Part Seven: Blenheim Palace, continued
Blenheim Palace, continued
The palace photographer comes out to greet us and snaps a few photos. Hannah shepherds us up the portico steps. Having passed through increasingly impressive gateways and courtyards, I feel like I am about to enter the Holy of Holies. Suddenly, the door opens and the Duke appears.
John George Vanderbilt Henry Spencer-Churchill is a tall, erect man with a closely cropped moustache. He is elderly but spry. Ginny is taken with his alert blue eyes.
Smiling, he extends his hand. “Your Grace,” I say, “it is an honor to meet you.” With the ice broken, I relax. Hannah guides us into the Great Hall through enormously high doors, which, we learn later, were made from oak trees felled on the estate. The Duke asks us where we are from, whether we have visited Blenheim before, and what we had to do to win the sweepstakes. This last question is awkward. He assumes we have done something challenging, like correctly answering difficult trivia questions: What legal provision prevents Lord Grantham from passing his estate to his eldest daughter? What peculiar request does Hercule Poirot make of his breakfast waiters concerning soft boiled eggs? I turn to the Duke and respond sheepishly, “Uh . . . actually, we didn’t have to do anything. We were just lucky.”
If the Duke is mildly disappointed to be honoring such non-achievers, he shows no sign of it. “I have a gift for you,” he says kindly, “as a memento of your visit.” While the photographer snaps photos, he presents me with a beautiful coffee table book on Blenheim Palace. He thumbs it open. “On the flyleaf here, I have written a little something.” He has signed it simply “Marlborough.” It strikes me as a fine thing to have so notable that you can use just one name: Marlborough, Wellington, Churchill . . . Madonna, Bono, Cher.
The palace will soon be open to the public, and our private tour must begin. “You are in good hands with Karen,” the Duke says. “She is our senior tour guide.” He shakes our hands, wishes us well, and quietly withdraws to his private apartments.
Karen begins our tour by showing us the hefty brass key for the massive and complicated front door lock, copied from a lock found on the gates of Warsaw. She points out the painted ceiling, which features the first Duke presenting to Britannia his plan for the Battle of Blenheim. This is the first of numerous portrayals of the battle that we see in the palace.
Karen takes us through an exhibit honoring Sir Winston Churchill and shows us his birth room. Exhibiting an impatience that would be evident throughout his life, baby Winston arrived weeks early. In another room we see Churchill’s first oil painting, undertaken at the encouragement of his sister-in-law, Goonie, as anti-depression therapy after his resignation as First Lord of the Admiralty following the Gallipoli disaster. The composition, featuring Goonie standing in a garden, strikes me as a remarkably good first attempt. Karen tells us that the painting was stored away in an attic and almost forgotten until after his death.
We pass through lavishly furnished state apartments, ornamented by tapestries depicting scenes from the Duke’s campaigns. In one room, we see a family portrait by John Singer Sargent of Consuelo (Vanderbilt), Duchess of Marlborough; her husband, the 9th Duke; and their two sons. Karen observes that Consuelo’s neck looks like a giraffe’s. Ginny observes that the 9th Duke looks remarkably like the present one.
Coming up next: The Gardens at Blenheim Palace