The Durdin Robertsons + Huntington Castle Clonegal

Carlow Sweet Chariot

Huntington Castle Peacocks © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Every view of this multifaceted castle unveils a different vein. The gunpowder grey entrance front: rectilinear massing and rhythmic rows of windows. The steel grey driveway elevation: 12th century abbey ruins and pointy dormers between turrets. The bleached white courtyard: a picturesque jumble of crow stepped gables and battlemented bow windows. The sunburnt terracotta garden front: pillared arches and stygian loggias swinging low under cantilevered boxy glasshouses. Ever since 1826, when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce fixed the image of his family courtyard in Gras on a bitumen glass plate, architecture and photography have been fond bedfellows. This is despite one being about static volumes and the other decisive moments. Yet is even Huntington Castle beyond expression in a hackneyed Hockney Polaroid collage, provenance and ambiance rarely surviving the transition from three dimensions to two? Ancestors of the Durdin Robertsons include Lord Rosse founder of the Hellfire Club, flame haired Grace O’Malley Pirate Queen of Connaught and, a little further back, Noah’s niece Mrs Benson. Notable visitors darkening its doors over the years have included WB Yeats, Mick Jagger, Hugh Grant and Lavender’s Blue. But even more notably, the Durdin Robertsons are still very much in residence.

Huntington Castle Pig © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The same cannot be said, it seems, for just about every other country house in Ireland. Heritage is crumbling. No one’s picnicking, foreign or indigenous, in this land. One person who knows all too well is chartered building surveyor and architectural historian Frank Keohane. He’s been tasked with compiling Buildings of Ireland Four Cork, the Irish version of a Pevsner Guide. “I’ve a sneaking suspicion that more books are sold on ruins than intact country houses,” Frank ruminates. “Take the semi derelict Loftus Hall which is really exposed near a cliff on the Wexford coast. The owner does ghost tours – ‘the devil’ comes for dinner, and so on. But you need to be practical, ok? Ruins may photograph well but sooner or later if left they disappear. I hope it’s a section in Loftus Hall’s history and not the final chapter.”

Huntington Castle Walk © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Frank records, “Out of the 545 entries in Vanishing Country Houses of Ireland, 18 have been ‘restored’. But I use the term loosely. Dunboy Castle, immortalised by Daphne du Maurier in Hungry Hill, was to be converted into a six star hotel. Horrific extensions were added though! Lough Eske would have collapsed if it hadn’t been rebuilt and converted into a hotel but it’s a bit trim and prim for me. Kilronan Castle has been loosely restored with an extension in a pseudo style of what I don’t know. The shell of Killeen Castle has been restored but lies empty surrounded by a golf course. Dromore Castle, of international importance, still in ruins. Bellamont Forest, Carriglas, Hazelwood, Whitfield Court, contents of Bantry House… all at risk. At least at Killua Castle the family have started by restoring and moving into the wing.” He highlights that Monkstown Castle has fortunately been saved by Cork County Council.

Huntington Castle Woodlands © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Huntington Castle is now home to Alexander Durdin Robertson, his artist wife Clare and their sons Herbert and Caspar, following a sojourn near Northcote Road in London. Alex’s mother lives in the coachman’s cottage in the courtyard. Built as a garrison in the 1620s and extended right up to the 1920s, it was converted to a home in 1673 by the first and last Lord Esmonde, passing by marriage into the descendants of the current incumbents. Restored 17th century terraced formal Italian gardens, rectangles of lawn and a circular pond, darkly orchidaceous in the majestic last December, wrap around the castle like ghostly folds of a billowing crinoline dress. A 600 year old silent avenue of tall French lime trees connects the castle to Clonegal. The village guards a pass through the Blackstairs Mountains where Counties Carlow, Wexford and Wicklow collide. “Mandoran,” as Lady Olivia Robertson would say. “County Westcommon,” as Molly Keane would call it. Clonegal is cute as a cupcake – a river runs through it – with pretty Georgian terraces. The only discordant note is a smattering of uPVC framed windows, the plastic scourge of heritage.

Huntington Castle Vista © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Alex’s great grandfather was the last architect to alter the building, making minor changes and erecting concrete framed greenhouses in the kitchen garden. Manning Robertson was not just a mere architect but an influential town planner and writer. He produced plans for Dublin, Dun Laoghaire, Cork and Limerick, introducing the concept of welfare homes, when the profession was in its infancy. The journey from modern to modernism to modernity had begun. Town planning mightn’t be the sexiest of subjects but his seminal 1924 book Everyday Architecture, as well as being aeons ahead of its time, is a riot, full of titillating tips and illuminating ruminations. “Unfortunately uneducated taste is nearly always bad.” Or, “The glazing of a well proportioned window is divided into vertical panes; one horizontal window might be tolerated in a village, just as no village is complete without its idiot, but the whimsical should never usurp the place of the normal.” Unexpected chapter headings shout “Slippery Jane”, “On Lies and Evasions” and “Smoke, Filth, and Fog”.

