Monday, 28 September 2015

The Umbrella


Apparently the umbrella entered Europe via Greece, Italy and Turkey. Tradition has it that the Normans brought the umbrella to England with them (presumably some sort of canopy regalia) in 1066, but there is nothing very tangible to support this. Umbrellas were however in common use in France in 1620. It is often claimed that umbrellas were introduced to England by Jonas Hanway about 1750, but this is definitely not correct. They are mentioned in Gays Trivia, The Art of Walking the Streets of London, published in 1712 and also in the Female Tattler for December 12th 1709. But Jonas Hanway was the first Englishman to carry an umbrella regularly. He was pelted by coachmen and chairmen for his persistence, since they saw this craze could endanger there own means of livelihood.

It should be remembered that in those days the only covered transport was the private coach or Sedan chair. Also that the umbrellas were very heavy, ungainly things made with whalebone or cane ribs, mounted on a long, stout stick of about 1" in diameter and covered with a heavy cotton fabric, waterproofed by oiling or waxing.

Only on a few public buildings was rainwater led from the roofs by gutters and fallpipes. In the main the water simply ran off the roof into the street. Although sometimes it was collected in gutters under the eaves and poured out like a miniature Niagara Falls, through the mouths of grotesque gargoyles at each corner of the building. Pavements were unknown and the gutter or kennel was in the middle of the street. The choice was then either to carry one of these portable tents or get soaked.

By 1787 the umbrella had achieved some considerable measure of popularity within a short period of time and the French ladies umbrellas had achieved remarkable elegance, and on the continent they were used as much as a sunshade as protection from rain. And it is from this period and via the sunshade that umbrellas began to develop into something lighter and more graceful.

Between 1816 and 1820 men's umbrellas had again reached a weight of over four pounds, but ladies umbrellas continued to be much lighter, weighing less than one pound. This was partly due to the use of finer fabric of silk and by the substitution of light iron stretchers, but in general umbrellas in this country, until the middle of the last century, were made with ribs of whalebone for the best quality and of split cane for the cheaper quality.

Then in the late 1800's came the development of the Fox Steel Ribs and Frames. And so the modern umbrella was born.

Marchesa Elena Grimaldi, by Anthonis van Dyck, 1623

17th century

Thomas Wright, in his Domestic Manners of the English, gives a drawing from the Harleian MS., No. 604, which represents an Anglo-Saxon gentleman walking out attended by his servant, the servant carrying an umbrella with a handle that slopes backwards, so as to bring the umbrella over the head of the person in front. It probably could not be closed, but otherwise it looks like an ordinary umbrella, and the ribs are represented distinctly.

The use of the parasol and umbrella in France and England was adopted, probably from China, about the middle of the seventeenth century. At that period, pictorial representations of it are frequently found, some of which exhibit the peculiar broad and deep canopy belonging to the large parasol of the Chinese Government officials, borne by native attendants.

John Evelyn, in his Diary for June 22, 1664, mentions a collection of rarities shown to him by "Thompson", a Roman Catholic priest, sent by the Jesuits of Japan and China to France.[23] Among the curiosities were "fans like those our ladies use, but much larger, and with long handles, strangely carved and filled with Chinese characters", which is evidently a description of the parasol.

In Thomas Coryat's Crudities, published in 1611, about a century and a half prior to the general introduction of the umbrella into England, is a reference to a custom of riders in Italy using umbrellas:

And many of them doe carry other fine things of a far greater price, that will cost at the least a duckat, which they commonly call in the Italian tongue umbrellas, that is, things which minister shadowve to them for shelter against the scorching heate of the sunne. These are made of leather, something answerable to the forme of a little cannopy, & hooped in the inside with divers little wooden hoopes that extend the umbrella in a pretty large compasse. They are used especially by horsemen, who carry them in their hands when they ride, fastening the end of the handle upon one of their thighs, and they impart so large a shadow unto them, that it keepeth the heate of the sunne from the upper parts of their bodies.

In John Florio's "A WORLD of Words" (1598), the Italian word Ombrella is translated

a fan, a canopie. also a testern or cloth of state for a prince. also a kind of round fan or shadowing that they vse to ride with in sommer in Italy, a little shade. Also a bonegrace for a woman. Also the husk or cod of any seede or corne. also a broad spreding bunch, as of fenell, nill, or elder bloomes.

In Randle Cotgrave's Dictionary of the French and English Tongues (1614), the French Ombrelle is translated

An umbrello; a (fashion of) round and broad fanne, wherewith the Indians (and from them our great ones) preserve themselves from the heat of a scorching sunne; and hence any little shadow, fanne, or thing, wherewith women hide their faces from the sunne.

