23 March 2011

Madresfield Revisited

Upon reading Brideshead Revisited, Nancy Mitford wrote to Evelyn Waugh:

“I suppose Charles ends by being more in love than ever before…so true to life being in love with a whole family.”

The Lygons, 1925:
Coote, Maimie, Sibell, Lettice, Lady Beauchamp, Lord Beauchamp, Elmley, Hugh, Dickie

The whole family Waugh fell in love with was the Lygons and the house was Madresfield Court, home to the Lygons for nearly a thousand years. Madresfield had passed through twenty-eight direct generations of Lygons when Evelyn Waugh first crossed the threshold. The "Brideshead" revisited in the mini-series was in fact, Castle Howard.

The Lygon clan was edited down when they made the pages of Brideshead. The model for the beautiful and doomed Sebastian Flyte was Hugh Lygon. The most often used word to describe Hugh was “exquisite” with his athletic build, blond hair and amethyst eyes.

Hugh Lygon

Waugh was actually befriended first by the youngest of the Lygon sisters, Dorothy, known as Coote. It was Coote who first invited Evelyn Waugh to Madresfield. The cool and aloof Julia Flyte was based on Mary Lygon, known as Maimie.

Mary Lygon by William Acton
(Again we ask the question: Why is there no William Acton monograph?)

Lord Marchmain was based on William Lygon, the seventh Earl Beauchamp, disgraced by scandal. Lord Beauchamp did not flee to Italy to be with his glamorous lover; that was Waugh’s depiction. In reality, he had a predilection for stable boys and was driven out of England. Predilections aside, he was a wonderful father and his exile left the children devastated. (For a lovely look at William Lygon and his children see little augury's post: a father's love.)

The children were not alone in their admiration for their father. Robert Byron, the noted travel writer who was at Eton and Oxford with Hugh, credited William Lygon with launching the passions that led to his career. Of their trips to Italy he wrote:

"Not only did it implant in me a desire to see other countries: it laid the foundation of my delight in painting and architecture, and introduced me to that classical criterion."

The Staircase Hall

It would be easy to see how life at Madresfield might be impressive. The Staircase Hall is three stories high, featuring 3 glass cupolas. Carved into the frieze surrounding the ceiling are fragments from Percy Shelley's Adonais. Of course my favorite room in Madresfield is the library.

For the library, Lord Beauchamp called upon the noted architect and Arts and Craft designer C. R. Ashbee. He wrote of his visit to Madresfiled.:

" There was the same rustling of liveries, plush and crimson, the choosing of rooms to sit in for conversation, the sparkle of champagne and the still plethora of port, there were precious books fetched out for fancy and the epicurean requirements of literature."

The library coincided with movement to the Cotswold by the The Guild of Handicraft. Leaving the city, this group of carvers, jewelers, cabinetmakers, binders and printers followed Ashbee to return to rural craftsmanship and a socialist ideal. Fiona MacCarthy has chronicled Ashbee and his movement in The Simple Life.

The library includes two carved 11 foot panels depicting the Trees of Life and Knowledge. Lord Beauchamp among his many talents, was also skilled at embroidery, particularly bargello. Two dozen chairs bear his flame-stitched handiwork. (If you are an embroiderer, you will be unusually impressed by 48 bargello seats and backs!)

For the historical perspective of Madresfiled, take a look at Jane Mulvaugh's book.

And I didn't even get to the chapel! Read on...


  1. It is a lovely house, studied and visited as an Attingham student. The balusters in the skylighted Hall are glass spindles, complimented by the black millwork.

  2. Hello,

    I just finished reading the Mulvagh book and was getting ready to prep a "review" for my book blog (Chopsticks and String) and was hunting for photos when I came across your post. Would you mind terribly if I used some of the photos you chose, definitely linking back to your related post?

    Now I'm into a bio of Waugh called "Mad World." On a roll!

    What a delight -- I'm looking forward to digging deeper! -- jeanie of http://themarmeladegypsy.blogspot.com and http://chopsticksandstring.blogspot.com -- jeanie@wkar.org

  3. Great article about the Lygons and Madresfield. I am also a descendant of the family through my maternal grandmother via colonial immigrant, Col. Thomas Ligon who was the great grandson of Sir William Lygon of Madresfield, progenitor of our family. Thanks for the great information!

  4. great article. I live near Madresfield Court and at auction was lucky enough to purchase a wonderful portrait of Mary Lygon painted in 1937, I would send a photo of this if you would like to see it.


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