Firstly, I’m so thrilled about all the response to Muriel Spark Reading Week, which will thus definitely go ahead! More info on dates etc. when Harriet and I have conferred…
Secondly – I’m a bit wary about putting this blog post up… because I don’t have a copy of the book myself, and it’s so lovely that, if I can convey that even slightly, all the secondhand copies online will disappear. But I can’t afford the ones that are around now, so… I’ll just have to tell you about it, and cross my fingers that I stumble across an affordable copy somewhere. Sigh. Sometimes I love you guys too much for my own good.
Preamble over: the book is Ashcombe: The Story of a Fifteen-Year Lease (1949) by Cecil Beaton. I wanted to read it because Edith Olivier features a lot (she first told Beaton of the house) and so I sat in the Bodleian and read it. I also took lots of photos, but then I looked again at the photography permission form, and noticed that I’d promised not to publish any of them anywhere, including online. Oops. So I’ll have to see what pictures are available elsewhere. (This photo comes from here.)
Ashcombe is about a house of that name, inhabited by Cecil Beaton between 1931-1946… actually, shall I let Cecil Beaton explain the book himself? He kindly does so in a Preface:
My tenure of Ashcombe House began with new year of a new decade – the fatal decade of the nineteen-thirties. “The thirties”, years marked by economic collapse, the rise of Hitler and the wars in China and in Spain, were essentially different in character from their notorious and carefree predecessors, “the twenties”, but they had one thing in common – living then you could still cherish the illusion that you might go on for ever leading your own private life, undisturbed by the international crises in the newspapers. This illusion was finally and irrevocably shattered in 1939.
So utterly has the world changed since that summer day, nearly twenty years ago, when I stood for the firs time under the brick archway at Ashcombe, and surveyed my future home, that ways of living and of entertaining which the seemed natural today sound almost eccentric., Looking back through old diaries recording some of the parties that took place at Ashcombe in those days, it struck me that for this reason it might be interesting to try to string together in narrative form my recollections of that time. The shape these recollections have assumed is that of a memoir of the house itself, but thought I see this little book primarily as a tribute of gratitude to Ashcombe, a house I shall never cease to regret, it is also and inevitably a story of the people who came to visit me there.
Someone wrote to him, on the book’s publication, to say how pleased he was that Beaton ‘made clear that we were not a group of delinquent Bright Young Things dressing up’. And indeed, he introduces all the guests over the fifteen years as friends, rather than celebrities – even though amongst their number were Rex Whistler (who painted the image below), Salvador Dali, Diana Cooper, and other luminaries from the worlds of art, theatre, and literature.
But for me, there was one stand-out character in the book: Ashcombe House itself. When Beaton first found it, with the help of Edith Olivier and Stephen Tennant, it was in neglected disrepair. He eventually managed to negotiate a lease from its owner, Mr. Borley (who seems to have been appositely boorish) at a cheap rate, on the understanding that Beaton would do a great deal of restoration to the property.
And these were the sections I loved. I’m a sucker for any property programme on television – they can be buying, selling, or building a house, but my favourites are when they transform them. So it’s my hankering after Changing Rooms scaled up to a majestically bohemian and artistic standard. There are plenty of photographs throughout, many showing ‘before’ and ‘after’ shots, and although they are (naturally) in black/white, they still give a wonderful picture of the process and the time. Above all, the pictures and writing together create a three-dimensional picture of what Ashcombe was like to live in. I love novels where houses play an important role, and it’s even more delightful when the house in question existed, and its effect was real.
Ashcombe, in this century, could be neither a gentleman’s home nor a farmer’s retreat. It is essentially a artist’s abode; and, under the varying conditions in which I lived there, the house conformed to every change of my temperament and mood, proving as great a solace during the grey years of war as in the now almost forgotten days of gaiety.
Of course, Ashcombe alone might not give this effect. It has latterly been owned by Madonna, which is rather a ghastly thought. I doubt she has the same artistic sensitivities of Beaton, if her leotards are anything to go by. Part of the charm of Beaton’s book is his character, and the friends he had. I doubt I’d have been entertained by them so much if they were in a London townhouse, but transport them to the idyllic countryside of Wiltshire, and I’m enamoured. I don’t mean that I was bowled over by the individuals themselves so much as the type of group. It did make me wish for a moment that my friends were all artists and writers and theatre managers: we could go and paint murals on the walls of our country homes and put on impromptu plays in the garden. Then I realised that my friends and I do sometimes paint together (albeit on canvas) and have been known to read out an entire Shakespeare play together – so I’m not doing too badly. But I’ve never had a circus room (how delicious would that be?) and never had call to say “It’s too bad, they’ve broken my best silver bird-cage!”
Sadly, of course, the years of his lease were not without sadness. Beaton moves onto the war, and writes movingly of how it affected him and his friends – at least one of whom, Rex Whistler, was killed in action. While this section was written no less well than the rest, perhaps it is of less especial interest than those parts of the book which focus on Ashcombe House – simply because so many other people have recorded the pain of war. An anguish, if less extreme then no less real, comes when Beaton must end his lease and say goodbye to Ashcombe. Or, rather, he is evicted when Borley decides that his son will move in. Within his rights as a landlord, but still a desperately sad loss for Beaton, who so clearly loves the house.
What I didn’t expect, when I ordered Ashcombe to the library, was Beaton’s talent as a writer. I knew him as a designer and photographer, but had not expected him to write so beautifully and simply about his house. Without ever having seen the house, I now know it intimately – not the layout, but the feel of the rooms and the grounds and the surrounding county.
|Beaton in the bathroom, surrounded by visitors’ hands(!)|
Thinking about it, this might not be the ideal book for the city-lover. Even though I currently live in a city, my heart is definitely in the fields and woods, and the spirit of the countryside. The people there are friendlier. The mix of nature and man and animal is much clearer to see, and beautiful even when at its most practical. I will devote a post to this at some point, I keep building up to it, and Ashcombe is another piece in the jigsaw of why I love the countryside. So if you love London (and so many of you seem to) or have never lived in a small village, then I don’t think you’ll be able to love this book in quite the same way that I do. But, perhaps, as I can read books set in London with the passing interest of a tourist, so you can come on a reading charabanc, have a good look around, and then rush back to your streetlighting and taxis and neatly contained parks. For people like me, who love villages and villagers and life in the middle of nowhere – who don’t really feel completely alive anywhere else – Ashcombe is not simply an ode to artistry, a toast to happy memories, and a lament against the far-reaching damage done by war; it is a paean to the countryside and to life lived amongst fields, and trees – and happy, playful friends, unaware of what was around the corner.