Come with us on a journey past the 6 ft high green rabbit and the shrine to Prickle, Hops and Florence to this couch, where we will sit by Rastus and Roy Rogers while we discuss English heritage with the sublime Lucinda Lambton – part broadcaster, part eccentric and part rather scary hallucination …
Three inquisitive lurchers emerge from the shadows of the entrance hall to keep a close eye on me. From above the doors on either side, Victorian death masks glower down. On my right is an ornate eight-foot-tall triptych with what I take to be the names of dogs memorialised on its central panel (see the photo overleaf). Although the light is dim, I am also aware of what appears to be a coat stand in the shape of the Statue of Liberty at the far end of the hall. Part of me wants to go home. But as I am surrounded by three large hunting dogs, this does not appear to be a realistic option.
A figure emerges from somewhere behind the Statue of Liberty. “Hello! Lucinda! Pleased to meet you,” and she is wading through the dogs to shake my hand.
The introductions are immediately cut short when she disappears in search of Rastus, whom I take to be an errant fourth dog.
It seems I’ve just met Lucinda Lambton, 61, the blue-blooded and plummy-voiced photographer, writer and broadcaster. Her forthright and more-than-a-little-eccentric take on subjects as diverse as pet mausoleums, the history of the toilet and the state of British architecture has been entertaining, informing, incensing and confusing the public for much of the past three decades. Most recently, she has been seen in the Carlton Television series Sublime Suburbia, in which she seeks out architectural treasures in the outer boroughs of London.
The four-part series included a short piece on Lucinda’s own house, a Victorian rectory handily situated next to the pub in “Buckinghamshire’s best-kept village 1984, 1986, 1988 and 1989” – or so the sign claims. I have come, in the guise of Building’s answer to Loyd Grossman, to have a snoop around.
“Go through, go through,” Lucinda’s voice instructs me from somewhere deep within the bowels of the house. Rastus is clearly proving an elusive quarry. I force my way past the lurchers and wander through the living room and into the conservatory. Lucinda re-emerges behind me. “The best view of the house is from the garden,” she advises, beckoning me out of the door. “You have to stand behind the bull.” I am about to ask why there is a bull in her garden and whether it is really sensible to stand behind it, but she has once again disappeared in pursuit of Rastus. Nervously, I walk out on to the lawn alone.
Much to my relief, there is no sign of the bull. But there are two shrubs in the middle of the lawn, so I stand behind them instead. Looking back towards the house, I notice similar shrubs arranged around the garden; all are trimmed to resemble animals. A psycho squirrel is poised to attack a cartoon rabbit; a bedraggled dog is in eternal pursuit of an eternally smug cat. I look again at the shrubs I am standing behind, and realise that one could plausibly represent the haunches of a bull. Unfortunately, its head hasn’t grown yet.
But Lucinda is right. Standing behind the bull does offer a fine view of the house, a handsome neo-gothic rectory built in 1846. The village’s awards may have dried up, but it is still a tiny corner of pristine Anglicana. Even though I am a short bomber’s flight from Betjeman’s Slough, and just half an hour along the M40 from central London, it is hard to connect this with my idea of what constitutes suburbia.
But then, Lucinda isn’t in the business of celebrating modern suburban housing.
“I think it is all utterly detestable,” she says. “I liken it to a pestilential pox.” What excites her is finding “magic survivals” that the developers have failed to get their hands on. Sublime Suburbia takes in a waterfront gazebo in Ware, a baroque church in Little Stanmore, and an international-style mansion in Henley. While in Henley-on-Thames, Lucinda and her television crew also visited the back garden railway museum of construction industry patriarch Sir William McAlpine, the proprietor of the world’s shortest railway. “When everything else is so bland and blank, it’s all the more enlivening when you get a bright spark. There is a joy in finding these people in unexpected places.” Suddenly, her face drops: “Does he build crap?”
Rastus has finally been retrieved , and the three of us sit down among the exotic array of passionflowers and olive and lemon trees in the conservatory. Rastus, it transpires, is a six-month-old basset griffon vendeen (he’s the one in the picture on the first page). The conservatory itself is an elegant piece of 10-year-old neo-gothicism. Lucinda is clearly taken both with her dog and the architectural pastiche. As she takes a pair of scissors to the dog’s matted coat – perhaps explaining his earlier reluctance to make an appearance – she tells me about it.
And there is plenty to tell. Where there are no plants, there are artefacts. Peering out from behind the foliage is another death mask. “That’s Napoleon. I found him in a heavy metal shop in Camden.” Heavy metal shops, Lucinda tells me, are very good places to buy interior decor for Victorian-style conservatories.
We will no longer have any vernacular from banff down to Bognor ... It's all going to be second-rate, crap, pastiche rubbish
In keeping with the gothic design, the floor tiles are from a Pugin design that was revived by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. It commissioned the tiles to be made in Stoke-on-Trent, and – Lucinda insists that I write this bit down – this transfused lifeblood into the British tile industry. Lucinda sees this as a triumph for pastiche, which is a theme close to her heart. Lucinda believes that imitation, if done well, is the sincerest form of flattery, that it has a vital role to play in restoring and maintaining our heritage. “The pastiche of the great houses is the only chance to continue the long unbroken line of classicism,” she says.
