He was seduced immediately. Ashcombe, a sleepy hollow on the boundaries of Dorset and Wiltshire, was an accident in the life of Cecil Beaton. Staying for a weekend with his friend Edith Oliver in Wilton, he spoke of his longing for a small cottage in the country, a frequent remark uttered by city guests. Edith mentioned the casual discovery made by a friend of theirs, the sculptor Stephen Tomlin, of a deserted house with a grotto in the downs. Uncertain of its exact location, the three of them decided to drive in its search. After motoring blindly around, Tomlin recognized a rough path and the party charged down on foot to a distant cluster of trees. Among holy oaks, they caught a glimpse of the property. It was silent and neglected, long unlived in. As he later wrote in his memoir of the years at Ashcombe: “It was as if I had been touched on the head by some magic wand. Some people may grow to love their homes; my reaction was instantaneous. It was love at first sight, and from the moment that I stood under the archway, I knew this place was destined to be mine.”
Here, at play, is a moment of magic when a desire explodes in the heart at the sight of something or someone very special. All, then, appears possible. The longing creates a vision and Cecil already saw in his mind what the house would look like. At 26, still laboring a professional future and not financially strong, the idea sounded preposterous, especially to his family. He was already a budding manufacturer of worlds and a visionary magician. The cautionary advice did not prevent him from approaching the owner and agreeing a rent of £50 pounds per annum. He proceeded to revamp the space and to bring in furniture acquired during his trips abroad succumbing to the decorative fashion of all white. The perfectly idyllic retreat, a resplendent paradise and a magnet to friends was thus created. Visitors came and went and as with so much of his oeuvre, it soon was wrapped in a certain mystique.
When the lease could not be renewed, he tore himself away from it with nostalgia and a sense of deep loss. Ashcombe became a literary memoir, a tribute to the love it gave him and his way of repaying it.
Did Madonna experience the same fascination when she decided to acquire the property in 2004? Perhaps she expected the enchantment of the place would be revealed to her. It is unlikely she glimpsed any of it. Power and a large ego took her to the pages of Vogue magazine posing as a dignified chatelaine in the heavenly kingdom. Following her divorce from Guy Ritchie in 2008, the house passed to her ex-husband as part of the divorce settlement. I am quite certain Ashcombe was not interested in repeating the love story it had with Cecil Beaton.