Cotswold character: Detmar Blow
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
How to describe beautiful Arts and Crafts house, Hilles, home to the Blow family? First and foremost, it’s a stunning wedding venue, high on a hill outside Painswick; but it’s also the seat of drama, tragedy and redemption. Katie Jarvis pays a visit
On the road to Hilles, the mist swirls like smoke puffed from a briar pipe. It clouds my vision, making me unsure of what’s there (and what I’m just imagining) in the spectral shapes of this unfamiliar landscape. Strange. I’ve known this happen once or twice before: when you’re so close to home; yet the twist in perspective is so alien, you can’t quite process where you are.
I follow the tapering lane off the busily populated A46 into deeper, obscuring nothingness. Confabulating; discombobulating; bamboozling.
And then, as I push through the mist, I catch it. The secret little sign to Hilles. And I swing onto a track that takes its time in stretching to what one might call a house – though the term does it little justice. A vision. An Arts and Crafts vision of stone and wood; of gable and chimney-stack; of greatness and detail; of mill-like austerity and extravagant curls. A political vision, too; where all who enter are as equal as the moment of creation: when unjudged soul animates untainted body.
For a second or two, I stand towards the far end of the terrace, peering out over parapet and into void. I know – or I believe I know – that in front of me lies a vista beyond compare: of plain and bridge; of tree and hill; of road and settlement that draw the eye for tens of miles, to a horizon that teases inviolable rules.
But now. Right now, all that is lost to the mist.
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Detmar Blow is making a coffee. A coffee for one. A coffee for me, the guest. The spring water - that has fed the house since its inception a century ago – is on ration, clogged and sluggish. Leaves, probably. The cattle are fine; it flows to their trough first, before it meanders wilfully on to the house.
“I’ll just put this on,” Detmar says, bundling washing into a machine with patent relief. “The first wash I’ve done in a week! How high is the reservoir, darling?” he calls to Sasha, his son, who’s on a visit from his other home: living with his mother, Mara, in Lisbon.
Sasha – delightful; chatty; bright – takes contrasts in his stride. In Portugal, life is lived in a small flat; in England, with his dad, it’s played out on a 1,000-acre estate, where he rubs shoulders with rabbit, deer, squirrel, badger, partridge and pheasant.
“Halfway, I think,” Sasha calls back.
“I’ll have a brandy, if it’s easier,” I jest.
“Do you want a glass of port?” Detmar counters, clearly thinking 10am beyond the pale for brandy, but borderline respectable for a glass of Douro finest.
“You’ve drunk a lot,” Sasha mildly and generally castigates him, with the sort of condescending maturity only an eight-year-old can muster.
“We’ve had a few heavy… Let’s take your coffee and sit by the fire,” Detmar says, adding a profligate jug of cream to the tray, and leaving the multi-shelved kitchen (copper pots, painted mugs, half-cut crusty loaf) for the Big Hall – a baronial room with smoking-hot fire. “Do you mind these chairs?” he asks, pointing to two high-backs, huddling close to the hearth. “Are they comfy enough?”
It’s a singular house, Hilles, I think, as I take it in, the swirl of smoke from the damp wood adding another layer of mystery. Even the name bestowed by its architect - Detmar’s namesake grandfather – confuses the reader, with its silent Chaucerian ‘e’.
In the Long Room, next door to the Big Hall, the walls are covered with extravagant portraits: of Warren Hastings, pioneer of British India; of literary Mary Sidney, in her beautiful Elizabethan gown; of Henry VIII, and Bloody Mary.
“Any family connection?”
“Nothing I’m aware of. Just a lot of royals my grandfather picked up. He built this house; there was nothing here before. But this is John Blow, who is an ancestor of mine. He’s buried at Westminster: musicians’ corner.”
“He looks like Pepys.”
“They all had that look.”
No wonder couples adore holding weddings here. It’s becoming ever more popular as a venue, with its panoramic views outside and its treasures within. Most stunning of all are the huge Long Room tapestries depicting the parabolic Acts of the Apostles.
I’ll describe them for you - (Is it possible to do so without irony…?) - with their blood reds, blatant oranges, and head-thrown frenzies: The Sacrifice at Lystra, where a celebrity-worshipping crowd mistakes Paul and Barnabas for pagan gods; The Death of Ananias, in which a would-be philanthropist holds back a portion of money that should rightfully go to others.
“They’re from 1680, from the factories at Mortlake, near Richmond, set up by Charles I… Charles I: one of our great patrons of the arts. He did a Grand Tour and saw the Raphael cartoons on the way into the Sistine Chapel, from which these are copied.
“We keep the curtains drawn to protect them.”
