A hundred years ago Europe walked over a precipice: the ensuing slaughter spiralled us into a 20th Century in which each strata of society was left gasping with gaping, bleeding wounds: from Royalty and Aristocratic officers to the poignantly named Pals Battalions, the losses felt infinite.
When you drive through British villages, each has its own War Memorial, for those millions of bodies never laid to rest under ‘An English Sky’, for me they are tragically symbolic of grieving families bereft of individual gravestones to tend and privately mourn at, a piercing reminder of those gaping holes in family and village life.
George Wyndham one of 5 Wyndham family members killed on the battlefield
Looking at the Great War, it’s impossible to absorb the personal tragedy behind the numbers: those 60,000 casualties in the first day of the Somme. It’s individual stories that resonate for me, once read, who can forget Birdsong, Goodbye to All That or Pat Barker’s Regeneration. Of course the war is also a threshold after which a way of life disappeared, so we come to the story of a family and being ‘a decorative affair’ … a house. Let’s go back to 1886, When Clouds ‘the house of the age’ had just been completed for the Wyndhams, a country house built with supreme confidence, to last forever, for generations of family to come.
Who were the Wyndhams? Percy was the second and favoured son of Baron Leconfield growing up surrounded by the priceless treasures at Petworth House. A radical modern art collector and member of the Souls they moved in the uppermost echelons of British society, then as part of the artistic Holland Park Set they helped create and promote the Aesthetic style we associate with late Victorian Britain. The Wyndhams were sophisticated patrons of Whistler, Edward Burne Jones, Rossetti, Frederic Leighton and John Singer Sergeant.
Their daughter Mary’s painting by Poytner in her early 20’s perfectly illustrates the aesthetic style her parents pioneered ‘all greenery-gallery Grosvenor Gallery’ as it was nicknamed. Sunflowers and Peacocks motifs abound with lashings of blue and white china all in a naive style influenced by Japanese art .
The Three Graces, Sargent’s painting of Percy and Madeline’s daughters Mary, Madeline and Pamela, with their mother’s painting presiding over them from the rear, hangs at the Metropolitan now, it captures the closeness of the family, between siblings and across generations. Madeline and Percy were known for their devotion to their five children. A letter written by Percy his to son George as he marched towards battle in the Sudan in 1885 is still evocative: My own dearest, dearest boy, I must say how deeply deeply I love you…One cannot say this speaking but I should not forgive myself if I had not told you… God and all good spirits keep you my darling. I cannot make you know what I think of you, but I feel to have had such a son is not to have lived in vain.
Percy with a young George
Madeline with daughter Pamela
How happy Madeline was when they moved in to her scrumptious new domain, all 5 children safe and well: I am only too thankful simply BRIMMING over with thankfulness at being able to enter these walls with the 2 boys and all well.
The Wyndhams and friends en masse 1894
The Wyndhams assured position as collectors and style setters meant they enjoyed being different from the majority of their aristo peers. Building their family a home in Wiltshire they set about creating their own exclusive aesthetic vision where ‘good taste’ celebrated artistic beauty allowing their collection to take centre stage. Clouds is a gloriously confident endeavour on the grandest scale built at a time when the majority of Victorian Britain was cautiously looking over its shoulder for home style creating OTT Gothick and Neo-Baroque fantasies with densely layered, heavy interiors.
Clouds in architectural progress
Clouds was designed by Philip Webb an Arts and Crafts architect inspired by a love of England: ‘Not a vague, abstract love, or possessive pride and patriotism, but affection and even worship for the very earth, trees, animals, ploughs, wagons and buildings‘. The resulting house a glorified Kate Greenaway affair, all blue and white inside and all red and green outside.
10 years on
in its setting….
Clouds is not considered of architectural importance, the Arts and Crafts vernacular and values were lost in the scale of the endeavour, however the interiors and atmosphere created were extraordinarily magical, Henry James a frequent visitor was inspired by Clouds when he wrote: There were places much grander and richer, but there was so such complete work of art, nothing that would appeal so to those who were really well informed .
Clouds was however a great social success:
Mark Girouard architectural/social historian (par excellence):
Balfour was a friend of the Percy Wyndhams and so was Burne-Jones, The 2 names gave the ambience of the house: political entertaining consumed with artistic discrimination. The style, sensibility and relative informality with which the 2 were pursued made clouds one of the most famous country houses of the era.
Webb’s biographer William Lethaby wrote: it appears to have been imagined by its gifted hostess as a palace of weekending for our politicians.
Percy Wyndham was clearly extremely chuffed when he congratulated Webb saying, influential people (or donkeys as you would call them) are putting about that this is the house of the age. I believe they are right.
Mary communing with the birds in older age, a trait inherited clearly from her mother.
