Winter Diary

‘Thurifer’ considers redecorating, becomes a starlet, and encounters a Countess

Coats of many colours

My mind is turning to redecorating my sitting room and dining room. I have made some unfortunate choices in the past. From the colour chart, I thought I had chosen a shade of lemon for the walls of the siting room, with the woodwork to be RAF blue. The blue succeeded. The lemon turned out to be a canary yellow, and consequently for a couple of years it was like sitting in a bowl of custard. Similarly, in what must have been a fit a Jacobite madness, I decorated a dining room in Royal Stuart blue, including – and this was a major blunder – the ceiling. When the lights were turned on, there was very little difference. I later had another aberration and had the whole interior of the house painted light green.

A warning: insipid green is the worst possible colour against which to hang pictures or paintings. I moved not long after. The decor of my present flat (sorry, luxury apartment) I like, and think a success. If you know your Farrow & Ball palette you will recognise the shades of grey. The walls are Cornforth White, and the woodwork Purbeck Stone. These I find cool in summer and warm in winter, and not at all like living in a battleship. So what now? I might stick with what I have: safer that way.

But is it Art?

A friend of mine is studying for a Diploma in Design, Film, and Photography. He is accomplished at all three. As his accommodation is limited to a bedroom in a shared house, he works occasionally in my flat (sorry, luxury apartment), a somewhat larger space. For one Sunday it was turned into an artist's atelier. In the dining room there were collages being created, in the bathroom he painted, in the sitting room I found refuge on one of the sofas while every other surface was occupied by cuttings, photographs, boards, frames, and the impedimenta of the creative artist. It was splendidly, if vicariously, exciting; and the results, to my untutored eye, were striking, witty and engaging.

One of his projects was to film a short documentary. Yes, dear reader, it was about me. I backed into the limelight. Those of you who saw the recent television play ‘The Dresser' will appreciate my performance in full Donald Wolfit ("Sir" in the play) mode. I was filmed cleaning my teeth, shaving, eating breakfast, walking to the dry cleaners, and leaving the flat (sorry, etc) on Sunday morning to go to church. It was not onerous. It was instructive how self-conscious you become: how routines that take no thought become major detailed exercises when you have to explain how you will accomplish simple everyday tasks, so that a cameraman can work out angles and positions to film to catch the details. By the end of the morning I was demanding a Winnebago in which to rest between takes (a technical term) and complaining about the demands made on an artist of my stature and reputation. I await the response of the critics.

Lady on a train

We will all have experienced odd coincidences. A short time ago I was travelling by train to Oxford and overheard a conversation. I was not eavesdropping. Short of inserting earplugs I could not help but overhear. One of the passengers was the author Caroline Sandon, and she was talking about her book ‘Burnt Norton'. It was that which caught my attention, as I had written something the day before in which I quoted from the Eliot poem. It also transpired that she lived in the eponymous house, and other conversational evidence led me to the conclusion that she was the Countess of Harrowby. About an hour after leaving the train I was looking at some papers in Pusey House connected with the funeral of Dr Pusey and the meeting that agreed on the building of the House as his memorial, the purpose of my visit. In one of the newspaper cuttings, the paragraph after the one relating to Dr Pusey caught my eye. It noted the death of the 2nd Earl of Harrowby and the succession to the title of his son, Viscount Sandon. As I say, odd. Lady Harrowby has kindly agreed that I may relate this curious incident.

Spanish surprises

Early for a lecture at the Wallace Collection, I called to look at St James's, Spanish Place, which is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. It is heavy and ponderous rather than graceful and soaring Gothic, but has an impressive solidity and power. There was a simple, touching memorial to the Pope-Hennessy family, father Major-General Richard, mother, the formidable Dame Una, the sons John and James. John was a distinguished art historian and Director of the V&A and the British Museum. He was known as The Pope, such was his pre-eminence and infallibility. James was a gifted writer, at his best in a biography of Queen Mary (consort of George V) which is beautifully subversive. His rackety life – which ended in his brutal and sordid murder – did not, thankfully, deny him this memorial.

I picked up an elegantly printed card of a Litany of Humility attributed to Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val. He was baptised in St James's, as his father was Spanish Ambassador to the Court of St James. A crucifix hanging in the Lady Chapel once belonged to him. I had not appreciated that a cause for his canonisation had opened in 1953; but it does not seem to have progressed very far. Nor, perhaps, should it, given his disreputable part in the consideration of Anglican Orders. No one reading John Jay Hughes's masterly and judicious book Absolutely Null and Utterly Void: An account of the Papal Commission of Anglican Orders, 1896 can be in any doubt that Merry del Val aided, encouraged, and abetted the mendacious and unscrupulous distortion of the historical record perpetrated by Cardinal Gasquet and Canon Moyes. The words of Leo XIII in Apostolicæ Curæ cannot be unsaid, of course: but it ought to be acknowledged that they were based on a deeply flawed report. ND

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