Collector Polly Devlin uncovers a multitude …
When I first started writing about my collecting habit or affliction, (the heart has its reasons) I mentioned a little table in my bathroom where every trifle on it had a history and a provenance – very little to do with value but with enormous significances for me; and some of these objects have indeed gained in value over The Ages – then again there are some you couldn’t give away. But many of the ones I like best were not collected by me but were presents. But not that candle on the table, the only scented candle worth giving house room to. I buy that.
In 1962 when Jacqueline Kennedy gave a televised tour of The White House, in her little wispy voice, it was viewed by over 80 million people and that figure included a fascinated me in a dead-end flat in Belfast. As far as I could work it out there was a green Rigaud Chypre scented candle in every room in the Presidential quarters; maybe that was the first time I had even heard of a scented candle. I’d burnt incense of course, to show sophistication, but I never much liked its tatty smell. So when I came to London almost the first thing I sought out at Fortnum and Mason was this candle with its red ribbon, silvery base and lid, all still exactly the same six decades later! It was wildly expensive and I had so little money you wouldn’t believe but the green candle (and what was chypre?) had become a sort of obsession, a symbol of status, and it didn’t disappoint. When I lit the sacred flame, I loved the scent more than life itself, not artificial not synthetic, and I still do and so does everyone who comes into the hall. It has become rather like those flickering flames you see in Sacred Heart sconces in Catholic kitchens. I have never since lived in a house that didn’t smell of it, even as its price has steadily risen. The three-wick one I bought at Christmas was £200: talk about money going up in smoke! (BTW I don’t get a commission from Rigaud!)
I move on from the table in the bathroom to the table in the dining room which is a proper old fashioned dining room with a mahogany table with acres of extendable leaves, and silver candlesticks, a room so atavistic that some young people are astounded at its quaintness, never mind the immoral extravagance of a room just for eating in. Not that I do much eating in it and anyway at the moment it lies in havoc because of a kitten called Baggage.
When I look at the walls around this room I see a framed copy of Interview magazine edited by and signed by Andy Warhol – a casual gift from him but a souvenir I treasure because he is such a turning point in the 20th century, a hinge opening a door to reveal the art and look of the modern world, as Joyce did in his writing in his time, or Stravinsky in music.
Next to it is a painting by the Irish painter Terence P Flanagan given to us by my sister and brother-in-law as our wedding present and in which, though I have looked at it for over 50 years, I still discover new layers of meaning and perspective. He is a great and I think still underrated painter.
Above the wall of books hang six wonderful prints taken from portraits by Holbein. My husband’s great-uncle Sir John Fortescue was the Royal Librarian at Windsor Castle and the historian of the British army – its 13 volumes stand in the shelves underneath the portraits. It took him 31 years to write. One day he opened a certain drawer in a certain room in the vast Royal Library and discovered these wonderful portraits lying hidden, undisturbed for centuries. Lady Jane Grey, Sir Henry Guildeford, Thomas Boleyn, Earl of Ormond – all these figures so close to us now because of Hilary Mantel’s wonderful chronicles and all fresh as when they were painted. Mine are the first reproductions given to him by George V as a thank you.
Lurking in the shadows is a panel showing an elaborate coat of arms – a quartered shield held by a not quite rampant lion and what could be an ostrich. An ostrich? In Fermanagh?
When he was nearly 50, this conventional erudite man married a 23-year-old actress to snobbish family shock horror. The marriage was a great success and she supported him with her sentimental books about their life in Provence, huge bestsellers in the 1920s. These lightweight books now lean against the 13 sturdy volumes on the British army (the reverse, I think, of how the marriage was – she was the earner and supporter.)
Lurking in the shadows in the room is a wooden panel showing an elaborate coat of arms which I thought were the Brookeborough Arms – a quartered shield held by a not quite rampant lion and what could be an ostrich. An ostrich? In Fermanagh? The motto Suprema A Situ is painted below. Supreme by Situation indeed. I bought it as an act of compensatory revenge at the sale of the contents of Brookeborough House. I’ve written often about the corrupt and discriminatory regime of Brookeborough in Northern Ireland. Our Prime Minister for 20 years, he was a bigot and Orangeman and said hateful things about how he “wouldn’t have a Roman Catholic about his own place”. I have written too of the personal insult I suffered when at a dinner, the old monster, finally understanding he was sitting beside someone called Devlin, turned his reptilian face towards me and hissed: “You’ve come far.” Anyway, it turns out it’s not their heraldic arms at all but that of the City of Wellington in New Zealand. I could have saved my spite and my money.
On a nearby table are secrets in boxes: the first is the box given by John Lennon and I’ve written about it before, so I won’t go on. Next is a simple wooden box with a sliding lid that opens onto quite a sinister brown mould with a glint of buried gold beneath. People are often suspicious when they peer in but when they lift it out it is a marvellous gilded lead simulacrum of Tutankhamun’s false gold beard, by Merit Oppenheimer, one of the few women surrealists, made by her at the time of the discovery of his tomb. (She made that famous fur-lined teacup and saucer.)
In a cardboard box lies a small scarlet ballet shoe and tied to it with a silk ribbon is an invitation to a John Galliano show in Paris when he was at the height of his fame. Alas I could not go and I never saw any of his shows. A great regret. When I look at this relic, I am reminded of Moira Shearer in the film The Red Shoes. I saw it in the picture house in Cookstown and it made me yearn to be a ballet dancer. When I went to Irish dancing classes I found I was not cut out to be a dancer. The dancing master openly winced when he saw me essaying the jig.
Beside it is a long narrow red leather box with the cypher of the Houses of Parliament in gold lettering. It must have housed a scroll once and in it now is a scroll of inestimable value – the handwritten copy of the epithalamium Seamus Heaney wrote for my daughter Rose’s wedding – generous, funny, witty, and full of amazing poignant references to everything in her life and ours and yet totally poetic. Every couplet contains a brilliant secret message. The thing linking all these is genius. Except for Brookeborough. The very opposite. Ignorance.
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