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Today I’m taking another opportunity to do a quick book review cum castle entry before I give you Northumberland in all its splendor and we head for the East Midlands then Wales (in two parts- North and South) before South England and beyond….
: A Personal Portrait
by Henrietta Spencer-Churchill
publ by Rizzoli
Very seldom does one have the opportunity to read personal memoirs from royalty and dignitaries. These rare glimpses into a life most people will never truly fathom gives us that chance. Blenheim Palace and the Churchill Family does that and then gives more. The author who spent a good portion of her childhood living at the World Heritage site, Blenheim, gives us an honest portrait of history and doesn’t bore us but makes it entertaining and even makes one feel better that we live on the outside of the palace rather than in the pressure cooker it can be on the inside.
I am not going to spoil the reading of the book for you here by giving out too many details but I was very intrigued by an interview that she gave to W magazine in October of 2005 after this book was published because her answers and manner were so matter-of-fact and down-to-earth. Now for a little bit of the history….
After John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough and military commander in chief, exacted a victory in battle against Louis XIV at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, Queen Anne had Blenheim Palace built for him from 1705-1722 on 2,100 acres where the manor of Woodstock had previously sat in Oxfordshire, eight miles northwest of Oxford. This collaborative effort of Sir John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor was built as England’s answer to Versailles. Financial dilemmas created delays but did not completely forestall it’s building and today it is complete. Based on the gardens and parkland alone, this is true, and although it is classical architecture in Baroque styling – not a single exterior shows any sedate side. Is it a Baroque palace laid out classically or Classical architecture with mostly English Baroque features? I’ll let you decide.
The palace parkland is the result of many centuries of the best in landscaping providing this palace with a picturesque setting unmatched for beauty. Of the original work which was done by Queen Anne’s gardener, Henry Wise, only the walled garden remains but work which was laid down by “Capability” Brown dominates the stunningly magnificent landscaping and placements. Dating from 1764, the lake, parkland and all gardens were laid out by Lancelot Brown and he kept most of the heroic monuments set down for John Churchill. In 1892 the Mermaid Fountain in the Italian garden by the east gate entrance was sculpted by the United States Sculptor, Waldo Story. In the 1920s, Achille Duchene added the Water Terrace Gardens which are situated close to the Long Library and Chapel adding the “Versailles” touch. In more recent years the Pleasure Gardens complex has been added to and developed into an adventure playground which includes the Marlborough Maze, Herb Garden, children’s playground, Butterfly House and putting greens !
There are other exterior surprises such as the Grand Bridge, which leads into the Great Court. This was the work of Vanbrugh and besides its beauty and prodigious span actually contains rooms within its structure ! Then, of course, the interior which shows off miraculous baroque gilded state rooms, the lofty Great Hall, Long Library (featuring stucco ceiling by Isaac Mansfield), the frescoed Saloon Parlor are complimentary to the collection of fine paintings, bronzes and famous Marlborough Victories tapestries within the Long Library. This was also, of course, the birthplace of Winston Churchill ( he was a nephew of the 8th Duke) and there is a five-room exhibition which includes his birth room. (His own personal home, Chartwell in Kent pales by comparison, although he preferred living at Chartwell to almost any place in the world according to his own words!)
Amidst this splendor, Henrietta, who was the eldest daughter of the current (11th) Duke, and her younger brother James worked in the gift shops (there are five) and in food service ( it has two restaurants and two cafes in the eastern portion). She is an interior designer by trade and I’m sure she had a lot of inspiration roaming the halls of Blenheim and seeing portraits and ceiling paintings of the family throughout its grand array of rooms!
Her book reads like a British soap opera like that of Upstairs, Downstairs or Coronation Street . The beauty of it is that it’s all true. Since 1722 paying the bills on such an estate has been a continuing family struggle but she seems to take it in stride where the average person might have thrown up their hands in resignation long ago. In her own words, ” People automatically assume you have lots of money. My siblings and I all work because we have to, and as a family we all help to maintain Blenheim.”
But Henrietta, true to her family’s most honest inclinations, works in London complete with an office and spends weekends- not in the Palace itself like her father- living in a farmhouse on the estate. It’s a more sacrificial lifestyle than most people would imagine for someone who owns such an estate but Henrietta most likely sees the history even in her own experiences. This woman grew up with Christina Onassis as a step-sister (Tina Livanos her mother was the second wife of Henrietta’s father) and her great-grandmother was Consuelo Vanderbilt, after all.
She and her grown sons, David and Max (both in their 20s) still spend Christmases inside the palace.
” The house needs to be lived in, ” says Spencer-Churchill, ” And today it’s very much a family home”.
Blenheim Palace was opened to visitors as early as 1856 and today also offers not only tours but merchandise such as Blenheim Natural Mineral Water and is basically a daytrip extraordinaire for castle ( and architecture ) enthusiasts like myself. Blenheim came after the battle being a monument to a battle. Restoration and maintenance are the challenges that faced this edifice from the beginning. With heiresses like Henrietta the battle of preserving history and legacy will continue to be won.
A votre sante’ !
Look for more photos of Blenheim in the new Oxfordshire photo album.