Endsleigh Hotel – Talents Across Time
It sometimes happens that some very rare talents come together in one place to produce something with a heart poundingly enduring appeal. Endsleigh is one such place, where the art of Georgina, Duchess of Bedford, Jeffry Wyatville, Humphrey Repton, Olga and Alex Polizzi, has even reached across time itself in an enchanted collaboration. Now an exceptional hotel, Endsleigh has been restored in 2005, it’s interiors redesigned and managed by the supremely talented scions of the Forte family. This beautiful and irregular grey stone building is set within 108 acres of the most romantic of rugged hills and ancient woodland; its gardens steeped in nostalgia and ornamented with follies, grottos and cascades. The serpentine and unchanging River Tamar completes the already rich scene, with its promises of hazy lazy days on boats, and some of the best salmon fishing to be found in England.
Endsleigh began its existence as a hunting and fishing summer retreat for the family of the Duke and Duchess of Bedford in 1814. The beautiful and magnetic Georgina, Duchess of Bedford – whose life was every bit as scandalous and dramatic as that of her more famous namesake, the Duchess of Devonshire – was married to one of the richest men in England, who owned one third of Devon no less. A great taste maker and one of the grandest hostesses of high society, Georgina contracted top architect Jeffry Wyatville to bring life to her ambition. Her aim was to have a rustic but comfortable home, on a much more intimate and domestic scale than the vast marbled halls of the family seat at Woburn Abbey, and without the need for armies of servants in attendance. Endsleigh was to be a special place for their young family, close friends, and of course her lover, the celebrated animal artist Edward Landseer, twenty years her junior and father to one of her children.
Cottages, Conceits and Competitions
The result was the creation of one of the most important of Regency country houses – but one that is as deceptive as it is beautiful: A grand and luxurious country house in the guise of a humble rustic cottage; a large rambling building that is artfully disguised to appear small. Endsleigh is also one of the most distinctive examples of an architectural conceit that would immediately have been recognised and admired by contemporaries in the early 19th century. With its low eaves, gingerbread barge boarding, gables and dormers, verandas, tall chimney stacks, and tree trunk columns, Endsleigh could only have been a classic ‘Cottage Orné’. The numerous architectural pattern books on the style would have been familiar to the Duchess, and everyone including the Prince Regent himself – not one to be left out of a new fad – wanted one.
And so the enduring love affair with the humble cottage began in earnest. But the Cottage Orné was no simple cottage, it was a rather luxurious, idealised chocolate box version of it. I’m sure the wealthy, educated and cultured elite that hankered for the simple life of the farmer or woodsman, would not have much cared for the dirty, damp and depressing conditions of most of the cottages they would rosily have observed from their carriages. The Cottage Orné was therefore a very specific take on the vernacular, and owed more than one would imagine to foreign elements – like the Indian veranda and Swiss barge boarding for example. It would not be long before the expansion of the railways provided the middle classes with the opportunity to act out their own bucolic fantasies. Now they too could commute to their cottages and huddle around a roaring fire to read the joyous odes to country life by the ‘Peasant Poet’ John Clare.
The Cottage Orné was an utterly charming if slightly bizarre product of the Romantic Movement, and its specifically English version of the Picturesque. The great exemplars of the Picturesque like William Gilpin idealised the rugged qualities of the English countryside. Which was just as well because the Seven Years War meant that European travel would be ruled out for a while. Beginning with Constable, landscape painters simultaneously elevated this previously inferior genre to the higher ranks of art, and glorified in their work the rural life of England and it’s pleasures. The over fed, over stimulated and over cultured idle rich, had since the 18th century regularly indulged in fantasies about the life of the simple, honest peasant. How extraordinary then that in a reverse form of snobbery, the richest in the land competed to design and build homes that imitated the humble dwellings of the very poorest, made of the meanest materials that were to be found all around.
The Debt to Marie Antoinette
The roots of the Cottage Orné and the sentiments behind it are inevitably traceable to Marie Antoinette and her Hameau de la Reine, that she had built in the grounds of Versailles in 1783. This gorgeous artifice enabled the queen to escape from the rigid formalities of courtly life, and playact the role of milkmaid, in a splendid theatre set that could have been designed by Boucher himself. Endsleigh’s debt to Marie Antoinette is quite considerable therefore. Georgina ensured that she too would have a luxurious dairy, romantically located among the rocks and ferns on the edge of a rushing stream. One senses however that here romantic trysts and not cheese were the order of the day. The incredibly skilful landscape gardener Humphrey Repton even designed a woodsman’s cottage on the far wooded hills over the Tamar, where some hapless chap had the sole task of lighting a fire come nightfall, so the gentle plume of smoke would make for a picturesque effect when viewed from the house. Clearly the ‘naturalism’ upon which the Picturesque was founded predicated more upon effect than anything else. And why not, we all like a bit of theatre!
Endsleigh Hotel and the Gentle Touch of the Polizzis
Endsleigh’s glory days were a rather dusty distant memory when Olga Polizzi and her daughter Alex discovered what had become a run down old fishing club. Exercising their well known restraint in interior design, they chose neither to recreate a shrine to Georgina, nor a typical English country house – an inspired judgement that is a key part of the appeal of Endsleigh hotel. The regency spirit still lives on however in the calm, elegant and spare interiors, which are only added to by discrete modern comforts and luxuries. In fact nothing in the design is allowed to overpower the main event, which is the drama of the view. Endsleigh Hotel has no wingdinging spas, bars and foyers, and remains as tasteful and evocative as it must have been in its original heyday. The Polizzis have stayed true to the Picturesque ideal and maintained the beautiful connection between the house and it’s setting in all its managed glory.
It’s worth remembering when you visit, that as one of the most important examples of Picturesque architecture, Endsleigh marks the start of our ongoing love affair with the English countryside. Celebrated in painting, poetry, novels and song, this undying love though has not been without its challenges. From the enclosures that so troubled John Clare at the start of the Agricultural Revolution, to the endless house building drives of our own times that are dwindling and disappearing the remaining green spaces between towns; and now the solar farms designed to prevent an apocalypse but giving the impressions that it is already here. Here at least at Endsleigh Hotel time stands still.
Endsleigh was commissioned by the magnetic, beautiful and scandalous Georgina, Duchess of Bedford. Married to one of the richest men in the country and lover of Edwin Landseer. Her life revolved around Scotland, Woburn Abbey and her beloved Endsleigh, which became known as ‘the Garden Paradise of the West’.
Mistress of the Arts. The Passionate Life of Georgina, Duchess of Bedford. by Rachel Trethewey is published by Review
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