Huntington Castle Bridge © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Manning’s daughter Olivia inherited his talent for writing and published five books. Field of the Stranger, a highly original read, won the London Book Society Choice award in 1948. Another polymath, an explorer of psychic areas, a landed cosmonaut, she illustrated her novel with her own wildly witty black ink drawings. It would take a heart of stone not to laugh out loud at priceless passages such as Olivia’s description of the antics of a fortune teller, “She’s great at it – once she told Margaret how she saw a bright change coming, and Margaret got the job in Dublin in no time after.” Another literary gem worthy of Hunderby is the incident of the wart. “I knew a young chap – he was a footman at Mount Charles – and he had a wart, and he was ashamed to hand round the plates on account of his wart. I was always warning him not to meddle with it, but he cut it, and what happened but he got the jaw-lock and died in a fearful manner, twisted and turned like a shrimp, with his heels touching his head.” Arch humour continues with chat over afternoon tea about the perils of mixing tipples with talent. “’Why,’ declared Miss Pringle, ‘I have lived for many years in Booterstown, Dublin, and everybody knows that Dublin is swarming with writers and artists, most of them geniuses and all drinking themselves to death. I am told one cannot enter a public house without falling over them. Or them falling over you more likely.’” Strangers misbehaving.

Huntington Castle Donegall Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The hilarity of an amateurs’ night out is accurately documented in a calamitous village play scene: “Amidst an excited murmuring, the curtain jerked spasmodically and slid up on the left side; our expectation was increased by a glimpse of a posed female chorus in plumed bonnets, violet velvet capes and white Empire gowns. The curtain fell. There was another jerk, and this time the right hand curtain jumped up coquettishly, only to sag back to its comrade… As if to show that they had only been joking, the curtains suddenly fled dramatically apart…” Her tragicomedy reaches a crescendo when the chorus starts belting out The Charladies’ Ball in “nightmarish counterpoint”. Who will survive?

Huntington Castle Bust © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Olivia fretted in her prizewinning novel about the disappearance of country houses: “I was afraid that Mount Granite might fall a prey to house demolishers, who were exploiting the temporary shortage of materials by buying up eyesores, gaping roofless to the weather. I had seen so many wreckages of architecture, besides rare specimen trees felled and sold for firewood, that I was fearful such a fate might befall the Wilderness.” Three decades later John Cornforth would worry in Country Life, “A policy for historic houses seems to be much harder to work out in Ireland than in England for historical as well as economic reasons, and places of the importance of Castletown, County Kildare, and Malahide Castle, County Dublin, have only survived through lucky last ditch operations, organised in the first case by Mr Desmond Guinness and the Irish Georgian Society, and in the second by Dublin Tourism in conjunction with the National Gallery and Dublin County Council.” As Frank Keohane observes, hotelisation was nearly as great a threat as demolition during the crazy boom years. One word: Carton. Two words: Farnham House. Saved, but at what a cost. Love | Hate. Such Ballyhoo. Wish they were Luton Hoo. Anyhoo. It can be done and undone. Three syllables. Ballyfin.

Huntington Castle Taxidermy © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It’s all about Huntington this wintry weekend. First sight of the castle is a romantic fairy tale come true. A mosaic of yellow squares (in 1888 the house was the first in Ireland to have electricity installed) flickers through a veil beyond the Pale of leafless spidery trees entwined with Celtic mist and mysticism. It’s crowned by jagged toothed battlements (spaces for fairies) silhouetted against the melancholic velvety sky. Country Life, Tatler and Vogue are stacked up in coffee table-demolishing piles. Huntington is so photogenic it could easily be the cover boy of all three. A pair of peacocks, two pigs, two cats (Nutmeg and Spook), two lurchers (Country Life’s “guilty pleasure”) and three dachshunds (but no partridge in a pear tree) greet strangers. There are flowers on the first floor and soldiers in the attic. Only the latter are dead, strangers in the night. “I believe time is spiral,” confides Alex. “It’s linked to quantum mechanics. When apparitions appear they’re like jumbled video clips out of sequence.” He leads ghost tours at Halloween and the house and gardens are open to the public most of the year round. The castle must pay for its keep (pun). “We’ve developed bed and breakfast around this tourism. These houses drink money. It costs €25 an hour to heat Huntington. We’re not suitable for weddings and turning the house into a venue would destroy the fabric.”

