An impossible work to review, as exquisite and comprehensive as it is in its way of researching the life of the ‘lost’ pre-raphaelite painter: Robert Bateman. In this in depth interview, Nigel Daly talks about his literary effort and the amazing discoveries that will lead to new, surprising works.
Your job makes you an expert in digging into the past of ancient houses and manors. What made you understand Biddulph Old Hall was so different you wanted it to be your home?
Despite Brian and I having a core susceptibility to beautiful ancient buildings, our long professional engagement with them has sadly bred a somewhat cynical resistance to infatuation at first sight when confronted with apparently beguiling historic facades. Experience has taught us that many houses are not all they seem whilst others are so over-protected and cossetted by their besotted owners that they have lost all the vibrant energy of their younger lives and declined into a gentrified torpor of lifeless good taste.
Our first glance at Biddulph stunned us with its huge towers and cannon fractured walls. The sheer intensity of its story meant that it could not be contained by the later attempts to tame it into suburban conventionality. It refused to conform either to the hygienic rationality of the modern house or the laid down academic formulas attributed to old ones. It was fragmented, anarchic and bloody-mindedly frank about the violent forces that had brought it to its present form. As we walked through the building it challenged and perplexed us. What was the meaning of the Latin texts written into the walls and who had carved the stone lizard warily guarding her half-hidden baby near the front door? For generations it seemed that people had simply been walking past these mysterious symbols, and through the inexplicable spaces leading incoherently one into another, without asking what they were saying. We sensed that the pervading ugliness of the place was the direct result of their failure to discover some forgotten narrative that would explain what we were looking at. But over and above that – as I said in my book, there was some disconcerting sense of real individual people willing us to search and find them. No matter how much we tried to laugh at this feeling and rationalise it away, it grew in intensity until it began to drive the urgency of our compulsion to own Biddulph at all costs.
In the first chapters, you talk about the many discoveries you made when starting its restoration. Which ones fascinated you most?
It is a thrilling moment in the generally painstaking process of historic house restoration when you suddenly grasp the significance of an apparently prosaic discovery and realise that it fits with a series of earlier anomalies to illuminate the hidden explanation of the whole structure. At Biddulph this happened when we were working on the Staircase Hall which lay at one end of the so-called Great Hall. When we bought the house this area had been almost incomprehensible. At one end of the room was an arch about 1.5 metres high. When we stripped the room out, the arch revealed itself as a huge blocked up fire opening on the edge of which were the clearly identifiable fixings for a spit mechanism showing that the whole area had functioned as a kitchen with a cooking fire.
The anomaly was that there was literally no ventilation in the space and a low ceiling which would have made it impossible to stand the heat of the fire. This was resolved when we found that the whitewashed beam carrying the ceiling was, in fact, a 1930’s steel joist covered with chicken wire and plaster. When this was removed, the proportions of the room and the ventilation of the space from an opening on the floor above made its use as a kitchen credible. However as the ceiling was removed a large stone doorway, opening into the room above the Great Hall, was discovered half way up the wall. Above the stone lintel of the doorway were a series of square slots with the rotted remains of roof joists in them. Running up the wall to the doorway were the clear marks of a rising stair.
It was clear that at some point in the distant past this had constituted an outside access to the room above the Great Hall. Suddenly this information solved a series of anomalies that allowed us and the Heritage Authorities to understand the history of the whole Great Hall block. The attic trusses above this first floor room we knew had been adapted to insert another floor which had totally changed the nature of the space and converted it into a series of rather pokey bedrooms. The location of the stair and large doorway made it clear that this upstairs room with its wonderful trussed roof ceiling had in fact been the main, or Great Hall of an incredibly early house, rather than the room below it. To have been built in this format the house could not have been built after about 1480 – some 200 years older than the date ascribed to it when we bought the house. The investigation of the kitchen added to it later had inadvertently revealed the true age and nature of this part of the building. Suddenly we were dealing with an infinitely more rare and precious survival from the distant past than we had imagined.
Robert Bateman appears to be a unique Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite artist. What do you think of his painting skill compared to the more well-known Pre-Raphaelite artists and how does it feel to know that you are living in the place he used as his studio and in the surroundings he chose to depict in his works?
