A prig’s ear of an attack on Irvine

The Lord High Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, is a comic character and a national treasure. He stands in a noble line of puffed-up big-wiggery that has amused and diverted the British since the days of Rowlandson and Gillray. Indeed, you can spot his likeness in the work of those great caricaturists, more than 200 years ahead of his time.

But it is one thing to be a figure of fun, quite another to be mocked by those who are, in their own way, every bit as pompous. The difference between these critics and the Lord Chancellor is that they dissemble their pomposity by parading it on behalf of the masses. At their head is the People’s Prig. This is one of the great offices of State, like the Dimbleby in Waiting, that knows no party allegiance and exists purely to give public utterance.

The current holder is David Ruffley, Conservative MP for Bury St Edmunds, whose intervention in the great wallpaper debate was in the finest tradition of inverse pomposity.

The facts of the case are by now familiar to all students of wallcoverings. The Lord Chancellor, upon assuming office, took up residence in a finely appointed official quarters atop the Palace of Westminster. Lord and Lady Irvine, being people of taste and refinement, were dismayed to discover that their rooms were shabby. The splendour wrought in 1834 by Augustus Welby Pugin, who designed the original wallpapers, carpets, lamps and furniture, had been obliterated as part of a 20th century reaction against Victorian taste.

For the past 25 years, successive governments have sought to restore the interior of the Grade 1 listed building, and Lord Irvine chose to continue that “noble cause”. He sought specialist advice from the V&A and the Royal Academy to ensure that the redecoration was historically accurate. And, famously, he authorised the walls to be covered with handprinted paper using Pugin’s original woodblocks. The cost was 400 a roll, a figure eagerly seized upon by the critics. They accused Lord Irvine of gross extravagance and personal indulgence at the public’s expense, charges which he airily, and rightly, rebutted.

When he appeared before a Commons Select Committee convened to discuss a proposed Freedom of Information Act, his enemies brushed aside the substantive business in favour of the wallpaper. The Lord Chancellor, with what some described as magisterial hauteur, explained that Pugin paper could be expected to last for 60 or 70 years, unlike “something from the DIY store which might collapse after a year or two”.

This was the signal for the People’s Prig to perform his ceremonial duty. The Hon Member for Bury St Edmonds cleared his throat and spoke: “This is a slap in the face to millions of voters in Middle England for whom DIY is a perfectly ordinary pursuit. It was astonishingly snobby, condescending and patronising.”

Now the point about this proclamation is that it neatly achieves in its own way precisely what it sets out to criticise. Prig Ruffley seems to have a low opinion of the people whose sensibilities he professes to protect. He imagines that they equate their trips to Sainsbury’s Homebase with the Lord Chancellor’s selection of Pugin woodblocks; their redecoration of the children’s bedroom with his refurbishment of an architectural masterpiece; their purchase of a knotted pine bunk with his choice of Gothic beds.

The people of Middle England do not expect an historic palace to be refurbished with B&Q’s own-brand, Regency Stripe, self-adhesive, special offer paper. Nor do they fail to appreciate the distinction between hand-crafted workmanship and the mass-produced, machine-made alternative. What they can spot a mile away is a buffoon who patronises them.

The people of Middle England are renowned for their enthusiasm for heritage. They flock in their thousands to tramp wide-eyed and appreciative through the stately homes of England. If the People’s Prig was to be believed, they would stay at home.

Can you imagine a guided tour of some stately pile where the visitors’ attention is drawn to the shelf that isn’t quite straight because His Grace mislaid the spirit level and inadvertently drilled a hole too large for the screw and used the wrong filler and couldn’t find the screwdriver? Moving on to the West Wing, note the asymmetrical stain on the Chinese silk carpet. This is attributed to the Third Earl having stepped into a paste bucket following an unplanned descent from a step ladder. Legend has it that his vision was partially obscured by a length of Sanderson’s attached to his noble person from the crotch to the monocle.

Here in the bedchamber observe the Sèvres porcelain chamber pot with restoration work in Superglue and brown paper, and the 16th Century three-poster bed. That’s correct, madam, three-poster. You are quite right, there were originally four, but the Second Earl, Harold the Cackhanded, removed the fourth member in about 1789 for use as makeshift crutch. I’m glad you asked. His crippling was occasioned during the creation of an open-plan, walk-through drawing and music room, accomplished by means of knocking down a load-bearing wall.

If you’ll step outside into the garden, the ornamental terrace, now known as the patio, was designed by Inigo Jones in 1632 and constructed in Italian marble. Repaved by the present Earl in pre-cast, Tattycrete swirl-effect slabs, it is a constant talking point.


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