England may not have Southfork of Ewing Oil fame but it has something even better, Upton Hall of Shell Oil fame. Here in rolling Oxfordshire countryside you can join the guests of Lord and Lady Bearsted for a weekend in the country and discover more about the life of a 1930s millionaire. When you step inside the house you’ll find yourself surrounded by Lord Bearsted’s internationally important art and porcelain collections, with works by artists such as Canaletto, Stubbs and Hogarth. Delve deeper and you’ll discover what life was like at Upton in 1938 – read about Lord Bearsted’s passion for art as well as his support for the local community and Jewish causes in Europe. In the former Squash Court you can view the wonderful Shell Poster collection and see how for its owner Walter Samuel, things were going well, things were going Shell.
The National Trust was founded in 1895 by Octavia Hill and today is probably the world’s leading conservation body with hundreds of houses under its steward ship as well as 700 miles of coastline and many acres of important landscape in England & Wales. The houses and attractions open to the public are not tourist attractions but are buildings, lands and monuments which are conserved or restored in various degrees and are owned in trust by 3.4 M members. As such they provide some wonderful venues for visitors which give a real insight into the life of England away from the well trod tourist traps.
One such place is Upton House the house of Walter Samuel, Viscount Bearstead, the Chairman of Shell Oil and son of its founder. In the 1930’s he was one of the richest men in the world and this was his weekend house bought to entertain and go hunting and remodeled to house the art collection begun by his father.
Samuel was the son of Marcus Samuel, 1st Viscount Bearsted and his wife Fanny Elizabeth Samuel. He was born in London, UK and was educated at Eton College before going up to New College, Oxford. Samuel initially pursued a career in the British Army, serving in the Queen’s Own West Kent Yeomanry and eventually reaching the rank of Captain. It was during his Army career that he served in the First World War between 1914 and 1918, gaining the Military Cross (MC) and being mentioned in dispatches twice. Lord Bearsted also served in the Second World War, gaining the rank of Colonel with the Intelligence Corps. He was also a member of the anti-Zionist Jewish Fellowship, which was founded in 1942.
It is on the edge of the Cotswold’s, between Banbury and Stratford-upon-Avon. If going by car go from either junction 11 or junction 12 on the M40 and you will pick up the distinctive brown direction signs with the Nation Trusts oak leaf symbol. This is a delightful corner of Oxfordshire with picture postcard villages with hugely attractive thatched cottages with the thatch contrasting with the reddish / brown local Hornton stone.
The approach to Upton House is unassuming with little hint of what is beyond other than the rather austere North Front in the same reddish local stone. One of the National Trust’s most important art collections can be found in this house. Today you can imagine you are joining the guests of Lord and Lady Bearsted and experience the weekend house party of a 1930s millionaire. You are surrounded by the internationally important art and porcelain collections. The stunning gardens being returned to their 1930s heyday consist of a sweeping lawn, giving way to a series of terraces and herbaceous borders leading to a kitchen garden, tranquil water garden and the National Collection of Asters.
Built in about 1695 for Sir Rushout Cullen, Upton is a long low house built of local yellow sandstone. Perhaps uniquely among country houses owned by the National Trust it was acquired almost entirely for its art collection and it is presented more as an art gallery than a private home. Purchased and remodeled in 1927–29 by Walter Samuel, 2nd Viscount Bearsted, who was Chairman of Shell, 1921–46, and son of the company’s founder. Upton contains his outstanding collection of English and continental Old Master paintings over three floors, including works by Hogarth, Stubbs, Romney, Canaletto, Brueghel and El Greco; Brussels tapestries; French Sèvres porcelain; Chelsea and Derby figures and 18th-century furniture.
The second Viscount donated it to the National Trust in 1948 with the collection and an endowment and the proviso that it is displayed as a family house, not as a museum. Indeed, the family lived here until 1988 and still own the extensive grounds where they live in a modern house. The house was remodeled in the late 1920’s and the combined Library, double height Picture Room, Art Gallery and Billiards’ Room combines both a sense of grandeur and an English gentleman’s club atmosphere. The other “Gosford Park” style feature is the separate luggage lobby where visitor’s belongings would be taken up the backstairs to their bedrooms whilst they were no doubt welcomed with agreeable cocktails!
