Wednesday, March 31, 2010

I've been to a marvellous party...

Sir Noel Coward (16 December 1899 – 26 March 1973) was an English playwright, composer, director, actor and singer; known for his wit, flamboyance, and what Time magazine called "a sense of personal style: a combination of cheek and chic, pose and poise".

Born in Teddington, London, Coward attended a dance academy in London as a child, making his professional stage début at the age of eleven. As a teenager he was introduced into the high society in which most of his plays would be set. Coward achieved enduring success as a playwright, publishing more than 50 plays from his teens onwards. Many of his works, such as Private Lives, Brief Encounter, Blithe Spirit, and Design for Living, have remained in the regular theatre repertoire. He composed hundreds of songs, in addition to well over a dozen musicals (including the operetta Bitter Sweet), poetry, several volumes of short stories, the novel Pomp and Circumstance, and a three-volume autobiography. Coward's stage and film acting and directing career spanned six decades, during which he starred in many of his own works.

At the outbreak of WWII, Coward volunteered for war work, running the British propaganda office in Paris. He also worked with the Secret Service, seeking to use his influence to persuade the American public and government to help Britain.

Coward won an Academy Honorary Award in 1943 for his naval film drama, In Which We Serve, and was knighted in 1969. In the 1950s he achieved fresh success as a cabaret performer, performing his own songs, such as Mad Dogs and Englishmen, London Pride, Mrs Worthington, Nina, and I went to a Marvellous Party.

Above: The trailer for Brief Encounter

Below: The trailer for The Astonished Heart

His plays and songs achieved new popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, and his work and style continue to influence popular culture. Coward did not publicly acknowledge his homosexuality, but it was discussed candidly after his death by biographers including Graham Payn, his long-time partner, and in Coward's diaries and letters, (published posthumously). The former Albery Theatre (originally the New Theatre) in London was renamed the Noel Coward Theatre in his honour in 2006.

Whilst listening to his song "I've been to a Marvellous Party", I was intrigued by the line " Laura got blind on Dubonnet and Gin". I had never tried Dubonnet before. So we went on a trip to our obliging little merchant in the high street, obtained this quaint drop, and promptly mixed up the said tipple: and it was smashing! Far easier to drink than a martini, though it probably doesn't have the same connotations. It is probably more along the lines of a pink Gin, which has the reputation of being a lady's drink (much to the chagrin to many men who have a more refined palate).

Below: The lyrics to Coward's song (the lyrics don't scan well, but when you listen to the recordings you'll see how they fit).

I Went To A Marvellous Party

I must say it's the most extraordinary experience
not everybody I suppose....
it's something to do with the sun and all that
but I wouldn't understand myself really and I'm not sure its even legal

You know quite for no reason I'm here for the season
and high as a kite
Living in error with Maud at Cap Ferrar which couldn't be right
Everyone's here and frightfully gay nobody cares what people say
Though the French Riviera seems really much queerer than Rome at its height
On Wednesday night I went to a marvellous party
With Nunu and Nada and Nell
It was in the fresh air and we went as we were
and we stayed as we were - which was hell
Poor Grace started singing at midnight
and she didn't stop singing til four
We knew the excitement was bound to begin
when Laura got blind on Dubonnet and Gin
And scratched her veneer with a Cartier pin

I couldn't have liked it more…

I've been to a marvellous party. We played a wonderful game.
Maureen disappeared and came back in a beard and we all had to guess at her name. Cecil arrived wearing armour, some shells and a black feather boa.
Poor Millicent wore a surrealist comb
made of bits of mosaic from St Peters in Rome
but the weight was so great that she had to go home -
well I couldn't have liked it more..

I've been to a marvellous party. I must say the fun was intense.
We all had to do what the people we knew
might be doing 100 years hence.
We talked about growing old gracefully
and Elsie who's 74 said a) it's a question of being sincere
and b) if you're supple you've got nothing to fear
then she swung upside down from a chandelier -
and I couldn't have liked it more..

It was the most fabulous excitement, I've never seen such a carry on
obviously it couldn't happen anywhere else but on the Riviera it was most peculiar..
You know people's behaviour
away from Belgravia would make you aghast.
So much variety watching society scampering past…
You know if you had any mind at all, Gibbons divine 'Decline and Fall'
well it sounds pretty flimsy no more than a whimsy
by way of contrast on Wednesday last…

I went to a marvellous party we didn't sit down til ten.
Y'know young Bobby Carr did a stunt at the bar with a lot of extraordinary men.
And then Freda arrived with a turtle
which shattered us all to the core.
And then the Duchess passed out at a quarter to three
and suddenly Cyril cried 'fiddle-de-de'
and he ripped off his trousers and jumped in the sea -
I couldn't have liked it more..

