Category Archives: Architecture

Chateau de Chaumont: A Royal Consolation Prize

Photo by Manfred Heyde, Creative Commons Share Alike 3.0

Chaumont is most famous for being a consolation prize for Diane de Poitiers, the favorite of King Henri II of France. When he was killed in a jousting mishap in 1559, his widow, Catherine de Medici, immediately turned Diane out of exquisite Chenonceau and sent her packing to Chaumont. The photo above is from Wikipedia; it’s difficult to get the view of the chateau from across the River Loire with any camera easy and light enough for me (aka my trusty iPhone).

It seems like a perfectly fine chateau to those of us who will never own a chateau.

But Diane was not pleased. In fact, she barely lived there at all. But she was shrewd enough to develop and profit by the Chaumont lands for the rest of her long life.

The original defensive medieval chateau was pulled down and the present building was begun around 1465. It was built with some medieval features such as the serious drawbridge.

I’m not sure exactly how the drawbridge works. I would not want to get in its way.

I know people were shorter in stature in the past. I do wonder if the low doorway also had some defensive use. “Attention de Votre Tete!”

There are many other medieval-looking details in the chateau, like this stone corbel.

But the overall effect is of a gracious Renaissance castle.

Before she sent Diane to Chaumont, Catherine de Medici owned it beginning in 1550. She entertained her friends there, including the astrologer Nostradamus.

I find Catherine’s rooms and furniture pretty dreary. I can see why she jumped at the chance to move into magical, light-filled Chenonceau.

Catherine had very nice views of the Loire from Chaumont, which is perceived high on the riverbank above the town.

But who can blame her for wanting to live on top of the River Cher at Chenonceau?

So Diane had to make do with Chaumont (and its very profitable lands).

After Diane’s time, the chateau passed through various aristocratic hands.

Germain de Stael, portrait by Francois Gérard, 1810, Public Domaine

Madame de Stael, the indomitable French intellectual and champion of freedom, owned Chaumont beginning in 1810. She survived the French Revolution and had the great honor of having one of her books banned as Napoleon was showing his true colors as a tyrant. (No specific reference for that opinion, just my general knowledge of her from reading her work).

The heiress to a sugar fortune, Marie-Charlotte Say, acquired the chateau in 1875. Soon after, she married Amedee de Broglie and they began an enthusiastic renovation.

Monsieur de Broglie liked horses. A lot.

He built stables much nicer than the houses most people lived in.

They also entertained a lot. An elephant in the garden? Sure! This was the Belle Époque!

In the heyday of empires, a maharajah from India was an elegant houseguest.

The actress and artist Sarah Bernhardt visited often.

So did the novelist Marcel Proust.

Did he write a few pages of his masterpiece, “Remembrance of Things Past,” in these elegant rooms?

Maybe he heard a bit of scandalous gossip during a three-way teatime?

What do aristocrats do when a priceless antique develops huge cracks and threatens to fall apart?

Call in the goldsmiths to fill in the cracks, of course! This commode was once the property of Louis XV, so it was worth fixing.

The family owned many other treasures, like this lovely portrait of Queen Anne of Brittany. She united the kingdoms of France and Brittany by her marriage to King Louis XIV, so she has the coats of arms of both kingdoms in the corner. The artist seems to be unknown.

A grand fireplace features the emblem of King Louis XII, the porcupine.

I particularly liked the chapel, which was resplendent with an art installation.

The grounds of the chateau host a huge garden show every year, and master gardeners create nature-themed displays. Filling up the chapel with branches, flowers and quirky found objects was a stroke of genius, if you ask me.

Back outside in the courtyard, I admire the towers and turrets and the view over the Loire. I was recently in a discussion group where the leader asked how many of us would like to be a king or queen. Nobody raised a hand.

But I wouldn’t mind being a carefree aristocrat in the Belle Époque, eating dinner with Sarah Bernhardt and Marcel Proust across the table.

Chateau de Chenonceau: A Closer Look

I’d cheerfully spend an early-morning hour or two at Chenonceau every day for a week or two (maybe they have season passes?) For me, as for most visitors, I think the exquisite details get lost in the jaw-dropping gorgeousness of the architecture.

But I love the details, like this musical mermaid in stone. I think this architectural detail is called a corbel, a stone carving appearing here at the base of one of the basement ceiling arches. Very appropriate for a party chateau spanning a river!

