There have been several buildings on the site. The first house was built in 1686 by a local squire, Robert Barber. Only some fifty years later, in 1740, the Barber family entirely demolished the 1686 house and rebuilt on the site.
In 1750 Anne Wyndham inherited the house. The next year she married the Hon. James Everard Arundell, third son of the 6th Baron Arundell of Wardour. In 1754 the architect Francis Cartwright largely remodelled the interior of the house for the Arundells.
In 1815 the Ashcombe Estate was purchased from Lady Arundell by Thomas Grove the younger of Ferne House for £8,700. Thomas Grove's grandson Sir Walter demolished most of the 1740 house in around 1870. Sir Walter later sold Ashcombe House to the 13th Duke of Hamilton, who in turn sold Ashcombe to Mr R. W. Borley of Shaftesbury after World War I.
The present-day Ashcombe House was originally part of the much larger mid-eighteenth century structure, and is an L-shaped three-bay survival of the eastern wing. There is a five-bay orangery close to the house.
The photographer and designer Cecil Beaton first visited the house in 1930, taken there by the sculptor Stephen Tomlin together with the writer Edith Olivier. He was later to write of his first impression of the house, as he approached it through the arch of the gatehouse:
None of us uttered a word as we came under the vaulted ceiling and stood before a small, compact house of lilac-coloured brick. We inhaled sensuously the strange, haunting - and rather haunted - atmosphere of the place ... I was almost numbed by my first encounter with the house. It was as if I had been touched on the head by some magic wand.
That same year Mr Borley rented Ashcombe House to Beaton for £50 a year, a very small rent, on the condition that Beaton would make improvements to the house, which was all-but derelict. Beaton employed the Austrian architect Michael Rosenauer to make substantial alterations to the material of the house, including a passageway through the house to unite the front and the back, and elongating the windows. Plumbing and electricity were installed. The artist Rex Whistler designed the Palladian front door surround, with its pineapple made from Bath stone. Urns were positioned on the roof and the orangery was converted into Beaton's studio.
Beaton entertained lavishly at Ashcombe House, and his houseguests included many notable people of the time, including actors and artists such as Tallulah Bankhead, Diana Cooper, Ruth Ford and Lord Berners. Artists Whistler, Salvador Dalí, Christian Bérard and Augustus John and stage designer Oliver Messel painted murals in the house, and Dalí used it as the backdrop of one of his paintings. Little remains of the Beaton-era interior design, although in the "circus room", which once contained a Whister-designed bed shaped like a carousel, one mural of a lady on a circus horse remains, painted during a hectic weekend party when all guests wielded paintbrushes.
Beaton's lease expired in 1945 and he was heartbroken to be forced to leave the house: his biographer Hugo Vickers has stated that Beaton never got over the loss of Ashcombe. Beaton detailed his life at the house in his book Ashcombe: The Story of a Fifteen-Year Lease, first published in 1949 by B. T. Batsford. The dustjacket of the first edition of the book featured a painting by Whistler, with the orangery on the left of the painting (on the back cover) and Ashcombe House itself to the right, on the front cover; this image has been reproduced on the cover of the 1999 publication of the book.
In 1948 Beaton designed a fabric, which is still available, which he named "Ashcombe Stripe" after Ashcombe House.
Right up until his death in 1980 Beaton owned a late eighteenth century painting of the house, thought to have been painted around 1770. It is now held at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum in Salisbury, Wiltshire, bought from a sale of Beaton's collections held by Christie's auctioneers.
Beaton's landlord, Hugh Borley, R. W. Borley's son, lived in the house from 1946 until his death in 1993. He grew increasingly eccentric and resented the fame which Beaton's book had brought to the house, refusing all offers to sell it and chasing off sight-seers with dogs or threatening them with guns.
On the Beaton track
When Cecil Beaton was forced to leave Ashcombe, it broke his heart. His biographer, Hugo Vickers, reveals the story behind an extraordinary sale.
Ashcombe requires an owner with exquisite taste
By Hugo Vickers (in Telegraph 09 Jun 2001)
IT is not often that a terrestrial paradise comes on to the market. Ashcombe is an elegant Georgian house, rich in romantic legend and lost in the valleys near Win Green, on the borders of Dorset and Wiltshire. Its heyday was the period between 1930 and 1945, when it was leased by photographer, designer and aesthete Cecil Beaton. Then an iron curtain fell, and few were admitted to the mysterious domain. Its owner, Hugh Borley, winced at the mention of the name Beaton. He never forgave the acrimony that surrounded Beaton's departure, and was livid at the memory of the photographer and his camp followers in fancy costumes, parading in the chalk valleys and upsetting the pheasants. He resented the publication of Beaton's book, Ashcombe, in 1949, and what he deemed the "notoriety" that it brought to the house.
