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Ralph Vaughan Williams and Leith Hill Place

St. George being the Patrol Saint of England, his day, 23rd April is duly marked by Classic FM (our favourite radio station) as the day for English composers. They have played lots of them, most hardly known to the general public. Apart from a handful, who are famous internationally, and Ralph Vaughn Williams is one of them.

We visited Leith Hill Place, his childhood home.

Leith Hill Place, home of Ralph Vaughan Williams
Leith Hill Place, home of Ralph Vaughan Williams

Lying amidst Surrey hills, this modest house was built in 1600s and in mid 18th century acquired its classical Palladian look. A hundred years later it was bought by Josiah Wedgwood III, grandson of the Josiah Wedgwood of the famous pottery works. He retired from the family business to settle in this remote countryside home with his wife Caroline, who was the sister of Charles Darwin (the very same who gave us On the Origins of Species) – she was his cousin. Joe’s sister Emma married Charles Darwin. With the families so closely related, the Darwins were frequent visitors to Leith Hill Place, and the upper rooms of the house, on the 3rd floor, were reserved for Charles to work in when he came to stay.

Darwin's room
Darwin’s room

Currently those rooms feature a ‘soundscape’ – a series of audio recordings, telling the story of Vaughan Williams, as visitors move from room to room.

It was Caroline who organised the planting of the rhododendron forest in the grounds.

Joe and Caroline Wedgwood had three daughters. One of them, Margaret, married the Reverend Arthur Vaughan Williams. The young family lived in Gloucestershire, but after Arthur died in 1875, Margaret and her three young children came to live with her family in Leith Hill Place.

Leith Hill Place
Leith Hill Place

Her youngest son Ralph, born in 1872, began piano at the age of 5 with  his Auth Sophy, who also lived at the house. Having composed his first piece later on that year, he was not too keen on the piano, preferring the violin, which he began learning a year later. He was also fond of playing the small organ, which was installed in the entrance hall of the house – the servants having to pump it, which, apparently they did not enjoy much!

The organ is no longer there, instead, visitors can play the piano in the hall.

Ralph did grow to love the piano – one of the few original Vaughan Williams’ artifacts in Leith Hill Place is his piano, which he owned later in life when he lived in London, and composed most of his famous works on it, including The Lark Ascending.

Vaughan Williams' piano
Vaughan Williams’ piano

Ralph went to a boarding school and later on to Charterhouse School, where his musical talent was encouraged to develop further.

Coming home during the holidays, Ralph wondered through the park and picturesque Surrey countryside, developing a taste for folk songs and tunes that he heard in the local villages and inns.

View from a top window
View from a top window

In 1890 Ralph left Charterhouse School to study at the Royal College of Music and then at Trinity College, Cambridge, and this was the end of his connection with Leith Hill Place.

After the death of Ralph’s mother and aunts, and of his elder brother Harvey, Ralph inherited Leith Place and gave it to the National Trust in 1945. It was leased to other members of the Wedgwood family, and in later years was a boarding school.

In 2013 it was opened to the public as a Vaughan Williams museum, displaying only a few photographs and information boards, although the National Trust website says they are working on developing the museum further.

Leith Hill Place - waiting for a new futureLeith Hill Place – waiting for a new future

Ralph Vaughan Willams went on to become of the most influential English composers. He wrote concert pieces (like the famous Lark), songs, operas, ballets, chamber music and symphonies.

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Ralph Vaughan Williams

Alongside Cecil Sharp, he collected English folk songs, which were included into Cecil Sharp’s series Folk Songs of England. Vaughan Williams was President of the English Folk Song and Dance Society, their home, Cecil Sharp House, includes a library named in his honour – Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

Vaughan Williams’ compositions are deeply rooted in English folk and Tudor music, and amongst his most famous works are Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910), and the London Symphony.

Vaughan Williams has been composing for over 50 years, only stopping when he went to the front during the First World War. He was in this 40s, and too old to be conscripted, but joined the medical core anyway, risking his life on the battlefields of France, and damaging his hearing, which was a cause of deafness for him at the end of his life.