I've been to a marvellous party - Elise made an entrance with May.
You'd never have guessed from her fisherman's vest
that her bust had been whittled away.
Poor Lulu got fried on chianti and talked about esprit de corps.
Louise made a couple of passes at Gus
and Freddy who hates any kind of a fuss
did half the big apple and twisted his truss
HA HA! ... I couldn't have liked it more!

Above: Beatrice Lillie's Period Version

Below: A modern version of I Went to a Marvellous Party

The song was written about the "bright young people", the sobriquet given to a group of young aristocrats and socialites in late 1920s London. They threw elaborate fancy dress parties, went on elaborate treasure hunts through night-time London, drank heavily and experimented with drugs -- all of which was enthusiastically covered by the press.

They inspired a number of writers, including Nancy Mitford ("Highland Fling"), Anthony Powell ("A Dance to the Music of Time"), Henry Green ("Party Going") and the poet John Betjeman ("A Subaltern's Love Song"), and Evelyn Waugh ("Vile Bodies"). Cecil Beaton began his career in photography by documenting this set, of which he was a member.

This group inspired the film "Bright Young Things", which features many of their crazy antics.

Anyway, back to that Dubonnet...

Dubonnet was first sold in 1846 by Joseph Dubonnet, in response to a competition run by the French authorities to find a way of persuading French Foreign Legionnaires in North Africa to drink quinine.

The late Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, was partial to her Dubonnet and Gin. Her recipe was 1 part gin, 2 parts Dubonnet with a slice of lemon under the ice. She even instructed her loyal steward to bring it on certain outings. Below is a hand written note from The Queen Mother to her steward...

The Queen is also partial to Dubonnet and Gin, having it as her regular pre-lunch tipple. She also carries a flask of it where ever she goes (well, someone else carries it for her). I'm not sure whether the tradition stems from the fact that the Monarch had to be protected at all times from poisoning, or whether she just really likes the uplifting mixture.

Some more Noel Coward classics...


If love were all

Mrs Worthington

Mad about the boy

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Great Country Estates of Britain Series. Part Seven: Waddesdon Manor ( inc. Parterres, and Aviaries) ...

Waddesdon Manor is a country house built on a hilltop overlooking Waddesdon village, Buckinghamshire. The house was built in the Neo-Renaissance style of many French chateaux between 1874 and 1889 for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild (1839–1898), who was a member of the Rothschild banking dynasty.

Above: Waddesdon Manor by Photographer David Henderson

It was designed by Gabriel-Hippolyte Destailleur. The last member of the Rothschild family to own Waddesdon was James de Rothschild. He bequeathed the house and its contents to The National Trust in 1957. In 2007–08 Waddesdon was the National Trust's second most visited paid-entry property, with 386,544 visitors. Today, following an extensive restoration, it is administered by the Rothschild Charitable Trust that is overseen by Jacob de Rothschild (The 4th Baron Rothschild).

The 1st Baron wanted a house in the style of the great Renaissance Chateaux of the Loire Valley. Destailleur was already experienced in working in this style, having overseen the restoration of many châteaux in that region, in particular that of Chateau de Mouchy. Through Destailleur's vision, Waddesdon embodied an eclectic style based on the châteaux so admired by his patron.

The towers at Waddesdon were based on those of Chateau de Maintenon, and the twin staircase towers, on the north facade, were inspired by the staircase tower at Chateau de Chambord (However, following the theme of unparalleled luxury at Waddesdon, the windows of the towers at Waddesdon were glazed, unlike those of the staircase at Chambord. They are also far more ornate).

Above and below: The Famous Staircases

The structural design of Waddesdon, however, was not all retrospective. Hidden from view were the most modern innovations of the late 19th century including a steel frame, which took the strain of walls on the upper floors, which consequently permitted the layout of these floors to differ completely from the lower floors. The house also had hot and cold running water in its bathrooms, central heating, and an electric bell system to summon the numerous servants.

Once his château was complete, Baron Ferdinand installed his extensive collections of French 18th-century tapestries, boiseries, furniture, china, paintings and renaissance object d'art. Extensive landscaping was carried out and the gardens enhanced with statuary, pavillions and an aviary. The beautiful Proserpina fountain (below) was brought to the manor at the end of 1800 from the Palace of the Dukes of Parma in northern Italy.

