A Visit to Upton House

We decided to visit Upton House a bit on a whim, so we wasn’t prepared for it to be as good as it was!

As it was a lovely sunny day, we started our visit by taking a picnic lunch into the gardens (since National Trust tearooms are horrendously expensive for what they offer, as you’ve heard me remark before! But I suppose it’s a needed source of income for them, so I shouldn’t complain…) Upton House is the only National Trust property I’ve ever been to with a swimming pool! Surprisingly, it wasn’t roped off, and a group of children in wellies were splashing around on the steps in the shallow end. It was pretty dirty, though, and I suspect swimming in it is not encouraged, so I wouldn’t recommend trying it!

The gardens were smaller than at a lot of other stately homes, but nice. They were landscaped onto the side of the hill, and included a sweet little rose garden, and some beautiful, cottage-garden like flower and vegetable beds.

Entry to the house was by timed ticket, and begun with a look around a room which gave an insight into life in World War II Britain, and background to the family who owned Upton House, with lots of information and published material from the time. During the war, the house was owned by Walter Samuel, second Viscount Bearsted, who was a British peer, a chairman of The Shell Transport and Trading Company, owner of M. Samuel and Co. bank, an art collector, and philanthropist. He seems to have been an interesting character: a practising Jew, devoted to Jewish causes, and but also an active anti-Zionist; a man who clearly cared about public access to art and culture, but also about people being able to engage with them with minimal red tape to protect them, as shown by his interesting instruction to the National Trust when he gave his house and art collection to them that they were not to put any ropes around the pictures to stop people getting close; a practical, clear-sighted man, even under great pressure, who when war was declared in 1939 at once moved his bank and art collection into Upton House. If a biography of him exists, I’d be interested to read it.

Everyone was then taken into the dining room, which featured a table where dinner had just been finished, left in disarray, as though everyone had rushed out. The ceiling of the room was cleverly used as a cinema screen to display a short film of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain‘s 1939 speech announcing the outbreak of war. The effect of this speech was what had made everyone leave the room at once.

The largest room in the house – a drawing room? a gallery? – was where H. Samuels had been based during the war, in essentially one giant office. It’s a strange room, because when you walk in you see breath-taking paintings, and a lovely view out of the windows over the grounds, and a piano, but also desks of typewriters, and a large map and economic chart. The typewriters still work and visitors can have a go on them, which was great fun! The art collection at Upton was probably my favourite part though – I had no idea it housed so many masterpieces by famous artists, and you can get so close and look at every detail. In this room, I stood transfixed for five or ten minutes before perhaps the most lovely Canaletto I’ve seen – the amount of sea and sky give a wonderful feeling of space, and yet you can see the busy-ness of a thriving city and port in the great throng of gondolas and ships (one of which seems to be on fire?!).

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The Canaletto. (I took these photos with my phone, whose camera was never amazing even when it was young, and as my phone has aged the camera has got considerably more blurry. What can I say? I’m an impoverished PhD student ūüėČ So I apologise for the poor quality! )

I loved the Dutch interior of an early-modern Catholic cathedral as well. As you may know, from one of my posts a while back, I really like these kinds of paintings, both because of their crispness and sense of light and space, and because you can tell so much about the early-modern world from them. And, to my delight, I spotted another example of a dog in church! (That’s the advantage of being able to get very, very close to the painting, thanks to Viscount¬†Bearsted!)

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The rest of the house was both touching and cosy. You could see the bedrooms the secretaries slept it, turned into little dormitories by necessity, which had some of their belongings, and photos, and toothbrushes and toiletries, and a diary and some letters. There was a snug sitting room, with a pile of old fashioned board and card games on a table, and comfortable cushioned windowseats. You could try out gas masks, and handicrafts, and an old pair of binoculars, as you went through the house.

I especially liked it because a lot of the things in the house reminded me of what my grandparents’ house used to be like, and had that cosy, homely feeling from my childhood visits there. Furnishings and things¬†from the mid-twentieth century seems to be so much more comfortable and individualistic than now! And it looks like a world where families sat down and played games together, and listened to the wireless together, and went on frequent walks and played sports outdoors together; unlike now, where everyone seems so busy with computers and ipads and phones, and even when everyone is together often someone is absorbed in technology or about to head back to it soon. But anyway…

In the bowels of the house is a little art gallery, with yet more of Lord Bearsted’s art collection. There are some real gems there. There’s an El Greco, I think of the Passion of Christ. There’s a Bruegel painting of the Murder of the Innocents, which is really a representation¬†of the rather brutal contemporary (C16th) Spanish military presence in the Low Countries. There’s a painting of the Mother of God on her deathbed, all in black and white and grey, and the more you stare at it, the more you see, and also the more people you see come in through the doors to be there; it’s a compelling and unusual painting, which doesn’t look at all like any other early-modern art I’ve seen. There’s a Giotto of the Last Supper. All the paintings around the house still have their tags on (I’m not sure if they’re from their auction, or from when they were packaged and moved to the house, or when they joined the National Trust… Don’t know if any people more knowledgeable about art and the art market can enlighten me here??) It’s a great little gallery for people like me that like a bit of art, especially great paintings by “big names” I know, but who wouldn’t necessarily enjoy hours and hours of looking at paintings. You could whip round it in five or ten minutes, or you could give it a couple of hours, I guess twenty minutes to half an hour is probably normal if you’re actually going to look properly at at least some of the paintings.

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So, all in all, a really nice day out, perfect for a chillier or grey-er day when you’d prefer mostly to be indoors, and packed with interesting history and culture, as well as touching and inspirational reminders of what life was like in Britain during World War II.

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