Bible of British Taste
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  • September14th

    Richard and Patricia Hewlings live in the Fens, the district known as the Holy land of England. Their house is a flat-fronted, red brick farmhouse with a pretty Georgian doorcase, and an older wing jettying out into what was once the farmyard at the rear. It’s known locally as ‘Big Old House.’  There’s a dairy and some barns at one corner, and a Quaker meeting house terraced onto the other, with its burial yard behind; the bones of some more honest Quakers lie under its floor. Richard (who is a former Inspector of Ancient Monuments, and works for English Heritage), discovered and then reburied them there, in the course of repairing these dilapidated and derelict buildings. Tricia has planted a rare and imaginative series of garden compartments and painstakingly restored old floorboards and interior paintwork. Richard has hauled back joinery and furniture, the by-product of a lifetime’s curiosity for old things and buildings. Here, in the 1980s and 90s, their six children grew up.

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    The hall.

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    When Richard and Tricia bought the Old House it was empty and derelict, divided into flats for the workers who ran a tractor-tyre retreading factory from its yards. The house had been empty for six years and most of its chimney pieces and joinery had been stripped out. Now it is the portrait of a marriage, and a family. Here is the hall, with Easter palm crosses.

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    The staircase hall, hung with prints, edge to edge.

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    Richard designed this handsome, immodest fireplace, the largest in the house, around the two end pilasters that he found in a Bury St. Edmunds antique shop for £25.

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    This cushion stitched with badges from military uniforms was made by their daughter.

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    The Wedgwood teapot with a crocodile finial celebrates the Egyptomania that marked  Nelson’s victory in Egypt at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 . ‘When I met Trish, she was the only person I knew who liked porcelain, and I was the only person she knew who liked porcelain,’ Richard says.’ She had a collection of little cups.’

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    The dining chairs belonged to Oxford aesthete Dadie Rylands, a fellow of Kings College, Cambridge : Richard found them in a local country auction. His college rooms were decorated by the Bloomsbury artist Dora Carrington, and immortalised by Virginia Wolf in A Room of One’s Own.

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    Propped on an easel is the finest portrait in the house of the powerfully built John Davenport, Tricia’s first father-in-law, writer, fund-raiser for Dylan Thomas, boxer, pianist and poet.

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    The wallpaper was deigned by Edward Bawden in 1935, and supplied by Coles of London. The floors were exactingly hand sanded by Tricia and bleached with lye.  The chimneypiece was created from salvage, bought at a local country house sale. When I last visited in the late 1980s, the room was decommissioned, with a gaping hole in the ceiling;  I could not have imagined how beautiful this room would look when it was finished.

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    The art pottery and glass is Tricia’s, and the big pottery jug was fished out of the River Ouse when a lock was being drained there.

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    Tricia found the hand painted hound place-card holders  that run along the chimmneypiece moulding, and she is waiting for her daughter Maud to paint some huntsmen and horses to run with them. You can see them a bit more clearly in the picture below.

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    The small, enigmatic oil painting was a student work by their son, Arthur Hewlings.

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    The bedroom, with poltergeist curtain activity.

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    A sweet disorder. Shoes and shells lie distributed over the carpet, and wind-blown billets-doux flutter to the floor.

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    Still life with upright vacuum cleaner.

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    The children’s toys and books make a museum in the bedroom corridor

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    Bedroom picture, an early C20th fairground scene by Clodagh Sparrow.

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    The much-admired kitchen, hand built, partly by Richard, with a new (in 2014) lead splash-back designed by Tricia. Better than Plain English.

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    Saturday lunch in preparation. Not a museum, everything is for use, and in use.

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    Probably the nicest kitchen in East Anglia.

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    ‘This is our ‘dirt’ room, its the scullery, it has a sink.’

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    The third of their kitchen dressers

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    The lower garden, where food is grown. The land was reclaimed from beneath rafts of concrete which covered the farmyards here for fifty years.

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    More food in bountiful profusion

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    Arcadia. Compost heap and nature rampant.

