A hand­ful of houses re­vis­ited

Eve­lyn Waugh’s vivid, wist­ful por­traits of coun­try houses, of­ten en­cap­su­lated in a few pithy words, fore­shad­owed the de­cline and fall—or change of use—of many of these houses in the mid 20th cen­tury, as Jeremy Mus­son ex­plains and Matthew Rice imag­ines

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden -

rit­ing home to his wife dur­ing wartime ser­vice in north Africa, in 1941, Eve­lyn Waugh men­tioned he’d spent a day in the Union Club ‘look­ing at Coun­try Life books of coun­try houses in an orgy of home­sick­ness’. He had a gen­uine in­ter­est in ar­chi­tec­ture and cel­e­brated his writ­ing suc­cess by in­vest­ing in his own coun­try house.

From 1937 to 1956, he lived at Piers Court in St­inch­combe, glouces­ter­shire (Coun­try Life, March 2, 2016), of which he re­marked it was ‘the kind of house that takes a lot of liv­ing up to’. the last 10 years of his life were spent in west Som­er­set, in the early-ge­or­gian, red-sand­stone Combe Florey, which re­mained in his fam­ily un­til 2008.

As a young man, Waugh was fa­mil­iar with a num­ber of coun­try houses. He first vis­ited Bar­ford House, War­wick­shire, in 1924, the home of his Ox­ford friend Alas­tair gra­ham, who was gen­er­ally con­sid­ered to be a model for Se­bas­tian Flyte. in the 1930s, he spent time at the moated Madres­field Court, Worces­ter­shire, home of the Ly­gons, a fam­ily also seen as an in­spi­ra­tion for Brideshead Re­vis­ited.

He knew well Mells Manor in Som­er­set, ren­ishaw Hall in Der­byshire, Pak­en­ham Hall in Co West­meath and Pix­ton on the edge of Ex­moor in west Som­er­set, which was the fam­ily home of his sec­ond wife, Laura Herbert, and the source of the life de­scribed in the at­mo­spheric Boot Magna Hall in Scoop.

Just as im­por­tant was Waugh’s keen aware­ness of the shift­ing so­cial

Wsands of wartime. in his pref­ace to the 1959 edi­tion of Brideshead, he wrote of work­ing on the novel in 1943, which he re­called as a bleak pe­riod ‘and in con­se­quence the book is in­fused with a kind of glut­tony, for food and wine, for the splen­dours of the re­cent past’.

‘As a young man, Waugh was fa­mil­iar with a num­ber of coun­try houses

He cre­ated his se­duc­tive ac­count of a great house in full rig be­cause ‘it seemed then that the an­ces­tral seats which were our chief na­tional artis­tic achieve­ment were doomed to de­cay and spo­li­a­tion like the monas­ter­ies in the six­teenth cen­tury’. to his sur­prise, by 1959, the aris­toc­racy—in whose ranks he had found friends and two wives—had not evap­o­rated.

in com­mon with the great English nov­el­ists of the 19th cen­tury, Waugh could sum­mon up his houses in a few brisk lines, a char­ac­ter­is­tic sharp­ened by the dis­tinc­tive—and bril­liant— aus­ter­ity of his writ­ing style.

First in rank are the cas­tles: Brideshead, the el­e­gant, shin­ing seat of a mar­quess, where ‘grey and gold amid a screen of bosk­age, shone the dome and col­umns of an old house’ and its hall had a ‘coved ceil­ing fres­coed with clas­si­cal deities and he­roes’.

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