‘…with a wishing well’. Not precisely one of Rodgers’ and Hart’s most deathless songs, from a largely forgettable musical ‘On Your Toes’. It was, nevertheless, brought to mind this morning when I received a communication from an erstwhile client, a hospitality designer with a number of international hotel commissions from international hotel chains. No small hotels these, everything in the 300 room plus category, and even those in the remote locations suitable for, pardon me Oprah, ‘glamping’, the interiors and amenities being assuringly if unimaginatively recognizable, and one could easily wake up in the morning thinking one was in Anaheim and not in the Seychelles.

I suppose, as one would transit the country a few decades ago, one would visit Denny’s or McDonald’s with the knowledge that one would find, if not a culinary experience of Duncan Hines stature, then yet a familiar one, a safe one, and in our own benighted country, with most of its residents never venturing outside its borders, ‘safe’ is of paramount importance. Sadly, though, ‘safe’ and its fellow traveler ‘sameness’ is largely what’s become the byword of nearly everything- from merchandise, to hospitality, both lodging and eating, and inexorably, ‘sameness’ has erased local culture. The pope, for instance, can now walk less than the length of the nave in St Peter’s to order a Big Mac in Vatican City. Whether it is fast food stodge or an anonymous luxury hotel room, these are part of the monolithic internationalism in consumer culture, culture that had its birth in but represents something less than the best in American exports, and now, it is all that’s left of retail commerce in any municipality when it has squeezed out of business what’s best locally.

That everywhere and everyplace is losing its national, to say nothing of its local, character is decried by those of us of an age to remember the glory of diversity and loved domestic and international travel precisely to take in local color and is tinged with considerable irony. Ironic in that, with mountains and mountains of cash from the burgeoning pension funds those affluent baby boomers have amassed, it is a capital rich environment that funds the leviathan that’s literally wiping cultural diversity from the world’s landscape. It astonishes me to find, in my own sad case, that the equity in my whole life policy is now more than I ever thought I’d have in total net worth. What use is made of that equity, though, is what’s at issue. All of us require both  a reasonable rate of return, and with the prospect of our earning years moving into abeyance and the assurance of actuaries of a very, very long span of life, considerable capital appreciation. Considering who’s to blame for the change in the cultural environment, one needs only to look in one’s LED lit and heated and three sided bathroom mirror.

For all those younger who rail against international business and take to the streets in protest, the seductions of huge amounts of cash nevertheless enmesh younger people at the very moment when their  own creative efforts to counter cultural erasure begin to succeed. The young restaurateur, or the young artist, or any one of a number of creative people in any endeavour, once they achieve some public success see followed quickly on offers of cash to expand. It is difficult to resist the cheapening of one’s own product, to say nothing of one’s own principles, through expansion in the face of blandishments that allow one to purchase a Range Rover, hire an au pair, and live in Pacific Heights, South Kensington, or the Upper East Side.


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Regency period rosewood card table- we had one, the queen has two.

Amidst all the furore about the cost of refitting the much tinkered with Buckingham Palace, occluded is the fact the palace is very much a working government building. Although Queen Elizabeth II lives there for part of the year, she doesn’t own the place or its contents, and the bleating from so many anti-monarchist that she should pay for the repairs herself is analogous to insistence that Donald Trump pay for the repairs and maintenance of the White House whilst he is in residence. I pause for a moment until I stop shuddering at the thought…

Although not always occupied by the queen, the building is always in use, and while she is away annually in August, the place is open, as it was this last August, to tourists, including, as it happens, Keith and me.

Marquee for the Bucking Palace Garden Café- location, location…

Marquee for the Bucking Palace Garden Café- location, location…

We’ve gone often over the years, mostly to take in the extraordinary furniture and artwork that, although acquired over centuries by the crown, is not, in the main now owned by the royal family, but is in fact owned by the state. Our visits, while pleasant, do to be frank have a commercial imperative, seeking as we always do to determine if something in the royal collection matches up with something in our own stock in trade, and this year we were in luck. A wonderful Regency period card table had its number  matched by two in the Music Room, in the apse overlooking the garden. As an aside, we’ve now sold this piece to a very good client in Montecito. Did the tangential connection with royalty sell the piece? Perhaps not, but it does make for a good talking point.

Buck House ‘royal’ cappuccino- everybody has a living to make

Buck House ‘royal’ cappuccino- everybody has a living to make

That Keith and I are nakedly commercial in our outlook might seem crass, but we were cheered by the fact that, even amongst the great and the good, a desire to use wealth and position to make some dosh is something we have in common. After dodging the throngs inside, we were glad to find outside hugging the palace’s garden front a pavilion selling light refreshment, of which we were in desperate need. Our late morning cappuccinos were given a special, albeit tacky touch, with a royal crown stenciled in chocolate on top of the foam. Oh, well- everyone has to earn one’s keep, even Queen Elizabeth.


dumfries-house-coverOne of the things I had most looked forward to in an era that has seen a dearth of country house sales was the one scheduled nine years ago of the contents of Dumfries House. Is this politically incorrect? A heritage industry solecism? Of course it is, but I am unrepentantly acquisitive, and it is as a dealer that I fuel my obsession with buying things. Imagine, then, my initial disappointment when Prince Charles  intervened at literally the 11th hour, saving the house and its contents for the nation.

