The Story of an English Country House

When I enter the gates of Althorp I feel an enormous sense of warmth, the classic Englishness of the park enveloping me in its natural beauty, looking close to perfection at all times of the year.

I cannot decide whether it looks better in February, the trees’ branches standing stark and frosted; in May, when the greens of the different leaves have their contrasting hues; or in September, the thick sunlight in the heavy autumnal air

Charles Spencer, Althorp: The Story of an English House

Gates within the Park under dappled evening sunlight

Charles, 9th Earl Spencer, has a deep love and knowledge of Althorp and, as one might expect from one who has written numerous books on history, he has also published a fascinating account of his ancestral home. We are sponsoring Lord Spencer’s talk at the Althorp Literary Festival this year which on the subject of Althorp and so it seems appropriate that we should examine his own published guide to one of England’s greatest stately homes.

The relevance to the Althorp Living History collection is evident on almost every page. Throughout are references to the furnishings and rooms that have evolved with the individual personalities who have lived and visited the Estate in the 500 years since it was built.

Take the Wootton Hall Chairs for example. Charles Spencer writes:

The handsome hall chairs – a set of a dozen – are not upholstered, since the family’s visitors would have braved all types of weather on their journey on horseback, and there was no point in having quality fabric ruined by damp or muddy coats.

They are my favourite pieces of furniture in the house, the griffin from the family coat of arms painted boldly on their backs against a cool grey-blue background.

The Wootton Hall with the mahogany hall chairs in situ

Personal histories and insights into previous owners include a touching account of the ‘Red Earl’s’ best loved foxhound, Forager, who has in turn been immortalized by Theodore Alexander. The ‘Red Earl’ is the popular name for John, 5th Earl Spencer who cultivated a luxuriant red beard. According to Charles Spencer:

The Red Earl was an exceptionally keen foxhunter, being master of the Pytchley Hounds, on which he spent enormous sums…  A particular pleasure for him was having his favourite foxhound ‘forager’ being voted the best foxhound in England.

There cannot be many other later eighteenth century dogs whose master had their likeness cast, lifesized, in bronze. He stands today in the Billiard Room at Althorp, tail erect, waiting in vain for someone to score a century break.

Forager as pictured in 'Althorp: Story of an English House'

John Charles, 3rd Earl Spencer’s most significant contribution to the art collection at Althorp were a number of pictures of his prize bulls. These fine paintings have been relocated to the Sunderland Room, where they hang near the medals that were won by these beasts. Althorp Living History has a number of these paintings reproduced in pairs with names true to the originals.

The original paintings of John Charles, 3rd Earl Spencer's prize bulls

Our final reference is to the Green Passage. Originally part of an exterior courtyard, it was added by architect Henry Holland in the late 18th century. In the image below, taken from the book, we can see a parquetry court cabinet that is available through Althorp Living History and also the famous Washington Chest in the foreground.

The Green Passage at Althorp

The Althorp Literary Festival will take place on Friday 10, Saturday 11 and Sunday 12 June 2011.

Lok out for more extracts and a review of the Festival later in June.

To view the entire Althorp Living History Collection click here.

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