From then on, when not occupied with his rolling acres and the rearing of his pheasants, Mr Borley's chief concern was to keep fascinated devotees from invading his territory. He set his dogs on Lord Snowdon, chasing him up the hill, and threatened to shoot more than one distinguished architectural historian.
Charged with the task of writing Beaton's authorised biography, I wrote Mr Borley a courteous letter and was rewarded with an unnecessarily rude message on my answering machine. Nevertheless, I did meet him and I did see Ashcombe in November 1983, largely through the kindness of one of the few neighbours he trusted. I was taken there under the assumed name of Richard Reynolds. Down the steep hill we drove, past signs marked "Private" and into the jaws of three barking, golden Labradors. Passing under an arch, at last I saw the much described view, which never loses its impact, of the sturdy little manor house nestling at the foot of a vivid green lawn.
We tracked down the owner to the kitchen garden. He looked like a retired naval commander - short, stout, hard-boned, clean-shaven - and was wearing a woollen waistcoat, a grubby red tie and a gold chain from button-hole to breast pocket. His fingernails were un-cared for, and he was missing a tooth in the lower jaw. He was smoking a pipe.
We were invited in, and I was surprised to find that the interior managed to be both miniature and grand. Behind the house was a horseshoe of steep hills. Mr Borley took us into his sitting-room, threw open the French windows and proudly showed us the sweeping view along the valley beneath. The conversation, in which I took little part, concerned the men of the estate, the foreman and the shepherds. He was clearly fastidious about tax and regularly consulted a scrapbook into which he had pasted various clippings relating to VAT.
This dreary pragmatism was a far cry from the romantic era of Beaton, who was lured to the house by the sculptor Stephen Tomlin, who said that it was "a sort of Grand Meaulnes place". When Beaton walked under the arch in 1930, with Tomlin and Edith Olivier, he fell in love with it at once: "None of us uttered a word as we came under the vaulted ceiling and stood before a small, compact house of lilac-coloured brick. We inhaled sensuously the strange, haunting - and rather haunted - atmosphere of the place".
There had been a larger house on this site, which had passed through many hands before descending into the Arundell family. In April 1815, Charlotte Grove (who spent her entire life within walking distance of her home, Ferne, at Berwick St John), recorded that her brother, Thomas, bought the Ashcombe estate for £8,700. "The business relative to Ashcombe finally settled", she wrote, "& it is my brother's. [How happy this has made me.]" Thomas Grove's grandson, Sir Walter, pulled down the imposing manor house in about 1870, and later sold the estate - and Ferne - to the wheelchair-bound 13th Duke of Hamilton. After the First World War, the Duke sold it to Mr R W Borley of Barton Hill House, Shaftesbury, the former owner of the Grosvenor Arms. He was Hugh Borley's father.
Borley senior rented it to Cecil Beaton for £50 a year, on the understanding that various improvements would be made. Beaton put in plumbing and electricity, and converted what was then a derelict cottage into the gem of a house that it is today. The Austrian architect, Michael Rosenauer, set about elongating the windows and making a passageway through the house to unite the front and back. Rex Whistler designed the front doorway, with its pineapple made from Bath stone. Urns were positioned on the roof; unconventional statues took up their poses in the gardens, the orangery was converted into a studio and doves fluttered about.
As for the interior, it was adorned in a clutter of baroque fantasy. White colours, as favoured by Syrie Maugham, provided a backdrop for a profusion of glass, shells and feathers, and the talents of Beaton's friends - from Salvador Dali, Christian Berard and Rex Whistler, to Oliver Messel, Augustus John, Francis Rose, and Lord Berners - were much in evidence. Little of this survives today - though the so-called circus room, which once sported a bed designed like a carousel roundabout, still has one mural of a lady on a circus-horse, which was painted during a frenetic weekend party when all guests wielded paintbrushes.
