IT IS ONE OF GLASGOW’S MOST SIGNIFICANT HISTORIC PROPERTIES, WITH PEOPLE FROM AROUND THE WORLD FLOCKING TO SAVOUR THE ARTEFACTS AND ARCHITECTURE OF THE MAXWELL FAMILY’S ANCESTRAL HOME. NOW A NEW CHAPTER IS BEING WRITTEN AT POLLOK HOUSE WITH THE OPENING OF
INSIDE THE HIDDEN ROOMS OF THE GLASGOW GLORY
IT says in the guidebook that the gun room at Pollok House is very much a male preserve. The guidebook does not lie: the heavy wooden furniture, the panelling, the built-in shotgun cases, the mounted animal heads, the fish preserved in glass tanks, the paintings – everything speaks to a masculine, traditional taste. And this is to say nothing of a fabulously musty smell that has lingered for decades.
“The estate gamekeeper was the main person who was in charge here,” says Karen Cornfield, property manager at Pollok House in the south side of Glasgow, the ancestral home of the Maxwell family. “There used to be fishing on the estate, hunting, too.” Back in the day, the estate was big on game – ducks in particular, on ponds formed on the floodplain of the White Cart. Sir John Maxwell Stirling was a devotee of field sports.
Curling and other sports equipment are stored in the room, too.
The gun room is one of a number of rooms in or near the servants’ quarters that have been opened up following an extensive renovation. The quarters, with their institutional, glazed-brick walls (the glaze was useful for reflecting light in the era before electricity) are especially evocative. You can imagine the butler, the housekeeper, the cooks, the valets, the lady’s maids, silently treading these corridors decades ago. If you’ve seen Gosford Park or Downton Abbey, this corridor and these rooms will seem strangely familiar.
At its peak there were 50 servants to meet the needs of three family members in Pollok House. The house, even now, plays host to members of the family when they are in Glasgow (“very nice people they are too – down-to-earth,” says a member of staff).
The house stands in 361 acres of country park, which is in turn home to no end of activities and attractions, including the Burrell Collection, which has gone dark until 2020 to allow a major refurbishment to take place. The landed Maxwell family are thought to have built three castles here before the house – begun in 1747, completed in 1752 – took shape. In the late 19th century, Sir John made sweeping additions, including a library and a dining room – and, yes, the servants’ quarters.
The building is owned by Glasgow City Council and is part of the Deed of Gift along with the park that now makes up Pollok Country Park. The gift was made in 1966 by Sir John’s daughter, Anne Maxwell Macdonald, 10 years after her father’s death, and the home is managed by the National Trust for Scotland on the city’s behalf. Phase one of the building work, now complete, focused on the four-storey, Georgian part of the building. The slate and lead on the roofs and ceiling joists were replaced, and windows were refurbished. Other work remains to be done.
AS you wander the upper floors you get a genuine taste of the Maxwell family’s lifestyle and habits: the magnificent, marbleand-mahogany entrance hall with its outsize, elaborate Japanese vases, family busts and portraits. The music room, with its deep, vivid, Pompeian red walls. The library, with its substantial collection of some 7,000 books, the oldest dating back several centuries. This room is filled with a light that seems tailored to the description of buttery.
The Keir bedroom, the house’s main guest room, has a four-poster bed and handpainted Chinese wallpaper that is more than two centuries old. The drawing room has impressive stucco work (one small boy today, visiting with his mother, tells her: “It says it’s called the drawing room but there aren’t any drawings”). And everywhere you look you see evidence of the lifelong passion for collecting that was the hallmark of Sir John’s father, Sir William Stirling Maxwell. He was an authority on Spanish art, able to assemble a collection that ranges from Goya to El Greco. Most of Sir William’s paintings are here, though some are held at the Glasgow Museums Resource Centre in Nitshill.
One room at Pollok House even played a key part in the formation of the National Trust for Scotland. The small, intimate cedar room – lots of wood-panelling, paintings by William Blake, a painting of Philip IV of Spain and his family – was where, in 1931, a clutch of grandees sat down and discussed the idea of creating a charity that would safeguard Scotland’s important properties and areas of land.
Taking part in an after-dinner conversation in the cedar room 86 years ago were Sir John, Sir Iain Colquhoun of Luss, the Duke of Atholl and the Earl of Crawford and Balcarres. Sir John was already a vicepresident and honorary president of the Association for the Preservation (now Protection) of Rural Scotland, which he co-founded in 1926, the year of the General Strike. The NTS has grown to become Scotland’s largest conservation charity, its
At one time there were
50 servants here: that’s a lot of lives to leave behind closed doors
responsibilities covering everything from coastlines and islands to St Kilda and architecturally significant buildings.
