By invitation only, some 200 guests of Jarrettsville Furniture mingled yesterday in an Earl Grey-infused vapor of gentility and celebrity. They were there to meet Charles, the ninth Earl Spencer and the late Princess Diana's entrepreneurial younger brother, who has turned his aristocratic pedigree into a furniture brand, the Althorp Living History collection.
Bill and Gail Kuester came from Hagerstown to get their new Althorp chest of drawers autographed by Spencer. It was a little more cumbersome than having a book or photograph signed, but the couple carried their burden with good humor. "It's a first for us," said a bemused Gail Kuester.
Spencer's appearance during a U.S. promotional tour for his furniture came soon after the 10th anniversary of his sister's death in a Paris auto accident. But he didn't make note of the recent commemorations held around the world in her memory. And while many guests had come to Jarrettsville yesterday, they said, because it somehow brought them closer to the adored Diana, they refrained from pressing Spencer for brotherly recollections.
As he passed Harford County's farms and the frequent "Horse and Hounds" crossing signs on his way to the furniture emporium, Spencer said, he couldn't help but notice the similarities to his home turf.
Infallibly polite and low-key, he greeted a long line of admirers, signing autographs and posing for photographs. "Who's next, please?" he asked as each devotee came and went.
He introduced the Althorp reproduction furniture line three years ago as a way to finance repairs to the ancestral estate 77 miles north of London where he and his sister once roamed the halls.
"Althorp was a place of romantic aspiration," Tina Brown writes in the recently published Diana Chronicles. "You leave the 21st century as soon as you pass from the encroaching suburbia of Great Brington village and turn into the long, tree-lined avenue to the great house."
Diana may have been caught up in the chaos of modern social mores, Brown writes, but "in every treasure-crammed room of the Spencer family seat, she inhaled the hierarchical values of the past."
As did yesterday's visitors to the furniture emporium, enchanted as they were with pieces such as a George III mahogany and brass bound cellaret, within which one could find the Spencer crest - and an autograph.
Never mind that his late sister - according to Brown - referred to boring people as "heavy furniture." Spencer and manufacturer Theodore Alexander had plenty of items to draw from as they selected period pieces to reproduce: nearly five centuries' worth of cabinets, desks, chairs, tables and beds, not to mention all kinds of novel accessories.
As the Earl Spencers one through eight came and went, estate furnishings were constantly winnowed down to those of the best quality, according to the current Earl Spencer, who is 43.
"We all know that in our life, when someone passes away, you tend to get rid of the pieces that don't fit," he said in a brief interview.
Today, 120 stores across the country carry the Althorp collection. It's found in China, India, Russia and Arab nations as well, Spencer noted.
Prices range from $189 for a Ming celadon vase to $21,300 for an ornate secretary with more than 100 drawers, some of them hidden. A customer in Texas recently snapped up two, Spencer said.
After the "meet and greet" with Spencer, visitors nibbled on a proper tea, including scones, Devonshire cream, lemon curd, and cucumber and salmon sandwiches. They sipped tea from china cups on saucers, and dabbed crumbs from chins with linen napkins.
Then, Spencer, a father of six, gave a brief talk about Althorp and his hope that it will remain within the family for another 500 years and in good condition. "It's an old house that needs lots of care and attention," he said. One nettlesome home-repair project involves realigning the white, limestone tiles affixed to the home in the 18th century when red brick fell out of fashion, he said.
Althorp also sustains itself by opening in summer, when the exhibit Diana: A Celebration draws thousands of visitors. The exhibit, a melange of dresses, keepsakes and artifacts belonging to Diana, travels the rest of the year. It is currently in Sydney.
As she stood in line to meet Spencer, Joan Ryder, a Fallston real estate agent, described the Althorp piece she had recently purchased. It is a reproduction of a trunk said to have belonged to George Washington's ancestors, before they emigrated from England.
Ryder, 60, will use the trunk to store linens in her master bedroom. Later, Spencer noted that he stored his cricket and tennis gear in the original trunk. "It's very handsome and very practical," he said.
Perhaps a bit less practical, but all the more glorious, was the secretary that the customer in Texas had bought in a pair.
"I don't make such decisions lightly," said Dianne Kagay, a bit breathless after purchasing the piece, on sale for 45 percent off retail. "When I walked in, it just caught my eye," the Bel Air resident said. It's an "antique of the future."
The secretary will sit in Kagay's living room next to the piano. She'll adorn it with an open copy of the Althorp coffee-table book and a photo of herself with Spencer.
Arlene Bradley will soon move to Ruxton and is looking for new furniture. But there was an even more compelling reason to come to Jarrettsville and meet Spencer.
"I couldn't help but think he's the brother of someone I've always admired," she said. "He's part of the bloodline. It's exciting to be in that presence."