As the summer draws to an end each sunny day needs to be filled with something worthwhile, and what could be more worthwhile than spending time with a friend. So it was that I set off with my good friend Sonia (http://androulaskitchen.wordpress.com) to visit Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire. Mottisfont Abbey is a historical abbey and country estate in the sheltered valley of the River Test, the property is now operated by the National Trust and includes an historic house, small museum and art galleries with regular changing art exhibitions, gardens and a river walk.
The present day house was originally built as an Augustinian Priory founded in 1201 and given by King Henry VIII to Sir William Sandys ( a diplomat and favourite of the King) at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries. Sandys made various alterations turning the abbey into a fine Tudor house, which was later altered during the 18th century when the cloisters and courtyard were demolished by the Barker-Mill family and the present day look to the facade was added. The very impressive 13th century Cellarium still remains as do parts of the original monastic building now incorporated into the fabric of the house.
In 1934 the property was taken over by Maude and Gilbert Russell and Mottisfont became the centre of a fashionable circle of people involved in the Arts and Politics. Maud Russell was a wealthy patron of the arts, and at Mottisfont she entertained artists and writers including Ben Nicholson and Ian Fleming. Maude had a keen interest in the history of the house and commissioned her friend Rex Whistler to decorate her salon, now known as The Whistler Room with the most fantastic theatrical trompe-l’oeil illusion of Gothic architecture which recalls the medieval roots of the Priory. This spectacular room was Whistlers last major work before her was killed on active service in France during the war. Her friend and lover, Boris Anrep made for her the most beautiful mosaic of an angel featuring Maude’s face. This can be found outside the building in a small alcove to the right of the main door partially obscured by a wisteria growing up the wall.
Another regular artist to visit Mottisfont was Derek Hill, a society portrait painter, who had a private passion for landscape painting and who was also an avid collector of work by his contemporaries. Hill donated a substantial collection of 20th century art to the National Trust specifically for display at Mottisfont. Included in this collection are works by Degas, Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Peter Lanyon, Matisse, Gaudier-Brzeska and Picasso. Many of these works can be seen today on the walls of the ground floor rooms at Mottisfont. Upstairs the rooms have been turned over to become a gallery for a series of visiting exhibitions and currently on display is a delightful showing of the original drawings and sketches by E H Shepherd for Kenneth Graham’s Wind in the Willows. If, like me you read this book as a child and were lucky enough to have a copy of the book with Shepherd’s illustrations in it, these small sketches will bring back many memories of childhood hours spent curled up in a chair reading this magical story. To bring the story to life again for the current generation of under 12’s there is a trail around the house where children have to spot Weasels, and dotted all over the place are tiny stuffed Weasel toys, some with eye patches, some in waistcoats – just like in the story, peeping out from behind vases or hanging off picture rails, one was even peering out from inside a chimney in the fireplace of the Yellow Room! Following with the Wind in the Willows theme, one of the ground floor rooms has been dressed out in the manner of the aftermath of the tea party which took place in the story.
In the grounds there is another trail for youngsters featuring stop-offs with items of interest relating to the Wind in the Willows story.
However, the piece d’resistance is the amazing and completely fabulous exhibition of costumes designed by Kate Plumtree. This touring exhibition called “Worn to be Wild” features 17 of the most incredible dresses and costumes based on animals or birds found in Britain recreated as costumes from the Medieval period to the present day. To find out more about this exhibition see http://www.worntobewild.biz and http://www.kate-plumtree.com. Sadly it was not possible to take photographs due to copyright infringement issues. I felt immensely inspired by these fabulous frocks, and I know that Sonia was equally impressed! After two great exhibitions we were treated to a third… called 5AM this featured a small group of artists (including the amazing Alice Kettle) who have each made a piece of work taking fly fishing as a theme.
No visit to an NT property is complete without a visit to the tea room, and we visited TWICE! A light lunch of sandwiches and some interesting Red Velvet cake – a sort of dark red victoria sponge was followed later in the afternoon by coffee and more yummy cake before the journey home.
Leaving the house we walked along the banks of the River Test under some of the largest and most spectacular Plane trees to the footbridge over the river that leads to the car park. Gathered around the bridge paddling furiously against the quite fast flowing and over-full river were a group of ducks and two majestic looking swans. The sunlight playing on the river was beautiful, the light dancing and sparkling over the crystal clear rippling water and just under the surface were some of the largest trout I have ever seen.
A fabulous day spent at an interesting house, which is in itself quite strange, the internal walls being almost entirely decorated by paint effects, mainly a marble finish with the exception of a couple of ground floor rooms, the most spectacular being the block printed paisley pattern in the Red Room. Not so much a house or home in the conventional National Trust genre, but more of a rather glamorous art gallery showing some of the best in early/mid 20th century art alongside some interesting and intriguing 21st century art.