One of the things that I had forgotten about Blenheim was the sheer scale of the great monument to the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough in the chapel at Blenheim. One does not expect the atmosphere of an early eighteenth-century chapel to be especially pious, particularly if designed by Vanbrugh who was fairly agnostic, but it is still impressive how far the chapel is a shrine to the Duke. The tomb was designed by William Kent and executed by Rysbrack and is a masterpiece in its way. On 24 May 1732, the Duchess of Marlborough wrote a characteristically boastful letter about its design: ‘The Chappel is finish’d and more than half the Tomb there ready to set up all in Marble Decorations of figures, Trophies, Medals with their inscriptions and in short everything that could do the Duke of Marlborough Honor and Justice’:
Having spent so much of my early career working on the life of Vanbrugh, including transcribing much of the early correspondence relating to Blenheim when it was first made available in the British Library, I inevitably felt a frisson in going back. I still love the free abstract celebratory aspect of Vanbrugh’s architecture, the enjoyment of form, the pomp which Vanbrugh loved and the Duchess of Marlborough hated.
These are two canon balls at the entry:
One of the statues:
A view of the east colonnade:
The clock tower:
Erosion of one of the columns by the chapel:
The western colonnade:
And the music of the towers:
We headed up to Blenheim for the Ai Weiwei opening along with several thousands of others, all coming out for the autumn sunshine. It was a bit of a scrum – hundreds of daytrippers, plus the Woodstock Literary Festival, plus an unprivate private view. The Ai Weiwei installations are big and ambitious and work surprisingly well.
The display begins with a massive chandelier in the Great Hall:
Next is the jokey Coca-cola logo inscribed on a Han Dynasty vase:
In the corridor are some kitsch floral plates displayed alongside the cabinets of Sèvres:
We liked the porcelain crabs in the Red Drawing Room which commemorate the feast his friends had the night before his studio was burned down:
Next came the Saloon, the central room on the South Front with an array of gilded signs of the zodiac:
In the Second State Room are two marbled chairs:
In the third State Room, a bowl of pearls:
In the Library, a marble surveillance camera:
Last of the things we saw were the two stately porcelain vases in the colonnade alongside the private apartments:
What is one to make of the display as a whole? First, it is done in a full-blooded way, not just as occasional interventions, but filling the house, work which in a curious way partly belongs like cases of oriental ceramics and partly jars. I think the Ai Weiwei’s work best when there is an elision with the original, a frisson of incongruity as history is matched by works from a very different artisan culture.
I looked up my ancient card index to find out a bit more about Ralph Montagu, the man who built Boughton. Born just before the Civil War, educated at Westminster under Dr. Busby, he entered the service of the court as a gentleman of the horse. Dark, swarthy and saturnine, he was a great ladies man. In 1669, he was appointed Ambassador Extraordinary to France. It was there that he developed his Francophile taste, including a visit to Versailles where ‘he had all the gardens &c. at his command’ and where he was said to have ‘formed his idea of building and gardening’. In Paris, he had an affair with the Duchess of Cleveland, the King’s former mistress, who denounced him to the King. Endlessly involved in plots of one sort or another on both sides of the Channel, he became one of the supporters of the Glorious Revolution and was raised to a dukedom, building both Boughton and Montagu House in Bloomsbury as monuments to his rapacity and taste.
The reason we went to Boughton yesterday was to see an exhibition of new work by Tessa Traeger which is the result of three years as artisi-in-residence looking at and studying both the pictures and the Beauchamp-Feuillet system of notation used to record early eighteenth-century dance. I have been an admirer of her work ever since her photographs of food in Vogue in the early 1980s. In the late 1990s, I discovered that she was extremely knowledgeable about gardens and she was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to do a series of photographs of gardeners and their gardens which ended up as an exhibition and a book, A Gardener’s Labyrinth, which must now be a collectors’ item. More recently, she did a wonderful photographic study of the people of the Ardeche, Voices of the Vivarais. Her exhibition is called The Calligraphy of Dance and will be shown at Purdy Hicks. But the photographs look best alongside the pictures on which they’re based.
The Duke took us on a tour of the gardens at Boughton which he is reviving with Kim Wilkie. The original garden was apparently originally laid out as a grand and spacious formal garden, with lakes and parterres, with help from a Dutch engineer. In 1698 the Duke of Shrewsbury was invited to admire the waterworks on his way back from Newmarket. In 1724, William Stukeley visited and described how ‘the gardens contain fourscore and ten acres of ground, adorn’d with statues, flower-pots, urns of marble and metal, many very large basons, with variety of fountains playing, aviarys, reservoirs, fishponds, canals, admirable greens, wildernesses, terraces, &c.’
It now has an elegiac quality with elements of the lakes still visible, the trees grown to full maturity, and the second Duke’s mound restored, alongside an inverted mound dug out in the clay.
This is a view of the mound of 1724, which was planned as a base for the second Duke’s mausoleum:
This is the lake at the bottom of Kim Wilkie’s mound:
And these are views of the park:
I haven’t been to Boughton since I was an undergraduate. The only thing I remember from my previous visit was a long corridor of linen cupboards and being told that every year the family laid in a new set of linen which they used sequentially. They were still using eighteenth-century linen. It’s a sleeping beauty of a house, lost in the deepest Northamptonshire countryside and not much occupied since the death of John Montagu, second duke of Montagu in 1749, used by the family only for summer holidays.
This is the main north front, so French in style because it was almost certainly designed by an (unknown) French architect or designer after Ralph Montagu, first Duke of Montagu returned from serving as Ambassador in Paris:
This is the west front looking out onto the remains of the original formal garden:
Indoors, I was only able to photograph a small number of details which caught my eye. The portrait of John Montagu, Marquis of Monthermer by Pompeo Batoni:
A floral painting, I assume by Jean Baptiste Monnoyer:
A detail of a seventeenth-century mirror:
The state bed:
And the view from the window: