A Sound Like ‘Zip!’


There’s a new Long Weekend blog on its way later today, discussing the uses of electricity in the 1930s country house. By way of a taster, here’s a lovely example of floodlighting from 1937 and a verse from Hilaire Belloc’s classic poem of 1893 on The Benefits of Electricity’

Awake, my Muse! Portray the pleasing sight
That meets us where they make Electric Light.
Behold the Electrician where he stands
Soot, oil, and verdigris are on his hands;
Large spots of grease defile his dirty clothes,
The while his conversation drips with oaths.
Shall such a being perish in its youth?
Alas! It is indeed the fatal truth.
In that dull brain, beneath that hair unkempt,
Familiarity has bred contempt.
We warn him of the gesture all too late:
Oh, Heartless Jove! Oh, Adamantine Fate!
Some random touch – a hand’s imprudent slip –
The Terminals – a flash – a sound like ‘Zip!’
A smell of burning fills the startled Air –
The Electrician is no longer there!


Albert Richardson

Sir Albert Richardson at home

The other day I finished reading The Professor (White Crescent Press, 1980), Simon Houfe’s affectionate biography of his grandfather, the architect Sir Albert Edward Richardson. I’ve been intrigued by Richardson for a while: he often has a passing mention in memoirs and letters produced between the wars although, in spite of an architectural career which lasted from the late 1890s to the early 1960s, his country house output was small. He enlarged or remodelled one or two minor houses – The Hale, near Wendor (1918) and Chevithorne Barton in Devon (1930) are good examples – but the practice he carried on, with C. Lovett Gill until 1939 and from 1945 with his son-in-law, E. A. S. Houfe, focused mainly on commercial premises, usually designed in a light, elegant neo-Georgian style.

Richardson drawings 1

Houses at Chew Magna near Bristol (1765) and Redbourn in Hertfordshire (1778) – examples of Richardson’s distinctive graphic style

Richardson’s real contribution to the period was as a polemicist for the buildings of the past, and in particular for the long eighteenth century – which in his case was even longer than usual, beginning with the Restoration and ending with the death of George IV 170 years later. He travelled the length and breadth of the country in his enormous Rolls Royce, haranguing philistine local authorities to save an England that was in danger of demolition, berating negligent owners of dilapidated mansions. He recorded historic architecture in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fluid, fluent sketches and in a flood of published work: Georgian England, The Old Inns of England, The Smaller English House of the Later Renaissance. John Betjeman once told him that ‘You have written the two bibles of my life – Monumental Classic Architecture of the 18th and 19th Centuries, and Regional Architecture in the West of England. If I were king, I would give you a peerage.’

Richardson Avenue House

Avenue House, Ampthill

And not content with promoting the past, Richardson lived in it. In 1919 he bought Avenue House in Ampthill, built for a Bedfordshire brewer in 1780 and extended by Henry Holland in 1792-5. Over the next four decades or so the architect filled Avenue House with art and oddities: oils by Philip Mercier and Angelica Kauffmann, exquisite George III furniture in tulipwood and satinwood; a lamp said to belong to the Lady of the Lamp herself, Florence Nightingale; Clive of India’s door knob and a battered baluster from Doctor Johnson’s house. He refused to have electricity installed, and was fond of dressing up in full Georgian costume around the house.

In many ways Richardson was a difficult character – bombastic, self-centred, a reactionary conservative who hated Modernism as much as he loathed modern society. Imagine an architectural G. K. Chesterton, and you have him. But his contribution to the evolving preservationist movement of the 1920s and 1930s was profound.

Richardson Christie's

The Avenue House Sale Catalogue

By a strange coincidence, just as I reached the last page of The Professor, an email came through from Christie’s announcing the sale of the contents of Avenue House. The place had remained more or less intact since Richardson’s death in 1964, and after years of searching for a way of preserving it for posterity, the family has given up the struggle.

