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CLIFTON HAMPDEN: A VALEDICTION BY JOHN HARRIS
Below and south-east of Oxford the Thames diverts itself in those ways known only to geologists. It carves out a huge u-shaped loop with Long and Little Wittenham on the Berkshire side at its southern base and Clifton Hampden, Burcot and the old Roman garrison town of Dorchester on its Oxfordshire or northern bank. Prehistoric and Roman man seeing the strategic advantage of the Sinodun Hills above Little Wittenham, raised there an earthwork camp to guard their setlement in the loop of the water meadows and to protect the Roman town. Some Georgian landowner crowned the two mounds, in local lore know as Mother Dunch's Buttocks, with beech woods, which since time immemorial have been known as the Wittenham Clumps.
Beneath these bowered trees many a Gibbs have picnicked and blissfully contemplated their entrancing riverside domain at Clifton Hampden. We too can lie on the shaded sward. The builders of the house at Clifton Hampden took advantage of an unusual limestone spur or bluff, so raising it up above the river. This elevation enables us to identify the seat of the Gibbses from our ancient camp. We notice a tall Cedar of Lebanon brought back from the Holy Land by the Reverend John Lomax Gibbs in 1866, and if we are possessed of binoculars, or keen eyesight, may wonder at two monumental busts of the Sheldonian Philosophers, raised high on pedestals and stonily gazing out across the river as guardians of this venerated place. Shimmering above and around the river's bank can be espied the spired church, a rebuilding in 1844 by Sir George Gilbert Scott of a decayed Saxon and medieval one, the school, built in the same year, but designed by Joseph Clarke, the 'squirsonage', or manor house as it later became, built by Scott in 1843-46, and his gothic bridge of 1864 replacing a ferry.
This had been family land since 1720. By the late 18th century a few thatched cottages huddled around the river's ferry crossing, and the church was in decay. If we turn to The Complete Peerage, edited by the Hon. Vicary Gibbs, under ALDENHAM Barony 1896, we shall read of 'Henry Hucks Gibbs, of Aldenham House, Herts, and Clifton Hampden, Oxon, 1st s. and h. of George Henry Gibbs of the same, senior partner in the firm of 'Anthony Gibbs & Sons', with family estates in Oxfordshire of 1309 acres'. Then if we turn to an edition of Burke's Peerage and Baronetage, we can be further enlightened that Anthony Gibbs, born in 1756, married the daughter of William Hucks, who became the heiress of Robert Hucks of Aldenham and Clifton Hampden. Anthony Gibbs's eldest son, George Henry Gibbs, is commemorated in the chancel of the new church as the 'founder' of this branch of the family in this place. His bequest in 1842 provided his brother, the Reverend Joseph Gibbs with a new parsonage. Between 1864 and the close of the century a succession of uncles, cousins and sons-in-law lived at Clifton Hampden as vicars, and it was not until the widowed Alban George Henry Gibbs wanted a home less demanding than Aldenham, that the house was greatly enlarged and raised to manorial status. Alban who succeeded as 2nd Lord Aldenham in 1907 had a brother, Herbert Cokayne, raised to the peerage as Lord Hunsdon, and he a second son, Sir Geoffrey Cokayne Gibbs, who was Christopher's father. It was from the genes of another great uncle, the Honourable Vicary that Christopher would inherit a fascination for the vicissitudes of landed families. If he had to take one thing to his desert island perhaps it would be his great uncle's annotated copy of the Complete Peerage. So it was at Clifton Hampden that he spent his childhood, and by serendipity inherited the house in 1980. As he then wrote, 'It is a neglected corner of paradise that I have to do something about'. That 'something' has been described as a 'paradise according to Gibbs', for Clifton Hampden is as celebrated for the magical garden he has made, as for the contents and ambiences within the house. For Christopher this introduction to his sale catalogue serves as a valediction for one who must now make his farewells to the place. I know he will forgive me if I hope he will return there one day when his mortal trial is over.
