
The photo above, from the National Gallery's website, shows part of the installation of the exhibition featuring the marble statue Three Graces by Canova, which was purchased in 1994 from its then-owner the Duke of Bedford of Woburn Abbey. It has since been shared by its newer owners, the Victoria and Albert Museum, London and the National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh.
As I page through the Treasure Houses catalogue, I am surprised and gratified at how many of the objects--paintings, sculpture, furniture, china, etc.--I have visited in situ since my first forays into the splendors of the country houses and their collections. Above is the magnificent sofa, c 1762-65, from Kedleston Hall's Drawing Room designed by Robert Adam and executed by the firm of John Linnell. Also by Linnell for an Adam-designed house are these chairs from Osterley Park.
Getting back to the The Country House, Past Present and Future, the cover picture shows us Uppark in West Sussex, a house which the National Trust painstakingly restored after a terrible fire in 1989. Below, the fire on August 30, 1989.
Fortunately, most of the furnishings, paintings and decorative arts on the ground floor were saved by brave volunteers, but the roof was destroyed and collapsed. The 17th century house not only had a heritage of fine collections and architectural significance, but it also had a fascinating history of inhabitants before it was turned over to the NT in 1954. The Trust decided to restore the house after the fire and it was re-opened in 1995 after years of careful restoration.
Fire struck again in 2015 when Clandon House, an 18th century architectural gem burned. Again, many of the furnishings were saved and the NT has begun restorations. The picture on the right shows the house as it was when we visited a few years before the fire.
Before I wander off topic a bit again, as I do so often, come with me briefly to Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire. The first time I visited, shortly after the 1995 TV version of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice was shown in the U.S., the version with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, the House was exhibiting a selection of the costumes from the film.
After looking at the costumes, we enjoyed all the attraction of the lovely old house, assisted by the usually voluble and patient volunteers for the NT. However, when we reached the Red Room, a handsome bedchamber, we ran into a curmudgeon. "Ooh," we exclaimed. "This is the room where Mr Darcy changed his coat!" The volunteer guide was downright offended. "Madam!" he huffed. "This was the bedroom of Queen Adelaide!"
We apologized and heard this story. After the death of King William IV in 1837, his widowed queen spent several years traveling among country houses away from the Court. Though Queen Victoria was sincerely fond of her aunt Adelaide, apparently the Duchess of Kent resented her influence. So she politely stayed away.
This little story illustrates two points. First, even when run by the National Trust, they can use the income from films and TV, no matter if it annoys their volunteers.
Secondly, the families and individuals associated with these houses are often more interesting then the estates themselves.
In the volume ostensibly the subject of this blog, Jeremy Musson and his essayists discuss many topics associated with the study and enjoyment of country houses. not the least of them the 'Downton Effect.' As he notes, the country house 'business' has never been better. Building on books and films such as Brideshead Revisited, the Jane Austen phenomenon, and so forth, we are all captivated by the stories, whether real or fictional, of life in stately homes, whether above or below stairs. For further captivation, I highly recommend a comfy chair, a cup of tea, and an afternoon (or several) devoted to reading and gazing at The Country House, Past, Present and Future.
This aerial view of Calke Abbey shows only a portion of the outbuildings and park belonging to the property. The gardens and pleasure grounds would be in the foreground if the picture was extended.
Some of the outbuildings have been converted for the use of National Trust visitors -- the necessary, parking, cafe, gift shop, and so forth. Note the sign above, "Repaired not restored, Calke is the 'Un-stately' home."
An unidentified ruin on the grounds...what was it?
The stables...imagine what fine horses once lived here. Click on the photos below for full size versions.
In the Pleasure Grounds, the Grotto was built in 1809.
There are many lovely walks for visitors.
Fruit and vegetables in abundance...the orchard and kitchen garden.
Adjacent was the flower garden, full of gorgeous dahlias in September.
It is a unique opportunity to visit Calke Abbey and see what happens to stately homes in decline. I am certain that the NT finds this experiment worthwhile, and might even inspire some contributions. More about Country Houses and their Fate coming soon.
The National Trust refers to Calke Abbey as "The Unstately Home" and certainly we visitors found it unusual! When the NT acquired it in 1985, parts of the house had been abandoned for decades and were, in their words, "in a state of rapid decline. We decided not to restore these rooms but rather preserve them as they were found."
On second thought, I should point out that many steps were taken to allow visitors to roam the grounds, as the provision of loos, or, as they once were known, Necessaries.
