Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Return to the Gilded Age?

Last week saw us at Althorp for the occasion of their Literary Festival, now in its tenth year.  By festival standards it's an intimate and friendly gathering, which perhaps accounts for its ability to draw star names. We'd been invited there to meet Julian Fellowes, and enjoyed the special treat of hearing how he got his start in the movie business, about the twists and turns of Downton Abbey, and of meeting his stunning wife Emma.  After a lovely afternoon learning more about Althorp, meeting some of the staff, touring the grounds and grand reception rooms, we had a brief chat with Earl Spencer, who was appropriately self-deprecating about some of the recent repair and restoration achievements in the house and on the estate, the roof repair apparently made possible by his licensing agreement with furniture manufacturer Theodore Alexander.

l-r Robert and Renée Killian-Dawson, Emma Kitchener and Julian Fellowes
at the 10th Althorp Literary Festival
Replicas of key pieces in Althorp's furniture collection are reproduced for the wider market.  It is extraordinary to me how we have progressed culturally to such a greater dialogue in the world that secretaries and four poster beds, which in past centuries would have been enjoyed by no more than a few privileged guests and the staff curating them, can now be replicated and bought in places as far flung as San Francisco and Bangkok.  I was in Charleston when Earl Spencer was promoting these pieces five years ago and began to contemplate how anything goes culturally at this time in our history.

The entrance front of Althorp, transformed in the 1770s by celebrated architect Henry Holland.  The mathematical tiles or brick slips which clad the building, were chosen as a more cost effective alternative to white brick, hiding the original mellow Tudor brick beneath, showing that we are often slaves to fashion as they were used for the Prince Regent's residence in Brighton amongst many others.
Ideas, although they have always spread quickly in our quest for the new, now spread almost instantaneously through our hunger for the next thing.  When I asked Julian Fellowes what he longed to write next, I expected a charming but evasive answer.  Instead I was intrigued when he talked about his research into the Gilded Age and the ascendence of families like the Astors, Rockefellers and Vanderbilts over the old New York, America's upper class society, that keen social observers such as Edith Wharton examined so exhaustively. One wonders if he will be as sharp a critic and observer of them as he has been in his past novels about our own aristocracy, or whether he will create the television feel good factor that has so compelled us with Downton Abbey.

Reception in the Saloon at Althorp where the original stairs shown were once painted white
(the stair carpet is inverted, a device we occasionally employ to lend character). 
As a member of old New York society, Edith Wharton was in a unique position to be both critic of the nouveau families who commissioned more bling than Versailles in the court of Louis XV, a commentator on the times, and also a creator of her own home and gardens, The Mount, distinctively not gilded.  Based on seventeenth century English country houses such as Belton House in Lincolnshire, it was her personal design laboratory.

Grand Hall at The Breakers as it was rebuilt in the Italian Renaissance style in 1895 for Cornelius Vanderbilt epitomizes the Gilded Age's architectural exuberance, extravagance and liberality of design influence.  Descendants  of Cornelius Vanderbilt still occupy apartments on the third floor in Summer, as it is only leased by the Preservation Society of Newport County.

Wharton wrote over forty books, my personal favourite being The Age of Innocence, which was filmed in 1993 by Martin Scorcese starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Winona Ryder and Michelle Pfeiffer.  In the opening paragraph of the novel she describes "shabby old red and gold boxes in the old Academy vs the new Opera House", comparing the Patrician old families' preference for the old and worn to the bigger and better ethos of the new like social daggers warmly written.  She also wrote "The Decoration of Houses" with interior decorator Ogden Codman, which has become an American standard tome of design.

Pictured in The Library at The Breakers are Alice Gertrude and Gladys Vanderbilt.  The intimacy of the scene belies the grand scale of the room with its massive sixteenth century French chimney piece and even more massive scale.
So, will we move towards a new Gilded Age when the as yet unannounced work Julian Fellowes is in talks with NBC to create hits our screens?  Will Victorian bling, for so long unfashionable, return to enjoy a renaissance and a consequent spike in values? It is difficult to imagine in these tumultuous economic times and predominance of spare, clean decorative schemes.  I was reminded of the parallels though, when Julian Fellowes mentioned that during the Gilded Age, there were extraordinary social and economic changes taking place, many of them very difficult for entire swathes of society.  We tend to forget the painful things and hold on to what was bright and good and glamourous about any time.  Thus history repeats itself.