Just feast your eyes on this house, would you?
(Ashcombe House, Wiltshire. Former home
of Cecil Beaton, current home of Guy Ritchie.
Photographed by Tim Walker.)
I've harbored a fascination with it ever since I read Cecil Beaton's memoir about living there, called "Ashcombe: Story of a Fifteen Year Lease." It was love at first sight when he first visited it with Rex Whistler, Stephen Tomlin and Edith Olivier. They almost didn't find it, however. As Beaton tells it:
We motored along the main road...then suddenly turned off to circle through narrow lanes.... The pathways became rough and overgrown, and a few rabbits bolted at our approach.
"It can't possibly be this way. Nobody would live up here", remarked Rex. We found ourselves mooring over the side of the downs at a perilous angle.
Eventually they arrived at their destination.
None of us uttered a word as we.... stood before a small, compact house of lilac-colored brick. We inhaled sensuously the strange, haunting - and rather haunted - atmosphere of the place.
After a tour of the grounds, they made their way back to their motor car:
It was as if I had been touched on the head by a magic wand. Some people may grow to love their homes; my reaction was instantaneous. This house must belong to me.
By all accounts, Beaton spent his happiest years at Ashcombe. He held legendary garden parties there called fete champetres (literally, "country feasts") which involved his guests dressing up in their finest gowns, drinking champagne, declaiming poetry and running barefoot at midnight along the rolling downs.
They were heady years. Beaton enlisted the talents of his artist friends to help him redecorate the place, painting an extravagant circus mural in his bedroom.
(Decorating Beaton's bedroom at Ashcombe, 1931.
Group includes Lord Berners, Rex Whistler and Oliver Messel.
From this book.)
There was always a project going on. One summer, they filmed an amateur movie with Beaton in the lead.
(Ashcombe, 1935. From same book as above.)
And how's this for a lovely token of friendship? Before his guests left his house for the first time, Beaton made them trace the outlines of their hands on his bathroom wall. As he recalled:
By degrees an extraordinary collection was achieved. As one lay sousing in hot water, one could ruminate on the characteristic traits shown in these significant and life-like shapes and the choice of position or proximity to others chosen by their owners on the wall.
In 2005, Ashcombe was photographed by Tim Walker for Vogue when Madonna lived there and I always thought she did a wonderful job retaining the spirit of the place, as evidenced in a few photos here:
And I would love to have a fete champetre, wouldn't you? So many summer outfits seem to languish in one's closets just waiting for an invitation to be seen. And gardens provide the perfect backdrop for Arcadian glamour. Gossamer silk against velvety flowers, a well-cut linen suit framed by tangled vines -- it's that age-old juxtaposition of refinement and unruliness.
Maybe that's why I've held onto this picture of Chloe Sevigny for so long. Photographed in her city garden in Manhattan, it nonetheless captures the spirit of a fete champetre in full bloom, don't you think?
(Cover of House and Garden, January 2007)
Come on, who's going to have one first?