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Living History: Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill

Jennifer Pfaff

Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill - Blenheim Palace- The Life of the House: How Rooms Evolve - Rizzoli   International interior designer Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill brings history to life, through her family and her work.

   The eldest daughter of the eleventh Duke of Marlborough and a descendant of Sir Winston Churchill, she specializes in renovating historic British country homes, including her family’s estate, England’s prestigious Blenheim Palace.

   Spencer-Churchill also creates furnishing fabrics and wallpapers and has launched a furniture and home accessory collection for Maitland-Smith.

   She has published several books on interior design and her family history, and her eleventh tome, The Life of the House: How Rooms Evolve (Rizzoli), was released in October.

   On February 9, Spencer-Churchill will speak about her latest book at the Colony Hotel as part of the American Friends of British Art’s lecture and luncheon series. She shared with PBI pieces of her own history as well as her take on Palm Beach design.


PBI: Can you give us a taste of what you’ll talk about in your lecture?

HS-C: I will be mainly talking about my new book, The Life of the House: How Rooms Evolve, which looks at how and why rooms have changed over the centuries from an architectural and social history point of view. I will touch on my family home, Blenheim, too, and will be happy to answer questions.


The American Friends of British Art raises funds to preserve historic treasures in Great Britain. Can you tell us about the importance of this effort from your perspective?

I work on many listed houses in Britain, and I have always tried to retain and respect the heritage of these great houses whilst at the same time making them practical for twenty-first century living. We restore architectural features where possible or replace them as close as possible to the original, and any new additions, whilst may be more contemporary in style, are carefully designed to blend with the old.


Your newest book, The Life of the House: How Rooms Evolve, illustrates the transition in design over the years. Which room do you think has changed the most and why?

I would say undoubtedly the kitchen, which was originally generally in an outhouse or annexe of the main house because of the risk of fire (and smells) and was little more than an open fire. Today, they are large, all-encompassing multifunctional rooms with sophisticated gadgets and technology. The bathroom has also changed but then didn't exist until much more recently.


If the walls of Blenheim Palace could talk, what would they say?

I think it would be like listening to an historical novel with lots of intrigue, drama, fun depicting the life of the different family generations and their guests over the last 300 years—i.e., a Blenheim Downton Abbey!


What is your favorite piece in your furniture line with Maitland-Smith and why?

I don’t really have a favourite, as all the pieces have a useful and decorative function. I do, however, like the sofa with buttoned back and seat, as it is very comfortable as well as elegant. I also love the new games table, which has great brass detail.


What other projects are you working on at the moment?

A large villa in Poland, an apartment in an historic palace in Vienna, a new build house in Jersey, various houses in London and the English countryside. I am about to design a rug collection for another U.S. company.


What is your impression of Palm Beach design and architecture?

I do not go to Palm Beach that often, but I am interested in the electric architecture of [Addison] Mizner, [Maurice] Fatio and [Marion Sims] Wyeth, and I have visited some of the houses which they built. I think because it is largely a resort town, you can get away with the Moorish and different mix of European and Beaux Arts styles that have been applied. I also find some of the new build house very attractive. I have also visited my great grandmother’s house in Manalapan, which was very interesting, although obviously the area has changed a lot since her day.


Besides design, do you have any other great passions?

I love architecture and especially learning about different cultures and their influences. I also love antiques and artifacts and find it a shame that they have lost their appeal recently, especially amongst the younger generation. I also enjoy other travel and outdoor activities.


What is your favorite childhood memory?

Holidays in Scotland with family and friends, very much like Swallows and Amazons.


What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Visiting antiques fairs, historic houses, museums, walking, riding, photography, cooking and entertaining.


What quote inspires you?

“We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”—from my ancestor Winston Churchill. 


Do you come to Palm Beach often? If so, what do you like about the area?

Not much, and if so, quick trips. I like the ocean, playing golf and visiting friends in the area.

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February 2015