The Last Viscount Taaffe

Taaffe Henry

Henry Taaffe, the last Viscount Taaffe

On Saturday 29 March 1919, under the headline ‘Traitor Peers’, The Times announced that four members of the House of Lords who had ‘adhered to the King’s enemies during the war’ were to lose their titles.

The names of three of these traitor peers came as no surprise. The Dukes of Cumberland, Albany and Brunswick were all high-ranking German noblemen whose British titles came to them through their descent from George III or Victoria and Albert. M.P.s had been lobbying George V to strip them of their dukedoms since 1914.

taaffe ellischau

Schloss Ellischau

The fourth name on the blacklist, though, was less well-known. Henry Taaffe, 12th Viscount Taaffe and Baron Ballymote in the Irish peerage, could trace his ancestry back to the Wild Geese, Irish soldiers who left their homeland to serve in European armies during the 17th century. An ancestor was killed fighting for the Jacobites at the Battle of the Boyne; another fought beside Jan Sobieski against the Turks and became prime minister to Leopold the Good, Duke of Lorraine. The 6th Viscount Taaffe, a Count of the Holy Roman Empire, was a brigade commander in the Austrian army and was credited with introducing the potato to Silesia during a famine in 1763; the 11th Viscount, Henry’s father, held a string of political appointments to the Austrian Empire under Francis Joseph I, including Minister of the Interior.

Henry succeeded to the viscountcy (and the title of Count of the Holy Roman Empire) on his father’s death in 1895. The estates in Ireland had long gone. Ballymote in Co. Sligo, a massive medieval castle which the Taaffes had surrendered to Cromwell in 1652, had been in ruins for generations. The family seat now lay in the Silver Mountains of Bohemia, where in 1769 the 6th Viscount Taaffe bought a recently reconstructed 17th-century fortress, Schloss Ellischau. The Taaffes modernised it, laid out an ‘English’ park with orchards and flowerbeds, and built a folly on a nearby hill which was said to be based on Ballymote. In 1840 the Viennese architect Heinrich Koch remodelled Ellischau once again, turning it into a vast and forbidding courtyard house with a high entrance tower and opulent state apartments.

Taaffe ruin of Ballymote in Prasivice

Folly near Ellischau, said to be inspired by Ballymote, the Taaffes’ Irish seat

In the wartime furore over the three German dukes, Viscount Taaffe almost escaped with his Irish titles intact. But in 1917, during the debate over the Titles Deprivation Bill, an anonymous correspondent wrote to The Times to point out that ‘no reference appears to have been made to the fact that an Irish peer, Viscount Taaffe, the 12th of that title, is said to be now serving, with his son, in the Austrian Army’. The writer cited with approval Elizabeth I’s command that ‘her dogs should wear no collars but her own’. That was enough; when the list of peers who were to lose their titles for bearing arms against the King was finally published in the spring of 1919, Henry Taaffe’s name had been added to those of Cumberland, Albany and Brunswick.

Taaffe enfilade

Schloss Ellischau in its heyday

Things went from bad to worse. Four weeks after being stripped of his viscountcy and barony, he learned that the newly established Austrian republic had abolished the nobility altogether, and with it his title of Count of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1918 Bohemia had become part of the new Czechoslovakia, and land reform now took away much of his Ellischau estate. Plain Mr Henry Taaffe died in debt in Vienna in 1928.

There is an odd and inconsequential postscript to this story. Unable to maintain Schloss Ellischau, in 1937 Henry’s son Richard sold up and moved to Ireland, where he became known as a brilliant if unorthodox gemologist. One day in 1945 he went into a watchmaker’s shop down by the Dublin Quays and bought a job lot of zircons, opals, garnets, low-grade emeralds and sapphires. When he got them home, one mauve stone in particular puzzled him. It turned out to be a previously unknown beryllium mineral, one of the rarest in the world. In honour of his discovery, it was named ‘taaffeite’.



The Last of Uptake

Last of Uptake

A few weeks ago I posted a 1939 photo of a floodlit Palladian villa on this blog, and my friend Patrick Baty commented that it reminded him of Rex Whistler’s jacket illustration of Uptake in flames. I hadn’t read The Last of Uptake? Then I must.

I always take Patrick’s recommendations seriously. Simon Harcourt-Smith’s country house novella, first published by Batsford in 1942, has been out of print for decades, but I managed to get hold of a copy and I read it at a single sitting.

Then I read it again. And again.

The literary country house deserves a blog of its own, perhaps even a book of its own. It appears as the old dark house, harbouring sinister secrets in the Jane Eyre tradition, like Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca (1938). It thrives as a conventional setting for the murder mystery: when weekend guests at Sir Hubert Handesley’s mansion in Ngaio Marsh’s A Man Lay Dead (1934) discover that Handesley has a collection of rare daggers, we all know that one of those daggers is going to end up buried in someone’s back before long. It becomes a powerful metaphor for a lost world in elegies like Waugh’s 1945 Brideshead Revisited.

