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Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Nothing but the truth.



When describing Southside House before I explained how the history of the house, as given on the guided tour, has significantly changed over the years. I had heard that the Romantic poet, Lord Byron, was wont to stroll in the grounds with his publisher, John Murray. Guides would proudly point out the stage on which Emma Hamilton was supposed to have struck her famous “attitudes” posing in diaphanous garments for the delectation of the other guests. The 18th century Prince of Wales was said to have slept in the canopied bed within the bedchamber named after him. The silver sequinned Prince of Wales feathers in the headboard seem irrefutable proof of the royal visit. A later guide claimed that the bedroom was named after the future King Edward VII, who also allegedly spent the night there. A connecting door to a neighbouring bedchamber meant that the King’s mistress could sneak in, lie down and think of the Empire before discreetly retiring again to her own bedroom. One of Edward’s most prominent mistresses was Alice Keppel. Her great granddaughter, Camilla Parker Bowles, was one of the few women in history able to parlay an adulterous affair on both sides into marriage to a future King of England.

The guide who took us around the house on Sunday said he was determined to ensure that greater care was taken in future with regard to historical accuracy. He began by debunking the idea that the rocking horse in the entrance hall belonged to Horatia Nelson, the natural daughter of Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson. In many ways the real story of the house is as fascinating as any fabricated version. I thought the house had been in the present family’s ownership for centuries. In fact it was bought by Hilda Pennington Mellor, the formidable matriarch of the family, in the 1930s. Her father was a self-made Victorian business man whose business acumen meant he became extremely wealthy. As a teenager the strong minded Hilda set her cap at Axel Munthe. As he was middle aged, in poor health and a divorcé, he was far from being the glittering match Hilda’s family might have hoped for. Sadly the marriage, despite producing two sons, Peter and Malcolm, was not a happy one and the couple eventually led separate lives. Axel Munthe later became world famous, following the publication in 1929 of his memoirs entitled “The Story of San Michele.” It became a global bestseller, at one time rivalling the Bible in terms of annual sales. The fact that his memoirs do not refer to his wife and children hints at his estrangement from them. In the decade following the publication of Munthe’s book, Hilda bought Southside House.

At one time, Hilda’s family had been rich enough to buy a chateau in Biarritz and Hilda could afford to be dressed in outfits from the foremost couturiers of the era like Charles Frederick Worth and Mariano Fortuny. One gown alone from the House of Worth cost Hilda £800 in 1910, equivalent to £50,000 in modern money. She probably only wore the dress once. Such an extravagant lifestyle could not be sustained following the stock market crash of 1929. Hilda needed to downsize.

Thus she bought the two 17th century semi-detached houses at Wimbledon, which she turned into a single residence, as well as buying the medieval mansion at Hellens. Nowadays, both properties would command substantial sums on the open market. By contrast, in the 1930s, stately homes were pulled down in their droves by their newly impecunious owners, who could no longer afford to maintain the lavish lifestyles enjoyed by their aristocratic predecessors. Even if they had the money, there were no longer hordes of low paid servants available to staff them. If Hilda could no longer afford to live like a wealthy aristocrat, she could at least style her house to the manor born.

Hilda’s eldest son from her marriage to Axel Munthe was called Peter. He had studied at one of England’s leading art school and preferred to pursue a career as an artist rather than act as interior-designer to his mother. I had always assumed that it was Peter who had married and continued the family line. In fact it was Malcolm his younger brother. Although he never trained at art school, it is clear that Malcolm was very talented in his own right as an amateur artist. On display in the breakfast room is a full length portrait of Peter painted by his younger brother Malcolm, when the latter was only 16. To my untrained eye it is very impressive in its execution. Malcolm used his artistic skills to remodel the two houses. He created what I have referred to in a previous post as a mock baronial hall. The double height galleried hall with the black and white tiled flooring, reminiscent of a Dutch 17th century domestic painting and the baroque painted vaulted ceiling gives the initial illusion that this hall was erected centuries ago as opposed to in the 20th century. Money being short, Malcolm had to use his imagination to achieve the effect he wanted. Thus marble pillars are actually hollow stage props. The seemingly ancient bust of King Charles I was fashioned by students from Wimbledon art school. Nor was Malcolm, it seems, averse to helping himself to the contents of skips if he thought such items could find a suitable home at Southside. Hilda did her bit by arranging for the contents of the family home in chateau in Biarritz to be shipped to England. Her timing was impeccable. Not long afterwards the chateau requisitioned by the invading German forces during World War Two.

