Thursday, 13 April 2017

Henry James and the Spoils of Old Place

Old Place, Lindfield in Sussex, was the home of stained glass designer Charles Eamer Kempe. He restored this Jacobean manor house, enlarging and enlarging it again, to create a stately pleasure dome that dazzled visitors and led Country Life to write about it no fewer than four times in as many years. Variously described as a House Beautiful and as a Palace of Art, its contents and its gardens reflected Kempe’s taste, his passion for art and for the past. One dazzled visitor was the sculptor and writer, Lord Ronald Gower, who wrote in his Diary for 27th September 1889:

'I paid Mr Kempe (the great artist of coloured glass) a short visit at his delightful home, Old Place, at Lindfield. This is truly a ‘house beautiful’, every room in it, even the bedrooms with their quaint old ‘four posters’, their tapestries, and stained glass windows, artistic studies one and all. [….] The outside of Old Place is as beautiful as the interior, the effect of crimson from the Virginia Creeper on the grey stone walls, crowned by picturesque gables, harmonizes with the wealth of colour within doors.'

Lord Ronald (doyen of the Aesthetic Movement’s demi-monde, model for Lord Henry in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey) became a frequent visitor to Old Place, his name appearing often in Kempe’s Visitors Book. In July 1893, when the new East wing had just been completed, he noted that ‘Old Place is now one of the prettiest places I have ever seen,’ but added  – as if reluctantly – ‘Perhaps if one could find a fault with this almost perfect house it would be that it is a little over-decorated. The new drawing room is a blaze of carved roses in scarlet and gold, with superb oak carving on the walls.’

Another visitor in the 1890s was Henry James, to whom Kempe had been introduced through his friends Field Marshal Viscount and Lady Wolseley, near neighbours in Sussex. James signed his name in the Visitors Book for the first time on 8th March 1897, and it’s tempting to think he might have had Old Place in mind when he wrote The Spoils of Poynton, his novel about a widowed lady, Mrs Gereth, who lived in an ‘exquisite old house’ full of ‘the things’, antiques collected from all over Europe with which Poynton ‘overflowed’. While writing this novel, James had provisionally titled it The House Beautiful, the same phrase Gower had borrowed for Old Place from Pilgrim’s Progess. Clearly, Lord Ronald had thought Old Place overflowed; he would also have agreed with James’s description of the house as ‘early Jacobean, supreme in every part, a provocation, an inspiration, the matchless canvas for a picture’.

Kempe’s friends would have had no difficulty in recognizing what James meant when he said that Poynton was

the record of a life. It was written in great syllables of colour and form, the tongues of other countries and the hands of rare artists. It was all France and Italy, with their ages composed to rest. For England you looked out of old windows – it was England that was the wide embrace.

The windows of Old Place too offered a vision of England – and explicitly of early 17th century England: rose garden, yew walks, sundials.  When in 1885 he held a grand garden party, Kempe opened the gates ‘to all who would see the England of their forefathers’, he and his friends dressing up in period costume to add to the atmosphere. A photograph taken on the occasion shows them sitting, rather self-consciously, as if for an amateur production of Twelfth Night.

Surely, then, Old Place must have been the model for Poynton? Much as I’d like to say so, I cannot be sure, for the novel was actually written between 1895 and early 1896, and I have as yet no proof that James visited Old Place before 1897. In any case, James preferred to work from a ‘germ’, a single fleeting idea taking root in his imagination and lying dormant until he was ready to let it develop. He did not want to be burdened with too many external facts as he planned his stories. I think it likely that he’d heard about Old Place, probably from the Wolseleys, but deliberately abstained from going there until the book was written. Poynton, as he describes it, is simply James’s idea of a House Beautiful stuffed with ‘things’, not Kempe’s.

I’ve been writing about Old Place myself, for my book on Kempe. I can’t help feeling, though, that it belongs more to the world of fiction than biography. And I’m not the first to have thought this.  In Kempe’s lifetime Hugh Benson, the Roman Catholic convert son of Archbishop Benson of Canterbury, wrote By What Authority? (1904) an historical novel partly set in a house directly modelled on Old Place. More recently, David Smith’s Love in Lindfield (2016) updates The Spoils of Poynton, setting the whole story in and around Kempe’s home.

The BBC once serialised James’s novel; in Smith’s story one of the central characters is scouting for locations for another BBC adaptation. Smith is careful not to imply that Old Place was Poynton, but he makes great play with the idea that since Henry James had been friendly with a number of Kempe’s friends who were avid collectors themselves, one of them could have been the model for Mrs Gereth. This is especially true of Viscountess Wolseley; Smith correctly points out that some of her ‘things’ had been literally spoils of war, brought back from distant corners of the Empire by her husband, the Field Marshal (Garnet Wolseley, lampooned by Gilbert & Sullivan as ‘the very model of a modern major general’). 

Kempe isn’t a character in the novel, but he is a haunting, ambiguous presence in it. Appropriate, you might say, for someone who slipped effortlessly between the 17th and the 19th centuries, and who, shortly before his death, even had himself photographed as the Ghost of Old Place.

[Illustrations: (i) Old Place, the East Wing (1891); (ii) the gardens and sundial of Old Place - a glass transparency (c.1908) (iii) C.E. Kempe photographed as a ghost (1907). 

All photos © copyright The Kempe Trust 2017. 

  • Old Place is now divided into three private houses, with no public access.
  • My forthcoming book, Kempe: the Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe, is due to be published by Lutterworth Press in 2018.

No comments:

Post a Comment