Christmas at Surrey’s Polesden Lacey
PUBLISHED: 13:59 23 December 2019 | UPDATED: 14:00 23 December 2019
©National Trust Images/Nick Meers
Polesden Lacey in Surrey is all a-sparkle with seasonal treats and activities this Christmas
Dame Margaret was a famous hostess, a friend of royalty and a lady of strong character and ability,' reported a Surrey newspaper in September 1942, after the passing of the Hon. Dame Margaret Greville of Polesden Lacey. 'Her death is greatly regretted in the part of Surrey which knew her well, for she had been a generous benefactor as well as a staunch friend.'
So generous, in fact, that 'Maggie' left Polesden and its 1,400-acre estate to the National Trust, 'for the largest number of people to have enjoyment thereof'. And how they do - last year, almost 400,000 people visited the Edwardian property in Great Bookham near Dorking, to learn about this weekend party house that tempted the cream of society in the early 1900s and to admire the panoramic views from its magnificent grounds. And, of course, to hear about the complex heiress and hostess at the head of the house.
"Mrs Greville was one of the foremost socialites of the early 20th century," explains house and collections manager Caroline Williams. "The Grevilles had rented a house at Reigate Priory and they also had a house in London, but Polesden was the place in the country where Mrs Greville could have people for weekends. She used to invite the great and good of society, all sorts of very interesting people - artists, politicians, royalty, journalists, anyone who was influential in society."
Not everyone appreciated the forthright Maggie but Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, admiringly described her as: "So shrewd, so kind, so amusingly unkind, so sharp, such fun, so naughty…" As Duchess of York she had honeymooned at Polesden Lacey with her new husband Bertie, later King George VI.
After Maggie's death in 1942, the queen received a bequest of 60 pieces of the finest items from her fabulous jewellery collection, a glittering array that included pieces from Cartier, along with those originating with such historic notables as Marie Antoinette, the Empress Josephine and Catherine the Great. These are now held as part of the Royal Collection.
News reports and stories of Maggie frequently mentioned her jewellery, including one reference which described her festooned in emeralds while dining at the Dorchester during the Blitz, determined to make a stylish exit should fate be against her. Her magnificent Boucheron tiara became a favourite of the Queen Mother's and is now often worn by the Duchess of Cornwall whose great-grandmother Alice Keppel had been a Polesden houseguest herself. A replica of it, now renamed the Greville Tiara (pictured), is displayed today in the sumptuous Saloon. Other pieces from the collection are often worn by other royal ladies, including the emerald and diamond tiara worn by Princess Eugenie at her wedding last year.
This Christmas, Maggie's jewels have inspired All That Glitters, Polesden's festive programme of décor and activities.
"Polesden is a gem in itself and a beautiful place at any time of year, but we really wanted to bring it to life for Christmas and make it sparkle," says Caroline. "Mrs Greville's jewels seemed like the perfect link. We want people to get a sense of coming into a jewellery box of delights. A lot of people love the traditional Polesden Christmas and the house won't lose its Christmas identity, but we are just going to ramp it up a bit, presenting more of a magical Christmas journey through the house."
Creative team Mark Nixon and Viliina Koivisto of 'fantastical' architecture, art and design practice Neon, have created art installations for selected rooms, inspired by Maggie's diamonds, pearls and gems. Other rooms on the visitor trail feature more traditional displays including impressive arrangements of flowers created by the property's volunteer flower arrangers.
"We are presenting the house as though it is night-time, with the blinds down and the corridors lit by artificial candles, which will show off the installations to their best advantage," explains Caroline. "The house looks fantastic at night-time with all the twinkly lights, but that is something our visitors don't usually get see. We wanted to give them the sense of the magical feeling of the house at this time of year and to see it in a completely new way, while still retaining a sense of the traditional Polesden Christmas."
Modern art installations in the house are a new direction for Polesden Lacey but entirely in-keeping with its evolving nature under the direction of the ambitious Mrs Greville, who delighted in the latest luxuries, innovations such as electric lighting and the newest names in London entertainment for her guests.
"She would always do the best she could in order to wow her guests, and to provide them with a fabulous experience while they were here, and that's what we are trying to achieve too," says Caroline. "We feel that she would approve."
All that Glitters runs at Polesden Lacey until January 6. nationaltrust.org.uk/polesden-lacey