Royal newlyweds and wedding watchers may still be aglow from last month’s nuptials, but Charles, 9th Earl Spencer (uncle to Prince Harry and younger brother of Diana, Princess of Wales) is jet-setting as usual: From Windsor Castle to Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and daughter, with a pit stop at Kennedy Galleries in Toronto for the launch of the Althorp Living History Collection – furniture manufacturer Theodore Alexander’s newest collection of pieces styled after originals found in the Spencer ancestral home.
“I’m at Althorp on and off,” Lord Spencer says of his to-ing and fro-ing. “It’s really very much more a family headquarters than an actual home,” he says. But it’s not all business at the 550-acre estate, nestled in Northamptonshire, England, on a vast property that encompasses cottages, farms, forests and villages. The current crop of Spencers – the home has been in the family for 19 generations, since it was built in 1508 – spend several weekends a year there, “when we fill it with family and friends,” Lord Spencer says.
“Actually, the man who built it, Sir John Spencer – he died in 1522 – left it in his will that it should be a place of entertainment, which is quite a nice clause for a descendant to have to obey,” he says. Today, the house is open to the public 60 days each summer, and is the site of a popular food and drink festival in May – “because the British do quite like to eat,” Lord Spencer says – and a literary festival in October, when it functions as a “salon … where people of exceptional ability gather and enjoy each other’s company.”
The house has changed from the red brick Tudor of old. It was reclad in a grey limestone tile in the 18th century when the famed landscape designer Lancelot (Capability) Brown, author of the naturalistic English garden aesthetic, “decreed that red houses were vulgar.” Only the 35-metre-long picture gallery remains as it was in 1508, where “the ladies of the house used to walk up and down when it was wet outside, to save their dresses from getting muddy.” But of the 90 rooms at Althorp, Lord Spencer cites the library as his favourite.
“It’s got beautiful proportions. It’s got a sort of intimacy, which [given] the scale of it, is hard to imagine,” he says. The family uses it as a sitting room, a drinks-before-dinner room, and Lord Spencer, who’s a historian and author, peruses the shelves when researching. At one point the library housed 43,000 original first editions, but a fraction of these remain. “Actually, it’s a result of Canada and America opening up successfully that we had to sell some of the library a long time ago to fund the house,” he explains. “No hard feelings.”
Two globes – one of the Earth as it was known in the 1730s, the other celestial – bookend the library. “It’s so interesting to see what they understood of the world and what they didn’t,” Lord Spencer says. California, for instance, appears a “big squiggle,” and it “just sort of peters out at the edges,” he says. But some old things stand the test of time. Furniture company Theodore Alexander has, for over a decade, offered pieces inspired by Althorp’s furnishings, including a leather, deep-button library sofa and an enchanted bureau that opens to reveal cascading staircases and dummy drawers for storing personal treasures.
“[The collection’s] been very important for the house,” says Lord Spencer, who was in Toronto promoting the latest offering of bureaus, chairs, vitrines and jardinières. “The little mantra I have is that the house looked after the furniture for 500 years, and now the furniture looks after the house.”
Get the look
The Althorp Library Sofa by Theodore Alexander, starting at $12,000 at Kennedy Galleries (kennedygalleries.com).
Empire-style English revolving bookshelf, $3,240.59 at 1stdibs (1stdibs.com).
Aquasilk overdyed rug, US$25,600 at ABC Carpet & Home (abchome.com).
Golden globe atlas sculpture contemporary design accent, $10,570.88 at 1stdibs (1stdibs.com).
Campina magazine rack, $39 at Structube (structube.com).