The charm and beauty of Mapperton cast a spell over the visitor. John Newth has allowed himself to be bewitched.
Published in June ’14
In the view of Nikolaus Pevsner, ‘There can be hardly anywhere a more enchanting manorial group than Mapperton.’ Ralph Wightman called it simply ‘The loveliest manor house in Dorset’ – a large claim, but one which was more than borne out by Mapperton’s being chosen as ‘The Nation’s Finest Manor House’ in a Country Life competition sponsored by Savills in 2006. It is no one thing that makes Mapperton so special, but a happy combination of its setting above a lovely West Dorset valley, its magnificent gardens and a house with features from three centuries which sit comfortably together in what Lord David Cecil called ‘an unexpected and richer harmony’.
The Hall brings together most of the threads which interweave in the rich tapestry of Mapperton’s history. Behind the overmantel is an inscription seen and reported by Hutchins: ‘Robert Morgan and Mary his wife built this house in their own lifetime, at their own charge and cost. What they spent, that they lent; what they gave, that they have; what they left, that they lost.’ Robert Morgan was a descendant through marriage of the Brett family, who had held Mapperton since the reign of Edward I; the place is called ‘Bryttesmaperton’ in a document of 1423. He built the house in the mid-16th century near the site of an earlier, medieval building, using stone from Ham Hill, barely fifteen miles away. It was he who erected the distinctive twisted piers or finials, topped by heraldic beasts, which are such a feature of the exterior.
The manor descended by marriage again into the Brodrepp family and in the 17th century Richard Brodrepp installed the panelling in the Hall. He also remodelled the west front, which includes the main entrance to the house, and built the stable blocks which form a pleasing extension to the open square formed by the house and the church of All Saints. Just before his death, he re-built the nave of the church, which is first recorded in the
The most immediately striking feature in the Hall is the overmantel. In 1909, along with another now in the Library, it was brought from Melplash Court, which had belonged to the Brodrepps since the 1690s. By the time the overmantels were erected, though, Mapperton and Melplash had passed through the female line again, into the Compton family, and it was they who in 1919 sold Mapperton out of the family for the first time in six centuries. The new owner was Mrs Ethel Labouchere, the widow of a prominent banker, who installed the ceiling in the Hall. She was also responsible for the ceilings in the Entrance Hall (originally part of the Hall but separated by her), which includes her striking coat of arms, and in the adjacent Dining Room to complement its fine 18th-century panelling. Mapperton is renowned for its ceilings and these 20th-century works lose nothing by comparison with the more venerable examples elsewhere in the house. Mrs Labouchere also laid out the basics of the gardens, which have been so successfully developed by the present owners.
On Mrs Labouchere’s death in 1955, Mapperton was bought by Victor Montagu, Viscount Hinchingbrooke, who had inherited an estate based on nearby Hooke Court and who since 1941 had been MP for South Dorset. He was the heir to the Earl of Sandwich, and in the Hall are two portraits, one by Lely, of the 1st Earl, Edward Montagu. Despite having been a committed Parliamentarian during the Civil War and an MP during the Protectorate (latterly for Weymouth and Melcombe Regis), he commanded the fleet that brought Charles II back from Holland in 1660 and was awarded the earldom for his trouble. The portraits in the Hall of him, his wife and his brothers-in-law are from almost exactly the same period as the panelling. A cousin of Samuel Pepys, he remained in the Navy but in 1672 was killed at the battle of Sole Bay, off the Suffolk coast.
Victor Montagu was very much his own man and often discomfited the Conservative hierarchy, not least when, having inherited the earldom of Sandwich in 1962, he supported the anti-Common Market independent candidate in the resulting by-election in South Dorset, thereby splitting the vote and allowing the constituency to return a Labour MP for the first time. He renounced his title in 1964 in a vain attempt to win a Parliamentary seat on an anti-Common Market ticket. In the early 1980s it was appropriate for his son and heir, John, to move into Mapperton with his wife, Caroline, and their young family to help look after the house and the estate. John Montagu became the 11th Earl of Sandwich on his father’s death in 1995 and four years later achieved the distinction of being one of the ninety hereditary peers elected to remain in the House of Lords after it was reformed.
There was one owner of the house who left his mark on Mapperton but of whom there is little significant trace in the Hall. This was another Richard Brodrepp, who lived at Mapperton from 1739 to 1774 and classicised the north front, as well as creating a Staircase Hall with a rococo ceiling, elaborately decorated arch and elegant staircase, all the work of the Bastard Brothers of Blandford, who had re-built that town after the fire of 1731. The balustrade around the top of the west front dates from this period, too. It is an oddity that one or two of its balusters were put in upside down – was the builder having a little joke, or was he just in a hurry?
Of the house’s other significant rooms, the Drawing Room is perhaps the finest. There is a Joshua Reynolds portrait of the 4th Earl of Sandwich, perhaps the best-known of the Montagu ancestors. Although his career was conventional, he had a colourful private life, setting up a ménage with a singer, Martha Ray, after his wife became mentally ill. Martha’s portrait also hangs in the Drawing Room; she was shot by a jealous lover outside Covent Garden. The 4th Earl, initially a diplomat, became First Lord of the Admiralty and in that capacity sponsored one of Captain Cook’s voyages of discovery. His reward was to have the Sandwich Islands named after him, although within a hundred years, they were more often referred to by the name of the largest island, Hawaii. However, the 4th Earl’s most lasting claim to fame was that one night, not wanting to leave either his desk or the gaming tables – either version of the story seems equally plausible – he put a piece of meat between two slices of bread and so invented what has been rather unflatteringly called ‘Britain’s biggest contribution to gastronomy’.
The ceiling in the Drawing Room is the original Tudor one and shows a number of crests, including the Bretts’ lion and the Morgans’ fleur-de-lys. Upstairs in the Great Chamber is a remarkable 16th-century pendant ceiling, one of the best surviving examples anywhere in a domestic setting. The plasterwork carries Flemish designs, some of which are repeated in the overmantel of the nearby West Room. Now used as a bedroom, the Great Chamber may have been a withdrawing-room at the time when the Hall would have been almost a public room, with visitors in and out transacting estate business.
The present Earl says about owning a house like Mapperton: ‘You have to have a lot of energy and entrepreneurial flair, which wasn’t in either of our training or backgrounds: I worked in international development and Caroline was a business journalist. Every time you turn around, you see something that needs fixing, but you just have to be very patient and decide priorities. It helps to have a powerful, organised partner, which Caroline certainly is: she has been on the south-west committee of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the committee of the Historic Houses Association and various Saudi-British committees, and has been chairman of a housing association and of Dorset Gardens Trust.’
It is also Lady Sandwich who has taken the lead in developing the gardens so that they are now one of West Dorset’s leading attractions and regarded by horticulturists as seriously important. The revenue from visitors to the gardens is welcome, as is income from weddings, other events and films. The TV version of Tom Jones was filmed here – ‘They painted the Staircase Hall brown and the voice of Brian Blessed, who played Squire Western, could be heard down the gardens,’ remembers Lord Sandwich – and Mapperton is one of the locations for the re-make of Far from the Madding Crowd, starring Carey Mulligan and Michael Sheen, which is due for release this summer. If the film does its setting justice, it will give a wider audience the chance to experience Mapperton’s unique charm. ◗
❱ The house is open from 2.00 to 4.30 (last admission 4.00) from 7 July to 8 August on weekdays only and on Heritage Open Days, 11 and 12 September. Booking is advisable. Groups are admitted at other times by appointment only.
❱ The gardens are open from 11.00 to 5.00 from 1 March until 31 October, except Saturdays. For more information, visit www.mapperton.com