Tag Archives: Tyntesfield

Remembering Captain Eustace Lyle Gibbs at Tyntesfield

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Eustace Lyle Gibbs, born March 10, 1885, was the second youngest son of Antony Gibbs. He was educated at Eton and Magdalen College, Oxford. Then, as expected of him, he joined the family shipping business.

Eustace was already a member of the North Somerset Yeomanry.  When World War I broke out on July 28, 1914, he was among the first British troops sent to France. Wealth and rank did not exempt men from serving; in fact, those of high rank mostly felt even more obligation to fight than those less fortunate. They generally entered the war as officers.

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Eustace had a short home leave in December 1914. While visiting his family at their beautiful Victorian country house, Tyntesfield, he gave an interview to the Western Daily Press. Asked how people at home could help soldiers at the front, he said the troops always needed gloves and socks.  And they really missed chocolate. When he returned to the front, he brought donations of these items with him, and handed them out to the men of his “B” Company, British Expeditionary Force.

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During his leave, Eustace no doubt spent time in the Billiard Room at Tyntesfield, a wonderfully masculine space designed for the men in the family. Eustace would never see his home again.

Eustace died on February 11, 1915 of wounds received fighting near Ypres. He was 29 years old. His portrait was painted in 1916 from a photograph of him in his uniform. The artist was Albert Henry Collings.

Ceramic poppies fill the Tower of London moat

1915 was the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War. I wrote about the spectacular display of close to a million ceramic poppies in honor of fallen British soldiers at the Tower of London. The The photo above is from The Guardian at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/sep/01/tower-of-londons-ww1-remembrance-installation-share-your-photos-and-videos. The post is at https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/09/26/remembrance-of-wars-past/.

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That post also remembers another aristocratic young man who gave his life for his country, Edward Wyndham Tennant.  He died at age 19 in the Battle of the Somme, 1916. On the plaque above his marble relief portrait, a fellow soldier describes the young man’s leadership:  “When things were at their worst he would go up and down in the trenches cheering the men; when danger was greatest his smile was loveliest.” His grieving parents commissioned the touching memorial to him in Salisbury Cathedral.

Fighting in the Great War ended “at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918.  Virtually every town and village in Britain (and also in other countries like France) lost young men to the carnage of the First World War. About 20 million people lost their lives. On Armistice Day, in England and in other places, there are ceremonies honoring the fallen.

Americans actively entered the war in its last few months, after supporting the Allied side indirectly. No one knows exact numbers, but about 110,000 Americans lost their lives in the fighting. In the United States, November 11 is Veterans’ Day, when all who have served their country in the military are honored. Today, women serve as often as men do. And as in times past, whole families and communities feel the effects of loved ones marching off to serve. We need to salute them all.

The Chapel at Tyntesfield

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The chapel at Tyntesfield is a spectacularly beautiful reimagining of a French medieval church, Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Tyntesfield is a Victorian neo-Gothic mansion built by the devout Gibbs family, commoners who rose to great wealth through banking, shipping, and bat and bird manure (more on that later).

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The chapel was the last big building project on the property, just outside Bristol, but it was in many ways the one most important to William Gibbs. It is also the first part of the house that the visitor sees on the walk from the parking lot and National Trust visitor center.  It’s a stunning first impression. Arthur Blomfield was the architect and builder.

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When the Gibbs family lived in their Victorian Gothic Revival mansion, the family, guests and servants alike attended prayers twice daily–first in the grand hall, and later in the chapel when it was finished. Beginning around 1842, William Gibbs made his fortune from a simple idea that grew and grew: he imported guano, the droppings of sea birds and bats, from Peru to North America.  Guano was highly prized as a fertilizer. William Gibbs became the richest non-aristocratic man in England. Tyntesfield had 106 total rooms, with 26 main bedrooms plus more rooms for the many servants. The square footage is about 40,000. And this was only their country home.  Most of the time they lived elsewhere, in equally grand digs.

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Naturally, people were envious of Gibbs’s success. An indelicate ditty in London ran, “Mr. Gibbs made his dibs, Selling the turds of foreign birds.” Actually, the selling of fertilizer led inexorably to profiting from the slave trade, a fact which the Gibbs family preferred not to dwell on.  Their shipping business, over time, became a part of the Triangular Trade that caused so much human misery. Ships constantly transported material goods and slaves between Europe, the Americas, and Africa.

