Althrop House (Northants): a house of Jacobean beauties

I’m still not sure if it’s pronounced “all-trop” or “all-throp”.  Nevertheless, I did make my way to Althrop and met Earl Spencer no less (as he was at home for book signings to flog his wares/fill the coffers and watch that evening’s Battle Proms).

Reason to visit: some really good art by Reynolds, van Dyke and to see the original fittings from Spencer House that the Rothschild Foundation have now replicated.

I’m not sure why I didn’t expect much from Althrop.

Perhaps because Simon Jenkins dismissed the tiled exterior that doesn’t share the fate of many stone houses (and Althrop’s beautiful stables) that have mellowed with time and now exude faded grandeur.  Instead, Althrop looks as crisp outside as the day it was built (and then altered (in the 1660s) and then altered some more (in the 1770s by Henry Holland no less) and then altered some more (by the Victorians)).   See more on the history here

I did notice that for 2012 Althrop won a runner-up place in the Historic Houses Association restoration awards, having systematically repaired its exterior, which might explain why the outside is looking so crisp.

Althrop is however spoilt by the wing to the right that should be knocked down because it messes with the symmetry of this otherwise U-shaped building of neoclassical appearance.

The sheep that made the Spencer’s fortunes are on abundant display in the parkland that surrounds the house and the central estate itself is compact – the house (and guests enter through the main hall but are then shoved up a pokey back stair, the main Jacobean stair dating from 1662 when the earlier open courtyard was covered over presumably too delicate to take the number of visitors, even if the house is only open for two months of the year), the stable block that houses a café, Diana exhibition (with her wedding dress and other pieces of clothing), and a shop).  There is also a small lake with the Island on which Diana, Princess of Wales, is buried.

Of course, Earl Spencer has embraced Althrop’s USP that is Diana and the house is certainly on the Coach Tour trail – some people even had Diana t-shirts on when we visited.  Who is to blame him?

I was therefore expecting Diana memorabilia and for some reason I was expecting tacky, but in reality I really liked the house.  Partly because it contains some beautiful mirrors and fire places from Spencer House (in Central London, which I visited in 2011) and thus I was able to walk around playing ‘spot what came from Spencer House and is 100 years too late for the Jacobean house that is Althrop’.

Perhaps as a result of the merger or two houses or perhaps as a result of 500 years of one family living in the same spot, Althrop has a ‘stuffed’ feeling and is the antithesis of many stately homes (such as Blenheim or Castle Howard) that are open year round and where the family have retreated to a wing and taken the really good stuff with them.

As I mentioned, at the centre of this house which originally dates to the 1550s and have been built up around was an open courtyard.  That was filled in with the giant staircase and around it sits a picture gallery showing off how the Spencers excelled in one sport above all others: marrying your daughters off into good families. 

There is Sarah, the wife of the 1st Duke of Marlborough, friend (and later foe) of Queen Anne and enemy of Vanbrugh in the building of Blenheim Palace.  My mind started whirring about the name Spencer-Churchill and Dukes of Rutland, all related to the family that now occupy Althrop.

Then, at the top of the stair in a portrait across from the current Earl Spencer, Charles, is Diana, the first wife of our current Prince of Wales, also Charles.

The tour starts in the double height entrance hall, complete with two nabobs that one guide suggested may have been bought for a niche in the Palm Room at Spencer House but were too large and so brought to Althrop.

Up the stairs one meets the first of a series of guest bedrooms.  I’m not sure how many state bedrooms there are on the tour but there’s

  • quite a bit of Boulle work (and some later copies);
  • two meeting rooms (which a guide I heard say repeatedly are there because “Althrop is for rent, for meetings, whatever you like”);
  • some Rubens and Van Dykes;
  • the Jacobean long gallery lined with a bevy of Charles II beauties that all look like they came out of the same cookie cutter (including some very risqué low-cut dresses), a bit of modern art of what is basically a streetwalker “representing modern Britain” and a perfect example of a Van Dyke entitled “War and Peace” and showing two brothers who fought on opposite sides in the Civil War.  BTW, on the wall opposite the said streetwalker is King Charles himself, who no doubt wouldn’t have objected to the view of so many ladies.  This space would originally have comprised a double height Elizabethan hall but was converted into the long gallery upstairs and the library downstairs.

I learned that the Spencers changed their religion three times during the Civil War – starting out Catholics, changing and then reverting.  Historically they were clearly not adverse to moving with the wind to find favour but as a sign of modern times I sort of respect the stand Charles Spencer took against the Royal Family after the death of his sister in a way I imagine Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire’s mother never would have in relation to the way she was treated.

  • a back stair with watercolours of many gated manor houses lining it;
  • the famous library downstairs which used to house the largest private library in private hands until it was sent to Manchester (and look out for the beautiful palm mirror that surely came from Spencer House and the Reynolds of Georgiana);
  • a dining room;
  • a shop;
  • the stair itself;
  • and then daylight and fresh air again.  The house was so busy and at times so crowded that I couldn’t move.  I was very glad to get out.

The lack of any laminated sheets and only 3 or 4 guides in the whole house made me wish I have purchased the audio tour at the start because although I grilled each room guide I could find, I’m sure I missed things.

The other notable omission at Althrop is a formal garden.  There is an herbaceous border near the stable block but otherwise nothing.  I’m hope that somewhere, squirreled away (perhaps near the tennis court that I spotted) there is a walled garden housing some beautiful, lush flowers but if there is, perhaps the Earl keeps that for himself.

It’s rare that I go to a house which is not a member of the Historic Houses Association or owned by the National Trust, the Council, English Heritage or a member of the Art Fund.  I take the view that for now there are 100s of houses to visit that I can obtain free entry to.  However, for Althrop I came across a voucher via Tesco clubcard vouchers that I intended to use for Kensington Palace (to see it post-refurb) but when I used my Art Fund card to visit Kensington Palace I decided on a trip to Northampton to see Althrop and not waste the voucher.  I’m really glad I did.

Always the photographer, never the photographed

When visited: August 2012

House * out of 5: ****

Garden * out of 5: **

Website: (and do also visit Spencer House)

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