It always seems a bit of a cop out to write about National Trust properties on a blog like this, on the basis that it’s hardly an achievement to seek out a place that’s advertised on the website and publications of an organisation with thousands of members and dedicated to preserving the past. However, the number of National Trust places with a real link to the Mid Century period is fairly small – most are much older and some where you’d expect to find a treasure trove of material from our era make for surprisingly thin pickings, on the basis that the people who lived in them did so because they loved the past, too, and so filled them with antiquities. A recent trip to Devon produced a couple of examples of the latter, including Agatha Christie’s summer residence – regularly occupied by her and her family throughout the 40s, 50s and 60s, but full of their various collections of much older artefacts and with little sign of the contemporary world in which she set her books.
Every so often, though, one comes across a National Trust property so quintessentially 20th Century that you’ve got to shout about it to make sure anyone with a love of that period knows to make a beeline for it, and Coleton Fishacre is just such a place. Nestling in a bay on the South Devon coast, between Brixham and Kingswear, it was created from scratch by members of the D’Oyly Carte family, Sir Rupert and his wife Lady Dorothy, as a weekend escape from London life and who spotted the site for their Devon retreat as they sailed past (perhaps hypocritically, one has to be grateful that today’s rich and influential can’t just pick on a nice unspoiled bit of coastline and decide to slap a house on it!).
In contrast to the outright modernism that the D’Oyly Cartes were favouring for their London properties, including the stylish art deco remodelling of the Savoy Hotel and Theatre, their brief to architect Oswald Milne (former protégé of Sir Edwin Lutyens) was for something more in keeping with the surrounding area but avoiding either faux rusticism or, worse, the kind of retro castle style embraced at Castle Drogo on the other side of Dartmoor. Instead, the exterior was to be in arts and crafts sytle, using local stone quarried on site to blend in with the setting, but with an understated modern finish to the interior, with subtle art deco touches to create a house fit for relaxed weekend living and entertaining.
We’re very lucky that the house has remained largely intact with its fittings in place. Rupert and Lady Dorothy retained it until Rupert’s death in 1948, although sadly the loss of their son 21 year-old son in a car accident in 1932 dealt an irrecoverable blow to their relationship which meant that their later years were lived separately, and from 1939 they let the house to friends. Fortunately, the next owners of the house, garage tycoon Rowland Smith and his wife, cherished Coleton Fishacre with little change until it was offered to the Trust in 1982. Little in the way of the original contents had survived, but with the fabric of the building in its original form, the Trust was steadily able to acquire or commission furniture to restore it to a state representing its deco heyday, eventually opening it up to visitors in 1999.
Now, the 21 Century visitor is able to walk through the house as it would have been when the D’Oyly Cartes welcomed their weekend visitors in the late 20s and early 30s, with the reproduction furniture adding to the sense of it as a living building rather than a museum piece (after all, the contents would not have been ‘old’ when the building itself was new). We loved some of the techniques used to bring it to life – dressing tables and other surfaces are dressed with suitably period objects, apparently just left there by a previous occupant, until closer inspection reveals that they are secured in place by strands of transparent thread attached to Perspex sheets on top of the item of furniture. The Trust guides (including a couple of our dear friends drawn inexorably on their move to Devon) hover unobtrusively, primed with titbits of information but otherwise content to let visitors explore the house at their own pace. Some rooms are breath-taking (as the designers intended), particularly the saloon with its original Marion Dorn carpet, but the beauty of the house as a whole is that most rooms just invite you to move in – indeed, the universal reaction amongst visitors is one of ‘I could live here’, which is testament to the vision of the original architect and the D’Oyly Cartes’ sense of design. Of course, the room I would most happily transfer in its entirety to MidCentury Villas is the library, complete with substantial but unobtrusive bookshelves, gorgeous desk, and very deco painted map of the south Devon coast complete with wind dial driven by a weather vane on the roof. But then again, I don’t think there’s any room I wouldn’t want to incorporate in a dream Chap home!
The gardens are a treat in themselves – acres of them, and now sensitively restored by an army of volunteers. It’s only a shame that coastal erosion has made the private beach unaccessible since 2001, but the Trust has sensibly made the decision that it would be futile to try, Canute-like, to hold back the course of nature and we are quite rightly made to put our imagination, fuelled by ample photographic evidence, to work to picture the beach in its glory days.
It goes without saying that Coleton Fishacre should be a priority for any visit to the south Devon area for any self-respecting devotee of 20s and 30s design and society. My only tip would be to allow yourself plenty of time to take in not only the house but also the gardens that were so much a part of the weekend guest experience. Indeed, why not plan to eschew the café (excellent though it is) and create your own 1930s house party atmosphere by taking a picnic and finding your own spot in the gardens to recreate your deco moment…