Virtual vernissage of a vision of a visage. New normalcy for old masters. And a few new masters too. William Campbell, the highly distinguished framer of Marylebone London, advises a commanding dark stained wooden frame oozing oodles of definition. “The frame you have chosen is quite traditional so I think you should visually separate the canvas from the frame by placing it upon a mount. This will emphasise the edge of the canvas in a three dimensional manner. Raw black silk will work really well as the mount material. And of course it should all be protected by gallery glass.”
Over to the artist, the highly distinguished painter of Pimlico London, who shares, “This portrait is quite abstract. It gives a suggestion of outline and face. But it’s really about texture and paint quality. I used a palette and knife. The three artists I was inspired by are Bomberg, Auerbach and Kossoff.” The checked shirt is a case in point: it’s reminiscent of David Bomberg’s stark and thickly built up colour. Frank Auerbach’s concentration on surface is wonderfully reimagined too. And Leon Kossoff’s figurative life drawings suddenly don’t seem a generation away. This portrait immediately radiates perplexing resonance coupled with a discursive inventiveness.
What does the sitter think? “I look very relaxed – exuding a certain nonchalance. Maybe that was the intention! William Thuillier is a very clever artist. He’s really captured that moment. It was a very sunny afternoon and the light just streamed through the French doors of his incredibly elegant piano nobile studio. I remember we had several coffees and laughed a lot. There is something quite avant garde about my portrait. I hope it is hanging in my nephew’s offspring’s country house drawing room in years to come.”
Lavender’s Blue Art Director Annabel P – videographer, storyteller and socialite – knows her stuff. “I love the portrait! It’s so very you.” She soon sets about seamlessly filming the same sitter against the setting of The House of Lavender’s Blue. “I wanted to film you in a Lady Gaga sequence with a period twist. That’s very you too! You’re very informal yet you offer up so much to the canvas and camera. You’ve an easy unencumbered and beautiful presence to capture, even when you’ve donned your glasses ready for bed.” No show is complete without a Bill Brandt influenced self portrait. Visible virtuosity.
Mary exclaims, “I would like to say thank you to the Global Style Icon Awards for awarding me the best designer – costumer designer! – for 2020 and 2021. I’d also like to say thank you to the Foreign Office for letting me do my virtual show in the building which was an amazing shoot in a beautiful place. And, yeah, thank you thank you that’s all I can say – I’m happy!” Mary explains more about that epic Foreign and Commonwealth Office shoot, “History had inspired me. I realised that Ignatius Sancho was an inhouse slave but was later set free and he was the first black millionaire in Britain. And he and his wife used to sell tobacco and everything from their shop which stood on the site of the Foreign Office on King Charles Street.”
She rolls, “I was the first black woman to do a shoot in there. What I did was reverse fashion and I put the black models on the stairs like they were the kings and queens. I wanted to show good images of black people in regal clothes – like black excellence – I’m a fantasiser! You should always be proud of yourself and who you are really.” Never resting on her many many laurels, the designer shares, “I love digital art! I started doing the art and people started to love my art just like they love my clothes so I thought why not? I’m doing some beautiful images and I’m also putting them on clothes as well as screen prints to hang on your walls.” That’s when she’s not conjuring up fluffy puffball dresses, a style Mary invented. It’s overture overload! A pressed foil wrap dress – another Mary Martin London trademark design – clings to a tailor’s dummy in the studio at the top of her townhouse, her very own Isolde’s Tower. And next season’s must have accessory is in the making: the outsized unisex bag. But her suitcases are packed: “I love Ghana! I’m going over there as soon as I can to do some fashion!”
Right now she’s busy sewing up a storm: a private commission to design and make individual scarves for an Irish mother and her two daughters. The scarves feature Mary’s signature Slaves in the Woods pattern in each client’s favourite colourway. Welcome to the undisputed territory of Maryland. Earlier, the designer was partying with R+B singer Mark Morrison. Next, Kofi arrives and before long Mary is duetting down the corridor with the legendary rock singer: “Black is the colour of my skin | Black is the life that I live | And I’m so proud to be the colour that God made me | And I just gotta sing black is my colour | Yeah couldn’t be no other oh no | Black is my colour / Yeah yeah | Couldn’t be no other | No no no.” Kofi laughs, “Everybody loves Mary!” American dance and house singer Kathy Brown of “Happy People” and “Give It Up” fame rings: “It’s going to be a good year!”