Huntington Castle Dining Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Twin gilt mirrors in the drawing room frame back-to-front latticework, crewelwork, fretwork, trestlework, needlework and a piece a’ work. Reflections in the glass; reflections of the past. “The Aubusson tapestries are incredibly all done by hand,” relates Alex. “They’re a real show of wealth, of opulence. The arrow slit window cut into one of the tapestries is a retained feature of the original castle.” It’s Friday night. Time for dinner. Outdoors, the gardens slowly disappear into the tender coming night. Whatsoever things are lovely, think on these things. The dining room is dim with haunted shadow, walls fading through a glass darkly to trompe l’oeil in a mirage of Bedouin tent hangings and a fanfare of fanlights. Centuries of ancestors in oil paintings watch the strangers in the room, forever a room of their own:

Huntington Castle Dining Room Detail © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Huntington Castle Posset © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Barbara for one has never left Huntington. Dinner by candlelight is served. Winter salad with goat’s cheese and soda bread, beetroot aplenty, for starter. Salmon steak, creamed Wexford potatoes and seasonal vegetables with dill mayonnaise is the main event, a rhapsody to the countryside. “We use eggs from our own hens,” notes Alex. Pudding is elderflower posset (raspberries on top; Florentine to the side) just as good as Culpeper’s in Spitalfields lemon variety. Which is very good indeed. Both times it’s a work of quaffable art.

Huntington Castle Sitting Room © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

And so to bed. Leaving behind the dying embers of the day, the journey, as rambling as this article, takes sighing twists and tiring turns along narrow wainscot lined passages and staircases heavily hung with armoury and taxidermy and history. “That snouty crocodile,” points Alex, “was shot by Great Aunt Nora.” The naming of bedrooms is a rather charming country house tradition. In clockwise order, the principal bedrooms at the recently sold Drenagh, a Sir Charles Lanyon special marooned in the mosses of Limavady, are Orange Room, Monroe Room, Bow Room, Blue Room, Balcony Room, South Room, Green Room, Rose Room, Yew Room, Chinese Room, McQuillan Room, McDonnel Room and Clock Room. At Huntington, in any (very) old order, the principal bedrooms are similarly named after colours and features: Blue Room, Green Room, Yellow Room, White Room, Red Room Mount and Leinster Room. As Lutyens once remarked, “I am most excited about towels.” He’d love the bathrooms here. They’re the first resort, the last word, something to blog home about, fit for the life of Tony O’Reilly. Elizabethan style plasterwork ain’t the norm for an en suite. Yep. It is here. Slumber in a four poster bed comes swiftly. But the solemn blackness of the night is rudely interrupted by bloodcurdling screeching. Yikes! Is it a banshee?

Manning Robertson @ Huntington Castle © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It’s Sunday morning. “That noise you heard the first night is an owl’s mating call,” Alex confirms. Phew. The agony (of leaving Huntington) and the eggs to see (for breakfast). But London’s calling, a city full of strangers. Contemporary Indian architect Charles Correa considers, “Film is very close to architecture. Both are dealing with the way light falls on an object and defines it but the difference is time. A director can create huge shifts in emotion with a jump-cut or an edit but architecture cannot move, so an architect can’t produce those sudden shifts. On the other hand, that stillness is also a magnificent property.” Nowhere is as magnificently still as the otherworldliness of Huntington Castle. Rooms and gardens and gardens in rooms and rooms in gardens have evolved at an imperceptible pace over half a millennium. That wonderfully liveable layering of history inherent in homes such as architectural supremo Fergus Flynn-Rogers’ Omra Park, clinging unselfconsciously to the crooked coastline of Omeath, is apparent upon first entering the house. The unmistakable patina of age, authenticity whatever that is, once lost when the marquee of contents is auctioned and the green neon ‘Fire Exit’ sign flashes above the entrance door, is impossible to replicate. A proper ancestral pile. A gothic pastoral ideal. A place of Arcadian awakening. Not too trim and prim. Frank Keohane would approve. So very Northanger Abbey. So very Castle Rackrent. So very Fern Hill. So very Danielstown. So very Elgin Lodge. So very Huntington Castle. Whisper it. So very.

Alexander Durdin Robertson © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley_edited-1

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Kevin Stone + Stephanie Stone + Sha-Roe Bistro

Swiss Cottage | Monty Carlow

Sha Roe Bistro © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Clonegal, County Carlow, population 280, isn’t at first glance the most obvious place to come across one of Ireland’s finest restaurants. “You might say we’re in the middle of nowhere,” laughs co-proprietor and host Stephanie Stone. “But we’re close to the borders of Counties Wicklow and Wexford. Towns like Enniscorthy and Gorey aren’t too far away and Dublin is handy enough to get to.” That in part explains why it’s impossible to get a table on Friday or Saturday nights at Sha-Roe Bistro without booking. That, plus great food, atmosphere and craic.

Sha Roe Bistro Clonegall © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley_edited-1

Much of the food, as you’d expect in this green rural location, is locally sourced. Fish is from Seatrade in Dunmore East, County Waterford. Carlow Cheese is another, even more local, source: “Owner Elizabeth Bradley is just up the road from Fenagh!” Stephanie’s husband Henry, originally from Arklow, is head chef and self explanatory as this may sound, actually does cook what’s on your plate, a rarity in this golden age of named chefs. He was chef at Marlfield House near Gorey for seven years. That’s where the couple met. “I love Marlfield!” enthuses Stephanie. “It’s like entering a different world and all your worries flying off your shoulder. We were there last weekend for a family celebration.”

