The History of Greys Court by Jo Manning – Part Two

The early 18th century wing of the house has splendid, detailed plasterwork dated from 1760; the kitchen, modernized to the mid-20th century, is spacious and cheerful. One can imagine the last owner, Lady Brunner, whipping up trifle and Yorkshire puds. There is nothing at all pretentious about it.

The house is situated in the western part of the de Greys’ medieval courtyard, facing the Great Tower — built and crenellated so long ago by John de Grey upon his return from war in France.  The 12th-century, the 14th, Tudor, Elizabethan, and Jacobean times, sit side by side, an abundant and unique richness for the eye.

copyright Peter Goodearl

I like this photo because it shows the 14th century Great Tower, the 16th century (Jacobean) house, and the bits of old stone (the lighter colored ones) from the medieval walls used in the construction of the newer house

In 1937, Sir Felix and the afore-mentioned Lady Brunner brought Greys Court, creating the many contemporary fine gardens and walks and bringing a very different kind of lifestyle to the Medieval/Jacobean history of Greys Court and its environs.  For a very brief period, the property had been held by Lady Evelyn Fleming, mother of the travel writer Peter Fleming and his perhaps more famous brother Ian, author of the James Bond spy novels. Lady Fleming’s tenure was marked by “improvements” to the property that were quickly reversed by the new owners, the Brunners, whose taste – thank goodness! — was quite different.  The family that was to make Greys Court its home for over 65 years was not from an ancient and titled background, but rather a newer Victorian-created title…and the theatrical world. Thus began a whole new chapter in the fabulous history of Greys Court.

Elizabeth, Lady Brunner (see her obituary, January 28th, 2003, in The Telegraph  was born Dorothea Elizabeth Irving, the daughter of H.B. Irving and Dorothea Baird, both of whom were actors.  (Her mother created the parts of Trilby in George du Maurier’s play of that name, and Mrs. Darling in Peter Pan.) Her grandfather was the famous actor-manager Sir Henry Irving, whose original family name was Brodribb. It was no surprise when she, too, trod the boards, making her stage debut at the age of 12.  Her credits as an adult were to include Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in Trilby, like her mother, and a role in a silent film version of Charlotte Bronte’s novel, Shirley.

She married Sir Felix Brunner, a baronet, in 1926 and gave up her acting career.  Her husband’s family was of Swiss descent; his great-great grandfather, a Protestant minister, had emigrated to Liverpool in 1832.  Sir Felix and Lady Brunner had five sons, who grew up at Greys Court.  The family donated the property to the National Trust in 1969 and the elder Brunners lived there for the rest of their lives.  As I said above, it is homey, not luxurious, and although filled with wonderful theatrical memorabilia (including a cast of Sir Henry Irving’s hands) and an extensive library of novels and plays amongst other volumes, one can imagine a young and growing family living there. The bedrooms and bathrooms are rather modest.
A fey touch is a wooden statue in honor of the Brunners’ head gardener that is quite amazing to venture upon!  There is nothing the least bit stuffy about Greys Court, which is probably why, on the day we went, there were so many young families milling about.  And, yes, the Tea Room is lovely, and the giftshop is full of plants, seeds, garden implements and other items for the garden, as befits the nature of Greys Court.

A brief postscript to our visit….

We stopped at Henley-upon-Thames before continuing to Greys Court, where we bought a stuffed toy at Asquith’s at 2-4 New Street for my youngest grandchild, 5-year-old Lily.  Click here to see this charming shop for yourselves.  She chose – amongst hundreds of teddy bears! – a sweet and rather realistic looking hare. Now, note the sign below about Red Kites:

They are very much in evidence at Greys Court, these handsome once-extinct-in-England birds of prey, circling, in particular, the area above the car park where visitors go to have their picnics.  We suddenly noticed that one bird seemed to be swooping lower and lower, its beady eyes on the little hare from Asquith’s!  Hurriedly, not wanting the hare to become kite food, we stuffed it into the picnic hamper, and not a minute too soon J It would have been rather a sight, and not at all a happy one, for Lily to see her hare picked up for lunch! (It was quite a realistic-looking little hare!)
For opening times at Greys Court, et cetera, click here.

