Fran and I continued our London Day of Culture to Perk Up the Spirits in Dismal January (and which we enjoyed so much we might make into an annual event) with a short stroll from the Museum of London, along the Embankment to Two Temple Place and the William Morris exhibition. This had been in my sights on my last two London trips but William and I just couldn't co-ordinate our dates no matter how hard we tried... closed on Tuesday ...closed again for a private function on the Wednesday I had planned to visit a few weeks later, so I was relieved to get there just before Story, Memory, Myth closes.
The rest of London, if not the country, if not the world had had the very same idea, and on that day too would you believe it, so the place was heaving.
No party thrown by original owner William Waldorf Astor can ever have involved so many people trying to get up and down the staircase at any one time, and what the famously flamboyant carved Four Musketeers gracing the newel posts must have thought was anyone's guess. I don't know about you but I am fine in crowds until my 'elf and safety' lobe kicks in and I think 'what if there was a fire?'. I don't panic, I just want to clock the exits and start to make my way out quietly.
It happened to me once at a Boden Sale; those pop-up bargain days they used to hold in rural venues and for which they would send out about 10,000 invitations and 9,999 people would turn up. Powderham Castle near to collapse under the weight of loaded baby buggies being passed over heads in order for people to get a foot nearer tables piled high with...well, what looked like a load of jumble. I actually rang Bookhound from the corner I was trapped in to ask him to contact someone at Boden HQ, report the mayhem and send in the troops, and to tell him I may be some time making my escape so don't put the dinner on yet.
Fortunately common sense prevailed at Temple Place and as Fran and I burst out of the doors, carried in the general direction of the exit on a sort of mosh pit of Morris-mania, admission had been stopped and was being ticketed for later in the day. We did manage to get a glimpse of some fabulous tapestries, sketches, paintings, wallpapers and also the Astor house, the perfect setting. I would love a closer look at the house another day, so much carving and panelling, all very sumptuous and Fran and I were both drawn to this wonderful stained glass window.
A closer look reveals really intricate detail but having settled down on the surprisingly empty window seat to study it, only to find ourselves surrounded by the hordes on the guided tour, we quickly moved on and then bought postcards in the shop.
It was all enough to fire me up for the read of Fiona McCarthy's biography, Edward Burne-Jones, The Last Pre-Raphaelite as there was plenty of EBJ in evidence, but I also hot-footed to the shelves when I arrived home to find the book on the Astor family. I read When the Astors Owned New York by Justin Kaplan on a seven hour flight back from Houston a few years ago and it was good to remind myself of this excellent read whilst swotting up on the background... death of cousin Jack on the Titanic and dear old William Waldorf, described by Justin Kaplan as every Englishman's nightmare...
'the American invader who bought his way into society, bought estates that were part of the nation's heritage, denied the public access to them...and could outspend, outcollect, outentertain, and outbuild anyone in England.'
Two Temple Place was bought and renovated with added crenellations as William Waldorf Astor's London pied-a-terre and business HQ in the dying years of the nineteenth century.
Serving as a private museum for his art and books collection, apparently including Shakespeare folios, the house was a place where he could also escape his family back in the Carlton Square residence and entertain who he pleased. H.G.Wells who interviewed him there revealed the partial extent of the Astor wealth...
'he was drawing gold from New York - perhaps $6 million a year in rents...as effectually as a ferret draws blood from a rabbit...'
In fact William's inheritance from his parents was estimated at between $150 million and $300 million, give or take the odd million which all meant he could afford a really flamboyant weather vane for the roof as well...
Always fearful of kidnappers and theft, Astor kept a loaded pistol to hand and the building was apparently equipped with a state-of the art security system which at the press of a button would lock and bar all windows and entrances ..which always feels like another fire hazard to me. Of course the wealth also stretched to the purchase of Cliveden followed by Hever Castle, and you can't knock it, at one point he was keeping 840 workers employed in renovations.
Anyway the exhibition was fabulous in every sense, the tapestries especially breathtaking and it was thankfully possible (with elbows) to look at them very closely and see the intricate and complex stitching, as well as brushstrokes and pencil workings for the wallpapers and their designs, and whilst I don't want to be the instigator of a stampede, if you do live nearby it is the final day of the exhibition today.