Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Left the Building

I loved the character that emerged from everything the Duchess of Devonshire wrote and so, when I saw that Sotheby's was auctioning her belongings, I decided I'd go along and have a look.

There is a logical flaw at the heart of that sentence isn't there? However charming someone's writing - or indeed personality - may be, what on earth has that got to do with their things?

I didn't think it through until now though. As a result, I set off for Sotheby's cheerfully. When I went in to their New Bond Street building, I was actually quite excited, but, instead of enjoying myself, as I wandered around I began to feel faintly miserable. I looked at everything, but none of it gave me pleasure. I certainly didn't feel any sudden urge to bid on any of the lots up for auction. In fact, by the end of my visit, I was rather glad to leave.

It wasn't that the auctioneers hadn't made a good effort. They'd plastered the staircase wall leading to the rooms where the Duchess's things were displayed with an attractive photograph of the Duchess's house - a very pretty stone ex-vicarage, pictured on a sunny day with flowers in full bloom. They'd set up a series of rooms to look as though they were actually the Duchess's dining room, bedroom, kitchen et cetera. But somehow the whole thing was dismal.

I think it was the fact that the illusion they were trying to create remained very clearly an illusion. We were in a windowless shop space and there was no getting away from that fact. Despite the very best efforts of the organisers, the rooms they'd set up so carefully owed a great deal more to Ikea in concept than to a time-worn interior that a particularly engaging person lived in.

Worse still, once the idea of Ikea had seeded itself, you couldn't help noticing that the furniture - which in its own milieu would have looked exactly right - here in a showroom revealed itself as a bit battered, chipped in places and generally bearing the inevitable marks of use.

Many of the smaller things didn't even have the virtue of being old and originally well-crafted from good materials. Like most of us, the Duchess gathered up all sorts of odds and ends that appealed to her for reasons not always to do with aesthetics - after all, her house wasn't a show room or a museum, just a place where somebody lived. The fact that things that amused her or had sentimental value were really rather ghastly if you did not share those same sentimental attachments to them meant that they ended up looking frankly a bit tawdry in this impersonal setting.

I should have known of course. Stuff is just stuff, regardless of who it belongs to. Stupidly, I'd imagined that some vestige of the Duchess's personality would have lingered with the objects with which she surrounded herself. Instead, seeing them all laid out there - for sale to the highest bidder -made it chillingly clear that she was very definitely no longer here among us. She had, like her beloved Elvis, left the building and, without her magnetism to enliven them, the things that she treasured had reverted to being just things.

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