In Fynes Moryson's Itinerary (1617) is a similar allusion to the habit of carrying umbrellas in hot countries "to auoide the beames of the Sunne". Their employment, says the author, is dangerous, "because they gather the heate into a pyramidall point, and thence cast it down perpendicularly upon the head, except they know how to carry them for auoyding that danger".

In France, the umbrella (parapluie) began to appear in 1660s, when the fabric of parasols carried for protection against the sun was coated with wax. The inventory of the French royal court in 1763 mentioned "eleven parasols of taffeta in different colours" as well as "three parasols of waxed toile, decorated around the edges with lace of gold and silver." They were rare, and the word parapluie ("against the rain") did not enter the dictionary of the Académie française until 1718.  

18th and 19th centuries

Kersey's Dictionary (1708) describes an umbrella as a "screen commonly used by women to keep off rain".

The first lightweight folding umbrella in Europe was introduced in 1710 by a Paris merchant named Jean Marius, whose shop was located near the barrier of Saint-Honoré. It could be opened and closed in the same way as modern umbrellas, and weighed less than one kilogram. Marius received from the King the exclusive right to produce folding umbrellas for five years. A model was purchased by the Princess Palatine in 1712, and she enthused about it to her aristocratic friends, making it an essential fashion item for Parisiennes. In 1759, a French scientist named Navarre presented a new design to the French Academy of Sciences for an umbrella combined with a cane. Pressing a small button on the side of the cane opened the umbrella.

Their use became widespread in Paris. In 1768, a Paris magazine reported:

"The common usage for quite some time now is not to go out without an umbrella, and to have the inconvenience of carrying it under your arm for six months in order to use it perhaps six times. Those who do not want to be mistaken for vulgar people much prefer to take the risk of being soaked, rather than to be regarded as someone who goes on foot; an umbrella is a sure sign of someone who doesn't have his own carriage."

In 1769, the Maison Antoine, a store at the Magasin d'Italie on rue Saint-Denis, was the first to offer umbrellas for rent to those caught in downpours, and it became a common practice. The Lieutenant General of Police of Paris issued regulations for the rental umbrellas; they were made of oiled green silk, and carried a number so they could be found and reclaimed if someone walked off with one.

Parisians in the rain with umbrellas, by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1803)

By 1808 there were seven shops making and selling umbrellas in Paris; one shop, Sagnier on rue des Vielles-Haudriettes, received the first patent given for an invention in France for a new model of umbrella. By 1813 there were 42 shops; by 1848 there were three hundred seventy-seven small shops making umbrellas in Paris, employing 1400 workers. By the end of the century, however, cheaper manufacturers in the Auvergne replaced Paris as the centre of umbrella manufacturing, and the town of Aurillac became the umbrella capital of France. The town still produces about half the umbrellas made in France; the umbrella factories there employ about one hundred workers.

In Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, he constructed his own umbrella in imitation of those that he had seen used in Brazil. "I covered it with skins," he says, "the hair outwards, so that it cast off the rain like a pent-house, and kept off the sun so effectually, that I could walk out in the hottest of the weather with greater advantage than I could before in the coolest." From this description the original heavy umbrella came to be called "Robinson" which they retained for many years in England.

Captain James Cook, in one of his voyages in the late 18th century, reported seeing some of the natives of the South Pacific Islands with umbrellas made of palm leaves.

The use of the umbrella or parasol (though not unknown) was uncommon in England during the earlier half of the eighteenth century, as is evident from the comment made by General (then Lieut.-Colonel) James Wolfe, when writing from Paris in 1752; he speaks of the use of umbrellas for protection from the sun and rain, and wonders why a similar practice did not occur in England. About the same time, umbrellas came into general use as people found their value, and got over the shyness natural to its introduction. Jonas Hanway, the founder of the Magdalen Hospital, has the credit of being the first man who ventured to dare public reproach and ridicule by carrying one habitually in London. As he died in 1786, and he is said to have carried an umbrella for thirty years, the date of its first use by him may be set down at about 1750. John Macdonald[disambiguation needed] relates that in 1770, he used to be addressed as, "Frenchman, Frenchman! why don't you call a coach?" whenever he went out with his umbrella. By 1788 however they seem to have been accepted: a London newspaper advertises the sale of 'improved and pocket Umbrellas, on steel frames, with every other kind of common Umbrella.' But full acceptance is not complete even today with some considering umbrellas effete.