How about this friendly stone face? Maybe he’s a monk? Or a baker? Or a baker monk?

How about an angel? These three figures are all in the kitchen, decorating and supporting its vaulted ceiling. I don’t know how many of them are original and how many were part of the great renovation that began in the 1950s. I love them all.

I’d cheerfully spend a few hours in Diane de Poitiers’ kitchen whipping up a meal fit for a royal favorite.

Maybe I’d even figure out how to use the turn-the-spit contraption over the fire.

It has a counterweight outside a window, just above the surface of the river.

But wait, I don’t eat any meat. I wouldn’t be great at roasting a boar. Kings and queens and nobles had a grand time hunting in the nearby woods–which still exist.

I’d probably do better as the pastry chef.

Wait, Madame is ringing for somebody!

Up the stairs! Is there a servants’ stairway for the likes of me? I can’t find one. I guess I’ll have to head up the main staircase.

It has just one turn, an innovation at the time. And excellent for showing off one of Diane’s exquisite gowns, no doubt with a well-shaped ankle showing off on each step. She kept her beauty well into what most of us think of as the beginning of old age.

Well, now that I’m upstairs, I’ll just wander, admiring the beautiful details, like the lady in this tapestry.

The hallway ceilings are arched like those in the kitchen.

In the rooms to either side, the ceilings are elaborately beamed and painted.

Many ceilings are paneled in geometric sections.

What meal wouldn’t taste wonderful at this dining table?

There’s beautiful and evocative furniture in every room.

Diane de Poitiers never had to haul a dresser home from Ikea and figure out how to put it together, that’s for sure. And even her floors are beautiful.

Fireplaces were not only spectacular, but no doubt well tended in Diane’s day.

Today, Catherine de Medici’s gallery holds a fascinating series of displays about the chateau’s history, starting in medieval times and going all the way up to the present.

I’m always a fan of doorways, from the simplest one in the kitchen…

…to the grander ones above stairs.

Well, I’m heading out to the gardens on a sunny day, with one last look up at the original medieval tower on the riverbank.

I’ll say hello to the Sphinx on my way out.

Chenonceau: magnifique!

Chateau de Chenonceau: Magnifique!

The first requirement for going to Chenonceau is a good alarm clock.  It is infinitely more beautiful when you have it to yourself. You want your approach to look as much as possible like the photo above. Even a little later in the day, this walkway is crammed. It’s easy to buy tickets from the machines outside the gates, so you can politely hover right beside the gate and wait for it to open. Tickets are also sold online but I had the luxury of waiting for a sunny day in May, so I waited until the last minute. (The previous day, I had tried arriving late in the afternoon and found the parking lots and walkways jammed).

The tower to the right of the chateau dates from around 1230, the only part remaining of the original manor. It was later gussied up in Renaissance style, especially the window and door decorations.

You’re at the doorway, the same door used by Diane de Poitiers, Catherine de Medici, and Francois I. Mary Queen of Scots married the Dauphin of France at Chenonceau in 1558. He died as Francois II in 1560, leaving her a teenaged widow.

Louis XIV, the Sun King himself, walked through this door in July of 1650. He left a portrait of himself in a pretty nice frame, regally carved from wood and gilded. His portrait is by Hyacinthe Rigaud. The list of illustrious visitors and owners goes on and on. Of all the chateaux in the Loire Valley, I think this one has the most fascinating history. And I certainly think it’s the most beautiful.

You’re in! Is that a mop and pail in the hallway? You really must be early.

No matter. You have the place almost to yourself for awhile, before tour buses arrive. Visitors meander quietly through the rooms. In every single room, flowers from the garden are freshly arranged. One of my favorite rooms is a small, fairly humble one: Thomas Bohier’s study.

It has windows overlooking the River Cher on three sides, and an Italian-style coffered ceiling.

Hung almost casually over the doorway is a masterpiece by Andrea Del Sarto, “Holy Family,” early 1500s.

A very lucky full-time florist gets to arrange flowers every single day. He’s a true artist.

Diane de Poitiers, beloved mistress of Henri II, received the chateau in 1547. Primaticcio painted her as Diana, goddess of the hunt.

She added the iconic bridge across the River Cher. (It was still only a beautiful arched bridge in her time). Diane was twenty years older than the king, but she kept her beauty and charm.

