Imagine the sun is shining, the rolling parkland looking perfectly deep green, distant white sheep settled underneath the shade of old majestic trees, the narrow drive winding up the main drive whilst the top spires of the castle appear and disappear from view.
This was of course the arrival story as guests arrived two days ago for the Garden Party. Was the Downton Abbey theme tune playing in cars and taxis as they arrived? I do hope so!
Ironically, despite the predictable vagaries of the British weather, we do have a fixation for creating events outside in the fresh air and the green but fortunately this time, luck was on our side and the sun shone.
Apparently, despite their popularity in the UK, the history of garden parties’ dates back to France in the late seventeenth century when the French nobility introduced the concept of a “fête champêtre” or rural party. The Gardens of Versailles were landscaped with follies, temples and pavilions to accommodate such celebrations which in turn were reflected in paintings by artists such as Lancret and Watteau.
In fact, the creation of Versailles initially began with work on its park and gardens leaving what was originally Louis XIII hunting lodge untouched. Later, the architect Le Vau added two detached service wings and a forecourt creating a château. This was then subsequently encased on three sides and given a new Italianate façade. Over subsequent decades it became ever more impressive but the gardens are as much a wonder of the world as is the palace.
The English soon followed suit not just in architecture and gardens but also in terms of culture. On a very much smaller scale but inspired but these trends from abroad, Geordie’s 18th century ancestor, Robert Herbert, built 12 assorted temples and grottos, created woodland walks with statues and garden glades in which to host his own garden parties. They were perfect places for musical performances or settings in which to put on plays, especially the little theatre in the park. In between, delicious food was served in the gardens.
A century later, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert would host the grandest of summer garden parties at Buckingham Palace inviting all of society. They were an opportunity for the royals to connect with their subjects and to showcase the gardens. The tradition continues today with three garden parties held each summer at Buckingham Palace in London and one at Holyrood House in Edinburgh
The American novelist Henry James stayed at Highclere and I often think the opening of “A Portrait of a Lady” could belong to Highclere: “Summer afternoon — summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.” It is a very fine novel although it brings together the themes of misguided choices and the manipulative agendas in life neither of which produce happiness. Nevertheless, the ending allows each of us to imagine the character’s future and hope for some happiness in later years.
Perhaps it could be possible to remember and reposition a quote from another exceptional author Scott Fitzgerald: “And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow fast in movies, …. that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with summer”.
A summer garden party is a framed moment in life, about living and enjoying each present moment. It is about looking forwards to it, celebrating being there and remembering the golden hours and laughter to look back upon. A moment captured in a portrait, a photograph, words and memories, a moment which extends always.
Nothing is of course more English than an afternoon tea party: pots of tea, scones, cakes, finger sandwiches, a band, a stately home, wonderful guests and Labrador puppies.