Oh, well, now I’ve offended every English Heritage, National Trust and Historic Homes Association card member, I must say that, absent owning a bit of the treasure trove of Chippendale furniture that had existed unchanged and in situ since placed there in the 1750’s by the 5th Earl of Dumfries it was my goal to sooner rather than later visit Dumfries House.

Not the easiest place to get to, the estate is rather at the back of beyond, in possibly the wettest part of the Scottish lowlands, known heretofore for sheep- there in abundance- and lead mines, a few still operating. Generally, though, this part of Scotland is not economically robust, and it was as a part of the acquisition of Dumfries House a consortium headed by Prince Charles- more accurately styled the Duke of Rothesay in Scotland- sought also to accomplish some economic regeneration, with the establishment of studios onsite to teach restoration techniques, and the eventual construction of a housing estate nearby.

The house itself, though, is something of a disappointment. The design initially the work of William Adam, and completed after his death by his sons, the house has the reputation of being an early visual essay in classical architecture by Robert Adam. All this prior to Robert Adam’s own grand tour, and nurturing and tutelage by Piranesi and Clerrisseau, the house is not much more than a box with internal rococo plasterwork of passing interest. After seeing the virtual invention of neoclassicism in the mature work of Robert Adam in places like Harewood, Kedleston, and Syon, it is hard even to draw a linkage between these works of an accomplished, mature architect and this a very early effort.

‘French’ chairs, from Chippendale’s 1754 Director…

‘French’ chairs, from Chippendale’s 1754 Director…

But as at least as much as the association with the Adam brothers generally, the house is famous for its association with Thomas Chippendale, and indeed is vaunted as one of the first large-scale commissions of arguably the most famous English cabinet maker, executed at about the same time as the issuance of his exquisite pattern book, The Gentleman and Cabinet-Maker’s Director.

‘French’ chair, as executed by Chippendale. Modern blue damask, matching the period original

‘French’ chair, as executed by Chippendale. Modern blue damask, matching the period original

No question about it, the furniture does not disappoint. The Chippendale pieces were wrought by the master’s London workshop largely to patterns associated with the Director… and selected by Lord Dumfries himself. The influence of Chippendale within Dumfries House is hard to overstate, as even the large numbers of pieces completed by Scottish cabinet makers were in very many cases executed to match Chippendale’s published designs. I must say that, as a tremendous enhancement to the visual experience, reading Sebastian Pryke’s masterful essay in the Dumfries House guidebook does a wonderful job of contextualizing the furnishing of the house.

Detail of Dumfries House serving table, attributed to Alexander Peter

Detail of Dumfries House serving table, attributed to Alexander Peter

Unfortunately, the house and its contents are less than the sum of the component parts. The Adam portion of the house itself is not the prodigious effort wrought by Robert Adam in his later years, and the interior decoration, and certainly the furniture pieces, while lovely in themselves, seem in many cases out of scale and just plopped inside. As Dr Pryke makes clear in his essay, the pieces were selected by Lord Dumfries and included readymade stock, as well as pieces purchased at auction and taken from other of Lord Dumfries’ homes.  The effect, sadly, is of something of a jumble that contrasts negatively with the care and effort Robert Adam was able to achieve with his controlled outside-inside decoration, where scale and style and colour were in complete harmony. Those few of my regular blogophiles will note that Lord Dumfries was very much concerned about some modest association of the exterior of the house with the Palladianism of Lord Burlington, noting in contemporary correspondence that some versions of the plan were favorably reviewed by the renowned gentleman architect, the acknowledged style setter of his day.

Sideboard table, Chippendale’s Director…

Sideboard table, Chippendale’s Director…

Unfortunately, though, the work of Burlington’s protégé William Kent and the notion of an interior befitting the grandeur of the exterior were ignored. Indeed, as must be implied from the manner in which the house was furnished and the paucity of exterior decoration, Lord Dumfries very much had economy on his mind.