Part of her beauty ritual was a daily dip in the chilly waters of the Cher underneath her chateau. She probably used the landing where supplies were delivered to her kitchen by boat. She was also said to drink a beauty potion made with gold dust.

Diane’s bedroom, with Renaissance furniture and decoration added in the renovation of the chateau that began in the 1950s, is lovely and evocative.

After Henri II died from a jousting mishap in 1559, his widow, Catherine de Medici, immediately banished Diane from Chenonceau. She was given Chateau Chaumont instead: a very nice place, but Diane didn’t think so. Today, a later portrait of Diane’s nemesis hangs in Diane’s bedroom. I believe it is by an artist named Sauvage.

Catherine de Medici looks stern–even nun-like. But actually she knew how to have fun.

Once she was free to do as she pleased, Catherine extended the chateau right across the River Cher, building two stories of galleries on top of Diane’s graceful arched bridge.

Catherine began hosting fabulous parties at Chenonceau. One of them was for the marriage of her son and Mary Stuart, known as Mary Queen of Scots. Mary was the “It” girl in France during her brief marriage to the Dauphin, who became Francois II for such a short time. In fact, Mary was celebrated as the “new Diane,” her features recognizable in the seated nymph in Francois Clouet’s 1550 painting, now in the Musee Des Beaux-Arts in Rouen (Public Domain).

But I digress. Back to beautiful Chenonceau and Catherine’s galleries stretching over the river. I can imagine glowing candles, glittering jewels, and rustling silks at many a ball here.

In World War I, the Grand Gallery became a hospital for injured soldiers.

During World War II, the chateau became one of the few points of access to the Free Zone. The Menier family actively worked to smuggle people across the river and out of danger.

But chateau life was not all fun and games all the time. Every chateau has a chapel. Chenonceau’s is beautiful.

A later chateau owner, Madame Louise Dupin, saved the chapel when a rampaging mob arrived at the beginning of the French Revolution, with orders to smash all religious symbols. She had filled the chapel with firewood and claimed it was a storeroom. Actually, the people in town knew and liked her, so they may just have needed a convenient excuse to go easy on her home. Jean-Marc Nattier painted her shortly before the Revolution.

There are not all that many rooms in the chateau, but every single one is exquisite.

I’d sleep well in this bed with my window open to hear the gentle flow of the river.

I might even settle for being a lowly scullery maid if I could work in the prettiest kitchen I ever saw. It must have stayed fairly cool, positioned right above the flowing river. (OK, I do realize the working kitchen would not be full of fresh flower arrangements. But still).

By the time I made it to the kitchen, crowds had arrived.

Time to head out to the dueling gardens: Catherine de Medici’s on one side and Diane de Poiters’s on the other.

The outbuildings are charming too, set in real working flower and vegetable gardens. The florist has an entire building to himself. He was being filmed so I only got a brief glimpse inside at The Best Job in the Entire World. (Actually I was told, in rather rude French, to buzz off when I peeked inside, so I took a picture of another building instead).

The gracious chateau restoration that visitors see today was begun in the 1950s by the Menier family of chocolate fame. (Gaston Menier had also covered all the expenses of the military hospital during World War I). Like so many historic sites, Chenonceau had begun sliding into ruin before it was rescued by people who cared about history and beauty.

Sources: placards in the chateau, and a guidebook written by Alain Decaux of the Academie Francaise.

Join me next time for more details about sublime Chenonceau!

Francois I at Chambord: Builder, Hunter and Salamander King

Francois I, after Jean Clouet, Public Domain

King Francois I was twenty-five years old when he inherited the French throne in 1515. He was more than ready, having sat in on royal councils for several years beforehand. After a military victory in which he claimed the Duchy of Milan, there was a brief period of peace between 1517 and 1520.

What was a young king to do? Tour France with his mother, of course. He and his mom, Louise de Savoie, were enjoying their tour when Francois received word that his wife, Queen Claude, had given birth to their first son in Amboise. Susan Abernethy has a very interesting post about Queen Claude’s trying royal life on her blog

thefreelancehistorywriter.com/2015/10/02/claude…

Detail from “Field of the Cloth of Gold,” unknown painter circa 1545, my photo taken at Hampton Court Palace

Francois was a contemporary of King Henry VIII of England, who of course was unable to produce a legitimate male heir. The two kings met twice, once at the famous Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, and again in 1532 when Francois tried to help Henry VIII get permission from Rome to marry Ann Boleyn.

