Visit to Mells and Kilmersdon, Somerset

Saturday 24 June 2006

In her book Lutyens and the Edwardians Jane Brown writes:
‘Throughout Lutyens’s career, especially at its most frenetic and frustrating periods, there seemed to be a leavening, soft and gracious, emanating as the mists along the Mendip valleys, wreathing out from Mells. Mells today is one of the places where the spirit of Lutyens’s particular Englishness lingers, not so much for what he built there as for the influence upon the pattern of his building, and the people he encountered there. The chatelaine of Mells, Frances Horner, a member of the Souls’ circle, always understood him and brought forth the best in him.’

Led by Gavin Chappell, under an English-blue sky, a group of members met at Ammerdown House, near Mells, for what proved to be the start of a ‘vintage’ day out. Built by James Wyatt for Thomas Joliffe in 1788, Ammerdown remains in the same family and we were taken on a most interesting tour by the current owner, the Hon. Andrew Joliffe.

In 1901, Lutyens was commissioned to plan a new garden on south-sloping ground, previously the site of a deer park. His answer was an Italianate garden, using tall, wide yew hedges to frame vistas and to create garden rooms. Family tradition has it that, while working on the commission, Lutyens also designed the alterations to the west front of the house, bringing out the first and second floors to a level flush with the ground floor.

After a stop at nearby Kilmersdon church where, along with two other family memorials, we viewed the Lutyens-designed lych gate of 1900 in memory of Baron Hylton, Andrew Joliffe’s ancestor, the group moved on to Mells Park House. There we were warmly welcomed and shown round by the owners, Mr. and Mrs. Samuels. At this point our dual interest in Lutyens ‘the man’ and in Lutyens ‘the architect’ diverged slightly because the first ‘non-Lutyens’ Mells Park House was burnt to the ground in 1917. The house was later rebuilt, to designs by Lutyens but it was, of course, to the old house that Lutyens was first summoned by Frances Horner in 1896 for what was to be one of the most important introductions of his career. Frances Horner, formerly Frances Graham, had been for almost twenty years, ‘muse’ of Sir Edward Burne-Jones and the inspiration for many of his later drawings and designs. When in 1880, Cyril Flower commissioned ‘The Golden Stairs’, it was Frances who was depicted at the foot of the stairs, leading a bevy of her contemporaries. Incidentally, Flower himself later became a client of Lutyens, employing him to work on his holiday house ‘The Pleasaunce’ at Overstrand. In 1900 Frances Horner, her husband and young family left Mells Park for the nearby and more manageable Manor House.

In 1924 Lutyens’s network of client families and their links presented him with a new commission when Pamela (niece of both Gertrude Jekyll and Frances Horner) and her banker husband, Reginald McKenna acquired the burnt-out shell of Mells Park and asked him to design a small, well-proportioned, classical villa which reminded some members of Gledstone Hall in Yorkshire.

After an excellent lunch at the Talbot Inn in Mells, members walked across to the Manor where Lord Oxford – himself holding impeccable links with the Souls circle, being grandson not only of Frances Horner but also of Margot Asquith, another of those depicted on ‘The Golden Stairs’ – met us and showed us round his fascinating and lovely home and garden. While apparently having undertaken relatively little work on the house other than a single storey music room, Lutyens did help with the alterations and layout of the garden. However, it was to this happy house that he came to stay on many occasions and it was the people he met here, and their friends and connections, who provided so many of his clients in those sunlit Somerset years before the Great War…. Sunlit years which destiny had decreed were not to go on forever.

In 1908, Mark, one of the Horner boys died of scarlet fever and, as a permanent reminder of the family’s loss, it was decided to offer clean water to Mells village from the Manor’s own supply. Lutyens was asked to design two well heads one of which may now have been altered to become the attractive village shelter at Little Green.

Eight years later, Raymond Asquith, husband of Mark’s sister, Kathleen and eldest son of the Rt.Hon. Herbert Asquith (Prime Minister 1908-1916) was killed in action on the Somme. The following year on 21st November 1917, Kathleen’s brother, Edward Horner, last male heir of the Horner family, was killed at the Battle of Cambrai. A gate in the garden wall leads through to the church where inside, beneath the tower, we viewed Raymond’s memorial, a Lutyens-designed bronze wreath with lettering by Eric Gill. In the Lady Chapel is the moving memorial to Edward Horner consisting of a plinth, designed by Lutyens, on top of which stands a bronze statue of Horner on his charger by Sir Alfred Munnings.

And when it was all over, it was again Lutyens who was asked to design the village War Memorial. As the decades went by the Horners and the McKennas were each laid to rest in the village churchyard, each with a tomb or a headstone designed by Lutyens.

John Entwisle