The History of Greys Court by Jo Manning

On my latest visit to London this past spring, my daughter suggested that we go to Greys Court, a National Trust house she’d been curious about but had never visited.  The original buildings on the site dated from before the 12th-century and there was a famous garden; it was in the foothills of the Chilterns, outside of Henley-on-Thames (where I’d never been) and we could explore that town as well.  We’d picnic on the extensive grassy grounds overlooking the house and have tea later in the Tea Room located in the Cromwellian Stables.
(Yes, I know, looking at the photo above – that is certainly not a medieval building! – but the rest of the surrounding buildings – erected over at least 600 years — are decidedly from the early medieval period and these very well evoke for the visitor those days of yore.)
This site is mentioned in the 11th century Domesday Book as Redrefield (Rotherfield). The owners were the de Grey family, barons who fought with their kings at Crecy, Bosworth, in the Scottish wars, and in the Hundred Years War with France.  The most famous of the de Greys was John de Grey, a professional soldier who became one of the original Knights of the Garter. After the Battle of Crecy 1346 he was given a license to crenellate Rotherfield, i.e., fortifying it by providing the walls with battlements.
Upon the death of his grand-daughter, Alice, in 1455, the lands passed to the crown. Henry VII awarded it first to his uncle, Jasper Tudor, then, in 1514, Robert Knollys received the property “for the annual rent of a Red Rose at Midsummer”.  Robert Knollys’ son, Francis Knollys, a good friend of King Henry VIII, became the next owner of these lands. (His wife was first cousin to Queen Elizabeth I through her mother’s family, the Boleyns.)
A view from the Knot Garden up to the Great Tower
Francis Knollys was a firm and committed Protestant and a lifelong confidante to his queen. He was treasurer of the royal household for almost 25 years and also oversaw Mary, Queen of Scots, in her captivity.  He died in 1596.The tombs of the Knollys family are alongside those of the de Greys in Rotherfield Greys Church.
Greys Court c1600 copyright National Trust

Francis Knollys was responsible for the original structure that is the present house, which is basically a handsome Jacobean structure; some additions to the house were carried on by his son, William, who became Earl of Banbury in 1626.  (One of the delightful Tudor additions is a donkey wheelhouse with a 200 foot well! Odds are that this is something few visitors – and I include myself – have never seen the likes of before J It’s amazing.)
After being passed on to several other members of the Knollys family, it was sold to William Paul, whose daughter married the Baronet William Stapleton in 1724.  Greys Court remained in the Stapleton family for over 200 years before being sold in 1935.
Under the ownership of the Stapletons, the property was made up of some 8,000 acres of woodland, parkland, and farmland.  They incorporated stone from the several medieval buildings on site to further enlarge the house, but today the entire estate comprises only 300 acres, a far cry from the original expansive holdings.

Those marvelous wisteria trellises, with bluebells beneath

What sets Greys Court apart from other stately homes is that it is not a very large house.  It strikes one as a house in which one could live an almost-normal family life.  It is homey, and the gardens add much to its charm, set as they are amongst medieval ruins such as the Great Tower and the picturesque crumbling walls.

The gardens are rife with rambling, oh-so-fragrant old-fashioned roses and those old walls are draped with wisteria. (The wisteria is also trained over a stunning number of trellises, making quite a beautiful sight.) There’s a clean, clear pond nestled near the Great Tower in which all sorts of tiny swimming wildlife like newts and tadpoles can be seen and enjoyed. Children particularly enjoy the tower and the pond and threading their way through a modern garden maze (commissioned in 1981 in honor of Archbishop Runcie), and under the wisteria trellises. There’s a 19th century icehouse and the faint foundations of medieval gatehouses and other long-gone walls can be seen traced on the earth.

