Our dear friend Min Hogg, Founding Editor of The World of Interiors, invented the phrase “shabby chic”. Her flat on Brompton Square epitomised the look. She told us, “’Chic’ is simply style used with an élan that has a social or intellectual overtone.” What about ‘shabby’? “Apart from its obvious aesthetic appeal, shabbiness is the only defence and bastion against ostentation and misspent money. For architecture and interiors to have arrived at a shabby state usually implies that the things were of good quality and built to last back in their heyday. It doesn’t matter a fig if they are scuffed, worn, or out of fashion. It’s the traces of the haphazardness of living that bring things to life and give them reality, and reality is what shabby chic is all about!”
If there’s a town that sums up shabby chic, it’s Margate. Now that we are all working from home, experiencing the return of cottage industries, Margate will likely become more gentrified with an influx of Londoners wanting rooms with views – less shabbiness more chicness. Not necessarily a good thing – there’s a lot of charm in the resort’s peeling paint and overgrown hedgerows. And nowhere more so than the Winter Gardens above Fort Lower Promenade. The Winter Gardens are a bit bonkers, like Min (if in doubt check out Ms Hogg’s mischievous after hours appearance in Rupert Everett’s autobiography!). The Listers praise the Winter Gardens as “an example of a rare seaside entertainment building type. Its form, with a semicircular amphitheatre is unique. It is the only known example of a winter garden constructed within a chalk cliff.”
Built in 1911 to the design of the Borough Surveyor of Margate, Ernest Borg, the roughly shell shaped amphitheatre (later roofed over) is symmetrically hugged on either side by the grassy slopes of Fort Green and overlooked by Fort Crescent and Fort Paragon. The style is Mykonos-on-Sea. Variety and vaudeville, Dame Nellie Melba and Anna Pavlova, the Winter Gardens have had them all. Holidaying in Margate? It was the best of times, then things got even better. It was our season of sunshine, it was our summer of hope. Although Marilynne Robinson does warn in The Death of Adam, “At best, our understanding of any historical moment is significantly wrong, and this should come as no surprise, since we have little grasp of any present moment. The present is elusive for the same reasons as is the past.”
Opened in 1904, Northumberland Hall continues the gospel tradition into the 21st century. The Lord’s Day meetings keep going as does the Thursday evening Address. The gable fronted Edwardian brick and plaster façade remains true to the town and street and faith and scripture. Sometimes seeing is more than believing. Marilynne Robinson in The Death of Adam beseeches, “By the standards of my generation, all of my life I have gone to church with a kind of perseverance as I do to this day. Once recently I found myself travelling all night to be home in time for church, and it occurred to me to consider in what spirit or out of need I would need to do such a thing. My tradition does not encourage the idea that God would find any merit in it. I go to church for my own gratification, which is intense, although it had never occurred to me before to describe it to myself.” And that is the story of Calvinist salvation, a longing fulfilled, a desire satisfied, a promise met, not a dramatic Damascene revelation but rather a gradual and rather beautiful opening and awakening of truths.
“You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” croons Lisa-Marie Presley. You ain’t. And you won’t. Not yet. For Mary Martin London is busy sewing up a storm for her forthcoming fashion feat: The Return Collection. This comes hot and heavy on the haute heels of her last extravaganza Blood Sweat and Tears. This time it really is all about power dressing. And the corridors of power are about to be torn up by the thrust and throttle no room for boondoggle of a Mary Martin London show. “If our myths and truths are only another exotic blossoming, the free play of possibility,” writes Marilynne Robinson in The Death of Adam, “then they are fully as real and as worthy of respect as anything else.”
Show. Not merely catwalk, for Mary will as ever be mixing decks in between directing the lighting, sound, photography, choreography, and always, laughter. There is really only one space that can hold its own for her solo show. Enter Durbar Court. “I like that the heads of the East India Company leaders will be looking down on my catwalk!” Mary howls laughing. “History and all that!” The Court was first used in 1867 for a reception of the Sultan of Turkey. King Edward VII threw his Coronation party here in 1902. Ms Robinson again, “At best, our understanding of any historical moment is significantly wrong, and this should come as no surprise, since we have little grasp of any present moment.” More recently, President Trump gave a speech here; Victoria Beckham showed last summer; Vivienne Westwood before that; but this is a first: a black female designer holding court in Durbar Court.
There’s so much art and sculpture and history layered with meaning and misapprehension in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. En processional route to Durbar Court is the Muses’ Stair. An octagonal glass lantern lighting the Portland stone staircase is decorated by Canephorae, Roman goddesses of plenty, floating over cherubs representing Roman virtues. Portraits of Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie hang between red Devonshire marble and grey Derbyshire marble Corinthian columns.
“Dare to be you!” Reverend Andy Rider preached in his last sermon as Rector of Christ Church Spitalfields. Over 100 years ago Lady Sybil Grant wrote in her self hagiography, “Provided that we are a star we should not trouble about the relative importance of our position in the heavens.” Fastforward a century or so and Mary is confident of her place in the firmament. And daring to be Mary Martin London. The creation of Eve. “We should be thankful that our cinematographic life in London still affords the quality of mystery and unexpectedness,” proclaimed Lady Sybil. Big statement.
Big statement architecture requires big statement fashion. Another interjection from Marilynne Robinson, “It all comes down to the mystery of the relationship between the mind and the cosmos.” First there was The Black Dress: “I see through a dark cloud of black mist.” Then The Red Dress: “The tainted bride is no longer a virgin.” Next came The White Dress: “I dream of memories when I was a Queen.” There’s only one dress left. The Rainbow Dress: “It’s finally coming – the biggest and the best! The Rainbow Dress will open The Return Collection!” the fashion artist declares. “A world champion ballerina will combine Tai quan dao and African dance on the catwalk. I’m bringing it in a bit different! People haven’t been out so I’m going to give them an amazing show. The Return to Africa. I’m out of the box!” Out of the box and into the Court. “Just A Dream” mourns Lisa-Marie Presley. Not for Mary Martin London. She is all about turning dreams into fantasies into realities into myths and truths. An uncommon wealth of talent.