It has been almost thirty years since I last visited Blenheim Palace, and it brought back a wonderful whirl of happy memories. Fourteen of us were ostensibly in Woodstock for a week devoted to flower arranging with Sheila Macqueen, the florist whose credentials included designing Westminster Abbey for Queen Elizabeth’s wedding. Aaah, the journeys that life affords us…could I have had any idea that I would someday be living in Newport, home to the 9th Duchess of Marlborough, born Consuelo Vanderbilt, and the chatelaine of Blenheim Palace?
Blenheim is a breathtaking example of majestic architecture made all the more dramatic with an entry court embraced by vast wings. A gift from England to John Churchill, first Duke of Marlborough, to celebrate his decisive victory over the French in the War of the Spanish Succession, the Palace was designed in 1722 by Sir John Vanbrugh.
Its siting is within a parkland of 2,000 acres created by Capability Brown from 1764-1774, the visionary master who is justly famous for introducing the “natural landscape” phase of English garden history. On an early morning walk, complete with English mist, I captured this image that was considered (by King George III) to be “the finest view in England…” across the manmade lake, with the Palace at the far left and the stone bridge at the far right. It is noteworthy that this landscape has remained largely untouched since it’s design 250 years ago.
And nestling within the private side of the Palace is an Italian knot garden, designed in the 1920s, that is a feast for the eyes.
But it is the interiors of the Palace that is our focus, dressed as they are for Christmas with a very whimsical theme, “Alice in the Palace,” a play on Alice in Wonderland (dare I say very timely, given that politics and Breixit are commanding all the headlines).
Trees, in gilded urns, were lavished in the hallways
as well as the extravagant rooms designed with marble, painted murals, carved stone and gold boiserie.
Mushrooms and flowers take up a corner of the room dedicated to the very large John Singer Sargent portrait of the 9th Duke of Marlborough and his Duchess, Consuelo Vanderbilt, and their “heir and a spare.” The marriage in 1895 included a dowry of almost $100 million (in today’s money) making possible extensive repairs and refurbishments of this, the only non-royal house in England to hold the title of palace. Of course, the American dollars were also used to update rooms in the fashion of the time (as below) with red silk damask walls and gilded French boiserie.
The grand finale of “Alice in the Palace” was saved for the impressively vast 184 ‘ long library (the second longest of any private house in the UK). Running almost the entire length was a Tea Party Table to end all tea parties (this is, after all, Alice in Wonderland’s story), with pastel lights changing the spaces into fanciful apparitions.
With gold ballroom chairs, tea cups in myriad shapes and designs,
confections of every color, and a gracious selection of multi-tiered, topsy turvy cakes as the ultimate centerpieces.
What a wonderful preamble to Christmas! You leave imbued with a refreshing sense of whimsy and playfulness, adding a new dimension to one of England’s largest homes that is almost three hundred years old.