W.G. Sebald, in “The Rings of Saturn,” described ‘the waning splendour of the house’ when he visited Somerleyton in 1992 and contrasted it with the gardens, although he noted they ‘might well have been better tended and more gloriously colourful’. His eye was held by the majestic trees that could only have been imagined when they were planted, for the most part in the mid-nineteenth century. (One at least was already mature by then and still dominates the grounds, having had the beds beneath it cleared for the purpoae.)
Twenty-five years after Sebald, there is a different impression. In late August, as he might have realised, colourful planting has limitations. More importantly, tending the borders is endlessly laborious. A major garden still needs an army of gardeners that was lost to two world wars and urban employment options. Nor did Sebald notice the ownership had long since changed, from Sir Morton Peto to the Crossley family, of Halifax carpet fame, later the Lords Somerleyton. The most recent of them, the heir in Sebald’s time, has continued his parents’ work of restoration while acknowledging the immense cost involved. A slow process is of the essence, but the house is now in fine condition, with a few instances of its original Jacobean panelling showing. When Peto had it developed for Victorian-Italianate taste he nevertheless kept the footprint of the earlier house inside the modern skin.
We certainly accepted Sebald’s strictures on the tending of the gardens. The border designed by Lady Tollemache to renovate the kitchen garden was colourful enough, but she has certainly given closer attention to her own gardens at Helmingham than has happened here, as an Antiques Roadshow programme will reveal in the near future. The Roadshow had been to Somerleyton, too, and we found plenty of what the experts admired inside the house.
Nonetheless, credit is due to the way certain features of the garden now relate to the house, for example the sunken garden with a predominance of white planting that was chosen to complement wedding ceremonies. This had been the oriental dome of the winter garden until it was damaged and then removed (like the gardeners) to aid the war effort in 1914.There is still a glazed gallery above the sunken garden, where visitors wait for the guided tour. Further from the house is a knot garden, and outside past the clock that might have housed a miniature Big Ben, had there been a commission not a competition, are the mounds of two Tudor banqueting houses.On one of these is an aviary (once dovecote) more populous than when Sebald saw it but still sad to anyone who regards birds as essentially free creatures.
Tours of the house are timed, so we took our turn and reserved the last parts of the gardens for after lunch. Photography is not permitted inside so comparisons are the best that can be offered in description. It is a family house, though the rooms open to the public are only used by the family on formal occasions. With three young children they would not risk the wonderful Coalport china or some of the heirlooms.
We were at once struck by a painting of the Crossley mills at Dean Clough in Halifax, where we have stayed and eaten with pleasure. Some of the carpets are Crossley, and display their high quality after many years of use.There are of course family portraits and paintings of Peto and Admiral Howard, another former owner.The naval theme is reflected in a painting of the crippled HMS Victory at Gibraltar, waiting to bring Nelson’s bodyhome for burial. Beside it is a painting of Wellington (as he would become) directing a siege in the Peninsular War. The present Lord Somerleyton’s grandfather was awarded the Military Cross in the Great War, so there are military illustrations and memorabilia. His son was Master of the Horse to Her Majesty and was given a horse blanket and an oil painting of himself on horseback when he retired.
In the dining room the plates were again the Coalport nature design, with each dish having its individual plant beautifully painted. We were of course closer to these than to the grand dresser of an earlier room and could admire the detail. Equally admirable were the wine glasses with air-twist stems and an astonishing “nef” or galleon for salt from the days when it was a precious commodity and not something people are now urged to resist. To show its past value the ship was made of silver.
The dowager Lady Somerleyton was responsible for the garden we saw after lunch: its wisteria was past flowering of course but the Italianate hedging and topiary were in excellent order. From there we lost ourselves for a while in the maze, then searched for the Lynn Chadwick sculpture that seems now oddly prescient of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Probably we will not see the completion of the new work on the gardens; it would be worth returning in spring after a year or two, however. Given the right weather, our three hour stay that had included almost an hour in the house might then extend to four entirely in the gardens and grounds. The parkland is well worth exploring at length and with stout shoes.