There was already a lodge on the royal hunting grounds at Chambord. But Francois dreamed of a really grand hunting lodge, and as a wealthy and energetic young king he had the wherewithal to make it happen.

“Francois I Kills a Wild Boar,” Alexandre Menjaud, 1827, my photo of Chambord painting

Early in his reign, Francois amused himself and the court by setting a wild boar loose in the courtyard of Chateau Amboise during a birthday celebration. Naturally the beast furiously tried to escape. The young king dispatched it with “un coup d’epee” (one stroke of his sword.) Everybody applauded. Three centuries later, in 1827, Charles X commissioned a painting to commemorate the feat of his ancestor. (To a modern eye, that feat looks like shooting fish in a barrel, but clearly Francois’s subjects loved it–especially the ladies).

Francois naturally made his mark with changes to existing chateaux like Amboise and Blois, but he wanted to build his own, from the ground up. And he took on a real challenge. The hunting grounds he chose were swampy and far from any road. He had no intention of actually living there–he just wanted to design his own chateau as a place to get away from it all. (He most likely spent only about 70 days at Chambord in all the years he owned the place). He (and subsequent kings) constantly expanded the hunting grounds until the estate was about the size of the inner city of Paris.

The castle itself ended up with over four hundred rooms and over two hundred fireplaces–way more than Francois I and his “little band” of hunting buddies needed for their getaways. But Francois always intended magnificence. In fact, placards and the guidebook explain that the very building–which Francois had a hand in designing–was intended as a sort of heavenly vision of what monarchy ought to be.

In the overwhelming magnificence of the place, the floor plan is not readily apparent. But the floor plan was important, and was never changed by subsequent kings even as they added their own ideas. The central keep is in the form of a Greek cross, with a spectacular skylit staircase at the center: a sort of new Jerusalem, a vision of what divine kingship should be.

The staircase is the first thing a visitor sees inside the chateau on the ground floor.

It’s a double helix, and legend (plus some documentation) has it that Leonardo da Vinci designed it. Francois did bring the aging genius to Amboise to live out his last years at Clos Luce, a mansion just down the road from one of Francois’s main homes, Chateau d’Amboise.

From the ground floor, a central open shaft rises all the way to the rooftop tower.

Way up on the rooftop, big windows form a “lantern” that lets daylight flood the space.

Two courtiers could start at the bottom of the staircase and go all the way to the top without seeing each other. (One can imagine the potential for aristocratic hijinks).

Courtiers could play peekaboo, which no visitor today can resist doing.

Francois I took the salamander as his personal emblem, and it’s impossible to walk through any of his castles without seeing salamanders everywhere. But wait, that salamander is breathing fire like a dragon!

Photo by Scott Camazine, English Wikipedia, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0

It doesn’t look like the humble little garden animal I’m familiar with. And the garden animal is not what Francois had in mind. In a delightful blog post, Julianne Douglas explains why Francois chose this little amphibian. Dating back to ancient times, the salamander was believed to be able to live in flames and to put out fires by the coldness of its body.

Francois added the motto “Nutrisco et extinguo,” a Harry Potter-esque way of saying “I nourish and I extinguish.” Fire destroys, but it also lights and warms. So Francois, Renaissance man that he was, aimed to be the king who could conquer fire itself: thriving on the good things and stamping out the bad.

Julianne’s post is at http://writingren.blogspot.com/2009/10/salamander-in-chief.html

Guess what Francois’s favorite letter was? “F,” of course.

Chambord has endless ceilings with Francois’s favorite decor. In fact, every building that he occupied was soon plastered with the letter “F” and salamanders on every imaginable surface.

When nobles built their own chateaux during Francois’s time, they added salamanders in his honor. The fireplace above, at the enchanting chateau of Azay-le-Rideau, is an example.

The rooftop of Chambord is like a regal mini- city in itself–a fantastical collection of towers and turrets and whatnot.

The rooftop must have been Party Central back in the day, a place where courtiers could watch the progress of the hunt while playing hide-and-seek with each other. Then as now, a visitor could get lost in the magnificence. Notice the tiny people peering over the edge of the railing?

Chambord has plenty of luxurious furnished rooms, but somehow it has a much more outdoorsy feel than other chateaux. It feels breezy and open in spring (and no doubt drafty and chilly in winter).

Today, people enjoy themselves in the vast grounds: boats, bikes and golf carts stand at the ready. Sporty King Francois I would probably be pleased.

