If you wander into the grounds of the palace, there are only a few areas that are private and not accessible to the public. One such area is the Italian garden. While visitors can look at the order and the beauty of this space, they cannot actually walk through it. The Italian garden and the water terraces were created under the watchful eye of the 9th Duke of Blenheim, cousin and friend of Winston Churchill. In the centre of the garden is the mermaid fountain carved by American sculptor, Waldo Story. He also created the two white marble busts of the Duke and his first wife, Consuelo Vanderbilt.
The 9th Duke of Marlborough, Charles Richard John Spencer-Churchill (1871-1934) stands out as one of the most interesting incumbent of Blenheim Palace. He was hailed as the saviour of the both the palace and the family. In 1892 when he inherited the dukedom, the estate was on the verge of bankruptcy. He was determined to restore and renovate the palace as well as keep the family from financial ruin. He had the unenviable task of repairing a dilapidated pile with the hope of returning it to a stately home once more. There were few options at this time to raise funds, so for propriety’s sake, he chose the route of over 300 peers at the end of the 19th Century and married a wealthy American. In November 1895, he married Consuelo Vanderbilt. For those of you who are only remotely aware of notable American families, you may well have heard of the name Vanderbilt. The family was one of the wealthiest in American having made their fortunes on the building of railroads across the country. Consuelo’s mother was desperate for Consuelo to gain the title of Duchess - the ultimate cherry on the cake, giving the family an ‘old money’ connection and improved social standing.
There was no disguising the fact that this relationship was purely transactional and financial. Consuelo’s dowry (worth approx. £62m today) was immediately set to work to pay off inheritance dues, buy back family treasures that had been sold off and start rebuilding the home. The Duke had no intention of living anywhere but Blenheim so Consuelo was dragged to the UK and lived in near isolation in her new marital home. After many years of unhappiness, Consuelo did something unimaginable; she left her husband and filed for divorce in 1921. He was now free to remarry and in the same year married the beautiful and eccentric, Gladys Deacon. Gladys was also an American and a friend of Consuelo. It was Gladys who commissioned the ‘eyes’ that look down at you as you enter the portico to the house from the Great Court. She is also immortalised in the two extraordinary sphinxes between the first and second water terraces.
The Duke’s marriages were not successful and although he never divorced Gladys, he forced her out of Blenheim and they lived apart until the duke died in 1934. Taking over the responsibility of the only non-royal, secular palace in Britain was an enormous job. We might not condone his methods but if it were not for the 9th Duke, there is little doubt there would be no palace for us to enjoy today.