Ralph has not forgotten his childhood home – and Leith Hill has not forgotten him – in 1905 Vaughan Williams helped Leith Hill Music Festival for amateur musicians, and was its principle conductor until 1953. The Festival is going strong, with a varied programme of events for 2017 – www.lhmf.org.uk

Vaughan Williams was composing until his death in his London home in 1958. His ashes are interred near the burials of Purcell and Stanford in the north choire aisle of Westminster Abbey.

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Jousting at Knebworth House

Going round stately homes on a fine holiday weekend you can come across Jousting – re-enactment of knights in colourful armour tackling each other on horseback. This has been a popular summer theatrical entertainment from 1970s.

Jousting at Knebworth House
Jousting at Knebworth House

During Middle Ages jousting had a practical purpose – preparing knights (and their horses) for warfare. This was also the opportunity for the noblemen to demonstrate their skills and courage.

The term comes from Old French joster, which in turn has a Latin origin iuxtare meaning ‘to approach or to meet’. Two knights gallop towards each other, aiming to strike the opponent’s shield with a long blunt lance, knocking their weapons off or unsettling them from a horse. The English nobility spoke Old French since William the Conqueror, but by the time of Henry VIII we have an English word for it – tilt, which originally meant a barrier to separate the knights charging towards each other, and the tilt-yard is where this competition took place.

The tilt-yard at Knebworth House
The tilt-yard at Knebworth House

The knights wore heraldic signs over their armour, and so did the horses, on capes called caparisons.

Jousting at Knebworth House
He was a French knight, Marquis du Lyon

As the sport developed, in later Middle Ages, it became more chivalric, and more regulated. There was a series of competitions, some of them involving agility and horsemanship skills, like charging towards a quintain – a wooden figure with two ‘arms’, one to be hit with a lance, and the other one holding a spiky club, which, as the quintain swings round, would hit the knight on the back if he was not quick enough to avoid it.

The Black Knight aiming at the quintain
The Black Knight aiming at the quintain

Another skill was to pick up rings with the lance, and to pin an object from the floor.

Trying to pick up a sponge from the ground with a spear at full gallop
Trying to pick up a sponge from the ground with a spear at full gallop (they mostly failed)

It was a popular sport with English nobility right up until 17th century, gaining more the status of a pageant, rather than training for battle.

And this is what we have today – a staged show, with knights in bright regalia, covering armour and horses, performing equestrian tricks and engaging in mock battles. The Knebworth House event had four knights from two opposing camps battling each other for the ‘Excalibur’ – pulled from a stone, obviously, by a little boy from the audience.

Jousting at Knebworth House

Jousting at Knebworth House

We were sitting by the side of the Black Knight – the ‘baddie’ of the show.

The Black Knight
The Black Knight

Lilia was very taken with him, and so was I, for his superb control of his horse, effortlessly doing sideways walks, prancing and charging from the spot, without obvious effort from the rider.

The Black Knight and his beautiful horse
The Black Knight and his beautiful horse

The Black Knight

He lost, however, being the ‘bad guy’… Lilia insisted on watching the second show of the day, hoping for a different outcome, – no such luck, the second performance was exactly the same as the first one.

The Black Knight lost!
The Black Knight lost!

The entertainment was excellent – watch out for jousting events throughout the country in summer. Lilia certainly wants to see it again (hoping for the Black Knight to win….)

  

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Chiswick House

In the beginning of 17th century the aristocratic Boyle family bought an estate in Chiswick with a large Jacobean house, as a summer retreat. It caught fire in 1725, and the head of the family, Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington, decided to build a new ‘villa’ in the grounds.

Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington
Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington

As the name suggests, it was not to be an ordinary English house. It was to be a Roman Villa – a masterpiece of classical architecture, coming to England all the way from Italy’s lost Roman buildings.

Chiswick House
Chiswick House

Richard inherited his title and riches at the age of 10, and, like many of his contemporaries, devoted himself to arts, going on Grand Tour of Europe in 1714 – 1719, and another one later on. The new villa was to house his collection of paintings and furniture, which he brought back from his  travels. Lord Burlington regarded himself as an architect, and designed the house himself, based on his experiences in Italy and a substantial collection of books and drawings acquired there. Also in Italy he met his sidekick, a person who was to change the English garden design forever – William Kent.

William Kent
William Kent

Kent studied in Rome in the beginning of the 18th century. Having met Lord Burlington on his travels there, he secured a commission to work on the design of the house and gardens at his estate in Chiswick.