Named after the village where Stephanie was brought up, Sha-Roe occupies the ground floor of an elegant Georgian end of terrace. To the side is the entrance to historic Huntington Castle and opposite flows the River Derry. What’s not to like? Orders are taken in the quiet sitting room on one side of the fanlit entrance hall. The lively restaurant occupies the room on the opposite side of the hall. “We’ve 32 covers and are serving 54 customers this evening,” she confirms. The place is buzzing. A fire roars in the massive inglenook fireplace and conversations sparkle like the wine. Candles and artwork are set in rugged stone niches. Tables are simply laid with stone mustard jars of fresh flowers.

Henry is renowned for taking seasonal country cooking to a whole new level. Sharper, more refined, make that much more refined. Those seven years at Marlfield clearly show. It’s hard not to OD on sourdough balls before starter arrives. Mushroom and parmesan tart, roast parsnip, butternut squash and beetroot (€7.50). Main is bouillabaisse of monkfish, scallops and plaice served in a shellfish sauce (€23.50) with chips (€3). Finally, an Irish cheese board of Wicklow Blue, Bradley’s Sheep Milk and Carlow Tomme with apple chutney and homemade crackers (€7.70). There’s plenty more of course(s) on the menu but choices must be made. Sure enough, Sha-Roe lives up to, and surpasses, all expectations.

“We’ve been here nine and a half years now,” confirms Swiss born Stephanie. “It’s very funny by pure chance we came across the house for sale in an estate agents in Gorey. I love living here!” Henry and Stephanie live upstairs above the restaurant with their three year old child and another is en route, so to speak. Soon the population of Clonegal will be 281.

Sha Roe Bistro Art © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Architect John O’Connell + The Wallace Collection

The Great and the Good

The Wallace Collection Perspective by John O'Connell @ Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Lavender’s Blue on a tour of The Wallace Collection with John O’Connell founder and director of John J O’Connell Architects. Sssh! This Dublin based international practice is responsible for the restoration, rejuvenation and reinvigoration of the galleries which together form central London’s best kept cultural secret. Despite being a Sevres urn’s throw from Oxford Street, The Wallace Collection at Hertford House radiates an air of calm and civility. Perhaps it’s the sylvan setting of Manchester Square. Or maybe the muted acoustics of the glazed courtyard restaurant. There’s nothing subdued though about the interiors of Hertford House. A blaze of historically correct colour awaits. Quiet! The latest room to sparkle once more is the Great Gallery. Mr JJ O’Connell speaketh:

The Wallace Collection Drawing by John O'Connell @ Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“In principle, each room is enhanced to stress the domestic or private mansion aspect of the main house. For example interconnecting doors between rooms have been reinstated and indeed in the Study we have introduced an entirely new false door to visually balance the existing doorway on the other side of the fireplace. Our main purpose is to provide an augmented setting for the Collection. It is not about re-creating rooms as they were, no, but rather re-presenting them for today’s visitors and scholars. The colour of the Dining Garden Hall is a quieter silver grey. You can’t have hectic colours all the time!” Listen up! Chief sparkler takes a breath:

“This is the size of a city block, the Great Gallery, so it’s an extraordinary beautiful room and what we’ve done is gone and looked at the archived photograph of the room as it was with this lovely laylight which had to be abolished at a certain moment and now with modern technology we can again have this great laylight. This is where you have studio glazing at the top of the roof and it in turn lets light down onto this magnificent laylight so in other words it has a huge amount of natural light falling into the room.

It’s not wallpaper on the walls. It’s the most wonderful possible fabric, silk, and it’s not just damask, it’s a brocatelle, so it’s got even more silk in it! I think that to, as it were, bring the gallery forward into the modern age, you need to get the best possible conditions: lighting, climate control, security, fire safety compliance, decorative effects, so you can bring all of that into this great space. You could only do that if you go right back and lift the roof off because that’s what happened here. You see, the entire roof was taken off and what we have here is a whole new room within the gallery space because this has the technology almost of a railway terminal, when you see the supporting structure, and yet inside it is so beautiful.

Architectural features must do at least three jobs. The oculi in the latticed cast plasterwork punch through the cove: vertical stop, start, stop, start, all the way round the room. They also let more light into the room and act as the return path for the air conditioning. Reinstating wainscoting has curatorial importance. The paintings come to life against coloured fabric above the dado rail and the light coloured wainscot is appropriate as a backdrop to furniture. The gilt fillet of the wainscot is more pronounced than in the preceding galleries. If it was too small it would look titchy; if it was too over the top it would look bonkers. The wainscot must flow along. The Great Gallery enshrines everything we have learned during our 19 years working at The Collection. Everything bar the floor is new.

