The Alcove

After Easter Britain’s country houses or ‘stately homes’ will open their doors to curious visitors intrigued by the scale of the rooms and the treasures on display, but they rarely look into the alcoves. They could be small, once cherished retreats from the grander spaces of reception rooms. Or they may be next to bedrooms, used in the 18th century for powdering wigs, or where the lady of the house relaxed away from draughts by a corner fire. On shelves above it, there would be a bright blue and white display of Dutch ceramics/pottery. There tea would be served to her friends in fashionable porcelain cups and saucers with the latest gossip. The alcove could be round if at the bottom of a corner tower, or square if cut out of space at the corner of an elegant rectangular 18th-century building. It became a private alcove of delight, of shared memories, of secrets whispered away from footmen while looking out on to the gardens which could be discreetly explored, inclement weather, from an alcove door that looks just like another window. Or it can be a recessed space on one side of a fireplace like mine.

As I write I look out of a window onto a prospect designed by humans over centuries. That was when the Minster was being built slowly from the altar, pausing at the crossing (to make the ground plan follow the shape of the cross, to continue slowly its journey through time down the nave, halting mid-14th_ century because of the ravages of the plague – no money nor manpower – to reach its climax at the superb perpendicular window at the west or sunset end. It is more geometric and was built later when the return to rectangular classical forms had started in the early 15th-century Florentine renaissance.

An alcove can contain a life’s sequence too. In mine, hanging from the picture rail is a jangling cross that I remember bringing home from Greece. I was sitting at a pavement café in Athens drinking orzo with friends when one stood up saying he was going to buy some matches. He wandered off. People were gathering to protest at some new law. He was soon lost in the crowd and didn’t return. After some anxious waiting, we decided to follow the basic advice for lost travellers: try first the nearest hospital, then the prison. He was in neither. We found him a day later sheltering in the house of one of the protest leaders, without matches, but still hopefully rolling his own cigarettes!

In my alcove below the cross is the reproduction of a fragment from a villa near Pompeii. A woman in long robes is floating into my alcove over a flowery meadow – one can almost imagine a fragrant breeze. On her right is an elegant vase given to me by my American students when they found out that I loved alabaster. The dark green dish below her on a mahogany chest of drawers was bought in a bazaar in Marrakesh, while the lampstand came from my favourite shop in Deruta. This hill town in Umbria is where the local clay has been used for ceramic ware since the time of the Etruscans, nearly 800 years before Christ was born. They conducted an efficient import-export trade with Greece and around the flourishing Mediterranean ports before the Romans spread northwards and overcame the Etruscans.

They were also sophisticated metalworkers. Look at the Etruscan goat-leopard or chimaera, forged in Arezzo, though ‘stolen’ by Florence for its Etruscan museum. It has the head of a lion, the tail of a snake that is trying to eat one of the horns of a goat’s head protruding from its back. The sculpture is intriguing, even graceful. Does human imagination have any boundaries?

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