This Victorian socialite created a home for entertaining royalty and the Political elite.
This Victorian socialite created a home for entertaining royalty and the political elite.
She gained political influence, became friends with royals and amassed great personal wealth. Her husband, Ronald Greville, was wealthy in his own right. A relentless socialite, Dame Greville loved to mix with celebrities. The Grevilles bought Polesden Lacey in 1906, and with their connections to King Edward VII, regularly entertained members of the royal family at the house. Dame Graville used the central hall at Polesden Lacey for parties and the dining room for intimate dinners.
Margaret Greville, the last resident owner of the English estate Polesden Lacey, was the daughter of a wealthy Scottish brewer.
A relentless socialite, Dame Greville loved to mix with celebrities.
After purchasing the estate, the couple contacted architects Charles Mewés and Arthur Davis, who had designed the famous Ritz Hotel in London. The Grevilles commissioned the fashionable architects to turn the house into a grand stately home, and decorators White, Allom and Co., to add sumptuous fixtures and fittings. Money was no object. Dame Greville brought her collection of fine art and furniture into the house, and added all the latest modern conveniences.
The property still retains much of that grandeur today. Ronald died in 1908, and Margaret, childless, bequeathed Polesden Lacey to the National Trust in 1942, which remains open for visitors.
Before the Grevilles moved in, a series of wealthy owners made a variety of improvements to the house. The earliest parts of the building date to 1630, when Anthony Rous, an English politician, built a country house on the land. It was later owned by the politician and playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who lived there from 1797 until 1816. In 1818 Joseph Bonsor, a wealthy tradesman, bought the estate and commissioned architect Thomas Cubitt to design and build part of the present house, which integrated parts of the earlier property into its design. In 1853, the
estate was sold to Sir Walter Farquhar, who extended the walled garden. Then in 1902, it was acquired by Sir Clinton Dawkins, a businessman and civil servant, who further extended the house, creating the grand property as it stands today. He died in December 1905, and Ronald and Margaret Greville purchased it in 1906.
Despite the sumptuous surroundings at Polesden Lacey, the staff weren’t always on their best behavior. Dame Grenville’s butler was once so obviously intoxicated that she placed a note on his silver tray reading, “You are drunk; leave the room at once.” The butler, in turn, passed it onto the guest of honor, Sir Austen Chamberlain, who spent the rest of the evening in mystified silence. When Dame Grenville explained what had happened, Sir Chamberlain said it was the first time he’d been silenced by a drunken butler.
Dame Greville was well known for her French cuisine. The Daily Telegraph in 1930 said her dishes were ‘unsurpassed anywhere.’ She employed female chefs, which was quite unusual, and they used fresh produce from the walled garden.
The central hall was designed by architect Ambrose Poynter in 1903. The beautifully carved woodwork—on the same wall as the fireplace—dates to the late 17th century. It was originally an ornamental screen from St Matthew’s Church on Friday Street, in London, and was designed to cover the wall at the back of the altar.
The dining room at Polesden Lacey was much more efficient than many other country houses, where the kitchens were far away from the dining rooms. This made it difficult to serve piping hot food or chilled champagne. The serving room and kitchen at Polesden Lacey, however, are next to each other, which enabled staff to deliver the usual ten-course dinners promptly.
Dame Greville brought her collection of fine art and furniture to the house, and added all the latest modern conveniences.
The dining room at Polesden Lacey was much more efficient than in many other country houses.
The French neo-classical room has red silk damask wall coverings. The oval table is arranged to seat eight people, while a larger table could seat up to 20 people at dinner parties. Made of Irish linen, each of the tablecloths took a year to weave. The portraits are from such artists as Henry Raeburn, Peter Lely, Thomas Lawrence and Joshua Reynolds. The portrait on the left depicted Margaret Greville’s father, and was her favorite.
The picture corridor displays some of Dame Greville’s best paintings. The Jacobean oak paneling came from an architectural salvage and was adapted to fit the gallery. The barrel-vaulted ceiling depicts a design copied from the long gallery at Chastleton in Oxfordshire.
Dame Greville liked the style of French interiors, so she asked Mewés and Davis to design the library in a French style too. This was one of Dame Greville’s favorite rooms. She liked the warm colors and the 17th-century white Chinese Kangxi porcelain and Japanese Imari she displayed there. The furniture is 17th and 18th century English, French and Italian, and most of the pieces were reupholstered with contemporary needlework during the Edwardian period.