There is also another kind of literary country house entirely – whimsical, fantastical, baroque in its imagining. Think of Ronald Firbank and Aubrey Beardsley remodelling Cold Comfort Farm, and you’re somewhere close. This is where the wonderful, weird world of Uptake belongs.

The Last of Uptake centres on the deteriorating relationship between two spinster sisters, Tryphena and Deborah Caudle, as Uptake, their ancestral home, falls about their ears. Its time is past. The days when their wild great-grandfather used to drive through the park behind a string of dancing circus horses ridden by apes are a distant memory. Only relics are left: Roman statues (‘some of them seemed scandalously pagan’); a set of ivory chairs from India, inlaid with ‘the more embarrassing details of some heathen ritual’; glass cases filled with outlandish decorations, ‘sapphires poised like humming-birds on branches of the slenderest enamel, jade spoons the colour of the mist outside…’ As the paint peels and the plaster falls from ceilings, Deborah nurses her hypochondria while Tryphena thinks back to her youth when she was close – very close indeed – to her late brother Adolphus.

But the star of the story is Uptake itself – decaying, marbled, swathed in sea-mist and secrets and grand guignol. The saloons and staircases, the winding alleys and grottos of its gardens, are all full of surprises: sinister dragons lurk among the bells of a lakeside Chinese pavilion; a pyramidal ice-house provokes Tryphena into imagining herself engaged ‘in some awful Egyptian rite’.

And then there are the automata. Tryphena’s wicked great-grandfather had peopled the gardens of Uptake with an army of life-size mechanical figures. Some are broken. Others have disappeared. ‘There had been a number that Tryphena’s mother had tactfully described as unsuitable; these had been removed, and were kept in a padlocked storeroom into which nobody in Tryphena’s time had dared to penetrate (she had often caught herself wondering about their exact nature and, ashamed, had turned her mind elsewhere…)’. A few, like the Dancers, are still in working order:

There began a whirring and a clicking; a hidden pipe-organ coughed twice and fell into an air of such unexpected vitality Tryphena almost jumped. A mirrored door came slowly open: through it there tripped with a stiffness scarce perceptible the Dancers… They were truly lifelike, Tryphena thought, as the gallant jerked a bow and his ballerina dipped a curtsy to her. Then they were absorbed in the dance…

The mansion’s end comes as no surprise, prefigured as it is in Whistler’s cover illustration. But when I reached the last of Uptake, I couldn’t help but regret its loss and the loss of the fragile, curious world to which it belonged.

And the author? Simon Harcourt-Smith began his career as a diplomat; The Last of Uptake was written to distract his wife during the Blitz, when she was an invalid in plaster. He floats through the pages of James Lees-Milne’s diaries (doesn’t everyone?); and wrote a clutch of other books on subjects ranging from Babylonian art to the life of Lucrezia Borgia. Otherwise, the author of one of the 20th century’s most delightful country house stories is a mystery. The Last of Uptake was serialised on BBC Radio 4 in the summer of 1977, but this exquisite book has been out of print for nearly half a century.

I really don’t understand why.

Last of Uptake back jacket

Animal Crackers

‘The proper place for lions in an island that is spared them is in heraldry.’

When the 6th Marquis of Bath stood on the steps of Longleat in 1966 to unveil England’s first drive-through safari park, there was a storm of protest. ‘Cattle, sheep and deer ought to be good enough for a Wiltshire man,’ roared an indignant Times. ‘The proper place for lions in an island that is spared them is in heraldry.’

In fact Lord Bath and his business partner, circus-owner Jimmy Chipperfield, were merely bringing their gift for exploiting a commercial opportunity to bear on a long tradition of exotic animal-keeping in England, a tradition which dated back at least as far as the Middle Ages. Records show that a pair of lions were being kept at the Tower of London in the 13th century, along with a polar bear and an elephant.

Smile! An ostrich poses for pictures at Ampthill.

The practice was popular in Edwardian England. Amateur zoologists used their country estates as settings for the display of live specimens, just as they used their baronial halls to show off the dead ones, stuff and mounted. Lionel Walter Rothschild drove around his estate at Tring Park (and occasionally, around London) in a carriage drawn by his zebras. Sir Anthony Wingfield kept a menagerie at Ampthill House in Bedfordshire; his butler supplemented his wages by photographing house-guests as they perched precariously on camels and ostriches, and selling the pictures to The Tatler. In the park at Woburn Abbey the 11th Duke of Bedford, President of the Zoological Society from 1899 to 1936, kept Père David deer and a herd of wild Mongolian horses captured in the Gobi Desert in 1900.