The result was a dream haven, where, at least so far as the image was concerned, life was a sylvan idyll. During Beaton's tenure there was a fete champetre, films were made, and many a beauty posed on the lawn. There were weekend parties, romps, tiffs and moments of blissful happiness tempered with abject despair. The actress Ruth Ford disported herself under a tree; Lady Diana Cooper leafed through the photograph albums in the yachting cap she would still wear half a century later. Guests meandered down into the valley to take tea in a deserted omnibus.
Beaton's father urged his son not to pour money into rented accommodation, and he had a point. The Borleys watched in the wings, and when the lease ran out, they clawed it back, taking advantage of all his improvements while erasing most of the eccentricity. Beaton never got over the loss of Ashcombe and frequently returned to gaze down into the valley, only once daring to sneak down for a furtive look.
Hugh Borley, the man I met, moved into the house in 1946 and lived there until his death in 1993. About three times a year, American millionaires wrote imploring him to sell it. "Name your price," they said, but he never budged. As he grew older and more disagreeable, he came to rely on whisky for solace, and the house fell into decline. As the deathwatch beetle invaded room after room, Borley closed the doors and never went in again. He slept under ancient blankets, and, when he died, there were enough empty whisky bottles on site to fill a lorry.
Shortly before his death, Borley ran out of money and sold the property to the present owners, David and Toni Parkes, on the understanding that he would eke out his last days in the house he loved. Since 1993, the Parkses have restored the house to its full glory, savouring the Beaton connection to the full. In 1999, their friend and neighbour, David Burnett of Dovecote Press, republished Ashcombe. For the launch, Beaton's family and friends gathered at the house, some after an absence of 50 years, others for the first time. It was my strange privilege to cast off my Richard Reynolds disguise and, at a spot not far from where Borley's ashes lay, tell the guests that the launch was a literary version of the falling of the Berlin Wall.
Ashcombe is now on the open market for the first time in its long history, and the astonishing sum of £9 million is being asked for it. This would amaze both Beaton and Borley, but besides the romantic legend, this is a property of substance.
Seeing it again on a glorious May day, I needed no convincing that this is a unique place. The house may be small, with only six bedrooms, but the studio opposite has seven, as well as a large room, presently used for billiards, which would be ideal for parties. Beaton wrote: "None of the rooms possessed the disadvantages of being cottagey and each window seemed to have a more dazzling view than the last."
The main view looks down one of several valleys, but the 1,134-acre estate contains three superb chalk valleys, another six-bedroom house, a farmhouse, two cottages and a bungalow. The pheasant and partridge shoot, which has been built up over the last eight years, is a legend in itself. (Since 1998, 15,638 partridges and 20,233 pheasants have been brought down.) There is even a Quaker burial ground.
Anything connected with Cecil Beaton draws unbridled enthusiasm. I remember the numerous visitors who came to Reddish House, Broad Chalke, where Beaton subsequently lived, when it was for sale in 1980. We kept brief notes on all who came, swiftly placing those who did not want to see the boiler-room into the "rubberneck" category.
Ashcombe needs a new owner with that rare combination of considerable financial resources and exquisite taste. But it is unlikely that he will feel other than Beaton, who relished being "the master upon Olympia, looking down upon my heavenly world"
Shortly before Borley's death, the house was sold in a private sale, to David and Toni Parkes, who set about restoring the house. They were friends with the director of the Dovecote Press, which republished Beaton's book on Ashcombe on its fiftieth anniversary in 1999, and so a special launch party was held at the house. When the house came up for sale in 2001, the first time it had been on the open market since just after World War I, there was a great deal of interest. Madonna and Guy Ritchie were the successful purchasers, after they were told by Hugo Vickers, Beaton's biographer, of its being up for sale. Like Beaton, the couple were similarly struck by their first encounter with the house:
"We just fell in love with it," Madonna explains. "In the summertime it's the most beautiful place in the world." The memory of their day at Ashcombe "just stayed with us, haunted us for a really long time," she remembers. Eventually they could resist its lure no longer, and Ashcombe was theirs.
In 2002 the couple erected 12 foot high security gates without first obtaining the necessary Listed Building Consent, but were granted retrospective permission. Recent building work at the house includes a large extension, roof alterations and conversion; and a March 2008 planning application for a swimming pool at the house has been approved. In May 2008 it was reported that the couple were considering selling the house; in October 2008 with the news of the couple's impending divorce it was stated that Guy Ritchie will receive the estate as part of the divorce settlement. On 3 March 2009, planning permission was granted to Ritchie by Salisbury District Council for the creation of a sporting lake on the estate. It is situated on land to the north west of Lower Ashgrove Farm.
The grounds of the house are noted for their re-established wildlife, including fallow deer. The grounds are also noted as one of the top game bird shooting venues in the country: The Field magazine voted it one of the UK's ten top venues for pheasant shooting. Public rights of way run through the grounds, and are open to the public all year round.
Ashcombe was only put on the market in the middle of June but interest in the 1,200 acre estate has been such that FPD Savills, the agency handling the sale, asked potential buyers to submit their "best and final" offers by Aug 1.
This means that the house could be sold for much more than its guide price.
The singer, who has viewed the six-bedroom Georgian house and its land more than once, is believed to be among the bidders and the sale is expected to be formalised by the end of the week.
This is the first time that Ashcombe has been for sale on the open market since the First World War. It is an exceptionally private house, hidden in its own valleys which contain one of the country's best shoots
A spokesman for Cluttons, the country homes agency, said: "Madonna has had people scouring the country for the 'right' estate. She is known to want something with a shoot because her husband is a keen sportsman. Ashcombe is a very attractive prospect and bound to generate attention from someone of her means."
The property is within easy reach of her home in central London and close to the Wiltshire estate of Sting and his wife, Trudie Styler. They are close friends of the singer and first introduced her to her husband, Guy Ritchie.
Ashcombe became the weekend retreat of London society during Beaton's residency. He was a generous host who, having restored the house in exchange for a very low rent, entertained there on a lavish scale, regularly inviting figures such as Tallulah Bankhead, Diana Cooper and Lord Berners to stay.
Friends including Rex Whistler, Salvador Dali and Augustus John returned his hospitality by painting murals. Leaving his home of 14 years when the lease expired in 1945 was said to have broken Beaton's heart.
The present owners, David and Toni Parkes, bought Ashcombe from Beaton's landlord, Hugh Borley, in the early Nineties. He had let the house deteriorate during the 50 years he lived there but the Parkes have restored it meticulously.
n her 40s – author , songstress, actress, filmmaker – Madonna has influence and reach that may be global, but her base for family and friends is focused on and English country estate. Hamish Bowles talks to this ever-evolving force about her film and book, and the pleasures of commitment.
“Who would have thunk it?” says Madonna with a laugh. “The last thing I thought I would do is marry some laddish, shooting, pubgoing nature lover – and the last thing he thought he was going to do was marry some cheeky girl from the Midwest who doesn’t take no for an answer!”
In the warm ivory sanctuary of her office in her ambassadorial Georgian town house in London, Madonna is on the latest turn of the roller coaster that is her thrilling, adventuresome, and fecund life. The room, its walls expensively craquelure’d to resemble fractured eggshells, its pale taffeta curtains billowing in the chill English breeze, is more Hollywood boudoir than office. Propped against the fireplace, newly arrived from her rambling Wallace Neff-designed twenties hacienda in Los Angeles, sits Frida Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Monkey; Madonna wanted to enjoy it privately for a few days before it is sent off to Tate Modern as one of the stars of their blockbuster Kahlo retrospective. On the mantel, nestling between a brace of glamorous Francis Picabia portraits, is Kahlo’s traumatic My Birth. “She’s a bit shocking, that one,” says Madonna, who clearly does not shy from unsettling images. Elsewhere in this room is Helmut Newton’s photograph of a perfectly groomed glamazon with a large gun in her mouth, and on an art tour of the house, Madonna points out the photographer Collier Schorr’s life-size portrait of a beautiful flaxen-haired boy in Hitler Youth costume. “People don’t know what to think when they come here and see this photograph,” she tells me. “I’ll let them be… confused.” Does Madonna, who presented the prestigious Turner Prize at the Tate in December 2001 (where she introduced herself as Mrs. Guy Ritchie), collect Brit Art, too? “I have a Francis Bacon,” she says coyly. “Does that count?”
Speaking in carefully modulated tones, dressed with faux-bourgeois sobriety (this afternoon in Issa’s prim satin blouse with a print of flying ducks, black Kate Hepburn pants, and Marc Jacobs teal lizard shoes), a flotilla of charming, noiseless assistants close at hand and a courtly husband making polite but distracted small talk, she has the air of an Edwardian dollar princess – the moneyed American belles who were married off to impecunious British nobles in the golden age – and the fragile beauty and substantial real estate to match. But no one understands metamorphosis better than Madonna; she even named her 2004 tour “Re-Invention.” That tour is the subject of Madonna’s documentary I’m Going to Tell You a Secret, directed by Jonas Akerlund and to be released later this year. In some ways the new movie is a pendant to 1991′s Truth or Dare, which a mellower Madonna now admits “in some ways is hard for me to watch. I was a very selfish person. You go through periods of your life where the world does revolve around you, but you can’t live your whole life that way. On the other hand, I kind of admire my spunk and directness!”
The new movie “starts with the struggle of a dancer trying to get into a show” and ends with Madonna’s controversial trip to Israel (to visit Rachel’s tomb as part of a Kabbalah experience) and a sweetly naive vision of peace in our time expressed in footage of a Palestinian and an Israeli boy walking together in friendship. “If I’m going to take people through a journey of my life, they are going to see all my journeys, and I hope they will also be moved by it,” she explains.
“The feeling in Israel is like no other place,” says Madonna. In Jerusalem she had “a sense of really going back in time… that I was being pulled into something. I felt very comfortable there. It’s weird; on the one hand it’s a very desperate place that could erupt at any time… it’s also very special – that’s why everyone wants to claim ownership of it. It’s not one of those places that beckon everybody, [but] I’m a bit of an excitement junkie.”
Aside from Jerusalem and its attendant dangers, Madonna’s movie takes you on an adventure to some of the key cities of her tour, Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, Dublin, and Paris among them – a giddy round of athleticism and lightning costume changes. For these cinematically inspired costumes, Madonna collaborated for the first time with Christian Lacroix, creating the armorial embroidered corsets that she adored. Meanwhile Karl Lagerfeld designed exquisite Weimar Kabaret-ish costumes (these ultimately proved too fragile to attach Madonna’s monitoring system to. “I was really bummed out because I loved what he did,” she says. “But I still have them – they might show up somewhere!”). Her friend Stella McCartney designed the “Savile Row three-piece-suit number.”
It was McCartney who created Madonna’s 2000 wedding dress. “You wanna see it?” she asks conspiratorially, struggling with a vast ivory vellum tome filled with the pictures the world’s media didn’t get to see: “No one’s seen these pictures except my closest friends.” For the record, McCartney produced a remarkably classical dress of ivory duchesse satin, with an hourglass eighteenth-century corset bodice (“a real boob squisher!” laughs Madonna) and an acreage of crinoline skirts dramatically billowing into an endless train. The nineteenth-century lace veil was found in an antiques market and secured with Grace Kelly’s Cartier tiara. Mr. Ritchie wore a kilt. “You can’t get married in Scotland and not wear a kilt,” says Madonna, who later put kilted pipers in her show. “It’s like, ‘Don’t show me things – you never know what’s gonna show up in one of my shows!’” laughs Madonna. “But I love to work that way.”
Since her marriage brought her here, Madonna has become England’s latest national treasure; the nation even has its own pet name for her – Madge – a parallel honor to the satirical weekly Private Eye’s anointing Queen Elizabeth “Brenda.” “I did hate it when they first started calling me that,” Madonna confides, “and then a friend told me that it was short for ‘Your Majesty,’ so I was ‘OK. I like it!’ Well, anyway,” she adds, “they’re stuck with me!”
It was not always a love affair. Madonna’s first trip to London in 1982, with her friend, dancer Martin Burgoyne, was financed by their bartending jobs at New York’s East Village bar Lucky Strike. “We used to rob the cash register blind!” she says matter-of-factly. When they had saved enough to hit London, “we went out to some nightclubs, and I met Boy George in the [Vivienne Westwood] World’s End stuff. He was just this force to be reckoned with, and I was very intimidated,” Madonna remembers. “He was really mean to me… he’s still mean to me!” Nevertheless, Madonna “found the whole thing quite heady. I couldn’t believe how seriously everybody took their looks and fashion and stuff – it was all very exciting and, yes, influential to a certain extent.”
But by the time Madonna returned a year later, she was riding the crest of her first success, and her relationship with the country unraveled. “Once I became famous I couldn’t stand London, because the press was so horrible to me,” she explains. “I didn’t understand the whole mentality of the tabloids; I thought, God, they’re so vicious. And this place was really different 20 years ago. Everything was closed up. The streets were dead on Sundays. There were no good restaurants. It was a very, very, very different place, and I had absolutely no inkling that I would have the life I have here [now].”
