Private Life Of A Country House

London Newspaper Group — CN/WPN 04-04-1980

Book review: A glimpse of a very private way of life

By Christopher Long

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If future historians ever decide that our current obsession with nostalgia is significant, expressing our dissatisfaction with life and the world around us, then a new book written by a Chelsea authoress will go a long way to explain why.

The Private Life of a Country House (1912-39) by Lesley Lewis is a remarkable and fascinating record of a large country house and a way of life that is almost extinct.

True, there are still places in England where a seemingly secure, timeless and ritualised existence survives. But we today can, it seems, only cope with the more acceptable and quaint aspects of that legacy and it takes the acute memory and perception of someone like Miss Lewis to remind us of the realities of life in an Edwardian household, such as the one in which she grew up.

Taking us from room to room, explaining the hierarchies of the various domestic departments, the intricate balance in the relationships between staff and family and the routines that affected everyone, Miss Lewis demonstrates that life at Pilgrims' Hall was, indeed, essentially very private.

"Families like mine rarely kept diaries of any general interest, they tore up their letters and, perhaps not wholly guilelessly, they covered their tracks with remarkable efficiency."

"Transient love affairs, even the sweetly harmless flirtations which never progressed as far as Christian names, could tarnish reputations in a manner now inconceivable, and discretion was the better part of romance and indeed of life in general."

"They often forgot to label portraits and miniatures and although senior relatives reminisced copiously they could seldom be pinned down to any firm facts..."

"For them, no croquet boxes full of priceless papers, no drawers full of forgotten Elizabethan needlework, no references in the memoirs of the famous. Moving house fairly often, they cleared up as they went, got christened, married and buried wherever they happened to be and, regarding themselves as essentially private people, would never have imagined that their doings could be of interest to anyone but the immediate family ..."

Miss Lewis's father was a successful London solicitor who commuted daily to the city from the spacious and elegant Pilgrims' Hall in Essex, where the four Lewis children were brought up.

Though the family scarcely emerge from the book as characters there will be thousands of people who may not remember an upper-middle class life such as hers, down to all the details of the way the rooms were furnished, the domestic appliances, the cumbersome daily routine of maintaining a house of that size, with its farm, stables, gardens, out-houses and large self-contained community of staff.

The charm of this book is that so many of the details of everyday life come alive and the more ordinary, prosaic things take on their true importance in what must have been a very quiet and uneventful life.

What happened in the dairy, how the horses, carriages and, later, cars, were maintained, is all meticulously recorded. The regimentation of nursery life for the Lewis children and their early glimpses of adult life when they graduated from their own quarters to the adult dining-room and drawing-room follow a pattern that must be etched into the minds of thousands of people who had had either similar childhoods or were in service themselves.

Perhaps it's sad that less is revealed about the family themselves but, as Miss Lewis recalled recently at her flat in Whitelands House, King's Road, "I didn't really want to talk about 'us' very much. I thought it would be interesting for people to know what a house like that looked like and what went on there."

"I think people might find it interesting to know how all those things you find in antique shops were used, and as we were a very ordinary and unremarkable family, it would be wrong to make something more out of it all than was really the case."

Unremarkable they may have been, though one suspects that here is the classic English reserve and understatement at work. Miss Lewis has had a richly varied life since her presentation at court in 1929.

After working for her father's firm came an active war and a successful career as an art historian after studying at the Courtauld Institute. She has written a number of books and worked alongside her biologist husband with many years of research in Africa.

Miss Lewis is perhaps the perfect product of the system which may all too easily be forgotten for the very reason that she and so many people like her have been so successful at playing down and covering their tracks.

Future historians may well find it hard to discover what the magic was behind the bland photographs of the Lewis family that are included in the book. Those who want to know a little more about the everyday practicalities, however, will be greatly helped by the clear explanations and detail in this book, coupled with charming line-drawings by Stephanie Harrison.

The Private Life of a Country House (1912-39), just published by David & Charles at £5.95, may beg all sorts of questions about those seemingly secure and balmy days, but Miss Lewis has clearly answered most of the questions she set out to answer – in a book which is as fascinating as it is charming.

Reading it is rather like peering through the windows of a long-forgotten doll's house – everything exactly as it was when it was last put away – the figures in a state of suspended animation which adds poignancy to the passage of time and loss of a world that must once have seemed so secure and timeless.

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When I interviewed Miss Lewis at her home in Chelsea she told me a curious tale concerning Anthony Blunt, then Keeper of the Queen's picture collection at Windsor. Many years earlier Blunt had been Miss Lewis's teacher at the Courtauld Institute where, it seems, he at first had a very high regard for her work. However, when she chose to write her thesis on the rôle of European court painters as spies, Blunt reacted icily to her choice of subject and refused to comment on the finished work. Miss Lewis was devastated, believing his reaction to indicate that he had little regard for her ability, which severely affected her self-esteem thereafter.

Only years later did she discover, along with the rest of us, that the art historian 'Sir' Anthony Blunt had long been a Soviet spy and British traitor – a man who used his position at the heart of the British establishment and at Court to serve his KGB masters. All this had been known to the British government and the Royal family (who continued to employ him) for many years before his treachery was revealed to the nation in the early 1980s and Blunt was officially disgraced — CAL

© (1980) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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Christopher Long

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