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To The Great House, Accordingly, They Went…

Althorp: The Story of an English House
Charles Spencer

I have to admit I probably would have only been vaguely interested in The Story of Althorp had it not been for the Diana, Princess of Wales Factor. I still harbour some curiosity about her childhood and background. Funnily though Charles Spencer, Diana’s brother who is the author of this book, points out early on that their were actually quite old (although still children) when they moved there – the Earl Spencer didn’t inherit it from his father until quite late in the piece.

I didn’t pick it up solely for Diana though – This was home to one of the most interesting families in the period that I am extremely interested in. The First Earl Spencer and his wife (eighteenth century) had two infamous daughters. Their eldest daughter, Georgiana born in the late 1750’s who later married the 5th Duke of Devonshire She has been the subject of numerous biographies on her life. The second daughter led a quieter but only slightly less fascinating life – that was Henrietta who married Lord Bessborough. Henrietta’s own daughter was the shocking Lady Caroline Lamb. So all in all this house has a wonderful coterie of historical ‘ghosts’ knocking around in its archives. All good material for Spencer to draw on – and he does.

I don’t have any problems with the text and illustrations – the hanging of the paintings is fully explained in the text and it is easy to see which are the before photos and which are the after ones. This includes an explanation and reference in the text to which photo is the dining room before it was turned into the dining room.

What I found most interesting about this book was that it was more than just a history of the people who lived in the house, it was actually a history of the house. Of the changes which had been made over time, walls being knocked out, cladding put on, rooms covered over – all the things which happen to a stately home over 300 years of existence – and the effects which it has on the building.

Spencer is very personal in his writing, I don’t think he lacks for self-confidence anyway and although it didn’t detract from the book at times I found myself smiling and wondering did he really think he would ever fail?

On his step-mother, Raine. Well it has never been a secret the feelings that her step-children had for her. Given some of the things which have come out in the past I think he was remarkably restrained in limiting himself to some pithy statements on her handling of the design of the house – which I have to say seeing the photos of the rooms she decorated – I am in full agreement with him.

Still while I enjoyed the book immensely, and would recommend anyone with an interest in things English to read this book, it doesn’t rate as one that I would keep on my shelves. There are books more specifically in my particular area of interest – Georgian House Style – a recent good one I read was by Henrietta Spencer Churchill.

Hardcover 167 pages (May 1999)
Publisher: St Martins Pr
Language: English
ISBN: 0312208332
Used & New from £3.40

Classic Georgian Style
by Henrietta Spencer-Churchill

Georgian Style, think of those beautiful curved terraced houses in Bath in their soft-buttery colours. It was an age of clean lines and classical influence.

It would be unfair to say that, being the daughter of the 11th Duke of Malborough, it is natural that Henrietta Spencer-Churchill should have all the advantages to publish a book like this. Not only would she have been bought up in beauty such as this at Blenheim and probably a host of other stately-home-ish settings – but no doubt she has the connections to get this published.

Spencer-Churchill’s book certainly rises well above the ordinary. It is beautifully illustrated, her points are simply put and they are generally very clear. She has chosen to illustrate 130 years of interior, exterior and architectural design – from 1700 to 1830 – broadly the Georgian era . With a time frame this broad this book can certainly not qualify as a deeply academic study of the transition of the design. However she illustrates the broad designs trends and how they flowed into one another. She also picks some of the main names of the period (Robert Adam, Capability Brown and so on) and puts them into historical perspective.

The styles and their advent are explained, but also much about how design was influenced from the Chinese influence to the invention of wallpaper. Even the type, and use of colours and the range of colours available gets a mention.

As an interior designer herself, Spencer-Churchill no doubt has a feel for this sort of thing. I was a little disappointed because I felt with a few areas such as window treatments, she often failed to explain if these were original designs of hers based on previous drapes, or ‘a georgian style’ she had dreamt up. I would have liked to have seen more of Ackermann’s period prints for instance – as they showed quite breath-taking interior detail of the latter part of Georgian age.

Occassionally too I found myself grating my teeth as she illustrated a ‘Georgian’ ideal, but failed to point out at what period in the 130 year time span she was talking about it would have been relevant. But I am being really picky about that.

Overall I found this an absolutely breath-taking book. It at once made me sick with jealousy that I didn’t have one of these beautiful homes. I found her style easy to read, informative and if nothing else the illustrations are so beautiful I would keep it simply to look at them.

This is a great book for fans of the Regency period, Heyer or Patrick O’Brian type of books. It is also lovely if you just like beautiful things.

Paperback 192 pages (September 27, 2001)
Publisher: Collins & Brown
Language: English
ISBN: 1855854783
List Price: £16.99