Crystal Palace

Kent seems a rather unlikely spot for Russian royalty to choose to settle in. Its gently undulating landscape is more likely to be filled with apple orchards than fir or birch forests. But one branch of the Romanov dynasty came here in 1949 and the family have remained ever since. Prince Andrew Alexandrovich Romanov, the nephew of the last Tsar, Nicholas II, was born in the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg but made his family home with his wife Nadine and their daughter Olga at Provender, a quintessentially Kentish country house near Faversham. Forced to flee Russia after the Revolution, Prince Andrew changed the spelling of the family name to the English form and lived in this quiet corner of England until his death in 1981.

Provender began as a hunting lodge in the 13th century, but has been augmented over the centuries so that the house is now a huge, rambling residence. Its heavy front door is studded with large iron nails and is quickly swung open by Princess Olga Andreevna Romanoff, a tall, elegant Scandinavian-looking blonde. Two small but lively dogs rush out but are swiftly commanded back inside. Provender's origins as a hall house are obvious when one steps through the front door into the reception hall. Dark oak timbers criss-cross the ceiling and form carved coronets above double doorways that give access to other parts of the house. At the far end of the room, one wall is almost completely taken up by a handsome fireplace while the other walls are partly covered with silk damask. In the centre of this large rectangular space there is a long oak refectory table and around its edges stand 17th and 18th century tall-backed chairs. One set of double doors leads into a low-beamed dining room, the core of the original 13th century house, with an enormous inglenook fireplace and through another, an oak panelled room with a long and very grand mirrored table can be seen.

There is no time to explore yet though, because Princess Olga is already striding through another door in the corner of the room. This leads to a surprisingly simple but cosy kitchen, where a huge blue Aga is belting out some very welcome heat. Another statuesque woman turns to greet me as I enter and smilingly introduces herself as Princess Olga's cousin, Diana. Wonderfully strong coffee and biscuits are quickly served and Ronny, the dachshund makes a valiant but vain attempt at jumping onto my lap. I help him up but realise that although he is small, his body is too long for my rather short legs and so the poor thing has to balance rather precariously with half his bulk hanging over my knees. Now that we are seated around the table I feel that I have rather bungled the chance to address Princess Olga properly so I apologise and ask whether Debrett's form of ‘Your Serene Highness' is correct.

"My father always said it was only the Monaco royal family who were Serene Highnesses, though some people do address me in that way. Just call me Olga," she says quickly with a dismissive shrug. I feel sure that Olga knows exactly how she should be addressed but is sparing me embarrassment by not correcting me. I think she also wants to get on with telling the story of her fascinating house, so with the formalities out of the way she begins.

"Provender was rented by my great grandmother, Constance Borgström, before she bought it in 1912 and my parents, Prince and Princess Andrew Romanoff came to live here in 1949. My father's mother the Grand Duchess Xenia was Tsar Nicholas' sister and she and her husband and children fled to their estates in the Crimea at the time of the Russian Revolution. They spent two years under house arrest but then my grandfather, my father and his first wife, Elisaveta managed to escape to France before the rest of the family were rescued by HMS Marlborough in 1919. My grandmother Xenia was given a grace and favour residence at Hampton Court and then the family spent the war years at Balmoral, but sadly Elisaveta died in 1940. My father later married my mother Nadine and came to live here with her mother, Sylvia in 1949. I spent all my childhood at Provender and I was privately educated here by governesses until I went to finishing school at the age of 17. A few other girls used to come here when I had ballet, ballroom dancing or tennis lessons, but otherwise, I had all my lessons in the schoolroom and spent all my spare time riding.

"By the time my mother died in 2000, Provender was in dire need of repair and restoration and was on English Heritage's ‘At risk' register. The problems had started some time before because although my grandmother had made extensive repairs to the house from the 1920s onwards, cement had been used and no one realised at the time that it would actually cause further decay. When my parents inherited Provender, the Finnish and British authorities spent years arguing over death duties so a good deal of my grandmother's fortune was swallowed up and there was little left for the maintenance of the house."

Provender is listed in Hasted's History of Kent as being in the possession of John de Provender in the 13th century but it also has links to the Black Prince (son of Edward III) because in 1342 it was used as a hall house and hunting lodge for the Prince's chief archer, Lucas de Vienne. Since then it has been added to throughout the centuries so exploring it is rather like going on a time-travelling journey through the building styles of more than five centuries in England.

"Twelve years ago, I met historic buildings expert and architect Ptolemy Dean, and I asked him to help me to restore Provender," recalls Olga. "Fortunately for me, he fell in love with it and has been an invaluable support ever since. The restoration of the house has been grant aided by English Heritage and we have had to have three tenders for every job done, but we have found some really good workmen and craftspeople. BW May & Son especially have been brilliant and fortunately Swale council have also helped - they gave a small grant in 2000 to dig a pit to dry out the foundations and install temporary plastic guttering as the original had fallen off and not been replaced. There is still a lot to do and the top floor where my old schoolroom and nursery are situated, needs a lot of work, but at least the roof and the structure of the house are now sound. I've also got to the stage where I can concentrate on the decoration of the major rooms and I have a few that are available to paying guests. I open the house every first Tuesday in the month from May to October and I also conduct Sunday tours on the first and last Sunday of every month. People are fascinated, not only I think by the connections with the Russian Imperial Family, but because the house spans so many years of English life too. I'd like to restore the gardens in the next few years. My father loved the gardens - especially the walled kitchen garden. He always said that the English grew the best vegetables - although by the time they had boiled them to death, they served the worst on the plate! He was very knowledgeable, and loved to cook what he grew, but after he died I'm afraid the gardens were rather neglected. I'd love to find some photographs, plans or records of what the formal gardens once looked like because I'd like to reinstate at least part of the design."

Diana has also been coming to the house since she was a child, so she adds further detail to the conversation. Olga's mother, Nadine was born into the McDougall family, but her mother, Sylvia Borgström wrote novels and biographies under the nom-de-plume ‘Paul Waineman' and came from a Finnish banking dynasty so Diana still lives on one of the Finnish islands, although she speaks English without any trace of an accent. Diana is looking forward to seeing Francis, Olga's younger son when he flies in from the Ukraine in three days' time. Francis will be bringing a Ukrainian girl with him, who has ‘won' the chance to be his girlfriend. "Francis is the ‘bachelor' in the Ukrainian version of the reality television programme," explains Olga. "They filmed some of it here, and I had to interview some of the contestants so I have already met the one he chose, but they have had to keep out of the limelight for quite some time, because the show is very popular over there and they had to keep the winner a secret until the last episode had been broadcast. Francis is a bit of an action man and actually worked as a stuntman until he injured his leg too badly to carry on. Since then he has been very successful as a photographer and has worked all over the world for Vogue among other publications. I think he's enjoyed making the programme, but it's a pretty gruelling schedule, so he's looking forward to some peace and relaxation here. I have redecorated a suite of rooms including the Crown Post room, which has been returned to its original glory by Ptolemy, that I'm planning to make available to paying guests and I think it's probably particularly well suited to couples so Francis and his girlfriend will stay in there, but I'm thinking of applying for a wedding licence for it too. We've fitted out a new catering kitchen as well, so people can bring their own caterers, though I also plan to hold special event lunches and dinners for groups too."

I follow Olga up a Farrow & Ball ‘Chappell Green' painted staircase to the oak panelled Gallery. We go first through a discreet door into a private sitting room where a pair of damask covered sofas face each other in front of a large fireplace. At the end of each one is a leather trunk. "These were stuffed full of belongings when my father's family fled Russia," Olga explains. "His grandmother, the dowager Marie Feodorovna (Dagmar) had a villa near Copenhagen, her native country, so the family already had some furniture and belongings there, but of course, the smaller personal things travelled with them on HMS Marlborough." Around the room there are drawings (one of which is a striking charcoal by Andrew Gow of his friend, Francis), family photographs and paintings including a picture of Grand Duke Alexander. Founder of the Russian Air Force and head of the Navy during WWI, the Grand Duke commissioned a young Pole named Sikorsky to design aircraft and was considered to be a fine military strategist and perhaps well-suited to the role of Tsar. The love of flying has obviously been carried through the generations, because there are several photographs of Nicholas, Olga's eldest son who has also served as a fast jet navigator in the RAF. Olga has also asked Andrew Gow to make a charcoal drawing of her daughter Alex to complete the family portraits in this room.

Through another doorway we enter the China Landing, where glass fronted cabinets hold porcelain and crystal from the imperial palaces. A long Finnish console table supports photographs of Grand Duchess Xenia and Princess Irina Yusopov (wife of Prince Felix Yusopov - one of the two people who killed Rasputin). As we talk about the women in the photographs, Olga and Diana notice that the table is not properly centred against the wall and their Scandinavian instinct for decorative order compels them to pick it up and adjust its position accordingly.

Olga shows the way to the library. The walls are painted a soft Farrow & Ball ‘String' and two sides of the room feature floor to ceiling cupboards and shelves that support hundreds of leather-bound books. There is a chaise longue and a handsome desk in one corner of the room. "My great grandmother Empress Marie Dagmar and her sister Queen Alexandra who later married Edward VII commissioned Maples to make two identical desks to go in their villa in Denmark, and this one is Alexandra's, though I'm not sure how it found its way here," says Olga. On the shelves behind it can be seen some ‘Paul Waineman' books and Diana takes one down to show me an original 1908 edition of A Summer Tour in Finland that is beautifully bound with its cover decorated with wild violets.

