Tag Archives: Newport City Council

W. H. Davies

DSCN1021

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.


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.


New Tenants in a Council House

Tredegar House has been a National Trust property for six months now. On March the sixteenth Newport City Council officially handed over the keys to the House and the Trust’s management commenced. I say management because the arrangement was, at the time, quite unique. The National Trust are not the owners; the House is leased from the Council. As, I’m afraid, I say on public tours, it is still a council house – it just has new tenants.

Things were a bit hectic, to say the least, when it was decided to open the House to visitors within three weeks. There had been plans formulated and decisions made beforehand of course. One thing that was certain was that the visitor route and entrance would have to be changed. The Seventeenth Century entrance would become the main way into Tredegar House for the first time in nearly a hundred and fifty years. Another huge change was that there would be no guided tours. Visitors would enter and experience the House in a free flow system and everything would be much more hands-on and approachable. This would be facilitated by National Trust volunteers acting as Meeters-and-Greeters and Room Hosts. The problem was that in an area with very few NT properties there was no army of volunteers to call upon and therefore a recruitment drive was initiated. Very soon we had a good core of about fifty people who were willing to give up their time to help us open the House. Currently we have around two hundred and fifty volunteers on the books with about seventy or eighty coming in on a very regular basis.

Some of the ‘veterans’ and staff at a party celebrating getting through the first month!

There were a couple of downsides to these decisions. The logistics of it all meant that eight of the refurbished rooms that had previously been opened for guided tours, had to be closed for the time being. The decision to make the House more family friendly with a hands-on approach necessitated the removal of many original pieces from display. However, this was the price we would have to pay for becoming more attractive to visitors. I have to say, it is quite a relief not to be continually worrying about antiques and furniture being touched and not having to keep telling people not to touch or lean or sit on items. In many ways, it all makes for a happier, friendlier and more welcoming Tredegar House. Indeed, that is the response of a good eighty per cent of the visitors who leave comments.

Visitor numbers are up. We had hoped to have forty thousand visitors in the first year and we have already had thirty four thousand, so it looks like we will easily achieve that target. Membership is going well too. However, for me the success story is the group of regular volunteers we have here now. As one of them, John, said to me “This place gets a hold on you. I love it. When I’m not actually here, I’m reading about the House and the family”.  I know what he means and he is far from being alone in thinking that.

Therefore, the new tenants of Tredegar House seem to have settled in and I suspect they will be resident for quite some time.