Whatever it is you look for from a National Trust property, Mottisfont will probably oblige as it can best be described as a smorgasbord. For architecture buffs, it serves up Medieval, Tudor and Georgian period features, while art lovers can delight in the Whistler Room’s murals, the Derek Hill collection and the art gallery with its frequently changing exhibitions, and garden enthusiasts can feast on riverside walks, a winter garden, ancient trees, a highly renowned rose garden, and at this time of year a pretty splash of spring colour. And on top of all that, there are a few genuine oddities to put a smile on your face, including a mini water wheel and a crocodile (I’ll come back to those later!)
Significant changes at Mottisfont over the years have left only fragments of the Medieval and Tudor features to be seen, and in fact there appear to be slightly more of the former than there are of the latter. We started our tour of the house on the ground floor, with its displays about the Augustinian priory, which was established at Mottisfont in 1201 by William Briwere, a local businessman and royal adviser. The Cellarium is the most complete part of the priory that still remains, although other evidence can be seen in the pulpitum that divided the choir from the nave (now found in the Old Kitchen restaurant) and in the Medieval tiles that line the floor of the Gothic summer house in the garden. Meanwhile, the walls of the White Bedroom feature a couple of hinged panels behind which can be seen some more of the old priory’s stonework.
The Black Death did much to damage the prosperity of the Mottisfont priory and then Henry VIII finished the job with the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The priory passed into the hands of William Sandys, a diplomat at the court of King Henry who has already popped up in this blog as the builder of The Vyne near Basingstoke. Amusingly, we are told that he gave Henry the villages of Paddington and Chelsea in return for Mottisfont, which at today’s property prices would have been a pretty poor deal financially speaking. Sandys used the old priory church as the spine of his new Tudor home at Mottisfont and it must have been a striking property, having later welcomed not one but two visits by Queen Elizabeth I in 1569 and 1574.
The Sandys family held on to Mottisfont until the 1680s when it passed to a nephew, Sir John Mill, and it was his son Richard who built the three-storey Georgian property that dominates today. Future owners added the Mottisfont family name to their own, so we had the Reverend Sir John Barker-Mill and then, after a period rented to a family called Meinertzhagen, came Mrs Marianne Vaudrey-Barker-Mill. Fortunately, in 1934, before we wound up with quadruple-barrelled names the estate was sold and was acquired by merchant banker Gilbert Russell and his wife Maud, who used the house as a weekend party home. In a charming stroke of serendipity, it appears that Gilbert was actually a descendant of William Briwere who founded the original priory, so the two relatives book-ended Mottisfont’s history perfectly before it was passed to the National Trust in 1957.
It is the Russells’ story that is the main focus of Mottisfont’s presentation to the public and this is hardly surprising as one of its main attractions is the Whistler Room, which Maud Russell commissioned from artist Rex Whistler and which was the last major work he painted before the Second World War in which he lost his life aged just 39. Whistler was actually the reason I visited Mottisfont at this time rather than waiting for the famous roses to be blooming in the summer. I am booked to go to North Wales in a few weeks’ time and will be visiting Plas Newydd, where Whistler painted another famous mural and where some of his more important portraits belong. I timed this extremely badly, however, as Whistler is the focus of the current exhibition in Mottisfont’s art gallery and some of the Plas Newydd paintings are on loan in Hampshire, hence my trip to see them there instead.
The exhibition is actually very good. I wasn’t very familiar with Whistler’s work but he is actually right up my street as an artist, with accurate drawing and real intricacy. He was also involved in theatre set design and drew many book illustrations so he was capable of turning his hand to pretty much anything; for example, the exhibition included some extremely clever and amusing pictures of faces that remain faces when viewed upside-down. In the Whistler Room itself, you can see evidence of his skill with perspectives: the frieze ledges all around the ceiling appear 3D but are actually flat, and one even appears to be holding a pot of Whistler’s paint and a box of matches as if he had forgotten them when he left.
Having seen the Whistler Room on the television a few weeks ago, I was really keen to experience it for real, but I will issue (an all too familiar) warning here – don’t expect to be able to see it all that clearly as it is likely the curtains will be drawn and you will have to view it in a protective gloom. Fortunately, the filming crew appeared to have had greater access to lighting, so while I would advocate that everything is worth seeing first-hand, you may want to supplement your visit to the Whistler Room with some television footage if you want to experience its full impact in the light in which it was designed and created. The effect just isn’t the same in dim, artificial light. And I can’t even include a picture of the room here as it was simply too dark to get a decent exposure.
Maud Russell’s love of the arts wasn’t limited to Whistler, however, and there are a couple of mosaics on view at Mottisfont that were created by her Russian friend and lover Boris Anrep, while the house is also home to the paintings and art collection of Derek Hill, who had fond memories of visiting Maud at Mottisfont and wanted his art displayed there. Maud also sat for Henri Matisse in 1937, although she was said to be disappointed with the result.
Maud Russell’s war diaries have recently been published and Mottisfont has found clever ways to display some of her words, including printing lines onto the dining table’s napkins. Maud entertained Ian Fleming at Mottisfont and he encouraged her to take on some kind of secret work during WWII. She certainly worked for the Admiralty and was most likely involved in translating enemy communications, but secret means secret so no one really knows.
I’ll finish up by taking you back to those oddities I mentioned earlier. On first entering the house by the East Entrance, we passed an amusing sign that said ‘no paws beyond this point’ but only seconds later I could hear a very large dog lapping at a water bowl inside the house. I was quite surprised that someone had so blatantly ignored the instruction but, rounding the corner, we found that the lapping dog was actually a very small water wheel chugging around in a cabinet. This was actually designed to turn the spit on the kitchen range and is an ingenious twist on an old engineering favourite.
And last but not least, the crocodile! It seems that Maud Russell’s two boys once had a live crocodile that they kept in an upstairs bathroom… until it got too big and was sensibly transferred to more suitable accommodations at London Zoo. If you get a chance to go up to the Maid’s Room on the top floor of the house, don’t miss the closed door along the corridor that has three holes drilled in it – this is where the crocodile once lived and if you peek through you can still see him wallowing in his bathtub!
Highlights: Spring flowers; Whistler exhibition; Whistler Room (if only you could see it properly)
Refreshments: Tea and a flapjack; broccoli, caramelised onion and Stilton tart with rocket salad and new potatoes
Purchase(s): Guidebook; ‘Rex Whistler: Inspirations – Family, Friendships, Landscapes and Love & War’ by Hugh and Mirabel Cecil
Companion(s): Mum and Dad, plus Jackie, Melissa, Alice and Peter in spirit if not in body! (NB: They were supposed to be meeting us for the day but were stymied by an accident on the M27 that blocked their route and they ended up diverting to Hinton Ampner instead – but as Melissa was keen to be given a mention in the blog I have duly obliged!)
NT Connections: The Vyne, also built by William Sandys; Plas Newydd, another place adorned with one of Whistler’s murals