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.

Monday, 10 April 2017

'Bad shoving and deep water’: writers on the Thames

This photograph has puzzled me for some time. A  country church on a steep little hill, with a river beside it; a service of some kind taking place in the open air, conducted by a bishop in front of what looks like a new war memorial near the church porch; the choir lined up on steps leading from the little lychgate. Apart from the clutch of local dignitaries around the bishop and one family at the bottom of the slope but within the churchyard, all the remaining villagers are gathered in the open space outside the wall. Women and children greatly outnumber men. The women, all with hats, are wearing what may be their Sunday best, and the girls have clean aprons. A few boys stand on the grass near the gate, watching proceedings; are those Eton collars round their necks? One of them trails a cricket bat, though this is winter: the trees are bare, the adults all wear coats and hats (of course) and someone is putting up an umbrella. The date can be pinpointed precisely, for written below the photograph are these details: ‘Feb[ruar]y, 26th 1909, Aldenham’.

Edwardian England, in the year my father was born.  It’s not a posed picture nobody is looking at the camera but in its way it is a portrait of a community.  I had assumed that this must be Aldenham in Hertfordshire, but Aldenham Herts. is a small town and it’s not on a wide river. The Colne, which sidles past, is little more than a brook. Ah, the power of the internet! Within hours of my picture being posted on Twitter, I had learned where this was: not Aldenham at all but Clifton Hampden, a village on the Oxfordshire bank of the Thames. It has doubled in size since the photograph was taken, but still has fewer than 700 inhabitants.

Once upon a time I was fascinated by punts and punting: I collected pictures and books, and took a punt out whenever I could. Forty years ago this year, I even began to keep a punting diary, recording all my outings. It is beside me as I write – and so are some of my most prized punting books. In these, Clifton Hampden features frequently.

The Oarsman’s and Angler’s Map of the River Thames from The Source to London Bridge (London: Edward Stanford Ltd.) is a seven-foot long, linen-backed, fold-out map of the river. My 1927 edition combines a Thameside gazeteer with detailed, if rather condensed, notes on how to punt each stretch of the river from Cricklad Cricklade (Glos.) to  Putney. Thus its entry for Clifton Hampden reads:

Clifton Hampden Br. Station: Culham, G.W.R., 1¼ m. Inn: The Barley Mow on Berks side of bridge. Boatyard: Casey, at Bridge Toll House, will look after boats, and has a few to let.
From Clifton Bridge keep right bank, but to left of reed beds and islands at Burcott: then bad shoving and deep water to lock.

The artist George Dunlop Leslie, whose book Our River (1881) is one long paean to punting on the Thames, knew all about the problems of shoving on this stretch of the river: ‘The punting here is peculiar,’ he declared; ‘mud is a bad thing, but there is such a thing as too hard a bottom, for here the pole rings with a clunk as it strikes the ground, and slips aside without any hold.’ But he admired the view:

At Clifton Hampden, as if to make up for its dullness, the river suddenly comes out in quite a novel aspect. For a short distance it runs over a bed of hard sandstone; the little cliff on the Oxfordshire side, from which the village is named, is of this stone, and quite unlike anything else on the river. With its ivy bushes and small church perched on the top, it resembles some of Bewick’s vignettes very strikingly.

Jerome K Jerome, in Three Men in a Boat (1891) describes Clifton Hampden as ‘a wonderfully pretty village, old-fashioned, peaceful, and dainty with flowers’. He doesn’t mention the church; he’s more interested in the local pub, The Barley Mow, whose ‘low pitched gables and thatched roof and latticed windows give it quite a story-book appearance, while inside it is even still more  once-upon-a-timeyfied.’ Such quaintness comes at a cost, however:

It would not be a good place for the heroine of a modern novel to stay at. The heroine of a modern novel is always ‘divinely tall’, and she is ever ‘drawing herself up to her full height.’ At the ‘Barley Mow’ she would bump her head against the ceiling every time she did this.

John Ruskin visited Clifton Hampden, and if he climbed up to the church he was no doubt horrified by the make-over given it by Sir George Gilbert Scott. Ruskin’s views on church restoration were uncompromising: ‘Do not let us talk then of restoration. The thing is a Lie from beginning to end … It is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture.’ But Ruskin was more interested Clifton Hampden’s old bridge (originally Tudor, but also – as it happens – restored by Gilbert Scott. Local people kept their punts moored under its arches.)  Elizabeth Robbins Pennell, in The Stream of Pleasure (1891) tells the story of how Ruskin, watching the sunset reflected in the river, was distracted by a small boy he saw suddenly

run from one side of the bridge to the other, and lean far over the parapet with eyes fixed upon the current beneath. Of what was he thinking, this little boy? Was it the hurry of the water, of the beauty of the evening, or had this speed and loveliness already awakened him to higher and holier thoughts? And as Ruskin wondered, a boat drifted from under the arches into the light, and the little boy, leaning still lower, spat upon the oarsman, and dodged quickly and ran away, and Ruskin went home a sadder, if a wiser, man.

I intend to visit Clifton Hampden this summer. I may even call in at the Barley Mow. But I shall definitely climb up to the church, and pay my respects at the memorial to Lord Aldenham, designed by Walter Ernest Tower and unveiled by the Bishop of Oxford on 26th February, 1909.  If  you want to know why I’m interested, you’ll find the answer in my forthcoming book, Kempe: the life, art and legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe, due to be published by the Lutterworth Press in 2018.

Adrian Barlow

[Illustrations: (i) Clifton Hampden Church, 26th February 1909 (Kempe Trust Archives)
(ii) A stretch of the Thames from the Oarsman’s and Angler’s Map of the Thames.
(iii) G.D. Leslie, ’The Author’s Punt' from Our River, 1881