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Knebworth House and Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Knebworth is known far and wide for huge open air concerts of the rock starts we all know and love. Since 1974 the grounds hosted Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Queen, the Beach Boys, Deep Purple, Eric Clapton, Elton John, to name but a few.

Knebworth House
Knebworth House

The history of the house, however, harbours some hidden jams and revelations.

Knebworth House came to be in end of the 15th century, when the Lytton family owned a Late Gothic mansion of red brick. During Victorian times it was first reduced to one wing, and then re-built in a Gothic Revival style in middle of the 19th century, during the time of the most famous member of the Lytton family –  writer, dramatist and politician Edward Bulwer Lytton (1803 –1873).

Henry William Pickersgill - National Portrait Gallery
Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Remembered now only by the most avid of Victorian historians, Bulwer Lytton was one of the most famous writers of this time.

He was born and grew up in London.  His father, Mr. Bulwer, was a Norfolk squire, –  it was his mother Elizabeth Barbara Lytton who came from the famous Knebworth family. A delicate and intelligent boy, Edward started reading early, and by the age of 10 was writing poetry. His literary career took off during his years at the Cambridge University, making him the most successful and widely read author in the 19th century.

Bulwer-Lytton’s novels cover historical fiction, mystery, romance, the occult, with a hint of science fiction. His plays enjoyed popularity in England and America, some being a basis of a couple of operas.

Among his friends were leading writers and politicians of the day, such as Dickens and Disraeli. 

Lytton’s legacy includes over 20 best-selling novels (including The Last Days of Pompeii), 9 plays, 15 volumes of poetry, translations of Horace and Schiller and several volumes of essays.

Vril
Bulwer Lytton’s mystic occult novel Vril, the Power of the Coming Race was the inspiration behind Bovril, the name for a meaty spread. In the novel, Vril is the mysterious energy, powering a superior race of people. Originally a beef extract (bos meaning ‘ox’ in Latin), current manufacturers Unilever have now made it vegetarian…

We may not remember Edward Bulwer-Lytton now, but every English speaking person knows at least a few of his quotations –

“The pen is mighter than the sword” comes from Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Richeliue; Or the Conspiracy (1839);

“The great unwashed” – from his 1830 novel Paul Clifford;

“Pursuit of the almighty dollar” from his novel The Coming Race;.

And the best known one – the opening of his novel Paul Clifford – “It was a dark and stormy night…”

Why have we forgotten Bulwer-Lytton’s literary legacy? The clue may lie in the over-embellished way of writing, which the Victorians loved, but we find difficult to get our brain around it, like in the paragraph that follows the famous catch phrase, which became a synonym for old-fashioned melodramatic writing –

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

I personally think that sentenced is rather beautiful, and it is not fair that Bulwer-Lytton’s name was given to a contest set up in 1982 by an American University, which gives the ‘best prize’ for the ‘worst writing’….

Edward Bulwer Lytton by George_Frederic_Watts
Edward Bulwer Lytton by George_Frederic_Watts

As well as being a very successful and prolific writer, Bulwer-Lytton was a member of Parliament – first as a Whig, and then, ten years later, as a Conservative – and he was not the last person to do so…

Edward married witty and beautiful Irish girl Rosina Doyle Wheeler. After a few happy years (and a couple of children) the marriage broke down. Rosina felt neglected due to Edward’s work load as a writer and politician. Edward got custody of the children. Rosina did not go quietly, – becoming a writer herself, she attacked Edward in books and in person, at his plays and at elections. Her memoir was entitled A Blighted Life, – Edward and the family were not pleased and even tried to commit her to a lunatic asylum. It was only in 1970s when her great-great-grandson hung her portrait at Knebworth House that the visitors can see today.

Rosina

Edward Bulwer-Lytton was buried in St.Edmund’s chapel in Westminster Abbey.

Church of St Mary and St Thomas
Church of St Mary and St Thomas near Knebworth House, a few Lyttons are buried in there

His son Robert Bulwer Lytton (1831-1891) wanted to become a writer too, but his father insisted that he becomes a diplomat. Robert had to do his writing on the side, while becoming a Viceroy of India and British Ambassador to France.

Robert Bulwer-Lytton

Knebworth House features a separate exhibition of Robert’s time in India. It was during his diplomatic watch there that Disraeli presented Queen Victoria with the grand title of Empress of India.

The wing housing the India exhibition
The wing housing the India exhibition

Robert’s son Victor married Pamela Plowden, a beautiful former love interest of Winston Churchill’s. Robert’s daughter Emily married architect Edwin Lutyens (who designed the Cenotaph in Whitehall, and British government buildings in New Delhi in India, as well as numerous country houses in England). He advised his brother-in-law on on extensive alterations to the house to reflect the new Edwardian era in the beginning of 20th century.

