Category Archives: History

Hughenden Manor: Winning the War in the Icehouse

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Who was the man getting the surprise ice-water bath above, and what did he have to do with victory in World War II? One day in 2004, a National Trust guide at Hughenden Manor overheard an intriguing conversation.  An old man was very quietly describing to his grandchild how he had once worked in the very room they were standing in.  Hughenden Manor was the country home of Benjamin Disraeli, the Prime Minister and friend of Queen Victoria.

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The house was a dusty relic of Victorian times. But it turned out that the house played a pivotal role in the Second World War, totally unknown to anyone except the 100 or so people who secretly worked there in the 1940s.

When the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz ended in late 1940, Britain’s Royal Air Force, the RAF, had overcome all the odds and held off the German Luftwaffe. Adolf Hitler had believed that the British would fold under heavy bombing, negotiate a peace treaty, and become his allies.  How wrong he was. About 3,000 young pilots, averaging 20 years of age, did battle daily over the Channel, outnumbered by 5 to 1 in both equipment and flyers. They were not all British; some of them were Polish, Czech, Belgian and French.  According to the RAF, 544 of them were killed in the Battle of Britain, and another 814 died later in the war. Winston Churchill famously summed up the Battle of Britain: “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”  To this day, pilots who fought are referred to as “The Few.”

But the war was just beginning. It was necessary for Allied forces, soon including the United States, to knock out German infrastructure. The only maps available at the time were made for tourists. They showed roads, cities, railways and sightseeing destinations like castles and cathedrals. Bombers needed detailed maps to accomplish their missions of destroying armament factories and other strategic targets.

Hughenden Manor became a secret command center for the vital mission of creating detailed maps for bomber pilots to use.  British Spitfires and later Mosquitos were dispatched across the Channel with automatic cameras in their gun bays.  Since the gun bays had no guns, the planes had no protection.  The pilots, as brave as any of The Few, flew thousands of surveillance missions over Germany. Over the course of the war, they took 36 million photos. The camera film was carried by courier to Hughenden Manor, where the 100 or so top-secret mapmakers went to work.

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The old Hughenden icehouse was the darkroom.

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Mapmakers were on duty at all times; someone always slept in the icehouse.

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Inside, mapmakers worked day and night, translating the surveillance photos into maps for bomber pilots. Target maps were drawn by hand, with the target in the middle, surrounded by concentric circles one mile apart.

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Today, the visitor can try out the equipment, which in its day was high-tech. Completed maps, thousands of them, were sent seven miles up the road to Bomber Command.  Often, couriers used bicycles, so as not to draw attention.

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The entire map-making operation was a military secret, protected by the Official Secrets Act.  People who worked at Hughenden, military and civilian, took an oath to keep the operation secret for their entire lifetimes.  When the National Trust accidentally learned a little about the amazing World War II history of Hughenden, they went to Parliament and eventually received permission to make the secrets public.  Today, the icehouse and the basement of Hughenden hold an enthralling museum of this vital part of victory for the Allies in World War II.

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Veterans of the secret operation were tracked down and interviewed on video, before their stories were lost forever. People sent in their personal diaries and photos. The almost-lost history came alive.

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And the man getting the surprise ice bath?  Newbies were invited into the icehouse to have a wartime picture taken, to send to the folks at home (of course, the location was always kept secret). The helpful icehouse staff posed the unsuspecting person under an icy water outlet in the brick ceiling.  Someone pulled a lever at the exact moment the camera snapped.  Everyone, including the victim, laughed uproariously.

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The result was a nice wartime keepsake, and a personal reminder of undaunted British spirit when the odds of victory seemed slim.  British self-deprecating humor and camaraderie were a big part of that spirit.

