Ashcombe – the English estate in WilshireAshcombe House, the Georgian manor house located on over 1,000 acres in Wiltshire near Salisbury England, is in the news again. The Grade II Listed estate was once owned by singer Madonna and her husband Guy Ritchie, and years before that, it was rented by photographer Cecil Beaton. Ritchie, an English filmmaker, retained the estate in the divorce and just recently remarried his longtime partner, Jacqui Ainsley, mother of his three children. He and Madonna have two sons.The Ashcombe estate was the site of the wedding – a three day celebration which included an open air movie night, glamping in tents, fishing, shooting, and lots of wine and ale drinking. The internet was flooded with pictures of the wedding showing the beautiful flower strewn grounds which looked all the prettier because of the bright sunny weather.With all this media attention, I thought now would be a great time to revisit Ashcombe.
The house that now sits on the Ritchie estate is not the original building. The first house erected in 1686 was demolished in 1740 and then rebuilt. In 1815, the estate was sold for 8,700 pounds and in 1870, most of the house was then demolished, yet again. The 13th Duke of Hamilton sold Ashcombe to Mr. RW Borley after WWI. The Borleys owned the estate until the death of RW’s son in 1993. The house today is what remains of the larger demolished one, along with its stables, now a studio.
The romantic history of Ashcombe really begins with Cecil Beaton’s 15 year lease. The photographer first came to the estate in 1930 when his friends Stephen Tomlin and Edith Olivier brought him there to see it. Later in his memoir “Ashcombe – The Story of a Fifteen-Year Lease” – he wrote of that first visit:
“None of us uttered a word as we came under the vaulted ceiling and stood before a small compact house of lilac colored brick. We inhaled sensuously the strange, haunting and rather haunted atmosphere of the place. I was almost numbed by first encounter with the house. It was as if I had been touched on the head by some magic wand.”
After that visit, Beaton arranged to rent Ashcombe for just 50 pounds a year under the condition that he would renovate the house, which was badly in need of repair. He installed plumbing and electricity, added a hall from the front of the house to the back, put urns on the roof, and enlarged the windows, amongst other things. He also turned the orangery/stables into his studio.
At Ashcombe, Beaton entertained often with a group of artists and actors, including Rex Whistler, Diana Cooper, Tallulah Bankhead, Oliver Messel, Salvador Dali and his wife, amongst others. The famed artist Whistler designed a new front door for Ashcombe and painted the house – which graces the cover of Beaton’s memoir:
Painted by Cecil Beaton’s close friend Rex Whistler – the former stables, now studio, is shown on the left while the main house is at the right. Included are the urns on the corners of the roof placed there by Whistler himself.
Whistler photographed painting outside Ashcombe with Beaton.
Beaton’s friends were very colorful and some were flamboyant; in contrast, Ashcombe’s owners, the Borleys were very conservative. The son, Hugh Borley, was unhappy with Beaton’s costume parties and he resented the notoriety that Beaton brought to his estate. After the 15 year lease was up, Beaton was asked to leave, an event he apparently never got over. Beaton’s father had begged him not to pour too much money into the rental and of course, he was right. Borley enjoyed the fruits of all Beaton’s repairs – never making any of his own. Borley spent his years chasing away would be buyers and those who tried to visit and pay homage to Beaton and Ashcombe. He even set his dogs on Lord Snowdon, nephew of Oliver Messel - an original friend of Beaton’s and frequent visitor at Ashcombe.
Borley was an alcoholic, and his health declined along with Ashcombe. When deathwatch beetle invaded a room, he simply closed its door and never opened it again. Right before he died, he sold Ashcombe to David and Toni Parkes on the condition that he could live there until he died, which he did shortly afterwards in 1993. The house was then cleared of his many empty liquor bottles and the Parkes began the much needed restoration.
It was the Parkes who in 2001 sold Ashcombe for 9 million pounds to Madonna and her then husband Guy Ritchie. Considered small, the main house has 6 bedrooms, but the studio has 7. Also on the estate is another 6 bedroom farmhouse, two cottages and a bungalow.
Like Beaton – Madonna and Guy had a similar attraction to Ashcombe at first sight:
"We just fell in love with it," Madonna explains. "In the summertime it's the most beautiful place in the world." The memory of their day at Ashcombe "just stayed with us, haunted us for a really long time," she remembers. Eventually they could resist its lure no longer, and Ashcombe was theirs.
In fact, it was Cecil Beaton’s biographer Hugh Vickers who persuaded Madonna to first visit Ashcombe to see if she and Guy might be interested in purchasing it.
