Friday 25 September 2014
Yesterday, we visited a most extraordinary house. We were part of a group organised by the Friends of the British Library, and the three of us were delighted to be joined by another Mary, who had travelled some buses with us in the days of the first project.
We met at Wimbledon Station and took a bus (the 200, since you ask) to the Common where we had a picnic, before meeting the rest of the party outside Southside House. The weather was not as warm as the Met Office had predicted, but still very pleasant.
Southside House is open to the public from time to time, because it is owned by one of those Family Trusts, which is allowed not to pay death duties on property provided the nation can have access to the relevant item or items. And I must say that the Pennington Mellor Munthe family have done a proper job, unlike some families, whose inheritance-tax-free artworks are about as accessible as the bypass plans Arthur Dent was looking for. (click here if you don't understand the reference, but really, you should read the books)
We were admitted into the little brick courtyard, with a remarkable statue of one of the two sons of Axel and Hilde Munthe, and were then taken round to the garden room for coffee and biscuits. Photography is not allowed in the house, which was fine as there was so much to look at and listen to that we did not need any more distractions. Also there are a couple of indoor pictures here. Our guide was Irish, and called Pat, but I did not catch his surname.
The story of the house is more complicated than in many stately homes. I hope I have got this right: Hilda and Axel Munthe bought the house in 1932. She was from a wealthy family, the Pennington Mellors, whose money, derived from 'trade', was not therefore totally acceptable in 19th century London society. So the family had built themselves a handsome chateau in Biarritz, where they were able to mingle with royalty and nobility to their hearts content. It was there that she met and fell for the great Swedish writer and doctor, Axel Munthe. The economic difficulties of the between wars years mean that they moved to England, where they owned two houses, the other one being Hellens Manor in Herefordshire, which is run by the same family trust. Various family stories attempt to link the family to the whole story of the house since the 17th century, but the links are tenuous. A Pennington did, however, marry into the family of Lord Wharton, which helps explain the artworks from the Wharton collection which are here.
But enough of the background and into the house. The garden room, where we met our guide, contains a rocking horse, which once belonged to Horatia Nelson, daughter of the naval hero. Emma Hamilton was a regular dinner party guest in the house in the early 19th century. It also has a couple of van Dykes, and Pat explained that 'studio of' tended to mean multiple copies of the great man's work by his assistants. Then we went through a narrow corridor, lined with portraits. This gave Pat an opportunity to tell us about the Chevalier d'Eon, whose gender was the subject of huge bets amongst the dashing punters of London Society. He seems to have dressed as a woman for reasons of security, though he continued to give demonstrations of swordsmanship in his bonnet and dress.
In the breakfast room hangs a sketch by Constable, part of his preparatory work for The Cornfield, as well as portraits of Hilda and Axel. Of their two sons, it was the younger, Malcolm, who took responsibility for houses and finances, while the older, Peter, went to the Slade and then became an artist. His confidence in himself can be seen in topiary hedges out in the garden.
The dining room is part of a later addition to the house, and is embellished with an enormous chandelier and table brought over from the Chateau in Biarritz. The walls are covered with paintings, including a splendid Hogarth of Sir Charles Kemeys Tynte, and a Burne Jones cartoon for a stained glass window, nestling behind the door. We then moved to the entrance hall, which has a classically Dutch black and white floor. We admired the apparently stone pillars and balustrades, which proved to be wood: replacements after a bomb in 1940. Pat told us about all the films and TV period shows which have been filmed here. The latest is Timothy Spall as J M W Turner, which will be out any day now.
The Library contains photographs of the two brothers: Peter in Royal Navy uniform, Malcolm in the uniform in which he won his MC, after a period in SOE. Malcolm was wounded after landing at Anzio, and his health was affected from then on, but this did not stop him working to save the houses and the family and other treasures from the ravages of the Labour government after the War.
Pat pointed out a lovely bust of a young child, and said it was by Foley, the great Irish sculptor, and challenged us all to see whether we had heard of him. Linda and I were red-faced when he reminded us that this is the artist who 'did' both Albert and Asia, on the Memorial which we had visited only a few months ago.
Because no home is complete without a bedroom that someone famous slept in, the family concocted a room in which 'Poor Fred', son of George II had slept; the Prince of Wales' feathers, in silver sequins, on the velvet bedhead are actually a reference to a later Prince of Wales, Victoria's son, the future Edward VII, who visited the family in Biarritz. There is also a cabinet with some fine jewels, many with royal stories attached.
A tiny oratory was built in the 'newer,' concrete rendered, part of the house; it has a Swedish wooden steeple above it and a couple of little stained glass windows as well. Pat explained to us some of the benefits of inadequate cash, (and also of not handing the house over to the National Trust!): some areas have not been renovated, including a room still displaying painted canvas wall-hangings rather than panelling or tapestry. We were also shown the tiny powder closet, where gentlemen could have their periwigs repowdered after the breezy ride across the common.
The music room is perhaps the most extraordinary; it has ten huge crystal sconces along the walls, as well as a fine Romney portrait of Emma Hamilton, who used to perform her 'attitudes' here after a good dinner.
I haven't really said that all the rooms look lived in; none of the chairs corded off; no part of the carpet where one cannot stand. It makes for a rather surreal experience for those of us used to other stately homes. Only one room feels at all museum-like, and that is the small room where some of the ladies' dresses designed by the House of Worth are displayed.
This was where our formal tour ended.
But visitors are free to visit the large garden (two acres much coveted by the private school next door, which would like the space). The garden is as idiosyncratic as the house, including a small waterway, a shelly grotto, the topiary of Peter's name, and a pets' cemetery. Most of the pet graves have depictions of the animal above them; Axel Munthe's owl is somewhat hidden in the undergrowth, but there are plenty more to enjoy.
All in all, we thought this was a fascinating place. Our only criticism would be that we were given no time to linger or to study the objects and paintings that were pointed out to us. Even so, it had taken over an hour and three quarters to be shown the house, so I suppose we should not be surprised.