Sunday, June 7, 2009

Osterley Park and House--Another Adam Masterpiece!

Sunday, June 7, 2009
Osterley Park, London

The Silence of English Rain:
It was only because I was awoken today by a series of thunderclaps that I realized how quiet really is English rain! I mean for all these months that I have lived in London and for all the dreary, drizzling, dull and dripping days I've dealt with, never have I ever woken to the sound of rain--unlike the din that the downpours make in Bombay or the drumming of the drops that come down in sheets outside my Connecticut windows. English rain is silent rain. You see it, you feel it, you taste it, you smell in---but you never never hear it! This fact came home to me this morning when I actually heard the thunder and realized how odd the sound felt and how long it had been since my ears had picked up those deafening decibels.

I turned over in bed, reached for Potter, read about fifty pages, then promptly turned over and fell asleep again--awaking this time about 8. 30. This left me just enough time for a fragrant shower but not time enough to linger over coffee. I fixed myself a breakfast to go (toast with raspberry jam), dressed in layers and a trifle too warmly (as we've had a few nippy days and I did not want to feel chilly on the Thames' tow paths) and was off. I caught a bus from Charterhouse Street, then connected to the 8 on High Holborn, then to the 9 that got me to Hammersmith and then the 419 that took me to Richmond. See? I am becoming quite a pro at this bus route thing!

My friend John was awaiting my arrival at Richmond Station and, at my request, we checked out some of the thrift shops in the area (inspired by Mary Portas who has lent her expertise to a recent feature in Time Out in London magazine on the city's best thrift shops). It seems the ones in the towns and villages along the Thames (Richmond, Barnes, Twickenham, Putney) are particularly good and since I was in the neighborhood--what the heck! It was worth a dekko, I thought.

Well, I was not disappointed. John knew them all. From Richmond to St. Margaret's, the little village in which he has a very cute flat, he accompanied me like a trooper. And my sleuthing was not in vain. By the end of my foraging, I emerged with a virtually new pair of Prada shoes and two English bone china mugs that commemorated the wedding of Prince Charles with Camilla--in their original boxes! Needless to say, I got these enviable items at bargain prices but then we were too laden with my purchases and the drizzle continued intermittently.

We decided to abandon our plans to walk at leisure along the Thames; but instead crossed Richmond Bridge (I saw a lovely interpretation of it in Trevor Chamberlaine's oil painting at the Guildhall Art Gallery recently) and took a bus to Osterley. Our aim was to tour the National Trust-run property that was designed by Robert Adam called Osterley Park and House.

Visiting Osterley Park and House:
Once we alighted from the bus, we had about a ten minute walk to the gate of the property, after which we had to walk another ten minutes to get to the entrance of the house. Once past the gate, the visitor soaks in the wide expansive property on both sides of the driveway--property in which cattle grazed placidly or chewed the cud for the weather kept changing every ten minutes and by the time we reached Adam's imposing Neo-Classical portico, past the beautiful artificial lake, every raindrop had dried and the sun shone warmly upon us.

We released our coats and brollies and jackets to the safe keeping of the staff at the front door and launched on our discovery of the premises. The best thing we could have asked for was the audio wand that comes free with admission (normally 8. 50 pounds though it was free for me as I am a National Trust member) for this proved to be extraordinarily useful as we flitted from room to room.

But, first things first. Modern-day visitors (i.e. We) do not enter the house by Adam's intended main door. We use a far more modest side entrance. Why this is so is beyond my comprehension. If the Trust wishes visitors to achieve as exact an idea as possible of what it might have been like to be invited as a guest of the family in the 18th century, they ought to have permitted us the holistic experience! Nevertheless, the entrance was impressive as we were carried up a wide staircase and on to the first floor landing from where we saw a superb ceiling medallion done by none other than Peter Paul Reubens in the early 1700s. Now the original was removed for safe keeping in the early 20th century (during World War II), rolled up and placed in a warehouse on the Channel Island of Jersey--which promptly caught fire so that Reuben's original work was destroyed. What adorns the ceiling of Osterley House today is a reproduction but it carries none of the subtlety of Reubens' coloring (as anyone who has seen the ceiling of the Banqueting House at Whitehall would tell immediately).

