A ceiling in Winston Churchill's ancestral home tells the story of an eccentric duchess

Catherine McCormackCatherine McCormack.Courtesy of Catherine McCormack

  • Catherine McCormack is a writer and art history lecturer based in London. She regularly teaches at Sotheby's Institute of Art, Dulwich Picture Gallery and UCL, where she completed her PhD and was a Teaching Fellow.
  • The following is an excerpt from her book, "The Art of Looking Up."
  • In it, McCormack looks at 40 ceilings around the world and examines their impact.
  • Here, she focuses on the power that ceilings can convey, focusing on the intriguing history of Blenheim Palace - Sir Winston Churchill's ancestral home.
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The easiest way to overwhelm is from above, as this is the vantage point from which all authority tends to descend. And so it follows that, in spaces of power, such as at the palaces of royalty, autocracy, and rulership, the ceiling becomes an exercise in communicating that domination. This is achieved through the incorporation of various messages signaling such things as immense wealth and immortality. Portrayed with sentiments ranging from intimidation to whimsy, they are realized in ways that range from painterly ingenuity in composition to the use of beetles and bees. For example, ceilings such as the "Allegory of Divine Providence at Palazzo" Barberini in Rome or the Sala dei Giganti in Palazzo del Te, Mantua, employ a sotto in su technique. Literally meaning "from below to above," this involves the extreme foreshortening of figures and objects in order to create the effect that they are suspended in the air, at times bearing down and entering into the space of the beholder beneath (who duly flinches in anticipation). A similar interrogation and sense of the patron's presence can be felt on the North Portico of Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, in the form of a sequence of disembodied eyes.

The Art of Looking UpThe Art of Looking Up.Courtesy of White Lion Publishing

While ... ceilings range from medieval Granada to Rajasthan and Turkey, there is one age that dominates: the age of absolutist authority in Europe, of prince-bishops, popes, and kings. It is no coincidence that the Würzburg Residence, Banqueting House in Whitehall Palace, and Palazzo Barberini all share the common theme of apotheosis - the elevation of the princely individual to sit with the gods in an imagined kingdom of immortality, as performed across these grandiose ceilings with blousy pomp, conceit and vainglory.

However, not all ceilings in the palaces of the powerful are so baldly egotistical. By contrast, the Muslim palaces of the Alhambra in Granada, Topkapı in Istanbul, and Bundi Palace in Rajasthan, strike a more humble chord. While no less visually impressive and sensually rich, they reference the spirituality of creation and the flow of life without recourse to mythologizing self-aggrandizement. With power, there is also the luxury of time to indulge in pleasure, leisure and comedy, examples of which range from the elegant confines of Catherine the Great's Chinese Palace at Oranienbaum, St Petersburg, to the witty and unexpected view from below in Vicenza's Palazzo Chiericati's Sala del Firmamento.

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Blenheim Palace, United Kingdom

Blenheim Palace, United Kingdom

Six unblinking, disembodied eyes bear down on all those who arrive at the principal entrance to the palatial setting of Blenheim Palace, the ancestral home of Sir Winston Churchill. Three eyes are brown, the remaining three a cerulean blue, all of them encased in enigmatic starbursts. It is a peculiar welcome to one of England's largest and most prestigious stately homes, the only secular and non-royal building in the country to be known as a 'palace.'

But Blenheim has always been a place of controversy. The house was built between 1705 and 1722, as a gift from Queen Anne to the 1st Duke of Marlborough for his valiant victory at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. Planning and development fell to the duke and his wife. They disagreed over who should be entrusted with the design and the job was handed to the English dramatist and sometime architect Sir John Vanbrugh who had worked with Nicholas Hawksmoor on the baroque behemoth of Castle Howard in Yorkshire.

The building is idiosyncratic in all respects. Part mausoleum, part monument, and part domestic family home, it was criticized by the public as a flamboyantly excessive drain on public funds. After completion it became known as an architectural failure that was too severe and grandiose — so much so that Vanbrugh never worked again.

While the palace is known for its tapestries, old master paintings, antiques and furniture, the North Portico tells the story of one of the building's more eccentric inhabitants.

While the palace is known for its tapestries, old master paintings, antiques and furniture, the North Portico tells the story of one of the building's more eccentric inhabitants.

The decoration of the portico dates to 1928 and the patronage of Gladys Deacon, the second wife of the 9th Duke of Marlborough, who commissioned British war artist Colin Gill to paint the eyes of her and her husband in 1928. The duchess allegedly scaled Gill's ladder waving a silk scarf so that he might perfect the exact shade of her famously disarming eyes. Having studied at London's lade School of Fine Art, Gill was dispatched to the Western Fronting France during the First World War, where he employed his artistic training working as a camouflage officer. On his return, he was commissioned to paint a contemporary history painting commemorating the dead for a memorial project known as the Hall of Remembrance, a commemorative building that was never completed. His observations of trench warfare can be seen in the work Heavy Artillery (1919) in the Imperial War Museum, London.

Celebrated for her meteoric beauty and famed for her intellect and wit, the duchess beguiled Europe, capturing the admiration of Marcel Proust, Auguste Rodin (who gifted her a sculpture), Claude Monet, and the Crown Prince of Prussia, among many others. Born in Paris to American parents, she spent most of her early years in France, including an education in a convent to which she was sent after her father murdered her mother's lover.

Deacon arrived in England in the late 1890s and befriended the Duke of Marlborough's first wife Consuelo.

Deacon arrived in England in the late 1890s and befriended the Duke of Marlborough's first wife Consuelo.

Unsurprisingly, she acted as muse for a number of modernist artists who captured her in portrait form. They included Italian futurist artist Giovanni Boldini, John Singer Sargent, and the sculptor Jacob Epstein. Soon after her arrival in England, Deacon became the Duke of Marlborough's mistress ensconced at Blenheim, although the pair did not marry until 1921 when his first marriage ended. The second duchess was committed to her pursuit of a perfectly formed Grecian profile, and soon after her marriage she underwent cosmetic surgery to inject paraffin wax into the bridge of her nose. However, the wax became displaced and collected in hard lumps around her chin, disfiguring her famous beauty.

Gill's painting of eyes may be something of a window onto a troubled soul who lived a life of colorful experiences, but any intended meaning remains oblique and lies buried with the enigmatic duchess, who died a nocturnal recluse, surrounded by cats.

Gill's painting of eyes may be something of a window onto a troubled soul who lived a life of colorful experiences, but any intended meaning remains oblique and lies buried with the enigmatic duchess, who died a nocturnal recluse, surrounded by cats.

Having said this, the eye as a visual symbol has a significant history and has appeared on churches, temples and even on banknotes. For example, the Eye of Horus was a popular motif in ancient Egyptian mythology and represented good health, protection, and royal power. In Europe in the medieval period the eye symbol was often surrounded by a triangle that symbolized the Holy Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit and represented the omniscient eye of God keeping watch on humanity, and was later taken up by the Freemasons as a reflection of their belief in this all-seeing power who saw and judged everything.

Excerpt from THE ART OF LOOKING UP by Catherine McCormack. Copyright © 2019 by Catherine McCormack. Reprinted by permission of White Lion Publishing.

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