“As my grandfather was extremely churchy, this was rather unlikely,” chuckles the engaging Nicolas Gage. “But they loved pranks and rather enjoyed the act of poking fun at him.”
The leading Bloomsbury couple, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, were so drawn to Firle that they rented a nearby farmhouse, Charleston. So while some English aristocrats seem to take perverse pride in being philistines, young Nicolas was surrounded by incredible art and artists.
“My grandmother had one of the finest art collections in England,” Gage announces, but without a trace of arrogance, just recounting historical fact, casually pointing out, with the wave of a lordly hand, a Gainsborough or a Van Dyck still hanging on the gilded walls of Firle. So was a love of art in the (blue) blood?
“No, I don’t think she was particularly interested in art, she just inherited a lot of paintings.” These works came courtesy of Edwardian England’s grandest chatelaine, Lady Desborough, who was Nicolas’s grandmother. “Sadly, most of the collection is now dispersed. A couple of Raphaels were sold in Washington,” he says in passing.
Instead it was Grant, Bloomsbury’s greatest protagonist, who sounds the inspiration: “He encouraged everyone to paint, and was really passionate about it.”
Grant came to Firle to work on the estate during the First World War when he was a conscientious objector, and ended up living at Charleston until his death in 1978. He even sat for Gage: “He was never rude about my paintings and was highly amusing. But he was very capricious and alarming, and didn’t suffer fools. He preferred my brother to me.”
A sad but typically modest statement from the thoroughly likeable Gage, who displays refreshingly little desire to impress. Of Grant’s work, Gage enthuses that “the best ones are really good.” So why isn’t Grant’s stock higher now? “Why wasn’t he as good as Matisse? Probably he had too much fun. He painted for the pot a bit, too.” Which, as a working artist, he had to do.
Bloomsbury and Gage lives grew interwoven. The great economist John Maynard Keynes was often at Charleston, and struck up close intellectual bonds with Nicolas’s father, the 6th Viscount. Meanwhile, Nicolas’s cousin, art dealer Deborah Gage, led the campaign – and raised much of the dosh – to preserve the unique Charleston, with its art and vitality now secure for future generations.
You can see why Bloomsbury sorts were drawn to Firle, and why it inspires Nicolas to paint. Sometimes you can suspect that the beauty of the South East has been buried under Burger Kings and orbital motorways, but this patch is unchanged.
The house (deep sigh: major property envy) has the soft stone texture of a chateau more than a traditional English country house.
“The late Duke of Devonshire described it as ‘the prettiest small house in England’,” smiles Gage. “The key word there is ‘small’.” Only a duke could deem this 500-year-old stately home “small”, a kind of aristocratic starter-home; such are the challenges of keeping up with the Devonshires.
Not that Gage displays any desire to play that game: eschewing countless halls, drawing rooms and long rooms, he receives me in the kitchen.
But make no mistake, Firle was a grand place in which to grow up, and even now Gage is an acquaintance of the Queen: “My father had a butler and I’ve a vague memory of second footmen…” Today there are three staff in evidence, and two days a week the Gages decamp to a nearby barn to give staff time off.
“It’s actually quite nice to make your own breakfast and so on,’’ he says, making this sound something of a novelty. While at Firle Place, however, there are no such lapses in standards, and in the dining room there are the remains of a neatly laid out lordly breakfast, below a beautifully atmospheric landscape by Philip de Koninck, which “the Dutch are after”. That is, Holland’s world-renowned Rijksmuseum.
Yet Gage never expected to bag Firle or his title. He inherited in 1992 from his brother, George, who died without heir. Nicolas’s background, though, was certainly a handy apprenticeship.
“I did the usual stuff,” he says, which for him meant Eton, the Guards, City and running the family’s second pile in Northamptonshire “the poor sister as an estate”, now home to Nicolas’s second son. “I went into the City and I came out like a Champagne cork,” he says winningly. “I then retired to Northamptonshire and expected to live the quiet life of a country squire.”
However, unlike most squires he attended night school to improve his art. “I was serious,” he admits.
“My brother half wanted to live here and half didn’t. I would come here for weekends. My then wife came here and got bored. My brother then wanted more and more of the house and I went to a small bedroom,” he laughs. “I felt a bit marginalised. My brother was wonderful, but extremely eccentric.”
After 23 years running the estate, Nicolas is planning to pass it over to his eldest son, Henry, a product of his first marriage to Lady Diana Beatty. There is a palpable sense here of waiting for a new order. “My son is keener on public events here than I am,” Gage admits. “We might for instance make a permanent place for weddings.” Pause. “I’m told all previous incumbents disapprove of the changes wrought by the next generation.” Hmm…
Papa suggests that when Henry gets round to marriage, the place will benefit from a “woman’s touch”. He is reassured that his son does not want to commercialise the house and that Henry anticipates raising a family there. Gage seems reconciled to moving to smaller digs: “It’s quite fashionable, moving out, unlike in my father’s day.” But as the 8th Viscount admits, maintenance costs far more than the house earns in ticket sales. “We’ve spent a fortune re-doing part of the roof, and you can’t even see it.”
Gage is unlikely to make much of a dent in the roof bill from his art – one of the stronger works has a guide of £7,000 – but his portraits stare back at you with great intensity, while his depictions of Firle exude a love for a wild and dramatic corner of England that has been in his family for 500 years.
Works include a nude of an attractive young woman, but before tabloids grow too excited thinking they have unearthed a second “Loins of Longleat”, alias Marquess of Bath, it was executed at art school long ago. There are also more surrealist fantasies, such as of Mount Ararat and Noah’s Ark.
Why has he put off exhibiting until now? “I have never been brave enough,” he shrugs. “But my wife wants me to paint, and give up this place.”
The popular Lady Gage, who prefers to be known as “Alex”, is a senior art lecturer in Brighton who married Gage in 2009, swiftly followed by the arrival of a son, Valentine, making Gage – he says against himself – “one of the oldest fathers in England.” But a caring one: Valentine is in India with Alex, and has fallen ill. An anxious Gage rushes from the interview to ring his wife to discuss whether he should fly out today to his unwell son’s bedside.
Self-deprecation comes as easily to Lord Gage as self-aggrandisement does to certain others in the art world. He says repeatedly he considers himself “a painter, not an artist”, explaining that what he does at the easel “is more than a hobby but less than a profession.”
“Just because you can’t paint as well as Rembrandt, do you not paint?” he asks reasonably. He has taken instruction from celebrated London painter Keith Coventry, but sticks to his own style.
He confesses to being nervous about the London opening of his exhibition, whilst acknowledging “everyone is always too busy chatting and drinking” to look at art: “I don’t know how many people will buy paintings, but it will be a great party.” And that latter sentiment would surely win warm approval from those Bloomsbury pranksters.
Lord Gage’s exhibition will be held in May, organised by Nicholas