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I’d recommend a visit to Hughenden Manor. Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Mary Anne Disraeli: the Woman Behind the Man

Why is a Victorian carriage door prominently displayed on a wall at Hughenden, the country home of Queen Victoria’s friend and Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli? The Prime Minister himself removed it from the carriage and preserved it as a tribute to his wife, Mary Anne. One evening the ambitious politician and his doting wife set off from his London house to Parliament, where he was to deliver a very important speech.  When the carriage door was closed, it slammed shut on Mary Anne’s thumb. What did she do? She suffered in silence, all the way to Westminster. She didn’t want to upset the man before his speech. A placard next to the carriage door explains that Mary Anne said not a word until Disraeli was safely out of the carriage and on his way into the corridors of power.  The placard remarks drily that her words when her thumb was released were not recorded.

 Mary Anne was 12 years older than her husband, and the marriage began as one of convenience. But it grew into a true love match.

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According to the guidebook sold at Hughenden, Disraeli was a novelist and something of a playboy in 1830s London. He had written a novel, Vivian Grey, which was a thinly veiled self-portrait of a young man on the make. His friend Bulwer-Lytton described him thus: he wore “green velvet trousers, a canary coloured waistcoat, low sleeves, silver buckles, lace at his wrists, his hair in ringlets.” He cut a wide swath through bohemian London salons, finally gaining an entree into the highest circles. He tried five times for a seat in Parliament before he won an election.  His maiden speech was a disaster; he was shouted down. What worked in drawing rooms did not work in the House of Commons.  He famously ended by saying, “I will sit down now, but the time will come when you will hear me.”

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Mary Anne, my photo from Hughenden guidebook

 

What Disraeli needed was a rich wife. He met Mary Anne Wyndham Lewis in 1832, when she was just another older married woman he enjoyed flirting with.  He thought her “a pretty little woman, a flirt and a rattle” which according to the guidebook meant “incessant chatterer.” But her deep-pocketed husband obligingly died in 1838, leaving her a rich widow. Her appeal increased and Disraeli married her in 1839.
Disraeli soon learned what a treasure he had found.  He wrote, “There was no care which she could not mitigate, and no difficulty which she could not face. She was the most cheerful and the most courageous woman I ever knew.”  High praise indeed; Disraeli had known and depended on many, many women in his rise to power in Victorian England.

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A visit to Hughenden is a window into the Victorian past.

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The estate is under the care of the National Trust, and beyond the quintessentially Victorian rooms there’s a surprise, new since I first visited years ago. The estate was a secret location for surveillance work which was crucial to victory in World War II.  This work was so secret that not even the National Trust knew a thing about it until very recently.  I’ll be writing about what went on in the wartime rooms and the icehouse soon.

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

Las Meninas: A Velazquez Masterpiece

Diego Velazquez, "Las Meninas," 1656-7, Public Domain, Prado Museum

Diego Velazquez, “Las Meninas,” 1656-7, Public Domain, Prado Museum

In around 1656-57, the great Spanish court painter Diego Velazquez was at the height of his powers, both as an artist and as a courtier.  King Philip IV appointed him not only to paint portraits of the royal family, but also to acquire and curate the royal art collection. Velazquez was more than a mere painter; he lived almost as a member of the royal family. Many people think Las Meninas is the greatest painting in all of Western art.

Pablo Picasso, "Las Meninas," image from Guggenheim website cited below

Pablo Picasso, “Las Meninas,” image from Guggenheim website cited below

In 1957, Pablo Picasso painted over 40 of his own versions of the painting. One of the greatest artists of modern times was carefully studying and paying tribute to a great artist of the past.

In the original painting, Velazquez did not have the red cross of the Order of Santiago emblazoned on his chest; he only received it three years later.  Philip IV ordered the cross to be added to the painting after the death of Velazquez. Legend has it that the King personally painted it.

The central figure is Princess Margarita Teresa, at the time the only living child of her parents, King Philip IV and his second wife Mariana of Austria. They’re in the background of the painting, possibly reflected in a strategically placed mirror. Also present are two ladies-in-waiting, two dwarves, a lady chaperone, a chamberlain, a bodyguard, and a friendly-looking mastiff.  And the artist himself is present, with brush and palette. The names of all the people are known, except the bodyguard.

