Saturday 16 December 2023

Happy Blooming Christmas!

Looks like we may be spending a few days in Spain over Christmas. I've always wanted to see what they do at Christmastime there.  I'm told it involves a lot of pretty lights and singing of traditional songs in the village square, which sounds fine to me!    And the weather is very likely be better than the unrelenting grey gloom of London in the last few weeks.

I'm not  complaining about London's weather now, though, because we do need some rain and cold to make the plants grow later.  And we had a long and beautiful autumn with more colour than usual. Still, looking at the grey scene outside my window it's hard to believe that less than a month ago this was Regents Park as we cycled through...

 





We were on our way to the new and improved National Portrait Gallery, always one of my favourite art museums. It closed for three years for a major revamp, and only reopened this year.  I always felt it was fine as it was before, but I was blown away by how much better it seems now. 

They've kept the iconic and important pictures of course, such as the vast picture of King George V and his family below.  I looked at this for a long time. How lonely they all appeared in that grand echoing room, not really relating to each other, and clearly on display.  What a strange way to live.  I wonder what they would think about the people they are staring out at,  snapping them on their phones in a very different world from the one they knew.  
 

I'm not sorry for the Royals, but I don't envy them either. For some people a life of rigid routine with your time mapped out years in advance, may be fine. You could always enjoy the dressing up and being made to feel important, and I am sure that being extremely rich also isn't too much of a hardship!  But the lack of a private life, the relentless demands of other people, the sheer sense of confinement, would send some people crazy.  I think I'd be one of them. 

It seemed that many of the generals and admirals I'd seen in the past were missing - not to mention once-famous and now-unknown aristocrats.  Even I, as a history buff, had always hurried past the likes of Sir William Pulteney Pulteney, (below) portayed for his participation in so many colonial wars,  where he made so many bad decisions, yet still heaped with honours.  


I was also quite pleased not to have to stare at portraits of quite so many forgotten Mayfair socialites as before!

Instead, the rooms now offer context for the pictures on show.  People long ago were as diverse as today, although in different ways - and the artworks on display now help show how duchesses, paupers, acrobats, artists, artisans, tradesmen and common folk of all ages were shown and saw themselves in art.  

 There were more women and minorities than there were, too.  One of my favourite rooms contained only women's self portraits.   Far too many and far too much variety to show here but the one below stuck in my mind.   The photographer, Dorothy Wilding, looks so happy in her work, doesn't she? Not really bothered about what she looks like but what she feels like. All the best photography is like that, I think.   I think I'd have liked to meet Dorothy Wilding. 



And in contrast to the Royal Family in their dim, old palace,  this vast, bright painting of the film star Rita Hayworth seems to light up the room. 


There was a very good display on miniature paintings, showing how jawdroppingly skilled miniature painters were.  The part of the image shown below is less than two inches across,  and many were even smaller, having been painted with single-hair paintbrushes.  


I was also struck by an extremely lifelike sculpture of Tim Berners-Lee who thought up the idea of the World Wide Web.  It's quite incredibly realistic except that it is only about 1/2 human size.  At least, I think it is, unless he is a person of severely restricted growth.  It's a most compelling and engaging statue, and is placed just before a huge screen on which appear various portraits in the collection, offering a nice variety of backdrops for him.  

(Incidentally, I wonder why Tim Berners-Lee has not been knighted.  If a peerage was good enough for  Michelle Mone  and  some of the other controversial figures who have been ennobled recently, surely inventing the World Wide Web is worthy of some recognition? )


Below you see Lord Byron's screen, created in decoupage for him by his boxing tutor, of all people. I never knew Byron had a boxing tutor but he was apparently fascinated by prizefighting and prizefighters, and one side of the screen contains only pictures of these. The other side of the screen reflects Byron's other great passion - the theatre - and his favourite actor, Edmund Keen.  That is the side in my photograph. The engravings of famous actors are interspersed with reviews and comments cut out of newspapers. 

Byron was apparently short of money and sold the screen a few years later, which seems a bit ungrateful to his boxing tutor who had clearly spent so much time on making it as a gift.   But thankfully it was purchased by a publishers which treasured it for well over a century.  


