This morning, little girls the world over lived vicariously through Kate Middleton as she walked down the aisle in her beautiful Sarah Burton dress and married Prince William. Let’s admit, however, we were all looking on a bit wistfully, indulging in the “what-ifs” and daydreaming about what it would be like to live in a castle as royalty. In this vein we turned to Sir Humphry Wakefield, Baronet, our resident expert on the noble estates of Great Britain, Ireland and Russia (and authority on English antiques), to share with us the story of his castle, Chillingham, and his personal treasures inside.
First, a little history:
Built in the 1100s in Northumberland, England, Chillingham was originally just one tower with walls around a courtyard. The family from whom Sir Humphry’s line descends stormed the tower in 1246 in order to take the property’s wild cattle to feed their three other castles on the Scots border. (Descendants of those cattle, by the way, still roam the property.) They soon added three more towers around the courtyard, transforming the castle into a home worthy of royal visits from both King Henry III and King Edward I (who stayed at Chillingham in the 1290s when he went to capture Scotland’s “Brave Heart” William Wallace, who had laid waste to the area the previous month).
Many more kings would visit over the centuries: During the 1500s the family built up between the towers to have rooms fit for King James I to stay, and in 1639 King Charles I visited on his way up to argue with the Scots (shortly before he was beheaded by his own people). The last King of France, Louis Philippe, visited during his reign in 1832; the wild cattle welcomed him by knocking over one of his court. Nevertheless, Louis Philippe bestowed the castle with marble urns from Versailles, which were designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart, King Louis XIV’s chief architect.
When pried for more details of Chillingham’s history, Sir Humphry simply summed it up: “The family went through endless battles and eight executions. Thirty-two generals, 18 Knights of the Garter and three prime ministers have lived here, and most of the royal families have come to visit – including to the present day. What more can I say?”
When further pried for details of royal visits, Sir Humphry demurred, of course, in respect for the privacy of the royal family, who so often visit the Stately Homes of England to escape the public eye.
Instead, we talked a bit about some of his treasured antiques – furniture he has acquired over the years and lent to Baker to reproduce.
“This strong and splendidly designed Regency mahogany desk was in my father’s Westminster Palace office when he was a Minister in Winston Churchill’s Government, just before he became Lord Treasurer to the Queen and then Comptroller of the Royal Household. Churchill knew well that my father loved this desk and viewed it as fancy and precious. So, to show that he, Churchill, was the boss, when he visited my father’s office he would sit his great bulk on the very middle of the top of the desk, actually sitting on it with his feet on the chair! The superb design is mighty strong…or it would never have lasted so long!”
“This fine chair actually stands around a long dining table in Holyroodhouse, the Queen’s historic palace in Edinburgh and the center of royal government in Scotland. The chair is made to a Chippendale design, and in Holyrood it is covered in a heavy red velvet and looks grand indeed.”
“This fine Walnut Bureau-Cabinet is the same design, and maybe the very one, that inspired Peter the Great, that first Romanoff Tsar of Russia, when he visited England in the early 1700s. He took a drawing and details of this Bureau-Cabinet to St. Petersburg to have it recreated. These drawings are there in the Hermitage Palace Museum to this day.”
“This chair has carved bamboo-pattern legs, most unusually designed with a fashionable sabre-sword curve. It was given to me by Princess Margaret’s uncle-in-law Oliver Messel, a great British and international theatre designer. The Princess would visit the chair when she came to visit us at Chillingham!” [Side note: Michael S Smith also used these chairs to decorate the Architectural Digest Greenroom this year at the 83rd Academy Awards – see previous post.]
Sir Humphry could talk forever about his cherished antiques, but he had noble visitors to entertain — and we had a word limit. Though he himself did not attend the Royal Wedding (he had seats but had “been there before”), many of the other Stately Homes Lords and Ladies were there, performing their wedding duties in ceremonial robes, as their ancestors have done for so many centuries.
And while the rest of us had to watch this royal pageantry from afar, at least we can have a piece of the Stately Homes Collection to remind us that we’re all kings and queens in our own homes.