One particularly unpleasant feature that did nothing to enhance the aesthetics of the house was the treatment we received as visitors. Required to book a tour, we did so several weeks in advance and upon arrival, were shunted into a small room with 20 or so other tour visitors to watch a long-ish video of the Duke of Rothesay discussing his role in saving the house and grounds, and his plans, with Dumfries House as the centrepiece, for the regeneration of the local area. It was embarrassingly self-congratulatory and did nothing to aid in the understanding of the house. We were then shunted outside, and introduced to our guide who looked and acted like a Hattie Jacques character from a ‘Carry on…’ film who then quick-marched us around the main and upper floor of the house, and who likewise mouthed with numbing regularity the debt owed to the Duke of Rothesay in saving the house and jumpstarting the local economy. ‘Hattie’ told all of us at the start we could ask questions but her diatribe and the fast pace at which she moved us along made anything other than a quick look impossible. However, along with Keith and our friends Michael and Jane Furse, we took our time and gave everything a careful look. Michael and I were, as it happened, in such rapt, albeit quiet, discussion about a clock case in the entry hall that we didn’t hear ‘Hattie’ chastising us about avoiding private conversation. Jane and Keith heard it, though and let Michael and I know once we were in the car park. Good thing, as I might have treated ‘Hattie’ to some Scots words and phrases, whilst certainly known to the Duke of Rothesay, are not often heard during most tours.


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Dr. Doris Kearns Goodwin

Monday night was special in Fresno, with the lecture given by historian and Pulitzer Prize winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin. Following on from the previous night’s all-in no-holds-barred slug fest between the presidential candidates, it was impressive to see that Dr. Goodwin had tailored her remarks to specifically acknowledge the verbal fisticuffs of the preceding evening, blending couldn’t- be- more current, real world politics into the historical milieu for which, in print, she’s best known. She was able to give all those in attendance a well considered, broad based perspective on what we’re seeing and experiencing in the current political environment.

In her remarks and in the Q & A afterward, Dr. Goodwin said that the lack of respect and decorum in the present presidential contest is without precedent, and amounts to a sideshow that occludes an honest to goodness examination of the issues of the day. And, moreover, this provides a terrible example for children and those whose first glimpse of politics this is, thinking as one would that the behavior witnessed is acceptable. She cited Congressional decorum of an earlier day, wherein if one congressman called another congressman a liar on the floor of either the house or senate, that congressman would probably face censure from his colleagues. She spoke of the ways in which the vaunted leaders of our history dealt with anger, and how leaders from Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt to Obama knew that it was essential for them to find methods to allow their anger to dissipate- which they’ve often had to do- realizing that outright venting is, for the most part, not just counterproductive but downright destructive and contrary to the statesman-like conduct effective leaders must embody and espouse.

In this era where political, ethnic, and religious differences have wrought serious divides, Dr. Goodwin suggested the importance of military service as an arena where those differences can be bridged. Moreover, she strongly recommended the institution of a compulsory national service scheme for everyone just out of high school, effectively bringing thereby those of varied backgrounds into close contact and through mutual service providing an opportunity for those in service to become good citizens, for those in service and those served to learn from and understand one another.

Though made interesting and given context through the use of historical anecdote, what Dr. Goodwin had to say was of paramount importance for not just now, but for the future growth and social, as well as political, cohesion in this time of division. Given that her visit occurred just now seems nearly uncanny in its fortunate timing. The tragedy in all this locally, though, is that with her overarching message of decorum and unity, those who were there to hear it were the same shall we say ‘mature’ white people, and not a diverse mix of ethnicities and ages from which, one hopes, the message would achieve resonance- and spread. Actually, there were very few people of any type, with 500 by my estimation. The Fresno Bee, one of the event’s sponsors, suggested 1,000, but I suspect either the reporter was seeing double, or he sought to minimize the embarrassment wrought by the paucity of attendees. There should have been 5,000 from the student community alone.

One can only opine that in this political environment given over to middle of the night tweets, irrational sound bites, and TV debates that would make Jerry Springer blush, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s lecture, for all its importance and good sense is, sadly for all of us, a less compelling draw.


It is difficult to consider Lord Burlington and his lifelong work as a gentleman architect without a constant nod to his long time collaborator William Kent. Not of gentle birth but someone whose early promise led to support on the Grand Tour by a gaggle of Yorkshire gentry, Kent did languish in Italy for nearly 10 years before his transformative 1719 meeting with Lord Burlington, a man nearly 10 years Kent’s junior, upon the younger man’s sojourn in northern Italy. What attraction these men had for one another has been a matter of speculation for the past 3 centuries, but whatever it was, it lasted the rest of Kent’s life, lodging as he did in Burlington House as an honored member of the household until his death in 1748.

