Archive for the ‘Film’ Category

Fiction and truth

February 28, 2013
The Drawing Room at Fenton House, as redecorated by John Fowler in 1973. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The Drawing Room at Fenton House, as redecorated by John Fowler in 1973. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Those who have followed the debates around the Stephen Poliakoff’s recent TV series Dancing on the Edge and its sometimes convoluted (or seemingly convoluted) plot may appreciate the interiors at Fenton House, in Hampstead, north London. Fenton House was used as a location for Dancing on the Edge, and features as the house of the wealthy, charming and determinedly superficial Arthur Donaldson.

Another view of the Drawing Room. The curtain flounces were inspired by similar examples seen by John Fowler at Kasteel Duivenvoorde in the Netherlands. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Another view of the Drawing Room. The curtain flounces were inspired by similar examples seen by John Fowler at Kasteel Duivenvoorde in the Netherlands. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Although Fenton House was built around 1686, its neo-Georgian interiors reflect its ownership from 1936 by Katherine, Lady Binning, who left it to the National Trust on her death in 1952. She had been married to the heir of the Earl of Haddington, and Fenton House was furnished with Haddington family heirlooms as well as with the collections she had inherited from her mother, Milicent Salting, and the latter’s brother-in-law, George Salting.

The Oriental Room at Fenton House, also redecorated by John Fowler. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

The Oriental Room at Fenton House, also redecorated by John Fowler. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

As some of the furnishings were returned to the various Haddington houses after 1952, certain rooms at Fenton House were left somewhat bare. In 1973 the National Trust invited the decorator John Fowler to help refurbish the house and give it a mellow, lived-in atmosphere. Fowler aficionados will recognise the subtle multi-tone painted woodwork in several rooms, the varied upholstery fabrics and the sophisticated curtain treatments.

Mid-20th-century white King Pyramid telephone, acquired for Fenton House in 2003. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Mid-20th-century white King Pyramid telephone, acquired for Fenton House in 2003. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

So there is a strong element of fiction in the presentation of Fenton House, giving an added poignancy to its use as a sumptuous film set. But as Poliakoff’s work demonstrates, if fiction is successful it acquires a certain kind of truth.

Dancing on the Edge

February 12, 2013
The Long Gallery at Upton House, Warwickshire. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

The Long Gallery at Upton House, Warwickshire. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

As I was watching the first episode of Stephen Poliakoff’s new television series Dancing on the Edge the other day, I noticed that one of the scenes was shot at Upton House. The Long Gallery at Upton, with its celadon green paneling, features as part of the 1930s mansion of Mr Masterson, a mysterious and slightly sinister plutocrat.

The entrance front of Upton House, as remodeled by Percy Morley Horder in 1927. ©National Trust Images/Matthew Antrobus

The entrance front of Upton House, as remodeled by Percy Morley Horder in 1927. ©National Trust Images/Matthew Antrobus

The debate is already raging about the pros and cons of Poliakoff’s casting, dialogue and plot. But what is without doubt is that this auteur director has a great eye for evocative locations.

The Hall at Upton. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

The Hall at Upton. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

And the atmosphere at Upton is in fact very ‘interwar’. The house was remodeled in 1927-9 by Percy Morley Horder for Walter Samuel, 2nd Viscount Bearsted.

The Picture Room at Upton, looking into the Library and the Billiard Room. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

The Picture Room at Upton, looking into the Library and the Billiard Room. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

The 2nd Lord Bearsted was chairman of Shell and owner of the bank M. Samuel (now part of Lloyds TSB). He was a great philanthropist, particularly in the areas of hospitals and schools, and a fervent collector of paintings, tapestries, furniture, French gold boxes, English silver, English miniatures, illuminated initials, oriental works of art and English porcelain.

The Billiard Room at Upton. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

The Billiard Room at Upton. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

The Long Gallery contains some of these collections, but there is also a dedicated Picture Gallery in the house (which I have shown before). In fact, Lord Bearsted’s passion for collecting is evident in almost every room.

Lady Bearsted's Bathroom at Upton, with its walls covered with aluminium leaf. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Lady Bearsted’s Bathroom at Upton, with its walls covered with aluminium leaf. ©National Trust Images/Nadia Mackenzie

Although Upton was decorated by Horder in a restrained neo-Georgian style, there are certain spaces, such as the two-storey Picture Room with a view down from the Library, which have a theatrical, distinctly interwar atmosphere. There are wonderful ‘Curzon Street baroque’ touches like the velvet-covered uplighters in the Billiard Room. And Lady Bearsted’s silver bathroom is pure Hollywood.

Osterley’s cinematic double life

September 13, 2011

The east front of Osterley Park House. The 1960 film 'The Grass Is Greener' shows the house with a drive going straight to the front steps, rather than the current curved one. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

Prolific blogger Little Augury recently posted about the 1960 Stanley Donen film The Grass Is Greener, starring Cary Grant, Deborah Kerr, Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons. Osterley Park, on the western outskirts of London, was used for some of the exterior shots.

Some of the interiors at Osterley, designed by Robert Adam in the 1760s and 1770s, were also used as inspiration for the sets (as was, apparently, the Long Gallery at nearby Syon House, also by Adam).

