It feels like a very long time since I last made an entry to this blog back in October 2015 so I’m really pleased to have finally got 2016 underway with a visit to Upton House & Gardens in Warwickshire.
This was a repeat visit as I have stopped in at Upton on several previous occasions (it is fairly conveniently en route to my aunt’s house in Chipping Campden); however, I hadn’t been since I started the blog so I took the opportunity of a Cotswold weekend with a friend to tick it off, thinking it would be a straightforward and familiar experience. As ever, though, the Trust never stops changing and the Upton of this weekend was very different from the Upton of a few years ago.
In the past, Upton has been presented as it would have been during a weekend house party in 1938 and I remember watching a rather cheesy black-and-white film that re-enacted just such a gathering. The Trust has recently decided to jump forward a year in Upton’s history, however, so the house now finds itself in 1939, just after the outbreak of WWII, and the workings of the family’s London bank, M Samuel & Co, have been transferred to the relative safety of Upton House. As well as the bank’s story, there is also information about the removal of Lord Bearsted’s art to a Welsh slate quarry during the war as well as hints about his secret war work in the Intelligence services (although hints is all that can be given as no one seems to know what this entailed – well, I did say it was secret!).
I am reluctant to criticise this change of focus because much of what I learnt about the war years during this visit was very interesting and was certainly a positive addition to what I had seen at Upton in the past. However, I was less impressed with the way it was done and the fact that existing sights at the house have been removed or covered up so that the wartime experience can be fully recreated. For example, some of the furniture in the Long Gallery has been removed and replaced by desks, complete with typewriters, in order to show how the bank staff took over, while a lot of furniture elsewhere has been covered in dust sheets to demonstrate the partial shutting-up of the house during the time that it was a place of business. I imagine the Trust took great care to leave the more valuable and notable contents of the house on show (for example, the paintings and porcelain are still displayed), but I have to say I didn’t like the feel of the place with white sheets shrouding a lot of the furnishings and found it more than a little annoying. I just wanted to lift the sheets to find out what pretty things might lie underneath. I would have preferred it if the wartime information could have been presented separately from the rest of the house as has been done at Hughenden. The house there is presented as it would have been during Disraeli’s residency and the wartime activities of the map makers are demonstrated through photos and displays in an exhibition area in the basement. In this way, it is not an either/or situation, but both stories are presented at once.
Now that I’ve got that complaint out of the way, I’d better get back to some information about Upton. The house is perhaps not considered to be anything special architecturally (although personally I’m rather fond of it) and its past residents were not deemed worthy of much particular mention, so you would be forgiven for thinking it was created fully formed at the time that Walter Samuel, the 2nd Viscount Bearsted, bought it in 1927. There is some information on its past history in the guidebook and I just have to mention that in the 17th century the house was owned by a man called Sir Rushout Cullen, who then sold it to William Bumstead… two additions to my list of humorous names. Sir Rushout definitely sounds like he belongs in either a Sheridan play or a Dickens novel!
Other names from Upton’s past include Francis Child of Osterley Park who owned Upton for a time during the 18th century (one for my list of connections) and Andrew Motion, grandfather of the poet laureate who owned the house before the Samuel family.
The Samuels are certainly far more interesting in terms of importance and achievements, however, with roots in banking and the oil industry (the 1st Viscount founded Shell), so it is no surprise that Upton’s focus is on the 1930s when the 2nd Viscount and his family were in residence. In fact, if it were not for Walter Samuel’s wealth and his investment in art and porcelain, Upton may never have become part of the National Trust family at all as it was this collection that was the house’s main attraction. It is still a core part of any visit (even a WWII-themed visit), with a number of display cabinets for the porcelain and several rooms dedicated primarily to the art, including the Picture Room and the house’s very own Picture Gallery, which is approached through a picture-lined passage. Upton should certainly be on any art connoisseur’s radar as there are many notable artists represented on its walls, including Canaletto, Tintoretto, El Greco, Constable, Stubbs, Gainsborough, Hogarth, Raeburn, Reynolds, Lawrence, Holbein and a lot of Dutchmen! My personal favourite painting, though, is the less eminent (but much more dashing!) portrait of William Augustus Bowles dressed as an American Indian chief. Having bought the catalogue of the picture collection on this visit, I was interested to find out more about Bowles, but pretty upset to discover that he died on hunger strike in prison aged only 42.
Porcelain isn’t really my favourite thing but I can accept that there are some important examples on display at Upton, including some Chelsea figurines and Sèvres dinnerware. The latter appealed to me much more than the former as I tend to find porcelain figurines either too brash or too twee.
Another thing that is definitely noteworthy inside Upton is the bathroom leading off Lady Bearsted’s bedroom, which has something of a Marmite quality – you’ll either love it or hate it. With its vaulted ceiling, aluminium painted walls (yes, they’re silver!) and bright red columns, I guarantee it is like nothing you’ve ever seen before… or will probably ever see again!
I would also like to mention the Library, with its unusual galleried view down into the Picture Room, and the Inglenook at the other end of the Picture Room, both of which are perfect spots for a book lover, with the first perhaps best for poring over research books and the other an ideal place to curl up with a novel.
I got a bit of a surprise in the Billiard Room as my friend pointed out some family photographs on a side table showing Sam Waley-Cohen winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Long Run in 2011. At the time, I was looking at a wedding photo of a younger Sam and wondering where I had seen the groom before! Not everyone will be familiar with Mr Waley-Cohen but I do like my horse racing so he was no stranger to me and I had no idea, until that moment, that the family had anything to do with Upton. Having checked it out since, I’ve found that the 3rd Viscount’s daughter is married to Robert Waley-Cohen, father of Sam and owner of the aforementioned Long Run.
Before deciding to visit Upton, we had toyed with the idea of going to Batsford Arboretum to see its snowdrop display but Upton did a more than adequate job filling in as there are some beautiful clumps of drops around the grounds, as well as some crocuses and a few early daffodils. February is generally not the best time of year for Upton’s gardens, though, as the herbaceous borders and kitchen garden slopes are closed to visitors. I also told my friend to look down the garden from the house and then took her to the end to peer over at the ‘hidden’ slopes and the Mirror Pool, which only come into view as you get closer. Unfortunately, the Mirror Pool is less mirror and more mudbath at the moment as it has been drained for some winter work, so the view was rather less impressive than usual. I am also slightly concerned about what has happened to the pool’s resident fish – I just hope they were rescued during the draining process.
I would highly recommend a visit to the gardens in summer as I remember a peaceful rest on a bench by the side of the Mirror Pool a few years ago, where I read the guidebook and became acquainted with a local cat that came to say hello. I am also very fond of the Bog Garden where you can literally walk underneath the Gunnera (giant rhubarb) leaves; it has an atmosphere all its own.
All in all, one of the main conclusions I came to following this latest visit is that many of the Trust’s properties warrant multiple viewings. If this had been my only trip to Upton, I would never have seen the garden at its best and would never have experienced the atmosphere of the 1938 house party. But, if I hadn’t come this weekend, I would know nothing about how the house was changed during the war years. However, while it is certainly impossible for Upton’s gardeners to deliver snowdrops and herbaceous floral displays at the same time, I just wish that both aspects of the house could be presented concurrently. Call me greedy, but I don’t want one or the other, I want it all!
Highlights: Art; snowdrops; that bathroom!
Refreshments: Leek and potato soup with bread; cream tea
Purchase(s): Guidebook; Catalogue of Pictures and Porcelain; ‘The Illusionists’ by Rosie Thomas (second-hand book from the modern shop in the Squash Court Gallery, there is also a collection of classics and antiquarian books for sale in the basement)