Sources for this article are the guidebook above and various placards in the chateau, many of which are in French. One more reason to improve my language skills! There’s also an excellent video presentation in one of the first chateau rooms, fortunately with decent English subtitles on one screen.

If It’s Friday, This Must be Fontainebleau

I’m continuing a brief rundown of my 9-day chateau blitz in France, with individual posts to come! Above is Chateau de Chambord, which I think of as The Really Big One With the Spiky Roof.

Francois I built Chambord starting in 1519 and naturally stuck his emblem, the flame-spouting salamander, all over the place. It’s a little short on charm but long on history and the Wow Factor.

Chateau de Langeais is a restored medieval chateau/fortress in a delightful town.

Langeais is most famous as the site of a secret wedding that changed French history: Anne of Brittany married King Charles III, uniting her coveted vast lands with the French crown. And she agreed in writing to marry his successor if Charles died (which he did). A dramatic tableau in the actual wedding hall (with narration every 15 minutes, in English once every hour) explains the characters and why this wedding was a very big deal.

Chateau de Villandry is most famous for its gardens, but the chateau has fine art, too. That’s a bust of Francois I in his armor above.

Chateau de Chaumont was the consolation prize given to Diane de Poitiers after Catherine de Medici kicked her out of the sublime Chenonceau. (See previous post, “Diane de Poitiers vs. Catherine de Medici). Diane hardly stayed at Chaumont, but shrewdly developed and farmed the estate to her great profit.

Later, Chaumont became a regular haunt of nobles and artists like Marcel Proust.

Today, Chaumont has fantastic gardens and art installations. When I visited, the chapel was filled with branches, flowers and beautiful found objects.

Chateau d’Amboise towers over the lively town of Amboise, right on the River Loire. Francois I brought Leonardo da Vinci here from Italy, to keep him company during the last 3 years of Leonardo’s life.

Leonardo died in 1519 at the mansion Francois I gave him, Clos Luce, just up the street from the chateau. He was buried on the chateau grounds.

Chateau de Gaillard, down a side street near Clos Luce, is really more of a mansion. But it was the home of the master gardener Charles III brought from Italy to do up his chateau grounds.

Dom Pacello was a monk with a serious green thumb. Among other great ideas, he brought orange trees to France. After Charles III died, Dom Pacello served his successors, Louis XII and Francois “The Builder” I. Today, the family renovating the estate is cultivating many of the 60 varieties of citruses grown by the gardener monk.

Vaux-le-Vicomte was the place that inspired Louis XIV, the Sun King, to go all out in building the Palace of Versailles.

Well, truth be told, it was more appropriation than inspiration. Louis was furious that his Lord High Treasurer, Nicolas Fouquet, had nicer digs than anything the King had at the time. So after a particularly grand blowout party in which Nicolas pulled out all the stops to amuse Louis, Louis turned around and had him arrested and imprisoned for life (overruling the court that failed to convict him). Then Louis made off with the great architect Louis le Vau, the painter and designer Charles le Brun, and the landscaper Andre le Notre, along with all the furniture. He even dug up the bushes.

Nearby Fontainebleau has been the home of French kings for centuries. There’s always renovation going on. But I really could not see the point of a short section of ugly fence right in front of the famous double staircase where Napoleon Bonaparte spoke to his troops after he was forced to abdicate. I think the fence was put there just to discourage selfies.

Napoleon especially liked Fontainebleau. There’s an absorbing series of rooms about him on display right now. Is that one of Napoleon’s outfits above? No. It’s just how he dressed one of his more important servants. The Emperor had style, for sure.

My very least favorite sight on this trip was the Fontevraud-l’Abbaye, where nobles and royalty once retreated to the monastic life. I saw it years ago, and expected it to be more developed for visitors now. It is, but not in a good way, at least for me.

The whole site was a fearsome prison for 150 years, only closed in 1963. The cavernous spaces were filled with prison cells for all that time.

Prisoners did forced labor in complete silence and were subject to terrible abuse. Life expectancy was 8 months. A series of exhibits in the cloister claims all kinds of similarities between prison life and monastic life. I don’t see it. Monastic life was usually (of course not always) a free choice of nuns and monks, and it was based on prayer and contemplation, not subjugation and punishment. I found the exhibit offensive and felt like the place was haunted by the thousands of prisoners who suffered and died there.