Mary has been jazzing up her atelier of late. She scrawled “And behind the smile, beneath the makeup, I’m just a girl who wishes for the future” across a Katherine Hepburn mirror in her salon. And “Life is better when you’re laughing” over a Marilyn Monroe mirror in her studio. A humongous two metre tall carnation precariously balances over her materials cupboards. Like everything about Mary Martin London, it’s larger than life, carried on huge waves of Wagnerian music crashing on the ocean floor. Not everyone has “Talking to God” as their WhatsApp tagline. Not everyone is Mary Martin London. An afternoon in her company: well, it’s like living life in inverted commas.
We’re tasked with capturing the spirit of the place, its current glory, its essence no less. The present is not a foreign country; they do things better here and now. Although Paris France is our next stop. As Gertrude Stein amusingly muses in Paris France, “You do not mention the relation of French men to French men of French men to French women of French women to French women to French children of French men to French children of French children to French children.” It’s worth mentioning the Frenchman who would become exiled sovereign as his plump features fill a bust and a statue and a painting at Hartwell. The Frenchman who looks down on the dining table of Apsley House on Piccadilly, London, in a portrait by François Pascal Simon, Baron Gérard. “But all art is erotic,” prescribes Adolf Loos in his 1908 lecture Ornament and Crime. Erm, not so sure, but we really do agree with his statement “Luxury is a very necessary thing.” And “An English club armchair is an absolutely perfect thing.” His words “Fulfilment awaits us” have a prophetic ring to them. Unerotic art, luxury and English club armchairs await us.
It’s also worth mentioning a certain French woman. A French woman who was Queen of France for 20 minutes. Marie-Thérèse Charlotte Duchess of Angoulême was the eldest daughter of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The Dauphine joined her uncle to hold court at Hartwell. Her much maligned and misrepresented mother tried to set her daughter on the straight and narrow. On New Year’s Day 1784 the Queen, forgetting cake and remembering the poor, told Marie-Thérèse Charlotte, “The winter is very hard. There is a crowd of unhappy people who have no bread to eat, no clothes to wear, no wood to make a fire. I have given them all my money. I have none left to buy you presents, so there will be none this year.”
First impressions of Hartwell are grand, very grand. And very Jacobean. A feast of late 17th century transomed and mullioned oriels greets us as we swoop down the driveway round the turning circle with its life size statue of Frederick Prince of Wales on horseback and screech the breaks outside the entrance archway. But peeping past the very manicured bush (straight out of a David Inshaw painting) round to the garden front, there’s a perpendicular juxtaposition that would give County Down’s Castle Ward a run for its money. It’s Arcadian Palladian! The wealthy Hampden family built the original house before selling it to the even wealthier Lee family a couple of centuries later. In 1938 the house and 730 hectare estate was bought by conservationist Ernest Cook, grandson of the Victorian pioneer of package holidays Thomas Cook. Not that there’s anything package about bespoke Hartwell House. Ernest Cook saved the ensemble from certain ruin. Historic Hotels owner Richard Broyd would later acquire the leasehold which would in turn would be assigned to the National Trust in 2008 while allowing the house to still be run as a hotel. Lasting impressions of Hartwell are grand, very grand.
The dining room with its pendentive domes and matching Greek key cornice and carpet is more Soaneian than Pitzhanger Manor. The walls are painted lemon sorbet colour and the ceiling lemon ice cream. Contrary to appearances the dining room is 1980s not 1780s. It’s the creation of the architect Eric Throssell who converted Hartwell House from a finishing school to a hotel. A very clever creation at that. The architect amalgamated a closet, secretary’s room, south portico hallway and study to form a coherent space. The closet was reshaped to form an apse balancing that of the former study. French doors are wide open to the terrace. Dinner is served. The menu is elegantly labelled “Hartwell Bill of Fare”. Sourdough and fried tomato bread are followed by a starter of pan seared scallops, apple ketchup, compressed apple and oat crisp. The main course is pan fried turbot, leek spaghetti, sun blush tomatoes, British new potatoes and mussel cream sauce. Pudding is raspberry and elderflower tart, elderflower and mint sorbet. Taste good dining in a good taste dining room. Jacqueline Duncan, Founder of Inchbald School of Design, always reminds us, “I’m interested in taste.” A gentle breeze rustles through the dining room. Such peace and tranquillity. Yet under the fading light outside, tragedy is marked on the lawn. A tiny gravestone reads: “In loving memory of Charmian Patricia baby daughter of Captain and Mrs Conyers Lang died March 30 1924.” Beyond this gravestone, a walled cemetery abuts the estate.
