At the Irish Georgian Society London: we do like our very private houses: the longer the laneway the better. Sprivers House in the Weald of Kent ticked both boxes and then some. We were the second visitors ever as guests of the owners who run a wedding business from the house. First box well ticked then. Ancient trees reach over the laneway so lavishly that our coach couldn’t fit down the drive. The Society discovered on foot how long the laneway is: very. Second box very well ticked then.
Local historian Andrew Wells has studied Sprivers House and its past owners: “Alexander Courthope encased the two storey hall house in pink Flemish bonded brick, adding hung tiles to the first floor of the gabled west front. He built the new east extension as the principle five bay elevation, one bay deep, with a pedimented doorcase with Doric pilasters, the three central bays more closely spaced with pedimented dormers in the hipped roof above, the middle one segmental.” This work is recorded by “AC 1756” on the keystone and imposts of the round headed stair window to the north. “AC 1746” on bricks above the stable house door prove it to be a decade earlier.
Andrew is on a roll: “Internally the impact of the outer hall is the heraldry of the Courthope and related families contained in excellent rococo plaster cartouches, beneath an enriched modillion cornice continued throughout the Georgian house. The panelled inner hall contains a restored Chinese Chippendale staircase with a ramped handrail, beneath a gadrooned cornice and deeply coved guilloche bordered ceiling. The panelled drawing room and dining room have wooden chimneypieces with scrolled friezes.”
Robert Courthope flogged the house at Christies in 1946. It is now owned by the National Trust who rent it to the current occupiers. Sprivers House has barely changed in a couple of hundred years, passing unscathed through Victorian times. A 15th century moat reveals it to be a truly historic site. The 21st century luxury of our coach: after a very long walk down the laneway: transported us back to London and back to life.
In haute couture it is called “le mouvement”. In Afrobeats it is called “workin it”. Combine the two and what do you get? A piece of Mary Martin London. Everyone wants a piece of Mary these days. Heather Small, yeah lead singer of M People, got more than a piece when she posed in an MML powder blue puff ball skirt and skin tight power purple top. Yeah baby! Take a Mary Martin Fashion Show. Take two. Take it or love it. For a moment, a golden moment, a catwalk moment, fashion is frozen by the blinking shutter of a lens. Then the model more than struts her stuff. She dances. Rhythm has a dancer designer. It’s not a boast when Mary declares, “I’m a fashion artist!” There are more shades on a Mary Martin London front row than brise soleil on a Ralph Erskine development.
“Amazing! I love the articles and the images are fab! Thank you so much for all of you* coming down to the shows. We like to have fun and it’s such a celebration of African fashion, so thank you for your kind words. Come again next year!” So says Anna Marie Benedict, Press Director of Africa Fashion Week London. Yeah but what about the designer? “Mary is such a credit to her creative inspirations. She’s an amazing designer and we love having her every year.” Pieces of the present.
“The man’s the work. Something doesn’t come out of nothing.” Edward Hopper. Snow on snow on snow a frozen memory, the encasement of ice long melted, The Summer House is in season, so this season, never out of season. The beyondness of many things is brought to life in this photographic overload. It’s the pixilation of our lives, the exposition of our times. Carefully carving our cadences, breaking bad boundaries, our writing may be opaque – at times – but like a lucid camera, our keyboard never lies. We’re an atelier in transit, arbiters on the move, forever reordering hierarchies.
The Irish novelist Edna O’Brien believes “memory and language are the two best things a writer has”. We couldn’t agree more. Although we’d add camera too.
“Must the winter come so soon?
Night after night I hear the hungry deer
Wander weeping in the woods
And from his house of brittle bark hoots the frozen owl
Must the winter come so soon?
Here in this forest neither dawn nor sunset
Marks the passing of the days
It is a long winter here
Must the winter come so soon?” Vanessa by Samuel Barber
Lights! Cameras! Lots of action! Every mid August for the last seven years, Freemasons’ Hall Covent Garden has been transformed into Europe’s largest festival of African and African inspired design talent. Africa Fashion Week London brings the second largest continent’s burgeoning fashion industry to the international market. Upon arrival, we get lost in a kaleidoscopic exhibition full of the bold and brilliant, a bazaar in marble halls. Up the marble staircase, crossing the marble landing, we’re ushered into the grandest marble hall of them all.
There’s almost as much glamour off the catwalk as on it at this year’s Saturday evening show – helps we’ve front row seats for people watching. The fairy dust of royalty also helps. We’re sitting next to His Majesty the King of Nigeria. It’s the grand finale, the last of the catwalk shows and stars:
The music show begins. Actually make that music! Afrobeats reverberate off all the marble. It gets more dancey and trancey with Mary Martin: she’s mixed her own beats. Mary did, after all, work in the music industry before taking fashion by storm. The crowd goes wild! Her handpicked models stride down the catwalk – try the Alexander Technique to techno – amidst huge applause, dresses swirling, skirts burling, scarves whirling. At the fitting earlier, she’d told us, “My mother used to sew and I just picked it up naturally. I just had a gift for design and started off making my own outfits.” And the rest is history as it happens!
