Madresfield Court, the inspiration for Brideshead Revisited

Today we visited Madresfield Court. This was by appointment of course because, never having been bought or sold during the whole of its nine hundred year history, this Worcestershire manor house is much too grand for just any old visitors. Children are not allowed, there are strictly no photographs permitted inside the house and do not under any circumstances expect to be able to purchase a cup of tea.

The fact that it is one of writer Simon Jenkins favourite country houses should probably be warning enough but I am supposed to be getting to know this part of the world and everyone likes a good bit of gossip. The architectural muddle that is Madresfield has certainly generated more than its fair share of that. Since the 12th century the Lygon family have held onto their land and this moated pile at the foot of the Malvern Hills but they lost their title so many times that the Baronetcy of Beauchamp (pronounced Beecham) was in its seventh incarnation by the time they were able to buy it back from the Crown in the early 19th century.

A long court case brought the vast fortunes of a childless cousin, one William Jennings, into the family and the first Countess then merrily shopped her way across war-ravaged France, acquiring paintings, furniture, porcelain and nick nacks by the cartload. Of course the draughty old house needed plenty of renovations throughout the nineteenth century but expansion was constrained by the moat and building spread upwards as well as inwards to take over most of the courtyard. There are one or two really nice pictures in amongst all that clutter but there was little time to linger and enjoy them. I can see why it would be impossible to admit children, though.

Towards the end of the 19th century, however, we begin to see the influence of a rather more controlled artistic taste; for, love it or loath it, this was the period of the Arts and Crafts movement and the Seventh Earl was one of its greatest patrons. Some absolutely gorgeous examples were commissioned for the house and I have included some guide book photographs to try to give an impression of how they look in situ. So often we see these things only in museums but here is the wooden panelling, stained glass, enamelling and fresco painting in the surroundings that it was so painstakingly designed to adorn.

William Lygon was obviously a highly cultured man as well as a capable politician and holder of high office but his predilection for young men of the serving classes was to bring about his ruin. It also left his seven children to grow up under the shadow of one of the greatest scandals of the early twentieth century, clinging to the faded family glory amongst a series of chairs with embroidered covers, sewn by the seventh Earl during his long decline in exile on the continent.

There is absolutely no doubt that Evelyn Waugh took this establishment as his model for the Flyte family in his novel Brideshead Revisited and then wrung every nuance of tragedy out of the situation to accompany his own introspections. Far from thinking it his best work, I find this book far too laden with Roman Catholic guilt for my taste; especially these days when escalating scandals amongst the clergy seem set to offer the rest of us a “Get out of Hell free” card. Waugh wrote many other, much better books and the Lygons, although very “High Church”, were actually not even Catholics.

I may not have fallen for the place but the visit was certainly very informative. On all but one subject, that is. One would think that, given the first Countess’s obvious skills in removing blood stains, someone at Madresfield would have been able to advise me where to get my Persian carpet expertly cleaned. Not a bit of it: “we have some wonderful cleaning ladies from the village” just wasn’t the sort of answer I was looking for.



Categories: Britain, West of England

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