Decline and Rise

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Witley Court 1

A stop at Witley Court near Worcester on the way to North Wales. Partly destroyed by fire, gutted for salvage in the 1950s, and perfect for the recent meander at WhistlesintheWind about what we keep and throw away… pondering the popular view of Britain before the 1960s, what modernised us, and the things salvaged from the 20th century’s garbage skip.

Witley Court 9

Witley Court is well-managed by English Heritage, a grand shell with a centrepiece fountain that fires on the hour.

Witley Court 2

There’s a very particular atmosphere, and the link here is actress Deborah Kerr, who appeared in two films that came to mind while wandering around. One was Jack Clayton’s 1961 film The Innocents, based on Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. Somehow that film made the bright sun of a summer’s day coldly haunting, with images across the water of the house in cadaverous silence. In complete opposition, I also remember Deborah Kerr in a technicolor comedy with Cary Grant, about the inhabitants of a stately home ‘forced’ to take in guided tours to maintain their lifestyle. Witley Court is both – families, dressed in shades of Italian ice cream, sit happily on the manicured lawns, while the brooding, slightly resentful shell of the mansion stands over them.

Witley Court 6

Solid, stoic – it will not be moved.

Witley Court 7

Above: the last echoes of the rustle of a dress up the staircase, sweeping away with the speed of a darting peacock’s tail feathers…

Witley Court 8

Perhaps this is all we need? Nothing could be more honest than Witley Court. The architecture seems to speak more powerfully as a shell – part of the story of the 20th century told with unsentimental beauty.

I remembered last year’s visit to Castle Howard in Yorkshire. I had wanted to go there for years, but what waited there was fairly hideous… a house, like Witley Court, once partly destroyed by fire (in the 1940s), yet risen again. In the 21st century some aspects can only recall garish images of stately grandeur: garden centre statues or statement wallpaper in out-of-town superstores up and down the land.

Castle Howard

2012 in Ambrosia: The whine of WhistlesintheWind leads to the fall of the British aristocracy; Castle Howard is closed and becomes a home for retired spaniels.

Elsewhere, it seemed the very essence of the British heritage industry at its worst: the empty, shored-up and once fire-damaged rooms are barely filled with bored displays flogging the dead horse of the 2009 remake of Brideshead Revisited. 

Castle Howard is itself unconnected with any of Waugh’s inspiration but remains in the Arcadian imagination as the stage set for the iconic 1981 TV drama.

And yes, something from an earlier age remains – in the occasionally fawning and obseqiuous manner of attendants drooling over the family portraits. Brideshead ended the war as the ghost of its former self. If heritage supermarkets with their cafés complete with suspiciously-stained sofas are what we need to feed a dream, then perhaps we should have let Charles Ryder ride away down the drive in his jeep, never to return.

The World My Wilderness Revisited

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Savagery waited so close on the margins of life; one day it would engulf all…

Wilderness Revisited

The World My Wilderness isn’t the book I was expecting now I’ve read it. We’re told this is Barbary’s story: a girl transposed to post-war London from a life shared with her mother’s villa in Southern France and bands of French resistance fighters. In England she lives with her father (a well-known lawyer), attends the Slade school, but spends most of her time in the ruins around St Paul’s.

There’s something about the urban wilderness scenes with Barbary and her stepbrother I find quite sketchy and detached: like Ealing film reels filed among the substance of her mother’s story.

Helen is widowed after the death of her second husband. She paints, drifts, gambles, plays chess with an abbé, and is working on a fraudulent collection of 12th century poetry while maintaining a sex life. “The days slide by like fruit dropping from a tree,” she tells her grown-up son. Helen echoes the well-worn theory that du Maurier’s Rebecca is the modern woman repressed and demonised by much of the 20th century; we even have her ex-husband remarried to a nice uncomplicated girl in a tweed suit.

Hitchcock Rebecca poster

Helen’s son Richie is “one of those returning warriors whose hang-over was not toughness, but an ardent and delighted reaction towards the exquisite niceties of civilisation. He liked luxury… mulled claret drunk in decorative rooms lit by tall candles, the sparkle and glitter of good talk and good glass, the savour of delicate food”.

He and his friends would be less happy “without the sense of there being massed against them a philistine, vocal army, terrible with slogans, illiterate cries and destructive levelling aims”.

Perhaps this is Brideshead Revisited syndrome, still reaching far into British culture today. It’s seductive and alluring, as novelist after film-maker rehashes the outsider on the fringe of this world, lusting after Arcadia, days of fine wine and strawberries by ancient fountains.

Years after it was plastered over by Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia, it’s as alive as ever. The early 2010s has seen fashion chase a pre-war English idyll, dreams which unite even some Guardian and Telegraph readers. (It’s fascinating that new generations of the anciently well-heeled are now ‘artisans’, dressed as 1930s farm labourers, while marketing teams talk of ‘heritage lifestyle’ and package Sebastian Flyte fashions for Debenhams.)

Rose Macauley

Rose Macaulay… or a young Hugh Grant.