Paris Street; Rainy Weather, by Gustave Caillebotte (1877)

Since then, the umbrella has come into general use, in consequence of numerous improvements. In China people learned how to waterproof their paper umbrellas with wax and lacquer. The transition to the present portable form is due, partly, to the substitution of silk and gingham for the heavy and troublesome oiled silk, which admitted of the ribs and frames being made much lighter, and also to many ingenious mechanical improvements in the framework. Victorian era umbrellas had frames of wood or baleen, but these devices were expensive and hard to fold when wet. Samuel Fox invented the steel-ribbed umbrella in 1852; however, the Encyclopédie Méthodique mentions metal ribs at the end of the eighteenth century, and they were also on sale in London during the 1780s. Modern designs usually employ a telescoping steel trunk; new materials such as cotton, plastic film and nylon often replace the original silk.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Gladys Spencer-Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough / the aristocrat with attitude. / VÍDEO: Duke Of Marlborough / Gladys (1921)

Born in Paris, Gladys Marie Deacon was the daughter of American citizens Edward Deacon and his wife Florence, daughter of Admiral Charles H. Baldwin. She had three sisters and a brother who died in infancy. Her father was imprisoned after shooting her mother's lover to death in 1892 and the girl was sent to school at the Convent de l’Assomption at Auteuil.

After Edward's release from prison, Florence abducted Gladys from the convent. The couple was divorced in 1893 and the custody of the three older children, including Gladys, was given to Edward. He took them to the United States, where Deacon remained for the next three years. Edward Deacon soon became mentally unstable and was hospitalised at McLean Hospital, dying there in 1901. Deacon and her sisters returned to France to live with their mother. Marcel Proust wrote of her: "I never saw a girl with such beauty, such magnificent intelligence, such goodness and charm."

In the late 1890s, the Duke of Marlborough invited Deacon to Blenheim Palace and she became friends with his wife Consuelo. In 1901, the Crown Prince of Prussia visited the palace and took a strong liking to her, giving her a ring that the Kaiser demanded to be returned. At the age of 22, Deacon underwent a plastic surgery attempt in which she had her nose injected with paraffin wax; it slipped, destroying her famous good looks. Deacon became the Duke's mistress soon after moving into the palace. However, Marlborough and Consuelo did not divorce until 1921. Deacon and Marlborough were married in Paris later that year.

Artistic and a keen gardener, the new Duchess of Marlborough had enlarged images of her startling blue-green eyes painted on the ceiling of the main portico of Blenheim Palace, where they remain today. Later in their unhappy, childless marriage, she kept a revolver in her bedroom to prevent her husband's entry. As her behaviour became increasingly erratic, most noticeably following the Duke's conversion to Roman Catholicism, the couple began drifting apart. The Duchess pursued her hobby of breeding Blenheim Spaniels, much to her husband's displeasure. Finally, the duke moved out of the palace, and two years later evicted her. He died in 1934.

Widowhood and death
The Dowager Duchess of Marlborough moved with her dogs first to north Oxfordshire and later to the Grange Farm at Chacombe. She started retreating from the world and eventually became a complete recluse. By 1962, she had become mentally ill, much like her father and paternal grandmother, and was forcibly moved to St Andrew's Hospital, where she died, aged 96.

Gladys, Duchess of Marlborough: the aristocrat with attitude
Her beauty and fierce intelligence left Proust and Rodin obsessed, and the upper-classes besotted. Then why did the vivacious Gladys Deacon die a recluse?

