I had visited Nymans before, but it was some time ago and I liked the idea of wandering through gardens in the south of England on a lovely summer’s afternoon. And so we did. The roses were stupendous in the walled garden, but I seemed to be impelled towards the ruins. They were mentioned in the National Trust publicity about the property, but not featured. The name Messel seemed familiar. The theatre. Yes, designs for some of the first plays I saw in London with Lawrence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Ralph Richardson and so many other then famous actors, now fading into memory. And so the family came to life, a family buffeted by history.
Everyone knows the Rothschild sons, one placed in every capital city to make his fortune. At about the same time, and for similar reasons, Ludwig Messel was born in Germany, moved to Britain in 1868, went into stock broking and bought Nymans estate in 1890 to build a German style country house designed by his architect brother. Thus with money and an estate they entered the ranks of untitled moneyed aristocracy and his large family married advantageously. Ludwig died a year after the start of WWI, devastated by the outbreak of hostilities between Britain and Germany. His son Leonard, educated at Eton and Oxford and born in England, was not allowed to enlist in WWII, because of his German origins and in spite of the fact that he, and his brothers and sisters, had all married British nationals. So he trained local soldiers and there is a book containing the letters they wrote to him and his in reply.
Ludwig’s Alpine country house was pulled down after the First World War and replaced by a stone Jacobean style one that echoed the architecture of the Cotswolds – reassuringly English.
There was anti-German feeling after the war and so it was an astute move. Architecture reflecting principles and loyalties, like the right to crenellate denoting an aristocratic family. This house burnt down in the early years of WWII and the family moved on, marrying into the Linley family (an early member played the piano with Mozart). Part of the house could still be lived in and the Queen Mother was a frequent visitor. The rooms looked welcoming, comfortable in muted gold tones and lots of nick-knacks, making more emotional than visual sense. Vases of flowers everywhere, lots of pictures on a piano and tables – and then it was given to the National Trust.
Visits like this have associations. I thought of Edmond du Waal’s fascinating book of his family, The Hare with the Amber Eyes, about his family, the Ephrussi, who spread themselves over Europe and one even appears in a top hat, rather incongruously, at the back of Monet’s Boating Party. Another 19th-century immigrant was Julius Wernher, later Sir Julius, the diamond magnate; Luton Hoo was his country house where he displayed his magnificent art collection. Haunting my memory more than anyone else are Adele Krapps and Regina Stone, who came to my Surrey school as war refugees. I do wonder what has happened to them.