A Leisured Class
Ridiculously profligate, frequently utterly bonkers, as she walks around the Blenheim grounds during the Horse Trials, our columnist ponders the uses of a decadent aristocracy
Article by Marianne van Pelt
At Blenheim Palace Horse Trials last week I was reminded of something the great Irish chef Myrtle Allen said to me at a family lunch nearly ten years ago, when I first arrived from America.
Myrtle Allen, now in her 90s, is the head of a foodie dynasty, ‘the matriarch of modern Irish cuisine’, according to the Irish Times. She founded Ballymaloe House, one of Ireland’s finest restaurants, and helped to win the first Michelin star for an Irish restaurant, La Ferme Irelandaise, once ranked amongst Paris’s top ten foreign eateries. Her daughter-in-law Darina, Ireland’s first television chef, established Ballymaloe Cookery School, a learning centre and food think-tank as distinguished as Chatham House. Her beautiful blond granddaughter-in-law, Rachel, is another best-selling television chef with an international following. And there are a lot of other family members besides, many of them distinguished chefs and artisanal food producers. The entire family has worked tirelessly for fresh, local, ethical food in Ireland and around the world.
But this description doesn’t do them justice. Everything they touch is beautiful. Ballymaloe House in Cork is all faded golden Persian rugs, misty Jack Yeats paintings, dappled sunlight and overflowing vases of wildflowers. Down the road from Ballymaloe House, Ballymaloe Cookery School glows a deep pink, while rare heritage chickens wander with peacocks among espaliered apple trees, vast mixed herbaceous borders, a dainty shell house. At both Ballymaloes there is always fresh loose tea, cream you can stand a spoon in, cakes as bright as butterflies, a warm welcome. They are a generous family with exuberant energy and whimsy.
My first summer in Ireland the Allens invited my fiancé, an English writer they know well, and me for a Sunday lunch in one of their small walled gardens. A majestic, scarred wooden table was set casually with brightly coloured napkins and earthenware dishes in a tangled green garden of palm trees and topiaries. Loaves of steaming Irish brown soda bread, fresh scallops from nearby Shanagarry beach and produce from the family’s farms – which include four acres under glass – bedecked a side table.
The imposing grand dame Mrs Myrtle Allen sat to my left, struggling, as people sometimes do, to hear my soft voice.
“I’m so sorry. What did you say?” Mrs Allen asked several times in her clipped English accent as I attempted to make conversation. At last she exclaimed, “Oh! You. Are. American!” As if this explained everything.
I nodded regretfully.
“Do you know what your problem is?”
I did and I didn’t. I knew I was madly in love with my fiancé, and also deeply unhappy with him. I knew there was something wonderful about the way he treated me, but a creeping doubt whispered there was something sinister…
Mrs Allen interrupted my reverie.
“Your problem in America is you have no aristocracy.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Um, yes, if I remember my American history correctly that was the general idea”, I said.
“But without an aristocracy in America you have never had a properly leisured class. A leisured class is an elite with values that are not commercial, one that is free to pursue entirely impractical ideas leading sometimes in surprising directions to wonderful things.” She paused. “Or to madness”, lingering cheerfully over the word madness as if it were a good thing. “An aristocracy gives a society an aspirational class who are admired for something other than their ability to make money. In America, you have never had this.”
Generally, we Americans are pretty pleased never to have been burdened with an aristocracy; a decadent, fractious, useless bunch. But last week at Blenheim Palace I reconsidered. Surrounded by 2,000 acres of gardens and sculpted landscape, Blenheim is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the grounds are considered Capability Brown’s masterpiece. Originally a gift from a grateful nation to the first Duke of Marlborough for services at war, Blenheim took nearly 20 years to build, a process almost as fraught as the Duke’s great battles.
There’s nothing very practical about any of it. Blenheim’s architect Sir John Vanbrugh – actually a dramatist and not an architect at all – was engaged serendipitously by the first Duke at a playhouse one evening. Having recently completed the first stages of Castle Howard, Sir John Vanbrugh unleashed his imagination to create the monument the Duke desired (unfortunately for Sir John he fell short of what the Duke’s wife wanted, but that’s another story).
Much later, the 9th Duke used the spoils from his marriage to Consuelo Vanderbilt to restore and expand Capability Brown’s magnum opus, creating formal gardens, rose gardens, terraced water gardens and much more, all on a magnificent scale.
Blenheim Palace Horse Trials’ cross-country course runs over four miles of the estate’s parkland, and I walked every exquisite foot of it before stumbling across the 9th Duke’s water terraces. Coming upon them, entirely unexpectedly, was like walking on to the set of an opera awash with the first swelling waves of orchestral music – dreamy, romantic and extravagant. Water spilled from fountains, a flock of white doves swept past, perfume wafted, far in the distance a boat drifted. It was utterly unnecessary and utterly moving. I will never forget it.
This year marked the 25th anniversary of the Blenheim Palace Horse Trials, and Blenheim Palace has also played host to numerous other events, including the CLA Game Fair. Britain is blessed with many ravishing stately homes and gardens, hosting countless country events, the legacy of a leisured class.