April 10th, 2014
This is the London dwelling of John Martin Robinson, aesthete, architectural historian and controversialist. He holds the offices of Maltravers Herald Extraordinary, Librarian to the Duke of Norfolk and Vice Chairman of the Georgian Group ( tho he has just resigned on a point of principle). He is also a regular contributor to Country Life and a Lancashire landowner. His friends call him ‘Mentmore,’ after the huge Victorian country house built for the art collector and banker Baron Mayer de Rothschild, and sold up in the 1970s.
JMR is the author of a lot of outstanding books about country houses and architecture, many of them published by Yale. But in 2006 he produced a memoir of his childhood and early youth, Grass Seed in June, that was very different from anything he had written before. The quotations below are drawn from this interesting work of autobiography.
‘As a family we were Tories and Catholics. I still am – in a not entirely straightforward way. …The Robinsons had married into old Catholic families on their return to Lancashire. The Elizabethan martyrs were close to us. I knew the fields at Brindle where St John Arrowsmith had been captured and taken away to be tried and executed. It was all very near and very exciting. One could not have enough of the gory details of barbarous executions. We were proud of these brave Elizabethan friends, neighbours and relations who had died for the Faith… In general I was useless at anything practical. A farmer told my father: ‘The trouble with that theer lad is he doan’t shape.’ I have never shaped. I don’t drive, I hate all games, I don’t type, I don’t take photographs. I can hardly dial a telephone. … A surprising number of architectural historians do not drive. They are too busy looking at buildings to concentrate at the wheel. I tried to learn but whenever I saw something interesting I tended to turn the car inadvertently towards it across the oncoming traffic…anyway, I loathe cars and the ghastly, selfish, atomised society they represent. Walking, buses and trains are morally better.’ As a car-hater, it came naturally to him to convert the former stable-cum-garage space in his mews cottage near Lambs Conduit Street into something less horrible. This is what he made, a kitchen and dining room, partitioned with a salvaged Gothic screen that he spotted being thrown out of a Curzon Street shop in the early 80s, when he was the GLC’s historic buildings Inspector for Westminster. Note the cunning use of mirror paneling in the door to maximise light and create a greater illusion of space, and the adorable seersucker tablecloth. The jumble sale plates on the kitchen wall were one of his first childhood purchases, costing him sixpence. The painting of the four-towered church of St. John, Smiths Square, designed by Thomas Archer, is by the late Julian Barrow. To the right is a corner of a watercolour of Croome D’Abbot Church in Worcestershire, by Capability Brown and Robert Adam, painted by the talented Alan Dodd, who specialises in architecture; above is Brocklesby Mausoleum, painted by Royston Jones.
Some of the pretty plates are made of tin. In the centre of the bottom row is the Wedgwood commemorative plate that I gave to him, not because it was lovely (it isn’t very), but because it is decorated with the devices of the heralds who officiate at the College of Arms.
John is rather good at buying nice things and decorating the houses in which he lives. When he was wondering what career to take up, this seemed to represent a distinct possibility. Had he followed this through, he could have had secured a reputation as the shortest-tempered interior decorator in England, for he is red-headed and as he freely admits, ‘Redheads have one layer of skin less than normal people.
‘In the course of the last three centuries of generally advancing tameness, the British deliberately and calculatedly kept alive and nurtured a primeval, male, barbarous streak in all classes as being best suited in the armed services, buccaneering and industrial-imperial life in general. ..This explains why the young British male, even today, is so much more of a violent, medieval, throw-back than his European, homogenized, social-democratic opposite numbers. Whenever I witness rampaging louts, glass-smashing yobs, vomiting football crowds, my heart swells with native British pride. We are not militarist, but we are warlike.’
Long ago as a junior curator at English Heritage I spent three claustrophobic days immured in the attics at Audley End House, where hundreds of pieces of Hevengham’s furniture had been taken into storage while everyone wondered what to do with it. Royston Jones and his partner Fiona Gray were taking measurement of every spindle, strut, arm, leg and moulding in order to fabricate a series of scale models of them all, and I had been left in charge of them. I don’t know if they ever finished this exacting task.
The photograph of Wyatt’s hall at Heveningham was taken by by Alfred E. Henson for Country Life in 1926. His clever trick was to throw a bucket of water over the marble floor, bringing its colours and patterns into gleaming high relief.
All images : copyright bibleofbritishtaste