Back in the Big Hall, I’m glad I’ve taken off my shoes. Underfoot, I learn, is a monumental William Morris carpet, bought in the 1920s from another Arts and Crafts house: Clouds, in Wiltshire, the grand design of Philip Webb under whom the original Detmar studied. This Detmar knew them all: he was friendly with John Ruskin; he even drove the gloomy cart, adorned with twisted wheat-sheaves, that carried Morris to his grave in Kelmscott.
“My grandfather was very romantic; obsessed with buildings and creativity,” Detmar tells me, as I sip creamy coffee by the isolated warmth of the fire. “He became a radical socialist under the auspices of John Ruskin and William Morris. When he got married to my grandmother, in 1910, [Winifred, second daughter of the Hon Hamilton Tollemache of Helmingham Hall, Suffolk], he put his builders behind his family.
(By which, I think he means, they were honoured guests.)
“And in Hilles, everyone ate together. Not even Karl Marx ate with his maid! And so although this [house] has a lot of grandeur about it, the political side is very radical; very progressive.”
How extraordinary. But did it work? Because – as great a principle as that sounds - a lot of the snobbery was with the servant class, wasn’t it?
“I’m not an expert, but I think you’re right; in that the experiment – eating together – stopped because everyone felt uncomfortable; everyone wanted to be with their own mates. But he did have a go. And, although it’s easy for us to say, we were brought up to be egalitarian. My grandmother, though, was from the aristocratic side: she felt she was better than everybody.”
And he punctuates the point with an infectious Harry Secombe chuckle that I get to know well during my hour-or-so with him.
“Shall I bring Martha down here?” Sasha politely interjects.
“You can ask – she might be busy.”
Martha is Martha Fiennes – film director, sister to Ralph, engaged to Detmar since last spring.
“We’re going to get married in September,” Detmar tells me. “You’re going to be a page boy,” he adds, to Sasha.
“Next September?” Sasha exclaims, with obvious disdain for such dallying. “Oh come on! That’s a long while.”
A little later, Martha appears – long-legged, slightly reticent, fiercely protective of Detmar in a way that could chip but doesn’t.
It’s good to see their happiness. It’s good to see the mist beginning to lift.
Ten years ago, Detmar Blow’s first wife – the style icon Isabella – died by her own hand; by drinking poison – after a series of suicide attempts - bought from a farm shop in Thornbury. As if the deed could be more tragic still, the method mirrored the suicide of Detmar’s father – the honourable Jonathan Oliver Tollemache Blow – who died in 1977, when Detmar was 14, after drinking Paraquat he had bought from the local farm shop. His younger son, Amaury, discovered him.
The darkness of that paternal suicide - Detmar speculates in his memoir Blow By Blow - helped forge an instant understanding with Issie. She had her little brother Johnny’s death for ever hanging over her: the toddler had died after chasing a ball into the family swimming pool, while under her care. Unbelievably, Issie had been five years old at the time.
A bare two weeks after they met at a wedding in Salisbury Cathedral, Detmar proposed. He was 24 and studying for the bar (he only went into law to please his mother); she was 29, granddaughter of Sir Jock Delves Broughton (think: White Mischief scandal), and already once married.
They would be together for the next 18 years.
Issie adored Hilles – and the house (“I do feel it as my friend. Flesh and blood, definitely,” Detmar tells me, as we analyse and recall) reciprocated. To this corner of Stroud, she brought her ‘discoveries’: the troubled but brilliant Alexander McQueen (who ‘betrayed’ her, when he landed a contract with Givenchy, by failing to give her a role alongside him); Philip Treacy (creator of the ‘lobster’ hat); Stella Tennant (“Issie suspected that Stella had not bathed recently”, Detmar relates in the book), and Sophie Dahl who, by chance, appeared on the steps of Detmar and Issie’s London house, dragging on a cigarette after a tearful row with her mother.
Issie and Detmar forged friendships with Bryan and Lucy Ferry (“I had dinner with him, recently; he said, ‘Detmar, you’re on good form!’”), with Elton John and David Furnish. Celebrities the crowds so often mistake for gods.
The world already knows of Issie’s brilliance; most also know something of her mesmerising eccentricity. She dressed like Boudicca in Bedlam, with an enrapturing, eye-tearing, mind-altering charm that we’ll never see the like of again. Her lack of synergy with the outside world manifested itself, particularly, in creative expenses. While working as a style editor for Tatler, she put in a claim for ‘Just £50,000 for a very small ruin which was really a must.’ Condé Nast big cheese Nicholas Coleridge recalls her plea for a 100 percent pay rise, two weeks after a previous hike in salary, on the basis that she would soon have to live ‘rough on the streets’. The next morning, Issie asked him to help her choose between drop earrings and a necklace she was buying herself as a treat. “They cost £15,000, I seem to remember.” (Lloyds Bank in Stroud – probably to its utter mystification – once received an imperious letter from her demanding an increased overdraft because she was off to LA, almost certainly to meet Tim Burton and Brad Pitt.)