Knebworth House
Knebworth House

Lutyens’ associate, Arts and Crafts garden designer Gertrude Jekyll contributed a herb garden design in the shape of an interlaced quincunx – a pattern of five items, four of those arranged in a square and a fifth one in the middle, like in dice or playing cards. The current garden was planted in 1982.

 

The herb garden at Knebworth
The herb garden

 

A visit to Knebworth House is an enjoyable experience any time of the year, but particularly great when combined with a special event, like Jousting. 

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Ralph Vaughan Williams and Leith Hill Place

St. George being the Patrol Saint of England, his day, 23rd April is duly marked by Classic FM (our favourite radio station) as the day for English composers. They have played lots of them, most hardly known to the general public. Apart from a handful, who are famous internationally, and Ralph Vaughn Williams is one of them.

We visited Leith Hill Place, his childhood home.

Leith Hill Place, home of Ralph Vaughan Williams
Leith Hill Place, home of Ralph Vaughan Williams

Lying amidst Surrey hills, this modest house was built in 1600s and in mid 18th century acquired its classical Palladian look. A hundred years later it was bought by Josiah Wedgwood III, grandson of the Josiah Wedgwood of the famous pottery works. He retired from the family business to settle in this remote countryside home with his wife Caroline, who was the sister of Charles Darwin (the very same who gave us On the Origins of Species) – she was his cousin. Joe’s sister Emma married Charles Darwin. With the families so closely related, the Darwins were frequent visitors to Leith Hill Place, and the upper rooms of the house, on the 3rd floor, were reserved for Charles to work in when he came to stay.

Darwin's room
Darwin’s room

Currently those rooms feature a ‘soundscape’ – a series of audio recordings, telling the story of Vaughan Williams, as visitors move from room to room.

It was Caroline who organised the planting of the rhododendron forest in the grounds.

Joe and Caroline Wedgwood had three daughters. One of them, Margaret, married the Reverend Arthur Vaughan Williams. The young family lived in Gloucestershire, but after Arthur died in 1875, Margaret and her three young children came to live with her family in Leith Hill Place.

Leith Hill Place
Leith Hill Place

Her youngest son Ralph, born in 1872, began piano at the age of 5 with  his Auth Sophy, who also lived at the house. Having composed his first piece later on that year, he was not too keen on the piano, preferring the violin, which he began learning a year later. He was also fond of playing the small organ, which was installed in the entrance hall of the house – the servants having to pump it, which, apparently they did not enjoy much!

The organ is no longer there, instead, visitors can play the piano in the hall.

Ralph did grow to love the piano – one of the few original Vaughan Williams’ artifacts in Leith Hill Place is his piano, which he owned later in life when he lived in London, and composed most of his famous works on it, including The Lark Ascending.

Vaughan Williams' piano
Vaughan Williams’ piano

Ralph went to a boarding school and later on to Charterhouse School, where his musical talent was encouraged to develop further.

Coming home during the holidays, Ralph wondered through the park and picturesque Surrey countryside, developing a taste for folk songs and tunes that he heard in the local villages and inns.

View from a top window
View from a top window

In 1890 Ralph left Charterhouse School to study at the Royal College of Music and then at Trinity College, Cambridge, and this was the end of his connection with Leith Hill Place.

After the death of Ralph’s mother and aunts, and of his elder brother Harvey, Ralph inherited Leith Place and gave it to the National Trust in 1945. It was leased to other members of the Wedgwood family, and in later years was a boarding school.

In 2013 it was opened to the public as a Vaughan Williams museum, displaying only a few photographs and information boards, although the National Trust website says they are working on developing the museum further.

Leith Hill Place - waiting for a new futureLeith Hill Place – waiting for a new future

Ralph Vaughan Willams went on to become of the most influential English composers. He wrote concert pieces (like the famous Lark), songs, operas, ballets, chamber music and symphonies.

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Ralph Vaughan Williams

Alongside Cecil Sharp, he collected English folk songs, which were included into Cecil Sharp’s series Folk Songs of England. Vaughan Williams was President of the English Folk Song and Dance Society, their home, Cecil Sharp House, includes a library named in his honour – Vaughan Williams Memorial Library.

Vaughan Williams’ compositions are deeply rooted in English folk and Tudor music, and amongst his most famous works are Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910), and the London Symphony.

Vaughan Williams has been composing for over 50 years, only stopping when he went to the front during the First World War. He was in this 40s, and too old to be conscripted, but joined the medical core anyway, risking his life on the battlefields of France, and damaging his hearing, which was a cause of deafness for him at the end of his life.

Ralph has not forgotten his childhood home – and Leith Hill has not forgotten him – in 1905 Vaughan Williams helped Leith Hill Music Festival for amateur musicians, and was its principle conductor until 1953. The Festival is going strong, with a varied programme of events for 2017 – www.lhmf.org.uk

Vaughan Williams was composing until his death in his London home in 1958. His ashes are interred near the burials of Purcell and Stanford in the north choire aisle of Westminster Abbey.