Impressionist & Modern Art

Behind Every Great House

By James Reginato

In his new book, James Reginato explores what makes historic estates and their modern aristocratic owners so fascinating. One reason is their centuries-old tradition of collecting art.

I n 1786, as their carriage rolled up and Blenheim Palace loomed before their eyes, King George III reportedly gasped to Queen Charlotte, “We have nothing to equal this.” The astonishing Baroque behemoth was still a relative novelty at the time – its cornerstone having been laid in June 1705, less than a year after the 1st Duke of Marlborough’s pivotal victory against the French on the Bavarian fields of Blenheim. On behalf of a grateful nation, an appreciative Queen Anne had granted Marlborough and his heirs the 2,000-acre royal manor of Woodstock, in England. Requiring countless trades- and craftsmen, plus the Marlborough family’s tireless vigilance, the palace had taken some 30 years to complete. Ever since then, its sight has awed all visitors.

The north facade of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire

Blenheim is just one of the wondrous British estates featured in my new book, Great Houses, Modern Aristocrats, published by Rizzoli this month. The palace is also emblematic of the treasure troves of great art – as well as the dedication, joys and hardships of their owners – that these grand homes have long embodied.

My own first glimpse of Blenheim filled me with the same wonder that George III felt, though I pulled up in the back of a school bus.

I was seventeen, fresh from my hometown of Chicago, and thanks to my generous parents, in England for a semester of high school. For four months I visited seemingly every cathedral, minster, museum and great house in England, and I have adored everything British ever since – except, of course, the separate hot and cold water taps. A number of years after my school trip, in 2011, I returned to Blenheim in considerably finer style – and with an overnight bag – to interview the 11th Duke of Marlborough and his vivacious wife, Lily, for an article for Vanity Fair. “My famous ancestor won the Battle of Blenheim in one day, but his descendants have been fighting it ever since,” His Grace told me with pride and a trace of exasperation.

In the Saloon, one of the magnificent state rooms at Blenheim, the murals were painted by French decorative painter Louis Laguerre (1663–1721)

With experience, I have learned that all great houses elicit similar emotions from their dedicated owners. Their struggles, ingenuity, devotion and frequently larger-than-life personalities lie at the heart of my book – as does their art. Following is a glimpse into what makes the estates and their proprietors so worthy of our curiosity.

For one thing, most of these houses have belonged to the same families for centuries. Take Haddon Hall, for example: By 1200 the Vernons had settled into this crenellated stone manor house in Derbyshire. Almost 400 yearslater, in 1565, they married into the Manners family. Fast-forward another 400-plus years, and Haddon Hall remains in that family’s steady hands. Broughton Castle, a moated romantic redoubt in Oxfordshire, was last on the real estate market in 1377, some 75 years after it was built, when Sir John de Broughton snapped it up. “We’ve been hanging on ever since,” his descendant, the Honourable Martin Fiennes, told me jocularly. Born in 1961, he is in line to become the 22nd Baron Saye and Sele, but at the time of this writing, his father, the 95-year-old 21st Baron Saye and Sele, is still a spry presence on the estate. From Blenheim to Haddon Hall, one thing is clear: A family’s attachment to its great house is visceral and time-tried.

William and Laura Cavendish, the Earl and Countess of Burlington, in Lismore Castle in County Waterford, Ireland

Another topic of fascination surrounding these houses is how, after centuries of wars and famines, economic and social upheaval, certain families have been able to keep on going so long and so well under the same, and sometimes sprawling, roofs. In my opinion, there is something in these particular genes. Although the fecklessness of the English upper class has long been a favourite storyline in literature and film, my impression has been that the owners of these houses consistently demonstrate degrees of creativity and industry that are out of the ordinary. Of course, there are rewards: They get to live in these places. But running houses like these is never-ending labour, which requires diligence and constant resourcefulness.

As I discovered from my visits, living in these houses is largely synonymous with inhabiting a long-established private museum. Vessels of history and culture, Britain’s stately homes are stocked with treasure after treasure, many of which were made in situ. At Goodwood House in West Sussex, seat of the Dukes of Richmond since 1697, guests today can still marvel at three scenes of the estate painted by George Stubbs in 1795, a commission from the 3rd Duke of Richmond. Earlier, in 1746, the 2nd Duke had commissioned from Canaletto two magnificent views of the Thames, which are also on view.

