“I do the thinking, you do as you are told.” -Alva Vanderbilt to her daughter Consuelo (later Duchess of Marlborough) Sit back and strap in, kittens, because today we have a massive post for a massive house. Blenheim Palace is the seat of the Dukes of Marlborough and began as a project of the first Duke and Duchess, who were favorites of Queen Anne. Today it’s still one of the grandest homes in the country. For a sense of the size we’re talking, this massive entrance isn’t even in use. Like many great homes, much of the house is open to the public for a fee. But it’s still a working estate in many ways, and as these houses were supposed to do, employees a small army. We absolutely lucked out (a theme of our travels this summer) because it just so happened that Blenheim was hosting an exhibition by the famed artist and activist Ai Weiei. The contrast between the establishment that one of the most prominent aristocratic families and houses of Britain represents and the anti-establishment artist was quite interesting and his ultramodern pieces within the historic staterooms was very effective. This chandelier is one of his pieces, and does not belong to to the house. One of the most famous of the family, Consuelo Vanderbuilt was one of the American heiresses whose family traded her wealth and beauty for position. By the time she married the 9th Duke (under duress), Blenheim was in serious need of funds. During the Gilded Age, these marriages were the stuff of society papers and saved many a British estate. Downton Abbey portrays this, somewhat unrealistically, but the reality behind it is correct. Many American beauties, including Winston Churchill’s mother (who married another member of the extended Marlborough family) made the bargain. One interesting fact I learned is that the Marlborough family is the only other highborn family in Britain, besides the Royal Family, to allow daughters to inherit the title. And interestingly enough they did it three hundred years before the current government got around to doing it. The 1st Duke and Duchess had several children but none of their sons lived to adulthood, so a special inheritance law was passed that applied only to their title to allow their eldest daughter to assume the title of Duchess in her own right, rather than as the consort of a Duke. Downright revolutionary stuff at the time. And speaking of! One of Ai Weiwei’s pieces covers the carpet. Contrast the historical art with the new… Ceramic crabs, a comment on the sea-based economy of some parts of China. Commentary on tradition and stability. Pieces representing the Chinese zodiac signs… Located in the unbelievably big formal dinning room. Apparently this cavern is never used by the family except on state visits…and for the family Christmas dinner. I don’t think I’d be able to eat a thing with that much history bearing down on me. She might have been miserably married and later happily divorced and remarried, but Consuelo’s influence still reigns supreme at Blenheim. The palace might not be standing today if not for her money. That banner over the fireplace also has an interesting role, apparently it’s the “rent” that the Dukes pay to the crown, a new one is presented annually, and the Queen has a collection of them somewhere. Another Ai Weiei piece beneath a portrait of Louis XIV. One Duke had a small obsession with Louis’ larger than life persona and sense of building scale and decided to redecorate Blenheim, modeled upon Versailles. The effect was less than impressive as Blenheim might be massive, but it’s not Versailles, and the scale of the new gilt and moldings ended up not being what His Grace envisioned. By which time, of course, the money was spent and the fait was accompli. Pearls as rice. The beautiful library with a most un-quiet looking (and staggeringly massive) organ at the far end which is kept in good form by daily recitals. I was quite perturbed to have missed that! And on the walls… A series of Ai Weiwei at various significant social, political, and religious sites with his, um, reaction. Offensive yes, but an interesting series to hang where it does. Horrible grounds, really. Quite tragic. Those poor Marlboroughs. Such an embarrassment. Oh well, I guess we all have our trials.