Since she met Guy Ritchie, the “scope of my world has changed,” she continues. “At the time, I didn’t see the funny side of it, but now I love England and want to be here and not in America. I see England as my home. And I now know how to ride. I know how to shoot. I know how to fish. I could be a connoisseur of ales if I wanted to – I never used to like the stuff, but when you’re married to Guy Ritchie you spend a lot of time in pubs, and I learned to like it!” Of her marriage she says, “The whole point of being in a relationship and having children is that you learn to love… unconditionally. That’s the best contribution to making the world a better place. It’s so nice sometimes just to go into my children’s bedrooms and listen to them breathe. It has forced me to get out of myself.”
It was Trudie Styler who played cupid when Madonna was invited for tea to her Jacobean mansion in Wiltshire. Here she remembers the “long, sweeping staircase… [where] all of her children were lined up – like the von Trapp family! I went down the line meeting them all, and then at the end of the line was Guy.” Madonna was stopped dead in her tracks by the strapping 30-year-old auteur of the nouvelle vague gangster movie Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, an eye-popping directorial debut. (This, together with his sometime Mockney accent – think Michael Caine in Alfie – belies a respectably patrician past. Ritchie cherishes fond boyhood memories of Loton Park, his stepfather Sir Michael Leighton’s estate, on the Welsh borders, where he developed his passion for hunting and fishing.) Of this first electric meeting Madonna admits simply, “My whole life flashed before me. It did.”
Madonna never set out to become a classic British lady of the manor, however, until fate intervened when she was introduced to Hugo Vickers, Cecil Beaton’s suave biographer, through a mutual friend in 1998. They discussed his Beaton books, including one charting the improbable romance of Beaton and Greta Garbo (“good and juicy,” says Madonna). They maintained an E-mail relationship, and sometime later Vickers sent one asking whether Madonna remembered Beaton’s beloved house, which was now for sale. Madonna told Guy, who, as she says, “has always wanted to live in the countryside. He’s the country person – not me. He loves nature and animals.” And so, imagining that it might provide an amusing day’s jaunt, but with no intention of buying anything, they arranged a visit.
Ashcombe, however, casts a very potent spell. Nearby are the Druidical worship sites of Avebury and Stonehenge; there is a Celtic burial ground hidden in one of Ashcombe’s deep, romantic coombes. “That part of the world has something very mystical about it,” says Madonna. “there was a reason that those druids dragged those stones [there]! That part of the world’s got some kind of pull for both of us.”
The house sits in a landscape of almost unimaginable beauty, cradled in the warm embrace of its own green valley, dramatic hills rising steeply on all sides but parting ahead to reveal distant fields. Cecil Beaton would recall that he was “almost numbed by my first encounter with the house. It was as if I had been touched on the head by some magic wand.”
Madonna and Guy were similarly entranced. They sat beneath the immemorial ilex trees that shade the house; Madonna photographed Guy there, fringed by wild grasses, and the ethereal result now sits on her office desk. “We just fell in love with it,” Madonna explains. “In the summertime it’s the most beautiful place in the world.” The memory of their day at Ashcombe “just stayed with us, haunted us for a really long time,” she remembers. Eventually they could resist its lure no longer, and Ashcombe was theirs.
Although the estate embraces more than 1,000 acres of roiling hills and valleys, nothing remains of Ashcombe House itself, a stately mansion built in 1686 but dismantled for its brick and stone two centuries later. Half the elegant stable block (converted into a studio by Beaton) and a cozy dairy house remained. Beaton’s frivolous decorating at Ashcombe was legendary, and he willfully ignored the building’s honest farmhouse integrity. The carousel bed that the neo-romantic artist Rex Whistler had made for him is long gone, but the splendid Palladian stone door surround that he designed is still in place, deftly transforming the house from cottage to mansion.
By the time the Ritchies arrived, the house was “kind of in ruins. There was a kitchen the size of a shoebox, and the top floor was just an attic full of rats and mice.” They created a labyrinth of romantic attic bedrooms, and an extension that mirrors the elegance of the stable block. While it suggests an eighteenth-century orangery, or a French pavilion, it contains a cavernous space that serves as kitchen, informal dining room, and living room in the modern family vernacular.