The Avenue House sale took place this week. It isn’t a disastrous Mentmore-type dispersal to be remembered and mourned for decades. It is more of a small sadness. But it is a sadness, none the less. Something has been lost, and we’re all a little poorer for it.

That Chance Encounter With Royalty

It could happen to any of us. You pop into the local supermarket for a loaf of bread and a case of wine – and there’s the Queen, buying a packet of hobnobs and half a dozen free-range eggs. What do you do?

Fortunately, society hostess Lady Troubridge has the answer…

This chapter is most distinctly not written for the men and women whose loyalty takes the mistaken form of crowding after our King and Queen at times when they obviously are seeking privacy and relaxation. Only loyalty can excuse this lack of discretion; but there ought not to be any need for it, surely, if we remember, as we should, how unceasingly they work for us, and how rare are their moments of enjoying the privacy every other man and woman in England can claim as a right.

The chance encounter, unsought, is another matter.

Impossible to pass them by as if one had not seen them. We are all agreed about that. But what to do?

Supposing the Royal car passes close by when you and your husband, say, are strolling in a quiet thoroughfare. He should at once take off his hat and hold it in his hand till the car has passed, and you, madam, must make the slightest of curtsies.

In a shop the recognition should be more subtle still, and it should consist of a drawing back rather than a coming forward, and quietly moving away, forbearing to stare at the Royal lady while she makes her purchases.

In any and every case, staring is wrong, and should be sternly avoided.

From Etiquette and Entertaining: To Help You on Your Social Way by Lady Troubridge (1939)

Three Machines I’d Like To Live In

Roof garden at the Villa Savoye

Roof garden at the Villa Savoye

This is a departure from the usual – think of it more as  a “What I did on my holidays” post. During a recent Paris trip, Helen and I took the Metro out to the 16th arondissement, partly to look at some of Hector Guimard’s fabulously eccentric art nouveau apartment blocks; partly to stroll down the rue Mallet-Stevens, the gorgeous little Modernist cul de sac designed by Rob Mallet-Stevens in the 1920s (why isn’t Mallet-Stevens better known?); but mainly to visit the house just off the rue du Docteur Blanche that Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret built in 1923-25 for their friend, the Swiss art collector Raoul La Roche.


Le Corbusier

And we fell in love with it. Maison La Roche is Modernism at its best – simple without being austere, angular but never dull. A double-height hall, with lots of vertical stresses, gives way to the horizontals of the long, bright gallery shown here, its own straight lines relieved by a sweeping curved ramp which leads up to a mezzanine library. The furniture is all designed or chosen (some of it from Maples) by Le Corbusier. And the colours! I had never understood just how important colour was to Le Corbusier. The interiors of Maison La Roche are full of greens and ivories and earthy reds, with walls of pale burnt sienna and woodwork of deep ultramarine. Shame on me for thinking he built white boxes.

Gallery and ramp at Maison La Roche

Gallery and ramp at Maison La Roche

Living room at 24 N.C.

Living room at 24 N.C.

Maison La Roche spurred us to visit 24 rue Nungesser et Coli, the apartment building Corb designed in 1934, to see the 7th-floor studio-apartment where he lived and worked. Here again the polychromy came as a delight and a surprise, with great blocks of yellow and grey and red breaking up the interiors. Corb used a system of vaults which did away with the need for much in the way of internal load-bearing walls, and throughout the apartment there are movable partitions which at a touch can close off or open up, to give different spatial sequences. There are also some great views: Le Corbusier’s bed is much higher than normal, and at first it looks quite odd, until you realise he raised it so that he and his wife could gaze out over the landscape of the Bois de Boulogne without having to get up.

Staircase at 24 N.C.

Staircase at 24 N.C.

