Before this visit, I borrowed an old guidebook to Montacute and I have to say that the Phelips family tree created a little trepidation as it left me expecting a complex cast of characters to explore and discuss. As it is, I think I can get away with ignoring a lot of the later Phelipses as it is really the builder of the house – the first of a multitude of Edwards – who is the most important and interesting of the lot. Although there were inevitably changes made to the house and grounds by later owners (including most notably the removal of an imposing gatehouse and the alteration of the west front in the 1780s by Edward Phelips V), the imposing view of the east front is much as it would have been in the first Edward’s time. (NB: I chose a slightly different angle for my picture above as it includes the striking oriel window at the end of the Long Gallery, plus it was very dark and dingy when I took my pictures of the east front and this photo is much brighter and also shows one of the wibbly wobbly hedges).
Edward Phelips (1560?-1614) made his fortune as a lawyer and later as a Member of Parliament. It is thought that Montacute was completed in 1601 after what was most likely a construction period of around 10 years. Although he had several other homes, he created Montacute House as a status symbol and a country retreat… an Elizabethan holiday cottage of sorts! It certainly looks as though the house managed to impress all the right people as Edward’s career continued on an upward curve in the following years, with a knighthood given by James I in 1603 and the Speakership of the House of Commons in 1604. He is also known for his involvement in the prosecution of Guy Fawkes after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Perhaps fittingly, he is also the first thing a visitor to Montacute will see as his portrait hangs directly in front of you as you enter the house.
As ever, I would strongly recommend the introductory talk at Montacute as not only do you get some background on Edward Phelips but also some very interesting titbits about the architecture of the house and the layout of the grounds. Fortunately, the rain had just about stopped when we joined the first talk of the day at 11am and set off with Michael, our very cheerful, entertaining and informative guide, and his very cute companion Wolfie the dog. I have to admit that I was a little distracted at one point during the talk as Wolfie just had to be petted for a while but I don’t think I missed anything crucial!
One particularly interesting aspect of the talk was architecture as status symbol. I have never really thought of architecture as being particularly indicative of wealth and have generally assumed that most choices are made for aesthetic reasons, but it would seem that a lot of Edward Phelips’ decisions were designed specifically to show off his money and status. Apparently, a lot of glass in an Elizabethan house was a clear sign that you had money so Montacute is covered in windows. In addition, ornamental stonework was expensive so Phelips had statues of the Nine Worthies, a multitude of ornamental animals, a positive forest of obelisks and a number of circular and shell-headed niches.
Our guide said that the Nine Worthies were believed to be the personification of the ideals of chivalry and he reeled them all off for us. I clearly couldn’t remember all of them so good old Wikipedia refreshed my memory: there were three good pagans in Hector, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, three good Jews in Joshua, David and Judas Maccabeus and three good Christians in King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon. As impressive as they are, though, I was still slightly more drawn to the variety of animals that can be seen prowling the tops of the walls and was even more delighted to learn that such stone decorations are known as ‘hunky punks’ in the Somerset dialect.
Sadly, the furniture with which Edward Phelips would no doubt have further dazzled his guests has not survived but the indoor architecture suggests that there was much to admire inside as well as out. The Great Hall is fairly imposing as you might expect, while the armorial glass and plasterwork in the Library (which was once the Great Chamber) would have impressed the visitors. Meanwhile, the Long Gallery on the top floor is 53 metres long and is said to be the longest surviving Tudor gallery in the country. Unfortunately, although it is suggested that it may once have had a barrel-vaulted ceiling à la Chastleton, there is now a fairly plain ceiling. The oriel windows at either end are also quite impressive, although the current layout of the Long Gallery means that these are covered up from the inside.
More of that in a moment but first I just need to sum up what happened to Montacute after the Phelips dynasty finally ran out of the money needed to maintain the house at the turn of the 20th century. It was let to the politician George Nathanial Curzon (Earl Curzon) in 1915, and his mistress, the novelist Elinor Glyn, was heavily involved in the redecorating. There is a room still laid out as Lord Curzon’s bedroom, complete with a fairly unique en suite bathroom in what is essentially a roofless cupboard! The lease was surrendered in 1929 after Curzon’s death and the house remained empty and unsold for several more years before it was finally valued ‘for scrap’ in 1931 and bought by Ernest Cook (the grandson of the travel agent Thomas Cook) who gave it straight to the National Trust.
Even then, the house was opened as a relatively empty shell, once described in the mid-1930s as ‘an empty and rather embarrassing white elephant’. It was later used as one of the V&A’s stores during WWII and by the time it was reopened in 1946 a public appeal had helped to cobble together some more furnishings. A further bequest of tapestries, pictures and furniture was welcomed in 1960, while the Goodhart Collection of needlework samplers is also now exhibited inside Montacute.
Even though the house is still not crammed with period furniture, there is probably enough to satisfy most casual visitors. More demanding visitors, however, will not be disappointed as Montacute has another string to its bow and I have to say that it unexpectedly blew me away. In the 1970s, Lord Rosse, then Chairman of the Trust’s Properties Committee, approached the National Portrait Gallery about a collaboration and as a result, Montacute became the first off-site offshoot of the National Portrait Gallery.
I had read that there were many Tudor and Elizabethan portraits on show here in Somerset and I was expecting a lot of dark and dingy nobodies to be gracing the walls. Instead, the Long Gallery and attached rooms awaiting at the top of the stairs are Montacute’s pièce de resistance. The portraits are laid out by period, with a room dedicated to Henry VIII’s time, another to Elizabethan portraits and a third to Jacobean art, all excellently lit so the vibrant colours in some of the pictures are really striking. And instead of a bunch of nobodies, there is a constant procession of well-known names, from Henry VIII himself, flanked by his first and last Catherines, Thomas More, Elizabeth I, Walter Raleigh, Robert Dudley, James VI and I and even John Donne, which was a nice literary find. In addition, jigsaws of some of the paintings can be found on the benches and window seats so there is something to keep small people happy (and the larger people like us… well, it had to be done!) Further information about the NPG’s entire collection can also be accessed in more detail on touch-screen computers.
So, having said that we would dash around the top floor quickly just so I could say that I’d ‘done’ the house comprehensively, I actually found that the top floor was the highlight of my visit (although, yes, Wolfie you were also right up there!). It just goes to show that it’s worth giving everything a chance.
Highlights: The National Portrait Gallery in the Long Gallery; the various architectural features and don’t miss the ‘wibbly wobbly’ yew hedges (this ‘cloud effect’ was originally caused by heavy snowfall on top of overgrown yew but the bowed, misshapen look has been retained ever since and is certainly unusual – it’s fun to see if you can spot faces and animals in it!).
Refreshments: Hot chocolate and flapjack; tomato and basil soup
Purchase(s): Guidebook; cards; present for the folks at home (so I’d better not say what it is here as that would ruin the surprise!)
NT Connections: Barrington Court (both owned by the Phelips family at one time and built in similar styles from Ham Hill stone); Kedleston Hall (family home of Lord Curzon, former tenant of Montacute); Tattershall Castle (saved, restored and left to the Trust by Lord Curzon); Bodiam Castle (also saved, restored and left to the Trust by Lord Curzon); Shute Barton (both properties once owned by Sir William Petre).
We were finished up at Montacute before 3pm so we then headed off across country to see some of the smaller NT properties in the area. Although these aren’t on my list (and two of them weren’t open to the public today), I thought I’d present pictures from our whistlestop tour that took in Stoke-sub-Hamdon Priory, the Treasurer’s House in Martock and the Priest’s House in Muchelney.