Northants – Althorp House: Princess Diana’s ancestral home
Althorp House is probably best known as the final resting place of Diana, Princess of Wales.
The ‘People’s Princess’ was interred at The Round Oval on the estate of her ancestral family, the Spencers.
But the history of the house, and the artefacts within it, go back far beyond Diana Spencer.
Althorp has been home to the Spencer family for almost 500 years. Sir John Spencer acquired a 300-acre estate there in 1508, and by 1586 his son – another Sir John – had made it the principal family home.
The house itself is believed to be much the same now as it was then; at least in terms of its shape. The fashionable aires and graces of the Spencer family meant that it was modified from an ordinary red brick building into a classical European one, with Weldon stone Corinthian and Composite columns added.
Inside it is packed full of the most incredible collection of paintings. Spencer ancestors look down on visitors from every corner of every room.
They are accompanied by a formidable array of portraits collected and commissioned from all over Europe.
Somewhat incongruously, Althorp also boasts a modern day painting by Mitch Griffiths featuring the daughter of British actor Ray Winstone. Clad in short skirt, a sleeveless t-shirt and a cowboy hat, the model has one leg splayed provocatively onto a buggy and what looks like a CCTV camera over her shoulder.
Entitled ‘Britannia’ it aims to convey the ‘disposable, celebrity obsessed nature of modern Britain.’
It is one of two paintings in the house by Griffiths; the other – found towards the entrance and called ‘Rehab’ – being a Christ like portrait of a man in torment, surrounded by alcohol, tobacco, drugs and even the curled page of a tabloid newspaper.
They symbolises the desire of the current and ninth Earl of Spencer, Charles – Diana’s brother – to add to the family art collection.
Michelle and I couldn’t help but think that Earl Spencer’s influence was also to be found in the presence of a biography of Wallis Simpson – the American who captured King Edward VIII’s heart – that has been left on top of a pile of books in one bedroom; a not so subtle thumbing of his nose in the direction of the Royal family.
Althorp includes a celebration of Diana within its large-scale Stables.
Located in five rooms the ‘Diana: A Celebration’ exhibition depicts the Princesses life and work, with displays dedicated to the Royal Wedding in 1981 – including her famous dress – her fashion and her charity work.
Notably, this summer will be the final year the exhibition will be open to the public, and it will close worldwide in August 2014.
Although Diana may now be the most famous, she is certainly not the only Spencer to find fame – and even controversy.
The family has a long history in politics and public life, dating back to Robert, the first Baron Spencer (1570-1627) he found himself knighted soon after going out of his way to meet James I as he travelled down from Scotland in 1603.
Among the most famous of the Spencers was Robert, the Second Earl of Sunderland, who was known as a heartless politician, lacking in scruple. Thanks to a Machiavellian sense of allegiance, he managed to serve as Secretary of State to two monarchs and Lord Chamberlain to a third – twice publicly siding against the incoming monarch, yet managing to keep hold of his own power.
Fashion, art, politics, power and a smattering of Royal affairs. Althorp is a history of British nobility wrapped up in an estate of great beauty and played out among cream teas and cake.