After 24 N.C., of course we had to go out to Poissy and see the Villa Savoye, the country home designed for Pierre Savoye and his family in 1928-31. Unlike the other two machines for living in, the Villa Savoye is almost empty, so that although you don’t have the same feeling of a domestic space, you do have the opportunity to enjoy the architecture in the raw. Raised on pilotis, the house seems to float above the ground: Le Corbusier thought this healthier – ‘the soil is unhealthy, damp’ – and it also allowed the Savoyes to survey their estate and to feel part of a rural idyll. ‘The domestic life is inserted into a Virgilian dream,’ he wrote.


Staircase at the Villa Savoye

In early versions of the Villa Savoye, the architect included a straight external staircase up to the first floor, symbolically linking the living area to the ground. But in the finished villa, this disappeared, accentuating the floating quality of the building. Access to the upper floor and the garden terrace is by means of a shallow ramp which winds its way up through the centre of the house, and a spiral staircase which erupts on the roof in a bravura display, disrupting the harmonies of the box.

In Vers une architecture (1923), Le Corbusier wrote:

‘You employ stone, wood and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces; that is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good. I am happy and I say: “This is beautiful.” That is Architecture.’

The Maison La Roche, 24 N.C, the Villa Savoye – they all touched my heart. They all made me happy.


The Villa Savoye, floating

Maison La Roche and the studio-apartment at 24 rue Nungesser et Coli are both cared for by the Fondation Le Corbusier


The Villa Savoye is cared for by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux. More information here


Let’s Talk About Tipping

Lady Troubridge

A slightly wrinkled Lady Troubridge.

Society hostess Lady Troubridge helps you on your social way, with advice on how to tip the servants after a country house party.

The ‘house-guest’ does incur the necessity of tipping the butler at the end of a visit, the idea being to offer compensation for the extra trouble brought upon him by the presence of a visitor in the house. The amount, too, will vary slightly with the trouble caused.

For instance, if he has unpacked for the male guest, done any valeting, looked out trains, or sent off telegrams and telephone messages, he will expect a ten-shilling note even for a week-end. If he has merely ‘buttled’ and done no extra little jobs, the amount can be less, from five shillings upwards. So much for him.

Now for his underlings, the stately footmen, who are found in large establishments. One of them is usually deputed to ‘valet’ one or two gentlemen visitors, and for a short visit a five-shilling tip will amply satisfy him, but it must be given in addition to the butler’s tip, or he may not see any of it! Should yet another footman have carried up the breakfast-trays for the lady visitor, half-a-crown must go to him for this service, and will be much appreciated.

In these times, however, a trim parlourmaid is probably more likely to be found in any house visited, and unjust through it seems, her tip is less than that of a manservant. Five shillings for a week-end is right and proper in this case, with another half-crown for the housemaid, unless she has packed for you, and then, her tip, too, should be five shillings.

Now for the ‘one-maid household’. This treasure, on whom so much devolves, should receive half-a-crown for a week-end, though she deserves more.

But the scale of tipping is adjusted to the size of the establishment and wages received by the staff.

Choosing the moment for bestowing the tip is a bit difficult sometimes, and rather a test of savoir-faire. The tip left on the dressing-table is quite all right for an hotel, but too coldly impersonal for a private house. So if you don’t happen to see the nice maid who has attended you, when the time comes to leave, ring the bell and demand that, like the genii of the lamp, she shall appear before you forthwith. Then, with a little word of thanks, hand her your money gift. She will like it much better this way. Tipping the butler or parlour-maid under the eyes of your host and hostess is a bit awkward, I admit, so leave this little ceremony till he or she is putting the rug round you in the car. Then let the note slip from your hand into theirs, even although your friends are still waving from the front door.

From Etiquette and Entertaining: To Help You On Your Social Way, by Lady Troubridge (1939)

Careful with the Paraffin Wax, Gladys

Gladys Deacon endorses Pond's Vanishing Cream

Gladys, Duchess of Marlborough poses for a Pond’s Cream advertisement. ‘I never have to think of windburn or chapping.’