The Wallace Collection Great Gallery @ Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

I think first of all The Wallace Collection is so multifaceted, the armour, then of course furniture, particularly Boulle, as an architect we love Boulle furniture, this is what we really want! The great thing is here the parameters are set. You can move everything but you cannot acquire and you cannot dispose which is marvellous, so it’s like a game of chess all the time. Everything is of equal importance. The placement of objects is just so important.” Quite so.

Male Nude Sculpture © The Libra Company

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Kings of Leinster + Borris House

The Lines of Beauty

Borris House Estate © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Staggered up a hillside, an architectural beauty parade of picturesque cottages clinging to the gradient, a Georgian house doubling as a petrol station, a boutique hotel boasting a celebrated chef, and an improbably vast château like a granite mirage on the horizon, Borris in County Carlow is a cut above the average Irish village. With a County population of 50,000, one third that of the smallest London Boroughs, driving around Carlow is a breeze.

Borris House Carlow © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

  • Borris House is a mostly 1830s Richard and William Vitruvius Morrison confection: neoclassical innards under a Tudoresque skin. The original Georgian box swallowing up an older castle is decorated outside with battlements, finials, cupolas and hood mouldings, some ogee shaped.
  • Morrison masterpieces stretch the length of the country from Glenarm Castle in the north, Ballyfin in the midlands and Fota to the south. Glenarm is the closest in looks.
  • Borris is the seat of the MacMorrough Kavanaghs, High Kings of Leinster. Their pedigree is traceable back to the dawn of Irish history. Art Mór Mac Murchadha Caomhánach was a particularly feisty ancestor. Reining for 42 years before his demise in 1416, he revived the royal family’s power and land. He spent a lot of time warring with Richard II.
  • On the 650 acre walled estate stands Ireland’s tallest broadleaf tree. It’s a 144 foot high hybrid black American poplar down by the River Barrow. The estate once covered 35,000 acres before being broken up in 1907.
  • Current owner Morgan MacMurrough Kavanagh says, “A two storey wing with a walkway over the kitchens used to connect the main house to the estate chapel so that the family could enter straight into their first floor gallery seating. My grandmother demolished that wing. Anglican church services are still held in the chapel every other Sunday.”
  • Songstress Mrs Alexander, forever extolling the combined merits of Christianity and country life, donated an organ to the chapel. Her son married Eva Kavanagh, daughter of a mid 19th century owner of Borris.
  • In 1778, Eleanor Charlotte Butler, the sister-in-law of Thomas Kavanagh fled from Borris House where she was staying and eloped with Sarah Ponsonby of nearby Woodstock, Inistioge. Eventually escaping and setting up home together in Plas Newydd, Llangollen, they were two ladies who allegedly did more than lunch together. A recently discovered 18th century letter in the library of the house refers to the pair as “Sapphos”.

Borris House Main Fronts © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Borris House Side Elevation © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Borris House Portico © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Borris House Plasterwork © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Little Venice + The Prince Albert

Another Night on the Tiles | Encaustic Humour

The Prince Albert Pub LIttle Venice © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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The Exhibitionist Hotel + Grosvenor House Apartments

Art Transplant 

Astrid Bray + Mark Humphrey © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Back at Jumeirah’s Grosvenor House Apartments, yes hot to foxtrot in Mayfair, General Manager Astrid Bray introduces WW1 Centenary Works the latest exhibition of artist in residence Mark Humphrey. Fires roar casting dancing shadows across the charcoal grey and burnt amber upholstery of the atrium. “I first came across Mark Humphrey’s work at the new St James Theatre,” Astrid announces. “There was this amazing marble staircase. It blew me away! I said I’d really like to meet whoever designed it. A few phone calls later, a Christmas tree commission followed, and two years later Mark is still our exciting artist in residence!” After several of Grosvenor’s trademark cheese and asparagus cones are consumed, South Ken bound it is, as the theme of art, hotels and a Lake Wobegon High reunion takes over.

Exhibitionist Hotel Abstract Bar © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

The Exhibitionist Hotel, London’s latest, may be a pair of twin four storey early Victorian terraced houses but it’s not stuccoed in the past. Its façade has been fashionably Fa’ow Ball’d a shade of Vole’s Breath or Elephant’s Back or Banker’s Wife’s One Shade of Grey with details like the Doric porticos and piano nobile balustrades picked out in crisp folded linen white. Neighbours are as eccentric eclectic as the interiors. The polychromatic stonework of the Natural History Museum looms over Queensberry Place; opposite the hotel is the byzantine brickwork of Institut Français. A few doors down lurks the intriguingly named College of Psychic Studies. Several streets away in Roland Gardens lingers Anoushka Hempel’s Blakes Hotel where the whole boutique rage took off.