The Entrance Hall at Osterley, copied in detail by Harbord in 'The Grass is Greener', although his blue is perhaps more 'Technicolor'. ©NTPL/Dennis Gilbert

The story revolves around the Earl and Countess of Rhyall (Grant and Kerr), who have been forced by straightened circumstances to open their stately home to the public. The Countess is flattered by the attentions of an American oil tycoon (Mitchum), and in revenge the Earl invites his former girlfriend, an American heiress (Simmons). Cue a romantic comedy that has over time become a minor classic.

The Great Stair, another model for Harbord, although in the film the walls were painted John Fowler-style pink. NTPL/Dennis Gilbert

The sets were designed by decorator Felix Harbord. As Little Augury’s post shows, they were sometimes amazingly accurate copies of the original spaces at Osterley, while on other occasions he clearly remoulded the rooms to suit the film.

The State Bedchamber. A very similar bedroom appears in the film, although there the bed is a Technicolor dark pink and the pleated wall hangings a ditto purple. ©NTPL/Bill Batten

Harbord must have had great fun adding characteristic country house touches, such as groups of miniatures hung next to the fireplace, the ‘correct’ picture hang with the smaller paintings hung below the larger ones, and a rush firewood basket of a type still (or again) fashionable today.

The cushions on the drawing room sofa seem very ‘c. 1960′ to me, but I wonder if, even in that era, the Victoria & Albert Museum (who ran Osterley then) had quite so many barrier-ropes about the place?

Visconti’s ‘The Leopard’ revisited

August 25, 2011

Detail of a pietra dura table-top including a leopard and a lion, at Shugborough Hall, Staffordshire. ©NTPL/Geoffrey Shakerley

Courtney Barnes and I have found ourselves chatting to journalist Steven Kurutz about the enduring influence of Luchino Visconti’s 1963 film The Leopard. I told Steven that I was first introduced to the film at a suitably glamorous Manolo Blahnik exhibition at the Design Museum in London in 2003, where scenes from The Leopard played on a video loop (a trailer can be seen here, and Kurutz’s piece in the New York Times can be read here).

Detail of a pietra dura table-top at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire. ©NTPL/Derrick E. Witty

You can easily see why Blahnik would admire The Leopard: almost every scene contains a wealth of visual detail about aristocratic life in Sicily in the 1860s, including sumptuous costumes, lavish (and tellingly fading) interiors and dramatic landscapes.

Detail of a pietra dura casket at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire. ©NTPL/Derrick E. Witty

But with Visconti beauty is never an end in itself. The settings and furnishings speak eloquently about a certain way of life at a certain historical moment, and about how that way of life is changing. In one particularly poignant scene, for instance, Don Tancredi (played by Alain Delon) rushes through his uncle’s country house to say his goodbyes before going off to join Garibaldi’s revolution. The huge dog scampering alongside him, the billowing curtains and Tancredi’s own irresistable, dance-like progress all seem to suggest that the winds of change are blowing through this old, static society.

Detail of a pietra dura table-top at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire. ©NTPL/Derrick E. Witty

Even the stark Sicilian landscape, apparently so timeless, hints at the social and political changes that are taking place: traditionally these fields and hills had belonged to the Prince of Salina, the film’s protagonist (played by Burt Lancaster), but now they are changing hands as a politically astute nouveau riche class comes to the fore.

Detail of a pietra dura table-top at The Argory, Co. Armagh. ©NTPL/Derrick E. Witty

The Prince is history, both in the sense that he is yesterday’s man and in the sense that we see the changes happening through his eyes. Socially prominent and yet powerless, charismatically virile (he is ‘the leopard’ of the title) but also philosophically resigned, he is the pivot around which the whole epic spectacle turns.

Detail of a pietra dura casket at Charlecote Park, Warwickshire. ©NTPL/Derrick E. Witty

And yet the film never feels weighed down by its underlying ideas. Visconti’s love of visual richness and attention to detail ensure that the story is told directly through the senses and the emotions rather than through the mind.

Detail of a pietra dura table-top at Powis Castle, Powys. ©NTPL/John Hammond

In this way Visconti is a fantastic inspiration for anyone involved in the heritage business: if we can make the experience of visiting historic houses and gardens feel like watching The Leopard then our job is done. Which is rather a tall order, of course.

The fictional life of Lyme Park

November 8, 2010

View of the north front Lyme Park, c. 1700. Acquired with the help of the Art Fund in 1999. ©NTPL/John Hammond

This view of Lyme Park was purchased by the National Trust in 1999 with support from the Art Fund. It shows the north front of the house in about 1700.

These topographical paintings were usually at least partly fictional, an expression of the owners’ pride, their ideals and hopes.

©NTPL/Matthew Antrobus

This is the north front photographed fairly recently.

Although the image is obviously a truthful record of a moment in time, the photographer has also incorporated certain conventions from the tradition of landscape painting, such as the curve of the drive in the the foreground and the mass of the tree on the right. It is a composition just as artfully contrived as the earlier painting.

The south front of Lyme. ©NTPL/Arnhel de Serra

The other, grander front of the house will, for most of us, be associated with the 1995 television adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth. In that series Lyme stands in for Darcy’s country house, Pemberley.

It is below the south front of Lyme/Pemberley that Darcy, having just taken a dip in the lake after a strenuous journey on horseback, encounters the mortified Lizzie Bennet, and they have their famously stilted conversation. In this case the reality of Lyme is augmented by both literature and film.

Can we ever see a place without all these associations? Perhaps that is only possible when we are three or four years old.


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