Wednesday, 27 July 2011

step back in time....

When I came to England, a jolly long time ago, my first job (hardly a career move) was for a woman whose family had owned Wilbury Park - England's first example of Neo-Palladianism, built sometime around 1710 or so. 

Her mother, Lady Maria St Just, was long time friend and muse of Tennessee Williams, and the inspiration behind Maggie, the leading character in his play 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'. She was  the child of Russian emigres, a Russian actress and former ballerina, who defiled her passport so that no-one could ever be sure of her age and who went on to marry very well into English society. 

Maria, with Tennessee Williams self-portrait, at Wilbury
The sale of the family seat was really sad - but the house was massive - I recall 13 bedrooms, but I may be wrong...and its faded grandeur couldn't hide that it was falling into disrepair. Miranda Guinness, Countess of Iveagh, who died earlier this year, bought it and restored it to its earlier glory, which is a much happier tale for the house, I guess. 

Wilbury Park, after restoration

And meanwhile, we moved between some rented accommodations that were hardly shabby - including Coles House, where the garden was open to the public it was so beautiful...(I'll drag out some pictures another day)

... and a five story house  just off Eaton Square in London that may have been worth gazillions but was full of asbestos, and my favourite - a rented home near Bosham, West Sussex where the fixtures and fittings may have been rather 'new money' but where the estuary flooded the fence line twice a day and I never tired of the view.

That year was an extraordinary baptism into England and English style, along with the eccentricities offered by Russian heritage, and even though we weren't at Wilbury, Maria's spirit lived on in her chattels passed down and in the stories told by her friends who continued to visit our boss. I was only to learn the next year that normal people don't grocery shop at Partridges and Fortnum & Mason, other than perhaps for Christmas pudding if it has been a *very* good year indeed. 

Now, more than a decade later, it's a week until I move into my new flat. It couldn't be more different than the England I landed in in 1998. It's the ugliest building you ever did see, with a pink bathroom - including bidet, built-in cupboards all over the bedrooms (design style: boat cabin), and a kitchen that was probably expensive in 1970, but is definitely ugly 40 years on. (So maybe the fittings were akin to the house in Bosham.)

Yet somehow I felt so welcomed there, during the viewings, as if the building had a happy soul of its own, and I feel like it is going to be my very own Palladian mansion for a while - where I'll pretend I'm aristocracy too! I'll serve champagne at 11 o'clock, only have the best fluffy towels, and wear cashmere trousers to garden in.

This is good, because as I get ready to unpack all my things from storage and look to supplement them with things I don't yet own, I realise how much of an impact Year One in England had - a mixture of Old English landed gentry and Russian over-riding lesson from that year was to only be surrounded by beautiful things, and to use them, both for what they were intended, and for whatever else comes to mind. 

Leftovers were served on Sevres plates, silver spoons in the builder's tea, hyacinths stood in antique ice buckets, and my favorite memory was building a tent on the lawn with antique linen sheets to accommodate a summer picnic regardless of England's incessant rain.


images: Google,peregrine-bryant


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