In an Irish country house and garden
Lady Edith Vane-Tempest-Stewart, the Marchioness of Londonderry, had a dragon tattoo rising from ankle to thigh. Few might have known this, given the modest attire worn by women between the wars. She and her husband, Charley, the 7th Marquess of Londonderry and a British peer, were relentless socialites; their glittering parties and extravagant dinners at Mount Stewart, the ancestral home in Northern Ireland, were legendary.
Always the life of the party, Lady Edith was also easily bored and the story goes that she became so frustrated during a particular dinner with stuffed shirts that she left the table for the stables, returning on horseback — naked, with her tattoo prominently displayed — and trotted through the house. It’s said the party livened considerably.
Lady Edith would have loved the fuss being made of her beloved Mount Stewart this year. The mansion reopened in April after a three-year restoration by the National Trust, a project so detailed and extensive it’s the subject of a six-part documentary, Mount Stewart: The Big House Reborn. The 18th-century pile on the shore of Strangford Lough is among the top visitor attractions in Northern Ireland, surpassed only by the Giant’s Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge.
There are four rooms open for public viewing for the first time, though the mansion is so huge a visitor could be forgiven for failing to get to them; there are knowledgeable volunteer guides, full of stories, stationed in the main rooms. Apart from the grand central hall, with its sculptures and octagonal balustraded gallery lit by a stainedglass dome, the house is delightfully unstuffy, its bohemian opulence and bold colours reflecting Lady Edith’s unconventional tastes. (Long gone are the 3000 antlers, mounted beast heads and suits of armour installed in mid-Victorian times by the fourth Marquess.)
There are real treasures here: silverware, objets-d’art, chandeliers, an equine portrait of national importance by George Stubbs and 22 Empire chairs used by delegates to the Congress of Vienna in 1815. King Edward and Queen Alexandra would have dined in the room holding those chairs when they visited Mount Stewart in 1903, and by Edith and Charley’s time all the most prominent figures in Irish and British political and social life were guests.
I like to think of Lady Edith, though, wandering into one of the dining rooms wearing her boiler suit and gardening gloves, as she often did, wolfing down a meal and returning to her beloved plantings. Edith was a writer, an activist (awarded the first Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her work organising the women’s volunteer reserve during World War I), a horsewoman, yachtswoman, mother of five and grandmother of a large brood.
“Edith was a complex, remarkable woman who valued courage and had a great sense of humour,” says Neil Porteous, Mount Stewart’s head gardener, as we approach the cypress rows and Moorish arcades of her Spanish Garden. “These gardens reflect her energy, her love of whimsy and mythology, her great drive to experiment and create. They’re really an extension of her personality.”
Whenever her husband strayed, which was often, she spent more of their considerable fortune on the grounds, and soon she was sponsoring the great plant hunters of the time and designing complex gardens, full of symbolism and layers. There are impressive yew topiaries in the Shamrock Garden; stone half-beasts named pointedly after luminaries of the day in the Dodo Terrace; and amid the Renaissance beauty of the Italian Garden is the figure of Edith herself, aka Circe the Sorceress, a wily temptress in Homer’s Odyssey. Among miles of paths at Mount Stewart is a particularly lovely circle that takes in The Ladies Walk, a lake, Rhododendron Hill and passes the family’s private burial ground, Tir N’an Og, “Land of the Ever Young” in Gaelic. This is where Lady Edith rests, on a hill overlooking her beloved gardens.
Helen Anderson was a guest of British Airways and Tourism Ireland.
From top, Mount Stewart’s lush gardens; the restored home is full of treasures; exterior of the property; sitting room; central hall