Like Beaton before them, the Ritchies found Ashcombe a bit run down. The kitchen was tiny and the top floor had rats and mice. Once they purchased it, they created a series of romantic bedrooms in the attic and in an extension, a sort of 18th century orangery was built to house a new kitchen, dining room and living room.
A Look At Ashcombe From Then To Now:
Edith Olivier at the start of Cecil Beaton’s rental period. There was a picket fence that was quickly removed and you can see the old front door before Whistler designed the new one. The original windows remain today. Also note, there are no dormers in the attic – Madonna and Guy had those installed when they added bedrooms there.
1930s: Cecil Beaton and his sisters – the picket fence is now gone and the fancy front door has been installed. A large urn was placed in the yard – which became a focal point when looking out from inside.
2005: Madonna and Guy Ritchie were photographed for Vogue by Tim Walker in 2005. Many of the photographs were inspired by original Beaton pictures, such as this one, mimicking the photo above.
From Beaton’s book – showing two statues overlooking the house. Here is a good view of the attic without the dormers.
1930s: In an original Idler Garden swing – Beaton and his friends sunbathe. In the back, you can see the two statues.
2001 – Ashcombe goes up for sale and Madonna and Guy are shown it by Hugh Vickers, Cecil Beaton’s biographer. Again, without dormers it looks remarkably the same as it did when Beaton lived there.
2005: And here in a beautiful Tim Walker photograph, Madonna feeds her chickens. The attic bedrooms with their dormers are now installed. To the left of the house, an extension goes in, housing a new kitchen/family room.
2014: At a shooting party held by Guy Ritchie.
Today: a side view of the front façade shows the climbing vines.
Today: A close up of the Rex Whistler front door surround and the beautiful original diamond paned windows!!
Today: Another view of the front lawn. I love the open window upstairs!
Ashcombe – From 2000 to Today:
2000: An aerial view of the main house with the stables behind it. You can see there is no extension to the house along its left side. Instead there is a lean to roof and further along, a garden.
2000: A view of the left side of the house – with the lean-to roof and the garden. Madonna and Guy will later add on to the house where this garden is.
2005: A view of the back side of the house. You can now see the kitchen/family room that the Ritchies added on to the main house. Later, even more additions are made.
TODAY: Here you can see the house, the family room extension, the new greenhouse – AND – the large building to the far right. Perhaps that is a garage/housekeeper’s apartment. Ritchie applied for a swimming pool – and it looks like it might have been built between the family room addition and the greenhouse where the umbrella is.
An aerial view clearly shows the house, the family room/kitchen addition/the greenhouse, and the large building to the right. Ritchie also applied for solar power on the estate and it looks like it might have been granted, there seems to be panels about.
Looking in the greenhouse towards the house.
Close view of the back of the house – with an open French door in the family room/kitchen addition. At the main house, the middle French door with flanking windows is the original living room, with the pink tiled floor.
2005: The back of the house – showing the living room’s french door open.
Cecil Beaton’s famous portrait of dancer Tilly Losch.
2005: At the same tree, Tim Walker captures Madonna and Guy reinterpreting Tilly Losch’s portrait.
Right after Beaton moved in, you can see how derelict the estate was. The stables were especially run down.
Another view of the stables right after moving in – all windows had to be replaced.
1930s: A rare view from the stables entrance looking back at the main house.
1930s: The famous Beaton party that Life Magazine published. The stables have now been renovated – new windows are in place and the façade is decorated for the party.
Lady Ottoline Morrell at Ashcombe.
Sybil Colefax photographs Cecil Beaton photographing her – in front of the stables.
A group of friends: Adele Astair, Princess Polny, Tallulah Bankhead, and Tilly Losch
More amazing friends: Evelyn Waugh, Sibyl Colefax, Phyllis de Janze, and Oliver Messel at the stables – or now, Beaton’s studio. You can see here how nice the windows were that he installed – in his rental!
Today: The studio. Besides the landscaping, the main change is the clock added to the roof – a wonderful detail. There was a clock in the 1700 print of Ashcombe, but it was long gone until Guy Ritchie had it replaced.
2005: The builder gifted the Ritchies with monogramed lead gutters.
1930s: The main living room with its highly romantic and fantastical décor by Beaton.
The fireplace mantel - Salvador Dali and his wife Gala. More fantasy.
Close up view of the console and mirror.
Rex Whistler and Edith Olivier sit in front of that console.