There are several places to eat in the museum, but I it was getting dark so we just grabbed something at the simple little snack bar outside situated in what  I think used to be a ticket kiosk.  David Hockney helpfully shows the way. 


So now Christmas is rushing upon us!   We helped the twins decorate their tree last weekend  - the old tree has now grown out of its pot and needs planting out, so they got a nice new potted tree that's about one third of the old one's size.   The decorating had hardly started when it became clear that there was no way all the decorations would go on the new tree.    Some of the more robust ornaments had to be taken off and put on the old tree, still in its pot outside. They are now cheering up the front garden!


When fully decorated the new little tree looked very cheerful in the corner, and we all watched the traditional Christmas animation "Father Christmas" by Raymond Briggs, and ate mince pies.   It's an amusing, gentle little movie which combines two books "Father Christmas" and "Father Christmas Goes on Holiday" which describes how the old fella delivers his presents worldwide, and spends his time enjoying himself off season.  His catchphrase is the slang word "blooming" which was widely used in Briggs' childhood (and mine) but isn't heard so much now.  It is a mild way of saying "goddam"  - a bit like "darned" I suppose, because he is a kindly and highly respectable old gent at heart. 

 

I hope your Christmas preparations are progressing well, and if I don't post again in the next few days please let me wish you a "Happy Blooming Christmas!" too! 

Thursday 23 November 2023

La Villette Park, Paris - WHAAAAAT?

I saw this strange looking creature the day before I left Paris. It is a 17th century tenor cornett shaped like a serpent and with a dragon's head.  It is just one of thousands of exhibits in Paris's musical museum, which must surely be one of the best in the world... 


...yes, in the world.  But I had never heard of it before I went to Paris.  It was only when I idly decided to visit La Villette that I discovered that the city of Paris has been assembling a huge  musical centre called the Cité de la Musique in the park for about thirty years.   Not only the museum but the Paris Conservatoire music school, lots of venues for music in different genres, the huge Zénith de Paris auditorium and the striking, futuristic Philharmonie concert hall are together offering almost every type of music imaginable.    

 By any standards it is amazing, so you can imagine my surprise that not one single person I've ever discussed Paris with has ever mentioned it.  Maybe I'm not speaking to enough musical people - or enough Parisians, since La Villette park was thronged with people and they all seemed very happy.    


So, I'll tell you a bit, so at least you will know to go there if you're ever in Paris!  Above is the Philharmonie concert hall - extremely striking, though not, I'll admit, very beautiful, at least not to me. Alien, blocky and slightly reptilian are the words that spring to mind, because it is clad in steel scales and looks sort of organic.  The design of the scales is inspired by an interlocking pattern in the style of M.C.Escher which reflect the light in many different ways, and its odd shape offers hundreds of different photo opportunities depending on where you stand.  If you're interested in the revolutionary and super-adaptable construction of the Philharmonie, take a look at the builder's website.   The acoustics of the main hall are said to be among the world's finest. 

As for the musical museum, no description can do it justice.    I couldn't absorb it all, but I do remember certain things in particular, like this golden harpsichord with lid decorated in pastoral scenes,...


...and several of the musical curiosities,  like the dragon headed cornett in the first picture, and a  "Bible" organ, or regal, which stood rather incongruously with the 18th century instruments.   The regal was a sort of portable organ, popular from about 1500 onwards and probably a bit out of fashion by the time this one was made.  It has a distinctive buzzing sound and the bellows of the Bible regal, pumped by a helper, are thought to resemble a large family Bible.   I can't find a film of this instrument in action, but here's a clip of a self-pumping regal in case you're interested in hearing one.  


I also liked the museum's explanation about the origins of various types of music, and was fascinated by its display of French revolutionary songs, of which the most famous is of course the national anthem of France, the Marseillaise. 

What a song that is.  I've always thought it's different from other national anthems.  Passionate and blood-curdling, with a wonderful tune, it was written to stir emotion, and does it incredibly well. Watch this blurry clip of a fine performance by Mireille Mathieu. I'm not French but there are certain politicians I wouldn't like to be near with a pitchfork in my hand, and Mirielle's version of the Marseillaise in my ears... and I'm only half joking.    

