Monday May 24, 2021

At Last - the Mosaic

When the Friends of Littlecote Roman Villa started work in 2019, some of the walls were overgrown and barely visible, not having been cleaned since the early 1990s when excavations ceased.  That has all changed thanks to a lot of effort and determination, but the icing on the cake was always going to be tackling the jewel in the crown – the famous Orpheus mosaic.  We finally got on to the precious mosaic this week and careful cleaning began. Roughly half of the pavement is original, from AD 360, so the tesserae are extremely fragile and great care is needed.  The restored areas are more robust and need less attention to detail.  Replacing missing tesserae and re-grouting will follow later.  It will look wonderful again! 



Monday May 17,  2021
Hogwash or Hogarth?
There has been much excitement  recently  over an article in The Times on Friday 7 May 2021.    Early in 2020,  I hosted art historian Margaret (Peg) Katritzky and her friend Oliver Crick, Commedia dell'arte specialist, on a tour of Littlecote House.  They were very interested in the Dutch Parlour (putting it mildly) and we spent hours in there, examining it in great detail.  It is said to have been painted by Dutch sailors, prisoners of war taken during the Second Anglo-Dutch war in around 1666, and so I have told everyone on my tours.  Peg has been very busy since, and her research, published in The Times,  suggests this may be hogwash.  She believes the paintings may be the work of the great British artist William Hogarth in around 1720  (see https://theconversation.com/how-i-found-potential-lost-works-of-the-great-british-painter-william-hogarth-new-research-158906).   Much more work and debate will follow, I am sure, but in the meantime, I am sticking to my story!

 
Thursday April 8, 2021
Back in Business!
Today saw the first session of the 2021 season for the Friends of Littlecote Roman Villa.  Eight stalwards were on parade, the sun shone, and good progress was made.  Thanks to lots of hard work in 2020, the site came through the winter in a better condition than we might have hoped, and last week saw the removal of some troublesome tree branches which were overhanging the gatehouse area.  Today the interpretation boards were cleaned and the Orpheus mosaic swept.  In addition, work continued on creating trenches around the walls to facilitate mowing and discourage weeds.  Once the weather warms up, work will start on cleaning the mosaic and re-grouting where required.  Around half the mosaic consists of  original Roman tesserae dating to AD360, and treating these fragile sections will be a highly delicate task.  For that reason, the work will be overseen by Bryn Walters, the project director during the excavations in the 1970s and 1980s.  We have been fortunate to receive an offer of help from a group of student stone conservators who would like to spend a week or two of their summer break working on the  mosaic, and Bryn will supervise them during that time. How wonderful it will be to see this beautiful pavement restored!



Thursday March 11, 2021

Do You Know These People?

This photograph of staff at Littlecote was given to me  some years ago by a couple who were visiting Littlecote.  They had it in their house and called it the "annual staff photo".  They had no idea of the date, but knew that their grandparents William and Rhoda Breed (chauffeur and assistant cook) were part of the group, and wondered if I would help them.   I could only guess at the date of the photo - until now!  From 1897 onwards, Littlecote House was rented out to tenants - Vernon Watney, the Hirsch brothers, Gerard Lee Bevan and the Wills family, who bought it in 1929.  In February of this year, I had an enquiry from an American living in England whose grandfather George Coker appears on the 1911 census as the Under Butler at Littlecote House.  After much research, I realised that the staff photo must have been taken at the wedding of Margaret Hirsch, daughter of Leopold, in August 1913 - a very grand affair which included an elaborate wedding breakfast laid out in the Long Gallery..  And guess who featured in the photo, almost dead centre, with the hands of the gamekeeper resting on his shoulders?  The Under Butler George Coker, who emigrated to the US in 1914 when the Hirsch family left Littlecote, and founded a very successful catering company in New York.   So - now we have the date and three names, but who are the others?  I'd love to know - do tell me me!.




Monday October 5, 2020
End of Term Report
Time to down tools again after a very strange season of work on cleaning and restoring the Roman villa.  But despite a late start due to lockdown and fewer sessions during the summer, we have managed to complete the cleaning of the complicated west range of the villa complex and even found time to revisit our starting point of March 2019, the three-storey gatehouse. Unsurprisingly, the latter was in need of further work where nature had started to reclaim it!   We had eight sessions in 2020, with an average of 13-14 volunteers at each, which accounts for our encouraging progress.  Bigger projects such as the cleaning of the famous Orpheus mosaic and the gravelling of the interior "rooms"  will have to wait until 2021. Work continues on the £1.5 million three-year roof project with the inevitable disruption, but the rewards are very much in evidence at the west end of the house.   Here's hoping 2021 will prove to be a fruitful year.  See you in Spring!



