At Burghley House, where I picked up a kitchen
MOST collectors let themselves be limited by such mundane considerations as finance and the size of their accommodations; they cramp their styles and ruin the potential of many a great collection before it has hardly begun. But some collectors have no such inhibitions; they have amassed treasures on a grand scale, and have left their collections to us as cultural legacies. I take after the latter kind of collector. I acquire whole rooms. But these acquisitions give me no financial or logistical problems, for they are other people's rooms. And so they remain, I hasten to add.
So far I have two great halls, two staircases, and a kitchen. The kitchen is my latest acquisition, and I got it at Burghley House, just outside Stamford in England's Lincolnshire.
Burghley is one of the grandest and largest Tudor houses in Britain. It was built at enormous expense by William Cecil, the first Lord Burghley, who started work on the edifice after he was named chief secretary of state by Queen Elizabeth I in 1558. Cecil had inherited from his father an earlier house, the monastic manor of Burghley. This he greatly expanded. But the man's proud station in life led him to raze the first house and begin a new one. It took more than 30 years to complete, and in the words of a later visitor, ``. . . gave, with its uncommon magnitude, more the appearance of a town than a house.''
With its square corner towers, its pepperpot domes, and its battlements, it resembles a cross between a Byzantine church and a medieval castle. When King William III saw it in 1690 -- just after the place had been completely refurbished -- he complained that it was ``too large for a subject.''
Inside, it is equally imposing. That's the way Cecil meant it to be. The house is so large that John Russell, a Leeds artist who was commissioned to paint some portraits at the house in 1799, did not always sleep in his bedroom while in residence. Afraid he would get lost in the dark on the way to his bed from his studio, he slept in the studio for several nights.
Burghley is famous for its series of state rooms painted in high baroque style by Antonio Verrio, who worked for William and Mary at Hampton Court and the Duke of Devonshire at nearby Chatsworth. Perhaps the most impressive is the ``Heaven Room,'' the walls and ceiling of which are filled with ``Gods and Goddesses disporting themselves as Gods and Goddesses are wont to do,'' as one 19th-century guidebook says. The room is of such grandeur that even the grandest furniture -- and there is plenty -- looks superfluous.
Then there is the great hall, the massive scale of which is matched only by the silver wine cistern that graces it. The cistern, made in 1710, is almost large enough to take a bath in.
But the room I treasured most was the Tudor kitchen. This has a great fan-vaulted ceiling of cathedral proportions. One of its curiosities is the collection of turtle skulls arranged high on a wall, a little conceit of some long-departed master chef.
Burghley has treasures in abundance. Oliver Cromwell left his boots in the house on one occasion; Queen Victoria left her gloves on another.
These -- and untold other items -- are now in the care of Lady Victoria Leatham, who has taken on the job of curator since the death of her father, the sixth Marquess of Exeter and direct descendant of William Cecil. The house has been Lady Victoria's home since childhood and she has set herself the formidable task of setting the immense house and its contents to rights before she hands it on to her successor in about 15 years. To those who find it a chore to care for a three-bedroom house, Lady Victoria will come either as an inspiration or a rebuke. She not only has the 240 rooms of Burghley to deal with, but a full-time job with Sotheby's, the well-known auction house, and a family as well.
But it is clearly a labor of love for Lady Victoria, who spares no effort to stem the tide of time, neglect, wear, and tear. The edifice itself in recent years has needed structural renovation (after a massive beam poked through the library ceiling). And some pieces of furniture have demanded highly expensive repairs.
Burghley does not go in for the peripheral sideshows common to many stately homes. Lady Victoria has devised one tasteful show that takes full advantage of the house's collection. Each season a small exhibition is mounted in the ``Goody Rudkin Room.'' Now on display are items that highlight the life and times of the house and its owners.
``The Gentleman Collector'' is the title of this year's display of the scientific instruments assembled by the first marquess (1754-1804) at a time when scientific inventions and discoveries appeared in profusion. During this age, many men of the upper classes keenly collected the late 18th century's equivalent of the modern executive toys. George III himself assembled one of the finest collections of the type. Modern functionalism was yet a long way off, so many of the pieces are aesthetically pleasing as well as being practical.
The Burghley collection contains some rarities such as the double writing machine by Sir Marc Isambard Brunel, the civil engineer famous for constructing the first tunnel under the Thames -- a tunnel that even today is part of London's underground system. The writing machine is an extension of the common lap desk, with the addition of a system of levers and pullies that operate a second quill pen. The latter exactly copies the action of the hand-operated quill, even to dipping it into the ink well. Only two other such machines are known to have survived to our times.
One of the interesting aspects of the exhibition is that many of the items are recent discoveries. After the first marquess's death in 1804, his collection was broken up and dispatched to various outposts of the building. They have been cropping up ever since. A very fine treadle-operated ornamental turning lathe made by Holtzapfel & Co. early in the 19th century was found in a room over the Brew House; it was filled with nesting pigeons, and its almost complete set of tools was in an advanced state of decay. A selenograph, or lunar globe, made by John Russell about 1800, was found, still in its original packing, in the Dark Nursery. Russell, the artist who visited Burghley in 1799, appears to have persuaded the marquess to order the rare globe while he was painting the family's portraits.
It remains to be seen what else Lady Victoria will discover in her determined sweep of the far-flung corners of Burghley.