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
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: