Private Splendor: Great Families At Home
By Alexis Gregory and Marc Walter
The Vendome Press
The cover photograph of this rather elegiac and lovely book seems to say it all. The table in a splendid red dining room is laden with flowers, china, crystal and candelabra. In front of a pair of gilded double doors stands an immaculately-attired butler.
The expression on his face, which is half in shadow, is pensive, resigned, and rather sad. No one else is in the room. It is as if he is waiting on ghosts.
The point of departure for the book is that these eight European houses, are among the remaining grand houses that are still enlivened and regularly used by members of the original families that built them.
But, on closer reading, the fact remains that houses of this extraordinary quality and scale are rarely, if ever, used permanently or in their entirety. Nevertheless, the glimpses the author, Alexis Gregory, affords us of the ways in which these families do use their homes are by far the most intriguing parts of the text.
Waking up in the Château de Haroué, in eastern Lorraine, and describing the ‘broad, plump bed with an elegantly faded spread, and monogrammed, slightly shiny pillows,’ then worrying, later on in the day, whilst dressing for cocktails, that his conversation might not be sufficiently witty for the house party, causing him ‘the sort of butterflies in your tummy that you last remembered when taking a college exam,’ is so evocative–would that there was more of it.
Still, the gorgeous photographs, by Marc Walter, speak volumes: the low mist upon the moat that circles the dark, turreted Kasteel de Haar near Utrecht, which was built and paid for by Baroness Hélène de Rothschild for her adored husband, Baron Etienne van Zuylen; the sunlight on torrents of pink bougainvillea and wisteria in the Moorish courtyards of the Casa de Pilatos in Seville; the sumptuous carved and gilded furniture in the Palazzo Sacchetti, in the heart of Rome.
And yet for a book about the families who still live in all this splendor, there are very few pictures of actual people, once again underscoring the considerable difficulty these families face in maintaining their own heritage. The histories of the each house are diligently recorded in the book, but there is a sense of the current families struggling under the burden of these histories.
One is left wondering if the fact that so many of them live elsewhere, returning only periodically to these ancestral houses, is some attempt to escape the weight of their own inheritance.
But when they do return, it sounds wonderful. The Kasteel de Haar, which Mr. Gregory admits is one of his favorites, having stayed there frequently since he was a teenager, is closed to visitors every September, when it reverts to its former private glory with house parties:
‘The French chefs start on their sauces and sugar sculptures, and the staff puts out a dozen bicycles for the guests. A grand piano arrives … The guests proceed to their rooms to change into black tie, evening gowns and best jewels after a hot bath in an enormous British tub …A gong shortly resounds throughout the castle from the great hall, summoning everybody to the living room for whisky sours and champagne before dinner.’
In the welter of all that glamour, it’s easy to forgive the gentle snobbery that occasionally permeates the book (‘once the visiting hoi polloi leave for the day, the beautiful rooms are once again filled with candlelight and liveried servants’) but it is worth remembering that the ‘visiting hoi polloi’ now largely pay the bills. Still, tribute has to be paid to the extraordinary, financially draining, and sometimes obsessive, efforts of the current families to keep their houses from dereliction. It cannot be easy to turn grand rooms into offices and flats, such as some of the rooms in the Palazzo Sacchetti, or to hire out one’s own home on a regular basis for parties and conferences, or to build parking lots where flowering meadows may once may have been, in order to accommodate hordes of visitors.
But then this book is, principally, a book about survivors. As the spirited Gloria von Thurn and Taxis, who owns the Schloss St. Emmeram in Bavaria (which has to be seen to believed), tells the author: ‘ When you have as many castles as the Thurn und Taxis–we had eighteen in the family at one time–you tend not to worry if you happen to lose a few. So I tell my children “we still have two left for each of you, so please don’t grumble about the past”.’ Indeed.