Tag Archives: Gwent

W. H. Davies

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This Friday sees the official opening of the 125 Exhibition at Newport Museum. It has actually been open for the public to view for a few weeks already, and one of the popular exhibits is the bronze of W. H. Davies by Jacob Epstein.

The Exhibition celebrates the 125th anniversary of the Museum and displays 125 exhibits arranged by the year they were accessioned (one for each year) and reflects the changes in collections management and the way the public see the function of museums. 125

Epstein and Davies had become friends in London and mixed in the same circles as Evan Morgan, son and heir of Courtenay Morgan, Baron Tredegar. The bronze currently on display at the Museum belonged to Evan Morgan who later donated it. Davies also paid Epstein for another cast for himself. In fact, there were six casts made in all.

W H Davies, the Newport born poet, is probably best remembered for his Autobiography of a Supertramp. His poetry remains popular today; the best known being “Leisure” (What is this life if, full of care, We have no time to stand and stare?).  A new edition of Supertramp was published in April by Parthian Books.

Jacob Epstein was born in the USA, but took British citizenship. His works were often controversial and he probably came into contact with Davies during his dalliance with the Vorticist Movement at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant in Bloomsbury. Evan Morgan was always very keen to be part of the set that would hang out here. He commissioned Epstein to produce a bronze of his hands around this time.

Evan Morgan was friendly with many of the “Eiffel Tower” stalwarts, including Nancy Cunard, Augustus John, Wyndham Lewis and Ronald Firbank.  He was an aspiring artist and poet and felt that he was in the company of his fellow travellers.  The outbreak of war in 1914 seems to have been an annoying disturbance of his literary and artistic aspirations. His persuasive manner and connections were useful for getting him cushy postings during the conflict, however his attempt to become Lloyd George’s wartime literary adviser seems to have been a step too far.

The W H Davies bronze head is in its rightful place. Following Evan’s death in 1949 most of the Morgan art collection was sold off and ended up in the hands of galleries, museums and private collectors around the world. This piece is exactly where Evan intended it to be, and you can see it in the current exhibition until October.

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The Beginning of the End – a Centenary at Tredegar House

Monday, 11th March 2013

One hundred years ago today Godfrey Morgan, Viscount Tredegar, died at his home of Tredegar House in Newport. This was a pivotal moment in the fate of the Morgan dynasty and their ancestral home. This was the beginning of the end.

Godfrey Funeral

The Funeral of Godfrey Morgan, Viscount Tredegar

The Morgan family had lived at the Tredegar Park site for well over five hundred years. By the end of the Eighteenth Century they owned over forty thousand acres of land. When the Industrial Revolution came into full swing they capitalised on the new wealth it brought. They were responsible for the economic development of the Newport area and benefitted from strong links (sometimes by marriage) with the new industrialist dynasties. Godfrey Morgan was actually the “spare”, his brother Rodney being the “heir”. However, the rather wayward Rodney died prematurely in France in 1854 and Godfrey found himself next in line to inherit the Tredegar Estate. This he did on the death of his father Charles Morgan Robinson Morgan, the first Baron Tredegar, in 1875. Unlike his father, Godfrey spent most of his time at Tredegar House. He took more of an interest in local politics and society and was regarded as a great philanthropist. He could afford to be. Godfrey had never married, there were no children and his lifestyle was simpler than those who preceded  and succeeded him. He was also the owner of land that was bringing industrial wealth and had interests in much of the economic infrastructure in the area. By the turn of the Century there were around a thousand farms paying rent to the Tredegar Estate. Godfrey’s net daily income was in the region of a thousand pounds.

The fortunes of the Morgans were at an apex when Godfrey died. So were the fortunes of South Wales generally, of course, with coal production at its peak. However, the iron, steel and coal industries of Wales were being threatened by the increasing competition of other European economies that had been developing and that of the United States of America. The following year would see the world thrust into the tragedy of the Great War and all of its repercussions and socio-economic upheavals. However, the Morgans were about to go into a downward spiral of near self-destruction anyway.

Courtenay Morgan

Courtenay Morgan

Godfrey’s brother Freddie had already died in 1909 and the Estate would now pass to his nephew Courtenay. Courtenay had a serious side to him, but also knew how to enjoy himself and had a very extravagant lifestyle. He spent a small fortune on servants at the various properties he owned and ran, there were yachts, parties, affairs and two children who knew how to spend just as well as their parents. Courtenay’s wife, Lady Katharine, had no desire to live in Wales and had properties in London and laterly in Surrey. When Courtenay  died in 1934 it was not just the extravagances that had taken their toll on the family fortune, but death duties were contributing to the problems of a rapidly dwindling estate. The heir to it all was not to help matters at all. Evan Morgan took his responsibilities very lightly indeed. At least Courtenay had employed level headed Estate Managers to try and manage things, Evan’s choice of employees often had more to do with their good looks than ability. By the Second World War, Evan Morgan was using only part of Tredegar House to live in, most of it was in mothballs. There was a skeleton staff running the House and the property was in need of basic repairs.

