There are some houses in this world that you visit and wonder ‘WHY?’ Claydon House in Buckinghamshire is one such. Rebuilt by Ralph, 2nd Earl Verney between 1757 and 1771 to rival the nearby Stowe house in magnificence, it is almost as if he got so carried away by his obsessions that he didn’t know where to stop. And indeed this singleminded ‘mania’ led to his financial downfall and after his death in 1791, the demolition of more than two-thirds of the house by a disapproving niece – as a lesson on the perils of excess. I can’t imagine many families putting up with such extreme behaviour – of either generation – for very long!
I’d wanted to visit Claydon for such a long time because I’d seen pictures of the exuberant Rococo and Chinoiserie styling but I didn’t realise that Lord Verney had not been content simply with (arguably) the finest examples of their kind, he’d also included interiors of Gothic splendour and a faux wood grained room too. (The family is related to Florence Nightingale – this was her room.) There are cupolas and hung staircases, marquetry flooring and heraldic symbols – at one point I felt as if I was in the sugar fondant room of a cake decorators, such is the scale and complete abandon of restraint.
An interior such as this overwhelms the senses and almost creates a barrier to taking in what is around you. Simply standing still to appreciate the intricate decoration becomes impossible as your eye is drawn to yet another detail you have to examine. What starts with curiosity becomes a journey complete with switch backs and false paths to lead you through an internal landscape that defies belief and exceeds expectations. How the collaboration between craftsmen and Lord Verney must have excited him, fed his obsession and spurred him to further expense, for once started to leave any room unadorned would be to create an imbalance and to dishonour the standard of work already achieved. Considering what remains standing today is one third of his creation begs the question, what exactly was lost when his niece called in the wrecking ball?
On a much smaller scale, I can almost understand how Ralph, the Lord Verney found himself in this predicament. There is a point in any building project where you wonder ‘if it is worth it’ and it isn’t only the expense that springs to mind. Living with the dust and confusion of a house being reconfigured tries the patience and frays many a temper. If we haven’t a clear idea of what we want to achieve in the first place, this confusion is compounded by the fear that we might not like the end result; that we’ll be paying for something we aren’t really happy with, that it won’t be worth it! But believe it or not, this doubt is a part of the journey, taking that leap of faith is what the creative process is all about.
That feeling of uncertainty is the same experienced by the artist, the writer, the actor, the dancer – and the mother. In pulling forward our dreams, we must allow that the process will challenge us, that we will feel out of control – or controlled by another entity – and that we must trust that the divine power who gave us the inspiration in the first place, will not fail us. Perhaps that sounds a rather grandiose idea, but in a smaller personal way, without the courage to believe we can achieve what we dream, we lose the ability to imagine ourselves outside our current situation – and where would mankind be without that vision?
Living in an interior such as Claydon would be a supreme challenge in today’s world; it is clear that the roof leaks and that the foundations of the house move according to the soil moisture levels. The fact that it is owned by the National Trust, but still inhabited by the Verney family goes some way to describing how complex and sensitive the upkeep and maintenance of the property must be.
I like the fact that the 2nd Earl embraced his dreams, that he totally committed to the vision of his craftsmen and that the end result is still able to instil such strong feelings. In this age of playing it safe, it is good to be reminded of the sheer joy of daring to dream. Yes, it is a bit nuts, but if I were to take anything from this stunning example of madness, it would be have the courage to embrace your vision – and to follow through with that vision to the end – but perhaps make sure you had enough money in the bank first!
With many thanks to the National Trust for allowing me to take photographs during my visit