American beauty. English duke. Disastrous marriage.

To many aficionados of the 20th-century country house, those words conjure up Blenheim Palace and Consuelo Vanderbilt’s ill-starred marriage to ‘Sunny’ Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough, which ended in divorce in 1920 after the bride’s father had stumped up a dowry of $2.5 million. (It was non-returnable.)

Less well-known is the fact that within months of losing one American wife, Sunny found himself another. Gladys Deacon was a society beauty with a complicated past. Her father, Edward Parker Deacon of Boston, went to prison for shooting dead her mother’s French lover in their suite at the Hotel Splendide in Cannes, and then went mad. Her mother went off with an Italian nobleman. When Gladys was still a teenager, drifting around Europe, Proust and Rodin were captivated by her beauty. Bernard Berenson and the Crown Prince of Prussia wanted to marry her. She later claimed she had slept with every prime minister in Europe – ‘and most kings.’

In the 1890s, when she was only sixteen, Gladys met Sunny, then just married to Consuelo, and decided that she wanted him. It took her nearly twenty-five years, but on 25 June 1921 she finally achieved her objective when the couple were married in Paris. Her bridal gown was ‘of gold tissue specially woven in Italy for the occasion’, announced The Times. ‘The Court train is of gold tissue, and the veil, of old needle-point lace, [is] arranged like a coronet.’ That veil hid a slight but curious secret. Years before, Gladys had tried to improve on her considerable good looks by having paraffin wax injected in her nose. The procedure was not a success: the wax slipped and left her with a permanently bulky jaw.

Sunny and Gladys

Sunny and Gladys on their wedding day.

The newly-weds settled in at Blenheim Palace and Carlton House Terrace, and Gladys took up the role of duchess with ease. There were house parties at Blenheim and receptions at Buckingham Palace – in 1923 she was presented to George V and Queen Alexandra, ‘wearing a classically draped dress of silver lamé with a ceinture of silver embroidered in diamanté’.

Gladys was forty years old when she married, and Sunny was fifty. After spending several decades consorting with some of the world’s most distinguished artists and politicians in the capitals and casinos of Europe, the new duchess soon began to tire of Blenheim and country life, while three miscarriages in four years put an end to any hopes she had of motherhood. In 1927 ‘the charming mistress of historic Blenheim Palace’ raised a few eyebrows by posing in her wedding gown in an American advertisement for Pond’s cosmetic creams: ‘I never have to think of windburn and chapping. These… creams keep my complexion so vigorous and healthy.’

Gladys's Blenheim spaniels

Marriage-wreckers: Gladys’s Blenheim spaniels.

She turned to breeding Blenheim spaniels, and was so successful that they overran the Palace and drove the duke to distraction. This, coupled with Sunny’s conversion to Catholicism and Gladys’s dangerously erratic behaviour – she famously produced a revolver at dinner one night and, when one of her guests asked nervously what it was for, replied ‘Oh, I don’t know. I might just shoot Marlborough’ – led to the break-up of the marriage. In 1931 Sunny fled Blenheim, and for several years Gladys and her spaniels had the place to themselves, while she hired private detectives to follow her husband and report on his various affairs.

In 1933 Sunny had the gas and electricity to Blenheim cut off. Gladys retreated to their London house, but he cut off the power there too, and then had her evicted. Only his sudden death the following year prevented their divorce. In widowhood, Gladys the dowager Duchess of Marlborough moved to a Northamptonshire village where she lived a reclusive and nocturnal life surrounded by cats until 1962, when she was moved – against her will – to a geriatric hospital in Northampton. She died there in 1977, aged 96.

The Curious Case of the Virgin Birth

Oakley House Bedfordshire

Oakley House, Bedfordshire

Oakley House in Bedfordshire is a pleasant if unassuming 13-bedroom mansion built around 1750 for the Dukes of Bedford. At the end of WW1 it passed to a Bedford cousin, Arthur Russell, 2nd Lord Ampthill; and a few years later, Oakley shot to fame as the scene of an event that rocked the nation and made legal history – nothing less than a virginal conception.

