If only walls could talk, those of Polesden Lacey would surely have many deliciously tantalising stories to tell. ‘And if [the stories] are with a spice of scandal, so much better,’ as the Earl of Crawford once said.
This former country home of Margaret Greville, a wealthy heiress and doyenne of high society, and her husband Ronald, Polesden Lacey played host to a magnificent roll call of high-profile guests in the early 20th century. They were treated to elaborate dinners then beguiled by dazzling dancers, music, magic and more.
An Edwardian property from the outside, the sumptuous interiors were remodelled by the Ritz architects under Margaret’s guiding hand so as to be fit for royalty, drawing on influences from Jacobean to Georgian styles.
- Who were Ronald and Margaret Greville
- What inspired the design of the interiors at Polesden Lacey
- Who were among the guests that attended parties at Polesden Lacey
- How guests were entertained
Margaret Greville photographed in the portico at Polesden Lacey. The daughter of a brewer, she was described as making no attempt at the veneer of a ‘society’ manner, and once said ‘I’d rather be a ‘beeress’ than a peeress’
Ronald Greville, the son of the 2nd Baron Greville, was a captain in the Life Guards and part of the ‘Marlborough House Set’ – the inner circle of Edward VII. Margaret, however, was the illegitimate daughter of William McEwan, founder of McEwan’s Brewery, Edinburgh, and Helen Anderson, a housekeeper of a boarding house. To avoid the scandal of Edinburgh society, Helen was sent to London have her baby, and it was not until Margaret was 21 that William made an honest woman of her mother.
William bought Polesden Lacey for Margaret and Ronald in 1906, and it was used as a venue for weekend parties that were the talk of society. Ronald passed away in 1908, before alterations to the house were complete, but Margaret continued to entertain the great and good for many years, bringing along an entourage of staff from her main London residence.
On her death in 1942, Margaret bequeathed the house and estate to the National Trust, in her father’s memory.
There are many influences, as Margaret and Ronald commissioned architects Mewès and Davis, who had recently designed London’s Ritz, and the interior designers White, Allom and Co, who specialised in architectural salvage.
Margaret’s instruction for the Saloon was to create a space ‘fit to entertain a Maharaja’, and
it certainly does impress. It has 18-carat gold panelling taken from an 18th-century Italian Palazzo, and mirrors at both ends of the room reflecting the light from a sparkling 4,000-piece crystal Bacarrat chandelier.
The Central Hall had to make an impact as the first room guests would enter, so they fitted a 17th-century ‘reredos’ around the fireplace. This is a carved wooden screen taken from behind the altar of one of Sir Christopher Wren’s churches, above which hang Flemish tapestries from the 16th to 18th centuries.
Jackson & Son created the ornamental plaster ceilings in the corridors, copying the Jacobean designs from Chastleton House in Oxfordshire, and portraits are displayed against Jacobean-style wooden panelling. In contrast, the Tea Room is in a feminine French Louis XVI style, with pastel landscape paintings set into the white panelling.
Edward VII came to the first house party in June 1909, as did his long-time mistress Alice Keppel. Author Beverley Nichols remembered Winston Churchill holding forth ‘with a good cigar in one hand and a better Armagnac in the other’, and the Chamberlains visited every Christmas throughout the 1930s.
Margaret entertained royalty from across the globe, including seven Maharajas, the Kings of Spain and Egypt; Queen Mary would suddenly telephone and announce herself for tea, while the Duke and Duchess of York spent their honeymoon at Polesden in 1923. There must have been a lot of interesting dinner party conversation…
In the Edwardian period dinners were huge experiences and nine courses was not out of the ordinary. All sorts of evening entertainment was laid on, from juggling acts to the Dolly Sisters.
Margaret catered to the needs of her guests; on hearing that some of the King of Egypt’s entourage was feeling homesick, she arranged for white-clad musicians to play Eastern music and after-dinner dancing and juggling in the Eastern tradition. She also built a curry kitchen outside the house so that she could serve the Maharajas their local cuisines, yet keep the smells out of the main property.
Described as big hearted and cordial, Margaret was, however, not to be crossed – afternoon tea was served at 5 o’clock sharp and not a minute past, and powerful members of parliament were seen to hurry down the stairs so as not to be late.
While today the house also displays collections from her London home, in the Saloon pianists still play at the Steinway, keeping alive this spirit of the property’s entertaining heyday.
Images: © National Trust Images/Andreas von Einsiedel/Chris Lacey
Two new exhibition rooms are now open at Polesden Lacey, telling the stories of William McEwan and Ronald Greville. Margaret Greville’s bedroom has also been restored, with displays of her collections.
The house is open daily, 11am–5pm. Admission: Adult £13.60; child £6.80; family (2 adults, 2 children) £34.50. Polesden Lacey Great Bookham, nr Dorking, Surrey RH5 6BD.
Tel: 01372 452048