A couple of Saturdays ago, Duncan and I plus a group of friends took a train to Oxford and visited Blenheim Palace, with the idea of catching the new Ai Weiwei exhibition. This autumn, the Palace launched the Blenheim Art Foundation, which aims to bring an exciting new programme of contemporary art to the monumental country house. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s largest UK exhibition launched the foundation, with more than 50 new and iconic artworks on display throughout the palace and its grounds. The exhibition was impressive, my favourite piece being Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold, which is comprised of twelve animal heads, each depicting a segment of the ancient Chinese zodiac.
Standing in front of the main doors of the Palace, you look up at the portico ceiling and see these striking painted eyes, which have gazed down for the past 80 years. The eyes were originally painted in 1928 for Gladys Deacon, the second wife of the 9th Duke of Marlborough.
We explored the house, John Vanbrugh's masterpiece, and spent the rest of the afternoon in the gardens. I'd been to Blenheim once before; it was good to be back.
An 18th-century engraving showing the Great Court, which was designed to overpower the visitor arriving at the palace. Pilasters and pillars abound.
In 1764, Capability Brown transformed the park at Blenheim by making the canal into a serpentine lake. He also naturalised the woods and designed this wonderful cascade, creating the epitome of an English landscape. The trees were looking beautiful when we visited - all shades of rust, copper and gold.
I loved this glimpse of the house through pillars.
These are pictures from our trip to Blenheim in 2012 - we stayed overnight in Woodstock, the charming village in which the Palace resides. Here are the eyes again; I remember them being my favourite thing about the place the first time we visited.
There are some unusual decorative features on the exterior of the Palace. There are four gold balls on the roof; there are four finials on top of each tower that have a coronet with an orb over an upturned Fleur de Lys; there are four English stone lions mauling French cockerels; the Roman goddess of victory Minerva is placed over the main entrance; and a bust of the defeated Louis XIV gazes out over the south front.
Elliot and Duncan.
John Vanbrugh also built the Grand Bridge across the water in front of the house, lining it up between the entrance to the Palace and the Victory Monument that punctuates the park. Several generations later, Capability Brown dammed the streams again, creating two large lakes for the 4th Duke of Marlborough. In the process, he also flooded the once usable rooms in the base of Vanbrugh's bridge.
Blenheim Palace Park and gardens in 1835. I'm looking forward to returning again soon, although first I think I need to make plans to visit that other Vanbrugh pile, Castle Howard in Yorkshire.