Monday, November 15, 2010

Lord Mullion's Secret or One Thing Led to Another

I cannot remember exactly what in James Lees-Milne's wartime diaries sent me to the library searching for Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, which I found but have yet to discover why I wanted to read the book in the first place and, without going back through the years 1944 and 1945 in Lees-Milne's diaries, I'm not likely to. However, walking between the stacks, call-number scribbled on a sticky trying to find the Waugh book, I did make a discovery or, rather, a rediscovery - a name I'd not thought of in years, Michael Innes.

What caught my eye was the title, Lord Mullion's Secret, silver on the black spine of a small shabby book. The author's name was covered by the library catalogue label but, always willing to be sidetracked, I opened the book and began to read one of the best books I've read in a long, long time.

When I was a graduate student, one of my professors advised us that the best way to tell if a book is worth reading – and I think she was probably referring to serious art criticism or post-modern philosophy, rather than detective stories – is to read the first chapter and the last. If neither grab one, as it were, then don't waste time with what's in between. But, rarely falling to the temptation of reading the denouement before opening sentences, the book went home with me, and so gripping is it I took it to read in the hotel in Asheville after we'd seen The Mikado, the Celt's all-time favorite Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and tunes from which are likely to be sung in the shower, while baking, pottering about, or any other time deemed appropriate for a bit of happy song and dance (Tit Willow is a particular favorite).

"The Mullions were still quite comfortably off, although they no longer managed to pay their way in the entirely unobtrusive fashion they would have wished. Twice a week, and through the greater part of the year, they were obliged to turn Mullion Castle into a Stately Home. The disturbance was heralded shortly after breakfast, when Lord Mullion ascended to the leads and himself hoisted his personal standard above the battlements. He didn't greatly care for thus announcing to the world that he was 'in residence', since it seemed to him that whether he was at Mullion or not was a private matter with which the world had nothing to do. This particular small ostentation, indeed, was perfectly orthodox among his peers, a clear majority of whom probably maintained the habit. But Lord Mullion was a retiring man, who had to be kept up to the mark in the matter by his wife. "

Probably somewhere at that point I knew this book had to go home with me, so I grabbed Evelyn Waugh and moved on - as indeed I must here.

It was Wright Ludington's green cedar plank walled living room that caught my eye over twenty-five years ago. I marked the pages then, not realizing how I would again come to search for them – and not necessarily for aesthetic reasons, though these are undoubtedly beautiful rooms.

Though none are visible in these photographs, Wright Ludington collected work by some of my favorite artists - names which are now perhaps more evocative than true favorites, for Graham Sutherland was one of my favorite painters and one who is not well-known nowadays. A friend of both Mr Ludington and Roderick Cameron, and designer of the Christ in Glory tapestry in Coventry Cathedral, that was so impressive to me as a young teenager raised without any religious loyalties. Paul Nash, another English artist, who died the year after I was born, friend of Barbara Hepworth, herself a friend of Bernard Leach whom I once knew - six degrees of separation right there or, I suppose, just one thing leading to another.

Another, perhaps, is an inventory of art and artifacts inhabiting this most personal of Kunstkammers. The most pleasurable to me, not the painting by Edouard Vuillard, Interior with Baby, nor the Modigliani portrait, Rousseau's Castle by Moonlight, nor even the pair of Rouault paintings flanking the fireplace, but that small collection of objects, I suspect one of many such, made magical by distance and time - a four-thousand-year-old head of a Sumerian king and of a priest, two-thousand-year-old Tanagra figures and an Roman ivory fragment, a torso, Roman glass vials. It is the classical fragments, the busts, the heads, the torsos, the capitals, and the statues: bits, shards and splinters of civilization loved for themselves and what they represented.

The statue of Hermes, the Messenger of the Gods, in the covered loggia, above and here, formerly stood in the Sculpture Gallery at Lansdowne House - part of what John Cornforth described as "the most important collection in a London house." The statue reputedly was found near Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli whence it entered the Lansdowne collection.

The room above, I think, is the bedroom Billy Baldwin slept in on his first visit to Wright Ludington's Montecito house. 

"He opened the door not to a guest room, but to an art gallery. We entered at one corner and looked down what seemed like an endlessly long room - at least sixty feet. The white walls were filled with a fantastic collection of paintings of every period and nation. I stopped at every picture. Suddenly, it occurred to me that there weren't any windows - yet the room was filled with light. I looked up to see an ingenious skylight that extended the room's entire length. No one has ever wakened to such glorious sunlight.

"At each end of the room was a four-poster bed with blue-and-white curtains. Each bed had its own table, chest of drawers, books and a good light for reading. The beds were so remote from each other, and the curtains pulled so cozily around them, that even if you had to share the room, it would be like having the place to yourself."

Photographs by Charles White to accompany text by Robert Henning, from House and Garden, March 1983.
Photograph by John F Waggaman, of Billy Baldwin's bedroom from The Collector in America, compiled by the Editors of Art in America, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971.
Introduction to Lord Mullion taken from Lord Mullion's Secret, A Red Badge Novel of Suspense, by John Innes, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1981. 


  1. Another brilliant lesson, much appreciated.

  2. A wonderful discovery for me made available by your loves and research. Thank you!


    Art by Karena

  3. I do so enjoy the sculptures that appear in so my of your posts. In these rooms they seem like anchors. My eye needs to hold on to them while I take in the fabrics, paintings, even the furniture. The room with heads and boat models is spooky.

    P.S. I think of you when I go by Providence Antiques. Their new window display has 2 "walking chairs" like those in some your posts. The legs have feet and look ready to walk right out of the room.

  4. John T, thank you. I enjoyed myself.

    karena, thank you.

    Terry, thank you. Thanks for the tip about Providence. I'll go by - its a long time since I've been in that neighborhood.

  5. That's what I love about libraries...I don't know how many times I've been sidetracked in the best sort of way!

  6. Fascinating, absolutely. I well remember being stunned by those green plank walls, and the art, oh, the art....

  7. Always enjoy the stimulating meanderings of your mind and well-stocked knowledge bank, Blue.
    Been away from blogs for a while and about to catch up with your delicious backlog.

  8. Daniel-Halifax, thank you. If I had time I could spend hours in a library - nothing could be pleasanter.

    Dilettante, thank you. The walls are quite beautiful, are they not? Green rubbed in white and umber, sanded (and waxed) and so modern after all these years. The art is terrific and there was much more, I assume, than in the photos - judging by Ludington's legacies to the Santa Barbara Museum of Art.

  9. Rose, lovely to hear from you. I realize taking time out of a busy grandmother's day must be difficult thus I am doubly grateful. I'm glad you're back - as a friend and a blogger.

  10. Any posting citing Cornforth has my number. Plus the green cedar planks, for any excuse. Plus the vanishing real-world experience of libraries, of which no one can help but cite their olfactory trustworthiness.

  11. blue, another exquisite post in both knowledge and image.The guest room-how magical and Billy Baldwin's description, you know how I feel about BB. Did you keep the book? I have it and plan a reading this week.pgt

  12. little augury, thank you. I've moved the book and its packaging to the hall bench so it is on its way to the post office. I've thought about it a while but it is going back.