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Friday, 3 February 2012

The Brimstone Butterfly’s Spencer House: Part Two


At the top of the stairs our little party entered the Music Room.

Dominating one room was a portrait of Colonel Gray, who had John Vardy kicked out of his job at Spencer House to be replaced by James Stuart. Colonel Gray is looking rather pleased with himself in his scarlet turban.

I had thought the chairs covered with checked gingham must be an anachronism but it seems they were to be found in houses of the period. The highly polished table now used for dining was once used as a wake table, bearing the coffin of a recently deceased resident before burial. In view of the table’s intriguing past I wonder whether the current caterers at Spencer House ever serve ‘Death by chocolate’ in the room.  As in Lady Howard’s bedchamber at Marble Hill House, a fake door had been added for the sake of symmetry.
Lady Spencer’s Room, to which the ladies would retire, overlooks both the street and the park. In her time the red damask walls were actually green. Arthur Young was in ecstasies about the room declaring “scarce anything can be more beautiful than the mosaic ceiling. “ I beg to disagree. The room left me cold. Having robbed poor John Vardy of the right to complete the decoration of Spencer House, James Stuart completed the interior at such a slow pace he never got around to filling in the roundels in the ceiling with classical paintings. The only paintings of interest in the room from my perspective were those by Sir James Thornhill and then only because he had decorated the Painted Hall at Greenwich.
The Great Room served as both a ballroom and an art gallery. The green and white compartmented ceiling with its gilt medallions reminded me of the Red Drawing Room at Syon House. It is based on the Temple of Concord and Victory in Rome. The ceiling features 4 bronzed plaster medallions featuring Venus flanked by Hymen and Cupid, Bacchus, the Three Graces and Apollo as well as Spencer griffins, panthers and lions. The guide pointed out that in one medallion Spencer griffins are pulling triumphal chariots, one with its tail up and the other down reflecting the family's changing fortunes. I particularly liked the doors whose architraves were based on those at the Erechtheum, an ancient Greek temple. It seems the Corinthian columns were added in the 1920s. The 18th century floorboards had to be replaced with 20th century oak ones and the modern carpet is a reproduction of a 17th century original.
The final state room on the tour was the Painted Room dedicated to conjugal love and drawing heavily on symbols of connubial bliss. Here is Arthur Young’s description of the room, which is as pertinent today as it was in 1768. Besides, he probably tarried for far longer than I was permitted although the key features he alights upon were the exact same that our guide pointed out:
“On one side is a bow window ornamented with the most exquisitely carved and gilt pillars you can conceive. The walls and ceiling are painted in compartments by Mr Stuart in the most beautiful taste. Even the very scrolls and festoons of the slightest sort which are run between the square and circular compartments are executed with the minutest elegance. The ground of the whole is green and the general effect more pleasing than is easily conceived. Nothing can be lighter or more beautiful than the chimney piece. The frieze contains a most exquisite painting representing a clandestine marriage which, without variety or glare of colours, has all the harmony of their utmost power. Nothing can be finer than the drapery, which is designed with the justest taste displaying the form of every limb through it in a most beautiful manner. The soft expression of the naked and the beauty of the heads are very great. I should observe that two of the small compartments of the wall are landscapes, let into it with no other than the painted frame of the divisions. One represents a water fall and the other a bridge over a stream, both fine. The frames of the tables, sofas, stands &c &c are all carved and gilt in the same taste as the other ornaments of the room all with a profusion of richness but with the utmost elegance. Remember to observe the peacock's feathers over one of the glasses, the turtles on a wreath of flowers and the magpies on bunches of grapes. The looking glass window is a piece of taste and has a happy effect.”
I too admired the window inset with mirrored glass. The Clandestine Marriage Young refers to is a panel in the original 18th century fireplace copied from an ancient  Roman painting. Other paintings were inspired by discoveries at Pompeii and Herculaneum.  The room with its apse and furniture reminded me of the Library at Kenwood House. It seems the latter, though original to Spencer House, had found itself at Kenwood for a spell. Perhaps I recognised it. Of all the rooms on the upper floor this was the only one I really liked. I could have happily spent hours in Vardy’s Ante Room or the Palm Room. The fact he was denied the opportunity to decorate the upper floors in the Ancient Roman style was a tragedy, a Greek tragedy one could say.

The Painted Room ended the tour of Spencer House. Outside on the Terrace and visible from the street was one final artwork. The statue of a man and his shoes titled  The Man Who Gives Fire, is a life-size bronze by the Belgian artist Jan Fabre. Different works of art have been exhibited here over the past few years. I am not sure either John Vardy or James Smith would have approved, as the statue fails to conform to the heroic demeanour of statues from the antique world. However, given the propensity to gild statues in the18th century, it might well have found favour amongst the original denizens of Spencer House on that basis alone.

Thus, ends what is likely to be my final visit of the winter season to a stately home. I plan next to relate a visit in the summer to Apsley House, the London home of the Dukes of Wellington, where the clash between tastes in interior design is even more pronounced than at Spencer House.

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