We re-enter the oak panelled gallery. The room is already long and wide, but a huge looking glass, positioned at the far end of the space seems to make it stretch almost into infinity. There are several chests of drawers and two tall linen presses. One is ornately carved and when opened, reveals a collection of tablecloths, untouched for decades, that still remain neatly folded. Further along the wall stand Olga's mother's mirrored dressing table and an oval mirror-topped dining table. There are crystal candelabras and ornaments grouped together on the surface along with a pre-Revolution bottle of wine from the family's Crimean estate, Ay Todor. "I'm going out to the Ukraine with the same television company that visited us here at Provender soon," says Olga. "They want me to visit some of the old palaces that used to belong to my family, including the Livadia Palace that was used by Stalin to host the Yalta conference in 1945, so I think it is going to be a really interesting trip."

Another door reveals Olga's old night nursery. An almost perfect capsule of late 19th century interior design, the woodwork on the panelled walls is painted pale powder blue and in between, the wallpaper features tiny yellow rosebuds with pink ribbons running between them. There is a dainty bedroom chair and table and an ornate iron fireplace. Tall windows overlook the garden and long muslin curtains are simply gathered at the sides. The wallpaper seems almost quintessentially English, but its treatment looks very definitely Russian.

Across the landing is the Crown Post room, which again, has a distinctly Russian feel. The walls are painted a kind of Baltic blue, which like a northern sea seems to subtly change from grey to green and then blue according to where the light falls. A circular mahogany table and balloon back chairs stand just off-centre on simple scrubbed floorboards. There is a woodburning stove in the handsome white marble fireplace. In the ceiling the original beams and timbers have been left unvarnished and their geometry is decoration enough. The room beyond is the bedroom where the warm, honey coloured timbers are offset by fresh blue and white linens on the bed and armchair. The adjoining bathroom has 18th century bolection moulding painted in a strong shade of terracotta. "This is another of Ptolemy's colours. He's given me a lot of advice on the appropriate historical shades to use throughout the house because he has such a superb knowledge of each period," adds Olga. "Architect Malcolm Simmonds produced a wonderful diagram of the whole house that is colour coded according to the period of each wing or room, so that I can tell you exactly which parts are 13th or 18th century."

Back downstairs we pause in the entrance hall where Olga tells me that the magnificent carved fireplace that is now painted in white and gold was once simply oak. "My father and I came back from Scotland to find that my mother had had this painted. It was her Swedish and Finnish ancestry I suppose, she just couldn't help wanting things to be white and gold. She had the long dining table in the Oak Room painted too and then the table top was covered with mirrored panels. It produces a wonderful effect when the candelabra are lit and the epergne filled with flowers, but it's rather offputting if you lean over the table and look down because you can see straight up your own nose!"

The Oak Room is probably the grandest in the house and the enormous dining table and painted chairs with their yellow silk seats take centre stage but they are closely rivalled by coral silk covered Gustavian style sofas, stools, a conversation seat and chaise longue. The form of the classically Scandinavian furniture may be simple and restrained, but the quality of the fabrics used and its scale give it an unmistakable grandeur. The red carpet and the coral silk curtains that are swagged and trimmed with gold fringing add to the sense of formality along with the full-length portraits of Olga's parents that are edged with blue velvet and gilt-framed. This is the room that Olga proposes to use for the special occasion dinners and with its dark panelled walls and mirrored table it must be quite magical by candlelight. By the huge Tudor fireplace stands a marble-topped table that has several old photographs displayed on it. One features an informal shot of Tsar Alexander III and Marie Feodorovna (Dagmar) with their adult children on the steps of Livadia. It is interesting to note that all the men in the photograph look relaxed and confident except one - their son Nicholas who would later become Tsar.

Just outside the room is a portrait of Olga's grandfather from her mother's side of the family. Herbert McDougall is pictured in his Hussar's uniform standing in front of his horse. He has a surprisingly slender frame, but the uniform was not just for show, as he distinguished himself during three conflicts including the First and Second World Wars. Moving on from the 14th century hall to the 18th century wing of the house we enter the drawing room. Here, the blond pine floorboards set a warm tone and a pair of white linen sofas stand in front of a huge, recently restored stone fireplace. The panelled walls have been painted ballroom blue which perfectly offsets the gilt framed portraits around the room. There is a large painting of Olga's grandmother, Sylvia, in a gown and one of Olga as a young girl in a white tulle dress with a Finnish blue sash. "I wouldn't get off my horse for my portrait to be painted," recalls Olga. "So the artist got his revenge by painting me in that dress - that he completely made up - that I absolutely hated and still do." Olga sits for a moment on one of the satin covered gilt ballroom chairs and Jak, the Jack Russell swiftly jumps up to join her. She is seated opposite a head and shoulders portrait of Alexei, the last Tsarevich, the boy who didn't live to see his 14th birthday, and it is striking that despite the best efforts of those who murdered her great uncle and aunt and all their children, Olga Romanoff doesn't dwell on their tragedy and with her brisk, no-nonsense manner is wonderfully, defiantly, triumphantly alive.

Address Book:

  • words Claire Tennant-Scull
  • pictures David Merewether
  • styling Lucy Fleming