Madonna never set out to become a classic British lady of the manor, however, until fate intervened when she was introduced to Hugo Vickers, Cecil Beaton’s suave biographer, through a mutual friend in 1998. They discussed his Beaton books, including one charting the improbable romance of Beaton and Greta Garbo (“good and juicy,” says Madonna). They maintained an E-mail relationship, and sometime later Vickers sent one asking whether Madonna remembered Beaton’s beloved house, which was now for sale. Madonna told Guy, who, as she says, “has always wanted to live in the countryside. He’s the country person – not me. He loves nature and animals.” And so, imagining that it might provide an amusing day’s jaunt, but with no intention of buying anything, they arranged a visit.
Ashcombe, however, casts a very potent spell. Nearby are the Druidical worship sites of Avebury and Stonehenge; there is a Celtic burial ground hidden in one of Ashcombe’s deep, romantic coombes. “That part of the world has something very mystical about it,” says Madonna. “there was a reason that those druids dragged those stones [there]! That part of the world’s got some kind of pull for both of us.”
The house sits in a landscape of almost unimaginable beauty, cradled in the warm embrace of its own green valley, dramatic hills rising steeply on all sides but parting ahead to reveal distant fields. Cecil Beaton would recall that he was “almost numbed by my first encounter with the house. It was as if I had been touched on the head by some magic wand.”
Madonna and Guy were similarly entranced. They sat beneath the immemorial ilex trees that shade the house; Madonna photographed Guy there, fringed by wild grasses, and the ethereal result now sits on her office desk. “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.
Although the estate embraces more than 1,000 acres of roiling hills and valleys, nothing remains of Ashcombe House itself, a stately mansion built in 1686 but dismantled for its brick and stone two centuries later. Half the elegant stable block (converted into a studio by Beaton) and a cozy dairy house remained. Beaton’s frivolous decorating at Ashcombe was legendary, and he willfully ignored the building’s honest farmhouse integrity. The carousel bed that the neo-romantic artist Rex Whistler had made for him is long gone, but the splendid Palladian stone door surround that he designed is still in place, deftly transforming the house from cottage to mansion.
By the time the Ritchies arrived, the house was “kind of in ruins. There was a kitchen the size of a shoebox, and the top floor was just an attic full of rats and mice.” They created a labyrinth of romantic attic bedrooms, and an extension that mirrors the elegance of the stable block. While it suggests an eighteenth-century orangery, or a French pavilion, it contains a cavernous space that serves as kitchen, informal dining room, and living room in the modern family vernacular.
“To me, Ashcombe is a reflection of me and my husband in many ways because it reflects our willingness to make a commitment,” says Madonna. “Not necessarily to each other but to the idea of having a home somewhere, instead of living like gypsies.” The house also offers physical testament to the couple’s improbable union. Here, classic England meets pampered Hollywood; a place where cozy kilim-covered sofas, family silver, and sporting prints meet silky oyster-colored carpet, state-of-the-art sound systems, and luxuriant hothouse flowers. Where Cecil Beaton’s brilliantly dust-jacketed diaries jostle the 22 volumes of the Zohar, the couple’s Kabbalah reading material, on the bookshelves.