What was created at Clifton Hampden is not an ending. It will go on wherever Christopher lives: in the small house with a walled garden that he intends to inhabit in the village, or in his beloved Morocco. It might be thought to have begun in the antique shop of Mrs Cox and John A. Pearson, in Eton High Street. I too once visited that place in the fifties and found a rolled-up drawing of very large size that had been in a flood. It turned out to be a cartoon by the neo-classic Milanese painter Bossi. From 1958 to 1962 a small antique shop in Camden Passage, Islington, stood out as very different from the rest. I knew its owner not, went there once or twice, and to the best of my recollection bought nothing, although Christopher thinks I brought a crewelwork chair. He is probably right. One memory is clear: I sensed the esoteric, comprising perhaps an old Mughal carpet, pieces of colourful fabrics, blue and white pots, some illustrated books, paintings, drawings and prints, unusual pieces of furniture, maybe a few antiquities, and objects both curious and antiquarian. Even when every antique or junk shop in England then contained an embarras de richesse, fodder for any West End auction room today, the vibes in his shop gave out unusual resonance. There was no question that this dealer was of uncommon stock.
But it was not here in Islington that I first met Christopher, but when he moved to a larger shop at 1 Elystan Street, Chelsea, near Chelsea Green, a stroll from his Lindsey House apartment that had once been Sir Hugh Lane's, at 100 Cheyne Walk. It was now that connections could be recognized between Christopher's own domestic ambience and his shop, not the least because Lindsey House was the venue for many celebrated gatherings of a society, including Mick Jagger, where Christopher was very much the bear leader. It was from here that he was instrumental in providing the Islamic ambiences for the Rolling Stones's film Performance, 1968. This sort of induction to styles and motifs that he has always affected. Elystan Street was truly the first of his Aladdin's Caves, where it was now possible to take its owner's remarkable measure more properly. It applied equally to Davington Priory at Faversham where he lived from 1973 to 1982, as much as to Clifton Hampden, or indeed his set in Albany. It is a result of the intuitive eye of one with a storehouse of knowledge gained through omniverous and esoteric reading. I suspect that if he could once again choose a life in time and person he would be a late 17th century antiquarian like John Aubrey, or a John Evelyn writing his Elysium Britannicum. He is deeply affected by English topography and antiquarianism. When I knew Christopher better it struck me that what he bought as an antique dealer, was acquired as much as if for his own house, as for others, and was a corollary of the Complete Peerage. Just as I had explored the empty and decayed houses of No Voice from the Hall in the two decades after the war, so had he eagerly consulted family genealogies, and through that fascination for the intricacies of family descent, was able to score at the country auctions that emptied those houses. Always he would be making and discovering connections. At these auctions he bought not only for selfish reasons, but so often bearing in mind the needs of public collections, making extraordinary sacrifices in order to see something end up in the right place. From auction to shop, and so to client, collector and museum, as receptacles for his discerning eye, the legend of his taste was born. So it was when he moved in 1971 to Kasmin's old gallery at 118 New Bond Street, a modern interior designed by Ahrends Burton and Koralek, where the spirit of the place so used to hosting American abstract expressionism must have been quite discomforted by the exotic and wondrous furnishings. The new spaciousness brought out his latent sense of scale, his courage to buy, display and appropriately locate large objects. When the Avery Row development sadly forced him out in 1990, he compressed himself at 8 Vigo Street, a place haunted with the spirits of Beardsley and Wilde and Sir Allan Lane of Penguin Books. Only in 1998 was he able to regain that scale of accommodation suiting his flair when he moved to the present evocative premises at 3 Dove Walk off the Pimlico Road.
As we enter Clifton Hampden we witness a gathering and arrangement that is seemingly timeless and undisturbed as an entity, as if this has been the repository for generations of family acquisition, as indeed in many ways it is. Some would call it shabby, some dusty. Once I had tea there with a certain grand dame who commented afterwards, 'I wish Chrissie would get the duster out.' Nothing is highly polished or self-consciously presented. He avoids glittering gilt. It is informally thrown together, and above all comfortable. When I first visited Davington, a converted medieval cloister attached to the parish church, I sensed I was in the house of an antiquarian, one who would fall naturally into the characters of John Freeman of Fawley or Dickie Bateman of Old Windsor. Here were curiosities, flint implements, Roman and Egyptian antiquities, stained glass, medieval fragments, old carved wooden salvages from churches or houses. It is so at Clifton Hampden, where Christopher would fit perfectly into the role of an antiquarian parson, not unlikely since he is a practicing Christian happily in the bosom of the Church of England.