Tuesday June 30, 2020
The New Normal?
It seems a lifetime ago (actually September) that the Friends of Littlecote Roman Villa finished work for the 2019 season, having made huge progress clearing the walls of the villa complex. Little did we know that it would be nine months before work would begin again, but here we are and now it has!  FOLRV had their first session yesterday and a select group of nine turned out, suitably briefed and socially distanced of course, to pick up where we left off. The number of volunteers from the Hungerford Historical Association has grown to 33 over lockdown, which is hugely encouraging, and there have been no resignations. Fortnightly sessions have been scheduled for the summer and we look forward to making  more progress on what is the most difficult part, the west range with its main villa, hypocaust and bath suite.  Although the hotel closed in March, the Littlecote Head Gardener has been working throughout, single-handedly coping with the considerable task of grass cutting, so the site itself had not become overgrown, and the work we did last year on the walls still looked good after the winter. Warners have announced that the hotel will re-open on 27 July 2020, so the Roman site will see  guests once more and not just the odd Rambler passing by.  



Monday November 4, 2019
Francis Popham's Grand Mansion - viewed at last
Francis Popham, born 1735, was the fourth great-grandson of Sir John Popham. He married, aged 37, Dorothy Hutton, the daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Right Rev Matthew Hutton. They had no children.
Francis was the instigator of a plan to build a "grand mansion" on land adjoining Hunstrete House near Bath. Sir John Popham had acquired the medieval manor of Hunstrete (referred to then as “Houndstreet”) at the beginning of the 17th century, but Francis’s intention was to build a mansion "upon a most extensive and magnificent scale". In a contemporary portrait, the mansion can be seen behind Francis, but he never lived to see his dream fulfilled, dying in 1779. His widow, Dorothy, vowed to continue with the building.   In 1797, Dorothy's death heralded the end of the building work. The project had been under way for about 27 years, with only the north and east fronts erected, and these incomplete. The grand mansion remained unoccupied and gradually fell into a state of disrepair. Under the terms of Dorothy’s will, the house passed to their nephew, General Edward William Leyborne, who had to take the name of Popham in order to inherit. In 1832, he commissioned a survey by a master builder that showed it would cost a further £60,000 (£4 million in today’s terms) to complete the house to the original design. It was decided that the house should be demolished to prevent any further drain on the family finances.
The magnificent contents were put up for sale, and many of them, including the grand central staircase in turned mahogany and the elaborate hand-modelled high relief plasterwork, were bought by Bishop Peter Baines for reuse in the refurbishment of his Prior Park mansion in Bath, after it was burnt down in 1836.  Now an independent school, Prior Park College is not open to the public, although the landscaped gardens, which include the lovely Palladian bridge, are owned by the National Trust and may be visited. But last week I got to go on a rare tour of Prior Park mansion and to see Francis Popham's treasures - at last. Sadly, no photographs.



Saturday October 26, 2019
End of Season

The Friends of Littlecote Roman Villa now boast twenty-eight volunteers, engaged in cleaning and restoring the famous Roman site.  They started work in April 2019 under the expert guidance of the original archaeologists Bryn Walters and Bernard Phillips (pictured right and centre, with artist and illustrator Luigi Thompson (left)).   Over the past six months they have made amazing progress, stripping the walls of moss, soil and weeds, starting with the three-storey gatehouse and continuing along the east and south ranges.  They have now finished work for the season, having made considerable  inroads into the complex west range with its villa and hypocaust.  They intend to start again in Spring 2020 where they left off.   It will be a long job, but the walls have been largely untouched since the excavations came to an end thirty years ago!






Thursday August 1, 2019
Sitting Room Complete
Master George's Sitting Room is proving hugely popular with hotel guests.  It has a very homely feel, made all the more so by the addition of family photographs of Sir Ernest and Major George Wills.  The Warner website says "We've re-imagined an historic space, formerly Oliver's Bistro, within Littlecote's Tudor Old House, transforming it into an elegant bar and sitting room perfect for relaxing, drinks and delicious bites to eat during the day and on into the early evening. Above all else though, it's an alternative space to give you more choice in where and how you relax. Here is your invitation to sink into plush sofas and take your time over lunch and a latte, then cheers and a chat early evening. Table service means you won't have to lift a finger either."  Rumour has it that the servants' bellboard from which the idea came will be relocated to the new space.  I like it.