The grounds were laid out by the French landscape architect Laine. An attempt was made to transplant fully-grown trees by chloroforming their roots, to limit the shock. While this novel idea was unsuccessful, many very large trees were successfully transplanted, causing the grounds to be such a wonder of their day that, in 1890, Queen Victoria invited herself to view them. The Queen was, however, more impressed by the electric lighting in the house than the wonders of the park. Fascinated by the invention she had not seen before, she is reported to have spent ten minutes switching a newly electrified 18th-century chandelier on and off.

When Baron Ferdinand died in 1898, the house passed to his sister, Alice de Rothschild, who further developed the collections. Baron Ferdinand's collection of Renaissance works and a collection of arms were both bequeathed to the British museum as "The Waddesdon Bequest".

Waddesdon, as with many of the country houses during WWII, was used to house evacuee children from London.

Following Alice de Rothschild's death in 1922, the property and collections passed to her great-nephew, James de Rothschild of the French branch of the family, who further enriched it with objects from the collections of his late father Baron Edmond James de Rothschild.

When James de Rothschild died in 1957, he bequeathed Waddesdon Manor, 200 acres of grounds, and its contents to the National Trust, to be preserved for posterity. The Trust also received their largest ever endowment from him: £750,000 (£13,012,710 as of 2010).

Jacob Rothschild, 4th Lord Rothschild, has recently been a major benefactor of Waddesdon Manor through The Alice Trust, headed by the Rothschild family. In an unprecedented arrangement, he was given authority by the National Trust in 1993 to run Waddesdon Manor as a semi-independent operation. The Trust has overseen a major restoration, and enhanced the visitor attractions. The Alice Trust has also acquired works of art to complement the existing collections at Waddesdon, such as Le Faiseur de Châteaux de Cartes by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, added in 2007.

In a burglary on 10 June 2003 by The Johnson Gang, approximately 100 priceless French gold snuff boxes and bejewelled trifles were stolen from the collection. None of them were recovered intact, though fragments of a few were found amid melted gold in the burnt wreckage of a motor vehicle close to the Manor. These irreplaceable artefacts, many encrusted with diamonds, had belonged to, among others, Marie Antoinette and Madame de Pompadour.

Here are a few of my favourite boxes, which sadly are no longer extent. For a full catalog of the missing boxes click here.

Several films have been shot at Waddesdon Manor, including The Queen, in which the interiors and the gardens doubled for Buckingham Palace.

Above: A plan of Waddesdon's ground floor.

1:Vestibule; 2:Entrance Hall, 3 Red Drawing room; 4:Grey Drawing Room; 5:Library; 6:Baron's Sitting room; 7:Morning Room; 8:West Hall; 9:West Gallery; 10:East Gallery; 11:Dining Room; 12:Conservatory; 13:Breakfast Room; 14:Kitchen; 15:Servant's Hall; 16:Housekeeper's Rooms; 17:Site of further servants quarters (not illustrated); 18:Terrace and parterre; 19 North Drive; St:Staircases.


A parterre is a formal garden constructed on a level surface consisting of garden beds, edged in stone or tightly clipped hedging, and gravel paths arranged to form a pleasing, usually symmetrical pattern. Parterres don't need to have flower beds, although many do.

French parterres were elaborated out of 16th-century knot gardens.

This art form reached a climax at the Chateau de Versailles and its many European followers, such as Kensington Palace (below).

Waddesdon boasts many splendid examples of parterres...

The Aviary

Waddeson also has a lovely aviary. It was completed in 1889 by an unknown architect. Baron Ferdinand wanted it as a reminder of the aviary he had grown up with in his childhood home, the Villa Grüneburg outside Frankfurt. It is made of cast-iron in the style of a rococo trelliage pavilion, such as those erected at Versailles and Chantilly in the early eighteenth-century.

Among the bird species that are successfully bred there, are the Pekin Robin, Silver-Eared Mesia, Grosbeak Starling, Snowy-Crowned Robin Chat and Bearded Barbet. In addition, the White Bellied Go-Away bird and Sumatran White Crested Laughing Thrush are thought to be the first breedings in the UK.

New arrivals in the aviary include White Crested and Fischer's Touraco from Africa, Yellow Throated Laughing Thrush from China (critically endangered), Chestnut Backed Thrush from Indonesia, White Collared Yuhina from China and Fairy Bluebird from South East Asia.

We will have a similarly designed aviary at Willowbrook, although it will not be home to any endangered species. The 2 part structure will have exotic birds in one end section, a chicken, quail, and guinea fowl house in the middle section, and a pheasant house in the other end section. Once the young are successfully bred (e.g. pheasant chicks) they will be released into the hedgerows around the park to get on with their business in the wild.

Aviaries and menageries were very popular in Victorian and Edwardian times.
Here are a few paintings which use them as their subjects...

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