If Christopher has adopted any personal theory of interior decoration, it is that rare attribute of anchoring the house, not only to its beginnings, but in order to retain the sense of continuous generations of occupancy. What we see are layers of history. At Clifton Hampden he will point out provenances: an Arundel marble, John Evelyn's table from Wotton, books from the great Syston library, the coat of the Sherwood Forester from Rufford Abbey, the portrait of Lord Coningsby's Fool, the rarity of the pocket book of Lord Yarmouth, he of that Yarmouth Treasure painting in the Norwich Castle Museum, linenfold panelling from Peterhouse, the amazing wooden figure from Waterstock, or a Celtic altar from Beeston. All are mementos of Neales' Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen: Chiswick, Cornbury, Dalkeith, Drayton, Elmore Court, Gunton, Hampton Court, Herefordshire, Hinton St. George, Stoneleigh Abbey, Tyttenhanger, and so on and so on. There is no modern accumulation like it. There is also one other attribute that has often escaped comment: I mean his delight in the overall effect of subdued colour, produced by exotic carpets, wall hangings, rare fabrics, stained glass, and above all by the fact that the interiors are 'a kingdom of flowers', to quote Horace Walpole's description of Dickie Bateman's house. The whole is a wondrous kaleidscope.
Now although Christopher could have been one of the great decorators of his time, he has never wanted this role, preferring to be the supplier, and in so doing be also the eminence grise, the impresario, or the mentor to those friends and decorators fortunate enough to buy from him. The casual, artless, look that he is able so persuasively to adopt is difficult to locate as to origins. I don't think it can be identified in the earlier history of decoration. He is no bookworm to historic precedents. His style is a modern phenomenon, and Christopher may be the first to have adopted it. It involves a certain romantic aesthetic, whereas my entry to so many country houses was according to the principle of 'up, over and in', he was welcomed at front doors. However, behind many of those doors, in the fifties and sixties existed what might be described as an unselfconscious disorder, the accumulation or residue of generations of acquisition. It was a time when melancholy owners sat in their decaying houses awaiting the auctioneer, helplessly contemplating demoliton. So maybe my instinct about No Voice from the Hall was right. Both David Mlinaric and Desmond Fitz-Gerald have suggested the influence of an Ireland where the Ascendency lived out their lives in decaying mansions with everything higgledy-piggledy, uncaring as to leaks and dry rot, seeing the beauty of faded flaking paint, or of sunbeams glinting through dust. Christopher was of my generation who discovered Irish country houses in the sixties with the Knight of Glin at Glin, and Mariga and Desmond Guinness at Leixlip, where informality also reigned, and where we hilariously disported with the Irish Georgian Society.
Now Christopher's treasure trove is to be dispersed. How fortunate for those who may be able to buy, to benefit from that lifetime of accumulation and pillage. I sense that he wants to cast off the burden of possession, seeking a more simple way of life that will always be comfortable, but now more spartan, in which fewer treasures and rarities will sparkle. For him Morocco will always sing its siren song.
THE GIBBSES AND CLIFTON HAMPDEN
My family come from Devonshire, from the little wooden hills and valleys around the Dart, between the Moor and Totnes. In the 15th century they were knights of the Shire, settled at Fenton, near Dartington and our branch was established at Pytte, in the parish of Clyst St. George near Exeter since 1560. Of these very small squires, with Exeter and the port of Topsham as their places of business, was George Abraham Gibbs of Pytte, Chief Surgeon at the Exeter Hospital, who married Anne Vicary and had a row of children of whom the eldest, Antony, was the ancestor of my own family, Lords Aldenham and Hunsdon, and of the West Country branch led by Lord Wraxall. The second son Vicary went to Eton as a scholar in 1770 and rose to become Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, Attorney General, MP for sundry rotten boroughs, know as 'Vinegar Gibbs' for his caustic wit - but to his brother Antony, over-sanguine in business, early bankrupted, losing Pytte and bringing down with him his father and many of his friends, the rising lawyer and politician was a sure friend and supporter. Antony's bankruptcy drove him to Spain and the family lived in exile for twenty years. Antony had married young, Dorothea Hucks of a brewing family, whose senior line's collapse led to our inheriting in the 1840s their estates at Clifton Hampden and at Aldenham in Hertfordshire. His sister Mary was married to the Reverend Charles Crawley, brother to Sir Thomas Crawley Boevy of Flaxley Abbey in the Forest of Dean, first in a complex serious of alliances between Gibbs and Crawleys that continued into the 20th century.