Madeline created a magical world at Clouds where wild birds were encouraged, peacocks roamed the grounds and a flock of turtle doves flew though the downstairs rooms – oh and the her pet squirrel fed from her hand. Layered into this were luxurious comforts: upstairs hot water ran freely (once the plumbing was sorted) and guests were cared for by 30 indoor staff, with ‘masseuse’ available on demand. The staff …well they they had a kitchen modelled on a Medieval abbot’s kitchen, an eating hall 39 ft x 16ft with a table designed to separate for dancing and a servants’ wing composed as idyllic ‘cottage terrace’ for accommodation.
detail of Butler’s pantry, everything was thought through and designed to the highest specification.
here the interior is dominated by a vast central hall:
Madeline kept it sparsely decorated accentuating the quality of pieces selected from the William Morris tapestries to black lacquer furniture and a large Chinese screen complete with grand piano and Italian chimney piece. Throughout the house Hepplewhite and Chippendale furniture appeared (collected in a time when their peers were dismissing them as ‘old fashioned’) but which Madeline appreciated and layered in with modern Arts and Crafts commissions and Oriental pieces.
Blues, reds, pinks and greens dominated the house and I long to see some colour pictures, all that’s possible is a few pieces from sale details in the 20’s and 30’s:
part of a Rousseac dinner set.
William Morris upholstered child’s chair, obviously well loved, the house was awash with Morris designs.
The dining room with its simple panelling boasted a lion columned fire place and a richly decorated ceiling. Madeline displayed her oriental china in sculptural force and used simple ‘bowl’ arrangements of flowers on the oval table … oh and the room was a cosy 1,000 sq feet.
I also wish I could find a picture of the billiard room where Detmar Blow helped Madeline transform over a weekend ,painting it dark blue so the the sister’s Sargent painting shone out. The children were at the heart of the home and Percy’s room poignantly reveals this, he slept with portraits of his five children in full view:
Madeline’s grand child Pamela remembers drawing lessons at her table where grandma’s hands were always busy but her mind was free, moving among her guests, evoking and kindling. It was her guests though that evoked and kindled the Great War, stumbling blindly over the precipice. The Wyndhams were already feeling their losses as Percy and his son George died in quick succession between 1911-1913 leaving Clouds with large death duties and a youthful Percy heir… serving in the army and first in line for combat.
Percy was shot dead in the first 3 weeks of the war. His cousin wrote:
Father and son have not been long asunder
And joy in heaven leaves mortals sad and wan
His death-salute was artillery thunder
Praise be to God for such an Englishman
The patriotic line was that death in duty was glorious, the young men were not too be pitied or missed as they were heroes, forever young. Wyndham mother’s now had to hold their remaining sons close, breath in their scent and prepare themselves as one by one war called them up.
Bim Wyndham sketched by Sargent in his uniform
And they did it in style, these ‘Souls’ mothers of ‘Corrupt Coterie’ sons:
A picnic of grouse, roses and champagne…leopard skins stretched on a sofa, the piano acting as a sideboard… we had a feast and talked camp shop.
When the call up papers came, sisters advised each other, Don’t let him out of your sight, not even for a moment, whilst doing nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of their boys, they stayed by their side down to the last train, where Mary saw her 18 year old ‘Yvo’ leap high in the air as it drew out the station giving her one last glimpse of his beloved face. Yvo died leading (what he knew was) a suicidal attack from the trenches in 1915. Mary wrote with a pen made of lead at the sickening waste, feeling utterly blank and flat and miserable and grim. Yvo’s cousins George and Bim were determined to fight, Bim only just being persuaded by his mother to complete his final term at Eton enlisting age 17, both died in 1915, and 2 years later Yvo’s elder brother Ego died.
Their grandmother, parents and sisters who were left behind found peace when it finally came an empty promise:
The lamp is shattered. Dust appears everywhere… There are no gentle flowers to be seen now. Only the blood-red poppies.
Oh why was I born for this time? Before one is 30 to know more dead then living people ?…(peace) will require more courage than anything that has gone before…one will at last fully recognise that the dead are not only dead for the duration of the war.
Mary now 85 tried to sustain her family in its losses writing letters of comfort to her children and commissioning the memorial ‘In memory of my five Grandsons who were were killed in the Great War’. But in reality Clouds built with such confidence and love had clouded over, the family roots despite the splendour were not deep enough to maintain the emotional and financial commitment. Dick who inherited the estate was haunted and unwilling, gradually its contents were auctioned and sold, parcels of land split off, the house dynamited to a manageable size and put up for sale. Clouds and the family who made it were, like so many in Europe, shattered and bewildered by the Great War which none had seen coming and which destroyed not only their beloved sons and brothers but a way of life, a confidence in the future and the old lie: pro patria mori, forever.
For a full history of the Wyndhams and Clouds read ‘Those Wild Wyndhams‘ by Claudia Renton and ‘Clouds: The biography of a Country House‘ by Caroline Dakers, all photo credits from these 2 publications.