Louis, Robert and Winston: traces of the famous at a Bucks historic house

Off the A418 between Aylesbury and Thame sits a historic house that once housed a French monarch for five years.  Hartwell House, now a luxury hotel under National Trust ownership, was home to the court of Louis XVIII of France (pictured above in a portrait by Francois Gerard) during his exile between 1809 and 1814. The court included Louis’s brother the Comte d’Artois (who succeeded him as Charles X) and Gustavus IV, the exiled King of Sweden.

Perhaps less predictably, the advent of Louis’s court also saw the conversion of the roof into a miniature farm with cage-reared rabbits and birds and tubs of cultivated herbs and vegetables.  Emigrés fleeing from the post-revolutionary regime used Hartwell’s outbuildings as shops to earn some much-needed cash.

Over the centuries, Hartwell has had many famous connections, some of them international. For several centuries it was the property of the Lees, ancestors of US Civil War Confederate commander Robert E Lee – and US troops were stationed and trained here during World War II.  A later owner was Ernest Cook, grandson of Thomas Cook, whose temperance campaigns were the original inspiration for his pioneering work in travel and tourism.

But if you’re looking for an unexpected trace of the great and the good, go inside and look at the extravagant staircase of Jacobean origin. A fire damaged the balustrade in the 1960s and the replacement balusters include carved figures of GK Chesterton and Winston Churchill; the identities of the other, mostly rather grotesque figures are not known for sure.

The carelessness of Queen Elizabeth II

I admit it – that heading’s clickbait. As it happens, my view is that our current monarch is one of the more blameless people in British public life today. She has served, stoically and dutifully, for well over 60 years. She’s even had to put up with weekly meetings with 13 different Prime Ministers. So I’m not really criticising Her Majesty. But I do have a bone to pick with her team – or rather my wife does – and, as per the title reference to a well-known play and film about one of her predecessors, it does have something to do with George III. Tell me more, I hear you say…

It’s all to do with Windsor Castle, the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world and one of HMQ’s official residences.  Surely the phrase “nothing to see here” was never less appropriate than here. You could end up with a permanently slack jaw and a cricked neck, and no doubt some of the hordes of visitors do.  Suit of armour, on a horse, by the Grand Staircase? Check.  The musket ball that killed Nelson? It’s here.  A special room to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo? Naturellement. And that’s before we even get to the State Apartments, built for Charles II and much altered since, or St George’s Chapel.

I could go on. But I shan’t. Because one of the best, if not the best line manager I ever had used to tell me: “Look for what isn’t there.”  Now Windsor Castle is justifiably proud, among other things, of its art collection. Some of it could claim your attention, and mental speculation, for hours if you weren’t in a hurry. For instance: The five eldest children of Charles I (Van Dyck, 1637) in the Queen’s Ballroom; is the dog unfeasibly large or are the children implausibly small?  But my attention is on a painting that isn’t there.

It used to be. George III and the Prince of Wales Reviewing Troops used to be in the State Drawing Room. The King commissioned it, the Prince was not in the preliminary sketches but sat for it later and the final work went to the Royal Academy in 1798.  A smaller version is in the collection (but not on display) at the National Army Museum.  The original was the work of Sir William Beechey (1753-1839), who escaped a possible career as a lawyer to specialise in painting portraits of royalty and other “people of quality” including Queen Charlotte and Lord Nelson.  Beechey may have been a bit of a toady to get all those commissions but his portraits, as someone wrote fifty years after his death, “have maintained a respectable second rank.”

William had two marriages – the second to a painter of miniatures – from which he fathered 21 children.  Of course, names do change, disappear and sometimes re-appear down the generations. But it so happens that my wife Helen’s maiden name was Beechey.  Since William came from Burford, not too far from the Buckinghamshire of my in-laws and their ancestors, a family legend has persisted that those ancestors include William.  It hasn’t manifested in an artistic career – Helen still remembers the woman who criticised a painting she made at the age of three – but that’s not the point. Art in the blood, as Sherlock Holmes said, is liable to take the strangest forms.

Anyway – George III and the Prince of Wales Reviewing Troops used to be in the State Drawing Room.  Then in 1992, the year of the great Windsor fire, it was the only painting at the Castle to be destroyed because – get this – it was apparently too large to move out.

Seriously?   These are people who ruled the largest Empire on Earth. They’ve come through war, revolution, industrialisation and hundreds of years of heaven knows what else, and they’re still our monarchs. And they couldn’t work out how to save one painting.  Well, if it was your (possible, and admittedly not likely) ancestor-in-law who’d painted it, you’d have something to say about that, I bet.

Twenty-five years later, perhaps it’s time to forgive and forget. Beechey’s work survives elsewhere. And – despite a bit of carelessness with one of his works – Windsor is still absolutely splendid.