‘Costly and beautiful treasures’
Newton Manor in Swanage was converted and furnished so imaginatively that for a time it was one of Dorset’s outstanding houses. Jo Draper tells its story.
Published in October ’09
Newton Manor, Swanage, is a proper ancient name, suggesting an old stone-built house, perhaps with farm buildings and a nice medieval hall with a high roof, well-timbered and open. Newton Manor does indeed have a hall, but one of a very unusual date. The small, handsome, early 18th-century stone house had some 17th-century bits (importantly including a barn) when it was purchased in 1872 by Charles Robinson. Its position was much admired, just outside the town of Swanage, surrounded by large trees and prominently sited on a little knoll.
Charles Robinson was an important art historian who had trained as a painter but became a lecturer and then a museum curator, working for what became the Victoria & Albert Museum. He was responsible for buying amazing parts of the V & A’s collections, travelling in Italy and Spain to find them. He himself collected as well, which was normal then but highly disapproved of now for museum people, and he also dealt in paintings etc: again, totally unacceptable today but fine in the 19th century. Robinson lived in London, and when he purchased Newton Manor in 1872 he was technically retired from the V & A, but in fact he continued to advise them. In 1881 he became Crown Surveyor of Pictures, and he was knighted in 1887, Jubilee year.
Newton had been empty for some years before his purchase, and Robinson cleared the farm buildings except for the barn. The house itself was inhabited by bats, rats and mice upstairs with a colony of owls in one chimney and a swarm of bees in the other. Robinson was glad when the owls survived the alterations and were still breeding in the 1890s. He was a bit less keen on ‘a private breed of spiders, fine, big, long-legged creatures, as active as racehorses…established in the louvre turret in the centre of the hall. One of their amiable customs is to drop down on the shoulders [probably bare] of our lady guests at dinner.’ This comes from Robinson’s own description of the house in 1896 when he was showing the house to members of the Dorset Natural History & Antiquarian Field Club, then visiting Swanage. They admired his ‘ancient’ hall – in fact, the 17th-century barn which Robinson had connected to the house via a corridor and converted into a dining hall.
Robinson collected architectural material for the V & A and also for himself. His dining hall had a huge Tuscan fireplace of about 1480 in black marble and inside, a cast iron fireback with the arms of Henry VII or VIII, from Hever Castle. This combination of foreign and English fittings became possible in the late 19th century because the railways made it much cheaper to import heavy or large architectural salvage like fireplaces. Robinson did a thorough job on the 17th-century barn, building a big bay window opposite the fireplace and enhancing the room with ornate entrance doors from a convent near Madrid. Elsewhere in the house were two pairs of doors which had been removed from Wareham church and abandoned in a builder’s yard, and three more doors from a convent at Padua. The drawing room was also an addition, and Robinson incorporated an Elizabethan oak fireplace, removed from a house in Dorchester when it was modernised. The main staircase came from a house in Antwerp. There was no attempt to match the
date of the fittings to the house, and a long corridor was lined with Greek and Roman sculpture.
All this seems like vandalism to us – admittedly many of the English fittings were being discarded, but one suspects that the foreign ones were in their original settings when sold. The strange mixture suited sophisticated late Victorian taste very well; Robinson was an extremely knowledgeably collector and visitors were impressed by Newton. William Hardy, who wrote the History of Swanage, is typical: ‘…furnished with costly and beautiful treasures…packed with choice pictures, antique furniture and carvings’. The furniture and carvings were also from many countries and included bits of the altar piece from Hammersmith Church, Portuguese cabinet and chairs, and lots of tapestries from the continent.
Robinson was creating an antiquarian hall, but parts of the old life were too much for him. He found that Newton had rights of turbary – the right to take turf for burning – on heathland, about three miles away. He started off by collecting and burning the turf. ‘Unfortunately, however, though there was an ancient and not unpleasant smell from the burning turf, there was also a great deal of pungent smoke, but very little heat.’ In short, turf burning was found to be ‘an antique custom better avoided’ and Robinson fitted a ‘hideous iron stove…ugly and incongruous’ but very warm.
Sir Charles Robinson died in 1913, having enjoyed Newton for forty years. The house and contents were sold in August the same year, and the lavish catalogue for the house makes it clear that the ‘valuable antique mantelpieces, oak panelling, rare carved doors, stone pillars and stone shields of arms’ at the entrance are included with the house in the sale. The estate agent, as ever, wanted to make the house seem suitable for everyone – the dining hall is ‘a noble, lofty, yet distinctly comfortable room’, which hardly fits in with the photographs. Despite all this puffing, the house itself failed to sell at the auction and only the land found purchasers. The map in the catalogue shows this land as an extraordinarily thin strip (only as wide as the house and garden) running south up over the hill and down to the sea more than a mile away.
The auctioneers had intended to hold the sale in the dining hall of the house, but there were so many potential purchasers that a spacious marquee was put up in the garden to house them. This interest was because of the furniture, sculptures etc – over 600 catalogues had been distributed. The prices were high, ‘surpassing those likely to have been obtained in London’, according to the local paper. The prices seem tiny to us today – the Venetian well-head (which had come from Brownsea) made £73, four matching Hepplewhite chairs £16, a 17th-century English bracket clock £21, etc.
The house became a school and in the 1970s was converted into several houses. The dining hall and a tiny cottage abutting it became one of them. Having been fascinated by the moody photograph of Sir Charles in the hall for years (and rather puzzled by it) I feared that alteration, especially inserting an upper floor, would have destroyed this very unusual room. I was wrong to fear change: the alterations are so well done that the lantern still lights the room (possibly without the spiders dropping) and terrific new door-cases add to the whole.
The main part of Newton Manor, still with many of Robinson’s fittings, and Newton Hall (the dining hall) are available for holidays and short breaks all year, and can be taken separately or together, sleeping up to 25 if both are taken – Google the name. Sir Charles Robinson would be rather surprised at people holidaying in his fine house, and amazed at being able to put its name through a computer search-engine and find it.
1 Dorset County Museum
4 English Country Cottages
5 English Country Cottages