Murder, abduction from a convent, the destruction of her own legendary beauty, the Aesop’s Fable of wishing to marry a Duke, years of reclusive seclusion… All were combined in the long and turbulent life of Gladys Deacon.
The story of the first marriage of Charles, 9th Duke of Marlborough, and Consuelo Vanderbilt in 1895 is well known. Deals were struck on both sides. Both were in love with others, but he needed the Vanderbilt millions to restore Blenheim Palace and her mother wanted a daughter as a Duchess.
As a consequence the marriage was unhappy and ended in separation and, later, in divorce. It is generally recorded that both remarried – though the second marriages are less well known. Consuelo married Jacques Balsan, an aviator and balloonist who profited from “rejuvenating” monkey gland injections to an alarming degree. While in 1921, Charles married Gladys Deacon.
Gladys’s dramatic story might have been lost forever had I not stumbled on an intriguing reference to her when I was 16 and thumbing through the diaries of the Conservative MP Henry “Chips” Channon. Chips encountered her in a jeweller’s shop in Bond Street in 1943: “I saw an extraordinary marionette of a woman – or was it a man? It wore grey flannel trousers, a wide leather belt, masculine overcoat and a man’s brown felt hat, and had a really frightening appearance, but the hair was golden-dyed and long.”
Chips continued to examine this “terrifying apparition” and then suddenly he recognised her – “Gladys Marlborough, once the world’s most beautiful woman, the toast of Paris, the love of Proust, the belle amie of Anatole France”.
He attempted to introduce himself: “She looked at me, stared vacantly with those famous eyes that once drove men insane with desire and muttered: ‘Je n’ai jamais entendu ce nom-la’. She flung down a ruby clip she was examining and bolted from the shop.”
This description instilled in me a fascination that never waned. I wanted to know what happened to her – particularly as there was no indication that she had died. But she seemed to have disappeared from the face of the earth.
A visit to Blenheim in 1968, endless questions asked to anyone who might know, and finally a visit to her last address in Chacombe in 1975 provided little to go on. The publican in the village horrified me by saying: “She’s been gone a long time.” He did not think she was dead, however, but in a hospital “up Northampton way”.
This was at least a clue and St Andrew’s Hospital, a well-known psychiatric hospital, seemed the most likely place. I telephoned them, was asked to put my request in writing and soon found myself bombarded with letters from lawyers and a nephew in Lausanne.
By this time I had made the extremely arrogant decision to write her biography. The nephew warned me to do my homework before visiting her. “She’s as cute as a cat,” he said. “She’ll look right through you.”
So I read about Proust, Rodin, Monet and Anatole France, and the many others on whom she had had an effect. Proust wrote of her: “I never saw a girl with such beauty, such magnificent intelligence, such goodness and charm.”
I discovered she had been evicted from Blenheim by the 9th Duke, that on a visit to the palace in 1901 the Crown Prince of Prussia had fallen madly in love with her and given her a ring that the Kaiser had forced her to return. I heard rumours of a bizarre operation in which she had injected paraffin wax into her nose to create the perfect Grecian profile, and how the wax had slipped, destroying her legendary beauty.
Then there was the dramatic incident in which her father had shot her mother’s lover dead in a hotel room in Cannes in 1892. And as for the later life, the life after her encounter with Chips Channon, she had become a most eccentric recluse, disappearing into a house at Chacombe, near Banbury, and eventually locking the doors against the world.
Her nephew told me how he managed to visit her and, as the evening came and darkness descended, she turned on no lights. She watched him getting increasingly terrified.
In 1975, the Duchess was 94. There was no time to lose. I was given a letter of authority to visit her by a lawyer, who looked at me in astonishment, wondering why I would want to go near her. I was only 23 and had never been near a psycho-geriatric ward. I confess I was deeply scared, my nerves made no calmer by a vivid nightmare in which the old and the young Gladys Deacon curiously merged into one – as, in a way, they did.
Arriving at the hospital, Mrs Newton, the chief nursing officer, conducted me down a seemingly endless succession of corridors, past the doors of the unseen members of well-known families. Doors were unlocked, relocked until we eventually arrived at O’Connell Ward.
The Duchess was in the green room, with sweeping views over the beautiful park. The room was deserted but for a figure asleep in a chair with her feet up and a white linen cloth over her head. “Duchess, you’ve got a visitor,”Mrs Newton said.
She stirred. I knelt down beside her and gradually she lifted the cloth. First I saw a distorted jaw due partly to the wax injections of the early 1900s and not helped by old age. Then the cloth came higher and finally I found myself looking straight into those famous blue eyes. They were just as strong and beautiful as had been described by the great writers of the age.
She looked at me. “Later, later, later,” she said, dropping the cloth. She returned to sleep.
That first encounter was not encouraging, but things got better – gradually. On a subsequent visit, I found her surrounded by nursing staff. Gladys looked at pictures and joked about them. At the end of that key meeting, she said to me: “Thank you very much. You’ve given me a better laugh than I’ve had since I came here.”
She invited me to have a cup of tea and we began the slow process of making friends. She was all but stone deaf, but with good eyesight. Every question I asked her was written on a piece of paper in large black capital letters. These she read and when it suited her, she answered.
