Treasures of Althorp
For more than 500 years, Althorp has been home to the Spencer family, including, for a time, Lady Diana Spencer. Also home to one of the finest collections in Europe, the estate offers inspiration for anyone who has a passion for elegant furniture with a story to tell.
Dramatic series that unveil the private lives of British royalty and aristocracy have created quite a buzz of late. Whether your taste runs more toward “The Crown” or “Downton Abbey,” there’s a lot to be said for the cultivated style and educated taste of an upper-class Brit. Few estates have done a better job of creating a window into that world than Althorp in Northampton, about an hour-and-a half north of London. Since Sir John Spencer built the house in 1508, Althorp has been home to 19 generations of Spencers. The Spencer line has been closely allied with the British Royal Family for many of those generations, and includes several memorable personalities who, in their time, left a mark on the world. Though none, of course, can compare in fame to Lady Diana Spencer, the globally admired mother of Britain’s princes William and Harry, who is buried on the estate.
Currently in residence: Diana’s younger brother Charles, 9th Earl Spencer, who lives on the 13,000- acre property with his Canadian-born wife, née Karen Villeneuve, now the Countess Spencer. (If you’re a fan of either show mentioned above, you’ll spot the familiar storyline: blue-blooded Brit takes red-blooded North American wife.) Furnished with a veritable treasure trove of antiques and art—widely described as one of the finest private collections in Europe—each of Althorp’s 90 rooms is intriguing and has a fascinating story all its own. Some of the more notable rooms are shown on these pages, along with examples of furniture from the Althorp Living History Furniture Collection, which is available at Safavieh.
When you were a young boy and your grandfather owned Althorp, the scale of the place must have seemed extraordinary. What are your early recollections of the house? It wasn’t just the scale of the place, which was of course impossible to wrap your head round as a small child, but also the fact that it was very much my grandfather’s home. He was in charge there from 1922, and had left his stamp everywhere. I remember going to stay there as children, and being terrified of doing something wrong—breaking a priceless object, or whatever. My grandmother was always so loving, but my grandfather was slightly terrifying!
Do you have a favorite room at Althorp? Is it different from the room that was your favorite as a boy? The library is the most extraordinary space—so cool and elegant, yet really welcoming. It’s always been the main reception room, whenever there have been guests in the house. I think the leather spines of the books make for a beautiful backdrop—such a rich texture. It’s always been my favorite room in the house, especially with the huge windows allowing light to pour in.
Nineteen generations of Spencers have called Althorp home. Many have undertaken building programs or decorating projects, and so left a mark on the house. Do you feel a tension between your stewardship of the past and a desire to make your own mark on the place? I realized from when I took over, exactly 25 years ago, that this extraordinary building could be a home, but the house is so historic that it demands respect for its heritage. I’ve reroofed the house, redone the exterior, put in new plumbing, heating, security, and redecorated pretty much every room. Luckily, I am a historian—my degree from Oxford is in history, and I’ve written several history books—so I get what needs to be done, and also how my stewardship is just a link in the chain. My earliest ancestors would probably be amazed that their family still has Althorp today, to be honest! More than 500 years—it’s quite a good run.
Tell us something about the improvement projects that your wife, Countess Spencer, is overseeing at the house. We have been remodeling some of the gardens, and this has been very much my wife’s project. She has a sense of the beauty of the place—her father managed national parks in her native Canada, and so blending the beauty of the 550-acre park with the 20-acre garden is something she has a great feel for.
Has your wife brought any North American traditions to life at Althorp? Despite her being Canadian, and my being English, we both spend a lot of time in the U.S.A., and we have celebrated Thanksgiving at Althorp over the past few years. It’s a great time to get our American friends to come and enjoy Althorp. Depite my family’s having supported American independence back in the 18th century, we don’t celebrate the 4th of July at Althorp…yet!