“To me, Ashcombe is a reflection of me and my husband in many ways because it reflects our willingness to make a commitment,” says Madonna. “Not necessarily to each other but to the idea of having a home somewhere, instead of living like gypsies.” The house also offers physical testament to the couple’s improbable union. Here, classic England meets pampered Hollywood; a place where cozy kilim-covered sofas, family silver, and sporting prints meet silky oyster-colored carpet, state-of-the-art sound systems, and luxuriant hothouse flowers. Where Cecil Beaton’s brilliantly dust-jacketed diaries jostle the 22 volumes of the Zohar, the couple’s Kabbalah reading material, on the bookshelves.
Cecil Beaton loved the place with “blind devotion.” When Beaton’s fifteen-year lease expired and he was evicted to make way for the landlord’s son, he wrote an elegiac book to assuage his great loss, a postwar requiem for the giddy, carefree thirties, the years of dressing-up, of masquerade and artifice. “We played; we laughed a lot; we fell in love,” he wrote. For Beaton, the place was “essentially an artist’s abode,” and he invited the great creative talents and stylemakers of the day to share his Eden: the writer H. G. Wells, and artists Salvador Dali, Augustus John, Christian Berard, and Graham Sutherland. They were joined by the period’s flamboyant style mavens, the Marchesa Casati, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Mona Harrison Williams, and Diana Vreeland among them.
When Madonna’s in residence she plays “lots of guitar; I go for lots of long walks, ride my bike. It’s a very physical place, a place for adventure. You can choose to go there to work in a very undistracted way and a very contemplative way, or you can go there and get lost in the environment. I always feel really melancholic when I’m driving away. I think if you’re a photographer, if you’re a painter, if you’re a writer it’s the perfect place to be,” says Madonna. “You feel protected because you’re sunk into that valley, and as far as the eye can see you can’t see another house. It’s a kind of buffer against the world.” Currently, Madonna is busy working on her new album (“basically all dance music”) with collaborator Stuart Price, which she hopes to release by the end of the year. She is also in the planning stages of a tour for summer 2006 and writing children’s morality tales. Her latest contribution to the world of children’s literature, Lotsa de Casha (Callaway), in which the richest man in the world loses everything but gains a friend (“There’s more to life than fame and fortune – something much more deep and profound,” says Madonna), follows The English Roses, her first foray into writing for children, itself the first of eight planned volumes; “The English Roses are going to take over the world!” Madonna says, laughing. Madonna’s own engaging children – Lourdes (Lola), eight, who has the preternatural grace and poise of a girl who takes her ballet lessons very seriously, and Rocco, four, a mischievous doppelganger for his dad – have “never watched television,” says their mum crisply. “They’re fine. I don’t think they miss it… my daughter is a voracious reader, and I’m very pleased about that.”
“Do you actually read the newspapers here?” Madonna queries later. “What does one read here? I don’t read newspapers. We don’t read magazines… and no television. At the end of the day they’re all noise.”
The Ritchies have more fun creating their own amusements. To celebrate their fourth wedding anniversary, Madonna set out “to re-create a Cecil Beaton weekend of folly. I invited all my friends, and we all had to put on a show, so to speak. It was so much fun – we moved all the furniture around in the Studio, and we created a stage and we put red velvet curtains up. Gwyneth and Stella and Chris composed a song together, which was brilliant – a spoof on American Life, only they called it American Wife. Gwyneth did fantastic rap and Stella sang background vocals and, well, Chris played the piano. Tracey Emin [the anarchic British artist] and Zoe Manzi [the beauteous art consultant] wrote a poem and took turns reciting stanzas from it. Sting played the lute, and Trudie read some sonnet. David Collins [the droll interior designer] sang ‘Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Ritchie’ [after Noel Coward's "Mrs. Worthington," an acid admonition to a relentless stage mother and her talentless child] – and my daughter was in it as well, playing the little girl!”
For the Guy Ritchies’ contribution, Madonna tracked down a copy of the mock Restoration play The Town Wench or Chastity Rewarded that British film producer John Sutro had composed for Beaton’s celebrated fete champetre of 1937, and performed a scene from it. “It’s really funny – and so bawdy,” laughs Madonna. For Madonna, Ashcombe is “one of those places that are very conducive to bringing a group of people down. I’d love to do it more, but it’s unbelievably complicated for my friends to each have a free weekend on the same weekend!”