In 1997, portrait and fashion photographer Mario Testino photographed Princess Diana for the cover of Vanity Fair. Not long after, she died in a Paris automobile accident and the photos were never published. The 15 rarely seen portraits from that sitting, among the most iconic images of the late Princess, were last exhibited together in the summer of 2017, 12 years after first being shown at Kensington Palace.
In 2017, marking the 20th anniversary of Diana's death, all 15 images were shown at Althorp. Visitors to the exhibition, included in the ticket for Althorp House, also a chance to see the books of condolence and other memorabilia of her life on permanent display in the galleries of Althorp's Grade I Listed stables.
The exhibition, on from May 1 to October 8, 2017, during Althorp's house opening days, was a compelling reason to visit but was only one. The house, with its Tudor origins and 17th to 19th-century additions, has been a family home for more than 500 years. It is a fascinating place to visit in the heart of Northamptonshire, about an hour by train from London. And who knows, if you are lucky, you might even catch a glimpse of Charles, 9th Earl Spencer, Diana's brother and, with his family, current occupant of Althorp House.
A Family Home for More Than 500 Years
Althorp House, begun in the early Tudor period and then added to and adapted over five centuries, sits in about 500 acres of parkland and gardens, surrounded by an estate of 13,000 acres. Packed with fine arts and antiques (more than 650 paintings, that many objects again and one of the finest portrait collections in Europe), it stands as a testament to what a politically and socially savvy family can achieve with a good flock of sheep.
The Spencer family, who have owned and occupied Althorp for 19 generations, since 1508, have a very complicated family tree that includes several European royal houses and a reputed illegitimate link to the royal House of Stuart.
But in essence, they are wealthy commoners who first came to Althorp from Warwickshire where they had built a fortune from wool manufacture and livestock trading. Initially, a feudal lord and tenant of Althorp, then a 300-acre farm, John Spencer eventually bought the estate outright in the early 16th century.
As you approach the house, you may notice quite a few sheep munching happily on the lawns and fields. They aren't decorative. At one time, Althorp was home to a flock of 19,000 sheep and sheep are still an element of the estate.
The Wootton Hall
Visitors enter Althorp through what is known as The Wootton Hall. It's named for the artist John Wootton who painted the country scenes that cover the walls of this room. Before George Stubbs became the most popular painter of horses and prize livestock. Wootten was the late 17th and early 18th-century man to go to for sporting scenes that included your manor and your bloodstock.
According to the guide who takes you through Althorp, the young Diana Spencer, later Princess of Wales, liked to practice her tap dancing here because of the acoustics and the checkered marble floor.
Look up at the ceiling in this room. It is decorated with 200 handmade plaster flowers - each one different.
The Picture Gallery
This long, narrow gallery (115 feet by 20 feet) was created by Robert Spencer in the 17th century and is based on an original Elizabethan gallery elsewhere in the house. Besides being ideal for showing off great collections of paintings, these galleries were intended to give ladies a suitable place to take their exercise in bad weather.
Althorp is particularly known for its extensive collection of portraits. Those in this gallery, to the left of the entrance, are apparently the famous beauties of Charles II's court, painted by Sir Peter Lely.
Charles II must have wanted to make up for the lost time during the rule of Parliament (when theaters were closed, Christmas was banned and other kinds of fun were frowned on by Oliver Cromwell) because he was known to enjoy himself. Rumor has it that the ladies depicted in these portraits were mostly mistresses.
That's why the modern work, "Britannia", by artist Mitch Griffiths is included in this room. It is part of a series called "The Promised Land" that depicts the ills of modern Britain. "Rehab" a controversial and disturbing, dystopian crucifixion inspired work, another part of this series, is also at Althorp and will confront you early on, just outside the room known as The Painters Passage.
At the far end of this room, the Van Dyke painting, "War and Peace" may be one of the most valuable in the house. It is a rare double portrait of brothers-in-law who found themselves on opposite sides in the English Civil War. One, a Roundhead, is depicted in somber black while his brother-in-law, the Cavalier (or Royalist) is in sumptuous red silks and lace.
Visitors to Althorp get to see 20 rooms, each featuring something unique and valuable. The Great Room, used today as a formal dining room, is lined with portraits by Rubens, Titian, and Lely. Look out, especially, for a small, rare portrait of the doomed Lady Jane Grey. It is the only one painted of her during her short lifetime.
The South Drawing Room
The South Drawing Room is used as a reception room for the Spencer family. It's particularly notable for the family portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds that line the walls. Reynolds was a family friend, perhaps shown in the intimate quality of the paintings. In all, Althorp has 15 family portraits by Reynolds.