But that unworldly innocence also led to her daring fashion sense, which took no prisoners.
What amazed me about the book, however, was the way Detmar refused to shy away from Issie’s even more outrageous idiosyncrasies. Outré outlandishness.
“What? All that striptease?”
Well, ye-e-e-ss. (“If anyone wasn’t paying attention to her, she would flash her boobs… If you were not interested in talking to her, woop! Out they’d come.” (Hugo Guinness).) She even did a striptease dance in front of Andy Warhol’s family and friends at his memorial, declaring the party too boring and staid for him. ‘Exhibitionism’ has its own entry in the Blow By Blow book index.
“One always sensed that you were with a great person; they’re not always easy but it was a price worth paying,” Detmar parries.
And they understood each other.
“Memory plays tricks, but I remember talking about King Lear, out on the heath, with the fool,” Detmar recalls, of that first meeting. “I said to Issie, I always felt I was the fool, amusing people, only to get kicked to death and abandoned. I think Issie felt that, too.”
They married in Gloucester Cathedral in 1989 and held a reception at Chavenage House near Tetbury. “Of course, we had wanted to have our reception at Hilles – but my mother had refused.”
Refused? What refused? How refused? (Suddenly, that second Raphael cartoon.)
“I don’t own Hilles, strangely. It belongs to this wicked mother of mine, in Sri Lanka.”
“She should give it to my dad. He does everything.”
“Thank you, darling. I agree.
“That’s the irony,” Detmar continues to me, strangely good-naturedly. “Once, Fraser Nelson of the Spectator rang me. I told him that being at Hilles was simply an accident of birth and that the house should be shared with everybody.
“He said that was a very unusual attitude. But then he discovered that I didn’t own the house, and he said to me, ‘You’ve got less money than I have!’”
And Detmar roars with laughter.
There’s nothing that’s off-limits when talking to Detmar Blow. Not the fact that, when his father died, his mother went back to Sri Lanka for good, leaving her teenage children – Detmar, Amaury and Selina; (Detmar, the eldest, in charge) - under the care of a housekeeper.
Not his own struggles with mental health.
Not anything. (Which explains Martha’s feelings of protectiveness.)
“I did end up in psychiatric hospital in 2008,” he says. “I’m quite proud of it. I went to America – to Arizona – for a month; an almost life-threatening sense of anxiety. It wasn’t as much Isabella’s six or seven suicide attempts and her tragic death; it was to do with my abandonment, as a child. I wanted to talk about it, suddenly.”
“It’s important people talk about these things. They’re not shameful. Talking may help others.”
It occurs to me, as I listen, why Hilles is so important to him. Why he works so hard to run it as a beautiful wedding venue. Why he’s so keen on bringing a high-end contemporary art fair here – planned for April 2018; why he’s so delighted about the recent BBC shoots (Ill Behaviour, a new comedy, for one); a Gucci menswear campaign last summer; why he wants to ‘reconnect it’ with the community…
Hilles has been the one stability of his life; the one sure, trustworthy element so far. A loyal partner. A supportive parent.
But that insight reminds me of something else Detmar mentioned in his book. Something about the Hilles chattels – the elaborate pictures; the Elizabethan furniture; the pewter plates and the leather utensils – which are inventoried in Blow minds like names in a family Bible.
Because, after Detmar’s father had drunk that dreadful draught back in 1977, it was the objects to which he bade farewell. He went round Hilles, as the poison burned its ineluctable brand, and took leave of the portraits and the panelling, the flagstone floors and the elm boards.
And it seems to me both poignant and significant that he said goodbye to things. “I wondered,” I ask Detmar, carefully, “what you thought about that?”
“I think he was wrong. He got the value-system wrong. But he was also a victim of his parents, particularly his mother. There was a story the late Lynn Chadwick - the sculptor – told of when this house burned down in 1951. It was thatched; it caught fire somehow – and people were offering my grandmother condolences: ‘Dear Mrs Blow; how awful your house burned down!’
“And my grandmother said, addressing her youngest daughter, ‘Yes, we would gladly have sacrificed a member of the family, wouldn’t we, Lucilla?’ ‘Yes, mummy.’”
He chuckles, uproariously.
“She turned to her daughter! – ‘We’d have gladly sacrificed a member of the family, wouldn’t we Lucilla?’ ‘Yes, mummy.’”
And then, shaking his head at the sheer bamboozlement of it all, he chortles again.
For more on Hilles House at Sevenleaze Lane, Painswick, Stroud GL6 6NN, call 07833 452716 or visit the website.