I visited her 65 times over a period of more than two years. I loved going to talk to Gladys; she changed the course of my life.
Her extraordinary story unfolded, glimpses revealed in conversation but mostly found in archives across the world. She gave me clues. She told me that Rodin was “of a very lascivious nature – you know, hands all over you”, adding “of course I never knew him”.
So off I would go to the Rodin Museum in Paris, where I would find her letters to him. The contrast was stark.
Her family urged me to try to find out where she was educated. She would not be pressed on this until one day she announced: “I was a miracle. Differential Calculus was too low for me!” The door opened and a nurse brought some tea in. “Getting any sense out of her, are you?” she asked. I was merely trying to keep up.
She had been born in Paris in 1881, to the kind of family that Henry James wrote about; indeed, James knew her father. Edward Parker Deacon came from Boston, where to this day stands Deacon House. The Deacons had married well. Gladys’s grandmother, Sarah Ann Parker, was well connected, but sadly went mad. It was from her that an unstable streak entered the family.
Gladys’s mother, Florence, was the daughter of Rear-Admiral Charles H Baldwin. He was a somewhat peppery figure who, when sent to represent the United States at the Coronation of Tsar Alexander III in 1883, refused to attend because he was not given a good enough seat.
The Deacons had four beautiful daughters and a son who died as a little boy. They lived in Paris and travelled about Europe. Florence moved in an interesting set, with friends such as Bernard Berenson, Rodin and Count Robert de Montesquiou. But the marriage was not happy and she took a lover called Emile Abeille.
Deacon pursued the couple through Europe and tracked them down to the Hotel Splendide at Cannes in February 1892. Discovering Abeille’s presence, Deacon took a loaded gun, insisted on entering his wife’s room and fired three shots at Abeille as he cowered behind the sofa.
Deacon gave himself up and was jailed. Abeille lingered on through the night and died in the morning.
Gladys was sent back to school at the Convent de l’Assomption at Auteuil. After her father’s release from prison, he made his way there to take custody of her, only to find she had been abducted by her mother. A court case followed. But after the divorce in 1893, Deacon was given custody of his three older children and he promptly took them to the US, where Gladys remained for the next three years.
During this time, William James saw Deacon and reported to his brother, Henry, how vain Deacon was, how he clearly considered his “conjugal exploit” gave him “a distinction for him in the eyes of fashionable New Yorkers” and how shocked he was “by the way he talked about it before his little daughter”. Deacon eventually lost his reason and was put away in the McLean Hospital in Belmont, near Boston, where he died in 1901.
In 1896 Gladys and her sisters returned to France to live with their mother. Her education over, she began to blaze through Europe like a brilliant meteor of beauty, intelligence and wit, taking princely and ducal scalps along the way.
Legion were those who fell in love with Gladys: Prince Roffredo Caetani; Bernard Berenson and his wife; the Duke of Marlborough and possibly Consuelo, too, the Dukes of Camastra, Norfolk, Newcastle and Connaught; RC Trevelyan; Gabriele d’Annunzio; Anatole France; and Lord Brooke (later Warwick). But she was set on a marriage to the Duke of Marlborough and eventually, in 1921, having known him for more than 20 years, she followed Consuelo to Blenheim Palace.
Now Blenheim is mounting an exhibition paying tribute to Gladys’s life there: the creation of the lower terraces on the west side, leading down to the lake, with the two sphinxes that bear her features, and the curious eyes painted in the portico. To the palace she lured figures like Jacob Epstein and Lytton Strachey. But she found herself a lone intellectual caught among county figures. Rodin had given her a little statue. It stood in one of the state rooms but nobody ever asked her about it.
Then the Duke became a Roman Catholic and soon afterwards the marriage descended into a state of internecine warfare. One evening Gladys placed a revolver on the dining room table. “What’s that for?” asked one of the dinner guests.
“Oh I don’t know,” Gladys replied. “I might just shoot Marlborough!”
Not surprisingly he took fright, left her alone at the palace for nearly two years and then evicted her – first from Blenheim and then from the London house in Carlton House Terrace. Courageous to the last, Gladys stood on the steps at Blenheim and photographed the vans taking her possessions away.
The Duke died in 1934, before they were divorced, and Gladys settled with her dogs in north Oxfordshire, eventually at the Grange Farm at Chacombe. She began by filling it with her treasures: the Rodin statue, her portrait by Boldini, her fabulous collection of books.
But as time wore on, she retreated from the world, becoming a total recluse. Her only link to the outside world was her kind Polish helper, Andrei Kwiatkowsky, to whom she would lower the key to her door from an upper window. In 1962, she was forcibly removed to St Andrew’s; she died in 1977.
My conversations with Gladys over the two years I saw her were never less than stimulating. She opened avenues of possibility that had previously been closed to me. When my book came out in 1979, Cecil Beaton read it and invited me to be his biographer – in a sense a gift from Gladys. It was the first time it occurred to me that I might not be a failure in life.
She often told me that young people needed someone to breathe life into them and make them think in a different way. That is certainly what Gladys did for me.