It’s true that Eleanor of Aquitaine spent her last days at Fontevraud-l’Abbaye, when it was a very pleasant place, and died there in 1204. Her effigy lies with those of her husband, King Henry II of England, her son, Richard the Lionheart, and Isabella of Angouleme, wife of King John of England. But the monastery was dismantled during the Revolution, and these may not be the actual resting places. Anyway, the space is cold, empty, and unconsecrated.

More serious fans of architecture could spend hours studying the Romanesque abbey, but I probably would not go back.

Kings, queens, nobles and assorted favorites acquired serious real estate over the centuries. Every chateau and abbey and church is one-of-a-kind, like the people who built and lived and worshipped in them. The ones I visited on this trip are just the most famous ones.

I’d like to take another whole trip going to lesser-known and farther-afield chateaux, and also to the churches I didn’t have time for. But I would always carve out a morning to gaze out the leaded-glass windows of beautiful, magical, sublime Chenonceau, draped like a necklace across the River Cher. The kitchens at Chenonceau are even beautiful, and they have that river view.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!

Penrhyn Castle: A Neo-Norman Victorian Fantasy

I can’t believe I even have a “least favorite” castle, but right now Penrhyn is it. Why would that be? Penrhyn is spectacular in every way. It was built to impress: a fabulous Victorian gingerbread castle in Wales.

Penrhyn is in the very northern part of Wales overlooking Snowdonia. Originally, there was a medieval fortified house on the property. In 1438 the house was expanded into a stone castle and tower. Between 1822 and 1837, the architect Thomas Hopper expanded the building into a “neo-Norman” castle–in other words, a castle like the ones built by William the Conqueror after 1066, in order to show his new British subjects who was in charge.

That’s William above, in the Bayeux Tapestry, lifting his helm to show that he’s still alive during the Battle of Hastings (public domain).

The Tower of London is the best-known example of a Norman castle in Britain. William began the White Tower as a timber fortification almost as soon as he left the battlefield, and work in stone continued until about 1100. It still dominates the Tower complex. (The photo is by Bernard Gagnon, licensed under Creative Commons).

The owner of Penrhyn was the fabulously wealthy George Hay Dawkins-Pennant, who inherited the property and a whole lot of money from his second cousin, Richard Pennant. The money came from Welsh slate mining, from Jamaican sugar, and from Jamaican slavery. (I do realize that a lot of British wealth came from slavery and other ills of the colonial era).

Starting at the entrance, everything about Penrhyn seems overbearing.

The cavernous entrance hall is meant to impress. It does. I found myself wondering whether I was all that welcome, even with my National Trust Pass.

Everything looks somehow overdone. The huge stained glass windows seem like they belong in a cathedral, plus they block the light from outside.

I know the huge entrance hall is meant to be welcoming, but I felt like menacing faces were looming high above me in the arched ceilings.

Even the chairs looked uncomfortable.

Oh, well, I thought, maybe it’s just my silly reaction. I looked at one of the framed photos, which showed a visit by Albert, Prince of Wales, in June 1894. Bertie is the portly fellow in the hat. He was a regular–he obviously liked the place. Maybe I could learn to like it.

Guests would have proceeded into the library for some aristocratic R & R.

There’s the dinner gong! I wonder if I would even hear it, if I was still upstairs checking the mirror in my evening dress and trying to remember which fork to use for which course.

And so to dinner, admiring the fine paintings on all the walls…

…and then coffee and conversation and cards in the drawing room. So what’s not to like? I don’t know exactly. It all seems dark and heavy and confining, without feeling very Norman.

Especially in the stairwells, there are acres of fine stonework and plasterwork. It’s beautiful, but it seems to me that actual Norman architecture is a lot more elegantly austere.

In the family and guest bedrooms, there’s fine wood carving and canopied beds galore.

At least one person found the decor too heavy for her taste: Queen Victoria. The photo above was taken in 1860 by J. J. E. Mayall, public domain.

A one-ton bed was carved from local slate especially for a royal visit. Victoria took one look and refused to sleep in it; she said the slate headboard and footboard looked like tombstones.

Maybe she ended up in the very pretty Lower Indian bedroom instead. That’s beautiful handpainted wallpaper from around 1800. The last Lord Penrhyn chose this as his bedroom. I would have, too.

I’m sure Victoria enjoyed a world-class bathroom–essential for any vacation, especially if it’s tended by an army of discreet servants. I liked the more modest bedrooms and bathrooms better than any of the grander rooms.