The dining room at Lismore Castle

In Norfolk, Houghton Hall – begun in 1722 by Britain’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole – maintains a collection of paintings by Thomas Gainsborough, William Hogarth and Jacques-Louis David. And that is despite the fact that in 1779, Catherine the Great swooped in and bought 204 of the house’s pictures, with which she subsequently formed the core of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

And in 1889, after Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild constructed Waddesdon Manor, a stupendous French Renaissance-style chateau in Buckinghamshire, he crammed it with an Aladdin’s cave-worthy assortment of Sèvres porcelain, Renaissance gold and jewels, French furniture from the reigns of the Louis, Dutch Old Masters and English 18th-century portraits, all of which are still displayed within its walls.

It’s worth noting that not all the properties in my book are on British soil, nor are they all ancestral stately piles or the owners all British. Villa Cetinale, for instance, built in 1680 by Cardinal Flavio Chigi, was bought by the 6th Earl of Durham in 1977 and seems a quintessentially English establishment in spite of its being located near Siena, in Tuscany. In Scotland in 2007, the over 200-year-old Dumfries House and its peerless collection of Thomas Chippendale furniture was on the verge of dispersal when His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales stepped in rather dramatically to save it. On Park Lane in London, His Highness Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al-Thani of Qatar orchestrated a six-year-long refurbishment of the magnificent Dudley House – seat of the Earls of Dudley for more than two centuries – which returned it to perhaps even more than its original glory.

David and Rose, the 7th Marquess and Marchioness of Chomondley, at Houghton Hall in Norfolk

Yet not all the art in these great houses dates back centuries, for these homes are not stuck in time. A brilliant example lies in County Waterford, Ireland, where William and Laura Cavendish, the energetic Earl and Countess of Burlington, have transformed a derelict wing of Lismore Castle into Lismore Castle Arts, a gallery space open to the public that showcases their collection of cutting-edge contemporary art.

With a backdrop like this (Sir Walter Raleigh once lived here), such artwork may seem surprising to some. But the Earl possesses the perspective of five centuries of family collecting. Just like his forebear the 6th Duke of Devonshire, he is interested in the art of his time. In the 1820s, the 6th Duke shocked his contemporaries when he purchased freshly made sculptures of little-clothed figures from the Rome studio of Antonio Canova and installed them at Chatsworth.

A tapestry-lined sitting room at Houghton Hall; the private Yellow Drawing Room is hung with paintings by Jacques-Louis David,
Thomas Gainsborough and William Hogarth, among others

Interestingly, the work of one of Britain’s most pre-eminent contemporary artists Lucian Freud, is on display in several of these great houses. William Cavendish’s famous grandmother, the late, great Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire – the youngest of thecelebrated Mitford sisters, always at the forefront of contemporary taste – began collecting Freud’s work in the 1950s and sat for a portrait by him, as did several other subjects of my book, including Lord Rothschild, Baron Glenconner and the Honorable Garech Browne, chatelain of Luggala, a Gothicised lodge in County Wicklow, Ireland. His portrait, painted in 1953 when Browne was 14, hangs there against wallpaper designed by A.W.N. Pugin. In 1960–1961, Freud painted Bindy Lambton, wife of the 6th Earl of Durham. The result, Head on a Green Sofa, is considered one the artist’s finest portraits and fetched nearly £3 million when it sold at Sotheby’s London in 2014. For her part, Lindy, the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava, was an early and avid collector of Freud as well as Francis Bacon and David Hockney – artists she patronised with her late husband, Sheridan. At Clandeboye in Northern Ireland, she has become an accomplished artist herself, with her own painting studio.

The Honourable Garech Browne in the entrance hall of Luggala, County Wicklow, Ireland

With such artistic gems – not to mention remarkable architecture and grounds – it is no wonder these great houses have long been the subject of curious and repeated visits. For one thing, I noticed in my research how much artists and writers enjoy visiting them. Henry James certainly did. He swooned over Haddon Hall – “of every form of sad desuetude does it contain some delightful example” – as well as Broughton Castle: “Nothing can be sweeter than to see its clustered walls of yellow-brown stone so sharply islanded,” he wrote. Though James admitted to feeling oppressed by the “gilded bondage” of Waddesdon Manor, complaining that his decidedly social weekends there hindered his literary output, he returned often, as his six signatures in the Waddesdon visitors’ book attest. And when Her Majesty the Queen came to dinner at Dudley House recently, she was reportedly dazzled. “This place makes Buckingham Palace look rather dull,” she is said to have quipped to her host, Sheikh Hamad. Personally, one of the nicest outcomes of writing about these houses over the years has been to be asked back to some of them after my articles were published. When I arrived at Blenheim for a weekend and the housekeeper let me know that my bags were being sent to my “usual room,” I smiled, thinking of my very first visit.


James Reginato is writer-at-large for Vanity Fair.

Photographs Courtesy of Rizzoli, ©2016 By Jonathan Becker

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