‘Gladys Deacon – An Eccentric Duchess’ is at Blenheim Palace from February 12 until March 25;

one of the sphinx at Blenheim- the likeness of Gladys

The eyes on the portico at Blenheim Palace

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Remembering Avenue House in Ampthill and the sale of the collection assembled by Sir Albert Richardson.

Sir Albert Richardson at home

Sir Albert Edward Richardson K.C.V.O., F.R.I.B.A, F.S.A., (London, 19 May 1880 – 3 February 1964) was a leading English architect, teacher and writer about architecture during the first half of the 20th century. He was Professor of Architecture at University College London, a President of the Royal Academy, editor of Architects’ Journal and founder of the Georgian Group.

Richardson was born in London. He trained in the offices of Leonard Stokes and Frank T. Verity, practitioners of the Beaux-Arts style, and in 1906 he established his first architectural practice, in partnership with Charles Lovett Gill (the Richardson & Gill partnership was eventually dissolved in 1939).

He wrote several articles for Architectural Review and the survey of London Houses from 1660 to 1820: a Consideration of their Architecture and Detail (1911). In the following year he was appointed architect to the Prince of Wales's Duchy of Cornwall Estate. His massive work, Monumental Classic Architecture in Great Britain and Ireland (1914) established him as a scholar; in it he reappraised the Greek Revival architects C.R. Cockerell and Henri Labrouste.

In his own work he was strongly influenced by nostalgia for the craftsmanship of the late Georgian era and the pared-down Neoclassicism of Sir John Soane in particular, but he recognised that his classical ideals needed to be developed to meet the challenges of Modernism. The result was a synthesis of traditional and modern approaches which was adapted and applied to industrial and commercial buildings, churches and houses. His deep knowledge of and sympathy towards Georgian design also helped him in numerous post-war commissions to restore bomb-damaged Georgian buildings. Ironically, several of his designs – most notably, Bracken House in the City of London, the first post-war London building to be listed and protected from redevelopment – are now regarded as classic milestones of 20th century design.

He was awarded the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture in 1947 and was elected President of the Royal Academy in 1954; he was knighted in 1956.

From 1919 until his death in 1964, Richardson lived at Avenue House, 20 Church Street, Ampthill, Bedfordshire, an 18th-century townhouse in which he initially refused to install electricity, believing that his home needed to reflect Georgian standards of living if he was truly to understand their way of life, though he was later persuaded to change his mind by his wife, Elizabeth Byers (March 1882 – 1958), whom he had married in 1904. They had one daughter.

Rejected Riches: Avenue House

The contents of Avenue House in Ampthill – the collection assembled by Sir Albert Richardson (1880–1964), architect, historian, writer, artist, teacher and sometime President of the Royal Academy – is now being sold by Christie’s in London. Richardson moved into the Georgian brick town house in the Bedfordshire town in 1919 and over the next 40 years filled it with products of the Georgian age he loved and understood so well. The result was not a museum, however; Richardson once described it as ‘a home, an office, and a university’ – a similar role to that intended by Sir John Soane for his creation in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
This sale is a sad and wretched business. Many of Richardson’s things do not look particularly impressive now wrenched from their context. The furniture and decorative objects will undoubtedly appeal to collectors but the paintings are not of the the highest quality. But that is not the point. What is now being sold and dispersed constituted a very special and personal tribute to Georgian England within an appropriate architectural setting. There was nothing else quite like it. And what is particularly sad is to see the architectural drawings that are for sale – not just drawings by architects like Soane but many made for Richardson’s own buildings, as well as some intriguing architectural fantasies. These are things that belong in the RIBA drawings collection.
Richardson may have adopted a pose in Ampthill – refusing to install electric light, dressing up in Georgian clothes and being carried through the streets in a sedan chair – but he was a seriously good modern architect. He began by promoting the Edwardian rediscovery of Neoclassicism and the works of people like Soane and Cockerell. After the First World War he intelligently adapted the abstracted classical language of Schinkel and other Neoclassicists to modern conditions and reinforced concrete construction in a series of impressive commercial buildings, as well as designing an extraordinary streamlined gothic church at Greenford.
Even after the Second World War, when he was perceived by the new modernist establishment as a traditional and reactionary figure, he showed great resourcefulness in his design for Bracken House in the City of London. Barracked by the Anti-Uglies when new, it later became the first post-war building in England to be listed.
But what is most depressing is that this sale need not be happening. Avenue House was lovingly maintained for half a century after Richardson’s death by his grandson, Simon Houfe, who was anxious to secure its future in the public realm. He offered both house and collection to the National Trust on advantageous terms. Negotiations dragged on for seven years, only to end with his offer being rejected.
This seems incomprehensible; especially when this decision is compared – as many have done – with the National Trust’s recently announced intention to open, in a nauseatingly populist gesture, the ‘house’ created for the Big Brother reality television show. Of course there would have been problems in opening Avenue House to the public – as there were with, say, the small houses in Liverpool bought by the Trust because they were the childhood homes of two of the Beatles.
Albert Richardson was an intriguing and important figure in the architectural culture of Britain in the 20th century. He may be forgotten now – just as Soane’s achievement was despised during the half century after his death – but the National Trust should have known better.

Albert Richardson

The other day I finished reading The Professor (White Crescent Press, 1980), Simon Houfe’s affectionate biography of his grandfather, the architect Sir Albert Edward Richardson. I’ve been intrigued by Richardson for a while: he often has a passing mention in memoirs and letters produced between the wars although, in spite of an architectural career which lasted from the late 1890s to the early 1960s, his country house output was small. He enlarged or remodelled one or two minor houses – The Hale, near Wendor (1918) and Chevithorne Barton in Devon (1930) are good examples – but the practice he carried on, with C. Lovett Gill until 1939 and from 1945 with his son-in-law, E. A. S. Houfe, focused mainly on commercial premises, usually designed in a light, elegant neo-Georgian style.

