22 February 2011

Ashcombe: Cecil & Madonna

I miss Cottage Living. Not because Madonna was ever featured. Because it featured cottages with an average size of 500 to 1500 square feet. My subscription was replaced with Architectural Digest where the average bathroom was 500 to 1500 square feet. Don't get me wrong, I love big old designer monographs. However, if you can spend 13 million for a house, pay for the upkeep and drop another 5 million to decorate it, then I think it should look pretty good. In fact, I think it should look great.

Which is exactly what Madonna did. And I think, from what I have seen, that it looks pretty good.

Of course now, Guy Richie has it and he is re-decorating again. Still...

But before Madonna, Cecil Beaton took the reins of Ashcombe. He leased Ashcombe in 1930 for £50 a year.
Beaton took it over when there was no electricity, wild brush and disrepair. Beaton transformed the property with the help of his friends, artists and writers like ...

Edith Olivier (above) and Rex Whistler, Oliver Messel, Marchea Casarti, Ruth Gordon, and Ottoline Morrell to name a few. They gardened, painted, set urns on the roof, transformed the stables into studios, bedrooms into circuses, made films and partied with reckless abandon.

Beaton in the circus room

But they didn't spend millions to decorate, they used their imagination (and the imagination of friends) and I am sure hey spent a good bit of money for the time, but still, it was a personal space. A glorious space.

Cecil Beaton failed to heed the words of his father when he was told not to expend time and money on a house he didn't own. Father knows best. After more than a decade at Ashcombe, Cecil Beaton had to leave. He wrote an amazing love letter to the property in his book Ashcombe: The Story of a Fifteen Year Lease. The owners were not amused and were forever sending out the hounds on trespassers who wanted to see Ashcombe.

I wish there was more published about decorating in the spirit but not the size of Ashcombe. I want more small spaces transformed not by money, but by the ingenuity of the owner. Perhaps I just want to picnic with Cecil Beaton. I definitely want Cottage Living back!


  1. Oh ditto - throw enough money at any place and it will (well, should) be nice enough but not personal or interesting. I too miss cottage living!

  2. The irony was Madge didn't seem to actually like country life. She got rid of the shoot for Pete's sake.

  3. I totally agree. But I have repeatedly been told by magazine editors that the market for interiors is more profitable for fantasy than reality.

  4. I wonder if you have more vintage photos about Madonna! It would be so nice.

  5. When I was in my mid-twenties (and as mad about Cecil Beaton as one can get) I stumbled across a copy of AS FAR AS JANE'S GRANDMOTHER'S in a funny little used book store. I snatched it up (I think it was .95¢) along with copies of Michael Arlen's THE GREEN HAT, and Ronald Firbank's PRANCING NIGGER, all of which I knew of from reading Beaton's magical memoir of self-invention, THE WANDERING YEARS.

    To my amazement & delight, the Oliver turned out to have never been read, and the act of cutting the pages was delicious beyond words.

    Cutting the pages of a book is a time warp experience like no other, and someday I may even read my (uncut) copy of Osbert and Sacheverell Sitwell's ALL AT SEA, with the immaculate Cecil Beaton dust-wrapper!


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