Wilsford Manor and a Bright Young Thing

on Wednesday, 01 July 2015. Posted in Archives

Wilsford Manor was renovated by architect Detmar Blow in 1898 following a commission by Lord Glenconner and Lady Pamela Tennant. It was built of knapped flint and grey Tisbury stone in the local 17th century style with gables and mullioned windows modelled on the nearby Lake House, which was also renovated by Detmar Blow in 1897 (under advisement from the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings).

Image of Lake House – inspiration for Wilsford Manor with its chequerwork pattern.

Wilsford Manor was left to Pamela, Stephen’s mother by Lord Glenconner, and all the children grew up there with their step-father Edward, Viscount Grey of Falloden. It became a retreat for the family and an escape from the London summer season for Pamela. The childhood of Stephen Tennant was recorded in ‘The Sayings of the Children’.

After the loss of her eldest son Edward (Bim) in the Battle of the Somme, Pamela turned to spiritualism. Along with neighbour, and developer of wireless technology, Sir Oliver Lodge, she developed séance techniques and held spiritualist gatherings at Wilsford.

After Bim’s death, the bond between Stephen and his mother grew, further developed by Stephen’s emerging talent for poetry and art. Aged just 13, Stephen published humorous drawings of ducks and swans, frogs and nets, owls and dragonflies in ‘The Bird’s Fancy Dress Ball’.

After his mother’s death in 1928, Wilsford was left to Stephen’s older brother David, who planned to sell it. A deal was arranged between David and Stephen’s trustees and for all intents and purposes, Wilsford became Stephen’s.

His characteristic drawing style is seen in his ‘Leaves from a Missionary’s Notebook: The Adventures of Felix Littlejohn’ first published in 1929 when he was aged 23.

These humorous sketches, mostly drawn around 1925, of unnamed but real people, including his friend Edith Olivier, are likely done by Tennant. The drawings are part of Edith Olivier’s papers, which we hold here at the History Centre under the collection reference 982. Olivier and Tennant were friends since childhood and he is frequently mentioned in Anna Thomasson’s recent biography ‘A Curious Friendship: the Story of a Bluestocking and Bright Young Thing’.

Tennant often hosted Olivier and his other friends including Cecil Beaton, Rex Whistler, Christabel Lady Aberconway, Osbert Sitwell, Willie Walton, Zita and Baby Jungman, and Siegfried Sassoon. One weekend, devoted largely to dressing up, Stephen planned a fancy dress dinner, at which Olivier noted guests got gradually got hungrier waiting for Stephen, who eventually appeared wearing a white Russian suit, silver train and bandeau round his head. This meal was then followed by a game of hide and seek.

Tennant did not play host solely to his friends; the Wilsford school log book records a trip that the children took to Salisbury Cathedral school carol service which turned into an adventure when a dense fog prevented buses running for the return trip. The ambulance was despatched from Lake House which met the children on the road back to Wilsford and took them all home. The log book notes that the children did not have to miss a Christmas party given by Tennant the next day, and describes the artificial pink roses on all the tables, recording that the girls were given kid leather gloves, and the boys, woollen scarves.

The artificial roses were symbolic of the kind of decoration that Tennant enjoyed. In his introduction to Tennant’s ‘Leaves from a Missionary’s Notebook: The Adventures of Felix Littlejohn’ he quotes Tancred Borenius saying that ‘the house should be made airtight and preserved intact just as it is at the moment, so that future generations may see these incredibly delicate and vivid colours, the vases of artificial roses and lilac, the whole paraphernalia of Stephen’s taste, which astonishes even his few intimate friends and would be quite incomprehensible to future generations’. Stephen was particularly fond of shells, even placing them on the staircase, and one of the bathrooms was a ‘shrine to shells’. He went shell hunting with Siegfried Sassoon in Sicily, and Sassoon gave Tennant a copy of Swainson’s ‘Exotic Conchology’ inscribed:


War has its idiot Shells:

How different are these,

Designed by diligent Nature

For her Devotees…

From SS Oct. 3 1929’

Tennant’s journals are full of extravagant description of Wilsford and show his deep love for the place. This is also shown by his delight in re-gaining Wilsford after it was used by the Red Cross as a convalescence home during the Second World War. He wrote that the ‘horror of watching my house slowly destroyed by dirt, vulgarity, bombast, cheapness nearly killed me’. The Red Cross took over Wilsford in July 1942, much furniture and many paintings were removed to Lake House, when the large reception rooms became medical wards. Tennant moved into the thatched wing of the house, with a new bathroom and separate staircase put in to give some autonomy. However, he spent much time away from Wilsford in London or Bournemouth.

Despite Tennant’s delight in regaining his home, and the redecoration work he did undertake, Wilsford fell into some state of disrepair in the 1960s and 1970s with heating the whole house proving too expensive, and other general maintenance issues. The efforts of house staff John and Mary Skull kept the house from degenerating completely. The 1970s also saw the tenancy of a bungalow in the grounds by Nobel winning author VS Naipaul, who spent 15 years there. His semi-autobiographical ‘Enigma of Arrival’ is set in the Wiltshire landscape. Despite living alongside Tennant he only saw him on occasion and never met him.

Stephen Tennant died in 1987 and the contents of Wilsford Manor were sold by Sotheby’s raising some £1.6 million. The sale catalogue can be seen in our local studies library under the reference WLF.014 and sale particulars under 1844/7.

Eccentic, Bright Young Thing, and in many ways a highly unusual Englishman, Tennant was never uncomfortable with himself and so was never seen as absurd.

Naomi Sackett, Records Assistant


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