It seems that the Marseillaise was controversial from the start. It was banned by the French authorities for quite a lot of the 19th century as being too inflammatory, and only became the national anthem in 1879, after the final Emperor of France had been kicked out and the terrible Siege of Paris had happened.  Today, it still stirs unease and controversy, particularly its references to "impure blood" which have been taken up by French racists. Despite all this,  I still greatly prefer the Marseillaise to our own national anthem.     Britain's "God Save the King" has a plodding, secondhand tune and is all about wishing good luck to your betters in the hope some benefit will rub off onto you. It does its job as a national anthem, of course, but I am glad that the other part of me is Irish, as I definitely prefer the Irish national anthem. Amhrán na bhFiann sounds pleasant, almost friendly,  even though it is about Ireland's hard won fight for freedom.   

National anthems carry such a weight on them, don't they?   What do you think about your national anthem?

Anyway, to get back to the park.....we spent a day and a half there, and as well as seeing the museum we looked around the other musical venues, an exhibition hall, and many shops, cafes and bars in a huge 19th century iron and glass structure which  was Paris's main abattoir back in the day.


The Paris canal runs through the park, and is packed with popular little electric pleasure boats which glide silently to and fro.   


As you see above, the weather was grey during much of our visit, but when evening fell, and the lights shone out, the park became more peaceful and relaxed - so long as you could dodge the bikes shooting along the cycle tracks.  


The atmosphere was noticeably multi racial, and very good humoured.   As we wandered around we saw local people gathering to play their own music and do their own dances in the pathways and on the grass -  a large group of Africans singing with drums and trumpets, then another group of drummers, of several different races. then some Indonesians practising their own elegant style to the sound of a boom box standing by their picnic cloth.   We explored a wood full of mirrors (a strange and fascinating place) found a carousel and little fairground, and had fun tracking down bits of a giant sculpture of a deconstructed bike.  A giant saddle here, a huge mudguard there, sticking out of the grass and surrounded by picnicking familes and couples lazing about.   

We also puzzled over some remarkable playgrounds for the children. Perhaps I should know what the one below is, but I didn't. The kids had been playing some kind of organised game on it, and you can just see the referee's chair in the middle. 


On one of the days, a group of stunt cars paid a visit, and drove around very slowly for no apparent reason except to draw crowds - very exciting! (Just in case you're wondering, the car shown below was stationary)


 We didn't see the equestrian centre or science museum, and learned that Géode, the IMAX cinema, was closed indefinitely.  But we did find allotments full of veggies and rare breed sheep grazing beneath the trees.  


And there were so many interesting little touches.  A display of expressive musical sculptures about how it feels to make music (They weren't easy to photograph, but I hope you can get the idea.)   




I looked up La Villette in some Paris tourist literature.   It was referred to as "off the beaten track."   If I had still been travel writing for a living, I'd be wondering why the park isn't promoted more, so it stops being "off the beaten track."    It's not that far out of the centre, and there's excellent public transport to its surrounding areas.  Admittedly, the neighbourhoods around it seem run down but felt safe enough with pleasant little local shops and cafes and a nice Sunday market intermingled with the fast food joints and scruffy barbers.  And there were signs that some parts were going up in the world, attracting artists and other creative people -  as well they should, with all that music around.  The street art was eye popping, and I was pleased to see several wall paintings celebrating the remarkable Josephine Baker, who lived in Paris for many years and I am sure would have loved the park in every way. 


And if these brick pillars interspersed with Lego aren't the work of creatives, I don't know what is.  


We've been back in London for ages now, but do plan to return to La Villette, to finish touring the music museum and,  I hope, attend a concert or two.   I won't stay in the same Airbnb that we used, which I am sorry to say was ghastly, but there are cheap chain hotels nearby which have everything you need.  

*Oh, and if you would like to hear what a cornett sounds like, please go here on Youtube. For the first 33 seconds of this clip, Alexander Kerschhofer plays the basic sound of a treble cornett.  After 33 seconds you start to hear how a cornett sounds when playing in a group, which it was intended to do.  I have always liked strange old musical instruments and really look forward to hearing and seeing some more before too long. 

Tuesday 31 October 2023

Happy Halloween! And, at last, Paris

We don't get many kids knocking on the door around here at Halloween, because, I learned the other day, they all go down the road to St. Johns Wood.   It's about a mile from us, and many of the people who live there are American, and they put amounts of time and money into their decorations in a way that hasn't seemed to catch on here.  But the main thing, apparently, is that they're far more generous with their sweets.   Naturally the local kids have noticed.  We haven't had anyone at our door this evening! 

I remembered about St Johns Wood and Halloween when T and I cycled along one of its larger roads and suddenly realised that the place looked like a magazine article on how to decorate for Halloween. Serious amounts of money had been spent, I think.  Some of the gardens were expensive and elaborate, almost works of art in their way.  The one below was very interesting, with skeletons climbing out of the basement and a rather nasty little demon on the left, clutching a pumpkin, among many other things.  



Other displays were rather simple: just strings of eyeballs in the hedge.... 


Or nicely carved pumpkins, specially the cheeky one on the left. 


There was something jolly about these dancing  skeletons.


And I really liked these three little ghosts.  I had a book when I was a kid with a poem in it about "three little ghosties, sitting on posties, eating hot buttered toasties, " and I thought of that as I imagined these three rushing off to the kitchen to get their toast.  


Other displays had slightly unnerving details - are those skeleton rats running up the stairs? They look a bit small to be cats, anyway, although I'm no expert.   


One or two were downright scary.  I wouldn't have fancied passing this at night. ...


Or enjoyed negotiating these fellas waiting right outside the front door. 


 
But it was clear that this little skeleton meant no harm at all and was clearly enjoying the whole Halloween experience. 


 I hope the sweets lived up to the decorations!  

Our trip to Paris seems a long time ago - well, five or six weeks now, but I promised to write about it, and so the rest of this post will be about Paris. 

The reason we went was that my American cousin, Charlane, was visiting Provence at the end of the summer.    We couldn't get to Provence to join them, but she took the train to Paris a couple of days before they were due to fly back. 

It was so great to see her.  We get on very well, and since this was her first real visit to Paris it meant that we got the chance to see some of the traditional sights and do some traditional "Paris" things of the type we generally skip ...like walking along the banks of the Seine....


It is such a beautiful river, shining many colours in the sun.  We also visited Notre Dame, which is now well on the way to recovery after its devastating fire  of  2019.


Huge crowds were milling around outside, viewing the large and interesting information boards which offered the latest news and information about the restoration.   Charlane had watched what she thought was a very good National Geographic show about the fire and the restoration plans, and although it was slightly disappointing not to be able to see much behind the hoardings in real life, we did learn about how to get the latest news online on this very good site (in English as well as French) which is run by the Friends of Notre Dame.  If you take a look, you may agree that they're making good progress on this massive task. 

I am glad to say we got the chance to revisit the Cluny Museum, where I had not been for years.    This is Paris's Museum of the Middle Ages,  and one of its more recent major acquisitions is a group of ancient stone heads of what was once known as a "gallery of kings" from the facade of Notre Dame. Dating from the 13th century, they were supposed to be representations of the heads of past Kings of France, who were, of course, appointed by God.  Naturally,  the activists of the French Revolution were not keen on past kings of France, and even less keen on the idea of them being divinely appointed,  so during the uprising they hacked all the heads off and threw them away.  For many years it was thought that they had been destroyed or used for building-stone.  

Imagine everyone's surprise when twenty-two of the heads and lots of other fragments were dug up in a garden about three kilometres away from Notre Dame, in 1977.    Nobody had a clue how they had got there. 

 And it was also a bit late to return them to Notre-Dame. By the time it was restored in the 19th century by Viollet-le-Duc, it had been decided the statues were not, after all, kings of France, but the Kings of Judah.   So there was no objection to making some new king statues for Notre-Dame.  Some very good new ones were made, and no room was left for the old ones. So they ended up here in Cluny where they have a bright, spacious gallery to themselves.  As I wandered round looking and wondering about them, I wished for once that stones really could talk.  

We could not be in Paris without seeing the Eiffel Tower, even though we didn't have quite enough time to go up it. 

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It was impressive though, with the traffic passing beneath it and the city spread around. Just to add to the glamour,  a photographer and stylist were creating wedding photos of a beautiful bride and her groom on the terrace overlooking the tower.    I didn't get too close, not wanting to impinge on their pictures of the big day but it was a nice spot to see a bridal pair. 


The Cluny Museum, by the way, is one of Paris's most interesting museums, at least in my opinion.  It's in a large Gothic building in the rue du Sommerard,  and is particularly famous for its  tapestries, particularly the Lady and the Unicorn which I had seen a couple of times and was very happy to see again.   I found the tapestries very hard to photograph - the "Unicorn" room was dimly lit and crowded - and although it was great to be able to go up close and see all the detail, my photos were terrible. So I can't show you my own pictures, but if you'd like to know more, just go here, to the museum's own website. 

I also greatly appreciated another chance to see the carved wood misericords in the Cluny.   Misericords are carvings under church seats, and usually show mischievous carvings of weird or rustic everyday scenes.  Although they seem very odd things to find in a church, they are in many important old churches in France. They're also often found in important English churches too, probably because England was under Normandy's rule for quite a while after 1066, and picked up many French ideas.  

Misericord carvings are normally hidden from view on the underside of hinged seats where monks or choirs would sit during particularly long services.    Here's just one of the Cluny carvings - a poor woman wheeling her fat, drunken husband home in a wheelbarrow.  It must have been a common sight, and the fed-up looking housewife is only too believable.  Items like these bring home the reality of life in the past, and I really love them.  I'm also very glad I didn't live then. 



And of course we found and admired some of the lovely bread and cake shops which you can still find in Paris. 
 

One thing we didn't do was fine dining, but Charlane had had some good meals with her friends in Provence, and  by the time she went back to America,  we'd done so much in such a short time that we didn't really miss the meals we could have had.    

An hour or so before we parted from her, T. had his wallet pickpocketed on the metro.   There were constant announcements on the trains to beware of pickpockets, but being big city dwellers we were not much worried. However this particular scam was unusual and clever, and T. drew some conclusions which he will put into effect the next time he visits Paris. First, (a) only bring the cards you definitely need - nothing more irritating than coming by train and then getting your driving license pinched.  (b) All money cards and valuables to be kept in a money-belt or neck bag.  (c) Rucksacks to be slung over one shoulder and clasped at the front of your body at all times. 

To this might be added (d) don't sit down on public transport.     A shame, but apparently as Paris also has a plague of bedbugs, as well as pickpockets, and the critturs supposedly like to hang out in upholstered seats in public places.   Luckily we only found out about the bedbug plague after getting back to England, and we didn't encounter any bedbugs during our stay at all. If we had, I daresay we would have paid a visit to the famous Victorian pest-control shop of Julien Aurouze on rue des Halles.   This photo was taken on a previous trip to Paris, but the shop is quite famous and it is still there.  I hate killing animals, even vermin, but if it becomes really necessary, then this is the place to go.

I must say I'm glad they stopped selling food at Les Halles market, since it was clearly so necessary to have vermin control so handy.



We still had 3 days of our trip left after Charlane's departure, and after a horrible evening trying to stop bank cards and find our way into a Fort-Knox-like Airbnb seemingly run by a robot,  things greatly cheered up the next day.   I'll try to tell you some of that next time I post, although at this rate, with any luck,  I will have returned to Paris for another trip by then!

Friday 29 September 2023

Parliament, Photos and Paris

 

 I thought I'd upload a few photos of what I've been up to lately. I've been pretty busy but mostly nothing interesting, just insurers, banks, dealing with theft, car, things not working, blah blah, all come at once in one horrible flood. So you'll be glad not to have to read about it!  

However, there have been some nice times, so here are some random pictures of the last month or so. 

