The last of the great houses
The woman in the portrait is looking slightly to her left, meaning that her beautiful face, with its proud, high cheekbones is caught almost in profile. Her dark hair is immaculately bobbed in the style of the day and she wears a shimmering white gown, draped in diamonds and fur. In her right hand she holds a single pink rose.
Visitors to Stansted Park always pause in front of this oil painting, wondering who this elegant, yet strangely aloof woman is. Her expression is inscrutable, yet it is clear from the way she holds herself that she has a story to tell.
This woman is Loelia Ponsonby, a cousin of the 9th Earl of Bessborough. She, of all the women who spent time at Stansted Park in the 1920s, sums up the glamour of this heady decade the best.
It was in 1923 that the 9th Earl of Bessborough bought the Stansted Park estate, near Chichester. The family had lived in Ireland where their home, Bessborough House, had been destoyed by arson in the Troubles. Fortunately, they’d already taken the wise step of moving their priceless collection of art and antiques to their London home. But they were still looking for the perfect location to store their treasure. They found this when they came across a property advertisement in Country Life magazine – for Stansted Park.
“With the Bessboroughs, you have the last gasp of the traditional country house,” says Janet Sinclair, curator of Stansted Park. “They moved in to entertain on a grand scale, both politically and socially. The Countess of Bessborough, Roberte, was a French aristocrat and brought European influences to the house. In the kitchen you’ll find a French enamel stove, French cookery books and black candles in the dining room.
“They restyled the entire house. It was almost brand new because it had burned down and been rebuilt between 1901 and 1903, so although the house has 800 years of history, the actual fabric of the building was pretty new when the Bessboroughs moved in.”
The family made some major changes. They were very fond of amateur dramatics and built the theatre in 1927, by the stable block. Three productions each year were performed by family members, local amateurs, and visiting professionals. The theatre was based on the design of the Duchess Theatre in London’s West End; sadly, it burned down during the war when being used by the Home Guard. But this theatrical legacy was maintained by Eric (Frederick), the 10th Earl, who later became a founder of Chichester Festival Theatre, and was also involved in the rebuilding of the new Globe in London.
Although no visitors’ books from the time exist, the striking Loelia Ponsonby, born in 1902, would certainly have spent time at the estate. The daughter of the courtier Sir Frederick Ponsonby (later 1st Baron Sysonby), she was accustomed to living on a grand scale and had been brought up at St James’s Palace, Park House at Sandringham, and Birkhall.
“In the 1920s Loelia became an integral part of the Bright Young Things,” says Sinclair. “Later, in 1930, she married Hugh Grosvenor, the second Duke of Westminster. The marriage was a disaster. For all that she was a part of this wonderful society, I think she was actually quite an unhappy person.”
But in London and Sussex, in the 1920s, Loelia reigned supreme among this hedonistic set. The parties and antics were legendary and included fancy dress, night-time treasure hunts, alleged use of drugs and, of course, endless alcohol. But, says Sinclair, Loelia was somewhat of an outsider in this set.
“Despite her background she didn’t have a huge income. She didn’t have money in her own right until after her marriage. This led to her inventing the ‘Bottle Party’, which we still have today, where people bring their own alcohol to parties.”
Loelia’s life inspired the writers and artists of the time. Noel Coward wrote the preface to her autobiography Grace and Favour, and more fascinating still, she left an indelible mark on a British born spy called James Bond.
“One of Loelia’s friend was Ann Fleming, the wife of Bond author Ian,” explains Sinclair. “Loelia’s name was used in the early novels. Originally, she was James Bond’s secretary in From Russia With Love, but later, when Loelia remarried, she asked Fleming to write her out, so her name was changed to Mary Goodnight – but then, in the films, the relationship is between James and Miss Moneypenny, so you can actually think of Loelia as the origin of Moneypenny.”
In her later years, Loelia would become a writer and editor for House and Garden magazine. She was also a highly skilled needlewoman, and her embroidery is on show at Stansted Park.
“She was part of a time when, like in the Bertie Wooster novels, you could travel down to Sussex by car in just a few hours. This was so different from having to spend all day in a stage coach,” says Sinclair.
“Loelia helped define this last great age of entertaining. She was a larger than life figure – and an integral part of the high society that still intrigues us so today.”
A Bohemian paradise
Over in Lewes, East Sussex, is the other extreme of 1920 country living, embodied by Charleston House, sometime home to the decidedly unconventional Bloomsbury set.
“It will be an odd life, but…it ought to be a good one for painting,” wrote Vanessa Bell, the painter, sister of author Virginia Woolf, and wife of art critic Clive Bell.
Bell’s words could also be used to describe the rather complex relationships between members of the Bloomsbury Group. Although married to Clive Bell, she was having an affair with the predominantly homosexual artist Duncan Grant, who in turn was having an affair with the predominantly heterosexual writer and publisher David Garnett. All players in this entangled web set up camp at Charleston from 1916 onwards.
“Duncan Grant and his lover, David Garnett, were both conscientious objectors,” says Darren Clarke, curator at Charleston. “When conscription came in in 1916, they had to find work on a farm or doing something else of national importance or face going to prison. Vanessa Bell already lived in that area of Sussex – she shared Asham with Virginia Woolf, and it was Woolf and her husband Leonard who found Charleston for Grant and Garnett. They came down one day in 1916 and took the lease on the house and found a farmer who would employ the two men. They moved in in October of that year.”
The rest of the war was spent at Charleston. Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell’s child, Angelica, was even born there on Christmas day, 1918. After the war the group began redecorating the house, but they weren’t sure they’d be able to keep it on: finding staff who were willing to stay in such a remote location was a challenge. Even so, they managed to secure a long lease.
“In the 1920s, Charleston was very much a summer residence,” explains Clarke. “They all had studios and flats in London, rented a house in the South of France in the inter-war period and quite often took studios in Rome or Paris for one or two months, but they would always come back to Charleston in August or September. It was a decade of long summers in the beautiful Sussex countryside.
“The group would have spent their days working on their own paintings and trying to be outside as much as possible. It was, in many ways, rather Edenic in the 1920s: you had Bell’s children running around naked in the pond and there was a very relaxed atmosphere.”
But Clarke stresses that it was also a working household. Those who came down from London were expected to bring work with them. Typically, they would meet for breakfast and then everyone would go off to their various studios. Lunch would follow and the afternoon would be more social. The day would conclude with dinner and lots of discussions, many taking place in the Garden Room, which Grant played a pivotal part in decorating.
“The house was famous for its discussions,” adds Clarke. “In 1918 Lytton Strachey read the first draft of his book, Eminent Victorians, in the Garden Room. The first Hogarth Press was set up by Virginia and Leonard Woolf at Charleston, which published T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland – again the first edition was read out at the house. Physically it was remote from London, but was still very much engaged with what was going on in the cultural world.”
While, on the surface, the Charleston of the 1920s looked like an idyllic environment, there were tensions – particularly of the emotional kind, given the avant-garde relationships between the house’s occupants. But, on a more practical level, life was also tough: there was no running water and supplies had to be pumped every day from a spring. Neither was there electricity, meaning the house was freezing cold in the winter.
But the positives certainly outweighed the negatives for the Bloomsbury Group. Charleston allowed them to live a very private life, where their creativity could flourish. In 1939, it became Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s primary home and remained so until they died. They had found their solace in a small, hidden corner of Sussex.