Reproducing Diana's Past
By Jura Koncius
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Charles Spencer, younger brother of Princess Diana, jetted to the semi-annual International Home Furnishings Market here last week with a licensed collection of furniture and upholstery based on antiques from the family's sprawling ancestral home of Althorp. A photograph of a framed portrait of Diana presided over the showroom, though her name was never mentioned.
To the manor born, anyone?
The 9th Earl Spencer, 40, opened the mahogany doors of his 1508 estate in Northamptonshire to high-end furniture manufacturer Theodore Alexander to do a collection of 300 pieces: gilded carved mirrors, serpentine sideboards, tweedy wing chairs, leather-topped desks, wooden planters, and a $7,500 wooden bar shaped like Althorp (pronounced Ahl-thrup) house itself. The collection of 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century reproductions and adaptations based on antiques in the 90-room manse is made in Vietnam and will start appearing in U.S. stores next spring.
For the showroom here, Theodore Alexander executives commissioned a two-story photo mural of Althorp's vast entrance staircase lined with family portraits, Diana's among them. Sofas, chairs and chests were arranged with spare backgrounds to show how the pieces work in modern settings as well. "They say there is no place like home, but I look around here and I question that theory," Spencer told a packed crowd of several hundred furniture executives at the showroom's opening party last week. "It looks like a madman has rearranged our furniture, with things from my bedroom next to things from the library."
Spencer arrived fresh from opening the exhibition "Diana, A Celebration" at the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. The traveling museum show contains 150 artifacts from the Princess of Wales, including jewels, her royal wedding gown and the lyrics sung by Elton John at her funeral. The objects come from the Diana exhibit in the stables at Althorp, which was created by Spencer after his sister's 1997 death and her subsequent burial on an island on the estate.
Spencer is the latest addition to a curious parade of celebrities -- large and small, dead and alive -- who have entered the licensing fray in the home furnishings arena. This year, football legend John Elway joined Ernest Hemingway, Elvis, supermodel Kathy Ireland, Martha Stewart and Oscar de la Renta in cashing in on the aura surrounding their names.
Diana's name does not appear on promotional materials for the furniture collection. "We were told from the beginning, the home and the collection and the family stand on their own," said Paul Maitland-Smith, chairman of Theodore Alexander. "We said we would not use her name."
They are marketing the collection as centering on one house and one family that has lived there almost 500 years. The Spencers, who have seven children ages 1 to 13 between them, throw frequent weekend house parties for dozens of friends. "It isn't a museum, it's still a home," said Spencer, pointing out the grand oak staircase pictured in the Althorp photo in the showroom. "That's where my kids come hurtling down on trays."
"Sterling trays?" one could not resist asking.
"No, Formica," said Spencer. "They go faster."
Income from the collection will go for upkeep at Althorp, said Spencer, adding that it takes about $1 million to pay maintenance, insurance and staff. Right now, the estate is open three months a year; this year 60,000 visitors came.
Decisions about what to reproduce were left to the professionals. "I threw open the doors to Theodore Alexander and gave them free reign to the pieces collected by 19 generations of my family," said Spencer. "It was up to the experts to work out what would suit the 21st-century lifestyle."
Company executives spent a week at Althorp taking 10,000 photos in 90 rooms, narrowing down the several thousand pieces of furniture to 300. They decided to include a copy of an oak chest that belonged to a poor ancestor of George Washington who lived on the Spencer estate.
Spencer's wife Caroline, Countess Spencer, who also came to High Point, suggested to her husband that perhaps the copies on view here were too good to pass up. "My wife says, 'Why don't we just sell all the real stuff, buy this, and then the children could scribble on it.' "
The Spencers are buying a dozen of Theodore Alexander's Wootton Hall chairs ($900 each), which are copies of the circa-1750 mahogany chairs in Althorp's entrance hall decorated with the family crest. "In the summer the public wants to sit on them and they are very delicate," said Spencer. "These are a lot sturdier."