Chiswick House- ceiling of the blue velvet room, with an allegory of architecture

Chiswick House- ceiling of the blue velvet room, with an allegory of architecture

The ceiling of the saloon or ‘tribunal’ at Chiswick House

The ceiling of the saloon or ‘tribunal’ at Chiswick House

It is also difficult to know where Burlington’s work ends and Kent’s begins, but suffice to say, they both brought back to England a Palladianism that sought to capture an Italianate style of decoration, both without and within, that was a marked departure from the Baroque style then in vogue. Sometimes, though, as at Chiswick House, Kent’s work can seem more than a little ponderous. With its intense colour and riot of decoration, the Blue Velvet Room is rendered nearly claustrophobic, with its ceiling an allegory of architecture, bespeaking an econcomium to Kent’s patron Lord Burlington. It is in scale though perhaps more appropriate to a very much larger space. The saloon or tribunal, as well, positioned as it is to be the main gathering place within Chiswick House, seems small and pokey, despite being well lit from above with the placement of ‘thermal’ windows. Nevertheless, coffering appears small and fussy, and visually less effective than that in the original vastness of the Pantheon the saloon sought to evoke.

The drawing room, Dumfries House, with blue damask upholstery

The drawing room, Dumfries House, with blue damask upholstery

A quick sidebar, the use of a blue ground colour in the Blue Velvet Room, its pigment perhaps derived from turnsole, was a striking inclusion. As mentioned in my earlier blog, the exterior elevations of Lord Dumfries’ slightly later house was influenced by Burlington and Chiswick House. Although the interior of Dumfries House is rendered in a less antiquarian, more pedestrian rococo style, the damask covering of most of the soft furnishings including the pelmet and hangings of the bed of state are in the same, turnsole blue. It is further worth noting that Lord Dumfries was particularly insistent that the fabric of this colour be used.

 

Portion of the Great Staircase, Kensington Palace, with William Kent in turban, by William Kent’

Portion of the Great Staircase, Kensington Palace, with William Kent in turban, by William Kent’

But as with Chiswick House generally, its interior design, including furnishings, function as a manifestation of a new style in architecture and design with a focus on an antiquity particularly Roman in character that achieved a striking resonance in the Britain of its day. While certainly the political influence of Lord Burlington was instrumental in obtaining appointments for William Kent, patronage of Burlington’s older protégé moved very quickly apace. Royal appointments included decorative commissions for George II at Kensington Palace  and perhaps most significant of all, an enormous amount of work for the first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole.

The overarching figure of his day, Sir Robert Walpole, also of relatively humble birth, was extraordinarily useful to the court, bridging successfully as he did between Parliament and the king, easing the way for the German Hanoverian monarch and maintaining a long-lived, albeit fractious balance between Whigs and Tories.  With an era known even in its day as the Robinopolis, Walpole himself was aware of and sought to promote his political success with a visual language that found its most obvious vocabulary in the virtue of the republican Rome of antiquity, in which Kent, as it happened, was particularly conversant.

Stone Hall, Houghton, with bust of Sir Robert Walpole in the Roman manner above the fireplace

Stone Hall, Houghton, with bust of Sir Robert Walpole in the Roman manner above the fireplace

Walpole’s supreme expression of worldly and political success was his stately home, Houghton. While its Palladian exterior is the work of Burlington’s contemporary Colen Campbell, the interior design and decoration, and including the furniture, is wholly the work of Kent.

By contrast, though, Kent was also engaged in a variety of tasks both public and private that were at times considerably removed from his initial association not only with Lord Burlington, but also with a type Palladianism with ancient Roman overtones. More on this in a  later blog, but suffice to say, it is indicative of the character and affability of Kent that he was generally companionable and well liked. His appointments and commissions had arguably at least as much to do with Lady Burlington, as lady of the bedchamber to Queen Caroline, as to her husband. Lady Burlington’s surviving correspondence are full of endearments directed at Kent, referring to him variously as her dear little ‘signor’ and ‘Kentino’.  Whatever the relationship between Kent and Lord Burlington, it did not seem to interfere with the regard in which Lady Burlington held the man, who, along with her husband, spent his entire life in her household.

Pundits since the time of and including Horace Walpole have tried to impart a political message contained within sometimes abstruse symbolism and motifs in the work of Kent. What seems more obvious, given the variety of styles employed and political persuasions of those for whom Kent worked, he was in his day, to put not too fine a point on it, fashionable. It seems that fashion and the freemasonry of the rich and aristocratic did then, as now, override political divisions. Indeed, Kent himself had the final word on the subject, writing in his own idiosyncratic fashion that ‘ as Politicke are not my genius, it diverts me much now at night to look & read of these fine remaines of Antiquety.’

For reference:

The last two decades have seen much written to reexamine the life and work of Kent who’s remained by and large in the shadow of his most long-lived patron, Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington. The exhibition staged at the Bard Graduate Center in New York and at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London entitled ‘William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain’ was an exhaustive examination of the life and work of Kent. The catalog and essays accompanying the exhibition, edited by Susan Weber, are a tour de force and do much to elucidate and rehabilitate the reputation Kent enjoyed in his lifetime.

Susan Weber, ed., William Kent: Designing Georgian Britain, Yale University Press, 2013