Two Queer Houses

We were in York the other week — as part of the progress on which we have not properly reported due to pressure of subsequent events. York has become a peculiar sort of place. The eighteenth-century lanes of red-brick and trim white paint still wind about the cathedral square, but the shops seem all to be fudge and chocolate and minerals these days. Visitor attractions. I have a modest list of things I try and buy when in a proper city, and it seemed significant that I couldn’t actually find any of them. But we did visit one extraordinary place, the Treasury House, which is near the cathedral. A building of considerable age, though basically 17th century in its internal arrangements, I think. It was owned by a minor Firbank of the thirties; a man who, having inherited pots of money from an industrial process, amused himself by spending the lot between Savile Row, the Bond Street galleries, and the CafĂ© Royal. The house was a fascinating monument to queer taste of the 1930s: some items, such as 17th century embroidery, were very much part of the general aesthetic of its time, but other aspects read as decidedly gay; the eclecticism, for instance, a concern for overall effect which mixed distinguished Empire furniture with the frankly Waring & Gillow, rich colourschemes with a great deal of gilt (you couldn’t help feeling that he would have liked Versace), and a sort of picky perfectionism which went so far as to put little brass studs in the floor to ensure that every piece of furniture, if shifted for cleaning, was returned precisely to its spot. Oversized chandeliers. The overall impression was confirmed to a certainty by an enormous, and quite incredibly tacky, contemporary painting of Jupiter and Ganymede, in which Ganymede appeared as as a public schoolboy with a sort of white frock and a very knowing expression. This, interestingly, was on the bedroom floor, not in the public rooms.
The next day, we had a tour out into the country which took us to, among other places, Shandy Hall, where Laurence Sterne wrote Tristram Shandy. This is in the charge of a charming aesthete & humourist, who struck us as the best thing which could have happened to it. Shandy Hall was rescued thirty-odd years ago by a Sterne enthusiast who was that dread thing, a bibliographer with a stamp collecting mentality, who sat in Shandy Hall collecting eighteenth-century books and refusing (though the place was notionally open to the public) to let anyone in. The whole affair was left to a sort of Lawrence Sterne Trust, which has employed the current incumbent to show it, enjoy it, and do interesting things with it - far from being a stamp-collector, he is someone with a real interest in narrative and Oulipian games of all kinds who actually thinks Sterne is funny. He gave us a splendid tour (it is a house of considerable charm) and we talked for ages about Sterne, Georges Perec, Ian Hamilton Finlay, and allied subjects — should an overwhelming desire for fudge or heritage Teddy-bears take any of you to York, do try and visit; it offers more entertainment, and real knowledge lightly worn, than I have experienced for a goodish while.

4 Responses to “Two Queer Houses”

  1. canadian professor Says:

    Went to Shandy Hall years ago in the company of a Benedictine (in habit) from Ampleforth, a skip away. It was easy to get in, as it was for others later. I neveer met Monkman who was, I thought, its guardian for years. He was helpful and kind to students of mine and ran a useful newsletter.

  2. Janey Says:

    Unkind comments about the previous management of Shandy Hall were based on 1) the Northern Professor’s memories of struggling to entertain the man at Cambridge, and 2) various English Aesthetes’ difficulties with getting in — perhaps it helped to have a Benedictine with you or to be identifiably Serious.

  3. Arnold Says:

    By all accounts Monkman had a massive chip on his shoulder about not being a professional academic. “He believed that, being an amateur, his writings would be decried by university-based scholars, a group that, with very few exceptions, he was inclined to distrust. He felt that he had first claim on all the material he had accumulated over a long period of collecting .. Nor was he generally disposed to reveal any of his treasures or to collaborate with others in their publication” (from his Times obituary).

  4. canadian professor Says:

    It probably always helps to have a Benedictine with you, especially if his name be Placid Spearritt. Whoever wrote the Times obituary sounds as if he (o9r she) had a chip on his (her) shoulder.

Leave a Reply