The photo below was taken from the terrace at the House of Commons.  K works in Parliament a few days a week and we had lunch with her there the other day.  Parliament is in recess - on holiday - so we didn't see anyone famous but it seemed surprisingly busy inside those hallowed walls - mainly, I think, setting up for conferences.  

 T. has worked a lot on the sound reinforcement in both Commons and Lords (it's thanks to him and his mates that the MPs and onlookers can hear everything that's said so clearly.)  So he knows the building quite well, but I have only been inside a couple of times before. Photography's not allowed in most places, but you can take pictures on the terrace.  Only river views are allowed, which is a pity because the building has just been cleaned, restored and re-gilded and it is the most wonderful sight soaring above and flashing its golden details in the sun.  

You must also not show any of the users of the terrace in your picture.  But I broke that rule by including the two gulls you can see below.  They are enormous and very much users of the terrace - their work is to keep tabs on the plates of chips which diners bring outside. You needed to be vigilant to keep them at bay.      

It was lovely weather with  warm bright sun and fluffy clouds in the sky, and, with the river running past, we loved chatting with K and eating what I must say was not a very good school-dinner type lunch.  And it was, I'll admit, an added bonus not seeing any  politicians!  

Yesterday an old friend, a psychologist, visited from America and we went to see the Freud Museum in Hampstead. This is the house where Sigmund Freud came to escape the Nazi persecution of the Jews in the 1930s.  It was extremely interesting, and although Freud only lived for another year or two after arriving, his daughter Anna continued to live in the house for the rest of her life, and worked hard on her practice there, which involved much pioneering work with children.   

The Nazis demanded a large "tax" to allow Freud to ship his personal possessions to London, but this was paid by a wellwisher, and so his fine collection of antiquities and many personal items are also in the house. Anna kept his study exactly the same as it had been during his lifetime.  This is the famous sofa, with Freud's chair behind it out of the patient's sightline. Although he was ill, he did see a few patients in London.   Apparently he let his patients talk up to ten hours uninterrupted, but Freud did not take notes, he merely listened with great concentration. What a memory he must have had.  


He would, while listening, let his eyes rove over the antiquities,which he felt told him a lot about how the human mind worked.  Here are some of the things he would look at, and there were many more outside camera range. 


One of the unexpected curiosities of the museum was an autobiography of Marilyn Monroe,who was interested in Freud's ideas and actually visited Anna Freud at the house while filming in London in 1956. 

We also finally got around to visiting the newish photography gallery at the V & A museum. The picture selection changes from time to time, but I was pleased to see some originals by Cartier-Bresson, my very favourite photographer of all. The picture of the little boys below would be wonderful even if their running forms and hoop were all that there was. But look closer, and see the elaborate hearse in the background.  Suddenly the photo contrasts the heedless joy of youth with the end of everything, all seen in bright sunshine and shadow.  


The gallery also had a display of autochromes, (early colour photos) dating from before 1920.   The autochrome photographic process was slow and over-elaborate, so eventually failed, as explained on this Wikipedia page.   But the autochromes that have survived are exciting, because they have an immediacy that computer-colorized photos cannot have. A good autochrome can show you what was really there, which can at times be startling and unexpected to our modern eyes. Peoples' clothes are often far brighter than I expected them to be, and this gives a much more modern and "normal" look to many of the group pictures.  Some autochromes, such as those of the beautiful Christina, taken over a 100 years ago, would be exceptionally lovely even if taken today.  

Here is another link displaying autochromes from a collection on the outskirts of Paris, and a little bit about the very interesting owner of the collection, banker Albert Kahn. He was a thoughtful and cultured man, and his personal interests included internationalism and garden design.  His house and garden still exist to the west of the city, in Boulogne-Billancourt, and you can visit. I wished I had known about him only 10 days ago, because we were in Paris then. 

Still, we hope to return, despite quite a few glitches in our Parisian trip, so I hope to visit Kahn's house then.  And I will write about our most recent Parisian escapades in my next post. 

So..... à bientôt!


Sunday 27 August 2023

Two Fur Coats in Bantry House... and a Colourful Bathroom.