Mah-jongg – presiding over the Courtaulds’ household like a malignant house-elf.

Between the wars, exotic animals and birds became part of the landscape at a surprising number of country houses. Mah-jongg, Ginie Courtauld’s ring-tailed lemur, who presided over Eltham Palace like some malignant house-elf until his death in 1938, is perhaps the most famous. Rothschild’s collection at Tring Park was open to the public. Woburn was well-known: the Père Davids were saved from extinction by the Duke of Bedford’s action in acquiring them, and their descendants still roam the park. Wingfield maintained parts of his Ampthill menagerie until the outbreak of the Second World War, although he began to wind it down in the 1930s, tranferring some of the animals to nearby Whipsnade Park Zoo, which opened in 1931.

And there were new entries in the field. This was partly because rare creatures were more easily available to those with money – Ginie Courtauld bought Mah-jongg at Harrod’s – but there was also a Medici-like tendency among new country house owners to display their status by demonstrating that their wealth could command all things. Olive, Lady Baillie, the Anglo-American heiress who between 1926 and 1928 spent a fortune restoring Leeds Castle in Kent, stocked its moat with flamingoes (who flew away) and black swans, and kept a toucan, a macaw and various parrots about the place.

Where’s Daddy? Penguins at Trent Park in 1937.

‘The peculiar fascination of waterfowl is now felt by many’, declared Country Life in 1937. At Trent Park in Hertfordshire, Sir Philip Sassoon filled the lake – said to be by Repton – with scarlet ibis and pink flamingoes, who were kept in the pink (and presumably in the park) with a lavish diet of shrimp. Whenever he was at Trent, Sassoon made a point of personally feeding his small flock of king, rock-hopper and black-footed penguins. He also kept a herd of deer in the park and had his stags’ antlers gilded, because he liked the way they glittered in the sunshine.

Who’s a pretty girl, then? Lord Tredegar and friends.

Sometimes an interest in non-indigenous fauna went hand-in-hand with a marked eccentricity. In his autobiography, A Silver-Plated Spoon, the 13th Duke of Bedford recalled a visit to ‘the most extraordinary house I have ever stayed at’, Tredegar in South Wales. Lord Tredegar, as well as having a parrot, a pet owl and an unhealthy interest in black magic, kept kangaroos and other animals which he used to fend off with a stick if they ventured too close while he was walking with guests in the grounds. Tredegar’s mother ‘used to flit round the house with sticks and straws in her mouth making birds’ nests, and then sit on eggs herself and try and hatch them.’

Careful with the Paraffin Wax, Gladys

Gladys Deacon endorses Pond's Vanishing Cream

Gladys, Duchess of Marlborough poses for a Pond’s Cream advertisement. ‘I never have to think of windburn or chapping.’

American beauty. English duke. Disastrous marriage.

To many aficionados of the 20th-century country house, those words conjure up Blenheim Palace and Consuelo Vanderbilt’s ill-starred marriage to ‘Sunny’ Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough, which ended in divorce in 1920 after the bride’s father had stumped up a dowry of $2.5 million. (It was non-returnable.)

Less well-known is the fact that within months of losing one American wife, Sunny found himself another. Gladys Deacon was a society beauty with a complicated past. Her father, Edward Parker Deacon of Boston, went to prison for shooting dead her mother’s French lover in their suite at the Hotel Splendide in Cannes, and then went mad. Her mother went off with an Italian nobleman. When Gladys was still a teenager, drifting around Europe, Proust and Rodin were captivated by her beauty. Bernard Berenson and the Crown Prince of Prussia wanted to marry her. She later claimed she had slept with every prime minister in Europe – ‘and most kings.’

In the 1890s, when she was only sixteen, Gladys met Sunny, then just married to Consuelo, and decided that she wanted him. It took her nearly twenty-five years, but on 25 June 1921 she finally achieved her objective when the couple were married in Paris. Her bridal gown was ‘of gold tissue specially woven in Italy for the occasion’, announced The Times. ‘The Court train is of gold tissue, and the veil, of old needle-point lace, [is] arranged like a coronet.’ That veil hid a slight but curious secret. Years before, Gladys had tried to improve on her considerable good looks by having paraffin wax injected in her nose. The procedure was not a success: the wax slipped and left her with a permanently bulky jaw.

Sunny and Gladys

Sunny and Gladys on their wedding day.

The newly-weds settled in at Blenheim Palace and Carlton House Terrace, and Gladys took up the role of duchess with ease. There were house parties at Blenheim and receptions at Buckingham Palace – in 1923 she was presented to George V and Queen Alexandra, ‘wearing a classically draped dress of silver lamé with a ceinture of silver embroidered in diamanté’.