Founded in the very early 12th century, an Augustinian Priory once occupied the estate. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538, it passed through several families before being acquired by the Harpurs in 1622. Twelve subsequent generations of the Harpurs lived at Calke until it was handed over to the NT in 1985 in lieu of taxes and death duties. The house, as it stands above, was completed in 1704, an excellent example of English Baroque.
Above, the Salon. The National Trust was faced with a difficult dilemma, The estate was so dilapidated it could probably never be restored to the elegant and pristine status of most fine NT houses open to the public. A decision was reached to preserve but not to repair the house, by replacing the roof -- a monumental task in itself -- and making the interior and exterior accessible for visitors -- to show a country house in its state of decline. Reader, it's a mess! Crammed with hunting so-called trophies from birds to water buffalo, it gave all of us a definite case of the creeps. Perfectly suitable for Halloween.
How people endured this grisly setting is beyond me. But many families lived here over the years, winding their way among the relics and probably hiding out in nooks unmarred by such horrors.
Sir Henry Harpur 7th Baronet, 1763-1819, was known as the Isolated Baronet, beginning the tradition of secluded families on the estate. He added Crewe to his last name, and married a former ladies maid in 1792. His eldest son, Sir George Crewe (1795-1844), 8th Baronet, inherited and made some improvements in the estate, but mostly lived elsewhere with his wife, Jane Whitaker (1799-1880), painted below by artist Ramsay Richard Reinagle in 1828.
The Caricature Room is an unusual variation on the traditional 18th century print room. Rather than scenes of beautiful landscapes, these pictures portray political and social satire,
The central staircase with children's toys: a rocking horse and a dollhouse. Below, views of the Dining Room. It even looked usable for meals.
Above, the Library. Many equine portraits decorate the walls above the book shelves. More views of the library, below. The picture is "A Group of Ponies in the Park" painted in 1850 by John E. Ferneley Sr. (1782-1860).
Above the Drawing Room, and below, the Breakfast Room.
Upstairs, the State Bed stands, though it was never used, to the best of recollection. Why it is there is unknown, but it is a lovely object, with hangings of Chinese Silk
Below, assorted rooms, many relived of effluvia or otherwise used for storage.
Many rooms were unnamed and their use not noted.
Above, 19th century fire fighting equipment. Soon we will take a look at the outbuildings, pleasure gardens, and park at Calke Abbey.
Recently I have visited a couple of houses which illustrate dramatically the decline and ruination of many English Country Houses. Here is the first of several posts on these spots. For many years, I have wanted to visit this site, a preserved ruin of a lovely country house fallen into the fate of so many of its fellows among stately homes.
Kristine Hughes Patrone and I had come to the Isle of Wight primarily to visit Osborne House, a residence of Queen Victoria and her family. But we decided we must see this famous ruin, so we set off on a bus ride around the Isle, driving through picturesque towns, villages, and the countryside. When the driver told us we had reached the proper stop after an hour or so, we got off and followed the signpost toward English Heritage's site.
Off we trudged up the road, past a farm or two, empty fields and lots of friendly cows. Remember to click on the photos above for full size versions. It was a long hike, in my opinion, but worth it.
Eventually, after several hills and amidst lovely bluebells in the woods, we saw it. There wasn't a soul around. A small carpark was empty and a closed building that apparently held an office stood at the edge of the premises, but no evidence of human company showed.
The silence seemed suitable, correct for the shattered elegance of the noble structure, stripped of almost all its accouterments. It was not spooky, but merely sad, with the world having passed it by. Once, it seemed to say, I was magnificent.
Originally a priory, the property was the home of the Leigh family in the Elizabethan era. In 1702, Sir Robert Worsley began a new building on the site which was extended in the 1770's by his heir, Sir Richard Worsley.
You can see from the photo above that it has been stripped of all furnishings except for one room.
Here a room was enclosed and roofed; these portraits and a text panel told the sad story of the house and its ill-fated occupants. On the left is Sir Richard Worsley, (1751-1805). 7th Baronet of Appuldurcombe, copy of a portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1775. On the right is Seymour Dorothy Fleming, his wife Lady Worsley (1758-1818), a reproduction of the painting by Reynolds, now hanging in Harwood House, Yorkshire. They married in 1775.
The very unhappy marriage led to a Crim. Con. case in court, and wild stories resulting in such caricatures as this 1782 Gillray cartoon titled "Sir Richard Worse-than-sly, exposing his wife's bottom, o fye!" Eventually they separated permanently and took up with others.