The virgin in question was Lord Ampthill’s daughter-in-law. Christabel Hulme Hart, a Mayfair couturier, married the Hon. John Russell, heir to the Ampthill barony, in 1918, to his parents’ dismay and, as it turned out, to his, because just before the wedding Christabel told John that she didn’t want children for a while, and that therefore they weren’t going to be sleeping together in the foreseeable future.

John Russell

The Hon. John Russell. He threatened to shoot her cat.

John took this news surprisingly well. But as the months went by and his wife began frequenting fashionable nightclubs without him and teasing him about her entourage of ‘dark, sleek Argentines and Greeks who dance like dreams of perfection’, the strain began to tell. In 1919 he bought Christabel a copy of Marie Stopes’ Married Love and tentatively suggested they might use some form of birth control? She said ‘no’. In 1920 he appeared in her bedroom brandishing a gun and threatening to shoot her cat if she refused him any longer. She remained unmoved. So he turned the gun on himself and said he would blow his brains out if she did not consummate the marriage. It made no difference. Then in the summer of 1921 Christabel visited a clairvoyant, to be told she was expecting a baby. A doctor confirmed the fact and in October she gave birth to a 10lb. 8oz. boy, Geoffrey.

Christabel Russell

Christabel, the Russell baby and a dog

John Russell’s response was to sue for divorce. The last time they had shared a bed, he said, was when they had been put into the same room while staying with his parents at Oakley the previous December. On that occasion, no physical contact of any kind had taken place. In fact Christabel hadn’t even kissed him since August 1920. The child could not be his.

His wife gave a different version of events. She told the court that while they were at Oakley, there had been ‘Hunnish scenes’ in which her husband had tried and failed to have sex with her. She had also had a soak in a bath recently left by John – perhaps this could have led to her pregnancy? Then her counsel dropped a bombshell: doctors who examined Christabel while she was pregnant found that her hymen was still intact. She was a virgin.

The arguments over what the press called ‘the Russell baby case’ dragged on through two divorce trials. At stake was the boy’s future as heir to the Ampthill barony. Christobel’s counsel urged the jury not to leave him ‘branded with the infamy that cannot be redressed that his mother was a woman of no reputation, and he was a nobody’s child’. John’s barrister begged the jury ‘to free this young man from a tie which he hoped would be a bond of pleasure but is nothing but a rusty chain that burns into his soul’.

The first trial was inconclusive, and the second, described by one of the Sundays as ‘probably the most talked of divorce case of a generation’, ended in defeat for Christabel. The reputations of both husband and wife were in tatters. Their most private and intimate habits had been discussed at length in open court. John was widely regarded as effete and unassertive for allowing Christabel to dictate the terms of their relationship (and a revelation that he liked to dress up in womens’ clothes didn’t help). His wife was seen as unnatural for refusing to accept her wifely duties. Both were condemned for having ‘freakish’ manners and morals. George V was so appalled at the details being aired in public that he lobbied for a change in the law, and as a result, an Act prohibiting detailed press reporting of divorce cases was passed in 1926.

In the meantime Christabel appealed against the verdict, but it was upheld by the Court of Appeal. So she went to the House of Lords, and in a remarkable judgement in May 1924 the Lords overturned the decree nisi, legitimising the two-year-old Geoffrey Russell and his virgin birth.

John and Christabel were finally divorced in 1937; she never remarried. Geoffrey inherited as 4th Lord Ampthill on John’s death in 1973. His right to the title was contested by a son from one of John’s subsequent two marriages, but although he refused to take a DNA test his claim was upheld by the Lords, on the grounds that they should not now overturn the ruling they had made half a century earlier.

The family sold Oakley House in 1935.