Be that as it may, the audio wand told us the story of the inhabitants of this house at this stage in the tour. The house was built by James Child in the 18th century to a design by Robert Adam who was recognized as the greatest architect of his era specializing in the creation of the English country estate. Child had inherited his fortune from his ancestors who were Directors of the East India Company and had made their money a century previously trading in tea, cotton, silks, spices and, yes--it must be said--slaves! In 1763, he married a woman named Sarah who gave him one child, a daughter named Sarah Anne. The family lived for at least 30 years in Osterley Park at the time when most of the interior decoration was undertaken by Adam.

The tour wound us through the exquisite taste and grandeur of Adam's aesthetic. If you have seen Syon House (or any one of the other stately homes for which he is responsible--see my blog on my visit to Syon House written last October), you will see a uniformity in his designs--his use, for instance, of symmetrically formal arrangements inspired by classical motifs in the Palladian style--such as urns and pilasters, columns and Greek key designs on moldings, the lavish use of white plaster of Paris embellishments contrasted against the matt backdrop of what has come to be called Wedgwood blue, green, teal and puce (because it was in the same era that Josiah Wedgwood was imitating the classicism of plaster of Paris interior decoration on his 'Jasperware' pottery in his factory in Stoke-on-Trent in the Midlands).

Apart from this, Adam's most striking signature feature, there are paintings galore in the house, executed directly on ceilings or as panels on the walls of each room or as framed canvasses then used to decorate them. Collections of fine European and English porcelain, marquetry work on furniture. impressive sideboards and other occasional seating pieces (a Robert Adam-designed bed is the most stunning centerpiece in the master bedroom) and other accoutrements make up the bulk of the house. Special mention must be made of the Tapestry Room whose walls are lined by Tapestries whose four center medallions are woven interpretations of a series of paintings by Francois Boucher called The Seasons. This work is so finely executed that were the visitor not informed that it was tapestry on the wall, he would well have believed he was looking at paintings. These tapestries were made in France by the famous Gobelin factory and they must be among the most valuable things in the place. Downstairs, visitors walked through enormous kitchens in which prodigious amounts of food were cooked and conveyed by a stealthy series of staircases and concealed doors for the gastronomic pleasure of the family and their privileged guests. Overall, not too bad an ancestral pile at all!

The audio guides were superb in pointing attention to each of the features of the rooms as well as providing a wealth of historical, artistic and architectural information to further enhance enjoyment of the visual feast. What came home to me on this visit was that the Neo-Classical architect needed to combine the genius of three varied disciplines in the execution of his work: as builder, engineer and artist. Indeed, all these elements combined to make this one of the most enjoyable tours of a country estate that I have ever taken. Though Osterley lacks the ostentation of, say, Vanbrugh's Castle Howard near York, it is a magnificent building and one that I was very glad John accompanied me in visiting.

Tea in the Stables:
Our visit had rendered us ravenous and we were glad that sustenance awaited not too far away--in the picturesque Tea Rooms that extended out into the Tea Garden--a brick-walled enclosed garden with wrought iron furniture and green canvas umbrellas. We settled down to cups of steaming Darjeeling and a cheese scone and how welcome was that treat! Truly, if it was the East (China and India) that bestowed the habit of tea-drinking upon the English, it was they who gave to the rest of the world that charming meal called Tea-time. I often wish it were not the issue of the tea tax that had led to the loss of the thirteen North American colonies. It was probably out of defiance that the American colonists rejected the delightful customs of tea-time--which explains why we do not pause for tea at 4 o clock in America while the people of every former British colony everywhere else in the world do!!! Or maybe Anna, the Duchess of Bedford, who is credited with having started the delightful custom of tea-drinking by surreptitiously calling for the drink with a snack in her boudoir had not yet initiated her habit by the time the colonists dumped that shipload of tea in Boston Harbor!

A quick look at a film in the former stables and a browse around the shop and it was already 5 pm and the park was closing down for the day. John and I walked past the lovely lake, took some pictures together to commemorate our visit and then were walking along the rural pastures that had made agriculture such a lucrative pursuit for the 18th century aristocracy--it was not for nothing that they were called the landed gentry! If you could only see the endless acres stretching all the way to the horizon that surround this house! It wasn't long before we said our goodbyes, parted at the bus-stop and went our separate ways.

I have begun to master the routes to Charterhouse Street and in an hour and a half, I was home. I had almost an hour-long conversation with Llew on the phone before I stopped to eat my dinner (a rather light one of chicken noodle soup and toast with chocolate praline ice-cream for dessert) as that scone still stood me in good stead.

It was soon time to write this blog, get ready for bed and go to sleep, my appetite entirely whetted for the feast of country estates and gardens that await me on my proposed tour.

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