A strikingly beautiful house appears a short distance after driving through Madresfield village and turning towards Madresfield Court. It is sitting at the foot of the Malvern Hills and is approached across a bridge over a moat. I arrived at noon on a balmy autumn day to see the real house of the Lygon family and get closer to their sensibilities, which inspired Waugh’s masterpiece novel Brideshead Revisited.
Inside this grand but very homely English country house, Tudor, Victorian Gothic and Arts and Crafts styles are all interwoven with a charming accumulation of Parisian, Dutch and Danish furniture, massive family and rare royal portraits, fake Holbeins, William Morrison fabrics, unusual artefacts and sculptures, marble fireplaces, valuable armoury, early-oak carved chests and antique travel trunks.
Waugh’s desk and chair have been moved from the upstairs nursery, where he stayed during his many visits to Madresfiled (1931-1938), to the bay in the Long Gallery overlooking the Moat Garden. They seem to be the only uncomplicated items displayed on the otherwise highly ornamented first floor. Hugh Lygon, Waugh’s Oxford friend famously depicted as Sebastian Flyte, stares melancholically from a small modestly framed photograph tucked away in a corner of the dramatic top-lit, double-height staircase hall designed by his father, the seventh Earl Beauchamp who is the prototype of Lord Marchmain in Brideshead. Portraits of his sisters who adored Waugh and also found a place in the novel are spread across the wood panelled walls of many rooms and corridors. Waugh wrote his novel Black Mischief while staying at Madresfield in 1931 and a copy of the book dedicated to Mary and Dorothy together with other first editions are said to be kept in the Smoking Room but in the today’s Madresfield there is no public access to it. In the Library one can see shelves going all the way up to the high ceilings holding thousands of volumes including bibles, musical scores, dictionaries and albums.
The chapel seems unchanged since it was first seen by Waugh in 1931. It is decorated in the Arts and Crafts emblematic expression with idyllic pastoral scenes surrounding the portraits of the Lord and Lady Beauchamp as well as their seven children. There are beautiful murals, stained glass and candlesticks designed by Henry Payne. This is a Church of England chapel with some soft blue Italian Renaissance style colours. Although it does look a lot like the one in Brideshead, it also feels different from the strictly Catholic chapel given as a present to Lady Marchmain by her exiled husband.
In Brideshead Waugh seems to have immortalised just one episode of Madresfield’s almost one thousand years old life. But it is deeply convincing especially as shaped by his affectionately fictionalised romantic love for the Brideshead set. My two hours inside Madresfield was like stepping into an extraordinary still-life painting to meet its amazing inhabitants and to eat, drink, sleep, read, write and laugh with them.
26 September, Madresfield.