I show this picture because it's the only thing I've got to illustrate the Bloomsbury Group. (Apart from something that I'll leave until last.) This is the garden of Monk's House in Rodmell, East Sussex, home to Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard. It didn't appear in Life in Squares, the recent BBC drama about the Group, as didn't Virginia loading her mac up with stones and wandering into the nearby River Ouse. Lots of actors walked about as if they were going to, most of them being replaced by other actors at some time or other. In the first episode Henrik Hanssen off Holby City popped up in the garden of Charleston (another BG hang-out in Sussex) and it took me ages to realise he was supposed to be Leonard Woolf, but later in life. All this was very disconcerting owing to the use of flash forwards, and totally unnecessary. What possessed the producers to replace James Norton playing the younger Duncan Grant with Rupert Penry-Jones pretending to be the older? RP-H is only 15 years older than James N, but actually contrived to look even younger.
I was looking forward very much to seeing this, owing to an odd (well, not that odd) connection with it all. There were in fact some superb moments over the three episodes, not least for me when Clive Bell kept going on about his mistress Mrs.Raven-Hill. We didn't see her (worse luck), but this was 'The Luxurious Mrs.Raven-Hill', wife to Leonard (when she found time) who was a very well-known Punch cartoonist and a big mate and illustrator of Rudyard Kipling. And on top of all this she is the great-grandmother of the mother of my two youngest children. I'm feel sure she will be mentioning it here soon.
It's taken me the best part of forty years to get in here. Staring from afar and the occasional trespass until yesterday I saw marked in my diary 'Harlaxton Manor Open'. For one day only, which I think they do once a year. This is one of my top ten of English houses, a giant confection (a 'cream cake with icing' a friend said) sitting against a Lincolnshire hillside not far from Grantham off the Melton road. There are many 'perhaps', 'probablys' and 'maybes' in finding out who did what, but essentially this is the vision of landowner Gregory Gregory brought to trumpeting life in Ancaster stone by Anthony Salvin, commissioned in 1831, followed by William Burn in 1838. It can best be described as Jacobethan Baroque I suppose, and every over-blown adjective applied to it is true, 'sensational' being the most apt.
My top picture would have been impossible to photograph yesterday due to parked cars on the lawn, so this is from a transparency of June 2000. Apart from my first sight of this fanfare of an elevation, my interest was further aroused when in 1965 a friend of my uncle moved the Jesuit priests ensconced here to a new home down south, a removal feat that had to be completed in-between the morning and evening prayers of a single day. And then Harlaxton Manor was used by Peter Medak for his equally sensational film The Ruling Class (1972) with Peter O'Toole, mainly for exteriors.The Jesuits leased it to Stanford University of California, it subsequently being sold to the current owners the University of Evansville, Indiana, as their English campus.
So we all stood in and around this truly magnificent pile, trying our best not to drool over the heavenly ceiling of The Gold Room, guarded by countless putti, the greenly hothouse atmosphere of the conservatory or the Cedar staircase with its apparently stone-like roped tassels moving at a delicate finger touch. And then, round the back away from the drooling crowds I discovered what I most wanted to see. A covered-in brick viaduct where once a little train was filled with coal that was delivered into the house, bringing fuel to gravity-fed scuttles in the principle rooms.If this wasn't enough, one of my boys tapped The Ruling Class into his phone to discover that this very day was Peter O'Toole's birthday.
I am a designer, writer and photographer who spends all his time looking at England, particularly buildings and the countryside. But I have a leaning towards the slightly odd and neglected, the unsung elements that make England such an interesting place to live in. I am the author and photographer of over 25 books, in particular Unmitigated England (Adelphi 2006), More from Unmitigated England (Adelphi 2007), Cross Country (Wiley 2011), The Cigarette Papers (Frances Lincoln 2012), Preposterous Erections (Frances Lincoln 2012) and English Allsorts (Adelphi 2015)
"Open this book with reverence. It is a hymn to England". Clive Aslet
"Enchanting...delightful". The Bookseller "Cheekily named" We Love This Book
The Cigarette Papers
"Unexpectedly pleasing and engrossing...beautifully illustrated". The Bookseller
"Until the happy advent of Peter Ashley's Cross Country it has, ironically, been foreigners who have been best at celebrating Englishness". Christina Hardyment / The Independent
More from Unmitigated England
"Give this book to someone you know- if not everyone you know." Simon Heffer, Country Life. "When it comes to spotting the small but telling details of Englishness, Peter Ashley has no equal." Michael Prodger, Sunday Telegraph