Before I go any further I fear I must declare an interest – I own 3 Batemans which are at Biddulph. Also, the relationship that has built up between Caroline, Bateman & myself over the five years since we met is too devoted and loving for me to be entirely subjective. However I will yield to no-one in my absolute conviction that Robert’s gifts as an artist place him unequivocally amongst the leading figures of the late Pre-Raphaelite and Symbolist schools. He was, in his lifetime, always treated with critical equivalence to Simeon Solomon and Walter Crane, but in my view his best work surpasses both these artists – one only has to compare his exquisitely coloured and disciplined little ‘Four Seasons’ series with Solomon’s comparatively crude equivalents.
Nothing from Crane ever achieves the haunting refinement and clarity of ‘The Pool of Bethesda’, let alone its charged emotional stillness. I do believe that his important surviving works such as 'Bethesda', 'Abelard & Heloise', 'Women Plucking Mandrakes', 'The Dead Knight' and his awe-inspiring portrait of Caroline should secure him a place amongst the great figures of the late Pre-Raphaelite movement. I think that two crucial losses have contributed disastrously to his unjust obscurity – one was the misplacement of his acknowledged masterpiece ‘Saul and The Witch of Endor’ by the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery sometime between 1954 and 2000, and the destruction of another important oil ‘The Lily or The Rose’ by his old school, Brighton College in the 1960’s. Had these remained on public display into the present century his skill would have been self-evident and his position secured.
Robert’s response to Biddulph Old Hall is still palpable. The building preserves the hypnotic intensity of generations of people of deep abiding conviction, right down to the pioneering community of Buddhist monks who came there in the 1960’s. Robert and his generation were the first to be confronted by the revolutionary uncertainty of Darwin’s theory. Robert and his group, including Solomon, experimented with the implicit freedoms it contained. The cult of love that they evolved is commemorated in ‘Reading of Love, HE Being By’, set in Biddulph. It portrays a world illuminated and transformed by the power of human love. It is impossible not to sense Robert’s presence as you walk out into the white garden amongst the ruins dedicated to his and Caroline’s memory. The essence of their distracted, entangled, overflowing relationship remains trapped amongst the fallen stones and cascading flowers in those ruins.
Is your research about him still going on today? If so, which leads are you following?
Yes – if anything at a faster, more absorbing pace than our first round of enquiries. Naively, we did not understand that becoming entangled in meaningful relationships with figures from the past is no less dynamic and unpredictable than it is with the living. For a deluded moment we saw the publishing of ‘The Lost Pre-Raphaelite’ as some sort of summation or conclusion. Now we recognise it as a mere mile-stone along Robert & Caroline’s own well managed journey of re-incarnation in which we are no more than the unwitting chauffeurs. The information has come from so many unexpected places and diverse sources that I cannot begin to cover it here, so I will mention just two examples that have opened up wonderful areas of new understanding. Both concern specific areas where there was a lack of concrete evidence at the time the book was published.
One was the lack of firm proof that Robert & Caroline had met and fallen in love when they were young. Two months after the book came out someone contacted us to say that some 20 years before he had bought a box of assorted prints and paintings at a house auction, amongst which was a strange little oil painting of a female figure with fair hair, signed Robert Bateman on the back of the canvas. When he brought it to Biddulph for us to see it, it contained enough information to leave me in no doubt of both the artist and the sitter. In the middle of the back was a torn label which had the letters ‘ice’ and 15 gns above Robert’s signature and the address of his studio in Nottingham Street, London. This told us that the picture was exhibited for sale at the Dudley Gallery between 1866 and 1868 when his parents moved to London and rented a house with an artist’s studio, from which Robert addressed all his submissions from then on.