Detail from "Las Meninas," Public Domain

Detail from “Las Meninas,” Public Domain

I’ll leave it to art historians to explicate what all Velazquez wanted to say in his magnum opus.  I’m drawn to the enchanting figure of little Margarita Teresa, age 5.  This was a golden moment in her short but seemingly happy life. The painting was almost destroyed by a fire in 1734.  Fortunately, it was rescued.  The left cheek of the princess was burned, but it was painstakingly restored.

The spectacular Velazquez exhibit at the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum last year had to make do with a reproduction of Las Meninas. The masterpiece is too precious for the Prado to lend out.

One of the pleasures of a major museum exhibit is a stop at the gift shop.  What souvenirs did the marketing people come up with? I thought they outdid themselves for the Velazquez exhibit.

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Anyone for a t-shirt with the most fetching images from the great paintings? On the black cotton background, they show up almost as elegantly as the figures in Las Meninas.

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Or how about a set of salt and pepper shakers? The salt is the adorable Margarita Teresa.  The pepper is Diego Velazquez himself, complete with brush, palette and the cross of the Order of Santiago. I’m still kicking myself for not buying them.

An article about Picasso’s Las Meninas is at http://web.guggenheim.org/exhibitions/picasso/artworks/maids_of_honor

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

St. Jerome and His Lion

Niccolo Antonio Colantonio,

Niccolo Antonio Colantonio, “Jerome in his Study,” c. 1440-1470, Public Domain, National Museum of Capodimonte

One of my favorite saints is Jerome, AKA Saint Hieronymous. Why? Because he befriended a lion in the wilderness–or at least so the legend goes. In the painting above, the lion has ventured into the saint’s dusty study with a thorn in his paw.  Jerome sets his book aside and carefully removes the thorn.  In other depictions, the saint comes across the lion, writhing in pain, out in the wilds. Either way, the legend is that from the moment Jerome extracted the thorn, the lion never left his side.

Jerome was born around the year 347 A.D.  He lived mostly in what is now Croatia.  A scholarly fellow, he became one of the earliest Doctors of the Church, before titles like “Cardinal” existed.  One of his main accomplishments was translating the Bible into Latin, from its original Aramaic and Greek.

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Jacopo Tintoretto, “St. Jerome,” c. 1570, Public Domain, Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum

In paintings, the lion often lurks under a table or in a dark corner.

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I took the two photos just above in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. I love the legend, and whenever I’m in an art museum I’m on the lookout for images of Jerome and his lion. They have been painted countless times.

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Whenever I spot Jerome and his lion, I move in for a closeup.

Workshop of David Gerard, Saint Jerome in a Landscape, about 1501, my photo taken in National Gallery, London

Workshop of David Gerard, Saint Jerome in a Landscape, about 1501, my photo taken in National Gallery, London

To me, Jerome’s friendship with his lion is part of his concern for the whole creation.

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Antonello da Messina, “Saint Jerome in His Study,” about 1475, my photo taken in National Gallery, London

Sometimes the lion is not underfoot, but he’s always close by.
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The faithful lion is always present.  In the painting of Jerome in the large study above, he’s patrolling the perimeter. No matter what, the lion always had Jerome’s back.

Giovanni Bellini, Saint Jerome Reading in a Landscape, circa 1480-5, my photo taken in National Gallery, London

Giovanni Bellini, Saint Jerome Reading in a Landscape, circa 1480-5, my photo taken in National Gallery, London

If the lion’s face is shown, he always has a friendly, grateful, loyal face–much like a shy family dog. He tends to look a little wary–who is about to disturb his friend Jerome?

