A Right Swanky Pad

What to do on a warm summer afternoon? Try a visit to Polesden Lacey House near Dorking in Surrey. This impressive mansion looks like a Georgian Palladian house, but was in fact built in the Edwardian period of the early 20th century, remodelling an older, smaller property that stood on the site. This was to be the country home of wealthy socialites, Ronald (Ronnie) and Margaret Greville, but tragically Ronnie died in 1908, so Margaret lived there alone. The couple filled the house with a vast collection of paintings, porcelain, silver and furniture and Margaret took great delight in holding lavish parties at the house to which the crowned heads of Europe and anyone who was ‘anyone’ was delighted to receive an invitation.

Polesden Lacey House

Margaret herself was from humble origins, being the illegitimate daughter of William Younger the Scottish brewery magnate. When she was 21 years old, William Younger acknowledged her as his daughter and sole heir, which secured her future financially. All she needed now was a husband of suitable standing to allow her access to London Society, and this she found in Captain Ronald Greville of the 1st Life Guards. They married in 1891 and sadly had no children.

After her husband’s untimely death, Mrs Greville threw herself into the social whirl of the age, becoming great friends with the future King George 6th and Queen Elizabeth (the Queen Mother), whom she invited to spend part of their honeymoon at Polesden Lacey. After her death she left her jewels to Queen Elizabeth (Queen Mother) who said of her “so shrewd, so kind and so amusingly unkind, so sharp, such fun, so naughty; altogether a real person, a character, utterly Mrs Ronald Greville”. (Bradford, S, 1989; King George VI, p11). Mrs G. (as she is often referred to) was a real ‘marmite’ person – love her or loathe her. It seems that the society photographer Cecil Beaton was a loather and is reported to have described her as  “a galumphing, greedy, snobbish old toad who watered at her chops at the sight of royalty … and did nothing for anybody except the rich” (Buckle, R (Ed), 1979, Self Portrait with Friends, selected diaries of Cecil Beaton, p.215-16).

Whatever the truth about her may have been, her home was definitely built to impress, she and Ronnie could be described as the Posh and Becks of their day, their home, while having ‘all mod cons’ being very ostentatious to the point of being vulgar.

Gold Room

Today part of the ground floor of the house is open to the public, dressed out as if a weekend party is about to take place. Entry through the front door reveals a symmetrical pair of curved bays, one with windows one without, with the window areas being obscured by trimmed hedges. This second bay housed the kitchens and did not have windows looking out to the front of the house, as Mrs G did not wish for her servants to be able to ‘gawp’ at her important guests arriving. Having the kitchen at the front of the house was very modern indeed as it was close to the dining room which meant that food at the Greville’s parties would always be served hot! (In most other large house the kitchens were in basements or in a separate annexe because of the danger of fire, it also meant that food was invariably cold by the time it reached the dinner table). A guided tour reveals some interesting snippets of information about the Grevilles and life at Polesden, but a free flow visit is also interesting. The upstairs of the house is laid out mainly to offices and is currently not open to the public. A warning to visitors, the lighting at Polesden is particularly low due to fragile nature of some of the furnishings and other display items.

Library

Polesden Lacey has a fantastic Rose garden as Mrs Greville was very fond of roses. The NT have commissioned Peter Beale Roses to create a Mrs Greville rose, and this can be purchased from the garden shop on site. In August however, the rose garden is past its best, which is during June and early July when the property hold an annual Rose Festival. There is a small formal walled garden with flowers for cutting for display in the house, with a long herbaceous border along the outside wall. Behind this is a small kitchen garden, tiny orchard and a new area for chickens, a bug hotel and a wormery, all in tune with the conservation ethos of the National Trust. To the front and side of the property are magnificent lawns where visitors can sit and admire the view across the Surrey Hills, or children can run about in safety.

Long Border
Sun Dial in Walled Garden wall
Peace Rose

Navigating the past

Tucked away behind the cricket ground in Guildford are the Wey Navigations.  Opened in 1653, the site was dominated by two boat building families the Stevens and the Edwards but is now owned by the National Trust. This compact property offers an interesting snapshot of a what traditional barge building yard was like. It has been over a decade since I last visited and much has changed including the  addition of the Wey barge Reliance, built at Dapdune between 1931-2 and which sank in the Thames after striking a bridge.  It was acquired by the NT it is now moored at the Wharf for visitors to board and sample cramped, dark conditions that made up everyday life for watermen. Various outbuildings and old stores provide an array of information panels and interactive exhibitions including model navigation system and the block and tackle weight lifting exhibit, where three 56lbs weights are attached to different lifting methods to demonstrate how difficult and easy it can be to lift the same weight.  The complex is very child friendly and would make an excellent schools visit, with plenty of activities available for families.

Relaince, built at Dapdune Wharf 1931-2

The day I visited was the final day of an exhibition by 4 graduate students at UCA Farnham, titled ‘Tumblehome’ it is the result of how these four artists reacted to the surroundings, history and traditions of the wharf.  I found out about this exhibition by accident, and being a huge fan of site specific artwork, was curious to see their ideas.  There was disappointment from the start as there was no information available at the entry kiosk, now it may be because it was the last day of a month long exhibition, but the reception staff didn’t make any mention of it when they spoke about what there was to see on site.

There’s an exhibition here….somewhere

A couple of inconspicuous ‘A’ frame poster boards  signalled where artworks were sited, but I almost missed the largest exhibition area completely as it was so inconspicuous!  A quick check on the NT website revealed a short section about the project and the inevitable self-important verbose statements by each artist.  Of all the work on show, the digitally printed papers and fabric of Noelle Genevier, I felt were the most engaged and relevant pieces on display.  I have to confess that the large piece of canvas and rope suspended from a makeshift wood frame did little to provoke any questions, while the slideshow running in the background opposite was pretty standard stuff, modern photographs interspersed with archive images presumably drawing comparisons to how the use of the wharf has changed from industry to pleasure.  The quirkiest piece was the installation of cottage shaped teapots on show in the Smithy and the giant papier mache teapot in the main exhibition area and which apparently draws attention to our relationship with tea and comfort, a comment I am assuming, on the changing nature in use of the site from industrial workplace to leisure attraction.

Digitally printed fabric in the old stable
teapots in the old smithy
Giant papier mache teapot

Unfortunately most of the labelling of the artworks had disappeared and in the absence of any other information I think that most visitors would have found it all very hard to engage with.  This is hugely disappointing and a massive missed opportunity.  Art is a fantastic way to draw attention to an historical collection or site and to engage a more diverse audience than may usually be expected.   Overall I suspect that the students were not given enough time to work on this project alongside their degree show work which is a shame, although I feel that some of the work missed the mark in terms of thinking and display.  Still, there is always next time.