Chiswick House is a fine example of the Palladian Style – Lord Burlington was inspired by the recently published English translation of  The Four Books of Architecture by the 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio. In contrast to typical English Gothic style, this was all about classically proportioned geometric shapes and clear lines. The Dome, crowning Chiswick House, is a rare feature of domestic architecture, normally reserved for temples. The house is faced with Portland Stone, glowing brilliantly white in the sun.

Chiswick House
Chiswick House

 

The house was built between 1726 and 1729. Innovative and beautiful as it was, it was the gardens that made history.

 The formal Jacobean gardens of the Chiswick estate were replaced by the new ‘landscape’ style, as designed by William Kent. Being a painter and theatre set designer, Kent’s vision for the garden was derived from landscape paintings of the French artists Nicole Poussin and Claude Lorraine. It was all about the garden looking naturally beautiful, but every feature – either growing or man-made – carefully planned and in the right place, to achieve the most pleasing effect. The gardens included alleys shaded by trees, Ancient Greek statues, a lake and a cascade, as well as an obelisk and garden buildings, to evoke the appearance of Ancient Rome, combined with Lord Burlington’s Whig ideals.

 Chiswick House

The Ionic Temple survives from Lord Burlington’s times. It takes inspiration from either Pantheon in Rome, or the Temple of Romulus.

Ionic Temple
Ionic Temple

 Both Lord Burlington and William Kent were keen on theatre, and theatrical design is reflected in a semi-circular hedge, known as the Exedra. The actors are the Roman statues. Kent’s originals were ‘identified’ by the writer Daniel Defoe  as Ceasar (the one who invaded Britain), Pompey (responsible for the decline of the Roman Republic) and the philosopher Cicero. The Exedra also featured poets Horace, Homer and Virgil, and the philosopher Socrates.  The current ones are reproductions – the originals are inside the house.

Exedra
Exedra

 The lake was created in 1727 by widening an existing brook. 

Chiswick House lake
Chiswick House lake

Kent’s Cascade – the two level waterfall – graces the end of it which is closest to the garden. The hill was made by piling the soil from the lake, and this created an elevated walkway above the cascade, affording views of the estate and the nearby River Thames. We climbed it, but could not see anything due to trees and hedges…..

Cascade
Cascade

  Lord Burlington died in 1753, the estate passed to his daughter Charlotte, who had married William Cavendish, 4th Duke of Devonshire. It was their son William, the 5th Duke, who make the next major mark on the estate. His claim to fame is his famous wife Georgiana,

Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire
Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, by Joshua Reynolds

She loved Chiswick House and referred to it as her ‘earthly paradise’. The house was extended to provide accommodation for prominent members of the Whig party, aristocrats, writers and artists partying in the house and gardens. Georgiana commissioned architect James Wyatt to design the Classical Bridge in 1774. The family added new wings, so that they could entertain a multitude of important guests, who, over the subsequent years, included a couple of Russian Tsars, Queen Victoria and Print Albert, the musician Handel, the politician Charles James Fox.

bridge Chiswick House 

Georgiana’s son, the Bachelor Duke (he never married, despite being one of the richest and most eligible men in England at the time), bought an adjourning estate, and in 1813 a conservatory went up, with a walled garden at the back and an Italian garden in the front.

Chiswick House Conservatory
Chiswick House Conservatory

His menagerie included an elephant, elks, emus, kangaroos and an Indian bull.

Tribute to the Duke's elephant
Tribute to the Duke’s elephant

 

The conservatory housed England’s earliest collection of camellias.

Camellias in 2017
Camellias in 2017

 After his death the family rented the estate to a number of tenants, who included the Prince of Wales in 1870s. Between 1892 and 1928 it became the Chiswick Asylum for wealthy patients. In 1929 Chiswick House was sold to Middlesex County Council, who raised funds by public subscription – among the subscribers was King George V. It became a view station during World War II and suffered bomb damage, resulting with a couple of wings having to be removed in the 1950s.

It is now managed by  the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust, formed in 2005 by Hounslow Council and English Heritage, and is an excellent day out experience for the whole family.

Chiswick House Chiswick House Chiswick House Chiswick House