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Lord & Lady Iliffe at Basildon: A very English Scheme
by Alec Cobbe
When Renée and Langton Iliffe bought the derelict Basildon in 1952, it had already been published as a demolished house, and, before the war, had been offered to anyone who would pay a million dollars for it to be reconstructed in America. In fact it was still standing, having been requisitioned for the British and American armies, but there were no windows left, and pools of water on the Library floor betrayed a large hole in the roof created by a fire, which had luckily been put out before it destroyed the entire house. With their shared enthusiasm for Palladian architecture, Renée's energy and Langton's cerebral thirst for correct knowledge, they toured the surviving houses of John Carr of York, in order to learn about his work; Basildon is his most southerly executed building.
Inspired by Renée's aunt Lady Kemsley's resuscitations of Chandos House, London, and Dropmore House and by Lord Camrose's restoration of Hackwood, Hants, they were determined not to overdo the restoration. In the ensuing processes emerged Renée's remarkable flair for the decoration of an architectural masterpiece.
Much of the original interior joinery and fittings were absent at Basildon, but through a stroke of good fortune and their innate common sense they were able to purchase a huge supply of 'spare parts' from John Carr's derelict Panton Hall, Lincolnshire, which was about to be demolished. These included two magnificent marble fireplaces, window shutters, skirtings, dado rails, and a series of mahogany doors. So precise was Carr in his use of modules that the mahogany doors from Panton slotted exactly into those apertures at Basildon where doors were lacking.
Following their own tastes and instincts entirely, Renée sailed through the completion of all but one of the rooms on the piano nobile and all the upper bedrooms; the results were masterly. In matters of decoration, Renée was ahead of her time; in the Library she introduced a rich, varnished oxblood colour on the walls. She was ever mindful of her husband's wallet and wherever opportunities for thrift presented themselves she exercised them, sometimes to splendid effect. An old and marvellously harmonious colour scheme in the Entrance Hall was preserved by washing, with damaged areas being scrupulously retouched. In the Great Octagon Room, rather than hang the walls with expensive silk, she employed an inexpensive deep crimson felt to cover the walls which would provide a fine background for pictures. Her natural bent for sewing and textiles meant that she had no need of professional fitters to put this up - she did it herself, aided by the cook, with the butler holding the ladder. Most unusually for the time, Renée decided wherever possible to purchase old curtains from the many country house dispersal sales which were taking place during the 1950s. Most notably, the dismantling of the Grand Cabinet at Blenheim Palace provided them with a sensational set of historic red silk curtains, richly fringed with tasselling and elaborate silk-covered whalebone coils. These were used to magnificent effect in the Octagon Room.
For furniture, they were greatly helped by Francis Egerton of Malletts; country house sales at Eaton Hall, Fawley Court, Brockenhurst Park and Ashburnham Place provided notable pieces. Meanwhile Langton filled the house with finely bound books and a collection of Grand-Tour-inspired pictures which included major works by Canaletto, Guardi and Vernet. The glory of his collection were eight pictures from the series of Apostles and God the Father painted by Batoni in 1740 for the Palazzo Meranda at Forli, four of which have been in the National Gallery's recent exhibition Pompeo Batoni Prince of Painters in Eighteenth-Century Rome. In forming his collection, he was helped by Jim Byam Shaw, then at Colnaghi's, and by Geoffrey Agnew.
When I first stayed at Basildon in 1966, most of this had been largely completed and I have never forgotten the stunning impression made by the whole ensemble. They certainly knew how to run a house, and the place was not only a feast for the eyes, but functioned with the style and elegance of an embassy; food provided by their cook, the celebrated Mrs Mott, was truly superlative. Perfect though everything was, there remained however one major room still to be tackled, the columned Dining Room with its intricate plasterwork, one of the most complete and unified of all of Carr's interiors. Here, Renée's confidence had inexplicably failed her, and for this, and this alone, she called in John Fowler to help. The room was done by the early 1970's, but, curiously, the scheme that Fowler produced never sat happily with Renée's own achievements in the rest of the house. Many years later, after they had given the house to the National Trust and moved into the South Pavilion, Renée and Langton made the decision to have another go. By this time I was assisting Langton with choosing picture purchases and for this second attempt at the Dining Room I had the great pleasure of helping them; colours that reflected Carr's original scheme for the room were employed, and in addition we exposed some rich old marbling on the skirting.
The Iliffes embarked on their Basildon project at the beginning of what John Harris has called one of the 'black decades' of England's architectural history, when 'month after month occurred ... dreadful ... demolitions and smash-ups that destroyed some of the greatest works of British art and endeavour'. Their rescue and restoration of this Palladian gem stands today as a testimony of their taste and of an act of enlightened individuality that was contrary to the trend of their times.
THE PROPERTY OF THE LATE LORD AND LADY ILIFFE OF BASILDON PARK