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Are these paintings just sentimental portrayals of a serious saint who should be remembered for much more than a story that may not have happened at all?  The subject is the medieval and Renaissance equivalent of sharing cute animal videos online.

On a busy day, a couple of minutes spent watching photogenic animals feels to me like a guilty pleasure. What am I accomplishing by watching a gorilla rock a kitten to sleep or a sheepdog rescue a teacup pig from drowning?  Well, I’m not getting a thing done, but I’m pausing in a busy day to learn compassion from animals. Like those videos, the images of St. Jerome and his lion give us an appreciation of our bond with the animals who share our world. The animals mostly treat each other and our world better than we humans do. If I were St. Jerome, I wouldn’t mind being remembered as an animal lover as well as a high-powered scholar.

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

Margarita Teresa: A Cheerful Infanta

Diego Velazquez,

Diego Velazquez, “Portrait of the Infanta Maria Teresa of Spain,” 1652, Public Domain

It’s just as well we can’t see into the future.  The series of Velazquez portraits of Spain’s Infanta Margarita Teresa are some of the most charming images of childhood ever recorded. Her life was happy, but far too short. Margarita Teresa was born in 1651, daughter of King Philip IV of Spain and his second wife Mariana of Austria.

On the birth of a royal child, the Habsburgs immediately began looking for ways to cement the dynasty.  This usually involved intermarriage.  Most of us would not consider our uncle AND our first cousin as what we used to call “dating material,” but Margarita had no choice in the matter. As a baby, she was betrothed to Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor. He was both her maternal uncle and her paternal cousin. (In my family, holidays like Thanksgiving are tense enough, what with all the unaccustomed family togetherness.  I can only imagine  trying to get through a festive meal of turkey and cranberries with the Habsburgs. At the very least, I think there would be snarky comments.  There could be a food fight).

"Portrait of Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor," unknown artist, late 17th century, Public Domain

“Portrait of Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor,” unknown artist, late 17th century, Public Domain

Leopold, 11 years older, was more than happy with his prospective bride.  To sweeten the pot, her father had made sure that she remained in the Spanish line of succession and would pass on her rights to any descendants.

Leopold naturally wanted to follow the progress of his bride as she grew up, and the Spanish court had the great painter Diego Velazquez at the ready.  He supplied enchanting portraits of the child as she grew. The portraits were sent straight to Leopold in Vienna.  The Kunsthistorisches Museum still has them. The portrait at the beginning of this article, showing the child at age 2, was the first. The child still had her fair baby hair, fluffy and unstyled.

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Diego Velazquez, “La Infanta Margarita Teresa,” 1653-56, Public Domain

Velazquez painted Margarita Teresa again a couple of years later. She was lovely and serene. She looks a little shy, but she was clearly accustomed to wearing a grand gown and being admired.

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Diego Velazquez, “Infanta Margarita Teresa in a Blue Dress,” 1659, Public Domain

One of the most famous depictions, above, showed Margarita Teresa at age 8, wearing a blue dress. She looks older than her age, and more than a little apprehensive.  She must have begun to understand her daunting obligations and her rapidly-approaching future by this time.

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Jan Thomas, “Infanta Margarita Teresa,” 1667, Public Domain, Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum

At age 15, just after the death of her father, Margarita Teresa went off to her destiny in Vienna. A German painter, Jan Thomas, painted her portrait in 1667, when she was 16. To me, she looks stiff and unhappy. Her towering headdress overpowers her slight frame, on which so much depended for her family’s royal succession. She looks thin and pale, too.  And why is there a statue in the background, looking over her shoulder and raising a hand as if to ask what she’s up to? The Viennese court was famous for its rigid protocols.  I imagine Margarita Teresa rarely had a moment to herself. Yet, in spite of the age difference, she and Leopold reportedly had a happy marriage.

