3 June 2014

Madresfield Visited

‘… Great barrack of a place. I've just had a snoop round. Very ornate, I'd call it. And a queer thing, there's a sort of R.C. Church attached. I looked in and there was a kind of service going on - just a padre and one old man. I felt very awkward. More in your line than mine.' Perhaps I seemed not to hear; in a final effort to excite my interest he said: 
'There's a frightful great fountain, too, in front of the steps, all rocks and sort of carved animals. You never saw such a thing.' 
'Yes, Hooper, I did. I've been here before.' 
The words seemed to ring back to me enriched from the vaults of my dungeon. 
‘Oh well, you know all about it. I'll go and get cleaned up.' 
I had been there before; I knew all about it.

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder was first published in 1946 and continues to appear on lists such as The 100 Best English-Language Novels of the 20th Century. In 1981, fifteen years after Waugh’s death at the age of 62, a television series based on the novel gained large audiences at a time when any viewing was appointment viewing. Whether all viewers appreciated the author’s intention: “Its theme - the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters …” is open to doubt, and the image the series conveyed of decadent upper-class privilege at Oxford in the 1920s has probably been at best unhelpful to that university ever since. But it brought benefits elsewhere, if only by encouraging tourism. Making the series, Granada Television, the ITV franchisee for the North of England, chose the grandeur of Castle Howard in Yorkshire as the location of Waugh’s Brideshead Castle, home of the aristocratic Flyte family, and it was used again as a location for a film of the novel in 2008. There is an exhibition for visitors to “discover how Evelyn Waugh’s famous novel came to be filmed, not just once – but twice – at Castle Howard.”

The choice of the photogenic Castle Howard for filming is not entirely supported by the novel’s text. In Chapter 1 Charles Ryder recalls his first journey to Brideshead with Sebastian Flyte. After an early departure from Oxford, “At Swindon we turned off the main road …”. Later Charles receives a letter from Sebastian on stationery headed “Brideshead Castle, Wiltshire”. This has led in the past to the suggestion that Waugh had Corsham Court in Wiltshire in mind. However, in 2009 Paula Byrne’s Mad World Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead was published. A biography of Waugh, it concentrates on his relationships with members of the Lygon family and their home at Madresfield Court near Malvern, Worcestershire. Not long after first staying at Madresfield as a guest of the Lygons, Waugh finished his third novel, Black Mischief, there in 1932 and dedicated it “With love to MARY AND DOROTHY LYGON”. In 1934, in his next novel, A Handful of Dust, some scenes are set at Hetton Abbey which, to quote Byrne, is “manifestly Madresfield Court. The architectural resemblance is much more obvious and thoroughgoing than that between Madresfield and Brideshead Castle”:
Between the villages of Hetton and Compton Last lies the extensive park of Hetton Abbey. This, formerly one of the notable houses of the county, was entirely rebuilt in 1864 in the Gothic style and is now devoid of interest. The grounds are open to the public daily until sunset and the house may be viewed on application by writing. It contains some good portraits and furniture. The terrace commands a fine view. 
This passage from the county Guide Book did not cause Tony Last any serious annoyance. Unkinder things had been said. … (Chapter II English Gothic)
There is no particular resemblance, other than their class, between Last and the other characters in this novel and the Lygons. However, a decade later Waugh would draw extensively on the family he knew to create the Flytes. Byrne explains the parallels at length (disregarding Waugh’s note, "I am not I: thou art not he or she: they are not they”) and points out that to some members of high society like the diarist ‘Chips’ Channon, the resemblances were immediately obvious. The interior of the chapel was largely taken from life as well, although the Lygons were not Roman Catholics.  To quote Byrne again:
In Brideshead Sebastian insists on showing his family chapel to Charles, mockingly describing it as a 'monument of art nouveau'. Waugh's prose takes flight: 
The whole interior had been gutted, elaborately refurnished and redecorated in the Arts-and-Crafts style of the last decade of the nineteenth century. Angels in printed cotton smocks, rambler-roses, flower-spangled meadows, frisking lambs, texts in Celtic script, saints in armour, covered the walls in an intricate pattern of clear, bright colours. There was a triptych of pale oak, carved so as to give it the peculiar property of seeming to have been moulded in plasticine. The sanctuary lamp and all the metal furniture were of bronze, hand-beaten to the patina of a pockmarked skin; the altar steps had a carpet of grass-green, strewn with white and gold daisies. 
'Golly, I said. 
It was Papa's wedding present to Mamma. Now; if you've seen enough, we'll go.' 
Evelyn changes the gold triptych to pale oak and the sanctuary lamp and metal furniture to bronze, but otherwise there is no mistaking the Madresfield chapel.
Tours of Madresfield Court can be arranged through the Elmley Foundation. Of interest, apart from the connections to Waugh (in particular the desk at which he wrote Black Mischief), there are fine examples of Arts and Crafts style decoration throughout the house as well as in the chapel, notably in the library. The collections of furniture, porcelain, paintings and other objects built up by the Lygons over their generations of ownership are on display. As well as numerous portraits, the paintings include The Quarries of Syracuse (SE Sicily, 1853) by Edward Lear. The tour guides are patient, well-informed, and make visitors feel welcome. There is, thankfully, none of the National Trust’s frenetic marketing to visitor “segments” (see a post here on Tyntesfield), nor is there a detour to yet another ancient kitchen. Before visiting, it is certainly worth reading Simon Jenkins’ account of Madresfield in his England’s Thousand Best Houses (he awarded 4/5 stars, Top 100), and, if time permits, Byrne’s Mad World, which, as well as describing the house and family, explains the unusual circumstances which led to Waugh’s becoming so close to his Lygon contemporariess in the 1920s. An article about Madresfield showing some of the interiors appeared in the June 2014 issue of House and Garden magazine (below).


If you have read this far, you might like a later post here on the subject of which great house may have been the inspiration for Brideshead Castle.

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