As the catwalk show draws to a close, Her Royal Highness Princess of the Congo rises to speak: “We can dress very well. But we also raise proceeds for charity in our industry. I sell clothes in New Orleans to raise funds for women with no health insurance in the US.” The crowd cheers hard. “Women – we love fashion! Men too! We royal families of Africa love fashion!” The crowd cheers harder. “We Africans love to party!” On that note, with a lot further ado, the whole hall erupts into dancing: models, designers, managers, guests and of course royals. Everyone spills onto the catwalk to work their moves. The lighting gets stronger! The music gets louder! The moves get wilder!
Not many fashion designers are inspired by pieces of legislation but then not many fashion designers are like Mary Martin. In less than five years she has gained the sort of international recognition others would kill for. For her, going viral is a daily occurrence. Her name first came to the world’s attention (via Huff Post and BBC World Service if you please) when she created the Cecil the Lion Dress for Africa Fashion Week London 2015. “When I saw on TV the lion that had been killed I was deeply deeply shocked,” Mary said. She decided to make the dress in black out of mourning for Cecil. “The big fluffy bits along the top are the tulle, the lion’s mane. The back has got the silkiness and fineness of the lion’s body.” Like all her clothes, Mary painstakingly made the dress by hand, ever the perfectionist, working round the clock to meet the catwalk deadline.
Article 10 The Royal Collection is a riot of colour and form and material and decoration and expression and beauty and movement and chutzpah. The detailing is incredible, such craftmanship. An international fusion of British and African influences is apt for the show and for her standing. Mary may be a real laugh but she takes her work super seriously. She’s flown in her favourite models from France and Switzerland to join London’s best. The clock is ticking again. It’s only a couple of days till she shows at Africa Fashion Week London. “The hems aren’t finished yet!” she cries, dashing round the fittings room, whipping up a frenzied buzz of excitement and pizzazz.
The current 72 year old incumbent (Sir James’s widow Elizabeth remarried and had a son), Seigneur Vincent Obbard, lives in a first floor apartment in the house. Samarès Manor is long and low and colonial looking with green shuttered windows. Its architect is unknown. The island isn’t renowned for record keeping. “Much of Jersey’s history is conjecture,” says our Blue Badge guide. While there’s been a house here since 1250, the building today is mostly 18th century.
The low ceilinged three bay entrance hall has yellow walls and a stone flagged floor. “Historically, the Seigneur had the right to salvage. Legend has it that this Italian stone floor came from a wreckage!” There are photographs of The Queen dating from the 1980s and 90s on the bolection fire surround. “The Seigneur pays her a homage in Jersey French each time she visits the island.” The atmospheric three bay dining room is accessed off the hall. It has Grinling Gibbons style carved panelling. Two jib doors cut into the panelling lead through to the service quarters. The ceiling is smoky brown. The brown furniture is, er, brown. Even the wooden chandelier is brown.
“Dong! Dong! Dong!” Grandfather clocks chime at random times throughout the house.
An English oak staircase leads up to a short long gallery. The spacious drawing room is on the first floor and has a higher ceiling due to the particularly low vaulted chapel below. Three bays wide by four bays deep, the drawing room is two rooms combined. A Corinthian pilastered and columned screen decorates the join. It’s pure ocean liner plush with a deep piled carpet, sofas, club chairs and a painted Steinway mini grand. “Look at this painting of the island of Brecqhou. It shows it before the Barclay brothers built their huge house.” The twins live in a castle designed by Quinlan Terry on one of the smallest of the Channel Islands.
“Boom! Boom! Boom!” A marquee is being set up outside for a wedding. Somebody’s testing the speakers.
Gothic pointed windows on the front elevation announce the presence of the ground floor chapel to the outside world. Vincent Obbard hosts a carol service in the chapel each Christmas. It’s actually the undercroft of what was a two storey Norman building. The tour is complete. Our guide explains, “’Salse Marais‘ means ‘salt marsh’ in Jersey French.” The name evolved into Samarès.
The restaurant takes up the street level of The Club Hotel + Spa in St Helier. The interior of the five star hotel and restaurant is all modern elegance infused with the inherent chilled vibe of the island.