    All images : copyright bibleofbritishtaste

     

     

  • August17th

    I stayed at lovely Smedmore House in Dorset, settled in its green declivity between ridge-backed Purbeck hills, in May. The first day was grey, with scudding wind and rain, but then the sun came out. This is a room in the old kitchen range, not much used now except for the occasional shooting lunch, a place where the guns can eat with their boots on. The wooden boards mounted on the wall are stall dividers from the eighteenth century stable block ( where a local carpenter now plies his trade), on which  generations of grooms and stable boys who worked and slept there have carved their autographs in copperplate.

    Smedmore

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    The cooking apple-green entrance hall, part of a new front added to the house in the 1760s.

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    This ebonised chair was made by the celebrated George Bullock for the Emperor Napoleon during his lonely exile on St. Helena, an inherited souvenir or perquisite, brought back to Smedmore by the Colonel John Mansel, gallant peninsula officer,  who was garrisoned there.

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    This is the side wall of the same room  – same chairs – rather more austere – as it was last photographed by Country Life, in 1935

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    The principal front. Behind it, the older parts of the house date from the seventeenth century, but the de Smedemores were living in a house on these lands in the 1300s. The estate has passed down by inheritance through seven centuries.

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    My host and Smedmore’s owner, Dr. Philip Mansel, distinguished author and historian, founder of the Court Studies Society, Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, seen here with a small, ancient cannon.

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    The old kitchen is lit by a tall,tripartite Vitruvian window,

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    but from the outside you can see that this window has probably been inserted into an even older building range.

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    The garden front, early 1700s, in the manner of Christopher Wren.

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    Where you would expect to find dogs’ graves there is the tombstone of a long-dead tiger in the  grass under the trees.

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    Lunch, grilled sea trout, white wine, at the table in the dining room window bay.

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    The long table behind seats twenty comfortably. The plasterwork is by the Bastard brothers of Blandford.

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    This Tinteretto-pink on the walls was mixed  by Philip’s friend, the late, great Gervase Jackson-Stops, taste maker and scholar. The colour becomes lighter as it rises up the walls to the ceiling.

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    China cupboard.

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    A guest here in 1878, J.B.B., left this little album of sketches entitled,’ Reminiscences of my visit to Smedmore.’

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    Farmyard animals, small mishaps and funny anecdotes  feature on almost every page.

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    Philip is the creator and curator of this family museum in a corridor leading to the Butler’s Pantry. The head of a long, long-dead rhino is a grisly thing, sans horn.

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    The drawing room.

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    Yellow water iris in the blue and white vases were picked from the margins of the pond outside. Philip has brought colour back to the house with oriental ceramics and Ottoman carpets from Istanbul.

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    The Turkish Room, Philip’s work-in-progress.

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    The Cedar Room with some of the cargo of furniture and paintings inherited from Lady Elizabeth Villiers, who left everything to her Mansel niece..

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    Souvenirs of the past, pince-nez, spectacles, reticules, reels of embroidery silk, notebooks and diaries crammed into every drawer.

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    Shagreen reticule cases, miniatures, pill-boxes, eye-glasses …

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    one evening I went out for a pint of beer and found Corfe Castle, looking like a poster for the Dorset tourist board.

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    that night the moon was full and close

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    Working breakfast in the kitchen, before,

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    where School Prints by Julian Trevelyan and  John Nash hang next to the fire extinguisher

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    and after, ship-shape from the ministrations of the housekeeper.

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    Off-limits, a pantry in the old kitchen range

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    painted a hygienic light arsenic green

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    The bedroom corridor, miscellaneous  furniture washed up, waiting its turn. Note the crossed sabres, last seen in the entrance hall in Country Life’s photograph of 1935

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    a pink bedroom

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    My pink bedroom, with the most exquisite rococo fireplace

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    the paneled bathroom corridor, in the older, rear of the house

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    a blue bedroom with traditional English backup heating, although the central heating at Smedmore is fiercely powerful

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    Behind the stable block, a small craft beached amongst nettles

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    the stable arch and nature rampant

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    work yard off the back drive

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    A long allée or ride leads away from the house, cut through woods to give a view of the sweep of Kimmeridge bay (part of  the Smedmore estate along with the village of that name), and beyond, towards France.

