Several days ago I went along to my friend Alice’s house to watch a bio pic of Peggy Guggenheim. I was very much looking forward to seeing what I thought might be a peek into my fantasy future….world famous art collector of the avant garde filling her stunning Venetian palace with treasures on the artistic and human variety. Parties, laughter, love. An enviable force for cultural advancement. Yikes was I wrong. Her life was horrible. Her family, her friends, herself….horrible, horrible, horrible. And so so very sad. I think I am still reeling. (Her sister Hazel throwing her babies off the roof….) With this still fresh in my mind, I met my marvelous friend Samuel at Two Temple Place. An incredible home on the Victoria Embankment built by William Waldorf Astor, in the 1890s. A rare case of limitless money and taste coming together perfectly. It is one of my favourite buildings in London. I fantasize that someday I am going to buy it and live in it with artistic and literary splendor. Astor only used it for twenty five years. It is currently owned by the Bulldog Trust charity, but I could make it my own very quickly. The oak-paneled staircase alone sets my heart racing. Astor was a newspaper man who loved literature, The Three Musketeers most of all. Characters from Dumas’ novel stand proudly on the newel posts, joined by other favourites like Hester Prynne (another strong woman), the last Mohican, Uncas and scout Hawkeye. The Great Room on the 1st floor offers reliefs and statuettes of more famous women, some real, some not, including Anne Boleyn, the Lady of Shalott and Maid Marion. The main door is covered in reliefs of the women of the Arthurian tales. There is no particular agenda to the choices, rather a collection of fictional and historical characters who appealed to Astor. Voltaire is there as are greats of the Renaissance, including Dante, Michelangelo and Raphael, the scientist Galileo and the explorers Columbus, Marco Polo and Captain Cook. Eclectic taste, yes, but excellent, eclectic taste. The ceiling is a jaw dropping open timber hammer-beam mahogany roof and at either end of the Hall are stunning stained glass windows, Sunset and Sunrise. Rich in colour, they are enormous, idealized landscapes. It is the kind of room that takes your breath away at first glance. And then you start to look and the more you look, the more you see. It is pure pleasure.
Two Temple Place is closed much of the year, available as an event and location venue, but annually they put on an exhibition and invite the public in. I have gone to many over the years and, while I have enjoyed them, consider them to be more an excuse to see the house, the gorgeous, glorious house, my gorgeous, glorious house, than whatever the display cases hold at the time. I wanted Samuel to see this house. We are on a Beautiful Homes in London mission and I knew he would immediately join me under the spell. I arrived early and popped up to the gift shop to buy a ticket for a talk later in the week, but before I did I told the lovely volunteer that I was waiting for a friend. “Tell him I will be right down. His name is Samuel and he is fabulous. He will be wearing a cape.” She smiled appreciatively. And when I returned, there they were together. “I recognized fabulous Samuel straight away,” she told me. See, we belong here. And he loved the house, I knew he would. It is the kind of house that Mame would have loved too. We are both Auntie Mame devotees. We both understand completely when she despairs “life is a banquet, but most poor bastards are starving to death.” But not us. Samuel and I are greedy gluttons for life. And here, at Two Temple Place, we overindulge, yet again, in beauty. And some bleakness too. Because the current exhibition isn’t some worthy Egyptian pots, but a retrospective of Sussex Modernism. People who, over decades, lived together in Sussex, not as a single group, but as distinct collections of artists and writers and emigres and free-lovers and political thinkers, who found a degree of freedom in the English countryside. Freedom from war and oppression and institutionalized mindsets and society and prying eyes. On the surface, these looked like little Edens and the names attached are known the world over. But they weren’t. With all this creative energy came great sadness and pain. Eric Gill was criminally repulsive. Virginia Woolf filled her pockets with stones and walked into the river Ouse. Relationships and children were abandoned carelessly. And Lee Miller, suffering from what we would now call PTSD from her experiences as a WWII combat photographer (she was one of the first to the camps,) tried to drink herself to death at her Sussex home, Farley Farm. Oh what a woman Lee Miller was. Like Peggy Guggenheim, on the surface everything a powerful, fabulous woman could be. But her life, like that of Peggy, was filled with terrible family secrets and tremendous unhappiness. The Imperial War Museum had a terrific exhibition of her work, a few years ago. What an eye for the beautiful, the simple and the evil. She went from photographing movie stars and fashionably dressed women in wartime to corpses in concentration camps, corpses she treated with the same individual respect she had the socialites, making the pictures all the more horrifying. Like the parties at Peggy’s palace, those at Farley Farm, where Roland Penrose, the great English surrealist and founder of the ICA and American Vogue model turned photographer, Lee Miller lived, hosted Picasso and Max Ernest and other great game changers. Oh if only walls could talk. Or maybe not.
It was with these two very strong women in mind that I went to see the Lady Emma Hamilton exhibition at the Maritime Museum. Again, a tremendous life. From abject poverty of the coal-mining variety to the most famous woman of her time. She is, of course, best known for being the mistress of Lord Nelson. But she was so much more. A superb performer, a consummate hostess and, when war broke out with France, a skilled diplomat. A great beauty, yes. But a powerful and ever inquisitive brain, as well. And a really sad life. Is there a theme here? Oh, I hope not. And in the case of these three, one could easily argue that the sadness came first and their success was, if not a solution to at least a catalyst for their success. So not wax wings melting so much as the necessary supports missing, or in the case of Emma, the cruel fickleness of societal norms. In the funny twist of history, we might love them, adore them, honour them far more now than they were in their own lifetimes. Their sadness doesn’t diminish their accomplishments, quite the opposite actually. And anyway, who wants an unlived life?
The bright lights can burn hot, yes, but the alternative isn’t worth considering. Fortunately, I am reminded of this on a regular basis, so no temptation for that path. Just recently, someone I knew vaguely decades ago told me I was “an inspiration.” This was not meant as a compliment, rather a mocking indictment of my life, because his choice of a small-minded, joyless, curiosity-free existence makes him a better person, so he claims, and (this is my favourite part), he and the people he lives with are “genuine.” Genuine what?? one is tempted to ask, lots of descriptive nouns at the ready! What does that make me and mine? Zombies, vampires, aliens, Animagi, if you prick us, do we not bleed? Fine. Go ahead. Stand before Auntie Mame’s laden banquet table with your mouth defiantly sewn shut. There is enough unavoidable misery in this world as is, I will never understand the conscious pursuit of. But then misery does love company, perhaps that is the lure, just not my company!
So that is the great trick isn’t it, to find the right level between skin scorching brilliance and obscure pointlessness. Maybe to acknowledge both, but stay a generous distance from the bottom and at least a sensible distance from the top end…a gentle warm glow without the flames. Be discreetly wealthy enough to own Two Temple Place and fill it with art and books, and Edward James’ Mae West Lips couch (designed with Salvador Dali), trust me, it looks perfect here, and of course interesting, way outside the box kinds of people, but never, ever, ever trend on Twitter. Yes, that seems a good plan. A very good plan indeed.