Coming over all Mitfordesque, it’s time to treat ourselves. The menu is a polished blend of Saxon and Norman influences, reflecting the archipelago itself. Even the mineral waters are British Hildon and French Badoit. Cheese is served with English biscuits and French bread. Steve Smith polished his skills under Lavender’s Blue favourite Jean-Christophe Novelli – another Anglo-French success. We want our lovely cake and we want to eat it too, but first there’s:
Strawberry pannacotta with Jersey yoghurt is our cake of choice. Steve explains, “The menu is driven by the seasons and also driven by what we can get consistently and in good supply. Recently, we had a great week for getting hold of John Dory and halibut so those items were on the menu. We will work around what we can get in good supply.” We’re impressed by some seriously synchronised sauce pouring and cloche lifting. It’s a wrap. Pure rhapsody.
Kent is pleasant in spring. Well, yes it is, but it’s jolly pleasant in summer too. Especially past the commuter belt, heading for the Weald. Even more especially when it’s one of the prettiest places in the county. Pevsner states, “Matfield grew as a main road hamlet in Brenckley parish. Matfield Green is its heart. Elongated triangle of grass surrounded by pleasant cottages. On the north side, beyond the duck pool, stands a perfect early Georgian group.” Matfield House takes prime position.
Pevsner’s description of Finchcocks says the house “represents the moment when the country house style of Vanbrugh and Archer was slipping down the scale into the hands of local master builders”. So the houses could equally be judicious applications of pattern books.
Back to Pevsner: “Matfield House, the centrepiece of the group, was built for Thomas Marchant in 1728 (initials and date on the rainwater heads). Seven bays by two. Two storeyed, over a basement. The basement sandstone, the red brick, reddish brown on the front, blue headers at the sides. The façade must have been designed by the same man as Finchcocks. The giant Tuscan pilasters, set in from the angles and carrying pieces of white entablature with triglyphs, and the round headed centre windows played off against segmental ones at the sides, are enough to establish that. It is a compact, well calculated design, especially in the quick rhythm of close set windows in the three centre, slightly projecting, bays. Plain parapet, breaking forward between the windows. Three pedimented dormers peep over it, stressing the centre once more. Plain square chimneystacks at the ends. Elaborate lead downpipes. Doorcase, up five steps, on fluted Doric pilasters.”
Indoors, Pevsner notes, “The hall reaches through the depth of the house, and out of it rises an ample staircase, richly endowed with fluted Corinthian colonnettes fluted and one loosely twisted, and all with Ionic capitals tilted to the angle of the handrail. Carved tread ends. Large but self effacing wing of 1884 at the back. Contemporary garden walls and clairvoie. Stables towards the rear. They are plainly of the same date as the house, in spite of 1779 on the weathervane. Charming clock turret, very much too large. ‘Mind the Time’, it says under the clock. The clock face in a surround curving up to a point in the middle, a typical shape of the 1720s. Further east a lower barn to match.”
The current owners John and Sarah are the third generation of the Garthwaite family to live in the house. They’ve worked hard to make a building coming up to its tricentenary fit for modern day use. Most radically a copper clad extension designed by Nicholas Kidwell was added to the Victorian wing, replacing 1930s service quarters. “This cube extension has been added to the western side,” explains Sarah, “and greatly extends the daily living accommodation. It gives a more open and inclusive aspect to the garden, demonstrating what may be accomplished when refurbishing historic structures for modern living.”
While discreetly designed, the copper cladding blending in well with the brick, the extension allows for dramatically semi-alfresco living when the glazed doors are pulled back. “For the first time in its history,” she adds, “the kitchen wing of the house now relates to the garden. Vestiges of the former separation of family and staff can still be seen in the retained internal architectural features and frosted glass of the windows approaching the kitchen, along with the restored call bells.”
“Most of the rooms of the 1728 house have been combined in pairs to make them more usable,” Sarah notes. “We firmly believe in contemporary comfort when it comes to bathrooms!” she suggests. The master bedroom en suite preserves the panelling by having freestanding bathroom pieces. Water for the bath surprisingly spurts out from the ceiling.
Of the original 30 odd acres, there are still 13 attached to the house. It’s like an estate in miniature, gardens in the garden of Kent. Surrounding the “perfect early Georgian group” is a walled garden, decorative pool, swimming pool, croquet lawn and neoclassical seating. Around the corner from Matfield House is The Poet, the best gastropub in Kent. Yep, Kent is pleasant all year round.
Spending half our lives chasing Michelin stars across the Continent it’s easy to forget there’s one shining right on our doorstep. For the last decade. Lighting up the wild (south) west. Not so much up our rue as on our rue. Trinity (the restaurant) overlooks Holy Trinity (the church) on Clapham Common. Come hail or high water (transpires there will be both) there’s no stopping us. On the tropically hottest day of the year, against a backdrop of roaring thunder and flashing lightning, we stroll to the downstairs restaurant (upstairs there’s a more informal brasserie). It’s jammed full of beautiful people with an air about themselves and that’s not just our table by the open window. Caviar baubles, gold leaf flakes, honeycomb butterflies and to top it all a two tiered canapés basket are such starry distractions that we ruefully miss the longest lunar eclipse of the century.