In 1949 Evan died at his mother’s home of Honeywood House. The next to inherit was his elderly Uncle Fred. Owing to his age and failing health arrangements had already been made that although Fred would inherit the title of Baron Tredegar, the bulk of the Estate would go directly to Fred’s son John in order to avoid paying double death duties.

John Morgan and sister

John Morgan and sister

John Morgan had little interest in the area. Indeed after feeling that he had been snubbed when not invited to any of the formal local celebrations and events marking the Coronation of the Queen in 1953, he decided to sever all links with South Wales.  He sold Tredegar House and its immediate grounds and gardens to the Sisters of St Joseph who would go on to use it as a Convent School and later  a comprehensive, St Joseph’s High School which outgrew the property and moved out to a purpose built establishment. John began selling off everything quite ruthlessly , with tenant farmers sometimes only discovering that their livelihoods were to be auctioned by reading it in the local press. Much of the local land went to the Eagle Star Insurance Company.

In 1954 John’s father died and John took the title finally.  John himself died in 1962. The childless Baron was the last Lord Tredegar. Twelve years later Tredegar House became the property of Newport Borough Council. An estate that had taken over half a millennium to build up had disappeared in less than half a century.


The Morning Room at Tredegar House

If you are a member of one of the parties coming on the Group Tours of Tredegar House on March the Seventeenth (the very last tours under Newport City Council) you will enter through the Victorian Porch and into the Side Hall. To your left you will notice a smaller room decorated in the Regency style. This is the Ladies Morning Room.

The Morning Room

The Morning Room looks as if Miss Elizabeth Bennett and her sisters should be seated in there. The wallpaper is copied from a design at Clandon Park which dates to 1810 and the Brussels carpet was recreated fitted for the Morning Room based on a carpet made in Paris in 1829. Much of the furniture is Rosewood and of the same period. However, this was not always a room for the ladies of the House. A Seventeenth Century inventory describes this as “The Drinking Roome” and gives its contents as 10 leather back chairs and an oval table – and that is all.

The Morning Room - looking in.

The Spring Clean continues at Tredegar as around us officials from the National Trust are busy making arrangements for the takeover on March the Nineteenth, and for the first visitors at Easter. When you visit Tredegar House as a National Trust property you will not enter this way (see my previous post on the New Hall), but it will continue to be part of the visitor experience.

When Tredegar House was a school (1951 – 1974) the Side Hall was the visitors’ entrance and the Morning Room was a waiting room. Prior to that it had been an office for the secretaries of the last Lords Tredegar who lived here. These days, apart from being on show to visitors, it is used by the Registrar prior to wedding ceremonies held in the New Hall. It does have something of an air of intimacy and privacy.


The Brown Room

The Spring Clean at Tredegar House continued this week and we moved from the Gilt Room to the Brown Room. This is my favourite room in the House. When I open the doors to the Brown Room first thing in the morning, the smell of oak is wonderful. This room has oak panelling on all sides and a giant oak that grew on the Estate provided the planks for the floor. Originally these were all single planks running the length of the room – forty-two feet.

The carving in the Brown Room is quite magnificent, and the name Grinling Gibbons often crops up. Members of the Morgan family often claimed that Gibbons contributed to the House’s decoration, however this lacks the finesse associated with his work. Nonetheless it is impressive. Carved busts of Roman emperors are positioned between the scrolled pediments in the upper reaches (although busts of Augustus and Livia above the doorways are later replacements) and probably date to the Late Seventeenth or Early Eighteenth Century. Below the panels amongst the scrolling acanthus leaves are serpents and putti, lions and griffins (supporters of the old family coat of arms) and allusions to Green Man motifs and cartoons of royalty perhaps.

The ceiling here is a Victorian replacement, the original  had an oval painting in the centre depicting “The Tribute of the Gods to Flora and Zephyr”, collapsed in 1848. Above the fireplace had been a depiction of the seduction of Callisto, but it seems to have disappeared sometime in the third quarter of the Twentieth Century. The painting that hangs in its place is by John Wooton. It shows Sir William Morgan with his favourite racehorse, Lamprey. It was originally part of the Tredegar Collection, but is currently on loan from the National Museum of Wales.

