Mary Queen of Scots' gold cross and rosary are quite nice, and the Countess of Kildare's 28-piece silver toilet service (including a mirror, assorted comb boxes, perfume flasks and a pincushion) very impressive, but when it comes to defining the spirit of the Treasure Houses of Britain, now being celebrated in the National Gallery of Art exhibit, look to Henry Harpur-Crewe and his bed.
A man of indeterminate years, given to punctuating his comments with a rhetorical "What?," Harpur-Crewe smiled patiently at a gallery reception last night, a glass of champagne in one hand and a plate bearing an ever-so-refined ham sandwich in the other, while an employe of the British National Trust described the recent discovery of a never-used 18th-century state bed in a corner of Harpur-Crewe's ancestral home, Calke Abbey.
"I'd always heard about it," said Harpur-Crewe of the ornately embroidered and decorated bed, on display for the first time in the "Treasure Houses" exhibit, which opens tomorrow, "but I'd thought it had vanished. Things do, you know."
Indeed they do. The National Trust, not Harpur-Crewe, now owns Calke Abbey, which is suffering from extensive dry rot. Harpur-Crewe lives in a corner of the house, where his family has resided since the early 1700s.
"The house is full of treasures," said Warren Davis of the National Trust. "He doesn't know what he's got."
But Harpur-Crewe does know what he's lost. "It is a big change, of course," he said of life at Calke Abbey since the Trust took it over this year. "You only have part of it, where before you had all of it to wander about in."
Harpur-Crewe was about to leave the gallery reception (paid for by the Savoy Group and British Caledonian Airways and hosted by the British National Trust) for the Folger Library, where another reception was in progress in honor of the opening of "The Compleat Gentleman: Books From English Country Houses."
Befitting such events, a week into the celebrations in honor of the "Treasure Houses" exhibit with still a week to go before the arrival of Charles and Diana, it was stilton mousse canape's (probably an acquired taste) at the National Gallery; stuffed pheasants and a stuffed raccoon decorated a table at the Folger. More than 700 guests, including close to 200 British lenders to the gallery show, were expected at the two receptions and the 42 private dinners to follow, but the small turnout at both the Folger and the gallery suggested that many of the lenders had decided to go straight to the dinners. The official hypothesis was that they were still recovering from two days spent at panel discussions, symposiums, lunches, a White House visit and what was described at the gallery as "an optional tour of Mount Vernon."
All of this on top of a general introduction to Life in the United States.
"It's too marvelous," one member of the visiting nobility was heard to say while riding on a chartered vehicle. "My husband's never been on a bus before."
If the lenders are currently receiving almost as much attention as the objects they lent, it is no surprise to "Treasure Houses" curator Gervase Jackson-Stops.
""The houses are the people," he said. "That's why portraits are such a major part of the exhibit. These are works of art that are really lived with and loved; we wanted that to be part of the exhibit."
At the Folger, the objects and the owners were as closely bound.
"There's a poem about it there," said the Viscount De L'Isle of Penshurst Place, nodding toward a case containing Ben Jonson's poem about his home.
"And a huge engraving about it to the left," said Sir Hugh Wakefield. "And there's a book from his library over there."
De L'Isle had also lent "a large family group, Lady Sidney and her family, and a picture of another Sidney by Peter Lely and a quite important sword belonging to Lord Leicester," to the gallery show. Not all the British in attendance had lent objects to the exhibit. Wakefield is here to see the exhibit and the owners of objects that his company, the Stately Homes of Britain Program of Replicas, reproduces for sale in Britain and "stores from Alaska to New Mexico."
"The way I see it," Wakefield said of the furniture, silver, porcelain and rugs he replicates, "it's all very fine for these lords to have Placido Domingo singing in their great marble drawing rooms, but I've got a tape recorder and I'm bringing it to the world."
The income from the replicas also allows Wakefield to maintain Chillingham Castle, a medieval palace in Northumberland that, he was quick to insist, belongs to him, not the National Trust.
"It bloody well is mine," he said. "I don't want some damn curator telling me if the drapes are right or if the urns on my gate are correct."
Later, at Ambassador Daniel Terra's dinner at the State Department, the Duchess of Bedford stood outside on the terrace, swathed from ear to wrist in blue sapphires, the favorite stones of Diana, the Princess of Wales, which reminded the duchess of a chat she had with Prince Charles about Diana before their marriage:
"I told him, 'That sweet little girl -- gentle as she is -- is going to work. We have the same birthday.' "
The duchess told Charles that she too had been sweet and gentle as a young woman. "Now, try telling me to do something I don't want to do. I said, 'She will awake.' He said, 'You don't have to tell me. I know it already.' "
It was a night when you could see the Duke of Bedford chat with Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, but mostly pomp gave way to chatter over drinks at the formal dinner honoring lenders to the exhibit. National Gallery chief curator Sydney Freedberg, in purple velvet bow tie, talked with arts donor Arthur Sackler, in a red silk bow tie.
The Duchess of Bedford, hoarse from all the conversation, traded stories with her longtime friend Yolande Fox and said she could do without her title.
"I don't fancy it," the duchess said. "Oh, I like it. But I don't like people staring. Once in Texas, someone threw a big party and a woman came in and curtseyed and then her husband came in and curtseyed -- and I nearly died. Of laughter."
She and the duke, who greeted guests along with Terra and his fiance', Judith Banks, have 32 objets d'art from their country house in the exhibit. "You feel strange," she said of seeing the pieces in a museum. "It's like not being able to touch your own children. But it's fantastic."
With guests like the duke and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, the wave of Anglophilia continued to wash over the town. After all, laughed Chinese Ambassador Han Xu, "They were here before."
"I think Washington has always been Anglophile -- since Churchill," said Clare Boothe Luce.
"I think we're all Anglophiles," noted Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin. "How can we fail to be Anglophiles? Unless we hate ourselves."
British Minister of the Arts Richard Luce soaked it all up. "I don't actually have a country house," he said. "I enjoy encouraging other people. What we want to do is encourage private owners to stay there -- and not tax them out of existence."
"What will help British country houses is that the exhibit is the tip of an iceberg," said Terra. "It's only a very small part of what you can see in British houses."
Choreographer Martha Graham, just back from performances in Paris, observed, "People have looked so long to Europe, it's a blessing when Europe looks to us."
Under the crystal chandeliers of the Benjamin Franklin Room, guests dined on mousse of sole with lobster and truffle sauce, saute'ed spinach, rack and loin of lamb, and chocolate montblanc. It took a while to get to it -- the table number cards for guests never made it to the dinner -- but finally every lord and lawyer was in place.