The childhood home of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Leith Hill Place in Surrey, has been opened to the public by the National Trust for a trial season until 3 November.
The house has not been restored and the NT is asking visitors to come ‘with an open mind’. There is very little left of the grandeur of the original house, say organisers, ‘but what you will see is a house in transition’. Feedback from visitors will be welcomed as to how the house should be used in the future.
‘It’s a chance to breathe life and laughter into a house that’s been closed up for some time,’ says NT visitor operations manager Gabrielle Gale. ‘We hope that visitors will drop in as curious bystanders and leave as firm friends with a passion for this amazing house.’
The Vaughan Williams Society has organised two concerts to take place on 21 August and 14 September (details below) and broadcaster Brian Kay and actor Virginia McKenna have contributed to a guided audio soundscape for the house’s attics.
A property has existed on the site since at least the early 17th century, and was refaced around 1760 in ‘a weak but delicate Palladian style’, according to Ian Nairn and Sir Nikolaus Pevsner.
It has undergone many additions and transformations since then. The house was bought by pottery magnate Josiah Wedgwood’s grandson (also called Josiah) in 1844. His sister Emma was married to Sir Charles Darwin (whose own sister, Caroline, married Josiah Wedgwood; Emma and Charles, Caroline and Josiah were also each other’s first cousins), and the naturalist stayed at the house often.
Josiah and Caroline’s daughter, Margaret Wedgwood, married Arthur Vaughan Williams, and the couple had Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1872.
The composer grew up in the house from the age of two, and inherited it in 1944 after the death of his brother. He lived on the site for a short time before giving it to the National Trust in the same year since when its tenants have been Sir Ralph Wedgwood, Sir John Wedgwood, and the 2nd Baron Keyes.
Most recently it was used as a boarding house by nearby private school Hurtwood House from 1972 to 2008.
There have been calls in recent years for the house to be used as a permanent home with which to memorialise the composer. Filmmaker John Bridcut wrote in 2008, as the school was preparing to move out, that ‘Leith Hill Place is the ideal focal point for Vaughan Williams … There is now the chance to present both the humanity and the artistic inspiration of Vaughan Williams (let alone the Wedgwood and Darwin connections) to a wider audience in the place that he himself gave to the nation.
‘It is embarrassing that such a gift has lain unopened for the past 60 years,’ wrote Bridcut.
In November 2012 the Times’s architecture correspondent reported on various possibilities for the future of the site, including proposals by the RVW Society with country house specialist Kit Martin and Stedman Blower Architects for ‘a visionary plan to open it as a centre where visitors can enjoy choral music and an exhibition of the composer’s life and work.’ The plan included a space for Vaughan Williams memorabilia, the use of the main ground-floor room for concerts and recitals, and cash-generating holiday rentals on upper floors.
Several times a year the accommodation would be let en bloc to the Vaughan Williams Society or other musical groups, said the report, and choirs to practise and perform. Em Marshall-Luck of the RVW Society said at the time: ‘There is space for a choir of up to 50 singers. It is ideal for choral groups on singing weekends and would be popular with local choirs and music festivals.’
The future of public access to the house is as yet unclear beyond this trial opening (which ends on 3 November), but those behind the scheme are hopeful of a positive response from the public.
Further details on the opening of Leith Hill Place here. For information on visiting the house, click here (pdf file).
Concerts at Leith Hill Place
31 August, 6.30pm
Jessica Coleman, violin, Alison Rhind, piano
Vaughan Williams: Romance and Pastorale
Elgar: Chanson de Matin
Ravel: Sonata for Violin and Piano
Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending
14 September, 6.30pm
Rebeca Omordia, piano
William Lloyd Webber: A Song for the Morning; Willow Song
Bliss: Suite for Piano: (I) Overture (IV) Variations; Miniature Scherzo
Ireland: Columbine; Amberley Wild Brooks; Decorations (The Island Spell; Moonglade; The Scarlet Ceremonies)
Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on ‘Greensleeves’ (piano arr.); Job – A Masque for Dancing (piano arr. by Vally Lasker): ‘Satan’s Dance of triumph'; ‘Alter Dance and Heavenly Pavane’
Ravel: Gaspard de la nuit (Ondine; Le Gibet; Scarbo)
Vaughan Williams: ‘The Lake in the Mountains’
Tickets £15.00, including interval drink. Tickets in advance and on the door, subject to space. Click here for more details.