The little Gibbses, reared bi-lingual in Spain, and when in England looked after by the Crawleys or by Sir Vicary and Lady Gibbs at Hayes in Kent, included George Henry (married Caroline Crawley his first cousin), who was to inherit the Hucks's estates, to further the achievements of his father, founder of the family bank of Antony Gibbs & Sons and to be, as founder director of the Great Western Railway, Brunel's great supporter; William of Tyntesfield (married Matilda Blanche, daughter of Sir Thomas Crawley Boevy), merchant and philanthropist, a great Churchman who gave Keble College, Oxford, its chapel, its hall and its library; and Joseph Gibbs, vicar of Clifton Hampden 1830-1863, for whom the house here was built, and who laid out the river walks.
George Henry and Caroline were travelling in Italy with their son Henry Hucks when news came of the deaths which bought them their estate, but George Henry too was ailing and died in Venice in 1844. The family travelled slowly back, looking at churches and galleries, and buying paintings while their father's corpse, escorted by his valet, was shipped home to be buried here. Henry Hucks, blessed with looks, brains and money, was twenty-five when his father died, and lit with the fire of the Tractarian movement. Newman, later Cardinal, close to his uncle Crawley at Littlemore a few miles away, was his inspiration, and his grandfather Parson Crawley had ordered his sons and sons-in-law to ride over England distributing the Tracts for the Times. At Oxford he met George Edward Adams, whose genealogical bent he shared and they married one another's sisters. Adams's mother was a co-heiress of the Cokaynes of Rushton, Viscounts Cullen, and he dropped his humdrum label in favour of Cokayne and went on to become Clarenceux King of Arms and to write the Complete Peerage which his nephew Vicary Gibbs was to aggrandise into one of our most fascinating works of reference. Henry Hucks was scholar, banker, philologist, collector and builder, employing as well as Scott, Joseph Clark and S. S. Teulon at Clifton Hampden, Butterfield, Blomfield and Lethaby at Aldenham. He was an awesome polymath who rode to hounds, blew off his right hand in a shooting accident and finished off the manuscripts which he was illuminating with his left hand. He was senior partner in Antony Gibbs, a Director of the Bank of England for nearly fifty years, and Governor for two of them. He was very often at Clifton Hampden, supervising his building works and erected the first stone altar in the Oxford Diocese since the Reformation. He was raised to the peerage in 1896 as Lord Aldenham and in 1898 gave Clifton Hampden to his son Alban George Henry.
Alban, born in Naples in 1846, had gone to Christchurch after Eton and married Bridget Beresford Hope. She was the granddaughter of Thomas Hope of the Deepdene and the daughter of Alexander of the Camden Society and his Lady Mildred, daughter of Lord Salisbury. Like his father a Tory and Member for the City of London, he was senior partner in the bank and a bibliophile. Widowed young, he re-cast the house here in 1902 (architects Wood and Ainslie) and lived here until he died at ninety in 1936. He and his two daughters kept the Tractarian tradition alive, his son, Gerald succeeded him, and, childless, passed the place onto my father Sir Geoffrey, son of his uncle, Lord Hunsdon.
We came here just after the War and the great freeze and flood of 1947, and my brothers and sister had the happiest of upbringings - shooting, boating, swimming in the river. My parents bought sweetness and light to the William Morris atmosphere of the house - and I, needless to say, have turned back the clock! They were great gardeners and my mother's collections of snowdrops from Russia and Turkey and Greece tumble down the banks of the river. When my parents died my brother, who had made his life in Australia, sold the estate so I have presided over the transition from a village where most of the cottages were lived in by agricultural labourers and the houses by indigent cousins to the present when most are sold and the well-tended homes of people working in London or Oxford. The old road now thunders with traffic but the place is still of idyllic beauty and the river swells or dwindles with the seasons, transforming the landscape, mirroring church, bridge, manor and wooded cliff in unchanged beauty.
Monday 25th September morning session at 10.30 am.