As you enter the room, look out for the full-length portrait of a boy in a black hat, wearing a blue satin sash. This is John Charles, Viscount Althorp, painted when he was four years old in 1786. What makes this painting of special interest is John Charles was later photographed as an elderly man. He is the only person known to have been painted by Reynolds and, spanning centuries and technology, later photographed.
Look for the painting of a mother and child in this room. The child is Lady Georgiana Spencer who grew up to become the Duchess of Devonshire. The story of her unhappy marriage, gambling habits, and political activism is related in the film "The Duchess", where she is played by Keira Knightley,
Princess Diana was a descendant of Georgiana Spencer and much has been written about the similarities in their lives and personalities. At Chatsworth, home of the Devonshires, there's a glamorous portrait of Georgiana, unusual for its period in that it was painted by a woman.
The Marlborough Room
Expecting a large family crowd for Thanksgiving this year? You might wish you had as much room as the Spencers do in the Marlborough Room. The state dining table is 36 feet long and can seat 42 guests. There are chairs enough for another 12 though they might have to decamp to a corridor, the 54 hoop back Georgian chairs date from the reign of George III (the king who lost Britain the American colonies by the way).
Having yourself painted as a classical hero was apparently a fashion in the late 17th century. That accounts for the full-length portrait of Robert Spencer, Second Earl of Sunderland, who looks a bit like a New Romantic with his rosy lips, purple satin cloak, bejeweled sandals, and flowing tresses. Robert established the family's penchant for art collecting, adding to the Althorp collection while serving as an ambassador around Europe.
Even though he predated Lord Byron by several centuries, like Byron Robert he was mad, bad and dangerous to know, at least politically. Known by his contemporaries as heartless and unscrupulous, he switched allegiances - and religions - several times during the turbulent 17th century. Despite this, he managed to maintain a position at court for about fifty years. When he eventually retired in 1694, he was, according to the entertaining Althorp guide, "driven from high office by public odium."
The King William Bedroom
The King William bedroom is named for King William III, usually referred to as William of Orange or inextricably linked with his queen (as in William and Mary). William slept in its canopied bed in 1695 when the canopy was covered in ostrich feathers (hope he wasn't allergic).
This is one of several guest rooms that can be booked when the house is rented for large private events such as weddings or corporate affairs.
According to the Althorp guide, this was Princess Diana's favorite bedroom when she returned to the house, after her marriage, as a guest.
Although several of the rooms you can see is used by the family when Althorp is closed to visitors, all of the bedrooms in current family use are in a private wing of the house.
Althorp's stables date from the mid-18th century. Combining Italian and English styles, they appear to be unique in England. If you've been to Covent Garden before visiting Althorp, you may recognize the porticos from St. Paul's Covent Garden, the so-called Actor's Church, designed by Inigo Jones.
According to the Althorp guidebook, the cannons along the north side are from "the last sea battle ever fought under sail," the Battle of Navarino, in which a Spencer ancestor took part.
As recently about 100 years ago, 100 horses were stabled here with 40 grooms occupying rooms above. These days, if the Spencers keep horses they are not in these stables. Instead, it houses a shop and cafe as well as a large exhibition area.
Diana's Final Resting Place
Princess Diana's grave is on an island in the middle of a lake known as the Round Oval. A five-minute walk on a path from the back of Althorp House leads to the lake shore. On the south end of the lake, a small classical temple, formerly a summer house, is dedicated to Diana. A monument on the island with a funeral urn was placed there in memory of her and is visible from the shore. Visitors regularly remark on the tranquility of the spot.
How to Visit
- Where - The Althorp Estate, Northampton NN7 4HQ. About an hour and a half from London and within an hour of Oxford and Birmingham.
- Open - In 2017, The house is open between noon and 5 p.m. on selected dates in May, June, and July and daily from mid-July to August 28. Since Althorp remains a private home, with the family often in residence, opening dates and hours vary from year to year. To be sure, check House Opening dates on the website.
- Admission - Tickets can be booked online, except on the day of your visit, when they are available on arrival at the visitor entrance.
- Contact - +44 (0)1604 770 107 or by email . There is also an inquiry form on the website.
- Getting there - The estate is a 10-minute drive from the M1 motorway (Junction 16 from the south or Junction 18 from the North). Very good directions for traveling to Althorp by car, bicycle and public transportation can be downloaded from the website.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, TripSavvy believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.