The chateau at Biarritz yielded a number of interesting pieces currently on display at Southside including the unique wall-hanging crystal chandeliers in the music room and the yellow silk upholstered armchairs, in one of which the actor Colin Firth perched whilst posing for a photograph, also on display. In a cupboard are two vases depicting night and day respectively. These vases inspired Hilda to commission the couturier Worth to design an evening gown and accessories based on the same theme. Thus night is shown on one side of the dress by dark colours and an image of a bat, whereas day is represented by light colours and a butterfly. Even Hilda’s shoes continue the day and night motif with one being in dark leather and the other in light. I especially admired a black and white silk evening gown of Hilda’s, the one which had costs £800 in 1910. I also liked the timeless Fortuny gown, inspired by Ancient Greece. Stored above the glass cabinets displaying the dresses were some of Hilda’s hats. My own 1940s J Howard Hodge of New York hat did not look out of place and nor did the corset beneath my 1930s blue cotton frock. Not that I could ever aspire to the tiny waist span of Hilda, however tightly I might be laced into my own corset.

The music room use to contain a stage allegedly posed on by Emma Hamilton at the height of her affair with Admiral Nelson. When a closer examination in recent years proved that the stage dated from the 20th century, all references to Emma’s party piece were expunged from the official tour. She is still represented by a charming portrait in the room. There is a portrait of another woman dating from around the same period. Unfortunately her name seems to have been lost. I have always admired her empire line long sleeved gown and would happily wear a version of it myself. Outside the music room can be found the canvas painted wall hangings dating from the 18th century. It is thought that these hangings were made for the original house. By the fireplace hangs a portrait of Malcolm as an old man and his walking stick has been placed nearby.

In Malcolm’s study on the first floor he is pictured with his pet owl. In the garden a stone monument marks the grave of Romulo the owl’s final resting place alongside the graves of other family pets. Also on the first floor is the supposed royal bedchamber, whose walls were decorated by Malcolm with bolts of yellow silk and a grand canopied bed takes pride of place. Given that the two houses were not converted into one residence until the 1930s and that the present family did not start living there until after that date, there is no firm historical evidence to link any Prince of Wales with the bedchamber. I recall previous guides saying that Malcolm decided that if he was going to open up his house to the general public, to capture their interest he needed to show that Southside House had some connection with royalty. he refrained from alluding to a genuine royal scandal from within his family. If the rumours were to be believed Hilda would have been forgiven for thinking there had been three people in her marriage: herself, her husband and the Queen of Sweden. Family legend has it that Axel Munthe had engaged in an adulterous affair with Queen Victoria of Sweden, whilst serving as her physician. Axel was more fortunate than another foreign doctor to a Scandinavian royal family. In the 18th century the German born Johann Friedrich Struensee was appointed royal physician to the mentally ill King Christian VII of Denmark. This led to an affair with the then Queen, Caroline Matilda, the youngest daughter of Frederick, Prince of Wales. Frederick was the very same prince who it had once been claimed stayed at Southside House. For a time, Struensee was the de facto ruler of Denmark due to the decline into mental illness of the King. Struensee tried and failed to introduce reforms into the country. His failure gave the conservative opposition the chance to oust him from power. Struensee was later condemned to having his right hand chopped off before he was beheaded and the rest of his body cut into quarters.

As well as some royal connections any aristocratic ancestral hall worth its salt must have its own family chapel. In later years Malcolm added a small Scandinavian chapel above the ground floor dining room extension. How they managed to cram a choir, a priest and a small congregation into such a tiny space for the official consecration I will never know. After my own experience of a house fire, I felt somewhat ill at ease when I once saw lighted candles in the corridor between the chapel and the rest of the house. So I was pleased to see two sturdy fire extinguishers on display in the corridor when I last went there.

Despite a distinguished military career as a founder member of the Special Operations Executive during World War Two including a stint behind enemy lines, Malcolm seemed unable or unwilling to challenge the power of his own mother on the home front. To my surprise I discovered that he had married and had children. Both wife and offspring were banished to the more remote parts of the house at the insistence of Hilda, leading to the irrevocably break down of his marriage. After Hilda’s death Malcolm became something of a recluse but he enjoyed taking people around his house on tours, never letting them know his true identity. Southside House stands as a splendid monument to Malcolm’s unique artistic talents and to the long tradition of great British eccentrics.Southside House