The beautiful house remained until after World War II during which it was used by the military. A German explosive destroyed the roof and it was never repaired. After the hostilities ended the interiors were removed, leaving only a shell. And so it remains.
Supposedly it is haunted but on the beautiful May day we visited, all we met were blossoms.
If you are in the market for a fixer-upper, English Heritage might be willing to deal!
The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art was a treat to visit, a treasure-house full of objects from many centuries worldwide. It has two adjacent buildings. The columned original was opened in 1933; the Bloch Building, housing contemporary art opened in 2007.
For my purpose here on this blog, I will look primarily at British Art from the 19th and 19th centuries. But first....the exterior. Below, left the original building combining neo-classic and art deco styles; at right, the white structure of the Bloch building.
Within there is a wide contrast in styles; in this court, the pillars frame fine Brussels tapestries from the 17th century.
You can see the back of The Thinker by Rodin in the middle overlooking the broad lawn and sculpture park.
The classical urn is a perfecct foil for the shuttlecock by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje von Bruggen, one of four in various positions in the park.
The stairwell in the "old" building, which dates from 1934.
Kim Wilson and I prepared to wear our feet to bluddy stubs as we tried to cover every gallery.
The Courtyard houses a lovely cafe where we refreshed our energy.
Among the N-A's treasures is this marble lion from Greece, 325 B.C.E. And now, as promised to some of the British works.
John Hoppner (1758-1810) painted Portrait of Lady Emily St. Clare as a Bacchante in 1806-07. She was an actress and the mistress of Sir John Flemming Leicester who commissioned many artists to paint her. Hoppner painted many aristocrats including all of George III's daughters.
Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830) painted Mrs. William Lock of Norbury in 1829. Lawrence was the best known portraitist in Europe in the early 19th century. His subject here, Frederica Augusta Lock is obviously prosperous and a credit to her husband, whose portrait hangs int he Boston Museum of Fine Art, also executed by Lawrence. The Locks had numerous children, and most were both amateur painters and collectors of art.
Among the Nelson-Atkins collection of miniatures is this portrait of King George IV in 1821 by Henry Bone (1755-1834), enamel on copper.
Repose, c.1777, by Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) shows a rustic landscape. The text panel says,"Thomas Gainsborough evoked the hard labor of the rural poor while also representing the landscape that provided a source of prosperity for the painting's wealthy audience." Gainsborough is probably best known for his elegant portraits of the aristocracy.
Among the many portraits is Henry Raeburn's (1756-1803) image of Master Alexander Mackenzie, 1822.
Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) was a master of the play of light. In Fish Market, 1810, he portrays the beach in Hastings where the fishermen display their wares for shoppers.
John Constable (1776-1837) was moving towards Romanticism with his work, The Dell at Helmingham Park, 1830.
Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) pictures a scene in the Lake District, Outlet of Wyburne Lake, 1796. This is Wright's last known painting.
The Stately Home on the site was formerly the Great Gatehouse of Beaulieu Abbey, founded in 1204 on land gifted to the Cistercian order by King John.
The springtime blooms of the rhododendrons and other flowers were spectacular.
Please click on the pictures for full-size versions.
Above, in the Topiary Garden, the Mad Hatter's Tea Party and the Cheshire Cat.
The Portrait Gallery, below, exhibits portraits of the various dukes and barons whose families owned the estate from the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII in the 16th century. In actuality, the estate has been in the hands of one or another branch of the same family since 1538.
Below, Walter Francis Montagu-Douglas-Scott, 5th Duke of Buccleuch (1806-1884), who presented the Beaulieu estate to his second son, Henry John Douglas-Scott-Montagu, 1st Baron Montagu of Beaulieu (1832-1905), ancestor of the present family in residence.
Below, the Lower Drawing Room, added in the Gothick style the 19th century, reflecting the monastic origins of the building.
Below, the Dining Hall, also a Victorian remodeling.
At one end of the Dining Room, the children's table was visited by someone's favorite mount.
Above. views of the Victorian kitchen, where treats for visitors were in the oven.
The Upper Drawing Room carried on the Gothick origins and style. Formerly it was a chapel for visitors to the Abbey. The piano is an English-made Broadwood.
The family Dining Room.
The Family Library aka The Late Lord Montague's sitting room ...comfortable in all respects.
Miniature stage set and enviable shelves of book. Let me at 'em.
The hallways are often the sites of a familiar scene in stately homes -- trophies of past conquests, which often do not appeal to my tastes in sport. Nevertheless, it was a lovely adaptation of an abbey turned family home.
Victoria Hinshaw, Author