Triangular Trade, Creative Commons GNU Free Documentation License

Triangular Trade, Creative Commons GNU Free Documentation License

The Gibbs family donated large amounts of their fortune to various charitable causes, and generously supported churches all over England. Naturally, they wanted their own church.  The chapel was built between 1872 and 1879, to a design by Arthur Bloomfield.

Sainte-Chapelle, interior, image from The Guardian article cited below

Sainte-Chapelle, interior, image from The Guardian article cited below

The inspiration was Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, pictured above. Sainte-Chapelle was built by the devout Louis IV in the 1240s. (He later became St. Louis, giving his name to the American city later still).

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The stained glass at Tyntesfield is beautiful, if not as spectacular as the newly-restored glass at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

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The stonework is lovely and evocative.

Portrait of William Gibbs by Eugene Deveria, circa 1850, Public Domain

Portrait of William Gibbs by Eugene Deveria, circa 1850, Public Domain

WIlliam Gibbs intended to follow the example of aristocratic families and create a family burial vault underneath the chapel for future generations. The vault exists, but it is empty. The Bishop of Bath and Wells, under pressure from local churches, refused to consecrate the chapel. The stated reason was that allowing a consecrated chapel on the grounds of Tyntesfield would detract from local churches. I can’t help thinking that “the powers that be” were also reluctant to upset the social applecart by allowing a family of common birth to put on airs. (Eventually, George Abraham Gibbs was “created” 1st Baron Wraxall in 1928, but family fortunes were already declining by that time).

The chapel at Tyntesfield is the last stop for visitors touring the beautiful mansion. It’s a lovely, light-filled, quiet place to contemplate history. William Gibbs was buried elsewhere, but a cross and inscription from the book of Proverbs memorialize his life: “The hoary head is a crown of glory, if it is found in the way of righteousness.” William Gibbs did his best to be both a businessman and a righteous man.  Early in his career, he and his brother Henry worked hard to completely repay the debts that earlier family members had run up.  The family business had gone bankrupt, and there was no obligation to pay. But they did anyway, every penny. It also appears that William Gibbs did his best to remove his shipping business from the slave trade once the terrible abuses were known.

I previously wrote about Tyntesfield and the Gibbs family at https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2014/10/22/high-victorian…at-tyntesfield/

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2013/06/19/tyntesfield-vi…lendor-rescued/

https://castlesandcoffeehouses.com/2013/06/18/mr-gibbs-made-his-dibs/

An article about the restoration of St. Chapelle in Paris is at http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/20/sainte-chapelle-paris-stained-glass-window-restoration-completed

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

High Victorian Splendor at Tyntesfield

 

TyntFlowersOn my last trip to England, I made my second visit to Tyntesfield, the glorious Victorian country home rescued by the National Trust of Great Britain in 2002.  My first visit was just a couple of years after it opened to the public.  It is now one of my very favorite National Trust properties in all of Great Britain.

Succeeding generations of the Gibbs family lived in it since it was built.  As the family declined in numbers and in fortune, they simply closed up areas and lived in smaller and smaller parts of the mansion. The result is a time capsule. Tyntesfield and its entire contents were on the market by Sotheby’s when the National Trust managed to purchase it lock, stock and barrel. All the contents had already been tagged for separate auction.

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National Trust Curators have carefully catalogued, cleaned and replaced thousands of items into their original places in the gorgeous home.  They’ve left a few rooms as they found them with groups of housewares and furniture tagged and ready for the auction block.

By the time the 2nd Lord Wraxall, known as Richard, died in 2001, he was the only person living in the house.  The house had been hit by bombs several times during the Bristol Blitz of World War II, and had never been properly repaired. Birds and bats took up residence in whole wings of the house. Tyntesfield was the last High Victorian house available for purchase in all of England.

The market value was about 20 million pounds, or  about $31 million. In addition, double or triple the purchase amount was needed for repairs. Various gazillionaires were interested. (The press reported that Madonna, Kylie Minogue, and Andrew Lloyd Webber were looking).  But the National Trust of Britain, one of the two main preservation societies, managed to raise the purchase money within a period of 50 days.  (Controversy arose when a semi-secret deal with the National Lottery provided some of the money for this project that many considered “elitist”). The Trust took possession in July of 2002. This was the first new acquisition by the National Trust in many years, and the largest in its history.  Today, over 800 paid and volunteer staff work on the estate, 3 times the number at any other National Trust property.

Dining Room

Dining Room

Tyntesfield is a breathtakingly beautiful place to spend a day.