Of course the teenager immediately began her child-bearing duties. Margarita Teresa had four living children, plus a number of miscarriages in her young life. Only one child survived, Maria Antonia of Austria. But the years of constant pregnancy had taken a toll.  Sadly, Margarita Teresa died at age 21.  Never having seen her native Spain again, she was buried in the Imperial Crypt in Vienna.

I wrote about Margarita Teresa’s ill-fated brothers, Balthasar Charles and Felipe Prospero, in two previous posts:

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2015/07/27/velazquez-in-vienna/

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2015/07/28/prince-felipe-…-a-sad-infante/

An article about the family church in Vienna, where Margarita Teresa was married at age 15, is at https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/12/01/habsburgs-hatc…and-dispatched/ (“Habsburgs Hatched, Matched and Dispatched”)

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

Velazquez in Vienna: Prince Balthasar Charles

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Last winter the Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum had a wonderful exhibit of paintings by the Spanish master, Diego Velazquez. Many of them were from the museum’s stellar collection by the artist, but some, like the portrait used for the banners, were borrowed.

The December week I spent in Vienna it rained all day, every day. Sometimes, it is true, the rain was only a gentle mist.  But I never saw a single moment without some kind of wetness falling from the gray sky.

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Snow in Vienna is beautiful and romantic.  Rain? Not so much. Still, there is more than enough to do indoors in culture-rich Vienna. I always say that I don’t travel to Europe for the weather.

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Diego Velazquez, “Self Portrait,” 1640, Public Domain

Diego Velazquez, considered by many to be the greatest of all European painters, was an honored guest at the Kunsthistorisches Museum. I had a yearly museum pass, so I ducked into the Kunst almost every day. I was often dripping wet, but each time I stashed my raincoat and revisited the Velazquez exhibit, I forgot all about being chilled and damp. I felt as though I had been to sunny Spain for awhile. The museum owns a number of the works of Velazquez, because of the close family ties (inbreeding, actually) between the Habsburgs and Spanish royalty.

The young boy in the portrait below was (literally) the poster child for the exhibit. Who was this boy?

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Diego Velazquez, “Equestrian Portrait of Prince Balthasar Charles,” 1634-35, Public Domain, Prado Museum

The child posed confidently on a galloping horse was Prince Balthasar Charles, Prince of Asturias. He was the long-awaited male heir to the Spanish throne, the only son of King Philip IV and his first wife, Elisabeth of Spain. The Prince was born to great fanfare in 1629.

The boy appears to be at most eight or ten years old in his portrait, but that didn’t stop his parents from having him painted brandishing the baton of a Field Marshal.  He was born to lead, educated to lead, and expected to lead. King Philip IV faced challenges to the continuing rule of his family.  He needed this heir desperately. The hopes of his family and his country rested on this little boy’s shoulders. Sadly, Prince Balthasar Charles died at the age of 17 from smallpox.

Eugène Charpentier,

Eugène Charpentier,
” Jean-Baptiste, comte Jourdan, maréchal de France,” mid-19th century, Public Domain

Monarchies all over Europe awarded batons to important military officers, royal or merely aristocratic.  I imagine a Marshal wielding his baton the way Moses wielded the rod he used to lead the people of Israel.  Possibly the Biblical story is even one of the origins of the marshal’s baton. In most European armies, Field Marshal was the highest military rank, above even a General.  Usually it was awarded only to a person who was already a General, and only after extraordinary achievement, like winning an important battle. But the marshal’s baton in this portrait was purely wishful thinking.

Prince Balthasar Charles never had his chance at glory on the battlefield. His family waited eleven long years for another male heir.  My next post will tell the story of that Spanish royal child, subject of one of my very favorite Velazquez masterpieces.