Richardson’s real contribution to the period was as a polemicist for the buildings of the past, and in particular for the long eighteenth century – which in his case was even longer than usual, beginning with the Restoration and ending with the death of George IV 170 years later. He travelled the length and breadth of the country in his enormous Rolls Royce, haranguing philistine local authorities to save an England that was in danger of demolition, berating negligent owners of dilapidated mansions. He recorded historic architecture in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fluid, fluent sketches and in a flood of published work: Georgian England, The Old Inns of England, The Smaller English House of the Later Renaissance. John Betjeman once told him that ‘You have written the two bibles of my life – Monumental Classic Architecture of the 18th and 19th Centuries, and Regional Architecture in the West of England. If I were king, I would give you a peerage.’

And not content with promoting the past, Richardson lived in it. In 1919 he bought Avenue House in Ampthill, built for a Bedfordshire brewer in 1780 and extended by Henry Holland in 1792-5. Over the next four decades or so the architect filled Avenue House with art and oddities: oils by Philip Mercier and Angelica Kauffmann, exquisite George III furniture in tulipwood and satinwood; a lamp said to belong to the Lady of the Lamp herself, Florence Nightingale; Clive of India’s door knob and a battered baluster from Doctor Johnson’s house. He refused to have electricity installed, and was fond of dressing up in full Georgian costume around the house.

In many ways Richardson was a difficult character – bombastic, self-centred, a reactionary conservative who hated Modernism as much as he loathed modern society. Imagine an architectural G. K. Chesterton, and you have him. But his contribution to the evolving preservationist movement of the 1920s and 1930s was profound.

By a strange coincidence, just as I reached the last page of The Professor, an email came through from Christie’s announcing the sale of the contents of Avenue House. The place had remained more or less intact since Richardson’s death in 1964, and after years of searching for a way of preserving it for posterity, the family has given up the struggle.

The Avenue House sale took place this week. It isn’t a disastrous Mentmore-type dispersal to be remembered and mourned for decades. It is more of a small sadness. But it is a sadness, none the less. Something has been lost, and we’re all a little poorer for it.

The Saloon at Avenue House in 1934
photo courtesy of Country Life

The Saloon at Avenue House in 1922
photo courtesy of Country Life
Reggie's Rooms II: The Saloon at Avenue House

I first came across images of Sir Albert Richardson's enchanting drawing room at Avenue House in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, in John Cornforth's absorbing book The Inspiration of the Past: Country House Taste in the Twentieth Century published in 1985 by Viking Penguin in association with Country Life magazine.  According to Mr. Cornforth's deliciously informative and lavishly illustrated book, Professor Richardson (as he was also known) was considered to be "one of the first admirers" in England in the early part of the twentieth century "...of the style of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as well as one of the principal promoters of the continuity of the classical tradition."  This view is amply borne out by the beauty of his decoration of the Saloon (as it was called) at Avenue House.

While many of the rooms shown in Mr. Cornforth's book are beautiful, the image of the Saloon took my breath away when I first saw it and still gives me a frisson of excitement whenever I come across it to this day.  Sir Albert was a true connoisseur and collected many of the furnishings for the Saloon specifically for the room, as opposed to bringing them from other houses that he already owned.  So there is a uniformity of taste and style, rigor perhaps, to the Saloon that is not seen in rooms where the assembled furnishings are more diverse or "eclectic", a word much overused in decorating circles in our day.

According to Mr. Cornforth's book, Sir Albert acquired Avenue House in 1919 and spent the better part of twenty years furnishing it.  And furnishing it he did, exquisitely, with supreme taste and restraint--the true hallmarks of elegance.  While the photographed interior is lovely to look at (the quality of Country Life's mid-twentieth-century photography is mesmerizing), the black-and-white image does not convey the room's color scheme, which, according to Country Life, was as follows: "A greenish grey carpet covers the floor, and grey, too is the colour of the walls, in contrast to which is the purple taffeta, with old-gold filigree used for the window hangings, and the yellow chenille of old French pattern used for some of the chair coverings..."  How I would love to see color images of this room.