1930s view of the living room looking out to the back grounds. The floor is pink tile. Columns flank the doors. This famous picture was recreated by Tim Wilson for Vogue.
2000: A rare picture of the living room as it was when the Ritchies bought the house. Very English country manor and totally different than how Beaton decorated it. The shelves have been removed and the fireplace was striped down to the basics.
2005: Tim Walker recreates the Cecil Beaton 1930s décor – amazing! It looks almost exactly the same.
2005: A rare photo from the shoot that was never used.
2005: The other side of the living room with the Beaton inspired rose strewn slipcovers. So cute!!!
2005: in the mirror’s reflection you can see the striped bare mantel.
2005: Madonna and Lourdes and Rocco in the living room.
2000: A rare view of the house before the Ritchies bought it.
2005: The same foyer with the carpet removed and flags put down. Through the door is another room and then the dining room.
Today: An instagram photo of the same foyer.
2005: The print above the mantel is a copy of a 1770 painting of Ashcombe, owned by Cecil Beaton until his death. He said it was his most prized possession.
The 1770 painting. It’s interesting because you can see the original house before it was demolished leaving the smaller house that stands today. And you can see the larger stables – today only one half remains. Also – there was a clock tower on the stables, originally. I wonder what happened to the allee of trees that lined the front drive?
Today: Behind the bride, you can see the plaid sofa in the family room and a beautiful oil painting. Is this the original living room with the pink floor tiles or is this the newer addition. Wish we could see more!!
Another view of the room with dark wood furniture and more plaid furniture.
Today: Rocco Ritchie instagramed a photo of the kitchen with the yellow plaid sofa. It looks very English country manor.
2005: Madonna had a print of My Fair Lady in honor of Cecil Beaton. He won an Oscar for costume design of that movie. There really were the most gorgeous outfits in that movie.
1930’s the hall leading to the studio with Jean Cocteau arms. Interesting modern lighting fixture.
1930s The new studio. I love this! Slipcovered white sofa that looks like a Belgian design from Restoration Hardware. Sisal rugs. Antique corner cabinet, stripped. On the table is a capital – that resembles the one stores sell today. Love the drum tables.
1930s: The studio from another view with the famous button curtains. Notice the easel set up at the right. In the center of the window wall is a bust of Beaton. There is a humorous story about the curtains in his book:
“I decided in order not to outlay a large sum on curtains, to use hessian sacking sewn with large pearl buttons like those on a coat. But I had not reckoned on the number of buttons necessary, 300,000. The effect was dazzling, but had cost me more than ancient Venoese velvet.”
At a party you can see the famous button curtains – they really look pretty, very sparkly (without the party decorations over the rods.)
At a recent Cecil Beaton retrospective show – the button curtains were reproduced and hung behind the Beaton bust that was once in place in his studio.
1930s – Another view of the studio from the opposite side. There is a matching corner cabinet.
1930s: A drawing of the studio done up in Beaton’s Ashcombe Stripe fabric – in the red colorway.
A sampling of Cecil Beaton fabrics, including the Ashcombe stripe in blue. To see the entire catalogue, go HERE.
2005: The studio under Madonna.
1930s The master bedroom is the most famous of all Cecil Beaton’s Ashcombe décor. The room had a circus theme which was highlighted by its carousal bed.
The murals in the master bedroom were painted by Cecil, Oliver Messel, Rex Whistler, Lord Berners, Christopher Sykes and Jorg and Elsa von Reppert-Bismarck. They were all staying at Ashcombe, stuck inside because of the rain – when they decided to decorate the once all white bedroom. Only two of the original murals still exist today: the equestrienne by Elsa von Reppert-Bismarck and the Columbine with dogs by Lord Berners.
The other side of the room showing one of the only two remaining murals.
2005: The remaining mural is now in a guest room.
The bed and bedroom were recreated for a recent Cecil Beaton show. This bed was made out of wood, while the original was quite flimsy and made out of papier mache.
The colors were matched by using the one color photograph made of the Beaton bedroom. Even the murals and skirted table were meticulously recreated for the show.
In his powder room, Beaton asked his guests to trace their hands on the wall. It is thought that afterwards, he went over the drawings in ink – to make all the hands consistent looking. There are 280 hand prints here – including Mr. Borley, his landlord! Notice the hand to the left of right arm – it has on a pearl bracelet.
Another view showing Beaton’s collection of what would now be antique pharmacy bottles.
1940s Beaton saying goodbye to Ashcombe in a famous photograph.