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

Diane de Poitiers vs. Catherine de Medici

Diane de Poitiers, unknown artist, Public Domain

Diane de Poitiers, unknown artist, Public Domain

When Diane de Poitiers arrived at Chenonceau in 1547, things were going her way. At around age 35, she was already a widow left wealthy when her much older husband conveniently died and left her a fortune. She moved easily in court circles and soon became the mistress of the 16-year-old King Henri II, who gave her Chenonceau as a residence.  Diane loved Chenonceau. She was the undisputed occupant, but it took her a number of years to persuade the King to give it to her outright. In the meantime, she called in the best architects and builders. Money was no problem. First off, she greatly expanded the beautiful pleasure gardens.

Photo by Luke van Grieben, 2006, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0

Photo by Luke van Grieben, 2006, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 3.0

The gardens were just gardens like many others, but Diane had a truly brilliant idea: she expanded her living space by building an arched bridge, with rooms, that crossed the River Cher. Later additions, some by Diane and some by others, expanded on that idea and created the chateau we see today.

Henri II, after Francois Clouet, Public Domain

Henri II, after Francois Clouet, Public Domain

I think Henri looks very suave in this portrait. Where have I seen that sly, knowing look?  Of course!

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The very worldly James Bond, played by Sean Connery, had the same expression. Just saying. Anyway, Henri certainly knew what he liked, and as King he had the wherewithal to get it. Diane de Poitiers was famous as one of the most beautiful and accomplished women of her age, and the King depended on her advice throughout his life. She had rivals; naturally the King took other mistresses, but she was his closest and most trusted companion throughout his life.  She became the most powerful woman in France.

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This did not sit well with Catherine de Medici, Henri’s wife and the mother of his three sons who became subsequent kings. (She also had several daughters). The stern portrait above was painted when Catherine was still a comparatively young wife. Once she became a widow, she draped herself in black at all times and looked even more forbidding. I would not care to tangle with her.

Lady in Bath, Diane de Poitiers, Francois Clouet, c. 1555, Public Domain

Lady in Bath, Diane de Poitiers, Francois Clouet, c. 1555, Public Domain

Henri lavished favors and property on Diane de Poitiers.  She was clearly quite the babe, as well as being smart and witty. She retained her beauty all through her long life, too.

During his lifetime, Henri expected his dutiful wife Catherine to stay at home and keep quiet. She really had no choice while he was alive. But things changed suddenly.

Desmond Llewelyn as

Desmond Llewelyn as “Q,” 1983, Towpilot, Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike

Since I’ve brought up James Bond, I can’t resist:  what Henri needed was a guy like “Q,” who in the movies patiently explained weapons and prudent tactics to an impatient James Bond. Maybe nobody like “Q” had Henri’s back. In 1559, when he was just 40, poor Henri got knocked in the head in a jousting accident.  His wound became infected and he died 10 days later. His heir the Dauphin was a sickly young son, age 15. The Dauphin was already married to Mary Queen of Scots. But he died 18 months later and Mary Queen of Scots was sent back to Scotland, never becoming Mary Queen of France. The two remaining sons were not good King material, but they were all that Catherine as Regent had to work with. Of course she was not allowed to become Queen in her own right. It was quite an accomplishment to even keep her sons on the throne.

Things went from bad to worse. France was torn apart by civil and religious struggle all through Catherine’s life.  Although she made valiant efforts to govern the country, she made a lot of mistakes and her weak sons were not much help. The French Wars of Religion continued, causing massive carnage as Protestants and Catholics fought each other bitterly.

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Catherine’s life was not easy.  But there was great consolation in one thing: once Henri was in the ground, she lost no time in booting her chief rival, Diane de Poitiers, out of Chenonceau. Catherine took over the place, made extensive additions, threw spectacular parties, and relished her time there. Who wouldn’t?

Chaumont

Chaumont

As a consolation prize, Catherine grudgingly gave Diane another chateau, Chaumont. It’s a very nice place–I’d cheerfully live there. But it’s high above a river, not draped like an exquisite necklace right across a river. Diane had plenty of other properties, too.  She lived in comfort for the rest of her life. But she must have missed her glory days at Chenonceau.

