It is a big house, shaped like a horseshoe. Ionic capitals hold the architraves of triangular pediments, with a variety of features: statuary, bas-relief, mosaic, and beyond, on the roof, figures and projections. Within are treasures.
The air rustles quietly inside, and footsteps echo, as do the sounds of all those moving and living among the poised memories. Here one can remember armor, but not much of it heraldic. Rather, functional, heavy, ominous. There is some, but little grace, since grace requires deftness, quickness of thought on the wearer’s part, and since it implies vulnerability. The armor is suited for walking through death’s domain and cheating it. To peer into the inner darkness is to wonder what remains of that. What was it like to pace the battle field from that vantage? To throw oneself at others such? To command from within a personal tank? Heraldic, graceful armor that works, if it exists, is not in this house. Weaponry can be more so: a row of halberds, spears combined with axes stand along the wall. The deadly power of a crossbow is not hard to surmise, looking at the horn of the foregrip, the iron limbs of the bow, the cable as thick as a quarrel, the metal crank required to cock the whole.
In the hall of stairs where generations have trod hang the Constantine tapestries and a lazy mobile swings. Golden Diana stands on a ball, with a bow modeled on nothing functional. How does craft shade into art? How does what works shade into what pleases merely, and why does it please?
Into the galleries: the period rooms in eternal memorial, the smell of old and ancient things, the dustless lamps, the gently moving air, glass cases, discreet guards, monuments and crockery, muttering and exclaiming visitors. In a small room toward the American quarter, near the end of one of the house’s long limbs is a small English collection: two carefully framed Blakes, a wall of Constable with a particularly heart-breaking sky, and a flaming Turner. Turner’s Burning of the Houses of Parliament beckons, as Turner often does, from a distance. Those transcendent flames, the billowing smoke, the glory in ruin of ruin, the moment’s vision of another place beyond, the quotidian lamps along the bridge’s hump, the echo in the water’s belowness of the sky’s aboveness.
Then swiftly back: the Gainsborough and Reynolds, the glass vases, the four seasons, the altarpieces, the rugged furniture and suffering, unornamented depictions Spanish woe. Into another dim gallery of monumental entryways, of capitals and archivolts, through the reconstructed cloister where the waters sound, past wrought iron, carved stone and colored glass—along with fragments and samples of more yielding material—and in view of all the medieval depictions of stubborn and forlorn humanity, afflicted, visited, delivered and transported.
It is a big house. I am glad for it, an increasingly familiar house, and one in this strange life’s sojourn where from time to time I’ve had for moments consolation, have found in what there is a home.