The Dudley lists told us that in those years Robert only exhibited one female figure, and one painting at 15 Guinee’s, entitled Lucretia Borgia. Since the painting portrays a woman in a tall black hat and cradling a black cat, the intention to convey a wicked or vampish woman seemed to fit. However lower down the reverse of the canvas Robert had later added, in his own hand, ‘Caroline Bateman as Sophia Weston’. Since Caroline Howard did not become Caroline Bateman until she was 43 years old and the sitter is in her 20’s, as Caroline would have been in 1868 it seems almost certain that it is a portrait of her. In these circumstances the Sophia Weston reference seems to be playfully ironic – Sophia Weston is the idealised figure of purity in the otherwise scandalous novel Tom Jones by Henry Fielding. As we looked at the painting it struck a strange resonance that at first we could not quite place, but suddenly we realised that the whole pose with the black hat, the cupped hands, the reflective head band and the low neckline was a parody of Gainsborough’s fabulous portrait of Gorgiana, Duchess of Devonshire – the irrepressible beauty who had scandalised society by her gambling and promiscuity. Since Gorgiana’s daughter was Caroline’s aunt it seems probable that Robert was drawing a parallel between Caroline’s aristocratic distain for conventional respectability and his own low church, middle class upbringing. So the painting as well as providing proof of their relationship beginning in their youth, also sheds an unexpected new light on the dynamics of the scandal that engulfed them, by suggesting that Caroline might have been, if not a catalyst, at least an enthusiastic participant in the pre-marital sexual relationship that led to the pregnancy that came to dominate their story.
Another discovery concerned the identity of R.G.H. Somerset, the person who signed Robert & Caroline’s marriage Certificate as Robert’s Best Man and principal witness. Through all our early research we had been completely unable to identify him and he never came up at any other time in the story. We felt that as the surname was a relatively common one we would never be able to be certain of pinpointing him. However, about a year after the Lost Pre-Raphaelite came out Brian was amazed to get a response to a computer search for a Victorian photograph of R.G.H. Somerset in the National Portrait Gallery. This would not necessarily have meant anything except that the sitter had signed the corner of the photograph with the identical, distinctive signature as was on the marriage certificate. This allowed us to identify him as Raglan G.H. Somerset, son of Lord Granville Somerset and nephew of the Duke of Beaufort, and who served as an usher to Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. He was closely associated with his two cousins, Lord Henry and Lord Arthur Somerset. Lord Henry was Controller of Queen Victoria’s household, and Lord Arthur worked in the Prince of Wales’ household and was heavily implicated in the Cleveland Street Scandal. Both cousins were eventually forced to flee the country and live abroad to avoid arrest and imprisonment due to their homosexuality. Bateman’s close relationship with these men and Lord Euston, another pivotal figure in the Cleveland street debacle has led us down an extraordinary road leading to subterfuge and probable suicide to avoid the Royal Family’s name being drawn into the homosexual scandal.
Do you have any plans to open Biddulph Old Hall to the general public for special events to explain its incredible story?
Yes. We have always tried to respond to people’s interest in the Hall and its story, but we have had to acknowledge that since The Lost Pre-Raphaelite was published we increasingly have a problem. The trouble is that from the book review stage there has been an almost insatiable demand for me to give talks about both the building and the artist. The groups who attend the talks invariably follow them up by a request for a visit. They always want Brian & I to be present and provide comprehensive guided tours to give additional insights that enrich their experience of visiting the house and gardens. Sadly as the numbers grew, the combined talks and visits became impracticable as we both still work full time on our Architectural Design Consultancy. For a time we restricted the visits to specialised groups such as the British Art Fund, The Pre-Raphaelite Society and various National Trust Groups.
However 3 years ago we discovered a letter in the archives of Arley hall that described Robert working tirelessly to create gardens round the hall in 1871, and shortly after this we stumbled upon a wonderful description published in a tour guide in 1880 of the hauntingly atmospheric water and woodland garden he achieved in the valley below the house by damming the stream and blasting the rocks to make rapids and waterfalls. Since these discoveries we have instigated a programme of garden making to recapture the spirit of Robert’s creation. So far we have made a series of enclosed gardens round the house culminating in an exuberant white ‘Briar Rose’ or ‘Romaunt de la Rose’ garden to commemorate Burne-Jones and his followers (Robert’s Group) who were pre-occupied with this particular subject. The upshot of all this is that the gardens have unexpectedly become another major draw for people wanting to visit the house. To try and satisfy this demand we decided to have Open Days last June but were rather overwhelmed when, without advertising, about 700 people arrived! We do feel a responsibility to the band of enthusiasts who have developed a cult around the Hall and Robert Bateman., with many of them visiting every site mentioned in The Lost Pre-Raphaelite. So we do intend to continue with the Open Days, albeit on a new format that caters for the different areas of interest. However, we feel that maintaining the evocative seclusion of Biddulph Old Hall as a private house is paramount if its unique quality is to be preserved.
