Treasure Houses of britain: Althorp & BOUGHTON HOUSE
By Cosmo Brockway
With more and more travellers choosing a staycation this year and discovering lesser-known parts of the UK we are exploring some hidden gems. We travelled to the beautiful county of Northamptonshire, with its rolling hills, golden church spires and the largest market square in the country. It is also home to two of Britain’s greatest treasure houses, the historic homes of Althorp and Boughton House. Between them, these two palaces have some of the finest art and antiques in the land and we visited to discover more.
Most famous in modern imagination as the family home of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, Althorp has had a place in national heritage for centuries as the seat of 19 generations of the famed Spencer family. Nestled in a 450 acre walled estate 6 miles from Northampton (home of the above market square), the house was built in 1688 as a red brick ‘classically beautiful’ building. It was radically altered by the 18th-century Earls Spencer into the golden-stone house seen today, the work of architect Henry Holland, who was the designer of choice for the aristocracy. The grand hall, called ‘the noblest Georgian room in the county’, was the setting for entertainment and another renowned daughter of the house was Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire – portrayed by actress Keira Knightley in the film, The Duchess.
Over 90 rooms are filled with matchless works of art and furniture, despite the house being plagued by sales over the last century. Visitors can stand at the splendid oak staircase once played on by the young Princess Diana, and with an original 19th century Smyrna carpet, and gaze up at a lifesize portrait of the late princess. Spot the statues rescued from the silt of Rome’s River Tiber and given to the 1st Duke of Marlborough.
The Great Dining room, hung with rich red damask silk, has always been used as a ballroom (its Italian floor used for tap dancing by the young Diana) while the picture gallery stretches for 115 feet and is lined with masterpieces. Look out for Van Dyke’s dazzling ‘War & Peace’ and admire the scalloped frames made on the continent for the gallery. There are paintings of both Charles I and Oliver Cromwell on the walls – a great example of portrait diplomacy!
The library, a favourite room of the present owner, the author Charles Spencer, has lit up the cover of The World of Interiors, with its scarlet leather seating, 10,000 books and air of much-loved family sitting room.
The Oak bedroom, with its deep-blue velvet bed embroidered with crowned ‘S’, sheltered Sir Winston Churchill while he wrote a history of the family. It was also the setting for the secret marriage of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire’s parents – one of many fascinating stories the house’s rooms hold. The grounds, which have recently re-opened to visitors, were landscaped in the 1660’s by Andre Le Notre and hold delights such as the mustard-yellow stable block in the Palladian style, marvellous trees and a lakeside temple inscribed with Diana’s name.
Just over 40 minutes drive away from Althorp is another of Northamptonshire’s prize houses, Boughton House. The home of the Dukes of Buccleuch since the late 17th century, Boughton is known as ‘the English Versailles’, and, indeed, it is said that the Curator of Louvre once apologised to a visiting Duke of Buccleuch for the quality of his furniture next to Boughton’s! The house’s builder, the 1st Duke of Montagu, had a passion for Huguenot artisans and many of them worked on his rural creation, hence the French influence that is so beguiling at first sight. Decades of neglect have allowed some of the best-preserved baroque staterooms in the British Isles to remain intact, one of the many reasons Boughton is such a jewel.
A wartime guest, the diarist Chips Channon, described it as; “a dream house with a strange, sleepy quality, but its richness, its beauty and possessions are stupefying. Everything belonged to Charles I, or Marie de Medici, or was given by Louis XIV to the Duke of Monmouth… There are 72 miles of drives in the park… The long view from the terrace here is like a Claude Lorrain… But it is the stillness, the curious quiet of Boughton that impresses the most.” These words still hold true today and visitors fall under its spell without fail. From the marvellous furniture by master maker André-Charles Boulle, to masterpieces by El Greco, Gainsborough and Van Dyke along with glorious rugs from Persian empire, Boughton is a palace in every sense.
The gardens are equal to the house with their Grand Étang, or ‘large lake’, recreated from a long-vanished water feature, and sporting a 75 ft tall water jet while reflecting the house. Now a well-loved family home again, Boughton is a must visit for anyone interested in culture, history and beauty.