The name Exhibitionist Hotel shrieks streaks of “clothes optional” but while there are no shrinking violets at the opening, the only wallflowers being fabric, it’s actually a play on nearby Exhibition Road plus having lots of its very own gallery space. Has anyone else a loaded pistol? Yes. Le Gun. The art collective takes the hotel by storm with large scale drawings and murals. Standing sentinel at the door is a mannequin suitably unclothed except for a lampshade on his head. It’s an artwork by Jimmie Martin, otherwise known as Jimmie Karlsson and Martin Nihlmar. Queen of pop Madonna commissioned Jimmie Martin to design a golden throne for her Super Bowl half time performance and it’s easy to see why. They don’t hold back. “We paint on things to create progressive art,” says Jimmie. “Bondage meets luxury I guess!” Martin adds, “Upcycling antiques at our studio on Kensington Church Street, that’s our thing.” London based Jimmie Martin and Squint designed the penthouse suites.

Hotel founder Manhad Narula commissioned designer Steve Crummack to oversee the interior concept. “Cool pieces and vintage furniture,” is how he sums it up. “We wanted to retain the period feel while also focusing on the weak points and having fun with them.” That explains the psychedelic fake flower faux grass filled lift rising to hippy heaven next to the drawing room marble fireplace. “You can see right through the reception desk,” he laughs, “so that leg candy is visible!” Steve designed the three basement suites. “They have their own private entrances so you can have fun, invite your mates over for a party. The suites pay homage to the era of fabulous travel!” In the ground floor Abstract bar, cocktails prepared by mixologist Isaac Muigai vie with installations for colourfulness. Rough Luxe is so last year. Lux Lisbon and Art Luxe are so now, so so now. Drown your joy in beauty. A pair of female legs stick upright from an urn. Has a guest made an exhibition of herself? Zany has a new.

Jimmie Karlsson + Martin Nihlmar @ Exhibitionist Hotel © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Pininfarina + e320 Eurostar

You Got a Fast Car | Chasing Cars Around Our Heads

Eurostar e320 Party © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Maserati, Rolls Royce. Fast cars. Keep up. Snaidero OLA Kitchen 1990, Juventus Stadium 2008, Calligaris Orbital Table 2011, Millecento Residences 2012, Sergio Pininfarina Concept Car Ferrari 2013, Fuoriserie Bike 2014. Steady excellence. Keep going. It was only a matter of time, time being of everyone’s essence, waiting for no woman, until Pininfarina was asked to design the fleet of trains travelling up to 200 miles per hour that link the UK to continental Europe. The French – and Belgian – connection. All aboard the Eurostar. Happy 20th birthday.

City lights lay out before us | We don’t need anything or anyone

St Pancras Eurostar e320 Party © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

It’s the unveiling of the first new state of the art e320 train. The world class Italian design house has gone full steam ahead with the interior design covering styling, engineering and livery to boot. Pininfarina’s brand values, as ever, are at work and play here: creativity, experience, innovation. Nothing jejune. Nothing ersatz. Nothing déclassé. Nada. That hasn’t changed since 1930. Unlike the number and whereabouts of the employees. The company now has a workforce of 3,000 across Italy, Germany, Sweden, Morocco, China. Bigger picture, devilish detail. After all, Pininfarina has in the past gone micro, designing an exclusive bottle of Chivas 18. Back to macro, delivering it large.

Is it fast enough so you can fly away | We’ll do it all everything on our own

Pininfarina Party © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

St Pancras Eurostar Party © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

A double decade ago, Eurostar really was the most momentous event in the history of cross Channel travel since Blériot wobbled his way over the white cliffs in 1909. At first departing from Waterloo, the smart move was to relocate to St Pancras, a destination itself with two of London’s finest hotels at the end of the line. Beautiful staff line the platform as a DJ and poptastic quartet perform. More seats, more room, more fun. Pininfarina has given Eurostar all that pizzazz. Business class culinary director Raymond Blanc says salut.

Leave tonight or live and die this way | Just know that these things will never change for us at all

Pininfarina Eurostar Party © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Over to Eurostar chief executive Nicolas Petrovic: “We’ve changed the way people think, live and work between the cities of London, Paris and Brussels. So far we’ve carried 150 million passengers. Eurostar has doubled the size of the market between our three cities. Our DNA is product innovation and customer service. We aim to make travelling a pleasure, an experience in itself.” Next year, Eurostar will travel direct to Lyon. The following year, Amsters.  A star is reborn.

Maybe together we can get somewhere | Let’s waste time

St Pancras Pininfarina Party © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Recreating Eden Landscape Design + Savannah

Paradise Found

Antebellum House 1905 © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Atlanta. Hotlanta. Leave sultry Sunday Funday we’re-off-to-balmy-Piedmont-Park behind. Hop on the next flight out of the capital of Georgia, bumping along over the alligator swamps. Y’all this is the only way to make it from Lavender’s Blue to Savannah blue. Savannah Hilton Head International: as trim and prim as a spanking new golf resort. Grab a cab and drive along the highway past preened lawns greened by sprinklers, screened by clipped bushes, neat verges, shuttered existences, everything manicured to within an inch of its life.