Entry Hall

Entry Hall

It is also a unique window into the glory days of the British Empire, when a businessman with no aristocratic background could amass a huge fortune and build a home to rival many royal palaces. I’ll be writing about how the Gibbs family managed to amass such a fortune.  The large family gathered with their servants for prayers twice a day, had their own private chapel, and funded churches and charities all over England.  However, their business and shipping interests were very likely tied up with the slave trade, a fact which must have caused this generous and devout family some feelings of remorse even as they spent their money.

 

Why I Love England

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England is a nation of gardeners.  The flower beds above are at glorious Tyntesfield, a Victorian property rescued by the National Trust about 12 years ago.  Thanks to the Trust, it’s open to everyone.

Castles and cottages alike have lovingly tended flower beds everywhere.  The steady, temperate climate must have something to do with it, but it also takes people who have loved and cared for their land for generations.

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An old garden wall is as beautiful as the garden it shelters.

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A British dog knows its place in the world. This Westie is a connoisseur of cultural sights and also of scones with clotted cream and jam.

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Topiaries?  The British are masters.  Nothing is too much trouble. This topiary looked at first like a dental chair, but I’m pretty sure it’s a peacock.

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English is my native language, so there’s no struggle to understand what I’m hearing or reading. I can read all the signs, and the signs tend to be friendly.  This one, at Tyntesfield, invites me: “Have a sit down!” Thank you.  I don’t mind if I do!

 

 

A Vigorous Voice from the Past

I hurried to visit Tyntesfield within a year or two of its opening to the public.  The house was only partially open, and work was going on all over the estate.  During my visit, I stood with a tour group in the Billiard Room, admiring the vaulted ceiling and the light from the high windows.  The billiard table, custom-made for the family, connected to an electronic scoreboard.  Pressing a button on the side of the table recorded the score–quite an innovation, for Victorian times.

William Gibbs was 75 when his dream home was completed, and he had four sons.  Three of them were still teenagers, so presumably the room was built and furnished for them.  It was not, however, a smoking room–Mr. Gibbs allowed only smoking in the very highest room of the house, a tower on the third floor.  (I’m sure the teenagers found ways around the various house rules–they always do).

We had all just looked at a rather ornate urinal in an adjoining room–another modern innovation. The guide was talking about how the room was built for and used by men.  Suddenly an elderly lady in the back of the group thumped her cane on the floor and interrupted the guide.  She was a family member and had spent a good deal of time in the house.  One of the 19 heirs!  (I hoped she had collected a cool million and not blown it all at the casino).  She proceeded to set us all straight.  Did women use the billiard room?  Yes, they did!  Trust me, you would not have argued with her.

The lady went on with a story about the bats that had infested the former men’s servants quarters nearby.  Later, I read that the colony of protected lesser horseshoe bats had to given another suitable home on the estate before restoration could begin in those rooms.

The tour guide wisely let the lady keep talking.  I’d have listened to her all day.  At the time, I didn’t know about the Great Kidnapping Incident, or I’d have asked her about it for sure.  In 1988, the late Lord Wraxall had been kidnapped at his home. The ruffians knocked him to the ground and demanded his house keys and the combination to his safe.  But the burglar alarm went off–I don’t know whether he was inside or outside the house at the time.  So they threw him into the boot (the trunk, to Americans) of his own car, which they drove about 2 miles away and abandoned.  He was left there for 7 hours until someone found him. According to some reports, all he had to say was, “Good grief, there’s more room in there than I ever thought.”

The National Trust is going to great lengths to collect stories about life in the house.  There is an interactive website where people can contribute their own memories.  It is at http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/history/stories/. Personal stories are placed in a timeline. Family, servants and friends have contributed their memories.

Recently, the house has been featured on the wildly popular BBC TV series Dr. Who–very appropriately, since Dr. Who is a Time Lord.  Not only can he travel through time, but he is able to regenerate his body in a different form when near death–very handy for showrunners who have to cope with new actors taking over the part.

At Tyntesfield, and at many other National Trust Properties, enchanting doorways continue to lead us into the past, carefully preserved for future generations.

Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Tyntesfield: Victorian Splendor Rescued

Just outside Bristol, and not far from Bath, stands one of the most beautiful country homes in England. It has only been open to the public since 2002, when the National Trust acquired it.  I visited a couple of years after the opening and can’t wait to return.