Yours was an amazing debut book. Are you currently working on new projects?
Yes. As I have touched on I am investigating the wider world of Bateman’s artistic circle, the so-called ‘Poetry without Grammar School’, as defined by Walter Crane in Artist’s Reminiscences. This includes Simeon Solomon, Hamo Thorneycroft, Theodore Blake Wirgman, Edward Clifford, Edward Robert Hughes, H. E. Wooldridge and the Poet Laureate Robert Bridges. Their stories, particularly Bateman’s own and Solomon’s have an amazing power to illuminate both the terrifying underworld of brutality and poverty just beyond the margins of artistic society, and the closed world of indulged privilege and clandestine manipulation that protected the Royal Family. The bohemian circle of artists, actors and courtesans formed a bridge between these incompatible worlds that enabled them to interact surreptitiously without immediately causing alarm. Bateman’s association with such notorious figures as the Somerset brothers and the infamous Henry George Fitzroy, later Earl of Euston, has the power to illuminate a side of his life that it is essential to understand in order to assess the man and his milieu correctly. At the same time I am working on a book about the group of relations, including Bateman’s father James, his uncle Rowland Egerton Warburton, Robert himself, and his cousins Piers Egerton Warburton and Adela Bootle Wilbraham, who all created ground breaking gardens of breath-taking beauty that have survived into the modern world. The gardens of Biddulph Grange, Arley Hall, Benthall Hall, Biddulph Old Hall and Ninfa near Rome are some of the most romantic in the world and all had their roots in the artistic creativity of a related group of 19th century amateur enthusiasts.
For a little while I have also been researching the harrowing story of the building and destruction of Biddulph Old Hall. The marked characteristics revealed by the Ground Penetrating radar appeared to relate it to other houses by the first great English architect Robert Smythson. Mark Girouard, the greatest authority on both Smythson and Elizabethan architecture visited us and said that it was extremely unlikely that Smythson would have been involved as he only worked amongst a small circle of those related to his principal patrons the Talbot family, Earls of Shrewsbury. Upon looking into it we were amazed to find that at the exact moment the house was being built by Francis Biddulph, his wife’s cousin was Sir John Talbot. Sir John’s son was George Talbot, 9th Earl of Shrewbury, so that link was there and Smythson’s involvement confirmed. By the time the house was attacked in February 1644, it was well established as a Royalist, Roman Catholic stronghold.
Another Francis Biddulph, a young man of 23, who garrisoned and defended the house, was taken into captivity along with the other defenders and held in prison until the Restoration of Charles II. The ladies, that is Francis’s wife, mother, sisters and one year old son, Richard, were simply thrown out to fend for themselves. Richard Biddulph grew up to play a central role in the seminal moment in English Constitutional history – the so called Glorious revolution when Parliament invited William III and Mary to take the crown in place of her father, the Roman Catholic James II. James fled to France in a fishing smack at the dead of night accompanied by only 3 other people – his illegitimate son, the Duke of Berwick, the Captain of the boat and Richard Biddulph. Biddulph is reputed to have cooked sausages over an iron stove during the crossing that King James II declared ‘the best breakfast I ever did eat’. Richard Biddulph remained with James II at his Court in exile at the Palace of St Germain and the accounts held at Sizergh Castle in Cumbria show him as Principal Gentleman of the bedchamber. After James’s death in 1701 Biddulph was a key member of the small group of people who attempted to have James canonised for refusing to compromise his Catholic beliefs, even to retain his kingdom. Since the family had gained another estate, Burton Park in Sussex, by marriage, Richard is said to have decreed that Biddulph Hall should not be mended, as a perpetual memorial to the maltreatment of his master, James II, King of England.