Savannah Georgia © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Turn right off the highway. Screech of breaks. Wham bam thank you ma’am! A change of gear literally, historically, metaphorically. A contrast as sharp as the right turn. Do the time warp. Welcome to the urban jungle that is Savannah. The antebellum and great antebellum mansions between pastel washed clapboard townhouses and horse drawn carriages clip clopping along cobbled boulevards fanned by the river breeze make for picture perfect views framed in 1,000 postcards. Yet it is the lush verdant vegetation above all else, the layer of nature that hangs over and creeps round this genteel city four square, that makes it so special.

Jim Williams Mercer House Savannah 1© Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Spanish moss forms an overhead tapestry of heavy green drapes and swags interwoven with patches of intense blue sky. A pink azalea carpet sweeps across the squares while wisteria climbs up buildings like wallpaper, dogwood blossom providing extra pattern. Ivy acts as leafy borders. Eat at The Lady and Sons, pray at Christ Church compline, love. But this visit was years ago. The immediacy of the past, the distance of the present. Deep calls to deep. That is all we have. The future is not ours.

Savannah Townhouse © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

In the now not the not yet, who better to talk to about Southern planting than the owner of Recreating Eden Landscape Design. Former model, cat lover and Lavender’s Blue reader Sandra Jonas has been designing noteworthy landscapes for over two decades. Gardens, parks, historic sites, cemeteries and even Olympic equestrian competition courses have benefitted from her talent. A graduate in Landscape Design from Radcliffe College Cambridge Massachusetts, her award winning work has been celebrated in Atlanta Homes, Better Homes + Gardens and Southern Living. Sandra’s own garden is a learned essay in four seasons centred on the vistas and verandas and virtues of Hamilton House, her 1840s antebellum home in Hogansville.

Savannah Garden © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

“Some of the most beloved and ubiquitous spring plants in Georgia are the big blousy Southern azaleas, or rhododendron indica,” she says. “Every spring garden tour is timed for their bloom. They are spectacular. Larger gardens will have at least one Southern magnolia, magnolia grandiflora, the plant that defines the South. Larger gardens may use these plants as hedging material. They have dense evergreen lustrous foliage and flowers the size of dinner plates with a fragrance that isn’t too sweet or powerful nonetheless.”

Landscape Designer Sandra Jonas @ Lavender's Blue

Sandra adds, “Then of course there are the camellias, which, depending on the variety bloom from autumn to spring. Right now camellia sasanqua is the star of the garden. The wonderful thing about the climate here is that gardens planned with care can have plants to delight every month of the year. Most historic Southern gardens feature a ‘camellia walk’ leading from the house to the kitchen. The kitchen was located some distance from the house so that a fire wouldn’t destroy the house. These sheltered walks were probably meant to keep the food warm rather than necessarily for the comfort of the slaves who cooked and served it. Usually there would be fig trees and muscadines, wild grapes, that would be made into preserves and wine for winter. As for the gardens I’ve seen in Savannah, they mostly use plants to frame the architecture, which is sensational, and anchor the houses in the landscape.” Tara!

Recreating Eden Landscape Design

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National Geographic Store + The Ghost of Crete

Grecian 2015

The Ghost of Crete @ Lavender's Blue photo by Apostolos Trichas

Destination known. Another evening, another ambassador. Diplomatic community. Greek Ambassador to the UK Konstantinos Bikas co hosted a party along with his cohort the Governor of Crete Stavros Arnaoutakis at the National Geographic Store opposite Harrods and basking in the afterglow of The Lansbury. It was the London Launch of a celebration of all things Cretan. Incredible Crete.

Paulina Filippou Isle of Olive © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Stavros commented, “Over half a million people from the UK have visited Crete this year. Tourism makes up 70 percent of our GDP. We have 1,000 kilometres of coastline and one third of all five star hotels in Greece are on our island.” Woody Allen ponders in Love and Death, “I wonder if Socrates and Plato took a house on Crete during the summer?” The island is after all where the first civilisation in Europe began and later home to Titus, recipient of an epistle from St Paul.

The accompanying photographic exhibition illustrated the built and natural wonders of Crete. The ghost of Crete. Shot in 1905 and then again 101 years later. Previously the only evidence of the rural legend of the Cretan wildcat was a couple of pelts purchased at the turn of last century by palaeontologist, zoologist and ornithologist Dorothea Bate. An expedition by the Natural History Museum of Crete and the University of Perugia rediscovered the Cretan wildcat in 1996. One was captured, photographed, studied, tagged, released and tracked for a few months across its habitat on Psiloritis Mountain.

Notes were swapped at the soirée on the travels and travails of reportage with The Fly Away American, a Texan turned serial expat. Snappy wordsmiths at work. Isle of Olive (say it quickly) did the catering. “We’re based in Broadway Market,” said Christie Turlington Paulina Filippou, who owns the company with her husband. “And sell a range of natural Greek products.” The healthiness of the Mediterranean diet was on display. Dittany by Votania, artichokes, cheese, tomatoes, olives and olive oil by Lyrakis and of course, no meat. Nothing tastes as good as skinny Dakos. Destination next also known. The Tom Dixon lunch @ The Mondrian. 