By the time the 2nd Lord Wraxall, known as Richard, died in 2001, he was the only person living in the house.  The house had been hit by bombs several times during the Bristol Blitz of World War II, and had never been properly repaired. Birds and bats took up residence in whole wings of the house. Lord Wraxall had maintained the house as best he could, but over the years the four generations of the family had simply closed off areas not in use.  So the house contained a treasure trove of historical belongings. For example, there were packages of shirts dating from the last century, still in their original wrappers as they came new from the shop.  And Tyntesfield was the last High Victorian house available for purchase in all of England.

Lord Wraxall’s will specified that the house be sold and the proceeds divided among 19 heirs.  The market value was about 20 million pounds, or  about $31 million. In addition, double or triple the purchase amount was needed for repairs. Sotheby’s took charge and began cataloging the house’s contents for auction.

Various gazillionaires were interested. (The press reported that Madonna, Kylie Minogue, and Andrew Lloyd Webber were looking).  But the National Trust of Britain, one of the two main preservation societies, managed to raise the purchase money within a period of 50 days.  (Controversy arose when a semi-secret deal with the National Lottery provided some of the money for this project that many considered “elitist”). The Trust took possession in July of 2002. This was the first new acquisition by the National Trust in many years, and the largest in its history.  Today, over 800 paid and volunteer staff work on the estate, 3 times the number at any other National Trust property. First order of business was repairing the roof. A free-standing scaffold the size of 10 tennis courts covered the entire structure for 18 months.  Then the entire house had to be re-wired and re-plumbed.  An elaborate fire protection system was installed. One by one, rooms were cleaned, restored and the furniture carefully arranged, using historic photos and descriptions.

In the meantime, visitors were welcomed.  The Trust had determined that the more people were able to see of the property, the more they wanted to donate and volunteer. Instead of the usual years of construction followed by a great unveiling, the renovation has proceeded with the enthusiastic participation of legions of volunteers.  The renovation itself is a great educational project, unprecedented in National Trust history. Elitist?  Not today.  The estate buzzes with the activity of volunteers, workers, school groups and tourists eager to bask in a lost way of life. I’m writing a number of posts about Tyntesfield because it’s such a fine example of the work of the National Trust. We can learn so many lessons from the ups and downs of a house’s history.  Good or bad, the events of the past help us figure out how to live in the future. I notice that the National Trust has now published a book all about Gibbs family history, Fertile Fortune: The Story of Tyntesfield, by James Miller, National Trust Books, 2006.  If I don’t acquire the book beforehand, I’m sure that on my next visit I’ll walk out of the gift shop with a copy. Join me next time for more explorations into the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Tyntesfield: Mr. Gibbs Made His Dibs

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William Gibbs’s son Antony did not take over the family business as expected.  The story went that William would not allow it, after he observed that the boy could not add four columns of figures simultaneously (I wonder how many of us would pass that test?)  I doubt Antony was disappointed.  He managed the Tyntesfield estates and charities, became an accomplished carver of ivory, and puttered with inventions such as a bicycle which supposedly stored energy going downhill and used it when going uphill. It didn’t work, though.

Instead, William’s nephew Henry Hucks Gibbs took over the company.  Henry was elevated to the peerage, becoming Baron Aldenham in 1896.  (What exactly is the peerage, anyway?  A subject for another post).  Henry also became Governor of the Bank of England, earning him the popular jingle which forever followed the Gibbs family: “Mr. Gibbs made his dibs, Selling the turds of foreign birds.” Not very elegant, but it certainly told the story. And he must have laughed all the way to the bank.

The little ditty no doubt followed George Abraham Gibbs, a war hero who moved in higher social circles than his humbler ancestors.

George became 1st Lord Wraxall and Treasurer of the Royal Household–an example of the new commercial and industrial wealth overtaking older titled families.

The 2nd Lord Wraxall, known as Richard, inherited the title at the age of 3.  His mother, Ursula, Lady Wraxall, presided at Tyntesfield until she died in 1979.  She received an OBE for her services to the war effort. During World War II, the house became a medical distribution center, with the books in the library replaced by bandages. It was also a convalescent home for American soldiers, who stage reunions there to this day.

When he came of age, the 2nd Lord Wraxall (Richard) served with the Coldstream Guards, then took over management of the estate. He maintained the house and grounds as they were, not following the lead of so many great homes in getting rid of Victorian furniture and features as they became unfashionable. He never married, and ended up living alone in the house with most of the rooms closed. When he died unexpectedly in 2001, the place was a treasure trove of Victorian items from the past 150 years.

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Join me next time when I consider the very challenging acquisition of the house by the National Trust.  It’s one of the chapters in the fascinating story of the history and art of the British Isles.