As I promised, here's some more from my trip to West Cork in Ireland.  One of my favourite trips was to Bantry House. I'd wanted to see it for years, after K visited it and highly recommended it as "a bit crazy".  So T and I drove out there one rather drizzly day.  

Here's the house, distantly viewed against the Bantry bay's foggy backdrop.  Can you make out the hills on the other side?   


 Bantry House looks very like an English country house, built in English style by the Earls of Bantry, who were English earls. But of course it is not English.    When Ireland became a republic in 1922, many of the English gentry's mansions had had a pretty rough time.  But more of that later.   

And here's a more formal view, backed by the tall cupolas of the house's two sets of stables in the background on either side. To have a set of huge matching stables gives an idea of just how much money was flying around in this place in the nineteenth century. 

In those days, Bantry House was known for its contents - the Second Earl's astounding collection of fine art and antiques.  In its heyday, too, there were 24 gardeners, making sure that the gardens and grounds surrounding the house were worthy of the stupendous contents.    

But the title was extinguished in 1899 when the last Earl died without a son and heir, and the twentieth century brought a very different world. Independence was on the horizon for Ireland, after many centuries of occupation.  It was finally achieved in 1922, and before that, in a spiral of upheaval, the British gentry's houses were quite often burned down by Irish republicans who didn't see why they were needed by anyone at all. 

Even after 1922,  and even with the houses that survived, there were problems.  The Great War of 1914-18 changed society radically.  After it ended, servants became harder to find, big landowners were hit by savage taxes, and everyone involved with grand mansions began to realise the palmy days were coming to an end.   Many big houses, both in England and Ireland, were abandoned or demolished for purely financial reasons.. 

Bantry House, though, struggled through all this.  This was probably largely thanks to a woman called Arethusa Leigh-White (below) who married the house's owner, Edward.


She was a public spirited and compassionate woman, who when chaos gripped Ireland, offered to put Bantry House at the disposal of the local Sisters of Mercy nuns to use as a hospital for the local poor and wounded, including all those who had fought in the independence battles, no matter what their political views or circumstances.    As philanthropists, she and her husband were also more popular with the local people than many an English landowner.  The picture above, the only image of Arethusa I could find online, is captioned with information about her dedication to the Girl Guides/Girl Scouts movement and its work for internationalism and cooperation. 

Bantry's fate might have been different if Arethusa's husband had not died relatively young.  The biggest disaster in Bantry's existence, though, occurred after he died and his eldest daughter inherited the estate. 


  Clodagh Leigh-White, (above) was only a teenager when she inherited, so was only able to take control of the house when she reached the age of 21, in 1926.    She seems to have been a pleasant lady, but not the brightest diamond in the diadem.  She began selling off the house's contents to keep going, and also opened it to the public in 1946, but seemed to have no real idea of what to do apart from keep selling things.   Unfortunately, it apparently never occurred to her to learn about the treasures she was selling, let alone get an idea of what they were worth.   

 The catastrophe came in 1956, when she sold a priceless set of Renaissance paintings by F & G Guardi for £300 to a sweet talking sharpster from Dublin.  The value of this intact set of eight huge paintings, even in those days, was gigantic, and today it would be truly inestimable, running into tens of millions of pounds.  What a difference even a fraction of that money would make to the house now. 

  From all accounts, Clodagh did not fully realise what she'd done. She was apparently pretty pleased with herself for making the sale, and went on a cruise, or so I was told by one of the guides working at the house. Towards the end of her life, she was reduced to living in the vast library (part of which is shown below) wearing two fur coats to keep warm.        

 The library is a gigantic room, and the rooms above had to be rebuilt so its ceiling could be as toweringly high as the earl required to suit his  megalomaniac tastes.  This set of doors used to lead into a magnificent glass conservatory, now vanished, and it now offers an unimpeded view of 100 steps cut into the hill. Only the earl,  his family and their guests were allowed to use it (and they would have needed to be reasonably fit to do so) but the view from the top was really spectacular.  Here it is in the house's heyday, with the conservatory in place.  


  Now, Bantry House relies on part time or volunteer gardeners. Inevitably the grounds lack the formal perfection of old, but recent owners have harnessed several years of EU-funded restoration, and with dedicated volunteer helpers and clever economising they have maintained a charming and creative setting for the house.  