Pollok House is a key part of all that, of course. “It’s incredibly important to the National Trust for Scotland,” Cornfield says. “It’s a very significant property in Glasgow and it’s the NTS’s largest property in the area. The trust’s first property in Scotland was actually Crookston Castle, which is nearby [the castle was gifted to the new body by none other than Sir John].
“Sir John had broad interests in cultural and natural heritage, which fits nicely with the trust’s aims. He was interested in good architecture, even for social housing, which was an important thing for him. He felt that social housing should be of good quality. There was no excuse for poor architecture, no excuse for ugly homes.
“He also loved gardening and horticulture. He’s got an enormous collection of rhododendrons on the estate – apparently there’s one flowering at all times of the year. I have to say I never saw any in January but they were definitely flowering in February. He was a keen outdoorsman and a hillwalker. Like a lot of families at that time they had a Highland estate, and they would spend time out on the hills.”
She makes the point that while the Georgian/Edwardian grandeur of Pollok House might be an unusual part of the cityscape, most of Glasgow’s south side “was built on the former estate – Sir John had a hand in quite a lot of town planning”. Pollok, to take one example, is this year celebrating the 80th anniversary of the sale, by the Stirling-Maxwell family to Glasgow Corporation, of the land on which it is built. And Pollokshields Burgh Hall was built on grounds granted by Sir John to the burgh of Pollokshields in 1887.
Cornfield and her colleague Louise Maughan, the events co-ordinator, are plainly both delighted with the results of the renovation work, not least the opening of the servants’ room downstairs. “Previously, you would visit here and see a lot of closed doors on this level, and the story of the house focused a lot on decorative arts, and upstairs,” says Cornfield. “That reflects how historic houses have been presented for years and years.
“But in the last decade or two, there has been a change in perception, and people are much more interested in social history and the lives of ordinary people. Tenement House [a NTS-managed property in Glasgow city centre] is a prime example of that. We’re now quite interested in the lives of the people downstairs. It’s quite a thought that at one time there were 50 servants working here: that’s a lot of people, and a lot of lives to leave shut behind closed doors.”
Indeed it is. Pollok House is busy on this particular day. People are clearly fascinated by how the upper classes once lived; but there are many children here too, for whom the team at the house has even devised a game, Escape the Past (“You have 60 minutes to look for clues, solve a series of puzzles and complete challenges in order to thwart the butler’s devious plans, save Pollok House and return to the present”).
Weddings are another part of the house’s popularity. “It’s a unique wedding venue,” says Maughan. “You have the wonderful surroundings of the country park and then you can spend the day in this wonderful house. It’s a special day for the couple and their guests.”
Working front-of-house in the entrance hall is Stefan Plazalski, 69. “I was born two miles from here,” he says. “When I was a kid, this was a private estate. I used to come in here and steal plums, apples, pears – as you did. When I went to Shawlands Academy, I used to play hookie, come in here, make rafts and sail down the Cart.
“I’ve been here 14, maybe 16 years now. At the academy I had a smashing art teacher, who used to get us into the house to see the paintings. I’ve had a long affinity not only with the house but with the grounds too. We’re so lucky to have it so close to the city centre. A lot of folk, especially from abroad, find it amazing that it takes only 10 minutes to get here from the town.”
As he deals in his good-natured way with a family of visitors, I glance at the newest
A lot of folk, especially from abroad, find it amazing that it takes only 10 minutes to get here from the town
page of the visitors’ book. It’s not just the comments –“beautiful”, “amazing” “fantastic” – so much as the places their authors have come from: Utah, Finland, Lincolnshire, California, Ontario, Minnesota, even Bolivia. Two hundred and sixty-five years after the completion of the main house, this ancestral home of the Maxwell family retains a power to intrigue that extends far beyond Glasgow.
Karen Cornfield, property manager of Pollok House, in the gun room, where evidence of Sir John Maxwell Stirling’s passion for field sports is laid bare for visitors to see
From top: the staircase off the main hall at Pollok House; the newly opened servants’ room; and the house in 1870 following alterations instigated by Sir John Maxwell Stirling
Staff member Stefan Plazalski’s connection to Pollok House goes back to his boyhood