House of Olive Party © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

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Royal Opera House + Ham Yard Hotel

Artisan Residence

Ham Yard Hotel © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Hang on a minute. Are those elephant droppings in the courtyard? Is there a circus in town? Is Nellie on the rampage? Is it sh1t or sh1t art? We (very) gingerly bypass this and other disconcerting existentialist concerns and make our discerning way straight to the basement Dive Bar at Ham Yard Hotel. Boy, we haven’t been in as fun a disco dive bar since Pinkie Master’s Savannah (midnight in the venue of good and evil). There are enough fluorescent signs to keep even Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown happy. Viva Las Vegas. Flavour of the month Ruinart the imbibable equivalent of caviar, is on tap. Starting with big balls in the small hall, the art continues inside and thankfully improves. Or maybe that’s the bubbly kicking in.

Ham Yard Hotel Hall © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Mayfair’s our usual hunting ground. Private views, our game. So firstly we’re gunning it to the Mayfair Gallery’s inaugural exhibition Impressionists and Modern Masters. It’s a new venture for W1’s antiques treasure trove. “The part of Mayfair Gallery fronting South Audley Street is ideal for exhibitions,” says Director Jamie Sinai. “We’re looking forward to holding more exhibitions in this space.” Watching this space, Renoir’s sensitive charcoal on paper Musicians and Louis Anquetin’s full on watercolour Aux Courses highlight penchants for portraiture. Other Impressionist and Post Impressionist household names represented by painting, sculpture and sketches are Boudin, Matisse, Moore and Picasso.

Ham Yard Hotel Sofa ©Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley

Ham Yard Hotel Dive Bar © Lavender's Blue Stuart Blakley,

Next stop Ham Yard. We haven’t strayed too far from the closeness of riches, sticking firmly to the Regent Street edge of Soho. More than a mere hotel, this Woods Bagot designed piece of new townscape is stitched into the tight urban fabric. All the key town planning buzzwords are ticked: accessibility, flexibility, legibility, permeability. Stylistically too it’s a fit, displaying a kickass warehouse meets townhouse typology. Dotted around the perimeter of the courtyard are 13 boutique shops. In the hotel itself, as well as the Dive Bar there are 91 bedrooms and suites, a ground floor restaurant, orangery sunken halfway below street level and a theatre two floors down. Ah, the theatre. Our raison d’être at the Kemps’ latest development. Alex Beard (Chief Exec), Kevin O’Hare (Director of the Royal Ballet) and Kasper Holten (Director of Opera) have invited us to celebrate the opening of the Royal Opera House Live Cinema Season. “We’ve an audience to die for!” exclaims Alex. “We’ve got with us more than a smattering of Royal Ballet artists. Friends and rellies, you can catch me in the cinema! We’re going from strength to strength.”

 

Manon 24/09/14, Copyright 2014 ROH. Photographed by Alice Pennefather

Kicking off (although there’s probably a more genteel term for it) the season is Kenneth MacMillan’s acclaimed Manon performed by The Royal Ballet starring Marianela Nuñez and Federico Bonelli. Madness, materialism, mayhem, mistresses, mystery, misery, Monsieur GM… they’re all in the gripping three acts of Manon. Kenneth MacMillan’s masterpiece may be 40 years old, first performed in 1974, but it remains thematically bang up-to-date. His Views of the Word are not defunct. Tonight’s performance is being simultaneously broadcast across 40 countries. Federico’s family are watching it in Genoa. But first for some revolutionary devolutionary evolutionary canapés. There’s the opening reception plus two intervals then the after party to navigate our way through. Phew. Thank goodness for avocado and lime on dried cracker; grilled goats’ cheese on mini toasted brioche; prawns marinated in basil pesto; grilled asparagus with garlic mayo; mini pulled pork and beetroot burgers; and pan fried cubes of chicken fillet. Not forgetting white chocolate caramel lollipops – they’ve got kick. Survival of the fattest.

Manon 24/09/14, Copyright 2014 ROH. Photographed by Alice Pennefather

Kenneth MacMillan’s source was the 18th century French novel by Abbé Prévost. It had already been adapted for opera by Massenet and Puccini. But he drew new sympathy for the capricious Manon using his customary psychological insight and memories of his own impoverished upbringing. He described his heroine as “not so much afraid of being poor as ashamed of being poor”. It’s a heart wrenching drama accentuated by Jules Massent’s score. The great choreographer’s widow, Lady MacMillan personally introduces Manon at Ham Yard. “Kenneth loved cinema and would be delighted by this performance. I warn you – there’s no happy ending!” And the best bed flip award (presumably there’s a technical term for it) goes to Marianela Nunez.

Manon 24/09/14, Copyright 2014 ROH. Photographed by Alice Pennefather

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