Sunday, 9 October 2011

The King's Face

Around the walls of the small strongroom the subdued gleam of old silver reflected the modest light: salvers, platters, flagons, an enormous ice dish.

My attention was not however drawn to these trappings of opulent country-house entertaining so much as to the considerably smaller objects displayed in the cases occupying the centre of the room: coins and medallions that spanned just over two millennia, beginning with an ancient British gold (gold!) coin from about 65BC.

My wife and I were back yesterday in Osterley Park, which we visited a few weeks ago but this time we had arrived in time to go around the house, the weather being much more conducive to indoor browsing than the gentle warmth that had marked our previous trip and had been perfect for wandering in the spacious grounds.

We had spent the previous couple of hours in wonderment at the time and effort that Robert Adam had put in over a period of 17 years in remodelling a Tudor mansion into a gracious and refined villa for the Child banking family. Room after room showed borrowings from the decorative and architectural styles of several ancient civilisations, all integrated into harmonious schemes, none more impressive than the three state rooms designed for use by the monarch, should he or she ever be in the vicinity and need a bed for the night. At the time these particular rooms were created the throne was occupied by George III and his persistent ill health prevented his hobnobbing with the gentry. So it was that the rooms were never used for their intended purpose, although the Childs put them to work impressing actual and potential clients of their bank, making sure that their visitors absorbed the bank’s corporate ID by including the family’s emblem of the marigold in the decor at every available opportunity.

Visiting a National Trust property is a much more interactive experience than it was a couple of decades ago, with a choice of guidebook or audio-guide. Alternatively you can wander around with just a floor plan and quiz the volunteers who are to be found in each of the main rooms. This is what I like to do as you often hear facts, anecdotes and even speculations that do not make it into the more formal guides. There is however only so much one can take in on any one visit, so that by the time we reached the “downstairs” areas of the house, we were feeling a bit jaded and craving refreshment in the tea room that occupied the substantial converted stables a short walk from the house.

I am glad though that we lingered in the strongroom and found the coins: the few metres of display spanning so much history; the collection having been assembled by the 9th Earl of Jersey, the last family occupant of the house before it passed to the National Trust. My attention was drawn to a small gold coin about a third of the way along the cabinet, the monarch’s head on it not shown in profile, as has been usual from ancient times onwards, but rather full face, looking straight out at whoever gazed on the image. There was no mistaking the broad features and the suggestion of obesity: it was Henry VIII, among the most notorious of rulers and one whose life and activities still exert a compelling fascination. He used to scare me as a child as I imagined that no one could last very long in his company without being beheaded or at least imprisoned.

With images such as these he made sure his face was known to his subjects, although I imagine it would have been the more exalted of them that got to handle this particular coin. Alongside was  a piece of baser metal, the image stamped on it similarly unmistakable. I found myself wondering how many hands these now rare items had passed through and by what circumstances they had come to rest here in a cellar in West London within a stone’s throw of one of the busiest airports in the world, the thrum of traffic on the nearby M4 motorway constant just beyond the trees that shielded the house from wider view.

We made it to the stables in time for a much needed cup of tea and, in my case, extraordinarily good lemon drizzle cake; my wife had a scone and jam, always a favourite with her. Earlier we had learned that tea was originally the preserve of the rich, kept under lock and key and controlled by the lady of the house. It would typically cost £10 a pound, which by my very rough estimate would place it on a par with truffle or caviar today. It was said to have extraordinary life-enhancing, even life-prolonging powers. Come to think of it, we are still debating that.

Today we have had a good day with my son and his wife, taking advantage of the milder weather to walk by the river after lunch. They have been devouring The Sopranos several episodes at a time and have completed the first two seasons, which I only lent them as many weeks ago. As I have only just started the third season, they will have a bit of a wait before they can progress with the story of everyone’s favourite mobsters. I have therefore sought to distract them with the first five series of The West Wing. That should keep them quiet for a bit.

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