Close to the cemetery a rusted blue sign on the perimeter brick wall reads, “Hartwell, The Church of the Assumption of The Blessed Virgin Mary. The present church (replacing a medieval structure) and modelled on the Chapter House at York Minister, was erected by Henry Keene between 1754 and 1756 for Sir William Lee of Hartwell House. It was an early example of Gothic Revival consisting of an octagon with symmetrical towers at the east and west ends. The interior was remarkable for the beauty of its fan tracery vaulting and the lozenged black and white marble pavement. Photographs taken before the church fell into ruin are in the National Monuments Record collection. Shortly after the 1939 to 1945 war the lead was stolen from the roof. This quickly led to the collapse of the vaulting and, after years of disuse, the remains of the building were declared redundant in 1973 and came into the care of the Redundant Churches Fund in July 1975. The elegance of the building’s design was not matched by the soundness of the construction and in order to preserve what was left, the Fund has carried out extensive works over many years under the direction of Mr Roiser of Cheltenham. May 1982.”
The interior of Hartwell House swaggers and sways between styles and centuries, from the baroque great hall and Henry Keene’s rococo morning room to the Georgian drawing room and library and Jacobean staircase hall. The newels and posts of the staircase are formed of historic carved figures. We return to the dining room a few hours later just as dawn is breaking. There may be no E in Hart but there’s eggs-to-see for breakfast. Sunny side up thank you on the sphinx guarded terrace. Poached eggs and crushed avocado on sourdough toast. It’s oh so quiet. Such peace and tranquillity. A sign in the staff courtyard next to the hotel reads “Beware People”. Thankfully the house and estate are so large there are few bodies about except for the discreet staff.
In 1728 James Gibbs published his bestseller A Book of Architecture Containing Designs of Buildings and Ornaments. “What heaps of stone, and even marble,” he complains, “are daily seen in monuments, chimneys, and other ornamental pieces of architecture, without the least symmetry or order?” The architect and author sets out to remedy this dire situation. “In order to prevent the abuses and absurdities hinted at, I have taken the utmost that these designs should be done in the best taste I could form upon the instructions of the greatest masters in Italy, as well as my own observations upon the ancient buildings there, during many years application onto these studies; for a cursory view of those august remains can no more qualify the spectator, or admirer, than the air of the country can inspire him with the knowledge of architecture.”
The Ionic Temple, an eyecatcher viewed from the dining room, is one of several James Gibbs designed parkland features. The rubblestone and ashlar stable block and attached coach house, rebranded Hartwell Court, incorporates parts of a Gibbsian menagerie. Hartwell Court now houses a swimming pool and 16 guest bedrooms in addition to the 32 bedrooms in the main house. It overlooks a private garden guarded by statues of Juno and Zeus. A statue of Hercules remains half hidden in the woodland beyond the church. The Rusticated Arch tunnels under the public road into another walled area known as Hothouse Piece which includes the kitchen garden, orchard and tennis court. A brick plinth marks the location of the Victorian glasshouses.
Restored beyond their former glory under Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe’s landscape renewal scheme in 1979, the mid to late 18th century gardens, offer up a smorgasbord of visual and historic and horticultural and architectural pleasures, some hidden, some unhidden. The prominently placed statue of Frederick Prince of Wales was rescued from obscurity in a shrubbery. In an early case of reclamation, the two narrow informal lakes lie on either side of the middle span of James Paine’s old Kew Bridge in London of 1782, dismantled in 1898 and auctioned in lots.
In The Age of Bronze, 1822, Lord Byron writes, “Why wouldst thou leave Hartwell’s green abode?” Why, indeed, for it’s both peaceful and fun. Hartwell House is the type of place where anything can happen. And it does. The bellboy hands us a poem printed on hotel headed paper titled The Long Driveway to Hartwell. Bonkers has a new. We nod at the line “seize every moment” and chortle at “chaise longue fizz is swell” and when it comes to “it’s a short life on our Lord’s planet” we pray “thank goodness a decent chunk of it was spent at Hartwell House”.