Get out your old leather suitcases, wind up the 1930s car, don the fur coat and instruct the chauffeur that you’ll be going to a house party and either dancing to the brass band on the terrace out back or sipping a cocktail at the edge of the outdoor pool.
That’s what we encountered at Upton, as they were having a 1930s party – which is how the National Trust theme Upton House (& gardens). As the interior is very much 1920s/1930s manilla rich country house come mini National Gallery, a theme is in dire need here. In fact, so generic were the interiors I struggle to remember them.
Reason to visit: to see the art collection housed here, including Stubbs, Canaletto, Guardi, Reynolds, Gainsborough and El Greco. If you’re a fan of the 1930s, don you best fox tail and join in the fun.
However, visiting Upton was all a bit too “themy”: what we though was a introductory video was in fact a pastiche of a weekend at the house in the 1930s, a voiceover introducing all his ‘wonderful’ friends and what they get up to. For my money I’d rather have a proper introductory video. I also didn’t see any room description sheets in any of the rooms, so I learned very little about the house.
The house was much extended between 1927-9 by Lord Bearstead, the super-rich son of the founder of Shell Oil and a trustee of the National Gallery, it is no wonder that an art deco gilded bathroom, galleried sitting room nor wing akin to nothing short of a mini-National Gallery were included. He had the money, the friends from London to entertain and the estate on which to build.
The estate’s history
The estate was acquired by Lord Bearstead in 1927 from Andrew Motion (who had purchased the estate from the of the Earls of Jersey in 1894).
During the reign of Richard I, Upton belonged to the Arden family.
A manor house was built during the mid 1400s, partly incorporated in the basement of the present house.
By 1695 Sir Rushout Cullen, the son of a city merchant, owned the house. He added the surviving nine bays and two wings of the south front, in the fashions of the time (compare Wilton House, dating in part from the 1650s).
On Sir Rushout’s death, William Bumstead purchased the house. His addition was the broken pediment on the north front and the Clipsham stone around the front door, dating from circa 1735.
In 1757 Bumstead sold Upton to Sir Francis Child, a banker (c.f. the Hoares at Stourhead, another banking dynasty in search of a country seat to woo rich landed gentry). Eventually, it was inherited as part of a dowry by the Earls of Jersey, who sold it to Mr Motion.
The National Trust
The reason the National Trust ended up with Upton is because Walter Samuel didn’t wish to see his art collection divided. He gifted Upton and a substantial endowment to the NT on the condition his descendents could continue to live there. However, while Lord Bearsted’s son, the 3rd Viscount, lived at Upton from 1948 until his death in 1986 and added to the National Trust a collection of porcelain (and his chattels were donated to the Nation in lieu of inheritance tax on the condition that they remain at Upton), the Samuels gave up the ghost in 1988 and now live in another house on the estate, which to a large extent the family retain in their ownership.
Inside the house
I plonked on the piano, noticed that the paintings were now labelled (a guide explained they knew about Simon Jenkins‘ criticism that from England’s 1000 Best Houses that none of the pictures are labelled, like in a private home, and thus none could really be identified on his visit), sat on the sofas and tried on the fur coats in the upstairs bedroom.
Since 2010 the National Trust has been trying to make its houses more ‘hands on’ and Upton is an example of this.
Guided tours are offered for the first couple of hours of opening (11-1) after which visiting is by free flow. We missed a tour and were therefore caught in the rush at 1pm as everyone and sundry rushed inside. Lesson? Get on a taster tour or go after 3pm.
During 2011 there was an exhibition on Shell and there is a modern fully kitted out restaurant and a good shop. The car park is in a field to the right of the house’s gates, so everyone has to walk up the drive to see the house. This retains the house’s integrity as there isn’t a blot of a car park right in the front garden.
It started to rain so I’m afraid we didn’t see all the gardens, just the upper wooded area, which has recently been replanted. The garden is in effect a terrace to the rear of the house, a wide open lawn including croquet area and swimming pool, and then terraces down the steep terrain leading to a small lake to the rear.
One day I hope I’ll be back on a sunny day to visit the gardens. Instead, we buzzed off to our next house…
When visited: 2011
House * out of 5: **
Garden * out of 5: ***
Theme tune – What’ll I do