So what is it about the Saloon at Avenue House that so vividly speaks to me?
It is finely proportioned, with high ceilings, handsome plasterwork, and large windows;
In it hangs a lovely, appropriately scaled chandelier;
The furnishings are from a narrow band of time, drawn from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, so they are not slavishly in only one style or period; they include a mix of Regency and earlier furnishings;
There is plenty of airspace and breathing room.  Sir Albert had the luxury of space to furnish the Saloon sparely and appropriately for a drawing room devoted to entertaining and congenial pursuits;
The furnishings and architecture are arranged symmetrically and with balance;
The furniture is attennuated and leggy, which gives the room a light appearance--all "en pointe;"
The seating is easily movable, to provide for intimate groupings and diverse purposes, the signature of a successful drawing room.  There are no stationary to-the-floor upholstered club chairs or Lawson sofas to lower the room's sight lines or confine the occupants to one place.  This is appealling to me because we have also furnished our (much smaller and far less grand) drawing room at Darlington House in a similar manner, with no fully upholstered seating.  While I don't object to entirely upholstered chairs and sofas, I prefer them in more intimate rooms devoted to cozier pursuits;
Most of the furniture is painted, rather than stained and varnished.  Painted furniture is most pleasing in drawing rooms, I believe, as it is pretty and less serious-looking than brown wood furniture, which is more appropriate in dining rooms and libraries.  Much of the seating in our drawing room at Darlington is also painted, but--unlike the Saloon at Avenue House--ours is mostly Louis XVI, with only a smattering of Sir Albert's English Regency;
There are large, plate-glass mirrors over the fireplace and between the windows.  I have a weakness for mirrors in rooms, and large ones in particular when the room's proportions allow for them.  Mirrors, when used such as Sir Albert does, lend a light and fresh appearance to the rooms in which they hang;
The floor is covered with a large, single-color, velvet carpet, providing a unifying and visually serene base for the furniture.  I think that there is a tendency today to believe carpets should have some pattern in them, to create "visual interest" (another much over-used expression) in rooms and to avoid the dreaded broadloom "wall-to-wall" carpet look of the 1960s and 70s.  It is noteworthy that our forebears had other views, as pieced carpets such as Sir Albert's were quite expensive and luxurious in their day, bearing little resemblance, when examined closely, to the more modern and degraded versions for sale in today's big-box retailers;
The curtains are plain and unfussified, with neither swags nor jabots.  My only complaint with them is that I wish the valances had been placed a foot higher on the wall, above the windows, rather than hanging down over them.  As in Canon Valpy's drawing room, my first and previous "Reggie's Rooms" subject, Sir Albert's curtains lack any extraneous upholsterer's tricks, relying on the beauty of their materials rather than bows or gimgracks.

But it was nearly 10 years later when I first came across this earlier photograph of the same room that I truly came to appreciate what Sir Albert had wrought at Avenue House.  And how fortunate we are that Country Life chronicled the Saloon's transformation from an under-furnished, almost raw, and obviously only-recently-moved-into space into the beautiful swan that it became over the twelve years of Sir Albert's careful attention.  It is in examining, comparing, and studying these two photographs that we come to fully appreciate Sir Albert's academically grounded genius.  (It also appears that the curtains faded considerably in the period between when these photographs were taken.)

Almost all of the rooms we see today in books and magazines (and now on the blogs) are presented as fully realized and "done," giving no indication of the thought, effort, and consideration that went into creating them.  Seeing a room's transformation over time, as we do here with the Saloon,  is a rarity and a treat, and something of great interest to those of us who enjoy the pleasures (and dare I say "process") of interior decoration.  What else would explain the enduring popularity of the "Before and After"--or, as Boy and I call them, the "During and Done"--issues of the often odious Architectural Digest magazine?

I believe that the Saloon at Avenue House is a room that merits careful study and has much to teach us today regarding placement, proportion, symmetry, and purpose.  It is one of my most-admired interiors and has been one of the inspirations for the furnishing of our more modest drawing room at Darlington House.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

The Wolseley affair with the British Police . Just a question of Love.

The Wolseley 4/50 and similar 6/80 were Wolseley Motors' first post-war automobiles. They were rushed into production in 1948 and were based on the Morris Oxford MO and the Morris Six MS respectively. The 4-cylinder 4/50 used a 1476 cc 50 hp (37 kW; 51 PS) version of the 6/80 engine, while the 6/80 used a 2215 cc 72 hp (54 kW; 73 PS) straight-6 single overhead cam.

The cars were well equipped and looked impressive, with a round Morris rear end and upright Wolseley grille and were used extensively by the Police at the time - the 6/80 particularly.

The Wolseley 6/99 was the final large Wolseley car. Styled by Pininfarina with additions by BMC staff sylists, the basic vehicle was also sold under two of BMC's other marques as the Austin A99 Westminster and Vanden Plas Princess 3-Litre. Production began in 1959 and the cars were updated and renamed for 1961. The Wolseley remained in production as the Wolseley 6/110 through to 1968. Many police officers consider the "6/110" as the finest "area car" ever employed by the London Metropolitan Police Force.

Wolseley 6/90 Revival #5 - Wiring, Instruments & Dashboard Fitted, start...

Wolseley 6/90 Revival #10 - Driving on the Open Road