Part Two tomorrow!

A Visit to Postman's Park by Guest Blogger Jo Manning

Postman’s Park today, showing the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice
aka The Wall of Heroes under the thatched awning.

I first heard about Postman’s Park from my friend and colleague Hester Davenport, the biographer of Fanny Burney and Mary Robinson. She suggested it as someplace different and educational to take my London grandchildren. And, different, it truly is.
This tiny park, a blot of fastidiously landscaped green, elevated above the surrounding streets and tucked out of the way behind high buildings, is named for the site of the former General Post Office. Though only a few streets from St. Paul’s Cathedral, getting there is not so easily accomplished; it behooves one to refer to a map.
Starting at St. Paul’s, orient yourselves with this map showing the cross streets…
As can be seen from this map, it was the site of several former burial grounds connected to a number of churches. In 1898, however, this quiet spot was incorporated as a park, becoming a place for “postmen,” i.e., postal office employees, to take breaks and to eat their lunches.
In 1900, the painter George Frederic Watts selected the location to become a memorial to the altruistic among us, the ordinary, average people who died giving their lives for others. He would name this the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, or the Wall of Heroes. These heroes were individuals who would otherwise never have been remembered, their deaths never commemorated; they were ordinary people, not famous. Watts was a celebrated artist of the Victorian period, a painter, portraitist, and sculptor often called the last great Victorian artist. In fact, the most recent biography of Watts, by Veronica Franklin Gould (who’s also working on a biography of his second wife Mary Seton Watts), has this very same title.

The cover painting is from a self-portrait…
Over and above his artistic talent – often described as “titanic” — he was an active and zealous advocate of social change who believed art could promote such change and make life better for all. From a working class family himself, he was interested in the elevation and recognition of the often-unheralded common man.

Another view of the Wall of Heroes

To celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria, he wrote a letter in 1887 to The Times proposing “to record the names of these likely to be forgotten heroes.” He felt it would “make London richer by a work that is beautiful, and our nation richer by a record that is infinitely honourable.” He concluded, “The material prosperity of a nation is not an abiding possession; the deeds of its people are.”

A place for quiet contemplation at the end of the day…

Watts was serious and persistent in pursuing his concept of recording the stories of heroes in everyday life. He envisioned a kind of covered walkway against a marble wall that would be inscribed with the names of these people. His first idea was to build it in Hyde Park, but that didn’t work out. He began to spend a great deal of his time – and even considered selling his homes and other properties– to finance this project.

This says it all…in Watts’s own words and those of the Apostle John…put up by his widow…

One of the first: the brave young girl Alice Ayres’s memorial tablet, designed by William De Morgan and installed in 1902.

Postman’s Park in the City of London area known as Little Britain became home to Watts’s concept. He visualized and began to design a wall that would be set with ornate ceramic tablets dedicated to the memory of men, women, and children who’d given their lives for others. It evolved into kind of a loggia overhung with a thatched awning; 120 memorial tablets would be set into this protected wall. The tiles were commissioned from the prominent and renowned ceramicist William De Morgan.

This shows the arrangement of the older and newer tiles set together on the Wall…

Although it could easily be interpreted as yet another example of cloying and excessive Victorian sentimentality, the Memorial works because it is so much more than mere sentimentality. It is a very real and moving place. Who among us could remain unmoved whilst reading these solemn tiles?

Sadly unable to save himself…Leigh Pitt’s memorial is the latest to be added. You can read a full article on the service here.
This wall of tiles certainly moved my grandchildren, one of whom – the eldest — walked it once, carefully reading the memorial tiles, and then walked it again, paying even closer attention to the text. Another grandchild, though, chastised me, saying it was too sad, and why had I taken them there? The stories of these deeds made her cry. Well, they made me cry, too.