I hope the many carved stone faces in the hallways didn’t scare Victoria if she wandered around in the middle of the night.

Maybe she wandered all the way down to the kitchens, and maybe the French chef was still awake, cooking and baking goodies for the royal visit.

Family members lived in the castle until 1951, when the dreaded British “death duty” taxes plus the staggering costs of upkeep, drove them to more modest digs. Penrhyn is now owned and run by the National Trust.

There’s a very entertaining little railroad museum, trains having been important to the family slate business. The photo above shows the open bench car that slate mine workers rode in.

The shiny red car towering over the workers’ car was for mine owners and other bigwigs. They got cushy swivel chairs and stained glass. Sorry, that’s me being judgmental. But if I’m honest, I should admit that I’m very privileged myself. I’m a budget traveler. But I know how fortunate I am to be able to hop on a plane and go pretty much anywhere I want, even if it’s in a too-narrow seat with no legroom. So I really have no business turning up my nose at Victorian luxury.

I’ll visit Penrhyn again if I happen to be nearby. Maybe I’ll be in a better mood and I’ll like the place better. I do love castles, but I like them to be authentic. For my taste, Penrhyn is not–at least not authentically Norman. On the other hand, it’s a reflection of the days when the sun never set on the British Empire. In Penrhyn’s heyday, British business tycoons were Masters of the Universe. That’s about as authentically Victorian as anything gets.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Arts and Crafts Perfection at Standen

If I could move into any house I wanted in the English countryside, I’d take Standen, near East Grinstead in Sussex.

The house has a complicated floor plan, built in stages. I’m not exactly sure what was older and what was newer. The final stage was to link the new building to the original farmhouse on the property, Great Hollybush (I’d have kept that name!)

It is not a particularly grand house–in fact, that is the point. It was built by the architect Philip Webb, a close friend of William Morris, in 1892-94.

The client, James Beale, was a very wealthy solicitor who had made his fortune in London. At age 50, Mr. Beale wanted a beautiful but functional second home in the country for his wife and their seven children. The children were already beginning to marry and move away, but Standen remained the gathering place for children and grandchildren for almost eighty years.

Philip Webb and William Morris had met in their twenties at Oxford. They immediately hit it off, and collaborated on projects for the rest of their working years.

I’d love to hire “The Firm” today. They were the very opposite of the sleek throw-away esthetic of IKEA. (Not that I don’t own plenty of practical IKEA stuff!)

James Beale was a hardworking, pragmatic, sober, simple-living family man. He wanted a comfortable family home, not a showplace. But he was willing to pay for quality.

His idea of luxury was a house big enough to contain the hijinks of his large family and lots of visitors.

The house is large and filled with daylight. The conservatory was a favorite place to lounge and read.

Billiards, anyone? The house had electric lighting from the beginning.

All the fixtures were specially designed, most of them by W. A. S. Benson, who trained under William Morris.

The effect is subtle but beautiful, even in daylight.

The Beales did not need any grand rooms for entertaining; they just wanted to relax and enjoy each other’s company.

Most of the textiles and wallpapers were William Morris designs.

Margaret Beale was creative and handy with any kind of needle.

She kept her children busy making things for the house.

One of the daughters, Maggie, never married. She stayed at Standen and became a skilled artist and designer in her own right.

Maggie’s studio is one of the most pleasant rooms in the house. It seems like she could breeze in at any moment with an idea for a painting or a sofa cushion.

My other favorite room is the Larkspur Bedroom, so named for the William Morris wallpaper. I like the built-in wardrobes and I LOVE the tub in front of the fire (the maids may not have loved lugging pails of water up and down stairs for it).

Mr. Beale and his architect were old-fashioned and a bit frugal. The floor with all the bedrooms had only two “necessary” rooms and one bathroom. (I think bedrooms still had chamber pots and maids still had to deal with them).

The family enjoyed their meals and they were big eaters. The children used to have contests to see who could pack on the most weight from a single meal. The family record was five pounds, put on by one of the boys. (The family dressed for dinner. I guess someone’s satin cummerbund must have felt a little tight after that epic meal).

The children had plenty of room outside to burn energy. There were flower beds and a kitchen garden and woodlands to explore.

Then as now, there were chickens right outside.

And the door was always open to the home the Beales created, where everything was useful or beautiful–or both.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!