Arethusa's descendants still own Bantry House, and are still working hard to keep it going. They have tried various things.  You might like to watch the Channel 4 programme about Bantry in its "Country House Rescue" series in 2012 on Youtube   to see the kind of challenges they have faced.  The solutions put forward in the programme were not really practical, though, and by 2014 the Leigh-Whites had decided to sell the entire contents of the house, and were pleading for help.  It turned out that the auctioneers didn't have the right licence to sell the items, and somehow (I never found out quite how) the sale was avoided and the house has been keeping going partly as a wedding and event venue, and partly on other schemes which capitalise on its setting.  Money is still tight, though, and some areas of the house are still not open to the public because they are too dilapidated.

What I liked about the place, apart from its seat-of-the-pants recent history, was the welcoming and  - yes - happy atmosphere.  One of the family members now helps out doing the gardening and running the tearoom in part of the old kitchen. The food is simple, but very good, and I liked the notice warning customers about the family dogs which may appear hoping for food.  




The people who work there obviously love the place, and there are personal and humorous touches everywhere.  I loved the picture-within-a-picture below: a lovely little painting of a chair stands on the chair itself.  


 I didn't research the family emblems, but there's a stork-like bird with a coronet which was presumably associated with the earldom.  Here's a stone version, coronet around its neck, guarding the front door. 


Similar birds appear on ornaments, or holding candlesticks. 
 
 
 They feature, too, on amusing direction signposts in the garden.  Here is one about to partake of a cup of tea... 


these two are respectively using a wheelchair or else need baby changing facilities.
 

And what is the house like inside? Well, even after decades of selling off the contents, there is no shortage of interesting and beautiful things to see.  Here are a few photos at random, starting with part of the atmospheric front hallway with a dramatic Russian Orthodox shrine in the background.


A most beautiful dolls house full of furniture stands in one of the bedrooms. 


And there is a remarkable dining room, the biggest I have ever seen outside a hotel.  Its splendid and elaborately carved sideboards stretch across three walls.  There are lovely tapestries, beautiful china and imposing oil paintings. 


One wing of the house, is now given over to the family's bed and breakfast business, and that's something I would like to try.   No rooms were available during my visit, but when I return to Ireland I hope to stay there if I can.  What sold the idea to me is that apparently, after hours, when night falls, the guests are allowed to open a secret door into the library and creep in to light the fire ....  


....and play music... 


..... read some of the interesting books, lounge on a sofa with a drink, admire the details of the architecture


 and generally make themselves at home while the trees blow in the darkness outside. 

Of course all old mansions worth their salt have a ghost, and Bantry's ghost seems to float vaguely around upstairs without anyone being too sure of who it is supposed to be.  I'm sort of glad it's not the  the shade of poor Clodagh in her two fur coats.    I'm also glad that the house's air of life and character makes it feel as if it will survive.   1922 is long enough ago now, and Ireland is now doing better than Britain in many ways.  I think it can afford to see places like this as part of its own history, and not merely as symbols of oppression.

Coming back to today, in my last post, I said I'd show some photos of the multi coloured washrooms in the airport hotel at Cork.  We stayed there the night before flying back to London, and I only wanted to wash my hands before going into the bar that evening but when I walked into the washroom I was  thunderstruck - all those huge square sinks standing in a circle, each with an oval mirror above and all bathed in bright pink and purple colour.  I loved it. It was like a nightclub. 


I was busy examining the basins and wondering what they were made of - they seemed to glow. And then suddenly I realised that something about the room had changed. 


and before I realised it, everything was bright green. 


I started taking a bit more notice of the hotel. At first glance it had  looked fairly bland in an upmarket way, but thx  I found it wasn't bland. The breakfast was amazing, and a little quirky, and if the bar food is as good as the breakfast that'll maybe help explain why local people seem to drive out from city to spend the evening there, even if they're not flying anywhere. Some unusual coffee table books were to be found in the reception hall. They included sample books from trendy designers,  and were very interesting to look through.  I think I'll stay there again next time I go to Cork. 

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