The collection was assembled by Walter Samuel, 2nd Viscount Bearsted who owed his fortune to the fact that his father Marcus Samuel was the founder of the oil company Shell Transport & Trading. The collection includes English and Continental old masters by artists such as George Stubbs, Jan Steen, Melchior de Hondecoeter, William Hogarth, Thomas Gainsborough, El Greco, Joshua Reynolds, George Romney, Tintoretto, Rogier van der Weyden and Pieter Bruegel the Elder. There is also a collection of English porcelain, including Chelsea, Derby, Bow and Worcester, and some French Sèvres porcelain. The house also contains an art deco bathroom and a collection of early Shell advertising posters.
Upstairs there are a number of suites decorated in the Art Deco style including Lady Bearsted’s restored bedroom and Art Deco bathroom which is covered in aluminum leaf. Also upstairs there is an exhibition of paintings and publicity posters commissioned by Shell during Viscount Bearsted’s chairmanship; In the 20’s to 50’s Shell under Jack Boddington and London Transport under Frank Pick commissioned some of the most memorable advertising seen in Britain.
Under the chairmanship of Viscount Bearsted, Upton’s owner, Shell Oil engaged contemporary artists such as Graham Sutherland and John Piper in the 1930s to create some of the most distinctive advertising material of the century – especially posters. In the exhibit at the converted Squash Court you can see original examples of their work and gain a fascinating insight into Viscount Bearsted, both as a businessman and philanthropist. As well as posters and billboards with slogans such “You’re going well, you’re going Shell”. As well as the posters the company produced post cards, maps and the Shell Guide’s which are now valuable collectors’ items. They form a testament to the great creativity in graphic design and art in the 20s and 30s as well as documenting a simpler age when the car was seen as a form of liberation!
Standing on the terrace on the South Front there is little hint of the glories beyond looking at what appears to be a ha-ha framed on one side with majestic Cedars of Lebanon planted in 1700 on the right and ancient yews framing an Alpine garden on the left. As you approach the bank the ground falls away and there below you is the unusual centre piece – a wonderful Kitchen garden framed by 2 remaining out of 4 “stew lakes” which provided fresh fish for the house. The garden is very fine, with lawns, terraces, orchard, herbaceous borders, kitchen garden, ornamental pools and an interesting 1930s water garden, together with the National Collection of Asters. The kitchen gardens provide a wonderful range of produce with, for instance, 6 types of apple tree. This and the other variety of plants, fruits and flowers were not designed to impress but rather to ensure fresh produce was available for as long as possible. The apples would have different ripening and storage times to ensure as long a season as possible. Lady Bearsted was passionate about developing the gardens with designer Kitty Lloyd Jones. The sweeping lawn gives way to a series of terraces and herbaceous borders leading to a mirror pool. There is a kitchen garden, a tranquil bog garden, spring bulb displays and National Collection of Aster, flowering in late September.
The 31 acres of gardens are full of character. Terraces linked by an Italianate balustraded stairway added in the 1930s overlook a formal lake. There is a wilderness-like bog garden in a natural amphitheatre ringed by woods to the west of the house. A classical temple by Sanderson Miller is built above a larger lake. The mellow brick wall of the 17th century kitchen garden still has carries espaliered fruit trees.
There is a fine cafeteria in one of the pavilions which serves a simple range of good fresh food and a visitor shop which serves a good range of gifts, local foods and garden plants grown in the grounds and greenhouses. All in all this has much to offer as a visitor destination with a fine English as it would have appeared in the 20s and 30s, a wonderful collection of art and artifacts and attractive historic gardens to enjoy with an array of colours and interest throughout the seasons.
near Banbury, Warwickshire, OX15 6HT
Telephone: 01295 670266
OS Grid Ref: 151:SP371461
Today, powered by its readers and contributors, from its cyber eyries in Ireland and the centres of the Irish Diaspora The Eagle casts its Cold Eye on Life and Death and much in between.