The “crap, absolute crap” of the pastiche in suburban housing developments is, as you might expect, a different matter. “The tenth-rate pastiche is going to become the accepted face of English architecture throughout the country and we will no longer have any vernacular from Banff down to Bognor. It’s all going to be second-rate, crap, pastiche rubbish and that’s the pastiche you ought to stop.
“I particularly loathe John Prescott for singling out the big houses when it’s the small houses’ pastiche that is poisonous.” As Lucinda warms to her theme, Rastus is getting the haircut of his life, the scissors whirling more and more frenetically with each new adjective of disgust. “I wouldn’t have misgivings if the buildings were good, but they’re so bad and they’re tenth-rate and they’ve got no integrity and not a shadow of history will ever flicker within those walls!”
She pauses for breath, then continues firing on automatic. “There’s going to be no style of our age. There’s going to be no proud-to-cheer national style. (You’re a bad boy. You’ll get worse and worse and worse. Go on, go on …)” I’m not absolutely sure which parts of this are aimed at me and which at Rastus, but I plough on and ask when the last proud-to-cheer national style was. “The 1930s” is her instant response. “The international style, art deco and streamline moderne.”
This overlooking of the past six decades isn’t so surprising when you consider the historical length of the Lambton family. In fact, they are themselves part of the nation’s heritage – the family line boasts the serpent-slaying crusader who gave his name to the north-eastern tale of the Lambton worm. Lucinda’s father was the Earl of Durham, who served slightly less heroically as a junior minister in the Heath administration in the early 1970s before becoming embroiled in the kind of “three in a bed” scandal the aristocracy does so well. Lucinda herself is married to a grandee of the British Establishment, the former Sunday Telegraph editor Sir Peregrine Worsthorne. Recently, “Perry” wrote In Defence of Aristocracy, a tract outlining the virtues of government by nobility. Recalling her earlier comments on John Prescott, I wonder if she feels that a political class has emerged that has no regard for Britain’s traditions and heritage. “Absolutely! I’m not for the last lot at all, because I detested so many of them. But the lack of culture and the lack of history now is terrifying, isn’t it? Really scary!”
A gifted anecdotalist, she has a story to illustrate her point. She draws a deep breath: “There was a European summit meeting at Carshalton House and the new would-be members were coming. The red alert went out to take down all the old pictures and Brit Art was hung in the shadows of the old ones, the Velázquezes and Rembrandts and Reynolds. So these blodges of crappo rubbish were put across the shadows. And on the lavatory door there was a video of a man going to the lavatory. And that was considered by the government to be a better representation of our culture.”
She is quick to point out that she is “all for anything new that’s good. But you don’t scrap the old, you build on it”. An unfortunate choice of phrase perhaps, but I take her point. One look around her house tells you that she is passionate about preservation. She keeps everything. Her study is, she admits, “utter chaos” and the other rooms are troves of paintings, ornaments and eclectic paraphernalia – each item, of course, with its own story to tell. On one wall, there’s a pencil-drawn portrait of Worsthorne’s grandmother by John Singer Sargent, and a little further down, a photo of Lucinda with close-harmony troubadour Phil Everly. “I met him on a train when I was 17, and we’ve been friends since”.
In the dining room, amid the hunting prints and wallpaper designed for the Empress Josephine’s bed hangings, there is an old poster for the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, advertising “Rubini in his great feat beheading a lady. Every evening at 8. One shilling”. A neon-lit crucifixion scene also catches the eye. As does the Roy Rogers and Dale Evans cushion, perched on the sofa amid the Victorian splendour of the living room. I have no idea if it’s affected, but it’s certainly fun.
We return to the entrance hall. The triptych does indeed turn out to be a shrine to Lucinda’s dogs. Prickle, Hops of Hereford, Glover, Florence, Flint and Thistle are faithfully listed. One day, lurchers Isaac, Spruce and Obadiah (“Obbie”) and the wandering Rastus will doubtless join them. In fact, Lucinda tells me that Violet, a dachshund, has just died and will be memorialised soon. I’m not sure how to react to news of the tragic death of the beloved dachshund of a woman who honours her dogs with an eight-foot shrine.
I manage to stutter: “Oh dear.” It is clearly wrong.
I stare at my feet.
Lucinda Lambton on ...
I think all of the buildings are utterly detestable. I liken them all to a pestilential pox
Their lack of culture and lack of history is terrifying, isn't it? Really scary!
A sweet, sweet man. A hero with his trains ... Does he build crap?
Crap's the wrong word. It's too nice a word. It is truly brutal - soul-destroyingly vile. Absolute bashing-my-consciousness brutality
The redevelopment is wonderful, the contents are vile. I had very great difficulty in restraining myself from smashing a case that had a tampax inside
It is very, very beautifully built and therefore it's achieved something. When I went round, it was like walking through an Italian hill town and there was nothing to make you unhappy – there was perfect, perfect harmony
Whenever I go, I don't go to the Louvre. I get on the Metro and go to EuroDisney - it's a wonder! I love it so much it drives me nuts. You get out at Peggy Sue's Place and Main Street America is before you, two-thirds size!