Monday, 17 May 2010

Montacute House

The other day I went to Montacute House, near Yeovil in Somerset, with my mother and grandmother. It's an excellent place, and if you find yourself in Somerset I strongly advise giving it a look. It has two very good things about it. First, the house itself, a lovely late Elizabethan construction built out of the local hamstone (named after Ham Hill, where it's quarried), a sort of warm honeycomb-coloured limestone. It's really beautiful, very harmoniously designed, set in parkland so that you are presented with vistas in all directions, over formal gardens to gently rolling hills. The rooms are lovely, with panelling and carved fireplaces, and windows set in diamond lights between lead. You couldn't want to live there in the present day, but I found it hard not to long to live there properly, in the seventeenth century, playing shuttlecock in the immense Great Gallery on wet days, singing catches with the family after dinner, and sleeping in a bed with wooden doors. The grounds look lovely too, but my grandma is in a wheelchair most of the time, and getting round the house was quite enough of a challenge for her.

Secondly, it's a sort of outpost of the National Portrait Gallery. When the house was given to the National Trust some decades ago it was completely bare, and had in fact been sold for architectural salvage. They managed to pull together, mostly through loans, a good deal of appropriate furniture from the late Elizabethan period onwards, and they borrowed a very large number of portraits. They have occasional exhibitions there, and the current one was the main reason I had wanted to go. The National Portrait Gallery has a number of pictures which were bought as portraits of someone specific, and then later shown not to be that person, and so sit in the storage vaults being all anonymous. They got some famous authors to write very short stories inspired by some of these portraits, and these are on exhibition together there at present. (There's an accompanying book, called Imagined Lives: Mystery Portraits 1540-1640.) It was an enjoyable exhibition, but I was also really impressed by the other portraits on display there, also loaned from the NPG. The London galleries display material chosen as much for historical significance as quality, and this means that there is a lot of material not on display available for loan to Montacute, again chosen as much for historical meaning as for quality, but with a subtle difference in the historical criteria for selection. I really loved, for example, a group of monarch portraits hung in one of the rooms off the long gallery. This was put together to make an appropriate set at some point in the Jacobean era, but with many of the pictures from a late Elizabethan set. So it includes not only excellently archaic looking medieval kings but Anne Boleyn, presumably as a compliment to her daughter, and a wonderful angry-looking Mary Tudor. Here is that picture, copyright National Portrait Gallery from the NPG website, but you'd have to see it larger to really get the full effect of the subtly furious eyebrows and set mouth.

Also off the long gallery were three rooms containing Henrician, Elizabethan, and Jacobean portraits respectively, and there were some more down the length of the gallery (which is the longest such surviving). They're not quite the best pictures ever, not stand-alone masterpieces, and often attributed to a workshop, or an anonymous Dutch painter, or "after Holbein"; but they are not the sort of copies which take something well-balanced and bland it down, they're the sort of copies which take something well-balanced and slightly unbalance it. A lot of them are just a little bit wonky or exaggerated in a way that makes them look very modern, and gives them a Paula Rego-style ultra lucidity. There are oddly elongated faces, an emphasis on patterns, and bold shapes and colours, and a sense that everything's just very slightly off. It was one of those odd places that makes you feel inspired to write something, but you're not quite sure what. I think I might go back alone in the summer with an empty notebook and write a historical murder mystery about time-travelling aliens. Or my long-planned raunchy TV drama about the reign of James VI and I. There are excellent portraits there of a number of the main movers in those events, including a young intense-looking Prince Henry, and a wonderful picture of the 3rd earl of Essex, the man who was psychologically hammered in Frances Howard's racy annulment suit but whom she didn't quite manage to poison, looking all gauche and with a head too large for his body. Poor soul. He went on to be a great Parliamentarian general -- good for him.

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