An Antiquarian's Tale, Issue 117

Clinton Howell Antiques - March 1, 2021 - Issue 117
An Appreciation of English Antique Furniture
A semi biographical journey of my life in the English Decorative Arts
English history is sprinkled with a number of extraordinary women (Boadicea, Bess of Hardwick, Eleanor of Aquitaine) among whom the best known are the monarchs, Elizabeth I and Victoria, but Sarah Churchill, later Duchess of Marlborough (1660-1744) certainly qualifies as one of the more forceful women to have lived in the 17th and 18th centuries. She chose to support Princess Anne, daughter of James II,  before she became Queen, which got her banished from court by Mary, Anne's sister and wife of William of Orange. But when Mary died, Sarah was soon back at court and on very good terms with Anne whose ascension to the throne in 1702, cemented Sarah's status as the Queen's favorite, no doubt helped by her husband's service in the army on the Continent. I read a biography of Anne's years on the throne some time ago and it was as much about Sarah as it was about Anne. Their relationship comes across as a virtual milking of a cash cow by Sarah, but this was how the system worked--there were the spoils for the favorites and Sarah, who found Anne dull, cashed in. It is also said that Sarah was cantankerous, indeed at times she sounds a bit like both of my grandmothers. (Although my siblings and I inherited no titles.) In the end, Sarah left an enormous estate and daughters married into four great English families, one of them the Spencers that led eventually in one branch to Winston Churchill and in another to Diana, Princess of Wales.

The English country house is, it is fair to say, an institution. The houses were created to help cement the power of the local lord--the English oligarchy being a counter balance to the monarchy in subtle and ineffable ways. The grandeur of many of the houses both separates and links the owner to his roots and to the central power by demonstrating wealth, taste and independence--worthy of being both esteemed and constrained by the Crown. The Duchess of Marlborough is a clear case in point of someone who both saw and grasped power through her friendship with Anne by accepting Crown land to set up a country seat in Woodstock in the country of Oxfordshire. Anne, on her part, wished to reward Sarah and her general for his victories over Louis XIV so the arrangement was amenable to both. The building of Blenheim Palace, the only English non-Royal residence to be named a palace, reveals just how the crown could both enhance and weaken itself at the same time. The remit by the Queen was to create a monument to the Duke, but the Duchess wanted a home--a base to cement the power of the Churchill family. The inherent contradictions embodied in these various cross currents led to a rupture that caused a three year self-banishment to the Continent for the Marlboroughs until the death of Anne in 1714. The complexity of the situation has been written about often and recently made into a film, "The Favourite", which won an Oscar for Olivia Colman for her portrayal of Anne. The biographies I have read show Anne more sympathetically as she did, after all, endure nineteen pregnancies in her efforts, duty in fact, to produce an heir. Her only child to survive infancy did not make it to his teens.

Just the same, there is so much history associated with Blenheim that it is the type of place that you can get lost in for all the characters that have passed through the house. To begin with, it is another Vanbrugh building, also assisted by Nicholas Hawksmoor (who also worked extensively with Christopher Wren.). It is another really big baroque house, a style which quickly faded with the advent of Palladianism in the 1720's. The furniture is not high on the list of the tour guides, you aren't allowed to ramble as you can in so many houses, so I don't remember seeing anything that inflamed either my eye or my passions. I did hear about the enormous oak entry doors, the organ in the hall and information that is designed to thrill the average tourist. That I remember some of it at least thirty years after the fact shows that I am probably an average tourist. (I pity the joiner that had to fit the enormous oak doors--17' high if I remember correctly--as it could not have been easy.)  What I will say is that looking at the photos of the interior of Blenheim on line, there are some quite good gilded console tables that are too difficult to see in the small photos to ascertain as being period or reproduction. They are, most likely period, but I doubt you will be able to see them properly--it just isn't possible to convince the tour guides to break from their regular spiel. And, to be fair, the history of the palace's occupants is more interesting than anything else.  Interior shots of Blenheim.,_Duchess_of_Marlborough The wikipedia entry on Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough.  The wikipedia entry on Blenheim Palace.