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    On the left is the Clavell Tower, a folly pr perhaps an outpost for smuggling, built by an ancestor, the Rev. John Richard Clavell. Thomas Hardy took his first love Eliza Nicholl there, and the building inspired P. D; James’s thriller, The Black Tower (1975). Twenty years ago it was derelict and poised to topple as the soft, shaley cliffs beneath were eroded by the sea. Philip’s friends advised him,’Let it go,’ but instead he worked to have it transplanted 25 metres inland.Now you can stay there, courtesy of the Landmark Trust.

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    Verdure, cow parsley and cuckoo flowers (Red Campion) grow in wild abundance. Smedmore House can be rented for holidays, weekends, house parties or weddings when Philip is not in residence. The house and gardens are open to the public on certain days, which you can find on the website. Read more about Smedmore in the September issue of World of Interiors.  All images copyright bibleofbritishtaste.com

     

     

  • April10th

    This is the London dwelling of John Martin Robinson, aesthete, architectural historian and controversialist. He holds the offices of Maltravers Herald Extraordinary, Librarian to the Duke of Norfolk and Vice Chairman of the Georgian Group ( tho he has just resigned on a point of principle). He is also a regular contributor to Country Life and a Lancashire landowner. His friends call him ‘Mentmore,’ after the huge Victorian country house built for the art collector and banker Baron Mayer de Rothschild, and sold up in the 1970s.

    JMR is the author of a lot of outstanding books about country houses and architecture, many of them published by Yale. But in 2006 he produced a memoir of his childhood and early youth, Grass Seed in June, that was very different from anything he had written before. The quotations below are drawn from this interesting work of autobiography.

    As a family we were Tories and Catholics. I still am – in a not entirely straightforward way. …The Robinsons had married into old Catholic families on their return to Lancashire. The Elizabethan martyrs were close to us. I knew the fields at Brindle where St John Arrowsmith had been captured and taken away to be tried and executed. It was all very near and very exciting. One could not have enough of the gory details of barbarous executions. We were proud of these brave Elizabethan friends, neighbours and relations who had died for the Faith…  In general I was useless at anything practical. A farmer told my father: ‘The trouble with that theer lad is he doan’t shape.’ I have never shaped. I don’t drive, I hate all games, I don’t type, I don’t take photographs. I can hardly dial a telephone. … A surprising number of architectural historians do not drive. They are too busy looking at buildings to concentrate at the wheel. I tried to learn but whenever I saw something interesting I tended to turn the car inadvertently towards it across the oncoming traffic…anyway, I loathe cars and the ghastly, selfish, atomised society they represent. Walking, buses and trains are morally better.’ x As a car-hater, it came naturally to him to convert the former stable-cum-garage space in his mews cottage near Lambs Conduit Street into something less horrible. This is what he made, a kitchen and dining room, partitioned with a salvaged Gothic screen that he spotted being thrown out of a Curzon Street shop in the early 80s, when he was the GLC’s historic buildings Inspector for Westminster. Note the cunning use of mirror paneling in the door to maximise light and create a greater illusion of space, and the adorable seersucker tablecloth. The jumble sale plates on the kitchen wall were one of his first childhood purchases, costing him sixpence. x The painting of the four-towered church of St. John, Smiths Square, designed by Thomas Archer, is by the late Julian Barrow. To the right is a corner of a watercolour of Croome D’Abbot Church in Worcestershire, by Capability Brown and Robert Adam, painted by the talented Alan Dodd, who specialises in architecture; above is Brocklesby Mausoleum, painted by Royston Jones. x

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    Here is the other end of the dining room, photographed in the wintry light of December 2013. The jolly nice 1790s mahogany chairs by Gillow came from an antique shop in Kirby Stephen in Cumbria.

    x Some of the pretty plates are made of tin. In the centre of the bottom row is the Wedgwood commemorative plate that I gave to him, not because it was lovely (it isn’t very), but because it is decorated with the devices of the heralds who officiate at the College of Arms. John is rather good at buying nice things and decorating the houses in which he lives. When he was wondering what career to take up, this seemed to represent a distinct possibility. Had he followed this through, he could have had secured a reputation as the shortest-tempered interior decorator in England, for he is red-headed and as he freely admits, ‘Redheads have one layer of skin less than normal people.‘ When JMR went up to Oxford he discovered that, ‘ many of the finest Georgian interiors had been redecorated by John Fowler or under his influence. His sort of approach is now frowned on, but it had much to recommend it, combining historical knowledge wit artistic flair and a good sense of colour and tone, too often lacking in later, over-researched restoration of historic interiors. At the the time Fowler was one of my heroes and I thought of working for him. He was encouraging, but sensibly advised me to stick to academe at least for the time being. He had a reputation for being difficult and overbearing but I found him kindness itself. He invited me to lunch in March 1970 and I spent the day with him at King John’s Hunting Lodge, a small, eighteenth century Gothick folly in north Hampshire which he had restored and used as his country retreat…. the whole place with its garden topiary, painted furniture and understated elegance struck me as the acme of civilised perfection.’ The Hunting Lodge is now the home of Nicholas Haslam, who has preserved the best of Fowler’s arrangements while making it yet more vivid and comfortable. xMy real education came sideways through the three Ls – the liturgy, landscape and libraries. … now I discovered ‘Architecture’ and the Georgians in particular. Apart for Country Life, I can attribute it solely to one book, Ralph Dutton’s pioneering The English Country House (1934), in the Batsford series. The photograph of Wentworth Woodhouse, intriguingly described as ‘the largest of the genus,’ did it. As soon as I was able I was determined to go and see the place.’  How the plaque arrived here from its original setting outside the Kensington front door of the Euthanasia Society’s offices is not clear. JMR”S latest book, Requisitioned, features Wentworth Woodhouse on its cover.

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    John Robinson habitually wears pullovers and tweed jackets or pin striped double-breasted suits, Here he is at ease on his sofa. His sartorial preferences are still markedly similar to those of his circle as a postgradute student at Oriel College, Oxford, where he studied medieval history. His friend Bruce Wannell, aesthete and Persian scholar, hosted a fête champêtre with a real sheep, and a ‘Decadence’ party. ‘It was for that occasion that I emphasised my passing resemblance to the young Swinburne by growing a little red beard and wearing black velvet jacket, both of which I adopted as my permanent uniform for a time. … Bruce himself was once arrested by the police for murder after he sent his port-stained dress shirt to the laundry and was mistaken for the Oxford Ripper. Generally we wore old tweed coats, pullovers, or – a strange sartorial combination – the top half of a pinstripe suit with jeans, and black brogues or Gucci shoes with horse snaffles across the front.’

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    The upstairs sitting room, the still life in the manner of William Nicholson is by the portrait painter Diccon Swan.

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    To the left of the fireplace is ‘Tea at Faringdon,’ a stunning watercolour by Glynn Boyde Hart painted relatively early on in his career.

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    JMR met the late Glynn Boyde Hart and his wife Carrie for the first time on being asked to supper at their new house in Cloudesley Square, soon after they had met his friend Colin McMordie while staying in Venice. After meeting for drinks in the pub the four set off together, and arrived at an, ‘uninhabitable Georgian wreck where the builders has just started the long slow job of repair. We removed a bit of rusty corrugated iron from a broken window, climbed in and ate a picnic off the floor. The room was to be their drawing room, decorated by Glynn with painted oak graining, a technique he revived using combs, brushes and tins of Mander’s Matzine acquired by the gallon from closing down sales in old fashioned paint shops. Cloudesley Square was the first of three beautiful house which the GBH’s were to revive and inhabit over the years…’ ‘Tea at Faringdon’ represents the occasion when Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson, 14th Baron Berners invited his friend and neighbour Penelope Betjeman to bring her Arab mare Moti into the drawing room at his country house to pose for an indoor equestrian portrait. Lord Berners was a composer, artist, writer and quasi-surrealist, who dyed the pigeons at Faringdon in exotic colours and was depicted as Lord Merlin in Nancy Mitford’s novel, The Pursuit of Love.

