Monday, July 13, 2009

Off The Beaton Path

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?


Jane said...

Yes I think whoever did the house for Madonna (I suspect she just signed the cheques - oh cynical me) did a great job and how fantastic it is lived in and not a museum or hotel or something dead and historical. I930's England is in my top 5 favourite periods ever. The Mitford sisters, Evelyn Waugh, Noel Coward plays, Margot Fonteyn dancing in the Sleeping Princess, house parties at Cliveden, Winston Churchill, the dining room at White's in St James, plus the fashion and of course that Beaton style, it had it all. I suspect however that many knew it was not going to last and they were making the most of their time. Hence all the louche lounging and looking casual as if they had all the time in the world.

pve design said...

You must have a photo shoot at your home, my dear friend, the photographer, elizabeth -could shoot you, oh that sounded all wrong indeed, but your black tie ball gowns and wellies and your son would rock the lens. She captures such divinity. Perhaps you could keep her in stitches.
The divine Italian could be preparing sustenance during the photo shoot...these things take patience.
Of course, I prefer the path less beaton...oh, I meant more beaton....his color sense has long inspired me.

Style Court said...

One of my all-time favorite H & G covers. David did such a great job with Chloe's home.

Laura said...

I recall that shoot of her home in Vogue (and recall loving it)! And having just returned from a true English country experience I so appreciate you transporting me back there once again to enjoy it for just a bit longer. I think that you should demand that dress off of Ms. Sevigny and don it for your own garden party...

Toby Worthington said...

How pleasant to re-visit Ashcombe this morning.
That slender book is one of my favourites. But I don't think that could possibly be Cecil Beaton ready for his close-up, as the caption states.

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Jane: Of course you've read Waugh's "Bright Young Things", right? The movie is lovely, too, I thought.

PVE: How I wish!!

Style Court: Your design library must be wildly extensive...oh, for a peek at it!

Laura: As soon as the weather cools down a bit, I'm thinking of having one...I hope you had a wonderful time in England. xx

Toby Worthington: You're right! It's not Beaton, it's David Sutro. My mistake. I made my assumption from the caption in the "Beaton Portraits" book, but I just checked "Ashcombe" and it clearly states that David Sutro is seated. So thank you, I so appreciate your unerring eye!

wild thyme flowers said...

Hi Lisa, We must be on the same wavelength this week as my lastest post is also about "a fete champetres" -- but a wedding feast. Also, thoroughly enjoying The Cecil Beaton Diaries you recommended. Thank you very much.

ArchitectDesign™ said...

I loved this book -read it earlier this summer. It made me want to get a little country place of my very own!

P.Gaye Tapp at Little Augury said...

I look forward to reading this treasure- it is on the list. Reading Beaton's grocery list would be delightful. As with all he did-he embraced & his originality reigned. It seems as with all Madonna does in house-though it may adhere to what is appropriate-it is just her English phase-with Beaton it was a 15 year lease and a passion. la

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

WIld Thyme: So funny...I just posted on your blog about our "fete champetres" coincidence.

Architect Design: Of COURSE you have read "Ashcombe"...I would have been shocked if you hadn't!

Little Augury: I agree that reading Beaton's grocery list would be lovely. "Greengages/parsnips/grouse/Berry Brothers wine/Fortnum and Mason jam/Devonshire cream" etc, etc, etc!

Nell said...

Ashcombe is a favorite book. While Beaton's descriptions of scenes, people, and domestic adventures yield great vicarious pleasures, it might be the acute sense of loss when time and the lease ran out that is most palpable. Houses really are living "beings." With Bloomsbury writer and artist tomes, Mitfordania, Provincial Lady in her witty entirety, and newish discovery Angela Thirkell stacked and piled on my bookshelves, I am a (relatively new) admirer of ABL and your lovely writing and interesting discoveries, Lisa. Thanks.

Pimm's and Lemonade said...

Thanks for this delightful post. Have you seen this Telegraph article by Hugo Vickers about Beaton, Ashcombe and the cantankerous Hugh Borley, owner of Ashcombe before and after they leased the house to Cecil Beaton?

Now I must read "Grand Meaulnes"...

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Nell:I so agree with you that it's that palpable sense of loss which so heavily colors "Ashcombe" and makes reading the book feel almost like an elegy to a house, albeit a still-standing one.

Love "Provincial Lady." Just bought a book by her daughter called (no surprise), "Provincial Daughter" which purports to be a light-hearted continuation of her mother's books. Angela Thirkell intrigues me. Haven't read her yet. Please check in with me when you do. I'm very curious. xx

Pimm's and Lemonade: You're one of my favorite drinks, for starters. And I desperately want to read "Grand Meaulnes" too. It's in the air, I the last three weeks, that book has come up in conversation or on the web countless times. Can't believe I hadn't heard of it before.

Clarity said...

I forgot how evocative a writer Beaton was, when he wanted to be. How lushly simplistic his home is, just on the right side of stately but not too much. That's my favourite Beaton period, the black and white, slightly askance one.

CashmereLibrarian said...

Wow, I've just added to my booklist. Funny the Grand Meaulnes is mentioned. I read it in college, in French, and thus remember it very vaguely. Must find an English translation!
Lovely post as usual, Lisa.

Diane Dorrans Saeks said...


The classical exterior of Ashcombe suggests rather grand rooms--and the interior now is quite farmhous-y and wet welly-ish and tweedy.

Question: is the plural of grouse grice--as in 'I would like to order a brace of grice' kind sir?

roger said...

Visit - as you'd all love to see the designs Cecil Beaton did for fashion which are now available as interiors fabrics - the second collection based on his fashion sketches is coming out in september 2009 as part of the London Design Festival and Hugo Vickers is giving a lecture on Beaton's life and work...

vicki archer said...

I am a huge fan of Tim Walker and I loved the shoot he did with Madonna at Ashcombe House. He manages to combine all the best elements - something wacky, some elegance, a wonderful landscape and the best fashion. Those images were no exception, xv.

style chronicle said...

Beautiful, beautiful photo of Chloe Sevigny. I loved that H & G cover. Thanks for bringing it back. Lovely post!

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Clarity and Diane: Beaton added ornamental details to the exterior of the house, which definitely are in stark contrast to the simple, homey interior you see in the photos.

And Diane: Apparently, in a stunning act of non-rational thinking, the plural of "grouse" is "grouses", making the "mouse/mice" pairing all the more confounding!

CashmereLibrarian: Hmmm, it appears that lots of interesting people have read "Grand Meaulnes." Must get on it.

Roger: LOVE those fabrics!! Thanks for including the link for others who may be interested!

Vicki: I am with you on Tim Walker. There is NO ONE like him. I desperately want his huge photography book -- do you have it?

Style Chronicle: That cover appears to have been a favorite of many, myself included! xx


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