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

If I Had to Choose a French Chateau: Chenonceau

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Rumbling up the drive in a carriage, here is what the long-ago aristocratic visitor would have seen.  I suppose a line of nicely-turned-out servants would have stood at the ready, to haul in trunks. From this angle, Chenonceau  looks like a hundred other chateaux all across France.

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But wait, there’s more! Chenonceau is the only chateau I know of that was actually built spanning an entire river. It stops just a short hop from the opposite bank. (During World War II, the River Cher was the border between Nazi-occupied and Vichy France. Prisoner exchanges and who knows what else took place here).  Back in 1514-1522 when the present chateau was built, I don’t know why everyone else didn’t run out and build one like it. I guess not everyone owned access to a river, or had the means to accomplish this feat of engineering.

The visitor enters Chenonceau the same way royalty did in days long gone: through a supremely French-looking courtyard and facade. As always, I find the details of Chenonceau every bit as enchanting as the overall dreamy effect of this pleasure palace built over a serene river.

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The grand entry door has a person-sized smaller door within it, for visitors who don’t need to make a grand entrance. I didn’t have a sweeping ball gown, so the small door worked for me.

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Fresh flowers from the gardens outside decorate all the rooms.  This was a study, overlooking the gently flowing river.  I’m not sure I’d get much work done here.

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This stairway was reportedly one of the first that was not a cramped spiral.  Guests must have enjoyed sweeping grandly up and down this staircase.

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The entire chateau is wonderfully light and airy.  And outside, gardens await, just as they did when Diane de Poitiers reigned here.

Diane de Poitiers, portrait by unknown artist, Public Domain

Diane de Poitiers, portrait by unknown artist, Public Domain

Chenonceau’s most illustrious occupant was Diane de Poitiers, a beautiful and cultured noblewoman who was the longtime mistress of King Henri II of France.  In the portrait above, she is pictured as Diana, goddess of the hunt.

 

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

Lord Nuffield ( the “Other” William Morris)

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William Morris wanted to be a surgeon, but his working-class family could not dream of sending him to university. So at the age of 15 he was apprenticed to a bicycle repair shop.  After awhile, he politely requested a raise.  When his boss refused, he went down the street and opened his own repair shop. Soon he was building and selling superior bicycles, which he personally raced, winning national awards for distances from one to fifty miles. His bikes, with a distinctive gilt wheel, attracted customers from all over Great Britain.
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He met his wife because she loved cycling too. As a side business, the enterprising Mr. Morris ran a taxi service.  Soon he was repairing taxis. It was just one step further to building his own car–simple and easy to repair. How hard could it be?

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Soon he was selling huge numbers of Morris motorcars –and selling them at a price that middle-class and even working-class people could afford. Just as Henry Ford did in the United States, William Morris pioneered mass production, turning out fleets of fine affordable cars in ever-shorter times.

He was a master of marketing, too. He offered affordable car repair plans.  He published a colorful magazine that showed ordinary people tootling along the roads of Great Britain, enjoying excursions that were once reserved for the rich and their chauffeurs. But Mr. Morris gave away his money as quickly as he made it. All over Great Britain, self-made men were building stately homes that rivaled royal palaces. But Lord Nuffield gave most of his money to charities. He lived happily at his fairly modest home, Nuffield Place, now a National Trust property.

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In gratitude for his philanthropy, the King “created” him Viscount. He became a close personal friend of both King and Queen. He took the name “Lord Nuffield” from the village near Oxford, where he had a home. On the eve of coronation in 1937, the Queen wrote him a sweet note of gratitude.

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Rather reluctantly, because they were modest people, Mr. Morris and his wife decked themselves out in the ermine-trimmed red velvet robes needed for the coronation.

When World War II broke out, the Morris factories had to meet the tremendous need for military vehicles. Soldiers set forth from England to battlegrounds all over the world in Morris vehicles. Lord Nuffield was too old to fight, but he saw another need: anesthesia for field hospitals.

