Back at the last manor of the day, after a 22 minute whiz through the South Downs from Standen, the voice of a waiter announcing the arrival of the sugared strawberry appetiser is music to our ears. Afternoon tea at Ockenden Manor is on its way. Sussex cheddar sandwiches zhuzhed up with homemade piccalilli compete with smoked salmon to hit the high (crust free) note. Homemade scones with clotted cream and raspberry slash redcurrant (not strawberry!) jam contribute to a mellow-day. A harmony of sweets follows. Lemon drizzle cake, chocolate éclairs, strawberry shortcake and petit fours: all of Mrs Beeton’s boxes are ticked. At Lavender’s Blue, we pride ourselves on originality of word, image and thought. Mostly. This one is plagiarised. Below is an adapted cut and paste job from our favourite hotelier-turned-MD-soon-to-be-restaurateur’s review of a lively supper last summer at The Ivy Chelsea Garden.
Doorwoman: warm, welcoming and gregariously friendly
Reception: great welcome, big smiles and efficient
Bar: it might not be a school night but it’s our chauffeur’s day off (return visit required)
Room: perfect layout and comfortable seating areas, spacious, adequate (not too bright) lighting – and still in essence a country house – phew!
Waiters: just utterly divine – in looks, style, knowledge and personality
Loos: lovely design and everything worked (not us, the area!)
Food: good choice, perfectly cooked, baked and presented, adequate timing between servings – and did we mention this is still in essence a country house? – double phew!
Wine: see entry for ‘bar’ above
Could be our new (country) favourite!
There’s so much more to Ockenden but we’re as stuffed as the taxidermy at Standen, as full as Saint Hill’s bookshelves. For architecture devotees, the building is a bubbling laboratory of samples through the centuries, well worth analysing. And what about the cutesy chocolate box village of Cuckfield beyond those open gates? But even an indoor | outdoor swimming pool – the laps of luxury – tucked into the walled kitchen garden can wait. Designed by John Cooper Associates, the contemporary spa pavilion is a rhapsody in (copper coloured) steel. And Parklex 1000 Natural Boak. And glazed curtain walling.
We will discover that so much about the interior decoration is lost on the casual 21st century visitor. The nuances, the symbolism, the references that would have been read by Georgian guests. It’s like reading Shakespeare – Adriano is no mere guide. He’s our translator, helping us decipher the intricate language of 18th century design. It helps that his doctorate was on the 1st Duke of Northumberland who transformed Syon House in the 1760s. Adriano’s book is due out soon. “My heart lies at Syon,” he confesses.
“The 1st Duke was the greatest patron of the 18th century when you add all his houses together. Syon House is the most famous neoclassical house in the world,” argues Adriano, “and the Long Gallery is easily Robert Adam’s most spectacular interior. It is the most complex Georgian room in England.” Standing outside, the house is remarkably simple, stark almost, save for the toy battlements. All that will change when the front doors are flung open and Adam’s circuit of staterooms is revealed.
“Adam was a very clever businessman. He wanted to conquer the mid 18th century British market, dispelling the old Palladian architects by selling a new language. Adam claimed to be faithful to classical antiquity. That was not quite true as his could style could be eclectic but that’s how he marketed it. His language works, though, from St Petersburg to the USA. It’s a quotation architecture of ornament, statues, relief and sarcophagi.” Adriano identifies two layers of quotation: the Roman originals from the Grand Tour and later published engravings. “A paper architecture!”
The plasterwork frieze in the PiranesiesqueGreat Hall incorporates a vase, the symbol of friendship and welcome. It’s part of the language of iconographical consistency, we learn. Together with the layering of quotation, Adam creates a jigsaw puzzle of classical references rid of Renaissance influences. It’s a game of recognition, providing meaning to the more sophisticated guest. A triumphal procession has begun. The Great Hall is the introduction to the public circuit. A ‘Roman villa’ built round a courtyard.
“Each room is intended to be a single hall, the opposite of Palladianism and its consistency of rooms such as at Chiswick House or Holkham Hall,” expounds Dr Aymonino. “Rather than a simple whole, each unit is different from the other. There is no better example in Britain of this than the transition from the Great Hall to the Ante Room next door. This is the Adam principle of contrast, movement, variety in a house. So you have this kind of wow effect! The sequence of classical orders is the only unifier, the element which gives logic to the circuit.” The Young Irish Georgians are primed to spot Doric in the Great Hall | Ionic in the Ante Room | Corinthian in the Dining Room | Composite in the Red Drawing Room and so on and so forth.
Poor old Sir William Chambers. His Palladianism soon became as passé as postmodernism is today, bless. We are ushered into the Ante Room. “It’s very exuberant, the Versace of Syon!” Absolutely. “Adam is a great genius decorator. Syon’s architecture is a collection of Roman typologies. The Dining Room is based on a basilica. But the Drawing Room is the least classical. With its red brocade silk walls there is not much space for quotations. Just the coffered ceiling.” Comfort over style. Sir William Chambers criticised the roundels in the ceiling for looking like floating dinner plates. Architects bitching? Shock, horror! The forerunner to 21st century Design Review Panels.