Aged just 12, he could not abandon his drowning friend…
They are really heartbreaking. The plight of these Victorian children and young adults, for most of them are very young… Trampled by horses, drowned, burned to death…not pretty. But that there are those who would put their lives at great risk to attempt to save others…well, that was…heartwarming…though immeasurably, heartbreakingly sad.

Trying to save a child from a runaway horse, she died of injuries received…
It does give one faith, does it not, in the goodness of others, to know that there are those individuals who give not a thought for themselves when the lives of others are at risk? In this country, in the last century, I am reminded of the 9/11 first responders, many of whom died (or have suffered life-threatening illnesses) in their selfless efforts to save their fellow man. It is extremely touching, this notion of self-sacrifice. How many of us would do this?

A Stranger AND A Foreigner! This one made us pause…what a statement!
When the park was opened, only four of the projected 120 tiles in place; a further nine were added during G.F. Watts’s lifetime. Mary Seton Watts oversaw the installation of thirty-five more tablets after Watts’s death in 1904, but as the building of the Watts Gallery and Chapel in Compton began to take more and more of her time, she lost interest in managing the project. (It was further complicated by a falling-out with the new tile manufacturer she’d engaged.)
A mere five more tiles were added during her lifetime – she died in 1938 – and the last tile in seventy-eight years was only added in 2009, by the Diocese of London. (See the end of this article for more about the Watts Gallery.)

Another drowning…
After this sobering look at Victorian self-sacrifice, we celebrated death with a greater appreciation for life. My grand-daughter Zoe jumped at least 2 ½ feet over a stone tablet; we all ate –and enjoyed — ice cream cones. Life, thank goodness, goes on and children play.

My exuberant grand-daughter letting off some steam after going through the Wall twice…

Here we are walking through Postman’s Park eating ice cream cones; the overcast day threatened rain, quite in keeping with the subdued nature of this unusual site…
George Frederic Watts died in 1904, not having fully realized his dream of the wall in Postman’s Park. There were spaces for more tiles, but he was now into his late 80s, not at all well, and it had become more expensive to carry on the work. Though he’d maintained a file of unused clippings on other individuals whom he felt deserved a place on the wall, when he passed away at the age of 87, leaving his widow in charge, the impetus to continue the project faded away.

I saved him but I could not save myself…
It’s remarkable, however, that we have what we do have at Postman’s Park. It’s a lasting legacy to a great man who wanted to celebrate the goodness of the common man, woman, and child in a beautiful and unforgettable way. The Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice was Grade II listed in 1972, to better preserve it for posterity.

George Frederic Watts, Victorian artist, social philosopher, at work…
Those of you who are particularly astute might recognize some scenes from a movie of a few years back, Closer, based on a play by Patrick Marber, which take place in Postman’s Park. Key scenes between two of the characters – played by Natalie Portman and Jude Law — took place here, generating a new interest in the site as a result. The full name of the enigmatic Natalie Portman character, the young stripper Alice — Anna Friel had the role in the stage production – was, by the way, Alice Ayres. Alice the stripper took her name from the tile in the park, the name of the brave girl who lost her life saving three children from a burning building.

Before the play and the film, most Londoners had never heard of Postman’s Park. But, the day we were there, it was fairly well populated by people sitting on the benches who appeared to be locals, and two tour groups came by, one group on bikes who hailed from Denmark. The word has obviously gotten around!

Portrait of Mary Seton Watts by her husband George Frederic Watts; she was his second wife. His first wife was the actress Ellen Terry, who was married to him for only one year when she was 16 and he was 47. (The marriage was dissolved.) Mary Watts, who married G.F. when he was 69 and she was 36, outlived him by 34 years…

First wife Ellen Terry… G.F. Watts’s portrait of her is named Choosing
Although a bit off the beaten path for tourists and locals, Postman’s Park is well worth a visit, as are the Watts Gallery and Chapel, at Compton, near Guildford. (Take British Rail to Guildford.) This memorial to G.F. Watts – the glorious decorated chapel was designed by his artist wife, Mary Seton Watts – has been undergoing renovation/restoration and is slated to re-open in the summer of 2011.