2005: In Madonna’s office, she kept a copy of the photograph of Beaton saying goodbye. I wonder if she realized she would be saying goodbye herself in just 3 years?
2005: In a cottage on the estate, Madonna posed for Tim Walker.
A famous photograph of Cecil Beaton.
2005: In the same cottage, Madonna and her two children recreated the Beaton photograph.
Walking on the property:
The rules for taking walks in Ashcombe. Madonna and Guy tried to keep the estate closed to walkers or ramblers as they are called, but were denied.
The front gate.
A view of the house from the footpath.
Rumors began in 2008 that Madonna was looking to sell the property and soon after a divorce between the couple was announced. Guy retained Ashcombe and since then he has made several changes. He applied for permission to make it a viable, self sustaining farm, and he applied for permission to create a microbrewery at Ashcombe. Ritchie also is associated with a shooting company – Field Magazine named Ashcombe as one of the UK's ten top venues for pheasant shooting. In 2009, he was granted permission to create a sporting lake on the property at which he built a log cabin. He also requested permission to make a series of improvements to the guest lodgings, adding dormer windows and roof lights “because the bathrooms have no natural light.”
Ashcombe Today – when the sun is not shining, the house looks darker red, almost the lilac hue that Cecil Beaton remarked on after his first view of the estate.
Today: Guy Richie applied and got permission to build a sporting lake on the property. It is far enough from the main house that wedding guests took a bus to visit it.
To judge the size of the estate – the top red circle is the main house and stables. The bottom circle is the sporting lake that was dug on the property. You can see how vast the space is between the two areas.
And a google view of the lake – with the log cabin Ritchie built at the very top of it.
2014: Fifty Shades of Grey star: Jamie Dornan and his wife visited Ashcombe for a shooting party.
2014: Shooting party guests go swimming in the lake.
Today: Ritchie had a long cabin built overlooking the lake, surrounded by wildflowers.
Today: The cabin.
Today: The log cabin decorated for the wedding.
Today: Ashcombe is known for its excellent shooting – and Ritchie hosts many shooting parties.
The First Ritchie Wedding: Back then, the Madonna and Guy didn’t own Ashcombe, so they chose to get married in Scotland at Skibbo Castle. The day before, they christened their new baby boy, Rocco.
Skibbo – the huge Scottish castle that was the scene of their fantasy wedding – another several day affair.
The foursome. Guy wore a kilt. Madonna wore a crown and white fur. Before their divorce Madonna and Guy adopted another son, David and later Madonna adopted another daughter.
Skibbo – the main room. The castle can be rented for parties and weddings or just a golfing vacation.
The dining room at Skibbo. Very few pictures were ever released from the wedding. It was kept very quiet – especially for a Madonna event.
After the wedding, Madonna wore a sequined coat announcing her as the new Mrs. Ritchie.
Today: AND…the NEW Mrs. Ritchie announced her new name on her bathing suit. Hmmm. Looks kind of familiar?? Beautiful hair!!
The wedding of Guy Ritchie and Jacqui Ainsley took place this July 30. They have three children, 2 boys and a girl.
A guest driving up with the wedding program on the dash.
This invitation had a drawing of Ashcombe on it.
From the walking path – you could see into the valley where tents were set up.
The gorgeous valley with the tents.
Guests at the wedding were set up in fancy tents for the three night extravaganza. David Beckham complained someone stole his heater – so it must have been chilly at night.
Lots of guests. OK – this is so cool!!! It looks like so much fun!!!!! If you have the money – what a great idea – can’t imagine how much this costs.
A glimpse inside a tent.
This was the large tent for gatherings.
There was even a blow dry tent!!
Appointments went on the chalkboard.
Romantic tent city at night.
At tent city there was chess set up.
A bus took everyone down to the lake for lunch.
And there was an open air movie night premiering Guy’s newest – The Man From Uncle.
At the back side of the house – gorgeous flowers!
The family – with Rocco and David – Guy and Madonna’s sons and the three babies! Even the littlest one has a jacket one. So cute!!!!
Rocco gave Jacqui away.
Love this with Rocco and David.
Such a beautiful altar – what a day !!!
Good view of the back of the house with the new extension.
The studio with the new clock tower. Yes, that is Brad Pitt. Ignore him – look at the studio!
There were really lucky. If it would have rained, it could have been a cold, dreary, muddy disaster! Instead, the weather was so sunny. They must be blessed with really good luck!!
Rocco toasts his Dad and Jacqui at the reception.
I wonder if Cecil Beaton would have approved of the wedding? Probably – he loved a good party!!!