Photo by Justin Creedy-Smith.
Winser London is partnering with Althorp's fabulous Literary Festival this June, where we will have a luxurious pop-up shop. We are so pleased to have been invited by Lord Spencer to be involved in what is unquestionably the best literary festival in the country. It promises to be a fabulous event in one of England's most stunning private stately homes.
I recently interviewed Lord Spencer about his wonderful home, his family and his true passion for literature.
Charles Spencer, 9th Earl Spencer, is a British peer and best-selling historian. He inherited Althorp, his family’s ancestral seat in Northamptonshire, aged 27 and he now divides his time between Althorp, London and California, where his wife Karen runs her charity, Whole Child International. He has seven children.
Lord Spencer, you are a highly regarded historian and are particularly renowned for the depth of scholarship which underpins your writing. When did your passion for history start and what led you to write your first history book?
I’ve always loved History – not the dry and dusty part which puts many people off it at school, but rather the people-watching aspect of it. I just find it incredibly interesting to see how people reacted in particularly intense moments – and I find it very easy to identify with what people were up to three or four hundred years ago, because we really haven’t changed at all as a species in such a short time. So it’s been a passion of mine since I could first read, and growing up at Althorp – surrounded by portraits of significant figures from British and European History fired me up further. I dared to write my first History book in 1998 – it was on Althorp, in fact, and its history as a home to one family – the Spencers – for the past 500 years.
Your latest book, Killers of the King, about the execution of Charles I, was, unsurprisingly, a Sunday Times Best Seller and was the subject of one of the best Literary Festival talks in 2014. What is it about this particular work that you believe struck a chord with so many of your readers?
A long time ago I started to work as a reporter for one of the American TV networks – NBC News. I was only 22, and the veteran radio correspondent gave me the best advice anyone reporting or writing could ever receive: ‘There are only three reactions you want from your audience: “hey, that’s me!”; “hey, I wish that was me!”; or “hey, I’m glad that’s not me!”.’ In the case of the killers of King Charles I – whose aims and fates I cover in the book – it was very much a case of the latter: they were pursued around the known world by a vengeful Charles II, who wanted them put to death in the cruelest of ways – by hanging, drawing and quartering. In the end, my book resonates a little with people who like History, but written in a style that I like to read as well as write – trying to keep the pace flying along, with lots of quirky details. Some reviewers have said it’s a bit like a 17th century ‘Game of Thrones’, which is highly flattering.
Althorp was conceived as a place of entertainment when it was built in 1508. The house feels so much like a home – grand, but warm and loved. So many of the rooms are sophisticated, yet relaxed in feel – and I’ve heard children enjoy the space as much as adults. Do share with us what you most love about your home.
People are always amazed by the warmth of Althorp. From the outside it looks grand and formal, but inside I think you just feel that it is still a much-loved family home. When I took over, in 1992, I was determined that my children would be able to enjoy the place: when my grandparents lived here, and we visited as young children, it was all rather intimidating. I have seven children, ranging in age from 2 to 24, and they all love it here – filling the place with their friends, and enjoying the great privilege of such a beautiful setting. And I think it’s important to remember the Park surrounding the House – it’s so calming, and English, and understatedly gorgeous. Walking through the grounds it’s easy to forget the outside world, and wallow in natural beauty.
You have seven children, the oldest, Kitty, is now in her mid-twenties and the youngest, Charlotte, a toddler. What do you most enjoy about having a big family and are any of your children showing signs of following in your footsteps as an author?
Family life is the cornerstone of my life. Seven children is a large number, of course – but all seven, plus my two teenaged stepdaughters, make the effort to get together each summer, and around Christmas time, and my wife Karen and I feel incredibly blessed because they all get on so very well. Part of this is because there is no competition for attention – everyone has their own niche, in terms of age; and the big children (four are in their early 20s) are so sweet with the little ones (11, 9 and 2). We share an awful lot of laughter. None of my children seems keen to write, yet – but it took me till I was 35 to publish my first book, so there’s still time!
Althorp houses an extraordinary art collection (and some stunning china too - I particularly like the petite hot chocolate set that belonged to Marie Antoinette). How has living with such fabulous paintings influenced your appreciation of works of art in general? Do you have a favourite painting at Althorp? Do tell us which one and why.
Of all the contents of Althorp, it is the paintings that resonate with me most. I of course appreciate the furniture, the china, and silver, but the portraits are amazing: I recently worked out that, in general, the men were painted at their most powerful, while the women were caught at their freshest and prettiest. My own tastes in art are varied – I love the works of Edward Burra, the 20th century Anglo-Irish painter. But my favourite portrait of all is of ‘War and Peace’ – Van Dyck’s greatest ever double portrait, which we’re lucky enough to have grace the Picture Gallery. It has poise, it has arrogance, but it also has a lush and dramatic panache that dominates this 120-foot long room.
Literature is synonymous with Althorp – it is entrenched in its history. You launched the Althorp Literary Festival in 2003 and are hosting the twelfth this June – we are so delighted to be invited to take part in this year’s event with a Winser London pop-up shop. Do please tell us about the festival and which authors you are most looking forward to hearing talk this year.
Thank you – I’m delighted that Winser have decided to become such a happy part of the Althorp Literary Festival, As an author I have spoken at a lot – 50 at least – of literary festivals and events. While many of those are very lovely, quite a few do not really seem to look after the authors very well: after a talk, and a book-signing, the organisers often say, “Would you like a cup of tea – BEFORE YOU GO?”, with the very obvious hint being that they want you out of their hair as quickly as possible! Althorp is the opposite of this: we really spoil our authors, and thank them for their taking the time to come to share their work and opinions with the Althorp audiences. At the same time our festival-goers love the ambience of the three days – it’s so relaxed, while the backdrop of Althorp adds hugely to the sense of occasion. I love it all, I really do – and there isn’t a single author that I’m not looking forward to hearing: you see, I have the privilege and pleasure of inviting each one personally, so (in my opinion) only really interesting people are on the Althorp line-up.
Winser London will have a pop-up shop at the 12th Althorp Literary Festival, which will be held on 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th June 2015 at Althorp, Northamptonshire. For tickets to the festival, please click here. Hope to see you there!