Dame Greville wasn’t a big reader, however. The books in the library were there primarily to amuse and impress her guests. The portrait above the fireplace, which shows a boy with sheep, dates to the 17th century and was painted by Aelbert Cuyp, who was just 19 years old at the time. During this period in history, both boys and girls wore skirts.
The study stood next door to the library, which Mewés and Davis designed as a private room for Dame Greville. She had mobility problems towards the end of her life, and recurrent bronchitis made it difficult for her to live normally. She had to use a wheelchair to get around and spent more time in this room as she grew older.
Sliding mirrors pull across the windows, creating a snug room where women could share their deepest secrets. Dame Greville often interviewed her “guest of honor” in this room after dinner, while the other guests chatted in the saloon.
A GRAND ADVENTURE
The saloon was the grandest room in the house, where Dame Greville displayed fine artwork and porcelain. She had 18th-century carved panels moved from an Italian palace to the saloon. Red brocade lines the walls and the floors are herringbone parquet with Persian rugs.
The French-italian theme continues with paintings around the ceiling, depicting scenes from the Old Testament. The furniture is mostly French from the era of Louis XV or XVI. Inside the glass cabinets rest Chinese vases, bowls, snuff bottles and figurines. Dame Greville had a collection of carved animals by Faberge and Cartier and often pointed them out to her house guests with comments such as, “Lord so-and-so gave me this as a thank you gift,” dropping a not-so-subtle hint that she’d like more such trinkets.
Dame Greville held parties in the saloon during Ascot Week and at Christmas. She employed comedians and singers to entertain the guests after dinner.
The tea room contains French Rococo furniture from Dame Greville’s London home. Upholstered in tapestry, the small
wildwood sofas date to the 1780s. They were nicknamed têteà-têtes because they were conducive to intimate conversations (“tête-à-tête” means “head to head” in French). The room was designed by Méwes and Davis to take advantage of the fantastic views over the garden. The 18th century landscape paintings on the walls may be Flemish or Dutch in origin.
Up to 20 people would congregate for tea in this room, including Queen Mary, who was a regular visitor. She always telephoned ahead to announce her intention to visit for tea in the afternoon. On one occasion, Dame Greville was so worried that her red carpets were getting a bit thin in places that she rushed to London, returning with 20 antelope skins, which covered the offensive areas.
The billiard room was designed by Ambrose Poynter in 1903 and improved by Dame Greville. This room, the adjoining smoking room and the gun room all have a masculine feel. Men would retire here to talk about business, politics and sports. They listened to the radio, played card games and shared stories. This was one of King Edward VII’S favorite rooms.
A view of the East front of Polesden Lacey, Surrey, England. The grounds once contained a golf course, croquet lawn and sometimes hosted game-bird shooting parties.
Above: The silver tea set on the right is part of Dame Greville’s extensive collection of silverware.
opposite: Notice the Roman coffin on the left side of the photograph. This sarcophagus dates to 3 AD and the carvings of wild animals suggest that its occupant had an African background. When Dame Greville lived in the house, the sarcophagus had an oak lid, on which she placed beautiful bouquets of flowers.
The central hall was designed to make an impact because it was the first room people entered when they visited Polesden Lacey. The 17th-century "reredos" around the fireplace was simply there to impress visitors.
Dame Greville liked to collect silver, including silver tankards. Each guest had silver cutlery and Winston Churchill, when he dined there, famously complained that the silver glittered so much, he couldn’t see the other guests properly. Dame Greville tol
The saloon was the most opulent room in the house. The portrait of Dame Greville, on the right, dates to 1889 when she was 26 years old. It was painted by the high society artist, Herman Schmiechen.
The 19th-century writing table is mahogany. Dame Grenville arranged her social life from this desk. The photographs are her favorite pictures of friends and relatives.
Above: This billiard table was made by Burroughs and Watts, and surrounded by comfy chairs for spectators.
opposite: On the desk stand two black and gold lacquered tea canisters, given to Dame Greville by Queen Mary in 1919. A portrait of Queen Ena of Spain reflects the friendship they shared. Dame Greville also had a rare 18th-century porcelain set, seen in the mirror’s reflection. Polesden Lacey is just 25 miles outside London, and open to visitors. For more information, visit nationaltrust.org.uk/ polesden-lacey.