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A Tale of England at Cliveden House

November 23, 1986|FRANK RILEY | Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

TAPLOW, England — For three centuries Cliveden House has been a social, cultural and sometimes controversial political center of life in England. Last February, Cliveden House and its 400-acre estate was opened to guests as the result of an agreement between the National Trust and Blakeney Hotels, an English company known for country house properties such as the Royal Crescent Hotel in Bath.

Shortly after Cliveden's opening, a writer for the London Illustrated News visited and wrote a story headlined "Disgrace at Cliveden." He faulted the service, the staff in general and even the afternoon tea, concluding that because Cliveden, "like no other British hotel, belongs to our heritage, I hate to think what impression it will make on overseas visitors."

What would that London writer find to criticize now that Cliveden has several months of experience in serving guests, and what is its impression today on "overseas visitors"?

Tea and Scones

My wife Elfriede and I had afternoon tea and scones in the paneled library, where we were surrounded by 17th-Century paintings that included a double portrait of Louis XIV and the Duke d'Anjou as children. We dined in what had once been the main drawing room, redesigned by the Duke of Westminster in the 1870s.

We sipped coffee in the sitting room called the Boudoir beneath an oval portrait of Queen Victoria. We asked to see half a dozen rooms and suites besides our own.

We talked with Cliveden staff, from the liveried man who parked our car to the 32-year-old manager, John Sinclair, who had managed the Lancaster Hotel in Paris. (He is the grandson of World War II Liberal leader and Secretary of State for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair.) For hours we walked the 400-acre estate and the long path to the Thames.

The goal of Blakeney Hotels has been to present guests with an Edwardian country house with a classical standard of service, and this is being realized.

The Cliveden experience takes guests back through the centuries to 1666 when the Duke of Buckingham employed William Winde, a master architect, to create this country house beside the Thames. The royal family often used the great house as a retreat.

In the middle of the 19th Century, after a devastating fire, the Duke of Sutherland employed Charles Barry, architect of the Houses of Parliament, to design the masterpiece mansion that Cliveden is today. The duke used the house for entertaining during the Royal Ascot races and the Henley Royal Regatta on the Thames.

Grandeur of History

Every duke and Lord to own Cliveden has added to the paintings and sculpture in the house and to the grandeur of the landscaping and architecture around it, including the Octagon Temple and Blenheim Pavilion designed by Giacomo Leoni, the 2,000-year-old Roman sarcophagi, the great Clock Tower, the Amphitheater where "Rule, Britannia" was first performed in 1740.

In 1893 the Duke of Westminster sold the property to the wealthy American, William Waldorf Astor, descendant of John Jacob Astor, founder of the American Fur Co. He had just built the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on the site of one of his Fifth Avenue mansions in New York City.

Astor imported the entire rococo 18th-Century dining room to Cliveden from a chateau near Paris. He commissioned Waldo Story, an American sculptor living in Rome, to create a work of art that is a mood setter for any honeymoon-minded couple driving into the main avenue along the garden approach to the front entrance. It is the Fountain of Love, with three female figures attended by Cupid, all standing around the edge of a giant shell.

The regal staircase ascending from the entrance level was also designed for Astor. The carved figures on each newel post represent nobles associated with the history of Cliveden. Among the portraits that frame the staircase are those of George II and Frederick, Prince of Wales.

William Waldorf Astor soon became Lord Astor, and then he gave the entire Cliveden estate as a wedding present to his son Waldorf and his bride, Nancy Langhorn from Virginia. They made it one of the great centers of European political and literary life. Before World War I, Winston Churchill, Rudyard Kipling and Henry James were frequent guests.

When her husband had to move from his Parliament seat in 1919 to a hereditary position in the House of Lords, Lady Nancy Astor ran for the seat in the next by-election and became the first woman member of Parliament.

Political Troubles

The political split involving Cliveden came in the tense years before World War II. Churchill believed that Hitler could only be stopped by standing firm against him. Lady Astor supported Prime Minister Chamberlain's policy of negotiation that was attacked as appeasement and led to the designation of his supporters as the Cliveden Set.

During the darkest days of the war, the Astor family gave Cliveden to Britain as part of the National Trust and continued to live in and maintain the vast estate until 1966, two years after Lady Astor's death.

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