Jonathan Glancey is a British architecture critic and author.
Prime Minister Theresa May will host the reception, while a host of British business leaders from a range of sectors will hang on to the President’s every word between starter and pudding. One person missing at the palace dinner, though, will be the Queen.
Why? Because the Trump dinner is not being held at Buckingham or any other royal palace. It will be at Blenheim Palace, the only palace in Britain not owned by the monarchy or the church. A visiting head of state ought to have dinner in a palace and, given the controversy and security issues surrounding Trump’s visit, Blenheim fits the bill.
Sited near both Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country house where the President will join May for talks on Friday morning, and Windsor Castle, where the Trumps will take tea with the Queen in the afternoon, Blenheim Palace is also reassuringly isolated in an estate stretching across more than 2,000 acres of Oxfordshire countryside.
Blenheim Palace, built for John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, in the 18th century, sits on more than 2,000 acres in Oxfordshire. Credit: English Heritage/Getty Images
Blenheim Palace, though, is a significant choice for the Trump dinner for reasons the President is sure to appreciate. It is the birthplace of Winston Churchill, one of Trump’s heroes, whose bust is on display in the Oval Office.
To many Americans, Churchill has always been more than the unpredictable and bullish premier who defeated Hitler and cemented the special relationship between Britain and the US: he’s virtually an honorary American himself. Although Churchill’s father was Lord Randolph, third son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough, but his mother, Jennie Churchill, was the Brooklyn-born daughter of Leonard Jerome, a New York financier and speculator.
What’s more, when the magnificent English baroque palace — built as a national monument and grandiloquent home for esteemed general and statesman John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough — fell into disrepair in the late 19th century, it was an American who came to the rescue: Consuelo Vanderbilt, an heir to the formidable Vanderbilt railroad fortune, and one of the richest women in America.
The 9th Duke of Marlborough needed money, while Consuelo’s domineering mother, Alva, wanted her daughter to wed into old-world aristocracy.
There was no love between the couple but, eventually, a deal was struck. In 1895, Consuelo and the duke were married, and he was paid $2.5 million — some $70 million in today’s money — for the pleasure. This torrent of American cash paid for essential repairs as well as improvements to Blenheim Palace.
A tapestry at Blenheim Palace depicting John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, at Battle of Blenheim in 1704. Credit: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images
Roller-coaster finances, high-profile marriages of convenience, and American connections aside, Trump might also be interested in the fact that the commission to design Blenheim Palace was given to dashing playwright, John Vanbrugh who, self-taught, was very much new to the design of buildings great or small when approached by the Duke of Marlborough, a fellow member of London’s fashionable Kit-Kat Club. If alive today, the swashbuckling Vanbrugh, author of the successful and scandalous play “The Provoked Wife” (“What cloying meat is love — when matrimony’s the sauce to it!”) might well be a popular television celebrity.
And yet, although an architectural outsider, Vanbrugh, with the help of Nicholas Hawksmoor, made a brilliant job of Blenheim, despite destructive rows over spiraling costs and his being goaded into resigning in 1716, six years before the house — far bigger, more imposing and architecturally important than Buckingham Palace has ever been — was more or less completed.
The State Dining Room at Blenheim Palace. Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images
Perhaps, too, President Trump, will like the fact that the first duke repeatedly thwarted the ambitions of Louis XIV and other continental monarchs keen on dominating Europe, while checking the ambitions of an independent and increasingly strong Britain.
The imperiously grand baroque saloon in which the Trumps will dine was the social core of a house designed to outgun the Sun King’s palace at Versailles. And indeed, it does seem a delicious choice of venue for a meal accompanied by deal-making and a side of history.