Go to for more on this remarkable man, his life, his times, his art, and his social and religious beliefs.

A Look at Lover's Eyes by Guest Blogger Jo Manning – Part Two

Copyright The Art of Mourning

Although the craze for Lover’s Eyes – and it was a craze, thanks to the Prince Regent, later King George IV, who was said to have exchanged lovers’ eyes with his putative wife, Maria Fitzherbert and perhaps with his lover, Mary Robinson (the actress known as Perdita) – flourished for only a short time, his niece Queen Victoria years later was also said to be fond of them and gave them as gifts. To quote Candice Hern, a fellow writer of historical romance novels, “even though the notion of eye brooches was by that time very old-fashioned.”

Ah, but in their day…! Christopher Stocks, writing in the Patek Philippe Magazine last year, noted:
“The combination of royalty and society was as potent then as it is today, and before long the fashion for eye miniatures spread through European high society and as far as Russia and the U.S.”

I first became aware of eye miniatures when I sat in on a presentation given by Candice Hern, as a matter of fact. This was some years ago at a Romance Writers of America conference. Candice’s very fine website shows the eyes in her collection:

Copyright Candice Hern

The examples displayed are prime, and are indeed lovely. Hers are all set into brooches; two show blue-eyed women; two are brown-eyed men. Who they are, again, is not known, and neither are the artists who painted them nor for whom they were intended, though we do have clues that several – and maybe a lot more than several – were painted by the prolific and noted miniaturists Richard Cosway and George Engleheart. (Ozias Humphry is said to have painted a few, also.)

Though a number of miniatures bearing the signature of Cosway are suspected not to be his, Engleheart did make a practice in his later years of initialing or signing his name to his work and these are considered genuine, not fakes. (These jottings are not easy to see unless the eye miniature is removed from its setting.)

Speaking of fakes, they are, alas, proliferating in this age of photo-shopping and cropping and Internet image borrowing. They can, however, be distinguished easily from the real thing upon close inspection owing to the presence of pixels rather than brushstrokes. See this very good article by the late Barry Weber, an expert in the field who often appeared on PBS’s Antiques Road Show.

Weber went on to say that “murky colors that use dark sepia tones” should make one wary, as these colors may be “a heavy-handed effort to falsify age.” He also cautioned, “an antique frame doesn’t add authenticity to the painting.” Camilla Lombardi, director of the portrait miniatures department at Bonham’s in London has been seeing an increasing number of fakes as the real thing becomes rarer, particularly noting caution if a nose, or part of a nose, appears in an eye miniature. She says that in genuine eye miniatures there should be “no real sign of the nose where you would expect it, whereas in a cut-down eye miniature you would see the line of the nose and shadow where the corner of the eye meets the bridge of the nose.”

Copyright PBS

What George Williamson had to say in The Art of the Miniature Painter about the care of miniature portraits would apply as well to the much tinier lover’s eyes:

“Miniatures should not be exposed to a strong light… Violent changes of temperature are to be avoided, and should the ivory become too dry it may crack… Lockets and pendants containing miniatures should not be worn at dances, or on any occasion where the wearer is liable to become overheated, as acid condensation takes place inside the glass which may ruin the painting.”

Ather problem – which perhaps accounts for the rarity of eye miniatures set into rings rather than brooches, pendants, or cases – is that water could get under the glass protecting the miniature and wash away the watercolors. Washing hands was death to a lover’s eye set into a ring.


And what are these eye miniatures, these oh-so-romantic lover’s eyes, worth in today’s antique jewelry market? Barry Weber noted, “Few pieces cost less than $1,000.” He added, “American pieces are spectacularly rare,” mentioning “one jewel-encrusted example worth $20,000.” Christopher Stocks values unattributed pieces at $1,500, whilst attributed pieces could go as high as $7,500 each. In the 1950s, when no one wanted them, they could be gotten for next to nothing, out of favor and even considered “repulsive” – to quote the art critic David Piper in 1957 — as both jewelry and art.

