To the Manor Borne

Studying in England transported the daughter as surely as it had the dad.

May/June 2011

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To the Manor Borne

Illustration: Johanna Goodman

Lady Astor is gazing at me. In her pale pink satin ball gown and winsome over-the-shoulder pose, the American who moved to England, married a nobleman and became a member of the House of Commons welcomes me to her estate.

Crossing the great double-door threshold of her home, known as Cliveden, I knew that she would be in the far corner of the gilded and over-upholstered great salon. I knew as well that the stairs to the right of the great entrance would lead to the grand suites upstairs and that the back terraces, accessed through the great hall, overlooked the Thames and acres of manicured gardens.

These days Cliveden is a National Trust and a five-star hotel—as well as the home of John Singer Sargent's 1909 portrait of Nancy Witcher Astor. But 40 years ago, Cliveden housed the Stanford students who studied in England. One of them was my father, and his memories of that time were emblazoned on my childhood. Pierson Bob Clair, '70 (and Britain VIII), ignited in his daughter a love of the United Kingdom and her British heritage that made my application for the Bing Overseas Study Program in England as inevitable as clotted cream at high tea.

Dad's term abroad began with a Stanford-chartered TWA flight in July 1969 that dropped students at Heathrow before it crossed the Channel and deposited Stanford's other passengers, who looked forward to a term in Tours, in France. On July 20, at 2 a.m., Pierson and his classmates gathered around the black-and-white television in Cliveden's basement junior common room to watch, with national pride, as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon.

Four decades later, in the junior common room at Stanford House in Oxford, I gathered with my classmates around a purportedly color (but dependably only black-and-white) television to cheer for the American soccer team during the first game of the 2010 World Cup. America tied England, much to the chagrin of our host nation, but much to our delight.

My father's adventures with friends took him to St. Andrews in Scotland and found him teeing off at dawn with a local resident. For less than 5 pounds, he was invited to play all day, with clubs rented from the Old Tom Morris golf shop, just off the 18th green.

At 6:30 on an April morning, I found myself standing on the first tee of an unnamed golf course: nine holes perched atop the cliffs of Cardigan Bay in Wales. I'd paid 5 pounds for "as many holes as you would like." A Stanford friend and I thought we were alone for our pre-breakfast game, but we soon realized that we had gathered a local crowd. Several hundred sheep silently followed us as we completed our icy, frost-covered round with a shared set of persimmon-wood-era golf clubs.

Dad's academic memories centered on travels with Asian art professor Michael Sullivan. I heard tales of cautiously tiptoeing through the basement of the British Museum and other great collections, where covers would be thrown back to reveal spectacular pieces hidden in shadows. I could almost smell the dust.

My tutorial at Oxford with Professor Alison Kahn was the History of Public Collections, a study at the intersection of art, history and museum studies, including examinations on the history of Oxford's Ashmolean and London's British and Tate museums. I spent days analyzing principles of exhibit design, the correlations of multimedia display with guest interaction, the economics of running a museum and contemporary issues of repatriation, collaboration and negotiation. Guided tours of the Tate Modern and Tate Britain by art history professor Geoffrey Tyack gave me an insider's view.

And by the time I stood, neck craned, gazing at Lady Astor, in the spot where my father stood before me, I realized fully that studying abroad is about taking comfort in things that you recognize and taking adventure in those which you do not. My England is no longer just my father's England. For each of Dad's recollections of Yorkshire pudding and Brussels sprouts, I will remember veg curry and Moo Moo's milkshakes. Sleeping in a sand trap on the third hole of St. Andrews will always be his Scotland, and a silent gallery of sheep will always be my Wales. That portrait of Lady Astor, though, is ours.

Elizabeth Clair, '11, is a Stanford intern.

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