Macaulay uses Richie and his frontline experiences to verbalise some intense cries of pain at what the modern era could mean. It’s not necessarily the author’s voice here, but she stares direct and unwavering into the abyss for an incredible and almost biblical passage, unleashed and at odds with the tame synopsis the novel is given:

“Richie, himself trapped into barbarism for three long, unbelievable years, shrank back from it, reacted towards gentleness, towards bland tolerance, towards an excessive civility. The rich elegances of life, now so little probable, the fine decoration, the exquisite glow of colour and grace and structure, the beauty that wealth and knowledge can bring, the ivory tower of aristocratic culture, that war and peace had undermined, had set tottering, had all but brought down with a crash, to replace by pre-fabs for the multitude, by a thin, weak tainted mass culture – it was towards these obsolescent things that Richie nostalgically turned, pursuing their light retreating steps as one chases beloved ghosts. In this pursuit he was impelled sometimes beyond his reasoning self, to grasp at the rich, trailing panoplies, the swinging censors, of churches from whose creeds and uses he was alien, because at least they embodied some continuance, some tradition; while cities and buildings, lovely emblems of history, fell shattered or lost shape in a sprawl of common mass newness, while pastoral beauty was overrun and spoilt, while ancient communities were engulfed in the gaping maw of the beast of prey, and Europe dissolved into wavering anonymities, bitter of tongue, servile of deed, faint of heart, always treading the frail plank over the abyss, rotten-ripe for destruction, turning a slanting, doomed eye on death that waited round the corner – during all this frightening evanescence and dissolution the historic churches kept their improbable, incommunicable secret, linking the dim past with the disrupted present and intimidating future, frail, tough chain of legend, myth and mystery, stronghold of reaction and preserved values.”

Blake

William Blake: Rose Thou Art Sick

“No civilisation lasted more than a few thousand years; this present one, called western culture, had had its day and was due for wreckage, due for drowning, while the next struggled inchoate in the womb of the ensuing chaos, till slowly it too would take shape and have its day. That day was unimaginable; it would be what it would be; but already the margins of the present broke crumbling and dissolved before the invading chaos that pressed on. We haven’t finished, Richie protested; we have scarcely begun, give us a little more time for beauty… but beauty vanishes, beauty passes, and he saw only her receding back, menaced and to die.”

At the heart of The World My Wilderness is the fear that effects of war and ‘the century of the common man’ will destroy art and beauty. The privileged classes are making sense of a new world where they might not fit. The life of Helen’s daughter Barbary is outside their circle and so viewed as ‘uncivilised’ – even her name suggests barbarism.

But if art is a part of civilisation (which is a theme that appears in the novel) then Barbary carries it with her wherever she goes. The London she paints is post-apocalyptic, but it has not derailed from its past and the train will call at the same stations of the class system forever more. Barbary’s will not.

It’s a book that could work from many perspectives, from the reactionary bigot to If…-style revolutionary. When first published, the conventional view might have called Helen lazy and immoral, but she emerges as the compass of the novel. Her time has come, and her daughter is surely a proto-beatnik. They’re carrying art and beauty into the future while convention withers, but whether the art and beauty is for all is another question…

Rex Whistler and the Smoking Urn

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 Above the drawing room fireplace rises a giant, gothic urn, wraiths of slow-motion smoke drifting toward the ceiling…

This made the greatest impression on me as a child, surely everything the artist intended.

None of it was real but in those few seconds of understanding I experienced pure awe. More magic followed. The artist had included a small pot of paint and a brush on one of the ledges, as if left behind. I seem to remember a packet of cigarettes in there too. Then there was the harsh fact that he would die in the war that began in the year the trompe l’oeil was finished, still in his thirties, and that this was his last work of this kind.

The mural was commissioned for Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire by Maud Russell, whose connections to Evelyn Waugh’s set of ‘bright young things’ led to her meeting Rex Whistler (1905-1944). I’ve since learned that Whistler was an inspiration for Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, which makes it all the more poignant.

Self-portrait by Rex Whistler

On my childhood visit I remember having only 10p in my pocket and being unable to decide whether to buy the pamphlet to learn more or the postcard – well, here’s the latter. It was an empty National Trust kiosk and I remember baking afternoon sun and the uncommunicative and unrelentingly sour woman inside as I explained why I was taking a little while, while that awful hand of death that you sometimes found with the National Trust shadowed the vitality I’d just experienced…

Evelyn Waugh and the paperback cover

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Penguin first produced this series of Waugh paperbacks in the early 1970s, and they stayed in print well into the 1980s. They all featured a matt card cover, which set them apart from other titles, and added to the vintage feel. But they’re also quite psychedelic with pop-art that seems to have stepped out of the cover of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine album.

An interest in Art Deco flourished at the end of the sixties with a major exhibition in the United States in 1971. Not long after there was the film adaptation of The Great Gatsby with Mia Farrow and Robert Redford. A lot of seventies design features influences from the twenties and thirties, and took the past way into the future.

The font and layout of ‘Evelyn Waugh’ is as sophisticated as any brand or logo today, bleeding into the image. These covers are a perfect blend of old and the (then) new in absorbing the contemporary trademarks of the late sixties and mixing them with a more authentic feel of the thirties. Often we see shiny, mirrored, silvery interpretations of the thirties today, but here are browns, oranges, sepia, artificial blues and greens; the matt surface of interwar printed materials (no shiny laminates before the war); and the popular wallpaper design motifs of ordinary sitting rooms.

The images all ‘explain’ too – from Brideshead Revisted‘s poppy-filled memories of an idyll, to Brenda Last’s open door to ‘freedom’ in A Handful of Dust, and the shambolic Paul Pennyfeather of Decline and Fall.