An American historian in England: Blenheim

Blenheim Palace was where I learned to hate Capability Brown, and the aristocracy generally.

I never meant to have a bias against the aristocracy. I am a firm supporter of King Charles I, and have little tolerance for Roundheads. I have friends who are republicans, but I’ve never overcome my fascination with royalty. Those times when the royalty and aristocrats join forces with the lowest social groups are some of the most interesting in history. We’re seeing it again now in the U.S….but I digress.

A day out from Oxford to somewhere with gardens – that was my goal. And I’m a fan of Winston Churchill and his American mother, so I thought it would be nice to see his house. And of course everyone said it was so beautiful, you must go. So I got on a bus heading north and I went.

They were setting up for some huge event when I got there. The path from the bus stop was hugely long, and obviously intended for vehicles. I had to insert myself bodily in front of a car to purchase a ticket at the booth. Then more walking across crunchy gravel, but there was no entry on that side, so pedestrians had to walk around. The gardens were open first (I’d tried to get there first thing in the morning – I despise crowds), so I went for a walk.

It all seemed more than ridiculously grand. The palace from the courtyard looked like a classical temple, built to the Gods of Marlborough. It wasn’t just fancy or large or ostentatious or bold. It was religious. The columns, the pediments, the statuary – all seemed to portray worship rather than just grandeur and wealth. And they’d built it themselves, of course. The land and its ruined manor may have been a gift for services rendered by the 1st Duke, but the money Queen Anne gave him went to Sir John Vanbrugh to build this monstrosity, presumably approved by the Duke himself.

I stood in the short line to enter the gardens, then tried to enjoy the lovely boathouse by the lake, the gentle creaking of the boats. “George Charles and Lily Warren Duke and Duchess of Marlborough” was actually carved onto the building, as if they didn’t already own the whole lake and everything you could see. Did they think someone would stumble upon it and wonder who built it?

The long walk from the bus stop The Temple of the Marlboroughs

I continued through the grounds, which were huge. I came upon The Cascade, with an explanatory sign saying that Capability Brown had been commissioned to build it in 1764 by the 4th Duke. He had dammed the river to created the lake, and wanted an audible water feature to conceal the dam and give pleasure to the family, because they could hear it before they got there to see it. It was unsafe enough that in 2009 it had to be restored to meet the requirement of the Reservoirs Act.

The Duck of Marlborough The Cascade

Capability Brown is known throughout England for his landscapes, which were supposedly designed to look “natural”. Naturalism was a trend in which Brown was a bit ahead of his time – the Romantics would pick it up in the 19th century. I understand that an extraordinary amount of artificiality is necessary to make something look natural, but miles of rolling green landscape punctuated by a Cascade that would obviously not occur in the landscape by itself didn’t seem natural. Nor did the circular rose garden I walked even longer to find, placed to be discovered among the trees. The sheer amount of work to mow the lawns must be amazing. I was impressed by the amount of funding required to both do this and keep it like this, but I was unimpressed by the design. In its sheer immensity it was as classical and formal as many places with which the landscaper hoped to avoid comparison. Or perhaps I’ve been reading too much Ruskin…

I went into the house, but was not about to buy a ticket to see certain rooms, and many of the ground floor exhibit rooms were mobbed with people. The indoor statuary, the large collection of Chinese knick-knacks, the furnishings, seemed inelegant and overblown, but by then my attitude may have affected what I was seeing. I stopped by the gift shop on my way out and was surprised, oddly, that it was full of overpriced garden goods and pillows and things to make your home look like Blenheim.

The Foyer The Gift Shop

I have, romantically, always appreciated the faded grandeur of the aristocracy, and felt sorry for them, saddled with grand houses that can not make money in an age without landed wealth. Blenheim wasn’t like that, or was frantically trying to avoid it by hiring itself out for events (not only was the entire courtyard filled with chairs by the time I left, but there was a film crew interviewing someone on the terrace). But as I wandered the grounds I kept thinking, wouldn’t it be nice if this were available to the people? For everyone (especially those who actually like Capability Brown) to enjoy as part of the community? Shouldn’t this much ostentation be critiqued rather than celebrated? Perhaps I’m turning into a republican after all.

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