Gladys was forty years old when she married, and Sunny was fifty. After spending several decades consorting with some of the world’s most distinguished artists and politicians in the capitals and casinos of Europe, the new duchess soon began to tire of Blenheim and country life, while three miscarriages in four years put an end to any hopes she had of motherhood. In 1927 ‘the charming mistress of historic Blenheim Palace’ raised a few eyebrows by posing in her wedding gown in an American advertisement for Pond’s cosmetic creams: ‘I never have to think of windburn and chapping. These… creams keep my complexion so vigorous and healthy.’

Gladys's Blenheim spaniels

Marriage-wreckers: Gladys’s Blenheim spaniels.

She turned to breeding Blenheim spaniels, and was so successful that they overran the Palace and drove the duke to distraction. This, coupled with Sunny’s conversion to Catholicism and Gladys’s dangerously erratic behaviour – she famously produced a revolver at dinner one night and, when one of her guests asked nervously what it was for, replied ‘Oh, I don’t know. I might just shoot Marlborough’ – led to the break-up of the marriage. In 1931 Sunny fled Blenheim, and for several years Gladys and her spaniels had the place to themselves, while she hired private detectives to follow her husband and report on his various affairs.

In 1933 Sunny had the gas and electricity to Blenheim cut off. Gladys retreated to their London house, but he cut off the power there too, and then had her evicted. Only his sudden death the following year prevented their divorce. In widowhood, Gladys the dowager Duchess of Marlborough moved to a Northamptonshire village where she lived a reclusive and nocturnal life surrounded by cats until 1962, when she was moved – against her will – to a geriatric hospital in Northampton. She died there in 1977, aged 96.

The Baronet, the Blackshirt and the Farmer’s Daughter

Sir George Vernon

Sir George Vernon

‘Sir George Vernon was found shot in his bedroom at his country home, Hanbury Hall, near Droitwich, about midday yesterday’, ran the report in the Manchester Guardian of 15 June 1940. ‘A revolver was near the body.’

The Vernon family had lived at Hanbury for centuries. Richard Vernon was rector there before the Spanish Armada. Thomas, a sucessful chancery barrister, marked his success by building Hanbury Hall, a beautiful essay in redbrick Queen Anne, in the early years of the 18th century. Victorian Vernons added to the estates. Now, in the summer of 1940, that was all over. Sir George was the last of his line.

He was a man of pronounced views, and after inheriting Hanbury in 1920 at the age of fifty-five, he took every opportunity to make them known. He wrote to the Times to complain about local taxes; he resigned as a magistrate because his colleagues were too lenient towards motorists who came up before them. He loathed the Church of England and was active in the anti-tithe campaigns of the 1930s, to the extent that in June 1935 his refusal to pay tithes led to a forced sale of his goods in front of the Hall.

It was through the anti-tithe campaign that Sir George became involved with Oswald Mosley and the the British Union of Fascists. In the early 1930s a number of leading British fascists saw the campaign as a way of garnering support among farmers, and the blackshirts were active in organising opposition to tithe seizures all over the country. Sir George was never a member of the BUF, but he sympathised with its aims, and Mosley became a regular visitor to Hanbury.

Sir Oswald Mosley

Sir Oswald Mosley

Sir George combined extremist political views with an unconventional private life. In 1927, after separating from his wife of more than twenty years, he turned up at the house of his farm manager, Edward Powick, and asked to borrow Powick’s 16-year-old daughter Ruth for a few months. ‘Things are in a mess up at the Hall,’ he explained. Ruth lived with him for the rest of his life, becoming his secretary and his mistress. In 1938 she changed her name to Vernon and he made her his heir. He had no children of his own. ‘Sir George introduced me everywhere as his daughter’, she recalled.

On 22 May 1940 the British government passed Defence Regulation 18B (1A), allowing the detention without trial of anyone believed to be ‘of hostile origin or associations or to have been recently concerned in acts prejudicial to the public safety or the defence of the realm’. Early the next morning Oswald Mosley was arrested, along with other leading figures in the movement. ‘Britain Swoops on Fascists’, reported the popular press, which carried front-page pictures of BUF members giving defiant salutes as they were led away by police. Over the following months around one thousand active members of the British Union were interned, along with an unknown number of far right sympathisers.

Sir George thought his own arrest was imminent. It was this, coupled with his poor health – he was variously described as having heart disease and throat cancer – that led the 74-year-old squire to close his bedroom door on the world that day in June 1940 and take his own life. Ruth married six years later and lived happily ever after – although not at Hanbury Hall, because Sir George’s widow moved back in after her husband’s death. The house passed to the National Trust in 1953.

Hanbury Hall