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    One night at supper in our house, Glynn Boyde Hart dashed off this sketch of JMR on a scrap of paper. ‘It’s too absolutely ghastly’ is a characteristic expostulation, usually delivered after eight o’clock in the evening and the first few drinks of the day in a drawn-out-drawl through the long ‘a’ in ‘ghaaastly’. The quotation which follows is by way of an explaination, describing JMR’s sense of disaffiliation in the modern world.. ‘My memories of school, and indeed my feelings at the time, were that I was witnessing the collapse of not just an institution but a wider culture. My generation was the last. The last to be able to martial a shield of quartered arms, compose a Latin epitaph, read old books for pleasure, value formal manners, or tell the difference between Dec. and Perp. Nobody brought up and educated in this country after the end of the 1960s is the same as us. The unassuming cultural link, which made me feel at home in the 1890s or 1850s as much as in the present, has been broken.’
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    This is JMR”s pretty farmhouse at the foot of a Lancashire fell, with cows in the stone-paved yard at the back and a swift beck running at the bottom of the garden. The painting is by naive artist Caroline Bullock aka Carrie Boyde Hart. Glynn designed the two symmetrical wings which look as if they have always been there. Inside the house has elaborate  eighteenth century joinery by a local craftsman working from one of the pattern books of Batty Langley. John bought the house unseen in 1986, after seeing it (unillustrated) in a local agent’s particulars.

    x The upstairs sitting room in London.
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    Here is a tomato soup-coloured chair (which I sold him) designed by Lord Snowdon and made for the Investiture of the Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle in 1969. Propped above it is a painting of the west Sussex town of Arundel with its castle, found for him by the Fitzwilliam Museum’s director Tim Knox at Portabello market. Every week on a Wednesday JMR catches the train to Arundel, where the towers and turrets of the castle hang over the town. Arundel Castle is one of the longest inhabited buildings in England and has been in the possession of the Howard family since 1138. A few years ago Julian and Isabel Bannerman designed a new garden full of curious 17th century conceits, in memory of the ‘Collector-earl’ of Arundel. JMR’s occupations there are essentially peaceable, usually taking place in the muniment room in one of the towers stuffed with documents going back to the 12th century, but his vision of England is of a country where martial tendencies are still latent :
    ‘In the course of the last three centuries of generally advancing tameness, the British deliberately and calculatedly kept alive and nurtured a primeval, male, barbarous streak in all classes as being best suited in the armed services, buccaneering and industrial-imperial life in general. ..This explains why the young British male, even today, is so much more of a violent, medieval, throw-back than his European, homogenized, social-democratic opposite numbers. Whenever I witness rampaging louts, glass-smashing yobs, vomiting football crowds, my heart swells with native British pride. We are not militarist, but we are warlike.’

    x Last year, John Robinson  published the research on which he has been working since he was an Oxford postgraduate, James Wyatt, 1746-1813, Architect to George III, and organised an exhibition ( with the Georgian Group)  on the same theme in the famous  Yellow Room at Colefax and Fowler. The colour on the walls of the Yellow Room was the inspiration of Nancy Lancaster, who bought out Sibyl Colefax when she retired, and John Fowler, paint wizard, who stippled many coats of paint on the walls and then glazed them, giving this electrifying sheen.

    x Also on show was this scale model of Wyatt’s Gothick masterpiece, Fonthill Abbey, made for James Wyatt, now belonging to the Bath Preservation Trust and usually on display in the Lansdowne Tower.
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    x These pistachio green, Wyatt baby blue and sugar pink tea towels have now sold out.

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    English Heritage lent chairs, tripod flower stands, demi-lune tables, a  torchère and looking glasses from Heveningham Hall. They had been in store since the 1970s when the hall and its furniture were acquired from the Vanneck family by the government. Michael Heseltine, the Secretary of State for the Environment at the time, oversaw the transaction. The Department of the Environment failed to find a solution for the house, and it was sold again in 1981.

     

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    Also for sale were these watercolours of the plasterwork ceilings at Heveinngham by Georgian fanatic and artist Royston Jones.

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    Long ago as a junior curator at English Heritage I spent three claustrophobic days immured in the attics at Audley End House, where hundreds of pieces of Hevengham’s furniture had been taken into storage while everyone wondered what to do with it. Royston Jones and his partner Fiona Gray were taking measurement of every spindle, strut, arm, leg and moulding in order to fabricate a series of scale models of them all, and I had been left in charge of them. I don’t know if they ever finished this exacting task.

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    The photograph of Wyatt’s hall at Heveningham was taken by by Alfred E. Henson for Country Life in 1926. His clever trick was to throw a bucket of water over the marble floor, bringing its colours and patterns into gleaming high relief.   All images : copyright bibleofbritishtaste