The Brown Room

The Brown Room was the state dining Room at Tredegar in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries and the furniture on display is from that period. Again, we have the National Museum of Wales to thank for the loan of the tables; the chairs, however, were kindly donated to the House by the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.

The Brown Room contains several portraits of Morgan family members. These include Lady Elizabeth, who ended her days in an asylum, Henry Morgan (better known to rum drinkers as Captain Morgan) and Lady Rachel Cavendish who is said to have put a curse on the Morgan line following unsuccessful battles over the inheritance of the Tredegar Estate. That, however, is another story.


The Gilt Room

The Spring Clean at Tredegar House began this week. The first room we are tackling is one of the trickiest, but one of the most impressive – the Gilt Room. Simon Jenkins calls it “one of the great rooms of Wales“, and Country Life magazine considered it to be “one of the most important surviving interiors of the late-17th-century in the country”.

Gilt Room fireplace

The Gilt Room is at the end of the North West Wing and is accessed through the Brown Room. This is very much a case of the family showing off. The Brown Room had been the main dining room in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries and we believe that the gentlemen would retire to the Gilt Room for a game of cards, a drink or two and maybe to listen to the family harpist (being a good Welsh family, the Morgans employed a full-time harpist) and flautists. This room has retained more of its original features and decoration than any other at Tredegar. The panelling in here is pine, but has been painted and grained to resemble walnut. The fire surround is dark Italian marble, but the twisted columns above it are  carved from pine and painted and marbled to complement it. Between the twisted columns is a portrait of William Morgan aged ninety in 1650; although original to the House it is currently  on loan thanks to the National Museum of Wales. The gold leaf has been reapplied by Newport Council on the carvings and mouldings.

The paintings are original though having been painted directly onto the panelling. Above the doorway is Venus, seemingly after Titian’s “Venus and the Organ Player”. Left of the doorway the panels contain depictions of the Three Virtues – Prudence, Temperance and Justice.  These  were copied from engravings  after sculptures by Artus Quellinus at the Amsterdam Town Hall. To the right of the doors we have two of the Seasons; Summer depicted as a young girl and and Winter as an old man. At least, that is what the older guide books profess; I have my personal doubts about that. Between the North East windows is another painting based on an engraving showing Cybele the Mother Goddess or possibly Diana. Smaller panels on the North West side depict a variety of Italianate landscapes, said to be after Poussin, which I find to be quite similar to the Abergavenny area.

The other important feature of the Gilt Room is its ceiling. This is the only original Seventeenth Century ceiling that has survived on the Ground Floor.  Indeed it very nearly didn’t survive. A Military Spectacular was held at Tredegar Park in the Eighties and part of it included a flypast by a Vulcan bomber from RAF St Athan. Apparently it flew over the House at a very low level, the whole building shook and the ceiling’s plasterwork started to crack, crumble and fall. Luckily Newport Council acted quickly and filled the Gilt Room with scaffolding holding it all in place until, I believe, the RAF paid for its restoration. Remarkably, however, the central painting was not damaged and this is what makes the whole room so magnificent in my opinion.

The painting is after an engraving of one of the features of Pietro da Cortona’s ceiling at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. For me this is one of the great joys of the Spring Clean at Tredegar House; when I can get up close to this ceiling and see all the detail. Each year I feel I discover another feature I hadn’t noticed properly before. Last year I had the opportunity to see Cortona’s original and I have to say that the copy at Tredegar is not a million miles away from the one that Pope Urban VIII would have admired in the Gran Salone of his home.

The whole ceiling in Rome depicts The Triumph of Divine Providence and the fulfilment of her ends under the papacy of Pope Urban VIII. The theme of the ceiling in the Gilt Room is a depiction of The Triumph of Religion and Spirituality. Considering the fact that Tredegar House was a Catholic School run by the Sisters of St Joseph for over twenty years, we should be grateful it was not painted over. On the other hand if it was good enough for a papal palazzo ………….

Next on the list for the Spring Clean at Tredegar House is the Brown Room. I hope to post something about each of the rooms as they are cleaned. That should take us up to the National Trust takeover if everything goes according to plan.

Sources for this post included:

Jenkins, Simon (2008) – Wales: Churches, Houses, Castles. (Allen Lane)

Worsley, Giles (1994) – Country Life magazine. pp 74 – 76

Lo Bianco, Anna (2008) – Pietro da Cortona’s Ceiling. (Gestione Servizi Beni Culturali)

Davies, John (2009) – Cymru: Y 100 lle i’w gweld cyn marw. (Y Lolfa)

Room notes compiled by Tredegar House’s Curator Emily Price and her predecessors.

And a thank you to colleagues Paul Busby et al for imparting their knowledge.