The oft-cited reference – in Charles Dickens’ 1848 novel, Dombey and Son – reinforces Piper’s condemnation, with the dismissive description of the lover’s eye worn by the elderly spinster Miss Tox as “representing a fishy old eye…” How anyone could see these eyes in that way is just another example of how one person’s treasure can be considered another person’s trash, or, de gustibus non disputandum est.

Lover’s eyes are exquisite, in the opinion of many contemporary collectors, connoisseurs, and lovers of beautiful objects, and this exhibition will bring them to the forefront once again. It has only taken some 200 years! And, reader, do go through Great-Grandmother’s box of trinkets in the attic once more, for who knows what precious eyes may be lurking there, desperate for the light.

A 20th-century version of an eye miniature, from a Bronzino portrait; note the differences between this and a classic lover’s eye.

A Look at Lover's Eyes by Guest Blogger Jo Manning – Part One

Copyright – The Philadelphia Museum of Art

In February of 2012, “The Look Of Love,” an exhibition dedicated to the art of Georgian-era eye miniatures, will take place at Alabama’s Birmingham Museum of Art, curated by Graham C. Boettcher. It will feature the collection of Birmingham residents Nan and David Skier; theirs is perhaps one of the largest collections of this art-cum-jewelry in the world, at some 70 pieces.

I am one of the contributors to the exhibition catalog, though I own but one lover’s eye. Mine is a man’s eye surrounded by seed pearls and set in a gold ring. This ring is shown on page 165 of my biography of Grace Dalrymple Elliott, My Lady Scandalous (Simon and Schuster, 2005). I do not know who the man was, nor do I know the name of the artist. I also do not know for whom it was intended, but I believe it was a mourning ring.

Copyright – The Ornamentalist

The great majority of eye miniatures fall into this category of nameless subject/nameless artist/unknown owner. Moreover, not much has been written on this hybrid form of painting/jewelry, nor are there significant sources for research into this topic to fill in the gaps. What has been written tends to repeat the same historical anecdotes but does not provide much in the way of new material. This 2012 exhibit promises to change this situation. The three essays I have read recently quote exactly the same material; it is way past time to break new ground!

Portrait miniatures abounded in the time of the English Georges in the 18th century/early 19th century, eye miniatures did not. These miniscule paintings very carefully delineated one eye, one eyebrow, perhaps a some wispy strands of hair falling to one side [one of the ways to differentiate between men and women), but never a nose. It was, to put it romantically, an eye – usually the eye of a lover –floating untethered in space, gazing unabashedly at the beloved.

These miniatures were not meant to be seen by just anyone. Their nature was secret, more clandestine, as it were, not at all public. They were meant to be love tokens exchanged by a pair of lovers…and theirs alone. The owner of the eye miniature could carry it safely, knowing that only those with whom she/he chose to share her/his innermost secrets would know whose eye it was.

Those that were not tokens of a lover’s affection – and there are a fair number of these — fall into the category of sentimental or mourning jewelry and are identified by a single diamond tear falling from the eye, or a surround of seed pearls, pearls being another metaphor for tears or mourning. (Sometimes a tiny lock of hair was placed behind the painting, reminding one of those strange pieces of hair jewelry favored by the Victorians.)

Copyright The Art of Mourning

The eye miniatures were usually painted in watercolor on ivory, vellum, or even waxed playing card, and protected by a glass cover. Average size was barely half an inch across. The eyes not surrounded by pearls were often framed in garnets, amethysts, and other popular gemstones of the period. It has been estimated that only one to two thousand of these pieces were ever made, making them very rare and thus very collectible.

Copyright The V and A Museum

The tear(s) are easier to see here, and, of course, the seed pearls emphasize this is a bereavement brooch.

Part Two Coming Soon!