“Syon is the result of the Grand Tour industry. The statues would have been as recognisable as Warhol is today,” Adriano continues unabated. “He was first and foremost a decorator concerned with ideal beauty, harmony, proportion and decorum. I will never be tired of explaining the importance of printed sources. Far from Rome? Just open a book of prints!” With bated breath we enter the Long Gallery, the most important room in the house in our leader’s opinion.
The 1st Duke commissioned Adam to revamp this Jacobean long gallery. “Anyone else would have physically divided up the space. It is very difficult to master. There is the risk the eye gets bored of repetition.” Instead, Adam treats it as a columbarium with niches and massive piers providing rhythm. A visual trick on the ceiling is that the pattern of circles set in octagons continues incomplete to either side. “This counteracts the narrow width and low ambient. It’s like a carpet on the ceiling!” Once again, there are plenty of 18th century publications on Roman columbaria. Painted roundels over the bookcases show the ancestral glories of the family from Charles the Great to the 1st Duke and Duchess – who else? It was carried on in the 19th century by future family members. “This is a different layer of complexity,” observes Adriano. “It’s a very clever use of English family history with references to Roman antiquity.”
Late afternoon, after lunch, we will wander through the private apartments, unaccompanied, unroped, unAdamed but – oops! – not unalarmed.
Over scampi and chips in The London Apprentice pub – appropriately rebuilt in the 18th century, while admiring the view across the Thames towards Kew, Adriano relates he’s half Roman, half Venetian. “Venice has become such a difficult place to visit. So crowded. It’s not a real city anymore – ordinary shops now just sell masques to tourists. February is the best time to go, even if it is foggy then.” Goodness. Ever been chased by a cloaked red dwarf? “No, but you could still fall in the canal.”
The exhibition space occupies two first floor galleries in the house to the left of the museum’s famous façade. “It was too tempting not to get out all four folios to make the point! Lovely!” smiles Alison. “It’s a celebration of the imaginations of Soane and Shakespeare.” The patronage of Dr Johnson’s friend Garrick is on display through actors’ portraits and theatre designs. Garrick commissioned both Soane and Robert Adam so another celebrated architect is represented. Indeed, Soane astutely purchased the full set of Adam’s office drawings.
Dr Frances Sands, Catalogue Editor of the Adam Drawings Project at Sir John Soane’s Museum, leads the tour with added artistic insight by Irish Georgian Nick Sheaff. Fran arrives armed with copies of a few of the 8,000 Adam drawings under her management. “It’s very unusual for an Adam townhouse to have been built from scratch,” she says, holding court on the steps. “It was difficult to obtain a plot. This one is generously long and wide for London.” Following the unravelling of an entail – very Downton Abbey – the alliterative Sir Watkins Williams Wynn got his way. He promptly demolished the existing building and employed “the greatest architect of the day”. Fran highlights that “the house hasn’t changed much since the Adam engraving in the Soane. Number 21 is a whole different story…”
“We’re going to move around as if we’re guests of Sir Watkins,” Fran announces. Invisible sedan chairs pull up and we’re off. “Every single square inch of the entrance hall is Adam. His hallways should be cool, masculine, stone. Strong colours are Victorian. This scheme is calm, demure, authentic.” Holding court on the stairs, Nick tells us the baronet’s salary was £27,000 a year. Not bad. No wonder he was able to splash out on the “grandest staircase in any London townhouse” according to Fran. “Let’s progress as guests into the first of three first floor reception rooms.” We’re in the ante room: “a rather nice space articulated by resonances of Wedgwood’s jasperware”.
We’re lead through the ante room into the first drawing room but there’s a technical hitch. No lights. The Irish Georgians’ 21st century solution – waving mobile phone torches – allows the Adam splendour to be viewed surprisingly authentically. “This is where we will dance, talk and play cards!” Pointing to the wide shallow chimneypiece in the flickering light, Fran observes “this is deeply reminiscent of the work of Piranesi”. The period gloom soon wears thin. “We’ve languished in the dark quite long enough.” The double doors of the second drawing room are thrown back. “Adam’s interior becomes more and more elegant building to a crescendo at the back of the house!” she exclaims. “The second drawing room is fairly bling – the gilding is later. Aren’t the painted door panels rather wonderful? All this decoration would’ve been ruinously expensive!”
“The ceiling design makes the barrel vault appear heavier,” she remarks. “It alludes to Kenwood’s great library but the barrel vault and apses there are much more depressed. It is a huge misconception that Adam always designed carpets to match his ceilings. There’s often a resonance in the geometry but they generally don’t copy each other.” Great windows closed to the south. “Adam’s rebuilt screen is rather wonderful,” Fran observes, holding court over the yard. “Now we’re going to have an intimate reception in Lady Williams Wynn’s dressing room off the second drawing room. We are very close friends of her ladyship.” This mesmerisingly imaginative tour continues with a health warning about the repro work to the rear of Number 20: “Feel the jar as you step from original Adam to Adam style.” After all this first floor socialising, Dr Sands will lead us downstairs to the eating room and afterwards we will be serenaded by silent harps in the music room.