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Again, how hard could it be? In no time, he had designed a portable machine to administer ether. He gave away thousands of them. No longer did soldiers fresh off the battlefield have to endure excruciating pain in surgery.

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The war ended at last. Then in the 1950s, there was an outbreak of poliomyelitis, in England as in the United States. Lord Morris designed and manufactured an iron lung. One of them is on display at Nuffield Place. It is hard to imagine life inside one of these machines, but the machine saved many lives. Lord Nuffield gave away over 5,000 of these machines to patients all over Britain and the Commonwealth. Polio victims could get through the worst stage of the disease. Without such a machine they died because they could not breathe. Many of them were able to recover. They might be left with some paralysis, but they were alive.

So William Morris, who richly deserved the title “Lord Nuffield,” ended up saving and improving countless lives. What would he have accomplished as a surgeon? Most likely he would have been equally creative and generous as a physician.

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England has hundreds of very grand castles, palaces and stately homes.  But one of my favorite sights is Nuffield Place, the fairly modest home where William Morris chose to live.

I wrote about Lord Nuffield and his home after a visit last fall, at https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2015/04/21/nuffield-place…-practical-man/

I’m off to England again soon.  If I can, I’d like to pay another visit to this inventive, practical, generous man’s home. Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Lady Emma Hamilton: Wild Times and a Sad End

Portrait of Emma, Lady Hamilton, George Romney, c 1782-84, from History Today article cited

Portrait of Emma, Lady Hamilton, George Romney, c 1782-84, from History Today article cited

Emma Lyon was born to working-class parents in 1765.  She grew up to be breathtakingly beautiful–and wild. Early in her life, she worked as a maid, but she soon left dustcloths far behind. She herself joked about her “giddy ways.”  She was a popular dinner guest in certain aristocratic circles. Small wonder: she was fond of dancing naked on the dining-room table.

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At Uppark, a country home in England, I actually saw one of those dining room tables where Emma frolicked long ago.  No photos were allowed.  I looked closely for scratches and there were none; Emma must have been light on her ((bare) feet.

Coronation Portrait, George IV, Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1821, Public Domain

Coronation Portrait, George IV, Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1821, Public Domain

In the raffish household of the owner of this particular house, the Prince of Wales, who later became George IV, was a frequent guest. He was the ultimate playboy. So there were plenty of aristocrats more than happy to dally with the beautiful Emma. She bore an illegitimate child to a gentleman at age 16.

One Charles Francis Greville took Emma into his home, educated her, and introduced her to society painters such as George Romney and Joshua Reynolds.  They loved painting her portrait.

Eventually Greville passed Emma on to his elderly uncle, Sir William Hamilton. She married him when he was 60 and she was just 26.  He was Ambassador to what is now Sicily, and in Naples the couple were popular in high social circles.  Still beautiful, charming and uninhibited, she delighted men in particular by appearing in flimsy mythological costumes.

Lord Nelson, John Hoppner, Public Domain

Lord Nelson, John Hoppner, Public Domain

In 1791, Emma met Horatio Nelson, and he fell head over heels for her.  Her husband, Sir WIlliam, didn’t mind; in fact the three of them lived happily together, although Nelson had a wife living elsewhere. Emma bore Nelson’s daughter, Horatia in 1801.

Sadly, Lord Nelson was killed in action at Trafalgar.

Emma’s life was all downhill from there.  She inherited a little money from Hamilton, but his brother held on to most of her money.  By this time, she was an alcoholic–from way too many champagne toasts in her wild youth. She eventually was able to move across the Channel to Calais, where she died at age 49, poor and ill. But out of respect for Lord Nelson, the captains of many English ships attended her funeral.

I love English country homes.  I feel they’re inhabited by the ghosts of people living their colorful lives long ago. There are always volunteer docents happy to tell stories of the past.

http://historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/emma-lady-hamilton-dies-calais